Travel: 192-part guide to the world - Part 19: Benin

OFFICIAL NAME

The Republic of Benin.

OFFICIAL LANGUAGE

French, although many indigenous groups have their own languages, such as Bariba and Fulani in the north and Fon and Yoruba in the south.

POPULATION

5,246,000, made up of the Fon, Fulani, Aja, Peda, Chabe, Yoruba, Bariba and Somba peoples.

SIZE

43,484 square miles. Belgium would fit into it just more than three-and- a-half times.

BEST MONUMENT

The monument of the martyrs, in Cotonou, which commemorates the five Benin soldiers killed defending their administrative capital from a coup against the current president, Mathieu Kerekou, in the late 1970s. To satisfy architectural curiosity, head for Ganvie, a river village, built entirely on stilts which has been called "the Venice of Africa".

NATIONAL DISH

As a former French colony, Benin is renowned for its cuisine, particularly crayfish and shrimps served with rice.

CLIMATE

Hot and humid all year round. Last week, temperatures were in the mid- 20s, with frequent thunderstorms. Take your brolly.

MOST FAMOUS CITIZEN

Angelique Kidjo, one of Benin's few professional female singers who fuses traditional rhythms with contemporary Western musical influences. She has released four albums, the last featuring Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile", and is now living in Paris.

BEST MOMENT IN HISTORY

The country gained its own parliament in 1946 and won its independence from France in 1960. It became the People's Republic of Benin in 1975. After years of turbulence and frequent coups, Nicephore Soglo won the first multi-party elections in 1991.

WORST MOMENT IN HISTORY

Between 1960 and 1975 the country suffered a series of bloody coups and a long period of governmental instability, caused by ethnic rivalries. economic difficulty and social unrest.

ESSENTIAL ACCESSORIES

To blend in, male visitors should don an agdabe, a lightweight suit consisting of baggy trousers and jacket. Women should dress in brightly coloured dresses. A pocket French dictionary would be useful, and don't forget your waterproofs.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Trample on ants and bugs as you stroll about. Sixty per cent of the population are animists, believing that every part of nature has a spirit and should be respected.

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