Benin, West Africa
People And Languages
There are over 50 distinct groups of peoples in Benin, and each speaks a different language or dialect. The most widely spoken language is Fon, which originates in Abomey, the old capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey. Fon is spoken throughout the south and central parts of Benin. The Fon people are known to be assertive and industrious, traits that have helped them to find work in all corners of the country. Other languages that you may come across include Adjara spoken in the Mono (Eastern) region, Mina (commonly spoken in Grand Popo and Togo) Nagot (a dialect of Yoruba in Nigeria) spoken in the Western part of the country, Dendi, Ditamari, and Peuhl in the North, among many others.
French is the official language of Bénin, and will get you around pretty well in cities. People who are educated speak French well, other’s just speak enough to buy and sell. English is not widely spoken.
Take the time to learn a few words in the local language! People will love you for it.
The main thing to eat is pate and akassa, both made from cornmeal. Pate has a mild taste and is usually served hot. Akassa is often served room temperature, and is wrapped in leaves. Akassa has a stronger taste and is slightly gelatinous. Both are eaten with the right hand only and used to scoop up sauce that is usually made from peanut oil, ground up hot peppers and ground tomatoes. For protein, fish is common in the south and fried tofu-like cheese called wagassi or wangash in the north. My favorite thing to eat is abobo (beans). Eat them sprinkled with gari ( a coarse flour made from cassava root) and drizzled with sauce or raw palm oil. Delicious!
A tasty treat is igname pile or pounded yam. It is always interesting to watch women as they pound the yam, a huge tuber vegetable, in a hollowed out tree stump. THUMP thump thump, THUMP thump thump, rhythms form when they pound. The pounded yam is slightly sweet and is eaten with sauce d’arachide (peanut sauce), wangash, or guinea fowl.
Breakfast is usually bouille a soup made of corn flour sprinkled with peanuts and sugar.
For snacks there are beignets (doughnut-like lumps of fried dough), fried patates douce (sweet potatoes), fried ignames (yams), and boiled manioc (cassava root) and plantains in hot sauce. Often times you can get boiled peanuts, tapioca (not quite like America’s tapioca though). Of course, there is seasonal fresh fruit, such as pineapples, papayas, guavas, oranges, and mangoes. If you are in a city, women will circulate with fruit stacked in trays on their heads. You can wave the woman over, and have her cut and peel the fruit into a bag for you. Yum.
In bigger cities there are omelet stands on almost every corner, as well as stands that sell the regional specialties, and of course, la pate. Stop in a buvette for a drink. Usually you can get Coca (coke) Fizzy (the local fruit soda-good!) Beninoise (the local beer) and a variety of other beverages that may or may not be cold.
Most of the food is sold from little booths on the side of the road. The seller will usually have her own tin dishes for your food, and a cunning set-up of basins to rinse the dishes. There usually is a bench for you to sit at while you eat. Usually you tell the woman how much food you want (300 francs, 400 francs) and she will plop the requested amount on the plate. If you feel she is shortchanging you, feel free to ask for more – politely, of course. Sometimes women will carry food on their heads. They will put the requested amount into will put it into a black plastic saché (bag), or into your own bowl.
A few words of caution:
1) Be careful with what you eat! Only eat hot foods that haven’t been sitting out for long. Food poisoning is a common ailment for travelers that can be prevented with care. Be especially careful with things sold from the top of people’s heads, which is often quite old.
2) Never, ever eat with your left hand. It will truly disgust people if you do. In fact, try to avoid even giving money to people with your left hand, which is your unclean hand.