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The Republic of Benin is a small West Africa country bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the south. To the west of Benin is Togo, with Nigeria to the east, and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. Most of its population is concentrated along its small southern coast, on the Bight of Benin, which is part of the Gulf of Guinea.

French colonial rule, as well as the country's continued relationship with France, have had a significant impact on the the culture of Benin, particularly among the country's educated class. There are also several ethnic groups in Benin, each of which has its own traditions which, in practice, often show French influences.

There are two distinct cultural regions of Benin, the mostly Muslim north and the largely animist and Christian south. While Christianity is the predominant religion in Benin, a significant and growing segment of the population are Muslim. The traditional Vodun (Voodoo) religion is also strong in Benin; in fact, Benin is known as the birthplace of Voodoo. Although the percentage of people who list Vodun as their religion of choice is less than ten percent, Voodoo and Christian practices are often mixed, and it is believed that most Beninese practice Vodun to some extent, although they may identify as Christian.

Prior to the 18th-century, the land that is now Benin was divided into three informal regions. There were a few significant city states along the coast, made up of the Aja, Yoruba, and Gbe people, and several tribal regions inland, such as the Bariba, Gedevi, Kabye, and Mahi. To the east of modern Benin was the Oyo Empire, a strong military force that would conduct raids on the coastal kingdoms and tribal regions from time to time. In the early 1700s, the Kingdom of Dahomey was formed from the Fon people, quickly spreading out from their base on the Aborney Plateau to take over areas along the coast.

Initially, the Dahoney formed an alliance with the Oyo, but as they grew to become one of West Africa's most powerful dynasties, they eventually became rivals of the Oyo Empire. One practice that contributed to the military might of the Dahoneys was their practice of apprenticing young boys to older soldiers until they were old enough to join the army. Another was their elite female military corps, which became known to Europeans as the Amazons. The Dahomey became major suppliers of slaves for the transatlantic slave trade during the 1700s and early 1800s, selling captured slaves to Portuguese slave traders. Those who were not traded were killed by decapitation. The capital city of Benin is Porto-Novo, originally developed by the Portuguese as a slave trading port.

During the mid-1800s, the Dahomey began to lose its status as a military power. By 1892, France had taken over the area and included it within its larger French West Africa protectorate. French rule over the area of Benin was not particularly heavy-handed. In 1958, France granted autonomy to the Republic of Dahomey, and full independence in 1960.

Independence results in twelve years of ethnic strife, including several coups. In 1975, the country embraced communism, renaming itself the People's Republic of Benin, under the control of the Military Council of the Revolution, although some show elections were arranged in which there was only one candidate. All businesses and economic activities were put under state control, which resulted in cessation of foreign investments. When the communists tried to reorganize the country's educational system, several of its teachers left the country.

In 1980, Benin's communist leader, Mathieu Kerekou, converted to Islam and changed his name to Ahmed. He then changed his name back again after claiming to have become a Christian. Eventually, he renounced Marxism and the country's name was changed to the Republic of Benin in 1990, and actual elections were held. Kerekou lost in 1991, but was returned to power in 1996. Subsequent elections are considered by most to have been honest.

Despite an increased production of cash crops, the country is mostly self-sufficient in food production, as about half the country is engaged in agriculture. Cotton is grown for export, and forms a large percent of the country's gross domestic product. However, the literacy rate in Benin is very low, estimated at under 40%, and approximately one-third of the population lives below the international poverty rate. French is the language of business, but most people speak their traditional languages or a mixture of French and Beninese. French is generally taught only in the higher grades in school.

 

 

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