Themes: Travel, religion, magic, people, Benin, West Africa, friendship.
Reading challenge: What's in a Name 2016
Challenge book no.: 5/6, a book with a country in the title.
Writer Annie Caulfield travelled to Benin with the specific intention of writing a travel book, or so it seems from what she writes in the book. She describes her travels around the country by taxi, visiting vodou practitioners and religious sites, tribal leaders and interesting people and places with her driver, Isidore, as an active participant. He became her friend and seems to have had a hand in finding people and things of interest for her to visit. The outcome is a fascinating and often funny book about a country that is little known or spoken of outside of West Africa.
It was interesting to read this book and compare it with the last book I read about Africa, Blood River. These books were published at an interval of about 5 years and there is such a difference between them.
Blood River is about the war-torn Central African country the Democratic Republic of the Congo (hereafter referred to as the DRC). Not being either a historian or an anthropologist, I don’t know how similar the native cultures of these two countries were before the colonial era, but the post-colonial contrast is stark. Tim Butcher, who wrote Blood River, travelled through the DRC at as much speed as he possibly could, seems to have been afraid for his life most of the time, and encountered a chaotic, broken-down society riddled with corruption, anarchy and anomie. Caulfield, on the other hand, traveled at a relatively leisurely pace, rarely felt threatened, met lots of interesting people and learned about the history, culture and customs of Benin.
While Benin has seen its share of trouble in the past, including coups, regime changes and dictatorship, Caulfield’s description shows a peaceful country that is safe for travellers but probably not much visited, if one is to judge from the reactions of people outside the bigger cities and towns when they saw her. Her descriptions of the few foreign travellers she did encounter along the way are funny and far from complimentary, and neither does she spare either herself or Isidore or various corrupt, greedy and pushy locals she met along the way, but she also has much good to say about other people (and, eventually, more good than bad about Isidore).
A detail that particularly fascinated me was the descriptions of the Tata Somba, the fortified huts of the Somba people. Caulfield calls them castles, and they do look exactly like small single-family castles.
Read this book if:
- You are doing a country reading challenge and want to find a (non-fiction) book about country that not many books have been written about;
- You are interested in Africa in general
- and Benin in particular;
- You love travelogues of all kinds;
- If you like reading about interesting cultures;
- You like funny travel authors.