The first thing I am told about Benin on Wikipedia is that it is not to be confused with the Kingdom of Benin, which is an unrelated pre-colonial African state in what is now Nigeria. This is disappointing because the Kingdom of Benin, as you can see here, has possibly the greatest flag in vexillological history.
The nation of Benin actually takes it's name from the Bay of Benin, which in turn is named after the aforementioned Kingdom. Although the flag of the modern Benin is not quite as threatening as its former namesake, there is still a very interesting military history to the Republic of Benin.
Benin (when still known as the Kingdom of Dahomey) was infamous for it's fierce all-female military regiment, known as the Dahomey Amazons. I found this slightly ironic given the unfortunate outline Benin displays on a map. These Amazons were highly trained warriors who were feared for their prowess in battle, and if captured, an enemy could expect his or her head to be removed and ears sent as a gift to the king (death by snoo snoo sounds like a much better way to go). The great Harry Flashman barely escaped with his life after his encounter with these ladies (although the same could be said for most of his feminine encounters). Their success in battle afforded the Amazons a semi-sacred status in the Vodun religious beliefs. This is still a significant religion in Benin, and was transported via captured Beninese slaves (among others) to the New World, which later evolved into the well known Voodoo practices where females are still feared and/or venerated.
The modern history of Benin also has some colourful characters, none more so than Mathieu 'the Chameleon' Kerekou. This guy, while he may have been a little nuts, was undoubtedly a political genius and knew how to survive. He first took power in a military coup in 1972 and ruled as a Marxist-Leninist 'Peoples Republic'. In the 90s, with Benin transitioning to a democracy, Kerekou lost power. His solution: beg forgiveness for the failings of his regime and get re-elected for another 10 years. During this time he converted to Islam, changed his name to Ahmed (allegedly to gain military support from Libya) then became a born again Christian and changed his name back. He certainly earned the nickname 'Chameleon.'
Before the rise of the Chameleon, Benin was part of French West Africa, and was then known as French Dahomey. This period had a significant influence on the cuisine of modern Benin. Benin cuisine is apparently known in Africa for it's exotic and flavourful dishes. I used this clearly french inspired dish as an entree for a dinner party with friends as it looked particularly easy and tasty. It wasn't bad but to be honest it could have been a bit more flavourful. In fairness to the recipe though, I was again stifled by the lack of fresh seafood and had to resort to pre-packaged crab meat.
Crabe Béninoise (Beninese Crab)
2 large eggs200g chopped onions3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1kg fresh crab meat200g chopped tomatoes
2 chopped red chilies (hot ones to be authentic)
90g breadcrumbs or gari (fermented and dried cassava)
Spoon into 6 washed crab shells (or 6 small gratin dishes) and sprinkle evenly with the remaining breadcrumbs or gari.
Place in an oven pre-heated to 180°C and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the egg mixture has set. Serve hot with rice and hot pepper sauce.