Benin cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
When you first meet someone in Benin, people try to determine if you have friends in common. Having the same friends or family generally makes things go a little smoother. However, this may also make things more difficult.
Social events and politics are good discussion topics. When talking to someone, it is important to figure out the way he/she analyses things and his/her political affiliation in order to avoid saying something that might offend the person to the point that you can no longer have a discussion. You may say what you think, but remember that the way you say something can put an end to the conversation. This does not mean that you need to walk on eggshells with Beninese.
A sense of humour is acceptable, but be wary as Beninese are very sensitive and the person to whom you are speaking may think that you are making fun of him/her, particularly if there has already been some tension or lack of understanding.
When Beninese first meet Canadians or other expatriate development workers, the main topic of conversation is work. In fact, Beninese are well aware that development cooperation projects offer a significantly higher salary compared to jobs in the country’s public service or private sector. Generally, they are eager to know more about the person’s work and possible opportunities that might increase their standard of living. Meetings with expatriates are rare and are always considered to be a potential lucky break. This is why you should not take these meetings lightly and be somewhat reserved so as to not raise false hopes. Even if, upon first meeting, an expatriate has already clearly indicated to a Beninese that no employment possibilities exist, the Beninese will still try to keep in contact and become friends with the expatriate, in the event that he/she ever needs assistance with his/her NGO (Non-governmental Organization) or church. The Beninese will be very interested to know (and will be very frank and open about it) if the development worker needs a maid, a driver, etc, because even if he/she will not directly benefit from knowing the expatriate, perhaps a Beninese cousin, nephew, brother, or friend might be able to fill an available position.
It is best to avoid the topic of people’s religious beliefs, as people worry that they might be subject to discrimination. For example, a large majority of Beninese, despite being Christians or Muslims, practise Voodoo. Yet, next to nobody will admit to belonging to this mystic society. In short, you can talk about the person’s family, but do not expect to meet them, nor to be invited to their home. Beninese relations are limited to the workplace and to "Maquis", which are small restaurants that are also found in other West African countries. In a nutshell, Beninese are very reserved and when first meeting them, it will be difficult to get a feel for their intentions and expectations. In conclusion, if you want to make a good impression, first broach subjects that may advance the welfare of the person with whom you are speaking.
With globalization today, the media tends homogenize cultures and the outlook on life in Benin is actually similar to that in French Canada. Therefore, keep an arm’s length away, shake hands when first meeting someone. When being introduced to a person’s family members or close friends, you may also greet them with four kisses on the cheek. Shaking hands is not always acceptable; you should figure out a person’s religion and ethnicity, particularly when meeting older people, as this may dictate standing at a greater distance from the person or bowing your head in greeting.
Eye contact is important and also helps you determine if a person is trustworthy. It is often a sign of friendship and is very common between family members and friends. Winking and other facial expressions indicate that behaviour should be censured or discreetly encouraged. Staring or looking directly at an older person may be seen as having bad manners. Between people of the opposite sex, a fixed gaze indicates desire or passion and may be misunderstood.
As in Canada, men do not generally touch when speaking unless they know each other very well and even then, they only do so to emphasize something. This situation applies not only men, but also to a man and a woman. Women touch each other a bit more, but this does not necessarily indicate a close friendship. These rules also hold true in the workplace.
There are some gestures, behaviours, or oversights that are generally considered to be impolite (e.g., addressing someone by the informal form of ’you’ in French, calling an adult by his first name, not greeting someone or greeting someone from afar, etc.)
In general, when speaking to a development worker from Canada or another country, Beninese will be very polite. They will not shake hands until you make the first move. They will stand about a meter away from you and will always use the formal form of ’you’ in French ("vous"); I do not think this behaviour will change even if your relationship becomes closer. Touching others will not make people uncomfortable; quite the contrary, this kind of display of affection may be seen as trust. However, do not expect them to touch you in return as this will not occur very often. Eye contact is advantageous and will not be seen in a negative light; it may even help people feel more at ease. Regarding tone of voice, I believe that most Canadians who go to Benin as development workers are Francophones, whose calm tone is almost the same as that of the Beninese, which helps form a bond. As Canadians do not have a colonial past, they are generally well liked, trusted, and people generally believe that they are sincere and honest.
Display of emotion
Displays of affection are becoming somewhat acceptable in public. Nowadays, friends of the same sex or parents and young children may express their affection for one another by hugging or waving. Displays of affection between couples or lovers are still frowned at, particularly when they become a show. Even if displays of anger or other emotions are somewhat common, they are still looked down on in certain environments.
Public displays of affection or other intimate romantic emotions are not commonplace. I would say that this kind of behaviour does not even exist. Showing rage or having arguments in public occur less frequently than in other African countries. Disagreements between Beninese are secretive and not necessarily obvious. As I previously noted, Beninese rarely raise their voice and often solve their problems in a peaceful manner.
Dress, punctuality & formality
In Benin, people have adopted the Western-style of dress in the workplace and wearing traditional clothing is often not very well regarded. For men, the dress code includes formal pants and a shirt although some supervisors also appreciate a suit, if it is within their employees means. At work, women dress as they do in the West, but occasionally you will see people wearing traditional or local outfits. This is perhaps due to the fact that some individuals want to accentuate their culture in their daily life and can also be the result of chauvinistic attitudes.
It is acceptable for employees of the same age and rank to call each other by their first names and use the informal form of the word “you” (“tu” in French). However, people usually call their superiors by their title or their names preceded by “Mr.”. French is the official language of the workplace, although it is common to hear Beninese speak local languages at the office. Using standard language is recommended; however, when people get to know one another, people may use less formal language.
For the most part, Beninese do not have a very strict notion of time. Often, deadlines and schedules are not respected, punctuality is not always a priority, and absenteeism is a problem in the public sector.
In spite of the heat and humidity, development workers should wear formal wear to work. In this domain, very often vehicles and offices are equipped with air conditioning. Instead of wearing a jacket, development workers can wear a shirt and tie. Do not wear shorts and a t-shirt at the office or when meeting with Beninese executives. Other Beninese colleagues may use criteria such as dress to decide whether or not development workers are good employees who are dedicated to their jobs. However, there are certain jobs in which development workers can, in good conscience, dress more casually such as those who work in the field on rural development or agricultural projects.
You should always address people in French, the country’s official language and use the formal form of ’you’ ("vous"). Calling colleagues by their first names should not cause any problems. Often, only people who do not work directly with the Westerners or who only occasionally meet them during meetings will address them as Mr. or Mrs. followed by their last name. Regarding deadlines and punctuality, things generally run smoothly between colleagues or people working under development workers. However, the development worker’s patience may be tested by others, such as those working in private or public bureaucracy. Unlike in Canada, schedules and time frames are not always followed. Meetings may be cancelled at the last minute or even several hours after their scheduled time. Generally, people do not use day planners and you may need to remind them a number of times in order to confirm a meeting.
In development cooperation projects, absenteeism is usually limited. However, compared to Canada, there are more justifications for absenteeism: employees or their children having bouts of malaria, mourning, family members being hospitalized, etc. In fact, you should be aware that hospitals do not provide childcare services and patients are supposed to have a family member watch over them. Therefore, female employees will be most frequently absent due to reasons that are justifiable locally, but not acceptable in Canada. Productivity is linked to salary. There is a significant difference between the productivity level of people who work in cooperation organizations and those who work in the public service sector. In the clinic where I worked for three years in Cotonou, Benin, there were two categories of employees: some were funded by the government and others were paid by the Canadian project for AIDS prevention and education. In this case, the doctor’s salary provided by the government was less than that of the nurses who were funded by the project. Ironically, the nurses were under the supervision of the doctor, who did not always perform to his full potential due to the constant frustration that the financial situation had caused.
Preferred managerial qualities
Having a high level of education, experience, and an air of confidence are qualities that are highly regarded in a superior. Depending on individual preference, other qualities may also be of value, but generally people tend to respect expatriate managers more. It is very difficult to know how Beninese staff view their superiors as they are worried about losing their jobs and generally conceal their emotions or mask their real feelings. However, in a crisis situation, most people will reveal their genuine opinions.
In my opinion, the ability to listen and understand junior employees is the main quality that a supervisor should have. In fact, Beninese colleagues and Africans in general, are often confronted with a multitude of personal and often family-related problems. Even if a boss does not have a solution, people like him/her to be understanding and empathetic. A director’s open-mindedness should make him/her well liked by junior employees and contribute to productivity since people often feel like they work for him/her specifically. Therefore, it is very important that directors be approachable. Unfortunately, in Benin, they are practically demi-Gods who must be respected and it is difficult or almost impossible for a junior employee to express opinions that differ from those of his/her director. A local director’s education, experience, and good reputation are things that are taken into account, but they tend to come after listening and understanding skills.
An expatriate director can increase the success of a project. In fact, local employees will expect the expatriate, who presumably plays a neutral role, not to give out favours based on the employees’ tribes, but founded on competency and good performance on the job. Therefore, everyone will work hard in order to obtain a raise or other employment benefits. In the Canadian AIDS prevention project, which runs in newer West African countries such as Benin, the local coordinator is always an African expatriate. This rule was adopted with a view to avoid national rivalry in this well-paying position. The project coordinators are all recruited in Canada, avoiding inopportune position changes that might occur with host nationals, as each minister would choose someone under his governance. Therefore, Canadian development workers must understand that certain administrative or technical positions are awarded entirely on political affiliation. Ethical considerations are not the same as in Canada.
Hierarchy and decision-making
Middle-class Beninese staff members are used to having their superiors dictate decisions to them. Nevertheless, practices differ depending on the company and the circumstances and it is possible that they will be asked to participate in some decisions. Even if people in Beninese society resist change and innovation, anybody, not only superiors, can offer ideas. The way ideas are expressed depends on how familiar you are with your superior or his/her assistants; this will determine whether you can express yourself freely or if you should keep your ideas to yourself. Depending on his/her management style, it may be appropriate to approach your immediate supervisor.
Usually, the director makes the decisions. If you have a different opinion, be very diplomatic and tactful when expressing it. Do not sharply disapprove because it may shut down lines of communication later. Try your best to never contradict the director in public during a meeting. Should your opinion be fundamentally different to his/hers, express your concern about the decision with him/her in a private meeting. In most cases, Beninese directors would like their staff to feel that all decisions stem from their initiative.
You may go to your immediate supervisor to get answers or feedback, but it is best to do it one-on-one. Asking challenging or embarrassing questions in a meeting in front of junior employees may be seen by your director as a personal attack. Definitely avoid having or your director or staff regard you as a know-it-all or someone who wants to change everything.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
In Benin, males and females are not considered to be equal. Some women are reluctant to believe in women’s rights.
In the 1970s, Benin adopted gender equality in section 124 of the Constitution; however, most daily activities are still male dominated. Yet, things are heading in the right direction as at least four or five of the twenty ministers in the government are females.(2003)
Many Beninese believe in and practise a religion; however, this trend is decreasing. A significant number of those who are religious practise idol worship.
Depending on the circumstances, a person’s beliefs and practices may impact favourably on the workplace (i.e., tremendous conscientiousness, respect for authority and others, and good relations with colleagues). On the other hand, they may lead to less favourable repercussions in the workplace (i.e., absenteeism, lateness, bewitchment, a lack of respect for others, and a guarded outlook).
For a long time, Beninese felt that class was based on people’s level of education or literacy. Due to today’s social and economic emphasis on the disparities in material wealth we can generally categorize three classes: rich, middle income, and poor. On the surface, inter-class relations seem to be satisfactory when, in fact, snobbery, contempt, and bitterness exist and there is a gap between employees. Company relations are more complex than they might appear.
People’s attitudes towards ethnic origins are often influenced by history. In general, however, relations are peaceable and ethnicity usually does not create problems in the workplace.
This is a relatively new concept in Benin even though there has been a Minister of Women’s Affairs for a number of years. I think that things need to start from scratch in this area since this idea has not yet caught on in Benin; it is seen as an entirely Western notion. Gender inequalities are significant in the country and there is much work to do with women. In my opinion, chances are slim that Beninese women will become as emancipated as their Canadian counterparts - or, at least, it will be a long time before the government gets involved. Gender equality is not likely a priority for the Beninese government. In the workplace, men make up the majority and hold a large number of the supervisory positions.
Most Beninese are Christians and a good number are Muslim. Others practise Voodoo. I suggest that North Americans should respect others’ beliefs otherwise they might be viewed badly. In Benin, the government recognizes traditional religions (i.e., Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam), as it does Voodoo. Paid national holidays are held for both mystical societies and Christians, such as Easter or Christmas. Certain projects may insure their success by supporting these religions, whose leaders have a lot of influence over their members, particularly when community support is needed. In addition, during the period of Muslim fasting, job performance may be affected.
In large cities, class differences are not that noticeable. In villages, on the other hand, there are still kings whose families have privileges that others do not have. In a subtle way, tribes in the north practise a form of slavery.
Even if there are no armed confrontations among the different ethnic groups, ethnicity may play a very influential role in career advancement and may determine whether someone is awarded an administrative position or a post in a project, etc. In a situation where two people have the same level of ability, the director will almost certainly hire the one who is of the same ethnic group.
In Benin, people feel that they can trust others when they are with people that they know or when the people speaking to one another have a friend in common. Therefore, in order to maintain a good working relationship with clients and colleagues, it is very important to establish a personal relationship with them. Indeed, Beninese often feel obligated to assist or help their friends. Above and beyond what was discussed in under First Contact, it is essential that you offer gifts to people you wish to befriend.
Generally, your colleagues or clients will initiate personal relationships. The degree to which they pursue this will depend on the benefits that they expect to reap. Colleagues will often try to please you, show their kindness, volunteer to help out outside of work hours, take you to visit far off places during the weekend, etc. Clients will give you the same kind of attention, but will often take things a step further such as inviting you out to a restaurant, offering you gifts, etc. If you accept to go to a restaurant, do not be embarrassed if the person who invited you wants to pay. In Benin, as in most parts of Africa, the person who asks you out also pays the bill. Therefore, be very cautious about clients’ invitations, particularly when they are waiting for you to make a decision. Nonetheless, having personal relations with colleagues or clients may be a very good way to enhance cooperation and increase productivity.
Privileges and favouritism
Yes, people frequently ask for special privileges or expect their friends or family to be hired if they have built a relationship with a superior or with someone in a position of authority in the workplace.
Colleagues or employees with whom you have personal relationships or friendships will definitely expect special privileges or considerations for themselves or their friends or family. The reason for this is that this is part of the African view of what friendship entails. For them, gifts or privileges are normal and logical benefits of friendship. There are circumstances in which it is acceptable to give out special privileges or considerations. For example, if you are looking for a personal driver or a maid, you may very well hire a relative recommended to you by a colleague or employee whom you know. In fact, your colleague may guarantee the ethical standard of the person you are hiring, therefore, minimising the possibilities that you might employ someone who will steal your personal belongings a few days or weeks later.
Conflicts in the workplace
It is best to confront people in private if you are having problems with them. You will need to rely heavily on your own judgement to figure out if a colleague is having problems with you, but generally people withdraw when they are having difficulties.
The best way to deal with this is to talk to him/her in private. Doing so in public could frustrate the person, even if he/she is a junior employee. It will be very difficult to recognize if Beninese are having problems with you. Quite often they will not complain directly to you, but will talk about it to other Beninese colleagues. Their indifference toward you or a change in behaviour (i.e., withdrawal) will likely be the only way you will know about how they feel. It is important to note that Beninese are not shy in talking in their languages in front of a foreigner who does not understand what they are saying. Expect this to happen even during meetings.
Motivating local colleagues
Most Beninese who have secure jobs in the public service are not very motivated to perform well in the workplace. However, dedication, personal satisfaction, fear of losing their job, good working conditions, and money are all important factors for those who work in the private sector.
Money is the only thing that will motivate your colleagues to perform better on the job; other factors are secondary in importance. Indeed, in a country where people do not have many options or job opportunities, they will accept an offer with a decent salary without considering other aspects such as professional satisfaction, dedication, loyalty, etc. In the end, people will accept the other components or drawbacks of their jobs provided that it pays them enough to live well.
Recommended books, films & foods
Voodoo Handbook of Cult Secrets (L’initiatique Vodoun) by Gilbert Rouget.
Charles Najman’s Ouidah92: Les revenants; Monique Phoba’s Anna the Enchantress; Jean Odoutan’s Barbeque Pejo; Claude Da Silva’s Femmes en campagne électoral; Serge Moati’s Le Benin; Idrissou Mora Kpai’s SI Gueriki; Pascal Abikanlou’s Ganvié; Basile Sallustico’s Toffin; and the Artistes de l’invisible’s Vodunssi.
Red pastry with chicken; pureed yam and peanut sauce; corn pastry with okra; peanut gari (traditional staple food in West Africa made from fermented, gelled, and dehydrated cassava)
While in Benin, it would be interesting to visit historic cities such as Porto-Novo, Ouidah, and Abmoney, which also have many museums. Other noteworthy sites include the national parks and the tata somba architecture in the North, the lakeside village of Ganvie, the pottery villages in Sè, and markets.
National Arts and Culture Festival in November 2002; Seaside Festival; Ganhi Festival (celebration of traditional Bariba culture held in the village of Nikki); Vodun Festival (religious celebration for animists which is held on January 10th ).
La Nation, Le Matinal, Le Progrès, La Fraternité, etc. I also suggest the following websites about Benin: beningate.com; opays.com; benin-passion.com; benintourisme.com; l’araignee.org; ibidoun.de; and www.h2com.com/idee.
I recommend the following shows, which are broadcast on the national station: "Entres-nous", "Ayessi", "Taxi-brousse", "Dimanche-Dimanche", "Feyi-Kogbo" and "Atchaodji". On channel LC2 you can also watch the following shows: "Vision", "Bisso na bisso", "Questions de femmes", "Nasuba", "Face cachée", and "Sans tabou". Some of these are broadcast in local languages.
Sporting events on the radio
The 12th Annual African Junior Handball Cup.
I would suggest Sessi Tonoukouin (journalist with the Le Progrès daily paper) and Marcel Orou Fico (actor and director of a communications bureau).
The best way to learn more about the Beninese culture is by asking questions and being curious. Very few Beninese are spontaneous and you will need to ask them to get the information you want. Books, films and television shows will complement what you already know. There are many interesting places to visit in Benin; one of the main ones would be the path of the slaves and the place where they boarded ships to travel to the Americas as well as the lake-side town, the python temple, etc. In restaurants (called "maquis") you will have the opportunity, if you so desire, to taste Beninese dishes made mostly with rice or manioc pasta accompanied with a variety of vegetable sauces. In short, although books, films, etc are indispensable in order to understand culture, you should realize that culture is not static. Evolution is possible and contemporary culture—not that of 100 years ago—will be more interesting to development workers.
It will not be difficult for expatriates to find people who will help them learn about Beninese culture. Many people will undoubtedly be willing. All you need to do is to make contact with people in the street, in restaurants, etc. They will be quite happy to help you, go places with you, and will be generous with their time. Very rarely will they say "no" to your requests. In a nutshell, in order to meet people who are trustworthy ask a colleague to refer individuals to you so you do not fall victim to a scam. The people that your colleague has vouched for can accompany you to various outings to restaurants, cafés, sports events, etc. Always pay attention to them and give them money as financial compensation for their time. Very often they will not ask you for anything as they may be worried that you might have given them a more generous offer on your own initiative.
Traditional dishes include manioc or corn flour pasta, the most popular type being AKASA. Many restaurants serve a number of vegetable sauces and other popular dishes include braised fish or small free-range chicken ("poulet bicyclette") with bananas on the side.
There are many male and female Beninese musicians, but the most popular music comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Ivory Coast.
Béhanzin and Bio Guerra are national heroes because they fiercely resisted the colonial invasion and conquest. Watch Guy Deslaurier’s movie L’exil de Béhanzin for more information about King Béhanzin.
The names that are most often cited as national heroes include: Behanzin, Toffa, Bio Guerra, and Kaba. In fact, these individuals are considered to have put up a remarkable fight against the colonialization of Benin during Dahomey’s period of rule.
Shared historical events with Canada
Nothing to my knowledge.
Not at all. Canada has the advantage of never having been a colonial country. Canadians are very well perceived in Benin and are often seen as having a generous and respectful approach to things.
Generally, North Americans are seen as very stressed people who are always in a battle against the clock. Some Africans find this way of life - that is, knowing how to work, but not how to live - to be incomprehensible.
There are no known stereotypes held by Canadians about the local culture. However, be careful about making judgements about Beninese ways and customs.
About the cultural interpreters
Your cultural interpreter was born in July 1966, the eldest of six children. He grew up in Cotonou, the commercial and economic centre of Benin. He studied in his country as well as in Nigeria. He came to Canada in 1999 to do a Masters in Program Management. He is married and has no children.
Your cultural interpreter was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is the eldest of eight children. He grew up in an urban area and received a PhD in Medicine at the Université National du Zaïre, in Congo and a PhD in Epidemiology at the University of Laval in Canada. His studies took him abroad in 1998 and once again to Canada in 1993. Subsequently, he lived in Benin for three years and has resided in Canada for the last two years. He is married with five children and works as a health specialist in international development.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.