Latitude: 6° 08.5126’ N
Longitude: 1° 17.0908’ E
In the last two updates I said that our next stop was going to be Cotonou, Benin. Togo is clearly not Benin.
What happened was a classic case of West African bureaucracy and being able to adapt. Day 15 was actually Easter Sunday. Despite the fact that this trip had been planned for over a year, it was less than 24 hours before we landed that we were told that the port in Benin was closed for Easter!
Thankfully, our ground agent for Benin was also our ground agent for Togo, so the staff on the ship and the agent on shore scrambled to switch our schedules for the two days around. Also, because the sailing times between Benin, Togo and Ghana are so short, it didn’t really affect our sailing times. To give you a sense of scale, the distance from Lome, Togo to Cotonou, Benin is only 90km (55 miles).
In the end, they managed to switch around our days in Togo and Benin and everything worked out. There were some small changes which had to be made because it was Easter Sunday, and thankfully it didn’t really change the experience.
For the first time on the trip we were greeted at the port by a welcoming committee of dancers. What made this remarkable was that it was Easter Sunday and it was organized with less than 24 hours notice. The most impressive part of the show were the dancers on stilts. The stilt walkers were quite high. I’d estimate they 12-15 feet (4-5m) off the ground. Moreover, they were wearing masks and costumes that looked like they would be extremely hot, and our day in Togo was turning out to be the hottest day of the trip so far. (see the photo above)
After the dance show at the port, we traveled 45 minutes outside of the capital of Lome to the village of Akato Viepe. It took me a while to realize that this was the first actual village we had visited on the trip. Our school visit in the Congo was in a large city and the visit to the Monte Cafe in Sao Tome wasn’t really a village visit per se. Likewise, our stops in Angola were both in sizable cities.
In Akato Viepe, we were greeted with full fanfare by the village chief and his entourage.
The people of the village gave us our warmest reception we’ve had to date. I can’t help but think that part of this was the result of visiting the village on Easter Sunday. (There was a service going on in a nearby church during our visit and it sounded like quite the celebration.)
A common theme in my daily updates is how little tourism this region gets. This has both positive and negative ramifications for traveling. In the case of Akato Viepe, it resulted in people who were as curious about us as we were about them. While we outnumbered them in terms of cameras, they took their fair share of photos us.
The chief and his officials entered in a formal procession to drumming and singing before sitting down in an honored position in the village ceremonial grounds.
Like our visit to the school in the Congo, we provided the village with a large box full of school supplies and gifts which was the culmination of the ceremony.
While the audience with the chief was obviously done for our benefit, the enthusiasm and reception of the villagers was genuine. We also had the pleasure of touring the village before we left. The school and other facilities were close due to Easter, but we still were able to get a decent feel for what the village was like.
In the afternoon we headed back to Lome and visited an African art museum, a artist market and….the fetish market.
To understand the fetish market, you have to understand that in Togo, traditional religion, often called voodoo, is still practiced by a very large portion of the population. The fetish market is a market for dead animals and animal parts which are used for voodoo religious purposes.
Prior to our visit, the staff on the Expedition, which has several experts in African culture and wildlife, gave us advanced warning for what to expect. First, we were warned that many people would be very turned off by the fetish market. While it is a cultural part of the Togo, it is also something which is very offensive to western sensibilities. Secondly, we were warned not to buy anything. I didn’t really think there was a high risk of anyone on the ship buying a dead bird, but they didn’t want to encourage the wanton killing of forest animals.
Given the amount of discussion, debate and preparation we were given for the fetish market, I found it a bit underwhelming. While it was a bit morbid, the sight of dried dead animals didn’t really bother me too much. Moreover, the market really wasn’t as big as I expected.
If you visit Lome, I’m sure the fetish market will be suggested as an attraction. Just know what you are getting yourself into before you go. The photo I’ve posted here pretty much sums it up: lots of dead animals.
I also want to take some time to talk about the thing which everyone who visits this region talks about: development.
You simply cannot help but to compare the cities and countries you visit in West Africa. Each place we visit puts the other places we’ve been into a different perspective. You notice the condition of the roads, the houses, the public buildings and the monuments. The funny thing is, there doesn’t seem to be a general agreement on which place we’ve visited is the most or least developed.
Togo was a forgotten sliver of Africa which was controlled by the Germans, transferred to the French and had the unfortunate distinction of having the first military coup of any independent African country. It is a legacy they never seemed to have been able to overcome. The president today is the son of the man who took part in the 1963 coup and obtained power in a second 1967 coup. While democratic on paper, there has always been major issues with irregularities in voting.
Lome is a pretty rough city. The streets, even in the city center are often not paved or covered in so much dirt that it seems unpaved. The national monuments are in a state of disrepair and its largest building is missing many windows. Few people live in proper cement brick structures.
If you look at a map, you’ll see that Benin, Togo and Ghana are all very small and close to each other. In my upcoming posts, I’ll be addressing just how different these three countries are and how these three places, which are populated with basically the exact same peoples, took such very different paths.
Next Stop: Cotonou, Benin