Togo – Four glorious days

After battling your way through the crowds of money changers, hustlers and helpers on the border between Ghana and Togo, you emerge to find yourself in the city centre of the Togolese capital, Lome, and a bare stone’s throw from the presidential palace. The question immediately springs to mind: “why the hell did they build the capital here, right on the border, which limits all expansion to the East?” But this is Africa and you have to remember that the borders are all relatively recent inventions, imposed by the colonial powers in a parcelling out of the lands amongst themselves. In this case the juxtaposition of the capital city and the border is explained by the fact that present day Togo is only part of what was once German Togoland. After the German defeat in WWI, the French and British victors divided up the spoils between themselves. The British got one third which they added to the Gold coast (now Ghana) while the French got the rest. Lome obviously proved a useful point of reference for the division and so the border was traced along the limits of the town as it was then, regardless of the fact that this would obviously prove a great practical nuisance to any growth. After independence nobody thought that this artificial division could possibly last, but the arbitrary carve-up of 1918 remains to this day, due to the fact that no ruler of Ghana or Togo would ever voluntarily reduce their own power. The Togolese rulers want ‘re-unification’, the Ghanaian powers want incorporation of Togo into an expanded Ghana, hence there is a deadlock. Within the framework of nation states the only way that the present borders could change is through conquest of one by the other.

Togo is a thin strip of a country, over 500 km long, but only 50 km wide at the coast and barely reaching 100 km wide elsewhere. Today Lome has little hint of the original German colonial presence. French language and culture are as implanted here as elsewhere in French West Africa. As soon as one crosses the border, the change from anglophone to francophone is immediately evident. The prices increase, the food improves and the gambling stalls show the results of horse races in Nice rather than football in Bradford. The indigenous culture, on the other hand, is the same on both sides of the border. The people, languages, physical geography, traditional beliefs and climate are exactly the same in Togo as in eastern Ghana. However, in addition to the French influences, one notices a distinct change in the atmosphere. There is a strong sense of underlying tension and anger on the streets of Lome. The market swarms with aggressive hawkers, beggars and souvenir sellers who dog the steps of tourists. Surly policemen man roadblocks on main streets, extorting presents from motorists.

Togo & Benin, route taken May 2000, full map

The reason for the atmosphere of discontent is not hard to perceive. Togo’s president, general Eyadema, has ruled uninterrupted since his coup in 1967. He has followed remarkably closely in the footsteps of Mobutu who took power in Congo two years before him. Both based their regimes upon vicious repression, paranoid monitoring of all potential opposition, large and corrupt security forces with arbitrary powers, superficial drives for ‘authenticity’ and african-ness which masked unbridled economic exploitation by foreign capital, elections rigged in laughably obvious frauds and, crucially, Western support in return for staunch political backing during the cold war. However, restrained by a small, relatively resourceless country, Eyadema has never quite emulated the grandiosity of Mobutu’s deranged regime. Not for want of trying though. Alongside his Burkinabe counterpart, Compaore, Eyadema was fingered by recent UN reports as a middleman in the laundering of UNITA’s ‘conflict diamonds’. In terms of basic development, Togo is significantly worse off than its coastal neighbours; what hasn’t been looted, Eyadema has often ploughed into ludicrous self-aggrandising projects. His natal village, Kara, has grown from nothing to be Togo’s second city in 20 years, much of industry has been located there. Lome’s tallest building is the hotel of February 2nd, a massive, shiny, glass and steel, luxury hotel. What does the date stand for? On February 2nd, 1974 Eyadema made his ‘triumphal return’ to Lome after surviving a plane crash. This expensive 400 room hotel has remained mostly empty since its construction, perhaps not on the Mobutu scale of follies, like the huge marble palaces deep in the rainforest, but you have to give Eyadema marks for trying.

One place where Eyadema has surpassed Mobutu, is in his survival skills. He rode out the wave of democratic protests which swept across Africa in the early nineties by simply killing hundreds of opponents. In the post cold-war world, Western countries have had less need for loyal dictators of tiny African nations and less willing to take the PR hit of financing them. Therefore Eyadema has had to turn elsewhere for funds. To Libya. While we were in Lome, there was a massive, Libyan funded refurbishment of the city’s hotels and conference centres going on, in preparation for the upcoming conference of the Organisation of African Unity. Gaddafi has for some time been using Libya’s oil money to bail out broke African rulers in return for their support of his project to create an ‘African union’.

Togo’s Finest

Despite his success in surviving longer than most of his peers, one gets the sense that Eyadema’s days are numbered. Benin and Ghana both house many Togolese dissidents and twice in the 1990’s the regime barely survived armed rebellions. From what we saw of Togo’s armed forces it is hard to imagine them standing up to any large incursion. The presidential palace, on the Lome seafront, is surrounded by a large wall which has guardhouses built into it at intervals of 20 metres or so. Most of these are normally empty since the soldiers prefer to hang around in a bunch together at one corner of the palace, where they can most effectively extort money from passers-by. On one occasion, Deirdre was walking by the palace alone, on her way to meet me. A lone soldier, standing in one of the guardhouses, hissed to draw her attention. She kept going, not overly eager to help ease his boredom. He then shouted and pointed his rifle at her, which caused her to reconsider and stop, especially since a tourist was shot dead by a soldier at this very place, two years ago. Having got her to stop, he proceeded to berate her for not stopping quickly enough, grinning and brandishing his gun in a naked display of power. Eventually he let her go, after confiscating her passport and telling her to come back 2 hours later. This confiscation was a little worrying since passports are very important for us, having to cross so many borders, and, without one, every roadblock and checkpoint becomes very expensive. Therefore, as soon as she met me, we set out at once to try to procure the passport. We walked back to the palace but the guardhouse where he had been was now empty. We continued to the next one, again empty. The third guardhouse also appeared empty except for a semi-automatic rifle resting on the counter. Quelling the urge to grab the weapon and invade the palace, we approached the counter and called out “hello!”. We heard a stirring from the ground and, soon after, the soldier appeared. He stood up, yawned, slipped on his wrap-around shades, leaned forward on the counter, grinned at us and burped, releasing a waft of beery odour. Completely ignoring Deirdre, he proceeded to explain himself to me. He had seen her walking by the presidential palace and, concerned lest she should do anything forbidden in such a sensitive area, he had decided to apprehend her. Now, since he had explained this to a man who could look after her, of course we could have the passport back, only wouldn’t we think of buying him a beer? Since we were rather busy that day, we decided to short-circuit the process and reluctantly agreed to it. After a small bit of haggling over how much a beer would cost, we secured the passport for 75 cents and continued on our way. This brush with the ‘elite presidential guard’ led us to think that Eyadema’s paranoia about armed rebellions is probably well founded. While they are certainly very brave when confronting unarmed tourists, it is hard to imagine their discipline standing up to much of a threat!

Benin – sightseeing

After just 4 days in Lome, we continued along the coast into Benin. The trip from Lome to Benin’s commercial capital, Cotonou, is very straightforward since both lie directly on the major coastal highway which runs all the way from Abidjan to Lagos in Nigeria. As one passes Eastwards across Togo and into Benin, the gravitational pull of Lagos can be felt ever stronger. English becomes much more widely spoken and the roads are full of merchants taking wares to and from the undisputed commercial capital of West Africa. Entering Cotonou, the traffic thickens and huge traffic jams cut across the city along the main East-West axis. Massive articulated lorries roll ceaselessly out of Cotonou’s port, straight towards the Nigerian border. It is said that Benin’s economy largely depends on the smuggling of goods into its massive neighbour.

We based ourselves in Cotonou and made several excursions from there. We were running far behind our original schedule and had thus resolved to hurry through Benin, briefly visiting the main tourist sites. Naturally, our initial plans for a whirlwind tour of 3 days proved to be woefully optimistic, but we didn’t regret the week we spend in and around Cotonou. Aesthetically the city is a catastrophe. The whole place looks like a building site which has been abandoned half way through. The skyline is irregular, large ugly stacks are scattered around among the predominant low, concrete buildings. Many buildings are unpainted and the bare concrete has become discoloured and ugly through exposure to the extremes of this tropical climate. Huge piles of sand and gravel obstruct pavements on the main boulevards. Few of the roads are paved and huge pools permanently occupy certain crossroads where the road has long been washed away. Countless small motorbikes and massive trucks throng the streets, spewing clouds of dust and smoke into the air. Nevertheless it is a pleasant and friendly city. Good cheap food is easy to find, the pavement cafes are pleasant places to drink beer and both police roadblocks and aggressive hustlers are mercifully rare.

Stilt living

The whole coastal area of Benin is riddled with lagoons which contain a number of stilt villages. These villages are home to fishing people and are situated on land which is seasonally flooded and is completely submerged for several months of the year. The inhabitants choose to live in these places because they allow them to live much closer to their fishing grounds and because they formerly provided protection against the slave-raiding armies from the Dahomey empire to the North who were forbidden to launch attacks over water. We visited the stilt village of Aguegue, 12 km across the lagoon from Benin’s political capital Port Novo. To get there, we rented a canoe and two oarsmen in Port Novo for $10. One of the rowers stood at the back, polling us along the bottom, while the other sat at the front with a short oar topped by a single heart-shaped blade, alternatively used on either side of the boat. The 12 km trip took about 2 hours, during which we passed through an amazing waterborne society. A large area of the lagoon was divided into large rectangular plots by straight rows of bushes planted tightly together, their tops emerging a couple of feet above the waterline. Beneath the water, their roots and branches grow so close together that fish cannot pass through them. Our rowers informed us that these enclosed plots are used for raising captive fish which are harvested every year or so. These watery fields are interspersed with a system of watery highways through which a large number of small boats constantly travel. People are everywhere, some working in the fields, mending holes in the bushes, collecting fish into their boats or bathing themselves in the water. Others are travelling with fish to the town, or with other supplies towards the villages. Still others sleep, lying in their boats which float gently on the tranquil waters. Here and there wooden huts have been built on stilts above the lagoon and these provide a focus for local people who gather their boats about them and use them to rest and cook food in while out on the water.

The village itself was mostly on dry land when we saw it, although the main transport arteries were channels of water, and pirogues were the only way of getting between the different parts of the village. There were several hundred buildings, most made of thin wooden sticks, although there were also 3 or 4 concrete buildings. All of them were built on stilts, their floors raised about 3 feet off the ground. The inhabitants sat on their porches, lay under their houses in shelter from the sun or rowed about in pirogues. Outside the small concrete church, a funeral was underway with the customary drummers, dancers and fine, colourful outfits. We stopped at the police-station, a tiny concrete hut, for the oarsman to deliver a letter. The policeman, a native of Cotonou, seemed very unhappy with his current posting. Within one minute of our meeting, he had poured out his tales of woe to us. He had previously been posted to Cotonou port, the most cosmopolitan place imaginable and, presumably, a pretty good place to get ‘presents’. Now he found himself in this isolated backwater among these uncultured savages whom he considered to be thoroughly useless and lazy on account of the fact that they grew no food, merely fished, and spent much time sleeping in their boats. His isolation meant that he found it difficult to get food, the 2 hour trip to Port Novo was exhausting and, worst of all, nobody came to visit him.

Snakes ‘n slaves

Next we visited Ouidah, once a major slave port for the Dahomey empire, today mainly renowned for its voodoo shrines. The city’s central square counterposes the two major religious forces. On one side, the catholic basilica towers over the town, on the other stands the much smaller, but vastly more popular with tourists, python temple. This temple houses several shrines for offerings to the ‘snake-god’ Dagbe, but, most entertainingly, it has a small circular building full of pythons. The temple’s custodians are well versed in the arcane art of extracting cash from tourists. $1.50 has to be paid to gain entry, and if one wants to take photos with the snakes, an extra, negotiable fee must be paid. The custodian’s strategy in negotiating this fee was genius. As soon as he learned that we had a camera, he went to the python room, took a large snake out and, ignoring Deirdre’s protests, strung it around her neck. Instantly her whole body went completely rigid, her neck sought refuge in her shoulders, her eyes opened wide and took on a glazed appearance, her mouth fell wide open but no sound came out save for a strangled gasp which meant “take it off!”. Leaving her in this state, the custodian turned to me and began the negotiations. He wanted $10 for a photo but I refused to budge over 50 cents. This stand-off was obviously not to Deirdre’s liking and, had I not appreciated her toughness, I would have been tempted to give in and take the photo, releasing her from her frozen terror which was not helped by the snake starting to move, squirming across her bare shoulders. Eventually the custodian realised that I was a bastard and gave in, so we managed to capture a pose of Deirdre trying to smile with the snake. The deranged grin did rather a poor job of masking her terror.

Dahomey – skulls

Our final excursion in Benin took us to Abomey, the pre-colonial capital of the powerful Dahomey empire, some 100 km north of the coast. The town, today a calm and pleasant backwater, housed the palaces of the Dahomey kings. Each of the 12 kings built his own palace adjoining that of his predecessors. The complex covers a large area since each palace had several buildings and courtyards. However, the French destroyed all but 2 of the palaces so most of the area has today reverted to wild bush, from which a few sections of mud-brick wall protrude. The 2 remaining palaces are currently being refurbished and are regaining their former splendour. The buildings are mostly long, low and rectangular with sloping roofs. They are made in mudbrick, decorated with brightly painted bas-relief sculptures of many of the kings’ symbols. The only concrete building in the complex is a small whitewashed building built as an administrative office by the French after their defeat of Dahomey in 1892. It is situated slap-bang in the middle of the last king’s palace, a humiliating symbol of French conquest.

Several of the buildings today serve as museums, housing many historical relics of the Dahomey kings. The kings’ authority was derived from various sacred objects: banners, umbrellas, stools, thrones and staffs. Each king had their own particular symbols which were used to decorate their sacred objects. Bees, birds and other symbols from nature predominate on the tapestries and carvings from the early monarchs. As the kingdom became larger and more powerful it also became more despotic and relied increasingly upon trading slaves for guns. This change is reflected in the king’s choices of symbols. Decapitated heads became favourite decorative motifs in the tapestries of the early 19th century monarch, Ghezzo. His tyrannical rule was based on a well armed, professional army and large scale sacrifices of slaves to appease the gods. His throne which rests on 4 human skulls, gives one an idea of the type of impression that he wanted to create. However, despite their undoubted military ability, the Dahomey kingdom did not have a social organisation permitting them to wage war on the large scale that the Europeans could and they were unable to resist the large French expeditionary force of the 1890’s

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