Tales From Togo

December 16, 2017 – We’d left Ghana and entered Togo via a tiny, extremely casual border post not far from Amedzofe:

01We picked up a taxi at the frontier and he drove us through no-man’s land, a twisty road winding like a tunnel through long grass on either side, and after stamping our passports we went with him the rest of the way on a pretty back-country road, to Kpalime.

Kpalime is a lively town of about 100 000 people, where coffee and cocoa grow in the hills all around. Here’s a common sight in the area – coffee beans drying in the sun:

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It’s a good base for hiking into the surrounding forest so we set off with a guide, Gerard, who knew everything about the area and everyone in it. He took us to a little waterfall for lunch and a swim:

04He showed us around his village and the mother of these kids invited us to dig in – literally, with our hands – and try their breakfast, which was rice and beans with cooked yam leaves (and a lot of fresh pepper):

05We also met Gerard’s grandma:

06He knows a lot about edible plants and medicinal herbs, and the plants used to extract dyes for fabric.

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10But most of all he was keen to show us this flower:

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Originally a German colony called Togoland, following the first world war when Germany’s colonial possessions were split up part of Togo went to England and was merged into Ghana. The other part, the Togo of today, went to France. Now Togo is a tiny slice of a country sandwiched between Ghana and Benin, and in places you can drive across it in about an hour…although depending on your vehicle and traffic that day…it might be faster on foot.

While Ghana seems to be well-known for bad food (a striking similarity to most other former British colonies we’ve visited) in Kpalime we were happy to discover the French have left their mark on this country’s cuisine. Since we can understand enough French to order food, at least, we decided we were in for a treat in Togo. This would later prove not entirely true; as I write this I’m gnawing on a piece of old bread so tough and hard I can barely tear it into bites. It’s my breakfast today.

Togo being a skinny little country also means we won’t face tortuously long journeys, or at least, not many of them. Which is too bad, as in general we are fans of tortuously long journeys. But when we left for Lome (the capital) in a share-taxi, we thought we’d just pay more for the vehicle to leave immediately rather than waiting endlessly for it to fill up with the maximum amount of passengers. First, we needed to communicate this decision to the driver:

Sar: We’d like to leave now. Partir maintenant, c’est possible?
Driver: Oui, quinze mille (15 000).
Sar: (snorts dramatically)
Oyv: (muttering) What’s 8000 in French?
Sar: Huit. (To the driver) Huit mille, ok?
Driver: (nodding agreeably) Huit mille.
Sar: (climbing into backseat) That was too easy. What’s wrong?
Driver: (flags down a family passing by on a motorbike, piles mother and three children into the front seat, packs two enormous bags of yams and a huge cooking pot into the boot)
Sar: Oh.
Two other potential passengers: (pointing at the ‘ample’ space in the backseat)
Driver: (shrugging) Les Americains…

So the car did leave immediately and we’d paid for the backseat to ourselves, rather than the whole vehicle. That was fine: we were on the move, and on travel days like these actually getting on the move is usually the hardest part. We offered to take one or two of the kids in the backseat with us, but the driver turned out to be a stickler for rules (some rules anyway, not the rules of the road of course) and he refused to let us. We stretched out comfortably on the backseat and watched the countryside roll by.

The driver abandoned us on the outskirts of the city and drove off waving cheerfully. We had a guesthouse in mind and we knew the address, but as we set off to find it in yet another taxi we quickly noticed that something was up in Lome. Thousands of people were marching in the streets. Dressed in red and orange, they blew whistles and horns and shouted; many walked, while others roared past on motorcycles; and the military were out in riot gear. We had managed to arrive in the city right in the middle of an anti-government protest. Because many streets were closed, we could go no further by car: the driver stopped in front of Blvd. 13 Janvier, and pointed towards the stream of people flowing down the street. Far away on the other side of it in a maze of sandy alleys, was our intended guesthouse. ‘Marche (walk)’, the driver said, smiling, and indicated that we should duck under the ropes and cut through the crowd. Sometimes, finding a guesthouse can be a bit daunting in a new and unknown city – one where we can barely communicate, no less – and taxi drivers never know where anything is either. Late in the afternoon in the midst of a demonstration, this was definitely one of those times.

Since achieving independence in 1960, Togo has only had four presidents. The first was assassinated within just three years. His replacement was quickly overthrown. His successor, Gnassingbe Eyadema, clung to power for around forty years, always clawing his way back in spite of many attempts to oust him. When he died in 2005, his son seized power and has ruled ever since. Like any other dictator Faure Gnassingbe has refused to relinquish his position despite rampant unpopularity and flouting the common norm of a two-term limit on his presidency, not to mention much semblance of a democracy.

The people of Togo have been peacefully demonstrating against Faure Gnassingbe since August 2017 on a regular basis. During this time sixteen people have been killed and more than two hundred injured. But the protests just might be working: the government has recently indicated that it’s open to talks about the president stepping down. Let’s hope the people get their way!

We did find a guesthouse, eventually – the one we had in mind had mysteriously shut down and we had to ask around for quite some time in search of another:

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As darkness fell, life seemed to go quickly back to normal and for us that meant looking for some dinner. The sandy palm-studded streets grew quiet – in this capital where the beach encroaches on the city many streets are quite literally sand. Kids came out to play; friends stopped to have drinks and chat; families sat on the steps of their shops. Street-side bars opened up and music drifted from one to the next on the warm breeze. We ate fried barracuda, we drank cold beers in the street with our toes in the sand.

When we were lost in Lome and searching for a guesthouse we asked for directions from a few different people which inevitably drew in several more, all of them trying to find a place for us to go. Even when they’re whipped into political protest, we’ve only met with friendliness from people who wish us ‘Bonne Arrivee’ (Welcome) everywhere we go.


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