Togo - Facts and Factoids

  • If you put Togo into Google you’ll get information on a Disney film about an epidemic in Alaska. But Togo is, more importantly, a country in West Africa. In the north, the land is characterized by a gently rolling savanna. This contrasts with the centre of the country, which is dominated by hills. The south of Togo is a savanna and woodland plateau, which reaches to a coastal plain with extensive lagoons and marshes.
  • Most of my visit is in the coastal area; this tiny country is only 53 kilometres wide, the road running between the sea and vast Lake Togo to the north. The country got its name when the Germans inquired where the peoples they had met on their last visit had gone and were told ‘Togodo’ - the other side of the lake. It was later shortened to Togo.
  • The official language is French.
  • The currency is the CFA (Communauté Financière d'Afrique)
  • Togo and Benin are the home of Voodoo

Who Colonised Togo?

Togo is the only African country to have been colonised by the Germans, the English and the French (in that order). Guide Noah explains that the English and Germans were hardworking (Pull, pull!). However, the French just dress stylishly and give lots of orders. If you act in this way you are being French.

Is Togo a Safe Country?

According to the FCO it is safe to travel to all parts of Togo, except the very northern border (with Burkina Faso), There have been terrorist incursions here. There are the usual warnings about travelling in Africa: scams, political unrest, violent crime, theft and pick-pocketing, especially in Lomé, along the beach and in the markets. I don't have any problems. But I don't go out on my own after dark and I've stayed in Lomé and along the coast.

Is Togo a Poor Country?

Although Togo is among the smallest countries in Africa it is reported to enjoy one of the highest standards of living on the continent. This is because of its valuable phosphate deposits and a well-developed export sector based on agricultural products such as coffeecocoa beans and peanuts. Hence it is sometimes known as The Lighthouse of West Africa, the base for the West African Economic and Monetary Union and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), guiding the way in promoting 'peace, stability and progress'. Despite this, a whopping 80 percent of the population still live below the poverty line. Literacy rates are low and most children are forced to work the land.

(Togo is also known as The Pearl of West Africa, but so is Cote D'Ivoire.)

Getting into Togo

I’ve flown in from Abidjan, hopping over Ghana as I’ve been there before. The visa on arrival is very straightforward - I have American dollars. I’m met by Gabriele, who manages the company who’ve organised most of my trip for me, Noah my new guide and Kofi, the driver. Guide Noah is larger than life, very entertaining and informative. Kofi means born on a Friday, if you’re a boy. I was born on a Friday, but the female African name would be Afi.

I'm going to Lomé and along the coast to see the Voodoo Ceremonies

Modern day Togo and Benin are the joint homes of the Voodoo religion.

Voodoo Introduction

Voodoo is practised by about a fifth of the population, though rituals are enacted by many more, (Just in case Islam or Christianity don't work), and it is recognized as an official religion. The proper name is spelled Vodun (it means spirit in the Fon and Ewe languages), but it is also spelled Vodon, Vodoun, Vodou, Voudou, Voodoo, etc.) It is practised by the Fon people of Benin, and southern and central Togo (and areas of Ghana, and Nigeria.) West African voodoo is the main source of religions with similar names found in the Americas, especially in Haiti.

The Vodun religion centres around the ‘Vodun’ - spirits and other elements of divine essence which govern the Earth. They range from major deities to spirits inhabiting individual rivers, trees, and rocks etc. And people or groups of people. It also incorporates ancestor worship and the belief that the dead are still amongst us. There’s also ana thatched philosophy that often revolves around staying calm in the face of stress So it’s not dissimilar from many other religions, although the specifics of course are different. .
Patterns of Vodun worship follow various dialects, spirits, practices, songs, and rituals. There are stories and legends associated with various gods. The divine Creator, called variously Mawu or Mahu, is an elder woman, usually a mother, who is gentle and forgiving. She is the supreme god and her children (usually seven) have various divine attributes and responsibilities. Legba, the youngest son is often represented with a phallus.

Each family of spirits has its own female priesthood, sometimes hereditary, moving from mother to blood daughter. Everything is considered to contain the power of the divine. So herbal medicines are important and apparently mundane objects incorporated into rituals. Fetishes (from the Portuguese for wood) are Vodun talismans, objects such as statues or dried animal or human parts inhabited by spirits. Sometimes they are used in shrines to call forth specific Vodun and their associated powers.

It is the height of Voodoo celebration time, in Benin and Haiti, with the new year approaching. In addition, January 10 is the most important day on the Voodoo calendar, as it’s a Voodoo bank holiday, inaugurated by Nice Phoresego. He was a president of Benin who was healed by Voodoo after being very ill, when he first took up office. Voodoo is evident everywhere we travel, shrines and murals proliferate. Red white and blue flags (air earth and fire) indicate that a priest is open for business. White flags on their own indicate a place where you may make a wish. Though you are expected to promise something (a goat or cow maybe), when the wish comes true and there will be big problems if you don’t pay your dues.

Lomé Fetish Market

I've flown in from Abidjan in Cote D'ivoire. We visit the Akodessawa Fetish Market in Lomé, before venturing along the coast of Togo, to see the Voodoo villages. Chinese markets are nothing on this. Just about every African animal in Africa is here dried or mummified: leopard skins, a lion’s head and paws, snakes bones and skin, baboons, lizards, bats, assorted birds, chameleon, hedgehogs and so on.  My fetish guide, Mark, explains it all and then takes me to the priest, in a shrine, where I’m offered amulets to protect me while I’m travelling: for love, for business, for good health. It’s not a hard sell. I think Mark can tell by my face that I’m not up for making a purchase. The priest on duty here looks to be about nine and requests ‘un cadeaux’, as soon as the guide leaves us alone.

Voodoo in the Villages of Togo

We’re hugging Lake Togo, which narrows to a sandy river estuary and a small harbour, with a line of graceful beautifully painted pirogues. Noah says that they don’t fish on Tuesdays as that’s fish breeding day and the process shouldn’t be watched. And we’re almost at the Benin border (53 kilometres away), before we turn off. Voodoo villages are interspersed with churches along the road, where the Portuguese bargained over the land. Voodoo temples and churches frequently face each other.

 There are numerous symbolic murals and the villages are guarded by leghbeh - specially decorated shrines. The statues or mounds inside (fetishes) have just discernible human features, covered with wax, powder and sundry other offerings; there are often traces of blood.. Dead people are represented by mud mounds, along village walls, with shells for features. A wooden peg is added for males. Each village also has numerous shrines (often one per house) in specially dedicated annexes. Calabash gourds abound. They are considered to be lucky, so are repaired if they break. Brides often keep one for each year of their marriage, hung in the bedroom. 

The main object of interest, at our first visit, is the Voodoo Hospital, presided over by priestesses. Wearing a white headscarf indicates that you are a priestess and know how to communicate properly with the shrine. You tell the priestess you have a problem, no details, and give them an object associated with you, for example hair or clothing. They take this and the nature of the illness will be revealed in a dream. The ladies then go out into the bush and search for the correct remedies. A ritual may also be necessary.

Voodoo Village Ceremony

The whole village is participating in a thanksgiving Voodoo ceremony, at the next stop. A cute little goat is tethered to a post outside the ceremonial arena with some fetishes alongside. I don’t realise for some time why it’s there. There is dancing to the rhythm of the drums - and several participants appear to fall into a trance becoming stiff and glassy eyed. This is a good omen.

Then the goat and a chicken are slaughtered. In deference to my sensibilities - thankfully - this takes place in a side room. The carcasses are then borne around the dance floor, around the neck of those in a trance. At times, they suck the blood and carry them in their teeth instead. The blood is also daubed on the sacred drums, which are only used for these ceremonies. Eventually, the bodies are borne away to the kitchen. It’s possibly the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen.

I'm forced to join in with the dancing. apparently it's rude not to....everyone claps.

Twins and Voodoo

Back along the coast to Benin. Lomé is right on the border with Ghana, so I’ve travelled the width of the country three times in 24 hours. Our first village in Benin has a shrine dedicated to twins. Twins are considered to be one person and very important. You never say a twin is dead – they are away visiting or carrying out some errand. They are remembered by placing identical dolls on display.  The scarification marks on the face are the key identification feature here. In this house, one mother has triplets, even more significant.

Benin Voodoo Dancing

Then I’m quickly watching a New Year ceremony. Here, anyone who has transgressed is identified by the mask, who knows without having to be told. It’s called a mask dance, but the raffia streamer covered shrouds are big enough to envelop the whole body. I say big enough. There is purportedly no one inside the masks. There are four of them entering at different times, whirling like Sufi dervishes to the drumbeats whilst a group of villagers dance in a circle alongside. I wish I could move like that.

The masks are sprinkled with powders and fed alcohol, and each has a separate denouement, where it is tipped over to reveal nothing underneath initially. At subsequent reveals, statues with moving parts, generally phallic, a low table laid with food and a heap of metallic raffia which grows into a tall wiggling tower - another fertility symbol under different masks. Noah insists it’s all mystic and that just the priests (only males allowed to be initiated) are privy to the secrets of how this is done. I expect David Copperfield would work it out. Again, it’s astonishing and fortunately I’m not singled out by the dancers.

I’m still with guide Noah and driver Kofi, who have driven me from Togo. Lunch at a beach restaurant, at Grand Popo. The Portuguese named the town this, because it means big backside and refers to the local women. There’s another area called Petit Popo.

The Python Temple of Ouidah

To Ouidah, the centre of Voodoo. First, the python temple where 50 (thankfully small) royal pythons reside, entwined together in a heap inside a concrete shrine. Unlike in most parts of the world, snakes in Benin are revered, particularly the Royal pythons. They even eat and sleep in people homes. They are believed to be ancestors of the local people, whose facial scarification reflects snake bite marks. (Incidentally, Noah tells me that scarification began to prevent kidnapping of babies a bit like cattle branding and it’s not solely for tribal identity purposes.) It’s thought to be lucky if you touch the pythons. Their skin is dry and warm.

Telling Your Fortune, the Voodoo Way

Another village ceremony, in Ouidah, is a cross between fortune telling for the year ahead and a pantomime. The costumes are lavish and sequinned and there is much spinning and cavorting, whilst the villagers are threatened with a beating from wooden brooms. The figures engage in mock battles and sometimes end up prostrate on the ground. They are corralled by young men with sticks. The women and children watch in a group in front of the houses, scrambling through the windows to evade the whistling wood. The final figure to emerge brings blessings and lays his long hairy brush on people’s heads. He tells me (my translator says) that I’m going to have an excellent year. Everything I hope for will come true and I will find a husband. The brush is tickly.

Next, the Slave Coast at Ouidah.

A Wedding With No Guests

I've flown into visit Lomé from Abidjan this morning and Guide Noah’s cousin is getting married today, so we gate-crash the wedding. She doesn’t seem to mind. She’s been living with the groom for some time and they have children, but it takes a long time to save up for the expected dowry.

The new husband is sporting a red Yoruba floppy-top hat and seems very nervous. Marquees are still being set up and chairs arranged. Food is arriving, but won’t be served until there are more guests. A few elegantly dressed family members are meandering. A band is singing under a blue canvas, though they’re having trouble with a screeching sound system. We're offered drinks. I'm hopeful of some gin, but it's beer or Cinzano Bianco. We all have Cinzano. I haven't drunk that for many years. Noah explains that everyone will be at least an hour late, African style, but his estimates turn to be overly optimistic and two hours later there's little sign of anyone else and absolutely no sign of food. So we leave, in search of lunch by the beach.

Lomé and ECOWAS

Lomé is the Brussels or Switzerland of West Africa. All the big bank headquarters are here and the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) administration buildings. It’s amazingly developed, first established as the German capital of Togoland in 1897, growing rapidly from 30,000 people in 1950, to roughly a million today. It's also squashed right in the south-west corner of Togo. You can see Ghana if you look down the main road. Compared to the rest of West Africa, Lomé has what appear to be some very prosperous areas and is more visitor orientated. There are also of course, large tracts of poor housing too.

As in most African capitals, there aren't that many tourist sights in town - a cathedral, a huge Independence Monument on a circular roundabout and the usual markets and museum (in the Congressional Palace). The main attractions in Lomé are the Akodésséwa Fetish Market and the Atlantic shore: very manicured stretches of lawn (mown by goats) running along beautiful golden (but eroding) beaches, with up-market open air restaurants, that serve steaks and shellfish.

Good News and Bad News from Lomé

For some reason my bags smell horribly of petrol. No-one is sure why, but the boot of our Landcruiser stinks. However, I have been upgraded to the most gorgeous boutique hotel. The mixed seafood grill, which includes lobster, served by the swimming pool, is very good value and absolutely delicious.

Tomorrow I'm off along the coast to see some Voodoo ceremonies.

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