Published: December 6th 2008December 6th 2008
I was we would say in Ghana...I have gone and come.
Rachel and I left to go to Benin on Wednesday. I'd like to say we got up bright and early but considering we were up in moving before the sun...we just got up early. We hoped on a bus bound for Aflao, the border crossing point to go into Togo and of course got the bus without air conditioning, hooray!! But we did see an old woman who looked exactly like E.T. which basically made my day...
Unlike my last time going through Togo, crossing in this time was pretty easy, thanks in part to the fact that we bought our visas ahead of time. Needless to say, I was a bit relieved not to have to deal with threats to my physical safety or having my passport withheld. Rach and I dove into the Grand Marchee (the major market in central Lome) to get to an ATM and have some lunch before pressing on to Benin and our final destination of Ouidah, the epicenter of voodoo and a major point in the slave trade that took Africans to Brazil and parts of the Caribbean.
The ride there was entertaining. First, we were riding in what is referred to as a "bush taxi"...a small sedan that normally is filled with four people in the backseat and two in the front, plus the driver. They are cozy rides. Then when we got to the Togo-Benin border we were informed by the border guards that we weren't allowed to purchase a transit visa at the border if it was our first visa, which was exactly what Rach and I had planned on doing. They were literally telling us to turn around and go back to Accra if we wanted to get into Benin. But luckily, we used our silver tongues and a bride to get the supposedly unavailable visas (I was almost glad we had to bribe him...at this point I really don't feel fulfilled until I have to bribe someone to cross a border).
Crossing into Benin presented a dramatic change in the landscape. The development that characterizes most of the Ghanaian and Togolese coast line disappeared to give way to open field and groves of palm trees. As we drove along, we saw farmers tending their fields against a back drop of mud huts with palm thatched roofs. The development level here was obviously much lower than Benin's neighbors. Unfortunately, while politically stable, the country is affected by major economic shifts, largely related to the political and economic circumstances in neighboring Nigeria...everyone's favorite African country.
When we arrived in Ouidah, a town of roughly 90,000 people, there was definitely a different vibe from many of the other places we've been to. Many of the main roads weren't paved but made of stone and there were zemi-johns (motorcycle taxis) whipping around everywhere. Coming from Accra, the most noticeable thing was the quiet and speed of the town. Everything is a bit more relaxed here and the place was conspicuously absent of chants of "Obroni." The people of Ouidah and the rest of Benin, as were to find out, our if nothing else very friendly and very helpful which adds to easy-going atmosphere.
We walked around Ouidah a bit that night and one thing that we noticed is that it was terribly short on food. Sure there were markets with fruit and vegetables but the number of places to eat, especially on a budget were few and far between. In the end, we ended up with a cup of rice and a tiny piece of chicken each...hardly a meal for a growing boy.
The next morning, we woke up to meet our guide Remi who was going to take us on a tour of many of Ouidah's slave and voodoo sites. We started with a motorcycle tour of the Route of the Slaves, tracing the path on which captured Africans took to the boats that would send them to the Americas. We saw where slaves were sold at auction and the "Tree of Forgetfulness" which the slaves were led around 7 times and was supposed to induce amnesia. We saw the darkroom where the slaves were bound and branded and also the place where the sick were separated from the healthy. The next two sights we saw were the different destinations for those people. The healthy were chained and led to the "Door of No Return." Of course, during the journey there was no real door; the door that exists now is a monument built by the government in 1992 and is pretty impressive (I will post pictures when I can but at this point it probably won't be until I come home!). The healthy slaves fate was only marginally better than their sick counterparts, who were bound and led to mass graves where they were buried alive. Over the graves now stands a beautiful yet haunting wailing wall depicting the suffering of these people.
Next we went to the Sacred Forest to see the Sacred Tree. The Sacred Forest is considered a holy site in the voodoo religion. The forest itself is filled with artistic interpretations of many of the common figures in voodoo such as Legba the gate keeper and the Thunder God. The main attraction however is the tree. The story goes that the king of the people in Ouidah did not actually die but he turned himself into this tree which was then revealed to the people by an oracle. Now, people come and pray/wish by the tree and it is commonly used for animal sacrifices. And to be honest, you could tell that tree was powerful juju.
Next we went to the Sacred Python Temple (there are apparently many sacred things in Ouidah). There is a strong following of python worshipers in this region of the world and you can tell by the tribal marking on their faces which consist of two lines on each cheek and two on the brow. Rachel and I had the pleasure of having pythons hung around our neck, although this were a smaller breed (about 1.5m) than what I had around my neck in Thailand (about 6m). Although a bit gimmicky and touristy at this point, it is still a cool little place and it appeared that a ceremony had just been performed before Rachel and I walked in...there was bowl filled with animal's blood and the dirt was still stained and wet by the blood of an animal while a priest of some kind cleaned up the altar.
Next we went to visit what we thought was a "ordinary" voodoo chief/priest. Little did we realize that we were on our way to meet the guy who is basically the supreme voodoo chief and the equivalent of the pope for the voodoo worshipers. Our meeting with him was interesting. We got to ask a few questions about the religion and listening as the chief tried to dispel Western notions about voodoo (not that either Rachel or I held many if any of those notions). What he was saying reminded me a good deal of like Native American religions because there is a very strong focus on a person's relationship with their ancestors and to the nature and environment around them; everything, he said, had a spirit and as a result the voodoo basically have an infinite number of deities. He was also quick to emphasize how pacifistic voodoo is -- it is against their creed to fight -- which he said is the reason that Benin doesn't fight wars, asking us to juxtapose that against the violent tendencies of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We were able to take pictures with him, although we weren't allowed to touch him or even sit on the same bench as him; when I went to give him an offering (of money, of course), I wasn't allowed to actually hand it to him but had to put it on the table in front him. I also put on my hat in his presence, which is apparently a no-no, oops!
After meeting the big wig, we went and saw the fetish stand in the market which was interesting and really, really smelly. Mom will be happy to know that although I had the opportunity, I did not purchase any monkey heads, paws, or bat wings but I did get lots of pictures (stay open to the idea of having those hanging around the house, okay ma'? I think it could give the house a nice touch!).
Then our tour concluded and we parted ways with Remi...surprisingly, it was very early in the afternoon and we decided that, having seen what Ouidah has to offer, we would head back to Ghana. We debated pushing further into Benin but all reports were that the other towns were similar in nature, we were running out of cash (it was a very expensive two days), and I was content seeing and learning about voodoo. We talked about stopping in Lome but I have already spent time there and Rachel wasn't terribly interested so we pushed back all the way to Accra, practically walking through both the Togo-Benin border and Togo-Ghana border and sharing a cab with a lady that we are pretty sure had only one eye...
All in all it was a very good little excursion. I was really glad to work up the motivation to see Benin which was one of the last places on my list to get to before going back to America. With the exception of the Aburi Botanical Gardens, I have seen everything I have wanted to see in since I've been here (with the exception of a lion) and that makes me happy. I was also impressed how well Rachel and I communicated in Togo and Benin since neither of us speak a lick of French...its amazing how far rapid and direct pointing with your finger will get you. It was also good that we came back when we did. The minute we arrived back in ISH people were telling us about how there was now serious talk about the borders being closed today, tomorrow (Election Day), and the day after. Considering we weren't planning on coming back until today, we would have been locked out of the country. Not to mention that fact, that every program coordinator is calling their respective programs, telling the students not to travel. So as usual and luckily, the timing worked out very well.
And as you may have noticed, the Ghanaian elections are tomorrow. I'm not going to say tensions are high but there is definitely a good deal of anticipation. Many people try to talk down the likelihood of violence but I have also met people, like my taxi driver the other day, who said that if the opposition party doesn't win there is going to be "boom-boom." In all honesty, I think things will run smoothly and if there are any problems, I imagine they will be isolated to the northern regions where violence has occurred in the past. Nonetheless, we have to be realistic about the possibility of some isolated pockets of unpleasantness. Ethnic tensions still exist and depending on what occurs things could go smoothly or we could see something unexpected. And while some of us jokingly comment that a little civil strife would be exciting, we are all hoping for the former rather than the latter.
Also, for those that remembered, it is my birthday today!! woot woot! I am now an old man at 22, ahhh!!! I think it wall be pretty low key...I am going to go get chicken sandwiches for dinner and then we'll head over to Champs sports bar for karaoke, woot! PS - I expect a cake or pie when I come home...and gifts *cough MOM cough* -- just kidding!! The best gift will be being home....
Where I will be in a week!!!!!! I am so excited when I think about it I can barely contain myself. I have loved and appreciated my time here and have learned more than I can fathom but it will be sooooo nice to be home with friends, family, and food!!!
love and miss you all!!