Published: April 14th 2009April 14th 2009
This weekend I travelled to Ghana’s eastern neighbor, Togo, to celebrate Easter. Lome, the capital city is only about 3 hours from Accra and it is also right on the ocean. For the last hour of driving the road is only partially paved and even the paved parts have lots of potholes, so it was a very bumpy ride.
Togo was a French colony, and therefore it is very different from Ghana, which was colonized by the British. Since I didn’t venture outside Lome, I can’t comment on the entire country, but I can compare the capital city to Accra. Lome is much much smaller than Accra. I don’t have access to exact figures of size or population, but let me give you a sense of the small community feel it has. For the three days we spent in Lome we saw a pair of Frenchmen three times, a waiter four times, the owner of a restaurant five or six times, a diverse trio of men twice, and a small group of middle eastern men twice. And that’s just the people we recognized and talked to. Also, it was a bit strange, I think we were literally the only Americans in Lome. There were lots of Middle Eastern people all over the city, and we saw plenty of Europeans (I assume mostly French) at the beach resort where we spent Easter day, but we never came across other Americans.
On the way to the beach, which was about 9 kilometers outside the city center, we passed huge industrial factories. I haven’t seen anything like that anywhere in Ghana. I’m pretty sure the biggest factory we passed produced cement, and there were others, but I couldn’t tell what they did. There was also the harbor yard where they kept huge containers piled three or four high. It was funny; when we were on the beach we could actually look down the coast and see the main port not too far off in the distance. And we saw a couple very large ships. Regardless of all this industry, the beach seemed very clean compared to where we’ve been in Accra. There was a cement wall built in the water about 50 yards from the shore. I think it was to help minimize the strong undertow, but it also kept out a lot of trash.
The streets of Lome were basically the opposite of those in Accra. Lome had nice wide roads with covered sewage gutters and very little traffic, while Ghana has open gutters that lend a terrible smell, and narrow streets that only add to the terrible rush hour congestion that seems to last all day. Also, there were very few street vendors. Only one intersection had a handful of people selling goods to the people in transit. In Accra, every intersection is packed with people selling everything from pure water and plantain chips, to household items and souvenirs. Even the pace of the city was a lot slower, and we were barely hassled at all when we walked.
According to a Togolese friend of ours, the government of Togo makes it difficult for people to own cars, so the streets are full of motorbikes. I felt like I was at a decrepit Harley convention with so many bikes going around. They serve as personal transportation as well as taxis. Anytime we had to drive somewhere, we were basically a parade of white women clutching onto the motorbikes while the Togolese passengers didn’t even hold on most of the time.
Oh and the food! The food was delicious. Aside from baguettes and cheese, I didn’t see much of a French influence in the food we ate. It was a lot more Middle Eastern. There was falafel and shwarma sandwiches, and even the cheese burger I had tasted a bit like some of the Lebanese meat I’ve had at home with Malek’s family at Byblos. For Easter dinner we decided to go all out to the nicest restaurant we had seen. I ordered a steak fillet, which wasn’t exactly like home but it was the closest I’ve had in Africa and it came with delicious green beans! (I am totally veggie deprived in Ghana - it’s all carbs and meat here, and everything is seasoned with the same red pepper spice.) For dessert we split chocolate cake and chocolate mousse in pairs. It came with whipped cream and everything! If you can’t tell by the way I’m raving about the food in Ghana, I’m getting a bit bored of Ghanaian cuisine.
And the religious atmosphere was different from Accra. In Accra almost everyone will bring religion into a conversation, where blatantly asking if you’re a Christian or they will say “God bless you” or “God willing” and things of that nature. Not one person said anything like that to us. Perhaps it was because we barely talked to any Togolese, but just mostly just the Middle Eastern and European men. However, there was a Muslim dry cleaner across the street from the hotel and they played Islamic music all day. Other than that my only religious experience on this Easter weekend was with voodoo. It’s quite a story.
So on Monday morning, as we were eating breakfast at the café outside our hotel, the waiter we had the night before walks up with a bunch of roses. He hands them to one of my friends, Margaret, looks around the table and takes them back only to hand them to Cari. We found out later that he wanted to take Cari as his wife. Anyway, we had become friends with him over dinner and he was a friendly Togolese man who spoke fair English and could translate for us. We had wanted to take a tour of Lome on motorbikes, but were unsure of how to ask the drivers about it in the little French three of the girls remembered from high school. So, we agreed to let Antony, our waiter come on the tour if he organized it four us.
It started off great and after about 10 minutes we pulled off the main road onto a dirt road into the slums. I thought it was great that he was taking us to see parts of the city we would have never gone on our own, and it was a chance to see what life was like for the majority of people in Lome. It was pretty depressing though. There were huge piles of trash and the shacks of the slums seemed incredibly small. The people there didn’t smile and wave when we drove by like they have in Ghana, but they continued their chores like we weren’t driving through, which is strange because I doubt they frequently see white people, never mind six young white women rolling through on motorbikes with a black man as their leader.
Anyway, after about a minute of driving through the slums we pull up next to this house and stop. Antony had taken us to his auntie’s house. It was a cement building surrounded by a cement wall and had a small courtyard inside the gate before the house. To enter the house, we had to remove our shoes and dip our hands in a bowl of water three times, splash the ground each time, and then touch our foreheads and hearts. Stepping into the house the very first thing I noticed was a voodoo altar. Apparently Antony’s auntie got a degree in natural medicines and is some sort of voodoo witch doctor. At this point things started to get a bit weird. The whole time I felt safe though, just uncomfortable. At any time we could have gotten up and run outside to where the motorbikes were waiting for us, but nothing too bizarre happened to make us do that.
Antony’s auntie invited us into a small, dark room with stools for us to sit on and offered us water. We refused because we all thought it would be tap water that would make us sick, but when Antony told us she was offended, we agreed to water and it turned out to be pure sachet water and it was actually a brand we drink occasionally in Accra. Basically we learned that his auntie had told Antony to keep his job, even though he wanted to quit because someday he would meet his wife there. She said she could speak with the “other dimension” and the spirits advised her on the future.
The strangest part of the whole thing was that Antony wanted terribly for us to take pictures with his auntie in front of the altar. We had to kneel down on the ground in front of it and lower our foreheads to the ground and kiss the ground before we could take the picture. Then we had to do the same thing before we could get up again.
As we were about to leave, hurricane force winds started up and the sky became black. Romina is convinced Antony’s auntie made it rain so we would have to stay longer. Nonetheless, Antony found us a taxi and we left in the middle of the storm and waited the rest of the storm out in our hotel before getting lunch and crossing back into Ghana later that afternoon. It felt good to come back to Ghana, even before we got back to campus. I missed getting snacks and water everywhere I went and it was nice to be back in an English speaking country. It’s a lot more comfortable because I know what’s going on, both because of the language and also the transportation is so different, I know how to get around in Ghana.