Published: July 6th 2012May 30th 2012
We arrived at the border with Togo nearing dusk and once we cleared Ghana, filled in paperwork and presented ourselves to Togolese officials. Visas are issued on the spot and after changing money we were on our way, heading towards Lomé with the coast on our right-hand side. Nearing the port we came across what seemed like over one hundred trucks, parked along the road waiting for their turn. This meant traffic was now only one lane and it was almost impossible for our truck to get around corners. Nico jumped out to help navigate in the dark and nearly got hit by one of the many motorbikes who had squeezed through a two foot gap rather than wait for us to move. We made it around the roundabout and once again organised a motorbike taxi to follow to our campsite. The drive was reminiscent of Grand Bassam (Cote d'Ivoire) as we drove out of the city and along a straight stretch of road lined with bars, shops, restaurants and filled with motor taxis, cars and minibuses heading in every direction. We soon found it and set up tents amongst monkeys, a baboon and several dogs, also
finding an African Grey parrot in the seating area. Whilst waiting for dinner which we were having prepared by the staff, I sat and talked to the parrot (whose name was Sammy) who spoke a bit of English, French and German and fed him corn niblets which he gently took from my fingers but seemingly bit everyone else's!
Togo (and Benin) are known for their fetish markets and voodoo beliefs and we headed off in three taxis to a fetish market on the other side of town. The stalls were lined up on either side of the area where we pulled in and it was empty apart from stall owners and a group of men sitting in the shade of a tree. One walked over and after greetings and introductions, we wandered off to take photos in case the drizzle became more steady and everything was covered up. Tables were set up outside small huts with monkey skulls, baboon skulls, feet, beaks, horns and paws of various animals, leopard, rhino, goat, chameleon, snake. You name it, it was probably there. Some people were much more aware of the smell than I was but I felt
there'd been other places that smelt worse! I tried to stay detached from what I was seeing and accept it for what it is and it was fascinating but difficult.
A fetish is an inanimate object which spirits can inhabit but not until after it's been blessed. Before then, the doll or seed or whatever it may be is just that: a doll or a seed. For instance, an ebony seed. Three drops of water on the seed, rubbed between your hands and run across your forehead before placing it under your pillow will bring restful sleep and pleasant dreams.
We were split into groups of four and sat in a room while we were blessed and the spirits told who we were. The chief whose 'office' we were in was currently in Benin so his son was filling in, our guide translating. We were handed various other talismans which were explained and also for sale. Once you'd decided what you wanted, they were put in your hand and you were told what to say while incantations were repeated to the spirits. They were now ready to do their job.
It was also explained that the pricing of items was
determined by the spirits, not by us mortals. There are four cowrie shells that are cast three times and the shells would convey the price that the spirits felt was appropriate. If I felt they were overcharging me though, I was free to name a different price and he would ask the spirits on my behalf. As it so happens, I do think the spirits were trying to overcharge me so after solemnly swearing to not share my price with the others, we agreed on a number and I was on my way.
The sun was beating down when we arrived in the city centre. The streets were full of cars, bikes and people selling, buying and bustling about. We changed money and were soon accosted by men selling their wares. We brushed them off as politely but firmly as possible and split into smaller groups but I didn't last long, knowing I'd come in again tomorrow.
Talbot spent yesterday evening trying to get a malaria test to no avail. Today's reading was a false negative; it was obvious he was sick. With a bag full of goodies from the pharmacy, it was going to
be a miserable few days for him...
Britt, Justice and I were heading into town and offered to do some shopping for the truck at the same time. Out on the road we picked up three motorbike taxis, or motor taxis as they call them. I admit to being extremely nervous as I am not a fan of motorbikes. And after negotiating the price I made my first mistake: I got on from the right side and burnt my calf on the exhaust. Oh the pain and we hadn't even begun yet. I ignored it as best I could and clung to the driver who laughed gently and told me not to worry. Ha. Easy for him to say. We started out on sealed roads and I relaxed enough to let go of him and hold on to my billowing skirt with one hand (baby steps, I know). But once the road turned to dusty potholes, I ditched the skirt in favour of white knuckles from gripping so hard. My leg was throbbing and collecting dust and once we arrived in town, I went to the pharmacy for burn cream which was liberally applied.
We wandered the streets buying small
bits and pieces and felt less hindered than the previous day, meaning we could take our time and actually browse items. Restaurants were hard to find so we went back to the hotel where the bikes had dropped us where I had the most amazing salad. Piled high with fresh colourful veggies and a light dressing, who knew how much I'd have missed it??
Sand mats were needed to get out of the gates this morning but it was obviously a somewhat common occurrence as the staff had them on hand. It wasn't long after 7am when they waved us off, driving back towards centre ville before veering off away from the coast, north towards Balanka.
Clouds were amassing ahead of us but the sun is possibly the hottest I've ever felt. Thankfully I don't burn too easily but for Denise's Irish skin - which 'burns in the moonlight' - it was tough to avoid. We were driving straight towards the storm with the fields a vivid green against the dark skies but then the road curved and we only got a little bit of the rain.
In Sokode we stopped at the bustling market
for food and then drove a short distance to a hostel where they allowed us to set up tents under the covered area. The tennis court next door was put to good use until darkness fell, with promises made for another match the following morning with member of the local tennis club.
After tennis and breakfast we once again stopped in town for lunch and dinner supplies as we had been warned that there might not be much in the way of food where we were heading. A small group of children gathered beside the truck, some asking for gifts but most just curious and Nico hooked up his phone to play music for them. For quite some time now our music has consisted of one song, and one song only. 'Chop my money' by Akon and two other fine fellows has officially become our theme song. I am not much of a fan but as it is heard from early morning (Nico's alarm) to late at night (it's also popular with the locals), it's becoming embedded in my every thought.
Nico jumped down and started dancing with the children, fist pumping and jumping and
by the third repeat, they were also singing along to the chorus!
We drove onto the small village of Balanka, only a few miles from the Benin border (but not one us foreigners can cross at). Toni has friends back in Berlin, (one of whom was born in Balanka) and they built a library and are working on a school for the local communities. Two German volunteers are currently working there and greeted us, introducing us to the local chief who gave us permission to camp overnight. We wandered over to the library accompanied by a large group of children who waited outside noisily, apart from two who somehow managed to sneak their way in! The building's interior was cool and inviting with children's artwork on the walls. Books in French, German and English adorned bookcases that lined the walls. In the corner near the office area, a group of computers were set up, used to teach both adults and children. Upstairs was a large room with a small section where people pay a nominal fee to charge mobile phones, the library being the only building with electricity. This income allows for the staff to be paid however the scheme's
future is uncertain as the community are expecting electricity by the end of the year. On the roof, the solar panels worked their magic beneath the hot sun. Children spotted us and waved like mad, jumping around and carrying on. You could see the entire village from up there, as well as the distant forests that were deep in Benin.
From there we walked to the four classroom school being built and after touring the buildings and asking questions, a handful of us stopped at the newly built bar next to the hospital. My self-imposed ban of no soft drinks until my birthday didn't even last a day as I bought one yesterday while I charged my laptop and then again today. A sip of beer was as much as I was letting myself have while I give my liver time to recover from the malaria.
As we crossed the final road separating us from our campsite for the night, we rounded the corner to find the source of much of the noise. What seemed to be several hundred were crowded in around the cook group giving them very little space to move. We worked our way through and were
served dinner and tried to enjoy our meal but it's tough being watched. Then I needed to get my tent up. There were four of us putting it up but the children were under foot, literally close enough for me to accidentally elbow one and another to collide with the tent pole. Then once inside, a small crowd gathered around to watch me. Cecilia and Justice had already warned us that they had a small group poking at the sides and playing with the zip and it was no different for me. Thankfully, an elder eventually cleared the majority off and we were left to try and sleep in relative peace...
Breakfast was early and we waved goodbye to the gathered crowd and backtracked to Sokode for one final time. Rhys and I shopped for the evening and it was probably the best fun I've had in a market so far. The first woman we stopped at had potatoes and after greeting her with our minimal French, the bargaining began. The same problem persists: I can ask 'how much' in French but am sometimes still unable to understand the answer! So after much miming,
she showed us the notes and rearranging piles of potatoes and money, we settled on an amount and price. Potatoes were put into a shopping bag and a few more added, along with two green peppers as a 'gift'! We were pretty pleased with our efforts and thanked her graciously before moving on. Picking up ingredients for hash browns, coleslaw and a tomato, cucumber and avocado salad, we were constantly given extras and everyone was smiling and happy. It made for such a positive start to the day and left us with wonderful memories of the town.
We were to spend the night in Kande close to a UNESCO World Heritage site with mud fortresses, built by people to protect themselves from slave traders. But first we had to get there. A road winding its way down towards the village was littered with trucks whose brakes had failed or other equally dangerous circumstances, with one having veered completely off the road and down the almost sheer cliff face. Sobering stuff. Drivers and others lay on mats under trucks that were unable to be fixed to stay out of the sun while others argued, obviously stressed about their predicament.
at a hotel that was allowing us to camp, we parked the truck and negotiated for a minibus to take us to the mud fortresses. Off we went bundled into another barely roadworthy vehicle, bouncing our way down the dirt track.
It's hard to envision the houses protecting anything these days, but they obviously did the job when they were built. Modelled on a baobab tree (which is what the tribe first lived in when they arrived on the land), each house is fully self contained with storage for grain, a bathroom, bedrooms, cooking space and an area for livestock. Lining one wall, clay sculptures representing their deceased ancestors are worshipped and tended to, fetishes hanging from rafters above. On the roof were two small entrances, leading me to believe they were for livestock but I was told they were the bedrooms. Having to navigate into it backwards in a most awkward way, I found a grass mat on the floor awaiting guests. They'd had a Japanese couple stay the night before but I couldn't imagine sleeping in such stifling heat with no air flow!
A short drive followed by a walk up a sloping hill brought us to the
Snake vertebrae necklace
As a snake lover, I'm not overly impressed and trying to stay detached
sacred baobab tree where festivals are held. For a small donation we were allowed to enter the tree via the small gap. Not really knowing what to expect but seeing the guide appear half way up the tree, I guess in all honesty I expected a ladder. Wrong! It was like rock climbing but inside a tree in the dark! Only three people felt confident enough to attempt it while the rest of us sat and watched the lowering sun.
Back at the hotel, the owner put in an appearance, doubling the prices we'd been told earlier. Reeking of alcohol and seeming to be barely coherent (French is hard enough to understand when people are sober), it was difficult to stay calm and reason with him. Those of us who had planned to upgrade now refused (on principle as well as price) and I decided I'd sleep on the truck, needing to prepare and cook dinner and basically being too lazy to put up a tent!
There are more photos below