Bargaining With the Gods

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Africa » Togo
June 15th 2009
Published: July 9th 2009
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Enter Togo, by means of the least likely looking dirt road imaginable. That there can be both a Ghanian and Togolese immigration Post at the end of this meagre country road, where the grass grows as tall as men and trees abound, seems impossible, and yet there they are. Only a few passengers produce passports and receive entry and exit stamps; the majority hand over folded notes of local currency to the border officials and resume their seats in the truck. After purchasing a visa in a nearby one horse town, we're dropped off in Kpalime. I want to call it a city, but can't - its just a small town - but it feels like a city in the sense that you can breathe in the belched black fumes of a dozen cars just by standing on the street, and in that even though it is hemmed in by stunning countryside, it has the frenetic energy that makes you look both ways five times before crossing the road. It's an interesting looking place but the first thing we do is leave. Two moto drivers take us out of town and up a vast hill of winding roads and blind corners to the village of Kouma-Konda - our 'K' - passing en route a gushing waterfall, and driving so fast the ride feels like a rollercoaster, inducing spontaneous grinning. We stay at the simple Auberge Papillon, and arrange for Prospere (hotelier, artist, butterfly expert) to take us walking in the countryside the next day. He's a pro, having done this many times before. He even gives us a price that is kinder on our budget than the usual one. They'll be a picnic, a waterfall and many butterflies in the forests. All that's left for us to do now is relax, take a stroll around the village, and hope for good weather come morning. Kouma-Konda proves to be tiny, and butterflies a growing industry. A small boy with a net the size of his body greets us, 'bon soir', and hurries off towards home. We see butterfly traps hanging from trees, and colourful specimins pinned and mounted in glass cases. In the woods nearby there is a strangely pleasant smell of rotting fruit, and the sun sets a pleasing pink over hills that appear bluer and bluer in the changing light. A beer in the local 'bar' gives the local kids a chance to come and giggle at us. We're sat a low table, on plastic chairs, all of which have been set up outside the small shop selling sweets, sardines, cigarettes, that also doubles as the local offie. Some stars come out. Life feels lovely. I consider, not for the first time, how impossible it is to imagine travel in African countries until you are actually there, doing it. I wonder, when time has passed, how real any of this will seem.
The walk the next day becomes a seven hour epic. Prospere is a true master of the net and the butterflies are stunning. There are spiders, grasshoppers, giant millipedes, shiny beetles and at some points gorgeous clusters of bamboo, the sight and smell of which bring my Japanese pilgrimage right back to me in an instant. There are yukkas too, but a hundred times bigger than the ones kept as houseplants. Everything grows in this environment; cocoa in pods on trees, coffee on branches, indigo plants, cassova... By the time we're back at the auberge, I'm sure that this is our most gentle, pretty alphabet destination to date. I give my sketchpad and good pencils to Prospere, knowing that its about time i gave up trying to sketch when i'm clearly no good at it, and that here's a man whose every inch the artist. He sits down with his paints and, while Seth and I play with the resident chameleon, paints me a picture of the butterfly that was my favourite. That he remembers this touches me, and he's kind too to offer us a lift back down to Kpalime despite the rain now falling (after the lost keys have been retrieved, and the car jump-started.)
Kpalime is our base for exploring the falls of Kpime and Wome, the first a beauty cascading down a cliff in several streams, the second secreted away and little visited, in a thick forest near the Ghana border and down slippery steps. The journey, with moto drivers Bruno and Pascal, is as much of an event as the falls themselves. First there's a little gang of young hustler guys posing as questionable 'official' ticket vendors to the falls, who we have to pay off to some extent to get them to back off. Then the road up to Wome is just barely a road, covered in rocks and dotted with puddles and divits. Bruno and Pascal both take it in their stride, and we cheer whenever we conquer ominous obstacles. All four of us enjoy the falls, and I'm amazed at Bruno's capacity to drive us one handed while he eats a corn on the cob. It's a bit of a relief when he chucks it away, but he then proceeds to pick the corn out of his teeth... (you know what sweetcorn's like...)
It's as though all of Togo must be this way - beautiful, gentle, its civil war hard to imagine - so when we travel to coastal capital Lome (in a crammed minibus with five live turkeys in the boot), it's a dose of another reality. The beautiful white beach is off limits unless you want to get mugged. The Grand Marche looks vibrant and exciting as we drive through it, but sits in the area of the city known most for crime. After dark I'm totally uncomfortable on the streets, and the whole scenario begs the question, why is this our 'L'? I remember Dakar; not all alphabet destinations are a walk in the park. I don't see how I can write about, nor Seth photograph, a city that isn't really safe enough to properly explore. Both of us could, however, produce very detailed projects on the interior of our hotel room. The Lome situation is saved by taking a trip to its voodoo market, 'the market of fetishes.' Our guidebook accuses the market of being a tourist trap, but when you're in Togo of all places in the world, in a dodgy capital, looking at rows of stalls piled high with skulls and horns, and breathing in a detestable stench of dried animal spit, it doesn't exactly feel like a Thomas Cook package deal. There's an entrance fee, a friendly guide (who thankfully negates the otherwise faintly ominous atmosphere, and occasionally deters the young boys following us with buckets of chameleons and asking for money), and a chance for Seth to take all of the photos he pleases. Our friendly cabbie comes in with us, and i think he is almost as intruiged as we are. I have pen and paper in hand but don't really know where to start, given all that's coming in at the eyes. Later, I can hardly read my handwriting (nothing unusual) but selected notes read as follows (NB: all dead, but some even more so than others...):
Dog heads, 13, all fierce/Storks heads balanced on the noses of crocodiles/Ball-like, spotted heads - hyenas or cats?/Empty shell of an elephant's foot, nails removed/Yellow weaver birds, squashed into a kind of bird patty/Whole buffalo heads in various states of decay/A kingfisher, a woodpecker, an Abyssinian roller - how did they catch these?!/Box full of fruit bats with bright white teeth/Heads of monkeys/Rats, flattened, with insides on display/Turtle shell/Crocodile skins/Dried out blowfish/Snakes tied into coils or positioned in fake attack stance/6 domestic cat heads/The head of a baboon with demented eyes/Many dried toads/2 huge hippo skulls/Box of vultures/34 dried chameleons...
...and this was just from a few stalls. (I have tried to choose photos that aren't too gruesome or upsetting, that still give a feel of the place...I'm sorry if they still gross people out.)
It is confusing. On the one hand, you want to avoid getting all judgemental about traditional practises and beliefs, and life is just different out here, and in a lot of ways harder, and people have many different ways of coping with things, facing things, living their lives. Your business is in trouble, you see the chief and he fixes up a chameleon potion (chameleons being especially good for work related issues)... at least it would feel like trying to do something, when everything else you tried failed, and maybe you really believe it will help. But obviously to an outsider, it looks, to be honest, macabre and a bit depressing. Pretty much every beautiful bird or animal we have admired in Africa so far is represented in the fetish market, stiff, sad and dead. The elephant and hippo skulls, you don't even want to think about how they came to be there. The weavers, kingfishers and owls are heartbreaking. It's an effort to converse with people here in the market without looking morose. Converse we do though, and in particular it's 'the chiefs son' who wants to sell us some fetishes. We are taken to 'the chief's room' (looks like every other shop in the market, and there are two distracting rats romping in a cage in the corner.) Here we are shown amulets, wooden lovers fetishes, and a clay statue of the thunder god Legba. To me he looks a bit like a furby, and I wonder if that's blasphemy. There are feathers sticking out of its head and a hole for a mouth.
'This statue of the god will protect an entire household', explains our guide, 'but once a year you must place a cigarette in its mouth, light it and let it burn all the way to the end.'
I wonder what Legba's preferred brand is. I must look concerned because our guide adds,
'Don't worry; if yours is a non-smoking household, you can dab a little water on instead.'
It's a nice show of flexibility on the part of the thunder god, but I still don't think customs would be pleased with me taking him home. Instead we choose two simple travel fetishes. They are pink, made of wood, very small and only a tree has died for their creation. We both know we need a Lome trinket but try not to look too keen; we are obviously going to be taken on a ride when it comes to the price.
The chief's son announces that the gods will decide the price. Right. After much awkward ritual, including bell ringing and whispering our names into tortoise shells, some cowrie shells are thrown on the ground, and the chief's son tells us that the gods usually like to charge 18,000CFA for two travel fetishes, (about £22), but they will give us a special price of 15,000CFA. Who knew the gods did special offers? Seth says thanks all the same but for two pieces of wood, it isnt going to happen. The chief's son asks the gods if they might like to rethink their price. Down go the cowries. The gods say 12,000CFA might be ok. We smile, stand up and dust ourselves off, Seth pointing out that since the fetishes have absolutely no material value, 2000CFA is the most we could possibly offer. Now the chief's wife quickly intervenes, honouring our price in the name of good tourist relations. I guess the gods were just way off with their prices that day.
We spend the next week in Benin, which I want to brush over as it is not as exciting as I thought it might be. There are petty visa complications and an incident in which our rucksacks get covered in goat piss. Cotonou is another dodgy capital city where after dark you keep your head down and walk fast. I tell Seth we should just head to Lagos, making a Francis-Bacon-esque triptych of dangerous cities. (I'm joking, but it very almost happens...) We spend time in Ouidah and Abomey. There is an intense storm that hits the coast and sends forks of lightening so close to where we are sleeping that the hair on my arms stand on end and we both lie awake for hours. There's a voodoo temple full of pythons and a sacred forest where suspicious monkeys eye us from the trees. We are mere miles away from Nigeria, but the apprehension i thought would set in dissipates and becomes curiosity, and even eagerness, to get there. Our travel is about to graduate in intensity and we both feel as ready for it as we possibly can.

Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13


30th July 2009

SOLD! To the man in the white robe
Looks like wildlife soup. I mean literally you could make soup from those ape heads! I wish I could experience lightning so close!
2nd January 2010

Love The Story
I hope that some day Africa is able to heal its wounds and that the rampant problems of civil war, aids, and poverty become its past rather than present. I have not been yet but your stories and posts rewet my travel appetite and resolve to someday visit. Thanks. [url=]Joshua[/url]
11th January 2010

Blog of the year 2009 in the Africa/adventure category
Check this out, :)
11th January 2010

Thanks for reading my blogs, Josh. Best wishes to you. Lu
11th May 2015
Kpime Falls

I was wondering if I could use your photo
hi. I'm currently working an child book editor at a MIRAE-N ISEUM in South Korea, and my name is chaiwuk um. I am conducting a new project concerning world flag-card for chilren. There is a flag image on the front and a photo and introduction of culture on the back. but we couldn't get the any photos about kpime falls in Tunisia. I found your blog, while searching a porper images and I was wondering if I could use your photo. The photo will be used to make a the reverse side of card. The URL I want to use is I thank you in advance for your assistance in this comment and look forward to hear from you.
11th May 2015
Kpime Falls

kpime falls photo
hi, i'm happy for you to use my kpime falls photo, that is fine. it is in Togo though, not Tunisia! but you're welcome to use it if you still need it. Best wishes, Lu Barnham

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