Togo is the size of the state of Georgia, tropical, sub-Saharan, with its 6.7 million people dependent upon agriculture. The official language is French. Most people (65%) observe indigenous religions (voodoo) with minorities of Christian and Muslim. This coastal region, known as “Slave Coast,” became a protectorate of Germany in 1884. Transferred to France after WW1, Togo gained its independence in 1960. The same family has led the government since 1967.
We were greeted in Lomé by dockworkers waving and shouting, “Welcome to Togo.” I watch a performance of frantic drumming, dancing and acrobatics reminiscent of Hollywood films (think of the scene in King Kong when the captain and crew come upon the native dancers for the first time). We met our guide Remi Seglonou, who has driven here from Benin. Temperatures are heating up and sun is high as we are close to the Equator. It is going to be a hot day, perhaps in the 90s, 60% humidity. We do have air-conditioning!
We visit two wonderful museums. One is the Togo National Museum with its fine exhibits of Togolese history. Just two large rooms but crammed with artifacts of Togo. All is written in French. Second, Musée International du Golfe de Guinée is the villa of a Swiss ex-pat and an amazing private collection of African art from the entire continent. Beautiful masks and carvings fill the rooms. Each display of native art is more spectacular than the last, possibly the best collection of art in Africa.
We drove around Independence Monument for a photo opportunity. It’s enjoyable driving through the streets and seeing the people leading their daily lives. This is a huge port accommodating surrounding countries and barter can be witnessed everywhere. Life is day-to-day survival here, but the people seem to be working hard to meet this challenge.
The markets were fascinating. We first visited the local Fetish Market. In Togo, over 65% of the people practice traditional Vodoun religion – meaning voodoo. It is part of their daily lives as is this Fetish Market. Available for purchase are the tourist amulets and dolls but on the tables for the locals are dried skulls of cows, monkeys, snakes, sheep and who knows what else. No human heads are seen but they could be in back. Even though the sellers are ready for tourist, this is the real thing. You can buy dried skins, snakes and other objects I can’t name; herbs and potions; and see a voodoo advisor.
The Grande Marche is a huge, frantic, hustling and noisy daily market. I believe everybody in the city is here with something to sell. From luggage to clothing, underwear to shoes, dried fish to red peppers, it is all here. Most have small stalls while others carry their wears on top of their heads. And taxis and scooters are honking and weaving through what looks like madness. Bartering is the life and one can barter for anything in the Grande Marche.
The children are cute and excited to see us. A class of 4-5 year olds swamp us as if we are the first white faces seen. At first they are reticent about accepting pencils but before long they are laughing and happily grasping them out of our hands.
A few minutes in the craft’s market was enough as most items were the same masks and crafts seen everywhere. However, this does not stop them from claiming to be the original artist. Most small items can be had for less than half asking price and sellers are insulted if you do not barter or are dumb enough to pay their asking price. Once you begin to barter, it is also an insult not to buy. I have found $5 to be a magic number.
By noon, we pretty much had seen Lomé, so we drove to Togoville. About 30 minutes outside Lomé, Togoville is a large island of a few thousand people, miniature goats, and lots of chickens destined for the cooking pot (method of dispatch unknown). This is a fishing village with it’s own lively market, fetish sellers, and a Catholic church once visited by Pope John Paul II.
The canoe to the island was an adventure of its own. Poled across a rather large and shallow lake in a leaking boat, the 20-minute ride was scenic and relaxing – if I could bail fast enough and not think about the dirty water under me. We watch the fishermen, the naked boys fishing on the shore, other boats with people and goods, and our boat fill with water. Upon arrival, we are overwhelmed by locals who want to carry us to shore. A young man, (perhaps 14) who weighs less than I, insists he will carry me despite my protestations.
Once ashore we walked through their market for more photos and a stop at a Fetish tooth-bearing statue covered in candle wax and dried blood, I begin to look at those chickens and tiny goats in a whole new light. After a pause at the Catholic Church (Pope John Paul must have had a hell of a shock, wonder what he thought about the chickens), we ran the gauntlet to our boats and was hefted aboard for our return – our boat leaking like a sieve
We return to our ship in good time in spite of heavy traffic and insane drivers. This explains the wrecked cars along the roadside.
I see Remi off for his 3+ hour return to Benin. I indulge in a much-appreciated shower and drink and will meet Remi for Part II of our tour tomorrow in Benin. We depart the port to an international band playing German polka music. I question, considering German history here, if this is an honor or not.