Togo was kind to us. Firstly there was the easy border crossing: Douanes was just a stamp and a smile, and when the bloke at Immigration confirmed this was our first time in Togo, he shocked me by saying “Then you don’t pay”. “For a 7 day visa?” I asked. “No, 30 days.” Wow, what a gift! Benin, Gabon and Congo have been the only visas free to South Africans so far; Togo was news to me. Back in the truck, I said “That was the most organised and stress-free border crossing since Namibia” and Sampson replied “Well, they were both colonised by Germany…”
The second gift given to us by Togo was the extra hour’s sleep. We had apparently taken a significant enough step westwards to merit another hour in the day. It couldn’t have come at a better time. I was definitely feeling worn down by the daily grind of constant travel, and less capable of dealing with the relentless social demands of friendly strangers wanting to know all about you.
We drove just a kilometre into Aného and pulled off at the end of the road where the river meets the sea. It was an allegedly half decent surf spot but currently there was no swell, so the three Sampsons went for a swim. There was no breeze either, and stuck in the corner where we were, the air was stifling. That afternoon’s Lego play featured ‘Sophia Teatree and Josh Light’, film star inventor and stunt man respectively.
The next morning was a Sunday, and we were woken by the drums and whistles of distant marchers on their way to worship. Sampson and I walked along the road parallel to the beach, where dozens of long-distance lorries were parked waiting to cross the border, seeking somewhere better to stay. We found a gorgeous little bay where the kids could play, but it was also a rubbish tip with dotted piles of human excrement steaming with flies. I thought it bizarre that while Benin fishermen’s houses faced the sea, Togo’s put their arses towards it, literally.
When we got back, there were some French surfers in the water, and Sampson and Zola went in. I was making the most of the fact that our Benin MTN was working better on the Togo side of the border! Sitting working on the blog, I was seriously wet with sweat and hating it. That night we watched Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” from 1936, which has quite amazing insights about industrialisation and mass production for its day, as well as a couple of slapstick sequences that had Zola rolling on the bed giggling till he cried.
On Monday, he squeezed a surf in between Maths and English. I wasn’t feeling 100% and Ruby was being a darling: she massaged my kidneys and hung a sunshade in the doorway to block the almost sickening white heat coming directly in – which made a huge difference – then washed up and cleaned the cooker while I filled in the Ghanaian visa application forms we’d picked up in Benin. Bless her.
Sampson also did his bit to comfort: my hair was nearly in a ponytail at long last, and when I asked him what he thought of my new up-do, he replied “Mmmm, quite nice, if you like the librarian fascist look.” So endearing.
We decided that, although we’d been given extra time in Togo, we were going to have to sacrifice it to get earlier to Ghana to prepare the ground for Mom’s arrival. So we set off to find somewhere to park on the outskirts of the capital, where we could wait for visas to be processed. With Lake Togo stretching miles away on the other side of the highway, we settled on a backstreet of a small town called Agbodrafo, on a deserted road facing the sea with a bracing wind that made Ouidah’s look like a puff. We were greeted by retired Ghanaian headmaster Cornelius Ayitey Guddah and his wife Margaret, and celebrated with a fresh chicken braai, plucked by Sampson.
The next morning, a steady stream of kids came past the truck from 6.30am. We’d managed to park next door to the school. We watched them muster to tight drum beats for the raising of the flag, and singing of the anthem. Both the discipline and the pride was impressive, for a relatively ramshackle bunch in threadbare uniforms. We worked out the hours of school were 7.30am till 12, then 3-5pm after the heat of the day. Quite intense for them and for us – it meant an extensive chorus of “Yovo, yovo” four times a day.
We set off the 20km to the capital Lomé, which is situated at the other end of the country’s coastline from Aného i.e. not far. Togo has only 56km of coastline, although it’s sliver of land, squeezed between Benin and Ghana, stretches inland for 600km . We saw some interesting sights on the way:
Big Reg cruised down the gorgeous long straight boulevard of Lomé’s CBD with the beach and sea on one side and a row of candy-striped buildings on the other. It was an amazingly calm city, with no hectic traffic, and even the occasional patches of space. We pointed these gaps out to each other in wonder.
Lomé was the first city we’ve seen with public buses, in a jaunty shade of toothpaste green with matching uniforms for their crews, very clean and new, with just a hint of Starship Enterprise. Meanwhile Sampson was laughing at the ubiquitous white mannequins, many of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to Victoria Beckham. “They bring a whole new meaning to the expression Fair Trade” he punned. Weakly. Lightening skin cream adverts were on billboards everywhere.
We were very lucky to find Ghanaian embassy, which wasn’t on the city map in the Lonely Planet or the GPS; we just happened to ask at the Niger embassy at exactly the right junction. They sent us down a dirt road to discover the Ghanaian embassy on the corner behind an enormous pile of rubble.
The headmistressy woman in the office was initially hardcore with me. “Why didn’t you apply in Cotonou? Here we only issue visas to Togo citizens”. I went very calm in the face of her power-wielding barrage of questions. I quietly explained we’d arrived in Benin at the beginning of the long public holiday weekend, and that we couldn’t apply from South Africa because we’d left 7 months ago. She was the first official to query why there were no Angolan or Namibian stamps in our SA passports. (We’d had to get those in our British ones due to Ruby’s South African passport being delayed by maladministration at the Dept of Home Affairs.) I think the turning point in the conversation was when she realised we’d chosen to identify as South African rather than British on this trip. Although it was the Minister of Arts and Culture’s letter bearing the state coat of arms that finally did the trick. Bless you Mr Mashatile.
So then I sat and filled application forms in again in quadruplicate, plus fetching photocopies of our yellow fever vaccination certificates and 4 photos each from my stash in the truck. It was still better than having to drive all the way back to Cotonou in Benin to apply. In Lomé, we could only apply for a one month visa, unlike Cotonou where 3 months was offered, but Ms Strict said we could easily get an extension in Accra; this left us with some extra cash for supplies.
We set off to find a supermarket, and were quite dazed by the wonderland we found. We were able to buy vaguely affordable cheese for first time in ages! We came out and celebrated in the carpark with a bunch of musical Rastas. Sampson improvised a rap with them to reggae backing – thanks for the training Trigga!
Back in Agbodrafo, we were all cheered up by a magnificent veg and chickpea pasta with cheese topping and Magnums for after. Mmmmm!
On Wednesday, after a line of staring kids stood around us as we did yoga, we asked the teachers if they’d like a show. This served the double purpose of a) saying thank you for letting us park outside the school, and b) formally asking the learners to leave us in peace and stop hanging round the truck hassling us on their way to and from school – they were disturbing our kids’ capacity to concentrate on their school work. I managed to translate and get the message across while Ruby and Zola did remarkably well performing to a standing pushing crowd who were being marshalled with a stick. It worked too – there was no yovo yovo-ing outside anymore.
Ruby had another ear infection, so kept out of the sea and played her keyboard; in the absence of her adored piano lessons, she was feeling frustrated by her retrograde slide, but is persevering – Mr Zondag would be proud. Sampson was editing his footage of the Cameroonian mud fest, now on YouTube.
Our visa waiting period was filled with delicious post-supermarket shop treats: beetroot and cheese sandwiches; salads with lettuce; tea with milk; popcorn; mashed potato. Sampson and I scoffed crisps and chocolate while watching brilliant Bogart in “The Big Sleep”. This last couple of weeks’ rest up and feed up had worked: we definitely weren’t skinny anymore! We chatted about our options further on round the coast. It’s so lovely to have the luxury of space in time: no one can push us, our life is ours.
The afternoon we arrived, I’d been greeted by Solange and her brothers. This shy, intense young woman proudly showed me a photo of her “other white friend”, a young Swiss volunteer who’d worked here for a while. The first morning Solange brought us mangoes and the second, her brother Innocent brought shrimp he’d caught in the lake overnight, before going to school. I had to force payment on them.
Solange invited me to visit her home, and she and her brothers came to escort me to their two room place one afternoon. They all sleep in one room on two mattresses: three brothers on one, her and two young kids aged 6 and 7 on the other. Her husband, a singer, died 6 months ago. She walks with a limp, and has been scraping a living selling soap that she makes by hand, living on the fish her brothers can catch. Her rent is paid up until the end of 2015, after that she didn’t know what she was going to do.
It was heartwrenching to be faced with the horrible reality of this grinding poverty. She needed an income, not a handout. I felt utterly helpless, useless, powerless to make a difference to their desperate lives. All I could do was to encourage intelligent Innocent to persevere to finish school.
Solange had given me a bracelet and necklace she’d made from whale bones washed up on the beach for Ruby, who wasn’t feeling well. So we sorted out some bits for her from the jewelry bags we’d brought with us: a necklace with an S set in pink stones, a sparkly bangle, two strings of shiny beads for her daughters. When we left I was ashamed that this poor collection of presents – alongside a glass bottle with a heart on, and a set of dominoes for her brothers – were so treasured by her, she wanted a photo taken with them.
Back at the Ghanaian embassy on Friday, Ms Strict couldn’t have been more chatty. Why is this always the way? Uphill first, lovely later.
Sadly, our short week in Togo made it impossible to get even a cursory feel for the place. Anywhere we have spent less than a month (Namibia, DRC, Gabon, Benin, Togo), I have felt dissatisfied with the experience, less fond of the people, less confident to comment with any authority.
Before leaving Lomé, I did at least insist on visiting the renowned Musée International D’Art D’Afrique. This is a famous collection by a Swiss ethnologist who’d recently sold it to a Chinese professor. The entrance price had gone up and we were short of cash to cover it, but the beautiful young lady on the door took pity on us and let us in anyway.
This display was on a much grander scale than the bijou collection of Villa Karo, and we weren’t allowed to take pics. There were three rooms crammed with the most exquisite examples of West African art from the 10th to the 20th centuries. It was laid out in a somewhat higgledy piggledy fashion, but even to my ill-educated eyes, there were some superb examples of several genres: lost-wax cast bronze plaques from the 17th century Kingdom of Benin, Doyon doors from 16th century Mali, and a whole range of Yoruba busts – my favourite being a giant woman’s head carved in ebony. Sampson’s fave was a nearly life-size 10th century terra cotta bloke from Sokoto in Northern Nigeria, who looked like our friend Bood from the Honeymoon Suites in fancy dress as an ancient Chinaman.
There were many Voodoun images, and even some karma sutra-style bronze stick figures. The pieces were mostly Nigerian or Beninois, with the rest from countries down the coast from Guinea to Gabon, but there was also an Angolan mask and some unusual objects from Burkina – which to me looked quite sci-fi, super real. The huge range just showed you what the cream of Africa’s artists were capable of through the ages. I hope the new owner ramps up the layout, the supporting info and the advertising – and isn’t tempted to take it all to China. It was fascinating and well worth a detour for.
We drove out of Lomé past dozens of football games being played in full kit on the golden evening beach, directly to the border, which seemed tacked on the end of the boulevard. Still bruised from the encounter with Seme-Kraké, I adopted a NO-thanks-I-really-don’t-need-your-help demeanour with the group of guys who sprang to my aid as I climbed out of the truck.
One bloke seemed offended that I was being so dismissive, so I stopped to explain: “Please don’t take it personally, I just don’t have ANY cash and I don’t want to waste your time when you could be earning some money helping someone who needs assistance. This is my tenth border crossing in seven months: I’ve pretty much got the hang of it now.”
As we drove through, I scrabbled for my camera but failed to capture “BE KIND” beautifully painted on the back of a lorry. I love these words of wisdom bestowed by African kings of the road.
On the Ghana side, Aflao had a super technical Immigration with forms, fingerprints and a photo registration like in Gabon. The stamp guys gave the kids bananas and were keen to see the truck – I left Sampson to entertain them while I spent an hour wandering around a maze of buildings getting police vehicle registration clearance, as well as the carnet stamped. At the final station, a wooden shed, a uniformed man with a spectacular bracelet of yellow beads (signifying maturity and wealth) asked me for something. “I’m looking for dollars” he said. “Me too!” I rejoindered. He took a roll of notes out of his pocket, peeled off a $10 and waved it at me. I laughed as I walked away, but I wondered what he’d have said if I’d stuck my hand out for it.
Meanwhile, I found Sampson in the middle of a scrum of people enjoying the magic show. He told me he’d met two Liberians who described themselves as “in minerals” who’d given him a photo to wave at that border if we have any trouble: “We’re very popular there”. I bet.
Officials who came to check the truck interior were visibly shocked when, in answer to their question “Which is your favourite country so far?” the children immediately chorused “Nigeria!”
We bought some Ghanaian Cedi from a young lad calling himself Classty. He was wearing a satchel that reminded me of the ones bus conductors used to carry for dispensing change when we were kids, except his was full of wads and wads of cash. Sampson asked him if he wasn’t afraid of carrying so much money around in the midst of so many people. He turned to us with a look of genuine astonishment: “No problem here,” he said, spelling it out for us like we were idiots (or South Africans), “This is GHANA!”
Drafted end Jan