From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



Breakfast this morning beside the beach overlooking the waters of the Gulf of Guinea was a lovely experience.  It had everything – a gentle sea breeze, the muffled sound of crashing waves, lovely warm French bread, an omelette, pineapple juice, passable coffee and internet access.  Who could ask for more, even if getting to the Hotel Diaspora’s open air restaurant meant a walk of almost half a kilometre from our room.

We left our hotel at 8:45 am, which was a little later than we had hoped.  We had one stop before leaving Ouidah, which was the Catholic Basilica opposite the Temple of Pythons.  We had seen the exterior the day before, but the building had been closed when we had tried to enter (surprisingly for a Sunday afternoon, I thought).  The basilica has received two papal visits in recent years, with both John Paul II and Benedict XVI celebrating masses there, so the significance of the cathedral in the heartland of voodoo could not be over-emphasised.  The interior was relatively plain, though not stark, and there was little of the syncretism that often marks Catholic Churches in Asia, Africa and South America.

We were on our way west to the border with Togo at 9:00 am, and we reached the border at 10:00 am.  The immigration and customs procedures were a little more bureaucratic than some of our other recent border crossings, partly because we had to get our visas at the border (where the price of 10,000 francs - about $Aust.23.50 each - seemed a bargain after several of our other experiences).

We were away by 11:15 am, or to be more precise, 10:15 am, as we had to wind our watches back an hour upon entering Togo.  Then, in less time that it had taken to clear immigration and enter the country, we drove across the entire nation to the western side of Togo where the capital city, Lomé, is located, arriving there at about 11:15 am.

Lomé is a huge port for the Francophone countries in West Africa, as we had seen on our earlier travels by the number of large trucks heading north into Niger and Burkina Faso.  Indeed, Lomé is Mali’s most significant ocean port for imports and exports.  We drove through the port zone, which is on the eastern side of Lomé, as we entered the city, and it is indeed huge by any international standards.  It is also dusty, polluted, ugly and smelly.

Lomé has a highly unusual urban morphology, the result of Togo’s historical background.  It is shaped like three-quarters of a circle, with the south-western quarter missing.  The missing quarter is Ghanaian territory.

Under the name Togoland, the country was a German colony until the German defeat in World War I.  After the war, the country was divided north-south.  The western half went to the British, and became integrated into Ghana (or Gold Coast as it was known at the time).  The eastern half was taken over by the French, and constitutes the territory that is the Republic of Togo today.  It is this history that explains why Lomé is located on the extreme west of the country, right on the border of Ghana (and does not extend across the border at all into Ghana), and why Togolese people today seem to resent Ghana so much.  They tend to see Ghana as the big, rich country to the west that is occupying half of their country.  We were told that many commentators predict significant friction between Togo and Ghana in years to come over the historical division of the country.

We drove to our hotel, the Hotel Ibis, which proved to be upmarket luxury compared to many of the hotels where we have stayed in smaller towns upcountry (even though they were usually the best available in their respective towns).  We were thrilled to find good air conditioning, 24 hour hot water, reliable and fairly fast internet, a pool, working lights, good mattresses, multiple power points, and even 24 hour room service if we should need it (note to Andrew: we won’t).

After dropping our luggage in our room and washing our faces following the short but hot drive (on a day with 97% humidity), we set out to see some of the sights of Lomé.  Our progress was slowed, however, when our car was pulled over to the side of the road by traffic police.  It has been common for police to stop our car and check papers from time to time.  On this occasion, with our papers in order, the policeman accused our driver, Harouna, of stopping at the red traffic light past the line where he should have stopped.

Anyone who has driven in Africa would know that such a claim is farcical – African traffic is not nearly that orderly – and in any case, Harouna had stopped well back from the cars in the other so-called “lanes”.  It was clearly a scam by the police to get money, and as they had all the papers for the car in their hand, there was little to be done but for Harouna to pay the fine.  In the usual African way of handling such situations, he was given a choice of paying 5000 francs on the spot (with no receipt), or going to the police station where it would take a couple of hours of paperwork to pay a fine of 10,000 to 15,000 francs and get a receipt.  The police seemed to be doing quite well today, pulling over an average of three cars per minute during the time I was watching.  When I discussed the event with Mama, he said with some resignation “it is the same everywhere”.

The traffic incident took almost half an hour to sort through, but eventually we were on our way, following our motor cyclist (who had actually gone straight through the same red light) to the Akodessewa Fetish Market.  This is West Africa’s largest fetish market, and it sells various animal parts for medicines and fetishes for voodoo spells.  It was quite an amazing sight, with animal skulls and skins, rotting bird carcasses, porcupine quills, serpents’ heads, and everything you might imagine in a takeaway animal mortuary set outside on the blazing sun, to the delight of swarms of flies.

Sitting out in the sun, the smell was pungent in places, though dispersed a little by a very welcome light sea breeze.  Unfortunately, photos were extremely limited (actually, they were banned until Mama haggled extensively on our behalf).  This was a recent change, made because some white animal rights activists had created a controversy over the sale of parts of endangered animals, resulting in the imprisonment of some of the stall holders.  Consequently, all white people are now prohibited from taking photos except for a small indoors area and an iron fetish outside.

We proceeded from the fetish market to Lomé’s Grand Marché (Big Market).  The market was somewhat modern and sanitised in comparison with many of the others we have seen on this trip, and certainly far smaller than the sprawling, colourful expanse of the market in Cotonou.  Nonetheless, it was interesting, vibrant, bustling, and everything you might expect of a large market in a West African city.  Personally, I thought the most interesting feature was the Catholic Cathedral, situated in the middle of the market area, rising above the commercial mayhem in Gothic-modernist splendour.

Our final visit for the day was to the National Museum.  Housed in two small, dusty, poorly lit rooms at one end of the Palais de Congrès, it is a rundown collection of musical instruments and religious objects in one room, and photos of Togo’s colonial periods in another.  The building was air conditioned, but the air conditioners were not (could not be?) turned on.  There were, however, three electric fans.  The two that were located in the cultural objects room were not working, and the atmosphere was stiflingly hot.  The fan in the colonial history room was working, which probably explains why I was happy to linger there a little longer and study the intimate details of Togo’s past.

By 3:30 pm, we had really seen all that Lomé has to offer (if the two guidebooks I have brought are to be trusted).  That means that tomorrow will be a rest day – our first for this trip – which will also give Harouna the opportunity to make some repairs to the car to help it finish our trip.

If I had to be stranded somewhere for a day, Lomé might not be my first choice for a city, but the hotel where we have found ourselves will be perfect for a long overdue rest.



20 January 2014

Day 24 - Ouidah to Lomé, Togo