The rather tiny West African nation of Togo does not make international headlines all that often. When it does, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. The dubious transfer of the country’s Presidency from Gnassingbe Eyadema (the continent’s longest-serving ruler after coming to power 38 years earlier in a military coup) to his son, Faure Gnassingbe, resulted in tension and financial squabbles. This discord surrounded the country’s national soccer squad in the 2006 World Cup in Germany (nearly causing the team to pull out of the tourney before completing all its matches). Also, native woman, Nicole Coste, who recently bore Prince Albert of Monaco’s love child, is another example of what makes news and what a foreigner will most likely see regarding this former French and German colony.
Though the capital, Lome, has an international airport that receives quite a few flights from places such as Paris and Addis Ababa, the capital of neighboring Ghana, Accra, currently serves as West Africa’s preferred air hub for foreign tourists (mostly due to a worsening safety situation in other major cities of the region such as Lagos or Abidjan).
Many travelers who use the often unpaved 190 kilometers of road from the Accra to the Togolese border on a bus or a “bush taxi”, are often in for a surprise or two at the border post called Aflao. The first peculiarity of this seaside border is its closeness to the waters of the Gulf of Guinea, which is considered the geographic center of the earth because it is zero degrees longitude and latitude. The entrance and departure formalities take place roughly a couple of hundred meters from where the tides meet the sand. Even though warm currents seem a form of ventilation when riding the busses and shared taxis, a closer look will dissuade you from opening windows. People use the waters for trash dumps, toilets or bathing spots.
While you're waiting for the Ghanaian and Togolese authorities to stamp your passport, you'll be startled and vexed by the hundreds of locals perambulating from one nation to the other without being stopped on either side. Ghana and Togo belong to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The citizens of the sixteen member nations do not need visas to visit other countries within the organization. One can’t help but wonder, though, whether this lax security makes it too easy to cross the borders.
As a tourist who stands out in the “dark continent,” even if Aflao is your first overland border crossing, chances are that it won’t be a virgin experience as far as the greed, supplication or downright corruption practiced by some civil servants: “I need water” is a favorite request of some immigration officials when face to face with a foreigner.
The final peculiarity (which is usually considered a pleasant one) is how quickly Aflao becomes Lome! The capital city’s gradual expansion over the last few decades has now turned Aflao and the border crossing into a de facto extension. As a result, many travelers decide to amble from the frontier to the capital.
Like many other African cities, Lome’s traditional bazaar (Grand Marche) is also its biggest attraction. If you get your Togolese-stamped passport back before the early afternoon, you can scour the market’s endless labyrinths for garments, handicrafts (the market has an entire street devoted to local artisans), and assorted imported goods before arriving at Lome’s main artery, January 13 Blvd (Boulevard du 13 Janvier).
This avenue serves many strategic purposes for locals and visitors alike. Near the seaside bush taxis are constantly gathering passengers for a hurried dash along the coast to the nearest capitals (Accra, Cotonou, even Lagos), while a couple of kilometers up, buses load passengers for a trip to Togo’s northern neighbor, Burkina Faso. Next to the bus companies are a handful of internet/phone centers offering cheap rates for e-mail services and international phone calls. Across the way a visitor can access his or her financial egg nest at Lome’s most dependable ATM machine .
Boulevard du 13 Janvier also serves as a focal point for Lome’s leisure activities. They range from restaurants to bars and nightclubs. Goat’s meat seems to be an integral part of Togolese cuisine. Lots of restaurants have found innovative ways to prepare and serve it. After dark many kebab stands serve it, alongside mutton or beef brochettes.
A nighttime walk along rue 13 du Janvier also highlights the influence of Togo’s expatriate community, as well as traditional African music and drinks. Sounds of musical divas, such as Nancy Ajram or the wide variety of hookahs and chow mein at the establishments owned and frequented by Lome’s highly industrious Lebanese and Chinese communities, can be heard.
In terms of personal safety for tourists, Lome and surrounding areas are worlds away from other African capitals, such as Harare or Nairobi in which petty or even violent crime is a fact of everyday life. Everyone from souvenir vendors to male and female hookers try to find an ingenious way to lessen the weight of your money belt and/or wallet. A polite yet firm "non, merci" is almost always enough to deter further harassment. Even though French is the official language of Togo, a surprisingly high number of natives have a rudimentary knowledge of English.
Riding on the back of a hired motorbike, zemidjans, is the quickest and cheapest way to cover all of Lome’s attractions. The city’s most notorious attraction is the fetish market. It is filled with various parts of dead animals. Each of these parts has a specific ceremonial use, or healing property according to West Africa’s most famous native religion – voodoo. For those who lean towards less macabre souvenirs, the Witch Doctor (also serves as a guide to the market), will gladly sell and bless a small handmade voodoo doll for a paltry sum of about five euros. If you have a bit more time and money to spare, he will also give you a catechism of voodoo doctrine clarifying how Hollywood has unjustly vilified the religion through such flicks as “Angel Heart” and “Serpent and the Rainbow”.
Though both voodoo and Christianity have large followings, one in five Togolese is Muslim. Lome’s Grand Mosque is worth a visit for both its atmosphere and architecture (which differs from the three main Islamic architectural styles: Arabic, Persian and Ottoman).
For those interested in local religions, Togo’s history and perhaps even a good swim, a day trip from Lome to Togoville is a worthwhile journey. This small town lies on the northern shore of Lake Togo. In centuries past it served as the departure point for countless slaves who took the region’s voodoo beliefs with them to the New World’s main ports, such as New Orleans, Havana or Haiti.
A walk through town highlights various voodoo figurines and shrines. Togoville’s main attraction is a cathedral built by Germans nearly 100 years ago. It only came to international prominence in the early 1970’s, upon various reports of miraculous appearances by the Virgin Mary, moreso after a visit in 1985 by Pope John Paul II. Togoville is also where the 1884 treaty between King Mlapa III (whose house and descendants currently live there), and German explorer/diplomat, Gustav Nachtigal, gave control to Germany and would last until its defeat in the First World War.
Lodging options in Lome vary greatly – from pastel-colored 70’s-style kitsch hotels located near the coastline, to sundry budget-priced lodges located off 13 du Janvier, or the posh 2 du fevrier Sofitel hotel. Since its opening in 1980, the Sofitel has served as Lome’s swankiest accommodation. A visit to its presidential suite and the restaurant on the top floor, which provides a wonderful panoramic view of the capital are musts, even for those who are not registered guests.
Arya Kazemi is a semi-professional vagabond who currently has his sights set on Antarctica. It’s the only continent that he has not lived or traveled in! His website is www.hetrippin.com