Long and Lean
A mere sliver of land stretching from the Gulf of Benin 370 miles inland and only 60 miles wide at the most, Togo is a long arm of opportunity thrust into Africa’s interior. And, as such, it has served as a conduit for a flood of exotic “goods” for the outside world, even slaves.
You’re here. Now hear that story … and more. Then take to heart Graham Greene’s comments from his 1936 piece Journey without Maps. “It is not the fully conscious mind which chooses West Africa in preference to Switzerland.”
Agree or disagree. Nonetheless, today you’ve chosen West Africa in preference to Switzerland with the most conscious of minds. And, why not? This corner of the world is off the beaten tourist path, brimming with history, and something all travelers should see. Ghana, Burkina Faso and Benin rim this country of 6.7 million people. Their story follows
A Lesson in History First
The early history relating to this area highlights alliances with several empires, among them the Akan-Ashanti and the Benin. Over time, numerous tribal groups migrated into the region choosing to settle along the relatively cool shores of the Gulf of Guinea rather than in the steamier interior.
These tribes included the Ewé (pronounced Ev’-he, meaning “lake”) who probably came from the Niger River Valley, and the Guin and Mina who migrated here from the west.
During the 1500s, the brutal slave trade became a lucrative way of life for many of these people, especially those from the Mina tribe. It was they who developed powerful pacts with slave traders from Europe who were involved in shipping human cargo to Brazil. When some of these slaves earned their freedom, they returned to this area and became slavers themselves. Agbodrafo is the former center for the slave trade. There is an opportunity to visit slave dungeons to experience this chapter personally.
A Dark Door Closes, A New One Opens
Thankfully, the inhumane practice of slave trading came to a halt in the mid-1800s. Northern trading partners in Europe became more interested in crops such as coffee and cotton, cacao and coconut oil. (Today, phosphates are the largest industry and export.) The French and the British vied for control of the area though it was the Germans who convinced King Mlapa of Togoville to give Germany control over Togoland.
The local people, known as Togolese, resented Germany’s intrusion into their lives. They courted the British during the First World War and, along with the French, forced Germany’s surrender. Historians note that this victory is recognized as the Allies’ first in this war.
Following the war, France and Britain shared this tiny nation, which was divided into two segments. The divided Togolese were never too happy with this arrangement and sought to resolve it after World War II. In 1960, French Togoland gained its independence. Three years later, Togo suffered from the results of a military coup – Africa’s first. Others, as you know, followed across this continent.
A man named Eyadéma emerged as Togo’s leader on April 16, 1967 when he was elected president. He has remained in power for more than three decades. In fact, in 1998, President General Gnassingbe Eyadéma was once again re-elected to a new five-year term. President Faure Gnassingbe, who is Eyadema’s son, has served as Togo’s president since 2005. He was educated in Paris and the US.
Togo Is So Different From Switzerland
Lomé is at sea level not high in the Alps. Its air is heavy with humidity and tropical heat. People move about at an easy pace, having adapted to their climate long ago. Having said that, you should do the same as you explore this city, the nation’s capital and home to approximately 20% of the country’s population. Note that Lome actually drapes across the border with neighboring Ghana.
The National Museum offers a rich but modest look at the Togolese people and their lifestyle. Be sure to look for the “thunder stones” and cowrie shells that once were a form of legal currency. Examples of traditional jewelry, dolls, musical instruments, weapons and pottery are on view. (A more contemporary scene plays out in Independence Square, built to honor Togo’s break from French rule in 1960.) But stones and shells won’t get you too far at the Grand Marché or the Marché de Féticheurs where locals go to buy their favorite foods and fetishes. At the first market locals offer fabric for sale, sold by the pagne (a measurement of approximately six feet). Both markets are often crowded and not for those who aren’t a bit adventurous. If you do go to the latter, keep an eye out for fertility staffs and grisgris charms, which locals drape around their necks to ward off evil spirits. The village of Glidji is the spiritual center of the Guen people.
And remember, the best thing to prevent wilting from the midday heat is a chilled soft drink on the veranda of one of the city’s hotels. Though modest on an international scale, the hotels are adequate and the staff eager to serve. While there, you might formulate your thoughts comparing and contrasting this type of an adventure with a trip to the Alps. Both yield great rewards. Each is worthy of a traveler’s inspection. It’s a topic to ponder.