Marisa, my sister, spent two heat filled weeks in Togo eating nothing but corn meal, yam dough, and drinking dirty water. A specially hired crew of elephants and witch doctors greeted Marisa as she descended upon Accra from her Delta direct flight from JFK. Because I did not want her to be poisoned by Accra’s urban transformation (what I like to call, “shadow initiative to Counter West Africa’s dismal rep in western countries [SItCWADRIWC]), I ushered her into a taxi straight for the promised land, Lomé, Togo.
As the taxi headed out of the recently developed Accra airport area, Marisa observed just how different Accra was to what she had pictured in her mind…Ah yes, the Accra SItCWADRIWC was working wonders. Not to worry, in less than five hours Marisa would enter Lomé where the SItCWADRIWC was brought a halt in the early 1970’s. During the drive my sister and I caught up enjoying fresh bagels brought direct from the 24hour convenient store, Bionic Bagels on Nostrand ave in Sheepshead Bay (thanks mom), and reading the latest Rolling Stone (thanks dad) and previous day’s New York Times (thanks Delta).
First stop: Border Crossing from Aflao to Lomé or Why Rolling Suitcases are best Left for the West
The border crossing from Aflao (Ghana) to Lomé (Togo) is one of the worst place I have ever been in West Africa. It does not matter if you are travelling from Togo to Ghana or (less likely) Ghana to Togo, this place is a festival of head aches. Depending on what time, what day of the week, and which border guards are working, you can cross in as little as twenty minutes or as much as two days. The Ghana side is time consuming because they check your bags and make you fill out special customs cards that no matter how many times you fill them out, no matter how many capital letters you use, and no matter how many times you remember to always write your name as it appears on your passport, you always leave some intricate, obligatory piece of minutia blank or misspelled, and annoy the processing officer’s delicate sensibilities. This step can take an hour. So my sister’s first steps in Africa happened to be in Aflao, and for that I am sorry. Where do all these border forms go (sung to tune of where have all the cowboys gone)?
***Travel advisory*** Rolling suitcases: If you’ve got them, don’t bring them to Togo. Rolling those things through rocky, pebbly, muddy, sandy, liquid-y paths is just disgusting. It is easy enough to find someone that will help you carry your non-rolling bag for a small fee, and you can rest easy knowing there is only a 65 percent chance they will make off with your bag.
Now that you have your Ghana stamp, you proceed through intricate undulating paths filled with huge women carry even larger loads on their heads, while you hit their hips with the rolling suitcases. The sweat is really pouring down the forehead now. Just be glad you don’t speak local language. Back to the suitcase: If you own a large rolling suitcase, you probably own the large rolling suitcase’s daughter, the little rolling suitcase. ***Travel advisory 2*** No need to bring both father and daughter on your trip to West Africa.
You have now exited Ghana and entered the no man’s land. This is where all the magic happens. Bye Bye Ghana. Hello Togo! Not just yet though. Now comes the fun part. This is where there is no Togolese office building to process your passport. There is a desk. On this desk are about 50 passports and one man with a stamp. Guess what? A bus from Nigeria is going to Ghana and they have to process passports for every passenger on the bus. ***Travel advisory 3*** Spitting a little local language from the north of Togo will bump you right to the summit of the passport peak. Without the local language (or monetary cadeaus) expect a waiting time of between four hours and six days. During your wait you will be greeted by many people that will present different objects or services for your viewing and purchasing pleasure. These people don’t care how long you have been travelling, or that you might not speak French, or that you may already own a belt, or that you are tired, frustrated and have been baking in the sun for hours, or that you have been asked to buy all of these same products by ten people already. Perhaps you forgot to pick up a flashlight at Paragon before you left, or a pair of socks, or that Chinese plastic hand fan, or maybe you didn’t want the flashlight from the first ten people that wanted you to buy it, but NOW, yes NOW you are ready. You were bluffing all along, now it is time to dig into your deep American dollar filled pockets and buy the flashlight. As time passes and your skin starts to turn into leather from the unrelenting sun, an understanding dawns on you but you are delirious. Not only do you understand West Africa, but you want to write ethnographies about the functionality of the border crossing. You get it. Whereas the sellers of random goods once seemed random and chaotic, you now sense an order. More and more time passes and reality is upside down, and you understand that it is necessarily this difficult to cross a border. Not only is it necessary but it is right and correct and ethical and moral and mandated and who would want it any other way? You buy the pack of tissues to wipe the tears of understanding away from your dirt and sweat streaked face. You are probably high from the fumes of the trucks, but you now understand. Deep.
Then in a daze, you are across. Like a goat charged with eating garbage and pebbles all day long, you wander through wondering where you are and how exactly you got there. You have two stamps and a new euphoric lease on life, which is just what you will need for the next portion of your trip.
Aside: I have yet to meet a person (besides a family member of a Peace Corps Volunteer) that has come to Togo just to come to Togo. I know no one that has flown into Togo for the purposes of a visit and then flown out of Lomé without having at least tried to visit Ghana, Benin, or Burkina. In Lomé, most of the tourists you meet are Peace Corps volunteers coming from Benin, wishing to visit Ghana, or coming from Ghana wishing to visit Benin, and having to pass through Togo. Usually the Ghana/Benin visa process is longer than expected and they end up spending extra days in Lomé. When you meet these travelers they are usually unhappy, tired, bitter, and lonely. Their first question: What can you do in Togo? The answer usually elicits a very lengthy and profound silence. Let this next portion of the blog entice readers that are unsure of their commitment to visit my little host country, Togo.
So after my sister’s 16 hour nonstop trip, I brought her straight to a hostel in Lomé with electricity and air conditioning. Unfortunately the running water was limping so we had to take bucket showers. Marisa really hated bucket showers and bucket flush toilets…more on that later. We spent the afternoon relaxing and hanging out in the Peace Corps lounge and eating delicious Italian food at the very best restaurant in Togo, Filopats. Following this delicious Italian/French fusion dining experience, we had beverages at the neighboring establishment, The Regent, which happens to be the best bar in all of Togo. In Togo, Lomé is the Promised Land. Though there are often water shortages, power cuts, and roads made of sand, Lomé has the best restaurants and most activities (eating at restaurants) of any place in Togo. Also just being near the beach is a nice break from northern Togo. I always expect visitors to really like Lomé. My sister was surprised at how nice the restaurant was, but commented on the lack of city lights, no street lights, no sidewalks, garbage, 1970’s décor, and roads made of sand.
NoTo just like Soho, but Cleaner.
The rest of the trip was spent in various bush taxis and villages in northern Togo (NoTo). I tried to give my sister a balanced view of Togo. When you visit Togo, or many other countries in West Africa you can have a very easy, pleasant time. You can stay in adequate or better than adequate hotels, use rented cars and a driver, eat only hotel prepared meals, etc. The dilemma is this: you don’t want your visitor to get sick, but you want them to leave having an understanding or at lease minimal appreciation of what living conditions are like for the average Togolese person in Kanté and the other places we visited on our trip. I think Marisa had a fair and balanced experience. We had fun, ate well, and also did some work along the way.
We spent most of her time around Kanté and my prefecture. We stayed in my house and visited a lot of my friends in Kanté and Nadoba. Akanto, my counterpart, talked a lot about the difficulties he has overcome and still faces living in Kanté. Everyday we were doing something different and exciting. The time spent in Kanté was filled with candle lit evenings, and waterless showers. We had no water for two days of the trip and then once the water came back on it was light-black in color. The wells around the village were practically empty as well. Moving on to work related issues.
We went into the high school English class and gave them piles of Newsweek magazines that had been building up from my weekly Peace Corps mail days. The class asked about the American elections and Marisa was surprised at how informed the students were about America! I always try to tell people just how informed Togolese people are if they have access to radios, but I was surprised too when they name dropped Eliot Spitzer and then Marisa and I tried to fumble through explaining that situation.
Marisa came to work at AED Kara and met with Abass, the head of the psychosocial program, and they discussed how consultations and counseling worked in Togo. Then Marisa got to come and experience a monthly support group meeting for people living with HIV/AIDS in Kanté. This is the group of people I have been working with since I arrived in Kanté (in one form or another) and we discussed how to make enriched porridge out of ingredients that can be found locally and relatively inexpensively. We discussed how to best open the clinic and find a space to house the association.
I organized two fetes or parties for Marisa. The first was held in Nadoba and an organization for the preservation of Tamberma culture put together some dances and sketches to highlight different Tamberma ceremonies. The following day we had a more relaxed and informal fete in Kanté where local beer was flowing out of old plastic buckets (See below) and three groups of semi-organized dancers danced. As the fete continued, the dances deteriorated into old men basically stomping around. Though people had asked me before my sister arrived if she would want to sacrifice an animal, I decided that stone would be left better unturned.
Marisa met many volunteers in Kara and Atakpame and we were able to have a dinner with some of the children that participate in the monthly Club Espoir. Marisa sang and danced with them as if they were old friends meeting up at a bar in New York City.
Before Marisa left, we spent one day and one night in Accra exploring the University of Ghana campus where I studied abroad in 2004. Marisa seemed happy that we saved Accra for the end of her two week excursion to Togo. It was a nice relaxing (…sort of… we couldn’t find a hotel room for about 1.5 hours) way to finish off the trip. The morning we said goodbye I traveled back to Togo with a friend and by the time I had crossed back into Togo my sister was more than half way home.
Here is the proof that I had a visitor:
Here is Marisa cooking dinner
Marisa exiting her Tamberma chalet
Future brother in-law???
My sister entering her grain storage unit
And that is how you host a visitor...On a side note, Moammar Qaddafi was also a visitor in Kara and Lome this past weekend. Weird!! I wonder if his pictures look similar????