In the summer of 1998, I had the opportunity to spend three weeks travelling in Togo, West Africa, with my sister Emily. She is a Peace Corps volunteer in the small village of Dzogbegan on the Danyi plateau a few hundred miles from the seacoast capitol city of Lome.
What follows is a transcription of the journal I kept during the trip. I flew from Washington, DC, to Amsterdam to spend a few days adjusting to the time zone and a ‘foriegn’ culture. From there I flew south on one of the twice-weekly flights to Lome. A few people have pointed out that it sounds like I didn’t have a very good time. I won’t lie and say that it was always fun. Occasionally, it was very definitely not fun. But it was ALWAYS facinating and definitely rates as one of the most incredible adventures of my life…. Special thanks to everyone who helped make the trip possible and enjoyable.
7-23-98 – Thursday
Well, the hardest step is getting out the door. Up till that point, you aren’t committed. But when I shouldered the very over-full and over-dense purple peril, THEN the trip had started and there was no turning back.
It’s strange to think of going to Africa to escape the heat–hell, it’s strange to think of going to Africa at all–but at least I get a respite of lots of air conditioned modes of transit. And Holland is supposed to be cold and rainy…
The trip to Dulles has passed without major incident. Met a young Englishwoman with the most startlingly green eyes and chatted for a bit then went our separate ways; she to Florida.
Timezones being what they are, this will be a short, strange day. I’m counting on sleep on the plane. And lots of sunlight on the back of the knees at 2am biological…
Well THAT was an adventure. After a battery of airplane misadventures I arrived at Schiopol and wandered around in a leaden, laden stupor. The culture shock was mostly due to the fact that everything was so normal and EVERYone speaks excellent, slightly accented English.
The word for the day is lines. After an hour in the VVV line, I was set up with the last remaining single room in the Hotel Regal, which, despite the name is a shotgun affair with stairs steep enough to rate as a technical climb (5.2 perhaps?). The room is similarly tiny having room for me and my luggage simultaneously only if one of us is on the bed. Oh, and the lights don’t work in my room or in the shower down the hall. Feeling marvelously chipper after a (dark) shower, I set out and bought lunch at a local grocery and sat by a lock realizing that Damn! I’m in a foriegn country here! This is IT! World Adventure.
After a little orientation and a wander down a set of very immodest streets crammed with European tourists, I jumped onto a canalboat and fought lack of sleep for an hour while we saw the lovely canals crowded with other boats much like our Albert Schwitzer. Then I dragged home to my closet to re-awake at local 6pm feeling rested and hungry.
Wandered out to find money and food. At a Thai place, I ran into my neighbors Gregor and Iorge, a pair of Germans roughly my age in the city for the weekend. At 9 we teamed up and wandered to Leidesplein along the Prinsengracht. Hit a bar and the Paradisio where Moondive, a loud drum and bass group was rocking the walls. Good fun. Excellant music. Danced like crazy. Lost the Germans somewhere and dragged home alone feeling pretty sore.
Some observations: Bikes–they are everywhere and usually locked to the railings. On the boat tour, I saw a barge loaded with cycles that had been pulled from the water. Despite their prevalence, nearly all are 1-speed, coasterbrake beaters and nobody ever wears a helmet. To make matters more exciting, passengers often ride side-saddle on the baggage rack. And they go like hell!
7-25-98 – Saturday
Woke at the crack of 8:30 (long after dawn in this summer high-latitude town) feeling a great deal the worse for wear from last night. Nevertheless, I was the first person at breakfast and soon set off using my strippenkart to ply the trolly lines. Beautiful weather made the walk and wait through the Leidesplein and Museumplein a pleasure. Around 30 people–most or all of them Amerikinskis–arrived at 11:30 for Mike’s Bike Tours. 20 of us (17 Americans, 2 Canadians and an Australian) walked down to Waterlooplien under the guidance of our intrepid and friendly dutch guide Ilsa and, after seeing the sights along the way, picked up our bikes at MacBike.
We tottered and crashed and tried to hearken back to our first bike-riding days; the coaster brakes causing most of the trouble. These apparently are stupendous bikes for this town, but it took me a while to get used to it. Still, on the ride out of the city it became apparent that the upright posture allowed one to see and be seen and not waste much-needed attention on things like shifting gears.
We cycled out in a big pack along the Amstel past houseboats and trees to the countryside and the very posh Togolese Consulate (a small brick manse with wrought-iron gate and well-tended gardens). In an amazingly gquick time, we were amonst very rural farm fields and very Thames-like river. We continued to the village of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel where we shopped for lunch (old cheese and turkey, fruit and various juice) and sunned in a small park. Then back to the city via the requisite windmill and Rembrandt statue.
On the way back we stopped by a cheese farm and wooden shoe factory. Gouda from the source is very tasty. The wooden shoes –and there are only six people who still make them–are produced on a rotating mill much like a key grinder but in 3D. The insides are hollowed out in much the same way. Fascinating. Blue or black shoes for men at church, white for ladies. Yellow for work. Red for dancing.
Some facts learned in the process: The bikes are crappy because of the huge theft rate. The canals are 9′ deep but that’s really 3′ of mud, 3′ of bikes, 3′ of water. Houses are narrow because they were taxed for linear feet of canal frontage and number of windows. The little poles on all the streets are to keep people from parking everywhere and are called something which translates to “Little Amsterdam Poles”. The XXX seen on these poles and elsewhere was adopted from the heraldry of a prominent family and protects against Flood, Plague and Famine. Many Dutch learn English by comparing the Dutch subtitles to the spoken English on all of Dutch TV.
After more adventures on the trolley, I made it back to the Hotel Regal and headed out again looking for dinner, preferably something Dutch. Ended up at the Cafe Scheltema with a Bookmaker on the way and Amstel beer in hand… which was expensive but fairly tasty. I wandered around for a little longer and then, feeling tired and lonely from the day’s array of small faux pas, went to bed.
7-26-98 – Sunday
Again got an early start. The proprietor at my hotel likely thinks me antisocial and strange for a young guy in this city of nightlife, but nightlife for one is a depressing prospect.
Saw the Anne Franck Huis which was succinct and moving, as anticipated. Very well done with no sensationalism to it. All the while, the bells of Westerkerk–the nearby cathedral in which Rembrandt is buried in a pauper’s mass grave–were booming along for 11:00 mass. Then a sunny walk along the Prinsengracht to the Wootenboot Museum–a former sand and gravel freighter converted to a houseboat–very spacious and airy, though a pretty minimal museum.
Next up to Liedesplein for lunch at an outdoor cafe–uitmeijter (out-smay-ters) and Guinness.
After lunch I walk to Museumplein and pay my 15 bits for entrance to the Rijksmuseum, home of a LOT of Renassaince Dutch art. And there is a lot of art that got created. The whole museum rotates around Rembrandt’s Night Watch as it is incorrectly called. The proper name is “The Shooting Party of Captain Somebodyorother” and it’s important mainly because it was the first group portrait to show people _doing_ something.
After three hours of Rembrandt, Jan Steen, ver Meer and so forth, and after running into an old college acquaintance amidst the Bruegals, I’d had enough and fled to consider my options. Wandered through the Muntsplein flower market and the Spui art market. Then the shopping hell that is Kalvertstraat. Breif rest at the hotel and then out to The Pancake Bakery on Prinsengracht for a large, filling concoction of apples, bananas and cinnamon ice cream on top of a huge, sugary crepe. Feeling fat and sassy, I wandered the rest of the way to Leidesplein and Vondeled in the Vondelpark before heading for home. But on this of all nights that I ought to sleep, I got caught up in the tragedy of “Into Thin Air” and by 4 am couldn’t sleep a wink…
7-27-98 – Monday
…except somehow I rocketed awake at 8:30 am very much behind schedule for my planned morning of packing and bidding adieu to creature comforts. Baggage was thrown together and I hastily bolted out the door, to the train, plane and here I am flying south approaching the Mediterranean.
So what is it I expect from Togo? I’m already surprised that the twice-weekly flight is overbooked. Undoubtedly true to form, my assumptions are based on bravado and naievity of other cultures. Lome is, after all a city of a couple hundred thousand people, and, while apparently not the center of creature comforts Amsterdam is, is not a medieval village or something from the movies. More likely a city based on CNN reports and the uncomfortable fusion of native and western ideas. Isn’t that a byproduct of colonialism?
Now we’re flying over Majorca and the sea is the exact same color as the sky. There’s just a layer of assorted morphologies of clouds and a universe of air.
It seems very surreal; Togo has been this mythical place for many months and in a few short hours, I will be kissing the soil or whatever it is that you do upon arriving in a foriegn land. (I suppose a precedent was set when I went and stood out under the glowering sky in Amsterdam.) Right now the Sahara is passing below in an unending study in earthtones. From 33,000 it looks a lot like any other desert I’ve flown over — New Mexico / Utah / Arizona? — but there is a sense of this being Bigger! Lots of wadis and dunes. Occasional roads and even less often a settlement of some sort. There is a 2-runway airstrip down there. I have no experience from which to draw to help identify these features…but the map says we’re bearing SSW a few hundred miles north of the dead center of Algeria over Ghardaia.
There are some beautiful water drainage patterns down there with tan washland tending to rusty red and greyish uplands. They’re almost blue on top. Ah, and there are some actual dunes. Dunes must be one of those things which scale perfectly from river-bottom to beach to deep desert.
After a couple hours of hazy tan ground haze and huge thunderheads, we have emerged into the clear above the western corner of Niger near Niamey. The pilot says we are in the intertropical convergence zone and indeed our 767 seems almost stationary next to these gargantuan clouds. I see Niamey and the Niger river out the left window–very brown.
Over Togo now and I’ve identified Sawa-Kara and the nearby mountains. Lots of trees and small fires here and there.
Landing. Much like I expected. Palm trees. Setting sun, warm end-of-afternoon humidity. Down the ramp, out on the tarmac and following a stream of people to the terminal such as it is. Getting past visa and passport control was harrowing and very scary. EFD soon rescued me and we left, and none too soon. I am on the verge of Not Dealing Well. Taxi to the old Mamie’s.
After sitting around for a while, we went off to an Italian place in an effort to cushion the culture shock. Dude, I’m in Africa!!
7-28-98 – Tuesday
My first day in Lome. Actually only day. We went off to the grande Marche, changed money, visited the yovo-mart, and shopped till we dropped. The marche was mobbed and I lampreyed to EFD’s back and ignored the people trying to sell me everything from belts to wooden things to belts to Celine Dion’s latest to belts. It is the men and older children who are aggressive about it. The “Marche Mammas” are usually much better. We went to the indoor market to the inner sanctum presided over by the Nana Benze, women of impressive demeanor and attitude, where we pagne shopped. There were usually apprentice-benzes and each nana was running perhaps 20′ of shop front. After haggling in Ewe down from 5000 to 2500cfa, I posess a very loud pagne. Flipflops were also procured. I seem to have larger feet than the natives judging by the sizes available.
Then we headed by taxi (a Toyota packed with 10 people traveling 70mph over potholed roads at breakneck speed on either side) to Aneho on the other end of the coast. Saw the water which looks transparent and lovely and very very rough–kick-your-ass surf for sure. The wave quality is apparently due to Togo’s complete lack of continental shelf and the ocean winds. Lots of photos were taken and then we travelled to the Aneho marche which happens to be on Tuesday. Much easier to deal with and utilitarian than the Lome version. Much of the time was spent pointing out what things were and being very concious of being one of the only two white people in sight.
Finally back to Lome, a short nap and out for dinner at a Senegalese place downtown. Spicy and tasty and very filling.
Reactions and impression: At first things were very confusing and daunting because of the newness of everything. It’s still a bit strange, no, really strange, but I’ve sort of learned how to react. After only one day even! Give me a few more days and I’ll be better.
Some observations: Togolese at least in this area don’t mind you ignoring them or being rude. Mali is the place to be. Everyone seems to be going there. It is perfectly acceptable to pee in the middle of a major intersection. Goats are small, sheep are goat-like, lizards come in all colors and sizes and are very fast, and I think I saw and agouti. People will rarely have change.
On being white: boy do I stick out! I guess there’s nothing I can do about it, but I’m always gonna be obvious in a crowd. Yovos get preferential treatment in taxis getting to sit in the relatively spacious front seat while the locals get crammed into the back. It’s very strange to be sitting there chatting in English and realize there are a dozen silent people staring at the back of your head. While walking west from Aneho to the Marche, some children would say Bonsior very respectfully with a little curtsey. Though I always tried to respond pleasantly with a nod of the head and smile, it still felt very much like Gone With the Wind. Perhaps I agree with certain people I’ve talked to about the influence of rich white people living among poor black people and the Yovo-sation that ensues. We shall see…
There are lots of other little thoughts going on, but everything is much too vivid for coherent contemplation right now.
Today was the Lome to Kpalime day. We taxied to the appropriate bush taxi stand and waited around for a while–maybe an hour–while enough people and baggage showed up to fill the thing. We watched, I in amusement, as a hoard of roustabouts argued and moved large baskets about. All the time a stately Marche Mama and her several younger, slightly less stately assistants looked on and disciplined.
It’s quite clear here that gender roles are almost rigid here. Women RULE the marche despite what the men may think. Girls apparently do a lot of singing/dancing/clapping games. Boys roll tires or play soccer or drive these poles with a pair of wheels around. When not harvesting something, men whack on metal with the pretense of fixing things. Women sit and watch and carry and care and suckle. I’m increasingly impressed by the power, strength and beauty of these matrons.
Anyway… the taxi was finally loaded with the Yovos in the front, the dozen other passengers in the back, a trio of hog-tied goats and the driver. All long distance drivers apparently are Kotokoli. We headed out on the glass-like Lome-Kpalime road. Newly paved, well signed and completely atypical. There were many gendarme stops where papers were checked and money changed hands. The driver was unpleased. And two stops where everybody had to pile out and walk a few hundred yards before piling back in.
The countryside was flat and pleasent and very agricultural. Many flavors of palm trees. Short, symmetrical papyas. Large-leaved, dense teaks. Tall, stately capok trees. Lots of corn. I constantly asked questions about what things were.
Upon arrival at Kpalime, we trekked the mile to Chez Therese, a SBD volunteer who was not home, then out to the marche to browse. I was introduced to fufu of the manioc variety. Very sticky and a little daunting. The sauce is tasty but the fufu itself will take some getting used to. I bought more pagnes and a scrubby. Also various food.
This marche is bustling, but very different in character. Much more pleasent. Went back, met Theresse, borrowed bikes and cycled out on the road to Kuma. Beautiful jungle and interesting scenery.
Got home by dark and started to cook dinner when Elli, Theresse’s Lebanese used car salsesman (the cars are usually German) boyfriend arrived unannounced. Dinner had just finished on the verandah when Candice and Kirsten showed up after hiking part of Mont Agou. Quite a party was developing.
People sat around discussing PC things and Elli introduced me to Sodobe, a 100 proof local rotgut which tastes a lot like what I imagine mouldy kerosene to taste like. When cut strongly with Gatorade, however, it isn’t so bad anymore. Various people showed up and we went through the ritual salutation if they speak any English at all.
“How are you?”
“How are the people of America?”
Thursday, July 30, 1998
Arose and headed out with EFD and Elli bound for Mont Agou. At 986 meters, it is the high point of Togo. Strangely it stands alone apart from the plateau and is quite imposing, despite its relatively small stature. After a slow start with breakfast and whatnot, we finally hit the trail at around 10:30 in Agou Tomegbe and were trailed by half a dozen locals with a penchant for sherpa-ing. One was especially tenacious and finally accompanied us all the way to the top and back.
The trail was steep and muddy and wound through demi-jungle cutting off the switchbacks of a freshly graded red cocoa road. Banana trees, creepers, 2 meter tall grass, insect sounds. The weather was hot and oppressive and would cause numerous problems later.
As we climbed a pair of villages were encountered clinging to the steep slopes. While the first was small and not especially interesting, the second was surpassingly picturesque and, with a few changes, would have been quite at home in the Andes. Red brick houses with corrugated metal roofs lined the slope. The trail wound around and gbetween these and we passed numerous villagers going and coming. Words fail. Djigbe!
At one point Elli and I, who were wearing sandals, had the misfortune to encounter a large spread of ants. They crawled all over and bit profusely causing a lot of jumping up and down and swearing.
Our guide cracked open a cocoa pod (which are green and look like large okra when unripe and orange and lumpy when ripe) and we sucked on the seeds. The seeds are slimy, disgusting white things the size of large jelly beans but are very sweet and tasty. Not something I would have guessed from the appearance.
Finally, we made it out to the paved road and the relatively level summit. Very pleasent and sunny and surrounded by tall grass and these curious plants which close if you touch them. We came to the Gendarme station surrounding the tall radio/TV/microwave towers and, after getting proper clearance, sashayed through. Lunch was eaten on a bench overlooking the valley and the clouds quickly descended.
Already weary, we made our way back down by a slightly different and altogether more interesting route. Our guide took us through real jungle with bamboo groves, banana trees and huge capoks through his birth village (where we were proudly displayed) and on. There was a spot where the trail lead between two knee-high bits of rock. Legend has it that if your heart is pure and good, the rocks will let you pass, but if your heart is evil, they will close and crush you. We were not given the chance to test it and passed around the rocks. E and I were pretty beat by the time we got out to the road.
In any case, weary, dehydrated and sore, we got back to Chez Teresse and after a small rest walked in to town (E, Kirsten and I) for brochettes (grilled meat with oil and piment in a loaf of bread). The women had salads. Then to bed.
Friday July 31, 1998
I was awoken at an unknown hour with a startling case of vomiting, or more precisely, four of them, and a raging fever of 102-104. Through the night EFD toweled me down and, when it looked like I might be able to keep it down, administered tylenol and water. It was a very long night!
Most of the day passed in a blur. I slept for most of it, sometimes on the porch, sometimes in the spare room. Not pleasent at all. If faced with this kind of malady as an arriving stagier (novice PCV) I would definitely have my doubts.
The final diagnosis was heat exhaustion from the climb and clime compounded by something funny in the brochettes.
Saturday, August 1, 1998
Feeling MUCH better though still a bit questionable, I carried out personal hygiene tasks and was packed and mobile by noon. We got the middle seat of a taxi headed directly for Dzogbegan and, after sitting for over an hour and a half, got underway. The road is much less well maintained and I whacked my head on the window frame repeatedly as we made our way north. Given the already fragile state of my health, this made for an interesting ride. On the bright side, there was only one checkpoint so the ride went smoothly on that count.
Rising up the plateau was precipitous and hair-raising but provided excellent views. The air became cooler and E definitely seemed more at home. At length we suddenly arrived and were unloaded. My pack was whisked off on an old woman’s head and we arrived at Chez Emily.
The first order of business was to salute various worthies of the village. There are all kinds of rules one must follow togreater or lesser degree. When saluting the chef, all rules were followed: Visitors are seated in the most comfortable chairs and everyone shakes hands. The chef asks how are you? The people of your family? The people of your village? etc to which the answer is always “fine”. A bottle of a beverage appears, usually sodobe or Chouk but since EFD has made it known she doesn’t drink the stuff, a child was dispatched as soon as we appeared to buy a bottle of Coke. A small quantity is poured into a glass and spilled on the ground for the ancestors, then portions are poured for everybody. In the case of the chef, a functionary tasted it first presumably to check for poison. When all ceremonies are done, you are escorted out to the door, to the gate or most of the way to your house depending.
We were saluted many times in the next few days and it became rather tiresome since, despite immersion, I know only about six words in Ewe. Since we are yovos, we are allowed exceptions to a lot of the rules; they actually yelled at me for following the take-off-your-shes-before-entering-the-house rule.
Everyone has about five names here and can be known by Christian name (they are all hard-core Christians), position/proffesion, day of the week or other names. The way day names work is this:
Day Girls Boys ------------------------------ Sun Kosiwa/Essi Kossi Mon Adzo Kodjo Tues Abla Komla Wed Aku Kokou Thurs Ayawa Yao Fri Afi Koffi Sat Ami Komi
These can be modified by adding “vi” (little) or “ga(n)” (big) at the end (being big is concidered good) and by “Da” (Ms) or “Fo” (Mr) in front.
We had some rice for dinner, took a walk by moonlight and went to bed to the sound of the choir practicing next door.
Sunday August 2, 1998
Mostly I lay around today being sick and enduring being saluted by people I don’t understand. But there were a few bright points. I actually ate and enjoyed a quantity of food for dinner. I took photos of the choir and they were quite pleased. Three young cherubs came by and weeded the yard proving that small brown children are infinitely cute.
And then there was the drumming! Five drums, wooden blocks, a shaker gourd and a bell. Only the men play. The women and some men as well dance around in a circle around the drums and sing. Incredibly powerful. Mostly joy. I was moved to tears. If I manage to capture this on tape, it will be the most important souvenir I have to bring back. Words really fail.
Monday August 3
EFD biked off to Tinife this morning to accomplish some unknown task and has again left me to my own devices. I spent quite a while showering and shaving and am feeling much more civilized now. The rest of the morning has been spent catching up the journal, reading Newsweeks and wandering the compound. The weather is not inspiring and in fact cold. I’ve been here now one week. Hopefully another two are survivable! I’m feeling anxious to move on or at least see something here. While EFD protests that these people are marvelous and wonderful, I can’t understand them nor they me so neither of us gets much out of seeing each other. I would rather see the countryside, the worth of which I am capable of judging without translation.
I really need to get out of here. Children are screaming at each other and adults talking all around and I can’t understand a word. I’m cooped up inside a relatively boring house with increasingly little to do and there is this repetitive clapping going on.
Now that’s better. EFD and I went off to buy stuff from the monks and eggs from the nuns. Made the mistake of hiking in flip-flops which it would turn out, was my downfall. Finally got to see the countryside and the monks. They are benedictine of the Abbe de L’Assention and have a beautiful chappel built of native wood and lots of land on which they raise all kinds of crops and raise bees. We bought some nice cloth-covered cards and jam and sirup de beesap. At the convent on the other side of town, we stopped to see the weavers includeing Da Agnes and I, while stepping briskly down onto a wet surface in flip flops lost traction and fell straight down on my butt. My left hand came down right on top of the sirop bottle which shattered handily and could have easily been very very bad. Furthermore, my camera bag was in the behind position and I thought I’d landed directly on it. Fortunately, I escaped with only a tiny cut, a bruise and some very soiled pants and minus one bottle of sirop. The camera appears unharmed as well. The convent also sells crafts and eggs.
Wearing only a pagne (in the female fashion, it turns out) I washed my pants and then ate a very encouraging second go at fufu provided by Da Rosine. Da Agnes brought us a gift of bananas. These people are so generous and they get such a kick out of my feeble attempts at their language.
The evening was spent writing leters by lamplight and getting this journal up to date. I suffer from writer’s cramp and an overdeveloped sense of self-worth for my views and experiences….
Tuesday August 4, 1998
A curiously, almost maniacally full day: started with a 5km hike to Appeyeme to do various errands and meet people. Met Da Pauline the tailor and the phone guys and Madjome (first name Tchanimbe), EFD’s boss and a very interesting fellow. Mama, a large marche mama, is _the_ source of gossip and local mail delivery. Longer distance mail, like to the USA, takes 235 cfa and two weeks. Somewhere Togolese stamps went from interesting to pretty dull.
It was also a day of gifts. We were given about 5 pounds of bananas, a gargantuan pineapple, a salad for two, fufu, taro leaves, and a lot of peppers. We stayed up long into the night baking banana bread.
There was a torrential rainstorm for much of the afternoon which filled the cistern. I sat on the porch sewing the togo flag onto my pack.
When the rain let up while E had her Ewe lesson from Da Agnes (which consists of telling stories), I wandered solo down the road toward Ghana a couple of km. Very pleasant and different from the other sections of road. I now have some better idea where things are around here…
Kossi found me half way back and we chatted in what common language we have. His English is not bad. Certainly better than my French. We discussed football, the sizes of trees and worms in Togo versus America, and other pithy topics. He’s a good guy.
Oh, I also worked on identifying the gaggle of birds in the tree aways off. They’re either black-headed orioles (10″) or oriole finches (6″) and being able to tell the size would be very helpful. I tend to believe the former given the nest structure.
This region seems to be Batman-mad. Everywhere is the bat logo on taxis, hats, and storefronts. Very odd.
Wednesday August 5, 1998
With grimmest intent, we arose this morning at 5 and, despite the unappealing weather and state of sleep, headed out with adventure in mind. Our goal was Yikpa and its famous-though unnamed waterfall (more specifically Yikpa-Dafo as there are several buroughs in Greater Yikpa.)
The second leg of the taxi ride (a 2-parter with stop-over in Ndigbe) was especially notable as I was wedged across from a large man who bare an uncanny resemblance to OJ Simpson. Then it was over in the dreaded door seat wedged in practicing my climbing grips on parts of the door.
The ride took us off the plateau over some very exciting road lined by tall grass. The driver tootled furiously before every turn since the road was arguably not even wide enough for one bus.
Upon arrival in Yikpa-Dafo–a pleasant village amidst some awesomely grassy, ridgey hills–we were informed that the waterfall was in fact in Ghana. The gendarme was very pleasant and forgiving despite our lack of complete papers and we were allowed to sotire down the 1km of road to the Ghana side.
On that side, however, (where they speak English) we were informed that yes the cascade was here but no, without visas we could not enter. Hardnosed bureaucratic pigdogs! Dejected, we retreated in the company of a lad on a bike who informed us that in fact there are two cascades, one on each side of the border. So we hired a guide and his retinue and headed out.
He lead us down the road to an anonymous path to the south like any other and up we went, first through the coffee and banana fields and then up the lower ridges of the hills. Soon we began to climb in earnest gaining perhaps 1000′ of elevation in a mile or so of trail. The weather remained cool and dim and the views were increasingly good. The hills are clearly water-carved, but look to originally be part of an upthrust angled with the rough end to the SW. Periodic rock faces of brownish stone were seen promising unknown climbing bounty.
We finally topped the northern face of our ridge and started steeply down into the first honest-to-goodness jungle I have yet encountered. Vines, darkness, rot, mud, decay, insects and probably quicksand. Pure heaven. Crossed a small stream and then a larger one.
A coup-coup was procured and our guide hacked a path out of the jungle valley and onto the neighboring ridgetop savannah. Loads of waist-height grass made the path invisible. But all of a sudden, from the yawning valley to the left a roar was heard. Turning around and looking back we could hardly miss the cascade tumbling at least 500′ in about three hops to the valley far below. While in the dry season, it may be a trickle, this is the wet season and it rained all day yesterday besides. There is no shortage of water!
We soon reached the end of the ridge and began an alarmingly precipitous descent back into the jungle biome. And me in Tevas. Not that I’m sure what the appropriate footwear would have been. Our guide and his two cohorts wore flip-flops or no shoes at all.
In a short distance, we dropped into the crevice of a valley where the jungle reigned. Large trees, large spiders, lots of steep traversing and slabbing on questionable trail. Our guide was busy cutting steps into the steeper muddy parts with his coup-coup.
Finally we emerged at the base of the falls. There is a large pool 100′ across blasted with spray and whitecaps from the wind pushed by the water. A pebble beach is fighting a turf war with low ground plants growing from seed pods that look alarmingly like peirogies. Farther back the banana trees are whipped back and forth by the gale from the lake. The noise is just short of deafening. All plans for a rest and spot of lunch are postponed.
Unfortunately, the only way our guide knows of getting back to town is to backtrack. I had thought to follow the river down, but as this would lead to Wli and Ghana where I am banned, this is unacceptable. Back up we go. Strangely, the whole trip out including the muddy climb out of the valley is accomplished much more easily than the trip in and passes mostly without incident.
Fortunately taxi connections were again favorable and by 4 we were in Apeyeme chatting with Madjombe, EFD’s functionaire boss. He asked us what we wanted to drink (Coctail de Fruit, of course!) and all of a sudden we were eating dinner of rice with red oil sauce and salad. He’s a fascinating guy and very interested in getting a degree from an American college (probably by correspondence) in Comparitive Anthro or some such. Asked lots of fascinating questions. An intelligent wonderful man unfortunately trapped and held below his potential by the means and location of his life; like millions more I’m sure. How many billion people would be able to take what America/the first world has to offer and do great things? Conversely, how many people in the first world are doing great things with the means at their disposal? Sad misallocation of resources.
Walked home and caught a cab for most of the way. Shower, more dinner and then choir practice started in the church. We went over to see about recording and in the back pew ran into a yovo we’d shared a taxi with but hadn’t otherwise spoken to. She’s a German working Kpalime who was out seeing the area planning to travel back at nigh which seems like a bad idea. But it is so nice to communicate with someone on my own! I can’t get over it.
With great ceremony, the Choir Saint Benoit ran through its repertoire and I sat there in the lamplit interior in the front pew recording away. The director is very serious about the music and indeed the choir of four or five of each SATB part sounds really exceptional. The recording sounds great and everyone is really stoked. Me very much included.
Thursday, August 6, 1998.
Awoke late to the usual fascade of plateau weather, grey, light rain, no visibility. Nevertheless, after a round of saluting and a rather bloody shave, I set out for a cycling circuit of Apeyeme, Elavagnon and back, a loop of ~25 km. First I dropped some letters in Apeyeme and coming back through ran into a French woman who is here teaching French, English and physical sciences. It’s weird how yovos gravitate toward one another here. More on this later. The ride went well and I stopped several times along the route to look at views and examine ants. Saw another pair of what I think are some sort of hornbills; at least nothin else seems to fit the description.
After resting for much of the afternoon and accomplishing house tasks, I headed out again in the later afternoon and biked to the western edge of the plateau. The views out past Bogo and Sassanou to Ghana were dramatic with layers of ground cloud alternating with layers of hills.
For no good reason, I started down the winding road off the plateau and, even after it proved steep, kept going most of the way to Bogo. Very dramatic road and i got plenty of chances to admire the micro and macro landscape as I labored back up. Not a daily commute I would savor.
Just as I returned, two yovos showed up on the doorstep claiming to be Patrick and Maria PC ’91-’93. We arranged to meet for drinks after dinner. I wumped up a stirfry of freshly picked beans and peppers and pineapple which tasted _so_good_! Spent a lot of time processing the pineapple which was very juicy and slightly rotten. And very large to boot! Pineapple upside down cake was manufactured.
Patrick and Maria came by and we chatted for a few hours. The are _very_ impressed with EFD’s language skills. Tee hee!
Friday, August 7, 1998
First off, we climbed Mt. Akpaliwue, the local mount at the edge of the plateau covered mostly in sparse grass and prickly, thistel-like bushes. Possibly serpents as well. Kossi had been aching to hike with us/me all week and thus it was with great excitement that we set out munching on manioc balls. Saw a medium sized mantis (a “religious mantis”) and some colorful grasshoppers. Traipsed down paths, through fields of corn and ingames and through the dooryard of and extremely fat, casually dressed matron. With tree limb in hand, Kossi broke trail thrashing away at the bushes (presumably to drive off any serpents) and we ascended. Very steep but worthwhile views. On the east, Dzogbegan and the plateau farms are clearly visible. To the west, a similar view into Ghana but even more dramatic. All providing setting for a big, pleasently lumpy hill. We came back down, had beans with gari (dried, powdered manioc) and prepared for the evening.
Learning of my imminent departure from his village, the Chef decided to throw a fete in my honor at 4 pm. By about 5:30, the area under the meeting tree had been swept and the chorus was out performing some of their greatest hits. Drums showed up by a little after six and for about an hour or so there was drumming, singing and dancing under a rising full moon. Very cool. I did my best to join in with the dancing (shuffle shuffle wiggle wiggle) much to the delight of Da Rosine but no one could claim me as competent. Suddenly the drumming stopped and a speech was made by the secretary of the DFC. E translated and he said all of what I expected him to say–she is part of the village and I need to make sure the people of America know that. Yadda yadda yadda. Then I was presented with another five pounds of bananas…
After all the festivites had died down, it was over to Da Rosines for a nice moon and limplit dinner of ingame slices with leaf sauce. We sat and ate and just basically hung out. A nice ending to a nice week on the plateau. But I am ready to move on.
Saturday August 8, 1998
A largely annoying travel day. Lots of bad taxis and bad connections culminating in two hours of hell from Atakpame to Blitta. Things this frustrating and unpleasent don’t really bear putting down for posterity.
The one enlightening and interesting event of the day was when a gentleman in Adeta (an otherwise evil town) leaned his head in the window or our Lexus (really!) and started talking to me.
“Do you have paper and pen?”
“Good, write this…” and he proceeded to teach me some basic Housa. Not the kind of interaction I am used to from strange men at taxi stands.
- Zo = Come
- Taffi = Go
- Na sunka = I like you
- Kohila = Good Morning
- Sandazua = Welcome
- Ashi a kati = What comes around, goes around
- Za ka _____ ne = I am going to ______
- Sanda ko karne = thank you
Finally arrived at the Kara Maison at about 9:30pm. The place is full of stagiers and most of them are women. Having a real (if cold) shower is nice even if in the process I got electric shocks. To bed by the shocking hour of midnight and slept soundly.
Sunday, August 9, 1998
Because of one small miscalculation it was a much longer day than necessary. Still, a good interesting time was had. In the morning, after avoiding the Peace Corps authorities, we caught a taxi out to Codhani, a collective in Niamtougou of disabled artisans which produces beautiful batiks and other products of high price and quality. We bought several tourist items and then were lucky enough to catch a taxi back. The ride out and back was interesting for the beautiful weather and remarkably different nature of the landscape. Low rolling hills with occasional rocky mountains. The fields are of lower quality and filled with flat stones. People seem to raise largely the same crops, with the addition of millet and cotton and the subtraction of much of the fruit crops. Corn seems to be a universal. Thanks be to New World crops.
After returning from Codhani, we set out for Kouka. But, since it was Marche day there, all the taxis had been in the morning. We finally set out for Kabou and thence to Kouka over a major dirt road.
The people in the north here are quite different as well. Generally much darker skinned and often taller. Also poorer and thinner and more scantily clad. Some of these may be related. The Komkomba, Margaret’s people, have an interesting tradition of marriage. If you marry a Komkomba woman, you give your younger sister to the bride’s father to act as replacement help. This, apparently has caused significant strife in the past and a good deal of extra-tribal marriage.
The houses on this end of the country tend toward rough mud walls defining round rooms with conical grass roofs. Each layer of grass (pie) is held down by the layer upslope much like shingles. The top point is held down by a ring of metal such as a rusted out pot or bucket, a tire or other heavy cap.
There are cows (and hence Fulani) up here as well. They are somehow more bovine than American cows, looking less bony and sleeker. Some have humps and most have graceful horns. They come in all colors.
We arrived in Guerrin-Kouka at about 3:30 and encountered a huge marche going on. Also very hot. It’s Africa, man! Made our way to Chez Zack where we encountered Pierre, Margaret, and the two bikes she’s procured for us. Excellent!
After various logistics, we biked north out of town with the departing marche denizens. Beautiful blue sky, green fields, red dirt and black people. An easy 18 km of biking brought us to Nampoch where we showered and rested after 2 days of travel. Margaret prepared an excellant stir fry of adama, fish, and veggies. E and M sat around much of the night bitching about work and I retreated to watch the stars, such as there were. The bats here are ths size of small hawks and there are some (by the sound of it) really whopping frogs in the woods behind the house. Something is living in the ceiling of the house and scurries back and forth with glee.
Nampoch. Komkomba country. Hot sun amongst the midnight-dark fetishist warrior people. After a leisurely morning, just at the start of the heat of the day, Margaret returned and we headed out to promenade au village. Nampoche has about 500 people in 3 cartiers, but it is much more spread out than the villages to the south. Large trees and fields of weeds between houses. Also flatter terrain and poorer soil.
There isn’t a whole lot to see. One random family invited us in and fed us gallettes–patties of bean meal and salt and potassium sliced up and dipped in oil, onions and piment. The house is a series of round and square rooms connected by a 3′ wall of mud smeared with cow manure. The courtyard, sometimes accessed by a gatehouse, is rock hard and apparently made of compressed cow manure pounded by wooden blocks. Various things dried in careful circles on the pavement. We sat in the thin shadow of the house and ate our very tasty food.
We went to visit Margaret’s family as well which involves three wives and 17 children. Her Papa is the cartier’s shaman/fetishist. He took us in to see his workshop; a dimly lit room with various bloody fetishes hanging about. The deal is that a fetish is approached with a question and querried as to what kind of sacrifice it wants. The sacrifice is then procured–usually a dog or sheep, occasionally a chicken–and specially slain. Blood is poured on the fetish and then cowery shells are consulted as to the answer to the question. All of this is taken very seriously and about 95% of the village follows this. There are about 10 christians and one lone moslem.
We continued on after meeting “Pumpy”, an ugly girl-child who is terrified of white people, especially in groups.
The sacred forest is the fetish spot of a different cartier. This serves the same function as the workshop but is a forest instead. For the heat of the day we retreated inside and took shelter.
Tuesday, August 11, 1998
Around three, some food was delivered; the same bean cakes we had before but fried in small pieces and looking disturbingly like dog doo. Tasty though, especially with dipped in dried piment/salt. Some time later we again ventured out to search for crocodiles at the barrage. None were seen, but we did get to see a peaceful lake with birds and bugs. The photos from the same spot before show that the water level has risen a great deal. On the way back we took photos at the Grand Boabab and had tchockpa (the non-fermented variety) with the people who fed us lunch. Very dew.
In the cool and dim evening, we went to saluer the Grande Famie. It’s one cartier of the village which is one big house. Children got married and added on and it has just grown out and out. We got a guide to take us through. It would be quite a mapping project!
Tuesday, August 11, 1998
Another charming transit day. Before breakfast we were up and biking to Guerin-Kouka. Then into a crammed taxi and back to Kara by way of Kaboo again because a bridge is out. Stopped by the Maison to drop a bike and then the usual long wait before leaving for Dapaong.
Actually, the taxi ride was relatively harmless. We encountered a huge thunderstorm while crossing the Monts de Defale. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of the greve (strike) except for a larger than usual number of gendarmes around. Then again, this is Stevie country…
In a steady rain we proceeded north in a packed taxi. Good roads made for quick travel. The countryside north of the dramatic mountains is flat with lots of open grassland. Population density drops off in the Karan Fauna Park but other than that and a few signs, it’s indistinguishable from the rest. Crossing the Koumongo and Oti rivers is interesting as they are large and potentially hippo-infested. But the only fauna seen were two birds I’m almost sure wereHammerkops; large, brown with funny shaped heads.
Around Tandjouare the mountains again became interesting; I’m looking forward to cycling through on Friday. Very lovely mesas with steep, inverted cliffs and flat everywhere else. Despite the name, no Lions or crevices were seen in Foret de la Fosse aux Lions.
Dapaong is a nice place and we quickly found the Maison, had beans and rice and coctail and read for a while before bed.
Wednesday, August 12, 1998
Market trucks leave early so we were up at 5:30. Packed, left and got our bikes tied onto a big blue truck with a strong resemblance to a dump truck. Then spent a while wandering around the Zongo Quarter (Moslem quarter) eating breakfast and people watching. Dapaong really is a very low-key, pleasent town. Almost no yovo screaming kids and little bandit activity. Finally we were loaded onto the truck perched upon and between large unidentified bales and small children. There were probably 50 people crammed in there. Several apprentice/handlers scrambled all over the outside of the truck while it was in motion and narrowly avoided being clotheslined by low trees.
After quite a number of stops and mysterious bustle during which time my sitting arrangements went from comfy to actively painful, we arrived in Yembour and met up with Ilana, a striking woman and very close friend of E’s. She lives in a large compound with several families. Never-the-less it is a cozy house full of freshly baked food and surrounding bustle.
Unfortunately Yembour is a pretty dull place despite the cool name. There are markets twice a week when the place is just hopping. Otherwise, it’s a farm town with somewhat less to do than you might imagine.
Ilana lives in a compound with two other families and some military guys who run the border post which is also part of the house. The usual arrangement of courtyard and walls except there are less walls and more rectangular buildings.
We sat around and watched the stars come out. All the usual constellations, but not in the usual places. Very odd. Eventually served tasty pate with gumbo sauce. Then a deep, deep sleep.
Thursday August 13, 1998
Lay about in my exceedingly comfy bed until being roused to eat pudding cake. This would be a theme for much of the day. As the weather was moderately promissing and no plans were forthcoming from the womenfolk, I set off on a bike for Bunkporgu and points west in Ghana. The actual border is located at the top of a rocky ridge a couple km from Yembour and the customs guy took my excuse of looking for a broom in Bunkporgu seriously. I was let pass without papers or money changing hands.
I see what Amanda means about Togolese roads being superior, at least the dirt track leading through corn and cow fields was by far the most cratered of anything I’ve yet seen. Despite some aggressive riding, I was forced to walk on several parts.
But there are no brooms in Bunkporgu. Nor much of anything else except a larger than normal number of children and adults yelling “Batuday” or “Mr. White” or any number of other racial indignities. Not a pleasent place. I biked on to the west a kilometer or two and saw nothing particularly unique in the farmland revealed. The trip back was much like the trip out except for a faster passage through the small town.
As soon as I returned, the rain started. Real, quality, hard-core rain. A gulleywasher. This continued all day into the afternoon and we took up domestic persuits. While the women baked all manner of food (and refused all offers of help), I got to work on “Escape from Katmandu”, the third novel of the trip involving scaling Mt. Everest. And by far the funniest.
This place gives me strange vibes all ’round. There is chaos and stable animosity in the yard outside. I feel very much like I’m waiting for something.
Friday, August 14, 1998
Well, the rainy season seems fully entrenched over most of Togo and today is no exception. We hopped on our 2 wheeled beasts, fully laden and partially water-resistant and pedaled off. A fairly pleasant trip over dirt/mud for the first half and pavement for the second half of 45 km. Interesting scenery and a small pond full of small yellow frogs which, by sound you’d guess were about the size of Volkswagons. Good cliffs and a stunning little dampening at the Fosse aux Lions. No lions, though.
Rolled into Dapaong in the mid-afternoon to a full house of PC people. The rain started up in earnest (for the nth time) and we settled in. EFD ran work-related errands while I played Scrabble. Then out for dinner, beer and ice-cream (!) with the gang.
Saturday, August 15, 1998
Up at 5 and out looking for taxis south shortly thereafter. Things worked out strangely with a number of bandit taxis half-full speeding south with a purpose. Didn’t see much along the way except for the mountains south of Dara which are pretty cool. Nearly got decapitated trying to photograph the Faille D’aledjo. On the muddy hell-road between Blitta and Anie we got repeatedly soaked by rain from above and road goo from the sides courtesy of a less than maximum number of windows in our vehicle. By rides-end in Atakpeme at about 5pm I was tired, hungry, tired, filthy, sore, and tired. We limped to the maison and collapsed in various stupors. Then out for dinner shopping–more rice and spaghetti with red oil sauce. I’m definitely about ready to go home. It’s not that it hasn’t been really fun, but three plus weeks of being on the road is a lot. The food in Togo is usually pretty good, but limitted in scope. Lots of things look really good but I can’t have them. Pizza is sounding really tasty about now.
Anyway, returned home and was kept awake for a long time by the late 80’s soft-rock hits emanating from the bar down the hill. Finished “Hayduke Lives” at the ripe hour of 1:30 am.
Sunday, August 16, 1998
Well now that’s unanticipated. Got a nice leisurely start to the day, showered, packed, read books, hung out and generally relaxed under the oppressiveness of Bette Midler and such torture from next door. About 11 a phone call came down at the cabine from Dudley. Apparently there is machine gun and mortar fire in Lome and we are forbidden from traveling there. Huh! I sat down and said “huh” for a while.
Reconsidering our options, we called home. Mom and Dad took the news pretty calmly and in fact have had their shots [to visit themselves in a few months time].
Everything is on hold. E did some of my laundry and I constructed some clothes lines. We sat and read and at about 3 went out to shop and eat. Failed to find pagnes until, after consulting the ingame ladies, we were taken to a house and shown a number of models. I got a really ugly but surpassingly cool lizard one for myself and a psychedelic pattern for Robin. A nice long real meal at the Solidarite of chicken sandwiches and fries (real fries, sort of). Back to home base to read, watch the bats and chat with Janine who is on her way to Ghana. Unless the border is closed.
Monday, August 17, 1998
Well, I did it. “There and Back Again” or at least “There and On the Way Back Again”. The word came down this morning that there had been no further sign of violence and nobody really knew what was going on. Theories abounded. One had a bunch of military types just getting back from Congo and discovering they hadn’t been paid. Another said it was Ghanains (aka, supporters of someone other than Stevie) getting uppity. Whatever. Things are quiet today.
So we packed up and left. Sunny weather and hot temperatures marked our ride which was fortunate as our otherwise stellar tixi had no windows. Or rather no glass in the windos.
We arrived in Lome with some fanfare at around 1pm. Taxis took us to the bureau and we relaxed.
Lunch (expensive) was had at the Hamburger House–actual approximations to real hamburgers. My treat. Then we wandered the Marche in search of the flying-bird and sheaves-of-wheat pagnes. I remember now why I hate this city; all of the bad parts of Togolese society with few of the redeeming parts.
We met up with [a PCV] and her brother Randall (who apparently I’ve emailed) and it turns out he’s flying out today as well. Great, a comrade in arms!
Rushed around, packed, unpacked, packed again and finally
[here the journal ends abruptly as I was struck on the plane by extreme stomach problems which persisted all the way back to the US.]
Well, it’s been over a year since I returned from Togo. I did make the flight and bid a fond farewell to Emily and Africa in general. Shortly after takeoff from Abidjan, the one stop on the way to Amsterdam and thence home to the USA, I became violently ill in the worst possible way. Bless the Dutch! Lots of blonde, friendly KLM stewardesses consoled me and let me basically inhabit one of the lavatories. Upon arrival in Schipol, after a rather sleepless night, Randy and I found our way to the KLM traveller’s clinic where we parted company and I was, free of charge, given medicines and put to bed for a blissful few hours.
Flying Northwestern back to Dulles was accomplished without too much incident though I can scarcely say I was feeling at my peak. I didn’t put up a fight when the US Customs people confiscated my ingame and asked pointed questions about my other produce. 26 hours after leaving Lome, I staggered from plane to bus to train to train to taxi. By the time I staggered in the front door of Juniper Road and collapsed on the couch I was definitely feeling marginally alive and ready to sleep for about a week.
The scales said I had dropped 20 pounds over the trip (which is almost unheard of for me) and everyone commented on my rather gaunt appearance. A week was spent in NH under the loving care of my parents as I regained strength, recounted experiences, and waited for my photos to be processed.
Here it is a year later and much has happened. I have regained the lost weight and recovered fully. The final diagnosis was another bout of food poisoning (probably from poorly-kept mayonaise) compounded with a rather righteous case of giardia. Emily is still in Africa and working on wrapping up her various projects there. She’s building a school, working with a tailor’s collective and empowering native girls. She comes home in January. Our parents, journeyed to Lome in November and spent two weeks living in Dzogbegan. They didn’t do quite as much traveling in country, but developed stronger relationships with the people of Danyi. Furthermore, they were there during the hot season and thus we had rather different experiences. I am glad to be back in America and see more clearly now the strengths and weaknesses of the society we live in.
- adama – amaranth-like plant, leaves are savory
- agouti – bushrat, apparently they’re edible. Not native, originally from S. America.
- COS – Close of Service (going home after completing your time), a verb
- coup-coup – machete, used for practically everything
- dew – sweet, synonymous with tasty and good. A culinary compliment.
- ET – Early Terminate (when PCV’s can’t hack it and go home), used as a verb
- Ewe – (pronounced ‘e-vay’) language in the plateau region and Dzogbegan
- fufu – boiled pounded ingame or manioc in a thick gelatinous mass served with various sauces. Takes some getting used to.
- functionaire – beaurocrat, administrator
- gendarme – soldier, often present at the side of the road extracting bribes from passers by.
- ingame – (pronounced ‘IN-yam’) large root crop that looks a lot like a log of firewood and tastes like a potato.
- manioc – smaller tuber
- marche – market, the interesting part of town often happens once or twice a week
- pagne – (pronounced ‘PAAN-ya’) all-purpose cloth the size of a small bed sheet, used as clothing and other things. The basic unit of cloth. A woman’s outfit is three pagnes end to end wrapped in a deeply mysterious fashion.
- pas de qua – colloquialism for “no problem”
- PC – Peace Corps
- PCV – Peace Corps Volunteer
- piment – dried, ground hot peppers and salt mixture. savory!
- pate – (pronounced ‘pot’), steamed cornmeal mush served in a mound with sauce poured on top
- stagier – PCV trainee
- taro – another tuber, leaves are also tasty
- taxi – pretty much any vehicle. short distance are small cars (8 people in a subcompact), long distance are distinctive Toyota minibusses (20 people).
- Yo – all-purpose Ewe greeting
- yovo – white person, also ‘batuday’, ‘anasar’ and other names depending on region.