Karl’s Chronicles. Article 14 Togo: Between History & High Water.
Romantic poetry that had painted a slow boat to China had decompressed into a slow-boat to Togoville. A pirogue (a traditional fishing boat) was punted along the lethargic kidney-bean brown of Lake Togo, caught between an Italian Gondola, the straw-hatted students of Oxford, sliding along the Cherwell, and a canoe. Blown by the casual dismissal of the coastal winds, so casual that the captain had to hoist up a sail recruited from a redundant windsurf. Whose garish pink and yellow plastic held more to Toy Story than to Togo. The sky, so typical of Africa, conveyed far and wide in Lapiz-blue, domed and beautiful like the roof of a Persian mosque. Fishing traps, resembling windsocks stood partially submerged in regimental formations. Another boat, distant and dark against the green shoreline came with three fishermen who soon jumped overboard to reposition their nets. Eventually, we drifted towards the crumbling and sinking concrete jetty of Togoville, eyed surreptitiously by the anaemic yellow of the Catholic bell tower above. For this small village barely hints at its historical past, almost hypnotised into a sanguine lethargy reminiscent of a mild narcotic. A holy excipient was weaving together animism and the mainstream. With the colonials came promises, honest on one side and deceitful on the other, inadvertently changing the course and shape of Togo. Losing her independence and re-mapping her domains.
Returning to the cool blue of the Atlantic after several weeks exploring the interior and the hot, humid north was a breath of fresh air. The Tamberma Country, whose Batammariba people lived in their mud and clay fortresses juxtaposed heavily with the modern frenzy of the capital Lomé. Every country suffers from a north-south divide and Togo was no different. The long-reigning president, Eyadema Gsanningbe (1967-2005) whose Kabye village of Pya lay 20km north had channelled substantial investment into nearby Kara, rapidly becoming the new administrative capital despite the illogical distance from Lomé. The colossal Palais de Congres, grander than most countries national parliaments looms proud but hollow on the towns northern edge.
The empty landscape, predominantly flat had now been exchanged for a fringe of palms facing off against the pounding surf. Togo’s coastline, (hardly exceeding fifty kilometres) bookended by the heavy volumes of Ghana and Benin made her feel like a pamphlet. The few drawcards along the way, namely Lake Togo, the Voodoo culture of Togoville, and Aneho the former German capital would conspire to create a genial farewell to Togo before continuing to Benin.
Dr Nachtigal had introduced a new chapter in 1884, by drafting a treaty that was unwittingly signed by Mlapa III in Togoville — pulling the wandering animal of Togo into the tight cage of a German Protectorate. Protruding like a rocket above the green-belt, the steeple and the adjacent Catholic church stand as the last vital reminder of the German occupation. Built-in 1910, only four years before capitulation in Kamina during WWI. Instead of stained glass, the windows reflect biblical scenes and portraits of Pope Jean-Paul II who visited Togoville in 1985 — influenced by alleged sightings of the Virgin Mary who walked across Lake Togo in the 1970s. Every November 7th there is an annual celebration marking the event. A small sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary lays at the rear of the cathedral. Just beyond the main doors stands a stone plinth requesting visitors to donate. The donator is rewarded with a kindly composed response of assurance that – ‘the Virgin Mary will give it back to you, by being with you, your family, your activities, your plans’. Inside the main hall are painted images representing Christ and his crucifixion but also African Saints such as St, Mawagali (a potter) and St. Bazze Kuketta (a guard of the Kings Ivory). The Virgin Mary, shrouded in a blue robe appears central with disciples either-side. Just as interesting are the Voodoo fetishes that dot the crumbling alleyways and backyards. Some are housed in little gazebos, staring out through a rusty gate. Mama Fiokpo, a sizeable female fetish with yellow eyes, black hair and spikes protruding from her body, represents fertility to women. Close by, in an open plot between two houses is the male equivalent. A squat stone figure draped in a black cloak and a grubby white scarf. Offerings of food lay in a calabash below with empty liquor bottles and lose feathers from a sacrificial chicken nearby. A couple of alleyways beyond and the path opened out into a recess dominated by two sacred trees – symbolic to conceiving twins. Their exposed roots, long and coiling like possessed serpents.
Before the beginning of the 21st century, a visit to Togoville required homage to the chief. Who was considered to be directly related to Mlapa, the first chief. In 2001 a political disagreement between Mlapa V and the government (Eyadema Gnassingbe was still president until a heart-attack finished his 38-year reign in 2005) had the Togoville chief de-stooled and cast into exile.
The further along the coastal road you go, the deeper Togo’s history becomes. The colonial presence is aptly observed in the quiet domain of Aneho. Before the Germans and the French, the Portuguese had already marked out Aneho, impressed by the exit of the lagoon into the sea. The slave trade followed with ships making the long middle voyage across the Atlantic to the Brazilian plantations. A small fort once held the captured in their gruelling wait for the ship’s arrival. But it is the German era that exudes the most notable evidence: the brown and white Peter & Paul Church, founded in 1895 that looks across the original dirt road to the sea beyond. On the road bound for Benin is the vibrant, well preserved Protestant church built in the same year as Peter & Paul and faring a lot better. The long finger sandwiched between the ocean and lagoon contains the prefecture and the French Hotel de Ville. Today, the town feels forgotten, traffic speeds past for Lomé or Cotonou, hurtling across the bridge that staples the two fractions together.
Aneho had been a thorn to the governments rose during the years of Eyadema. A platform for the opposition who dared to criticize the authoritarian grip that strangled the freedom of many Togolese. After Eyademas passing in 2005, reprisals took a narcissistic turn when many opponents in Aneho disappeared. Eventually brought ashore by the silent knowledge of the cold Atlantic. The rapid movement of the military to install Eyadema’s son, Faure Gnassingbe, only aggravated further dissent. Though Faure took a questionable 60% majority in elections that soon followed, the opposition refused to recognize defeat- violence soon surfaced. Fourteen years on and Faure retains his official position, but it’s shrouded by a black cloud of abuse, perpetrated by the long Gnassingbe dynasty. One could say that this former quiet capital on Aneho has been eroded on all sides. By politics, time and the southern elements.
The entire coastline is no more than 52km, making her thinner than The Gambia. Taxi collectives (shared – 6 passengers and a driver) ply the coastal road between Lomé and Aneho. There is a small station known as the Gare de Cotonou (aptly defined as a collection of cars under palm trees on Blvd de Mono), from where you can find transport. Lomé – Agbodrafo (30km) costs 700cfa. Lomé – Aneho (50km) costs about 1300cfa. A private charter can be as low as 8000cfa, but it’s essential to negotiate.
Note: There are no banks in any of these towns, Stock up on CFA in Lomé. There are a few small convenience stores but certainly nothing comparable to a supermarket. If you have euros or dollars and don’t relish the journey back to Lomé, then head to the frontier and change there. The exchange rate will rarely be favourable.
For excursions across Lake Togo to Togoville, the village of Agbodrafo stretched along the shoreline offers variable accommodation. Note that Togoville can easily be done as a day trip from Lomé or Aneho if you prefer to lodge elsewhere. The Lake is both crocodile and bilharzia free and safe for swimming.
Auberge de Lac – mob: +228 92 64 39 48 / 92 50 67 48. Promenade sur le Lac.
12,000cfa for a hut. 3000cfa camping.
There are nine circular concrete huts with thatched roofs which look across a sandy garden down to the lake. The Auberge has a decently stocked bar with outdoor seating and three gazeboes. The restaurant offers fish dishes, pizzas, pasta and African cuisine.
Located 400m down a sandy road from the main coastal highway which is well signed by a large blue placard.
A pirogue can be organized for 5000cfa return, including an hour waiting time at Togoville. Jet-skis are also for hire. NB- Take Mosquito repellent!
Hotel le Lac – mob: +228 90 36 28 58. www.hotellelactogo.com
Rooms from 45,000 – 48,000cfa, bungalows from 68,000cfa.
A high-end hotel within beautiful grounds near the shores of the lake. With broad lawns and manicured gardens. There is a large pool (open to non-res. for a fee): pedalos and jet-skis for hire, a private beach and an excellent restaurant with dishes starting at 3000cfa.
The hotel can also organize a pirogue starting at 3500cfa. The distance is a lot closer to Togoville than the Auberge de Lac, but even from there, it’s about 40 minutes one way.
A guided tour around Togoville exploring the Catholic cathedral, the Maison Royal, market and some of the fetish shrines can be done comfortably within an hour. A guide isn’t mandatory but will enlighten some of the backgrounds concerning the shrines. Guides will approach you when disembarking at the jetty. They are negotiable, and I paid 4,000cfa. All converse in French but there is one guide who has a good command of English. The Association d’Guides operates from a compound close to the jetty. Also hosting an Art et D’Artisanat Centre. All of which is being modernised.
Hotel Nachitigal – Near the market and a couple of minutes from the cathedral -has a pool, tennis court and bar. Clean rooms with either fan or a/c.
Every Friday in Vogan, a couple of kilometres northeast of Togoville is a large, lively market with a fetish section. Less touristy than the Marche des Feticheurs in Lomé. Collective taxis run from both the capital and Aneho, while a charter will cost roughly 4000cfa one way. It is also possible to visit Togoville first by pirogue then continue by zemidjan (motorbike) to Vogan. Though liaise with your captain about waiting times or whether you will return by road instead.
Hotel Oasis – mob: +228 23 30 11 25 / 90 17 17 01. Route de Lomé/Cotonou.
Fan rooms 10,000cfa – a/c 17,000cfa. Small but adequate with attached cold water showers. Quiet and comfortable. Simple b/fast 2000cfa.
Enjoys one of the best locations in Aneho where the lake exits into the ocean. Great terrace ideal for a sunset drink and where one can watch the boat builders just to the east. Nice breezy restaurant and bar with some tables on the sandbank below.
La Becca – +228 90 06 72 60/ 90 22 92 25. Route de Lomé/Cotonou
Fan rooms 11,000cfa – a/c 16,000 – 21,000cfa. Has a bar and a restaurant.
West of the market on the main Lomé – Cotonou road. A large building with synthetic stone pattern and blue shutters.
La Cote du Soleil – +228 70 32 88 16 / 79 73 68 68. www.lacotedusoleil.com
About 100m from the old Peter & Paul church. Off-road parking available.
Eight bungalows with fan and self-contained cold water shower – 15,000cfa. Inc. a light b/fast. Right on the palm-lined beach and the calming blue of the Atlantic Ocean. The place has hammocks and sun loungers and an open-sided restaurant. Dishes include pate, veal meatballs, curries, pineapple crumble with vanilla ice cream. Swimming is safer here than anywhere along the capitals coastline, but caution is required as the currents can be strong.
Along the dirt road that parallels the beach, you’ll find several local bars. Some clustered close to the Hotel de Ville near the bridge – Moin Cher serves simple Togolese food and cold beer. Sopranos is a pavement bar opposite the market. Just down from Sopranos is the Bar & Restaurant Le Bon Berger in a large pink and white building. Just next door, and wedged up against the crumbling Sassi Minojan Villa of 1928 is the Cafeteria Don de Dieu, a blue kiosk with counter-side stools, serving up omelettes and coffee.