West Africa: Ghana, Togo, Benin
Brooke and I spent our December holiday in West Africa, and since our return many people have expressed that they are seeing increased interest in the region from their clients as well, especially for heritage travel and various cultural festivals. With that, we wanted to share some of our findings with you. Our trip was facilitated by Trans Africa - West Africa, a DMC based in Lomé, Togo, which operates in seven countries in the area, with excellent guiding, and a strong understanding of the North American market. We highly recommend them.
French is the word on the street in Benin and Togo, and Brooke understands it and can speak enough to get through basic interactions. English is not widely spoken or understood in the rural north, however hospitality is as strong as ever. Everyplace we go we say the same thing: the people are warm and welcoming, friendly and happy. We feel safe. We feel overwhelmed at times. And, we’re thankful for this Italian-owned Francophile-based company as Noah, our guide, and Kofi, our driver, are fluent in French, all local languages, and as for Noah, English as well.
December is hot, dry, and hazy from the Harmattan, the dusty winds from the Sahara that blur the West African sky as they blow their way to the Gulf of Guinea between the end of November and the middle of March. The best time to travel through West Africa really depends on which feast or festival you want to see as there are specific times for each in different countries. In general, the rains appear May through August, harvest season is August and September, and peak travel is between September and May, with January and February the best months overall.
We hope you enjoy Brooke's in-depth trip report from our time there.
All the best and please feel free to let us know if you would like more information.
Johann & Brooke
Voodoo, Drumming, and Death
We start slowly in Lomé with a visit to the Fetish Market, to learn about the assorted ingredients necessary for potions, concoctions, amulets, and offerings. Going into it we thought it would be a kitschy tourist attraction, with an attitude of “if you’ve seen dusty skulls and skins you’ve seen a fetish market” but we were wrong. In the middle of the merchants was a shrine that had recently been used for a festival offering and we could still make out the seared feathers and thick blood. Voodoo in West Africa encompass a much wider healing and spiritual practice than the stereotypes (like needles in a doll to hurt your enemies) we've been exposed to in film and TV. While we were walking around a local man arrived on his moto to buy a bagful of items (people who proudly practice voodoo will come during the day; government, church, and society members prefer private nighttime shopping when spying eyes can’t see them). Sadly, we saw the reality of the poaching we work to prevent in other parts of Africa, with at least five fully-grown pangolins available for purchase alongside other animals, which broke my heart. This is the reality of visiting voodoo communities and some people may have a hard time with it. We met with a medicine man who blessed an amulet for safe passage so that our travels would be protected and positive.
During the drives, we see various shrines next to trees, in front of homes, at cross-roads in the center of towns. We learn about the reoccurring significance of palm oil, water, fire, and alcohol in ceremonies and the divinities who manifest for each: Sakpata (god/dess of earth), Mami Water (god/dess of the sea), Heviesso (god/dess of fire), etc. Each of the various tribes does their traditional ceremony on a different day or at a different time of year; nothing is a guarantee. During our December visit, we feel that Benin is the bee’s knees of voodoo, but at another time of year Togo could be just as transcendental.
En route from Lomé to Grand Popo we turn off the main Trans-African Highway, a paved two-lane highway from Dakar to Lagos, to participate in our first of many ceremonies. There is no way we would have found, or ventured into this, alone. Noah knows where to direct us, makes instant friends with the children who come to greet us, and ensures we are familiar with formalities, like greeting and thanking all of the elders in a specific order, sitting where we’re supposed to, participating when appropriate (as he does with every ceremony we attend). The frenetic rhythm of the drums and the chilling chants of the initiated call the spirits who then possess the dancers who fall into trance: eyes rolling back, grimaces, convulsions, insensitivity to fire. Though very real and authentic, we never felt afraid or uncomfortable.
There are countless unique and meaningful masks in West Africa and we attend various ceremonies that honor different ones. A boatride up the Mono River, which creates the border between Togo and Benin, brings us to a village where the Peda tribe is getting ready for their Zangbeto Mask Ceremony. The Zangbeto, which Johann henceforth refers to as a “roomba”, is a tall, cylindrical, straw-covered creation that represents a spiritual police force. It comes out from the temple and spins, spins, spins … a spiritual cleaning of the village as it protects against bad spirits and malicious people. The Zangbeto performs “miracles” to prove its powers, and the one that made me a believer was when it “levitated” and a small, live crocodile ran out from under it and right toward me. A townsman caught it and brought it over so we could touch it, which I declined to do at the same moment as it started to pee on me; this is definitely a different sort of cleansing than I’m used to at home in Boulder, Colorado!
In Ketou we attend a Gelede Mask Ceremony. This is a traditional ceremony of the Yoruba ethnic group. Dedicated to Mother Earth, the head priestess of Gelede is a woman, however only men wear the masks and perform the dance. They are commemorating when they were accepted back into the community after mistreating the women and being forced out, and use the masks to educate the population about positive actions: from the traditional theme of honoring women to modern themes of sleeping under mosquito nets to avoid malaria, using condoms for safe sex, going to school for education, using an ATM to save money, etc. It is a fascinating mix of street performance and magical theater. UNESCO listed Gelede as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. I find it ironic that the one performance based in honoring and respecting women is the one where a live iguana is tossed in my direction as part of a practical joke, making for one of the more heart-stopping moments of the trip.
Another Yoruba ceremony is that of the Egungun Masks, which represent the spirits of the deceased. We attend this dance in Dassa, and are enthralled with the performance. The costumes are of heavy, multi-layered, multi-colored cotton that move effortlessly as they move around the village square chasing spectators. Each Egun has a handler who helps to keep the Egun from touching anyone because the belief is that someone touched by the Egun could “die” temporarily, and we do see one man fall stiff as a board to the ground and then be carried off to a nearby temple to be revived after exactly that happens. See Video below (especially from around 1:30 into it).
Between the heat, a possible intake of gluten, and a bit of “what’s-the-next-animal” anxiety, I’m not feeling well, and when I lose my lunch in the middle of the festival, the village participants think I’ve also been touched by an Egun and am going through a rebirth of my own.