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.
One of the most real and raw moments was when we visited the Dankoli Fetish, a shrine used by ancient animistic cults. This one is located on the roadside, and we get out of the car to approach the shine and learn about the process: hammer a wooden peg into the ground surrounding the fetish, pour palm oil and spray palm alcohol onto the area, repeat your wish, which can be anything from a happy marriage and an easy pregnancy to professional success and abundant harvests, and finally stating what your sacrifice will be dependent on the magnitude of your request. While Noah is telling us this, a man appears on a motorbike with a goat tied up. “We are lucky”, Noah tells us, “this man has brought a goat he promised to the fetish, as his wish came true, and now they will sacrifice the goat.” Which they did, as swiftly as ever! A knife was sharpened, the neck cut, blood dripped all over the shrine, and all the while a fire was started to cook the meat, which takes place as Johann and I are instructed to pound our own wooden steak into the shrine. After only a few weeks at home and the beginning of 2019, it seems this fetish works and I now have to send my own promised offering.
In Togo we visit the Bassar tribe to see the Fire Dance. The Bassar are also well-known for their primitive iron making and for their Harvest Festival in September as they are considered to grow the best yams in all of Togo and Benin. I like this village very much as it is the first we come across where people can speak English, and I spend time talking with two sisters and their brother who are all in school, and while it is about an hour away, they will be starting secondary school soon. I find out that the king of this village is well educated and supports the education of the people of his village, which includes these young women. As the Fire Dance is taking place – with men dressed in their dance party skins and elaborate iron leg wraps that highlight the rhythms of the drums as they get down to the music and get on top of a pile of hot coals – I sit with the king and talk about mutual interests, such as beaded African necklaces.
Kumasi is the historical and spiritual capital of the Ashanti Kingdom. The Ashanti were one of the most powerful Kingdoms in Africa until the end of the nineteenth century, when the British subsumed Ashanti Country into their Gold Coast Colony. Today, Kumasi, with a population of nearly one million, is home to one of the largest markets in Africa and still a central trading center. We visit the Ashanti Cultural Centre to learn about the rich history of the Asantehenes (Kings); are able to join in a traditional Ashanti funeral, which is really a joyous celebration of the person’s life; and tour the impressive Royal Palace Museum. The pièce de résistance of our cultural ceremonies however, was being in Kumasi for the Akwasidae Festival. This pageantry of riches is a very special celebration for the Ashanti and takes place every 42 days. Taking place at the Royal Palace, there is a procession of all the royals and officials of the Ashanti kingdom, leading up to the King himself.
The King is carried out in a palanquin, adorned in vivid Kente designed and produced for him for each separate occasion along with massive amounts of centuries old gold jewelry, and is positioned under a spectacularly elaborate umbrella, surrounded by Ashanti elders and advisors, with a narrow but dense passage of dignitaries in front of him. One by one, each individual royal court of the kingdom approaches the King, bringing gifts, reciting stories of the Ashanti history, performing drumming and dance, shooting guns into the air, and more. We were welcome to walk around and enjoy the festivities, which went on for about five hours.
UNESCO and The Story of the Slave Trade:
We spend a morning on Lake Nokwe, Benin, admiring the bustle of a fishing-centric lifestyle and boating out to Ganvié (a UNESCO World Heritage site). Ganvié, meaning “place where people found peace” is the largest and most beautiful African village on stilts. The 25,000 inhabitants of the Tofinou ethnic group, meaning “the people who love water”, escaped capture into the slave trade by moving onto the water and building wooden homes on teak stilts. Dugout canoes bring children to school, women to market, and men to fish. We stop at a popular hotel/market, run by a Marina, a sharp business woman who owns the hotel, which she inherited from her mother. We admire each other’s fashion and eventually negotiate a fair price for a dusty Yoruba beaded headdress found in a far back corner of her shop. It's now on our mantlepiece in Boulder!
Benin used to be called Dahomey. In 1975, the name was officially changed to Benin, which in the Yoruba language means “we are here, we are fine”. This Yoruba word was chosen because the Yoruba aren’t from the area that comprises the country, and so none of the local tribes could become upset. During the reign of the Kingdom of Dahomey, before French rule, there were 12 kings and their respective palaces (some argue there were 13). The Royal Palaces of Abomey, (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), were once the heart of the Fon people’s most important empire in Western Africa, as great wealth and power were acquired as the Fon sold prisoners of tribal warfare into the slave trade. The two best maintained palaces, those of King Ghézo (father, represented as buffalo) and King Glélé (son, represented as lion), showcase beautiful bas-relief walls, as well as royal artifacts: thrones and umbrellas, altars and statues, costumes and weapons.
Many people fled their homelands to escape being captured and sold into the slave trade by both the Dahomey of “Benin” and the Ashanti of “Ghana” (in quotes as these regions weren’t known by these modern day names at the time). The Taneka people are a bi-product of this as various tribes from Niger, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Togo sought refuge in the high, rocky terrain of this mountainous region, and peacefully intermarried, creating a new ethnic group. We walk around the craggy landscape, and visit with a few of the elderly fetish priests who still follow tradition with what they wear (only a goat skin), carry (a long pipe and magical amulets), and do (initiations rites for young men of the community).
Another ethnic group who lived in such a way as to avoid being captured and sold as slaves, this time escaping Muslim slave traders from the North, are the Betamaribe of Benin and Tamberma of Togo (same people; different location). We meet both, and while the official UNESCO World Heritage Site is an adobe fortified dwelling representing their unique architecture on the Togolese side, we found it to be a more touristy experience and somewhat underwhelming; we much more preferred the experience Noah set up for us by making random stops when he saw a perfect representation of one of these small medieval castle-like compounds. Le Corbusier is known to have described them as “sculptural architecture”. The layers of clay and mud constructed around wood supports make for a soft design with strong structure. Animistic beliefs are honored by large phallic shrines at the entrance and the home reflects their cosmology with the dark ground floor representing death and ancestors and the open-air second floor representing life.
Johann was fascinated running into a hunter equipped with the most ancient gun imaginable. Held together with wire and not much else, it still functions with loose gunpowder and random lead shot.
In Ouidah, Benin, the spiritual capital of Voodoo and also one of the main slave ports of the past. We start at the Python Temple, directly opposite the Catholic Cathedral. I go into the courtyard to see on the main shrines toward the back; Johann ventures further into the actual Python Temple, a barefoot experience among 100 pythons, resulting in one rested upon his shoulders. We then visit the Portuguese Fort for our first touch of the transatlantic slave history of West Africa. Unfortunately, most of the items are replicas with the originals being housed in European museums, however there is a photographic exhibition that showcases the similarities between the voodoo in Benin and Brazil which is really impressive. And finally we walk the slave road from the main auction house to the Door of No Return (a UNESCO World Heritage site), a truly moving experience especially when standing in front of the Memorial of Remembrance, a monument to honor those put into the mass grave on which it sits.
In Ghana, we have a choice of two out of forty “castles” or “forts” to visit (many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites): Elmina Castle or Cape Coast Castle … either way you say it, they were the dungeons where slaves were imprisoned before being shipped across the Atlantic. We make our way to the coast, drink palm wine fresh from a crude roadside distillery and eat tiger nuts for our road snacks. And before reaching the coast, we cross the Pra River, which marks the boundary of the Fanti Region, a river that now runs yellow with gold mine residue and which was the river where slaves were washed one last time before entering their holding cells. We chose to extensively tour Elmina, the oldest European building in Africa, built by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century (and after driving by Cape Coast Castle were very happy with our decision). Elmina is impeccably restored and highlights both the horrors of the slave trade and the history of the area before and after the slave trade.
Many people go to Jamestown, Accra's oldest neighborhood, to see the lighthouse, fish market, and learn more about the slave history of the region. We went to check out the Jamestown Cafe and see what they are doing to foster community, to see the exhibit at ArchiAfrika, and without knowing it, to see the graffiti space across the way.
A Coke a Day Keeps the Tummy Ache Away
This gluten free gastronome was quite happy in West Africa with daily choices ranging from cassava couscous (“atieke”) and jollof rice, to various iterations of plantains (my fav = “keleweli”!) and yummy yams. I always double checked that my order was gluten free, but basically, besides outright ordering bread, the food in these countries seem to be generally free of gluten. For wheat-seekers, the bread is definitely better in Togo and Benin than in Ghana.
After a few meals of being experimental (rabbit, guinea fowl, village or “bicycle” chicken), we went back to ordering the fish of the day with sautéed vegetables. We always asked for the fish to be grilled to avoid getting one that was dried and salted; the sautéed vegetables were always amazing. The portions were consistently too large for us, and we got puzzled looks when asking to skip the carb on offer. The local green and red chili relishes also hit the spot: “yabesi” in Togo and Benin, and “frito” in Ghana. Away from the capital cities we always ate at the hotels; in the cities there are more choices for venturing out. At a few of the nicer hotels we helped ourselves to the fresh, raw salads.
What we’ll remember and long for most are the delicious Ghanaian dishes of “palava” (a green vegetable sort of like chard) and “red red” (spicy beans).
Breakfasts were generally lack luster. An omelet (with toast for Johann) and juice (for me) while Johann braved the Nescafe, got us out the door. But once we were on the road, it was easy to get a warm grilled plantain with bag of peanuts, or tasty dried plantain chips, or fresh bananas.
Pretty much everywhere we went had a selection of wine, but it was too hot and we were too pickled from the past year to start sampling. Johann enjoyed a local beer with meals while I stuck to water and veered only when I saw Savannahs. As it was quite hot and we could easily have dehydrated, we also drank a Coke or two with lunch, and added the NUUN electrolytes we brought with us to our bottles of water a few times a day.
While our time in Accra was cut short, we still packed in as much as possible. Kukun, for a much-needed Green Power Salad and Beetroot Smoothie, is an inspiring community calling card offering nourishment, a co-work space, local art, and more. Bistro 22 is an award-winning, Spartan yet elegant space, with a nice wine list and display, and gourmet cuisine. The tree-lit outdoor terrace offers a lovely al fresco option. Buka is considered by all to have the best West African cuisine in Ghana. After our excellent palava and red red further afield from the city, we disagree, however for people starting a trip in Accra or not as adventurous when further inland, we would still recommend it. The ambiance is such that we would rather go for lunch than dinner. And Coco Lounge, one of several upmarket, trendy spots under the direction of Executive Chef Adriano Kanashiro who also oversees Santoku (sushi/sashimi), Urban Grill (USDA Grade A steaks and more), Carbon (sexy nightlife, spinning DJs, classic cocktails). All of these spots exude exceptionally chic style with both the interiors and the patrons. The service is world-class. The scene is internationally recognizable. And the food was so good we decided to have both our Accra dinners at Coco Lounge before leaving town. For anyone wanting to experience great live music in Accra, a night cap at +233 Jazz will not disappoint: outdoor seating, a local vibe, and an ever-changing roster of performers.
Arts & Couture:
When it comes to shopping, and in general, cash is king, and we were surprised to realize in these countries you get a better exchange rate on larger denomination bank notes. We’re used to bringing 20s to change, and here wished we had more 50s and 100s, regardless of whether we were changing Euros or Dollars. If you exchange in a bank the rate is more or less similar, but there aren’t a lot of banks to be found, and so transactions took place with reputable (and legal) money changers.
Textiles are a favorite for this fashionista, and it was great to learn that Noah’s auntie used to be a fabric seller and so he knows a lot about Togo’s Wax Cotton and Ghana’s Kente. We started with two of the best quality wax cotton companies, Vlisco and Wooden, before walking through Lome’s central market where the famous “Nana Benz” women are – they are the successful women who still control the sale of the expensive “pagne” (textiles). “Nana” for Queen Mother and “Benz” for the clout you get for owning a Mercedes Benz. He also shared information about Wax Holande, Superior Wax, and others. It is unfortunate that there are companies copying trademarked designs and producing lesser quality fabrics in China (so stores didn’t allow photos), though they do end up back in these markets and provide a financial means for the people selling them. I always seek out those made in Africa: Wooden, GTP, Printex, ATL, and Uniwax (Vlisco is made in Holland, as it was historically). The same goes for the ancient, beautifully woven, brightly colored Kente, where you can end up with hand-woven cotton or knock-off printed pieces. In Kumasi, the center of the Ashanti Kingdom, we visit the Bonwire Kente Weaving Centre to learn about the history and process of weaving Kente, to meet the men making modern Kente and selling pieces more than 100 years old, and to buy our own (come over for dinner ... they make for excellent table cloths!).
Glass beads are another art form with a famed history here. The Krobo Tribe in Ghana is known for producing and wearing glass beads for ceremonies and aesthetic purposes. The Dipo initiation ceremony for young girls preparing to marry still takes place today, always during the two to three weeks after Easter, and it is possible to witness some of the five-day initiation. (TransAfrica offers customized tours)
Guests can also visit various artisan communities making beads, however as we have a specific connection with Cedi Beads, we request to visit with the maestro himself. Visitors to Cedi Beads will learn about the process craftsmen have been using for centuries, which is still used today, and for people with more time they can do a workshop and make their own. Cedi shows us around his family compound, we discuss the numerous people and projects we have in common, I share a photo of the necklace I have of his beads I randomly purchased in a market in Khartoum, Sudan, and then we get down to buying beads! The internationally known bead market in Koforidua takes place on Thursdays, and we’re here on a Wednesday, so I’m ecstatic to be able to buy ancient strands from his collection.
Art is something we always seek out when traveling. We found that some of the best contemporary art for purchase was hanging in hotels, either hanging solo or within galleries (see the hotel section at the end for more). And since almost everything else is closed on a Sunday in Accra, we spent our Sunday morning hotel-hopping to see art. At the Movenpick we saw pieces by Ghanaian Artists Hector Ofori, Ablade Glover, Sowah Adjei, Wiz Kudorwor, Gabriel Eklou, and others. Gallery 1957 is located within the Kempinski. Unfortunately it is "closed" on Sunday, which means the lights were off inside the space, but we could still walk through and take in the art by the light of our iPhones ... definitely worth a return during the week. Here we saw pieces by German-Ghanaian artist Zohra Opoku, and Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey, Togolese artist Modupeola Fadugba, Nigerian artist Chidi Kwubiri, Ghanaian artist Gideon Appah, and others.
The Berj Art Gallery is a home-cum-gallery with rooms full of pieces by West African artists. We met the founder, Joyce Quarshie, and learned about some of the pieces in her personal collection, including El Anatsui and Ablade Glover. This is an impressive stop for anyone interested in acquiring contemporary African art!
Speaking of Ablade Glover, we met him at his Arts Alliance. This three story, multi-room, mega maze of artists is a must! From antiques to handicraft to fine art and more, it can easily be a one-stop-shop for people with limited time. We knew we would find interesting pieces here, and we were pleasantly surprised when saw the entire room of works by Mr. Glover, an artist we were familiar with as he is represented by one of our favorite galleries in Cape Town.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go to three spots on our list - ANO Gallery, LOOM Gallery, and the Nubuke Foundation - as they were closed on the days we were in town, but it’s always good to have something to return for.
Fashion is an extension of anthropologic study for me, and I follow a few people, shows and handles to get inspiration from Africa. First and foremost, the Youtube show An African City. I mapped out all of the designers I wanted to meet from the show, and did the best I could with limited time. I met designer Ami Tonye Yomekpe of the Mod HQ and she tailored one of her spectacular dresses to my measurements. Her studio is behind her showroom and so we were able to get a glimpse into her creative process, the textiles she's experimenting with, and some of the new designs about to come out. She is a special woman and someone you should visit with in Accra!
I went looking for designs by Afrodesiac Worldwide and met the designer herself, Chiedza Makonnen. She also owns Brown Sugar GH, inspired by her life in Brooklyn in the 70s. After spending more and more time in Accra because of non-profit work she is involved in, she decided to call it home and is working with various organizations on behalf of female designers and the traditional textile industry in Ghana. She is a spark of light, sharing her positive energy with all and dedicated to her passions.
Other designers I visited and would include on any shopping itinerary: Kiki Clothing, Christie Brown, Poqua Poqu, Elle Lokko, and Studio 189. There are many more I wasn’t able to stop into while in Accra … let’s have a chat if you want more inspiration.
Wood Coffins, or Abebuu Adekai (“boxes of proverbs”) are fantastical handcrafted coffins originally used by the Ga tribe in Ghana that have reached collectable status among art lovers the world around. The Ga use these as tributes to the deceased, and design pieces that are representative of their profession or status while living, from a plane to a pencil, a lion to an eagle. These were some of Johann’s first memories of Ghana, and so his must-see on this trip ... he nearly found his perfect coffin, if only it was a Meerlust wine bottle!
There are a few regularly visited spots along the tourist route in Accra, however Noah set it up for us to meet with Kudjoe Affutu at his workshop in Awutu Bawyiase, during the drive from Elmina to Accra. Kudjoe studied under the internationally renowned coffin artist Paa Joe, and today has his own international reputation from New York to Neuchâtel. One of his more impressive pieces is the “Pompidou Coffin”, an exact replica of the Pompidou Center in Paris. Kudjoe ended up driving us along back roads to his home, where we saw a sampling of his miniatures, where we decided to take home a red and green chili coffin. In Accra, we also met with Eric Papko, another popular designer who studied with Paa Joe.
Flora and Fauna:
The landscape changed often as we drive across countries, and North to South. From dense teak forests that remind us of Kanha National Park, India, to humid tropical plantations that yield exports such as cocoa, coffee, and palm. There are areas where one can easily envision an elephant walking out of the bush as though on safari (and indeed you can visit Pendjari National Park in Northern Benin, the top safari destination in West Africa that is run by African Parks), and others that are sprawling cotton fields. We leave the stifling heat, and drive to Kouma-Konda a mountainous area with the coolest temperatures in Togo, and a long history because of it. The oldest road in the country was built by the Germans in 1886 to connect Lomé with Kpalime so they could escape the heat. There is a German hospital now used as a hotel, a French chateau that was left to the Togolese and is whispered to become a museum in the future, and a local entomologist who will take you on a tour of endemic butterflies and insects. This is a popular day trip / shore excursion for many of the cruise ships that stop in Lomé.
We cross from Togo into Ghana, which is a continuation of the Volta Region. We drive past the Volta River, which flows from Burkina Faso, which used to be called Upper Volta, which means “upright people”. Lake Volta is the largest man-made lake in the world by surface area and generates hydro-electric power for Ghana. At the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary, created in 1993 to protect the sacred Mona Monkeys that live in the surrounding forest, we go for a short hike with a local guide. He explains the connection between the village and the monkeys and prepares us to feed them, which is seen as a respectful act of honoring … too bad one jumps on my back before the banana was even in my hand, causing me to shriek in less than a respectful manner and sending my heart rate into overdrive.
Audible Makes the Auto-Time Go Faster
An audible account, or other, is great for itineraries like ours with long drives between destinations, and unexpected delays. After looking into what books we wanted to read, and cross-checked what was available, we ended up with three books that added up to 37 hours and 30 minutes: “Homegoing: A Novel” by Yaa Gyasi, “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and “Obroni and the Chocolate Factory: An Unlikely Story of Globalization and Ghana’s First Gourmet Chocolate Bar” by Steven Wallace. Driving around Africa is never boring. One day we were delayed hours because of an accident (but always thankful to be waiting in it and not actually in it). In Togo and Benin, we came across a few random road checks (with primitive barriers made of tires, trees, and rope) and in Ghana there were more regular check points. Most stretches of road were well-paved and a few others reminded us of Madagascar’s car-size pot holes, but no matter what the condition, it was still a constant game of chicken on the narrow two-lane roads, be it with other vehicles or literal chickens. When wanting to pass the time with some African tunes, we listened to everything from the established Benin singer Angelique Kidjo and Ghana's Ebo Taylor to the young, raw musical priestess, Azizza Mystic’s Vodua album.
Hotel, Motel, Where You Gonna Stay Today (Say Wha?)
In the rural areas the accommodations are a comical reminder to be happy with what you get. They are all ensuite with air conditioning, and when we think something doesn’t work they come in and show us how silly we are for not figuring it out. That said, we always have to ask for two towels, washcloths don’t exist nor does conditioner or lotion, and shampoo is a sometimes, but there is always soap. Showers always have hot water but sometimes it’s a trickle, sometimes it’s impressively good pressure, sometimes we have to remind them to turn it on in the morning. A step up in Johann’s book is when we have a flat sheet versus just a fitted sheet and duvet; sometimes the beds are lumpy and saggy, other times we feel we’re sleeping on a stone slab, and there are those that are Goldilocks … “just right”.
In Lomé we stayed at the Hotel Onomo, a modern beach-front hotel that impressed us most with its art. We visited the Hotel 2 Février and Le Patio. Most luxurious in town, Hotel 2 Février is in the highest building in Lomé and with 28 stories has some of the best views as well. It overlooks Independence Square and a government meeting all. Its 300+ rooms were renovated in 2014, and all of the amenities were standard for a respectable business hotel. Charming Le Patio is across from the University, on a mahogany tree lined street, nestled within a gated community where the President and various ministers live, and next to a home for the EU and various embassies. It comprises a network of separate homes with seven rooms in one building that is three years old, eight rooms in another building that opened in January 2018, and a third building coming online soon. There is a beautiful spa, funky bar, elegant dining, and outstanding art! Le Patio had the most character and was our favorite in Lomé, the one we would choose to return to (staying in newer wings).
In Grand Popo we stayed at the beachfront Awale Plage, and in Cotonou we stayed at the Best Western and visited the Golden Tulip and La Maison Rouige. The modern Golden Tulip is located across the street from the U.S. embassy and the new conference center. Its 122 rooms and business hotel amenities were all quite nice. As a larger hotel chain in West Africa, the Golden Tulip is a reliable option anywhere they have a location. We also visited the one in Kumasi and felt similarly; we recommend selecting the Superior or Deluxe category rooms. La Maison Rouge is a beautiful boutique hotel located within a secure compound of private apartments. Many of the surrounding buildings are embassies, and La Maison Rouge comprises four houses, totaling 30 rooms with two swimming pools, a spa and fitness center, sweeping spaces showcasing incredible artwork, all of which is for sale. This was our favorite property in Cotonou and the one we would return to!
In Ketou we stayed at the Hotel Celine; in Dassa the Hotel Jeko; in Natitingou the Hotel Tata Somba; in Kara the Hotel Kara. On the night we were supposed to stay in Sokode, there were whispers of potential protests due to the upcoming elections, and so Noah and the TransAfrica office made a pre-emptive plan while we were on the road to continue through Sokode and drive on to Atakpame where he booked us into the Hotel Luxembourg. This is the newest hotel in Atakpame, and they were putting finishing touches to it. The Hotel Luxembourg offered some of the best service of all the hotels we stayed in on the mainland: attentive and timely, concern that all is well and the first decent comprehension of English. Spacious, modern rooms with a splash of color and funky décor. It was no surprise to learn it is owned by an artist. Even the air around the hotel smelled of frangipani.
In Kpalime we stayed at the Residence Parc Hotel; in Akosombo, the Royal Senchi Resort. This was the best resort environment of the trip, with a pool we actually wanted to swim in, the strongest internet, an attentive staff and a variety of dishes served buffet style, along with a spa, gym, gift shop, library, and more. We recommend planning for two nights, mid-way through a trip so there is time to enjoy the facilities and get laundry done! In Koforidua we stayed at the New Capital View hotel. In Kumasi we spent two nights at the Miklin Hotel, though we would recommend the Golden Tulip. We chose not to stay in Elmina as we wanted the earliest possible start for Accra, and so stayed in Anomabo at the Anomabo Beach Resort. For our time in Accra, we stayed at the newly built Marriott across from the airport. There are numerous upscale hotels to choose from in Accra, many of which are home to the galleries we wanted to visit anyway, from the Kempinski and Mövenpick to The African Regent and others.
Noah, our guide extraordinaire that made every moment of the trip come alive!
Part II - Island Paradise: São Tomé and Principe
Our hour and a half flight from Accra to São Tomé on TAP Portugal landed in the evening, forcing us to overnight, which was just fine as it is a five-minute transfer from the airport to where we were staying - Omali Lodge. Check in was seamless and we were quickly settled into a very spacious, modern, well-appointed room. We went to the restaurant where we had a nice bottle of wine, light fare, great service. The next morning, we fueled up from the gourmet breakfast buffet, which included gluten-free breads, fresh fruit and juices, and European style charcuterie – the best we’d had all trip!
The 35-minute morning flight from São Tomé to Principe had us soaring over tranquil blue waters and eventually, just before landing, a thick, undeveloped and undisturbed green canopy. We were quickly collected and brought to a Sundy Praia-branded Toyota luxury SUV, stocked with glass-bottled water, dried mango, and cold towels. While Sundy Praia isn’t much further than Bom Bom with regards to distance from the airport, because the roads are tougher, all-terrain, roller-coaster dirt roads it is a 35-minute drive versus a 10-minute drive.
Sundy Praia is a luxurious eco-lodge (and a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World) that can easily stand next to the other five-star safari lodges we’re used to across the continent. Our suite was opulently large with refined touches, one of the best mini-bars (or in this case maxi-bars) we’ve come across, and a private terrace with chaise lounges and a bit of an ocean view through the lush landscaping.
Over the course of three days we read by the pool, ventured to nearby beaches for snorkeling (not great, but warm, clear water and we were the only people on the beach), spent an afternoon cruising around the island to the area known as the Needles where we took a break for more snorkeling and eventually threw lines in the water to see what we could catch on the ride back (amazing sightseeing; a boat cruise to take in the island from the water is a must!), wrote this trip report, did site inspections, and enjoyed some incredibly outstanding cuisine. In the end, the best memories of Sundy Praia will be rejuvenating and processing after an intense time in West Africa and the food!! Anyone doing a trip around West Africa who has the time should come here for a few nights to soak up the splendor of a relaxing few days on the beach.
That said, the one place we felt needs attention and fixing was the activity program, which with time will get sorted out. We were there for the one-year anniversary of the property and of course every new opening has growing pains. For guests who want to do activities we would strongly encourage trying to communicate and book ahead of time. It's a remote location and while we were there 3 of their 4 boats were out of action and only one basic open skiff was available between both resorts for diving, fishing, etc. The communication on property between management, the activities director, and us was frustrating to an extreme and while we were on “Africa time” and enjoying a lazy beach vacation, we also shared our feedback while on property and expected for some things to improve, which they didn’t immediately … however … we then went to sister-property Bom Bom and met the activities director there who runs a very tight ship and Sundy Praia was awaiting the arrival of a new full-time activities coordinator.
Older and more modest in accommodation, Bom Bom is known for being the go-to spot for diving – it has a PADI dive center - and guests of Sundy Praia and Sundy Roca are able to book diving excursions from Bom Bom (all three properties and Omali are owned by the same company). While our shore-based snorkeling excursions left a lot to be desired, the dive masters at Bom Bom assured us that guests going out to the further remote islands and three purposefully sunken planes regularly have 30-feet visibility and exceptional sightings … that day they had gone out and said they were with 30 dolphins, more eels, wahoo while doing decompression, and more. Bom Bom is made up of round rondavel-like rooms scattered throughout the property; some right on the sand, others up on the hills, and a few right by the pool. With more modest accommodations and activities Bom Bom also has more families and guests. The famous view is of the suspended walkway that leads from the mainland across the water to a small island where the dining takes place. For us, the best thing about Bom Bom is the access to activities.
Instead of doing the forest walk from Sundy Praia to Sundy Roca, we opted for the 30-minute drive (after an earlier forest walk to a beach I remembered I don’t actually like jungle environments). The trees are so large and ancient they feel like their own galaxy. When you are driving up to Sundy Roca and are eye level with the canopy of trees rooted far below you can’t help but think of a magical fairyland. Sundy Roca is the renovated plantation home from what was once the biggest cocoa producer in the world. During Colonial times, the Portuguese who transformed Principe from an uninhabited island to a series of cultivated plots brought more than 400 people from Cape Verde. Today, there are about 100 families that still live in the original workers’ homes and along with a school, church, community, and relics of plantation history such as rail tracks that delivered the harvest to the port below. One of the more interesting pieces of history is that this year, 2019, is the centennial of a famous scientific expedition that took place at Sundy Roca. Arthur Eddington, a British astronomer, on behalf of the Royal Astronomical Society, came to the island for a total solar eclipse in order to test a predation from Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. There will be a big celebration this May to commemorate their work, and a beautiful new telescope is already set up in the hotel lobby.
Our final day was a tour of Sao Tome island, again because of how flight times are to connect from Principe to Accra. There driving around the rugged island coastline is reminiscent of driving around Hawaii, but with more stops along the way to see the remnants of plantation life and even where Voice of America is stationed. The best part of the experience was making it an hour and a half down the coast to a fabulous restaurant on the grounds of a renovated plantation - Roca Sao Joao de Angolares - that today is a hotel, cooking school, contemporary art gallery, music school, and more.