TOGO

The J e w e l of West Africa


Click the picture to the left for some funky Highlife music

Say Hi to my good friend Ami Z, a very talented musician/comedian who I got the opportunity to work with in Togo. One of my favorite things about Togo was meeting African musicians and artists, swapping ideas, and getting down and jamming, jamming, jamming, till the jelly was gone (That's me on the left by the way). You've probably already heard (or will be hearing soon) the butt-shakin' music on these pages. That is Soukous. Defiled by many Togo PCV's (Peace Corps Volunteers) but adored by the die-hardy. I personally believe it gets a very bad rap because most people experience it while they are trapped in a Bush Taxi with a 30 year old speaker jammed behind their head blasting high-pitched "tingly" guitar into their ears (you'll be hearing more about these torturous forms of transportation). But hold on there buckaroo, this is where most people miss the mark. Sure you may have suffered some minor hearing loss or become disoriented at sometime during a ten-minute Soukous solo and "accidentally" maimed the taxi driver, but there's a deeper, more significant aspect to this music. Here's my philosophy….. Understand the beauty of Soukous, and you understand the beauty of West Africa. That's all there is to it! C'est Fini!!!! Well, there's also Sodabie, but we'll get to that later…..

The village I lived in was called Afagnangan (pronounced A-fun-ya-gun) and was located in the maritime region of Togo. Togo is located between the countries of Ghana and Benin. Afagnangan was nestled up right next to the border of Benin in the heartland of Voodoo country. This area of West Africa is in fact the origin of Voodoo. The religion was then spread to other part of the world through the slave trade and continued by Africans in countries such as Haiti and Brazil and the Southern US. Voodoo is an animist religion (belief in spirits) where there are both good and bad gods who have influence over our everyday lives. Ancestors are believed to continue living in a spirit world. They must be paid homage so that they will help provide for relatives in the living world. Sacrifices are given to both gods and ancestors so that they can eat, drink, be powerful, and protect the living. Sacrifices are given in the form of food, wine, alcohol (this is the favored method - spilling a little alcohol on the ground), or blood from a slaughtered animal (the animal then becomes a meal). Besides the "Voodoo" religion there are many many African customs and beliefs that are based in animism. Superstitions and magic abound everywhere and people often have protection spells cast upon themselves or carry Gris Gris (magic) to protect themselves from bad luck or the evil Voodoo spells of others. Spirits are commonly believed to reside in ancient "village forest groves" or in individual trees themselves. This is serious stuff, and not to be taken lightly in West Africa. Children are often terrified to go out at night because of an evil monster that can transform itself from an owl into a hungry human eater. Whistling at night is a definite no-no because it attracts the monster and if you just happen to step in his footsteps... damn, you become crazy and spend the rest of your days wondering around aimlessly. I could go on and on about this stuff, it's so fascinating...

Since my return to western "civilization", one thing that has shocked me is the number of "choices" available to us here in the States. The market scene at the left is a good example of how life is simpler in other parts of the world. You have tomatoes, onions, hot peppers, eggplant, ginger, spinach-like greens, fish, some other hard to distinguish meats and a few other edible things mixed in. That's it! There may be hundreds of women selling these items but basically, your choices are limited. (This carries over into almost all aspects of life) Here in the States we are barraged by choices. I remember getting back from Togo and trying to pick out a simple comb (so that I could try to get my hair under control). It must have taken me 10 minutes to pick between the 50 different kinds that the drug store supplied. I was hit by the Post Peace Corps Choices-Overload-Syndrome familiar to many RPCV's - stiffness of the jaw, dizziness, headache...sound familiar? I'm still not sure how healthy it is that we have the opportunity (or in my view, responsibility) to decide between such things as millions of different types of spaghetti sauce or whether to buy the toothbrush with the tilting head thing or the rounded bristles. I'll be the first to admit that a supermarket has its advantages, but I think maybe things have gotten a bit out of control...

Transportation in West Africa (Especially in Togo) is generally a difficult, frustrating, un-orderly, crazy-but-kinda-fun experience that you must truly have experienced in order to believe. Definitely one of the defining things about Togo is the experience of suffering for countless hours in Bush Taxis. Imagine if you will a Toyota Mini-Bus that had just rolled down a hillside, maybe even a deep rocky canyon. Now imagine the windows repaired with plexiglass and the seats replaced with less comfortable ones. Now imagine getting in it with 12 -15 other people, babies, mega-tons of luggage, cargo, possibly other species. Now your starting to get the picture of what a Bush Taxi is all about. But you know what? It really makes you feel alive! (Even though sometimes you might think you'd be better off dead)

Another form of transportation in Togo is the Train. Oh boy, the good 'ol train! Well, actually, you might want to consider sticking with the Bush Taxi if arriving at your destination is of any importance to you.

However, if you don't mind fighting for a seat, entering and exiting via the window, keeping a close eye on your valuables, or stopping about 1000 times before your destination in 100 degrees heat, I would HIGHLY recommend the experience. You will definitely never forget the ride even though you may end up looking like my friend Mike here who had some kind of a minor break down somewhere between Pagala and Lome.

After all the heat, stress, and dirt that you experience on the train, there's nothing quite like a Biere Benin to cool off with. Togo enjoys exceptionally good beer at exceptionally low prices. Originally founded by a German brewery, Biere Benin is known to be the best beer in West Africa. There were three major brews available to us - Pils (my favorite), Lager, and Awoyoo. You can find these same beers under the N'goma label in the US. For those looking for a stronger kick you'd want to try Sodabi (A.K.A. So-Dat-Be or Africa Gin). Sodabi is distilled Palm wine and is approximately the same strength as vodka, gin, or quite possibly lighter fluid. It has a very distinctive taste and is relished by many. At about 20 cents a shot it's quite a bang for your buck.

One of the things that got me through the tough times in Togo was the kids. Kids were easy to deal with for the most part and even though they could get out of hand, really out of hand that is. They filled the void of many quiet hours and were good company in general. I really learned a lot about the privileges we westerners have through living with a family and seeing how the kids grow up. Children are treated much differently in Africa than they are here in the U.S. Here we lavish our children with attention and treats and generally try to give them the most or best of what we have. In Togo, and in West Africa in general, children are the lowest on the totem pole and are considered almost servants. They are expected to obey authority, serve and respect their elders, and do much of the daily household chores. These heavy expectations put on children don't leave a whole lot of time to play or get into trouble and mischief. Nevertheless, somehow they manage to do both, do them well, and do them frequently. I always had fun with the kids in my family playing games, showing them pictures, chasing them around, etc. The two youngest in the family (six kids in all) that I lived with were Bobo and Patron. MY BOYZ!!!!! I really miss them and all their playful antics such as enacting WWF wrestling matches on my front porch, throwing rocks at each other, or finding all the pictures in my Newsweek magazines of white men with glasses and yelling "C'est David C'est David!!!!". Kind of made me feel special.

If you have any comments or questions about my experiences in Togo please feel free to e-mail me.