Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Dispatches from Africa, Part 5: Togo to Ghana

Tuesday March 15, 2011: Lomé, Togo

We arrived in Lomé to another loud drumming and dancing group of beautifully dressed local performers, including two stilt walkers. The Togolese Republic is bordered by Ghana to the west, Benin to the east and Burkina Faso to the north. It extends south to the Gulf of Guinea where Lomé, the capital is located. Togo covers an area of approximately 22,000 sq mi with a population of approximately 6.7 million. Togo is a tropical, sub-Saharan nation, highly dependent on agriculture. While the official language is French, there are many other languages spoken in Togo. The largest religious group in Togo is those with indigenous beliefs. From the 11th to the 16th century, various tribes entered the region from all directions. From the 16th century to the 18th century, the coastal region was a major trading centre for Europeans in search of slaves, earning Togo and the surrounding region the name "The Slave Coast." In 1884, Germany declared Togoland a protectorate. After World War I, rule over Togo was transferred to France. Togo gained its independence from France in 1960. In 1967, Gnassingbé Eyadéma led a successful military coup, after which he became president. At the time of his death in 2005, Eyadéma was the longest-serving leader in modern African history, after having been president for 38 years. In 2005, his son Faure Gnassingbé was elected president.

Lomé is the capital of Togo and was once claimed to be the Paris of Africa. It is situated in the Bay of Benin. The name comes from alomé – the Ewe name for the trees that produce chewing sticks, which once grew in abundance here. There are still reminders of European colonial rule which are quite evident in the old town. However, indigenous tradition retains its significance.

We drove for about 45 minutes east to Agbodrafo where we were met by His Majesty Chief Assiakoley, an older man dressed in a white robe and a white cap. After the greeting ritual with several members of his community we learned about the special significance of the elaborate canes that two gentlemen in his entourage carried. We then walked to the Maison des Esclaves, where a few people entered the basement prison of the slave house.

We then drove to the banks of Lake Togo to crossover to Badougbe village. The countryside was surrounded by numerous plantations with plenty of mango trees, coconut palms, and Indian almond trees. We crossed Lake Togo in pirogues. Pied Kingfishers were having a successful day while fishermen repeatedly cast their large throw-nets between the traffic of pirogues transporting people, motorcycles and goods. Once in Badougbe village we visited the local school and presented the headmaster with several packets of school supplies kindly donated by some of our guests as well as by Corinthian II. The multitude of khaki-clad school kids welcomed us in their classrooms. We were entertained by drumming and colorful folkloric dance performance by the village men and women. On the way back to the lake we observed a monitor lizard tied up by a gasoline selling post.

After lunch we visited the fetish market with monkey skulls, voodoo dolls, dried toads, antelope horns, crocodile skins, grigri charms, leopard pelts, dead owls, tethered live eagles, and a few owls, hawks and vultures. We struggled with the smell of partially decomposing animal parts and with the concept of mass killing of animals as traditional rituals to address illness and spiritual needs. Unfortunately, many of these products are made out of threatened or endangered species. We drove through the city and passed the Togo/Ghana border post and Independence Square and had time to shop at the local artisans market.

During the evening, Captain Boczek held his Farewell Cocktail Party and dinner, joined by the United States Ambassador to Togo, Patricia Hawkins, along with her husband Richard Hawkins, the Deputy of Chief of Mission Ellen Thorburn and Political Officer John Kmetz and his wife Loretta Bass.

Wednesday March 16 and Thursday March 17, 2011: Ghana

The Republic of Ghana with a population of over 25 million people is bordered by Ivory Coast to the west, Burkina Faso to the north, Togo to the east, and the Gulf of Guinea to the south. The word Ghana means "Warrior King" from the ancient Ghana Empire. Ghana was inhabited in pre-colonial times by a number of ancient predominantly Akan kingdoms and trade with European states flourished after contact with the Portuguese in the 15th century, and the British established the Gold Coast Crown colony in 1874. The Gold Coast achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. Ghana is the second largest producer of cocoa in the world and is home to Lake Volta, the largest artificial lake in the world by surface area.

Tema is the country’s most important seaport where as recently as the 1950s was only an obscure fishing village that was founded by Kpeshie fisherman who migrated to the area from present-day Nigeria. The bustling harbor city supports a population of over 500,000, as well as most of the country’s major industries. Accra is the lively capital of Ghana and was once a major center of the gold and slave trade. It has long been the industrial backbone of the nation. The city started life in the 15th century, when the Ga people who still live in the area, settled on the west side of the Korle Lagoon.

The first stop in Ghana was to visit the peculiar and multiple designs of the Casket Makers where we had the opportunity to view a collection of caskets carved into different objects, depicting the traditional African belief in the continuation of one’s profession or a new one after death. We spent a while at the Jaynii Streewise Foundation where we donated some basic school accessories to a needy group. In return they drummed and danced and sang for us. A brief stop at the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum was followed by a final spree of shopping at the craft market. Lunch was complimented by a first-class open air cultural fair dance and drumming demonstration. The next visit was to the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. As we passed the Military Hospitals, a ‘flock’ of fruit-eating bats relocated positions on the tree for shaded and cooler areas.

On Thursday we visited the Aburi Botanical Gardens located 20 miles north of Accra. The Garden was opened in 1890 on a site previously occupied by a sanatorium built in 1875 for Gold Coast Government Officials. In 1890 William Crowther, a student from the Royal Botanical Gardens, in Kew, London was appointed the garden’s first curator. We enjoyed the multiple trees representing native and exotic species including cinnamon, quinoa, cocoa, and tress planted by the Queen of England and the Prince of Wales. After the visit to the gardens we drove to the Mampong Centre for Scientific Research situated at the Akwapim Ridge. The center has over 32 years of research on herbs and concoctions whose therapy pre-date modern medicine. We visited the labs and learned about the many products to cure tropical diseases.

The travel to the airport in Accra left us all feeling nostalgic about the travel experiences that happened a mere few weeks ago.

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