To go to Togo

Silly title, but irresistible.

Lomé may be a capital city, but it does a good impression of a sprawling urban village. Admittedly there are a few large banks and ministries, plus a 37-storey 1970’s hotel, but it mostly comprises single storey buildings and it still has a relaxed vibe.

A lack of investment for decades means the railway system has shut down, industries have collapsed and basic services no longer operate. Driving round at night, most of the city is either dark or lit by candles, as ageing generating equipment means the country can produce only 10% of its electricity needs, and the previous solution of buying power from Ghana has not been working for the last six months as Ghana's hydroelectric dams are nearly empty and so not even producing enough for the Ghanaians. We arrived on the Sunday, and it was Thursday before we had a few hours of electricity other than that from the hotel or office generator. Telecommunications are also poor (it took me half-an-hour to get a telephone connection to Dakar), and water supplies seem to come and go; some days in the office we were flushing the toilet from rainwater collected in buckets.

72% of the population live on less than $1 a day. & unlike most countries with such high needs, there is very little aid. The EU withdrew all aid many years ago, followed soon after by the World Bank, because of the lack of democracy and concerns about human rights. Very few NGOs operate here either, putting a lot of pressure on my own organisation to meet the needs of the communities where we work.

Gnassingbe Eyadema had been president for 38 years until his death in 2005. He was succeeded by his son, who initially imposed even further restrictions on the freedoms of the Togolese. Increasingly violent protests led him to relent, however, and negotiations have started with the EU to restart aid, although this depends upon a number of conditions being met. Parliamentary elections scheduled for next month should help considerably, but with only a third of births registered, there is no reliable population data on which to base an electoral roll, so there is some doubt amongst those I spoke to as to whether elections are possible at this time. But there is still some hope that things will get better.

Things that should be simple all seem difficult here. Our attempts one evening to get a taxi to a restaurant led initially to a situation typical in African cities, where a taxi driver claims to know where your destination is but then drives around aimlessly, pausing every so often to ask people, unsuccessfully, for directions. Of course no taxi driver wants to turn down a fare, but eventually ours had to accept that he had no idea where our restaurant was, and that it didn’t help when we gave him the address as he didn’t know any of the street names either. So we paid him and got out to look for another taxi.

None had heard of the restaurant nor the street it was in, so we decided in the next one to give directions from the map in my guide book. This, however, resulted in our taking one turning rather late, and suddenly a policeman was standing in our path pointing his gun straight at the driver. After a very slow few seconds we stopped. The policeman, still pointing his gun at the driver, approached, and started shouting at him. We didn’t really understand what was being said, although at one point, spotting his audience of foreigners in the car, the policeman asked us if it was a good thing to drive straight towards a policeman. “Non, c’est pas bon”, we chorused, repeatedly, as he basked in the attention. Whilst our driver searched around for his papers the policeman decided to chat to the two blondes in the back seat. He soon realised that we were not native French speakers, and he tried out, “Good evening, how are you?”, and when we answered him in English he laughed delightedly and suddenly the tension was broken. Our driver was taken away for a short time but returned smiling – we could only assume the ‘fine’ was smaller than he had feared – and we continued on our way. The restaurant turned out to be a boarded-up shell, that looked as though it had closed down many years ago.

I visited some of the countryside around Lomé, including a 6am pirogue trip on Lac Togo to see the fisherman, and that was where I first encountered the signs of voodoo – a ‘sacred forest’ beside the lake and fetishes outside several of the houses in the Togoville village, old chicken feathers and palm oil evidencing recent ceremonial sacrifices. Whilst many Togolese now follow Islam or Christianity, the traditional animist beliefs have not died.

So back in Lomé I found a spare hour to visit the Akodessewa Fetish Market, supposedly the biggest in West Africa. A fetish is any object imbued with some of the sacred power of the voodoo spirits. Fetishers, with their special spiritual powers, are intermediaries between the spirits and the people, and can use their powers to create fetishes, often used by believers as medicines or protective talismans. The market was full of stalls displaying the ingredients used by the fetishers, and behind them the little rooms where they make their diagnoses (the picture actually shows me holding a dead snake, but perhaps a dog's head would have been more visible in the photo...).

The ingredients on show were all from animals: dead snakes, bats, owls and chameleons; porcupine quills; hippopotamus and elephant bones; and decaying dried heads of monkeys, chimpanzees, crocodiles, vultures, big cats, etc. They assured me that they didn’t kill any animals but merely collected up dead ones. I wonder. Apparently the remains can be ground up to use in various potions. The smell wasn’t too bad but it was quite an astonishing sight. Cat and horse lovers shouldn’t look at the photos at some of the ingredients on display below if you are easily upset.