Saturday, October 27, 2012

It All Ended In A Blur

Benin and Togo

Map picture

I am sorry that I left everyone hanging after Cameroon, but our cruise ended with a blur of activity. Each of our last two days lasted around 12 hours; so we would leave the ship around 7am each day and return around 7pm. As you may understand that left us very little time to do much else, but eat dinner and prepare for the next day, and then somehow to return late and have our bags outside our rooms for an early departure when the cruise finally ended back in Accra, Ghana.

After leaving Cameroon, our ship gave Nigeria a very wide berth before docking at Cotonou, Benin. The Republic of Benin is a long and narrow little country squeezed between Nigeria on one side and Togo on the other. It is home to around 9 million people who are derived from 42 different ethnic groups. The literacy rate is low at 35%, and the life expectancy is only 52 years. As a former colony of France, French is widely spoken along with many tribal languages. Benin is where Voodoo originated and it still widely practiced, alongside of Roman Catholicism. However, in the north of Benin it is Muslim, and they do not tolerate any other religions in that area.

As we boarded our buses early in the morning for our first outing, we were amazed to see that each bus had onboard a Police officer armed not only with a mean looking sidearm, but also a submachine gun. DSC07959Our guide happily told us how safe we were and not to worry, but I suspect that there had to be a reason for the Police presence besides simply giving them something to do for the day. From what I could see, the people we met were all friendly and I personally felt no threat. However, the population is so poor that I suspect if an opportunity presented itself, where we could be relieved of our cameras, for example, that would probably represent more than several years’ worth of income on the black market.

Our first activity was an exciting trip to Lake Nokoue where we visited the floating village of Ganvie. After driving for over an hour over bumpy roads, we arrived at a colorful market area where people from the village came in their dugout canoes to sell their fish and to trade for goods. DSC07948Meanwhile we boarded small wooden boats and set out on the Lake to reach the fishing village of Ganvie. The village itself is built on stilts made of teak wood, and the homes for the most part are either bamboo or hand cut wood with tin roofs. The entire community is literally floating and all movement is by small dugout canoes; it was very colorful and interesting. Everyone was excited by our visit, the children in particular. Many of the women, while friendly, would put something over their faces in order that we did not take their photograph for fear that we would “capture” their spirit. DSC08043After a boat tour of the village where we saw their Cathedral and the local school, our boats were paddled over to a very large floating market. In the central courtyard, chairs had been arranged around the perimeter in order that we could be honored to watch a local voodoo festival. The costumes were amazingly colorful and the performances were quite unlike anything I have seen before. DSC08126The Elders of the tribe all sat looking on in very colorful costumes, while the young novices put on some truly amazing performances. They carried huge elaborately decorated circular vestments which had a hole in the center through which they put their heads. During the ceremony, they would throw the vestment up in the air as if making a large pizza and proceed to spin it around. DSC08191They had all kinds of fancy maneuvers all the while spinning their cloth vestment. Sometimes two novices together would throw their vestment into the air, and then each one would trade with the other, all the while keeping the vestment spinning. At the end, they spun it high in the air and then neatly allowed it to fall to their shoulders just so that their head was again in the center. I tried to take some video, and I truly hope I can learn how to incorporate that into our DVD. Once the festivities started, I was told that it would go on for hours. We departed after about one hour, and the group was still going strong – it was an amazing look into the local culture of the Tofinu people.

Once again we battled the local roads, if you can call them “roads.” We were going to a “beach resort” for lunch, and when we turned onto the final road leading to the resort, they told us to hold on a little longer because we only had 3 km to go, or about 2 miles. Well those 2 miles might as well have been 60 miles, because the “road” was so bad that it took almost an hour to cover that little distance. Of course after lunch, we had to travel back along that same road – I kept thinking as the bus lurched and bumped it way along “enough is enough!”

After lunch, we visited three places, none of which was really of much interest. They really do not have much in the way of interesting tourist attractions, and so the government has supported the creation of some “tourist” spots. First, we stopped at a monument named the “Route des Esclaves.” DSC08317Then we moved to the Historical Museum of Ouidah, which was nothing more than an abandoned French fort from the colonial era, DSC08336and finally they took us to “The Sacred Forest.” This I really did not get. It was a majestic grove of huge trees among which were some sculptures to serve as reminders of the plight of the slaves. DSC08362There was an old man there dressed in White with a young girl by his side. Everyone took pictures, but what it all meant “kinda got lost on me.” We finally limped back to the ship after a very long day, grabbed dinner, and fell into bed for yet another long day ahead!

Early the next morning we arrived at Lome, Togo. Togo is again a Republic, and is home to around 7 million people. It seemed to be somewhat more prosperous than its neighbor Benin, but still the life expectancy is only 61 years while the literacy rate is 61%. It too was at one time a French Colony. Our first stop was to visit a traditional bush school of the Ewa village where we met the teachers and their students. DSC08486As we had done on our previous cruise, passengers had brought along school supplies to be donated to the school, and the ship had collected the supplies for distribution. They were piled high on several tables and were warmly accepted by the school staff. While all they had for a classroom was a bamboo covered open sided structure, it was clean and functional. DSC08524The children were so happy to see us, and quite obviously they had dressed up for the occasion. Frankly the entire village compound was spotless but Spartan. After we visited with the children, trying as best we could to communicate, they all lined up and begin to sing for us – it was a really good experience. Once again, our chef had made a large number of cupcakes for the youngsters, and once again as they were handed out, the kids were not sure what they were until we showed them how to pull the paper off.

You might get a kick out of the “bathroom” facilities that had been prepared for us. Off to one side of the compound several large and colorful sheets had been hung. I was told that the bathrooms were behind the wall of sheets. Well – kinda; behind the wall of colorful sheets were four square enclosures, each made up of yet more colorful sheets. It was unisex all the way, because when you entered the little area and pulled the sheet behind you, all you had in front of you was a hole that had been dug in the ground, along with a contraption that you could sit on that served as a toilet seat. A local native served as a kind of traffic cop pointing people to the next available unit. I asked him if he would mind holding my camera while I used the tent, which he obliged. Little did I ever imagine that while I was relieving myself the native proceeded to use my camera to take photographs of my head over top the unit. I found his handiwork when I looked at my pictures. Well at least he had a sense of humor. DSC08527

After leaving the school, we drove for three hours to the North of Lome into the Plateaux Region reaching the base of Mount Agou the highest point in Togo. As we climbed, we arrived at the boundary between two districts at which point, our motorcade was stopped by the local authorities. Even though we had a police escort and an armed officer on each bus, the District Commander insisted that in addition one of his armed officers ride along on each bus. Once this all got worked out, we continued our drive up into the high mountain forest. We finally arrived at what appeared to be a motel of some kind where arrangements had been made for us to have lunch. We had brought our food with us, so while preparations were made, we were split into groups to go for a forest walk with a local native. I started out with my assigned group; however, I quickly saw that the group was headed into dense vegetation on a downhill sloping trail made of loose rocks and roots. There was no way I could make that journey, and so I turned back to the paved road intending to go back to the motel, when I saw that the other groups were all going downhill on the road. I figured I would tag along, but I got so engrossed in taking pictures of some of the beautiful flowers that when I looked up I was surprised to see that all of the groups had disappeared into the forest on different trails thus leaving me completely alone on the road. I was not worried at first; I figured that everyone was going downhill, so I would just continue downhill on the road assuming that even if I did not find them the busses that had passed to pick them up would at least come back up the road and I could hitch a ride. In hindsight this was a dumb decision as I merrily walked along taking pictures. From time to time, a woman carrying a baby would pass, and I smiled and took their pictures. Then a motorcycle approached carrying a young male that slowed as it approached me. He went past me slowly and then stopped and backed up to where I was taking a picture. I smiled and tried to seem nice. He then tried to sell me something or other, but it was a real uncomfortable feeling coming up my spine – his look was not all that pleasant. At that point, the sound of yet another motorcycle could be heard and he left, but the motorbike that followed had two young males who seeing me came to a complete stop and dismounted to come over to me. At this point my senses were telling me that I was not in a good spot, and smile as I may, my anxiety level was rising as they circled me, one on each side. Just then an older man came out of the forest from a small trail, and seeing the scene, he immediately came over near me and just stood. The two young boys quickly left the scene, and I resumed walking. The gentleman, all dressed in a fine robe, walked behind me on the opposite side of the road. I greeted him and he said something back, but if I stopped, he stopped. If I moved, he moved, and once again I was uncomfortable. Suddenly the road turned a corner and I could see our buses up a small incline and as I turned towards them, my companion moved on. I later saw that he was one of the members of the local welcoming committee, and it then became clear that he knew I had no business walking that road alone, and thus he had stayed with me until I was safe. Whew!

On our long drive back to the ship, we stopped at a local village on the outskirts of Lome where we were invited to observe another Voodoo ceremony or service. DSC08778This experience was quite unlike our encounter in Benin. We had fire, smoke, fire breathing participants, small explosions, and drums and singing that was so loud that Lisa and to leave with a migraine. DSC08714I did not understand a thing that was happening, even though on our way home our guide tried to explain what we had seen. I do know that the people were friendly and that several of our members were invited to join in the ceremony. After an hour we had to continue on, but we were once again told that the ceremony we saw was just getting started and that it would continue until early evening.

We arrived at our ship late, and I barely remember packing for our return home the next day.

Thus our one month adventure into West Africa came to a close. I really am sorry it has taken me so long to finish the trip; however I did not get my bags completely unpacked until two days ago, and just this morning, I finally retrieved our pictures from the cameras. I hope to post the pictures soon, and when I do, so I will send out an e-mail.

I hope everyone has enjoyed travelling with us to West Africa, and stand by because believe it or not, our next trip is to Antarctica – in three weeks.


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