We were let through the gate that spanned across the narrow road, leaving Ghana with our exit stamps in our passports, we cycled over the pretty bridge and river that marked the border. Vegetation hung over the road and water making it a magical garden of Eden. This was a quiet and remote crossing and soon we were greeted by Togolese border police, relaxing under a large shade, one guy asleep lying back in a reclined chair.
The question of visas came up, which we were hoping would be issued here at the border, as Togo has a policy of giving a seven day visa on arrival, but we were worried at this remote spot would they do it. We had left Ghana and now at the Togo frontier, we had a problem when they said no visas no entry. We don’t issue them here. It was a big hill we had cycled up from Ghana, plus the problem of trying to re enter Ghana, we did not want to go back. As so often is the case in these situations, smiling, chatting and letting some time pass, a solution normally comes forward. The Togolese were helpful and friendly. The conversation went round in circles in a mixture of French and English. “You do not have visas, so you cannot enter Togo, but you do not want to go back, what can we do?” they said time and time again. Eventually the chief, there were three police, came up with a plan as there was another border crossing 35km away. Leave your bike here, go on the back of a motorbike with police escort to the other place get your visas and return. It was a great result. The policeman sleeping in the recliner chair was woken, two motorbikes with drivers were hired, a ‘fee’ of €20 was paid to the chief for the inconvenience of sending his sleeping border police representative with us.
We were happy, it didn’t look good though, our bike impounded at a remote border location, our passports in the hands of the police, a tortuous journey of seventy kilometres clinging onto the back of a motor bike on rough mountain roads through thick jungle. But we have been in Africa for quite some time now and felt fine about the situation and completely trusted everyone. Helen and I on one bike and policeman, with our passports, on the other, we set off, hurtling along the twisty hilly road. Arms and legs aching from the unnatural position of clinging onto the motorbike we eventually returned some hours later to be reunited with our bike, and with visas in our passports we were released legally into Togo.
We set off on the now familiar road. The scenery and jungle was stunning. Huge tall trees covered the mountain sides. There was the noise of water running and cascading over boulders deep into the thick green forest. All kinds of oversized bold verdant plants were scattered here and there around the forest floor. Huge flat, deep green, and arching, they intertwine to make impenetrable vegetation. Hot and tired we stop for lunch in a shady glade by a small river trickling it’s way through the overhanging forest. Waterfalls tumble from high rock slabs, shooting down to pools, and then continuing on their way between and over large boulders, through the vibrant forest. We stop for a swim in one such plunge pool, an idyllic magical setting and experience, with the fall cascading down close to us.
The broken road twisted and climbed, hills all around us, and eventually we reached the top and had the long freewheel down to Kpalime, leaving the shade of the mango trees that arched over the road we were deposited into civilisation, traffic, and people. We met our first tourists for six weeks and stayed at a rather loved place run by a Togolese lady from Normandy. They served great French food which we enjoyed very much and stayed two nights.
Leaving the bustling market town we were soon back on red gravel tracks crossing a rural scene. It felt good to be back in a relaxed quiet Francophone country. The greetings are gentle, the sound systems less, and the looks of astonishment change to the most beaming broadest smiles you can imagine, as we cycle past peoples lives going on.
The coffee shack has reappeared, places we love to take a break and chat with people about local things. Had a great meeting with Patrick, a Peace Corp volunteer working for over two years on small scale agriculture projects in villages. A young lad, recently finished University, and thought he would do this work. We have much respect for these people living on their own for a long time in an African village doing work they believe in. It’s a demanding role and so different to the voluntourism/ cv enhancing/ picture at an orphanage, type trips to developing countries that are now so popular with young people.
The familiar ochre colour tracks lead us across Togo. This colour so much depicts the Africa scene. Villages of just a few mud huts come up every so often, set within the cultivated landscape. The schools are simple, mainly open sided under grass roofs. The classrooms spread out round a swept mud space with one or two trees to provide some shade.
Soon we were at our next and final border, crossing into Benin. My parents had worked here thirty five years ago, and we had done a trip back with Becky and Katy some ten years ago, so had many fond memories of the place.
We had entered the old Dan kingdom of Abomey, with its many decaying red mud palaces. Each new king extravagantly built a new palace. It’s rare to find monuments and structures from history in West Africa so this is quite an impressive site. However much of it is returning to the ground, large impressive walls the same colour as the surrounding mud fallen over, leaving a few fragmented sections standing with trees growing around. Kids play football in front of one of the more substantial in tact palaces.
In Benin we see a return of the Maquis, the social beer and food gardens. Real French bread is back too, all much more like Côte d’Ivoire and a pleasant change from the sickly sweet bread of Ghana.
The land is almost continual cultivation, rather than forest which just remains in patches, all kinds of vegetables and a lot of cotton and palm oil plantations. The tall elephant grass, towering twelve feet tall and coming right up to the roadside that I remembered from way back had mainly gone and there was farming instead. This is the best agriculture we have seen, using compost too. It’s such a contrast from earlier in our journey in Guinea and Sierra Leone where there just wasn’t cultivated land and people just didn’t seem to be interested in farming. It was almost that there was a stigma attached to people who worked the land. It shocked us that everything was imported, sacks of onions from Holland, rice from Vietnam, and all kinds of tinned and packaged items like mayonnaise, eaten in vast amounts, sardines, and tomato purée all from Morocco or Europe. As our journey has moved eastwards we see more items that are home grown, although there is still a fair amount imported.
It is Sunday, and as we have become used to the singing, music, and dancing from the church services, we are not disappointed by Benin. The churches might be more simple with either open sides or bamboo-screened side walls, but the performance was spectacular filling the air with the sounds of African drums, melodious singing from brightly dressed women, shaking their bodies enthusiastically to the music.
On an evening visit to the market to stock up on supplies we hear the beat of drums wafting through the busy streets lined with stalls selling all kinds of things. We follow the sound. There is dancing, chanting, singing and tall masked dancers. The eerily masked people preyed on individuals, moving through the crowd that had gathered. The person’s face was obscured by mesh. This was the voodoo and each masked individual, a fetisher, gave a message to the people about different aspects of life, may it be about fertility, infidelity, health, or disputes. It was a colourful occasion and atmospheric. There was excitement, mixed with apprehension, and the children were scared by the unrecognisably, anonymous masked creatures.
We continued across Benin on lovely red mud footpaths. The villages were poor and the buildings simple, blending into the landscape. There was farming everywhere, well cared for plots, and larger cotton and palm oil plantations too. It was really nice to be back in countryside, stopping at little villages. Cycling through people’s lives, normal daily stuff going on around us. Such a different world to the one we come from.
Eventually in the distance a cement factory looms on the horizon, like a huge monument, standing high above the hazy trees and vegetation on the dusty skyline, looking like something not from this land at all. It is the construction of this alien that brought my parents to Benin thirty five years ago. We loved living in Benin back then and still had a very good friend, Pierre, he was like part of our family and still lived here in Onigbolo. We didn’t know where, but had an old photo of him, and sure enough everyone knows everyone, and they recognised Pierre and directed us to his house. It was an emotional meeting and lovely to see him after so many years.
Our next stop and reunion, was to find the Rolley tribal village that we used to visit, and became good friends with. Pierre’s friend Mathew, the son of the late Rolley chief, showed us the way along little winding paths through cultivated land eventually leading to taller forest that concealed the village. The path opened out into a larger space of cleanly swept mud with village huts and grain stores surrounding. Paths lead between mud buildings and opened out to other spaces surrounded by mud and grass huts. Large pots of food bubble over open fires. Some of the old ladies had their chests and arms intricately tattooed with indigo. This used to be more common, but now the young don’t do this.
The village was the same as it always was, an isolated haven set in its own time, carrying on as it always has done, a sharp contrast from the cement factory that loomed in the near distance. The people were still warm hearted and welcoming like before and remembered our family. One guy went off to his house and returned with some old photos from thirty five years ago that he had been keeping safely. They were of us, and a particularly good picture of my dad.
We managed with not great mobile coverage to link up a video call with my mum whilst in the village. This brought much entertainment and was a moving event, a true mixture of modern technology and a very traditional way of life.
We said our farewells and headed on our way to Pobe the local market town where we stayed the night.
The next day it was nice sandy tracks through plantations to Sakete and then onto the main road to Porto Novo, the capital city, which stands on the edge of a large lagoon, where traditional timber boats and water hyacinth islands drift by.
We enjoyed Porto Novo, although busier than we had been used to, it had charm with its faded glory of decaying colonial buildings and tree lined streets. We visited the markets, and got some garish African clothes made, more for the tailor experience rather than for regular clothing. Stopped at the Maquis for a relaxing Beninoise beer or two while watching the world go by. And had an incredibly stimulating guided visit to the Ethnographic museum. Not normally too good at being proper tourists but this was very well done and brought to life by the charismatic guide who spoke excellent English.
Another highlight of Porto Novo was the visit and tour of the Songhaï centre, a fascinating sustainable agricultural project that really worked. A vibrant place with energy and enthusiasm. All sorts of people on courses and working the place, taking the knowledge and skills to other parts of Benin and West Africa. It’s rare to see a project doing so well and it had been going for more than thirty years. It was an inspirational visit and we learnt a lot. Not only is it all about crops and animal husbandry, it covers all aspects of food production, waste disposal, animal feed, compost, sewage treatment using hyacinth beds, packaging, and energy production from bio digesters. The vision is based on the model Songhaï village, and projects can take elements of these processes to use on their own work.
This place really brought a lot of our thought processes together, and may well have influenced us to perhaps get involved in some work like this when we are in our sixties. On our West Africa journey and the Himalayan trip we have built up a view of some of the problems that face particularly rural populations. You get to see life going on so much when you are on a bike, people cooking, working the land, washing and going to the loo, collecting the water, and house building. Water purification, rainwater collection, sewage treatment, agricultural techniques using a little mechanisation, and using fertilisers derived from organic waste are areas we have become interested in, particularly at the village level. Who knows where the future will take us. We still have more global journeys to do that maybe will shape another chapter in our lives.
Down at a small dock at the lagoon side where tiny boats heavily loaded with sand were being slid through the flowering water hyacinths to have their cargos unloaded by hand into waiting lorries, we meet a tall kindly smiling chap, Mamoudou, wearing a long white robe and an Islamic hat perched on his head. We had heard about stilt villages out across the lagoon, that had grown up back in history to keep away from the slave hunters that plagued this part of the world. The British, Portuguese, French and Danish, paid local kings and chiefs in guns and cloth to get slaves that were shipped in their thousands to the Americas.
Chatting with Mamoudou, who was staying at an Islamic retreat next to the dock where he was spending time meditating between times at work in Porto Novo as an accountant, we were soon on the way to organising a boat to visit villages. Another tall chap, Emille, dressed in a strikingly colourful robe seemed to be the boatman, perhaps the boss for the sand moving operations, and we soon had a trip arranged. Mamoudou kindly offered a place to park our bike in the Islamic retreat while we were away on the lagoon.
We slipped out through the sections of floating water hyacinth and followed channels through the massive mats of vegetation, flowers protruding above this floating green land. Small rickety pirogues went by full of sand, being carefully punted along. Muscular dark skinned men standing chest high in the water were collecting sand in large bowls from the lagoon bed and painstakingly filling the small wooden boats. This was hard back breaking work to fuel construction in the city. So often the beginning of the supply chain is so labour intensive for something that must be such a low value material. It reminding me of the rock collection and breaking in North Bangladesh. Hard harsh livelihoods for poor people at the beginning of the building process for people in cities.
Others were casting nets, or picking through fishing traps, and others were ferrying people to markets. It was a busy scene out on the water and a separate world. All aspects of life were going on, school, church, farming, cooking and fishing; on the waterways, on islands and in stilted villages. The houses with their bamboo floors that creaked under foot, walls that ventilated through vertical split bamboo or palm frond, and grass thatched roofs, stood on chunky bamboo stilts or also very often concrete ones. This must be a worthwhile investment for longevity.
Children played around like everywhere else, and people smiled and chatted on their verandas out the front of their raised dwellings. After a walk about on one island among stilted bamboo houses that lined the lagoon side, we returned to Porto Novo through the hyacinth choked waterways of the lagoon.
All that was left now for our journey was to get to Cotonou, go in search for cardboard, make a box, work out how to get us and ourselves to the airport. Another trip complete. Banjul to Benin, all done, no more struggling on rough dusty roads, just the satisfying memories of lovely people and experiences that will always remain with us.