April 28, 2007

I hate Togo.
I love Togo.

I hate Togo (their border guards anyhow).

Okay, hate is a strong word. I almost hate. If you are reading this and are from Togo, know people from Togo or are the President of Togo, then I apologize now if I offend you (except the president as he doesn’t belong in that position from what I can tell),…..but I am speaking of my experience. My strong feelings are also a little biased and based on the behavior of a select group of people, not all of Togo.

One of my goals when coming back to Ghana this time was to spend some time in the neighbouring countries of Togo and Benin, mainly just to check out some of their musical/cultural practices as they bear close relation to the Ewes of Ghana. (Due to reasons beyond the scope of this e-mail, we decide to just go to Togo. I don’t want to bore anyone with logistical details) It always begins and ends at the border. Passing through Ghana’s border, walking over the narrow strip of No Man’s Land and we (me and Ledzi that is) are on Togolese soil. It sort of reminds me of crossing from Canada into the US, a strange feeling overcomes you and some sense of difference is there, whether it be from one’s own mind or the collective vibration of the people, the land and its history. May it be the difference in colonial masters?? Ghana being British and Togo being French (and both having German occupation for some time). Maybe it is the violent, oppressive and fear-inducing leadership that Togo has had over the years of “independence” which still cripples its people and the country’s development. Whatever it is, its there and the Togolese speak very good French, and the majority of them at that. Now don’t get me wrong, Togo is a beautiful country with beautiful people, they just are not as outgoing as the everyday Ghanaian for reasons unknown to me. The ones I meet are the same Ewe people as their Ghanaian cousins yet there is a clear difference in the consciousness. I decided to go northern Togo and try and see some people I had met 5 years back. We join a much too cramped van and I try and make myself thinner as I’m sandwiched between two heavy mamas and their infants plus another fellow at the end making 1+1.5+1+1.5 per seat. Arriving in the small village of Datcha I recognize where we need to go. But first nature calls and I end up using the toilet in the chief’s house. This proves interesting as this chief, who should be helping people, especially visitors, ends up deceiving us in the end. You see, I was looking for some people from Benin who play a very sweet type of music using calabashes (hollowed out gourds) and water known as gota or tchingoume, which I’d like to learn more about. Relaying this to the chief in my bad French and Ledzi’s good Ewe, he says he can help us. He says he is not aware of any Fon (Benin people) in this area and that we should return in the evening. That night, we wait for the chief and then wait for his people to come and play gota for us. When Ledzi translates for me, it becomes clear that the chief has not brought the Fon people to us at all but his own friends who do play gota and wish to collect a sum of money for their performance and any lessons (to be expected). Now the problem with all of this is that the next day, small boy finally brought us to the Fon village! It was good omen. Brilliant lightening illuminated our discussion and a cool breeze was at our back from the distant rains. Explaining our situation to them, they in fact tell us that those Datcha people learnt the gota from them!! So the chief (and most of his surrounding people) lied to us by saying they didn’t know of any Fon people in the area. Then he brings us some people who don’t even know the music that well and requires us to pay them/him for each meeting, which occurs at night, never on time, and with almost 50 other people watching, isn’t the best atmosphere for learning and asking questions. I am fuming at this point. I don’t even want to see the chief again as I might insult him and let my anger show. Luckily, Ledzi talked me into being cool, staying true to our agreement and not let our anger or newfound knowledge show. Somehow that happened as I thanked the chief and his people for what they had shown us said I was satisfied and went home. It wasn’t a total lie.

The next day was the complete opposite. We went to visit our Fon friends in their village and upon entering the area felt a huge sense of openness and freedom. Nothing bad would happen to day with these people. They accumulate slowly. First the instruments come out. Weathered and bowl-shaped calabashes including a large bottle shaped one, some gankogui (bells) and water buckets. When put upside down in the water, the calabashes give a warm, mellow sound when struck and the large one has deep bass voice that cuts through the rest. On top of this the bells have a conversation which even though simple, can easily lose you. A small bird-like whistle chirps in periodically over the chorus of voices and the cream of the whole thing is the dancing. I don’t think I have seen people dance like this before. It is the women who have the moves here. It seems as if the different parts of their bodies are independent of each other yet connected!! The feet move in three while the torso is in two or vice-versa. Or all as one unit which shakes wonderfully to the music across the earth from one end of the group to the other. An audio-visual treat if there ever was one. When we finish an hour later, addresses, pleasantries and gifts are exchanged and we implore each other to stay in touch this time. Best of all though, is that the fellow in charge, Kodjo, has two extra large gourds he can sell to me at a very reasonable price. Being a rarity in Canada, and even in Ghana/Togo at this time of year, I gladly buy them from him and cradle them like children all the way back to Ghana.

I returned to Togo a couple of days later to attend a wedding more like a court case with a judge who told jokes, gave lessons in morality and ridiculed people…very strange. I crossed the border on the now bad advice of a Togolese immigration official who said that although my visa expires tonight, I should have no problem returning tomorrow. Well, problem there was. Trying to leave Togo the next day was a bit of an ordeal. The man in charge said the visa was expired meaning I’d have to go back to the city, wait till the next day (Monday), get a new visa, then return the following day and leave for Ghana. A great expense it would be in both time and money and peace of mind. I felt like just running to Ghana as it was less than 50 feet away but perhaps that would not be the best idea for all parties involved. After more pleading, some hidden insults from the man and thoughts of what to do, I decided to find another official who promptly agreed to give me the exit stamp for half the price of what it would have cost me “officially”. I won’t be returning to Togo anytime soon. My ears always bring me to interesting things. One day at a bus station, I am intrigued by some music that sounds foreign to these parts yet familiar as well. Following the sound a friend I recognize takes me to the place….a funeral, or at least the last day of a 3 day funeral. Many of the bereaved are actually from Benin and Togo and they have invited some musicians from Benin. To me it seems they may have been performing through the night up till midday. All the musicians’ eyes have that glaze of sleep deprivation and intoxication…but no shortage of energy. The music is unique. Two very low pitched drums played with hands have a conversation while another tension type of talking drum is played by the one who brings the dancers to life. It ebbs and flows as single dancers make their way to the fore. Once there, they seem to behave as if possessed (though I know they are not) but give off that vibration. Children become afraid while others laugh. It is powerful all the same. Then with a cutting slap from one of the drummers, the energy kicks up a notch as does the volume and the dancer hovers low to the ground, knees bent and kicking while his arms sway gracefully and slowly as if he is weaving something and spinning at the same time. It is beautiful. This fellow ends and another comes forward. He gives off the same vibe but then he grabs a woven sleeping mat and wraps himself in it and dances…shaking, nodding and spinning in time. It is quite striking as it seems as if the mat has actually come to life and is greeting everyone and enjoying the music. The whole thing seemed to be a cross between a vodu ceremony and a circus. Of course, I had no camera with me as I hadn’t planned on seeing this. The best things usually don’t get captured anyhow.

My life seems to have taken on a routine of some sort, or at least is being composed of some key elements. They include: drums, dance, song, moonshine, lots of cornflour in many forms, the same of palm oil, waiting, rituals in the day or through the night, sweat, mosquito repellent, funerals, long, dusty and sweltering walks and many other things in no particular order of importance. It is all good though…I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The last few weeks, like the ones before them, have been full and enriching and at times trying. I can only relay so much and some things I can’t relay at all.

So I’ll stop now.


APRIL 28, 2007
MAY 20, 2002