Trans Africa update - Ghana, Togo & Benin

Here is the next update from Nev & Kristy our crew running the Oasis Trans Africa expedition and a few members of the group of their tales and stories of their adventure.

GHANA – By Katie…..
My first thought when we crossed the border from Burkina Faso into Ghana was that it was so good to be able to speak English again after 2 months of struggling with French. It was also the first predominantly Christian country we had been to since Spain. This was immediately apparent from the huge number of Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Evangelist (etc. etc.) churches on the sides of the roads and the shop names which are almost exclusively something to do with God or Jesus such as “Jesus Lives Hair Salon” or “Praise the Lord Electrical Goods”.

From the moment we crossed the border we were travelling almost directly south until we hit the coast. From about mid Ghana onwards we hit the humid climate quite suddenly which was a real shock to the system. Any small amount of exertion seemed to bring on extreme sweating…all the more reason to search out a cold beer wherever possible.

Mole National Park was one of our first destinations in Ghana and an opportunity for the first wildlife spotting of our trip. Although animals are few and far between compared with the parks in Southern Africa; for those seeing their first elephants in their natural habitat it was always going to be an exciting moment. We were not disappointed. The moment we arrived at the campsite area perched on a rocky escarpment above the tree dotted plains we spotted a family of elephants wallowing in the large muddy watering hole below us surrounded by grazing antelope. There happened to be a swimming pool (the first of our trip) and a bar with a perfect view of the surroundings so naturally we spent the afternoon there watching the wildlife below us and the occasional warthog that sauntered by just metres from us.

Kumasi, a city in central Ghana, used to be the capital of the Asante kingdom; one of the most powerful nations in West Africa in the middle of the 19th century. It still oozes with the traditions and customs of this tribe whose power was all but destroyed by war with the British.  Kumasi is also home to the largest market in West Africa and possibly on the entire continent. It is a rabbit warren of corrugated iron roofed stalls sprawling over a huge area dissected by a disused railway line and spilling out into the surrounding streets. The market is easy to find as all roads seem to lead to it and every man, woman and child seems to be walking to or away from it. Once inside, women and young girls swarm like lines of ants weaving around obstacles, over train tracks and anything in their path. The majority balance impossibly bulky and heavy loads on their heads with grace and apparent ease. There is really no choice once inside but to join one of these columns and move at its pace until you find a nook to duck into and take a breather! There are very clearly defined zones to the market; fresh fruit and vegetables, cloth and tailoring, cheap tacky jewellery, linen, dried fish and other meats etc. There was always the exception however, such as when we came across a nail bar in the middle of the dried fish section – a very smelly place to have a pedicure! This was not in the least bit a touristy market but really for everyday basics and necessities so there was no hassle from the sellers, only curiosity and welcoming smiles. The 6 of us that went together had an incredible experience just wandering around but this was topped off when we came across a hair braiding stall. Both Josh and Steven were both sporting long topped mullets which they decided would be perfect for corn rows. The ladies at the stall and all the onlookers thought this was hilarious (apparently men do not get their hair braided!).

Cape Coast is a town on the coast of Ghana west of Accra that is home to one of the most significant slave forts in the country’s history. We escaped to a beach resort not far from here while we waited for our Nigerian visas to be processed in Accra which gave us a chance to visit this haunting reminder of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade. Entering one of the airless dungeons where 200 slaves were held for up to 2 months in near total darkness with only the tiniest window was an eye-opening experience. The strong men were kept shackled so they couldn’t fight back and they had to sit in their own excrement which built up to a maximum of about half a metre high during their 2 month stay. Many died in these conditions through starvation, diarrhoea and disease and their bodies were left to decompose until the slaves were ready to be shipped out. I can’t even imagine how bad the smell would be.

In stark contrast to the sobering history of the slave trade, the beach where we stayed was one of the most beautiful I have ever been to. The coconut palms swayed in the gentle breeze over the white sand leading down to the crashing waves of the Gulf of Guinea – the perfect place to while away a few days before heading back to Accra and onwards along the coast to our next country – Togo. 

TOGO – By Amy….
Togo is quickly racing up the list to become my new favourite African nation. I am even an official resident of Lome! “Perdre le Nord” ( Losing North) is a French expression used to describe a situation in which a person feels completely lost, confused or bamboozled! There is no better way to describe the abrupt shift in culture between Christian Ghana and Voodoo dominated Togo. Well when you’re lost, the best way to find north is to explore the craziness! So Knowing nothing about voodoo most of us took off to experience

Togo’s famous fetish market. This market offers up a plethora of unique and disgusting dead things that people travel far and wide to obtain for medicinal uses. A skinned cat was splayed out to dry in the sun, gorilla feet, cheetah heads, antelope heads, and various other heads all sat in neatly stacked rows ready and waiting for eager consumers. Voodoo priests were on hand to cure any ailments we may have had yet none of us could quite fathom how those heads could help anything! The experience was unique to say the least and the energy of the place was strange but not as creepy as one might expect. At lake Togo some of us continued our exploration of Voodoo with a visit to Togoville to meet Mama Kponu , the supreme priestess of Voodoo in Togo. In order to go in and see her, we needed to be dressed appropriately. Traditionally, that would be naked wearing only a straw skirt. Nowadays, it means covered in a cotton wrap with no clothing showing. We all shed our tops & participated in a clapping ritual in order to ask permission to enter.  She sat with us and answered all our questions about Voodoo. We all got bracelets blessed and tied on our wrists. This is meant to ward off evil and allow safe passage wherever we may go!

Other group members enjoyed the tranquil day at a local beer kiosk on the side of the road with one table and chickens running amuck! They enjoyed a meal of spaghetti with omelettes on top. Toilet breaks proved interesting! In some cases the owner digs individual holes for his guests, in other cases people are lead to a cement floor and can’t help but wonder how THAT works!

While in Togo, we also enjoyed meeting many friendly and not so friendly embassy officials as we set out on the arduous task of obtaining visas for the next few countries. Mr.& Mrs. DRC were friendly and for a fee, helped us jump through all the red tape necessary to go to their country while Mr. Gabon was a bit more of challenge. After a few days, some schmoozing and a lot of patience we were ready to continue on….

BENIN – By Katie….
Benin, like its neighbour Togo, has a culture steeped in voodoo and fetish and a horrifying past in the form of the slave trade. Nowhere is this more apparent than the town of Ouidah where we visited the Python Temple (complete with live snakes) and the house of the head honcho of Voodoo (the locals called it the “Vatican of Voodoo”). Ouidah was also home to the Route des Esclaves – a four-kilometre sand track that was walked by millions of slaves from various holding points in the town to the coast, where they would be shipped away to numerous locations around the globe. Some of us walked this route with a guide who brought this experience to life, showing us land marks such as the tree of forgetfulness – slaves were forced to walk around this to symbolise forgetting their previous life, religion and culture… “To become a people with no will to react or rebel”. Where the track reaches the sea there is a huge archway – the Door of No Return – a monument decorated with disturbing depictions of slaves leaving their homeland in shackles (on the outbound side of the monument) and returning as ghosts of their former selves on the inbound side.

We carried on our way into Cotonou, the largest city in Benin, in search of our campsite for the night. We were first thwarted by low slung power lines which made our preferred route impassable so we embarked on a lengthy detour that took us right into the centre of the bustling town. Trundling along beside a railway line we passed a police checkpoint but were not waved down, it was only after we passed that one came out into the road and looked at us and then frantically started blowing on his whistle. This was ineffectual as Nev drove on oblivious. Soon enough the flashing blue lights appeared and we pulled over to find out what was the problem. The irate policeman informed Nev that we had been driving in a “truck free zone” (not that there were any signs to let us know this). He confiscated Nev’s licence and truck papers (without which we couldn’t leave the country) and told him to report to the police station. The next morning after some help from our campsite owner who told the police that tourists should be welcomed not hassled, the papers and licence were safely returned – not without a request for a contribution to the upkeep of the police station!  Unsurprisingly it always seems to come down to money.

After this slight delay we were on our way to Ganvie stilt village, probably Benin’s biggest tourist attraction. We piled into boats which took us out about 20 minutes into the lake where the village is. There are no paths just waterways and everyone travels by dugout canoe. The market stalls were canoes piled high with tomatoes and onions in the middle of an open area of water and houses are precariously balance on poles high above the water. Unfortunately some people here demanded money aggressively and others hid their faces to avoid photos which marred the experience. It was clear that tourism here was not having a positive effect on the local people and likely the money that we paid to visit the village was not filtering down to the locals but lining the pockets of someone in charge.

Our last afternoon in Benin was spent trying in vain to reach the border with Nigeria but the convoy of huge trucks all travelling at a snail’s pace meant this was impossible. With the roadside completely lacking in potential campsites and dusk fast approaching we had no choice but to pull into a dirt area in the middle of the village. Given the ability of people in Africa to appear out of nowhere at even the most remote campsite we were pretty sure we would have visitors here. Sure enough, people immediately started appearing from doorways and out of the fields. Men, women and children all gathered to watch the bizarre spectacle of us setting up camp and soon the little kids were collecting firewood and hammering in tent pegs as they all wanted to join in. We gave them popcorn and some spare clothes, they gave us oranges and pineapples. Bare breasted mothers fed their babies whilst watching us eat; children were allowed to stay out past 10pm when usually they would be fast asleep much earlier. One man asked why our men were doing the cooking and washing up as this is unheard of in their culture, another told us that we were a sign from God as white people had never stopped in their village in living memory. It was altogether a very memorable evening for everyone.

Fancy an adventure? Find out more about our Trans Africa Expedition!

Look out for the next episode and many more tales and adventures to come from Africa soon!