Introduction - Akwaba!
Over the last fifteen years I have been to many parts of the world but for some reason or the other never made it to Africa (well, except for Egypt I guess). It all changed around the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. I got nearly four weeks of holidays to travel to West Africa, and my trip was way better than anything I had hoped for!
I wanted to go to West Africa but didn’t know where. Like most times, flight options ended up making a decision for me. I booked an open jaw ticket, starting from Washington DC, USA to Accra, Ghana and a return trip from Cotonou, Benin to Toronto, Canada. I usually try to book a return trip from another city to avoid having to backtrack to the place I started from – in this case it avoided me getting multiple entry or transit visas. Accra has lots of options, Cotonou is next, and Lome the least.
Information on visa on arrival is a bit unclear – I recommend getting them from your home country to avoid hassles at the border. You’ll still get asked for a tip, but if you have a visa in the passport, it’s easier to say no. I got my visas for Ghana from their consulate in Toronto, and for Togo I mailed it to the embassy in Ottawa. Both were approved within 3 days and the process was fast. Benin was the best experience since you could apply online. All of this together cost me around $300 CAD, including postage and other costs.
Next step was to get a Yellow fever vaccine which is mandatory. I needed to get it few weeks before my trip. In addition to Yellow fever, I also got updated with a suite of other vaccines, such as diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, and cholera. Feels super powered up now!
It is very important to me that I try to speak the predominant language of the country I’m visiting. To that end, I have picked up conversational Spanish, Russian, Turkish. It was now time to learn French. Living in Canada you sortof know a whole bunch of vocabulary, but I couldn’t put a proper sentence together. I studied the language for two months. While that same period of time seemed more than adequate for the other languages listed here, I struggled with French. In the end, I collected enough to survive. The rest will have to be learned as I go.
As an avid traveller I’m always reading about places from a traveller’s perspective. Plus a natural interest in history and geography results in a keen interest of visiting various places. I had started reading a number of culture and politics oriented articles on west Africa over an year ago. Add Lonely Planet guidebook to that to finish off location specific planning. I had three things in mind: the Ashanti festival in Kumasi, Voodoo festival in Ouidah, and spending new year’s eve on a beach. It was easy to weave an itinerary around these.
I travel with a medium sized backpack and a day bag; I’ve spent as long as three months in that setup. You can pretty much find things everywhere in the world so carry the least you can. It makes boarding airplanes so much easy with no check in luggage, at the same time the tro-tro minibus driver won’t frown at you when you’re going from village to village in Ghana.
Backpack ready, I boarded a flight, super excited for my upcoming adventure.
English-speaking Ghana in West Africa is a shining star of democracy and leadership. It has provided a model of peaceful economic development in the post colonial period, something that many other African states are struggling with. 2019 was marketed as “The Year of Return” by Ghana to mark 400 years since the first slave ship arrived in USA. It was also an opportunity to invite African Americans – about a third of who can trace their ancestry to this region of West Africa – to visit Ghana and discover their roots. I think for US Americans scared to visit Africa, Ghana is probably the safest place to visit. The people are friendly, the food is great, and everyone speaks English!
I was travelling from Yukon, Canada to Toronto in mid December, onward to Detroit to Washington DC before finally boarding my flight to Accra, Ghana. The temperature differential had been stark: from -20ºC to +35ºC. As soon as the airplane door opened, I was greeted by a hot and salty breeze – reminding me immediately of Mumbai where I grew up! Immigration done, sim card purchased, some currency exchanged, I called an Uber and went straight to Jamestown where I had booked a room in an arts cafe. I knew immediately that I was going to like this place.
Oh, and everything is a negotiation, so chatting and smiling helps, bonus points if you throw in some local words.
“But is it safe?”
This was the most frequent question people outside asked me. Let me put it this way: I was less worried here than when I’m visiting USA. These are very easy countries to travel to on your own as long as you aren’t a fussy traveller and have some kind of travel experience. It’s far safer than I had imagined – you hardly see any police, which to me is a sign of a free and safe place – and people are super chill and friendly. Of course my comment about USA was to make a point – I’m cautious to label countries as “safe” or “unsafe” just because an incident has occurred in some part of it. Read, talk to people, apply common sense. That said, I’m an older male so I have no idea what it is like for females – I did meet a number of women travelers, most of them expats.
The capital of Ghana is sprawling, but a relatively small city with 1.6 million people. Life happens at it fullest in Accra. There are many neighbourhoods to stay, some safer than others. I stayed in Jamestown, which is a historic downtown district on the ocean front, now one of the poorest parts of the city.
For the three nights I stayed in Accra, I saw the sunset and sunrise every day, or at least tried to. The coastline here is oriented in an east-west direction, and because it was winter, you could see both the sunrise and the sunset from the same spot (obviously at different times). I was a bit disappointed that neither of these were truly visible, for much of the horizon was always clouded by smoke, dust, and well, clouds. I only saw the rising sun an hour after it had risen and the setting sun an hour before it set. The beaches were active – people enjoying washing up in the waves, playing football, having a picnic, and eating. I had a lot of coconut water in the next few weeks.
Makola market is central to Accra and it spreads across a number of city blocks. Markets are full of wares – lots of plastic products, clothes, widgets – very active and noisy. Vegetable, fruit, and meat markets also form a part of this shopping district. The first thing I did was smell a bunch of coriander – it smelled exactly as I remember it, earthy, green, and very aromatic. It had been a while since I saw produce so fresh that I was tempted to buy a bunch of ingredients and cook a large vegetarian meal. However I limited myself to oranges and pineapples.
I met some excellent couchsurfers in Accra that took me on a tour to see the city and sample some of its food. I had my first taste of fufu, with a couple of types of pepe chili paste, light soup, fried fish, jollof rice, and my favourite dish of all – red red, which is a stew made from black eyed peas eaten with fried plantain. Yum! This is the reason I really like couchsurfing – I would not have discovered any of this without the people I met there. Tempting food pictures are at the end of this post.
From the current capital to the former capital, I visited Kumasi for a couple of days. The city has a different vibe to it for sure, and the weather is quite different too. I was there during harmattan, the dust storm winter season, so things were pretty dusty. I immediately developed a mild cough, which was gone in few days after leaving Kumasi.
Kejetia market, some say it’s the largest market in West Africa, feels like it nearly spans the entire city. I passed through it to visit the palace of the Ashanti king. It was an elaborate museum, and the guided tour was detailed. A big Ashanti festival was going to happen in two days – I was excited for it. Ashanti kingdom was wealthy and mighty; its influence stretched across west Africa. It is said that this place was more sophisticated than European cities before colonization and slave trade wrecked it. Ironically the Asanti were big on selling slaves first to the Portuguese then the Dutch, British, and French. Many descendants in the Americas today can trace their lineage to this region. The Ashanti believe in traditional religion and beliefs are still strong, although newer Abrahamic religions such as Christianity and Islam have now taken over.
Purely by coincidence I was in Kumasi at an auspicious time. On a Sunday once every six weeks, the Ashanti people and chiefs in Ashanti celebrate with rites relating to honouring personal and community ancestors. I was super excited to check out this festival and went to the palace grounds early. There was a lot of drumming, singing, and dancing, along with specially prepared food offerings. On this day, the Asantehene (King of Ashante) meets his subjects and subordinate chiefs in the courtyard of the Manhyia Palace and the sacred Golden Stool (throne) is displayed. While I missed that part, I did get to see a large parade with drum beaters, folk dancers, horn-blowers and singers.
I had a great time in Kumasi, also largely thanks to a couchsurfer, eating variations of fufu and banku, visiting an orphanage, and a little bit of the festival.
“Obroni, come here!”
If you aren’t black, you’ll be referred to as Obroni. People and kids in particular are always waving at you and yelling things like, “hellooo obroni!”, “come obroni eat a pineapple”, “where are you going obroni??” Obroni (in Twi) or Yevu (in Ewe language) simply means white, or in my case a foreigner, and yes I’ve eaten a pineapple every other day. You’ll hear these phrases hundreds of times, sometimes people will be talking amongst themselves but you know they are referring to you. haha.
“Yevu, yevu, Bonsoir!” Ça va yevo? Oui, ça va bien. Au Bénin et au Togo vous parlez français.
Cape Coast, Elmina, Kakum
Coming back south to the ocean, I briefly passed through the port city of Takoradi and ended up hitchhiking a bit to a guesthouse outside Elmina. I scored a large sea-facing room with pretty views. I decided to stay longer here instead of going to Cape Coast. The beach was clean, the water was clear, and the place was very quiet. I saw some neat cultural shows too.
From Cape Coast it is an easy day trip to Kakum National Park. I hitchhiked on my way there just for fun, and did the canopy walk. It was nice to be in greenery and check out this attraction.
Elmina and Cape Coast both have historic forts built by the colonial powers; now these are well kept UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In one day I visited these two of the largest slave castles in the world from where millions of slaves were shipped to the Americas and millions other perished through various stages of this torturous journey. It was a grim day that brought me to tears a couple of times. The castles have tours included in the ticket prices, and I was very impressed by both. The guides were very objective and dealt with the topic very maturely. A lot of African American tourists visit these castles since almost a third of black Americans trace their ancestry to this part of the world.
Elmina castle. Built by the Portuguese, taken over by the Dutch, and then the British. Originally a commodity trading facility it was converted to a barbaric slave dungeon after the African chiefs started trading prisoners of tribal wars with the Europeans instead of minerals. Slaves were kept here for up to 3 months, separated by men and women. Chained to each other, no separate areas for eating, sleeping, bathrooms. Disease was rampant, and the breakdown of mental strength is unimaginable. Mentally fit and capable prisoners were kept in rooms that were dark to break them down and make them lose their dignity. Archaeologists had to dig through over a foot of deposits. Food was thrown into the dark chamber and there were no bathrooms for the 150 slaves squeezed in there.
The Governor, officers, and priests/missionaries lived in lavish quarters on the upper floor. Fun fact, at both castles, churches were located right above the hellish male and female slave dungeons. It was also next to a viewing gallery from where the Governor picked a female for his pleasures. Oddly Ghanaians today are deeply and overly Christian and follow dozens of church denominations; albeit all of these pay homage to the same organized religion that wrecked their ancestors. I don’t get it.
I teared up when the tour led to the “The door of no return”, and I can feel the emotion as I write this. Slaves passing through these doors got loaded and shipped off, never to return again. On the Route des Esclaves (Route of the Slaves) in Benin, slaves used to walk in circles around a particular tree before being loaded on ships – so that their souls would know where to return upon death. How painful is that.
By now it had been almost a week since my arrival in Accra. I spent December 31st on the beach, among new travel friends from all around the world, the ocean, and a bonfire. It was very memorable and fun way to welcome the year 2020.
Wli – Volta region
A long day of travel brought me from Cape Coast to Wli. It required taking a shared taxi in Cape Coast, a minibus to Accra, another shared taxi to a bus terminal, another minibus to Ho, yet another shared taxi to Hohoe, and then a final shared taxi to Wli. Phew, made it!
Wli is a small village located in the green and mountainous Volta region and the border with Togo. This was my last stop in Ghana and couldn’t have picked a better exit point. I went on a hike to the second? highest peak in Ghana, it’s not that high, and descended to a lush valley with the famous two-level waterfall of Wli. I was absolutely thrilled to get some physical activity in. This village is very laid back, you wake up to the sounds of birds. Unfortunately I only spent a day here, in retrospect I could easily have stayed another day or two and did some more hiking in the green belt.
Spending the last of my Ghanian cedi, I walked across to the border to Togo.
Togo is to the east of Ghana and west of Benin. It is a small country, both in terms of area and population. I visited the southern part of the country – Kpalimé, Togoville, Lake Togo, and Lomé – enjoying the sights and food that the region had to offer.
Travelling from border to border along the ocean is a matter of three hours. Togo, formerly a German colony that consisted mostly of Ewe ethnic area around the maritime zone and other ethnicities in the northern part, was divided into French and British parts during WW2. The British part was merged with Ghana, while the French part became a separate country, thereby splitting the Ewe population into two. It’s an example of how the colonial powers drew arbitrary lines on a map and changed the destinies of people all over the world. Fortunately the border is peaceful.
I crossed into Togo at the village of Wli. It’s a sleepy border post with just a signpost, but the transition between English speaking Ghana and French speaking Togo was stark. I took a motorbike taxi from the border to the village of Adeta, stopping mid way to exchange some money. The motorbike belonged to a young chap who had his own rules for traversing this mountainous road that was broken in many places. I had to ask him to stop so I could stretch and adjust my backpack. Fortunately I arrived in Adeta in one piece and promptly purchased some fried plantains before taking a shared taxi to Kpalimé. The countryside was lush, hilly, and cooler than the lowlands, the drive through broken dirt roads was pleasant, and people looked the same but they spoke French!
Within a couple of hours of leaving Ghana I was in Kpalimé. It’s a village with less than 100,000 people; only a handful of roads are paved and street lights are pretty much non existent. I jumped on a motor taxi, rattling some directions in basic French “yes, left, straight, right, stop here mister”, and soon arrived at my small auberge. It had four rooms facing a circular open air patio, there was wireless internet, old African French music, and then as if someone read my mind: a cup of tea magically appeared in the garden where I was relaxing.
There are few hiking options around Kpalimé but given the smoky dusty weather none of them felt appealing. I spent two nights here, walking around the village centre, and buying a pineapple on both days – sounds easy but negotiating in French wasn’t so simple! One lady was insisting on selling it for 1,500 CFA but we ended up agreeing on a tenth of that including slicing, haha. There are a few cafes with pavilions facing main street, what I assume was a style resulting from French influence.
Lomé, the capital of Togo, feels like an endless village. It has broad streets filled with lots of motorbikes; the market district is as bustling as any other. Lomé is right on the border with Ghana. In most places the border is merely a fence, if at all, so careful walking on the beach that you don’t accidentally end up on the Ghanaian side. Well, ok it’s not that easy.
I stayed at this place about 15 minutes from downtown and next to a harbour. It was an expensive resort, but they had a large dormitory right on the water with its own bathrooms. The best part, the dorm was empty and included a very lavish breakfast on the beach. I stayed here for a number of nights, making day excursions to check out places around Lomé. This moto-taxi system is awesome!
I explored the city with different couchsurfers, saw a football match, a huge dance party event on the beach, a fetish market for voodoo practitioners, and even visited a Hindu temple!
Togoville and Lake Togo
When the Germans were a colonial power in this region, Togoville was their capital. It is located across Lake Togo and is reachable by canoe, or pirogue in French. The whole thing is also an elaborate money grab – if you are a yevu (white), you’ll be asked to pay about ten times higher than the locals, plus pay a fee at the entrance to the village. Ofcourse you can and are expected to negotiate everything. Not knowing French is actually useful in such circumstances. I am hoping that the money they collect goes to the village’s development, but I’ve heard plenty of stories of how it doesn’t. As for paying ten times the local price – I am opposed to such practices, because that’s how tourism destabilizes local economy and makes it difficult for other tourists to visit.
Lake Togo is a massive water body that is worth an excursion for sure. I happened to sail with a couple of voodoo priests that then conducted a ceremony in Togoville. They were travelling with some fetishes. A fetish is an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a human-made object that has power over others. I shared peanuts with them which they graciously accepted.
After a lazy afternoon at a restaurant on the beach, I took a canoe back across the lake and then flagged down a taxi to Lomé.
The village of Agbodrafo on the way from Lome to Aneho on the Benin border is a very pretty. I don’t know if there is any infrastructure for travellers there, but I’m sure if you just show up and ask around you’ll find something. It’s a great spot to relax and unwind by the sea side in a rural setting. There is a historic slave house here and some colonial buildings such as an abandoned church on the water.
After 4 days I was starting to get comfortable in Lomé, but then it was time to move on to Benin.
Benin is a French speaking country sandwiched between Nigeria and Togo. The main reason I was visiting Benin was to check out the Voodoo Festival “Fête du Vodoun” – held every year on January 10th. I had a great time here, visiting areas in the southern part – Grand Popo, Ouidah, Abomey, Porto Novo, and Cotonou.
Crossing from Togo to Benin was a breeze since I had my electronic visa in place. All you needed to do was get an exit stamp from Togo and and entry stamp into Benin. I purchased a sim card at the border and hopped on a moto taxi to a beachside lodge in Grand Popo.
Located twenty minutes by motorbike from the border with Lome, Grand Popo is located on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between a tributary of the Mono river and the Atlantic Ocean. It is a string of little islands that stretches from Aneho, Togo to Ouidah, Benin. Located east of Grand-Popo, where the Mono river joins the Gulf of Benin is called the Bouche du Roi (The King’s mouth) and is a pretty spectacular place to check out.
I stayed at an auberge on the beach, relaxed vibes, lots of shade, and the ocean right there. Most of the beaches are un swimmable because they ocean floor gets deep very quickly. You barely see any waves until the water almost reaches the coast.
I might have crossed two countries to get here, but some rituals transcend borders, eating a pineapple for example.
Ouidah is the next town about an hour form Grand Popo. This is the centre of Benin’s National day of Voodoo or Fête du Vodoun held on January 10th of every year to celebrate an auspicious day for the Voodoo religion. I was very curious about the voodoo festival and designed my trip around it – the festival is gaining in popularity as the years go by. The town was packed with tourists who had the exact same idea.
This town of Ouidah on Benin’s small Atlantic coast is the center of Voodoo (spelled Voudou in French) religion. The religion has numerous ceremonies and festivals scattered throughout the year, today January 10th being the grandest of them all. It is said that every prayer said today is repeated a hundred times, every sacrifice appeases the divinities multifold, and like all things in nature, every curse and evil is also amplified by the same degree. This year the festival happens to be on a full moon day, which must mean something more right?
I planned my trip to West Africa around today’s Voodoo festival. Purposefully I didn’t read much about what to expect, so everything was an experience, and I absolutely loved it.
Festivities started off the previous night with a purification ceremony in the Voodoo sacred forest to prepare for Vodou day. There was music and dance accompanying a ritual at an altar at the end of a path lit by oil lamps leading into the forest. The ceremony ended with people kneeling down at the spirit tree, blessed by the high priest, and the recitation of a prayer or wish of the seekers’ choosing.
Main festivities began the morning of January 10. Streets were swept, people were dressed up in colorful clothes, and there was some kind of excitement you could easily sense. At the ceremony location various tribes presented their traditional dance dedicated to various divinities – both to thank them and to seek their blessing. There was a dance to mother earth, one for water, another one for metals, and so on. Rest of the day was fillled with ceremonies, rituals, parades, and lot of music and dance in elaborate costumes and masks. Celebrations continue over the weekend, albeit the key ones occurred today in presence of the indigenous chief, head priests, and the country’s president. It was a full day of activities in this little town leading up to dusk.
Evenings were a different affairs, and fun at that. Lots of loud music, one of the street squares was cleared off for live music dancing and food. A gaggle of us tourist backpackers had assembeled there and met each other through each other. It was interesting to hear about everyone’s itineraries. Some were on this long trans-Africa trip, others had poped over just for this festival, and everything in between.
Egoun goun (एगों गों) is a fun interactive dance game from the Voodoo practice. It comes from traditions of the Yoruba people that are now mostly in Nigeria and central Benin. It’s a dance-game where the spirits of ancestors faces off with you, the audience. I participated in two such games and it was so much fun.
It starts off with a huge crowd of mostly young men that gathers at a square. A band of drummers start playing their tamtams. Pretty basic rhythms. Guys dressed in elaborate costumes and masks, adorned from head to toe, appear from somewhere, greeted by loud howls and cheers from the crowd.
The masked men dance before the priest for a bit. Lots of turns and animation which is further dramatized by their elaborate flowy costumes. Then something strange happens. Music gets louder, cheers get stronger, people start to shuffle.
The masks, now presumably possessed by spirits, run into the crowd with little sticks and switches from the branch of a baobab tree. The tamtams follow them, accelerating their pace, while the crowd screams and tries to scatter away from the chasing masks.
You have to picture about 100-200 guys and half a dozen masks in the village square. You can run but you never know where the next masked man will appear from. A drone shot would show your group of people running away from a mask, while another group could be running away from a different mask towards you. Chaos ensures, along with a ton of laughter, shouting, and yelling.
If the mask catches you, which if you are the only foreigner at the event will not take long, two things can happen. Either you get whipped/beaten by the stick, or you offer some money to the masked man. I chose the later. The mask mumbled something in my ear and retreated. “He give you a blessing for protection,” my friends said after.
After a couple of hours of running around in the tropical heat, everyone is pretty sweaty. But the masks keep going even in this heat. Every now and then they go back to the priests, as if to recharge their energy before sprinting back at the crowd again.
The crowd provokes and encourages the masks to pursue them. But they don’t always know which mask will hear them first and from what direction it will emerge. You have to watch your surroundings.
While my friends were super concerned about my security, constantly inquiring, “Are you afraid? Are you disturbed?” (French translations sound cute), I simply said nah, not really knowing what to be afraid of here.
Having done enough cardio for 2020 I ran away from one final spirit that looked like a locust, and sped off from the event on my friend’s motor bike, thanking the Voodoo gods one last time. For now. Allons-y.
Abomey was the former capital of the Dahomey kings that ruled this region before colonization. There are a number of palaces you can see, including a well preserved one on the UNESCO World Heritage site list that is relatively well preserved. The palaces are pretty modest mud-brick buildings. I strongly suggest hiring someone to give you a tour, my young driver too me around on his motorbike so it was pretty simple to visit a large number of historical sites.
Abomey is well connected to Cotonou – I strongly suggest taking a comfortable AC bus which costs just a little more than a cramped taxi. Because I was going there from Ouidah, I had to take a motor taxi to Alada first and then flag down a shared taxi to Bohicon, and another one to Abomey. All this work was well rewarded – the place I stayed at was superb.
This unassuming capital of Benin is a small city about an hour from Cotonou and half an hour from the Nigerian border. I went here on a day trip from Cotonou, checking out everything the town had to offer: a couple of museums, market area, a sustainable farm.
If there are two or more people in your company, hiring a private car for travel between places might be a good option. While it’ll be faster and cost a bit more, it’ll be very efficient and avoid waiting for crowded tro-tros. However I immensely enjoy those interactions with people in crowded modes of transport; it makes me feel connected to a place even more; and at the same time kinda exhausted.
This cute sounding city is the heart of Benin and the largest population centre in the country. Feels like the city extends in all directions forever, but it is pretty easy to navitage – just flag down a moto taxi, negotiate a fare, and off you go. I ended my visit to west Africa here, and it was a pretty relaxed place to do so. Some neat sights in and around Cotonou – the beach of course, the floating village of Ganvie, colourful church, buzzing markets, and so on. It was still voodoo fever in the country, so I saw some of Egon gon too, thanks to couchsurfers.
Cotonou does have a cool vibe going. The number of cafes, bars, and restaurants are a testament to that, so are the cultural shows and events that happen there. My last night of this trip was spent at a beach having dinner and watching a movie on an open air screen with some expats I had met earlier in Ghana.
Now I’m very inspired to visit again. There is so much to discover and with some more French under my belt travelling to other countries in West Africa shouldn’t be difficult at all.
I’ve come a long way from thinking that eating was a waste of time, to starting to eat meat in my 20s, to now where I’ll pretty much eat anything you give me (within limits I think). Eating in this part of the world is not difficult if you aren’t a picky eater. Throw out all your ideas about eating – here you’ll eat with your hands, touch and feel your food, share a piece of meat dipped in the same light soup with your friends. Some of the well established places will have cutlery, most places I ate at struggled to find a fork.
From roadside maquis in Togo and Benin to food stalls in Ghana, there is plenty of delicious fare being served. Fortunately I was able to meet a lot of people on couchsurfing, and they took me to various places to try different foods. Regionally the food has the same spice palette, but the preparation might differ somewhat. French influences in food culture is visible in Togo and Benin for sure. An amusing experience I picked up more than once was people inquiring if I “survived” in a certain part of the country because the food there was supposed to be “completely different and unpalatable” for example “their fufu is too tough” or “they add no cassava but so much plantain” (or something like that). I laughed because for the most part I wasn’t sophisticated enough to tell the difference.
Fortunately I was perfectly healthy throughout my trip, which surprised me since some of the places I ate were, um, sketchy. Needless to say, travellers should follow common sense rules of eating, especially if your gut bacteria aren’t used to digesting food from visiting around the world.
Fresh fruits were so juicy and fresh, I had almost forgotten what real ripe produce tasted like! Pineapples and oranges were in season when I visited. Coconut is always in season.