By Wale Okediran
WE entered Lome to a stunning postcard scenery of a coconut tree-lined pristine ocean coastline to our right with a rush hour vehicular traffic that choked the highway to our left. While the blue translucent Atlantic- ocean cast its spell along the long shore line, I was equally fascinated watching the motorbikes, some with lady drivers weave their way amidst the chock-hold traffic to the left. It was a balancing act; peace and tranquillity to the right, energy and ruggedness to the left.
Welcome to Togo, a symbolic African country with a chequered political history that is fast becoming a popular tourist and commercial destination. This has been possible because of its serene and lovely long coastline beach, the relatively low cost of living and high security that have continued to entice tourists to the Francophone country.
In addition, Lome Port, said to be the only deep-water port on the West African coast that can accommodate new generation vessels, has been recognized by ECOWAS as a Free Trade Zone for the sub-region.
Togo, officially the Togolese Republic capital, is a country in West Africa. It is bordered by Ghana to the west, Benin Republic to the east and Burkina Faso to the north. Togo covers 57,000 square kilometres (22,008 square miles), making it one of the smallest countries in Africa, with a population of approximately eight million. It is also one of the narrowest countries in the world with a width less than 115 km (71 mi) between Ghana and its eastern neighbour Benin Republic.
From the 16th century to the 18th century, the coastal region was a major trading centre for Europeans for the purchase of slaves, earning Togo and the surrounding region the name “The Slave Coast”. In 1884, Germany declared a region including present-day Togo as a protectorate called Togoland. After World War I, rule over Togo was transferred to France. Togo gained its independence from France in 1960. While the official language is French, many other languages are spoken.
I had come to Togo in my official capacity as the Secretary General of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA) with its headquarters in Accra, Ghana, for the first edition of Togo International Writers Conference. The conference which was to discuss the contribution of African Literature to the UN Strategic Development Goals (SDG) was also designed to celebrate the World Book and Copyright Day on April 23, 2022.
With me on the trip were the staff of the PAWA Secretariat. Earlier that morning, I had departed Accra, Ghana, with my team of PAWA officials for the approximately four-hour road trip to Lome, Togo.
To welcome delegates made up of writers, academics and journalists to Togo was the hardworking and ebullient President of the Togo Writers Association, Professor Germaine Koumealo Anate, who apart from being the writers’ president, is also a Member of Togolese Parliament, as well as a professor at the University of Lome. She was accompanied by her equally efficient officials and members of her association.
Anate was in high spirits as she welcomed guests to the La Faccia A’Angelo Restaurant, in the middle class Agoue Assiyeye neighbourhood of Lome, capital of Lome that rainy April evening. She had every reason to be a happy woman. After weeks of intensive planning, networking and meetings, the much awaited first edition of Togo International Writers Conference had finally taken off.
As quests filed in to the cavernous and sedate interior of the restaurant for a welcome dinner, there were hearty hand shaking, hugs and jokes as writers and conference delegates were united with old friends while meeting new ones. After meeting some of my old friends such as Eric Bekale, President of Gabonese Writers Association, among others, Prof. Anate introduced me to the conference keynote speaker, Professor Mohougnon Kakpo, a gregarious professor of Communication as well as a cabinet minister from Benin Republic.
As we exchanged pleasantries in halting French and English languages, Kakpo informed me that he was also a native doctor. “I am a ‘Babalawo’,’’ he proudly announced as he gleefully pumped my hands in hearty greeting.
I was also delighted to meet for the first time other writers from other African countries including the Egyptian poet and journalist, Ashraf Aboud Yazid, with whom I had been in contact for the past three months in his capacity as one of the judges of the recently concluded PAWA Poetry Prize.
Even though it rained most of the way, we were comfortable in the hired air conditioned coach that glided mostly along the West African Coastline from Accra to Teshie, Tema onto Sege and Sogakope, Atweta, Bakabo Junction before arriving the Ghana side of the Aflao border. Since the government of Ghana has officially opened its border with Togo, immigration proceedings at the border was brief and smooth.
However, matters were not the same at the Lome side of the border since Togo had not officially opened her border. We therefore had to wait longer while our Togolese colleagues who had procured Diplomatic Passes for us, sorted out issues with the Togolese Immigration officials. While the language of exchange at the Ghana end of the border was English, we had to switch to French, the official Togolese language at the Lome side.
In addition, we had to change some of our Ghanaian currency, the Cedi to the Francophone currency of CFA. These developments led to a resurgence of the old debacle among us on the need for a ‘borderless’ Africa with a common currency and, if possible, a common language.
As planned, the first day of the conference was hectic with official speeches from writers organizations and government officials, keynote address as well as panel discussions. All these continued even after a hearty lunch (D’ejeuner) of pounded yam (yam fufu), light soup and smoked fish which made me a bit drowsy during the afternoon session of the conference.
The following day, about 40 writers boarded a 60-seater bus for a sight-seeing of Lome, a city fast brimming with energy and imagination. We departed the University of Lome (established in 1970), passed an artificial lake on the right before accessing the serpentine Avenue Akei and turning into Jean Paul 11, the city’s main jugular. Along the major streets, we chanced upon street sweepers in their translucent and bright uniforms sweeping to keep the city clean.
Our first stop was at Baguida where we took pictures of the monument erected to mark the signing of the treaty between Togo and Germany for a 100 years friendship (1884-1984). Mr Doyi, the Municipal Counsellor in charge of the area, gave us a brief lecture about the monument. We also visited the nearby Marvel Beach, which was unfortunately closed at the time of our visit.
As we continued our trip along the Togo/Benin highway, we had a pleasant view of the long coconut tree-lined coastline to our right while the highway on our left was partly closed to construction work.
Once in a while, we chanced upon villages and towns that interspersed the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Overhead from the bus loudspeakers came the strains of the music, ‘Abawi’ by the well- known Ivorian musical group ‘’Espair 2000’’. Soon, the bus was filled with the refrain of ‘Abawi o-o—o-o-o’, as some writers who were familiar with the music sang in unison with the musicians.
At Agbodrafo, a rural town, we turned off the smooth highway as our bus jostled along the now bumpy road with the Atlantic Ocean now to our left. Before long, we arrived at what is considered a major historical site in Togo, the Maison De Esclaves (House Of Slaves).
The house which was used to hold slaves before their eventual shipment to Brazil reminded me of the Elmina Castle in Ghana. As we gathered under a mango tree, our tour guide, Gaskin Kpoti D. Mensah, gave us a short lecture of the activities of slave trade in Togo between 1830 and 1852. He informed us of how the slaves brought from the north of Togo were kept in a narrow and stuffy compartment under the floor of the house awaiting shipment to Brazil. The slaves were thereafter taken for purification baths before being loaded into small boats to the big ship on the ocean for their transatlantic journey to Brazil and the Caribbean.
Thereafter we entered the 6-bedroom Brazilian style house for an inspection tour. We saw the comfortable and spacious living quarters and corridors on the first floor of the house where the slave traders lived as well as the narrow quarters under the floor boards (about 1.5metres high) where the slaves were kept.
Those of us who entered the claustrophobic slave quarters via a trap door were already sweating in the dark and smelly hold just after about five minutes of stay. Also inspected were some old canons as well as old slave chains and other mementos of the sad and unfortunate period.
From the slave House, we proceeded to the palace of the king of the town which was said to have been built in 1870 when the first king was crowned. We were taken on a tour of the grounds of the palace by the council leader.
At the time of our visit, a town meeting was going on in a large hall in the palace. Behind the hall were some mementos of the slave trade period such as chains and canons as well as a big aluminium pot used to cook for the slaves. These discoveries sparked off another debate among the writers on the involvement of community leaders and chiefs in the nefarious slave trade business.
A quick walk to the sandy beach gave me a close and wonderful view of Togo’s beautiful, long and meandering coastline. Jutting out of the beach in pale yellow colour was the first Catholic church in the neighborhood which was built in 1905. As magical as the spectacle was, I sadly reflected that behind this lyrical curve of wonderful land was the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean which for centuries had lured the infamous slave traders to the ‘Slave Coast’ of Africa.
Our last stop was at the Au Royanne De King Mensah at Azekokovivina near Agbodiafo. The facility which is owned by one of Togolese famous musicians, ‘King Mensah’ was nicely perched by the coastline. King Mensah, also known as “The Golden Voice of Togo”, though based in Lomé, regularly records and promotes his albums in Paris, and has embarked on several world tours since 2005. His quest to make his hometown famous has been applauded by many Togolese.
It was here that the writers, weary but happy from the highly educative and entertaining tour, tucked into their lunch of fufu, rice, and chicken washed down with generous quaffs of assorted drinks.
Since a visit to Togo is said to be incomplete without a visit to the Grand Marche (The Main Market), some delegates including this writer made a quick stop at the famous landmark. While trying to change some Cedis into CFA, I was pleasantly surprised that most of the ‘money changers’ were of my Yoruba stock from Nigeria. After haggling for some time above the din of the market, we procured some local fabrics, craft and leather works from the market.
We were back on time for the final leg of the two-day literary fiesta. Tagged ‘An Evening of Literary and Artistic Performance,’ the event was a pot-pouri of readings, drama sketches and music. About 25 writers, three musicians and three drama groups took part in the 5-hour long mind-blowing event which held at the Scene Bella Bellow arena at the University of Lome. It was a spectacular performance that went on till late in the evening.
It was getting late and just as we thought that we had come to the end of a colourful weekend, our hosts carted us off again to the pleasant belly of Hotel La Concorde on Faure Gnassingbe Boulevard for a farewell dinner.
The event was also graced by the Togolese Minister of Culture and Tourism, Dr. Kossi Gbenyo Lamadokou, who is a very good friend of PAWA. Even at that late hour, we still had time to savour the magnificent culinary and humane hospitality of our indefatigable and wonderful hosts.
This is why a visit to Togo is always a delightful adventure.
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- Okediran is a Nigerian writer and Secretary-General of Pan-African Writers Association based in Accra, Ghana