Love lost in Kpalime

Over the border into Togo I flew down the hill into Kpalime. Another town in Africa. My introduction to Togo. Friendly people. French-speaking. I checked-in, showered and sat down in the hotel courtyard with a beer to celebrate a new country. Soon enough I had company. Yana spoke to me as if I was fluent in French. I nodded and agreed and pretended I understood more than I did. My ear was quick to remember the French. Even so, it was some relief when his friend appeared who spoke English and shared out a bag of nuts. I didn’t realise how hungry I was. My next mission – get food. Yana took me to a restaurant out of town. While waiting for food, I half watched the football through a snow-storm on a small screen and half listened to Yana. The simple question of ‘Are you married?’ soon turned into a talk about love and loss. The rest of the first half I heard about Yana’s lost love of girlfriends past. He lost me somewhere after the American girl flew to Europe and he wasn’t able to go with her and she hasn’t been back to Togo since. It turns out that when your grasp of a foreign language is sketchy, you become a great listener. Appear to at least.
Finally lunch arrived. It was devoured in a fraction of the time taken to prepare. I returned to the hotel and locked myself in my room. Too tired for speaking more French just yet. And incapable of answering Yana about why the girl may not have returned.

Midnight music

What an awful night of sleep. First it was the rain, thundering down on the metal roof. Then at midnight, singing from the church. Choral music should be soothing. This was like cat-strangling. Somebody must be in pain I thought. I should go and help. But then the Hallelujah’s and Praise the Lord’s bellowed from the depths of the darkness. I quietly prayed for silence. Early the next morning I was woken by yet more church singing. This was bright, cheerful gospel music that would have been the perfect start to the day had it started a couple of hours later.
So it was, at six in the morning that I was wandering through the cool, misty streets of Kpalime in search of a kick-start coffee. The rest of town was already up. Dressed in Sunday best. Men, women, children, all walking to church.

Church on Sunday

Coffee finished. Time to hit the road. South to the capital, Lome. 130km. A long day ahead I thought. But it was easy – no pain. (Not many hills either.) Legs of steel forged out of lactic acid and long hills. This is the cycling I like. I passed many small villages. The world I passed through was united in belief. Sunday. The good Lord’s day. Church day. Families on benches under thatch shelter. No doors, no walls. Everybody welcome. Just a simple wooden pulpit at one end. A bell strung between two poles outside. Clanging loudly by one enthusiastic teenager. Not exactly a melodic peal. More like the school bell ringing that lunch is over and it’s time to return to class. It’s quite probable the ‘churches’ double as a school. Or the other way round.

Prescription Required

My arrival in Lome was blurred by a fly in my eye. This contributed to another restless night with my eye irritated and itching. A battle with mosquitoes also ensued. A blood-bath on the bed. I won the war by putting up my tent on top of the mattress. The following morning I walked to the pharmacy to get some eye-drops. I knew what I needed. I wasn’t allowed it without a prescription from a doctor. This must be the only medication you can get over the counter in England but need to see a doctor first in Africa. I was fortunate – the hotel manager was Swiss, understood my French, phoned his doctor and within minutes I was at the surgery of a sympathetic physician. Armed with the prescription, the pharmacist willingly handed over the eye-drops.

Leaving Lome

Lome has a small-town feel to it. There are a few regular spots which the same expats frequent. I think I stumbled upon most of them over the couple of days rest there.

I left Lome by the road running parallel to the beach. Early in the morning. A group of teenagers threw themselves around in the sand over a game of volleyball. A European couple jogged along the seafront. Teams of boys in fluorescent bibs interchanged between fitness and football drills. A line of men, all leant at the same angle, tugged against a rope to haul a boat up the beach. I presume there was a boat on the end of the line. I couldn’t see it. It was hidden by the steep drop-off down to the sea. All I could see was the strip of golden sand and above it a strip of deep blue sea, the horizon and the bright blue sky extending upwards to the white light of the rapidly rising sun. In the shade of the palm trees lining the beach-front, people sat quietly, thoughtful. And then the concrete path. In the lay-bys, groups of men with motorbikes lingered. Waiting to take someone, anyone, into town for a few CFA.

As I left Lome behind, the road became clogged with traffic trying to negotiate the roadworks. But it eased up and then I left the beach behind. To be replaced by big industrial plants and pollution. But then I moved away from town and buildings became smaller and less frequent. More trees and green and fields. Lush. Bright. Fresh. At Agbodrafo I crossed a bridge and could see Lake Togo spread out inland. On the other side of the lake is Togoville. Togoville, the place where the chief signed over the rights of all Togoland to Germany in 1884. Togoville, the historical centre of voodoo in Togo.

Fruit, fish and Voodoo Fetishes

Market day in Aneho. Another market. Bowls of rice and nuts. Manioc Piles of onions. Neat little stacks of peppers and chillis, fresh or dried, in 100 or 200cfa amounts. Women sat in brightly wrapped pagnes. Second hand clothes. Flip-flops and shoes piled high – finding a pair a near impossibility. Aluminum pots and pans. Neatly lined-up bottles of hairspray and mosquito killer. Just don’t get the two confused. Fresh fish, dry fish, shrmp, crab. Chickens sat dejectedly in the sun, tied by their feet, perhaps even in their pea-sized brains they know the end is near. But unlike all the other markets I’ve walked through, this had an additional row of goods. All inanimate. All intriguing. In the name of voodoo fetishes. Dried skins of crocodile and antelope; dried bodies of chameleons and birds; monkey skulls and many more, big and small, unidentifiable to me.

A Language Lesson

On my journey through Togo I passed several signs with a woman surrounded by fields of wheat and what I think were packets of spaghetti. Around the sign in huge lettering are the words ‘Maman, ééé taman’. Ééé – so that’s how you spell it!! ‘E’ may be the most common letter in the English language. But ééé would have to be the most common word in the spoken African language. Across the entire region of west Africa, it is the one word I have repeatedly heard. More an exclamation than a word really. Now I have seen it written. I highly doubt it’s in any dictionary though.