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My journey deep within mysterious West Africa

While searching for an interesting destination to visit, I came across an article about the countries Ghana, Togo, and Benin. These countries were unknown to me, and I realized that few tourists come to this area. The reason is that, for a long time, travel to West Africa was restricted — due to civil wars, tribal conflicts, terrorism, and the Ebola outbreak. Today, this is one of the world's poorest region, with many of its countries occupying the lowest positions in the UN Human Development Index. A large percentage of people here survive on barely $20 a month. Lonely Planet calls West Africa one of the most challenging places to travel in the world.

One of the reasons is that a large part of the area does not have tourist infrastructure.Most roads – if they exist – are in a lamentable state and there is hardly any public transport. In the rural regions there are no reasonable hotels, and the hygiene is questionable. However, as the saying goes "everything has two sides." Due to the lack of modernization, one can still find traces of the authentic and unspoiled Africa – mainly in the rural areas far from the cities – where the people still hold onto the old customs of their forebearers.

West Africa is the birthplace of the Vodun (also spelled Voodoo) religion and the intriguing Voodoo culture as well the source of the slave trade, which is packed with a rich and long history. This is the area from where millions of people were sent as slaves to exile. It won`t take long before modernization will take over and will wipe out this unique and special life style.

In Togo woman were seen carrying more than 40 kilos on their heads

I landed in Ghana's capital, Accra, which, like most African cities, is rather unimpressive with bustling traffic and neglected and dirty streets. One of the tourist attractions is a visit to Jamestown, the center of the old colonial parts of Accra.Jamestown originated as a British colonialized community that emerged around the 17th century. These days, Jamestown is one of the poorer neighborhoods of Accra, but is nevertheless a vibrant fishing community. We walked along the shore beside colorful fishing boats, many of them displaying dried small fish.

After touring the Jamestown district, we drove to Accra's most significant point of national interest, the Black Star Square.This huge city square, where all the national celebrations are held and foreign dignitaries welcomed, includes a monument with a four-sided Black Star sculpture on top.

Early next morning, we drove along the coconut palm-lined beaches, lapped by the beautiful Atlantic Ocean, to the border with Togo State. The closer we got to the border the more street hawkers we saw – mainly women. It is unbelievable what those women can carry on their heads: huge baskets full of food items like banana cluster, giant potatoes, oranges, and tomatoes, as well as general consumer goods like glasses, clothing, water bottles and more. It seemed to me like a supermarket walking down the road. Throughout my trip, I did not stop being amazed by the strength of those women who carry more that 40 kilos on their heads while having a baby bundled up on their back, which enables them to nurse it between sales.

The border between the states is characterized by some low-rise buildings where customs and visa officials await the people. It was hot and humid (tropical area) and only an old fan stood in the corner of the room to relieve the cramped warm air. After filling in endless forms and answering questions we got the desired visa stamps with which we returned to the car.

After a short drive, we arrived in Lomé, the capital city of Togo. We headed to the Fetish market where the first "surprise" awaited us of many more to come during my journey. (Fetish is an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.)

Not knowing what to expect, I approached the stalls, where there was a huge display of dried animal heads – dogs, cats, monkeys, cobras, alligators, cows, antelopes, rats, horses, ox horns, and snakes. Many believers see the market as a type of hospital or pharmacy. This is where you go for medical or psychological help according to the traditional Voodoo religion. Here, you can find charms to treat everything from flu or corona, infertility or malaria to the scariest curse removal. It is also the place to buy magic that will bring back your loved one, solve marital and livelihood problems, and where Voodoo priests give blessings and predict the future.

Lomé is the birthplace of the largest Voodoo market in the world – a kind of super supply store for fetishes, charms, and anything else one might need for a ritual. For people who are unfamiliar with the concept of sacrificing animals to a deity or using parts of dead animals as mascots, it all seems weird and strange, but for Voodoo believers this market is the "Mecca" to which all come from across the continent. 

We continued on our way along the beautiful coast until we reached the border between Togo and Benin.Once we had crossed the border, we visited the temple of the python snakes which is located in the city Ouida. In most parts of the world snakes are feared, but in Benin the pythons of the temple are revered. According to the Voodoo religion the python is the mediator between the people and God. The snakes are held in the central pavilion of the complex and are not fed by anyone.

At night the door of the pavilion is open and the snakes are free to roam in the neighborhood, and they prey on chicken and mice. Some may return to the temple and others may enter the homes of residents who welcome them and even feed them, because according to their belief it brings a blessing. Afterwards the people gather the snakes and return them to the temple. Anyone interested can pose with a python snarled around his body.

Benin is known for its alternative ideas such as Voodoo and the snake fascination, and Westerners will see new things that may leave their skin crawling or lead to snakes crawling on their skin! Believers of the serpent cult can be identified by scars on both sides of their faces which are engraved on their skin in their youth.

In the Fetish Market was a large display of dried animal heads – dogs, cats, monkeys, cobras, rats, ox horns and snakes. Many see it as a hospital or pharmacy

West Africans had been practicing Voodoo long before Christianity and Islam were introduced there. While a large percentage of West Africans are now Christians or Muslims, many still practice Voodoo on the side. For Voodoo believers, dancing and rituals are an important part of their religion and almost every weekend they hold a ceremony to awake the spirits and thank the deities. These are colorful and vibrant celebrations that include animal sacrifices and lots of singing, dancing, drumming, and drinking alcohol.

I was privileged to take part in one of the ceremonies held in a small village. Already on my way towards the village, I heard the loud, fast and full of energy drum sound. Upon entering the village, I was guided to the Voodoo temple to ask for a blessing, and then we headed to the square in the center of the village. There, many of the villagers had already gathered, swaying to the sounds of drums that grew louder and louder; at the peak of the Crescendo ghost figures (Zangbeto) appeared twirling in circles, with their straw spinning outward like a mini-tornado.

While musicians were pounding the drums, more ghosts entered twirling around guided by the helpers of the Zangbeto. Dancers corral these whirling spirits away from the villagers and then push the stack over to show that there's no one on the inside. It's a convincing illusion. The village kids are visibly frightened of some of these characters.

In the past, these ghosts (Zangbeto) were the policemen of the tribe. Fear of consequences from making these creatures angry kept law and order in the community. The whole performance was held in the baking noon heat, accompanied by drums at a dazzling pace, which aroused the locals to a fiery dance. Some of the women carried their baby on their backs and I was amazed that they danced so passionately, and that, while the baby was shaken, he did not utter a sound or cry.

I have many more stories to tell about my travels in West Africa, but they will have to wait for another time. 

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Sunday, 12 July 2020

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