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Friday, March 30, 2007

Togo Stories

On the road to Togo we decided on a hunger-induced whim to stop back at Xofa, where M and I spent xmas. We flagged ourselves a taxi but before the driver could take us down the long rough road to Xofa he needed to fuel up, which involved driving through a checkpoint where they checked our passports. Only then did my colleague N realize that her visa required an extension, she had overstayed her two-month stamp even though the visa itself had several months remaining. She promised to attend to it as soon as possible, which suited the immigration officer just fine, but it gave us cause to worry about crossing the border the next day.

We put it out of our minds and made way to Xofa and ordered one of their notoriously slow-cooked meals, which was promised within an hour, and we took a long leisurely swim. 90 minutes later M went to check on it and the master chef had managed no more than the cutting of one tomato. Angry, perturbed, mostly disappointed we cancelled our order and a young man named Daniel took us over to the nearby town of Dodi, where we met an Ewe chief and interrogated him about his memories of 50 years ago, the infant independency celebration. We also spoke to a group of Akan women and later, another young Daniel, grandson of the chief with all the accompanying dignity, strength of character, and knowledge. He arranged for a giant bowl of banku and delicious okra stew for four intrepid reporters, made expertly (and quickly) by his sister. For this gigantic meal they would take only 10,000 cedies ($1.20 CNDN).

Early the next morning we found our way to a bus station in the town of Ho near the Togolese border. By noon our patience with waiting for the bus to fill had worn thin and we coughed up the extra 20 dollars (split three ways; the chief correspondent, who had organized this adventure, had decided to stay on the Ghana side to pursue some fresh leads) and commandeered the bus. We three Canadians, a woman from Niger, a 70-year old master boy scout from Togo, and a couple Ghanaians made way across the boarder in relative comfort.

On the Togo side we hopped on the back of some motorcycle taxis, found a hotel, interviewed some local mask sellers, and grabbed some baguette sandwiches. The restaurant purveyors knew the oldest chief in Togo, who happens to live in a border village we could interview. We hopped more motorbikes and watched the tropics fly by the rugged highway, spent the afternoon in conference with the blind chief and his entourage of (mostly) young men learning about what it means to be an oppressed majority in Togo. Then we met an old Togolese woman who had a mother from Ghana and crossed the border frequently. She paid for her journeys with small-small profits from crushing palm-oil, which she crushed topless in the hot sun, something a young woman would never do but at her age it’s quite acceptable here, unlike the more prudish (in many ways) world I come from. Afterward one of our new friends took us on a motorcycle ride to the nearby waterfall, which had been reduced to a trickle so that the water could feed the dam supplying energy to Kpalime.

We hiked back the road and hitched a ride, 7 of us piled into a little compact, back to Kpalime, where our friends asked us to pay 3,000 central African francs (CFAs – about $6) per hour of their time, an outrageous amount. We gave them a total of about 10 bucks and felt a little duped. But we got what we wanted, so you can’t call it a scam.
“You’re a man, you can take more drink,” the old stoolfather, elder supreme, told me as I sipped my morning shot. His son nodded sombrely because a man should be demonstrably strong and this was an opportunity for such demonstration. The stoolfather had just told us of his memories of Ghanaian independence, a glorious time. Whatever armed uprisings had occurred in his Volta Region escaped his memory, had nothing to do with him. He was an Nkrumist through and through, an acting member of the African independence hero’s political party, and he served loyally in that first government until the generals’ men came to arrest him. He spent a few months wondering in jail, was released, and went back to his life as a village royal. His eyes veritably twinkled with the memories, faded at the end of his story, when his son took over the conversation and spoke knowledgeably of the modern Ewe situation. The son was the true leader now, and prompted the old man’s speech with nudges and written reminders.
On the Togo side of that colonial line, the blind chief of 6 decades also shared memories of his nation’s independence, but his milky eyes showed no signs of his vitality. Back then, his man was in power. When that man went down he inadvertently took the chief and his village with him. The chief got a humiliating spanking, and when recalling this part of the story his milky eyes shed salty tears and the surrounding young men hangers-on take over. Later they take us to meet a topless old lady who crushes palm to make oil to sell to help fund her frequent cross-border trips; she has so much family in Ghana and there are always weddings and funerals. “Family is important to us,” she explains. By way of family she is as Ghanaian as she is Togolese, and she is Ewe all the way through.
For supper we find a nice chop and order banku with tilapia fish, an Ewe specialty. The next table of drunks gets a little too raucous and a stout barrel-armed waitress gives them the boot. They fight her. She fights back. Local language shouting erupts; the waitress picks up a plastic chair, tries to throw it, has it taken from her hand by another staff member, so she steps to shoving the nemeses from the premises. They push back; she pushes more, they succumb and scram.
At night we watch the Latino soap opera ‘Secreto d’amour’ and the chief correspondent tells me that the former business manager was sleeping with both the editor and a sub-editor, who coincidently ended up as the best paid member of staff, while selling cosmetics online from his private office and all stories by-passed his almost illiterate eyes. Both her and Saturday editor are accustomed to fighting off advances from the editor, who is married with girlfriend and has a personal vision quest to sleep with every woman in the office. The tallies of who all is sleeping with who were too complicated for me to follow, so I kept my eyes on TV’s simplicity.

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