Road Tripping Togo
The cooler box is loaded into the car, packed full of sodas and beers. We have a chauffeur, air conditioning, snacks, and plenty of leg space. This time, we are travelling in style.
We leave the Case Nègre early and fight through the morning traffic to exit Lomé. We are five in the car: Johnson Senior, Madame Johnson, the chauffeur, and us. The roads are poorly maintained and full of potholes, which worsen as we leave the city. Much to our surprise, a particularly bad stretch of road is soon followed by a tollbooth. Johnson Senior jokes as he handed over the correct change to the attendant: “What am I paying for, the potholes?”
As we drive, Johnson Senior provides a running commentary of nearly every inch of the countryside. As hills began to appear in the flat landscape: “This is where I saw a mountain for the first time when I came from Benin. I asked what it was called, and somebody told me it was called ‘eto’. I thought that the mountain was an ear, since in the Mina language, the words for ‘ear’ and ‘mountain’ are the same.” And as we enter the suburbs of the small city of Atakpamé, where he spent several years of his childhood, he explains: “Here, they diverted the road so that President Eyadema wouldn’t have to travel through Atakpame. Since the residents of the city didn’t support him, he was afraid that they would kill him as he travelled from Lome back to his home in the north.”
As we continue northwards, mosques begin to outnumber churches, and the landscape becomes more mountainous. The chauffeur, unaccustomed to driving on anything but flat terrain, starts to struggle on the hilly and winding roads. Johnson Senior, also, seems to feel less at home. Although still in his country, we have entered into a region of different languages and tribes. Darkness begins to fall, and it is a relief to arrive in the small city of Kara, where we spend the night at a small hotel.
The next day’s drive is not easy on the family car. We leave the potholes behind and head off on mud roads into the homeland of the Batammariba (also known as the Taberma) people, one of the most distinctive tribes of Togo. Their villages in Koutammakou, a hilly region which straddles the Togo-Benin border, are composed of strange little mud tower-houses called “takienta” that are built by hand. These miniature castles are protected by voodoo offerings and fetish posts, as well as by hidden features of the house from which (as our guide explains) inhabitants could shoot intruders with poison arrows or pour boiling water on their heads. We climb through the various rooms and alcoves of the multi-story houses, enchanted by their originality but silently happy that we don’t live there. Children follow us shouting “Bic! Bic!” (making little scribbling motions with their hands) and the chief tries to sell little souvenir trinkets to us. The trinkets are not that appealing, but Johnson Senior and Madame Johnson ensure that we do not leave without first buying a big jug of shea butter, which is extracted by hand by the women in the area.
As we depart the land of the Batammariba, the car gets stuck in the mud. We all get out of the car and try to find a solution. Johnson Senior digs out the car tire with a stick, standing barefoot and knee-deep in the mud (a scene we never imagined while back in his living room in Paris). Two men, armed with a stick and a shovel, arrive from the surrounding areas to help dig us out, and eventually we are able to carry on. We remember the wise words of Mister Maurus: “As long as there are people, you will be fine. It is when you are alone that you will suffer.”
Koutammakou marks the northernmost point of our roadtrip, and it seems that there is a slight feeling of relief as we descend back southwards and into more familiar territory. Our next stop is the large town of Atakpamé. While devoid of tourist sights, Atakpamé is an important destination on our trip, as it is where Johnson Senior spent several years of his childhood. Our visit of Atakpamé is thus guided by memory. We visit the old German quarter of town, the now-rundown hotel where he and Madam Johnson stayed in the seventies, the church where he had his first communion, the overgrown yard behind the shop where he lived.
That night, the childhood memories unleash the “Champana”, a spirit of Atakpamé. Johnson Senior has a craving for fufu, and we search the town for it. However, as soon as we sit down in the streetside café, the wind starts howling and dust starts so blowing violently around us that it is impossible to see. We run back to the car and return to our substandard hotel for an unexciting dinner. “It was the Champana,” Johnson Senior tells us. “It doesn’t approve of eating fufu in the evening.” That night, we hear a woman shrieking across the road. “The Champana was making her scream”, Johnson Senior says dramatically, with real fear in his eyes.
The bad roads deter us from journeying to Johnson Senior’s maternal village, a small town called Badou in the midst of the coffee fields. Instead, we head back in the direction of Lomé, with a stop in the Kpalimé area to enjoy some of the region’s beautiful scenery. We drive up the Danyi Plateau, where we visit a Benedictine monastery and convent. We stock up on aperitifs, jams, and locally made snacks in their shops, and see the monastery’s round chapel made of indigenous woods. The area is full of small mountains (“eto”), butterflies, waterfalls, and plantations. The following day, we take a relaxed hike up Mount Agou (986m), the highest peak of the region. We make it to the village of Akibo, about an hour from the peak, where we look at the view over Togo towards Ghana. The village children sing “yovo” (foreigner) at us, and we descend back down the mountain with their refrain in our heads: “Yovo yovo, bon-soir! Ça va bien, mer-ci!”
The drive back to Lomé is punctuated by stops at various markets and fruit stands. We load up the car to the brim, and arrive back at the Case Nègre with plenty to unload and eat over the next few days. And as we enter the Case Nègre and lug our bag to our small room in the back, there is a satisfying and extraordinary feeling that we have not felt for a long time: the feeling of coming home.