TRAVELLING THE WEST COAST OF AFRICA

Lomé, Togo. Cotonou, Benin

LOMÉ, Togo is the capital and largest city in Togo. With a population of about one million and a half. It is located at the southwest corner of the country with its western border running along side Ghana. They speak French and learn English in school. The highlight was a visit to a school where we saw them in their classrooms and they gathered outside to sing for us. It made your heart feel good.

They were singing “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’ in French for us.

They believe in voodoo and natural medicine and you will be sent to the fetish market to purchase things that will help cure you or perhaps a problem you may be having. For instance, no children, you are sent to be given ‘something’ to help you get pregnant. Although the fetish market was interesting in a gory way with snake skins, monkey heads, skulls, fetish dolls and God knows what, here voodoo is a reality and voodoo is practiced in many ways. You are born voodoo but you may choose to take another religion as well.

Later when we were back on the ship we had the ‘Great Togo Toga Party’ where almost every one made an effort to dress up in some sort of Togo even though we were told we were not allowed to use the bed sheets!!

Cotonou, Benin

This 30 metre statue honours the Amazon Women Warriors of Dahomey.

The 30 meter tall statue of an Amazon woman towers over one of the newer areas in Benin. It was designed by Chinese sculptor, Li Xiangqun, and is metal covered in bronze. It is stunning and beautiful. This area was once the centre of the powerful regional Kingdom of Dahomey. Their military was composed entirely of women who were admired for their bravery and for being ‘fierce and cruel’. They brought back the heads they decapitated during battle. They were called the ‘Amazones du DeHomey’ by the French forces. In the late 19th century they fought their last battle in the area against the French, but were no match for the French muskets. This led to the Kingdom’s demise and Dahomey was turned into a French colony in the late 1800s. In 1960 they realized independence from France and in 1970 the name was changed to the Peoples Republic of Benin. The people of the area are very proud of their history and this statue represents success and pride and is a symbol of these strong Beninese women.

I was surprised at how clean Benin was compared to when I was here five years ago. New buildings, new roads, new statues, plus the whole harbour area had been cleaned up. Quite an achievement and when you got out of this transformed area, it was a little less clean, but still much cleaner than it was before. I believe the Chinese were instrumental here in creating some of these changes, as they are throughout many of the nations along our cruise. At one point where a new highway was being built, there was a huge sign that read in English/French & Chinese, Yunnan Construction et Investissement Holding Groups. Group SARL. I asked our guide if the Chinese were building the roads, and he said they were only helping with the engineering but the local Beninese people were doing the work. People here seem to realize that if they want the lucrative tourist trade, things had to change and I believe they are proud of the changes they have made.

However some things do not change and in both Benin & Togo, VOODOO is a way of life. Voodoo was believed to have started in southern Benin some 6000 years ago. In voodoo tradition there is only one supreme God who is known by different names in different parts of the world. This God is immensely powerful and beyond the reach of ordinary followers. For this reason Voodoo ‘practitioners’ rely on hundreds or thousands of other spirits to communicate with God. The spirits are known as ‘loa’. Loa receive their power from God and communicate with God on behalf of the followers. It is not unusual for a community or a family to have their own loa to pray to and ask for guidance. People believe in spirits, spells, spiritual possession and animal sacrifices and ancestor worship. They believe they can be cured and protected by these spirits. And personally I believe there is power in strong belief and positive thinking.

People who want to become practioners can enter spiritual centres much like convents or monasteries. These peopole often become community leaders, providing guidance and settling disputes in their communities. They also perform medical care in the form of folk medicine. They typically dedicate their work to helping and caring for others. Some people associate voodoo with evil, but many of its rituals, even those that include the sacrifice of live animals, focus on respect and peace.

The Chief’s tree still stands while the house is crumbing down around it. He believed he was going to die and did not want his enemies to touch is body, so he turned himself into a tree. Today the tree is a “shrine” where you take off your shoes, walk up to the tree and touch it and make a wish for you or someone else.

The areas of Africa where Voodoo has thrived are also the areas that were heavily trafficked during the slave trade, mostly in the northern and central portions of the west African coast. So slavery brought voodoo to the Americas, mainly Haiti, Brazil and the New Orleans area of the USA. However, it transformed along the way, probably in Haiti. One obvious thing is the voodoo doll. Someone on board asked me to bring back a voodoo doll for them. I was looking for the soft type you stick pins in to bring harm or hurt someone. I couldn’t find one and the truth is, there is nothing authentic about these dolls. While voodoo dolls do play a role in some rituals, they are not used to extract revenge, but to communicate with the departed spirits of loved ones. The dolls I found here were rather ugly and made of old wooden parts of trees with nails hammered in them and chicken feathers stuck on them and often found in cemeteries where people go to communicate with lost loved ones.

At the Temple du Python and yes that beautiful python snake around my neck is real.

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