DAY 1, Friday: Lomé, Gulf of Guinea – TOGO
Arrival in Lomé and transfer to the hotel.
DAY 2, Saturday: Lome – TOGO
Our journey to the heart of magic starts with a visit to Lomé, the vibrant capital of Togo, the only African city which was a colony of the Germans, the British, and the French. It is also one of the few capitals in the world bordering another nation. These elements have led to the development of a unique identity reflected in the lifestyle of its inhabitants and in the architecture of the town: Lomé is indeed a cross point for people, trade, and cultures, a cosmopolitan city of small size. We will visit the central market with its famous “Nana Benz”, women who control the market of the expensive “pagne” (cloths) coming from Europe and sold all over West Africa, the colonial buildings in the administrative quarter where the flavor of the colonial time is still very present; and the fetish market where we can find an eclectic assortment of all the necessary ingredients for love potions and magical concoctions – it is here that all the adepts of the local animist religion come to buy the necessary items to practice their cults. The market masters will introduce us to some of their homemade “gris-gris” prepared to help us solve our daily life issues.
In the evening, cooking class: feel free to take part in cooking your dinner in the kitchen of a professional chef. You will discover the property and the flavor of raw local products to fusion with other ingredients and cooking techniques coming from abroad. If you prefer to have a rest in your room you can meet the group after the class and have dinner together.
Saturday night many places perform live music around town such as reggae, jazz, and African music, let’s follow the rhythm with your guide to discover the vibrant Lomé by night!
DAY 3, Sunday: Tropical forest, from Lome to Kpalime – TOGO
Drive to Kpalimé, a town with a rich colonial past that is now an important trade center. We will visit the arts center.
In the afternoon, a walk in the forest to meet with the majesty of tropical trees, the cheerful greetings of its human inhabitants, the sounds of tam-tams, and the filtered green emerald light. Under the guidance of a local entomologist, we will learn about endemic butterflies and insects, and we will be initiated into the art of painting with natural colors.
DAY 4, Monday: Fire dance, from Kpalime to Sokode – TOGO
We will head northwards and stop on the way to Atakpame, a typical African town built on hills and where we can find all the products from the nearby forests. Dating back to the XIX century, it lies along the main railroad connecting Lomé to Blitta and was initially settled by the Ewe and Yoruba. It is at the center of an important cotton-growing area, and it is here that men of the region, through their skilled work on small weaving looms, make the brightly colored fabric called “Kente”. These populations came originally from the north of the country and have maintained the traditions that keep them tied to the land of their ancestors.
We continue northwards, visiting some villages and possibly some markets on the way.
We will arrive in Sokode late in the afternoon.
In the evening, fire dance. At the center of the village a large fire lights up the faces of the participants, they dance to the hypnotic beat of the drums eventually leaping into the glowing embers, picking up burning coals, passing them over their bodies, and even putting them in their mouths! All this without hurting themselves or showing any sign of pain. It’s difficult to explain such a performance. Is it a matter of courage? Self-suggestion? Magic? Maybe it is really the fetishes that protect them from the fire.
DAY 5, Tuesday: Chieftansy, from Sokode to Kara – TOGO
Further West we visit the region inhabited by the Bassar. They live in large clay houses with conical roofs and keep the secret of the very old process of iron production, a combination of geology and alchemy. For instance, old women are the only ones allowed to climb the mountains surrounding the villages to get the stones containing the iron, and men cannot be sexually active during the melting process if they want it to be successful. We will meet with traditional chiefs and discuss with them their role today.
DAY 6, Wednesday: Adobe castles, from Kara to Natitingou – TOGO & BENIN
A road crossing in hilly regions offers appealing landscapes.
Driving in the mountains will bring us to encounter the Kabye ethnic group. Kabye dwellings called «Soukala» are composed of several adobe huts joined by a wall – each dwelling is the domain of a patriarchal family. In the villages located at the top of the mountains, women are potters using an ancestral technique without the wheel while men are blacksmiths still working iron with heavy stones instead of hammers and anvils as in the early dawn of the Iron Age. We follow the process of shaping a hoe.
When we reach Kante, a track across the Atakora Mountains takes us to the Tamberma people. For self-defense reasons, for centuries this tribe has taken refuge in the heart of the Atakora, a land so difficult to access that they could flee from any attack, especially from slave traders from Muslim North Africa. According to anthropologists, their origins are close to the Dogon people of Mali with whom they share an absolute faithfulness to their animist traditions. Their strong traditional beliefs are confirmed by the presence of big shrines – of phallic form – at the entrance of their homes. Those fortified dwellings, similar in form to medieval castles, are one of the most beautiful examples of ancient African architecture. Their style impressed Le Corbusier so much that he spoke of «sculptural architecture». In fact, the houses are built by hand, layer after layer, adding round mud balls and shaping them following the plan of the house. A kind of sensual gesture mixing strength, care, and beauty. With the permission granted to us by the inhabitants, we enter their homes to better understand their way of life.
A bit further to the east, after we have crossed the Benin border (Nadoba / Bokoumbe), we will meet with the Betammaribe (alias Somba) who live in the same natural environment of the Atakora Mountains just like the Tamberma. Young men between 18 and 20 years of age have their bellies scarified with delicate and complex geometrical patterns, deeply convinced that those scars are the only way to become “real” men. We will meet some of those young men to hear from them what they recall of their initiation. Similarly, they also build nice clay castles however, unlike the Tamberma, they follow a series of very suggestive initiatory rites. Girls also go through a scarification rite but in their case scars are made on the belly and on the back at the age of 20-22. Should a child be conceived before this initiation, scarification is carried out at the beginning of the pregnancy because the lack of scars could become harmful in the delivery process. All these initiatory rites form a cycle that starts during the weaning period (when the child’s face gets scarified) and whose completion symbolizes the official birth as a member of the group. It is the infinite number of the very thin scars on their faces that forever reminds people they are Betammaribe.
DAY 7, Thursday: The mountain of the “Fetish Priest”, from Natitingou to Dassa – BENIN
We reach a Fulani camp. The Fulani are mainly shepherds. The men move around with their herds while the women take care of the camp as well as milk the cows and produce the butter to be sold at the market.
The Fulani are famous for their beauty. In fact “Fulani” means “beauty”: Beautiful tattoos on their face send messages to the people who understand the language; beautiful slender bodies looking at their herds stand as a dot on the horizon; beautiful eyes able to contain so many landscapes contemplated during their migrations to find grazing. Their beauty is proportional to their slowness. Mysterious figures: they seem to be slower than anybody else and at the same time they move more than anybody else. Here is the mystery of a people who learned how to tame time and space, history, and geography.
Later an easy walk to discover old Taneka villages located on a mountain with the same name. The villages are made up of round houses covered with a conical roof protected at the top by a terra cotta pot. The upper part of the village is inhabited by the young initiated and by the fetish priests who only cover themselves with goat skin and always carry a long pipe. This ethnic group has been living on an archaeological site for centuries, in fact, it looks as if the first inhabitants (from Kabye origins) moved to the mountain during the IX century. Since then, other populations have joined to form a kind of melting pot where despite the fact that each group has kept its own cults and initiation rites, they defined common religious and political institutions.
As we wander around, along alleys bordered by a series of smooth stones, we may come across half-naked men. The Taneka people believe that in order to “become” a man, it is necessary to combine time, patience, and a lot of blood from sacrificed animals. It actually is a lifetime process in the sense that life itself becomes a rite of passage. Therefore, life should not be considered conditioned by a “before” and an “after” but rather by following a continuous path.
Transfer southwards. Visit the Savalou shrine, an important place for animist pilgrims.
DAY 8, Friday: Dancing masks, from Dassa to Abomey – BENIN
Dassa is the seat of an old kingdom founded by Olofin in 1385 and in town it is still possible to see sites witnessing the passage of this long-lasting dynasty. We attend the Egun masks. They represent the spirits of the deceased and according to the local population they “are” the deceased.
The men wearing the masks representing Egun are initiates of the cult. Dressed in brightly multicolored clothing they emerge from the forest and form a procession through the village streets, leaping toward any foolish spectator who dares to get too close. You don’t want the Egun to touch you because if he does there is a danger of death, so watch out! Some people touched by the Egun immediately collapse into a heap on the ground but fortunately, they recover quickly.
On arrival, the masks perform a kind of bullfight that is designed to create fear and respect.
Once we get to Abomey, we will take part in the Sunday ceremony of the Celestial Church good example of mixing voodoo and Christianity. We may meet the people, and the priests, and attend exorcisms, prophecies, and trances.
We visit then the Royal Palace whose walls are decorated with the symbols of the former kings of the Dahomey Kingdom. The Palace hosts a museum and a temple built with a mixture of clay, gold dust, and human blood.The Kingdom of Dahomey maintained a permanent state of war in order for kings to capture prisoners and sell them as slaves. The royal army also included a female troop famous for its boldness and aggressive fighting spirit. Historians like to emphasize the “secular” aspect of the king’s rule however even though the king was considered neither a god nor a priest, on special occasions many human sacrifices were performed on the king’s graves. The power was exercised in a rational way, easy to understand also for a European;
In the afternoon we attend spectacular Gelede dancing masks.
Gelede is at the same time a cult, a secret society, and a mask. First of all, it is the cult of Oudua: the great divinity, the old mother, and the mother earth. Gelede is also the daughter of Ougun, the god of iron and one of the main gods in South Benin’s Voodoo religion. But Gelede is also the secret society that holds the Gelede masks and organizes special dances. Gelede performances recall our western “theater” where each mask represents a character, often humoristic or ironic. This theatrical aspect of the masks mimicking short stories has the function of educating, not simply entertaining the village. Gelede mask has feminine features but is worn by men dressed up like women and dancing incredible performances: a chorus made up of more than 20 singers dancing in a large circle with two big drums in the middle, the surrounding public, happy and excited, singing along, laughing and clapping hands. Colors dominate the scene with the dancers dressed up in colorful clothes moving around all the time.
DAY 9, Saturday: On stilts, from Abomey to Ouidah – BENIN
A few kilometers north of Cotonou we cross Lake Nokwe with a motorized boat and reach Ganvie, the largest and most beautiful African village on stilts. The approximately 25,000 inhabitants of the Tofinou ethnic group build their huts on teak stilts and cover the roofs with a thick layer of leaves. Fishing is their main activity. The village has managed to preserve its traditions and environment despite the long-lasting human presence in a closed setting, and the lake is not over-fished. Life unfolds each day around the canoes that men, women, and children guide with ease using brightly colored poles. It is with these canoes that men fish, women deliver goods to the market and children go to school and play.
The city of Cotonou is plunged into constant traffic chaos caused by thousands of zemidjans (moto-taxis) wearing purple or yellow uniforms. Therefore, the city follows the rhythm of the traffic lights pausing and restarting those zemidjans all over the city. Enjoy this show of a rare intensity!
Visit the Zinsou foundation: It is the first private Beninese foundation dedicated to Contemporary African Art and it was created in June 2005. Starting as a family initiative, the Zinsou Foundation remains deeply involved in cultural and social activities. As a place of exhibition, the Zinsou Foundation tries its best to publicize a dynamic African art too often thought to belong to the old golden age. Drive to Ouidah, considered the capital town of African Voodoo.
DAY 10, Sunday: Zangbeto, the ghost – BENIN
Ouidah was conquered by the Dahomey army during the XVIII century to become one of the main slave ports. Today the city enjoys Afro-Brazilian architecture, and the python temple faces the Catholic Cathedral. The laid-back attitude of the local’s blends in harmoniously with the thunder of the distant waves and the rhythm of the drums – a timeless atmosphere very well described by Bruce Chatwin in his book “The Vice-Roy of Ouidah”. On foot, we visit the Python Temple and the Portuguese Fort, now a museum on the history of Ouidah and the slave trade. We end our city tour by following the “slave road” to the beach, the point of “no return” where slaves used to board ships. (Portuguese fort is under renovation)
In the afternoon we attend Zangbeto dancing masks
The Zangbeto mask is very tall and covered with colored straw. It represents wild non-human spirits (the forces of nature and of the night that inhabited the Earth before human beings). The mask wearers belong to a secret society and keep their identity hidden as the non-initiated cannot know who they are. When Zangbeto comes out, it is a big important event for the village. Its performance guarantees protection against bad spirits and malicious people. The spinning movement of the mask symbolizes the spiritual cleaning of the village and Zangbeto also performs miracles to prove its powers.
DAY 11, Monday: At the heart of the Voodoo Land! from Ouidah to Lome – BENIN & TOGO Crossing of the Togolese border (Save Kodji / Hilla Kodji). All along the coast of Togo and Benin, voodoo is a religion that has been passed on by the ancestors and is still fervently practiced. Although according to many Westerners voodoo is only a vulgar form of black magic, in truth voodoo is a real religion, far richer and more complex than people often think. Meeting with a traditional healer who treats his patients with voodoo rites and herbs. The treatments are effective for almost all diseases, especially for insanity. His shrine about him is impressive.
The endless list of voodoos shows the endless powers concentrated at the site.
In a remote hidden village, we will join a Voodoo ceremony: the frenetic rhythm of the drums and chants of the adepts help call in the voodoo spirit who then takes possession of some of the dancers. They fall into a deep trance: eyes rolling back, grimaces, convulsions, insensitivity to fire or pain. Sakpata, Heviesso, Mami Water are just some of the voodoo divinities who can show up. In this narrow village, surrounded by the magic atmosphere of the ceremony, we will finally understand what people mean when they say: “In your Churches, you pray to God, in our voodoo shrine we become God! ”
Arrival in Lomé late in the afternoon.Free time to get ready to leave or go shopping. Many are the places which can be visited for this purpose and our vehicle will be available to take you around: shops for tribal art and antiques, craftworks, art galleries with contemporary paintings from the “Togolese school” (which start to be quite popular in French and North American galleries), shops selling “popular” art items such as the colorful “advertising” signs in front of the street hairdressers, etc.
In the evening, transfer to the airport.