Up until recently, we've been fairly restricted regarding when and where we could get off ship (if we could get off at all) due to the potential for civil unrest after the elections.
So when I run into my Danish friend Jens last Saturday and he asks if I want to come with him and his "friend" James (Jens met James on a street corner in Lomé the other day), I don't hesitate. I throw on some walking shoes, fill up my water bottle, and we're off.
Jens is the kind of person that loves to interact with people-- all people, all the time. So it wasn't surprising that he'd made friends with James while out wandering in Lomé, or that he'd agreed to meet James for another day of exploring in town. Being from Ghana, James speaks English (helpful for Jens and I) but he also speaks Ewe, the most common local language (also very helpful, seeing as I speak a little French but no Ewe).
I shake hands with James, who promptly goes into raptures, unaccountably pleased that Jens has "finally" found a good woman to settle down with. It's no good trying to explain friendship and singleness to a West African; these are almost as strange to them as my white skin. So I simply wink at Jens while James eloquently wishes us long life and prosperity.
We start off by taking a taxi into town (last year in Benin we were close enough to walk to town; this year it would take a good 45 minutes to walk to town). I am so thankful that taxis are the norm here rather than the zemidjans of Benin. To own a taxi you must pass a driver's test (I think) and you must be registered. To own a zemi in Benin you need... nothing at all. In fact, you can have cataracts in both eyes and still offer yourself as transportation for hire (true story-- one of my friends last year took a ride with a partially-blind zemi driver).
Jens, James and I pile out of the taxi somewhere in town and start walking. I'm not sure what exactly James has in mind. We pass a large, modern building with multiple signs proclaiming "Musée National" and decide to go see this National Museum of Togo. As it turns out, the national museum consists of a small, hot room filled with various clay pots, smoking pipes, statues, and farming implements. Go down several steps into the basement and you can see pictures of all the various governors of Togo, which was ruled at various times by the Germans, the English, and most recently the French before someone finally decided the Togolese could run their own country. Needless to say, I hadn't exactly expected a Louvre-caliber museum, but it was still a little... well, African (not that I mind).
After our quick tour of the museum, James decides that we should see the border (Lomé is less than 30 minutes from the Ghanaian border, I believe). After another short taxi ride we again start walking, enjoying the sights and tolerating the smells. In between chatting with James, Jens and I practice my Norwegian. Danish is similar enough that he understands me perfectly, although I struggle to pick out his words sometimes as they are full of long, drawled vowels. As we're walking we notice that the street ahead of us abruptly ends, barbed wire fencing draped as far as the eye can see. On the other side of that fence is Ghana, which looks remarkably similar to Togo as far as I can tell. Every now and then there's large gaps cut in the fence and we watch as people carry fuel and other goods across the border (easier than going through the checkpoint, James tells us). There are weapons-toting guards lounging around on the Togolese side but they don't interfere with the border crossings happening in broad daylight.
(Togo on the left side of the fence, Ghana on the right, with an illegal gate cut into the wire fencing.)
The kids here in Togo are a little shy, and I find that I miss the wildly exuberant shouts and antics of the kids in Benin. The few kids who do venture a shy wave and softly call out "yovo, yovo" ("white person, white person"), Jens gently teases by calling back "ameyibo" which according to James means "black person" in Ewe. We get shouts of laughter and good-natured chatter from the mamas at this, and James interprets for us that the mamas are pleased that "this yovo, he speaks our language!"
We follow the fence south, towards the beach, until we come to a traffic jam of people and vehicles headed to and from Ghana. James tells us that once you pass under the black star you are in Ghana; I think I could have deduced that much from the "welcome to Ghana" sign just underneath the black star. I think about waving at Ghana, but decide that I would rather not attract any additional attention to myself. I get enough attention as it is being a white woman in an African country.
Now that we've seen the border, James suggests that we go to the big market. We flag down another taxi which deposits us at one of the entrances of the big market where you can buy nearly anything you want-- hair pieces, half a butchered chicken (or a whole live one), vegetables, antibiotics, TV's, fabric, "official" soccer jerseys, and "Dolce & Gabbana" sunglasses. Shopping in the market is very nearly the opposite of shopping at home. Here in West Africa, the tedious burden of actually having to look for what you need has been eradicated; instead, vendors clamor to show you their wares. Surely you are in need of a belt, my sister! You already have one? But surely two are better than one! And these are very good quality belts, my dear. I give you good price, ok?
We wander the market, occasionally running into other yovos from the ship. Not at all subtly, vendors admire Jens' beard (his beard would make an Amish man proud). Several men good-naturedly call him Osama. Jens laughs and somehow makes more friends even as he explains through pantomime that he is not Muslim; he just likes to have a beard. James explains that only Muslim men grow long beards here in Togo, but Jens isn't bothered by that one bit. Just a way to start a conversation, he tells me. And I can't help but agree because oddly enough he's managed to have several conversations about faith with the people we've met.
At this point James suggests that we head back into town to check out a "program" of some sort. In West Africa, "program" is a vague way of saying "something will be happening." I have had just the right amount of wandering and randomness for today, so I say my goodbyes to James and Jens in order to join up with some other Mercy Shippers out shopping at the market. A little womanly bartering and fabric-shopping seems perfect for the rest of the afternoon.
All in all I spend 6 hours of the day walking, letting the dust of the roads slowly sink into my pores and thinking that I can't quite account for the way things are so familiarly unfamiliar. I'm not necessarily at home here, but I've spent enough time in West Africa now to be able to really enjoy it.
I think I enjoy most of all the strange incongruities that arise here: I've just spent the day wandering around a town in Togo with a Danish carpenter and a Ghanaian fisherman.