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Adorable locals.
Adorable locals.
One of your hotel stops on tour.
Touring around Togo.

West Africa Gold Coast II

Wednesday, March 27, 2002
Sorrel ventures deeper into the heart of West Africa this week as we return to discover two more exotic and colourful countries.

When Africa comes to mind, so do sprawling plains full of wildebeest, zebras and adventurers wearing safari suits (what else?). This exotic country does offer all of that, but it has many other attractions.

On first impression, Accra, the capital city of Ghana, seems drab and grey with lots and lots of traffic and markets. The lasting impressions, though, are of the people and a city that vibrates 24 hours a day. Ghanaians are naturally happy and express themselves visually and spiritually in a lively, colourful way.

Ghana is the most advanced and wealthy of the West African countries. Everyone speaks English and there are no particular customs for visitors to heed.

Marketplaces are always good to get a feel for a city, and at the busy Makola Market in Accra, you will certainly get the buzz any day of the week, as well as being able to buy anything you might want, from beads to wonderful fabrics. It is difficult to leave Ghana without buying Kente cloth, which has become extremely desirable throughout the world. Vendors carry as much as 40 kilos of whatever they are selling, perilously perched on top of their head.

Before Accra, Cape Coast was Ghana's capital. It is still a busy town of about 110,000, with a 17th-century castle built by the Swedes. The castle's superb museum was built with the help of the Smithsonian and is well worth a visit. Although Fort William (which is now a lighthouse) and Fort Victoria are not open to the public, you can climb to their terraces and enjoy sweeping views across and bay.

If you fancy witnessing a great example of the Ghanaian humour, ask your driver to take you to one of the fantasy coffin shops. They belong to one family and the idea of shaping the coffins began over a century ago, just for wealthy families, but now everyone wants one! The shape of the coffin is a direct reference to the person who has died: shaped like a fish means the deceased was a fisherman; shaped like a thong means the person always wore thongs. They cost about $400, an amount that would take years to save in Ghana.

Elmina is a town of 20,000 which makes its living from fishing, fish processing, salt production and a growing tourism industry. It has all the marks of a seaside resort, but was not always a desirable place. Three hundred years ago, Elmina Castle was the largest of 30 prisons where an estimated 20 million slaves were kept before being transported to the Americas.

North and inland is Kumasi, home to the Ashanti Kingdom, one of Africa's richest tribes. This city of a million people is surrounded by hills and is a major cultural and economic centre of Ghana. The Ashantis' wealth originally came from gold, but they were also involved in slavery, selling tribal war prisoners to Europeans in an area that is still West Africa's largest outdoor marketplace. The British burned the old Kumasi in 1901, but it remains the spiritual centre of the people and is home to their king.

Across the border from Ghana is the French-speaking country of Togo, a tiny place of diverse culture and linguistics. For many years it enjoyed great tourism, with attractions such as long, deserted beaches, the beautiful Lake Togo, hiking and butterfly spotting in the highlands. Its capital, Lomé, attracted people for its wild and wonderful nightlife. Sadly, political instability in the early 1990s has reduced tourism, along with the nightlife, but all else remains for those visiting Togo.

Lomé has beautiful galleries of contemporary and primitive art, boutiques and restaurants serving African, French and Italian cuisine. Its main exports are cotton, coffee, cacao and palm nuts.

The vibrant Grande Marche is the place to buy wonderful brightly coloured fabrics — sold by sugar mummies known as "Mama Benz" because they sell so much, they can afford expensive cars! In days of slavery, a metre of fabric was traded for a human life — now it costs around $40.

Lomé has Africa's largest fetish market, selling voodoo ingredients mostly made from dead animal parts, wooden dolls with lots of nails, and cowry shells and necklaces which promise to achieve whatever you want them to. Around 30 percent of the population practices voodoo, but because of the range of ingredients at Lomés markets, people travel from the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Mali for their purchases.

Only men can be priests and sell voodoo ingredients, but women can be involved in ceremonies in which people go into a trance while dancing to frantic drumming, singing and clapping. The ceremonies are usually held outside, but special rituals are also held in secret huts, and can take from half a day to several weeks.

Heading west will take you across another border and into the country of Benin. It's a tiny country, very much like Togo, although poorer, and there is a noticeable lack of shops, trade and traffic. However, it is a popular destination and offers enough variety to fill several weeks of touring.

Ganvié is Africa's largest stilt village, standing in the middle of Lac Nokoué and accessible only by a dugout canoe. The village was built 300 years ago by the Tofinu Kingdom to escape being captured for slavery. Not surprisingly the residents make their living from fishing and — increasingly — tourism. There are a couple of hotels and each morning there is a market which is a great place to join in with the noisy, friendly people.

Porto Novo, while looking like an overgrown village, is the official capital of Benin and is where their president resides. After many years of political turmoil, the country's future is looking positive and bright and the people have renewed optimism. The history of their art is rich and has drawn international attention on the Kingdom of Dahomey, Benin's former name. It used to be that art was for spiritual purposes, but kings also called upon artisans and sculptors to create works evoking heroism and enhancing the image of the rulers.

Until the 19th century, no works of art were permitted to leave the palace walls, but now you won't have any problem locating examples of the brass and silver castings and richly appliquéd banners. The Ethnography Museum has a fine collection of masks, weapons and musical instruments, as well as information about the town's history.

The Royal Palace at Abomey has wonderful examples of clay and polychrome bas-reliefs that were used to decorate the palace, temples and chiefs' houses. The Getty Conservation Institute has been responsible for restoring the palace and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Visitors are always fascinated by the Zangbeto mask dance. The masks represent non-human spirits and forces of nature which have been on earth far longer than mankind. During the ceremony, the masks thrust upwards, sometimes up to four metres, and in a show of acrobatic manoeuvres, are plunged to the ground, imitating the movement of a snake.

While West Africa is not really the place to go on safari, it does have lots to offer apart from voodoo and associated wares. The people are wonderfully friendly and greet visitors warmly. Everything is noisy and colourful, their history is interesting and diverse, and their food superb.

Location

Ghana, Togo and Benin, in West Africa.

Cost

Qantas flies five times a week to Johannesburg with connections to Accra.
Africa Golden Kingdom Tours are operated by TransAfrica and a 17-day tour including air and land travel, accommodation, guides and most meals costs around $10,000 per person twin-share. Bookings can be made in Australia through the Classic Safari Company.
Please note prices are valid at time of transmission and to the best of our knowledge are inclusive of GST.

More information

The Classic Safari Company
156 Queen Street, Woollahra 2025
Ph: (02) 9327 0666

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