Discovering the Paris of West Africa: Lomé Togo
By Raquel Fletcher
By the time our bus arrives in Afloa, the border town between Ghana’s Volta Region and Lomé, the capital city of Togo, it is well after dark – exactly when I said I didn’t want to arrive. I’ve heard horror stories about crossing the border at night.
The man sitting to my right leans over to caution me, “Keep your bags close to you at all times. There are criminals on the way.” That doesn’t make me feel any better.
Outside of the bus station, my traveling companion and I are accosted by men wanting us to exchange money. “You have to exchange money on this side,” one tells us.
Most people crossing the border would have looked up the exchange rate between the Ghana cedi and the CFA (Communauté financière d’Afrique), the currency used in the French-speaking African countries, but that’s not how we travel.
After volunteering for three months in Ghana, we decided to spend a week holiday in Togo more or less on a whim, having heard Lomé described as the Paris of Africa.
On the road to the border, we befriend a heavy-set, but friendly-looking Ghanaian, who shows us where to get our passports stamped and walks with us through the maze of border officials who have to verify our visas.
When they’ve finished, we exit and are standing on the streets of Lomé. Men with motorcycle taxis are waiting to pounce. “Bonne arrivée!” They all shout at once.
Back of a Motorcycle
I promised myself before coming to Africa, I would never get on the back of a motorbike, only a bit of a problem in Lomé. Our new friend helps us hail a cab and barters with him to take us to the hotel. He also barters down the exchange rate: 1000CFA runs us 3.2 Ghana cedi or roughly USD$2.
We arrive at Le Galion, a French-inspired inn with an outdoor bistro. On Friday nights, a live band plays covers of Cat Stevens and the Temptations, among other English-language artists.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a reservation and they’re completely booked. The helpful receptionist recommends we try another hotel, one block up and three blocks over. It is after nine pm and it’s raining. The streets are made of dirt, but I’m already in love with Lomé and its European flavor.
Compared to the sprawling mess of Ghana’s capital, Accra, Lomé’s layout is much better. It’s based on a grid and we find l’Hôtel Phoneacian easily. They too are also full for the night and so they direct us back to Beach Road to l’Hôtel Tano.
Rooms there run 7000CFA a night with a shared washroom and shower, 8000CFA a night for the contained washroom and 27000 CFA for a suite. The rooms are basic and dark, but clean and the staff is more than accommodating, so we decide to stay.
The next day, we decide to explore the town. Besides its beautiful cathedral au centre-ville, and a well-maintained park, which I’m told is financed by an American organization, the city is crumbling.
Once considered the pearl of West Africa, Togo’s tourism industry never fully recovered after the uprisings of the early 1990s. Lomé is Paris falling down. Even the pier is partially collapsed in the ocean.
Outside la Cathédrale after mass, young children with lighter-toned skin beg us for money and food, a sad sign we are in one of the continent’s poorest countries. I can see the men who’ve unleashed them on us, spying foreigners from a mile away, and I reluctantly refuse them.
Near to the cathedral is the renowned marché des féticheurs, or fetish market, where my companion barters down a voodoo doll. The traditional rituals of voodoo found in the Americas were imported from Togo and neighboring countries during the slave trade of the 17th century and are still practiced in the country today.
The market is full of interesting brass trinkets and jewelry, among other objets d’art. We were told we could even find magic potions, but after our first purchase, we begin to attract attention from the other merchants.
One named Omar insists I let him be my boyfriend, at least for the time I’m in Togo and asks for my phone number. Another demands I purchase a postcard from him. When we kindly decline, he chases us down the street, shouting at us, “Sorcieres! Diables!”
Sunshine on the Beach
On Sunday afternoons, people congregate on the beach after church. After our failed shopping
experience, we find a piece of sand with relatively little trash and settle down to enjoy the sunshine. We buy kebabs, plantain chips and Fantas off vendors’ heads. Men approach us and ask us to marry them. I joke with them in French, but my companion is lost in the conversation.
A woman is selling homemade lemonade in Voltic bottles and I risk consuming local water for some refreshment from the sweltering heat. As I pay, a thief snatches my companion’s wallet from inside her purse.
Swiftly, she hits it out of his hand and the men bolt. “Close your bag. Always close your bag,” the lemonade vendor tells us. Apparently, pickpockets are a common occurrence on this beach.
After all the excitement, we decide to spend the evening relaxing and indulge at one of Lomé’s recommended restaurants. Back at Le Galion, meals run between 3000 and 4000 CFA a plate, a steal compared to the pricey Golden Beach Hotel beside it. (Golden Beach does have free Wi-fi, though – and some pretty tasty cappuccino).
At Le Galion, they serve up French wine and a number of European desserts at a good price. Our favorite is the chocolate mousse.
Nightlife at Privilege
With full stomachs, we are ready to explore the nightlife. Privilege is by far the city’s biggest nightclub. An overpriced lounge on the main floor that has cloth booths and pool tables (an hour of pool costs 3000CFA or USD$6), and a nightclub on the second floor, it’s one of the city’s most popular hotspots.
However, opting for a smaller, cozier place, we make our way to La Villa. According to online travel blogs we read, it is the spot du Choix of UN officials and EU delegates and it definitely has a VIP vibe.
I feel like I’m in an exclusive Las Vegas club. Shots are doubles and the music is a nice mix of Top 40 with some French flair.
After our night out on the town, the next day we are ready for some adventure. It’s a toss-up between a tranquil canoe ride in nearby Togoville or the breathtaking splendor of Kpalimé’s waterfalls.
Although nearly a two-hour journey by tro-tro, we decide Kpalimé’s lush tropical forest, full of native butterflies and four natural cascades, is too tempting to miss. When we arrive, we charter a taxi to the summit of the town’s mountain. We are captivated by the sprawling beauty of trees and rainforest that more than makes up for the bumpy journey.
Our driver takes us as far as the gate of the military-guarded chateau, where we need to hire a guide to take us inside. Built by a German lawyer in the 1940’s, this European-style stone castle, which later housed the Togolese president and national ministers, is under reconstruction.
Fairly uninteresting, save the magnificent view of the townships engulfed in majestic forest below, we don’t spend too much time here, hoping to return to Lomé before nightfall.
Ants in Pants
“Have you ever seen a coffee plant before?” Our driver asks us on our descent down the mountain. He pulls over to tear a branch off a coffee plant. “This is what raw coffee looks like.”
I contemplate keeping it as a souvenir when I feel sharp pinches on my ankles. Swarms of black ants from the leaves have started to crawl up my legs. “Quick, throw it away,” my companion tells the driver.
Our tro-tro to return to Lomé is overcrowded and stuck in heavy traffic. It takes nearly three hours to return to the station. Tired and hungry, we wander into Greenfield, a large and elegant open-roof restaurant next to the Kpalimé tro-tro station.
On Tuesday nights, they show American movies in French with English subtitles and serve pizza made in a fire-oven for a discount price. My companion and I order a bottle of white wine to go with our delicious pizzas and enjoy the night air.
When we return to our hotel room, I find a note slid under our door. “From the first day I set my eyes on you, I must tell you the truth – I fell in love with you,” it reads.
It is signed by “Michael” with a phone number at the bottom of the page. I tell the concierge to keep a closer watch on our room.
The next morning, we’re up for spending our last afternoon in the sun, but this time somewhere a little cleaner than the public beach next to our hotel.
The beach resorts next to Coco Beach, where we plop down for the day, is so close to the city’s industrial area it is hard to believe this paradise exists.
Free Beach Wi-Fi
Sunbathing is free, but the pool and the “paillotes,” little grass huts that offer shade, come with a fee. The menu is a bit overpriced, as well, but offer good sandwiches. And there is free Wi-Fi; we regret not bringing our laptops. We tell ourselves we deserve this time to relax.
Since coming to Lomé, this is the first afternoon we haven’t been proposed to or hit on. My companion and I decide to stay for an early supper to soak up more sun. When we’re finished, we ask the security guard where we can find a taxi to take us back to town and he escorts us to the junction (otherwise we could be jumped by “bandits”).
Having to drive through the awful stench of the industrial area again tarnishes the pleasant afternoon we just spent. But I have finally evened out my tan and caught some much-needed rays. Now for our last evening in Lomé – we decide to spend it back at Le Galion with some more live music and French wine, where we can muse over our travels in this city that is just the right blend of African rhythms with a taste of France.
Raquel Fletcher is a student at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan and volunteering as a journalist in Ghana in 2010.