There are only a few things which give sub-Saharan Africa a sense of common identity. One of them is police road blocks. Every road in every country we visited had police road blocks, often many of them. Typically they consist of a flimsy piece of wood flung across two empty metal barrels. But we have also seen stones placed on the road, cardboard boxes, or just a table and a chair on the side of the road. The policemen who man the roadblocks vary from the smart uniformed (and usually heavily armed) type to the dishevelled tramp type with shirt unbuttoned and a sleepy, faintly annoyed look.
We usually encounter two types of situations. Some policemen are very inquisitive and nitpicky – obviously after a bribe. During the Christmas period they even lose whatever reserve they might have had to ask for their “Christmas present” outright. Others are slouched at their desk and not too thrilled at having been woken up by the rare car driving past their forgotten road blocks. They typically wave us on with a grouchy look on their faces.
After crossing, probably, well over a hundred road blocks, I still struggle to understand their function – and value. On the 200km run from Kumasi to Takoradi in Ghana, we counted no less than 13 road blocks – each one of them delaying us for 3-5mn. At an average speed of 40km and hour, the time wasted by road blocks represented 15% of our total journey time that day.
Therefore,assuming that wasted time could be spent productively, Africa has a simple solution to instantaneously increase its GDP by 15% (and that’s not even counting the savings from not doing the road blocks!).
Kejetia market in Kumasi lends itself to superlatives. West Africa’s largest, with more than 10,000 traders selling every possible product. Probably the world’s most crowded market- full of narrow lanes where fierce “porter” aunties plough their way through every obstacle, physical or human, with shrill cries of “ago, ago” (make way, make way!) seconds before they come crashing into you with their load.
Definitely the most overwhelming crowd experience we’ve ever had.
The Ashanti Kingdom, from the 16th to the 19th century was one of Africa’s most powerful polities. The Ashantis fought three wars with the British before they were finally subdued in 1900 and integrated to the Gold Coast colony. The source of Ashanti power was gold. The gold which first brought the Portuguese to West Africa in 1471, as they tried to break the Arab monopoly on the African gold trade.
Ghana remains a major gold producer to this day and that production is still centered on the Ashanti region and its capital, Kumasi. The Portuguese and other Europeans who followed them to the Gold Coast, Dutch, Swedes, Danes, Germans, British are long gone. They have been replaced by Chinese miners and traders – all clustered around Kumasi and after the same prize: gold.
Driving through certain suburbs of Kumasi feels like being in a third tier city in China. Chinese hotels and nightclubs, Chinese supermarkets and restaurants abound. 65,000 Chinese from Guanxi province reportedly live in the area, most of them involved in small scale gold mining.
For us, though, the main benefit of that state of affairs is that Kumasi has the first Cantonese restaurant we have seen in Africa. Chef Chan quickly becomes friends with the boys – and the Han Court restaurant a welcome respite from the culinary frustrations of travelling through the hinterland of West Africa for three weeks.
Having taken our leave from the Paramount Chief and gotten back into our car, the matter of what to do with the two guinea fowl became a pressing one. The birds were in a panic in the boot of the 4×4, banging their heads and wings against the back seats, desperately trying to jump to the front of the car.
The boys were adamant that they wanted to keep them as pets. Our driver felt strongly that the chubby avians were too good to waste and that we should slaughter them and roast them for dinner.
We talked of finding a poor man or woman by the roadside and giving them the birds. Or of walking to the busy central market and offering them to one of the many beggars there. Or perhaps just release them in a patch of forest outside the town to “give them a chance” – though they would not have survived long in the wild. But none of those ideas could garner a consensus among us.
It is at that moment that a brilliant solution suddenly came up. Having decided to keep the birds for the night in our car while we looked for better ideas, the friendly security guard of the hotel where we were staying started to show an interest in their welfare. He built a small cardboard house for them to spend the night in and helped the boys catch the birds every time they escaped from the boot (which was quite often…).
The boys finally decided to entrust the pair of guinea fowl to him for safekeeping, under the condition that he would not to slaughter the royal birds until they had first given birth to chicks and raised them. This he did, taking an oath on the Koran under the watchful eye of four witnesses.
Thus was the saga of the Royal Guinea Fowl brought to a happy (or at least – less complicated) ending, albeit perhaps not that intended by the king of kings when he gave us the birds.
We cross the border from Togo to Ghana through a dusty isolated crossing. The border post is so under-resourced that the immigration officers need to borrow our pens to “stamp” our passports.
In Tamale, a vibrant Muslim city in northern Ghana, we are invited to visit the palace of the Gulpke Naa, the paramount chief of the region (or king of kings as he is called here). We are granted an audience by the king himself.
While we are waiting for the lesser kings of the surrounding districts to finish their audience with the paramount king, we can hear the court herald chant the praises of the king and his forefathers. Finally, we are introduced by an interpreter and seated on the floor facing the king and his council of elders. The king is seated on his throne in a dark room with only one opening, behind him, through which the afternoon sun gushes in. We can only guess his outline, surrounded as he is by the golden light of the afternoon sun.
A charismatic figure in his traditional robes, he appears surprised that we have come to visit from so far. After giving us the traditional kola nuts and asking us some questions about our travels, he blesses us and gives us two (live !) guinea fowl and six yams. The story of what we did with the guinea fowl is for another day!
Magic is central to West African society. Every phenomenon, event or process is explained and enhanced by magic. This is a deeply animistic society where the traditional monotheistic religions play second fiddle to ancient animist beliefs.
The Kabye blacksmiths, outstanding craftsmen famous throughout the region for forging metal with a 15 pound stone rather than a hammer are also traditional healers, able to treat wounds caused by fire or metal with a mixture of herbs and incantations.
The Bassar, who mine iron ore and transform it in their earth smelters, use magic charms and spells to do their work.
We hear of the Night Plane at Kara airport in Togo’s second largest city, which takes off at night, unseen, though its engines can be heard. It travels the world invisibly, carrying witches to their congresses.
We visit a colony of reformed witches. Banished from their villages for having caused harm or death to some people, they live in a “safe house” under the supervision of powerful fetish priests.
It is difficult for a rationalist to fully accept the role attributed to magic in Africa. The Fire Ceremony we attend, late one night, in a remote village in Benin seriously shakes our skepticism though. We see men from the Tem tribe rub burning torches against their bodies and their faces, munch on red hot embers like crisps – feeling no apparent pain and bearing no wounds on their bodies. The old man leading the ceremony moves with almost demonic energy, shrieking in a blood curdling voice and staring at us with mad eyes. He covers himself in flames two feet away from us, then cuts himself with sharp pieces of glass – to no apparent effect.
Magic, apart from its role in bringing order and understanding to their lives is also a filter through which people here are able to see the world in a more interesting, colourful manner. It is a script written over an otherwise harsh, mundane life.
Travelling through the Somba country feels like a journey through a fairy tale book. The Tata Sombas which dot the countryside are tiny fortresses built by the Somba tribe, complete with high walls, little turrets and entrances which look like faces. Inside, small rooms with round openings and a network of tunnels make the tatas look like Hobbit holes.
The tatas’ original purpose was defensive at a time of war and slave raids. They are built on two levels. The ground level is where the Sombas keep their animals as well as old folk on the threshold of death (that dark area has a cosmological association with the afterlife). The second level is a terrace used for gatherings and to dry grains, surrounded by small turrets, some of which are used as rooms and others as granaries.
Every tata is protected by gris gris and a fetish. When a new tata needs to be built to accommodate a growing family, the future owner shoots an arrow towards the sky and builds the tata on the spot where the arrow has fallen.
Taneka could have been Michael Moorcock’s Tanelorn. A village founded hundreds of years ago by people fleeing inter-tribal wars in northern Benin and meant to be a safe haven for all peoples. Founded by the Kabye people who were able to defeat a large enemy force with the help of a spirit army, Taneka soon became known throughout the region as a place to find safe harbour in troubled times. The Kabye were soon joined by three other tribes who all lived in harmony in Taneka.
Today the village is divided into four districts, one for each tribe, each governed by a secular king. Priests are the spiritual leaders of Taneka and hold the real power. The people of Taneka believe that the spirits of the Dead influence every aspect of their lives and are more powerful even than the spirits of nature. In the words of one priest we speak to, “the Dead are with us all the time, they eat with us, they walk with us, they sleep with us”.
Built on a hill, Taneka seems devoid of life when we visit. A bit like the village where Sen’s parents get turned into pigs in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. There are houses, shrines everywhere, the smell of food cooking – but no living soul to be seen.
We eventually notice a couple of young children flickering in and out of view like will-o-wisps. And then a few old folk. There is not an able bodied person in sight.
Today, hundreds of years after its founding, Taneka has become a sort of living shrine where its people, now scattered all around the country, come back to attend special rituals and to consult the priests and healers. It is more spirit village than living village.
The last stop of the Ebony Train is in Dassa, an ancient city built on 41 hills, each owned by a princely family. The kingship of Dassa rotates among the 41 princely families.
We meet with Hippolyte Zomahoun, the great grandson of King Adjiki of Dassa. Adjiki, in 1900, sheltered the last king of Dahomey, Behanzin, from the French who were pursuing him after his defeat.
The French tried to torture Adjiki into surrendering Behanzin by tying him to a fire, but the flames would not harm him. As he walked off the burning pyre, unscathed, Adjiki reportedly said “the flames do not burn for the wrong reasons”, translated into “zomahoun” in the local dialect. This gave the family the surname Zomahoun which they have borne since then.
An interesting anecdote about Adjiki is the story of his wooden horse. He owned four horses who died in short succession. Tired of mortal horses, he told his friend, a Portuguese trader that he needed an immortal horse. The crafty trader had a beautiful wooden horse on wheels made for him in Portugal. Zomahoun was then able to be wheeled around on his wooden horse, dragged by servants.
Abomey was the capital of the ancient Dahomey empire which constantly waged war – both to grow its territory and to capture war prisoners to sell as slaves to the European powers. Dahomey was one of Africa’s most powerful and sophisticated empires covering most of modern Benin and France’s main obstacle to consolidating their control over West Africa.
Abomey is also the centre of the Egun cult, in which the Dead are summoned back to this world through ritual dances performed by “masks”. The Egun initiates, whose identity is kept secret, wear elaborate costumes and masks, through which they become possessed by dead spirits who communicate with the living through them.
For onlookers, contact with a mask during an Egun dance means certain death, unless elaborate rituals are immediately performed to save the affected person. During a dance ceremony which we attend, two people are touched by masks and immediately collapse in a coma. I myself narrowly escape contact with a mask when my minder pulls me back in extremis. The whole experience becomes slightly unsettling with the masks working themselves into a frenzy and actively chasing onlookers.