Thursday, May 19, 2011

My recent fascinating visit to Togo

“A child who never travels always praises his mother’s cooking” (An African Proverb).

After that serious last post on time-keeping in Africa, let me share with you something light and  humorous. I have just returned from a YMCA trip to Togo, in West Africa. And my, my, my, what a fascinating visit that was!

We arrived at lunchtime on May 9, 2011, at the Lome airport in Togo. To begin with, there was no notice telling us how much we needed to pay in US dollars for our entry visas. The notice was in local currency and so we relied on the words of the immigration official. He asked for $40 and I gave it to him, hoping he was not cheating me (I later discovered another passenger paid $45, another $60, and another $100). Then, after the official got my money, he insisted my passport was full (I had one empty page left). He kept dropping hints in a very harsh tone, “Your passport is full! You must do something! Your passport is full! Look at this, you must do something!” I acted dumb until, finally, after waiting for almost two hours he gave me my passport with the visa inside. “You see what I have done for you. You needed to do something!” I got my passport but did not do "something"!

A lady who was coming for the same YMCA meeting was less fortunate. She gave the immigration official a $100 note, expecting to get change. When she got her passport back an hour later with the entry visa in it, there was no change. She asked the officer for the change and he totally denied that he got any money from her. “Then how come you have given me a visa without me paying anything for it?” she asked. He then gave her $10 change and insisted she only gave him a $50 note. She knew this was a lost cause and just walked away.

Motorbike "taxis" in full speed
We were finally in Togo. The people were very friendly, though communication was a challenge because Togo is French-speaking. I loved the extensive use of the African chitenge material for their dresses and shirts—and even trousers. Their fresh tropical fruits (mangoes, avocado pears, pineapples, bananas, etc) were just yummy. Apart from the humidity and heat, what struck me the most was the number of motorbikes. There were thousands and thousands of them everywhere. I have never seen so many motorbikes in such a short space of time in my whole life. It was evidently the most common form of transport. They were also used as taxis. I saw one passenger carrying a small bed in between himself and the motorbike driver. On one occasion, we came across a crowd beside the road and, upon enquiring, I was told that it was an accident. I could see traffic police on the scene. My surprise, though, was that I did not see more accidents. The way in which those motorbikes were weaving between cars moving at great speed amazed me.

On the last day, as we were making our way to the airport, I sat in the front seat of a bus without seat belts. I was initially nervous and whispered a quick prayer to God for safety. It must have been in answer to prayer that the bus broke down soon after the journey began and I almost missed my flight. Alas, even the car that came to pick us up later and rushed us to the airport had no functional seat belts either—and I was again in the front seat. This time my one and only prayer was for God to get me to the airport in time for the flight. He heard my prayer. I was the last person to go through the final security checkpoint. In this confusion, I arrived in Zambia without my luggage. Hopefully, I will get it one day!

Our broken down bus with its patient passengers
Another wake up call was my failure to get Internet service. Oh, the things we take for granted! It was an hour’s drive between the place where we had the YMCA meeting and the YMCA secretariat, where I was assured that I could get Internet service. We made that trip and found that the Internet was not working. After going around the city, we soon discovered that there was no Internet in the whole country of Togo the whole day. We even tried a posh five-star hotel along the beach—a favourite for Americans—but the story was the same. So, I returned to the conference centre with nothing to show for my long journey into town.

Thankfully, the following evening we were invited to attend a special dinner at a hotel in town. Upon getting there we discovered that the Internet was available. Having been starved of this essential 21st century commodity, a number of us scrambled to get online like Arabs who had just chanced life-giving water in the middle of a desert. For me, it meant missing my dinner altogether, as there was so much essential mail that needed to be handled. By the grace of God, I managed to give the minimum needed attention to those that needed to be replied—except one. This was my weekly newspaper article. I sent a hurried note to the editor to ask for 24 hours extension to my weekly deadline. The following evening, which was the last evening in Togo, I borrowed a laptop and spent some thirty minutes on a painfully slow connection to send the article. You should have seen the joy on my face when I f-i-n-a-l-l-y read “sent” on the screen. I felt the joy that Sir Isaac Newton must have felt when he discovered the law of gravity!

Motorbikes competing with cars for space on the road
I must end with this West African story. On our last day, just before leaving for the airport, the delegates were sharing their West African travel experiences. One story made me realize that my experience would not make it as headline news. A delegate from Zimbabwe shared how, in 1996, he was flying from Lagos to Kaduna, in Nigeria. Upon checking in, he was told that it was free sitting and that his seat was not guaranteed. So he panicked and quickly asked which flight he was to get on. He was told to go and enquire on the ramp (apron), where there were a number of planes. He rushed there and asked various passengers either coming off a plane or getting onto one. Finally, he was shown a queue on the ramp. When he got there, he found that it comprised his fellow passengers going to Kaduna. On that queue, he soon discovered that if you had little luggage you joined the front end and if you had a lot of luggage you joined the back. Thankfully, he had very little and so he joined the front end.

Our storyteller went on to tell us that he was a little worried when the plane finally came because there appeared to be more people and luggage than the plane could handle. He was mistaken. All the passengers were fitted on board. Most passengers sat with their luggage on their laps. One of them, upon failing to find a seat, asked the airhostess what he should do. He was told to sit with a child (who was occupying a seat) on his laps. When he complained that the child was not his, the air hostess said, “Sir, if you want to fly on this plane, take that child and put him on your laps!” He complied. As if this was not hilarious enough, he ended his story by telling us of yet another passenger who was at the end of the queue because he was carrying a fridge, a stove and a goat. He was sure that this passenger would never make it, but he was wrong again. The fridge and stove were packed at the end of the aisle, with the goat tied to the stove all the way to Kaduna!

What shall I say to all this? “Only in Africa!”

1 comment:

  1. The word 'something' redefined!

    Last year in DRC, an airliner plane crashed when passengers dashed to one side of the plane to escape a baby crocodile that had peeped out from its owner's suitcase. Everyone died. The croc too.

    Only in Africa! Not even one of our own famous doba-doba buses to Nchelenge would allow a fridge and a goat to be carried in the aisle. You need a very strong stomach or impeccable faith in God to travel by air in some of these parts of Africa. Or by motorcycle taxi, for that matter.

    Thank God that he preserved you.