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Ghana, Togo and Benin Traveller Reviews

Reviews of Ghana, Togo and Benin

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Ghana, Togo and Benin by Zebu and Mora Mora, 29 Jan 2019
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Ghana, Togo and Benin A Voodoo Fantasy

Ghana, Togo and Benin - Ouidah Voodoo Festival January 6 to 19, 2019 Arrived in Accra, capital of Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast), met our guide Amedee and transferred to the Accra City Hotel. We toured Accra the next day stopping at an outdoor muffin oven, in the old quarter of Jamestown, a fishing village, Fort James, built by the British as a trading post in 1673, and operated as a prison until 2008. Built to hold 50 it held as many ...

Ghana, Togo and Benin - Ouidah Voodoo Festival January 6 to 19, 2019 Arrived in Accra, capital of Ghana (formerly the Gold Coast), met our guide Amedee and transferred to the Accra City Hotel. We toured Accra the next day stopping at an outdoor muffin oven, in the old quarter of Jamestown, a fishing village, Fort James, built by the British as a trading post in 1673, and operated as a prison until 2008. Built to hold 50 it held as many 1000 slaves and other prisoners. It is now used for school rooms, etc. We saw a former Royal Palace, the Independence Arch or Black Star Gate, before visiting the Kwami Nkrumah Mausoleum and Museum which houses the body of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah the 1st Prime Minister and President of Ghana and his wife Fathia Nkrumah. Unique to Ghana are the coffin makers. These craftsmen build elaborate coffins in unusual shapes such as fish, cars, animals and airplanes. Here are also saw a woman making and packing a type of corn pone called Banku to sell. We crossed into Togo to its capital, Lome. Our 3rd day started at a rusty pier built by the French, the beautiful monument to Togo’s independence from France on April 27, 1960, a human silhouette is carved within it. We walked in the bustling Grand Market near Lomé Cathedral, and then to the Akodessawa Fetish Market, the world's largest. An African fetish is a juju, charm or amulet believed to have magical powers; or a human-made object that has power over others. Essentially, fetishism is attributing inherent powers to an object. We found all sorts of animal parts, each believed to cure a woe, including monkey and dog heads, skulls, dead birds, crocodiles, and other products of dead animals on sale for spells and potions – a truly West African sight! It is not related to Voodoo. A fetish priest gave us safe travel protection and showed us amulets for various needs and wants. Miloudi stood with the God of Iron, a tangle of twisted metal. We stopped at Gaigocondji a village where we saw tiny goats, village deities, friendly people, and were welcomed by Yaovi, a priest who did a ceremony to welcome us before taking us into 2 shrines, 1 with an altar and 1 with a preserved crocodile for protection. As yesterday, day 3, was Elvis’ birthday I had worn a T-shirt with his face, and as we wear shirts to give to the locals I gave Elvis to the matriarch of the village. Later we crossed into Benin and headed to Ouidah. Our 4th day, Jan 10th, was National Voodoo Day. We explored the mysteries of voodoo at Ouidah’s annual, and Benin’s largest, festival. Benin is the birthplace of Vodoun (Voodoo) and all that goes with it. Vodoun is the world's most secretive and misunderstood religion veiled in mystery. Predating many religions by 10s of 1000’s of yrs Voodoo is the official religion and a way of life in its country of origin, Benin. Much of the population practices voodoo officially, and unofficially. Voodoo is a deeply-rooted ancient, yet severely misunderstood, monotheistic religion with a major image problem in a deadly conflict of good vs evil - Voodoo vs Witchcraft, which puts it at risk in its birthplace. Early European invaders implanted this global stereotype forcing Christianity, and demonizing Voodoo by spreading tales of black magic and sorcery. They conjured up images of scrawny witches casting evil spells, pins-in-dolls, and steaming cauldrons. But that's not true Voodoo the peaceful spirit religion that heals and helps. Based on divine elements of nature, philosophy, spirituality, and tolerance of all faiths Voodoo is founded on pleasing the spirits of passed ancestors, to bless the living, merging the themes of life and afterlife. The people show us their ancient spirit religion for us to understand it and to shatter false stigmas. Mutilated dolls and hexes are just a few misconceptions about Voodoo. It is not an evil practice. It is a spiritual system of beliefs rooted in healing and caring for others that includes a single, supreme godhead equated with the Catholic God, laws the same as those in the Bible, and spirits that are more involved in daily life than God who is a remote figure. Believers provide sacrifices of food (which is later cooked and eaten) and other items to the spirits for their assistance. Voodoo dolls are not a part of tradition. It combines Roman Catholicism and native African religion. Communication is through prayer and animal sacrifice, and drum and dance ceremonies where spirits may be invited to possess a believer during rituals so that others can interact with them.  Most of those who practice Voodoo consider themselves Catholic, and often the saints and spirits become one. Our guide told us he had one foot in Catholicism and on foot in Voodoo. Ouidah is the Voodoo capital and center of a centuries-endured slave trade, with a chilling history that was so horrific that you do not want to know the details we learned on our journey along the Slave Road. Slaves were kept in unspeakable conditions for months awaiting shipment. Voodoo was a source of strength for African slaves who endured fierce conditions when they found themselves uprooted and moved around the world as chattel. These West African shores were the final footsteps of 100s of millions of shackled slaves forced to depart their homeland forever boarding gigantic slave ships. They were exported to the New World from the 16th to the 19th C. where the Portuguese, British, French, Spanish and Dutch Empires depended on their slave labor to produce food and goods to sell in Europe. Estimates of 12 million were considerably higher, when their death rate is included. In the early 21st C, several governments issued apologies for the transatlantic slave trade, but no words can ever make up for monstrous atrocities those humans endured. Our awesome, colorful, music-filled day on the streets of town consisted of dancing, singing, many people in various types of native dress, and a procession in which a High Priest was carried in a paliquin through town. Pythons are sacred in Benin, and welcomed into local living rooms as honored guests. At the Python Temple Miloudi and I welcomed a cute one around our neck. Next we went to the Festival venue on the beach where we enjoyed more music and saw many more colorfully dressed people, although white is the color of the day. There are many sects of Voodoo each family of spirits having its own female priesthood, often hereditary if from mother to blood daughter. Patterns of worship follow various dialects, spirits, practices, songs, and rituals. As we left the beach I saw 2 Zangbeto, my favorite the one I wanted to see, on top of a van. Zangbeto were the traditional voodoo guardians of the law before official law was established and known as the "Nightwatchmen". To my delight we saw the Zangbeto in action back in town. Originally created to scare enemies, they wandered the streets to find thieves and witches, and can fall into a trance which by tradition lets their bodies be inhabited by spirits who possess knowledge of people’s actions. They look like haystacks, 6 ft. moving mounds of rafia twirling incessantly to hypnotic drum beats. After another procession with a priest under a large umbrella being twirled by one of his entourage and Miloudi showing some boys his video of them, we drove to an old Portuguese Fort to visit the Historic Museum of Abomey in the Kingdom of Dahomey where slaves were held before being moved on. Next was the village of Agondji celebrating the festival by sacrificing a kid, NO not a child, a small goat. There was more music and dancing, when guess who showed up? The Zangbeto! I was happy to see them again. Legend says there are no humans under the costume, only spirits of the night. When the blue, red and yellow one stopped, they opened it. There was nothing in it, but a red cloth covered calabash filled with candy for the children. Then the hot pink and yellow one stopped and was opened to reveal, that there was again no one inside. On the 5th day we started at the Door of No Return Monument the point of departure for slaves bound for Brazil and the West Indies from Benin. This is also the place where the Festival was held yesterday. Designed like a gate it was the last place slaves walked through before their slave ship; they knew at that point that they would never see their loved ones or homeland again and we also saw the Spirit of the Dead Memorial to insure that their spirits would return someday. After the Slave Auction and branding 100s of 1000s of slaves walked the 2 ½ mi. slave road to board the slave ship for resale. Along the road were large painted concrete statues including Segbo Lissa the chameleon god of nature; a Mamiwata Statue standing for the Tree of Forgetting, where men slaves were turned around the tree 9X and women 7X to reinforce forgetfulness of their homes, now a Memorial to call Africans back; and a Mino, meaning our mothers, who were Dahomey Amazons, an all-female regiment of fierce warriors. Next we drove to Lake Nokoue to take a boat to the village of Ganvie built on stilts in the middle of the lake in the 16th or 17th C. by people running from slavers. Ganvie means “we are safe.” The village of over 20,000, several miles from the nearest shoreline, is Africa’s largest lake village. The villagers use pirogues (canoes) to get around. A school is the only one of 3,000 buildings that exists on land, although a cemetery mound is under construction. The few land animals they keep live on plots of grass that spring up from the water. We continued to Abomey, formerly the centre of the notorious Kingdom of Dahomey, a fierce people who struck terror into the hearts of the surrounding tribes. The kingdom had a large army, including the aforementioned regiments of female “Amazons.” It existed from about 1600 until 1894, when the last king was defeated by the French, and gained full independence in 1960. In 1991 it became the Republic of Benin. The Dahomey kingship exists as a ceremonial role today. We visited the Historic Museum of Abomey, a reminder of the vanished kingdom that was once a great African power. We left the coastal belt of Benin on the 6th day, heading north into a different landscape, here Islam replaces Voodoo as the dominant religion. Yet at the Dancoli fetish shrine, the most powerful in Benin, sacrifices were being performed and palm oil poured over this revered pile of blood, guts, and feathers. On the road we stopped to buy old gin bottles filled with delicious peanuts. In the Atakora Mts. the Taneka people of many ethnic minorities, live in small remote villages where they fled from the slavers centuries ago. Round houses made of earth called “tatas” have a conical roof protected at the top by a terra cotta pot. We saw a baobab tree entwined with a ficus tree, a memorial for a priest, the fruit on a cashew tree, a mango tree, an elder sitting under a tree, and their outdoor kitchens. The upper part of the village is inhabited by spiritual dignitaries. Dressed only in a small piece of goat skin and a hat they deprive themselves of everything, except for a long pipe, through which they find inspiration and communicate with the spirits. Finally we sat with the king or sawa, the political leader, as he welcomed us to the village. On the 7th day we met 6 Fulani children on the road. They are a nomadic Islamic people widely dispersed across West Africa. We visited the Tamberma people who live in round huts that look like mini fortresses with only one point of access helping them to defend against slaving raids of old. The smaller conical buildings are granaries with removal tops. Daily breakfasts and dinners were at our hotels, but lunch presented a problem. There are places to stop and get drinks, but not food. Thus we took our own cook, Mensah, with us to make our daily lunch buffets. We drove back to Togo to Sokode the 2nd largest city that has the highest proportion of Muslims in the country. Tonight we watched a traditional sacred fire dance done by Tem people. Dancing to the hypnotic beat of drums, glowing embers are rubbed on their arms, legs and chests or eaten with no sign of injury nor pain. Heading south on the 8th day we stopped at a school. We always take school supplies with us to give to the children. The principal was very thankful. We saw a house being built near the Garongee village. Rats were grilling on the fire, men were gutting a pig to cook and sell, a tree yielded loofahs that the women soak in water and use for their monthly purposes (yes, loofah Kotex), and calabashes grew on trees. On to Atakpame, a typical African town, where we saw blacksmiths, weavers, a woman carrying a large piece of luggage on her head, and many interesting items in the market. We continued to the tropical forests surrounding Kpalime, a town with a rich colonial past that is now an important trading center surrounded by coffee and cocoa plantations. Before a forest walk (up hill) our local guides played drums for us and showed us a pair of Walking Sticks (insects, not canes). The female was 12” long with wings and the male 8” no wings. We met an artist who uses natural colors from plants, including cola nuts for his paintings. We then climbed the hill to the Chateau Vial built by the French in 1940. Our guide placed a fern leaf on his arm, smacked it, and it left a powdery white temporary “tattoo.” We crossed back into Ghana on the 9th day and drove to Krubo to visit Cedi Bead Factory producing beads made from recycled glass. There are 3 main types: Translucent, Powder Glass and Painted Glass beads. We learned about the molds, the firing, and the polishing of the beads. Drove to Kumasi to the Akwaaba Royal Palace Museum of Ashanti History. Today the Ashanti Kingdom survives as a constitutionally protected, sub-national in union with the Republic of Ghana. On day 10 we traveled to the centre of the Ashanti kingdom, a city of nearly 1 million. We visited the Ghana National (Ashanti) Cultural Centre with its collection of Ashanti artifacts. We started day 11 in Kumasi at the huge, open-air Kejetia Market, selling all kinds of goods from all over Africa. We witnessed the Ashanti funeral of Mrs. Elizabeth Osei Taylor AKA Auntie Ataa (92) who worked with the Queen Mother and died in 2018 – a colorful and exuberant affair giving insight into the complex culture of this once powerful kingdom. We then headed back to the coast to the town of Elmina stopping on the way at a cacao plantation. On our 12th day we saw the old quarter of Elmina with its colorful wooden fishing canoes and fish market. At the Castle of St George, the oldest European constructed building in Africa erected by the Portuguese in 1482, was used to hold slaves (600 men/400 women) for months before shipment. We learned more of the worst, most appalling, gruesome details of what those people suffered. Returning to Accra we had use of a dayroom until 6PM and our flight home at 11PM. This was a journey to the spiritual heart of West Africa, where myth, religion and reality intertwine. This realm of ancient rituals, trances and fetishes gave us a fascinating insight into a much maligned religion that was unlike anything we have ever seen before. As our guide, Amedee, said each evening at our briefing, “Tomorrow’s another day.”

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Undiscovered Destinations is wonderful. This was our third trip with them, and they are an excellent tour company. We plan to travel with them again soon. Thank you. Nancy Becher and Miloudi Elafess

Undiscovered Destinations responded to this review on 30 Jan 2019:

Wow! Thank you for such an amazing and detailed review. We are delighted that you enjoyed the tour and had such a great experience.