The Power of Music: Crossing the Border into Togo

Abozu with Abby and I of "Why Abozu can't have my Camera" blog fame

Abozu with Abby and I of "Why I can't give Abozu my Camera" blog fame

I spent the weekend in Lomé, Togo with Abby Gray, another Kiva fellow at WAGES. Wages is basically like Alide in a few years: larger, and with a deeper relationship with Kiva. To get to Togo, I had to cross the border from Benin to Togo alone, which was just a little bit more harrowing and stressful than was necessary between two small, relatively stable countries. I decided to go to Togo on the spur of the moment. Spontaneity: definitely a new quality for me.  At 2 pm on Friday I left the office. I should have left at 12:30. In Africa, one should absolutely get to their destination before dark. It is not just convenience, but safety. Abby once crossed the border into Togo from Ghana at night. Chaos ensued at the border after a man was hit by a truck. They put him in the car to drive him to the hospital, then returned almost immediately as he was already dead. There are no traffic laws or lanes: huge trucks, smaller cars and taxis, motos, darting sellers plying their wares, and border crossers all vie for command of the center of the road.  The result is anarchical.

There were a few options for crossing the border from Benin to Togo: a bus, a bush taxi, or a private car. Ideally I would know someone with a private car going to Togo that weekend, but as I did not, this left the bus or bush taxi. A taxi seemed safer because there are less people, and buses are known for a high rate of theft.

I found the bush taxis waiting by the Jericho Post office. Right away they tried to charge me over twice the usual price, but I bargained it down. I sat in the car while the brother of the driver stuck his head through the permanently open window and harassed me.  None of the men, including the driver, paid any attention. He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I finally got out of the vehicle and contemplated going home completely. Not exactly an auspicious start, but I decided to stick it out. I was sitting in the front seat and the driver asked me if I wanted to “pris 2 places” or pay for two seats. I didn’t want to, until I found out that full capacity in a bush taxi is not 4 passengers, but 7 passengers: 5 in back and 2 in front. I paid for 2 seats (about $8).

There weren’t any other women, and I felt very nervous. The drive was slow and I could feel every bone in my body vibrating with apprehension and a little bit of fear. Was this smart? Getting into a car with five men alone? Near the edge of Cotonou, we picked up another passenger: a woman. I was relieved. There were now 5 in the back, and I could feel the guy behind me stick his elbow into the back of my seat to try to get some traction as we were thrown around on the potholed roads. The heat and dust were intense. I was soaked in sweat from the ride and my face was covered with a thin layer of red dust.

About two hours later we bumped into the actual border. Everyone else got out, and the driver kicked me out of the car because none of the other passengers were going on to Togo. He found me another taxi driver headed to Togo. I appeared to be the only passenger, but he didn’t want me to get out until we got up to the actual border. I suppose he thought I had no idea where I was going (which was true) and also didn’t want to lose a passenger. He kept asking me if I was married (I lied and said yes) and whether or not I would go out with him. Then, he tried to drive through the actual border when he should have let me walk and get passport checked. As soon as he drove through, the patrol became very angry and opened my car door and pulled me out of the car, not roughly, but just forcefully enough that my Beninois cell phone fell out of my hand and I lost it.

The driver accompanied me to passport control. I realized I didn’t know the exact address, just the neighborhood, of the place I was living at in Cotonou, or the area I was going to in Lome.  Addresses in Africa are much more fluid. Finally the driver supplied, “Grand Marche?” or big market, which is the main market of Lome. The customs officer wrote it down on the form.

The driver left and I went to see the visa officer. The visa officer did what almost every Beninois man, married or single, does to a foreign girl: relentlessly hits on them. As he asked me pertinent questions, he kept up a constant commentary of impertinent questions – “You don’t know where you’re staying? At my place?” and “I will marry you even if you have two sisters to take care of.” I couldn’t believe the border officer was hitting on me now, wasn’t he supposed to be a law officer? I was so tired and having trouble understanding him. I felt like crying, but realizing it wouldn’t help, I instead looked gamely at him and said, “I have two sisters, and they’re very expensive.”

I walked across the no man’s land, searching for the driver, but couldn’t find him for a good 10 minutes. When I finally found him, he led me to a dirt road behind a few houses.  Were we actually going to a car? I was starting to feel a little irrational. Several men followed us, all pointing at me and saying “yavo.” By this time I had just realized my phone was gone, but it was on the other side of the border. Everyone was staring at me. The “flee” instincts in my brain were already engaged, but where to? Not to the visa officer. I told the driver I would pay for two seats.

“But every place is already taken!” he announced, sounding scandalized.

Five men got in the back. The driver, myself, and a younger guy climbed into the front. The car was dead silent, and I could feel the tension radiating up my legs. The guy next to me and I were ignoring each other although we were ear to ear. As the driver downshifted into my left thigh, I wondered if the stupidest thing I had ever done, or the most interesting.

Then the driver put a tape in. The music played in tinny spurts. I could make out English, French, and what was probably Mina. Everyone began to sing along to the reggae tunes, some of it Nigerian English. The music segued into love songs. The men sang along softly in Mina, and a nice breeze came through the window as we sped through southeastern Togo. I began to notice the graceful coconut trees on either side of the road, the actual cleanliness of the environment, a pretty lake. It sort of looked like the Caribbean, and as everyone continued to sing, I began to relax, or as much as I could in my current cramped position. I smiled goofily to myself, laughing at my previous fears. Definitely the most interesting thing I have ever done.

The best moment during my weekend involved another round of music. Abby’s homestay brothers decided to teach Abby and I how to dance Togolese-style.  They took Abby’s computer outside. One of the young men began to swirl his arms and jump around like a duck. “The Chinese duck dance!” he trumpeted. They put on Togolese music: hip hop, tribal tunes, reggae. We tried to move like they did. I recognized a song from the taxi ride. We hopped around on one foot, and we taught them the slap-hands game and shadowboxed. We sweated a lot, and finally formed a four-person dance train and jumped up and down the hallway of the outdoor courtyard, singing and panting as we tried to keep up with the beat. The rest of the family stared at us from below as they washed the house and we danced up and down the stairs like a bunch of hooligans. There it was again: the power of music.

Sarah Lawson is a KF6 Kiva Fellow in Cotonou, Benin with the NGO Alide.

One of our dance teachers

One of our dance teachers


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