This is one of the most culturally enriching journeys I have been fortunate enough to embark upon, giving one the opportunity to incorporate fabulous culture, architecture and wildlife across Benin, Togo and Ghana, three intriguing countries which face the Gulf of Guinea.
The coastal region of Benin and Togo is the cradle of Voodoo and my journey here allowed me an extraordinary insight into the Voodoo cultural history. Voodoo was born here and spread to the Caribbean and the Americas with the Slave Trade; followers are now estimated at 70 million worldwide. All along the coast, the religion that has been passed on by the ancestors is still fervently practised as a part of everyday life.
Although perceived by many as ‘black magic’, Voodoo is, in fact, a complex religion. In a remote village we joined a Voodoo ceremony, feeling the frenetic rhythm of the drums and the chants of the initiates wash over us as they called the spirits. The spirits manifested, possessing some adepts who experienced a deep trance, their eyes rolling back, grimacing and convulsing and in some cases, insensitivity to fire or pain. It is extraordinary to witness!
Additionally one can explore the largest concentration of forts and castles dating back to the era of the gold and slave trade. On the wild beaches of Ghana, among fishing villages, colourful canoes and tall palm trees, you can have an insight into the changes that the Europeans brought to West Africa during the Slave Trade.
Then immerse yourself in urban contemporary Africa: meet with local artists in their workshops and galleries, spend evenings in fusion restaurants and then live music clubs to experience third millennial Africa.
There are so many options in this trio of countries and of course, you can tailor your holiday to feature whatever interests you the most. To give you an overview of what is possible, I have included my favourite experiences in Benin, Togo and Ghana below.
Widely associated with voodoo, it is the host of the annual Voodoo Festival which takes place in Ouidah each year, a glorious spectacle of dancing, drums, elaborate costumes and rituals. We witnessed devotees assume the gods’ identities and saw the Zangbeto, dressed head to toe in grasses, parade through the village and perform a dance designed to scare the crowd. This festival was simply unforgettable!
We also travelled to Ganvié on the Benin coast, which is the largest village on stilts on the African continent. Here, 25,000 inhabitants still live and fish according to ancestral ways.
The village was created in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Tofinu people who were trying to avoid Fon warriors capturing slaves to sell to European traders. Daily life takes place from canoes, which are used for fishing, taking goods to market and general travel such as taking the children to school.
Our journey to the northern savannah of Togo and Benin took us to some of the most isolated animistic tribes of West Africa. This region is home to the Somba people, who are made up of various individual tribes who all live in ‘tata’, which are adobe fortified houses or ‘clay castles’ considered among the best examples of traditional African architecture.
This style impressed Le Corbusier, the vanguard architect who described it as “sculptural architecture”. In fact the dwellings are several floors high built entirely by hand. Layer after layer of clay is added in round mud balls and then shaped into walls, a gesture mixing strength, care and beauty.
The Somba peoples keep strong animistic beliefs and build large shrines - of phallic form – to protect the entrance of their homes. They also practice scarification on their faces, backs and stomachs to mark life milestones and their initiations into adulthood.
In the evening we witnessed a Fire Dance of the Tamberma people which was spectacular. There was dancing on fire, chewing and swallowing of embers all without showing any sign of pain. The Tamberma believe that their fetishes protect them from the fire.
Contonou is a port city on the coast, where we visited the bustling and lively Dantokpa market, attracting traders from all over the country. Cotonou is an exciting town and Saturday is the best time to enjoy a typical restaurant with the best local music and jam sessions.
Whilst in Contonou, a worthwhile visit is to the Zinsou Art Foundation, the first private Beninese foundation dedicated to Contemporary African Art. The Foundation extends now to supporting education and social development, and aims to allow as many people as possible, regardless of their wealth or social standing, to gain access to art and culture.
Togo is exciting, small in comparison to some African countries but ethnically incredibly diverse, with over forty different cultures practicing a variety of religions, whether that be Voodoo, Islam, traditional animistic beliefs or in some instance, blended versions of several belief systems!
Of particular note are the Zangbeto ‘masks’ which represents wild forces of nature and when worn (by initiated wearers of hidden identity), are very tall, covering the wearer from head to toe in coloured straw. The Zangbeto dance, spinning, around the village, conferring protection from bad spirits and malicious people.
On my explorations to Togo we visited the remote villages of the Kabye ethnic group where the traditional Blacksmith caste still forges by means of heavy stones instead of hammers and anvil, exactly as it was done thousands of years ago at the early dawn of the Iron Age.
We were able to visit the blacksmiths in their forges and watch them model their ironwork in the stones as it comes out of the forge red-hot. It is also possible to visit the Somba tribes in northern Togo too.
Lomé is the vibrant capital of Togo and the only African city which was consecutively a German, British and French colony and one of the rare capitals bordering with another country. These elements have developed a unique cosmopolitan identity, reflected in the lifestyle of its inhabitants, in the architecture and in the fine cuisine.
We went to the central market with its 'Nana Benz'; women who control the trade of the pagne (cloths) sold all over West Africa. This trade, which they have built up since the 1950’s to become one of the most successful industries in Togo, has improved the economy of the entire country!
Afterwards at Lomé’s fetish market we found an eclectic assortment of all the necessary ingredients for love potions and magical concoctions. Not far from Lomé in the village of Glidji, once a year it is possible to see the members of the Guen tribe gather for the Epe Ekpe Festival, something that I recommend if you are visiting at the right time.
In Accra, Ghana’s capital, I enjoyed the mix of African traditions and uniqueness with urban, third millennial Ghana. We spent the day meeting local artists in their workshops and then the evening in a metropolitan fusion restaurant with live music and dancing.
Along the coast, one can experience the largest density of European forts and castles in Africa, as well as the oldest European building in sub-Saharan Africa, Fort Elima. In the 15th to 18th centuries, European Slave Traders travelled to West Africa with goods to trade for slaves, many of which had been caught during tribal warfare or simply kidnapped to meet the requirements of the traders.
In the rainforest regions of Ghana, the town of Kumasi is the capital of the Ashanti Kingdom, proud of its rituals and ceremonies. Whilst in Kumasi, we visited the Royal Palace Museum which houses a unique collection of gold jewels worn by the Ashanti court. We then drove to the Ashanti villages and saw how they still live in the traditional ways, making Adinkra cloth and artisanal artefacts.
North of the Ashanti Kingdom we explored the traditional villages of the Dagomba who build clay huts with thatched roofs, and then travelled on to the Gurunsi region where houses are decorated with frescoes.
The northern part of Ghana is home to many tribes who moved into more isolated, less accessible regions to escape Slave Traders. These tribes still practise their traditional ways and have not been influenced by the Europeans that lived and traded with Ghana for centuries in the way that those in southern Ghana may have been.
While you are travelling in Benin, Togo and Ghana on your holiday to West Africa, why not take some time for a wildlife safari in the northern Benin National Park of Pendjari? African Parks have recently begun to manage Pendjari in partnership with the Government of Benin and are now working to restore the vital ecosystems protected within this last great wilderness of West Africa.
Along with neighbouring National Parks in Niger and Burkina Faso (which span 35,000km2 in a transnational tri-park complex), Pendjari supports 90% of the remaining population of West African Lion. Other species that thrive in the wetlands of this diverse park include elephant, cheetah, buffalo, antelopes and many bird species.
African Parks have a unique model of park management which has already turned several National Parks on the African Continent from barren, over-poached and dangerous lands to thriving, secure wildlife havens where tourism drives conservation.
They achieve this with a strategy which gives back to the local communities as well as ensuring that wildlife and ecosystems are protected, resulting in wonderful results in Zakouma National Park (Chad), Odzala-Kokoua (Republic of Congo), Nkhotakota (Malawi) and many more parks which are becoming top wildlife safari destinations again, where tourism helps to fund community upliftment and wildlife conservation.
North Sudan is another region to which any culture lover should give serious consideration. Extraordinary pyramids with no tourists and the possibility of witnessing live archaeological digs – it doesn’t get more exciting than this! Sudan has more pyramids than all of Egypt – almost double! The country has fabulously friendly locals and it is a fascinating place to visit!
Guinea Bissau has incredible culture coupled with beautiful scenery and friendly people, too.
This part of Africa has a tropical climate. Average temperatures range between 27°C -35°C, depending on whether you are near the coast or inland on the tropical savannah regions.
Benin: The voodoo festival in Ouidah takes place in January. The dry season in Benin is between December and March, which will be the most pleasant to travel in.
Ghana: The most moderate months for Ghana are between October and March when the climate is cooler and less humid.
Togo: The most favourable weather for Togo is between November and February.
If you wish to visit all three of these countries together, the months of December, January and February give the most pleasant climate overall. It is sometimes possible to visit outside of these times but one must be prepared for rainy-season weather, however some roads may become impassable.
There are three non-stop flights to Accra in Ghana per day from Washington D.C. which take 10 hours 30 minutes. BA flies non-stop to Accra from London Heathrow in 6 hours 30 mins.
To reduce travelling time between the various locations in West Africa, I would recommend transfers by private charter fixed wing aircraft between each place where possible, with a private guide. This gives you maximum time to experience everything you came here for and much reduced time travelling by road.
West Africa culture and history images courtesy of TransAfrica and copyright to Carlo Natali, Phil Kidd, Hans Foerst and Susan Norlem Carslund.
Sudan image courtesy of Ital Tourism.
Image of lodges in Odzala-Kokoua rainforest courtesy of Congo Discovery Camps and copyright to Scott Ramsay.