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Sunday, March 09, 2008

Timbuktu Finally!

Timbuktu Finally!

Timbuktu – the very name evokes images of a far away place which is very difficult to get to. Most of us have heard of it as school kids but never quite know where exactly it is. Timbuktu is a city in the middle of the Sahara Desert. It was once the heart of a desert trading empire, a centre of Islamic learning and a city of untold wealth. The great emperor Mansa Musa of the Mali Empire had ruled this city with great prosperity and when he passed through Cairo on the way to Mecca for the haj, the gold his entourage sold in Cairo caused massive deflation in the price of gold in Cairo for more than a decade. Today, Timbuktu is a sleepy provincial town in the West African nation of Mali, one of the world's poorest countries.

I arrived here on Saturday 8 March, on an Air Mali flight from Bamako, Mali's capital. This is an occasion of celebration for me, having travelled 96,000km by air and land and visited 30 countries for the first time since the beginning of my travels in October 2007. Timbuktu has always been a place I have long wanted to visit, especially when I passed a billboard in a remote Morocco desert town in 1999, which pointed to an ancient caravan route across the desert – "Timbuktu", it said. At that time, I wondered when would I visit this legendary city, and the amount of effort and money such a journey would entail.

This is a strange world, away from the settled life of tropical West Africa as well as the savannah of Bamako and the Niger Valley. Tuareg tribesmen in their indigo robes, camels and mud brick mosques. Rolling sand dunes and howling wind signaled the might of the Great Sahara. This is the world of the Sahara caravans and ancient trading routes from the Mediterranean into tropical Africa. I will write more about mysterious, legendary Timbuktu.

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Since I last wrote from Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso) where we found ourselves in the middle of a political crisis and massive nationwide rioting, we have since gone to Niger where we admired the last surviving herd of West African giraffes; across Benin where we visited seat of an ancient kingdom and a legendary slave port, as well as witnessed an amazing voodoo ceremony; and to Lome, capital of Togo, a small nation with friendly people and beautiful beaches.

Check out http://twcnomad.blogspot.com for numerous photos and detailed stories. Here is potpourri of my thoughts, observations and abbreviated accounts of my travels:

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More on Corruption

Now that we have travelled through 14 West African countries, let me rank them in terms of the degree of corruption among officials, police or military:

Most corrupt: Liberia : The Liberian embassy in Accra is the worst – greedy & anxious to take a lot but took very long to deliver what was promised.

Runners up: Togo, Guinea, Niger & Sierra Leone: Police and military at checkpoints everywhere, and all demand bribes, though amounts are minor. See separate story below on Togo. In Guinea, even the downtown policemen stretch their arms to ask for money. They behave almost like beggars. In Niger, they waste drivers' time by asking many questions and plough through documents and would refuse drivers the right to pass through unless money is paid. Checkpoints in all Sierra Leone villages but they police are relaxed and friendly even when asking for money,

Some instances of corruption: Not prevalent but have been asked to pay public officials in Ghana, and at Mali and Togo embassies outside their home countries.

Have not witnessed corruption in Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Senegal and Benin.

Public officials have been found to be most professional in Cape Verde, Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal. The most laidback are the ones in Guinea-Bissau, perhaps the result of their long period of Portuguese rule – Latin temperament? The easiest and fastest border crossings are the Togo immigration on the Togo-Benin border, and Guinea-Bissau immigration at Bissau airport.

Special mention: I have not encountered any corruption in Togo until I leave the country from Lome Airport. Was forced to pay bribes to a series of 5 officials, from the entrance of the departure hall to various guys at the x-ray machines, all the way to the guy before the boarding gate. The first three were satisfied with merely a CFA 1000 note (smallest note available, about S$3) but run out of that and had to pay CFA 2000 to the 4th. The 5th was the greediest: He threatened to strip search me and confiscate all cash I have as the cash had not been declared when entering Togo. I said nobody was ever ask to declare money on hand when entering the country. He argued rules said they must be declared, and then wanted to drag me to a separate room. He wanted CFA 10,000. I didn't think it would be wise to be dragged to another room where nobody could see what happened, or wanted him to see the money I had on hand. I tried to bargain but had to pay CFA 10,000 in the end. I met 5 Mainland Chinese engineers and businessmen at the boarding gate. Two paid CFA 20,000 each and others 5000 to 10000 - all to the last official who was the nastiest. What a disappointing end to an otherwise good impression of Togo.

On the plane, I sat beside a young Chinese businessmen who had spent the last 6 years in Africa. He says corrupt African immigration people always target people from China and perhaps Asia in general, as these are perceived as traders carrying lots of cash to bring to China or between African countries. He has gotten to know individual immigration officers of different airports well and would always ring them before he lands. These officers would then personally escort him through checkpoints to avoid trouble. He said he tended to pay US$50 each time this "service" is performed.

They must be really carrying alot of cash to think nothing of paying US$50 at each checkpoint. So far, I didn't have to pay any bribes when entering countries, only do so when leaving. Looks like the Chinese often encounters problems when entering and leaving the countries (- sometimes not even allowed to enter with proper visa), and hence some of the smarter, regular ones establish special arrangements with corrupt immigration officers.

There are some distinctions between corruption in West Africa and Central Asia, another region with epidemic corruption among public officials. In Central Asia, one probably encounters less instances of casual corruption, such as policemen stretching out palms "begging" for money, which is very prevalent in Africa. In Central Asia, corruption tends to be targeted, indirect and larger sums are involved. Of course, I have to say the Lome Airport incident is quite similar to what is common in Central Asia. Instead of directly asking for petty sums, Central Asian police tends to accuse one of more serious offences, such as, forging passport stamps, breaking laws on the need for registration with police, smuggling controlled items, not declaring amount of cash carried, etc. The victim would be brought into a smaller room for an interview that could waste anything from a few minutes to half an hour. The victim would be informed that offences had occurred but there is a way out. The amounts asked for in Central Asia tend to be large, which is probably in the order of US$20 to 100, in contrast to the US$1-3 normally asked for in West Africa. The African experience is less intimidating and less time consuming - no games played, direct and almost painless to pay all the time.

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Internet & Literacy

Although internet can be found in every country I visited in West Africa, I am surprised that internet use is not as prevalent and cheap as in Asia and Latin America. I have also found internet access speed pathetic and cybercafés often suffer from prolonged periods of connection loss or even power loss. African cybercafés also often have older and slower computers that have difficulty handling the increasing systems resource and bandwidth-heavy demands of websites worldwide. In fact, many African cybercafés seem to have recycled computers which seemed long past their useful life elsewhere in the world.

I had earlier imagined that the existence of a large diaspora and expat worker community in Europe would imply frequent internet use among Africans. Not so, as I have noted. I suspect this has to do with literacy rates in Africa. On a few occasions, I encountered blank stares from young people to whom I asked about where I could find the nearest cybercafés – not because they did not know where cybercafés were but because they had never heard of the internet. Whereas many poor Asian countries have literacy rates ranging from 60% to 90%, the literacy rates for many African countries are well below 50%. Let me list the illiteracy rates for the 14 West African states:

Mali 81%

Burkina Faso 78%

Guinea (Conakry) & Niger 71%

Benin & Sierra Leone 65%

Senegal 61%

The Gambia 56%

Guinea-Bissau 54%

Cote d'Ivoire 51%

Togo 47%

Ghana 42%

Liberia 40%

Cape Verde 21%

Only Cape Verde has literacy rates matching most Asian and Latin American developing countries. Even relatively prosperous (or previously prosperous) countries such as The Gambia, Senegal and Ghana have pathetic literacy rates. It should also be said that it is rather interesting that Liberia, despite many years of civil war, have a literacy rate well above that of most West African nations, including those which had never had any prolonged civil conflict.

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Costs in French-speaking Africa and France

Setting aside countries that has just emerged from conflicts such as Liberia and Sierra Leone (where costs are distorted by sudden presence of large numbers of UN administrators, diplomats, peacekeepers and NGOs), most travelers would find West African cost of living very high compared to most developing countries elsewhere, in particularly the French-speaking countries that use the CFA franc, which is convertible to the euro at the rate of CFC F656 = 1 Euro. I am not referring to the African cost of living but the international travellers' cost of living. Of course street food would be very cheap but I am referring to eating in a restaurant or an eatery where one might be assured of a certain degree of hygiene. Many meals I had in West Africa cost US$ 8 to US$15 whereas meals of similar standard might cost only half that amount elsewhere in the world.

Even groceries in West African countries seem much more expensive. A walk into any supermarket in the CFA Zone (Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Benin, Mali, Niger & Burkina Faso) would reveal that most items other than fresh produce and water seem to come from France. There are few manufactured items from other African countries, either African countries manufacture very little or they are simply not imported. Although there are many manufactured goods from Asia (especially China), there is a surprising number of products from France. In particular, I am surprised by the full range of expensive French biscuits – hardly any Asian manufactured cookies at all. I cannot imagine France retains competitive advantage in many of such products I find in African supermarkets. Indeed, these products are very expensive.

I have to admit I hadn't done detailed research but could only draw some broad preliminary conclusions. The CFA nations, through France's support for the CFA Franc and its convertibility with the Euro, has allowed their real prices to increase dramatically with the rise of the Euro, thus affecting the competitiveness of their products elsewhere and that of their fellow CFA nations. Furthermore, I suspect their trade agreements with France probably allow for the import of French products with low tariff, while products from other countries are taxed at very high rates. Such measures would have given French products, expensive they might be, substantial advantage. It is only in Ghana that I came across a substantial range of cheap but equivalent quality Asian manufactured products.

Cost of services are also quite high. With the exception of Benin and Togo, hotel costs in these countries are relatively high. For what one could be paying for a 3 star room in many Asian countries, one can only get a basic and pathetic room in most French African countries.

Is such a state of affairs sustainable? France would have to decide if all this is worth it. When the CFA franc was forced to devalue a few years ago (when France decided then that the burden was to much), riots broke out across French-speaking Africa and a few governments were forced from power.

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Niger: Giraffe-watching in the World's Poorest Country

We reached Niamey, capital of Niger, the poorest country in the world and the one with the lowest Human Development Index, after a very long and tiring bush-taxi ride over 600km across eastern part of Burkina Faso.

We were told the journey was supposed to be a direct journey of 7 hours but it took 16 hours instead and involved 4 different vehicles. Yes, they have a very loose interpretation of the word "direct". One bush taxi simply relayed us to another one and we had to wait for the second bush-taxi to fill up its 16 to 20 seats which meant a wait from anything between one to two hours. The same nonsensical process repeated three times across the day, not to mention the many times the vehicles, often with broken handles and cracked windshields, broke down due to mechanical failure or simply the lack of petrol.

Throughout our African journey, we have found local public transportation vehicles in very poor state of repair – vehicle owners simply had no money either for maintenance or as working capital. Many long distance bus drivers head for the petrol station after getting all the passengers to pay up – the former do not have money to buy petrol prior to that. Taxi drivers, too, sometimes ask for the agreed fare once you got up the vehicle so that he could buy enough petrol for your destination, even though the ride was supposed to be a short downtown ride. The car that we hired in Liberia for long distance travel to Sierra Leone had not moved for three days and the driver asked for a 60% advance for immediate servicing and repairs. Because drivers hardly have the money to service or maintain their vehicles on a regular basis, the vehicles inadvertently break down during most journeys. Whilst such phenomenon is prevalent on my travels in Third World countries, they seem to occur most frequently and dramatically in Africa.

The length of the journey aside, the ride brought us across savannah land dotted with quaint mud huts with cartoon-like African rooftops. We also encountered exotic looking local people in colourful costumes and headdresses. It was a feast for the eye, but having had enough bush taxi, I would rather to have feast of real food instead of getting oneself covered with sand and dust from a bush taxi journey.

We can only say one thing of Niamey – it is outrageously hot, hot and HOT! We hardly perspire here, as the dry heat of the Sahara Desert simply sucks up all dampness and dehydrates us. We drank a lot of water but still felt desperately thirsty all the time. The whole place was very sandy and everything was brown in colour from the dust and relentless, burning heat. Our faces, clothes and all over were covered by a layer of dust and sand after merely one hour of walking around the city centre.

I wondered why a city was built here. Niger is a huge but sparsely populated country. The French established a military garrison here a hundred years ago to defend their remote possession from the raids of desert tribes and it has since become the capital of an artificial state with borders drawn across tribal lines in the desert.

Niger has one of the world's largest deposits of uranium but peace and development have always been tenacious in Niger. Since independence in 1958, the country had witnessed coups and counter-coups. President Mainassara, who came to power in Niger's last military coup in 1996, was assassinated in 1999 by the head of the presidential guard. The legendary Sahara Tuareg tribes of the uranium-rich north of the country have been up in rebellion over the last few years and claim to control over most of the north. The country continues to be plagued by occasional locust invasion and – it's hard to believe but true – floods that ravaged the country's more fertile southern valleys.

We hired a taxi to bring us 70km out of Niamey to visit the Giraffe reserve at Koure, where the last of West Africa's giraffe herd continues to graze on the dry, bare tweets and bushes of the savannah. This is a harsh environment where animals and humans struggle to fight over scarce water and vegetation. I wonder how long would this herd survive.

On the way to the giraffe reserve, we passed by numerous military checkpoints, although there were hardly any towns and large settlements, except for occasional groups of mud huts in the desert. The government of Niger seems paranoid over its tenacious hold over the desert and savannah. This is not surprising. Niger is not too different from neighbouring Chad in some ways. Both countries are huge and sparsely populated, with groups of unhappy minorities who believed they had been shortchanged by corrupt regimes in the capital. Coups in such "empty" places are easy affairs. There is no need for entrenched guerrilla warfare over extended periods. The coup-plotter needs a small, dedicated mobile group which is heavily armed. With an element of surprise, such groups would invade across porous borders of neighbouring countries and raced directly for the capital. It's all about surprise, speed and momentum. Hit hard and the incumbent would collapse, pack up and run. Hence the need for multiple layers of military posts and garrisons on main roads, to detect sudden infiltration of rebels and invaders.

Even then, I wonder if the soldiers would be motivated to fight. At these checkpoints, the soldiers seemed more keen on extracting bribes from our driver. A thousand franc or two at every checkpoint. The soldiers of Niger are among the most corrupt we have seen in West Africa, beaten only by the greedy bureaucrats and police of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

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Benin: Human Sacrifices & Voodoo Ceremony

We left Niamey on a Sunday morning for Benin. We were very fortunate to have met Abdul Rahman, a great Nigerien driver who drove us to the Giraffe reserve the day before. Not only did we got along well and had many interesting discussions (- he's one of the few Nigeriens who spoke some English) but he was very helpful and not pushy for tips. He picked us up at the hotel at 3:25am for the SNTV bus station. When we arrived, we found that the 4am bus to Contonou (Benin) had been cancelled. We got our refunds back, then rushed to the EHGM bus company where we bought the tickets just before the bus left the station. What a near miss! And thanks a lot to Abdul Rahman. We tipped him very handsomely. Unfortunately, we also misplaced his telephone number and email in the mad rush. Maybe it's all fated.

The journey to Bohicon near Abomey (which was where we really wanted to go, about 3 hours from Contonou) took 14 hours, which was not too far from our estimate. It's on a regular coach, not a crowded bush taxi that would probably claim to go direct to our destination but would relay us from one bush taxi to another. We first travelled across the desert-dry savannah landscape surrounding Niamey and then later into the green rice fields along the Niger near the Benin border. It is said that 12.5 million people live in Niger but the place is just so dry and empty to imagine there is more than a few million out there. Perhaps most of the population live near the southern borders with Benin and Nigeria, where the land is more fertile. Niamey is nothing more than a city overgrown from its days as a forgotten French military outpost in the desert.

The border crossing wasn't difficult though chaotic. We had to walk over 1km across a bridge over the Niger once past the Niger immigration. The scenery was spectacular but we didn't take any photos (also because it was probably illegal to do so at such sensitive places) or even paused to admire the scenery, as we were anxious about losing our bus which had gone ahead past the Benin immigration.

The rest of the journey to Bohicon was uneventful though long. The road was paved and sealed, though narrow. There were long prayer stops for the passengers, most of whom were pious Nigerien Muslims. We entered the Muslim part of Benin but as we moved south, we saw fewer mosques and more churches. In fact, we passed the impressive and monumental basilica at Dassa-Zoume, built for pilgrims here to visit La Grotte Marial Notre Dame d'Arigbo, where the Virgin Mary was supposed to have appeared and performed miraculous deeds. We reached Bohicon at 6pm and Motel d'Abomey by 6:30pm. What a long day!

Benin is a smallish but slander country on the Guinea Coast of West Africa. It was once known as Dahomey but a Marxist dictator, Mathieu Kerekou, changed its name to Benin in 1975. The name was retained even after the dictator converted to Catholicism after the fall of the USSR and dropped the "People's Republic" from the country's official name.

Benin is more famous for being the home of Voodoo. The real Voodooism is not the vicious black magic one sees on Hollywood movies but one devoted to the worship of deities and harmony with nature. Voodooism is officially the national religion of Benin and it is worshipped by more than half the Beninese population. Voodooism have spread from Benin across the Atlantic to the Caribbean when Beninese slaves were brought to work in the plantations centuries ago.

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A hundred years ago, Abomey was the capital of the ancient empire of Dahomey. Dahomey was so named in the 17th century when King Abaka defeated his archrival, King Dan, cut his belly up in a sacrifice to the gods, built a palace just next to the place Dan's disemboweled remains were buried. Hence the name "Dahomey", meaning, the belly of Dan. What a blood-thirsty name!

The Dahomey empire continued to expand over the centuries, constantly conquering neighbouring tribes and selling captives to the Europeans who had arrived on the coast and needed slaves for their colonies in the America. In return, the Dahomey kings received canons and other weaponry which they used to wage war to capture more slaves, as well as assortment of exotic goods like Chinese vases and mirrors. This thirst for more slaves continued until late 19th century when Dahomey's ambitions clashed with the French, who were building their own African empire. French canons reduced Dahomey's formidable Amazon army of women warriors, once all-powerful in West Africa, to total defeat. The king of Dahomey retreated, leaving his capital and the dozen palaces in flames. The ancient kingdom of Dahomey ceased to exist.

Today, the town of Abomey is a sleepy place which is more village than town. Friendly locals greeted us wherever we went, "Bonjour, bonjour," that is, except when we took pictures of the ruins of palaces and temples of the old Dahomey kingdom. The town of Abomey may be a tourist town of sorts and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the remains of Dahomey have remained scared spots for the Fon people who live here, as well as for the Voodoo religion that they practiced. To them, the spirits of the dozen old kings of Dahomey continue to live in the mud palaces and their ruins, and to take the pictures of these palaces (aesthetically adorned with primitivist paintings of sacred symbols) was deeply offensive.

Except for the Historical Museum which was located in the sole remaining complete palace complex, none of the other sites had signs that prohibited photo-taking. However, whenever we raised our cameras, locals nearby would shout at us and on one occasion, an elderly man ran forward, grabbed hold of Gordon's camera and refused to release until we deleted the photos. Needless to say, any photo of humans were also greeted with disapproval, for some voodoo worshippers thought that the camera could capture one's souls. For a town where we had experienced perhaps amongst the friendliest people in all West Africa, their reaction to any form of photo taking, even of inanimate buildings and ruins, was often deeply shocking and radical.

We walked around amidst oppressive tropical humidity, perspiring non-stop, visiting various palaces, temples and ruins. Many sites told of the often bloody and glory history of Dahomey. The Dahomey kings practiced human sacrifices and as 41 was considered a sacred number, palaces and temples were often consecrated with sacrifice of 41 humans and 41 animals of different kinds. Many kings were also buried together with 41 of their over thousand strong contingent of wives, as well as 41 slaves, 41 bulls and what have you. There was also the tale of how a king slaughtered his wives by covering them in red palm oil and letting ants ate them alive, and how one of these wives came back to haunt him and he had to build a temple to appease her spirit.

On the walls of the sole remaining complete royal palace which is now a museum, we saw ornamental bass carvings of decapitated heads of enemies and chopped up human limbs, amongst symbols of sacred animals and mythological creatures. In face, one of the most famous artifacts in the palace is a throne mounted on four human skulls. Another is a fly frisk once again set on a skull.

The Fon people are proud of their kings and the simple yet aesthetic symbols of each of the Dahomey kings decorated many traditional mud houses and even public buildings such as the City Hall and Palace of the Prefectural Government.

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We met William, who runs a hotel, while walking around town and he invited us to an evening voodoo ceremony in a nearby village. Together with an American and a Canadian, we walked to the village and found ourselves in a village's sacred compound surrounded by sacred initiation temples where ancient voodoo gods and spirits of other deities live. Images of some of these deities and other sacred creatures adorn the whitewash walls of the temples. The event tonight was an initiation ceremony for some young people who had gone through a full year of secret religious education and about to be admitted to the next level of religious hierarchy. It was also a celebration of the beginning of the wet season during which rain would bring fertility and good crops. The initiated would go into trance and voodoo gods and spirits would possess them.

We were there at 7pm but like other shamanist ceremonies elsewhere in the world (including the folk Taoist ceremonies in Singapore), the time to start was decided by the gods, not man. The village drum ensemble (which is a respectable name I have coined for this purpose) beat their drums to signal the start of the ceremony but it was only with the gods' call around 8pm that the initiates came out of the sacred initiation temple, dancing to the traditional African beat. It was a pity we hardly understood what was going on. We were in a crowded compound and it was quite dark with little light. Our guide was rapidly explaining the ceremony in French to the Canadian girl who explained in English some of it.

Even then, what we could see was certainly exciting. To loud tropical drum beat, the initiates sang and dance, sometimes with the crowd joining their tunes. The initiates, heavily laden with talisman and sacred ju jus of various kinds, danced wildly, swinging their hips in that exuberant African style one sometimes see on TV. At times, they seemed to dance in some set exaggerated pattern which could perhaps be of special religious significance, while occasionally, they seemed to be as coordinated as clubbers high on ecstasy in a London club.

It was too dark for us to take any photos, which was a pity given that our donations for the ceremony had secured the village chief's permission for photo taking. It was clear that the initiates sure needed to be sufficiently agile and athletic to dance in the manner they did, sometimes even managing rather difficult swings and acrobatic jumps. Perhaps, they were indeed possessed by voodoo gods and spirits. Despite that, their eyes did not seem to exhibit the sort of boundless, faraway stare into emptiness that one associates with people in trance.

Occasionally, shamans possessed by the fertility gods would suddenly emerged with huge wooden penises with straw hair, and ran around the compound with loud screams. Then they would, with little warning, threw a wooden penis onto a spectator, usually a child but could well be an adult in some cases. According to William, this happens when the god decides to "rape" the targeted person. The fertility god would normally "rape" a person of the same sex as the god. William confessed about having been "raped" by a female goddess when he was a child, because he looked like a girl at that time.

We were a little concerned. We weren't quite sure what was meant by "rape" here. Mere acting or an actual act to be done in public? As we were the only foreigners here, we stuck out like sore thumb. Would we be selected by the gods to be raped? Nevertheless, we stayed on. Let fate decide.

During the ceremony, we witnessed two "rapes". On both occasions, male children were selected by the gods. The possessed shaman would drag the chosen one to the middle of the compound – by this time, the child would be screaming and crying, though the other spectators were already roaring with laughter. Then the shaman would point the wooden penis towards the groin of the child, and then swung his hip to stimulate rather aggressive and exaggerated sexual acts. The chosen would in the process be blessed while engaged in virgin sex with the deity. Even then, we (the visitors) were slightly worried about being selected to be the rape victim and I tried my best to avoid any form of eye contact with the possessed shaman who ran round the compound.

Before the ceremony, I had some apprehension about attending the ceremony, given that the invitation had brought back memories of Hollywood horror movies on voodooism, which was portrayed as a dark force of evilness and black magic. Although voodooism involves elements of secrecy and mystery, it is no different from other faith in its purpose to its believers, that of a stablising force in private and social life, regulation of moral and traditional values, propagation of hard work and promotion of harmony with nature and the environment. In fact, although I attended the ceremony with some element of fear, it was soon obvious to me that the village audience was having a lot of fun joining the shamans and the initiates in a celebration of traditional song and dance, as well as experiencing crude folksy fun through the "rapes" that occurred

By 9pm, we were getting tired and hungry (hadn't had dinner), and somewhat worried about mosquito bites in a region infested with deadly malaria. We decided to leave and waved good bye to the friendly villagers, who would no doubt stay till the end of the ceremony that could last till 2 or 3am.

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From Abomey, we hired a car which brought us to Ganvie (a lake-side village on stilts), Porto Novo (official capital of Benin), Cotonou (largest city and economic capital of Benin) and finally to the famous historical slave port and voodoo religious centre of Ouidah.

Ganvie, with its fishermen and water market, was a lot more picturesque than I had imagined, although local traders, like most other Beninese, resented any photos of them taken. Perhaps something to do with their voodoo belief that souls might be captured by cameras.

Porto Novo, the capital of Benin, was a very sleepy town full of dilapidated and decaying colonial buildings. I was surprised that the government didn't bother to keep the capital clean and tidy given the city's official status. The city has a good ethnographic museum with an excellent guided tour. We learned a fair bit about different aspects of Benin's regional cultures as well as core voodoo customs, as well as the close links between Beninese and Brazilian cultures and folk religions, due to the transportation of Beninese slaves in Brazil. We also learned that the bare breasts of women are not considered sexual objects in many African cultures, why is the reason we saw some women going about topless in some countries, especially Benin.

Cotonou is a sprawling metropolis and important port not only for Benin but also for inland West African states such as Burkina Faso and Niger. There are some skyscrapers (absent in rest of Benin) and supermarkets that we take for granted elsewhere in the world. I believe it was either here or in Porto Novo that Bruce Chatwin, the renowned travel writer, got caught up in an attempted coup. He was beaten up, arrested, stripped and humiliated for being suspected as a white mercenary.

We drove on to Ouidah, a historical slave port, where the Portuguese, French, British and Dutch all owned forts here that served as trading stations for slaves sold by the African kingdoms. Slaves were then shipped to the Americas to work on the plantations. Ouidah was ruled by a half-Portuguese, half-African Brazilian mulatto named Francisco da Souza, who was made viceroy by his overlord, the King of Dahomey. Da Souza was a legendary figure known for his trading and business acumen, as well as cruelty and control over the highly profitable slave trade. He was immortalized in Bruce Chatwin's semi-biographical work, The Viceroy of Ouidah. It was a pity the Maison du Brezil, which is now a museum located in his old palace, was closed when we visited.

We visited the famous Portuguese fort here and walked the 4km Route of the Slaves, from the town to the beach, where slaves were shipped to the Americas, leaving their homeland forever. A modern monument, the Gate of No Return, was built here to remember the atrocities and tragedy caused by the slave trade. We also went to the Python Temple which is a major voodoo shrine where pythons wander around freely and are worshipped by the locals as deities. Directly opposite the Temple is a Roman Catholic cathedral built by the Church to counter the influence of animism and voodooism among the local population. Note in the photo how wet my shirt was. The Guinea Coast of Benin, Togo and Ghana was just so humid that we got completely wet and filthy after half an hour walking on the streets. Can't stand it! Awful!

From Ouidah, we proceeded to Togo.

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Togo: To Go or Not To Go

Of course I did. Like Benin, Togo is another narrow long country in West Africa about 600km long and 100km wide in most places. At its southern Atlantic coastline, it was merely around 80km long and we took slightly longer than 1 hour to travel from Aneho on the Togo-Benin border to Lome, Togo's capital which lies right on the country's western border with Ghana.

Both Benin and Togo are small French-speaking nations squeezed between two major English-speaking countries, Nigeria and Ghana. The coastal areas of Benin and Togo thus become a major land corridor for the trade that takes places between Nigeria and Ghana. To the north of Benin and Togo are much larger inland states of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, which turns the ports of Cotonou and Lome (of Benin and Togo respectively) into major import-export hubs for these landlocked states. Given their roles with respective to their neighbours, both Benin and Togo, in particularly Togo, understood the importance of speedy immigration and customs clearance. In fact, now that we had gone through the borders of 14 West African countries, it was in Togo that we experienced the fastest and painless immigration clearance. (OK – that's only when I entered the country. I got into real trouble when I left the country at Lome Airport, as described above.)

Such busy corridors of trade also become conduit by which AIDS spread across borders. Lonely truck drivers on extended road journeys often succumb to temptations and bring dangerous diseases back home to their wives and partners. Huge billboards publicizing the dangers of AIDS are found in many locations along this busy corridor.

The drive from Aneho to Lome was a breeze. Welcoming coconut trees on white sandy beaches on one side and lush green rice fields on the other. We settled into Hotel Degbava in the heart of Lome, which despite having an attractive beach front and several upmarket hotels that once played host to major international conferences, has dilapidated semi-slum quarters and dirty, unpaved streets in many parts of the city centre.

The country had not fared well in recent times. Togo was ruled by the ruthless military dictator, Gnassingbe Eyadema from 1967 to 2005. His troops were involved in the overthrow and murder of Togo's first president, Sylvanus Olympio, in 1963, in what was Africa's first coup d'etat. (Olympio had his head blew up point blank at the gates of the American Embassy where he tried to seek refuge during the coup.) During the almost four decades of his rule, he cultivated a personality cult, rigged elections and crushed all dissent mercilessly, even resorting to murdering many political opponents.

When Gnassingbe Eyadema died suddenly in 2005, he was replaced by the Chairman of the National Assembly, who had intended to hold elections soon after. Within three months, however, Faure Gnassingbe, son of Gnassingbe Eyadema, seized power in a coup. Hundreds were killed as Faure crushed all protests. As foreign aid died up, the regime has agreed to work with the opposition – led by Gilchrist Olympio, son of Togo's murdered first president - to hold free elections and return the country to normalcy.

We walked around town's huge government ministry buildings and noted the barb wire and barricades, presumably safeguards against the frequent demonstrations and rioting that had occurred in the last decade. We also noticed the presence of China here in the form of a number of Chinese restaurants and general stores, which appears to be larger than in countries like Benin and Niger. Interestingly, a few street vendors tried to sell me China-pirated DVDs and China-made electrical appliances, which I found amusing – trying to sell such products to an East Asian is like trying to sell ice to Eskimos.

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It was also in Lome that I parted ways with Gordon. He went across the border to Ghana where he would fly back to Singapore via Dubai. From Lome, I flew to Bamako, Mali, where I would travel across what is possibly West Africa's most fascinating country.

More from Mali later. Farewell and take care.

Best regards,

Wee Cheng

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