Connect the dots

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Top 10 West African Things I Will Miss

10. Vibrant markets - always the same, always different. The further north you go, the more colorful they get. The best tourist activity in every city and all the villages you pass along the way.
9. Fresh tropical fruits and juices everywhere - floral mangos, juicy pineapples, tart tamarind, ruby red hibiscus, and spicy ginger.
8. Clay homes with thatched roofs and granaries - depending on where you go, the styles may differ, but the concept is the same.
7. Laws of physics taken to its limits - self made jalopies loaded with passengers and stacked with cargo and women using their heads to transport anything from ceramic jars of water to a pile of wood for cooking.
6. Dusty, red, potholed, unpaved roads.
5. To in Burkina, pate in Togo/Benin, and tizet in Ghana - a cheap street starch that always comes with a tomato based meat or fish stew. Think dry, thick Farina.
4. Getting back to basics and off the grid - brown-outs, bucket showers, and squatting in holes.
3. The sweltering heat - 100degF and hotter is still better than snow, any day.
2. The ORIGO guys - Paulin for organizing and storing the junk now being sent to Brooklyn, Marcel's swift maneuvering to avoid potholes, people and livestock on the road, and Soul for always looking after our best interests and tolerating Alex's difficult moments.
1. The genuine smiles and bonne arrivees you are greeted with everywhere you go.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


If this looks familiar, it is. This is the Betamaribe tribe on the Togo side. Their fort like structures protected them from European invaders and slave traders, leaving much of their traditional culture intact. With some minor differences, most of their traditions mirror their neighbors, the Somba, in Benin. Unlike most tribes in West Africa, who have adopted and assimilated either Islam or Christianity into their animist beliefs, they are strict animists. Typically, you will find large clay fetish structures where they sacrifice animals, bones hanging in front of houses and rags and bottles hanging from sacred trees. They were also one of the last tribes to succumb to clothing themselves, although you still often find the women bare-breasted.

Older woman with a stone in her lower lip from a now dying initiation rite and spinning cotton

Young girl with initiation horn hat

Ready to hunt

Inside a sacred baobab

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sleeping with the sisters

Sisters or brothers?

If you are looking to escape the frantic and sticky port city of Lome in Togo, head up the switchback, potholed roads to the cool and calm of the Danyi Plateau. We made our home one night at the abbey of the Benedictine nuns of Dzogbegan since the monks were completely booked! Who would have guessed this was such a tourist attraction? With just one more week until Easter, it made sense people were making their pilgrimage to this beautiful and peaceful site. The accommodations were clean and spartan as expected with each of the rooms named after saints. We lodged in St. Matthew, while the nuns provided St. Mark for Marcel and Soul. For $20 you have a room with a bucket shower, a bottle of mineral water, a 3-course dinner, and breakfast. You'll also get to rub elbows with your fellow lodgers while washing and drying the dishes and setting the table for tomorrow's breakfast. Since they've been here, they've contributed to the local economy cultivating coffee and cacao, and selling locally produced items such as yogurt (which came with breakfast), spices, honey, cookies and of course, religious items like rosaries.

Meditating before 7am morning mass with the sisters

Cool, green and lush Danyi Plateau

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Venice in Benin

We took advantage of an overcast afternoon for a breezy and scenic boat ride through the lake village of Ganvie. The one con - instead of providing informative commentary, our guide was more interested in making a quick buck.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Point of No Return

It's hard to imagine that this beautiful stretch of beach in Ouidah was once, for approximately 1 million individuals, their last encounter with their homeland. European traders purchased slaves, established forts and were also aided in part by the indigenous Dahomey kingdom which shamelessly profited from the slave trade.

The town has restored many examples of colonial and Afro-brazilian architecture but has also left many to deteriorate due to the huge expense of restoration.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Porto Novo

Cathedral today, Mosque tomorrow

Benin's capital, only in name, retains its colonial past in the faded and often crumbling Afro-Brazilian architecture scattered throughout the city. Originally a port for the slave trade, emancipated slaves from Brazil settled in this area.

Our friend and photographer, Jean-Dominque Burton is better able to tell the story of Porto Novo with images. His latest book, Porto Novo, captures the richness of this town that now teeters between its rich history and hopeful future.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tata Somba

We rushed our way through north and central Benin with only 48 hours to obtain a visa extension in Cotonou. The Tata Somba and the Betamaribe villagers we saw was worth the morning detour.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


I looked both ways, just like I was taught. No warning at all - not a beep or an attention. Then all of a sudden, I found myself suddenly jolted from the right side and I was no longer facing the side of the street I was trying to reach. Instead, I was facing the pavement. I realized I was probably bruised and cut, but I was able to get up and make sense of what had just happened. I immediately asked if Alex was okay, being that she was strapped to my back. She was frightened and crying, and when asked to walk, she could. We inspected her for any cuts and bruises, but not a scratch - phew! A witness to the scene accompanied us and the mobylette driver (who appeared more shocked than me) to the nearest clinic to clean my wounds.

I've bandaged the explicit parts

If you go, go with ORIGO

If you have the urge to see Africa as it was and continues to be, check out Origo. But don't expect luxurious accommodations and western meals. They will give you a West Africa that puts you a little bit closer to how the people actually live it. And so far, we love every bit of it.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ouaga New 'Do

Tired of watching her swat her bangs away from her eyes, I took Alex to the hair salon across the street from our hotel for a trim.

Jeremy, her English speaking hair stylist

My new 'do and a refreshing sachet of water