Tour to Togo & Benin : In the land of tribes and masks
Enjoy a trip in two countries running alongside the Gulf of Guinea, both tiny and fascinating.
In Togo and Benin, you will experience tribal villages and ways of living embedded with powerfull cultural traditions.
This itinerary will take you from Lomé to the Atakora Mountains.
With the tropical forest in the background, you will discover the Tamberma and Somba tribes, who live and build spectacular adobe castles. You will learn about their social structure by listening to how their houses are organized.
Meet with Tamberma people who live following strict cultural rules. The men’s life is punctuated by a long initiation rite which takes more the forty years.
From the Atakora back to the coast: the cradle of voodoo. A wild spread religion who will challenge your knowledge about it.
Come and meet with fetish priests, healers and oracles. Witness the state of deep trance adepts can reach when, during voodoo ceremonies, they “become gods”.
In Togo and Benin, you will become accustomed to the world of masks. You will experience their social impact and you will admire their artistic feature.
- Duration: 13 days
- Guide: English speaking
Lomé, Gulf of Guinea
Arrival in Lomé and transfer to the hotel.
Our journey starts with a visit of Lomé, the vibrant capital of Togo, the only African city which was a colony of the Germans, the British and the French. It is also one of the few capitals in the world bordering with another nation.
We will visit: the central market with its famous “Nana Benz”, women who control the market of the expensive “pagne” (=cloths) coming from Europe and sold all over West Africa (unfortunately the market has been partially destroyed by fire); the colonial buildings in the administrative quarter where the flavour of colonial time is still very present; and the fetish market where we can find an eclectic assortment of all the necessary ingredients for love potions and magical concoctions.
In the evening, cooking class: feel free to take part in cooking your dinner in the kitchen of a professional chef. You will discover the property and the flavour of raw local products to fusion with other ingredients and cooking techniques coming from abroad. If you prefer have a rest in your room you can meet the group after the class and have dinner together.
Saturday night many places performs live music in town: reggae, jazz, African music… let’s follow the rhythm with your guide to discover the vibrant Lomé by night!
Drive to Kpalimé, a town with a rich colonial past which is now an important trade center. Visit of the arts center.
In the afternoon, Walk in the forest to meet with the majesty of tropical trees, the cheerful greetings of its human inhabitants, the sounds of tam-tams, the filtered green emerald light. Under the guidance of a local entomologist, we will learn about endemic butterflies and insects and we will be initiated to the art of painting with natural colours.
We will head northwards and stop on the way in Atakpame, a typical African town built on hills and where we can find all the products originating in the nearby forests.
We continue northwards, visiting some villages and possibly some markets on the way. These populations came originally from the north of the country and have maintained their traditions that keep them tied to the land of their ancestors.
We will arrive in Sokode late in the afternoon.
In the evening, fire dance. At the centre of the village a large fire lights up the faces of the participants, they dance to the hypnotic beat of the drums eventually leaping into the glowing embers, picking up burning coals, passing them over their bodies and even putting them in their mouths … all this without hurting themselves or showing any sign of pain. It’s difficult to explain such a performance. Is it matter of courage? Self-suggestion? Magic? Maybe it really is the fetishes that protect them from the fire.
Further West we visit the region inhabited by the Bassar. They live in large clay houses with conical roofs and keep the secret of the very old process of iron production: a combination of geology and alchemy. For instance, old women are the only ones allowed to climb the mountains surrounding the villages to get the stones containing the iron and men cannot be sexually active during the melting process if they want it to be successful.
We will meet with traditional chiefs and discuss with them the role of traditional chiefdom today.
A road crossing hilly regions offer appealing landscapes.
We visit the region around the Massif Kabye, populated by a population of the same name. Their houses are called « Soukala »: a group of huts linked together with a wall. Within each house lives one patriarchal family.
Very interesting: The blacksmiths who still work with heavy stones instead of hammers; The women who make traditional pottery and old style floors with pieces of their pottery.
When we reach Kante, a track across the Atakora Mountains takes us to the Tamberma people. For self-defence reasons, for centuries this people have taken refuge in the heart of the Atakora, a land so difficult to access that they could flee from any attack, especially from slave traders from Muslim North Africa. According to anthropologists, their origins are close to the Dogon people of Mali with whom they share an absolute faithfulness to their animist traditions.
A bit further to the east, we will meet with the Betammaribe (alias Somba) who live in the same natural environment of the Atakora Mountains just like the Tamberma. Similarly they also build nice clay castles however, unlike the Tamberma, they follow a series of very suggestive initiatory rites. Young men between 18 and 20 years of age have their bellies scarified with delicate and complex geometrical patterns, deeply convinced that those scars are the only way to become “real” men. We will meet some of those young men to hear from them what they recall of their initiation. Girls also go through a scarification rite but in their case scars are made on the belly and on the back at the age of 20-22.
All these initiatory rites form a cycle that starts during the weaning period (when the child’s face gets scarified) and whose completion symbolises the official birth as a member of the group. It is the infinite number of the very thin scars on their faces that forever reminds people they are Betammaribe.
The mountain of the “Fetish Priest”
We reach a Fulani camp.
The Fulani are mainly shepherds. The men move around with their herds while the women take care of the camp as well as milk the cows and produce the butter to be sold at the market.The Fulani are famous for their beauty. In fact “Fulani” means “beauty”: Beautiful tattoos on their face send messages to the people who understand the language;
Later an easy walk to discover old Taneka villages located on a mountain with the same name. The villages are made up of round houses covered with a conical roof protected at the top by a terra cotta pot. The upper part of the village is inhabited by the young initiated and by the fetish priests who only cover themselves with a goat skin and always carry a long pipe. This ethnic group has been living on an archaeological site for centuries.
As we wander around, along alleys bordered by series of smooth stones, we may come across half naked men. The Taneka people believe that in order to “become” a man, it is necessary to combine time, patience and a lot of… blood from sacrificed animals. It actually is a lifetime process in the sense that life itself becomes a rite of passage. As a consequence, life should not be considered conditioned by a “before” and an “after” but rather as following a continuous path.
Transfer southwards. Visit of the Savalou shrine, an important place for animist pilgrims.
Dassa is the seat of an old kingdom founded by Olofin in 1385 and in town it is still possible to see sites witnessing the passage of this long lasting dynasty.
A walk through the hills will take us to a sacred place where kings used to be buried – it is still protected today by several voodoos. We will meet the chief
In the afternoon we attend the Egun masks. They represent the spirits of the deceased and according to the local population they “are” the deceased.
The men wearing the masks representing Egun are initiates of the cult. Dressed in brightly multicoloured clothing they emerge from the forest and form a procession through the village streets, leaping towards any foolish spectator who dares to get too close. You don’t want the Egun to touch you because if he does; there is danger of death, so watch out! On arrival the masks perform a kind of bull fight which is designed to create fear and respect.
Once we get to Abomey and we visit the Royal Palace whose walls are decorated with the symbols of the former kings of the Dahomey Kingdom. The Palace hosts a Museum and a temple built with a mixture of clay, gold dust and human blood.
In the afternoon we attend spectacular Gelede dancing masks.
Gelede is at the same time a cult, a secret society and a mask. First of all it is the cult of Oudua: the great divinity, the old mother and the mother earth.
Gelede performances recall our western “theatre” where each mask represents a character, often humoristic or ironic. This theatrical aspect of the masks mimicking short stories has the function of educating, not simply entertaining the village.
Gelede mask has feminine features but is worn by men dressed up like women and dancing incredible performances: a chorus made up of more than 20 singers dancing in a large circle with two big drums in the middle, the surrounding public, happy and excited, singing along, laughing and clapping hands. Colours dominate the scene with the dancers dressed up in colorful clothes moving around all the time.
A few kilometres north of Cotonou we cross Lake Nokwe with a motorized boat and reach Ganvie, the largest and most beautiful African village on stilts.
The approximately 25,000 inhabitants of the Tofinou ethnic group build their huts on teak stilts and cover the roofs with a thick layer of leaves. Fishing is their main activity.
The city of Cotonou is plunged into a constant traffic chaos caused by thousands of zemidjans (moto-taxis) wearing purple or yellow uniforms. As a consequence, the city follows the rhythm of the traffic lights pausing and restarting those zemidjans all over the city. Enjoy this show of a rare intensity!
Visit of the Zinsou foundation: It is the first private Beninese foundation dedicated to Contemporary African Art. As a place of exhibition, the Zinsou Foundation tries its best to publicize a dynamic African art too often thought to belong to an old golden age.
Zangbeto, the ghost
Ouidah was conquered by the Dahomey army during the XVIII century to become one of the main slave ports. Today the city enjoys an Afro-Portuguese architecture and the python temple faces the Catholic Cathedral. The laid back attitude of the locals blends in harmoniously with the thunder of the distant waves and the rhythm of the drums – a timeless atmosphere very well described by Bruce Chatwin in his book “The Vice-Roy of Ouidah”. On foot we visit the Python Temple and the Portuguese Fort, now a museum on the history of Ouidah and the slave trade. We end our city tour by following the “slave road” to the beach, the point of “no return” where slaves used to board ships.
In the afternoon we attend Zangbeto dancing masks
The Zangbeto mask is very tall and covered with coloured straw. It represents wild non-human spirits (the forces of nature and of the night that inhabited the Earth before human beings). The mask wearers belong to a secret society and keep their identity hidden as the non-initiated cannot know who they are. When Zangbeto comes out, it is a big important event for the village. Its performance guarantees protection against bad spirits and malicious people. The spinning movement of the mask symbolizes the spiritual cleaning of the village and Zangbeto also performs miracles to prove its powers.
At the heart of the Voodoo Land!
All along the coast of Togo and Benin, voodoo is a religion that has been passed on by the ancestors and is still fervently practiced. Although according to many Westerners voodoo is only a vulgar form of black magic, in truth voodoo is a real religion, far richer and more complex than people often think.
In a remote hidden village we will join a Voodoo ceremony: the frenetic rhythm of the drums and chants of the adepts help calling in the voodoo spirit who then takes possession of some of the dancers. They fall into a deep trance: eyes rolling back, grimaces, convulsions, unsensitivity to fire or pain.
Arrival in Lomé late in the afternoon. Free time to get ready to leave or go shopping.
Many are the places which can be visited for this purpose and our vehicle will be available to take you around: shops for tribal art and antiques, craftworks, art galleries with contemporary paintings from the “Togolese school” (which start to be quite popular in French and North-American galleries), shops selling “popular” art items such as the colourful “advertising” signs in front of the street hairdressers etc.