Here I start to share some of my specific adventures in Africa...
After sharing in my blog about the extent of my Africa adventures, my mind spent all night sifting through them. Often times, when you have unique memories that most people can't relate to you end up putting them 'in the closet' of your mind where they collect dust until they see the light of day again. Now that I've opened the door, I'm not sure which pieces to share first. I'll err on the side of action. I've always thought this story would make a good hollywood movie scene.
Setting the scene, the year was 1991, there was unrest in Togo. It is a small sliver of a country in West Africa next to Nigeria. They had a long serving dictator type leader who the people were starting to tire off. But what typically happens in Africa is the leaders become more despotic and repressive the longer that they are in power, to remain there. I had been travelling for almost 8 months by now, the last 3 on my own. I had survived Nigeria, which is a story in itself for another day, and was looking forward to the last stretch of countries. The day before I arrived the army and police had shot and killed some university student leaders who were protesting. My long distance group taxi from Nigeria let me out at the market in Lome, the seaside capital in Togo.
The first thing I noticed was that they were speaking another language. Togo was french speaking, Nigeria had been english, and the local dialect was different as well. I spoke some French and I asked for directions to some accomodations, but people seemed a bit on edge and pre-occupied. They said there were no local taxis available but directed me to the neighborhood where most mid to lower range hotels were located. The local taxis are the foundation of the nation's transportation network. They had gone on strike to protest new higher rates imposed by the governement. As I walked the streets I noticed that things were different. Usually, major African cities are always bustling during the day, but there weren't many people out and about. At major intersections, some people had build a large tire obstructions to block traffic, as I walked on with my big backpack, I saw them light it one on fire with kerosene sending up plumes of noxious black smoke.
Once I got to the local hotel district, I took no time in selecting a place to stay fearing more time on the street wasn't a good idea. The hotel was basic tropical africa. It was several stories tall and I had a stark room with a bed side table and modest dresser. It had slatted glass windows, no mosquito netting and a giant fan built in the ceiling. I ended up spending most of the evening up on the rooftop observing the events taking place on the streets below. Skirmishes were taking place between the army and protesters, be they students or taxi drivers. There were very few cars out on the roads. Things deteriorated when protesters started stoning the passing cars to discourage any traffic at all. After discussing the situation with a couple travelling african businessmen, I decided it would be best if I didn't stay any longer than that night in Togo. You always have to be flexible when travelling in Africa as conditions are always changing.
That night it was particularly hot and muggy, and the mosquitos were out in force. Because there was no mosquito netting and the windows being slatted allowed in any creatures looking for a meal, I turned on the industrial strength fan to full strength to deter them. It felt like sleeping in a wind tunnel but helped drown out the sound of army helicopters circling the area trying to enforce the new curfew imposed to quell the unrest.
In the morning, I was informed it was 3-4 miles across the city by foot to get to the border post. The streets were mostly deserted except by protesters and the army. I tried to make my way in the general direction indicated to me but had to take several detours to avoid trouble. One such scene had students stoning a police station mercilessly. About 50 people on the outside pelting the building into submission, eventually storming the building and dragging out the scared local policemen for a public beating before they set the building on fire.
Successfully navigating the streets to avoid trouble, I eventually neared the edge of the city and the beach front border area. The situation was much more severe here. Helicopters would circle occasionally above, students were busy barraging the border post with sticks and stones. Occasionally the army would bring in a truck load of soldiers to engage the marauding students to little effect. I noticed other fearful visitors also trying to make their way to the border to escape the chaos. We were all huddling in the nearby streets, in the safety of the big walls that surrounded all the homes in the area, waiting for things to dissipate. After a couple hours of skirmishes between the army and protesters, another truck of soldiers arrived to reinforce the government forces. An army helicopter swooped in low which sent all parties for cover temporarily.
In the brief calm brought on by the helicopter's recent departure, I seized the moment. Looking back on that day, I don't know what possessed me. I sensed we would be caught there for many more hours if nothing decisive was done. I wasn't a big risk taker but I had assessed that foreigners weren't being targetted in this dispute. So I picked up my pack, emerged from the shadows of the street and boldly marched out with my large blue Lowe backpack onto the oceanside road that led to the border post. Everyone started looking at me. I tried to walk with a firm sense of purpose, no matter how scared I was inside.
The student protester group was the first that I had to get through, and a number of them surrounded me wondering what nerve I had to be there and insert myself in this conflict. Thinking fast I used some basic French "Je suis Americain" (I am american) and "Allez les eleves" (long live the students). This brought a cheer from the throng assembled. Suddenly I had shown American support for their cause and removed the tension of the moment. So deciding not to let any time pass for them to consider other moves I kept walking.
This region in between the warring factions was littered with stones and other debris thrown in the battle zone between both parties. I marched forcefully, trying not to take any missteps among the rubble, towards the shocked soldiers who had come to reinforce the border post. They were perplexed, they had heard the cheers as I passed through the students, but I was now approaching them. They stood almost frozen wondering my intentions with distrust. I said not a word to them until I approached what appeared to be one of their leaders when I said simply "Je veux allez au Ghana" (I want to go to Ghana). He paused, thought a second and raised his arm pointing to the border post room. Suddenly the border officials who had been crouching below desks in the simple border post buildings emerged to process my passport so I could depart. The atmosphere was surreal, as all the windows had been stoned out and there was debris everywhere. I hesitated no longer than an instant and crossed the border to Ghana as those on the other side looked on at me in disbelief.
The proudest aspect for me was that my bravery or foolishness had broken the tension of the moment and other foreigners who had been trapped and wanting to leave now emerged from the shadows to make their way to the border as well. The skirmishes would continue. The violence would continue to escalate in the coming days and weeks eventually leading to an attempted coup. I spent less than 24 hours in Togo, but it was some of the most memorable moments of my 9 month trip.