A popular misconception about Africa is that it is a homogenous “dark continent”. Countries might have different names and fashion the typical red, yellow and green of their flags slightly differently. But otherwise the same. Sun, dust, corruption, flies, pot bellies, breasts, civil war and game. Africa.
Despite the obvious annoyances from hawkers, currency exchange “agents” and overloaded trucks I love border crossings in this region because I think they best undermine this notion. At these hectic junctions the world can change in the space of two hundred meters. This is most evident when crossing from English speaking Africa to francophone or Portuguese Africa.
This weekend I made my second venture into French speaking Togo, Ghana’s eastern neighbour. Having finished my stint with the TV station I headed off alone in search of some much needed rest and relaxation. Despite a fantastic six months the litter and traffic of Accra has worn me down. I spent Saturday on the Ghanaian side of the border in Keta, a small sinewy settlement strung along a sand bar separating the ocean from a shallow lagoon behind.
In its day Keta is supposed to have been a highlight for backpackers. However due to the ravages of a rising sea and retreating coastline much of it is now submerged out to sea. Only a third of the old Danish fort remains and an atmosphere of gloom surrounds the dwindling community. With the exception of a rotund Ghanaian businessman I spent the night in the 1960’s concrete Keta beach hotel alone. Depressing. I headed for Togo first thing on Sunday morning.
The border crossing is 40 miles further eastwards along the coast. Thanks to belated efforts at redeveloping the area the road out of Keta is exceptional and initially my TroTro was rattling on at a decent speed. However ten miles before the border the tar runs out and the paced slows as my back and the aging suspension have to contend with a rutted read earth road. Dust is everywhere and road side shacks, houses and schools are covered in a rusty haze as we pass.
Like Keta, Afloa is stretched along the road leading to and from the border crossing. Along with phone credit, water and nick-naks the street vendors sell Ghanaian staples; Banku, Watchi and Fufu. Bulky and unremarkable starches. To the north of the town is a mangrove swamp whilst the ocean marks the town’s southern extremity. A dirty unremarkable town. Impossibly however, peaking just above the rural skyline is a series of multistory hotels.
Thanks to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 which deprived Germany of its African Colonial possessions German Togoland was divided between France and Britain and new border was drawn clumsily on the edge of the capital. Today downtown Lome, the seat of seat of government in Togo is only a few hundred meters from rural Ghana.
Immediately as you step foot in Togo you are on the main beach drag in the city. Aflao and Ghana is at once left behind. No Banku but rather baguettes. No Tro-tros but rather a fleet of motorbike taxis. Behind dirt and litter. In front a tarred coastal strip flanked on one side by shops and restaurant and on the other a pristine golden beach.
The beach is not a boundary or a public toilet like in Accra but the heartbeat of the city. Toddlers run in and out of the waves on the shore line, teenagers play football further in whilst old men in trilby hats sit under the palms watching the world go by.
“Africa. Its all the same isn’t it!?”