My trip to Togo and Benin this past weekend with my friend Mette was filled with the kind of crazy adventures that places such as West Africa alone can give. We raced down wet sand paths on the back of motorbikes after getting caught in torrential rainfall, we shared taxis fixed for four people with seven people, we watched crocodiles at one of our hostels, I held a python around my neck, and lounged in a man-made wooden motorboat while watching a town on stilts, and I had to give a border official a 300 CFA (rough 60 cents) bribe to get through the Togo border, just to name a few highlights. But in telling the story of this unforgettable trip to two of French West Africa’s smallest countries, I must frame it through the story of a blessing.
Mette and I hired a tour guide for our trip named Isaac. He turned out to be one of the best decisions we made, as he was a wonderful person, was full of wise sayings, and even treated us to some traditional Benin beer on our first night of the trip. After we enjoyed the beach town vibe and local foods of Lome, the capital of Togo, we took a shared taxi to Ouidah. The morning we began the approximately 5 kilometers walk along the slave road it was a cloudy day, but we were perky from our breakfast of local coffee and omelet in baguettes (food in Benin is heavily influenced by it’s French background). One of the first main stops on the route was the site of the Tree of Forgetting. It was here that those who had captured the slaves and were taking them to the boats on the coast performed a type of ritual to make them forget about their life in their homelands before they were taken overseas to be slaves. Later, a special tree was planted there that is believed to aid in cleansing and providing blessings for the individual who washes in the leaves of the tree. At the time we reached the tree, it had begun to rain a little, so there was enough water running from the leaves. So, I put aside my umbrella and washed my hands in the rainwater flowing from the trees, closed my eyes, and prayed that God, from whom all blessings flow, would remember me and continuously cleanse and bless my life. Immediately after, the sky broke open and buckets of torrential rain fell from the sky. Isaac looked at me and said that the cleansing had begun, the rainfall was a blessing, and more would follow for me.
The heavy rains flooded the sandy path, and we struggled forward through the rain and the mud, feeling a little closer to the people who had made this journey under far more tragic circumstances than we did. When we got to the end, Isaac informed us that the only way to get back besides walking (which was not really an option at this point) was to take a zem. A zem is a motorbike that operates as Togo and Benin’s main form of transportation through towns and oftentimes in busy cities as well. I had told myself I would not get on one, as they usually are going fast and there are no helmets involved, but it turned out that this would be the point in which that fear had to be put aside. Isaac told me that it would be fine because of my blessing. So I hopped on the back, closed my eyes to protect them from the dagger like rain and held on for dear life.
Afterwards, we went to the Python Temple, which was a site of voodoo practice in Ouidah. Mette and I had been talking about which one of us would hold the python, and neither really wanted to. However, I felt like this was too unique of an opportunity to pass up, and I willingly allowed the priest to drape one of the hundreds of pythons in the temple around my neck. I even felt brave enough after to hold one, although that was the limit to my boldness. We then headed out to Abomey, which was the capital of the old Dahomey civilization. It was still raining a lot, and when we got to Cotonou, the capital city, we barely missed a bus. We then were forced to take a tro-tro, but they were not filling up. Isaac told me he believed my blessings would continue, and less than ten minutes later, our tro-tro was filled and we were on our way. We saw many wrecks on the road, even the body of a dead man, but our tro-tro arrived safely in Abomey, and we again took motorbikes to get to our hostel. Our hostel was a bit of quirky establishment, filled with thin trees everywhere with wooden carvings. The owners had a pet antelope and three pet crocodiles. As my blessings had become a source of conversation now, we talked about how we hoped my blessings would bring sunshine in the morning. Our bags were soaked, and we were all forced to wear the same clothes the next day, as they were the only dry ones we had. And the next day came, and it was gloriously sunny. We visited the palaces of two of the Dahomey kings, and walked through hut-like structures made in part of the blood of women. Apparently if you are on your menstrual cycle, you are not allowed to go inside.
We packed our bags at Abomey and headed to our last stop of our trip, which was Ganvie. When the slave trade started building on the western coast of Africa, tribes were desperate to save themselves from traders, both white and black. The ancestors of the people who live in Ganvie decided to move their town from where it was and build another one in the middle of a lake, creating a stilt village, so that they could live in peace. There are several stilt villages in West Africa, but Ganvie is one of the largest ones. The day continued to be gorgeous—beautiful blue skies and fluffy white clouds—and I could not help but smile from ear to ear as we stepped into a wood-carved boat with a self-installed motor and took our almost one hour ride out to the village. We grabbed drinks at one of the stilt restaurants and sat on benches on a dock, watching the happenings of the village, fascinated by this village. It was not like other stilt villages, where once you were in the village, you could walk around. Instead, here you had to take a small boat to your neighbor, or even to use the restroom. It was one of the most interesting things I had ever seen. On our way back on the boat, I closed my eyes, feeling the wind in my face, and thought about how I had indeed received a blessing and how truly grateful I was to experience places like Ganvie, and how perhaps, Isaac was right about my luck changing.
Racing back from Cotonou to the Benin border was a race against time, as Mette and I had only received 48-hour visas. We made it in time, however, and continued our journey through Togo toward the Ghanaian border. Once we were dropped in Lome by the shared taxi, we had to take motorbikes to get to the border. As we raced down the main highway, the beach on one side and the city on the other, I thought how lovely it was to have a trip where nothing unusual happened to me. I should have known to guard my thoughts…
Because that’s when it happened: as I swung down from the back of the motorbike, the bike shifted a little and I felt a searing pain flash through my right leg. I cursed under my breath, thinking that I had once again ripped my skirt and cut my leg on something sharp on the motorbike. I lifted my skirt up to inspect the cut, and could not see much in the light but what appeared to be an indentation and some weird looking skin. The woman next to me, however, immediately got the tour guide’s attention and warned him that I had been burnt by the exhaust pipe. I felt a flash of panic, and Mette and Isaac led me to a lighted spot so we could see the damage better. Indeed, I had burnt a part of the inside of my right leg, but we could not tell how badly yet, and they poured some water on the burn and then Isaac applied a layer of toothpaste on to it because, really, it was all we could do at the moment. Holding back tears, I looked at Isaac and told him that perhaps my blessing was only in Benin. He emphatically shook his head no and told me this was just something unfortunate and that my blessings would always continue.
It was Isaac’s words that drew me back to just several hours before and the beautiful moments and joyful thoughts upon the boat at Ganvie. And it hit me. The girl sitting on the side of a road in Togo with looks of pity from those around her, as the pain increased in her leg, was the same girl smiling from ear to ear on a wooden boat upon a lake in Benin. And while we all attributed all our good fortune to my blessings received by the Tree of Forgetting, it was in this moment that Isaac reminded me to think about it in bad times too. Because it did not mean that I was not blessed. Unfortunate things will still come my way, but I must always remember that the girl with the burn in Togo is just as blessed as the girl on the boat in Benin.
I arrived back to my home in Atomic Down Monday morning. It feels really nice to be back. I walk to the front yard and cut leaves from the aloe plants growing there and squeeze their gel on to my burn to alleviate pain and reduce scarring. And I remember that when those unfortunate situations arise, it will not matter, because my blessings are always tenfold.