Sidelined in Togo
Anjali Nayar watches a pickup soccer game on a beach in Togo. (Photo by Noel Tadegnon)
Lome Togo - The closer we got to the Togolese border, the bigger and deeper the potholes became, until finally the tarmac disappeared completely.
The last several kilometres of the journey were through a thick cloud of red dust. Despite the one-metre visibility, the driver expertly weaved in and out of disaster.
We coasted into the border town of Aflao well after dark. The market was beautifully lit with rows of kerosene lamps made from cans of tomato paste and bits of rope. The air was thick with fuel.
Women with colourful buckets of goods balanced on their heads stood at even spaces along the road like standing pylons. If it wasn't dark (and unsafe), I would have dropped my bags, whipped out my ball and dribbled through them.
But it was unsafe (and dark) and if customs officer Nathaniel Otoo hadn't made me think highly of Ghanaian men in uniform, then officer Richmond Benson did.
I had only interacted with Benson once during the journey, when the van slowed at a roadblock. Vendors surrounded the vehicle and shoved their loaves of white bread and sacs of plantain chips through every window crevice. I swung around to take a photograph of the alien arms infiltrating the vehicle, at which point Benson complained about my tourist picture-taking. I shared the story of my journey, as a journalist.
Anjali's trip across Africa
Anjali's trip across Africa
View Anjali Nayar - Destination: South Africa in a larger map
When we disembarked the car a few hours later, Benson introduced himself to me, with a quick flash of his Ghanaian police badge. Oh oh, I thought. Here we go.
But Benson proved to be nothing but a gentleman. He and his companion, in town for a family funeral, walked me through the rough border-town market all the way to the Togo side, around 500 metres down the road.
At each customs desk on the Ghanaian side, Benson flashed his badge, as if saying: "I dare you to try and extort money from her."
Thirty minutes and zero bribes later, I stepped through the broken wooden gate into Togo.
"Be careful," Benson said, handing me back my bag, which he had been carrying. "Over there it's not like in Ghana."
It was like another world when I entered Togo. Well, first of all, everything went dark. Instead of brightly-lit customs offices, Togo's border patrol consisted of two officials working by flashlight. They were pushing and prodding the people filing through, taking identity cards in one hand and bribes in the other.
The officers didn't seem too interested in my case, as I had already bought a visa in Accra. And after standing in front of them for a few minutes, I actually had to request one of them to take my passport. I don't even remember the officer looking at my documents before he stamped them. "Next," he said. Another cash transaction. The officer was, however, kind enough to escort me to a broken down car that charged me six dollars for a 100 metre trip down the road (normally around 50 cents). It was the only time I was ripped off during my entire stay in Togo and I blame the customs official.
"Could I overcharge you in front of a man in uniform," the driver argued, when I tried to bargain.
Immediately, in the darkness, and through a windshield that was so blurry it must have been plastic, I fell in love with Togo. The beaches are flat, several fields in width and span the country's 56-kilometre coast. Lome, the country's coastal capital, is packed with decrepit buildings and bustling nightclubs, playing music from across West Africa.
The next morning I was woken just after dawn by a series of soccer chants. Dozens of teams were already warming up along the rust- coloured beach as part of their morning training session.
Walking down the beach, I secretly wished Togo had qualified for the World Cup so I could stay a few more days. Togo has a great team, considering the country's small size (around 50kmx 600 km) and tiny population (about 6.7 million people).
But problems within the country's national football association and a breakdown within the team after their bus came under gunfire on their way to the African Cup of Nations in Angola, currently has the team in shambles, and suspended from the African Cup of Nations for four years. The team's captain, Emmanuel Adebayor (Manchester City, African Footballer of the Year 2008), announced his retirement from the national side on April 12.
I was dying to get into one of the beach games that developed the skills of players like Adebayor, but opted to watch instead. My affection for not only street-soccer but also street-food may be a bit too adventurous.
For the moment, I'm just taking it all in from the sidelines.
Next Up: A whirlwind tour through Benin to Nigeria, home of the Super Eagles.
You can also follow me on Twitter for more updates.
Canadian journalist Anjali Nayar is travelling across Africa by train, bus and foot (and when necessary by plane), and will arrive in South Africa just before the World Cup. Along the way, Anjali will tell the continent's stories through its favourite sport: soccer.
For the trip, Anjali is bringing only the essentials on her back (camera, flip video, computer) and in her hand - a soccer ball. Every day, Anjali will play soccer, whether she's on the beaches of Accra or stuck in one of Lagos' impenetrable traffic jams. Sometimes she'll play with children in the sprawling slums and refugee camps, other times she'll play with adults in the rich diplomatic quarters of major cities.
Through her Destination: South Africa blog, Anjali hopes CBCSports.ca readers will discover Africa and what the World Cup and the game of soccer means to the continent.
About the Author
Anjali Nayar is a Canadian journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She's reported from the back-alleys of the African continent for the last four years for the CBC, Reuters and the BBC, covering everything from politics to the politics of sport. From training with Kenya's elite runners to cheering on Burundi's footballing president, Anjali uses sport to learn a little more about the world.