Festivals & Traditions: Ghana, Togo + Benin


This fantastic 14-day cultural odyssey to the most remote regions of Ghana, Togo, and Benin to discover lost tribal worlds ruled by traditional chiefs and ancient spirits. Along the coast, in the heart of voodoo original regions, we encounter practitioners, watch trance dances and learn about the great influence voodoo spirits still have on people.


DAY 1: LOME, Gulf of Guinea – TOGO Arrival in Lome and transfer to the hotel.

DAY 2: VOODOO, from Lome to Agbodrafo (100 km – travel time: 3 h) –   TOGO Lomé, the vibrant capital of Togo, is the only African city that was a colony of the Germans, British, and French. It is also one of the few capitals in the world bordering another nation. These elements have led to the development of a unique identity reflected in the lifestyle of its inhabitants and in the architecture of the town: Lomé is indeed a cross point for people, trade, and cultures, a small cosmopolitan city.
We will visit: the central market with its famous “Nana Benz”, women who control the market of the expensive “pagne” (fabrics) coming from Europe and sold all over West Africa, and the colonial buildings of the administrative quarter where the reminiscent of colonial time is still present.
We will stop at the fetish market where a huge and eclectic assortment of all the necessary ingredients for love potions and magical concoctions can be found.
In a remote village, we will join a Voodoo ceremony: the frenetic rhythm of the drums and the chants of the adepts call in the voodoo spirits who then take possession of some of the dancers. They fall into a deep trance: eyes rolling back, grimaces, convulsions, insensitivity to fire or pain. Sakpata, Heviesso, and Mami Water are just some of the voodoo divinities that can manifest. In this narrow village, surrounded by the magic atmosphere of the ceremony, we will finally understand what people mean when they say: “In your Churches, you pray to God; in our voodoo shrines, we become Gods! “

DAY 3: “BRASILIAN” TOWN, from Agbodrafo to Ouidah (70 km – travel time: 2h) – TOGO & BENIN Benin border crossing (Hilla Kodji / Save Kodji). Drive to Ouidah. Ouidah was conquered by the Dahomey Kingdom during the 18th century to become one of the main slave ports. Today Ouidah enjoys Afro-Brazilian architecture with the python temple facing 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 well described by Bruce Chatwin in his book “The Vice-Roy of Ouidah”. By foot, we visit the Python Temple and the Portuguese Fort, now a small but interesting museum on the history of Ouidah. We end the visit following the “slave road” to the beach, the point of no return where the slaves were shipped to the New World.

DAY 4: ROYAL PALACE, from Ouidah to Dassa (250 km – travel time: 5 h) – BENIN
We cross Lake Nokwe with a motorized boat to reach Ganvié, the largest and most beautiful African village on stilts. The approximately 25,000 inhabitants of the Tofinou ethnic group build their wooden huts on teak stilts. Fishing is their main activity. Ganvié has managed to preserve its traditions and environment despite the long-lasting human presence in a closed setting. The lake is not over-fished and fishing habits and rules of the past are still in use. Daily life unfolds in the dugout canoes that adults and children row easily using brightly colored paddles. Aboard these canoes men fish, women expose goods at the floating market, and children go to school and play.
Once returned to the mainland we drive to Abomey where we visit the Royal Palace. The walls of the palace are decorated with bas-reliefs representing symbols of the ancient Dahomey kings. At the height of power, the King has up to 4.000 wives living in the harem. Nowadays the royal palace is a museum, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it displays items belonging to the ancient kings: thrones, cult altars, statues, costumes, and weapons. The Kingdom’s economy was for a long time based on the slave trade which constant warfare allowed the kings to capture thousands of prisoners sold as slaves.In the middle of the royal courtyard, we discover a temple built with a mixture of clay and human blood. Walking among the buildings,
We possibly attend Egun dancing masks.

DAY 5: FETISH HILLS, from Dassa to Natitingou (350 km – travel time: 8 h) – BENIN Today is a long but intense day. The first stop will be at Dankoli Fetish, an important place of voodoo worship, today still practiced. Thousands of short sticks are pushed in and all around the fetish testifying to the huge number of prayers addressed to the local god to satisfy everyday needs: a good harvest, a happy wedding, a problem-free birth, success at school, etc. Once the prayers are answered, people come back to sacrifice what they had promised to the god: a chicken, a cow, or a goat. Fresh traces of blood, palm wine, and palm oil on the fetish prove that many prayers and requests have been fulfilled. 

In the afternoon we discover a few old Taneka villages located on the slopes of the mountains of the same name. These villages are made up of round huts covered with a conical roof protected on the top by a terracotta pot. The upper part of the village is inhabited by the young initiated and by the fetish priests who only cover themselves with the skin of a goat and always carry a long pipe. It seems that the first inhabitants, of Kabyé origin, occupied the mountain in the 9th century AD. Since then, other ethnic groups have joined thus forming a kind of melting pot where even though each group has preserved its own cults and initiation rites, at the same time common political and religious institutions have been created.
While walking around the villages, among houses with conical roofs, along narrow streets bordered by smooth stones, it happens to meet young people and adults half-naked and with shaved heads. They prepare for the initiation celebrations. The Tanekas believe that in order to “become” a man, it is necessary to combine time, patience, and many sacrifices. In short, a process that spans an entire existence, to the point that life itself becomes a rite of passage.

DAY 6: ADOBE CASTLES, from Natitingou to Defale (100 km – travel time: 3 h) – BENIN & TOGO
Today we enter the land of the Somba and Tamberma. In this landscape of smooth hills and plateaus, we meet the Tamberma and the Somba who live in fortified houses. Similar in shape to our medieval castles, these houses represent one of the finest examples of ancient African architecture. Their style impressed Le Corbusier, who called them “sculptural architecture”. In fact, the houses are built by hand, layer after layer of clay, adding mud balls which are then modeled on the plan of the house in a kind of sensual gesture mixing strength, care, and beauty.
The attachment to their traditions is demonstrated by the presence of large phallic-shaped shrines placed at the entrance of the houses. With the permission granted to us by the elders, we enter the houses to better understand their way of life. Actually, the houses are projections of their cosmology: the ground floor, with its darkness, represents death and is the place of the ancestors; the second floor, open to the sky, represents life and it is the place where grandmothers look after the little ones, up to when it is identified which ancestor has returned to live in the newborn. All food and animals are kept inside the fortified houses, for safety reasons in case of attack by enemies. For centuries these populations have been seeking refuge in the Atakora Mountains to escape Muslim slave traders coming from the north.
Then we reach the Togo border (Bokoumbe / Nadoba).

DAY 7: THE DANCE OF FIRE, from Defale to Sokode (100 km – travel time: 3 h) – TOGO
Today we meet the Kabyes: in some villages, on top of the hills, women mold clay pots, and men work iron giving it shape with fire and heavy stones.
In the evening, we attend the fire dance: in the center of the village, a large fire illuminates the faces of the people who dance to the hypnotic rhythm of the drums before diving into the burning embers. They collect incandescent embers and pass them several times over the body as well as bring them to the mouth as if they had to swallow them, no wounds and no signs of pain appear on the faces of the dancers. Is it about courage? Self-suggestion? Magic?Difficult to explain such a performance.
Maybe it’s really their fetishes that protect them from the fire.

DAY 8: WITCHES, from Kara to Tamale – TOGO & GHANA
A track leads us to the border with Ghana and then to a rarely visited region where the Dagombas live, they build round clay huts with a thatched roofs. The village chief’s house is characterized, at the entrance to the village, by a large hut with a central pole supporting the roof. This is where the council of elders is held.
We stop in a Konkomba village, inhabited by… witches. In the context of traditional architecture, we are warmly welcomed by women who are accused of being witches. Considered responsible for serious events such as the death of a young man, a sudden illness, or an unsuccessful harvest, these women are exiled to special villages, where the presence of a special fetish is able to “control” them. Their kind and smiling welcome contrasts with the serious stories that justify their exile. Simple traditional architecture, adapted to the needs of a special community, frames a large and clean village.

DAY 9: SACRED MONKEYS, from Tamale to Techiman – GHANA
We move South and stop to visit the Fulani camps
In the Brong Afo region, we leave the main road to follow the track that will lead us to the sacred forest. The local population considers Monas and Colobus monkeys as their totems. The result is that here we have the largest community of these species in the world.

Walking in the forest next to giant trees and in the emerald light, we will meet a lot of these monkeys.

DAY 10: ASHANTI PEOPLE, from Techiman to Kumasi (150 km – travel time: 4 h) – GHANA
We reach Kumasi, the historical and spiritual capital of the ancient Ashanti Kingdom. The Ashanti Kingdom was one of the most powerful in Africa until the end of the 19th century when the British decided to annex it to their colony called the Gold Coast. The tribute paid today to the Asantehene (the King) is the best evidence of the past splendor and power of the Ashanti. Today Kumasi, with more than three million inhabitants, is a sparkling city with a fantastic central market, one of the largest in Africa. Every type of Ashanti artifact (leather goods, pottery, kente cloth, and adinkra fabrics) can be found here, along with almost all types of tropical fruit and vegetables. Here we visit the Ashanti cultural center which boasts a rich collection of artifacts placed inside the reproduction of an Ashanti house.
In the afternoon we attend the “Ashanti funeral” (if available), which is actually a festive celebration, a ritual celebrated months or years after the death to allow the spirit of the deceased to gain ancestor status and to become a protector of the whole clan. Participants wear red and black fabrics. The leaders, in the shade of large colored parasols, participate in the celebrations surrounded by their entire court. Following the traditional protocol, we are accepted at the ceremony to attend the traditional dances that celebrate the deeds of the ancestors and have a marked erotic symbolism.

On Sunday morning Kumasi wakes up slowly. Its streets, not too busy, allow the gaze of the traveler, curious to catch up on some details that make the town special. The colonial buildings around the market, the hand-painted advertising signs with an original style that someone does not hesitate to assimilate into Urban Art, and the faithful who go to church wearing the Sunday dress that is perfectly fashionable because it is perfectly out of fashion. In the morning we finish the tour of Kumasi by visiting the Royal Palace Museum with its unique collection of gold jewelry worn by the Ashanti court. In the afternoon we visit some Ashanti villages to discover traditional clothes and carvings.
If the date coincides, we participate in the great Akwasidae festival (in this case the program of the day may vary).

DAY 12: SLAVES CASTLES, from Kumasi to Anomabu (250 km – travel time: 4 h) – GHANA
We return to the coast and visit Cape Coast, in particular its castle, built by the Swedes in 1653. From 1657 to 1664 it changed hands many times. It was conquered by the Danes, the Dutch, a local tribe, and finally by the British, who made it their headquarters until the end of the 19th century. Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, it now houses an interesting museum on the slave trade. From here, in fact, thousands of prisoners left, sold as slaves and used in American plantations. The town, the first capital of the British colony, shows traces of its colonial past. On the surrounding beaches, fishermen perpetuate ancestral fishing techniques, braving the fury of the ocean to snatch abundant catch.

A few kilometers north of the coast, in the middle of a rainforest, we discover the Kakum National Park. Here a rope bridge secured to steel cables (canopy), appears to be the longest and highest bridge of this kind in the world. From a height of 30 to 40 meters, you can have a completely original view of the forest. Instead of showing their trunks, the trees offer their slender tops to the eye in search of sky and sun.
We then reach the Elmina Castle, the oldest European construction south of the Sahara, built by the Portuguese in the 15th century. Elmina is a name linked to the history of Africa, but also to the history of all humanity.In 1482 Cristoforo Colombo and Bartolomeo Diaz landed here with twelve caravels to build a castle under Portuguese authority. The places chosen were also linked to the possibility of purchasing gold dust. Thus the story of Elmina began: a castle, a port, a village, which today celebrate the record of over five centuries of continuous contact and trade between Africans and Europeans. The castle you visit today is the result of the works carried out by the Portuguese, Dutch, British and local authorities. Throughout its history, it was initially used as a fortified farm to supply the ships that sailed along the road to the Indies with vegetables, fruit, and fresh food. At different times the castle was used as a warehouse for the trade of gold, ivory, and slaves.In the 18th century, the castle reached its present extent when it became one of the main collection centers for slaves to be sent to the Americas. Today it is recognized as a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO. The citadel of Elmina is a typical fishing port with hundreds of large colorful pirogues that face the ocean every day. The alleys of this ancient fishing village will make us breathe a lively and unique atmosphere. The ancient Portuguese, Dutch and British buildings, now inhabited by the locals, are placed side by side with the temples of the “Compagnie Asafo”,

DAY 14: METROPOLIS,  from Anomabu to Accra (180 km – travel time: 3 h) – GHANA
We head to Accra. A large, rapidly evolving African town, Accra has managed to preserve an identity that is reflected in both modern and older neighborhoods, where traditional businesses are multiplying. The verdant administrative districts, made up of elegant villas from the first half of the 20th century, remind us that this was the most prosperous of the African colonies.
We visit the district of James Town, inhabited by the Ga people. Facing the ocean is where the life of the Ga takes place. James Town is a village surrounded by a town. Here the economic activities follow very different criteria from those that govern the town, which is only a few hundred meters away.
Beyond Osu, which was the seat of the presidential palace, is the neighborhood where the makers of sarcophagi live. With creativity, coffins are made in the shape of fruits, fish, airplanes, and animals. These bizarre artifacts are appreciated locally and have been shown in prestigious international exhibitions. In the evening we transfer to the airport for our return flights.

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