Discovering the origins of Voodoo in West Africa: Ghana - Togo - Benin
This trip was set to be our first introduction to West Africa. Flamboyant festivals, ancient rituals, colorful culture and a hodgepodge of ethnicity makes up much of this region.
This part of the continent s still under the typical tourist radar. If you have experienced the more touristy places around the continent, then the culture nuances you will find here is an interesting way to dive into something uniquely African.
I would say Accra is very much like Kenya or Nairobi. Though Accra is relatively modern than the capital cities in the East. If you find pleasure in visiting places that are far off the beaten track and historically significant, then read on.
Accra. Black Star Monument. Jamestown. Aburi. Adom Waterfall. Batik Making Workshop.
Togoville. Lome City.
Ganvie. Sacred Forest. Python Temple.
Flights. Visa. Border Crossing. Immigration. Yellow Fever.
If you are an Indian passport holder, you do need to apply for a visa to enter Ghana. It was one of the most expensive visa have done. Costs EUR 220 per person. Fill up the form online and then book an appointment at the embassy to get a visa stamped.
Border crossing from Ghana to Togo and then Benin was simple since we had all the documents ready. Expect a lot of paperwork.
Togo was on arrival - depending on single or multiple, it can be EUR 45 or EUR 60. Carry local currency CFA (West African Franc) for the visa.
Benin visa is simple and can be paid and finished online, saving you time at the border. Costs EUR 50 per person single entry. Got it by email in an hour.
Yellow fever vaccine card is mandatory for ALL countries.
We were asked to show proof of vaccination.
In Ghana, many people spoke English. In Togo and Benin, French was the official language. We used google translate to get by.
Best time to visit
We visited during the dry season, which is December to March. This also means that it will be warmer than usual. We would rather be warm than soaking wet.
Where we stayed
There are a dime a dozen places to stay in all capital cities across the three countries. We just picked one that worked for us logistically.
Choosing a guide vs independent travel/backpacking
You already know we love to use local guides for our trips in Africa. As much as we love independent travel, it isn't practical in certain parts of the word. First, because of the headache of traveling on short durations in countries where you don't speak the language and second because going with a local is a great way to support locals and their families.
For this trip, I went with Isaac (who was recommended by a friend). You can contact him by whatsapp +233 50 524 3557. With all the back and forth that happened thanks to TAP Portugal in Sao Tome, he was still patient and sorted everything for us on short notice.
How expensive is West Africa?
I found Ghana to be very overpriced in terms of lodging but everything like food and tours were reasonably priced.
Togo and Benin were much cheaper than Ghana but still above average compared to rest of Africa for very basic lodges. Fuel is very expensive, so if you are traveling on a tour, expect to pay a huge price for the luxury of privacy.
Ghana was picked as it was our entry to São Tomé. Having made it there, it only made sense to spend a few days exploring the city. We landed around mid-day and spent the rest of the day exploring Accra City. The country is a rather mild introduction to this part of the continent, With its modernization & somewhat bustling capital. Our first stop was the iconic symbol of Ghana's fight for freedom - the Black Star.
Our visit to Jamestown area, one of the oldest suburban towns in Ghana, offered us an insight into the rich culture and the city’s colonial past. At first glance, it’s sad to see the people living in such poverty, but as we walked around, we started noticing some beautiful details.
Colorful art walls, a huge boxing center to train kids in boxing, the marvelous coastline and most importantly the vibrant and warm personalities.
Life can be tough here but it’s also full of life. Don’t miss a walk around this area when in Ghana. You never know what meaningful conversations you will have.
Aburi and Adom Waterfall
Never being big on cities, our first move was to leave it. We headed out to the Aburi Botanical garden, a hilly area located about 70 minutes from Accra City. We spent a few hours just exploring the vast area filled with beautiful plants. The forest vibe was a perfect respite from the heat of Accra.
After that we hiked up to the Adom Waterfall. The hike is simple but a bit long to do in the heat. Jumping into the waterfall is a great way to chill after that long walk.
Trying my hand at Batik
Batik is an ancient art form where instead of machinery, everything is done by hand. It is believed to have originated in Indonesia. In the 19th century, Dutch and English merchants brought to Africa.
On our last day in Ghana, I tried a fantastic Batik workshop with Aunty Esther who runs a small business for women and communities in a tiny village. It’s a very straightforward process where designs you pick is printed on fabric using melted wax. It took about 2 hours and then we the spent the rest of the afternoon talking to Aunty Esther about how she sources her supplies and what she aims to do with her small business.
It was such an enjoyable experience for me. Not to mention a fantastic souvenir to use at home. If you are in Ghana, definitely recommend trying something unique and culturally enriching.
Togo is a tiny elongated country sandwiched between Ghana and Benin. Still very much off the beaten track in this region, there are whispered stories of voodoo and ‘black’ magic but it was in the quiet villages and kind hearts where we felt the real magic.
Our trip included a visit to Togoville, the home of voodoo.
Here we found voodoo sculptures in front of houses and sacred twin trees. It was a peek into the belief system that shapes this community. A lot of you may not have thought of voodoo as a religion.
Cast aside your image of voodoo as portrayed in movies & you are left with a religion which originated in this part of the world during the slave-trade era. The learning can be rewarding albeit a bit strange. As I often say, no one has the same experience in a country. You have to go and find out for yourself.
Our next day was spent exploring Lome City - beaches, markets and churches and art culture with artefacts from Central Africa.
The small yet fascinating Togo is a worthy addition to your trip to West Africa. It certainly was for us.
Benin was the last part of our trip to West Africa.
Floating along the beautiful stilt village in Ganvie, Benin was the main reason for our trip here. This place is often called the 'Venice of Africa'., it is believed to have originated in the 16th century by an ethnic minority group.
During the slave-trade era, the Tofinu people fled to the lake and they remained safe & protected. Today, 40,000 people still live here. The huts are made of bamboo and remain floating 2m above the water.
People live exclusively on fishing, which they do by planting palm tree branches on the river bed. There are schools, church, markets, hospital and even a small guesthouse for travelers to stay. Gliding through the waters is an experience on its own - with the people adorned in local attire, going back out their lives oblivious to us tourists, selling trading, hopping on and off the boats.
It was so beautiful to watch it all.
A walk through the sacred forest is the best way to understand how the locals have been worshipping gods for centuries. It is also the best place to experience the voodoo religion.
The forest itself is very serene. You will find many sculptures of the gods over here. My favorite was the infinite loop serpent, which is supposed to symbolize life after death.
Ouidah is the birthplace of Voodoo in Benin. In the Python Temple, you will find a whole bunch of pythons (which are completely harmless). The pythons are considered sacred in Benin. They are often used in the Voodoo ceremonies.
You will hear stories about animal sacrifices made to sacred trees and the significance of earth elements as deities.
This region may not have the big-five or fancy lodges or the Victoria Falls but it’s so under-explored that planning a trip here in itself is an adventure.
Leave your comfort shoes at home and strap on for a beautiful rough ride to remote villages and deep dive into ancient belief systems. Surprisingly, a lot of you asked if it’s safe to go. Ghana, Benin & Togo are stable countries, perfectly safe, in-spite of sharing a border with Burkina Faso.
There are few places to visit but don't be so quick to judge - there is dark but rich history, a unique culture, and natural beauty. Benin was fascinating, weird yet wonderful. If you’re looking for a truly different cultural adventure into a largely misunderstood religion, then Benin & Togo is the place to go.
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