Kara and Koutammakou: The town made of mud

View more of our photos from Koutammakou and Kara

Getting on the bus north the following morning was a much smoother experience.  The bus was like a Sydney commuter bus but with the middle doors roped shut and the alcove near the door used to jam extra bags in.  To get on and off the bus people had to clamber over the pile of luggage.  The bus is run by the post office so it doubles as the mail van and stops at all the post offices along the route, which are convenient places to go to the toilet or buy a snack or icepole.  Women sell loaves of bread, cashew nuts, fried bean curd, dried whole fish and plastic packets of water.

For the first half of the trip we sat behind a French guy called Louis who decided that after retiring from being an electrical engineer in France, rather than sit around watching TV, drinking beer and  ‘growing his gut’, he would come to Togo as a volunteer.  He’s one of these short guys that is a big bundle of energy and non-stop talker but he had a sense of humour about it and promised to leave us alone and not pester us for the whole journey.  He was helping to setup a catholic orphanage in Sokode.  The kids end up in an orphanage when their parents die of AIDS or simply can’t afford to look after them.  Louis said that there is also a large trade in children who are shipped off to neighbouring African countries to work for local families as unpaid servants, otherwise known as slaves.  He was critical of the work ethic of people in Togo saying that they will have a meeting and chew the fat for the whole meeting until they decide that they don’t have enough time to make a decision and will have to come back for a meeting the following week.  Contrasted with the Germans Louis had worked with in Europe the Togolese are incredibly inefficient.  They are often sleepy during the day because they go to church all night and don’t want to work.  In this heat I could understand that.  Louis also thought that Lome had way too much rubbish although he conceded that there’s not much people could do with it other than burn it.  He then proved to be kind of hypocritical by tossing his chewing gum wrapper out of the bus window.  This was not unusual behaviour – all the locals did exactly the same thing.  One woman tried to toss her banana skin out of the window as we were barrelling down the highway but it flew back inside and landed on a fellow passengers head.  Undeterred she tried to throw another banana peel out the window and this one flew back in as well slapping another guy in the face.

The bus journey was air-conditioned the same way as the taxis which was fine when it was moving but hellish at stops.  The journey itself, all seven hours, went through interesting landscape.  Unlike in Ghana which stayed covered in jungle as we moved north, in Togo the landscape very quickly became a dry grassy savannah with trees dotted through it.  As we drove along different images pierced the windows: a massive boabab tree with furry fruit, a flame tree, a bunch of eucalypts, a burnt out truck, a controlled fire burning by the side of the road with flames licking the road, kids washing themselves in buckets, women carrying bundles of small logs on their head, mud huts with straw roofs, people picking up the contents of an overturned truck, a billabong with lily pads, small dusty mosques with men sleeping outside on prayer mats, water taps at head height for filling bowls on your head, people making mud bricks, women with kohl around their eyes, billboards warning of AIDS, goats wandering on to the road and quickly trotting off again, school children walking home in beige uniforms along the dusty highway.

It felt like the kind of landscape where you could easily imagine an elephant stripping a tree or a lion taking a nap.  The humidity dropped the further north we went and to be honest it started to feel like an Australian summer in the outback, a nice dry heat with crackly grass and smoke in the air.  A few more hills appeared, studded with rocks and trees.

We arrived at our motel in Kara and it felt just like being in Stawell or any other dusty Australian country town with clear light.  This was especially noticeable after being on the coast which had the double curse for visibility of a thick atmosphere as well as the annual harmattan wind which blows dust and sand in from the Sahara making the sky permanently gloomy.  It was not the crystal blue skies of home in Kara but definitely brighter.

The main reason for coming north was to see the mud fortress-like houses of Koutammakou.  To do this we hired a taxi, as well as a guide to tell the taxi driver where to go, then near Koutammako we added the chief’s son to the car as the main guide who luckily spoke decent English.  It’s kind of a full employment policy Africans like to have, and who can blame them for milking the tourist dollar a little bit.  In this case it was worth every franc.  Dotted through the savannah in this valley are cylindrical mud brick houses.  We stopped at the chief’s son’s sister’s place which was in the process of being constructed.  The rooms of the house are made with wet mud which is piled on top of each other to form hollow room-sized cylinders.  When we were there two men sat on two of these cylinders that had dried previously and were slapping mud on top.  The mud was supplied by another man who picked up patties formed by yet another man and threw them to the men sitting on the cylinders.  They then shaped it much like my Dad shapes a pork pie, although if you’ve never seen him in action this might not make sense.  Suffice it to say that the rooms are slowly formed as cylinders and when completed the doors are cut into them.  The walls are water-proofed with cow dung and an oil extracted with great labour by women grinding a type of nut.  We took a quick peak in the house nearby and while it is small by modern Australian standards (but then most of the worlds housing is small compared to McMansions) they looked like perfectly comfortable places, especially if you spend most of the day outside.  Given that it rains nearly all the time in June and July you might go a little stir crazy after a while.  We were offered trinkets for sale by the chief’s sister.  She wriggled into a dress behind one of the huts being constructed before coming out.  Bare breasts are not a big deal here but I guess you don’t go flashing them around to tourists willy nilly.

We passed two boys on the highway hunting mice.  They would either take these back to their family to eat or sell them at the market.  We have passed a few random animals being sold by the highway.  There are not a lot of animals wandering around freely apart from those that have been domesticated.  I think the wild animals sensibly stick to the national parks whenever they can.

We next stopped at the chief’s village to pay our respects.  There were a number of the fortress houses here.  All the houses are built to the exact same specifications.  Before getting the tour we wandered over to the chief, past the guy milking cows and the woman grinding oil on a flat stone.  The chief was much like a male lion, just resting in the shade with a radio.  He was personable.  We shook hands and moved on.  The people in this area live in small villages of 500 people or so.  They were driven here by a war with the tribe in Benin, a major regional power.  You can see the psychological effect of the war in the way they keep making their houses, a hundred years after the last war was fought.  It is dark inside with the main light from slits to fire arrows out.  Each house has a dark room where people would hide from attackers if worst came to worst.  You have to slide between a couple of wooden poles to get in the dark room and I can imagine it being easy to defend.  The houses are two stories with the top floor housing the bathroom, bedroom and grain store.  The kitchen is hsalfway between the top and bottom floor.  They have a lot in common with a modern studio flat.  Everything is placed just where you need it.  We ate some dried boabab fruit.  There is not much fruit on it, mainly seed, and I couldn’t really tell you what the flavour was.

Next on the itinerary was the massive boabab tree where they held ceremonies.  You can squeeze inside the hollowed out trunk and which could accommodate four or five people comfortably.  The space inside the tree is about four metres high and the inside of the trunk is as tough as elephant hide.

Despite the chief’s son being well dressed and prosperous looking to greet tourists the same cannot be said for the entire village.  There were quite a few hungry looking kids and disabled old people who were doing it tough.  One old guy had a stroke so that half his face was drooping but he was still carrying bales of straw around.  In fact he kept hitting his straw in people’s faces while he turned around to talk, much to everyone’s amusement.  You would say that one old lady was bed-ridden except she was not in bed, she was lying in the dirt out the front of her house.  I guess she could talk to people as they wandered by at least.

The village is self-sufficient.  They grow all their own food and only buy some soap and shoes from the market.  They grow millet, maize and cotton.  Maybe their fortunes go up after harvest time and when it’s raining but from the crowd following us around begging for change it looked like they were doing it a bit tough.  I’m not saying they were starving to death or anything like that, just poor.  We did see deeper poverty in town where a couple of guys were the definition of ‘dirt poor’.

A couple of the young men gave a fighting demonstration which involves one guy with a whip attacking another guy who defends himself with a stick.  The chief’s son managed to deafen himself with a whip crack that must have broken the sound barrier.

As we left the next batch of tourists rolling through.  It’s kind of sobering to think that this is a relatively prosperous pocket of rural Africa.  I’m not sure how much money trickles down from the chief to all the people in the village but I like to think that they look after their own.

That night Sarah had a suicidal desire for fufu.  We were staying in a hotel 3km from the centre of town.  There are no taxis to speak of, just moto-taxis, small 125cc bikes that constantly ride up and down the road.  Sarah desperately wanted to try some authentic African food.  The meals we had been eating were good but mainly French or Italian in style.  We previously had banku (fermented corn meal paste) but had not had fufu (pounded yam or cassava mash).  We started walking in to town and had not gone 20 metres when a moto-taxi pulled up offering us a ride.  No no, we said.  Both of us can’t fit on one.  Sure you can, he replied.  Sarah got on behind him and I sat on a rack behind her.  We didn’t have helmets but, somewhat reassuringly, neither did the driver.  I think it is the most dangerous thing we have done so far on the trip.  I rode a motorbike for a year and had two minor accidents on the smooth roads of Canberra.  Falling off hurts and getting hit by one of the trucks thundering past would have caused injuries that I’m doubtful northern Togo is setup to handle.  We made it to the restaurant ok, swerving around the potholes and slowing down for speed humps, and we even made it back at the end of the night without incident.  Sarah, the woman who seriously wanted to fly from Benin to Rwanda via Europe to avoid an African airline, got off this death trap and exclaimed “That was fun!” Well it was fun, as long as you don’t crash.

The fufu was not really worth it, although interesting to try.  I would eat fufu over banku but there is not much in it.  The consistency of fufu is the same as if you take mashed potato and whisk it in a blender until it is stretchy and smooth.  It’s as thick as a dumpling.  You take a handful of fufu and dip it in the sauce of your choice, which is tasty.  The fufu itself doesn’t taste like much at all.

The bus journey back down south was fairly uneventful apart from the fellow passengers.  It was one of the noisiest buses I’ve been on.  West Africans are not shy and retiring by nature but these guys were booming at each other as we took off.  At one of the stops we were just about to pull away when this French guy with lion mane hair and a goatee stopped the bus to jump on.  This caused pandemonium on the bus but as it was in French we couldn’t figure out precisely why.  The French guy was yelling, all the passengers were yelling, the French guy kept tapping his watch and laughing.  He had an African wife and child but looked more like a fading 80s rocker.

The bus erupted at a later stop, we think because we started to leave without one of the passengers who got off to go to the toilet.  The passengers were screaming at the conductor and getting incredibly heated about it.  The guy who was left behind had to restrain fellow passengers when he got back on, telling them to calm down.

We got into Lome after dark, found a taxi driver who didn’t know where our hotel was again, but this time we had a map and were located in a simpler part of town to find.  The hotel was lovely, great French food and a little swimming pool with cold water.  It was an oasis of calm.

View more of our photos from Koutammakou and Kara

1 comment to Kara and Koutammakou: The town made of mud

  • […] Kara in northern Togo felt a long way off the beaten track and we went even further off it with a run through the grasslands dotted with Baobab trees. As with the run in Mikumi, it always feels slightly unsettling to be running through the African bush, as though you’re a mouse attracting the eyes of a predator with all of your scuttling around. On this run the most pain came through our ‘five finger’ shoes from the sharp little rocks on the path – but the views of the rolling hills, nearby mosques and sunset-bathed atmosphere were worth it. We got some encouragement from a group of farmers taking a rest from their work; at least, that’s how we took their smiles and shouting. […]

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