What did I learn: TOGO

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Lomé – Source

This month has been a great introduction not just to Togo, but to West Africa in general! There’s a lot of really good filmmakers, writers, activists and artists from Togo – I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface. Learning more about real vodou in its original African context has been interesting and valuable for smashing the stereotypes that are in the media I grew up with.

I was really excited to try West African food – the spices are fantastic. I’ve incorporated gbotemi into other dishes, and I’m using the suya spice mix liberally as a dry rub. I’m also definitely going to use the grilled chicken marinade next barbecue, and ayimolou is proving great for meal prep. I’m genuinely excited to pull another West African country in the future – I didn’t even get a chance to try making fufu!

The music this month absolutely blew me away – I’ve been listening to the radio stations I found on heavy rotation because there’s always something neat playing. It’s interesting to see the full circle of musical heritage – much of the Togolese music I was listening to this month has been influenced by American styles like hip hop, funk, jazz, and rap, or Caribbean reggae and dancehall … all of which have deep African roots, particularly from West Africa. These styles then get repatriated by African artists, with new touches and interpretations.

I definitely want to dig more into Togolese music from the 70s – Akofa Akoussah, Bella Bellow, and Itadi K. Bonney all have such great sounds, and there was such musical effervescence across West Africa in that period. Modern Togolese music is just as good – I’m particularly sold on Vaudou Game, Almok, Win Blak, and Sethlo.

TOGO: Tété Azankpo

Tété Azankpo is a Lomé-based artist and “visual art surgeon“, originally trained as a welder, who creates absolutely stunning metal and enamel collage portraits that work in global commodities, African culture, and themes of masquerade and perception.

Mademoiselle Lina, 2019 – Source

“We need to let the artwork breathe. We cannot lock it into a given interpretation. I leave it to you, the viewer, to imagine why a specific medium was used, what the narrative is and what impact it achieves.” 

Camille Tété Azankpo, African Art Beats
Mascarade 4, 2008 – Source

TOGO: Epé-Ekpé

Epé-Ekpé is a religious festival that has been held in Togo since 1663, with people coming from all over West Africa (including Togolese government officials), music, dancing, and most crucially, the revealing of a stone, chosen by a priest in a sacred forest – the colour of which foretells what the upcoming year will hold.

Unfortunately, celebrations were cancelled at the last minute in 2020 due to the pandemic, but in 2019 the stone was white – a positive sign (though admittedly, 2020 was not that positive a year). Here’s hoping 2021’s Epé-Ekpé brings even better news!

Some raw footage from 2019 really gives you a sense of the scale of Epé-Ekpé:

TOGO: Emmanuel Adebayor

Emmanuel Adebayor is Togo’s most famous soccer player, having played in the English Premier League and across Europe. He’s a player who seems to evoke both love and hate among football fans – take a look at this absolutely incredible goal and taunting victory lap against his old team:

Here’s some further interview and background on Adebayor, with some colour on the drama that has followed him through his career, including surviving the attack on the Togolese national team in Angola in 2010:

Togo, being a dedicated football country, is also progressively working on its upcoming youth players:

TOGO: The Shadow of Things to Come by Kossi Efoui

Kossi Efoui is one of Togo’s most prominent writers and playwrights, and while he is in self-imposed exile due to his opposition of the Gnassingbé regime, his work is also shown in Togo, as well as across Europe. He’s particularly well known for playing with and dissembling African stereotypes.

The Shadow of Things to Come is a dark, driving, layered story of a young man in an unnamed African nation who’s father was taken away to a re-education camp and who is himself fleeing being taken off to a border war, but it’s so nuanced and thick with poetic language and doublespeak (and masterfully translated into English) that you feel like you’re being driven along in a boat in a storm. The use of government euphemism and the construction of narrative run through this short novel – it’s a quick read, but one that I want to do again to try and get more of Efoui’s delicate, hypnotic and ominous layers.

TOGO: Suya chicken with ayimolou

I had a great score at my local African grocery when I was looking for some sorghum leaves to try ayimolou – sitting next to them was a jar of suya spice imported from Togo!

Suya is a spice mix found all over West Africa, it’s a dry rub that’s usually a mix of ground peanuts, hot chilies, and other flavourings like garlic and ginger. This jar is from Togolese brand Delice D’Afrique, and while it doesn’t list it’s full ingredients, it seems to be more heavy on the hot chilies in the mix, and maybe something smokey and nutmeg-ish? I’m going to try it as a dry rub it on some chicken, done up in a pan with a bit of onion and bell pepper.

To go with the chicken, I’m going to have it with a side of another West African staple – ayimolou (also known as waakye in Ghana). Ayimolou is rice and beans (specifically black eyed peas), cooked with red sorghum leaves for extra colour and flavour. I’m going to do a smaller version of this recipe from Togolese cooking channel Cuisine 228.

This is a colourful lunch! The sorghum turns the water a beautiful wine colour, and adds a purple tinge to the white beans and rice. The chicken is bold and spicy with a bit of a smokey barbecue flavour – the suya has also turned it bright orange (so likely lots of turmeric in this mix). The ayimolou has a subtle herbal flavour and has cooked up nicely, it really complements the fiery chicken. Comparatively quick and really easy!

TOGO: Togolese breakfast

Ghanaian vlogger Wode Maya and Togolese makeup artist and TV presenter Ama Alovor, have a massive (and I mean massive!) street food breakfast across Lomé. Interestingly, and maybe unsurprisingly due to the arbitrary nature of African borders, most of the dishes they try are made in both countries, but with different names.

The food looks really good and I’ve never seen water served like that before – it’s a smart way to do it, though I read up a bit more on “pure water bags” and they’re unfortunately linked with issues with water distribution and recycling.

TOGO: Le silence est un cri

Another great short film from Togolese musician and filmmaker Elom 20ce – women of a rural village sharing their daily lives, the importance and challenges of living close to the land, and their Vodou faith. (Subtitles available in English.)

I’d strongly recommend this interview with Elom 20ce by Africa is a Country; he touches particularly on the need for genuine struggle for fully decolonize and the tragedy of the Balkanization of Africa.

He also has done a series of interviews with people in various life situations around Lomé – from amateur footballer cab drivers to motorcycle-loving androgynous models. I particularly enjoyed the depth and openness of this interview with Blacky, a street vendor.

While Elom 20ce’s rap weaves its way through his documentary films, he also has more traditional music videos, either as stand alones or as part of a series – such as “Poings d’interrogation”, one part of a larger Afro-futurist scifi story. (Heads up – non-sexual nudity.)