The Red Soil of Africa

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We left Lagos and its overcrowded, dangerous streets as night fell to avoid the life-destroying congestion. We headed out towards the Benin Republic on the single, if well-maintained, highway. The car was packed for safety. After we crossed into Benin, we were stopped every mile by menacing police and military carrying obsolete weapons. My companions thought that word had reached them that a European was travelling through the country.
The border crossing was an arrangement of huts and bungalows. When we arrived most of the officials were asleep. It had the disquieting atmosphere that bleakness gives to dawn in some parts of the world. We hung around, showing documents, providing bribes for an hour or two. Then we passed through into Togo. My companions went back to sleep as the car sped along. I stayed awake, squashed and uncomfortable. My back hurt squeezed up and in a fixed position.
As daylight emerged in full fury the highway became crowded with sellers. They were young and old, offering cartoons of raisons, bottles of water, orange juice, phone cards, fruit, and rice. They ran alongside the assortment of motorbikes, scooters, vans, lorries, trucks and cars. They were constitutionally and habitually unbothered by the increasing heat.
Eventually we reached Lome, Togo's capital city situated on the Gulf of Guinea. It has something of paradise about it. The city is built on red soil that emerges from the sea and rolls inland. Scattered around are isolated palm trees. The city is only a few yards from the sea. The beach is a strip of white sand that straddles the entire coast like a beautiful necklace. Squat off-white buildings boasting wide, ragged, brightly coloured canopies. The dust rises as the day progresses. The sun pours down its light and heat, growing fiercer by midday.
We got a cab into the city centre, a wide sandy boulevard. The redness prevails. From a distance it looks like a huge open wound. It has an astonishing beauty.
Gabriel, our driver and guide, buys a melon from a stall. Everywhere there are men, but few women. They look hard but happy enough. They scrutinise me as a walk around, taking in the flavour of the place, scolded by the heat. I am the only white man around. I guess they are curious as to why I am there. Gabriel keeps a practised eye out for trouble.
We get another taxi for the embassy. The city's dirt roads are full of holes. We have a bumpy ride as the car sinks into the road, groans, and speeds upward again from some deep rupture. The car jerks sideways and to our surprise and joy the road disappears. We get out. The road seems to continue again ten feet below. The cab driver smiles and shrugs. I smile and shrug. It's different. Its fun all this disorder and disruption. Everywhere are herds of goats. Chicken appear from every shadow. Swift lizards scurry across walls.
The embassy is a two storey bright gleaming white building full of plants and flowers. We purchase a visa into Ghana. It costs us a small bribe. Bribes are cheap here. Afterwards we head further into the city. The heat isn't uncomfortable. I'm enjoying it after the miserable months of northern climates, rain, wind and cold.
The cafe was on the main thoroughfare. Gabriel ordered rice, peas and chicken. I had spicy chicken. We ordered mango juice each. The food was delicious. I ordered more feeling like an over aged Oliver Twist with freedom of choice. Compared to many African countries, there were few people around. Those that were, were not rich. There were few cars around. Fewer trucks. The men wore robes. The women wear cotton headscarves, plain pinafores or sparkling traditional African dress. They are beautiful. There was something relaxed and genial about the city, something wholly enticing.
We stayed there only one day, but I wished it had been longer. In late afternoon we crossed through into Ghana.
While I relaxed in the back, Gabriel drove. I looked out. We were racing along a narrow slip of road. On one side was a calm, flat lagoon. On the other was the ocean, rolling away towards and over the horizon. The road was red. It was a red gash running across the disunited water. On the other side was a line of dark green trees, hiding the land beyond. I already missed Togo.
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