Just Passing Through

I wolfed down an omelette and got on the road. I had 621 km between me and LomĂ© and knew by now not to rely on the conditions being favourable. Some sections of road were very good and some were very bad—overused and under-repaired. I tried to stay focused on progress. I minimised stops and soul-searching. I adopted a marathon mindset.

I allowed myself a brief lunch stop and pulled over at a brightly painted restó in a village. I was still the only tourist (or European if you want to call me that) in sight and possibly the only one ever to have stopped at that particular café. I'd picked the right spot on the wrong day. They were out of food. I settled for the simple pleasure of a cold Coca-Cola in refundable glass bottle, a staple as African as maize meal.

The four ladies working at the non-functional restaurant stared longingly at my indulgence as I sat on the back stoop, savouring it on my white plastic throne. One of them eventually summoned the courage to ask me if I could buy one for her. Evidently it was a luxury unaffordable to some rather than the staple I'd assumed it to be. I purchased a second bottle from the ladies and donated it back to them. They shared it joyfully. I was struck by how economically out of reach the treat was for them but also by their integrity. They had asked me to buy it for them rather than dipping into the boss's stock while unsupervised.

The gaggle of girls (and ladies) followed me back to my bike when I got up to leave. They giggled and gossiped while I packed up. The brave one who'd scored the Coke earlier gestured for permission to pat my head. I leaned toward her slightly. She touched my hair briefly and squealed. The ice broken, each of them had a turn, all fascinated by my straight, wispy, Caucasian hair. They'd only ever seen it in pictures.

Not to be outdone by the women, two drunk men who'd been weaving past on a scooter spotted the curiosity and adjusted course to investigate. Unlike the women they were more interested in the bike than the rider. They made aggressive demands for me to start it up and give it a good rev. In fact, I was to let them have a go on it and to bloody well hand over the keys and anything else of value while I was at it.

As a compromise, I agreed to a brief demonstration of correct body position and operation of the complicated controls as a starting point—and an audio performance of the revving engine. This gave me the opportunity to start up the bike and ride off abruptly. "Sorry, fellas!"

The next substantial splodge on the map ahead of me was Sokode, Togo's second-largest city. Entering it was eerie. There were very few people to be seen on the streets and most shops were shuttered. Down a side-street I saw a pile of smouldering debris, down another young men darted between buildings. As I got closer to the centre of the town I came across agitated military officers, strutting or running in all directions. They wielded big batons and were looking over walls and behind obstacles for hiding combatants—or citizens. I wasn't sure which.

A large tyre fire had just been cleared from the main road by the military and along with a line of a few other vehicles I was able to crawl past the smouldering rubble through clouds of pungent smoke. Officers shouted and banged their batons on anything that resonated. I saw two of them tormenting a thin man in a yellow shirt who seemed totally perplexed as to what he had done to upset them.

Eventually, I got clear of the chaos and as the urban landscape receded into red dirt and green hillocks so did any trace of turmoil. Once I felt I was out of danger I pulled over to process what I'd just witnessed. Clearly, I'd caught the end of a large protest or riot that had been angrily quashed by the military.

Every hotel manager I'd met so far in Africa had wanted to exchange numbers with me, excited to maintain a fleeting connection with the potential of the developed first-world. In that moment it was me who was glad to have a connection going the other way. I pulled out my phone to message Christophe back in Dapaong to ask if he knew what was going on. I found that a message from him had arrived while I'd been travelling. "I learn through social networks that the situation in my country is tense. So if you are not far away please find a refuge to hide. It is important thank you. Christophe."

Togo's ruling party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Togolais, has been in government since 1969. In 2012 it rebranded to Union pour la République (UNIR) giving the illusion of change. "Democracy" was introduced in 1993 but it was cosmetic. Through it all Gnassingbé Eyadéma, the military dictator who had founded the ruling party, was in power from 1967 until his death in 2005. He was immediately succeeded by his son who has been president since.

With no hope of change through the electoral system and a parliament that had promptly removed presidential term limits at the request of the military it's a wonder there aren't daily riots. It struck me that only a small power differential between the state and its citizens is enough to keep them subdued. I had grown up through the very celebrated birth of democracy in South Africa and had been thoroughly indoctrinated. Democracy was a value (warts and all) not just a political system. It was a fundamental right, and fundamentally right—the only effective antidote to power. Here in Togo I felt the injustice acutely but was awkwardly unsure how entitled I was to the feeling. An honoured but ignorant guest.

I wasn't thrilled to be heading for the capital of a country where the "situation was tense" but I was unsure what else to do. My only other option was to pop my tent up behind some bushes on the side of the road and let the universe have its way with me. I'd planned to stay at Coco Beach on the eastern edge of Lomé where I'd heard there was a fun beach-side camp site. I reasoned that I'd at least be able to skirt the city centre to get there, possibly avoiding any further urban unrest. If there had been problems in Lomé there wasn't any evidence of them by the time I hit the city fringe. The trouble seemed to have been localised. I later learned that Sokode had been a stronghold for the anti-UNIR opposition coalition and that yellow was their signature colour. This was apparently as much news to me as it was to the man in the yellow shirt I'd seen being interrogated by the military as I'd ridden past. He had gone from living under a rock to being struck with one.

I'd had many opportunities to communicate my pro-democracy predilections to government officials at the checkpoints I encountered on my way south but I'd kept my weak outrage to myself. I was just passing through. As usual, the officers were more interested in my bike than my political philosophy or the colour of my shirt. I made no attempts to question or challenge. The protective veil of freedom provided by my Australian passport shielded me from having to test my beliefs anyway. I could judge and scold from afar without having to adapt my world view to the reality of the situation on the ground. For those that had no alternative it was best to keep a poker face and play the cards they'd been dealt.

I arrived without incident at Chez Antoine at Coco Beach and was welcomed by the stereotypical, charming concierge: Gabriel. He up-sold me from a picturesque, beach camp site between the palms to a private wooden bungalow with outdoor shower. He fed me spaghetti bolognese in a heart-shaped dish under the stars and offered to do my laundry. He even suggested we go clubbing to meet some girls. I'd seen enough action for the day so instead opted to drift off in my beach shack to the sound of lapping waves.

Pit stop
Pit stop
The way to a man's stomach
The way to a man's stomach

© David Baskind · 2022