The brown dirt road stretched on for miles. On either side of me patches of forest stood, interrupted by fields and small family compounds. Ahead of me, my friend Ismail pedaled on his bike while I followed closely behind on mine. The air and dust blew on my face as we rode along the road. I scanned the horizon, trying to spot our destination, a Togo UNESCO site.
Our biking journey took us from Ismail’s village of Kante to the small Togolese border town of Nadoba. Both of us wanted to take a break from our work as Peace Corps volunteers. We decided to travel to a Togo UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Tamberma Valley, the area where Nadoba was situated and also in nearby Benin. We wanted to visit the tatas.
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How people live in Togo
When I joined the Peace Corps and was assigned to an African country, I immediately pictured myself living in a mud hut, complete with a straw thatched roof. This turned out to be completely far from the truth.
Throughout Togo, it is not uncommon to find family compounds made of cement walls and metal roofs. Most homes are constructed in the Western style, with four walls and a roof. The stereotypical mud hut can still be found in pockets throughout the country. But as a result of globalization, most people in Togo aspire for what folks in the West consider a typical house.
The Tamberma Valley, though, is one of those pockets where people still live much like they did centuries ago. Made by a mixture of clay, mud, and sand, the houses of the Tamberma people, known as tatas, stand like mini fortresses across the Togolese landscape.
The area is considered a Togo UNESCO World Heritage site, as many Tamberma have left the traditional lifestyle to go to the cities. This lifestyle is now at risk of extinction. It is one of Togo’s main tourist attractions. Like me, it entices European visitors with images of an Africa they’ve probably only read about in books.
Visiting a village market
Ismail and I arrived in Nadoba around mid-morning. The day that we visited the Togo UNESCO site also happened to be market day. So we decided to get a rest and a drink at the market before continuing on our way.
In Togo, market day is a major event. People from surrounding villages come into town to sell their produce or wares. Some come simply to socialize and gossip. Walking through the market, we passed stalls of women selling produce and stalls full of colorful fabrics called pagne hanging from wooden railings.
Men sold voodoo fetishes, while others were huddled in a corner of the market, playing betting games. Ismail told me that gambling is illegal in Togo. So if you asked one of these men what they were doing, they would simply say they were playing a game.
One of the things a visitor will always find in any market in Togo is a tchouk stand. Even in the area where I lived, which was predominantly Muslim, you can find a tchouk stand at the weekly market. Tchouk is a local brew created by fermented millet. It’s an acquired taste. But after a long bike ride, sitting in the shade and drinking a calabash of tchouk was a great way to refresh and relax.
Ismail and I found a tchouk stand and bought ourselves 50 CFA worth of tchouk. This is roughly ten cents. We sat and drank our tchouk, observing the other people at the stand. Other than the lady serving the tchouk, I was the only woman. This was not unusual for Togo, as not very many women drink openly.
Touring a tata at the Togo UNESCO site
We finished our drinks and headed toward the Togo UNESCO site. There, we would find the tatas. Our guide was already waiting for us, ready to give a tour.
For the typical traveler, the first time visiting a tata is truly a surreal experience. In front of me was a large structure, made of mud and brick. Tall mounds of varying sizes stood next to the tata. Chicken feathers, bones, and dried blood covered these mounds.
Our guide told us these mounds were fetishes. Each one represents a member of the family who lived in the tata. He went on to explain that the traditional tata has multiple levels. The lower level is reserved for the animals, while the upper level (essentially the roof of the tata) is reserved for the family and for storing grain.
We walked into the tata. I noticed additional fetishes and voodoo items hanging in various corners of the ground floor. I saw more around the interior as we walked up a ladder made from the branches of a tree onto the upper level. On the upper level, I noticed little crawl spaces along the sides of the walls. Our guide told us these are the rooms that the families slept in. At one of the corners of the tata was the grain storage, covered by thatched straw.
A lifestyle facing extinction
It is amazing to think that people still live this way. But sadly, this way of life is slowly dying. It’s now relegated to tourist visits to the Togo UNESCO sites and the occasional cultural exhibition. In nearby Benin, there is a restaurant made from of a tata in the town of Natitingou. There, patrons can enjoy a meal and a drink on the roof of the tata. At the same time, they can watch the sunset while sipping a cold beer and listening to Afropop.
Aside from taking individual tourists, tour companies like G Adventures advertise trips through the Tamberma Valley and the Togo UNESCO World Heritage site. It is part of their voodoo tour of West Africa. These types of things can help to bring visibility to the Tamberma way of life. But they do little to encourage the people who do live this way to continue living this way.
For them, I imagine, the promise of a better life in the city for themselves and their family is more motivation than what tourist dollars can offer.
Coming to terms with progress
But I suppose that’s the way it works sometimes. This is the conventional view of progress. Civilizations come and go. Lifestyles flourish and then they die out. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. For every civilization that dies, a new and interesting one comes along to take its place.
As travelers, we do our best to seek out these different ways of life before they disappear completely. My visit to the tatas at the Togo UNESCO World Heritage Site, helped me realize just how transient our way of life really is in the grand scheme of things. We are all just passing through, seeking out the next big thing.
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