In my last post, I described my arrival in Togo, the French-speaking country that borders the East coast of Ghana. It was four of us, navigating the country on our own, content to wander around wherever our fancy led.
On our second day in Togo we opted to go in search of some shrines in a town called Glidji that was highlighted in the guide book. We had no idea where they were or what we would find there, but this adventure exposed us to many idiosyncrasies in the Togolese culture, including the importance of chieftainships and voodoo.
When we arrived in Glidji we stopped a young man in his 30s or so and asked for directions to the shrines. He became our guide for the afternoon. We never quite determined if this was his job or if he too decided to just go with it, happy for something to do.
He took us to the chief’s palace. Now, when you hear the word ‘palace’ in the West African context, your mind should not conjure up a picture of a fairytale-like building with turrets, high ceilings, plush carpets and flags. In this context, a palace is the office or home of a king and it is often modest by Western standards although posh in comparison to the houses of the king’s subjects. In this case, the palace was a single-story brick house with five or six large rooms.
At first we could not enter the palace because the shoes worn by one of my companions were similar in style to those worn by the king. They were a pair of thong sandals and so she had to remove them before even setting foot on to the palace premises. She spent her visit in her bare feet.
As we walked on to the premises, we were reminded of the importance of voodoo in the Togolese culture. Glidji is an important town in that respect since all the main sanctuaries to the principal voodoo deities are in this town. Just inside the palace wall was a spear-like pole with four animal hearts impaled on the top. I wish that I could give an explanation of the statue, however, at that point we were too unsure of our surroundings (and the language) to ask many questions. We did find later that both Christianity and voodooism co-existed in that town. In fact, the voodoo chief was a staunch Christian. His explanation was that a Christian was his religion, while voodooism was who he was, it ran through his veins.
The surrounding yard was quite large, with a seating area outside where we sat and waited to be presented to the king. We signed a visitors book, and then we were taken into a large room where he obviously held court. There was a large wooden arm chair at the front of the room decorated with carvings of lions. This was obviously the throne. Just behind the throne were cushioned arm chairs were his supporting council must have sat. Finally there were rows of seats facing the throne and the council seats. After a few moments in this room, we were ushered out, down a short hall and into a formal sitting room with yellow velvet cushioned sofas and chairs flanking another wooden carved arm chair. After sitting there for a while the assistant returned and reported that the chief was too tired to come to us and we should come in to his office.
The king sat behind a large desk. He was a portly man with a very pleasant face. He wore traditional robes and a ruffled white hat that reminded me a little of the hat that a judge would wear. This was perhaps fitting since resolving disputes was a large part of his job. He told us that the hat was very special and that one could be executed for wearing it unofficially.
He welcomed us in French. His assistant then knelt in front of the desk and, using hand gestures, he indicated that we should do the same. In keeping with our determination to follow the adventure, we reluctantly got to our knees. I think that we all relaxed a little when we realised that we were not bowing to the king, but giving a bit of a blessing on our visit. We were then directed to sit and were asked the reason for our visit.
My barefooted companion, the most fluent in French explained that we were just passing through and interested in learning about the town. She used many hand gestures and was immediately sanctioned as it was rude to use one’s hands when speaking to the king.
The king gave us a very interesting history of the village and his route to the chiefdom. He is a direct descendant of Foli-Bebe, who was the first ruler of the region and who held an important role in the political organization of his people after they migrated from Ghana in the 17th century. As a result of this migration, there is a close association between the people of Glidji and the Ga tribe of Ghana. His tribe, the Guin tribe, can trace their ancestry and show that they are descendants of the lost tribes of Isreal.
The king himself was a highly trained engineer who had lived in Canada for most of his adult life. He answered the call to return home and become the king in 1997. He indicated that they choose a man who is demonstrably educated, full of integrity and who showed restraint in his dealings with women. He had been chosen before and refused, but when he was chosen the second time, he had to return.
It was clear that his life had been greatly influenced by his time in the West, however, his traditional beliefs still prevailed. For example, he indicated that, unlike some of his staff, he had only one wife, however, he later contradicted this statement by revealing that when his wife was away in the capital Lome for an extended period, he was pressured by the villagers to take another woman into his home to care for his needs in his wife’s absence. He indicated that they all live happily as a unit now that his wife has returned.
The role of tribal chiefs in African society is a curious one to people who come from countries without this sort of rule. These chief’s do not have formal political power but they are highly revered and play a key role in the community and government. They have authority over social, family and, perhaps most importantly, land matters.