Sunday, December 4, 2011


I have this joke I make to bush taxi drivers. At the point during every ride when passengers crowded into the front seat are complaining about the dire state of the road, I say ‘au Togo, les rues en bitumee sont en train de deviner des rues en terres,’ (in Togo, the paved roads are gradually becoming dirt roads) and everyone laughs. Most of the minor roads in this country are made of dirt, and the major roads that are paved are marked by potholes of various sizes and shapes. On top of this, 5 passenger cars are often loaded with 8 people (think creatively to figure out how) and 12 passenger vans are packed with more than 20 (again, think more creatively), forcing many travelers to adjust their comfort zone to fit the transport options. And this doesn’t even account for the baskets and sacks, the goats and chickens that are piled on top. Bad roads combine with overcrowded transport to define travel in this country.
In addition to numerous vehicles in a later state of decay on the road, motorcycles, which the Togolese call ‘motos,’ are much more common in Togo than in the United States. This makes sense because of the paths ‘en brousse’ (in the brush) and that motos tend to use less gas per person. Motos vary in size from go-go scooters (I’ve seen a few nice Italian vespas here) to giant motorcycles with enormous shocks that cause the handlebars to sit high above the front wheel. They are, for the most part, in a rather poor state of repair and often need to get looked at by the road side mechanics in roadside shacks with their hodge podge of tools. Driving in the capital Lomé, every time cars stop at the occasional red light the motos fill the sweaty air with a high pitched drone as they swerve around and in between the semis and vans to get closer to the front of the line. And when, for the most part, there is no stop light and the word ‘intersection’ takes on a very literal meaning, the motos and cars gradually inch out into the oncoming traffic until they are a hairsbreadth away from having their front ends ripped off before the other people let them cross.

All of the directors of NGOs near my village, the big wigs in the development business, drive the hugest, shiniest motos in town. This sends the message to poor people like the groupement I work with: development projects can make you rich. International aid organizations mean money if you can play the application game. On the flip side, whenever I see a woman on a big moto go through the road in my town I get all the women around me to look. Yep, that’s right, women can be rich and awesome too, so send your daughters to school.

The other day I decided to bike to Agbodrafo on the coast along what I think of as the ‘old beach road.’ Along the coast of Togo runs the paved artery that connects all the countries in West Africa from Ivory Coast to Nigeria. Much of this beach road that lies in Togo has recently been reworked by the Chinese, making it so that after almost a year of astounding deviations along sand-laden roads into quartiers of Lome I never knew existed, drivers can now set up at a comfortable, break-neck passing speed of 90 km / hr on the nice new pavement. This new road sometimes runs close to the beach and sometimes is quite far inland. However, the road I biked on was right on the shoreline, and much of it no longer existed. In addition to strong currents preventing vacationers from swimming for fear of being swept out to sea by rip tides, there is also heavy erosion that is inch by inch making the land slip into the ocean. The beach road I biked along was not the first. Or the second. As I found out talking to a guy in a rare motel along the beach (much of that expanse was deserted: who wants to build anything nice when it will get swept out to sea?) when I stopped to drink water, there were at least another 3 beach roads sitting off the shoreline covered by the water. The Togolese just kept building more. When one got eaten by time, they built another one parallel to it but further inland. The guy said that within his lifetime he had seen 2 beach roads go this way. He was around 40, so I’m guessing it happens about every 20 years. The road I was biking on had been riden into the ground. Biking on the parts that still resembled a road were like riding on a wave. Up down up down over the bumps. And there were still tire tracks on it, like the mark of forgotten memories or unlearned lessons. It was one giant pothole.

                                     Voila a truck with too much stuff on it
One fragment of an old beach road has been used by a resort near Lome, called Coco Beach, as a wave break so that patrons can swim safely in the ocean while the ocean wastes its energy on the piece of pavement that sticks up further out. I went to this beach earlier this year and was surprised to find that while vacationers enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and chilling in the sun they can also gaze upon the gray, smoggy, dirty port of Lome stretching across the far end of the horizon. Vacationers playing in the water watch the occasional black plastic bag or other piece of trash float by. One major reason that all the paved roads in this country get torn up so quick are the semis that truckers overload and then try to drive along already ripped-up roads. All day and night these huge 10 and 12 wheel trucks in incredibly bad condition bounce along the road near my family compound, many laden down with ciment from the factory in Tabligbo and bound for the port in Lome. The speed with which they go down the hill to the intersection with the Aneho-Vogan road makes me wonder when one of them is going to have its breaks fail and will take out my favorite egg sandwhich place on the other side. The other day I was on my way toward Tabligbo when it began to rain. When its dry, there is dust flying in the face of the moto driver or coating the windshield of the bush taxi. When its wet or raining, the water makes the clay earth soft and causes all kinds of unforeseen problems. On this particular day, two semis had gotten stuck in the mud trying to go by each other and traffic was beginning to back up. How to get them unstuck? Lots of people pushing. I decided to skip the party: I walked around and took a moto the rest of the way.

As in the U.S., cars and motos here run on gas. There are occasionally gas stations along the major paved roads and in larger towns, but for the most part vendors buy an entire 40 gallon drum at a reduced price, set up next to the road with a bunch of bottles and some big glass jugs that look like they came out of Alice in Wonderland, and sell the gas. They cover a funnel with a rag and pour the gas through the rag on into the tank. Not too much concern for safety, just an understandable concern for making more CFA. Other people, sometimes children, make money by filling up the potholes in the paved road with dirt to make the ride smoother. They then string a rope with colored bits of plastic tied to it across the road and wave it up and down when cars approach to beg for money. I am friends with a guy in my town that does this every day for a living. Sometimes I feel like we are on the same page, fighting dirt with dirt.

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