For a long time, travel to West Africa was restricted — due to civil wars, tribal conflicts, terrorism and the ebola outbreak. Today, this is the world’s poorest region, with many countries here occupying the lowest positions in the UN Human Development Index. A large percentage of people here survive on barely $20 a month.
For travelers, this is frontier territory, where you can still find traces of the unspoiled Africa in our imaginations. Lonely Planet calls West Africa one of the most challenging places to travel in the world. For me, that’s the biggest appeal of the region, and what drew me to this wild part of the world.
As I learned from my recent trip to Ghana, Togo and Benin, this region is not only safe to visit, it’s also packed with rich and long history – specifically slavery history – as well as remote and untouched landscapes, world-renown music traditions, and intriguing voodoo culture.
Table of Contents
- Why Travel West Africa?
- Learning About Cape Coast Slave History, Ghana
- Retracing the Footsteps of Slaves in Ouidah, Benin
- Meeting a Voodoo Expert in Possotome, Benin
- Watching a Voodoo Ceremony in Agbannakin, Benin
- Visiting the Voodoo Fetish Market in Lomé, Togo
- Experiencing Village Life in Atsiekpoe, Ghana
- Hiking the Mountains of Kpalimé, Togo
- Staying at the Stilt Village of Ganvié, Benin
- How to Get There:
Why Travel West Africa?
West Africa may not have major bucket-list attractions like the Big Five or Victoria Falls, but it is so under-explored that makes any trip there an adventure. Far from the well-trodden tourist trails in East Africa and Southern Africa, West Africa is a wild, wild world chocked full of remote yet epic landscapes from the world-renown Timbuktu to the slave forts on the Atlantic coast.
I’m not going to lie; West Africa is probably the most challenging destination I’ve been (solo), but that’s exactly what makes it such a rewarding experience.
One thing is for sure: West Africa is the stuff of dreams — and only those who are adventurous enough will be rewarded with some truly amazing experiences. To give you a good idea on what to expect in Ghana, Togo and Benin, here are some highlights from my trip to West Africa.
Learning About Cape Coast Slave History, Ghana
The main purpose of my journey to West Africa was to learn about the history of slavery and how it changed the course of world history. It was here where the trans-Atlantic trade route started: African slaves were brought by the Europeans to the Americas, the raw materials they produced were then brought to Europe, the finished products were then brought back to Africa and the cycle continued. As I found out, as many as 20 million West Africans were captured between the 15th century and 1870 (when slavery ended) — although only half of them survived the harsh conditions and made it to the Americas.
The best place to dig up more slave-trading history is Ghana, with around 37 slave-trading forts and castles built on its coast. The biggest slave trading post back then was the Cape Coast Castle built by the British in the 17th century. Today, it’s been converted into an impressive museum with exhibits that will give an eye-opening peek into the lives of the slaves. At the fort, I got to visit the dungeons where the slaves were kept in captivity in horrible, inhumane conditions (darkness, overcrowding and amidst their own faeces) — it was a sobering experience.
Just 15 km from Cape Coast is the Elmina or Saint George Fort, the first ever European building to be erected in Africa. This is the oldest structure in West Africa and it still stands strong today as another reminder of Ghana’s dark history with slavery. More than 1 million slaves were captured here and forced to walk along the Tunnel of No Return to board the ship that would take them to the Americas.
Retracing the Footsteps of Slaves in Ouidah, Benin
To follow on the trail of slavery history, I continued on to Ouidah, a small town in southern Benin. Between 1800 and 1900, this was where slaves from across West Africa (mainly Niger, Nigeria, Benin, Togo) left for the Americas.
I retraced the last steps of millions of slaves at the Route des Esclaves or Slave Route, a 4km path lined with voodoo fetishes and monuments erected in memory of those who died. This road was where the slaves would take to get to the lighters to board the ship to the Americas. I could just imagine them – chained up in shackles, walking one behind another – making their way along the red sandy footpath to the beach. Today the road’s been given UNESCO status, though it remains empty, dusty and haunting.
On the beach, I stood below the poignant memorial, Point of No Return, and felt a wave of emotions. This was the exact point where millions of them took their last glimpse of home, to never step on their home soil ever again.
Meeting a Voodoo Expert in Possotome, Benin
West Africa is the birthplace of voodoo, which contrary to most beliefs, isn’t some black magic or evil witchcraft as portrayed in Hollywood movies. With hundreds of years of history, voodoo was the first religion in Africa and is one of the world’s oldest religions. While a large percentage of West Africans are now Christians or Muslims, many still practise voodoo on the side.
Voodoo was originally known as ‘vodun’ in Togo and Benin, meaning ‘the mystery’ or ‘the hidden’. For millions of Beninese and Togolese, it’s a skullduggery-free part of everyday life. Voodoo practitioners basically worship a supreme god, known as Mawu, and a host of lesser spirits that are specific to ethnicities.
To understand more about this religion, I weaved my way into the villages of Benin to meet voodoo experts. At Possotome, a voodoo stronghold located on the shore of Lake Ahémé, I met Dennis who shared with me some interesting facts about the voodoo religion, “We worship fetishes (objects or potions imbued with spirits’ power); every village has a large fetish stone statue at the entrance — the one here at Possotome is the deity Malegba, which protects the voodoo temple. Everyone who wants to enter the temple must speak to the fetish priest and getting permission from Malaga before entering .”
Next to the Malegba statue was a shack made of a few rags interwoven together. “This is the voodoo hotel, as we call it. It’s where we rest the bodies of those who have disobeyed the law (like steal) and punished with death. The body would remain here for three days before being buried.”
To me, it all sounded a little too creepy and brutal. But as Dennis explained, “Voodoo is not black magic.. in fact, it’s white magic. It brings justice and makes people good.”
Watching a Voodoo Ceremony in Agbannakin, Benin
In Benin, we came across several voodoo ceremonies, especially in the small villages. Voodoo practitioners often hold these ceremonies (almost every weekend) to thank the deities and to show their devotion. These are colorful, vibrant celebrations that involve animal sacrifices and plenty of singing, dancing, drumming and drinking of gin.
One of the most impressive voodoo ceremonies I caught was at a small village named Agbannakin, close to the Togolese border, near the beach town of Grand Popo.
We could hear the drumming even before we crossed the river to get to the village. It was loud, fast and full of energy. Villagers – young and old, male and female – had all gathered around the voodoo temple, dancing and drumming with fervour. Their momentum increased when the Zangeto mask emerged, covered in colourful straw, animal skulls and feathers.
Zangbeto, as my guide from Jolinaiko Eco Tours explained, is the traditional voodoo guardian of the night for the Ewes. Translated to mean “night watchmen”, the highly revered spirit Zangbeto acts as an unofficial police force patrolling the streets, tracking down criminals and presenting them to the community to punish. Originally created to scare the enemy away, Zangbeto will wander around the streets to detect thieves and witches, and to provide law and order. The spinning movement of the mask symbolizes the spiritual cleaning of the village and Zangbeto also performs miracles to prove its powers.
According to my guide Ben, Zangbeto represents non-human spirits. The mask wearers belong to a secret society and keep their identity hidden as the non-initiated cannot know who they are. I was skeptical — but when the villagers turned the mask upside down to reveal nothing under the mask, I must admit I was a bit spooked.
Visiting the Voodoo Fetish Market in Lomé, Togo
In the voodoo world, fetish markets are an important place for worshippers to get ingredients for their potions and amulets. Fetish markets are like voodoo pharmacies. The buyer has a prescription of the items the priests need to make the required concoction – such as parrot’s tail, a cobra’s head and perfume.
Visiting a fetish market can be quite an eye-opening experience: Rows upon rows of dead animals and skulls are laid out on bare wooden tables, while horse tails hang on the storefront, next to dried python skin and bull horns. You’ll find all sorts of dead animals — from chameleon to hedgehogs, dogs to deers and crocodiles. Be warned: if you can stand the stench of decomposition and the ghastly sight of dead animals, visiting a fetish market is definitely worthwhile.
Lomé’s Akodessewa fetish market is the biggest Marché des Fetiches in West Africa. It was there that I met Zulu (or Patience) Dakor, a Beniness fetish vendor who guides tourists around the market. Zulu explained the purpose of the dead animals, “Our goal is always to help and to heal, not to hurt.” He showed me a dried chameleon and said, “This chameleon, for example, when grounded into powder form and added to water will improve your memory.”
All the items sold in the Lomé Fetish Market come from people who collect and sell dead animal parts all over Africa. Zulu stressed that the animals sold to the market cannot be killed for the purpose of their sale to the market. “The fetish priests consult the spirits to be sure that the animal was found rather than killed. If it was killed, it’s not accepted,” he explained.
A few years ago, you can even find big animals like lion’s head, elephant’s foot, or hippopotamus skull at the market. But the current government has significantly controlled the trade of protected animals, and they are rarely seen at the market today.
Experiencing Village Life in Atsiekpoe, Ghana
If you’ve been to Africa, you’d know that the true heart of the continent lies in its rural areas and small villages. It’s the real Africa, if I might say so, where locals live simple and peaceful lives.
On this trip, I made it a point to go deep into the remote villages to immerse myself in village life and one of my favourite experiences was staying at Atsiekpoe or Cashew Village in southern Ghana.
Atsiekpoe is a relatively remote part of the country, only accessible by the Volta River and via private transport. On the other hand, it’s just a 1.5-hour drive from Accra, making it rather easy to get to from the capital city of Ghana.
The tour operator I traveled with, Jolinaiko Eco Tours, started a community-driven eco project here almost 10 years ago. Besides building a small and basic ecolodge here, they also organize village tours and hikes around the area, benefitting the local community through tourism.
Since starting the project, they’ve helped the village in many ways — by providing work, donating to community funds, and most recently, building a clinic for the communities in the area.
Perched right on the river bank, the ecolodge has got the perfect waterfront location where you can sit and enjoy sunsets in the evenings. It’s a basic and environment-friendly place to stay — don’t expect any first-world comforts like air-conditioning or bathtub. But it brings you close to the local community and lets you experience their lifestyle from ground level.
Cashew Village is an excellent example of eco-tourism at its best: a project that brings travelers in, without having a negative impact on the local community and their environment.
Hiking the Mountains of Kpalimé, Togo
Crossing over the border into Togo, I spent a few days at the nearby mountain town of Kpalimé. It’s a popular stop for most travelers in West Africa because of its mild climate and mountain air. The relatively small town of 33,000 people is hidden among forested hills of cocoa and coffee plantations and offers some of Togo’s best scenery and hiking.
In contrast with the chaos of its capital city, Kpalimé is calm and tranquil, surrounded by endless greenery, lakes and cascades reached by footpaths through the lush forests. I loved the hike up to Mount Klouto, the country’s second highest peak (at just 741m), that brought me through avocado gardens, cocoa plantations and forest packed full of mango trees and beautiful frangipani flowers.
We started our hike from the village of Koma Konda, wandering around the community, meeting local batik artists and bamboo mat weavers, before heading into the jungle. It took us around two hours to reach the top, where we feasted on a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains as well as Volta Lake in Ghana.
The heat in Togo at this time of the year (April) can be extremely intense so be prepared for it and bring lots of water. There are lots of hikes to do in the Kpalimé area and I wish I could have stayed longer to explore more of the mountains.
Staying at the Stilt Village of Ganvié, Benin
One of my favourite places in Benin was the stilt village of Ganvié found in the middle of Benin’s Lake Nokoué. During the slave-trading era, the Tofinu people fled to the lake to escape from the slave hunters, building bamboo huts on stilts. The slave hunters were banned by a religious custom from venturing into the water, so the escapees remained safe and continued to live on the water for centuries.
These days, around 30,000 people still live on the stilt houses here. All the houses, restaurants, shops, auberges, hospitals and post office are on wooden stilts 2m above water level. People here live exclusively from fishing, which they do by planting palm tree branches on the muddy riverbed. When the leaves on the branches begin to decompose, the fish gather there to feed.
Gliding through its waterway is an experience on its own — especially at dusk when all the villagers are out doing their last bit of selling and trading. I spent a night at a stilt auberge, watching the wooden pirogues glide in and out of the waterway and sipping beer as the sun set.
Sadly, pollution is a serious problem here as every single waste (include human excretions) go straight into the water. There is no form of environmental conservation in place and I fear for the future of the lake.
Have you been to this part of West Africa? Do you plan to go?
I’ll be sharing more from my journey, stay tuned!
How to Get There:
I traveled with local tour operator, Jolinaiko Eco Tours, who offers affordable, eco-themed trips in West Africa. They specially designed my trip to focus on learning about slavery history and voodoo culture. They also included deep cultural immersions where I got to stay in rural villages and experience local daily life. My two-week trip also included several hikes to allow me to explore the nature of Ghana, Togo and Benin.
It’s easy to fly into Accra, Ghana’s capital (get your visa before hand) from most of Europe and Asia. I got a promo fare on Iberia Airlines from Madrid to Accra for just 200 euros return taxes included.