Yam Festival!

So, a few weeks ago (I know, I’ve been remiss!), I went up-country to Guerin-Kouka for a yam festival.  Yams (by which I mean real yams, not sweet potatoes) are one of the most important starches in this part of the world, and the annual yam festival is thus a HUGE deal here.  My colleague, the Econ officer, went last year, and told me that I needed to go to this.

Because I went up as an official trip, representing the US at this important festival, the embassy provided me a car and driver for the whole weekend.  Moreover, despite the fact that Togo is a tiny, tiny country, the roads are terrible, and it takes forever to get anywhere outside of Lome.  In fact, it took up 8 hours to get to the city of Kara and two more to get to Guerin-Kouka.  (And there are no hotels in G-K, so we stayed in Kara both nights.)

Sadly, the Teacher could not come with me due to her work load.  However, the long trip and bad conditions would have been horrible for her motion sickness.

Anyway, the driver and I left at 10AM.  It was only 410 km (256 miles), but it took us a good seven hours with only one short stop for lunch.  (Apparently, by our standards, it meant my driver was FLYING.)  Lunch was awesome, however, as my driver found a little local cafeteria and bought us each an egg sandwich on some amazing soft French style bread.  (Note: The bread is Togo is almost universally AMAZING.)

When we got to Kara, we checked into the hotel.  (I had to pay for my hotel room, but I’ll be reimbursed eventually.  The driver’s was paid for by work.)  Here’s a picture of my room (and remember, this is supposed to be the best hotel in Kara, and perhaps the third best in the country):

Hardest bed ever.

This bed felt like sleeping on a wooden board. I’ve slept on my comfortable FLOORS in the past.

However, I will give the hotel this: the view was pretty neat.

This is Togo

Probably the best part of the hotel.

The restaurant at the hotel, however, was WAY expensive.  OK, by US terms, $14 isn’t too much for dinner, but that’s 3x what a well-paid Togolese makes in a day.  Instead, my driver and I decided to go to another local place for dinner.

Now, I know that most Togolese restaurants do not practice good sanitation.  In particular, it’s common for bowls of sauce and stews to be heated up sporadically on a single charcoal fire to make them hot enough to eat, but not nearly hot enough to kill bacteria.  However, I wasn’t thinking about that.  I was thinking about a cool local experience.  And I must admit, what I got was amazing.  I had a combination of goat and a local cheese called “wagash” (or “wagasi” in some languages).

Fried Wagasi

Picture taken from Flickr user Theresa Carpenter.  Not my picture, though I wish it was.

It was HEAVENLY.  (The okra dish, not so much.)  I took some pictures of the restaurant, but as it was night time (and I didn’t know yet how to use the flash), they’re not too good.

Nav's

This is the cooking set-up, which shows the issues I mentioned…

After dinner here, we went back to the hotel, where I proceeded to go to bed really early. (I’d been told about problems with prostitutes at the bar, and I decided to just not deal with that.)

Saturday morning, we got up early and drove out to G-K for the festival. The roads were…honestly, the whole way the “road” was just a dirt track. In several places, the entire “road” had been washed out, and little detours had been set up. I tried to sleep as much as I could on the way up, but it was extremely difficult.

It was supposed to start at 9, and we were there exactly on time…which was of course about an hour and a half too early for them to seat us or get things started. So, we went to get breakfast instead.  My tummy was upset, because of all the bouncing around (and possibly because of the food…), and so I just had a half-loaf of another soft baguette.  After that, we went back to the festival.

My driver walked up with me, and this worked out well for him, as he got treated like my personal guest/assistant.  He got to sit next to me during the festival, and was invited to the lunch with me.  I just need to put in a plug for the guy, because he was invaluable to me the whole trip.

Anyway, the festival itself was (overall) very interesting.  There were many VIPs there, including the Minister of Tourism, the President of the National Assembly (aka the head of the legislature), and the former head of the military.  This also means LOTS of speeches, many of which I really couldn’t follow.  However, the cultural parts were AMAZING.  Here are some examples:

Yes, in Togo, Boy Scouts provide security for all cultural events. No, I don’t get it either.

All cultural events have a giant picture of the President of Togo. I’m not entirely sure why, but there you go.

This is the entourage for the visiting Ghanaian prince.

This is apparenlty “Big John” from Ghana. I swear he thinks he’s will.i.am or something.

I missed one dance in my picture taking, the “Dance of the Virgins”, mostly because it kind of creeped me out. This is because the dance was pretty sexual for a bunch of 8-12 year olds. I am not criticizing their culture, just explaining that I was weirded out.

This is called the “Dance of the Combatants”, and is performed by young men to show their stuff. They have cymbals on their legs to clang as they dance. It was SO COOL.

A closer view of the Ghanaian prince (in the middle!). He’s a hot, hot man.

I have no idea what this was called, but I loved it!

As you can imagine, by the end of this ceremony, I was COMPLETELY exhausted. And then it was time for the “tasting of the yams!”  The little bits of food given out then were fantastic.  We were also invited to lunch, which I couldn’t turn down. We both went, but it was insanely hot inside.  Even the Togolese were sweating profusely (to say nothing of me).  The food for this lunch was not as good as the little bits we were given. The yams had been cooked too early, and so were completely dead by the time we got them, and I’m not a huge fan of pate.  However, considering the poverty of the village, I was grateful to have been given anything at all.

After the lunch, we left.  We both planned on buying a ton of yams on our way home, because they are far cheaper there than here in Lome.  We also planned on picking up some wagash as well.  The yams were easy to find; every few miles there was someone else selling them on the side of the road. I bought 27; he bought 39.  For those unfamiliar with African yams, they are about the size of small logs with a thick woody exterior.  Thus, they took up the ENTIRE trunk of our van.

We ate dinner again Navi’s, the same local place.  Went to bed early again, and then headed home.  On the way back, we also bought the wagash!  Soon after we got home, Becca made a tomato sauce with fried wagash, and it was simply fantastic.

So, that was my first trip out of Lome.  While it was long, and I was exhausted the whole next week at work, it was amazing to see the rest of the country, if only from a car. I could see the actual poverty I kept reading about, I got to try the real food, and I saw some amazing dancing.

Also, I must say that I’m happier here than I’ve been anywhere in a long, long time.

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