Roughly half the size of Portugal, the Togolese Republic – or Togo – is a small country by African standards. And yet, despite being just 160 kilometres across at its widest point, the country has six distinct geographical regions, 40 ethnic groups which speak as many languages, and the Vodun religion (better known as voodoo in the West) still thrives throughout.
Located in West Africa, Togo is bordered by Ghana to its west, Burkina Faso to the north, Benin to its east, and the Gulf of Guinea to the south. Its tropical sandy beaches and mangrove swamps give way to the Ouatchi Plateau in the country’s heart, which is characterised by its iron-rich red laterite soils. The Togo-Atakora Mountain Range also cuts across the country, from the southeast – where Togo’s highest peak, Mount Agou is found – before continuing into neighbouring Benin.
There is evidence of human settlements in the north of the country dating back millennia, and by the 5th century BCE, communities located around what is now the town of Bassar became a centre for sophisticated metallurgy, taking advantage of the land’s rich iron-ore deposits. These impressive mud-built cylindrical furnaces can still be visited today at sites such as Nangbani.
Togo’s largest ethnic group, the Ewé, migrated into the area from at least the 11th century onwards, alongside various other populations. Living in relative isolation for centuries, these communities evaded absorption into the powerful kingdoms of either the Ashanti to the west or the Dahomey to the east. It was during this period that the mud tower-houses of the Batammariba people were built in Koutammakou, which is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This relative peace would be upended from the 16th century onwards with the arrival of European traders, who quickly came to dominate the Gulf of Guinea. Europeans took it upon themselves to name different sections of this huge coastline according to the main export they sought to extract from the region’s hinterlands. This included the Gold Coast in what is now Ghana, and the Ivory Coast in what is today, unsurprisingly, Cote d’Ivoire.
Togo’s coastline became part of what was known as the Slave Coast. It was from here that 12 million Africans were enslaved and shipped to the Americas to work on plantations as part of the transatlantic slave trade, which lasted for over 300 years. The pressures brought about by slave raids led to the development of hidden shelters in the far north of the country, in an area long held as sacred. Today the cylindrical mud caves and granaries of Nook, Mamproug, Kouba, and Bagouin are on UNESCO’s Tentative List, in recognition of both their historical and spiritual significance.
Just as the slave trade era came to an end in the 19th century, European colonisation began at a pace. In 1884, representatives of the German Reich coerced a local king, Mlapa III, into signing a ‘treaty of protection’. Mlapa was the leader of the small, if spiritually significant, village of Togoville. The settlement would go on to lend its name to the German Protectorate of Togoland, and eventually to an independent Togo. With Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the former protectorate was divided between Britain and France. The latter took control of the area which today constitutes modern-day Togo, and French remains the country’s official language.
Independence came in 1960, but celebrations were shortlived as turmoil gripped the young nation. The following decades were marked by electoral riggings, military coups, ethnic tensions and political assassinations. Throughout much of this period, the country was ruled as a single-party state by its president, Gnassingbé Eyadéma. Eyadéma’s 38-year rule was followed by his son Faure Gnassingbé’s own and continued rule, a succession resulting in further political unrest. Recent years have thankfully seen a return to peace, with Togo joining the Commonwealth of Nations in 2022.
It is hoped this peace will ultimately lead to economic prosperity, given Togo is still officially considered one of the world’s 46 ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs) by the United Nations. Agriculture remains the country’s dominant industry, though mining also accounts for 34% of GDP, largely through its substantial phosphate deposits.
Togo’s population of eight million is dominated, both demographically and politically, by the Ewé and Kabye ethnic groups, which account for 40% and 25% of the population respectively, though the country has some 40 ethnic groups and languages in total, some representing just 3% of the population. These groups are largely united through religion, with Islam making up 18.5% of the population, Christianity 47.8%, and Vodun accounting for roughly 30%. Figures are hard to quantify, however, as Vodun and Christianity have blended over the centuries in a process known as syncretism.
This practice notwithstanding, Vodun remains a highly relevant religion in its own right, with some 2.5 million followers. Many towns and villages have shrines, known as fetishes, dedicated to various deities, and presided over by high priests and priestesses. Unfortunately, centuries of European mistrust of traditional faiths and the effects of Hollywood’s take on the religion have led to Vodun gaining an ominous and cult-like reputation in the West. Tis couldn’t be more wrongheaded: Vodun is a conventional, sophisticated, accepting religion, and well-worth any visitor’s attention during their stay.