Technically a lagoon, the eponymous Lake Togo is the country’s largest ‘lake’, and is located roughly halfway along its 56-kilometre stretch of coastline. The lake expands out as it stretches northward, while in its southeastern corner, it reduces to a narrow channel, separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a thin sandbar or ‘tombola‘.
This section of the lake is marked by three of Togo’s most culturally significant towns: Togoville, Aného-Glidji, and Agbodrafo, the first sat on the lake’s shoreline facing south; the second located at the eastern end of the tombola; and the third to its west. Largely populated by the Ewe, Mina, and Guin ethnic groups, all three are renowned places of Vodun worship, and each has its own history relating to the transatlantic slave trade and to colonisation thereafter.
Togoville is by far the most well-known of the three, and for good reason. The town unintentionally bequeathed its name to the nation when in 1884, its king Mlapa III was coerced into signing a ‘treaty of protection’ with Germany, leading to the formation of the Protectorate of Togoland. Echoes of this period are still in evidence through buildings such as the cathedral.
Built in 1910, the site gained new fame in 1970 as the place where the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared to a young girl. A visit by Pope John Paul II followed in 1985 to honour ‘Our Lady of Lake Togo’, and the boat that the pontiff arrived on is displayed close to the church. The mid-1980s were a busy time for Togoville, as the Germans commemorated 100 years of friendship by erecting a peace monument in the town, which is also worth seeing for its distinctly kitsch design.
Togoville was, however, a significant place long before the arrival of the Germans. The town had been a prominent slave trade site between the 16th and 18th centuries. In what is rightly recognised as a painful period in history, some indigenous groups conspired with Europeans, profiting from the capture of people from rival communities. It was by this means that the local Vodun religion made its way across the Atlantic to places such as Haiti and New Orleans, where it became known as Vaudou and Voodoo respectively.
Togoville remains one of the country’s most important spiritual sites for Vodunism, where numerous sacred statues, known as fetishes, are worshipped throughout the town, as well as being home to one of the country’s most powerful high priestesses. A king also still presides over the town, and a history of the monarchy can be viewed at the Maison Royale Museum.
Despite its historical importance, Togoville remains a small, unhurried, unpaved town best reached, leisurely, via a pole-pushed fishing boat across the lake.
As the hyphenated name suggests, Aného and Glidji are two towns combined for administrative purposes, though each remains distinct geographically. Aného is located on the sandbar facing the Gulf of Guinea, while Glidji is located a 15-minute drive inland, on the banks of the Mono River. The two towns were added to UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage Sites in 2021.
Aného developed as a Portuguese slave market during the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was known as Petit Popo, and would later become the German Protectorate’s first capital of Togoland in 1884. Many colonial-era buildings can still be found throughout the town, such as the Catholic cathedral of Peter and Paul. Its fortunes would eventually wane when the capital relocated to Lomé in 1897. Yet its importance as a spiritual centre remained, with the town widely regarded as an ancestral home of Vodun.
Nearby Glidji is likewise recognised for its spiritual significance. The town is known for its Vodun temples, high priests, and sacred forest, where ceremonies are held, including a festival known as the Storming of the Sacred Stones – each September a priest reads stones to declare the fate of the Guin community for the coming year. For the past seven years, Glidji has also hosted the pan-African Festival of Black Deities, which aims to celebrate and preserve Vodun and other animist traditions from across the continent.
Previously named Porto Seguro (from the Portuguese for ‘safe harbour’), the palm-fringed sandy beaches of what is now Agbodrafo belie its history, which is steeped in the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism.
Like other similar Potuguese-established forts along the Gold Coast, Agbodrafo was involved in the trade of slaves for much of the era of slavery. However, it is also known for being a home for illicit trade after the British abolition of slavery, evidence for the activity preserved in Maison de Esclaves or House of Slaves. Built in 1835, originally owned by the Scottish slave trader John Henry Wood, and known colloquially as Wood or Woold House, the house is an uncomfortable example of indigenous and European collusion in the trade. Wood leased the property to a local chief, Assiakoley, who illegally stowed away countless slaves in the basement of the house ahead of their fateful journeys across the Atlantic. The history of the house was lost until the turn of the century, and in 2002 the site was added to UNESCO’s tentative list.
It was at Agbodrafo in July 1884 that the German explorer Gustav Nachtigal landed in a gunboat before travelling to Togoville to bend the arm of King Mlapa III into agreeing to the treaty of protection Today, Agbodrafo is a quiet, leafy seaside town with a handful of hotels overlooking the ocean.
For accommodation in Lake Togo, see below.