The first time I got to this place was 1989. I arrived here with my soul mate, Steve Osuji. We went there on business, not journalism.
We arrived there at the Marina, just before noon. At noon, an alarm wailed. We asked what it was, and Joe our Togolese guide with whom we made the trip from Lagos told us the alarm signaled break time. And smart young men and ladies filtered out of the pores of the city and crossed the main boulevard leading to the Aflao border to the sandy beaches.
They spread out mats and wrappers and sat down. Some of them brought out snacks, eating while the winds of the Atlantic, some 75 meters off, bathed them over. Their movements were unhurried. They had three full hours to chill and recharge for work. They didn’t rush about like people in Lagos where we came from.
“OJ, a guy could live here to 120 years,” Steve commented. I told him he took it right out of my mind; that when somebody lives to 120 there, his body would have taken the beating of just 60 years in Lagos and vice versa. We too sat down on the sands and started learning the art of relaxation.
The decades in-between hasn’t fundamentally changed Togo. The only significant change was that bare-breasted maidens heavily-hung with gravity-defying gifts no longer walk the streets and markets of Lome. The bra has finally conquered Togo, and the cover-up has advanced and claimed the land and its people.
For reasons I don’t quite understand, Lome, which is on the same latitude as Lagos, is Sahel savanna, by vegetation. Not mangrove swamp like Lagos or rainforest like Ore and Benin further east. The sun shines here with the intensity I notice in Abuja and Yola. It practically splits your head. And it gains this intensity quite early.
It was just past 11am, and the sun was frying my brains. My appointments were for later in the day. So, bored, with no one to talk to, I knew what to do – head out to the beach at Marina.
I find myself a spot. Across the road is a travel agency occupying the prominent part of a building facing the beach – a significant undertaking in this era that everyone has learnt to go online and book their flights direct with the airlines.
More intriguing for me though, is the name of the agency – Satguru Travels. Does it have anything to do with the Nigerian sect leader, Satguru Maharaji?, I wonder. The building is painted red, which is the favorite color in which Maharaji’s followers make their robes. Then the ‘G’ in the spelling of the name is in orange, Maharaji’s own robe color.
I had first run into Satguru Maharaji around 1984, while still a student at the University of Lagos. I had entered a city bus from Yaba to CMS on that Friday and this handsome young man rose in the bus and started preaching a religious message. He started from the Bible, then veered into the Koran, before concluding that he was the living master for the era, the extant incarnation of God. To my Christian mind, that was blasphemy. He announced that his name cured sicknesses and should the bus accidentally crash into the lagoon, whoever called his name would be saved. When he announced his address (that was long before cell phone), so many people copied. When the bus stopped at CMS, passengers crowded round him making enquiries. The man’s charisma amazed me and I said to myself that this man was a person of interest and could grow followers like Maitatsine, the fundamentalist Islamic preacher from Cameroon who grew a strong armed following in Kano. It took the military to take him out and defuse his menace in a bloody campaign in 1982. I thought this man could make another Maitatsine, if he chose to. I joined the crowd around him and booked an interview with him. But I chickened out of the interview, afraid something would trap me in his fold. And that would be most unfair to my suffering mother who was paying my way with pains.
Satguru Maharaji became as big a cult figure as I had envisaged. But he didn’t go militant.
Back to the Marina Lome beach.
I find myself a shade under a young coconut tree. The rows of young coconut trees would not be older than five years old. I sit on the sand and make myself comfortable.
I looked around. Some 20 meters away from me, is a couple sharing a smoke between themselves, passing it back and forth. The smell of the stuff is pungent and familiar. I know it in Lagos. Some young ‘toughs’ smoke it there too. I scold myself for not knowing what the stuff is – turning prude in my middle age. I hope I won’t become fossilized very soon.
Then, I notice that the young man is a good specimen – lean meat. But the young woman is dried out. I wonder what makes the girl that way. My mind goes to HIV/AIDS. What a shame it would be to lose this young one so unnecessarily. I scold myself for letting my imagination run wild.
I take my eyes off them. Under another nearby coconut tree, sits another couple. The young man is bare-chested and has rippling muscles strung taut across his chest, arms and midriff. But again, the young woman is even more dried out than the first. They are sharing a smoke too, and drinking satchet water. The way they drag at the smoke, I’m sure it isn’t just a cigarette – must be something stronger which they wouldn’t want the law to see.
I lift my eyes and take a panoramic view. Under virtually every occupied coconut shade are people smoking something, as far as I can see. It dawns on me that I’m in the drug den. The young men, often without shirts, are generally healthy, rippling with muscles. But uncannily, virtually all the young women are dried out. Could it be that whatever they are smoking has different effects on men and women?
Then I notice one young woman that is different from the rest. She is in the midst of three young males, some 15 metres from me. She looks about 19 and has a baby by her side. She looks a healthy 55kg. She is not wearing a bra, and it looks as if her breasts have atrophied. Now, should that be my business, I scold myself. Then she lies down on her wrapper, projecting a very viable butt towards me. Significantly, she is not sharing in the feast of smoke, and I have observed them for some 30 minutes. Would that account for her comparative freshness? Again, I’m rushing to conclusions without sufficient evidence. Suppose Miss Butt took her own puff before I arrived or before I noticed her ‘family’?
By the way, who among the three ‘toughs’ is the father of her baby? Does she know for sure? But how does that concern you, Mr Journalist?, I scold myself for the umpteenth time.
Now, to the things that concern me. In my good shirt and trousers, I stood out from all the people there. They were generally scruffy. Then there was nobody my age there (except some two mad men that looked over 50 – and it may be due to their tough lives). Simply, I was in a place where I didn’t belong.
My mind starts playing tricks on me. Suppose one of the toughs comes to shake me up for some cash to support his habit? What is my chance against those rippling muscles? One mind tells me to shout at the top of my voice if such happens. But who will save me? These junkies whose only care is the next fix? Reality butts in.
Just then, one tough passes by, and I half-expect him to grab me by the collar. He didn’t. I try to calm down the trepidation.
But if the next one does, and takes your money and your phone, you’ll be very miserable, reality tells me again.
The beach suddenly loses its sweetness. Reality has won. Time to go. It is not cowardice; discretion is the better part of valor; he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day….They tumble in my mind like that as I haul my backside and leave the beach. There will be another day.
*Continues next week
**First published in www.afrika247.com