Sunday, 31 October 2010

Togo - Venus, Lucifer and the Philosopher's Stone

Togo's main industry is phosphate mining and this small African nation is the world's fifth largest producer of phosphate rock.  Not having studied science beyond the basics at school, I decided to do a little bit of research into phosphorus and what that is exactly, in layman's terms!

A German alchemist taking the piss?

Phosphorus was discovered, or rather, identified in the late 17th century by a German alchemist called Hennig Brand (a very apt name indeed).  Brand had been trying to trying to discover the elusive 'philosopher's stone' - something of an obsession with alchemists at that time, as it was believed the philosopher's stone could turn ordinary metals into gold, thereby making its discoverer a very rich man indeed.  It was also believed that the philosopher's stone would give its owner the powers of a god and raise him beyond the capabilities of mere mortals. 

I guess Brand was working on the theory that each man has elements of god inside him, as he experimented with his own urine, boiling it, making it into a paste, leaving it in jars for days, to see what might happen to the essence and salts that urine contains.  I imagine he was quite surprised one night to find that the results of his experiment had left a sediment that glowed on contact with the atmosphere.  For a while, he may even have believed that he'd finally found the philosopher's stone but, as it turned out, he'd identified phosphorus, a potential goldmine, if he'd only known what to do with it!

So what is phosphorus and what do we use it for?

I've read the scientific definition of phosphorus and I'm none the wiser!  As far as I understand it, it's some kind of inorganic substance that can be found in rocks.  It comes in different forms, but the main two forms are white and red.  White is incredibly reactive to the atmosphere (it's the form Brand 'discovered') and isn't usually found in the open air, hence the need for phosphate mining.  It's used in the production of fertilisers and incendiary bombs, but most famously it was used in matches, as it ignites on contact with certain surfaces.  We've all seen phosphorus believe it or not, as it's that sort of bluey-white glow that you get from matches when you strike them. 

And why do I have phosphorus in my urine?

For some reason I've yet to really get my head around, the human body seems to contain traces of almost every metal and element that exists.  Thus, we naturally have a miniscule amount of phosphorus already in our bodies, mostly in our teeth and bones.  The phosphorus that Brand identified was from urine, however and, apart from the phosphorus that naturally occurs in our bodies, we are also constantly ingesting small levels of phosphorus, which is in the food we eat, getting rid of this again when we go to the toilet. 


The word phosphorus comes from the Greek for 'light bearer', which is also the Greek name for the planet Venus, which appears in the first light of the morning.  In Latin, light bearer is translated as Lucifer, which I guess most of us usually associate with the Devil and this sent me off on a spiral of thought about how the Devil has had bad press and perhaps he was originally a kind of Prometheus, ie. the one who brought knowledge (or fire) to mankind, therefore helping us become like the gods. 

Again, there are interesting parallels with Brand's desire to find the philosopher's stone and this knowledge that only the gods should have.  To this day, in countries like the Netherlands, safety matches are still referred to as Lucifers.  By the way, there are different spellings for the noun and adjective - the noun being phosphorus and the adjective being phosphorous with a third 'o' at the end.

Matchmaking, phillumenists and the Scandinavian connection

I realise this sub-title is probably going to crop up in Google searches of a different kind!  If you've ever looked closely at the head of a match, you will have noticed the sort of patches of chemical that is a combination of gum arabica, ground glass and phosphorus.  In the early days of matchmaking, white phosphorus was used, but this was incredibly dangerous, as it's reaction on striking could sometime result in mini-explosions, not to mention the damage that exposure to white phosphorus does to the human body. 

In the early days, match-sellers would suffer from a terrible disease called phossy jaw, which was a build up of phosphorus in the jawbone, due to exposure to white phosphorus.  Left untreated, this level of phosphorus would eventually lead to organ failure and death.  It was such a serious problem in 19th-century England that the matchgirls of East London went on strike in 1888 because of the hazards of their working conditions.

White phosphorus was eventually replaced by red phosphorus in match production, which was less reactive to the atmosphere and less harmful to the people who were handling matches.  This new type of match became known as the safety match and eventually most countries in the world banned the use of white phosphorus for match production. 

Interestingly, just as people who collect stamps are known as philatelists, people who collect matchboxes are know as phillumenists

For some reason the Swedes have dominated the world of safety matches and the Swedish match company is, to this day, the main player in global match production.  It was a Dane however (Hans Christian Anderson) who popularised the plight of The Little Match Girl in his phenomenally popular short story. 

Phosphorus and the Togolese economy

In many ways the fate of Togo's economy has been closely connected to the world market for phosphorus and phosphate rock.  The main company that mined phosphorus in Togo during the colonial and post-colonial periods was the Companie Togolaise de Mines de Benin.  This was famously nationalised by Eyadema, who suspected the company's involvement in his plane crash in Sarakawa in 1974. 

Phosphorus prices soared in the mid-70's, so that Togo should have really come out the other end a much richer country, but bad management meant that when prices crashed again at the end of the 1970's, Togo was left as poor as it had ever been.  Demand for phosphorus also plummeted in the mid-1990's, sending Togo's economy into a recession.  After Eyadema's demise in 2005, the phosphate industry was once again privatised and the company was renamed Société Nouvelle des Phosphates du Togo.  Phosphate mining continues to play a large role in Togo's industrial output. 

Image credits:

The painting is by the 18th century English painter, Joseph Wright and is called The Alchymist, In Search of the Philosopher's Stone.  The original painting hangs in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery in England.  This image is in the public domain and (therefore) copyright free. 

The photograph of the matchbox with matches was taken by me.

The amazing image of the Phosphate mine in Togo is from Wikimedia Commons and was uploaded by a wiki enthusiast called Alexandra Pugachevsky.  Thanks Alexandra for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons License.  You can see the source of the image at Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 25 October 2010

Togo - Chicken Groundnut Soup with Fufu

Food, just like language, knows no boundaries in West Africa and Chicken Groundnut Soup with Fufu is popular, not just in Togo, but in many neighbouring countries as well.  I used a website to give me an idea of which ingredients I should be using and, to be honest, I improvised a lot.  In fact, I think I'll improvise even more in future, as I like fusion cuisine and it's nice to put your own stamp on things!  If you want to see the original recipe, click here


For the Fufu:

1 yam

1 plantain

For the Chicken Groundnut Soup:

chicken thighs (I was lazy and bought fillets)
2 tomatoes
1 large onion
A jar of peanut butter
Tomato puree
chicken stock (about 500ml)

Making Fufu

Fufu is one of the main staples in West African cuisine and is similar to Pap in Lesotho (see my recipe for Chakalaka in an earlier blogpost).  Fufu can be made from various different starchy vegetables, such as cassava, but also from grains or cassava flour.  I used polenta when I was making Pap, but I wanted to be a bit more adventurous this time and decided to used yam and plantain.

Yam is not to be confused with American yam, which is sweet potato (although I'm sure this would have been a nice option as well).  It was my first time cooking yam, although it's practically identical to cassava (at least I can't see much of a difference, except in size).  First, I peeled off the tough bark-like skin, chopped the yam up into manageable chunks and boiled it for twenty minutes or so, before adding the slices of plantain. 

Yam takes a bit of getting used to and I can't quite make up my mind whether I like it or not.  Mashing it up with plantain certainly helped lighten the taste a bit, but I'm wondering what else I could do, in future, to make it more 'interesting'. 


Making the soup

This bit was easy.  I prepared all of the vegetables and cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces.  I ignored the recipe at this stage, which was telling me to boil everything in water, I did my own thing really, frying the onion until it softened, then frying the chicken pieces until they were starting to brown.  After that I added the tomato, cooking everything with the lid on for another five minutes.  Finally, I added the tomato puree, most of a jar of peanut butter and the chicken stock, then stewed everything on a low-ish heat for around twenty minutes.


How not to serve Chicken groundnut soup

I couldn't quite figure out how to serve the dish, opting to create a base layer of fufu, then spooning the soup on top.  As you can see from the photo, it ended up being a big mess really!  I had some left over though and it occured to me that it might be a good idea to roll the fufu in balls, so it would hold together in the fridge until the next day.  The groundnut soup also seemed to thicken a bit over night and I also made the wise decision of eating everything out of a bowl the next day, rather than off a plate and, I guess, this is how the dish is meant to be eaten.

I think in Africa people tear off bits of fufu with their hands and dip it into the soup.  I tried doing the same with pieces of buttered bread and it was absolutely delish!  A surprisingly good 'winter food', now that the weather in England has turned really cold.  Surprising because the dish comes from such a hot place!

As usual, it was fun to try something new and if I make this dish again, I will probably add a few more ingredients, spice up the fufu and serve the whole thing in bowls!
Image credits:

All photos were taken by me!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Togo - Tété-Michel Kpomassie: An African in Greenland

The hopes of finding a treasure like Tété-Michel Kpomassie's book An African in Greenland is exactly the reason I started blogging about different countries in the first place, ie. I wanted to find those books from all around the world that I would otherwise have missed if I had stuck to the mainstream and what's popular in my own society right now.  Born in Togo in 1941, Kpomassie developed an obsession with Greenland and spent years working his way through West Africa and Europe, until he could get the money together to go to Greenland, where he spent a year and a half in the 1970's.  The book is about his journey and is an amazing read, I would recommend it to anyone interested in other cultures and the commonalities of human experience.

An African Travel writer

I've read quite a few travel books in my time and several as research for this blog, however, most travel books I've read have been written from an 'anglo-saxon' point of view.  The term 'anglo-saxon' is used widely by the French to describe British culture, but it goes beyond that and is the only way I can think of describing writers from Australia, the US etc., as well as those from the UK and Ireland - it encompasses cultures which are very different from my own, yet we share a common language and there are certain concepts and moral viewpoints that are understood without footnotes.

Reading Kpomassie's book, I found myself somewhere between the African perspective of the writer (although influenced by the European societies he lived in) and the 'strangeness' of Greenlandic culture.  I could relate to many of Kpomassie's experiences as an 'outsider', having also been in this position, but at the same time, the way he interpreted Greenlandic culture said a lot about his home culture and sometimes there were similarities between Togo and Greenland that I could barely relate to at all. 

Love and hate

I guess by learning about someone else's culture, by default, you will also learn about your own and Kpomassie's experiences followed a rollercoaster of emotions in relation to Greenland; idealising the culture and loving it from a distance, becoming disappointed and hating it during his experience there, then finding a middle ground somewhere, that is neither idealisation or disappointment, neither love nor hate, but acceptance of the culture for what it is.  I've been on the same rollercoaster with Russian culture, much more than any of the other countries (or cultures) I've lived in and, in the same way as Kpomassie felt he was predestined to go to Greenland, I feel I was predestined to go to Russia.

Snake cults and leaving Togo

Kpomassie's story starts off in Togo.  When he was a teenager, he had a terrible accident, encountering a snake on a coconut tree he was climbing, he fell off and injured himself.  It doesn't seem like a coincidence that it was during his convalescence that he found the book about Greenland and started to dream of a land far-away from snakes and the heat of the jungle. 

Kpomassie was born into a Mina tribe, with obscure roots in Benin and a special relationship with snake-worship and the snake priestess of Bé, a village hidden in the depths of the forest.  His father took him to the priestess, who said that he had offended the snakes through violating certain taboos.  She eventually helped bring him back to health and rid him of his 'curse'.  As a token of thanks, his father pledged to send him to the snake cult to be initiated as a priest.  Before his father had the chance to send him to the snake cult, Kpomassie ran away to his aunt in the Ivory Coast, starting a ten-year journey through West Africa and Europe, culminating with his trip to Greenland. 

Greenland - culture shock!

His first experience of Greenland was incredibly disappointing, which isn't surprising, considering how high his expectations were.  He first arrived in K'arkotoq in the south of Greenland and was shocked by the reality of Greenlandic society, which he felt had been degraded and debased by the modern world.  Arriving in the middle of summer, he witnessed the excesses of drinking and promiscuity that Greenlanders are infamous for.  He was disappointed by a society that he felt had lost touch with its traditions and preferred to take the easy option, living off benefit payments from the Danish government.  As summer slid into autumn, with its incredible dreariness and the feeling of 'waiting' that drives native Greenlanders into a kind of hysteria, Kpomassie decided to move further north in search of a more traditional way of life.

Man versus Beast

There's a lot of cultural information in Kpomassie's book, but one of the things that really struck me was the constant butchering of animals throughout the winter, in a desperate bid to stay alive.  Most Greenlanders are not, by tradition, fisherfolk, but hunters.  I found the descriptions of animals being cut into pieces disturbing.  Some parts of the animal are eaten raw and, it seemed, at the end of every 'massacre' there was blood everywhere.  I know this is my cultural prejudice shining through, but I'm not sure how I would cope with all that blood and guts!  Some of the poorer villagers would resort to eating their huskies when times got bad but, despite the fact he got used to most Greenlandic foods (blubber, seal skin and raw intestines), Kpomassie couldn't bring himself to eat dog, as culturally, for his tribe, this is taboo.  He pointed out that a lot of the differences in African tribes were centred on food taboos and I think eating habits (snails, horse meat, haggis) are equally relevant in European societies. 

The Race of an Outsider

Of course, in each village he visited, the sight of an incredibly tall black man getting off the boat excited all kinds of emotions in the locals, from fear to hilarity to desire, but the longer Kpomassie stayed in each place, it seemed to me that the colour of his skin was hardly relevant.  Much more relevant was the fact that he was an outsider and, in the minds of most of the people he met, he was categorised as European, like most of the Qashluna (foreigners) the Greenlanders had encountered.  I'm sure anyone who has spent time living abroad, especially in Asia, will soon realise that, as far as the locals are concerned, there is no great difference between British and American or even British and French.  We're all just farang!  There is a funny scene when Kpomassie meets Robert Mattaaq, an old man from Upernavik, in the north of Greenland - the old man says he has a picture of one of Kpomassie's tribesmen, which he'd cut out from a magazine.  When he eventually finds the cutting and lays it out on the table, Kpomassie's kinsman is Charles de Gaulle!

Children should be seen and heard

He experiences other cultural differences, for example, in the way that children are treated in Greenland.  In Togo, the father is the supreme head of the house and there is a rigid hierarchy through elder sons and half-brothers to the youngest child, who is of least importance in the household, especially when the child is a girl.  In Greenland, on the other hand, adults trust a child's intuition above all else and will rarely reprimand or contradict a child.  In the same way, village elders will rarely contradict the beliefs of younger adults and Kpomassie is surprised to visit an old people's home and learn about the former tradition in Greenland that dictated that old people should walk out into the snow and die when they become too much of a burden on the family.  This is a complete contrast to the position old people hold in his native Togo. 

Tarningerneq and Eklan

One belief that was incredibly similar was the way that both Greenlanders and people in the Mina tribe explain the occurence of dreams.  In both cultures, each human being has a soul which can leave the body and go wandering at night (Tarningerneq in Greenland and Eklan in Togo).  The soul goes on all kinds of adventures, in a parallel universe, as it were and returns to the body in the morning, waking us up when it re-enters.  The adventures of our 'dreaming soul' are only remembered as a dream.  In both Greenland and Togo the wandering of the dreaming soul leaves us susceptible to manipulation and attack by dark forces, such as wizards.  If your soul is killed whilst you are wandering, it is believed that you will never wake up. 

In Greenland, however, there are many more types of souls than the three that the Mina tribe believe in and even inanimate objects have souls in Greenland.  Also landscape features, such as mountains and lakes, have souls, which reminds me of Icelandic, Scottish and Irish traditions, kelpies, underground people and even the Loch Ness monster!  I can understand in a barren landscape like the one in Greenland (or Iceland), where there is immense stillness and a general lack of life, that people will start attributing life to inanimate objects and the landscape itself.  In Africa, where every tree and patch of land is teeming with life, I guess there was enough animism to worry about without assigning life to inanimate objects. 

More of the same

The end of Kpomassie's book left me craving more.  I really believe that interacting with other cultures is an incredibly enriching and rewarding experience and I understand the privileged position I'm in as a Westerner, in that I can travel, explore and learn about other cultures.  But there are lots of Westerners travelling and exploring and learning about other cultures.  It's more interesting to read about cultural interaction between two very different cultures, like those of Greenland and Togo.  I guess on some very basic level, all human cultures share the same obsessions and concerns, certainly we all dream at night of faraway lands and experiences beyond our understanding, however we might want to interpret these in the broad daylight of our home cultures.


The copy of An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie that I read was the 2001 reprint as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series, with a foreword by A Alvarez and translation from French by James Kirkup.  Kpomassie wrote the book in 1979 - if you want to buy a copy, you can find it on Amazon (this is the link for UK). 

The image of the book cover was taken by me.

The image of the Huskie puppies was taken by flickruser chrissy575 aka Christine Zenino, who is a freelance travel writer and photographer from Chicago.  You can find out more about Christine's work at the following link

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Togo - An Introduction to African Linguistics

Apologies to regular readers of this blog, as I walked the West Highland Way in Scotland this month and didn't have any time to blog about Togo.  I thought I would kick off again with one of my favourite subject areas, Linguistics.  I have a degree in Linguistics and find the subject fascinating, although it's been many years since I studied it in a formal way.  As I've been reading about Togo, I've got more and more into the language side of things and the general picture of language in Africa.

The study of Language

I guess Linguistics, like many academic sciences, was born from the great 19th century desire to classify everything and put things, whether species or types of behaviour or languages, into convenient little 'boxes'.  The 20th century seemed to take this to a whole new level, not only wishing to categorise things, but also to minimise the number of categories and draw comparisons between things that are, in my humble opinion, very different.  For example, it still amazes me that we readily accept the term Indo-European and believe that somehow languages such as Icelandic and Hindi belong to the same language family, when it's obvious to anyone that they are incredibly different languages.  If you have a look back on my blogposts about Rajasthan, you'll read about the influence of British Indian orientalists on the concept of an Aryan race that somehow justified the British colonisation of India and I think this can be extended into the field of Linguistics and theory of an Indo-European language family. 

My point is that, far from being a 'black and white' empirical science, the study of Linguistics is very much a product of the culture of the Linguist.  Is an English linguist more likely to gloss over the influence of native British-Celtic languages on the language of the Saxons, Jutes and Angles who made England their home?  Is a Japanese linguist more likely to prefer a theory of Japanese as an 'independent' language, unrelated to Mongolian or the Turkic languages of Siberia and north Asia?  Well, of course they are.  The classification of languages depends a lot on who is classifying them and the culture and generation of the classifier.  It makes Linguistics more exciting in many ways, as I believe each generation needs to make its own contribution to the study of languages, with reference to past theories, but also taking into account historical prejudices.

Greenberg and the classification of African languages

The American linguist, Greenberg, is probably the greatest figure in African linguistics and developed a classification that is, more or less, universally accepted.  He divided African languages into the following sub-categories:

Afro-Asiatic - previously this was called Hamito-Semitic, after Noah's sons, Ham and Sham - Ham being African, Sham being the Middle Eastern one.  Arabic is, by far, the most prominent of the languages in this language 'family', but it also includes Hebrew, Maltese and African languages such as Somali and Hausa.  It's a controversial grouping in many ways, as it links up language speakers who are incredibly diverse in terms of their ethnicity, religions and cultures.  What I like about this grouping is that it recognises a shared history between the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa.

Chari-Nile languages - this family contains lots of relatively small languages from the Nile valley, reaching into the Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Chad.  It's the language of the Nubians and the Masai people of Kenya. 

Niger-Congo - this is the biggest language family in Africa and covers most of the African languages that you will be aware of, probably the most famous being Swahili.  The family is further divided into branches, which are pretty much geographical and spread all the way from the Atlantic languages (eg. Wolof, Fulani) in Senegal to the massive Bantu family (eg. Zulu, Sesotho, Xhosa) spreading all the way down to the southern end of Africa. 

Khoi-san - are the languages of the Bush people in southern Africa, which have defied classification by linguists, but have been happily grouped together as a language family.  This family includes Hottentot or Nama and San, which is the language of the bushmen of Namibia and Botswana.  The Khoi-san languages are famous for their clicking sounds, some of which have been 'borrowed' into neighbouring Bantu languages.

Austronesian - interestingly on Madagascar, they speak a language which belongs to the Austronesian family and is much closer to Malay or Bahasa Indonesia, than to anything which is spoken on the African continent.

Indo-European - European languages, such as English and French, are spoken everywhere in Africa, however Afrikaans, which comes from the Dutch settlers on the Cape, is considered to be a 'native' Indo-European language. 

Lazy linguistics?

As far as I can see, lumping the vast majority of African languages into one convenient family 'Niger-Congo' smacks of incredibly lazy linguistics and I call for someone to do a little bit more work on the classification of African languages.  Interestingly, if you compare this to the work that has been done on Native American or Australian languages, there has been no attempt to lump all of these into one language family but, rather, recognition of the diversity of languages and the need for separate classifications.  I think it will take an African-born linguist to open up the subject properly and give us a new classification for the 21st century. 

Linguistic policy in Africa

With over 2,000 languages, Africa is incredibly diverse.  What's more, levels of bi-tri-multilingualism exist on a scale that we in Europe can only ever dream of.  When I lived in Uzbekistan, my students switched from English to Russian to Tajik to Uzbek with relative ease and, in an increasingly competitive global economy, I think proficiency in languages will be something akin to a commodity in this new century.  In Africa, French and English still prevail and are official languages in most African countries.  At another level though, there are many alternative lingua francas and Arabic, Hausa, Swahili, Igbo, Yoruba and Amharic are also spoken by millions of people as a second or third language. 

Language in Togo

Togo is a good example of how language works in Africa and this is partly why I became so aware of the general situation.  A country of five million people, Togo has more than thirty native languages.  French is the official language, the written language and language of education but, since independence, both Ewe and Kabiye have risen to prominence, being the two native languages with most speakers.  There is a real north-south divide in Togo and, although most languages, fall into the Niger-Congo family, the southern languages, including Ewe, are loosely connected to the coastal Kwa languages of Ghana and Benin (eg Akan, Fon and Ga).  The nothern languages, including Kabiye, are related to other inland languages of the Volta river such as More and Gurma, the languages of Burkina Faso.

Of course, when the European colonial powers were dividing up the map of Africa in Berlin in 1884, language didn't always come into it and, to be honest, the complexity of how languages are spread around West Africa would defy any attempts to create nations out of the main languages (something that was enforced, to an extent, in Europe).  Initially, most Ewe speakers ended up in the same country, German Togoland, but the further sub-division of Togoland, means that Ewe speakers are now in two different countries, with approximately 2 million speakers of Ewe in Togo and 2 millon in Ghana. Of course, language is a continuum and doesn't really recognise political boundaries.  I think this is less obvious to a European, where French is spoken in France, Italian in Italy - the reality being that French and Italian are in a continuum of dialects that flow from one country into another and don't just change on the border!

I would love to see the result of having had European languages classified by Africans in the 19th century and whether they would have come to the conclusion that we all basically sound the same, or whether they would have found immense differences and classified European languages in a radically different way. 


A lot of my research for this blog was done on the web, through Wikipedia and other sources, however I also referred to Kenneth Katzner's book The Languages of the World (the 2003 edition published by Routledge). 

Both maps are from Wikimedia Commons and are being shared using the Creative Commons License. 

The Linguistic map was uploaded by wikiuser Seb az86556 - you can see the original and other maps by Seb at the following URL

The map of the Ewe and other Gbe languages was uploaded by Mark Dingemanse who works for the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and is based in the Netherlands.  Mark's website and blog are great sources for those of you interested in learning more about African linguistics.  His page on Wikimedia Commons also has some interesting facts about African languages.