Every morning after he wakes and bathes, Ghanaian fisherman Mauko Aveu Blabo heads to the Lomé fishing harbor.
The harbor is busy: men clean their boats and nets while women sort, clean, and sell an assortment of fish — red snapper to tuna to sardines — heaped in steel pans and woven baskets. Blabo who has been fishing since he was eight years old is an expert at repairing fishing nets. He waits for fishermen who have returned from sea expeditions and need help fixing a ripped or entangled net.
To send money to his children and wife in Tema, Ghana, Blabo has to jump through hoops. He drives to the Aflao-Lomé border, trades CFA francs for Cedis, switches his phone to roaming, tops up his MTN wallet, and does a transfer to his family’s account.
Blabo’s complicated money transfer routine points to a contradiction at the heart of Togo and Ghana’s relations.
Despite their proximity, the two neighbors often feel far apart.
The complicated nature of Togo and Ghana’s borders has created a paradoxical relationship. Like in many African countries, the borders that have defined Togo and Ghana relations are fluid. They change depending on the context. On a top-down level, whether economic policy or state matters, borders are fixed and rigid.
However, on the ground, they are supple and porous, particularly on a human level.
The complex history between Togo and Ghana can be traced back to the creation of their borders. Decades before their independence in the late 50s and early 60s, Togo and a part of Ghana used to be one country.
After Germany lost World War I in 1914, the British and the French divided German Togoland among themselves. The British who controlled the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana), took over eastern Togoland (now the Volta River region). The French who had their colonial territory in Dahomey (modern-day Benin), took the rest of German Togoland.
This split the Ewe people, the dominant ethnic group in German Togoland, into two.
Despite an opportunity to rejoin Togo, the Ewes of British Togoland voted to remain with Ghana as it inched towards its independence. In 1957, Ghana became an independent nation. Two years after the British left Ghana, Togo celebrated its independence.
Post-independence, Ghana and Togo had different ideologies about growing past the strongholds and influence of colonialism. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s leader and the father of Pan-Africanism, wanted a United States of Africa— a political integration of all the newly liberated countries on the continent.
Sylvanus Olympio, Togo’s president, wanted no such thing. Olympio fiercely believed in state sovereignty, but he advocated for the integration of African economies. He was an early supporter of open borders to allow the free movement of people and goods. These ideas would later inspire the creation of West Africa’s free trade zone, ECOWAS.
Behind the ideological differences, real anxieties stemming from creation of the borders lingered. After the Volta region decided to remain with Ghana, Togo drastically shrunk. It was now half the size of German Togoland.
Togo was even more dwarfed by its bigger neighbor. Olympio feared that Ghana, under the ambitious Nkrumah, would gobble up Togo.
While he longed to reunify the Ewes, he did not want to lose Togo’s sovereignty. While those ideological differences are largely a thing of the past, the trappings of state-making, such as borders and currencies, continue to create a disconnect between Ghana and Togo, two countries that used to be one.
However, the reality on the ground paints a more nuanced picture. While borders might be rigid in one sense, they are immaterial in day-to-day interactions between Togolese and Ghanaians.
Ghana is Togo’s largest single trade partner with significant amounts of goods flowing across the border. In 2019, Togo’s trade flows with Ghana reached USD 197 million, representing 7% of its total exports and imports. Total trade volumes are even greater, counting the informal flow of goods that cross the border.
Just like goods seamlessly cross the border, people do too. A large number of Ghanaians living in Aflao work in Lomé. Gifty Azonliade, a 34-year-old food seller, lives in Aflao but drives every day to Asigamé, the largest market in Lomé, to sell fried turkey and kenkey, a Ghanaian delicacy made from fermented white corn.
Many other Ghanaians came to Togo looking for opportunities and stayed. Not only do Ghanaians account for Togo’s largest migrant community, they are also overrepresented in some economic sectors, like artisanal fishing. With their iconic colorful canoes, Ghanaians dominate fishing throughout West Africa from Senegal to Angola. Togo is no different.
Blabo, the 65-year old fisherman, came to Lomé in 1980 to help set up his nephew’s fishing business. He then ended up staying. Blabo lives in Katanga, an informal settlement, in the shadow of Lomé port.
Katanga is a little Ghana, full of Ewe, Fante, and Ga-Adangbe fishermen. Some come for the July to October fishing season; others, like Blabo, have settled permanently but continue to zip over the border to visit family in Ghana.
Blabo stays in Lomé as he earns his income from the fishing harbor.
“I do my fishing here. People from all walks of life in Ghana come to Lomé. They'll have a canoe and net. But they don’t know how to fix the net before using it in the sea. Just like other countries don’t know how to carve the canoe."
“I took this place as my base. That is how I’m doing the work. I go to Cotonou or Ghana to fix the net for fishermen and come back for a small fee.”
However, Blabo still identifies as Ghanaian and felt strongly about sending his children to school in Ghana. “I was in Togo, but I like them to be in Ghana. I know that I’m a Ghanaian. I can’t stay here forever.”
Like Blabo, many Ghanaians live as though the border does not exist. Blabo not only crosses the border to visit family. He visits Ghana to perform his civic duties like voting or partaking in national and cultural celebrations.
The remittance numbers are further proof of strong links between the two countries. In 2017, money flows between the two neighbors reached USD 199 million, accounting for 40% of Togo’s total inflows that year.
Over decades, Ghanaian entrepreneurs have catered to Ghanaians living and working in Togo to create thriving businesses. Like Blabo, many Ghanaians prefer an English-language education for their children, sending them back to Ghana as early as primary school.
Joy Akossiwa saw this as a huge opportunity.
Born in Togo to Ghanaian parents, Akossiwa was raised in Ghana but returned to Lomé where she sold food at Asigamé. She eventually started work at a small private English language school run by a Nigerian.
After the owner died due to stroke-related complications, Akossiwa tried to keep the school running but struggled to retain students. Defeated, she decided to return to Ghana.
One early morning, as she waited to cross the Aflao border, Akossiwa had a flash of inspiration. She saw a stream of Ghanaian students, dressed in smart school uniforms, crossing the border to attend school. Akossiwa watched for one hour.
Encouraged by the need she saw, she went straight back to Lomé, determined to rebuild the school.
By this time, Akossiwa had lost the majority of her students. To get them back, she visited parents offering free enrollment for their children to regain their confidence.
In the early days, Akossiwa woke up at 3:00 am to write notes on the blackboards for both primary and nursery levels, while leaving a blank space for teaching later. At 6:00 am, she hurried home to bathe and dress before returning to school.
Her juggling of roles required some creative stretching of the truth.
“One day a parent came to the school and asked, ‘Where are your teachers?’,” Akossiwa said.
Thinking quickly on her feet, she replied: “One of the students was sick so they have gone to visit."
When parents asked about her teachers, she said they travelled or were not available so as to gain their trust and confidence. They were unaware she was doing it all alone.
“They didn’t know that I was the principal, teacher, and administrator. I did everything,” she said, laughing.
As the enrollment numbers grew, Akossiwa started thinking about a permanent location for the school.
She no longer wanted to rent, since she could be evicted by an arbitrary landlord. A plot of land in Lomé cost an eye-watering 20 million CFA francs. After speaking to a bank about her English-language school — one of the few in Lomé — and expansion plans, they offered her a loan. After one and a half years, she repaid it.
Today, Joy International School (JIPAS) enrolls more than 1,700 students from Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire at three locations in Lomé. It employs more than 170 academic and non-academic staff, many of whom come from Ghana.
Akossiwa’s school is a sterling example of the value that the Ghanaian community brings to Togo.
The bonds tying Togo and Ghana are deep, rooted in a symbiotic relationship dating to colonial times.
Lomé is an embodiment of that close relationship. The only African capital city to sit on a land border, Lomé has been described as a city that goes beyond borders. With its vibrant Ghanaian community - full of entrepreneurs, day traders, and fishermen - Lomé, though Togo’s capital, has a distinctive Ghanaian flavor.
The everyday reality of Lomé - how it functions as a city — is a tantalizing close vision of both Olympio and Nkrumah’s respective visions. They might have disagreed on the way to get there, but they were fierce advocates of integration. They believed that Togo and Ghana, divided by a border that was a product of colonialism, achieved more together than apart.
Full-blow economic integration is a long-term project, but Togo and Ghana can take smaller, yet consequential, steps to get there.
While goods and people move freely across the Togo-Ghana border, the CFA franc and cedi are stuck in silos, separated by an invisible regulatory border. The two currencies cannot be exchanged digitally. The easing of money transfer between the two countries would be a transformative step towards deepening their intertwined economies. It is yet another instance of a border that can be changed - for the better of both countries and the people who live there.
Until then, Blabo will continue his regular drives to the Aflao border to send money to his family. The money changers, fists full of cedi and CFA francs, will await him and the thousands of Ghanaians who stream across the border.
To learn about Togo’s largest market, continue reading to part 3.