Grassroots Pan-Africanism: Field notes from the Togo/Benin Border
At the Hilla-Condji on the Togo/Benin border, we initially met a young lady, Ablah, who was selling with persons who seemed to be her family – the mother and a sister.
The focus of our enquiries was on the phenomenon of trading based on the simultaneous use of multiple currencies and the tacit state acquiescence. We had found it strange that the State did not clampdown on the practice. So we asked Ablah as to why they, as traders, accepted any of the three currencies used respectively in Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Ghana. Abla’s response, which was prompt and brief, bordered on ‘economism and rationalism’: ‘We would otherwise be hungry.’ Elaborating on this, she explained that if they refused to accept the “foreign” currency they would not make sales. Their practice, ‘for a long time’, had, therefore, been to accept any of the currencies and exchange them from the Ablah at the openly-operating money-changers. Asked as to whether government officials did not clampdown on the money-changers she simply answered in the negative. Ablah sometimes appeared surprised at our enquiries, for, the practice had been so long in standing during which they had not had problems with the State. That was why she asked in a quite agitated tone whether ‘it is bad’ to trade in the multiple currencies. Clearly, she was not aware of official restrictions on the use of “foreign” currencies in the open market. She was elated when we assured her that there was nothing ‘bad’ with the practice. Ablah did not appear to see Nigerians, Beninese, Togolese and Ghanaians as essentially different people when she exclaimed ‘We are one people’. It was all as if, in her horizons, these “nationalities” were “ethnicities” within one country. That was when she was informed that a single currency for West Africa as a whole was on the drawing board. From these pedagogical reactions of Ablah we could perceive an unravelled spirit of a Pan-African nature at its level of spontaneity. The border has failed to divide the grassroots!