By Bhakti Carudesna Swami
A party of 50 devotees assembled at the ISKCON Lomé temple
On December 17th 2016, ISKCON devotees of Lomé, a small town in a small country (Togo has about 6 million people), held a small but ecstatic padayatra for the pleasure of Srila Prabhupada. Several devotees from three other West African countries had joined the 45 devotee Togo team: three from Ghana (Yuga Prabhu, chairman of the West African Executive Council Board, Bhaktin Emma and Bhakta Abraham), one from the Republic of Benin (Bhakta Guillaume) and myself from Ivory Coast.
We started the walk in Aflao, at the border with Ghana, and ended it at Hilaconji, at the border with the Republic of Benin. Since Togo is a French speaking country, we had made a large banner indicating that this “Marche pour la Paix” (Peace walk) was done to celebrate ISKCON’ 5Oth anniversary.
Our procession consisted of two vehicles and two motocycles. We walked through the villages of devotees (except the driver) with our large banner. One vehicle was carrying devotees and the prasadam and the other one devotees, books and the mrdangas; the two motorcycles were carrying the rest of the devotees. For our procession, since it was our first padayatra in the country, we started in a small way, just to avoid too many complications with getting police permissions in different cities. Public processions are not banned in Togo- we don’t need permissions for harinama- but it depends on the political situation. It would have taken too much time to get permission for a program like padayatra and sometimes the police even refuses the permission, especially when it involves people from different countries, which was our case. We started in front of the Lomé temple with the blessings of Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha Govinda Madhava, Sri Sri Gaura Nitai and Sri Sri Jaganath Baladev and Subhadra.
A bitter beginning
All the devotees gathered in Aflao at 11 am in front of a fuel station. Someone took a group picture with the banner and the kirtana began to warm up. Quickly people started gathering around us; it was not new for them as they are used to our harinamas in that area. But after only 5 or 10 minutes of chanting, a police vehicle came to park near us. Suddenly, the policemen started shooting tear gas in the air from their guns. Panic everywhere! The kirtana immediately stopped. Nobody had time to find out what was going on. Children were crying and running to their mothers. We all quickly managed to enter our vehicles and moved far from that area. Later on we came to know that the shooting of tear gas was not for us; the police was chasing an illicit seller of gasoline. “Ok, no problem! But what to do next?” we asked ourselves. After a small discussion, when we saw that the children were not panicking or afraid any longer, we decided to drive a bit far from the area of the incident to start our padayatra.
A joyful festival of chanting, dancing and book distribution
When we got to some village or town, everybody got down from the vehicles, except the drivers of course, and we walked for harinama and book distribution without stopping. We thus crossed many villages, and we could say that we walked half the distance , about 28kms.
We thus arrived at Baguida, the port area, around 12.30 pm. While the brahmanas were chanting their gayatri, the women were busy giving some prasadam to children and the devotees. This was followed by an energetic kirtana, which left everyone satisfied, happy and confident.“Togo Padayatra ki!!!! Jaya !!! “, we all shouted with great enthusiasm. On the way people were greeting the devotees, some in their cars stopped to see what was going on. On many occasions a good number of people came to join us to dance in the kirtana. There was no special media coverage of the event. We distributed a lot of bread and juice prasadam. This padayatra was a festival of book distribution: 246 big books, 38 medium books and 20 small books. We thus crossed 12 villages and a few big towns, among which were Avepozo, Yesuvito, and Agbadrafor.
One gentleman we will never forget
After walking while doing harinama through one village, when we almost got to the end of it, we all entered our vehicles to move to the next village. From a distance one gentleman had seen us distributing books, and he was expecting us to stop at the place he was sitting with some friends under a big tree. As we did not stop, he started to ran after us, shouting, “Please, who are you? Where do come from? What are you doing? What books do you have in your hands?” We reluctantly stopped because we were late for the next town. But after we listened to that gentleman, we all realized that he was really a very sincere soul. He was looking for people like us and the types of books we had. He bought many books and chanted the Hare Krishna maha mantra with us without any difficulty. We did not regret for having stopped for him, he really was a nice gentleman.
A joyful end with an unexpected and blissful reception
We finally arrived at Hilaconji around 6h30 pm. A tumultuous and dynamic kirtana brought joy to the devotees and the people in the area. Some custom officers joined the chanting and dancing and some police officers bought books. We were happy to have made it. We forgot the tear gas, it was now time for tears of love. Before leaving the Benin border and going back to the Lomé temple Bhakta Godson, the best book distributor of the party, organized an emergency reception at his nearby house and treated the party to coconut water, fruits and soft drinks.
Enthused by this first experience, we are planning to organize a padayatra every year, and a bigger one also.