The Kotokoli are primarily farmers, and their main crops are sorghum or yam. They also keep cattle, goats, donkeys, chickens and sheep. Cattle are used mainly for sacrifice and dowry; the Kotokoli do not even milk their own cattle. They do drink the milk, but employ the Fulani to do the milking as well as tending their cattle.
The name Kotokoli comes from koto kolim which means to give and take back again, and refers to their reputation for a somewhat underhand trade dealings. Their proper term temba comes from the fact that they speak the tem language. There are about 200,000 Kotokoli in Togo, mostly around the area of Sokode. The village of Djendi which we visited, was way out in the countryside.
The Kotokoli mostly live in villages like these, with round or square houses made from mud walls and thatched cone-shaped roofs. The floors inside the huts are made of dirt. All the huts are clustered together around a courtyard and usually surrounded by a high mud wall to ensure privacy so that no-one can overlook the compound.
As usual, we had to approach the chief to gain entry to the village compound. The chief is usually selected from a lineage (the oldest) and his responsibility includes social harmony amongst his people and good relationships with other, local tribes.
The Kotokoli marriage traditions dictate that parents arrange the union whilst the ‘bride and groom’ are still very, very young. The marriage cannot take place until the groom has proved himself by working on the bride’s farm for a while and he (or his family) must pay a hefty dowry. The legalisation of the marriage is complete after the bride’s family accepts these gifts. As the main religion amongst the Kotokoli is Islam, polygamy is accepted and practiced freely, with up to four wives being allowed. Each wife lives in a separate hut, with the first wife enjoying special treatment and a superior status.
The Kotokoli people, just like the neighbouring Fulani, value beauty amongst their people. It is said that the Fulani are amongst the most beautiful people in the world, but having seen the Kotokoli, I will argue that there is a strict competition here! Especially the lady in blue on the photograph, her features are exquisite (can I say that as a woman?) and she is absolutely stunning! The women spend a lot of their time making sure they are portrayed at their best for the men, and it shows in their appearance.
The Kotokoli are hardworking people and they use kola nuts to stay awake to be able to work in the fields after only 4-5 hours sleep. The kola nuts are obviously used very much in the same way as we would use recreational drugs in the West, but for labour purposes rather than pleasure!