Todd Lewis - General Care Projects in Togo
Djidjole, a small residential quarter in Lomé, is a vibrant place. It has only one paved road that is constantly crawling with moto-taxis. The dusty streets are lined with vendors of grilled corn and fried bean patties. Women lope quietly down the sandy side streets, large vats of anything imaginable perched comfortably upon their heads. Children in mismatched clothing flit to and fro in happy pursuit of deflated soccer balls and scrawny dogs with protruding ribs. Decaying villas squat imperiously among shanty after shanty where products ranging from swaths of intricately woven fabric to cages of hens can be purchased.
At the epicenter of Rue Djidjole is the block-long mansion of soccer all-star Adebayo whose abode acts as source of pride and intrigue for the quarter. At any given time, wandering goats can be found just outside the iron gates of his compound. In Djidjole, all walks of life are intertwined. For one hot summer, this was my home.
Two young Americans residing in this place could not go unnoticed. “Djidjole,” said my host mother when I arrived, “in our language means ‘joy.’” And joy is what the Togolese offered me. A short jaunt down the boulevard provided all kinds of interesting encounters: waves from passersby, occasional gifts from vendors, impromptu conversations from those whose curiosity overcame them. For “yovos” are not a common sight in this part of Togo’s capital.
“Yovo” means “foreign person” (usually Caucasian) and it was my nickname for the entire two months of my stay. At any time of the day I could hear “yovo yovo” being chanted or yelled jovially in my direction. Sometimes it was uttered as an exclamation, other times in shock or for curiosity’s sake. But most frequently, it was said with genuine happiness as a sort of welcome and an assurance that the Togolese were, whatever the reason, glad that I was there.
I lived in a beautiful home with a charismatic bishop, his wife and four children, an aunt, two family friends, and myriad unidentified guests and clergy members who would stay for an indeterminate period of time. I never knew exactly who was in the house; the bishop’s home was a communal place.
The mother of this family, Stephanie Hopeson, had founded an orphanage with personal funds approximately ten years before our arrival. She saw a need and attempted to fulfill it, though she found that funding the ever-increasing number of children-in-need was a financial burden she could not undertake for many more years. This orphanage is where I spent the majority of my time, where I learned the ways of quotidian Togolese life.
It was there I found my real family abroad. We spent about ten hours a day at the orphanage, providing in whatever way we were able. We helped translate grant applications, sorted corn and beans, learned to pound fufu (a thick paste of cassava), and taught English when we could wrangle the children into the makeshift classroom. When we weren’t occupied with these activities, we were playing soccer or cards, watching “The Jungle Book,” playing dress up, making fun of each other’s language deficits, or walking the dusty streets of the neighborhood.
My hands were perennially full for my two months in Togo—there was always someone pouting that they had to wait until the next stroll to get a hand to hold. Their stories were touching and personal. Some were sick, some were lonely, but all were bright and open. They just wanted someone to hold on to.
That made leaving a difficult task. But I have photos, e-mails, addresses, and a myriad of ways to stay connected to my family in West Africa so that I never feel too, too far away. I think about my little kids and their little hands and big smiles every single day, and instantly I am there once again.