Cliff Lewis - French in Togo
As seen by an American Physician
On a list of my life's greatest experiences I would have to place my Projects Abroad trips to Senegal and Togo up near the top. My trip to Senegal was filled with such deeply moving experiences that on returning home the concerns that once filled my life now seemed so trivial and life in the US now seemed so bland in comparison to the intense feelings daily generated in Senegal's continuing struggle. When a trip to Togo became available I was eager to go.
The two trips were very similar in basic ways such as the same intense experiences generated by both trips, but yet they were vastly different in specifics such as local cultures and traditions. In Senegal one flew into Dakar and went overland 5 hours to St. Louis, a town built by the French during their days as an African colonial power. Today St. Louis is a town with some remaining crumbling French influence, but with many mosques and an over abundance of goats that scavenge the garbage.
It is dirty, poor, bustling, alive, and incredibly atmospheric. It is a town of fishermen and all life here is centered around the ocean. Hundreds of large colorful boats line the beautiful Atlantic beach, fishermen are continuously launching their boats through the breaking waves, or are returning with their catch. These sights and smells, the noise, the chaos of buying and selling, unloading boats, icing the fish, cooking the fish, building and repairing boats, all this activity going on all day non-stop, is a fascinating aspect of West African culture that was a highlight of my trip.
Togo is a much different experience. The program is located in the capital city of Lomé, a very large intensely poor African city smothered in the oppressive heat of the not-distant equator. Lomé, however is built on one of the world's most beautiful beaches, the magnificent Gulf of Guinea, a truly stunningly beautiful beach that runs several hundred miles east to west making the southern border of several West African countries. Togo is small with easy access to its neighbors, making side trips to Benin and Ghana very worth the trials of local transportation, which was always available, cheap, and not always comfortable.
One experience while traveling in Benin created quite a memory, which in retrospect is quite amusing, although at the time was much less so: Most transportation in this part of Africa is supplied by "taxis", which are vehicles with a somewhat functioning motor that will pick you up along the side of the road and for a set price will deliver you hopefully intact to a set destination. One day I flagged down a taxi headed to a nearby town and was not real happy to find it packed with 8 people, with one miniscule spot in the far back for me. I must have climbed over every sweaty body before I finally somehow squeezed into my place, which of course, as always it seemed, in full tropical sunlight.
The heat had been oppressive and the sun inescapable, even before I got crammed into this furnace on wheels. Oh well, everybody else was hot, so I quit complaining and just watched as taxis and trucks and motorcycles and people and animals all did their best to speed up, slow down, cut in front of someone, pass along the side of the road without falling in a ditch, pass on the left and get back in line before being flattened by a truck racing forward.
The highlight of Togo was its people. I found them very friendly and most generous, at times making me feel uncomfortable as they offered me so much from the little they had. I visited several public schools and orphanages where we distributed several hundred T-shirts I had brought on the trip with me.
In neighboring Benin I was fascinated by the Voodoo temples and the Voodoo culture, by their monuments built to their freedom from slavery, and by their villages built over water. In neighboring Ghana the forts built by European powers to protect their slave trade were scenic, interesting, and very moving. The overpowering domination exuded by these European forts was in sharp contrast to the utter helplessness you felt walking through the small dark cells built to house captives destined for the shores of my country. I felt ashamed and hoped that I would not be hated for the past actions of my Western culture. I felt very white.
On both trips dinner with my family at the end of the day was always a very pleasant experience. In Senegal we sat on the floor eating from a large platter of food, but in Togo dinner was cooked outside in the courtyard where we ate in the quiet under the stars. In both places dinner was the time to enjoy the differences in our cultures and to learn from each other. It was quickly apparent that human beings all have the same needs and wishes and that language and geography and class and color are all superficial differences. We are all the same people with the same feelings and needs. I, a white Southern American, am the very same as a black African.
Seeing old forts and beautiful beaches, wandering through the wonderfully entertaining markets, tasting the local cuisines and trying the local beers are fun and entertaining, but their impact was negligible compared to the intense emotion you feel when you see the street children in St. Louis and Dakar, when you see teenage mothers with babies, homeless, living in the courtyard of Lomé's largest cathedral, when you see the desperate look in the faces of adults everywhere as they petition you for help. You see this desperation everywhere and you feel ashamed of all the excess that clutters our own personal lives. You cry. You become a different person.