When I tell people I’ve been to Togo, I usually get unconvincing replies such as, “Oh, wow nice!” or “where abouts in the world is, it?” I tend to reply by explaining geographically where Togo is. Truth to be told friends, I did not have a clue Togo even existed on a map until my father was posted there. Togo is situated in where I like to call “the brain” of Africa where it neighbours countries such as Ghana to the West and Benin to the East.
On the 13th of November last year, my brother and I embarked on a very, very long and tiring journey to Togo, Lome. Between waiting for 14 hours for transit flights, sleeping on airport floors, day dreaming of beautiful soft and comfy beds, and cursing at myself for flying on an economy class- we finally landed safely at 6:00am in Ghana, Accra. As the airplane’s door opened, I took my first whiff of Ghanaian air. I must say it is very different to Tasmania’s unpolluted fresh air. Despite it being early in the morning, the air was hot, humid and I was beginning to sweat within minutes of coming out in the open air.
As my brother and I approached the airport we were truly in for a big culture shock. To be honest, I knew that by flying into Africa things would be different, quite different to what I was used to. I don’t know why I was shocked; I mean I was expecting it after all. However, coming from London’s airport to Ghana’s it’s hard not to feel the difference. The airport was not as luxurious and people just pushed their way through you and broke lines which frustrated me as it continuously occurred at the airport. As I was waiting to get my passport stamped I couldn’t help but notice the sign that loomed over me which said: “Paedophiles or other sexual deviants are not welcome in Ghana.” Nice, way to greet foreigners Ghana, great job! It did remind me though of the greeting sign in Egypt’s airport which stated the following: “Welcome you in Egypt.” Every time I read it, I felt like smacking my head in shame. This sign poorly reflected on our literacy skills. I do wonder if they eventually have changed it.
We were picked by my parents from the airport and from there we made our journey to Togo by car. Despite still day dreaming of beautiful big comfy beds and feeling like a zombie from the lack of sleep, I was fascinated by the awe-inspiring scenery that flooded my eyes. It was truly magnificent driving by vast ,beautiful mountains,forests and the red-earth soil. Upon catching a glimpse of the red-earth soil I couldn’t help but recalling the line in the movie Blood Diamond where Colonel Coetzee says, “the Shona say that the colour comes from all the blood that has been spilled fighting over the lands.” Maybe the Shona’s were right, maybe the colour did come from the blood that was spilled over the lands.
After driving for approximately 3 hours into the wilderness, we drove onto a very narrow red- clay road which led us to a large velvet gate that was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, guarded by big muscular men in uniforms who held armed weapons demanding for our passports. We were finally there! Sadly, I did not see a welcome sign saying: “Welcome you in Togo” or a sign that openly rejected foreigners who were either paedophiles, homosexuals or whatever word fitted the box.
As our car made it into Lome, I began witnessing the poor development of the country firsthand; we drove on red-clay roads or on roads that were either crackled or in dire need of maintenance. We drove passed shanty houses, crowded market stalls, overtaking motorbikes, and hassling sellers at traffic lights. Needless to say, I wasn’t repulsed but what I saw, but on the contrary, I was fascinated by something that was wholly and completely alien to what I was used to, and in some weird way, I was in love with this country already!
We stayed at my Dad’s residence which was at a very spacious villa with a beautiful garden (that had its own hopping bunnies) and its own little pool. I spent my first week, swimming with my sister, tanning in the sun, indulging in A LOT of reading, and best of all, getting spoiled by my mother’s delicious food.
Of course when one lives a spacious villa one needs someone to govern/take care of it, which was the case with my Dad’s residence. I think it was quite normal for people to have a helping hand in Togo. While I was there, I loved getting to know the members of the staff, who were very, very delightful people.
There was Jane (I will call her ‘Jane’ for privacy purposes and for the purpose of this blog) who was more of what you can the supervisor of the house, she was a lovely and a very beautiful person in every way. Upon meeting her for the first time she suggested that I am far too polite and I say the words “thank you” and “sorry” way too much! I did make a mental note to myself to tone it down a notch. Despite working of us she still went to University where she majored in English and had hopes and dreams of becoming a translator. Her classes would commence at 6:00am and it would finish at 10:30 or 11:00am and then she would start work and finish at either 9:00-10:00pm. Her English was perfect, and she spoke excellent French, and German. Was I impressed by this dedicated young lady? Yes, I was more than just impressed, I was inspired.
The second staff member that I really enjoyed getting to know was Paul who worked as a cook at my father’s household. He was a short, thin man of about 60ish, and he always had a serious face and a sad smile. Sadly, he spoke very little English and I spoke very little French but we somehow managed to communicate with each other; never underestimate the power of gestures! However, if our gesturing and our form of sign language got out of hand, we always had Jane around who did some translating. I always teased her about always translating for me as she teased me about my driving skills, which I will come to later.
After, a month I advanced my French skills by being able to say to Paul everyday in morning “Bonjour, Paul! Ca va?”And popping my head in kitchen in the afternoon by saying, “Bon après-midi Paul!” I also enjoyed listening, thanks to Jane’s translation, to Paul’s stories about his life and his former life in the village. He said that his mother who’s around 110 years is still alive and she lives in the village. It does make you wonder though, whether by just eating healthy/organic food, doing everything on your own, and by abstaining from junk and artificial food, will actually make you live longer? This thought did linger with me for some time.
Life in Togo was quite different to my everyday life in Tasmania. I had to be cautious about a lot of things that I wouldn’t normally even think about back home. One of those things was the drinking water. It might be a surprise to some, but in Tasmania we do casually drink from the tap water and it’s all good. No harm there. But in Togo, well, that was another matter. I couldn’t drink from the tap water and even worse, I was told to not to even rinse my mouth from the tap. So I was provided with my own sanitized bottle of water to use at all times. Were we being extra cautious? Indeed we were.
Going out at night in Togo was another issue because of the epidemic of Malaria. At sunset we made sure all the doors and windows were tightly shut and we always and I do my put all my emphasis on the word “always”, had to spray the house with insecticide because of the mosquitoes. Ok friends, I must confess right here and now that I did not take the precaution of taking any Malaria prevention drugs, partly because of its side effects and partly because I am bit of a risk taker. But that’s just me. Yes, call me stupid, reckless, or even insane of putting myself in danger, but I luckily made through to tell the tale. Phew! However, I did have a HUGE scare because 5 days after my arrival a) I got bitten by none other than my friend and my worst enemy “the mosquito” and b) I got sick straight after. What great way to start my holiday by thinking that I was dying. It was all good though because I took the drug that treated Malaria. Thinking about it now I guess I’ll never know whether it was or was not Malaria.
Driving in Togo was one of the most scariest, yet thrilling experiences that I have encountered in my holiday. My Dad asked me whether I would like to give driving a go in Togo, and being a risk taker that I am, I happily agreed. How would I sum up my driving experience in one word? Well, let’s just say I am happy I did not crash the car and I did not end up killing anyone. Jane, of course never missed an opportunity of teasing me about my exceptionally great driving skills. Every time I’d pop in and ask her if she would like to accompany me for some grocery shopping she’d tease me by saying “are we gonna die?” “should I say my final prayers?” There were no road rules to my knowledge whilst driving, one just prayed to make it through!
The word chaos would be the best word to describe the busy streets of Togo. You had overtaking taking motorbikes that overtook your lane as they pleased, there were cars and motorbikes that crossed the red-light, and crazy drivers who exceeded the road limit. Despite it all, I survived. It’s quite funny that after I got used to driving on the busy and chaotic streets, I began to realise that there despite getting the impression that roads were somehow chaotic, there was some form of order within that chaos and it was such an insightful revelation.
One interesting observation that I have made in Togo was the lack of smokers in the country. I know this is a very weird observation coming from someone who wholeheartedly abhors the cancer stick, but it did make me wonder to the reason why? It’s funny because one would assume that by Togo being a developing country there would be a high percentage of smokers but there wasn’t. On contrary I did see a lot of bars and maybe brothels splattered around the area, and they were few people who sold alcohol, such as rum for example, out in the open but I did not see a lot of smokers. Every time I went grocery shopping I would stare at a Marlboro packet as though I was longing for a cigarette, to try to work out how to convert the stated price of the packet into Australian dollars. I came to conclusion that maybe the Togolese did not like tobacco or maybe it was too expensive for them to buy? I still do not have the answer to my question.
In Togo, the class system was unfairly divided by either being very, very rich or being very, very poor. It is almost as though there was no middle class. A middle class Togolese would be equivalent to a poor person living in Australia (not that there are many poor people in Australia, anyway).
Constantly seeing extreme poverty around me really hit home and I almost started feeling guilty and ashamed for being privileged in many aspects of my life, which is why being in Togo always served as a constant reminder that I should be grateful for what I have. I started feeling selfish if I’d complain for example about silly things like University or if I had to travel on an economy class or sleep on airport floors because in reality- there are so many people who were suffering so much more than me!
In Togo, lots of the inhabitants drove on motorbikes which were their preferred mode of transportation. The reason for their preference was because a motorbike is much cheaper than driving a car, and there was a huge influx of motorbikes for that matter. However, driving a motorbike on the busy streets of Togo resulted in a lot accidents and deaths. I saw about five motorbike accidents happen in front of my eyes, and I saw death a few times too. How did I feel after that? Sad and maybe a bit angry at the world. Angry at the world because we have the power to feed a third world country and nothing is happening!
Driving on red-clay or crackled roads, passing by shanty houses, crowded and dirty market stalls did not repulse me at all, on the other hand it helped me think and reflect on ways on how I could make things better. Some streets and alley ways that I have been to in Togo stank of sewage, dirt, and humidity. As I walked, I was always a prey for being hassled into buying things from streets sellers who would say “Mademoiselle, necklace for you? Mademoiselle??” I found it hard to just ignore when they were being so persistent but at the same time I would feel guilty because it was their job and they were after all living below the poverty line. I must admit, I did get swayed into buying a beautiful Kanga which is a beautiful coloured fabric that you could wear around your hips.
It is essential that if you live in Togo one must be skillful in the art of bargaining, a skill, which sadly I did possess. Jane and my mother were very good at the art of bargaining which comes in handy when you’re trying to buy something at a cheap price. I, on the other hand, had a lot to learn.
One thing struck me one day and it really made me very sad when Jane and I went to markets to buy some shrimps and there was a lady and a girl who was maybe about eight helping her mum. Looking at the girl somehow made me really sad, because I started wondering did she even go to school? Will she be selling shrimps with her mother for the rest of her life? Will she be trapped in extreme poverty for the rest of her life? These questions and thoughts lingered with me everywhere I went.