Lauren Sofer - Medicine & Healthcare, Nursing in Togo
I don’t think it hit me that I was going to Togo until I was on my connecting flight from Charles De Gaulle to Lomé International. I was terrified and asked myself if I’d made the right decision. The next six weeks assured me that I had.
At the time, I was still studying to be a learning disability nurse at university. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and travel to Africa since I was a child. I also wanted to improve my French, so after much research I decided to visit Togo.
Volunteering in Togo
I’d only studied French up to an A Level standard, so I was by no means fluent. The Togolese people, however, were never fazed by my poor grammar or mispronunciation. My French has definitely improved and I even picked up a few words and phrases in Ewe - the local language.
It was challenging, at first, to work in the busy emergency ward at the public hospital. I remember my first day as something of a blur. It was one of the busiest days the ward had seen in a long time; there were so many things I saw and experienced in a matter of hours and I couldn’t do the day justice in less than two pages. I don’t think I sat down at any point during that day.
My Nursing placement in Togo
I managed to experience so many things that I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance to do in the UK. I assisted in a couple minor surgical procedures and spent a day working on an outreach programme in a small village. As I spent more time in the hospital I got to know and build up some great working relationships with some of the returning patients who would regularly come to have wounds redressed.
There was an elderly couple who came to the hospital once every three days who I will always remember. The man had a small wound, which needed cleaning and redressing every three days but he needed a bed for this to be done. The medical staff were often too hard pressed with emergencies to look for a bed for the man, so as soon as I had a spare moment I looked for a spare bed for him to use. When my last week came both him and his wife thanked me and told me I should stay in Togo. It was hard to say goodbye to many of the people I encountered in the ward and in the country in general.
There were difficult days. All medical resources – from syringes and medication to gloves and bandages – were not stored in the ward, but in a pharmacy at the front of the hospital. Many patients struggled to pay and people could not be treated unless they could find spares. Other patients would usually give their own spare supplies to complete strangers. I realised that it’s often the people who have the least in the world that will give the most.
My Togolese host family
My host family were fantastic, warm, welcoming and very protective. My host mother held weekly church meetings at the house with at least 20 or 30 people coming to sing and pray – we were never short of visitors. Religion is a massive part of Togolese culture, my host family were Christian and would pray twice a day. I was often present for the evening prayer and it was a nice time to reflect quietly on the day.
My family was large and with many recurring visitors it was sometimes difficult to keep track of who was who. On my first day in Togo I went with my host siblings to an aunt’s house. There was no knocking on the door to come in, instead just straight in to be greeted with a water bag and a smile. This was reciprocated on a daily basis within my host family’s home. I spent a lot of my evenings sitting outside with members of my host family enjoying the peace, quiet and great company – although bug spray was essential!
I have to mention the Togolese food of course; my host mother was an amazing cook and each day I would look forward to my meals.
Life in Togo
The transport around Togo is primarily by motorbike and as a Westerner who has had “don’t take lifts from strangers” reinforced from childhood, this may seem like a difficult thing to adjust to. But in actual fact it quickly became routine. A word of advice I would wholeheartedly give to all (and it really goes without saying), wear the helmet given to you by Projects Abroad.
Outside of my project I managed to travel with other volunteers to Kpalimé (a beautiful part of Togo with mountains, forests and waterfalls) and across the border to Ghana for a week. That in itself was quite a culture shock, Ghana (and in particular the capital Accra) is much more developed than its neighbour. Spending the first few days over at Cape Coast was an amazing retreat, after exploring Elmina Castle and learning about the influence of the slave trade in Ghana, or battling any fear of heights on the Tree Top Walk at Kakum National Park.
The rest of the week in Accra featured shopping malls, meeting other travellers and ice cream parlours that stayed open till 11:00pm. Coming back to Lomé was quite a culture shock all over again, but I wouldn’t have changed my decision of Togo if given the chance to do it all over again.