Evie Snow - Law & Human Rights in Togo
Lomé and my host family
The heat was the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Lomé, Togo on the 3rd February at 4.30am and 5 months later, I still notice it! But in this amazing country there are so many fascinating things to observe that the weather often (but not always!) takes a backseat.
The differences between Western and Togolese culture are vast yet there are many things I prefer here - the huge sense of community for one. People constantly visit the house, and they’re always greeted like long-lost friends. What strikes me so strongly is the vitality of life here. This is partly because Lomé is a capital city, but I’ve experienced it even when travelling – and the people are so friendly!
If like me, you have no sense of direction at all, here you lose all fear of asking for directions as you will always be told without mockery and often escorted right to the door. Whether entering home, the internet café or the supermarket you’re greeted warmly. In the local language of the south – Mina – there are around nine different ways to greet somebody! I took a 14-hour language course in my first months here and found it not only interesting, but a great tool for bargaining down transport prices; as soon as you show even a little knowledge of their language, the respect you gain for having made an effort is huge.
My host family welcomed me with open arms (even when I arrived at 5am) and have made me one of their own - they genuinely feel like my second family now. Living with a host family is the best way to experience real life in a country and although the daily routine of 4.30am sweeping and an 8am ‘lie-in’ was alien to begin with, it now seems natural to me. Because I’m here for so long, and my host mother is convinced that I won’t leave, part of my becoming Togolese involves learning to cook. This is fantastic because I cook in England too so returning home with some basic recipes will be brilliant. Learning to cook here is exciting, perhaps more for those who have to eat the result than for me, but I’m hoping that I’m getting better, even a little bit at least!
Travelling in the North of Togo
During the school’s Easter holidays I had the opportunity to discover the north of Togo. It was an amazing 6 days. We set out on the Post Office bus from Lomé to Kanté (about an hour and half north of Kara, in the Savanes region), a drive of around 9 hours, including stops. Not only was this more comfortable and more organised than the usual bush-taxi, it was really worthwhile to catch a glimpse of the major places we planned to visit on our journey back down from the north: Kara, Sokodé, Atakpamé and finally Kpalimé.
On arrival in Kanté we headed for the village visited by UNESCO in 2007 when they sponsored the building of a tata house especially for travellers to stay in. The drive back through countryside best described as typical African scrubland will remain forever one of my most treasured memories. Here a bit of a dirt track was as far it is went in terms of a road, and there were various animals to navigate through including chickens, cows, wild boar and goats; the wild boar decided to meander its way across our path in a very relaxed Togolese way! When we finally arrived in the village, we were made so welcome and were even served a meal in our little house.
Our final stop on our trip was Kpalimé, where we were able to unwind as we had both been there previously. Kpalimé’s main attraction is its beautiful waterfalls and although this town is one of the most touristy we found, the laid-back atmosphere (even more than is normal for Togolese) is very relaxing and the gorgeous waterfalls are worth the steep descent and re-ascent.
We arrived back in Lomé after 6 days of adventure tired, rather dirty, and very glad to be home. But along with the sunburn and stomach aches, we also brought back with us some unforgettable memories of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, which couldn’t have happened anywhere else but here.
My Volunteer Projects
I chose to do two projects and started with my Teaching Project which just flew by. Challenging, but also rewarding in the end, it taught me so much, not least to be grateful for the good education I’ve been fortunate enough to have. I started extra afternoon classes where at first we are learning about England, and English life, but I ultimately want it to become a club of Human Rights, not necessarily in English. I want them to think about their rights, other people’s rights, and how they can go about promoting them, even within the school environment itself. We’ve had two sessions so far covering the geography, names of towns and cities, landscape, plants etc of England. They know a surprising number of cities, but I soon discovered that this was more linked to football teams!
Whilst talking about the weather I said that most of the vegetables indigenous to the UK grow underground because it’s warmer; whereupon I was immediately asked that if this was the case, was here the first time I’d ever eaten a mango? The answer was no, and from there of course, we got onto a conversation about just how much is imported into the UK and the list seemed endless. I will continue this club until the end of my stay and will soon start tackling bigger subjects, such as discrimination.
Law & Human Rights Project
The project that I’m currently engaged in is Law & Human Rights with the Collectif des Associations Contre l’Impunité au Togo. This a multi-faceted project, as there are many issues to combat here. My association deals a lot with people suffering human rights abuses, mostly from the years 2005/7 after the problems with the Presidential elections following the death of the previous president, and I am able to sit in on these consultations in order to write up the report of the complaint.
This is really interesting work, especially as many of the perpetrators of the violence in those years continue to live freely among the population, so we have a lot of work to try and see justice done. I’m also engaged in the unit for the Promotion of Human Rights, where we organise events such as those around the International Day in Support of Torture Victims on the 26th June and also projects on women’s rights. We are currently in the process of putting together a project on the problem of sexual harassment and are hoping to get funding to put it into action from 2013. I’m learning more and more as every day goes by; not just about human rights in general, but other invaluable skills such as people management which come with working in an organisation that mainly deals with people.
Overall, my Togo experience has been extraordinary. Projects Abroad Togo is a family with very supportive staff and the other volunteers have helped me come to terms with things which I’ve sometimes struggled to accept. Life here isn’t always easy, and being thousands of miles away from everything familiar definitely has its crisis points. But after 5 months here I wouldn’t change a thing about what I’ve had so far, and can only try to make the most of my last 2 months because time goes faster than you ever think it will.
Volunteering work itself is the most rewarding kind and the opportunity to experience life in Togo is one I will treasure and am so glad I took. I’ve found a second family here, in so many ways, and hope they stick around until I come back!