Following his recent visit to Togo, our colleague and Global Poverty Project intern Geoffrey talks about his experience of volunteering, the amazing culture of the country and his beloved Ghana. Oh, and he mentions cold showers too.
My name is Geoffrey and I’m staying in a small village in Togo, near the border with Benin. The last few weeks have opened my eyes and been a real experience to share with you.
The main reason I'm here in Togo is to help with a project in the village of Tohoun, which runs for about 2 weeks. We'll be working with the community on issues such as education, malaria prevention, sexual health, and the environment. There are about 20 other students on the programme but they're all Togolese and only a handful speak any English – the main language in Ghana, which is changed for French across the border in Togo.
Landing in Accra and crossing the border, my first impressions of Togo were a big difference from what I expected from my home country of Ghana. Togo is a very poor country, evident immediately by the infrastructure- it's humbled me a lot to see people, many of whom I can now call friends, just get on with it. The culture is amazing and even the animals are friendly – with a chicken joining our football match.
People here ask me what I think of Togo, I tell them I like it a lot, and they tell me (jokingly) to stop lying. But I am truly fond of it here.
One reason why I chose the NGO that I did was because I wanted to see firsthand how a Togolese development organisation went about tackling its own country's issues. I've always been a staunch believer that a country's development must be directed and owned by its own people, and I wish there were more agencies attempting the same thing. If I had to write my ideal summary of how the project went, I'd say that 'the people were absolutely delighted to welcome us, we were such a blessing to the whole community, and at the end we left knowing that we'd changed the world'. But while the project didn’t go quite like this, it was a valuable experience.
Most of the families we were staying with didn't know that we were coming until the night we arrived. I was given to a house along with two other girls, and so the mother who was just about to feed her own children had to provide food for 3 more. I was upset to later hear that on the first night our mother hadn't eaten because she'd had to give her food to us.
It seemed that we were actually making life more difficult for the very people that we'd come to help. At times I felt as though our project was a bit top-down. We seemed to take fixed ideas to the community and it felt like we were saying "Stop what you're doing, and listen to us tell you how to do it properly". When people didn't turn up to our meetings, members of the NGO were confused.
Development isn't a project, it occurs as people live their ordinary lives; whether it's farming their crops or selling their vegetable. Regardless, the community were at large appreciative that a bunch of students from the capital had taken the time to come and help.
With some proactive planning this project would have been ideal…but it has given me a crucial insight into both the sector and the impacts of volunteering.
Personally, I can say I grew a lot from the experience. I genuinely liked the challenge of having to eat maize twice a day, use just a bucket of cold water for my shower, use a 'different' kind of toilet, teach at the school and try to keep my head above water with the French.
In England, I talk a lot about poverty, but in the village I had the opportunity to really know what it's like living on about a dollar a day…But it wasn't all doom and gloom, not by any stretch, there had been progress as well. There was electricity, nearly everyone had a mobile phone, and there were recently built wells in most homes. It's a different village to how it would have been ten years ago.
We had passionate discussions on Africa’s development, encompassing a myriad of hot topics such as the Togolese government, foreign investment, and the conflict in Ivory Coast and Libya. It's like when a particular conversation in itself justifies the six weeks in Africa...deep times!! At other times, it was difficult being the only person for miles who wasn't Togolese.
Coming back, I'm really glad I had the experience, and I've gained an insight and understanding about a form of rural life in Africa that no textbook could've given me. I hope I had an impact during the project, but I suspect this occasion was more about learning and thinking so that next time I can return as a different person who can offer a lot more.