Learning about Togo

Togo is one of the many nations of the world whose name I recognize but about which I know nothing. I hope to change that over time since Alicia, the daughter of a cousin, will be spending the next two years on a Fulbright Fellowship in the town of Kara in the north of that west African nation, working with an HIV/AIDS treatment program.

She has started a blog Tales of Togo about her life and work there and they make for interesting reading. Alicia introduces herself and how she got interested in this work here.

Like many developing countries, much of government spending on infrastructure is taking place in just the capital Lome, with the result that it acts as a magnet for the entire population. Of the estimated seven million people in that nation, about 2 million live in Lome. Kara, even though it is the second largest town, has just 100,000. This is not without its benefits. As Alicia says, this gives the community a greater sense of cohesion and familiarity.

Greetings are incredibly important, and people will say bonjour or nlewa le (good morning in Kabiye, the dominant language in the North) to each and every person they pass on the street. At the clinic or with people you know more personally, the greeting is followed by a long list of questions to ask, “how is your health?”, “how is your family?” even venturing in to the abstract “how is your patience today?” I’ve really loved these types of daily interactions, because they help create a more cohesive community atmosphere in the neighborhood and in the clinic.

There are children everywhere in Kara, and they play a much more prominent role in daily life than they do in the US. The streets of Kara feel much safer to me than the streets of Boston, first and foremost because there are almost no cars driving by, and so kids play in the streets together all day and help their parents with household tasks. Many people also bring their children to work with them, and when they do everyone in the clinic gets excited and wants to talk to the kids and pick them up. Unlike America were it would weird or even perceived as threatening to go up and talk to or touch a stranger’s kid, here it is common, and just another way of expressing affection. In general, people seem to be much more trusting.

Everyone that we have talked to so far has greeted us with wide smiles, incredible warmth, and a distinct sense of pride for their country and the work that they do. The streets are filled with laughter, as well as games and music.

As a silly aside on my part, the name Togo seems to be just begging for puns and wordplay but I haven’t been able to come up with a good one, except for a rather weak one, a cheer for the fans of any of their national sporting teams where they could yell “Way Togo!”


  1. Dunc says

    If you can lay your hands on a copy of (former UK ambassador) Craig Murray’s book “The Catholic Orangemen of Togo (and other conflicts I have known)”, I’d highly recommend it. His diplomatic experiences in the region mean he can paint a fascinating picture of the complexities of post-colonial politics in the region. However, it may be quite difficult to get hold off, because legal threats from various “security contractors” mentioned in the book meant that he had to publish it himself.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    The national cuisine there must be terrific, since so many US restaurants have signs offering “FOOD TOGO”!

  3. Paulo Borges says

    Kids in Africa are amazing, let me tell you two personal anecdotes that would be impossible in our western world.
    In the city of Namibe in the south of Angola, I used the children playing in the street to go and get almost anything I needed from the shop in exchange for a coke or what ever soft drink was trending, the downside was when one of them blabbed about it to the friends, we has an army of kids hanging around the front gate waiting for the sugar or coffee to end.
    In Tripoli, Libya, I lived in an apartment in a common residential area. I parked the company’s pickup right outside of the building door and the neighborhood kids loved to play in the box (never understood why). The exhilarating part for then was, when I needed to go somewhere, the 200 meters ride from the apartment building to the main street.

  4. soogeeoh says

    The national cuisine there must be terrific, since so many US restaurants have signs offering “FOOD TOGO”!

    I knew about the country, in the sense that it exists, from following football, so I was puzzled by “COFFEE TOGO” signs here and already suspicious of colonialist/racist undertones …

  5. DonDueed says

    To me, the name Togo harkens back to a great old comic strip. But in this case, based on the excerpt above, the classic line needs a bit of editing.

    “We have met the friends, and they is us.”

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    My only knowledge of Togo is as the birthplace of Emmanuel Adebayor, a world class footballer playing for Spurs.

  7. mnb0 says

    “Of the estimated seven million people in that nation, about 2 million live in Lome”
    That’s nothing. Suriname has about 550 000 inhabitants. 240 000 live in the capital Paramaribo.

  8. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “Greetings are incredibly important, and people will say bonjour”

    That could be a French influence. In Tahiti I was surprised when even little girls greeted me with a bonjour. Except in downtown Papeete, where the streets are far too busy to greet anyone.

    BTW, French Polynesia has 250’000 inhabitants. About 160’000 of them live in Papeete.

  9. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo from 1989-1991. A lot of nice people, some decent food. The area around Kara is actually quite scenic. It was an interesting experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *