Travel Stories: Togo

I’m currently in the process of preparing a speech about how to travel safely and smoothly through Thailand and it’s mostly consisting of personal travel stories. Things to watch out for. Stories to illustrate the different mentality. Anecdotes to show that life in an other country may be different but not necessarily better or worse. I’m thinking about writing some of these memories down and posting them on this blog. You can view it as a short story, or maybe as a tip in case you plan on traveling. It’s totally up to you, I’m only here to share my experiences ;-)
For more info click here.

Let’s start with my first Sunday morning in Dzemeke, a tiny village in Togo.

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We were advised that we should go to church. The plan was to introduce us to the villagers, and as the village actually consisted of a collection of small villages, we ended up going to not just one church, but four.

The whole experience was a bit strange and surreal as none of us volunteers were even the least bit religious. We were welcomed with open arms though, and everyone was so friendly and nice. All the women were dressed in their finest, most colourful clothes and they were looking absolutely gorgeous. The music was full of rhythm and it seemed like fun – such a huge difference from what I knew church to be.

One thing they couldn’t quite understand though was how we could not believe in God. How we could not have faith. A conversation with one of the men living in the village went like this.

“So you don’t believe in God?”
– “No, I’m afraid not.”
“And you don’t go to church on Sundays?”
– “No, no point in going when you don’t believe in God, you know.”
“So what do you do on Sundays when you don’t go to church?”
– “I don’t know… sleep in, I guess. Spend the day at home with the family.”
“That’s it? That’s all you do on Sundays?”
– “Yeah…”

It was the strangest thing and that moment showed me how drastically different we see certain things. Nevertheless, they welcomed us to their community, eager to show us a part of their culture and life and it certainly was an experience I won’t ever forget.

I attended a catholic school, yes, I went to mass and had religion classes. I’m baptised and confirmed but those were more done out of tradition than belief. I haven’t been to church since I finished school and I don’t think I will go again any time soon either. I don’t want to get into a huge discussion about religion, I only meant for this to be a little story, something small that had a big impact on me.

Here are some of the churches we went to:

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World: Togo – Life in the village

If you’ve read my post “Reflection” you probably already have a fairly good idea of what my time in Togo was like. It was tough, yes, but also a great experience that I wouldn’t want to miss.

Here’s a bit more about my stay; more precisely, about how the life in the village was.

Our day started at 6.30am. We had breakfast before school started at 8am. We taught French and Maths until roughly 11.30am – and sometimes we also went outside to play a game. After school, we started preparing for lunch. In the afternoon we usually had “sieste” for… well as long as we wanted to sleep. Then we had to do our chores – wash the dishes, fetch water, or prepare dinner. Times was spent walking around the village or playing with the kids we had a tiny room within the village so we were surrounded by kids all the time. All. The. Time.

It doesn’t sound like much, but I literally fell asleep the moment my head hit my (makeshift) pillow. The days were incredibly exhausting and every moment I could crawl into my sleeping bag and get some quiet time was welcomed with open arms.

The people in the village were very welcoming. Once you get used to the customary “Yovo, Yovo, Bonsoir!” (‘Yovo’ is what white people are called in Ewe, the mother tongue of the people in Togo. This saying was yelled around wherever we went all day long – even at 7am. It followed us everywhere – from the tiny village to Lomé, the capital city).

As previously mentioned, we stayed in rooms within the village; for lack of better description, you could say we practically shared a hut with other villagers. We also shared our first room with a mouse and far too many massive, massive spiders. When we changed rooms we saw that the lock on that room was broken, so we changed again – again to a room with a broken lock. After a week we gave up.

Since we lived within the village, we were surrounded by children the entire time. You could barely go to the toilet(hole in the earth, used by the entire village) without someone following you around. They were lovely, sure, but I’m a person who needs some quiet time for herself. I need to be alone – without having to talk to people, or be surrounded – from time to, so this was difficult for me.

As I mentioned in the previous post we collected water ourselves, showered with buckets of cold water (hot water had to be boiled on the open “stove”), and brushed our teeth with water from the bottle. Living conditions were pretty simple and probably not for everyone, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience this. While I wish that I would have been warned about the living conditions before I left, I know that I might not have gone, so maybe not knowing what to expect was a blessing in disguise. Who knows?

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[Above: Packed and ready to drive from Lomé to the village! | Below: the stove.]

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[Above: the toilets. | Below: the shower.]

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[Above and Below: Floriane fetching water.]

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[Above: one of the classrooms. | Below: my room.]

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[Above: washing my clothes. | Below: candlelight dinner is a necessity when it gets dark at 7pm and you have no electricity.]

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[Above: our roommate. | Below: a life-saver!.]

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[More Togo-travel posts: The People | Activities | Reflection | All Around | More photos here.]

World: Togo – People

Last August I was volunteering at a tiny village in Togo (which you might have gathered from the post Reflection“).

In this post I’m going to tell you a bit more about my time in Africa.

We had no electricity (awesome when it’s pitch black at 7pm), no running water (cool when you have to walk 15 minutes to fetch it for showers and cooking) and no proper toilets (but who needs them anyway when you can share a corn field with some chicken?) I was looking for an adventure for a long time and oh boy, was this trip an adventure.

I went so I could practice my French and I thought – what better way to practice French than to spend time with people who speak French. Then I thought: well, going to France is boring (remember, I wanted an adventure) and this is how I ended up in Togo.

Just a few words to the topic of volunteering, because I know that it can be a touchy subject. This was my 2nd time volunteering (I went to Thailand for 5 weeks 2 years ago) but I don’t do this to save the world. Frankly, if you do it for this reason you are very misguided. I also don’t do it so I can tell everyone what a good person I am, because to be honest, I rather not tell anyone that it was volunteering. The point is, you don’t save the world. You maybe give back a bit and do your part but – I repeat: you’re not saving the world. For me it is simply an opportunity to see a country I wouldn’t have otherwise, experience in a way that you can never as a tourist and – in this case – learn a language.

Here some more pictures of the people I met in Togo.

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[More stories (and of course pictures!) to come so stay tuned!]

[More Togo-travel posts: Life in the village | Activities | Reflection | All Around | More photos here.]

Reflection

What did I know – or thought to have known about life? About living standards? Adventure? Poverty? What did I know about myself?

I was in Kathmandu in February once, and I remember being so, so cold. The cold was inside of my bones, seeping through my entire body. I felt like I’d never get warm again. We didn’t have warm water for showers, no heating, next to no electricity, and I woke up more than once in the middle of the night because I was freezing.

So I thought I knew how to appreciate electricity and warm, running water. I thought I wouldn’t take it for granted anymore because I knew what it was like to have to live without it.

The reality is different, though. It’s frightening how fast and easily you adapt back to what you consider normal and take things for granted again once you’re home. And how, from that experience onwards, you think  “Oh well, I can go through anything now.”

How wrong I was.

My days in Africa were filled with difficulties: the language barrier was the most obvious one for me, but it was something I expected to be hard. What I didn’t know about was the complete lack of electricity whatsoever. The lack of plumbing or running water – never mind warm water took me by surprise, too.
I carried buckets of water from the cistern to the main house, making a ten minutes walk seem like eternity. If we wanted hot water for the shower, we had to heat it up over open fire. Toilets? Ha! How about a hole in the earth that was used by the entire village?

Cooking dinner? Awesome when you can’t see anything at all. We sat around a tiny bench, torches in our mouths trying to cut tomatoes and the chicken that was, until a day ago, still living right next to our room.

I thought I’d seen everything. I thought I was conscious of poverty and I thought I was able to handle it all. Culture shock seemed to be a word I thought I didn’t know.  And in a sense I wasn’t shocked, it just took me by surprise. Never once had anyone mentioned that this was how I’d spend those two weeks. Never once had I thought all these things would end up complicating my stay – adding to the already established difficulty I experienced because I couldn’t speak the language that well.

However, my days were also spent with playing with kids, “teaching” mathematics and French, cooking meals, washing the dishes or collecting water. I went on wild taxi moto drives up to a waterfall – the true speed never to be known because the speedometer was broken. I was in a car with four French girls when the driver got lost in the African bush at four o’clock in the morning.

I danced around the fire, clapping and laughing to the sounds of a drum, drinking Togo Gin, eating Fufu, and having a great time.

It was difficult, yes. More so than I ever could have imagined. Was it worth it though, in the end? Yes. A thousand times, yes.

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