Ailsa Campbell - Medicine in Togo
Before I arrived in Togo, I had no idea what to expect: would my French be good enough? Would I like the food? Would the locals be friendly? Could I cope with the work at my volunteer placement?
I needn't have worried because as soon as I left the airport I was greeted by the sights, sounds and smells of a country distant (in more ways than one!) from my own. The moto-filled streets lined with vendors, sights of people of all ages dancing their hearts out to a mixture of traditional African music and Azonto – not to mention the sounds of people shouting “Yovoyovo – bonsoir!” as I passed. Such a vibrant and colourful place I had never seen – all my nerves and fears melted away.
My Host Family
During my time volunteering in Togo I lived with a local family - kind and funny people who were always there when I needed them. I became incredibly close to my Mama – who always made an effort to teach me about her culture and involve me in her day to day life. Being introduced to her friends and uncountable “nieces and nephews” as her daughter, Adjo, made me feel like a genuine member of the family.
She taught me how to make my favourite dishes, koliko and aloko, in exchange for my recipe for highland shortbread, and showed me the best places to get bargains in the market (and how to haggle most effectively!). My most enduring memory of her is when I woke up in hospital after a minor bout of illness and she had slept there just to watch over me – and asked my local friend to bring me my favourite foods for breakfast.
My placement working at the Clinic Medico-Sociale Jerusalem, was one of the most exciting and rewarding jobs I have ever had. My colleagues were incredibly patient and helpful - always keen to teach me medical French vocabulary and new skills to help me in medical school. I was able to perform procedures and consultations under the guidance of my experienced mentors - allowing me to build confidence in my abilities. The staff were also incredibly good fun – playing practical jokes on me, teasing me about my sunburn, jokingly trying to marry me off and wearing the kilts I made for them – all day!
I made a very special friend in Béni – the son of the secretary. His attempts to take my temperature with a pen and find my heartbeat in my stomach never failed to brighten my day – and his love of the dubstep music on my iPod came as a surprise to everyone! The highlight was when I watched the clinic's choir singing acapella on the rooftop at sunset during a night shift - followed by a traditional dancing lesson by the children of the attached church's congregation.
While I enjoyed working in Togo, I was also able to take full advantage of my free time. Taking part in classes on local culture, cuisine, language and the arts allowed me to really begin to understand the country that had made me so welcome. I was also fortunate enough to be able to travel extensively during my stay - from swimming in the highest waterfall in West Africa, to being tattooed with plant dyes in Kpalimé, to going on safari in Sarakawa, to following the slave routes of Bénin. I cannot deny that these trips were challenging at times - but what would life be without adventure?
I can now say that I have been chased by a monkey, danced until dawn, eaten a whole pig (with help!), driven on a motorbike, got full head braids and ridden in the back of a pick-up truck which I think not many people can say they have done. The travelling I did was invaluable in allowing me to get a sense of the different areas of such a diverse country – which are incredibly different from just Lomé itself. The memories from these trips will last me a lifetime – not to mention the friendships I made in the process.
Coming back home
After returning to my home in the north of Scotland I can definitely say that I am a changed person. Not least because I don’t have to share my car with 9 other people, 3 goats and 2 chickens! I have met and experienced people, places and partying like no other - and probably none like I ever will again. My iPod is full of the local music, my kitchen full of yam and plantain, and my bedroom full of African art, jewellery and statuettes.
I read books in French in the hope that I can continue to improve so much that it may be possible for me to live and work permanently in Franco-phone countries - my Togolese and Scottish French teachers would both be proud. I begin university next year with an invaluable understanding of the practical and emotional sides of medicine.
I can honestly say that the time I spent in Africa was the most worthwhile thing I have ever done - and I will treasure those memories forever. And one last thing - I was told this by a Togolese friend - and I believe it to be true:
"Malgré ton depart d'Afrique, c'est sur que l'Afrique continuera de vivre dans ton cœur pour toujours"