Judith Hamilton - General Care Projects in Togo
It seems perfectly normal these days to take a gap year if you’re in your late teens or early twenties; when you reach your 50s (like me) it’s probably fair to say it’s a little more unusual. I did have a fairly conventional gap year in the 1970s when I worked on an archaeological dig and as an au pair in Spain, but seeing my sons, Robert and James, now aged 19 and 21, going off on their adventures before heading to university made me think it was high time I did something different.
James had spent January 2011 in Togo learning French with Projects Abroad before backpacking around West Africa and when I asked him which his favorite country was he immediately replied ‘Togo’. My mind was made up. I got in touch with Projects Abroad who organized my month working in an orphanage in Togo.
First impressions of Togo
I arrived in Lomé Airport late at night. It was noisy, busy and quite bewildering! It was also a bit scary as I had to leave my passport with immigration while I retrieved my bags, but this is normal procedure and, as promised, my passport was returned about 10 minutes later, complete with a week’s visa stamped in it.
Once outside the airport I was met by Delphine from Projects Abroad and she immediately made me feel very relaxed and comfortable. We drove to the home of my host family who welcomed me with open arms. We sat down to a late supper of spaghetti and tomatoes before I went to bed and I suddenly realized that my adventure had begun.
My Care placement
My placement was at a small orphanage in Adidogome called Belele. There were nine children aged between seven and 15. When I first met them I thought I’d never remember all their names and wondered what I’d think of to say to them! I was very worried that my French wouldn’t be good enough to have even a basic conversation but it was actually really easy to learn their names and I didn’t need to think of what to say – they never stopped talking!
We had long conversations about everything from space travel (quite difficult for me in English, let alone French!) to snow. I had taken coloring books, paper, pens, pencils and crayons with me and bought some puzzle books and comics when I changed planes in Paris and these were a real success. In fact, these children have so little that I think they just love getting presents of any sort. They were all so proud of their schoolwork and keen to show me their exercise books; it’s impossible to over-emphasize the importance of education in Togo.
Our daily routine
Every day, Monday to Friday that is, I got up at 5.00am and arrived at the orphanage at about 5.45am, in time to help get ready for school. We tried to leave by 6.30am to make sure we got there in good time – lessons started at 7.00. During the morning I helped clean, wash and generally tidy up the orphanage. At about 10.30am we’d start preparing lunch, usually ‘pate’ – a kind of dough-dumpling made with maize, manioc or ignames – or rice, with fish in a spicy sauce, all cooked over one small charcoal stove.
I collected the children from school at about 11.30am, when it was very, very hot, but I wouldn’t have missed meeting them from school for anything. All the other pupils shouted out ‘yovo, yovo, bonjour’, ‘yovo yovo bonsoir’ or ‘yovo yovo comme ca’ - yovo is a Togolese word for a white person - and laughed and giggled when I waved back.
My orphans were very protective of me: the girls carried my bag and my water bottle and everyone wanted to hold my hand. I felt like a celebrity! After lunch we would play games, read, do homework or sometimes just sit and chat in the shade. This was my favorite time, getting to know the children and learn about their hopes and dreams for the future, or hearing how their morning had gone at school. If one of them seemed a little sad I used to get very upset too – I couldn’t bear the thought that something was wrong.
After lunch I took them back to school and then went home, except on Friday afternoons; there were no classes but the children went back to school to play and I used to go along as well – exhausting but fun!
Two afternoons a week I had a French lesson, which was definitely worthwhile; I know my French improved dramatically during my month in Togo. Projects Abroad also organized activities on Tuesday afternoons and an evening out on Fridays, a great way to get to know other volunteers.
My host family
After I got home I tried to relax for a while as I was usually feeling very tired, not just from working hard but also from the heat and trying to take on board all the different aspects of this new culture. I loved to sit on the veranda and write my journal or read for a little while.
My host family was large and ranged in age from 3 months to over 60. Supper was cooked outside in the courtyard and was a very sociable time. I really enjoyed talking to my host mother and sisters about the food they were preparing and tried to help if possible – although I found pounding ignames to make foufou exhausting!
Everyone in Togo loves foufou, which is made by pounding boiled ignames until they become quite glutinous and can be shaped into large dumplings. It tastes really nice but is very heavy to eat in such heat!
Another favorite of mine was ‘piment’, a sauce made by grinding chilies and salt with a little water to make a sauce. Grinding the chilies with a round pebble on a flat stone looked easy but is really quite difficult. Most evenings we ate foufou, or other pates, with delicious spicy sauces and then fruit – pineapple, papaya, or green oranges, which were slightly sour but wonderfully refreshing!
After supper I would sometimes help one of the older children with his English homework or color and draw with the little girl who was very mischievous and frequently in trouble! Everyone sat outside chatting, or occasionally inside watching television. Friends often dropped in as well. It was a great way to end the day!
Living in Lomé
Adidogome is a large suburb of Lomé and the area where I lived was a quiet residential neighborhood. There is a constant, slight smell of smoke (from all the little charcoal stoves I suppose), the sounds of chickens clucking and the hubbub of distant traffic, radios playing music very loudly from bars and other businesses.
There are a lot of little shops selling groceries and a lot of little stalls selling everything from hot food to gorgeous fabrics. These little stalls look really pretty in the evening as they are all lit by little oil lamps. There seem to be dressmakers on every corner, all busy at work with their treadle sewing machines and there are dozens of hairdressers too.
There is a large market, which had to be seen to be believed – it sells everything from clothes and jewelery to livestock and meat, stalls selling dried and smoked fish, chilies and tomatoes, yams, salt and palm oil, and cooking pots. It is very noisy: stallholders and customers having to shout more and more loudly to make themselves heard; taxis and motorbikes trying to make their way down the most impenetrable alleyways. The whole experience is somewhere between intoxicating and bewildering but by the end of my stay there I had completely fallen in love with the place!
There is very little public transport in Lome. When we went to the beach on a Sunday afternoon we all piled into a taxi. The beach is crowded on Sunday afternoons and it is quite a spectacle, with everyone parading up and down and buying delicious street food and Fan Milk – sachets of frozen, vanilla milk, which tastes wonderful. The easiest way to travel around if you are on your own is by taxi-moto – motorbikes that pick up passengers and take them anywhere they want to go, quite scary at first if, like me, you’ve never been on a motorbike before, but it can be great fun too, away from the main road where there isn’t much traffic.
I had very mixed emotions about leaving Togo. Of course, I wanted to see my family and friends again and tell them all about my time in Togo, but it was so hard to say goodbye to my wonderful host family and the amazing children at Belele. I think of them every day.
I’m able to keep in touch with my host family by email, which is marvelous; I get so excited when I see I’ve received an email from them. They were so kind, so helpful and so welcoming that I never once felt lonely or homesick. I’ll never forget the very real affection shown to me by the children. The things I could do for them felt like nothing compared with their love and generosity. I miss them all every day.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.