Kathryn Wilson - Human Rights in Togo
Volunteering in Togo
Since I am a third-year law students with a major in French, I wanted to gain experience in a legal context that was completely out of my comfort zone. I also wanted to practice my French in preparation for my year abroad. This was what initially drew me to this little country in West Africa, and my time there was undoubtedly one of the best months of my life.
When I arrived in Togo I was very nervous. Arriving at the airport was odd - I could feel myself getting looked at curiously and the heavy Togolese accent was difficult to understand in the beginning. However, I was greeted by my lovely volunteer coordinator and immediately made to feel at home by my host family. The Togolese travel everywhere by motos which are unbelievably fun - I don’t think my mother was expecting me to return home with motorbiking as a new passion! The city is very spread out and I was a bit surprised to hear that depending on the location of your host family, you can’t really walk anywhere so there is a constant noise of motos and chatter.
My Human Rights Work
I worked with a local NGO whose primary function is to tackle corruption and impunity in Togo. My first few days at the placement were occupied by a conference between various western African NGOs and the government, in which various human rights issues were addressed such as the rights of woman, disabled people, and children. It was quite daunting spending my first few days at such an important event but everyone was so inclusive and were constantly checking to see if I understood everything. After my first few days of being in a constant French-speaking environment, I was absolutely exhausted!
The majority of my time at the placement was spent working on cases and writing articles regarding human rights issues in Togo such as La Vindicte Populaire (when people take the law into their own hands and commit crimes for the purpose of conducting their own justice), as well as comparing the human right situation in prison between Togo and Scotland, where I live. My work here felt very real and could sometimes be a bit upsetting. We came across a lot of different cases. Often prisoners had been imprisoned for up to eight years without a trial, others had been imprisoned based on the fact that the judge had ruled in favour of the government despite the facts indicating otherwise, and journalists had been beaten and tortured for simply attempting to practice freedom of speech; something I take so much for granted.
The cases can be shocking to read through at the beginning, but it is important to remember that there is always someone to talk to should you need any advice. While the topic of work is very intense, my co-workers kept the atmosphere light and the cases we were working on made it feel like we were really making a difference in people’s lives.
Educating street kids in Togo
I also worked at another organisation which promotes health and education amongst the street kids in Togo. While I had enjoyed my work with human rights for the majority of my stay, the last few days I spent working with the kids. The Togolese children are truly one of a kind. They are the most enthusiastic, positive children I have ever met and welcome every single person with open arms (literally). During my days there, I visited a little school to teach the kids maths and French, and I found myself astounded by their eagerness to learn. Their unfaltering positivity and happiness is definitely something that we could all learn from.
My Host Family and Togolese People
I cannot express enough how friendly, accommodating and lovely my host family were. Every day the mother greeted with ‘ma cherie’ and asked me how I was. The children of the family were very funny and we had a lot of fun playing Monopoly, always laughing at my attempt to explain the game in French. The food was delicious – I have never eaten rice so full of flavour and spice and mango for breakfast every morning was a delight.
Despite Togo being the furthest I’ve been away from home alone, I cannot express enough how safe I felt all the time. Everyone I met was so lovely and took such an interest in your life, country, and culture.
Travelling and Weekend Activities
Doing an experience such as this allowed me to do work in an environment completely out of my comfort zone, but with the knowledge that there were other young people in the same situation. I got along so well with the other volunteers and have them to thank for all the fun weekends!
The highlight I would say would have to be our visit to Kpalime. This is another city in Togo around two hours from Lomé and is set at the foot of the mountains. We hailed a taxi and ended up sharing with a Togolese family also heading to Kpalime – this ended up with three of us crammed in the front and four in the back which made for an amusing journey! As part of our trip, we got a guided tour from a guide as we walked up the mountains – this was amazing and very interactive. The guide knew a great deal about the different plants, fruits and insects and drew tattoos on all our arms using crushed flowers, fruit, and a charcoal-like substance. One of the lovely moto drivers then took us further up the mountains to go swimming in one of the waterfalls, which was unbelievably beautiful. The whole experience felt very surreal – there was no one else there and the rainforest was so beautiful.
We also fit in a visit to Togo Ville as well, to see the old slave house, go out for lunch and visit a few beaches on the way home. During my other weekends, we spent time in Lomé going to the huge market, Asigomé and visiting the beach. I even went horse riding on the beach with another volunteer which was a bit of an adrenalin kick!
My time in Togo was one of the best, most rewarding and unique experiences of my life. Having the Projects Abroad staff and other volunteers out there with me made the entire experience so much easier. I have done nothing that has been as uniquely eye-opening as this, and I am sure that this is a month of my life that I will never forget.