Such a good day today. A long day but so interesting and energizing. Began with early breakfast at 6ish in order to be ready for the driver at 6.30, but we needn’t have worried about holding things up. Due to the qualification of Togo into the World Cup final over the weekend, today was declared a national holiday and upon phoning the office about the non-appearance of said driver, the speculation was that he was probably still comatose after celebrating the victory on Saturday!
Anyhow, finally got underway about 7.
30 in the end, and no-one seemed that fussed, just a few shrugs and a ‘well, this is Africa’ kind of resigned look. First stop was a village called Yovo-Cope, about 150km outside Lome, so a 2.5 hour drive north up to the plateau region of Togo and prefecture of East-Mono. We were to meet with the committee responsible for the School Improvement Programme (SIP), which consisted of community members, Director of schools, and a couple of child representatives. This committee works to ensure that the school works well but most importantly to encourage the community to take responsibility for the education of its children and to get them into school. Previously children were not encouraged into school as they were required to help at home and in the fields – this is a small, rural village based on farming – and girls in particular did not appear in school very much.
Attendance is now close to 100%! I was looking forward to meeting with the committee but was not prepared for the welcome…
We traveled by good roads for about two hours – the highway out of Lome is the main link between the port in Togo and Burkina Faso, so there are economic reasons why it is well maintained. After that, we were on dirt roads heading into the Bush and as we pulled into the village it was clear that everyone was gathered to welcome us! About a hundred people were assembled underneath a huge Baobab tree in the heart of the village and there was much excitement as we pulled in. A welcome song broke out as we alighted from the vehicles and two young women danced energetically and clapped furiously as part of the welcome ritual.
We were formally greeted and presented with flowers before being guided to some big, old armchairs where we were seated and the speeches and other formalities began, which included more songs from some of the children.
It felt so good to be among these people and yet so strange. I looked around and saw such honest and earnest faces. A whole group of people gathered together through the force of a development agency’s efforts to support them in improving their lot, and out of genuine gratitude for the material and other assistance they had received. This was a very poor community but proud, and though they had very little they dressed as smartly as they could and their children were clean, well-presented and well-behaved. Children looked bewildered at the scene and at the presence of the white people – in the last village we visited a crowd of little children wearing next to nothing and covered in dust were all so keen to shake my hand on arrival and it was obvious that they really wanted to see what my skin felt like.
Speaking to them directly prompted a whole range of different reactions, but it was also clear that the appearance of someone so alien to their environment was a cause of great consternation!
Looking beyond the group I could see a few huts and low rise buildings, then nothing but fields and the Bush – a rich, lush mix of trees and shrubs, the magnificent baobab, giant laburnum, teak, exotic fruit trees and high palms whose slender trunks shot into the sky before their fronds exploded looking for all the world like a rocket on bonfire night, arcing skywards before bursting with a colourful display. How on earth did I come to be here I wondered, it all seemed so surreal and such a long way from my small home town!
We were able to ask questions of the committee while all the village continued to sit and stand around.
Such an open and direct group. There is a culture of everyone saying what they feel very openly as everyone is accountable to each other as part of the community. There is a right to have a say and to criticize, and the teachers came under examination for the quality of their work and for also using children to work in their fields! This sounds outrageous but then you realize that the teachers are community volunteers rather than government appointed, and as such receive very little money. As a result of teaching they are not able to tend their fields and the modest stipend they receive does not provide them with enough to buy food. It is not acceptable to use children to work for them when they should be studying, but resolving this tricky issue became the source of much debate.
The question of school attendance came up, and there was pride in the statement about increased attendance and near 100% figures, then the canton that did not provide so much encouragement came under fire, again in a very open and frank way.
A child was plucked from the crowd and held up as an example of a girl who decided not to go to school and there was some amusement at her inability to say what would help her attend. I felt so sorry for her being paraded like this and the Country Director (CD) also, so we were able to get her back to her seat, but the community would not see this as an issue. Her father then spoke up and explained that she did not go because her mother had left, and it became apparent that the girl was beaten quite often and everyone knew about this. She was generally seen as difficult and from a disrupted home so this explained her predicament…and this conversation was conducted in front of the whole village! Everyone knows everybody else’s business and it is OK for this to be the subject of communal discussion. I was worried about the girl but was reassured afterwards that staff would investigate her circumstances.
It seems that other community members would not have intervened as the girl would be blamed for her difficult behaviour and therefore deserving of her physical punishment. Poor, poor girl.
The conversation moved on to physical punishment in general and I was put on the spot by a question from a member of the community. I had been announced as the big, global head of child protection and was asked my opinion on a matter of beating children – one parent said that no matter how hard they beat their child, the child would shrug it off and had got used to it so that it was now impossible to control him, so what did I suggest. I felt a hundred pairs of eyes on me and after thinking momentarily ‘oh my God, what can I say to these people’ I suggested this was a good argument against beating children as it clearly didn’t work.
The CD said ‘yes, but they want to know what to do’, and I told them to love their children, that it was never too late to stop beating them and to talk to them and to show them that they were loved, to encourage them, to treat them with respect, that it is only through good relationships that we can work together with our children and agree how we will behave towards one another. This was translated and there was spontaneous applause! I went on to say that I had three children and understood how difficult it is to raise children…but they are farmers, so I drew an analogy with them and their crops, that they tended their maize, looked after it, cared for and protected it, and it then gave them a good harvest. I suggested that if they took a stick to the maize and broke it then it would be useless to them and that would not make sense. More applause! A mother stood up and agreed strongly, saying that they should love their children more and that was only way for them to grow up well.
The problem is that they do not have the alternatives and need assistance with training and learning about good parenting. As we drove away we discussed how they might receive some of this support and the resources that exist that might be used to help with this. I enjoyed the visit so much and was pleased with the discussion and their willingness to talk so openly about their situation and that of the children. I was so excited that this kind of change could happen, that even traditional, rural communities can grasp the importance of love and protection of their children, and all the dreams I have about changing the world for children, for making it a safer and more caring place for them to grow up in, at least for a moment seemed possible…
The next village hosted a much smaller meeting, just a dozen or so young people who made up the majority of the ‘Girls First’ club, an organization of local young people which had decided to look at the problem of early pregnancy and to develop a set of activities to address this.
What an impressive bunch! We sat in a schoolroom – a typical, open-sided construction consisting of a few poles and a straw roof. We sat at the benches of the pupils and just chatted easily. There were the usual slightly formal presentations to begin with and the obligatory song (the children chanted their welcomes and sang about how they were going to present to us their action plan…so sweet!). We talked about the threats to girls of early pregnancy, the sexual exploitation by passing truck drivers, the few alternatives if they fell pregnant (the parents basically give them the option of an illegal, secret abortion or of being thrown out – many opt for the latter, go away looking for work, end up in prostitution…all so grim). This group is trying to educate their peers about reproductive sexual health and to work on the attitudes of boys in particular to encourage condom use, for example. They were all so young yet so worldly-wise. They said that children tend to become sexually active at about 13 and that is when the problems start! But they were keen and bright-eyed and shrewd and had a commitment to make things better and their competence was really encouraging – apparently they did not dare to speak to begin with and now here they all were, holding forth, full of ideas about what to do and where to go next. The CD is an inspirational character and she talks about ‘giving children wings’…just give them wings and they will fly, all they need is the opportunity, encouragement and support, and just let them get on with it. This was a light, fun meeting.
So on to the youth chicken farmers! This was a similar meeting to the first one – full village turn out, formal presentations, usual song (‘Say no to trafficking!’)…this was a very, very poor community and as I suggested earlier, people were in a much worse state than in Yovo-Cope. This is a village where there are high risks of children being trafficked, mainly into Nigeria for the boys where they work in the fields, and to Benin, Sierra Leone, Guinea and also Nigeria for the girls where they work as domestic labour, though many live the lives of slaves and are raped and often disappear. The boys come back after a couple of years – they are shipped out illegally and transported in terrible conditions to their new place of work before signing a contract for 2 or 3 years. They do not get paid until the end of that time when they get about 30USD equivalent, enough to get a bike to pedal home on. And this is what they want, a bike. They endure all of that in order to become the proud owner of a crappy bicycle. Sad, sad, sad. There is more to it than that. I asked the community why trafficking was so prevalent here and they said poverty, but when challenged by the CD they admitted that the quality of the relationships between parents and children was not good. They seemed to accept that this was an area of community development that was of just as much or even more importance than materials assistance…building relationships as opposed to building a well.
The atmosphere in this village was quite aggressive and I noted how the little children pulled at each other, nipped, scratched, hit each other with the huge laburnum pods, and wondered about the levels of violence they experienced at the hands of their parents. I felt sorry for the children. There was such poverty and even though the older ones told chilling stories about their experiences of being trafficked, you imagined many more growing up to leave or be sent from their families to travel the same desperate route…although hopefully not – there is certainly a range of activities designed to prevent trafficking in place now, and more to follow, and we were told that the numbers of those leaving the village had declined significantly. Next year they aim to have zero leave the village! The chicken houses are integral to achieving that!
We were led through the village to survey the new improved chicken houses. The village was a riot of activities, smells, sights and sounds. Smoke drifted across the dirt and scrub of the village and between the huts, clay walls and woven straw rooves. A woman was frying fish in a blackened cooking pot on an open fire, the oil a filthy brown colour and the odours coming up from the pot stung the nostrils. Chicken, guinea fowl, small goats and sheep ran here-and-there. Everywhere villagers sat around and eyed us up as we strode around their territory, though with nothing more than a mild curiosity. The group accompanying us around was substantial and swollen mainly by excited children. We were shown into the hen houses and were shown some birds, their nesting areas and there was even an egg on the straw (looked suspiciously like it had been planted there for our benefit!) I remarked on how strong and healthy the birds looked, which seemed to please those in charge of them as these are a special, organic breed. The CD took some photos and all the children were so excited at being able to see the digital image of themselves. Such a tumult everytime she agreed to take a photo and children crowding in to be on it, jumping up and waving their hands…even the adult members of the committees we met were caught up in the excitement and were equally amused by the whole process of posing for the camera and then clamouring to look at the image!
A long drive back, much of it in rainy darkness was not a good way to finish, but what a marvelous, fascinating and satisfying day. I saw so much and learned so much. What a privilege to be able to share in the life of an African village like that, if only fleetingly…but to have the opportunity to sit down with the men, women and children of that area and hear about their situations, their realities, the challenges and all the successes, and to marvel at their resourcefulness and resilience. I need to reflect on this some more but these dusty roads are leading somewhere…