My Peace Corps Experience in Togo, Africa
My experience in the United States Peace Corps when I was in my twenties was a major event in my life that has shaped everything that came after. I decided to join the Peace Corps as a result of a trip I took to Africa in 1988 to visit a friend who was serving in Senegal. After visiting him in his village and meeting his friends there, I continued on to east Africa for a 2-week camping safari in Kenya. I was mesmerized by the continent and knew I wanted to return.
I was a 22 year-old young man from a small town in Alabama with very limited exposure outside of the South and, to be honest, I was scared to death at the thought of traveling to Africa. It was in part, that fear, and the desire to conquer it as well as the need to get out of my comfort zone and attempt to contribute to the world in some small way that drove me to apply for the United States Peace Corps upon my return. That decision put my life on an entirely different course.
In Front of My Favorite Restaurant in Lomé – “Bassari Bar”
The Peace Corps Application Process
Back in 1988 and likely still true today, the Peace Corps did not make it easy to join their ranks. The application alone proved too daunting for many aspiring volunteers. It took me many hours over several weeks to fill it out. Then there were the required letters of recommendation, the medical and dental records and exams, multiple in-person interviews conducted 4 hours away in Atlanta and the endless waiting. All along the way, they discouraged me in person, on the phone and in writing. The Peace Corps rejected 7 out of 10 applicants during that time, but I figured that the discouragement and the roadblocks were part of an endurance test to weed out those who were not dedicated, committed and up for the task physically, mentally and emotionally. The rigorous process is understandable given that over 30% of Peace Corps Volunteers leave before completing their service. The entire process from application to departure took almost 1 year.
I remember receiving the thick invitation packet in the mail and ripping it open to find out I was going to Togo, West Africa….Togo?!?! I had to look it up. I did not get to choose where I was going, but I was thrilled to be returning to west Africa. The next 3 months were spent getting my medical clearance, having my wisdom teeth removed (required by the Peace Corps), selling my car and belongings, transitioning out of my job, going to orientation and saying goodbye. I was so excited to be embarking on this new adventure but after working as an engineer in Nashville for 3 years, I was concerned about falling behind my friends by taking myself off a career path.
Quitting my job, selling all my things, moving to Africa away from creature comforts and everything I knew, sometimes overwhelmed me with doubt and thoughts of “Am I insane!!?” I told as many people as I could that I was joining the Peace Corps, I think, in part, so I couldn’t change my mind. My parents had mixed feelings about me going. On one hand they were concerned about my safety and weren’t sure that this was the best use of my engineering degree from Auburn University. On the other hand, they were supportive of my dreams and desire for a life change.
Drinking “Chouk” – A Local Fermented Beer – with Fellow Volunteers
“Look around the room because these people whom you think you have nothing in common with are going to end up being some of your closest friends for life.”
Before departing for Africa, we had 3 days of orientation in New Orleans for required immunizations and to prepare us for the next 2 and a half years. The other volunteers were from different parts of the country. Most were from the Mid-West, and the East and West coasts. Very few were from the South.The majority were right out of college but there were a few in their 50’s and 60’s. I remember the Peace Corps staff saying, “Look around the room because these people who you think you have nothing in common with are going to end up being some of your closest friends for life.” Turns out they were right.
Dancing a Traditional African Dance at a Fête (“Traditional Celebration”) in Bassar, Togo
Arrival in Togo, West Africa
I arrived in Togo in September, 1990 and I still remember the smell of the air and the feel of the heat and humidity on my skin and how different everything looked when I stepped off the plane. My culture shock was eased by the fact that I had been to Africa once before but it was still a shock knowing that this time I would be living there. The drastic change from life at home proved too much for some. One fellow volunteer called it quits within the first 3 days. A second soon followed 2 weeks later. Within the first year, we lost a third of our group for one reason or another.
Our first three months in Togo were spent at a training center in rural Togo several hours from the capital. Here they prepared us for living and working in Togo with intensive language training (French and Ewe), cultural immersion and technical training for our assigned programs. After this training, we were taken to our posts and dropped off to start our new lives. We were paid a small stipend each month while we were living in Togo.
For the most part, we lived as the Togolese lived, including our housing, transportation and food. This, of course, is part of the point of the Peace Corps – experiencing the true culture of the host country and sharing our culture with them. It was part of what made the Peace Corps so rewarding, although there were times when you were on a hot, crowded bush taxi for 9 hours with live goats strapped overhead that it didn’t feel so rewarding.
My Initial Work Assignment
I initially went to Togo to work in what was called the “Animal Traction Program.” This was a program to teach farmers how to plow fields with oxen, a skill I learned during my 3 months of training in Togo. We were, however, one of the final groups of this 20-year program and most of the farmers I was assigned to had already been plowing their fields with oxen for several years. I didn’t feel that I could contribute effectively in this capacity so after 4 months at my original post in Kévé, I decided to move to the capital city Lomé and found a job with a small business organization called Projet ECHOPPE, which exists to this day. This organization gives small loans to female entrepreneurs while also focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention and education. In addition, We worked with several local street artisans to help develop and market their products. I also taught basic bookkeeping courses to small business owners.
The People of Togo
In general the Togolese were very warm, welcoming and generous people. The majority of them were very happy to have us there and did their best to make us feel at home. By our standards, the average Togolese do not have a lot, but they are very outgoing and happy people at least from my perspective. They are also very hardworking and resourceful, both the men and the women. Not surprisingly, however, the women seem to carry more of family responsibility and the burden. I was always impressed and humbled by their spirit and determination.
I worked with one woman named Amavi who had six children and had left her husband due to his issues with alcohol. She had very little education and was doing her best to earn enough to keep her family afloat and keep all her children in school. She really struck a chord with me and just before leaving Togo, I gave her the equivalent of what she earned in a year. While this was not a huge sum of money by U.S. standards, I knew it could make a big difference in her life. I’ll always remember the look of appreciation on her face and her tears of joy..
Although we were welcome for the most part in Togo, we were often viewed as a curiosity, particularly in the more remote areas. Younger children sometimes cried in fear upon seeing us. Most, however were gleeful and often broke out into the “Yovo Song”. “Yovo” means “foreigner” in the local language Ewe.
The song went like this “Yovo! Yovo! Bon Soir! Ca va bien? Merci!” and they sang it repeatedly at the top of their lungs. It was cute at first but grew old quickly, especially walking home on a dusty road at the end of a long hot day with 10 children following you and screaming the Yovo Song over and over behind you.
Aside the from sometimes-irritating Yovo Song, the Togolese children were great company. My French and Ewe language skills were not exactly great when I arrived, and we formed a sort of symbiotic friendship. I was allowed to butcher the language and improve my vocabulary without any judgement and they were thrilled to to hang out with the Yovo, although they were required to call me by my Togolese name versus Yovo. I was given the name “Komlavi” which meant that I was a little brother born on a Wednesday.
“Paul the Boxer Guy”
One of my more successful projects turned out to be working with a tailor named Paul. I met him through Projet ECHOPPE. He was a struggling, yet talented tailor that was having trouble getting on his feet. He did not own a sewing machine so he had to spend much of what he earned on renting a machine which made it difficult for him to get ahead. I had an idea that I thought would appeal to Westerners — boxer shorts out of the beautiful, brightly colored African cloth. I worked with Paul to develop patterns and designs for these boxer shorts. We ended up marketing and selling these boxer shorts in Togo, Benin, France and even California.
The success of this project enabled Paul to buy his own sewing machine and then another and then another which led to him starting his own business and hiring additional employees. He became known as “Paul the Boxer Guy.” I went back to Togo 10 years after my service had ended and saw Paul and he was still making boxer shorts in addition to other products he had added to his line.
Sadly, The Market Building (above) Burned Down in 2013
I loved going to the Grande Marché (the “Big Market”) in Lomé each week, spending hours going through hundreds of stalls stacked high with brightly-colored bolts of fabric and talking / haggling with the women who sold the fabric.The more established women at the top of the Grande Marché hierarchy were affectionately called “Nana or Mama Benz” because they had chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz. These were usually older more dominate women who presided over the fabric market and determined the pricing of the fabric and who could buy it. This market was a world unto itself and I spent much of my time there while living in Lomé. I was saddened to read that the main building where many of these woman sold their goods was burned down in 2013 due to political and civil unrest in Togo which continues today. This, no doubt, negatively impacted the livelihood of many families in Togo.
A “Mama Benz” (above) and Her Staff
Living in the Capital of Togo — Lomé
When I moved from Kévé to the capital Lomé, a bustling city of around 800,000 people, I lived in a building with 4 apartments. Although the building was plumbed, it no longer had running water so I used buckets of water to take showers and to flush the toilet. It did have electricity which was an upgrade from my previous village (no more batteries and kerosene lanterns!).
My time there was a combination of the fascinating and the mundane, the joyful and the frustrating, some of the most rewarding days of my life and some of the worst. Days seemed long but months were somehow short.
My Host Family in Lomé, Togo
Vital Links to Home – Calls and Care Packages
My tour preceded cell phones, the internet and even emails so communicating was done by letters and via phone calls at the post office or the Peace Corps office. Making a phone call, however, was much more difficult than one might expect due to the expense and lack of phones to make international calls.
We would often get together in groups to create a “call chain.” The first person would arrange in advance for their family to call them at a specific date, time and place. We would all gather nearby and as the first person was finishing their conversation, they would ask the person on the other end of the line to call the 2nd person’s family and provide them with the number to call and once that call was finished, they would be instructed to call the next family and so on. Sometimes the intended recipient of the call was not home and the call chain would be broken which was very disappointing so we learned to provide several numbers in case the first one or two were unavailable.
These days most volunteers have internet access and smartphones which allow for daily communications back home but at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I think I prefer the hand-written letters and the chain calls. It made the communication that much more special. For day-to-day entertainment and news, my lifeline was the BBC. I listened to it for hours every night on my short-wave radio. I also had my cassette tapes and like all volunteers, I read a lot. There were hundreds of great books to choose from that had been left behind by all the volunteers that had come before us. This was a godsend.
On one occasion my mother tried shipping a “care package” from Alabama filled with some of my favorite foods from home. To pick up a care package required an expensive taxi ride out to the port and then paying a hefty fee to receive your package. After paying what amounted to a week’s salary for me, I opened the package only to discover that most of the food was destroyed by ants. After a few failed care package attempts, we stuck with letters and an occasional “chain call.” One food item that could survive the long trip to Africa was Pop Tarts. They could be mailed as a letter and the ants could not penetrate the foil packaging. Pop Tarts never tasted so good!
Sauce Options at Bassari Bar FuFu Restaurant – My Favorite Restaurant
A lot of people ask me what the food was like. I didn’t cook a single meal when I lived in Togo so I ate whatever my host family was eating or I had street food. I didn’t exactly embrace the local cuisine when I arrived and so I lost 20 pounds the first month in country. In spite of this initial struggle, I soon went from disliking the food to loving much of it and I still dream about some of my favorite Togolese dishes to this day.
For me, breakfast was usually rice and beans with a spicy palm oil sauce poured on top and a sprinkling of gari (grated dried cassava used for texture). Lunch and dinner was typically a starch called pate (pronounced “pot”) which was pounded corn with some sort of sauce (usually peanut, okra, or palm oil). The okra sauce was slimy and difficult to eat (like trying to eat spider webs) but the okra flavor was reminiscent of home so it was one of my favorites, especially with smoked fish. Another favorite was fufu in peanut sauce with chicken or wagash. Wagash was my absolute favorite food. It is a type of spongy fried cheese made by the Fulani, a nomadic cow-herding tribe. It came in small wheels and you would boil it, cut it into pieces and fry it. It was great in a sauce or by itself. You could also get really good fruit and avocados where I lived.
There were some European restaurants and I think one Chinese restaurant in the capital where you could get what we called “Yovo Food” (“Yovo” means “foreigner” in Ewe), but this was a huge splurge for our limited budgets so it was not something we did very often. You could eat a Togolese meal for 100 West African Francs, or “CFA” or less versus a Yovo meal for 2,000 CFA or twenty times the cost.
The local, beer, called Beer Benin, was inexpensive and very good. No matter where you were in Togo, you could always find a cold beer, Coke or Fanta. All three proved to be life savers for me from time to time.
Transportation: The “Bush Taxi”
One of the most frustrating aspects of living in Togo was the transportation. The typical mode of transportation to go any significant distance was called the “bush taxi.” This was usually a van that held anywhere from 10 to 16 people and was always piled dangerously high with anything you could imagine: live animals, sacks of yams, motorcycles, you name it. I would arrive at the taxi station and pay for the bush taxi headed in my desired direction and then wait for it to fill up. They never left with an empty seat and were often over-crowded with children on people’s laps.
This usually would take several hours in the hot sun. The wait was often agonizing. Once you did finally leave, sometimes the driver would make unplanned stops to buy something along the way or take a quick detour to his village. Sometimes the vehicle would break down. Many of the bush taxis seemed to be held together with bungee cords and rope. If you were traveling in Togo, you never knew what time of day you would arrive so the concept of “arriving on time” didn’t’ really exist. It was more “we will see you when we see you.”
Evacuated by the U.S. Marines & Jumping Out of a Speeding Taxi
I experienced my fair share of drama while I was in Togo. On the political front, things had started to become a bit unstable after our arrival in 1990 and there were a few times that I got caught up in street demonstrations that were dispersed by soldiers firing into the crowds. Another time, I, along with several other volunteers were trapped in my apartment for 4 days during a coup attempt. Eventually, the U.S. Marines had to come in and evacuate us temporarily.
And then there was the time that I had the misfortune of getting into a bush taxi that turned into a high-speed chase with the police through the city requiring me to choose between jumping out of a moving vehicle or waiting for the inevitable crash…I along with 10 other people took our turns jumping. Fortunately, I landed on my feet.
The Voodoo Market in Lomé, Togo
Returning to Togo Ten Years Later
I was fortunate to be able to travel back to Togo approximately 10 years after getting out of the Peace Corps. It was wonderful to be back and visit with some of the people I worked and lived with. It was also great to eat the food that I had grown to love when I was there. Much has stayed the same since I was gone but there were some obvious changes such as the presence of cell phones and computers.
I was able to see Paul the Boxer Guy while I was there. He was still running his boxer business, which had grown and prospered. I was happy to see that he was still doing well.
I still see several of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers from time to time. Some live here in the Bay Area. We periodically have reunions including one last summer in Davis, California. We pick up where we left off, telling the old stories again, laughing at our own foibles as we navigated an unfamiliar society. Our shared experience and understanding is the foundation for friendships of a lifetime.
The Peace Corps Office in Lomé, Togo
Would I Ever Do It Again?
People ask me if I would ever do it again, and the answer is: absolutely! The Peace Corps is not for everyone but for those well-suited to the experience it can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling. It’s hard to believe that it has been 28 years since I left Alabama for West Africa. I’ve done a lot of living since leaving the Peace Corps, but that decision to join back in 1988 was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I have many happy memories of my time in Togo. Each day was a learning experience about life, the rich culture that I was immersed in and about myself. I learned how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I learned what it is like to be in the minority and to be humbled by that. I learned how to be self-sufficient and I learned to be happy with less.
Did I change the world? Not at all, but I’d like to think I did have a positive impact on a few lives during my time in Togo. I know for certain that the real change was within me. I conquered my fears of the unknown that often come with growing up in a small town with little exposure to things that are different. The Peace Corps gave me the confidence and self-reliance to know that I could “figure it out and make it work” no matter where I was in the world. It gave me an immense appreciation for what I have and how fortunate I am and an understanding of what is truly important. It also opened my mind to other cultures, ways of life and perspectives. It helped make me the person that I am today and has been a huge influence in how I view the world overall. I feel truly fortunate to have had the experience.
Thank you for reading about my time in the Peace Corps. If this has you considering an assignment with the US Peace Corps, you may view current openings here. And if you’re ever in a taxi in some remote village in Africa being chased by the police, by all means…. JUMP!
About the Author
Thomas is a top a real estate agent in Marin County, California, living with his husband and his chubby rescue cat Hudson. He still dreams of his time in Africa.