Lomé La Belle

Michael Slattery KF17 |Togo

A constant breeze flows across Lomé, day and night, alleviating the tropical heat.  It is a near constant 30 degrees Celsius at every moment of the day; only around the middle of the day when the sun is highest does the temperature rise. At this moment, people grow languid, traffic abates, eyelids droop, and it is time for the daily nap.

Solving the ills of social inequality requires a thoughtful environment.

Alternately, the beach beckons and seats under the palms fill with all sorts: office workers take off their jackets and sit next to dozing street vendors and down-and-outs while young couples eat together in intimate silence; all the while the breeze covers us in calm.

By standards I’ve seen among the big cities of East Africa and the Horn of Africa, like Nairobi, Dar Es Salaam, and Addis Ababa, Lomé is a small city, a million or less, and reflective of a country that has yet to fully catch the great rate of growth sweeping across the rest of the continent.

Togo’s growth rate is modest, around 3.5% annually, and yet this is not so much a thing to fret over as it is a fact to examine with future care.

To the casual observer, there are fewer beggars and less idle men of working age out on the streets, and grandiose displays of wealth are also less visible.  Without studying the figures, income inequality is not as obviously severe as, for specific example, in Kenya, where rapid growth has left many, if not the overwhelming majority, behind.

Le Grand Marché de Lomé, where it can all be had, including dunce bargainers like the author.

Social mobility is a serious issue, and one to be balanced against competing needs in a less developed nation — be it better education, greater employment, accessible healthcare, rule of law, and so on.  Slow growth, anathemic to many an economist, is not always a terrible thing as it more often allows a society as a whole to keep pace with the changes wrought.

One question I have asked myself: Is it better to be able to proactively plan slow growth instead of having to reactively adapt to fast(er) growth?

Headier intellectual musings aside, good fortune in finding a home in a new city is mine.  I reside at La Maison DED.  It is a colonial-era house built to German specifications: sturdy, solid, stolid, and intended it seems to last for an eternity.

A pampered arrangement. If only the guitar playing was on par with Django’s.

It is maintained as part of a network of similar residences for the roving German development worker, being affordably priced, more intimate than a hotel, and equipped with the amenities of a home with shared kitchen and common areas.  I take no credit for finding this congenial home however: previous Kiva fellows had recommended it and I thank them sincerely.

Repose in 70s inspired hues.  Achtung, however: those books are all in German, save for a smattering of fantasy novels and airport thriller paperbacks in English. 

There are also street vendors who sell snacks, meals, fruits and vegetables, phone cards, and common household goods in ubiquitous shack-like stands on the dusty side streets.  At the opposite end of the spectrum are the higher end grocery stores run by easy-going Lebanese merchant families who sell imported European and Middle-Eastern goods, and even a house that sells produce at a premium claimed to originate from Burkina Faso.

If I were competent enough a bachelor to manage the stove, this would be where I’d place my service.

The neighbourhood completes the happy home.  Kodjoviakopé is a partly affluent neighbourhood, only five minutes from the beach and close to a number of embassies, small-scale tourist hotels, and the former Presidential Palace.  Tucked in among the old homes are far more modest, and perhaps more typical, homes of the average denizen.  With this balance, the neighbourhood is tranquil and offers a range of services, pharmacy, cyber cafe, bakery, restaurants, and little bars.

While the neighborhood has this international flavor, what nonetheless marks it and greater Lomé are the generally low number of foreigners and the congenial approach of the Togolese to them, myself included.  There is none of the aggressive hawking of goods, or impolite shadowing by street boys that could be found in other such circumstances.  The Togolese are polite to the bone–like most all other Africans met in the past — and have a quality of self-possession not always seen across the board.

Issues of deforestation for charcoal production aside, nothing tastes bad when it’s been barbecued, be it plantains, yams, or cassava.

Yet despite these observations, today marks only the second week I’ve been in Togo and thus the early days of my Kiva fellowship with the local microfinance institution Women and Associations for Gains both Economic and Social, also known more conveniently as WAGES.

While I have worked previously in East Africa, this is my first time in West Africa, and specifically, Francophone West Africa.  French is one of the operative languages here other than the local tribal languages and for a Canadian Anglophone, the going is so far so good.

Truth be told, my accent nor my use of French is French Canadian. I have what has been sometimes called “international French,” which indicates I likely learned it at a Lycée or in a similar international school system. In reality, I learned it in downtown Toronto at a public elementary school that still exists, just kitty corner to the four-story Filmores Hotel, a longstanding strip club and (some say) brothel in one of the more savory parts of the city center.

Did I mention that Togolese dishes are, universally, spicy and well seasoned? It’s delicious, until you mistake an unedible (“on ne mange pas ça!”) green pepper for a green bean in your sauce.  The reddish game meat at hand is simply called bush rat, or rat de brousse.

I grew up reading the big white sign board above Filmores’ entrance during recess with my buddies:  “Miss Foxy USA 1989 here for the next two weeks!!!” was one I vividly remember.  Rest assured it took some time before I finally learnt what possibly went on there, or what it meant that some of the school’s teachers were seen exiting the place now and then after lunch.

In any case, from junior kindergarten to grade eight, l’École Publique Gabrielle Roy taught me how to speak French adequately enough — since the inadequate student was elevated by gifted teachers.

The point to emphasize is that in West Africa people are relaxed about accents in a way that the French in France — and within Québec — are not.  French as it is spoken in Canada is open, colourful, and not so uptight in feeling as  so-called Parisian French.  It’s in no way a different language, but it is distinctive in the way a New Yorker might sound to a Southerner, or how Bavarians in Germany sound to the rest of their countrymen.

Hence I can — and do — daily butcher the language with aplomb, knowing that I am granted great leniency by my colleagues and others I speak to.  The Togolese are a hospitable and forgiving people, and Lomé an equally forgiving city to the newcomer.

Michael Slattery (KF17) is serving as a Kiva Fellow with WAGES in Lomé, Togo. Find a borrower and lend today!

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