By Nick Malouin, KF9, Togo
There’s something about traveling at high speeds in Africa that allows the mind to open up and do its best thinking. Maybe with the pot holes and daily frustrations left behind the brain can finally concentrate on something else. I had such an experience on a recent weekend trip to Lomé. Traveling at 60km/h, I had two hours to take in the beautiful scenery between Kpalimé and Lomé. The villages, usually a cacophony of noise and activity, had the brief illusion of serenity.
I started thinking about earlier that day when I met a client selling motor oil on the side of the road. His stand had looked like every other motor oil stand in Kpalimé and you might think for a second that it was part of a chain. The fact is though with only certain inputs available (wood boards) and zero money to invest, all merchant stands, whether selling vegetables, pagne or motor oil, look exactly the same. I started wondering if a little training could go a long way; if a quick lesson on product differentiation, branding and marketing strategy, along with financial planning, could turn this motor oil stand into the next Jiffy Lube.
Before I had time to finish that thought I heard a loud POP! Remembering that I was still on the road I looked around and wondered what had happened. Although not a car expert, I had a pretty good feeling we had just gotten a flat tire. I looked around for confirmation and got it from the other passengers but not the driver. For a second it looked like he was going to try and make the second half of the trip on three wheels.
A flat tire in Togo, as in many developing countries, is not a big deal. The highways are scattered with cars pulled over in the ditch with various ailments. In fact, I was even glad the event had happened for one quick and interesting observation – every car that passed us offered to help. Once the tire had been fixed (with such help) and we were back on the open road I tried to think why this would happen here and not back home. I came up with three answers. Firstly, when cars can only travel 60 km/h you have more time to see someone in trouble, realize they need help and stop. Sometimes that’s not possible, or too dangerous, on faster roads. Secondly, when everyone has had their car broken down you can empathize with them more easily because you’ve been in that situation yourself. Since Togo is a small country you might actually be stuck one day yourself and see that person driving down the highway. The last reason, and one that may reveal something about the fabric of society here, is that the Togolese do not view or interact with strangers the same way North Americans do. It’s not uncommon for Togolese to say hi or “Ca va?” to complete strangers on the street whereas, on the other extreme, Westerners have been taught not to even talk to strangers growing up. To be fair, that’s not to say all strangers are treated well in Togo – if you’re walking down the road you better get out of the way because the oncoming car won’t. In either case, if my car broke down I’d much rather be here than Toronto.
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