Plus ça change, plus c`est la même chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same)

Michael Slattery | KF17 | Togo

Is Togo much different from what the 1969 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has to say?  Agriculture still dominates the economy, people still haul in the fishing nets by hand on the beach in the morning, pagnes are still sold in the markets, and animism is still practiced–though this not as much as before.  Pictures don’t define a nation, so read on.

Dusk in Lomé is a special time when people leave their offices and head home for the evening. On street corners and along avenues evening vendors lay out their wares. Charcoal fires are stoked in old oil drums or large metal basins to cook chicken and beef brochettes, thin skewers of heavily spiced meats, tempting passersby. In those moments when the roar of traffic momentarily silences, a faint muezzin’s call can be heard, reflecting Islam’s lesser presence in these parts.

Sitting on a patio along the boulevard circulaire, the ring road that girds the city center, I can both see the ocean and admire the rush of speeding motorcycle taxis—the familiar zemidjans—as they carry their passengers to and from destinations unknown. In the time I have been here, nearly all road and storm sewer work in the core has been finished: the paving stones that make up the sidewalks are falling into place and even young palm trees have been planted along the medians. The sense of well-being that comes from well-paved roads and proper sidewalks is palpable, and so Lomé la Belle moves further away from the denizen’s local moniker of Lomé la Poubelle (the garbage bin).

Dusk falls, and the seasonal rain clouds menace.

Roads, though, are just one element of progress towards the goal of being a developed nation. Recently, Togo joined the ranks of other African nations in having a true high-speed fibre-optic cable touch their country. Now Togo is full member of the digital celestial: while internet access has been mostly reliable for those who can afford personal connections, cyber café connections sometimes so slow as to be virtually unusable or inconveniently down altogether for periods of time. For businesses and individuals, the new cable promises affordable high-speed access and a means of stepping onto the global platform on which the rest of the world operates, including Kiva. So change comes, one bit at a time, to a country hungry for something more than the status quo.

Among my colleagues, internet use is generally high; however, the difference in use pattern between age groups is stark. For those who are over thirty but under thirty-five, their use of email and social media verges on nil. They may have well established an email account, only to be used once in a blue moon. The younger group, those in their early to mid-twenties, utilize the internet and social media websites frequently. The exception to this circumstance are those who work on computers with internet connections on a daily basis; otherwise, the internet is for the young and it will be interesting to see how a faster, cheaper, and more reliable connection will affect this dynamic.

The WAGES football club.

As pink twilight gives way to the purple hues of early night, large fruit bats patrol the skies for insects, and my boulevard companion, a colleague, speaks of Togo while I mull the scene beyond and sip at my drink. He notes how phosphate is Togo’s main export and how in the past, the entire export wasn’t recorded. Now, though, half of it is, which he uses to highlight just how far the country has progressed: embezzling state income is apparently down by fifty-percent. That being said, the Kiva clients who wish to start an egg-laying business will import their chicks either from Ghana or, astonishingly, from the Netherlands. Togo is an economist’s nightmare, a mostly import economy with a virtually non-existent manufacturing sector, and squeezed on both sides by regional powerhouse economies Ghana and Nigeria.

Togo is a tiny country, a sliver of land that is nonetheless fortunate in that it has adequate supplies of water, enough arable land to provide its citizens with food, and a deep water port. Now, at night, I can see a continuous line of lights shining offshore parallel to the coast. These are ships awaiting to deposit their containers, not here, but further away in Lagos. They wait in these waters because of apparent complicity among Lagos’ port authority employees in aiding raiders steal aboard ships at anchor. For the merchant marine, Togo is thus a safer country than Nigeria; however, can it be said that it is any less corrupt?

The WAGES football club celebrates its victory of the 4th Annual Microfinance Gala, a tournament of several microfinance institutions.

The current President of Togo is Faure Gnassingbé. The first President of Togo, at independence in 1960, was Sylvanus Olympio. The 1969 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that Olympio “was assassinated at Lomé on Jan. 13, 1963, presumably the victim of an army coup d`état . . . On May 5 Togolese voters approved a new constitution, elected a new legislature, and confirmed Grunitzky [the former Premier] in office . . . An attempt on Nov. 21, 1966, to overthrow Grunitzky’s government was foiled. Another, which took place without bloodshed in January 1967, was successful. Col . Étienne Eyadéma [Gnassingbe], chief of staff of the Togolese Army, acting, as he said, to put an end to the political confusion in the country, suspended the constitution.”

Granted, the reference is dated. All the same, a Gnassingbé has held the reins of power in Togo since 1967, or an impressive forty-five years. Said otherwise, little has changed on the political front in this country, and the manifestations of the opposition party every Saturday on the beach point to a system that does not necessarily reflect the majority view of the citizenry.

The May 1st Labour Day celebrations are a big deal in Togo, and as well for the not-so-small microfinance institution WAGES.  The six branch offices in Lomé get together en masse and caravan through the city for several hours, a travelling cacophony of horns, music, and even one mime, that ends at the beach.

Such are the politics here, and if you can actually find anyone to talk to you about them openly, the normally easy-going and gentle Togolese express deep-seated frustration. Economically, the story in 1969 was that Togo was a country of one and a half million people, whose main economic activity was agriculture, fishing, and phosphate extraction. Today things are little different, save for a service sector and some financial activity. Granted, the port brings in a great deal of additional revenue from duties, but this is no Singapore, since there is no manufacturing sector to speak of. Togo now has a population of over six million and despite the world-class roads, improved education, access to health, water, and developed urban areas, the political-economic landscape of present-day Togo bears a striking resemblance to the one of 1969.

In short, this was the underlying, emphatic, point of my colleague who, as one of the country’s well educated elite, could not but see as an accumulation of significant shortcomings.

La Francophonie is the sum total of all former French colonies in the world; Canada is a part of this, as well as being part of the Commonwealth, those countries who were once English colonies. However, being a part of the Francophonie is not simply to be a part of greater French language and culture; the traditional French influence in post-colonial Africa remains far more significant.

The WAGES mime earning his keep. He was, for a good part of the caravan, either suggestively shaking or grabbing his crotch and pointing his finger at small children on the roadside, to the general delight of all.

The African franc exemplifies this influence—though it is by no means the complete story, which also includes French military, industry, and trade elements—and is also simplest to present. Fifteen countries participate in the Franc Zone, most of these being former French colonies. On the eve of independence, two currency zones were created in Francophone Africa, one for the western countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Sénégal, and Togo) and one for the central (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon), but both having the same value. Both are called the CFA, with the western franc meaning Communauté Financière Africaine and the central franc meaning Coopération financière en Afrique centrale. (There is a third African franc, for the island nation of Comoros, but this remains separate from the other two.)

Since 1959, the CFA and Comorian francs have been guaranteed by the French Treasury and were fixed to the franc. Since the inception of the European Union and the common euro currency, the CFA has been permanently pegged to the euro at 655.957 CFA = 1 €. In exchange for this guarantee, 65% of each participating nation’s foreign exchange reserves are deposited into the French Treasury in an interest generating account. It is, to say the least, an unusual financial arrangement for a post-colonial nation in 2012, yet this is the financial status quo for the region. It suggests a lack of political will among the former colonies’ leadership, and implies long-lasting and significant relationships with France that have yet to be fully in tune with the meaning of independence.

The affair is of course two-sided, as they all are. When Eyadéma Gnassingbé died in a plane crash in 2005 his son immediately assumed power, but the public protests were such that an election was called. It is said that this election suffered from irregularities and even UN-condemned human-rights abuses; despite this, France unilaterally threw its support behind Faure Gnassingbé, recognizing him as President before all others had accepted the election results and effectively granting him credibility. Such is the game of power and politics played in Francophone Africa.

Under the entry “Tropical Medicine” the 1969 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has a subsection titled “The White Man in the Tropics”.  It states, rather unequivocally, that “The health of the white dwellers in the tropics, unlike that of persons native to those regions, depends on how fully his physiology can adapt to the unaccustomed heat, humidity, and solar radiation and on his ecologic adjustment–his relations with the physical and biological world around him, including his fellow man. The newcomer relies on acclimatization (q.v.), which is little understood, and on modification of his indoor environment by air conditioning, which he finds necessary partly because of his unwillingness to discard the usages and paraphernalia of his own culture–housing, clothes, food, ways of life–and adopt those appropriate to the climate. His ecological adjustment begins with an exchange of disease; he falls victim to malaria, viral infections, and dysentery, and gives to the native peoples tuberculosis, “children’s diseases,” and venereal infection. Whether the white man can carve a permanent niche for himself and retain his faculties and stamina over generations is still a moot question even after centuries of colonization.”  Here the author tries to debunk this theory–somewhat unsuccessfully, if truth be told.

One of the most attractive features of Lomé is the safety one feels on the streets at night. Women of all ages stroll alone the streets without harassment, and there is seemingly very little petty crime, and I have never once witnessed any violence or seen any evidence of past violence. My colleague agreed with me, stating how the Togolese were by nature a gentle people, welcoming of foreigners, and civil to one another. Except, he stated with an emphatic glare, during an election—when all the frustrations emerged and spill over into protest and clashes with the police and military.

He stood up, and I made to pay at the counter, a thank you for an excellent meal of fish he had treated me to some while back. He carried me on his motorcycle part of the way home, and dropped me off at the intersection where he was to head in opposite direction to mine. It happened that I was in front of a popular restaurant and live venue for music; I looked around and, in my best fashion, tried to flag down a ride.  Failing to catch a ride, I slowly walked home along the paved sidewalks and took in the night.

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

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