By Taylor Akin, KF9, Togo
As I sat in Charles de Gaulle airport waiting for my flight to Lomé, I had already begun to feel out of place. My hair was carelessly sitting around my shoulders, I was wearing old yoga pants and a new pair of Converse, and I was munching on my mother’s half-squished Christmas cake. I looked around me at the crowd gathering to board the plane. Everyone was impeccably dressed. Among the women, there was not a single natural hairstyle in sight. Instead, my eyes were met with a wide array of weaves, wigs, and complex braids. They were primarily wearing dresses or skirts with stylish high heel shoes. The men were almost all wearing nicely pressed collared shirts, dress pants, and shiny dress shoes. The men greeted each other with a hand shake and a quick finger snap, and they all spoke in such quick French, I could hardly understand them. I suddenly felt very small.
Togo is an extremely small country with an area of just under 57,000 sq km. Despite its tiny size, Togo is home to 5.1 million people who speak 4 different languages, belong to 3 different religions and variety of ethnic backgrounds. The streets are packed with people selling cell phones, bags of water, cosmetics, and fruit. Motorcycles and cars compete for spots on the road and the honking never stops. Men “psssst” at women and cell phones ring endlessly. It may be a small pond, but it’s definitely an intimidating one.
As I sat in the terminal eating my cake, my insecurity was interrupted with a “Bon Appétit!” I looked up to see a kind-looking man with a smile stretched across his face. Even from that small gesture, I suddenly felt more at ease.
From the minute I arrived in Togo, strangers have taken me under their wing. A woman at the border helped me fill out my visa application form and then continued to check up on me while I waited to have my visa approved. Jacques, the manager of Kiva’s collaboration with WAGES, and Christian, the Kiva Coordinator both picked me up at the airport having never met me before. My first couple days in Lomé, various strangers stepped up to give me directions, help me bargain, and even drive me around the city at no charge. Christian’s family also kindly welcomed me into their home.
Last Friday, I began my first day with WAGES, the MFI with whom I’ll be working for the next 4 months. I was greeted by a WAGES employee named Johnny with a cheerful “Bienvenue, Akin!” (There has been a bit of confusion about which name is my first name). I received an extremely warm welcome from everyone at the MFI. Training had prepared me for skepticism, even though Kiva Fellows have had excellent experiences with WAGES prior to my arrival. Instead, I had little need to justify my presence as Christian introduced me to the staff. I had a grin plastered across my face for the rest of the morning.
By Sunday, I had unfortunately taken ill. By then I had already moved in with Christian’s family and all 8 of them had taken it upon themselves to see to my speedy recovery. Throughout my three days spent primarily in bed, I received phone calls, visits, and good wishes from Christian’s family and from members of the WAGES staff. Various family members also took turns taking me to the clinic and the pharmacy.
Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers.
In my last post, I grappled with the prejudices I faced prior to departure. I was told by a colleague in Toronto that African men did not behave like real men, that they had no social skills or morality to speak of. I am proud to announce that my experience thus far has proven my former colleague wrong. Of course, there are always some bad fish in the sea. Lord knows that Canadians can fail to live up to the stereotype of politesse that so often precedes them. But the strangers I’ve encountered in Lomé have quickly become my friends, and for that I am truly grateful.
I might stick out in this small pond, but at least I have help staying afloat!
Taylor Akin is a member of KF9 who is working with Women and Associations for Gain both Economic and Social (WAGES) in Lomé, Togo. To lend to a WAGES entrepreneur, click here. To join the WAGES lending team, please click here./>