When the whole world is home

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   Interview

Africa2

      For U.S. citizens, Robert and Maureen, Togo (see star on map), the “pearl of West Africa,” has become one more home on earth—a home of beautiful beaches, friendly people, and new opportunities. In the following interview, Bob explains how being at home among other nations is a daily process. It is a constant education—and the “classroom” is wherever we find ourselves. The people and friends that most influenced Bob are those who showed him how to participate in the world and improve it. Bob would say that participation in our world is the most worthwhile education you can give yourself. As you will see, the “price” of such an education is sincerity, patience, and a willingness to never stop learning. (Our 2 banner photos this month and the photos on this page are courtesy of Robert and Maureen.) 

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Maureen and Bob

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ocean restaurant
Togo fisherman

Togolese fisherman

Market

In the market

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The beautiful countryside.

Palewoman
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BOB!

Bob in the village of Afito. 

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The electrician of Afito. 

OUR COMFORT with other cultures is something we’ve worked at all our lives. My wife grew up in a part of New York city that has lots of different nationalities and where differences are accepted. I lived in South America for several years. And so we’re able to accept the fact that people are different—and are going to do things differently from you—and that’s O.K.! Together, my wife and I spent 28 years at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. It has always been home to many other cultures. International students often lived with us, not only because we actively welcomed other cultures, but because we wanted our own children to value different races and cultures. And so, it’s not hard now to change roles and be the ones living in a new country.  

    I believe in divine Providence (a power higher than my own). Every place I’ve been, and all that I’ve done in my life, is because I’ve felt a higher power leading me to be somewhere and do something needed. There’s never been a time in my life when I haven’t worked. I began working as a very young child. I can’t not work! Or maybe it’s better to say, I need to be useful. I was terrified of having to stop working, but I didn’t want to work at just another job in the U.S.  I wanted to take what I’ve learned and use it somewhere where it was needed.  

     The school we’re at now, The British School of Lomé, was a very successful school, but it went through some hard times and the staff now is trying very hard to restore its former reputation. In addition to local students, there are 34 different nationalities of students here! And the staff is from 7 different countries. The official language is French, which I speak fluently. My wife and I are also picking up the local language of Ewe (EV-veh). 

A naturally welcoming culture

     We honestly feel like we’re living an idyllic (a perfect) life. The first day here we walked the market. We had a local Togolese man with us to show us where everything is. If you’re with a local person it’s easier to make your way and meet people. For a Yovo (white man) to go alone would be harder, but not impossible. Right away, I decided to get a haircut. You can be sure there’ll be people to meet at a barber’s! We then went to buy cloth to have local people make us napkins and table mats. We could have bought finished napkins and mats, but we wanted to support the local community. To me, this is the real story: we’re not afraid to mix in with the local people. And Togo quickly gave us the feeling that there is no black, white, yellow, green, or orange in this country! There’s simply no prejudice here. There is an acceptance of other people and other cultures. You see mixed couples walking hand in hand down the street. You meet college students from all over the world. And there are always tourists and port workers. Togo has a complex history but its history has always brought foreigners to its shores. Lomé, where we live, is the largest port in West Africa, and a port is always filled with people from far away.   

Living gently

     To adjust to life here we’ve had to be patient. I’m used to having things done quickly. I’ve had to learn patience. But I’m in Togo! And so it’s my responsibility to try to understand how they do things and why they do them. I’m not here to fight the system. I’m here to understand it and learn from it. And already I’ve learned a remarkable lesson from some village children.

The wealth of happiness 

     One weekend we drove from Lomé, heading northeast, along the beautiful beaches that look out at the Gulf of Guinea. We were headed toward the country of Benin three hours away. We were with friends who were going to Benin on business. When we reached the village of Afito, the last village before you enter Benin, all these little children ran up to us singing Yovo, Yovo, bon soir!  (White man, white man, good evening!)  They saw our cameras and so we decided to take their pictures so they could see pictures of themselves. Of course we asked their parents first. The children were thrilled. One little boy was holding a light bulb, a battery, and two bare wires. He was only seven or eight years old. He had the wires wrapped around the bulb going to the battery. Where he got them I can’t imagine. The light bulb no longer worked, but he wanted to show me how the light bulb would work if it had been good. I said to him in French, “What are you doing?” He answered, “I want to be an electrician!”

     The parents let the children go with us to Lake Togo. At first they ran behind the car, pushing it when we got stuck. The roads were unbelievable! We got to a point where the car would have tipped over in a huge hole. We decided to stop and walk and not push our luck! The children took our hands and led us to the lake. At one point, a little boy who was with Maureen started to lift up the corner of her shirt tail. Her first thought was to slap his hand. But she suddenly under-stood what he was doing. Only we were fully clothed. This is something the chil-dren aren’t used to seeing. Most of them were pretty much naked. The little boy simply wanted to know if Maureen was white all over! He had never seen a white person that close. The minute he saw her he giggled, “She’s all the same color!”

     Later I began to sing a French song I was sure they would know so we could sing together. Then I said to the older children, “Can you teach me a song you’ve learned in school?” It was a song in their local language but, here and there, were French words! I realized that this is one of the ways teachers teach the children French. The day in the village was incredibly rewarding. The villagers are so poor. They have nothing. And yet, you see a happiness you can hardly describe. Every person in the world is trying to find happiness, some sense of fulfillment. And when you see it in such circumstances it changes you forever. 

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P.S. We added new buildings and a store room for the school’s supplies in order to create classrooms for the increasing student enrollment this year. I spent the summer creating eight new classrooms, a new kitchen for food preparation and renovated the Academic Center of school so that the primary school for young children will be separate from the high school age kids.  It’s been a great summer!

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 ©InterestEng. July 2013  §  The stories in the magazine portion of the site are written by English language learners. Stories are corrected by a native English speaker.  § Photos are staff or used with permission.  §  To contact us:  go.gently.on@gmail.com