Patrick Harris - Human Rights in Togo
It may sound a cliché, but the month I spent in Togo, was without doubt one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I had thought about volunteering for a while after graduating with a law degree and didn’t quite feel ready to settle down into a career.
I wanted to gain some practical experience in a country where human rights are a very difficult issue, and to do something very different, which, in the current jobs climate, might set me apart in an area I am considering as a career. I gained all of that, and a lot, lot more!
Arrival in Lomé, Togo
I was so nervous, waiting at Heathrow Airport in the small hours of the morning, wondering, “what on earth am I doing? I’ve never been to Africa before and I’m flying there on my own, to do a Law & Human Rights placement in French, staying with a family I don’t know!” But sometimes the scariest prospects can turn into the most wonderful experiences!
Greeted in Lomé by the intense humidity, the smell of motor oil and the noises of motorbikes, horns and hissing, I was slightly overwhelmed. Despite it being my first time in Africa, it wasn’t long before I was made to feel completely at home. My host family were so welcoming, and within ten minutes, Apolinnaire, 11, and Kékéli, 7, were ‘helping’ me to unpack!
Avocado trees and the best mangoes in the world!
The food at the house was fantastic. We had an avocado tree outside and the mangoes that we ate almost every day were something special. I swear I will never eat another mango back home - they are just such a disappointment in comparison! My host Mum looked after me so well, and my family would ensure that there was food on the table in the mornings when I woke up (they would always be up before me, even if I was up at 6!), at lunch time, and in the evening after work. Most of the time, they wouldn’t even let me help with the clearing up, and nothing was too much trouble. I couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming family!
My Law & Human Rights placement
Working at La Ligue Togolaise des Droits de L’Homme (LTDH) was truly eye-opening and at times shocking. The work that we did for people on an individual basis was tough, but rewarding. We listened to people’s stories, followed up individual cases and discussed the best course of action to take.
My colleagues always made me feel involved and had a great sense of humour and a positive outlook on even difficult situations. I attended a huge protest, organised by the organisation “Let’s save Togo”, as a “human rights observer” and got a first-hand view of the tensions between the government and the opposition. This isn’t meant to worry you, however, at all times I was well looked after by my colleagues.
We also visited the Court of First Instance at Aného, towards Benin, where we watched a series of cases. The majority involved theft, but there were a few that were more serious. At one point, the Judge asked for an interpreter, as the Defendant was a Nigerian who spoke a basic level of English. My colleagues were quick to nominate me; I was terrified! The experience was short-lived however, as the judge decided (apparently thinking that I was French), that after five minutes or so of the Nigerian struggling to understand me, that my English wasn’t good enough to perform the role! I was relieved, because I wasn’t convinced that my level of technical and legal French was sufficient to ensure a fair trial!
This encapsulates just one of the ways in which the Togolese legal system is so different to many European systems. There are fewer rules, less protocol and fewer standards ensuring fair trials and rights protection in general. It is a different world, in terms of human rights protection, and to describe the role that human rights organisations play as “challenging” would be an understatement. It was fantastic to be a part of an organisation that really try to make a difference and are so outwardly focused, and I just wish that I could have done more to help the country as a whole.
Nights out – an amazing outgoing group of people
Meeting the other volunteers was fantastic, as they were such a great group of people. Projects Abroad would organize two social events a week, following which we would all have dinner together, at an outside bar or pizzeria. I really miss this lifestyle! The atmosphere was so relaxed and we would laugh and joke, switching between speaking French and English.
Travelling in Togo
At weekends we would invariably travel and explore. I was able to visit the waterfalls at Kpalimé, which were truly stunning. the traditional town of Togoville and even spent an amazing weekend (although we did almost disastrously run out of money!) in Benin, braving torrential rain, and the kamikaze “zem”drivers, exploring the amazing and moving slave history there and visiting a town of 30,000 people, built entirely on stilts on the water.
The opportunities are wonderful, especially if you have more time on your hands. One of my only regrets was that I didn’t have time to visit Kara, the north of the country, and the National Parks of Ghana!
I would recommend Projects Abroad Togo to anyone planning a gap year, thinking about a career break, or considering their next move after University. I went, hoping for a great experience, and in the process, I made some great friends, experienced some incredible places and saw some amazing things that I will never forget!
Akpe (thank you) Projects Abroad!