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10 Things We Learned in Togo

1. Togo is in Western Africa

Okay, so I knew this before I went to Togo, but it felt like a good icebreaker and Togo is often overlooked. It occupies a sliver of land sandwiched between Ghana and Benin on the Coast of Guinea. Togo was a former British and then French colony before gaining its independence in 1960, so most of the country is French speaking. The population is just under 7.5 million, with the main industries being phosphate mining and agriculture. Our office is in Notse, a village about an hour north of the capital city, Lome.

2. Togo’s Development Indicators are shocking – and not in a good way…

Togo is ranked 166th out of 188 territories on the Human Development Index (HDI), an index used by the United Nations to measure the progress of a country. It takes into account life expectancy, access to education, and standard of living to rank countries on their human development. Togo measured 0.487 in 2015, putting Togo in the Low Human Development category.

  • 81% of Togo’s rural population lives below the Income Poverty Line of less than $1.90 US per day, making Togo one of the poorest countries in the world.

  • 1 in every 8 children will not live to see their 5th birthday.

3. Education is an uphill battle

With close to 95% of girls enrolled in primary school, Togo has made significant progress toward gender parity in primary school. However, when girls reach Junior High and High School, that’s no longer the case. Togo hovers around 50% enrollment for girls in secondary school and even lower for post-secondary education.

As we’ve said before, the Togolese government has made significant efforts since 2007 to increase enrollment rates, even eliminating tuition fees for girls in primary school nation-wide. Obviously, those efforts have been effective in achieving high enrollment rates in primary school, but there’s a lot of work to be done to achieve similar results in the secondary and post-secondary levels.

4. Girls are RESILIENT

Girls face numerous challenges throughout their daily life in Togo. The risk of abuse, sexual violence, disease, and hunger run high.

On top of all of this, girls are expected to complete all of the house chores. We spent a day with Elolo to experience the work first-hand. Elolo’s mother has to wake up at 3:30am to begin making rice that she sells to support her family. Elolo wakes up at 4am in the tiny room she shares with her 3 brothers and uncle. There’s only one twin bed, so she sleeps on the concrete floor. She immediately starts her house chores of cleaning the compound, fetching water, making food for her siblings, and washing the dishes. As the only daughter, all of the burden falls on Elolo. At 7:30, she begins the long walk to school.

In school, she must avoid the attention of male teachers who take advantage of their female students. Each time I’m in Togo, I hear the stories of dozens of girls who have been forced to drop out of school because they’ve become pregnant with a teacher’s child. Teen pregnancy affects millions of young women in Sub-Saharan Africa.

When Elolo returns home from school at 6pm, the chores begin again. She has to help her mom prepare rice for the following day, cook dinner, and clean up after her brothers. Without electricity, she’s unable to study at home in the evenings.

Despite all of these challenges, Elolo is beginning her first year of high school. Basically, she’s incredible. She inspires me.

5. The Entrepreneurial Spirit is strong with Togolese women

When we talked to Dr. Ro Afatchao, he reminded us that women in Togo are known for their hard-work and entrepreneurial tenacity. Plus, a higher percentage of women are employed than men. Most women I’ve met are self-employed, and some are the primary earners in their family.

We hosted an entrepreneurship course for local seamstresses and merchants in Notse, and though all of these women were already business owners, they had innovative solutions to their business problems. Some of the women were collaborating with each other to a open co-operative retail and clothing production facility to reduce costs and increase profit margins. Other women created strategies to differentiate themselves with new product offerings. And all the women made commitments to improve their communities with social benefit initiatives in their work.

6. Togo’s textile industry is in decline

While textiles are a major industry in Togo’s economy, an increase in cheap foreign imports has negatively impacted the demand for work local seamstresses depend on. When you walk down the streets or through the market, you’ll see rows upon rows of second-hand clothing. It’s often heaped in piles and sold at low prices that local seamstresses cannot compete with.

On the other end of things, hundreds of girls are training to become seamstresses throughout the village. Often times, if a family can no longer justify the expense of sending their girls to school, they will send them to some type of skills training. Most choose between becoming a seamstress or a hair stylist, but all face a rigorous and expensive apprenticeship before they can become nationally certified to practice. As a seamstress, you have to go through a three year apprenticeship and pay roughly $120 to train under a nationally certified head seamstress. Yet, with so many girls training to become seamstresses each year, the job market is dramatically over-saturated.

When speaking with the leader of the Notse Seamstress Union and a group of over 100 apprentices, we learned that the thought of having a salaried position at S H E was a enough for girls to find hope to that they will be able to pursue their passions. When asked, all the girls I spoke to said they started training to become a seamstress because their family could not afford to put them through school, not because they were passionate about sewing. We hope girls will gain financial security with a salaried position and this will provide the freedom to pursue their real passion in life.

7. School uniforms are the typically the most expensive part of going to school

It’s worth repeating that school uniforms are required in all public schools and most private schools in Togo. This is common throughout Africa, and is mostly a product of colonialism. I am sometimes told that “they should just get rid of the requirement for school uniforms”, but it’s not quite so simple. Social rankings depend greatly on your socioeconomic status, and children living in poverty are already disadvantaged. School uniforms level the playing field and prevent students from being marginalized in an academic setting, but I digress… (If you’re interested in a full discussion of this, read my previous post)

The direct costs of going to school include:

  • Tuition: $10

  • Textbooks: $5-$10

  • Required Uniforms: $15

It’s a challenge when you realize how expensive school is relative to a typical household income.

8. The progress is slow, but it’s progress nonetheless

The government has acknowledged the disparity between boys’ and girls’ enrollment in school. And because the government organized an initiative over past decades to get girls in school, Togo has reached nearly 95% enrollment among girls. Another prevalent issue in the Togo school system is sexual exploitation of young girls. The government has also acknowledged this and has begun prosecuting offending teachers. Very few cases have been tried, but we hope they will begin to change this systemic problem for girls in school.

9. Togo is hot, and incredibly humid…

Taking a quick break from the heaviness of these very real issues to remind everyone that Togo is a beautiful country with plenty of reasons to visit. It’s a tropical climate, which took some adjusting for this Idaho girl. There are miles of beaches and tropical rain forests to visit.

This photo is from a waterfall in Kpalime that thousands of people visit every year, and the hike we go on to get to the falls is pretty spectacular. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, I highly recommend it.

Oh and don’t let me forget, if you like spicy food, Togo is the place for you. Be sure to order the red spaghetti.

10. Empowerment won’t happen over night

Back from the intermission, and looking to the future. It’s going to take time to improve girls’ self esteem and help them see the true value of their lives. They’ve been conditioned by society to believe their prospects for a good life are virtually nonexistent and to believe that marriage is the only way out of their current situation. But the entire S H E team is committed to sticking with these girls. We won’t give up when we experience setbacks, and we will encourage all of our girls to do the same. Because we see their value, and we believe in their potential.



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