[Loving Africa 3] C’est la vie au Lome – the Pearl of West Africa

Togo may well be one of the most secretive countries in West Africa. Very few travellers know this land of sunshine and Lome it’s low-key yet elegant capital, with its tasty restaurants, throbbing nightlife and the reality of a developing country.

Togo is bordered by Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso in West Africa. Togo covers approximately 57,000 square kilometres, making it one of the smallest countries in Africa, with a population of about 6.7 million people. Togo is a tropical sub-Saharan nation which is highly dependent on agriculture. The official language is French, with many other local African languages spoken in the country – a cultural melting pot.

For almost a month I have lived in Lome – Togo’s capital which has once been known as “the pearl of West Africa”. I live in one of the oldest and wealthier areas of town where I can indeed witness Togo’s colonial past and enjoy the fine French restaurants around my corner. Lome has its fair share of baguettes and several large super markets are owned by India and Lebanese people here.

Yet life is also often difficult on this corner of the world. Poverty, hunger and political instability continue to stalk this region. According to the UN’s annual Human Development Index, which is based economic and quality-of-life indicators, Togo is one of the poorest countries on earth. After dark, it will not be difficult to witness many homeless families sleeping on the streets. Almost two-third of the Togo population live below the poverty line and despite recent efforts to improve literacy, only one in two Togolese know how to read and write. Average life expectancy is only 56 years old, and it is almost routine that someone in the office attends a funeral for a family member every month. I was told by locals that people here may often pass away unexpectedly without prior symptoms. Having lived here for less than a month, I have already witnessed at least two local funerals on my street which involves the entire community farewelling the deceased over traditional music for few days of the week.

Malaria remains one of Togo’s most striking public health concerns. Ninety per cent of the world’s malaria deaths occur in Africa, where malaria accounts for about one in six of all childhood deaths. Malaria has serious economic impacts in Africa, slowing economic growth and development and perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty. Undoubtedly, malaria is truly a disease of poverty in the rural areas but even those who have live in urban Lome suffer ruthlessly from it also. As I landed into Togo, the senior actuary whom I work with also suffered severely from malaria at the time. It is regularly said that every African in this region is bound to suffer from malaria at least once in their life time.

Whilst one will be glad to discover Togo’s fine sandy beaches at its doorstep, such sea shore can only be found by the splendid resorts along the Atlantic coastline. Sadly, I have been told repeatedly that the public beach is one of the most dangerous places in town and walking alone on the beach must be avoided. Indeed, not only is the beach a polluted slum for homelessness but also a venue for maritime piracy. Maritime piracy may only be an action movie in Australia, but it is serious treats to the economies in this region. The spike in recent pirate attacks in West Africa have led London-based Lloyd’s Market Association, an umbrella group of maritime insurers, to list Nigeria, neighbouring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia. This resulted in significant decrease in maritime traffic in the region, creating big loss in local government’s revenue. I can only feel blissful that in Australia we can pride ourselves of our safe beaches thick with white sand and clean clear water.

It is humbling to witness how an entire family manages to survive off a year’s wages that are less than what I make in a week or month back home. How can one not realize how blessed we are to simply live in a home with drinking water, electricity and food. It is only through the experience of daily electricity, weekly water cuts and dramatically slow internet that I realise how few material things and comforts one actually needs to survive – less than 3 litres of water for a quick shower after a long 5-hour overland road trip!