A Writer Writes

Mark G. Wentling was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras 1967-69 and Togo 1970-73, and in Gabon and Niger as a member of Peace Corps staff. He then  joined USAID in 1977 and served in Niamey, Conakry, Lome, Mogadishu and Dar es Salaam before retiring from the U.S. Senior Foreign Service in 1996.  Since retiring, he has worked for USAID as its Senior Advisor for the Great Lakes, and as its Country Program Manager for Niger and Burkina Faso. He has also worked in Africa for U.S. Non-Governmental Organizations and he is currently Country Director for Plan in Burkina Faso. On September 20, he marked 42 years in Africa.  He has worked in, or visited, all 54 African countries. He has six children and hails from Kansas. His novel, Africa’s Embrace, is scheduled to be published this year.


Togo: Today and in 1970

A Personal Journey Back to Where It Began

by Mark G. Wentling (Honduras 1967-69, Togo 1970-73)

“Si vous ne connaisez pas le Togo, vous ne connaisez pas l’Afrique.”

I was pleased I could make out these French words as I plied my way through the shabby, poorly-lit Lome airport in 1970. The airport was no more than a dilapidated warehouse. The only bright spot in this drab welcoming shack was the brightly colored tourist poster pasted lopsidedly on the bare wall with these French words printed boldly on it. I have thought about these words — “If you do not know Togo, you do not know Africa.” — over my 42 years in Africa.

mark-wentlingAt the time, I, and a dozen other new Peace Corps Volunteers arriving for the first time in Togo via Dakar from New York after three months of training in the Virgin Islands were too tired to really notice anything. All we could think about was eating and sleeping. We would be fully briefed the next day. I should have slept but I was restless. I spent most of the night walking Lome’s streets.

I was a school gardens and school construction PCV.  I interacted with local authorities and traditional chiefs. One of my most precious possessions is a letter begging me to stay longer that is signed, stamped and thumb-printed by all 33 village chiefs of the Agu District.

My PCV experience in a Togolese village for three years has always guided me.

In 1987, I returned to Togo for four years as USAID Rep. Those were tumultuous years as the country struggled for a transition to democracy. Sadly, this struggle did not succeed. This failure started a downward spiral for Togo.

March 2013 — I had my first visit to Togo in 10 years. I covered Lome and traveled 120 kilometers to Kpalimé, stopping at villages I worked in as a PCV. My intent was to compare today’s Togo to the one I knew 40 years ago. I found this hard to do. I could not recall with accuracy what Togo was like and there was nobody to talk to who was alive in 1970. There were plenty of younger people but they could not answer my questions. I felt lost in relatively familiar territory.

This longevity factor hit me hard in my Peace Corps village. I could not find a person who could remember me. For many years I was a legend in my village. Today I am as forgotten as last week’s fufu. I found in the village cemetery those I once knew. I said my goodbyes there; a very sad moment for me.

In Kpalimé, I searched in the market for an older person. I found my command of the local language, Ewé, is still good for a basic conversation. Certainly, a few words in Ewé brought smiles to the faces of the people I greeted. I met an older person. I told him I had lived 40 years ago in Agu-Nyogbo at the foot of Mt. Agu, easily visible 10 kilometers away. As he replied to my greetings, I could see he was a bit senile, but he said one thing that intrigued me. “I am happy you knew Togo when it was still sweet.” He repeated this many times in a sing-song fashion, “When Togo was still sweet.” I thought I knew what he meant. There is still some sweetness in Togo, but this visit was mostly bittersweet for me.

The world famous Kennedy Bar in Kpalimé had closed years ago. It is now a lottery office. Hotel Concordia, a major PCV hangout, is abandoned. I was told it closed following the owner’s death 20 years ago. Too many things stop in Africa when the original owner dies. Almost all the old bars and hotels I knew were gone, but there were a handful of new ones for each old one I knew. I had lunch across from Kennedy Bar at a new place called “Happy Yourself.” I told myself that was indeed what I needed.

I was feeling like the old train station in Agu-Gare. I took the train to Lome many times in the 1970s. It was always an exciting experience. Today, I discovered the train station houses goats, and the tracks are overgrown by bush. I was told the train had not run for 20 years. Evidently, Togo has become one of the few countries in the world without a train.

Nothing was the same in Agu-Gare. I saw many more people struggling to survive. Women still carried the basics on their heads. Farmers used small hoes and coupe-coupes to eke out a meager living from the land. Old buildings had collapsed or been braced up to lodge even larger extended families. It appeared few new houses had been built. One of my favorite places, Chez Henri, a general store, bar and restaurant, had disappeared.

Nyogbo looked better. I was pleased to see its German hospital, Bethesda, functioning. At this hospital, I once gave blood to save the life of another PCV, and my own life was saved after a bad case of malaria. The village looked good but, oddly, I felt like a stranger in my old home. People looked at me as if I were a crazy, lost white man. Some people asked me if I needed help. I wanted to say, “Yes, I need help in finding the past.”

I stopped in Glekopé to see if the three-classroom school I built was still standing. The space my school was located was occupied but the school was not mine. We never asked how long our schools would last. At that time, Peace Corps built more schools than any other organization. Upon closer inspection I could see a school had been built on the old foundation. I told myself this is truly one instance where I did lay the foundation for things to come.

I saw some PCVs pass me on the road. I wanted to talk to them, but what would I say? What does a person say who was a PCV over 40 years ago to a 22-year old PCV? The gap is too great, and they looked so quiet, walking on foot or riding their bicycles. In my mind’s eye, the PCVs of my day were much rowdier, zooming noisily about on motorbikes. They moved with all their electronics. I fondly recall writing a letter home and waiting months for a reply. Whatever happened to the art of letter writing? How can you be immersed in a cross-cultural experience with a laptop, a cellphone and internet everywhere?

In some ways I envied the new PCVs because they only knew the present. They are not frustrated like me by having known Togo 40 years ago. The past was my problem. But, deep down how much has life really changed in Togo? The essential daily survival tasks are unchanged. There are better roads, more electricity, more schools, more health clinics, etc. but I saw life harder for the average Togolese. People also acted less happy.

Forty years ago post-independence euphoria was still alive. People were full of hope and laughed a lot more. Today, life is much more expensive. There are too many mouths to feed, care for, educate, employ, etc. Togo had 2.2 million people when I arrived in 1970. Today it has nearly 7 million and 65% of the population is less than 25 years old. Lome had 200,000 people in 1970. Today it has 2 million people. The UN reports the population density going from 30 to over 100 people per square kilometer since 1970.

Many more Togolese are educated now, but jobs are scarce. It is scary for me to see so many young people with diplomas, but without jobs. It is like watching a ticking human time bomb. How much longer before it explodes? Will they rise up against 50 years of autocratic rule? In 1970, we were told not to talk about the President, his army or his party and all would be OK. Before going to Togo this time, I received the same advice. Sadly, this has not changed.

I expected not to see the old German wharf off Lome. Surely it had disintegrated and fallen into the ocean, but its remnants still stand. Hard to imagine I risked my life to fish off this wharf in the1970s. I can recall some of the PCVs who arrived before me telling how they came to Togo via ship and were off-loaded onto smaller boats.

Most places I once frequented in Lome are gone. The old U.S. Embassy and Cultural Center are long gone, swamped by the overflow of the central market. I could not look at the old Embassy without thinking of a horrific scene I witnessed on April 11, 1991. Our American Ambassador, Harmon Kirby, had his office just above me on the second floor. We watched from his window a violent clash between government forces and hundreds of angry protestors, who had with them a truck load of dead people who were killed the night before by soldiers. We observed total chaos. Some protestors climbed the Embassy compound walls. They eventually fled, dumping their gruesome load of 28 bloated bodies in front of the Embassy. We waited a long time before the bodies were removed.

A spot on this same street is a bad memory for Togo and all of Africa. Sylvanus Olympio, Togo’s first president, was murdered next to the Embassy on January 13, 1963. Four Togolese soldiers recently released from the French Army entered the Embassy compound to find Olympio hiding in a vehicle. They forced him into the street and killed him. This was Africa’s first coup and assassination of a president. Sadly, after the killing of Olympio, coups became regular events in Africa. I doubted the market women doing business on this spot knew what happened here in 1963.

There are new restaurants and private hotels in Lome. There are many more Lebanese than before. I saw many Indians and Chinese, whereas there were none before. The weather in Lome has not changed. It is still hot and humid until about 5 PM when it becomes quite pleasant.

I had some shocks during this one-week visit. One shock came after I checked into my hotel. I rushed to the hotel bar and asked for a “BB.” I was surprised when the bartender did not understand me. I explained to him that in the old days we all drank Bière Benin. He did not know when they stopped making BB.

The old tennis club located behind the presidency in Lome is still there. I played tennis almost every day in the late 1980s. I was happy to see some of the ball boys I knew then are now club pros. They greeted me warmly. This was the only time that I met any Togolese who could remember me. I am glad I learned to play tennis in Togo.

I counted 50 ships anchored offshore. Most of these ships were bound for ports in Cotonou and Lagos. Each ship paid an anchorage fee to the Togolese government. There were traffic police on every corner. All roadblocks were thankfully gone. The payment of a modest toll on the Lome-Kpalimé road is required.

The concrete pedestal on which the former president’s huge statue used to stand before it was demolished in 1991 by rioting protesters is still there. (I still have a piece of marble from the statue.) The Dove of Peace statue is still on the road leading to the airport. The Dutch continue their efforts to dredge the lagoon. They were also working on the lagoon in the 1980s.

I am glad I took this trip, but I remain confused by what I observed. I suffer from a strong case of nostalgia, so it is my views could be warped. It is not possible to look back over 42 years and tell in a few words Togo’s story.

Much needs to be done and Togo has lost too much time. This is sad because a poor country like Togo has no time to lose. The Togolese people deserve much better. Maybe that tourist poster I saw in 1970 should have read “If you know Togo’s problems, you know Africa’s problems.” Or, maybe I should make my own sign with the following words: “If you knew Togo 40 years ago, you don’t know today’s Togo.”