A month before I left my confortable life in Paris, France, to reach Lomé, Togo I came across several articles that made me feel uncomfortable about the project I had been working on with 12 other students for nine months.
Having grown up mostly in Africa, I had seen many projects involving students or scouts, going on "humanitarian trips", for the wrong reasons and with the wrong projects, sometimes paying huge sums of money to occidental associations. Therefore, before I even decided to apply to join the team, I was very skeptical about the concept of it. But one month after leaving the public primary school of Adjomayi, I am reassured that our experience had nothing to do with that, and I will tell you why our project was different.
Our student association has a two years partnership with a Togolese NGO named Nuaké, who selected the school that would benefit from the shipyard. We did not decide to build a school out of nowhere, neither did we not think we were qualified to evaluate the local primary school's needs and pick up one while we were 4756 kilometers away. The school already existed, the teachers and the children too. The need was real: a jungle had grown in one of the roofless building.
The team had two students who managed the project from A to Z, estimating the costs with the craftsmen, paying the cement or the wooden boards. Our team raised nearly £25,000 (30,000€ euros). Far from the expats neighborhood, we lived in a flat we shared with Momovi, Serge, Momo and Papa, members of Nuaké. At any moment did we feel we had an asymmetrical relation. We were partners and we soon became friends. Yes our skin was not black, and yes people were pointing at us when we were walking together in the streets, but that did not prevent us from bonding very quickly. They are eager to contribute to the development of their country and we provided them with the means they lacked to do it. We were in touch months before we arrived and are still messaging today.
No, we did not have any previous construction work experience, but we did not pretend we had any and that we knew how to pour a concrete slab, or build a library. Instead, we worked under the orders of local craftsmen who did have the know-how and the qualifications. We did the things we could do well without slowing the renovation, simple tasks such as digging, carrying buckets of water or cement, breaking the ground with sledgehammers, and the most talented of us helped with the parging. The goal was not to make us feel good but simply to be useful and rebuild together the 6 classrooms.
During our stay, we met local, national and international actors. The Togolese authorities, from the city mayor to the Minister of Education, assured us of their support and thanks. The biggest international organizations on the other hand, represented by expatriates living in the residential neighborhood for expatriates and socializing at select beach clubs on weekends, told us we were too small of a project for them to consider funding it next year, comparing our budget to a « restaurant bill ». We were in shock. Realizing that the decision-makers in charge are not facing the same realities as you are is quite disturbing.
Simply writting a check was not the spirit of our partnership. Our team grew stronger and our knowledge of one another wider. People would ask us to take them to France, and would be surprised when we told them that they were much better off in Togo, that France was stricken with unemployement. Children told us that homosexuality was a contagious disease you would get if you smoked cigarettes or if you kissed someone who "had it".
Unlike « voluntourism trips », where you would have a one-week safari after one-week « humanitarian work », we spent four weeks working to complete the renovation, and we were glad to do so. Unlike « voluntourism trips », where it is very much about getting many pictures with your white self surrounded by black children, and of course a new Facebook profile picture, we know the name of each and every kid that came to cheer us on the work days and bring us peanuts, and play football with us in the evening.
Our partnership with Nuaké is sustainable, we have a relationship based on trust -few similar projects can claim the same- and I think we both benefited and gained a lot from this experience. The new team is now working with the environmental wing of Nuaké to make the 2015 reconstruction more environment-friendly. It is always easy to give criticism on such ambitious projects, but I am confident that this one was successful, and such projects can be done the right way.