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General Teaching Projects in Togo by Jeff Hurst

One of my classes Bonjour. My name is Jeff aka Cudjoe and Jean-François. I am 40-something and sporadically adventurous. This past summer I spent four months in West Africa with Projects Aboard; two months Teaching English in Togo and two months on a Care placement in Senegal. Looking back, I believe the only thing I would have done differently would have been to stay a little longer.

I normally enjoy life here on the Canadian prairie, but have been fortunate over the years to be able to visit others parts of our world. Although the summer temperature in Canada can exceed +40C for a few days in a row, it is the long, -40C winter nights that people know best. Last night, the wind chill warning was for -48C. So to stay warm I stayed inside, grabbed a cup of coffee and flipped through my photos taken during my adventure earlier this year (2009).

At work I manage a computer support team in a typical office environment. I work for a national employer and as such it is a career advantage to speak both French and English. Although I am Canadian, I live in the west where less French is spoken in the community than in the eastern regions of Canada. I had tried night school and computer programs to build up my French skills, but I never seemed to make much progress.

Women elders Life had become too routine. My work life was uneventful and much of my personal life had a "been there, done that" feeling to it. I started to consider what I could do with a year off from work. In the end I set three simple goals:  1. Lose weight 2. Learn French 3. Strive to help others.

I was looking for a genuine experience which would allow me to learn, contribute, and engage with the community. I was a little surprised to find so many players in the voluntourism business. However, once I dug a little deeper, I felt Projects Abroad would be a good choice. Now that I have seen first hand the good work being done by Projects Abroad, I know it was the right choice. I chose Togo and Senegal, as I wanted to work on my French skills.

My Togo experience started even before my plane touched down in the big port city of Lomé. On our final approach, the sky was dark and the ocean was pitch black. As we approached the coast, I could see the Lomé twinkling in the darkness. As I enjoyed the view I could not quite understand why the nightscape of the city seemed so strangely beautiful. At the airport Kwame, the Director of the local Projects Abroad office, and his team welcomed me then drove me across town to my host family's home.

During the drive, I sat back and took in the sights, smells and sounds of a Saturday night in Lomé, Togo. As my eyes scanned the curbside food vendors, kiosks and the late night cafes, I realized why the cityscape twinkled. There were few glowing neon signs or bright streetlights. The city was gently lit and most street vendor work by candles or open kerosene lamps, not electric light. The view from the air was like a ten thousand twinkling candles, lit to welcome me to West Africa. It was just the first of many sights that were to become my memories of Togo.

Fishermen My host family was incredibly warm and generous. Teaching English in the high school was very rewarding, my French teacher was understanding and lots of fun, the community was welcoming and a little curious, the food was delicious, and my fellow volunteers were super friendly. All in all - the trip was amazing.

I worked weekday mornings in the high school along side the English teacher, Mr. H. The textbook used by the public schools was rather old (1976), but seemed to do the trick. I found each lesson offered another perspective on life in West Africa. I was very impressed with the students’ English skills. The classes were huge by North American standards, with about 75 kids per class. Mr. H and I worked with four classes each day, four times each week. The classes had a mix of ages with the boys and girls ranging in age from 11 to 19. We read the stories aloud, discussed the vocabulary and the meaning of the stories.

During the mid-morning break, I started to give a stand-up class in the schoolyard. I simply hung up a big sign - "Pratique Votre Anglais Ici". As soon as I hung it up, some kids would gather and we’d do a spontaneous lesson. I used magazines, flash cards and the anything around us to illustrate vocabulary and get the kids speaking in English. I think in the end, although the class-work was essential, it was the unstructured nature of the recess sessions that I enjoyed the most.

Street food During my placement, the school celebrated their traditions and current zest for life with their annual cultural week. I feel very fortunate to have been able to enjoy the dances, social plays and games.

The teachers at the school offered all the support anyone would need to help out and gave me a great send off when my placement came to an end. They are a good bunch there at CEG Djidole.

I spent my afternoons roaming the city of Lomé and enjoying the beaches. So much of the industry of Lomé can be found along the streets. A simple walk in the neighborhood would take me past tradesmen making everything from carvings to cabinets, shoes to shirts, soap to nuts - not too mention the food vendors, stores and water stops.

Going to Togo brought a huge change to the pace of my life. The heat was intense in March, but after a couple of weeks it was easier to bear. Clean, cold water was available everywhere so it was easy to stay hydrated. Walking around town was safe and the sites kept things interesting. By walking and eating healthier, I lost more than 40lbs (3 stone). My doctor was very happy!

A few times each week I met with my French teacher, Mr. Blaise. We started at the beginning and worked through a number of lessons during my stay. Blaise also became a good friend during my stay.  He invited me to join him and his friends for workouts and never seemed to mind my continuous questions regarding translations at work or after hours. During my walks, I found it very easy to speak with the people on the street. Most everyone was very helpful and patient as I tried to use my new found French skills.

Carved elephants On my first trip out of town, Sam took me over to a town near the Benin border. It included a stop at an old holding compound where men who would become slaves in America were held until the ships came. To see it, smell it, and touch it left me speechless.

On different weekend trips we headed out of town for a walk around the mountain top village (Kpalimé, Agbédjikpo), for a festive lunch & dance (Assahoun) and to play in West Africa’s biggest waterfall near Hohoe, Ghana. If I were to do it again, I would reserve some time to explore the countryside further north and maybe visit the game parks of Ghana and Benin.

The Projects Abroad team with Kwame, Dalphine, Koffi and Sam do a great job making sure the placements are working and seeing that the volunteers are well supported. I want to thank Mama Beau and her loving family for taking great care of me in her beautiful home in Togo.

Lastly, to the many great volunteers I met from around the world ... Mel, Jutta and of course my dearest Jessie ... what will Kwame do now that Jessie has left town!? I met so many great people though this experience that it is hard to mention them all, but they have all left me with great memories from a unique experience. I can only hope that I have offered some of the same in return.

Thanks Projects Abroad.

Jeff Hurst

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