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Published: August 30th 2006
The past three days have opened my eyes to the real Africa...those countries that are conveniently bypassed by international organizations and governments when they speak of the African 'miracle.' Ghana and South Africa might be the poster children of the UN and IMF but in no way do they represent the African continent as a whole.
My interest in Togo began last fall when, during an "International Human Rights Documentary" course, a man from Togo (Dagbevi) came to speak to our class about the violent Eyadema regime. He said that he was looking for students who might be interested in starting an advocacy network in the San Francisco area to educate people about the political situation in Togo. Part of the campaign, he said, would involve the production of a documentary. After class, I spoke to Dagbevi and we decided that we would do whatever we could to find the necessary funds to get me to West Africa this summer. Thankfully, I ran across a Stanford summer fellowship at the CDD and, voila, here I am.
Although working at the CDD has been a great experience, the situation in Togo was actually what attracted me to West Africa in
the first place. So, with only 5 days left, I, along with my local filmmaking friend Collins, went to the town of Hohoe near the Togolese border to interview Togolese refugees about their experiences. While we were there, we also met up with two of Dagbevi's friends, Tonton and Rodrigue, who are both human rights activists living in Lome, the capital of Togo. Collins and I arrived in Togo on Thursday night (the 24th) and planned to interview the refugees on Friday. I was not at all prepared for what we were about to see.
Before going any further, I should probably provide a little background information about the political situation in Togo. In 1967, only seven years after Togo gained its independence from France, Gnassingbe Eyadema became president of the country. For the next ten or so years, Eyadema successfully built up the Togolese economy until it fell into ruins in the 1980s. At this point, Eyadema became more dictatorial but, in the early 1990s, he handed executive power over to an interim prime minister under international pressure. However, Eyadema continued to retain the military's allegiance and he eventually masterminded the slaughtering of hundreds of political opposition members
in the next few years. In 1993, Eyadema was 'elected' president (primarily because opposition parties refused to paricipate for fear of their lives) and in 2002 he pressured the national assembly to eliminate his term limit. When Eyadema died in 2005, he was succeeded by his son, Faure Gnassingbe, despite national and international protests. The new president has continued his father's reign of terror, causing thousands of citizens to seek refuge in the surrounding countries of Ghana and Benin.
Around Hohoe, there are approximately 5,000 Togolese refugees, most of whom have lived there for 5-15 years. However, there is no refugee camp for them. As I soon found out, the Ghanaian government does not currently consider the Togolese living within its borders 'refugees' because, it claims, many of them are living with relatives (which is not the case). As a result, the refugees currently receive NO aid from the Ghanaian government or international aid organizations like the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Instead, they subsist on weekly rations of maize provided for them by a local NGO called CRAN (Christian Rural Aid Network).
When I arrived in Hohoe on Thursday, I was immediately introduced to the
13 year old refugee
there was something about this kid that really grabbed me...
coordinator of the refugees, who informed me that the refugees were (thankfully) gathering on Friday and that I was more than welcome to come and interview some of them. When I arrived at their meeting spot, however, I was greeted by fear, paranoia, and heavy opposition. The coordinator's wife had accompanied me to reassure the refugees that my mission was harmless, but it was not enough. A large contingency feared that I worked for the Togolese government and/or assumed that I was taking video footage to sell to the Togolese government. Rodrigue (the human rights activist who met me in Hohoe) spoke to the refugees for about a half an hour and convinced many (but not all) that I meant no harm. One woman then bravely stood up and said that she wanted to be interviewed. Many others quickly followed suit.
All in all, we interviewed about 7 different people, ranging in age from 13 to 55. Unfortunately, the refugees only spoke French or Ewe (their local dialect) so Collins and Rodrigue asked the questions and I worked the camera. According to the bits and pieces that were translated for me, it seems like we got some great footage.
the whole group
tonton, rodrigue, the coordinator's wife, and some of the other organizers of the 'camp'
Perhaps the best interview, though, was with the 13 year-old boy, who begged the international community for assistance in reforming the Gnassingbe regime.
After we finished all of the interviews, Collins, Rodrigue, Tonton, and I went to a local bar/restaurant to celebrate our successful mission. I am not sure exactly how the documentary will turn out in the end (first I have to get Dagbevi to translate all of the interviews for me...) but I pray that the refugees' voices will eventually be heard all around the world.
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