By Taylor Akin, KF9, Togo
It’s amazing how identity can be so malleable. In a matter of hours, a person can be transformed from local to foreigner, fluent to fumbling, familiar to fascinating, and even from black to white. Anyone who has ever travelled even just a couple hours outside their hometown has experienced this shift. The change in identity may happen to varying degrees, but its unpredictability remains a constant.
In the past, I have often travelled to locations where my skin colour has conveniently allowed me to blend in. The mix of my Jamaican and British heritage has provided me with a variety of clever masks. I may appear to be Ecuadorian, Spanish, and even Moroccan depending on my location. Since my arrival in Lomé, however, I have done anything but blend in.
Walking to a main road after my first day with WAGES, I heard a man call out, “La blanche! Ça va? (White girl! How are you?)” It took a few moments for me to realize that this man was talking to me. Friends who had previously travelled to West Africa had prepared me for this experience, but I was taken aback nonetheless. I had never been “blanche” in my life! At home, I am the intriguing, exotic other who is considered to be “of colour” and is regularly asked, “Where are you from?” Ironically, abroad I have often been considered a local. But I had never, ever been white.
Shortly afterward, I was approached by a stranger on a street corner. He introduced himself as Beninois royalty, asked where I was from, gave me his number, and suggested meet we meet to discuss politics and business. It wouldn’t take me long to figure out that these two instances were no where near isolated.
On visits to WAGES clients, it quickly became an expectation that children would sheepishly (and sometimes not-so sheepishly) call out “Yovo, yovo! Bon soir! (White girl, white girl! Good evening!)” While many of my friends here did not understand my confusion (I often heard protests of, “but you ARE white”), they at least took the time to listen. They now joke around by exclaiming, “Crise d’identité (identity crisis)!” anytime I’m referred to as a yovo.
This new skin I wear has not only given me a different identity, but a new status. I no longer exist as Taylor Akin, Kiva Fellow, and the other facets that make up who I am. Instead, my human self is shed and I am transformed into something else. Not human but hope, opportunity, passports, visas, plane tickets, and wealth abroad. I am a way out.
As a result, my Togolese friends are constantly reminded by their acquaintances, “Il faut profiter, ein?” You must take advantage of this opportunity. You can escape. Taxi drivers, waiters, and passersby will boldly ask for my phone number and Canadian address so they can come “visit.” Marriage proposals quickly follow up questions about relationship status and often precede inquiries about my first name. Suddenly, being referred to as “blanche” and being asked to exchange numbers with a stranger seemed inextricably linked.
A recent op-ed by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof states that Togo and Tanzania are the two unhappiest nations in the world. Conversely, Costa Ricans rate the happiest. How is this happiness measured? Citizens are asked to rate their own happiness on a scale from one to ten. This measurement can also be combined with life expectancy in order to calculate the number of “happy life years” or environmental factors to develop the “happy planet index.” But when it comes to rating self-happiness, the Togolese gave themselves 2.6 out of 10.
While using happiness as a form of empirical evidence can certainly be debated, the data seems to speak for itself in my experience. Imagine growing up in a society where you are taught that the only hope for happiness and success exists outside its borders. Indeed, on a different continent altogether. Yet for many Togolese citizens, thoughts of life abroad are more taunting than tangible. Air France advertisements, for example, boast 3 weekly flights to Paris from Lomé. Yet, they seem to mock the near impossibility of receiving a French visa without a sponsor. Cue white foreigner strolling down the street. Why sit idly by when this could be your chance?
Surprisingly, I’ve heard several success stories of sponsorship and subsequent citizenship resulting from marriage to foreigners (with or without love). But for each success story, there are bound to be innumerable failed attempts at leaving the country. For many, dreams of seeking one’s fortune in other lands are put on the shelf. For others, there never really was any desire to leave. In either case, entrepreneurs are born.
I definitely do not want to imply that entrepreneurial activity in Lomé is simply a plan B. It is impossible to generalize each individual’s experience. Nor do I mean to assert that leaving one’s country is a better alternative to staying put; We have all heard many horror stories relating to immigration and human rights violations. But the politics of prosperity are complicated, and this past month in Lomé has made this complication very real. It all comes down to living the best life possible, by any means necessary.
Regardless of how it is done, il faut profiter.
Taylor Akin will be working with Women and Associations for Gain both Economic and Social for the next 3 months. Click here to lend to WAGES entrepreneurs who seek their fortune within Togo’s borders. Join the WAGES lending team, which aims to unite lenders across borders./>