Well it’s been another varied week or so here in Lomé. Like I finished in my last post, I’ve continued rolling with the punches and taking the daily frustrations as part of life and so learned to accept them. That doesn’t mean they’re not there though, and I don’t feel I’ve got coherent photo essay, let alone a complete set of photos for Raymond’s street children organisation. I’ve been photographing around the area in part, but I haven’t yet accomplished anything special image-wise – something that is naturally very important to me in progressing as a photographer.
Raymond still feels peaky from the malaria – we just had a sprite together at “Obama Bar” at the end of his road, which he promptly filled with salt to help with his fever. Having tasted salt water before, I had no real inclining to ruin the cool sweetness on my panting tongue, surprisingly dry in the humidity. It sounded like a useful hangover cure or something to down just before you go to bed after a night out – a hangover preventative by purging the system perhaps? But when in Africa… it tasted like sprite with a strong aftertaste of salt. Don’t bother.
Raymond has been disappearing every now and then, trying to organise anything from UNICODES meetings to baby Robin’s naming ceremony. Meanwhile when I’ve not been out photographing I’ve been passing my time reading the last few books I brought with me (I must admit, I never actually thought I’d be reading ‘Ships of Mercy’ by Don Stephens), watching Prison Break in French over Vivienne’s shoulder, and answering emails from home and friends; some bringing upsetting news, some asking for photographic services on my return, even some wanting advice about belief in God (God help them if they’re asking me).
I’ve found that in keeping those western elements in my life I sadly haven’t been able to truly get to know Lomé. I can’t seem to let go of them for more than a day at a time. But it’s those times when they’re not present – visiting Raymond’s sister for lunch, playing goalvi football (4-a-side teams using miniature goals) with Dodzi (one of the day volunteers, currently a law student), popping out to the woman on the corner to get water sachets (because of my yovo stomach) while chatting with Raymond about his childhood on the streets, eating fresh pineapple skilfully diced up into a black plastic bag by a woman ambling along the street with them on her head, walking along the beach and through Adidogome and various market places, chatting to Dodzi’s brother before realising he’s deaf and the other elements of life here where I don’t feel the need to compensate with American TV programmes, or facebook, or even this blog. Here’s a few of those moments taken with my western camera…
So these last few days have been a last ditch attempt to get photographs for Raymond’s street children project. Part of the problem has been getting natural shots. People are very suspicious of cameras – perhaps more so than back home – and I found out yesterday that in Togo you are in fact not allowed to photograph anyone in public without their permission. Oops. I’m still not sure how I can verify this. Anyone know? This is very different from UK laws; which is how the paparazzi get away with everything. It’s always helpful to find this out at the end of a project about the life on the city streets…
Monday night was an odd one. Plenty of times in the past three or so months I have been to the big market that stretches towards the port from the Palm Beach hotel. However I have never been there after dark, and the transformation from the bright, bustling bodies and businesses of the day time is a stark contrast to the eerie (yet unempty) shadows, filled by the occasional argument, sleeping bodies in doorways, young girls crouching in the nearest puddle to relieve themselves etc.
The plan was to photograph some street children at 5pm that a journalist friend of Raymond’s had agreed to take us too, but his phone ran out of battery, so at 6.15 so to cut a long story short we found ourselves wandering back through the market, as dusk began to steal away the beautiful golden African sun. A short, mama selling fresh, silver foot-long fish called out to me: “Yovo, o fon yureah?” (excuse the spelling if you speak Ewe). “Eee, mefon dadanye. Ocho o fon yureah?” I replied, widening the beaming smile underneath the childhood-etched voodoo scores on her cheeks. She shouted out to the other women in the stalls next to her, revelling in this white man that responded in her native tongue. I stopped. “Donna vegbe vidividi” – “I speak a little Ewe”.
Raymond immediately saw this as an opportunity, taking over from my limited lingual abilities to explain who I was, that I had worked for Mercy Ships, and that I was now working for/with him to photograph children that live on the streets. I have met very few people in Lomé that don’t know of the Africa Mercy, and one of the women’s sister-in-law had had both of her eyes successfully operated on a few months ago.
Raymond talked excitedly with them. They were very helpful, explaining the problem of children sleeping on the streets in the evening. Of course it’s not just the children; many of the adult street vendors come to the city on Sunday night, sell their produce throughout the week until Friday, then go back home at the weekend. Unable to afford the daily commute, they sleep on the streets, occasionally under mosquito nets if they have one. Their children help during the holidays, and some are too valuable on the stall to afford school after holidays are over… mainly the girls.
We were told to come back around 9ish that evening, when people would start settling down to sleep. Raymond arranged for a policeman friend of his to meet us in town, for a bit of extra security, and we munched on spicy bean, tomato, avocado, onion and potato salad sandwiches made freshly (trying not to look at everything been stuffed in the baguette by bare hands) to order on the street.
So at around 8pm I stood on the same street looking at a very different scene. Rubbish was strewn everywhere, the last few vendors packing up under the orange cast from the concrete lamps parked sparsely at long intervals. Raymond went round the corner to ‘prepare the field’. By this time I had given up questioning his method, it only prolonged the inevitable. So I waited with Martin the policeman, attempting to try out my French and Ewe. In trying to search for the word ‘flag’ he showed me a photo on his phone of a flag – I noticed with amusement that he had to skip past about 10 photos of naked white women and a photo of Christ on the cross to get to it.
I was very much aware of the eyes of those passing being planted on this yovo with a £3000 camera in the bag he gripped tightly to his chest. A nearby boy was cleaning out the dust from a pile of handbags. “Madeo photoa?” I asked. He stared at me, unresponsive (so much for my vegbe pronunciation). A group of passing youths stopped at the sight of my camera. They asked me something in French I could only guess at. Then “you take his photo, you dash him something” they said. “Ah no, I don’t give money” I tried to explain. Five minutes of poor communication ensued where I learned that they were in fact Nigerian. Mentioning that I travelled through Niger, Kwara and Kogi state there for 5 weeks last year did the world of good, and suddenly I was their best friend. For the next half hour or so we talked about Nigeria, football (well we listed clubs) and taking them back to England with me. It’s never entirely a joke when they mention the latter to you.
Meanwhile Raymond had come back and was chatting to a security guard who was looking after the surrounding area. At first he wasn’t too pleased at me photographing so I stopped, but Raymond once again turned the situation round to his favour, and he was soon showing us the areas where people slept. It wasn’t hard to find. Walking down the street perpendicular to ours for about 100 metres I must have passed 50 or so people sleeping outdoors. Maybe 5 or so were lucky enough to have mosquito nets.
Walking around the block I was glad for the protection of Jules the security guard and Martin the policeman. Without them I would almost have certainly got mugged, quite possibly worse. When you walk through the market during the day you don’t really look at the buildings behind the stalls, but now they rose out of the loom, creating darkness below the faint glow of the clouds.
The woozy whiff of weed ran in ribbons across the air, creeping out of some dark corner. We approached the distant glow of a meth lamp lighting up a street vendor’s delicacy of meats. The night ended nibbling on a bit of slow-cooked pepper-dusted beef. I declined (unusually for me and food) the stuffed large intestines.
Yesterday was not quite so surreal. We had planned to photograph at a street children’s charity at 9am, at 2pm meet up with Jules again to photograph the same places we saw last night in day time, and at 4pm meet with the girls from the beach.
Not one of those things actually happened.
Well we went to the charity – Terre des Hommes – run by a helpful Frenchman called Gerôme, who did point out that as well not knowing we were coming, there are of course many child-protection policies in place, so photographing the children – only a few of whom stay at their facility – at a moment’s notice is not really possible, and they weren’t in fact street children anyway, but abused children in need of mental healthcare. So that didn’t quite go to plan. However he did put us in contact with a man called Souleman who works with former street kids, and is running a rehearsal (of some sort) at 5pm that we could go to.
Jules wasn’t at the home number he’d given Raymond, and when we went to meet the beach girls by the independence building, they weren’t there. So a good few more hours of the day were taken up migrating through the streets with Raymond.
Luckily Gerôme had come up trumps and at Nyekonakpoe, I gave my index finger a good exercise photographing (mainly former) street children rehearsing their traditional African drumming and dancing performance set. The breakneck rhythm and sheer volume of the percussive sounds was enough to energise even the weariest of souls. The exhilarating dancing was gone about with certain menace and fierce pride in what they were doing, every part of their bodies streaming with sweat and throats hardened to the hoarseness from years of experience.
Souleman, who is now 28 started living on the streets at the age of 10 after his father died. He befriended mainly wood carvers, his father having been one, who helped him find money by giving wood carvings to him to sell. He soon became skilled himself, and over 10 years the money he earned from selling these crafts helped him get off the streets. With the money he’d saved up he wanted to go travelling to Europe, but was swindled by men claiming to sell visas. So he moved in with his grandmother. Feeling empathy for many of the street children, he employed a few at his workshop and let them eat at his grandmothers, soon letting them sleep on the floor there as well. Soon 15 children were staying there.
The children were allowed to come and go as they pleased. Unfortunately this meant that often they would stay out all night and sleep at work the next morning. Souleman decided to encourage drumming sessions in the evening. This way they would be tired, sleep all night and be awake for work the next morning. Except many of the children turned out to be very talented at drumming and dancing, so Souleman sent them to get properly trained by a professional. Soon they were performing at events and functions all over Lomé allowing Souleman to build up various shops and workshops in different places. The money collated from them and the performances was shared with all the kids and youths involved.
About 100 people have been through his organisation Amagan, and about 30 youths are currently employed by him. They no longer have a place to shelter, but many of them can afford to rent, and the few that can’t sleep in the workshop/bar/training area where these photos were taken. Amagan has never had any financial sponsorship. In all honesty I’m quite in awe of Souleman, having built up his organisation pretty much from scratch without outside help in a city where he found himself living on the streets at the age of 10. It’s a dog-eat-dog world on the streets, and it is only the smartest that survive.
I’ve got less than a week until I leave now. I’m off to Sokode tomorrow morning – a town up towards northern Togo where there’s a leprosy settlement run by catholic sisters. I haven’t been able to contact them, but hopefully I’ll have two days there to continue my ongoing leprosy project. No doubt I’ll see; it will be nice to be able to get out of the city at least.