This post is a sensitive subject because it happened at a time in which the president of the United States infamously called African countries shitholes.

Africa is a diverse continent with thousands of languages and cultures. And besides that what good does it do to mark an entire country, let alone continent, a dump?

Every country has been at a different stage of development at different eras. Our own ancestors lived in a completely different world just 100 years ago. Was their world a shithole? What good does it do to call it one? Were our ancestors less of people for having lived in those conditions? Was their potential and the potential for their country any less? Will our future progeny look at the times we are living in now with disgust?

There are more ‘developed’ places, and less. But it’s still home for somebody. And there are beautiful things to be found everywhere, about every place and culture and people. Yet there are some severe problems that less developed countries face—that surely all countries have faced at some point in their history on the rocky road to a more stable social order.  I became caught up in one such situation while relaxing on the beach in Togo.

One evening, as I sat on the beach and watched Ryder splash in the water, a boy sat silently next to me. He did not try to catch my attention, nor speak to me, but because he was alone, I finally asked if he would like to see a picture of himself, knowing that often these children may not have had the opportunity. He said yes. (Cropping his eyes for privacy)


He played with Ryder in the water for a bit. We borrowed the tubes from the US missionary neighbors from some nondenominational sect who had raised their children in Togo and who were on vacation.

I didn’t ask him any questions, but as is typical for Jacob, he did. We learned Kwame was from Ghana, didn’t speak French, and had no mother or father.

Kwame didn’t speak much and used only 1-2 word sentences. He said he had no friends. He insisted he was from Ghana. He did not say why he was here or what happened to his parents. He said he spoke Ewe.

I asked him where he slept. He gestured aimlessly. I asked who looked after him. He said the ocean.

He was 11 years old.

Ryder told me the next day, “Kwame is my bestest friend.”

“Why do you like Kwame so much?” asked Jacob.

“Because he is not mean to me,” Ryder replied simply.

While the two played on the beach the wheels in my mind were spinning furiously. I began researching. What are the options of a Ghanaian orphan  in Togo?

I decided to invite him to church to see if there was someone there who could help him. The Mormons have requirements of belief, but no one will ever go hungry as a member, and in a country where there’s no social net, that’s saying something. After all, I didn’t have any other plans that day other than sit at the beach, so why not. I told him to come before nine. How will you know what time it is? I asked him. I will ask the security guard, he said.

The next morning, he didn’t come. To be honest I was a bit relieved. Perhaps I had fulfilled my duty as best I could already. I realized that perhaps he felt awkward attending when his only clothing was a pair of shorts with a huge hole on the inseam along his leg. Perhaps our interactions were finished.

But then he showed up later. I told him I would take him to an orphanage tomorrow if he wanted. He agreed. I researched different orphanages. I had no idea if they had space. I asked him to show me where he slept. I wanted to see who he lived with. He obviously did not want to, but eventually agreed. He said it was necessary to go through the makeshift housing which we had since been warned about.

The owner of our hotel told us to stay away from there, and the motorcycle taxi told me it was was full of bandits and very dangerous. But I was curious to see Kwame’s living situation. I made Jacob go with me.

kwame sleeps

Of course, inside, it was not scary. No one seemed angry to see us. Everyone greeted us. We walked through there with Kwame as our guide, and it was full of women nursing babies, men lying down lazily smoking, tiny children toddling. It was a Ghana refugee camp, we were told. Togo is less developed than Ghana. I don’t know why they would come here, but they are living on prime real estate on that beach.

Kwame took us to a tree in a courtyard. He told us he slept there.  I asked a man nearby if it were true. Did Kwame sleep here? He said yes, he had seen Kwame sleeping there. Tears ran down Ryder’s friend’s cheeks. He didn’t say a word.

My idealization of the situation just the day before dissolved. Life is not meant to be lived alone without a family. I read later about the thousands of street children of Lome, abandoned by the AIDS crisis. Again I was struck that there is something very wrong with our world, with humanity, if this kind of situation can exist. There are children in this world who are not only mistreated and abandoned, but actually fending for themselves alone.

View of the street out a taxi windowDSC01370

I became consumed with thinking what to do for Kwame. Jacob grew weary of my musings and also warned me that allowing him on the hotel property was potentially not safe. He thought he was manipulating me for money. I did buy him a sandwich. But I didn’t give him money. This was not my first time to hear a tragic story from a local African. And I didn’t want to meddle in an affair which I could not fully know the details.

I know my propensity to get caught in sad stories. Stories that may not even be true. But at the same time, I never want my heart to get hard to them. I also know that I am viewing things from a Western lens, and there are many ways to interpret a situation, many ways to live a life, and it’s all they’ve ever known. In the meantime, Jacob’s instinct is to protect me and Ryder. I also understand that. Perhaps being confronted with this difficult dilemma is one reason people do not want to visit sub Saharan Africa.

I asked a man who had opened something like 15 orphanages in Togo what to do for someone like Kwame. He was a Danish man who asked me if I was Danish. He said I had the Danish look.

He said there was not much to do for an orphan from Ghana because Togolese orphanages will only take natives. “Besides,” he said, “they’d rather be free. They’re just happy to get some food.”

This appeared to be true because Kwame told me as much when I offered again to drive him to an orphanage. And anyway, the orphanage would’ve been French-speaking and he didn’t speak French. Neither did I, so who knows how I was going to explain the situation.

Ryder asked if we could take him with us. I said I wished so, but he did not have a passport. Ryder said maybe we could draw his picture and make him one. He understood that Kwame did not have parents and wanted to help him too. 

I felt he was not ‘bad’ even if he was just trying to get money. There is not such a thing as a ‘bad’ 11 year old, just someone in tragic circumstances that should not exist and yet they do. Nevertheless I knew that a homeless youth hanging around the vacation resort was not kosher, and I too, didn’t want him stealing anything. I also knew that ultimately our time in Togo was finished. So I took Jacob’s advice, thanked him for being a friend to Ryder, and asked him to leave.

“I will go to Ghana. I need to take a mototaxi. My father is coming for me,” he said.

“I thought your father died?” I asked.

“Just my mother. My father is coming,” he said.

“Yes, walk to Ghana, it is better for you to speak Ewe there. It’s not too far. Good luck,” I said, knowing he was hinting for money, and motioned him on. I don’t know why he lied. Was it painful to see Ryder playing with his dad? Did he imagine his father was out there, waiting for him to return? I’ll never know his full story. I left and I never saw him again.

Jacob playing on the beach

  Many studies have shown the damage an orphanage does to children long-term. Yet is it worse than no schooling and living without a family on the streets…

Background here:

I don’t know the solution.  I don’t know that missionaries are the answer-we met so many of them, Assemblies of God and Pentacostal and Mennonite…They’ve been here for centuries and changed the Africans dress and culture but they have not solved the poverty…or the diseases that have wrecked communities and left children without families…although I respect their efforts and I think they care and do more than the average Westerner, I just disagree with the priority of care…after all Africans are already perhaps the most God-loving and spiritually-oriented people of any continent, but their life expectancy is half that of the rest of the world. I think there is something to be said for NGO’s, who are passionate and informed about local situations. I think the ideal is for the country’s government to provide the services because then equal access across the country can become possible. But in a country like Togo, NGO’s fill the gaps that the country’s tax coffers can’t. Or well-intentioned tourists who only visit for a week.

One alternative is to look at GiveWell, which analyzes charities for the ones who reach the greatest number of people and make the greatest impact by doing the most good. They are all health initiatives, which is what I have ultimately decided is also the most important aspect in human rights. It doesn’t matter what kind of education you have, for example, if your quality of life is so affected by your health that you cannot walk or go to the bathroom or see properly.

I do not give a large amount of money to any one organization. As someone who formerly gave 10% of my income to one organization, I still feel a pull to give back financially. It’s not much compared to what I spend on privileged pursuits such as travel, but I still take the responsibility seriously to give back to the communities who have hosted us.

I challenge people who are reading this post to find an organization to donate to for children in Africa with a cause that you feel is important. The temptation is to give to individuals, but I think organizations can have the most impact, though the rewards as the donor are less obvious.

The rise of child sponsorships are one way people enjoy helping individuals. Here’s the downside to them though: Essentially it is thought that improving the entire community will help a child more than just attempting to help the child.

I have, however, found a school to donate to in rural Uganda from which I receive a card from the students each year and I can follow updates on Facebook. I support their school lunch initiative. This is also rewarding in a closer-to-home kind of way, while still benefitting a greater number of students. If interested I’d be happy to provide more details.

In addition to GiveWell, I also currently choose to support  PSI (Population Services International). It’s an organization that provides contraception to women who want it and who don’t have access to it internationally. It seems to prevent further suffering, the least that can be expected is to help women control the size of their families. In the Togolese society in which women will have sex just to get money to purchase a bus ticket home, one in which there is so much disempowerment, the risk is very high for a financially unsupported pregnancy.

I hope you find your place one day, Kwame. I hope you really do have a father who is coming for you.


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