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The DukeEngage Communications team sat down with Charlie Piot, the Peter Lange Faculty Director of DukeEngage and Professor of Cultural Anthropology & African and African American Studies, the faculty director leading DukeEngage-Togo. This profile is part of an interview series that aims to share how DukeEngage programs impact community members, partners, and students. Follow us on Instagram for more content like this!


What sparked your idea for a DukeEngage program?

There’s a history to my involvement with DukeEngage. I’m a cultural anthropologist and have worked in Togo, a Francophone country on Africa’s west coast, for 30 years. I did my dissertation research in small villages located in the north of the country. I have gone back every year since, for up to six months at a time.

About 13 or 14 years ago, a colleague at the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) asked if I would take a few students to Togo with me, because their students were required to do a summer internship. I was hesitant, but said, “Let’s try it.” She sent me six students. I interviewed them all and ended up taking three. Two worked in health clinics and the third did general community development.

They were fabulous! They were hardworking and the locals really liked them. When we left at the end of the summer, [community members] said, “Please bring more students back next year. This is the best thing you’ve ever done for us.” So that was the start. It continued for about five years, but it was all ad hoc. The students would come back and tell friends or DGHI would send students my way.

Then Eric Mlyn, the previous director of DukeEngage, asked if I would rather take my students under the umbrella of DukeEngage. I jumped at the idea. DukeEngage is a big organization with a lot of resources and administration. All of a sudden, I had help in advertising the program and recruiting the students. It saved me a lot of time and opened up new possibilities.


Charlie Piot walks through a crop field in Togo.


What do you hope students will take from the experience?

DukeEngage-Togo is deeply immersive. Students live with local families so they get to see a way of life that they will never get a chance in their life to see again, unless they go back. This immersive cultural experience—seeing up close how families get through the everyday and part of the year, following them to markets to see how they buy and sell, attending ceremonies to see how they bury their dead—is priceless.

I also think the students have to have initiative to make the projects happen. These are shoestring projects that get reinvented every year. So students have to work really hard to succeed at their projects. And they all leave feeling pretty good about that. In the end, most have a sense of satisfaction about the projects they’ve been involved in.

DukeEngage-Togo students feel that they’ve made a small difference. They feel that they’ve been welcomed into the community. They feel that they’ve had an immersive experience in an area of the world that they knew nothing about and that they might have even had fears about because of the stereotypes about Africa and its problems and issues.

It’s a society that lives pretty close to the margin, and yet they have an amazingly rich cultural life. And that’s stunning to our students. Usually we think of precarity and depression as going together or people that are not terribly happy with life. And yet the opposite is true [in Togo].


What benefit does your DukeEngage program offer the community/partners?

For me, that’s always been the first question. I wouldn’t take students if I didn’t think that we were able to make a small difference locally. I’m in general a cynic. I think that people in these communities are very attentive and empowered in their own way, and there’s not a lot that we can help them with. They’ve been living in these very difficult environments for a long time. There’s not a lot that a small group of US university students who’ve never been to West Africa before and who know very little when they arrive can really do. That’s why I do an independent study with them before they go, to make sure that they develop a realistic attitude going in.

But having said that, all of the DukeEngage-Togo projects are projects that the locals like. Who’s not going to like getting a little money for your everyday commerce, through the microfinance system we’ve established? Who’s not going to like learning how to manipulate a laptop? None of the schools have computers so this gives [local] kids a unique opportunity, and they love it.


How does/has this program align with/impact your research or teaching?

When I first took students (before it was DukeEngage) I worried that it would encroach on my time. I teach all year and so summers are my chance to do my own work. And, of course, running a DukeEngage program is time consuming [because] I spend the whole summer with the students. In most [DukeEngage programs], the director just goes for a couple of weeks and it’s a site coordinator, the program director’s assistant, who actually runs the program day-to-day.

I stay there the whole time because it’s a place I love being. These are villages that I know really well and I speak the local language and I can continue to do research along the way. Every day I am able to hang out with the work groups, attend ceremonies, or go to the markets. If you’re an anthropologist, all of that is data. Whatever anyone says. The rumors you hear at the work group are data.


Charlie Piot (left) with Togolese villagers preparing food.


What was most surprising to me and has really actually made a difference in my research career is that these smart, dedicated, Duke students—because they are there for two months—they see things and they ask questions that I’ve never even thought about in 30 years. They just have a different take on things. They’re in touch with a lot of different people and sometimes those [conversations] turn into really interesting research ideas.

In fact, the seed idea for the DukeEngage projects—once they started eight years ago—came out of a student’s research project one summer. Maria Romano ’14 was really interested in child labor violations and the trafficking of children into neighboring countries. In the [Togolese] villages where I work, many teenagers leave every year to go work in Nigeria. They disappear for nine months and then they come back with a motorcycle. Everyone—their parents, the local chiefs, the school teachers—is against their going and the NGOs in the area have organized against it, but they sneak off because they want to go on their own. They’re self-exploiting in a way. They work all year, they get fed. But other than that, they get nothing but a motorcycle. In the trafficking literature and among those who work for NGOs, they blame the middlemen who take children or encourage them to go. [But in this case] it’s the kids actually who have agency and want to go.

Maria did a research project on those migrations which has become the basis of our work in Togo. Our [DukeEngage] projects—the cyber cafe, the microfinance project, the health insurance system to some extent, and the writers’ group—are attempts to make life a little more interesting and better for children and teens in the villages. Her research also fed into my own research on migration. I had previously published a bit about children from the village going to Nigeria and was beginning another migration-related project on the US diversity visa lottery—about which I’ve recently finished a book (The Fixer: Visa Lottery Chronicles).  But it was thanks to Maria that I began to explore the migration of local children to nearby countries in greater detail and to see an uncanny resemblance between people in the capital city who apply for the visa lottery to come to the US and children in the villages wanting to go to Nigeria.

So, you can see how here a question brought up by a Duke student about teen trafficking/migration fed into my own research agenda and that has continued. That’s just one example, but it’s questions that students ask that have turned into research questions for me.


What are you going to miss most about not running DukeEngage-Togo this summer?

Our projects in Togo—which we’ve built up and staffed each summer for the last 12 years—will suffer because our students won’t be there. I will try to direct some of them from a distance—the microfinance and health insurance projects are possibilities—but it won’t be the same without students on the ground working with and learning from local families and teenagers. Moreover, this year’s hiatus means that a whole generation of youth will miss out on taking computer, writing, and English classes, all of which help them when they pass their entrance exams and get into university.

I will also miss the opportunity to work with this year’s DukeEngage-Togo students, who I’ve gotten to know through an Independent Study class that’s been running all semester. They had all the right attitudes and dispositions and bore the promise of being a fabulous group. Sadly, that promise won’t be realized this summer.


Charlie Piot and the cover of his book, The Fixer.
In his newest book, The Fixer (Duke University Press, 2019), Charlie Piot follows Kodjo Nicolas Batema, a visa-broker known as a “fixer” in the West African nation of Togo, as he helps his clients apply for the U.S. Diversity Visa Lottery program.