White people are a rarity in Togo. Peace Corps volunteers excluded, in the past seven weeks I’ve spent in this country I’ve met exactly white person who lives here. Neither the Germans nor the French left any real colonial population in the area, and because of this, almost all of what the Togolese know about white people comes solely from Western media. White is the color of Europe, the color of America, American movies and all the glittery glamour that comes with them. White is the color of wealth, of power, of the world outside of Africa. More than one Togolese person I’ve talked to has been surprised when I’ve told them not everyone in America is white! In their minds, I think, whiteness is more or less synonymous with the magic and mystery of the foreign.
All of this makes being a white person in Togo a pretty strange experience. Our second day in Lomé, a crowd of schoolchildren marched past our DukeEngage cohort, chanting, “Yovo, yovo!” — “White people, white people!” I can’t walk ten minutes in Farendé without being greeted by at least a couple shouts of “anasara” — “white person” or (to some extent) “foreigner.” Sometimes it’s something of a spectacle: a crowd of toddlers and children, jumping up and down or running into the street to greet me. Oddly enough, though, a lot of the time it just feels like a greeting — one or two kids calling out to me until I wave, at which point they’ll stop and just wave back, grinning.
It’s hard for me to know how to feel after exchanges like this, especially given all the cultural baggage race has in America. Clearly, Togolese racial concepts are pretty far removed from anything I have experience with, and I can’t do more than speculate about what the color of my skin means to the people around me. At a minimum, I can’t help but find it an undeniable reminder of the bizarre social dynamics projects like DukeEngage create. Who am I to the people of this community? Exciting. Foreign. New.