4 Harvard Student Visit Togo West Africa
I keep thinking of the movie,“The Paper Chase.”
Last night, I was paying for my Riz Cantonese, when an obvious American at the other end of the bar was asking my friend Helena how to change dollars. Helena was the cleaning lady at Le Galion Hotel here in Lome, Togo; I met here on my first visit roughly five years ago. Strangely the cleaning lady, turned waitress is the only person in the Galion who speaks friendly English. She was looking directly at the young man; he was holding what looked to a 20 dollar bill in his hand. The boy was fidgeting, and looking down speaking English, which made it more difficult for the French speaking Helena to understand his English.
He wanted to exchange dollar for CFA, the Togoless money, it was about 8:00 at night, not the correct time to get this job done. Helena said,“We exchange Euros, but not dollars.”
Which prompted me to focus, the only reason they only take Euros is because this bar / restaurant represents,“La grande nation.”
On my first trip to West Africa, before I came, I purchased 1000 Dollars in Euros, and had a hell of a time getting rid of them, as West Africa wants Dollars, not Euros. And, the only reason I had cash, was because I was not sure there were ATM machines. Presently, in 2013, ATM’s are easy to find in the larger cities, and spreading like weeds, but the money changers, are the money changers, so this figures.
The Harvard boy was doing a bounce…(I sometimes call this the dysfunctional bounce, it a conversation that does not function.)
I was just leaving the bar, so I spotted him, and tried to explain at the central market area, 200 CFA away on a Motorcycle Taxi he could change money. And, alluded or implied if he was savvy, he would be using an ATM card, and not exchanging money. And, of course, less than one mile away is the Ghana border, where they exchange money for sure, and I juxtaposed,“Be very careful exchanging money.”There were four of them, three boys, and one girl, and the one boy, was from Paris, France, and appeared be studying at Harvard.
Harvard Students with Daunting Focus
I was rather caught off guard, for some reason I was tired, I think I was angry, Le Galion staff is annoying, except for Helena. But this Hotel is the center of the Expat Universe for Lome, Togo, and cannot be ignored. Yet, for four super rich Harvard kids, they were ducks out of water, and I did not want them to lose the plot.
Yes, I cynically talk about people who “lose the plot,” but I am gregarious and magnanimous, I feel is my “Travelers responsibly” to try to clarify the plot, and point out the path. I do not want people to lose the plot, but do enjoy watching this process.
With a Lonely Planet guidebook on the table, and computer tablets, smart phones, and jumping the Free WIFI of the Galion Hotel, these four were trying to extract information in focused, awkward for me, and daunting fashion. It is not normal to find anyone in West Africa who is focused, the NGO’s and Peace Corps are normally just drinking their way through the countries, not focused on any mission.
As I understood, the was going to do a 10 day tour seeing both the country of Togo, and Benin. Tantamount to seeing Ohio and Indiana in 10 days, these are small countries, but the transportation is never simple, until you understand how to buy a “Cinq Place.” I explained, but think it was a bounce, not a play.
Harvard Business MajorsThey were in Accra, Ghana working with Ghana businesses, trying to help them. I am happy to say, I kept my mouth shut, and did not laugh, or try to explain to them they were children leading the children, good intention are good intentions, and should not be squashed by big dogs.
Their focused question, “What to do in Togo?”
West Africa is almost a zero for tourists; there are almost no animals because the British did not make game reserve for their Noblemen here, as they did in Kenya. Therefore almost all of the big animals were eaten by the locals. I have never even seen a tourist elephant in West Africa, even in Ivory Coast.
The body language illiterate boy, wanted to rent a motorcycle, I gave him Thomas’s number, a German, and I hope he does not get killed. On hindsight, that was stupid on my part, giving information that could help a boy get killed, was not wise. But, like I said, these four had rather pointed focus; it is hard to ignore the confidence level of Harvard kids. Even when I knew the second I met them, they were fish out of water. I believe they will return to the USA and never realize they were culturally blind, they will see how they are different, and not how we are the same.
I tried to explain about West African people, and it is a cultural experience here in West Africa, it is about the people. There are no magnificent tourist attractions that jump at you. West Africa is about subtle cultural things, and these four rather rich students did not seem to care about people, they wanted things and stuff, not a subtle culture view. But, they were business, not anthropology or ethnologists.
I did my best to try to explain West African business, and it bounced off them. I suspect, if it is not big and flashy, they cannot downgrade their focus. All business at the end of the day is understanding the culture first, then the powers that be, and finally how to import /export the products.
But, if you do not understand the culture, then you are just an “Ugly American,” who lost the plot. If you understand the people, than you can stay on the path.
Well, they were four good kids, the girl was cute, the one reminded me of Jeff, the guy who I officiated getting married in Austin, Texas, he is a Doctor. The French guy was also body language illiterate, but a nice guy, spoke excellent English. And really, he should have been the lead man on this investigation into what to do in Togo and Benin. (Francophone Countries) The three born in America students, did not appear to speak a word of French, and reminded me later of yesterdays post about,“My French Translator Problem.”
My prognosis for the four, they will not find much of interest for them, they were doing the paper chase. Trying to find the book, which would guide them to the “Top 10 Tourist Attractions in Togo.” And, the book offered in West Africa is only the book of life, and it about talking to people, West Africa is a cultural thing.
I offered to take them to my Peanut Woman, who has a business inside her compound house. An old mama, with children, who takes raw peanuts, cooks them, dumps in a couple pounds of sugar, and creates sugar coated peanuts.
I said, we can go under the pretense of buying peanuts, and you can see how four normal Togo families live. Complete with a pull the bucket water well, and their peanut business.
Again I bounced, I think the PC Police arrived, I stepped on some Political Correct problem, and I even said,“There are no PC police in West Africa, we are free.”
Generally, what do I do in West Africa?
I get to know the locals, and understand at ground level, at peanut cooking level, how they live, and try to understand the culture of the people.
I spend about 90 percent of my time with the locals, and when not with the locals, I stop to talk with the foreigners. 90 percent come with a mission; the 4 Harvard students think they came to help Ghanaians with business. The Non Governmental Organizations come to save the locals, but only construct huge buildings, and are set to never leave, because they will never complete their mission. The first thing a NGO’s does is build a huge building.
What I get to do is observe the locals, and all the white people who come and bounce off of West Africa. I think of this as bumper cars, people talking, but only bouncing off of each other, never making contact, in an intimate, I get it way. But I get it, it is seldom a.k.a / / never about the people way, not really, people; that is the noble excuse, I came here to help the people.
The four Harvard students were all Internet connected, and as normal, I am always a little paranoid. Generally, people do not appreciate me writing about them, their view of themselves, is radically different than my view, but the young need to be forgiven and ignore, they were well intended, is it the Harvard Professor who need castrated.
But, in the end, the body language of the four Harvard students was quite a story told to me, it was a complete book to think about in the next couple of days.
I was highly disappointed they did not want to enter a local’s house compound to see how the business of sugar coating peanuts worked… This is something worth 100’s of dollars, culture up close and in your face, truly difficult to attain or achieve.
Note, these four I also label as “Fly on by’s” they will move so fast, fly on past me, travel so fast; I will never see them again. It is like Maverik, in the movie “Top Gun.“
I will never see them again, unless, they do a hard coded bounce off of West Africa, and stop to get drunk for 10 days, and abort their mission of seeing two countries in ten day, to say, we seen two countries. Highly doubtful, Harvard students are not known to give up, not their nature, I love stereotypes; this is how to exlain the culture of planet earth on steroids, or how to make enemies, and lose friends, by explaining the story, behind the story.
Andy Graham of HoboTraveler.com, and also MyLomeTogo.com 2013
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When I lived in Europe I came across a lot of student travelers. There were always a few who understood how to travel but the majority were only interested in seeing what they could, partying and taking thousands of photos.
I would sometimes be able to get in with a group but after a while realize it was a waste of time to try and discuss culture with them.
There would always be a leader who knew it all. Very amusing at best.
Fortunately there are many extension universities in Europe where the kids live 6/9 months out of the year and actually do learn the culture, history, business and language and make for good ambassadors.
Many universities have also set up or are in the process in Asia, mainly Japan and China which is a good thing.
I always think of the movie, If its Tuesday, it must be Belgium. I guess you just have to be a little philosophical about it. Far to often you can get into trouble trying to help someone. So I usually keep it pretty low key.
I guess it is a lot easier for me because I do not travel off the grid like you Andy. I totally agree with you about the culture thing. It is so easy to judge someone when you do not have a clue how their culture operates.
But I still love travel and meeting new people. And fortunately I occasionally understand the cultural underpinnings of what I see.
Phil, using the words cultural underpinnings was excellent, a great use of words that explains.
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