Don't blink: Ben Ramsey '15 has a staring contest with three girls in Kuwdé, a small village in northern Togo. Credit: Maria Romano '14.
Don't blink: Ben Ramsey '15 has a staring contest with three girls in Kuwdé, a small village in northern Togo. Credit: Maria Romano '14.

Planet Duke: Togo Where No One Has Gone Before

May 14, 2013

 

Though this summer marks the inaugural DukeEngage program in Togo, its faculty director is quite established in the West African country. Since the mid-1980s, cultural anthropology professor Charles Piot has studied the politics, economies, and traditions of the Togolese people, conducting his twice-a-year fieldwork primarily in northern rural villages.

For the past five years, Piot has leveraged his contacts and experience in the region to arrange for a handful of undergraduates to accompany him to Togo each summer. Students live with host families (mostly personal friends of Piot’s) and complete research or service projects of their choosing. In recent summers, students installed a solar-powered Internet café, developed a health-insurance plan at a local clinic, and investigated the efficacy of traditional healing methods.

The principal focus of the DukeEngage program this summer is youth migration. Perceiving few economic opportunities at home (“Home is not where the action is,” says Piot), young Togolese leave their villages and seek out work in neighboring countries like Nigeria and Benin. For many, the reality of going abroad does not live up to the hype. Men frequently come home empty-handed while women often resort to sex work and return having contracted HIV.

“All of our efforts [this summer] will be designed to make life in these villages more attractive to youth,” says Piot. Six students will travel to Togo and interview village elders, families of migrants, and former migrants. After they gain a better sociological understanding of the issue, the group will implement strategies to combat youth migration in the village of Farendé by cultivating local economic opportunities. One plan is to set up a microfinance organization, which Piot hopes will provide liquidity and enable women to do business more regularly in the markets. Another goal is to support young men who have turned to vegetable gardening for alternative income by providing materials and training.

Piot wants his students to accept local realities while remaining selfcritical of their efforts in addressing complicated community needs. Ben Ramsey, a sophomore who studied youth migration in Togo last summer, cites this lesson as one of the key takeaways from his experience. “Global health interventions are not just about going somewhere and doing good,” Ramsey says. “The trick is keeping them culturally appropriate while making their effects last.”

Duke in Togo: At a Glance

Current students who were born in Togo: 1

Togolese nationals working at Duke: 0

Alumni living in Togo: 0

Number of undergraduate students who traveled to Togo with university programs in 2012: 8

Key Duke connections:

• Through the Service Opportunities in Leadership program (SOL), the Hart Leadership Program offers students a twelve-month intensive program that includes a gateway course in the spring, a community-based research project in the summer, and a capstone seminar in the fall. Two SOL students have conducted summer research in Togo since 2008.

• Over the past five years, Duke students have been working in Lome, Togo, on projects focused on HIV/AIDS, infectious diseases, and traditional healing through the Global Health Institute. The students live with local families and gain immersive knowledge of the relationship between disease and society.