Montana Lee and students at the airport

Duke Diary Dispatch: Hello from Togo!

I’ve just arrived in rural Togo, in West Africa, with DukeEngage, to help with some development projects and be one-half of cultural exchange. I’ll be here through early July.  

 Because Togo was a French colony, the country’s official language is French, and very little English is spoken at all. This will be new and strange for me, and I’m very excited to be immersed in an environment so different from anything I’ve ever known. During my gap year, I lived 4 months in Paris. It was a wonderful experience, but getting adjusted to a new city and cultural-linguistic environment was tougher than I thought it would be! Having had that experience, I think I am more ready to go and fully immerse myself in Togo to ultimately “get the most out of it,” so to speak.  

An image of Montana Lee placed over a map of Togo

 Our general projects include but are not limited to teaching computer classes in cyber cafés built by previous DukeEngage students, teaching English (and maybe Chinese), helping to run and develop an existing writer's collective, starting a pen pal project with the Duke French department, microfinance, shadowing and helping at the medical clinic, putting together and publishing an anthology of local Kabre folk tales; solving a monkey-pest problem (monkeys are ravaging the crop fields in Togo to the detriment of food security and income. This creates a big problem for locals, who are mostly subsistence farmers). Many of these target the circumstances contributing to youth flight, in which youth of the villages leave home and go to Benin and Nigeria, places of more economic opportunity, to work for a year and come back with a motorcycle, cash for the family, or nothing. (Experiences vary widely; some youth are lucky to find good employers while others are exploited.)  

 As of now, I will be working on the monkey problem, the folk tale anthology, pen pals, and the writer’s collective. But this is also subject to change; all of the learning and the projects are very much physical and “on-the-ground” here. I plan to stay flexible and adapt to the needs and desires of the community as I am there. 

 Although I wouldn’t call myself a Francophile, I love speaking the French language and am fluent in it. I unfortunately haven’t been able to practice very much at Duke, and I’m excited to immerse myself in more of the language through the pen pal and writer’s projects. As a huge fan of letter-writing, I’m especially excited to help Duke students step out of the Duke Bubble for a bit and start correspondence with people living a completely different life whom they never would have met otherwise. (I also think the Togolese locals will enjoy the same.) 

I also took a Writing 101 about folk and fairy tales in my first semester at Duke. That had a focus on Cinderella, and though the versions we read came from many cultures, more are Eurocentric than not, so I’m looking forward to listening to and reading local folk tales, making connections to other ones I’ve read, and appreciating the uniquely local elements of the stories as well.  

 Other than that, it’s hard to explicitly connect these projects to my academic interests as I am not sure of these said interests quite yet. I applied and chose to go on this trip more for the experience, the interpersonal elements (locals and classmates/program director alike), and the broadening of my horizons rather than academic pursuits. But I do have a strong general interest in human health and flourishing. Culture, writing, interpersonal relationships, and food security are all part of that. Anything I end up working on will contribute to those goals in some way, and I’m looking forward to experiencing many new things when I am there. 

 Thanks for following along!