What a day! I woke up in Pagala, went to a Village Savings and Loans meeting, and on a whim, decided to come to my regional capital, Sokode, for the day to get some computer work done and buy vegetables and supplies for income generating activities I’m doing with women in my village.
I’ve been super paranoid about traveling lately because there have been several bad accidents along the grande route. The bus of the Togolese soccer team flipped and exploded, killing 6 people. I also witnessed the wreckage of a mangled car that several friends of mine had been in the day before it crashed. I saw a car sitting in the middle of the road completely engulfed in the biggest fire I’ve ever seen. The roads are terrible, the cars are old and unsafe, and the drivers swerve all over the road avoiding potholes and passing overloaded semis. So, on my to Sokode, my driver thinks he can pass two trucks moving slowly down the road. He starts to pass and the second semi decides to pass the first one. (Our national road in a two-lane highway riddled with giant potholes; it isn’t even paved in some parts.) My driver sees the semi coming, but his brakes are so bad we just weren’t slowing down fast enough. Luckily, the brakes kicked in and our tires squealed as we narrowly missed an accident.
When we got to Sokode, my boyfriend and I put our bags down in the Peace Corps workstation (a little room inside an NGO building) and left to go run errands in the city. He hopped on motos and asked them to take us up to the bank which smack dab in the center of Sokode. As we’re getting closer, I notice that traffic is really backed up. There is one 18-wheeler after the other completely stopped in the middle of the road. Our motos are flying past the trucks and I start seeing burning piles of something here and there. I look ahead to see what looked like a war zone – burning tires and smoke everywhere, a giant crowd of people, the road straight ahead blocked off. As our motos approached, we were swarmed with people yelling at us to get off the motos. I tried to pay my moto driver and some man grabbed my hand, trying to pry the money from the fingers while everyone is yelling at me and pushing me. They’re telling me to just not pay and get out; they led me to the sidewalk where I met up with my boyfriend whom I’d lost in the crowd. They keep urging us to leave but we were trying to get to the bank. As we walk toward the bank, we see that it’s closed … along with every other store along the street. We walked a safe distance away and watched as the protesters lit more tires on fire and blocked traffic on all sides with rocks and burning logs. We asked a fellow bystander what was going on and they said the students were protesting.
This deserves a little bit of background. School in Togo normally starts in September, but this year, it didn’t start until October and university didn’t start until mid-November. Why? The teachers were on strike. They aren’t getting paid. The government is withholding money from the schools and they have no supplies. At the high school in my village, they were turning students away because classes were already too full. My English teacher told me that instead of having three seconde classes of 90 students each, they combined it into two classes of 135 each so that they only have to pay him to teach two classes, not three. As you can imagine, teaching to a class of 135 students is nearly impossible. There is not even money to buy chalk. After school started, the union brought their demand to the government and gave them a certain period of time in which to respond. They didn’t respond and so this past week, the teachers all throughout Togo went on strike again for two days. Now the students are getting involved. They pay an expensive fee to attend school and their teachers aren’t showing up. The students have decided to show the government that their behavior is unacceptable my creating mayhem in regional capitals throughout the country.
Back to the action. Here come the police. They are slowly driving a police truck filled with police armed with rifles. There are also several armed police walking behind the police car as they prepare for their first attack. I jumped as the first shot rang out. I watched shells flying through the air landing in the crowds and busting opened with tear gas. The crowd quickly dispersed, but as soon as the tear gas blew away, they were back and this time armed with rocks and sticks. As the police approached again, the students attacked the car with their rudimentary weapons. The police fled, only to recalculate their attack from a different position. This time, the police trucks came in from two directions, again firing tear gas into the crowds. Bystanders, including us, were turning away from the action, trying to get away from the burning in our eyes and throats as the gas blew our direction. Women were encouraging the protesters, dancing in the streets, some women were running with their babies’ eyes covered in attempt to protect them. After a couple more rounds of rock throwing versus tear gas, the protestors finally called it a day and my boyfriend and I walked to a nearby cafeteria to get a cold Coke and discuss the day’s events.
This protest is just getting started and I’m very interested to see how the government responds if the strikes and riots continue into January. I can only imagine them getting worse; I just hope I don’t get stuck in the middle of the chaos next time.