The Africa we aren't shown on TV
A Peace Corps volunteer raised on images of famine, disease, and war discovers an irresistible resilience in an unexpected place - a hospital in Togo.
KPALIME, TOGO — "Hello, my name is Jean-Marc. I'll be living here in Togo teaching in schools for the next two years."
I was sitting across from a doctor at a three-story West African hospital. As a recently arrived Peace Corps volunteer, one of my preliminary duties is to go around and introduce myself to the various authorities in this small town in the lush mountains of southwestern Togo.
As expected, the young doctor replied: "Welcome to Togo. We are very happy to have you here. What country are you from?"
"I am from America," I told him, unsure if that would be a good or bad thing to him.
His eyes immediately lit up. "Ahhh, America. I, too, would like to go to America. It has always been my dream."
I uttered some polite banalities and we shook hands. As I got up to leave, I decided to try my hand at Ewe, one of several languages spoken in Togo.
"Akpe Amegan." (Thank you, sir.) He laughed heartily and led me to the door. I explained that my next stop was the local police department, but he unexpectedly took my arm, and said, "Wait a minute. Why don't you visit the Critical Unit upstairs where we keep the patients in the most critical condition?"
I froze. I was only here to introduce myself. The thought of seeing emaciated and dying African children terrified me. Images of famine, disease, and the child soldiers of war - virtually the only images of Africa we Americans see on television - leapt into my head.
"Uh..." I fumbled, and then hesitantly agreed, "OK."
He escorted me upstairs, and I braced myself. He led me through a hallway packed with waiting people seated calmly on the floor, apparently relatives of patients.
"Here it is," he said. As we got to the door, he slowly opened it, and my tension and apprehension spiked.
Inside were about 30 patients on the floors and beds. Some were lying or sitting on the floor, some draped on beds - in some cases as many as five sat on a single bed.
But it was a sunny room and most of the patients were talking and smiling. Some looked sickly, some looked to be in pain, some seemed perfectly fine.
Somehow I managed to produce more words in Ewe: "Ndi na mi lo. E foin? Devio de?" (Good morning. How are you? How are the children?)
And, almost in unison, everyone in the ward started to laugh because I spoke the local language. I felt myself laughing along with them. Well, I thought, that's one way to bring joy to a place of pain: Have a kid from Brooklyn try to speak Ewe in an intensive care ward.
The shared laughter continued, and against every expectation, I found that I actually wasn't that uncomfortable in this critical unit room.
If I'd taken a photo, it would seem grim - but it wouldn't have captured the attitude I was feeling of a how a people copes with illness. For some reason, the patients didn't seem sick. I knew that they were. I knew that AIDS was ravaging a continent. I knew that new cases of polio had recently been reported in West Africa. But I also knew that I was seeing something very different from the images on which I was raised.
Where were the sickly, defeated Africans? Where were the Sally Struthers television commercials advertising her Save the Children charity? Where were the screaming children with tears in their eyes? Where was the famine? Where was the wreckage of war, always depicted as "savage" ethnic hatreds?
I know that all this suffering exists. But in this critical unit room of the hospital, I saw something very different. I saw the simple act of sick people smiling and talking with one another. And, as we all laughed together, I realized just how strong and resilient humans can be.
This human solidarity and the ability to smile and laugh in the face of suffering marks one of the great virtues of the Togolese people - and, indeed, people everywhere.
Now there's something I never saw on television.
• Jean-Marc Gorelick, a Brooklyn native and 2002 graduate of Bard College, is a Peace Corps volunteer.