A Peace Corps volunteer raised on images of famine, disease, and war discovers an irresistible resilience in an unexpected place - a hospital in 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.