Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Togo
From Peace Corps Wiki
In fulfilling the Peace Corps’ mandate to share the face of America with our host countries, we are making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race, and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other, despite our many differences. Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal.
In other ways, however, our diversity poses challenges. In Togo, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyles, background, and beliefs will be judged in a cultural context very different from our own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics considered familiar and commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed.
Outside of Togo’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What is advertised as “typical” cultural behavior or norms may also be a narrow and selective interpretation, such as the perception in some countries that all Americans are rich and have blonde hair and blue eyes. The people of Togo are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to differences that you present. We will ask you to be supportive of one another, and encourage you to share American diversity with the Togolese.
In order to ease the transition and adapt to life in Togo, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises with who you are as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions will need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limits. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during your pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.
Historically, the Peace Corps and the Togolese people have benefited from the skills and experiences that persons from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds have offered. Volunteers from various backgrounds, all qualified ages, and both genders have served and benefited from their time in Togo. Your experiences in Togo will differ, to some degree, from every other Volunteer’s, both in terms of the challenges and rewards. Togolese are, in general, wonderfully generous, warm, and hospitable people and no matter who you are, if you make the effort necessary to transcend cultural barriers, you will have a rewarding and fruitful stay in Togo.
Overview of Diversity in Togo
The Peace Corps staff in Togo recognizes adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be facilitated by the Volunteer-initiated and led diversity committee to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, religions, ethnic groups, and ages and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who will take pride in supporting each other and demonstrating the richness of American culture.
What Might A Volunteer Face?
Possible Issues for Female Volunteers
Americans working in Togo face cultural adjustments in understanding and addressing prejudices and stereotypes held about them. Unfortunately, the rather lurid films shown in Togo at the cinema and on TV, plus society’s general attitude towards women in Africa, may make Togolese view female Volunteers as “loose,” or “available.” Togolese men may misinterpret friendly and open gestures by female Volunteers as an unintended invitation to something more serious.
Friendships with Togolese men should have clear boundaries in the beginning. Unlike in the U.S. there is less of a concept that a completely platonic relationship can exist between men and women. To be treated respectfully, female Volunteers may find that they will have to curb some of the activities they were used to in the United States. Late-night socializing with Togolese colleagues is not recommended. Neither is inviting any man into your house for any reason if you are alone. Fortunately, you can entertain male guests without giving them—or the community—the wrong idea by remaining in the family compound and ensuring that several family members or neighborhood children are with you and your guest at all times.
This may sound extreme, but it is better to play it safe, especially at the beginning of your service, rather than to be caught in a situation where a Togolese colleague is expecting sex instead of a friendly chat when he comes to visit. It is also a very good idea to make friends with the women in your family and/or neighborhood as soon as possible. Not only will these friendships probably be immensely rewarding, but spending time with women will also prevent unwelcome or inappropriate attention from men.
Togolese men will frequently ask women to “marry” them or ask for your address. A firm “no” (no smiles, and no eye contact) is usually enough to handle this situation, even though it may have to be repeated a few times. Men will make verbal requests, but it is very rare for them to try force. Togolese respond very well to gentle humor.
Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color
Though unconsciously, many Togolese expect that American Volunteers will be white. Peace Corps Volunteers in Togo, who are of ethnic minority backgrounds, will generally not find overt biases. However, Togolese may make some stereotypic assumptions. For example, most Asian-American Volunteers will automatically be considered Chinese and Kung Fu experts. An African-American Volunteer may first be mistaken for a Ghanaian or Nigerian because of an Anglicized French accent, and then be regarded more as an American instead of someone with African origins. Volunteers of color may be expected to learn local languages more quickly than other Peace Corps Volunteers, may be asked what their tribal language and customs are, and could find themselves evaluated as less professionally competent than Caucasian Volunteers.
Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers
Respect comes with age in traditional Togolese society, so being a senior is generally an advantage. Volunteers in their early 20s find that they may have to make an extra effort to be accepted as professional colleagues since very often Togolese of that age are still pursuing their education. Younger Volunteers must work for acceptance and respect since respect in traditional Togolese society is associated with age. In contrast, every wrinkle and every gray hair earns respect for the experience and wisdom they represent.
Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers
Homosexuality is not publicly discussed or acknowledged in Togolese society. Since acceptance in the rural community is part and parcel to a successful Peace Corps experience in Togo, Volunteers with alternative sexual orientations generally choose not to openly discuss their sexual orientation in their villages. Gay and lesbian Volunteers have however, successfully and safely worked in Togo.
Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers
There are three major religions in Togo: Christianity, Islam and Animism. People with different religious backgrounds than these three may have difficulty practicing their religion. Being perceived as having no religion at all may not be understood.
Possible Issues for Volunteers with Disabilities
Togolese are very direct and physical disabilities are likely to be pointed out in not very sensitive ways. It should be noted however, that there is no judgment attached to the comments. It is rather a case of stating the obvious. Transportation in Togo is difficult and would be more so for someone with a physical disability. While there are good medical facilities in the capital, up-country medical care is generally substandard by American values.
For the most part, public facilities in Togo are unequipped to accommodate persons with disabilities. However, as part of the medical clearance process, the Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Togo without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of your service.
The Peace Corps Togo staff will work with any disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, job sites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively.