A Well in Togo

I spent two weeks this past summer in Togo, a country that most Americans (this one included) would have to look up in an atlas before they could be sure where it is.

Togo is a narrow strip of land between Ghana and Benin in West Africa, touching the Sahara in the north and the ocean on the south. It has a population of between 5 and 6 million, and only one city of any size, Lomé, the capital. It was briefly in the news in the spring of 2005 because the longtime ruler, Gnassingbé Eyadema, died suddenly, and the transition to a new government was violent. Togo is without strategic or economic importance, and without the advantages of landscape or wildlife that might make it a tourist attraction. It is also among the poorest countries in the world.

I was there to visit my daughter who is in the Peace Corps. She’s assigned to a small village, Mamakopé, that has no electricity, piped water, or telephones. She has a little house, and I was fortunate enough to be able to stay with her and thus to see something of village life and to experience the warm hospitality of the people of Mamakopé. They live mostly on the crops they grow (maize, millet, a little rice). Their water comes from two pumps installed by the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1983. These pumps serve everyone—a thousand people or so. When the pumps work, the water is good; when they don’t (and they often don’t), there’s only the river, where the water is quite another thing. Even when the pumps do work, getting enough water for a household may take several hours (almost always woman-hours) a day.

There is sickness in Mamakopé of kinds that would be easily curable in the United States and, as a result, altogether too much preventable death: babies die of diarrhea-induced dehydration, or malaria; adults, too many of whom are HIV-positive, are susceptible to all kinds of minor illnesses; and the nearest doctor is too far away to be of any use.

None of this is news, of course. You can see its like, and worse, on television every day. I learned nothing I didn’t already know from the visit; but the visit has driven what I already knew deeper into my bones, and has disturbed and disconcerted me in ways I hadn’t expected.

For one thing, I feel guilty. Each year, without a second thought, I waste an amount of money that would, if channeled well and used well (no easy task), have transformative effects on Mamakopé. It could save the lives of children; it could get new wells dug and new pumps installed; it could pay university fees (which are the equivalent of $125 a year at the University of Lomé) for those who could benefit from higher education. And so I reach for the checkbook, make half-hearted promises to myself to be less self-indulgent, and hope that the checks and the promises will assuage the guilt.

But the checks and the promises don’t work. The very fact of being in a position to write the checks and make the promises feeds a self-righteousness to which the act of generosity always tempts. Such is our fallen condition. This doesn’t mean there’s no good in the checks. But writing the checks without acting on the half-hearted thought that I should alter my self-indulgent life—no, let’s be clear and direct: that I should spend less money, be less comfortable—is too much like going to confession and doing the penance in the absence of a serious purpose of amendment. An empty action, the whitewashing of a sepulcher.

The sepulcher must be opened up, not whitened. How to do that? I don’t know. That’s why I’m still disturbed by my trip to Togo. I’m beginning to think that perhaps I need to be uncomfortable in a way that only behaving as if I had less money can bring about. A truly radical idea, one that I entertain with fear, is the thought of living on half my income and giving the rest away (at the moment I strain to give away 10 percent, and fail). That wouldn’t solve Togo’s problems; it wouldn’t turn the world from a fallen place into an unfallen place; and even it would be subject to the dangers of self-righteousness and self-congratulation that haunt those who try to do the right thing. Yet, maybe, in a world in which the people of Mamakopé must live as they live and I can live as I live, it would be appropriate, harmonious with the purposes and actions of the God of Jesus Christ in a world of deep poverty, suffering, and injustice. If that’s even possibly so, it’s worth serious thought and prayer.

Published in the 2005-10-21 issue: 

Paul J. Griffiths is a longtime contributor to Commonweal and the author of many books, most recently Regret: A Theology (University of Notre Dame Press) and Why Read Pascal? (Catholic University of America Press).

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