Friday, March 21, 2008

Why It's Easier to be a Togolese Man

Zenabou was a ninth-grade student in Sagbiebou. She was one of the three girls on my six-person Women’s Day committee. She came to clubs, ran with the “footing” group every Saturday, and was one of the more talented girls on our newly formed soccer team. Two weeks ago, she gave me a little local language lesson while we waited for the car to take us to the team’s first real game in Gando. That Wednesday, on the sidelines at a boys’ game, she was kicking a ball around with her friend Adjara .

This Monday morning at our training in Pagala, my counterpart, Bila, told me that Zenabou died Sunday night. He didn’t know why, so during the day, I came up with my own answers. Young people who have died in my life died from meningitis, Long Q-T Syndrome (a heart condition) and car accidents, so I grouped Zenabou into the random deaths club, blaming maybe meningitis, maybe some other viral infection. These were situations I could handle.

Bila caught me on my way to dinner that evening, and once again, corrected my idealistic assumptions. Zenabou took pills to give herself an abortion. And she succeeded all too well.

I have so many questions. Did her friends know she was pregnant? Did she tell anyone what she was going to do? Was she already dead when they took her to the clinic on Sunday night? Who’s the father? What will happen to him? What could I have done to help her?

In the very back of my brain, I feel like I should have done more – made it clear to the girls on the soccer team and in the clubs that I was available if they needed to talk. Had club meetings on more than just HIV/AIDS. Started sex-ed classes. The irony of the situation is that the day I learned all this, we were talking about family planning and sex-ed classes in schools. Now I’m definitely going to address the situation, but it shouldn’t have taken a failed abortion for me to realize that there was a situation that needed addressing.

So. That’s life in Togo, because unfortunately, this isn’t a unique incident. Abortion in Togo is only legal in cases of rape and incest, so girls will take herbs (or pills) to self-abort. The volunteer who led our sex-ed session said she found that in her classes, girls really didn’t make the connection between sex and pregnancy. So condom demonstrations and encouraging abstinence are probably a waste of time unless you start from the very beginning, which it seems is what I’ll have to do.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Women’s Day went ok, even though we started three hours late, and the chief’s representative didn’t really know what he was attending (“Today on the International Day of… Nutrition? What is it?”). We had a crowd at the soccer game, and in organizing a student vs. apprentice game, I also started a Sagbiebou girls team.

I wish we hadn’t just lost one of our stars.