UNICEF France’s Young Ambassadors in Togo
Togo, April 25, 2009- Every year, the National Committee of UNICEF France organizes a field trip with a selection of six young ambassadors.
The Young Ambassadors are young people between 15 and 18 years-old, who commit to sensitizing their comrades on the situation of children in the world.
They also set up projects in their districts to promote child rights and conduct debates in French schools, from elementary through high school, to encourage other young people to get involved in helping children. This year, Togo has the honor.
The six young ambassadors Eva, Lea, Manon, Marion, Amandine and Héloïse journeyed Togo’s roads and trails to discover and understand UNICEF’s actions in terms of child protection, education and gender equity, maternal and newborn health, nutrition and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
"They look so happy and yet…"
"What a welcome » says Manon on entering the courtyard of the Oasis Center managed by the NGO Terre des hommes, that shelters children who have been abandoned or are victims of abuse, violence and exploitation.
The six ambassadors have hardly crossed the doorstep when the children spontaneously come to take them by the hand. Enthusiastic and laughing, the children start to bombard the young ambassadors with questions.
How do you live at home? What do you eat? What do you do after school?”. The dialogue starts, the children listen, speak and above all laugh. It takes less than one hour for the children at the center to get the young Frenchwomen dancing Agbadja, one of the many Togolese traditional dances.
When it’s time to go, Eva voices her astonishment “They look so happy and yet they all are victims of abuse or violence”. Amandine says “I really did not expect that!”. “Me neither, adds Marion, I thought they would be sad and withdrawn and that it would be very difficult to make contact!”. It is with a heavy heart that eventually the six ambassadors leave the Oasis Center.
"How is it possible that at the 21st century one misses food?"
“Extreme poverty is the main cause. In Togo, 6 out of 10 people live below the poverty line. In addition to the poverty is the mothers’ lack of knowledge of the nutritional needs of newborn babies and children. This is why we organize training sessions every week to give advice to mothers on feeding and nutrition”.
“Even if you know that malnourished children will be cared for once they are in the center, it is hard to see them in such a bad condition!” adds Marion.
"By using words, we can save lives against HIV/AIDS"
On the third day, the six young ambassadors are visiting Agouè Junior High School, in the suburbs of Lomé. The young Togolese peer educators of Agouè Health Center are leading a sensitization session to fourteen year-old students. “What is surprising, notes Marion, it is that they cannot speak about sexuality with their parents whereas it is easy for us to get advice”. The Togolese students, eager to find out about French ways of life shoot questions at the young women.
“Do you have the right to have boyfriends? How do you protect yourself from HIV? Have you ever taken an HIV test? ”. A little embarrassed, the young ambassadors try to explain their lifestyle, their vision of love and their sexuality.
Between serious listening and nervous laughter, the message nevertheless gets across: use condoms, take the HIV test… The school bell rings. The young people exchange email addresses, happy to make long distance friends. “What is reassuring regarding the HIV virus, it is that we can easily save lives, concludes Lea, just by talking to people”.
"How can they learn anything in these conditions?"
It is the last day, and the young ambassadors have barely spent 5 minutes in the first grade classroom at Hompou primary school, a small community close to the Beninese border in the Maritime region, yet they are astonished by the size of the classes. “They are 71 in a first grade class! How can they learn anything in these conditions?” Marion asks.
Daniel, the Principal, explains “Since the Government made primary school free, the number of students has increased tremendously! Thanks to partners such as the NGOs or UNICEF who help us face this influx by providing us with desks, books or even latrines and trainings, we are progressively managing to deal with it”.
"We need a collective awakening"
After one week on the field, both touched by the warm welcome and “the smiles” that they have received while visiting villages, and also outraged by the level of poverty they have seen among the population, the six young ambassadors keep wondering and asking each other.
“When we see the situation in which children live here, you can see there is worldwide injustice” says Manon. “People need to know what’s going on, the whole world needs to be told!” Héloïse says. “But most of all, what I have really learnt is that even one person can move mountains! That encourages me!” Lea is filled with enthusiasm. “What surprises me, says Eva, it is that UNICEF not only provides equipments.
There are many messages that can be passed on by using words. There are simple things to do to save lives! And sometimes a life can be saved by simple words”.
“I have realized that only a collective awakening will help the world fight this situation, Marion concludes, and I myself plan to be part of it and contribute to this awakening because it is urgent!”.
The six young ambassadors will go back to France changed and motivated, conscious that each individual’s commitment and action counts to improve the situation of children in Togo and the whole world.