in passing

When we went to New York in spring we flew Ethiopian Airlines for the first time. There was a layover at Addis Ababa and the onward flight picked up passengers going to Lomé in Togo.

The man sitting beside me was Togolese. I confess I know nothing about Togo except that it is a tiny country sandwiched between Ghana and Nigeria, along with another small country. Ivory Coast? Benin? I asked him when we got into conversation later. Benin, he said.

When I asked what language they spoke in Togo I was surprised to hear it was French. I said, “ You all don’t speak anything else? I mean, what is your original native language?” He said, “They took away everything . . . the Europeans . . .” and shook his head sadly. I said, “Hmmm . . . They did that to my country too, but the English language they left behind has fortunately proved useful in some ways.”

I found out later – from the net – that they speak about forty different native tongues, but French is the official language. From 1884-1914 it was German; from 1916-1957 it was English and French as they were colonies of the British and the French. Togo was the heart of the slave trade in Africa. Now the UNGA has listed it as the saddest country in the world in its World Happiness Report. The meaning of his terse “They took away everything . . . the Europeans . . .” became perfectly clear in the light of what I learned.

As we approached Lomé he looked out the porthole in the fond way one looks at one’s child. Lomé did look pretty from the air – low buildings, many with blue roofs, lots of greenery, and no tall buildings at all. One wide asphalted highway ran down the middle of the city. Untarred roads of warm reddish-brown compacted mud crisscrossed the city. Maybe they were meant to let rainwater percolate down and recharge the water table.

When I got up from my aisle seat to make way for him to exit I said, “Your city looks so pretty – and I love the colour of the soil – is it iron-rich?” He said “No. Phosphorus – we have lots of it.” He smiled and gave a quick wave as he walked down the aisle towards the exit.


We flew back home a month ago, again by Ethiopian Airlines. Same route in reverse: NY – Lomé – Addis Ababa – Bangalore. We landed at Addis Ababa in the middle of the night. It was cold, and we thankfully got into the coach for the 5-minute ride to the terminal.

I found a seat beside a young Togolese woman with a bright-eyed, smiling baby excitedly bouncing on her lap. The baby reached out and touched my arm with his tiny hand. I asked his mum how old he was. He had just turned eight months. She told me his name and he recognised it when I called him. I stretched my hands towards him and he crawled into my lap smiling his cherubic smile. It was nice that ‘stranger anxiety’ hadn’t set in yet, though it was due, I thought. Wrong! He immediately struggled to go back to his mum! I handed him back and wished her “Happy Mother’s Day” as that day was Mother’s Day.

I casually said kids grow up and leave home before you realise it, and she was lucky to have so many years ahead with this baby.

To my surprise, tears welled up in her eyes and she told me that she was visiting Bangalore for the baby’s medical treatment. He had a hole in his heart. I asked, “At Narayana? Dr. Devi Shetty?” She nodded. By then we reached the terminal and the coach stopped. As we left our seats and walked towards the exit I couldn’t think of anything adequate to say except express my hope that the surgery would go well and the little one would be fine.

She looked scared and doubtful, on the verge of tears. In a bid to comfort her I told her that Dr. Shetty was my senior in medical college and he was a good surgeon even then, and yes, I had watched him operate, so maybe she should trust he’d do his best, and try not to worry too much.

Now I hope Narayana Hrudayalaya lives up to my endorsement. I have no personal experience of the place to draw on, and the reputation of an institution or individual found online is not reliable. If you look me up, will tell you I am an orthopaedic doctor, while another site gets my specialty right but says I have zero years of experience!

8 thoughts on “in passing

  1. Nice and endearing piece of writing! I hadn’t heard of this place at all. Both encounters with co-passengers tugged at my heart. Europe has left its imprint and impact across the globe in so many places and looted their wealth, culture – perhaps and slowed down strides on their path to prosperity.


  2. Very informative. I didn’t know that a place like Togo existed sandwiched between Ghana and Nigeria. Rightly said the Europeans have taken all, looted wealth etc globally. And also about doctors which you have mentioned don’t know who created this and why they have not corrected on their web site.


  3. Very well narrated, didn’t know that Togolese existed.
    It’s sad how different countries have been invaded and their identities been taken away from them.
    Thank you for sharing your experience.


  4. Elegant and heartfelt. The onslaught of the juggernauts of colonialism or other forms of oppression leaves behind many victims. Women and children are always the victims of every single war that humanity fought since time immemorial. Destruction of languages and cultures along with the landscapes were always the agenda for any colonial power. The British colonials perfected their techniques of torture in Ireland. The lands were taken, the Irish were left to die of hunger and they were asked to wear a stone on their necks for every single word of IRISH (Gaelic). Now only a handful of the Irish speak the Irish language except on a beautiful island in the West of Ireland where the little village of Aaran island still stands in a time warp. Fortunately India did not suffer similar degrees of torture as the British had learnt their lessons well in Ireland. India was perhaps too vast too for anyone to rule efficiently.
    Most of Africa is still facing the neo-colonial forces such as China and the destruction left behind by hundreds of years of plunder by old colonials. Africa must be a continent the Gods don’t like.
    God help Africa – the birthplace of our great great grandmother Lucy. Thanks Shyamala for bringing the attention to the plight of this continent through your nightingale singing. Keep singing with all the kindness and compassion you pour out through your songs.


  5. You have a way with words. Tug at the heartstrings. One gets a lucid picture. The first encounter was with an articulate person and the second one was not. But both are conveyed such that one clearly understands what is happening.


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