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A triple shock in Lomé

Marc Fonbaustier - Triple choc à Lomé - 19 novembre 2014

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I arrived in Lomé on 8 September 2014, a neophyte on three counts : a new ambassador, new to Africa and new to Togo. A triple shock, and therefore a triple challenge in terms of adaptation, and above all, a triple reason for humility and caution.

Immediately, protocol was trumped by family life. I got out of the plane. It was only 6.30 p.m. but already it was pitch black. My children followed me. The Togolese Head of Protocol was waiting. I noticed his broad smile as I came down the steps : "Hello Your Excellency, safe arrival !" he said, using the traditional Togolese greeting. He was wearing an orange and black boubou… My daughter Gaia, aged 7, set the tone : "You’ve got a great costume...!" In a mix of seriousness and good humour, Protocol became more human and the adventure could begin…

Inauguration à Lomé {JPEG}

Eight weeks and some powerful sensations later, I have been won over by this part of sub-tropical West Africa, which is both humid and hot, green and reddish-brown, urban and rural, between land and sea…

Why this feeling of equilibrium ? How can I describe my impressions ?

They consist, firstly, of physical sensations. The damp heat is exhausting. The light is bright, harsh and gives objects, colours and lines a particular clarity. These sensations are just as strong when I pass through Lomé. As a fairly small city with a population of one million, criss-crossed by countless motorbikes and all kinds of two-wheeled vehicles travelling along the Marina, bustling with women carrying fruit and vegetables and women who hold stalls in the central market selling fabrics and a variety of items, Lomé feels like a large provincial town, of a manageable size, where everything is within easy reach.

My impressions are also based on psychological sensations. The Inspector-General had warned me : “Once you set foot on the tarmac, you are no longer yourself, for you represent something that surpasses you and binds you by duty.” This is a fundamental, overwhelming truth. “Excellency, His Excellency, Your Excellency…” “Mr Ambassador”. We know this, we prepare for it before taking up our first ambassadorship and we get used to it, although without falling into a dangerous routine. The role itself inevitably implies a degree of solitude : a combination of distance, respect that may or may not be sincere, duties that cannot be delegated, collective exchanges and objective situations. I saw this clearly during the presentation of the letters of recall and credence, the anthems and the meeting with the President of the Togolese Republic, Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé. But I had already felt the weight of the role when, on our arrival, the Head of Protocol separated me from my family to drive me in the official car. I was no longer the father of my children. I had become the French Ambassador. Though I would go back to being a father, luckily... For we need reminders, or antidotes.

The first antidote : family, which offers a certain continuity, a stable identity, far away from the role-playing…

The second antidote : the work community, team spirit, confidence in the chief adviser and heads of department, and proximity to the staff, whether expatriate or local, who keep ivory tower syndrome at bay and give structure to diplomatic work. In Lomé, I am lucky to be able to rely on a team of colleagues who are committed to public service, experienced and very cooperative.

The third antidote : some liberating leisure activities, which help me to feel like myself again. Karate, sea fishing and discovering the African arts, all of which are opportunities for authentic encounters, decentring oneself and learning about the Other.

The fourth antidote : spirituality, fuelled by meditation, great musical works and some invigorating reading. And making sure to remind myself regularly that nothing here, especially not the State resources made available to me as ambassador, can be detached from my duties and the role assigned to me.

These impressions are also based on a multitude of professional sensations. In Togo, we have access to all the tools of a comprehensive form of diplomacy. Our foreign policy consists of “wide-angle” external action, in line with the French Foreign Minister’s wishes. It is one of the region’s smaller countries, in terms of area and population size. But it is historically an ally, a brother-in-arms (quick to take action alongside us in Mali), a regional platform, a point of entry to the north and the west, a stable, reliable and safe point of anchorage (for our ships, etc.) in a complex environment. In two months, I have already had several powerful experiences. Being welcomed by the heads of department at the airport. A visit to an orphanage. A call by a national navy ship, with the military honours, the anthem, the inspection of the troops and the flag. The inauguration, alongside the Togolese Prime Minister, of colleges to train healthcare professionals, with material and equipment provided by our country. A meeting of the local advisory committee, with the representatives of locally-recruited staff, where we were able to look at the points of divergence and convergence between the administration and the unions, confirming the value of dialogue, listening and respect.

Lastly, my impressions are based, most importantly, on human sensations. In what other line of work would it be possible, in a single day, to rub shoulders with a Rear Admiral, a Prime Minister, union officials, a traditional chief, the manager of a cement works, the Bishop of Atakpamé and a Danish chairman of an NGO, who arrived in Togo 40 years ago ? What a rich and varied selection of people !

I have realized that I really do have a wonderful job and that I am in the right place here, as an ambassador in Africa, in Togo.

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