Last week I flew into Lome, the capitol of Togo, which is on the coast. I spent two nights at a guest house near the airport.
Two days later, a Togolese man who works for the hospital came to pick me up and drive me 9 hours north to Mango, where the Hospital of Hope is located.
I woke up early that morning and came downstairs at 6 a.m. to find that the men were already loading the Land Cruiser, and the woman who runs the guest house had breakfast on the table.
I sat down to breakfast with the driver, a tall African man in his 40’s named Pariko. Each of us got a small plate of scrambled eggs, a baguette, and a Thermos of hot water. In the center of the table there were two mugs, tea bags, and packets of instant coffee.
As we were eating, Pariko told me his story.
He was raised in Lome, and his parents died when he was a teenager. An American missionary named David took him in and raised him until Pariko left for college. Later, Pariko returned to Lome to serve as David’s body guard.
On one of Pariko’s days off, another Togolese man was guarding David when car thieves hijacked them and shot David to death.
Pariko shook his head as he recounted the story.
“I owe David everything,” he said. “Because when I didn’t have any parents, when I didn’t have anything, David looked around, and David saw me.”
Then it was Pariko’s turn to ask me questions.
He asked where I grew up, why I decided to come to Togo, and why I wasn’t staying for a few years to offer much-needed medical care.
I explained that in addition to practicing medicine, I’m a writer and a speaker, and I have to return to the U.S. for fall speaking engagements.
I pulled a worn copy of The Invisible Girls from my bag and told him about meeting the Somali girls and their mom on a train in Portland, OR, one afternoon.
“How did you come to call them The Invisible Girls?” he asked.
“Because the day I met them on the train, the mom was crying, the 3 year-old girl was falling asleep while she was standing up because there was no place for her to sit, and it seemed like no one noticed them except for me. But for some reason, I noticed them. I saw them.”
A smile came to Pariko’s face and he slowly nodded. “Yah,” he said gently. “Yah. Because love looks around.”
Pariko went on to brief me about the trip we were about to make. He told me it was a 9 hour drive, that some of the roads were paved and some were bumpy dirt roads. He said that the road traveled through very remote parts of the country where carjackings were not uncommon. To combat this, armed soldiers sometimes climbed into civilians’ cars to form an armed caravan to travel through these dangerous areas.
“So don’t be surprised if soldiers with guns stop us and get into our car,” he said.
I looked at him, wide-eyed, studying his face to find evidence that he was joking. Or at least exaggerating. But he was totally serious.
“Jesus, what did I get myself into?” I whispered as I climbed into the back seat of the Land Cruiser.
I had downloaded podcasts and brought a few books to keep me occupied during the long drive, but instead of reading or napping, I looked out the window the entire day, looking for signs of carjackers or soldiers. As the day went on, the country of Togo unfolded like pages of a book.
Thankfully, we didn’t meet anyone with a gun. But the threat of guns kept me vigilant and aware. As we drove, I became familiar with the villages, the trash heaps, the fields, the dense green plains, the mountains, the women carrying bowls of water on their heads and the boys herding sheep and goats down the side of the road.
I prayed for mercy and love and provision for the people I saw.
The paved roads ran out and we kept driving north along bumpy, dusty dirt roads. In the late afternoon, dark clouds rolled in, the wind picked up, and then a torrential rain began. I watched people running across muddy fields, trying to find shelter.
I prayed for them to find a safe, dry place to wait out the rain. And suddenly, I was thankful that Pariko had startled me with the warning about carjackers and soldiers.
Because if he hadn’t, I would’ve spent the day distracting myself by reading or sleeping, missing the world that was unfolding outside my window, missing the Invisible People of Togo.
For the rest of the drive, Pariko’s words echoed in my head.
Love looks around, he said. Love looks around.