Small. The world felt so small. Restrictions and lockdowns had narrowed life to the confines of four walls for everyone in Togo. The children and youth from Compassion centres in Togo were missing their regular programming and felt isolated. They decided to put their minds together to find a way to open their worlds up even while they waited for the restrictions to lift.
What can open your world up even while you are facing restrictions? What can bring you into other people’s experiences even when you can’t be together? Where can you learn about the world around you without being immersed in it? These were the questions the youth from TG0103 child development centre were wrestling with together. Their answer? The arts.
Music. Reading. Theatre. Writing. Poetry. Storytelling. The arts have a way of bringing the world to us. They make the world an open book. They capture us and bring us into the lush jungles of South America or the dusty deserts of Australia, into the heart of a child or the wisdom of an elder, into the wordless wonder of a single moment or the big picture of life’s meaning and purpose. The arts transport us, teach us, transform us.
The youth from this Compassion centre knew that this was exactly what they needed to combat the isolation and discouragement of COVID-19 restrictions. Before the pandemic, the Compassion centre had provided a space for young people to be educated in and engage with the arts. That experience was what sparked their plan to life. If they had found joy in those things before, why not now when the world seemed so small? So they started up The Cultural Club where they could meet together in a small group and explore the world through the imagination, passion and beauty of the cultural arts.
The club’s leader is 18-year-old Gilbert, a first-year English student at university. About five years ago, the social worker at his child development centre introduced him to reading, writing and stage performance. That is when the arts captured his imagination and unlocked a bigger world for him. He is passionate about inviting others into the exciting and therapeutic space that the arts have created for him.
“This club is my refuge, especially during this time of COVID-19,” says Gilbert. “When I stay confined at home, I feel bored and stressed. But when I come to the centre, we read books, we sing, we dance, we perform theatre and poetry. Even though we cannot touch, hug one another or come close when we gather, performing all these activities gives us great joy!’’
Thanks to this club, Gilbert can take the floor and perform public speaking. “Without this club, I would not be what I am today. I am proud of the person I am today,’’ he says.
Solange is not drawn to the spotlight like Gilbert, but she has a deep love of the written word. She reads everything she can find. Unfortunately, without access to a good public library, she had to rely on borrowing books from her friends. This 15-year-old bookworm is also passionate about fashion design and devours every book about fashion that she can get her hands on. Her Compassion social worker suggested she join the club’s reading group and she was so excited to find a space to connect deeply through her love of reading.
“When I come to the club, I feel that I belong to a family. Reading is a part of me. When I am home, I am not comfortable at all, but once I reach this place, I feel at ease. I don’t even want to go back home!’’ she says.
Like Gilbert, 18-year-old Rosaline, joined The Cultural Club because she loves theatre and seeing her friends performing. “The club helps me to live a better life because when I am home, I am bored. Being with friends, sharing my point of view and participating in the activities gives me joy.”
Singer Abigael, 16, loves having an outlet to praise God. “Reading and singing give me joy and harmony. I am happy when I sing. Without this music group, I would not be what I am today. I have met people in this group that I am so happy to have in my life,” she said.
Recently, the theatre group performed a show to educate people about COVID-19. Currently, the group is preparing another performance about child protection. They have big dreams for their club. They would love to bring this club to a national, or even international level, to raise awareness of important issues among communities. This is a dream they keep nurturing even during the most uncertain of times.
These young people are devoted to their club and each one of them is playing their part to make it flourish. Replacing the uncertainty and despair that COVID-19 has brought on their country, The Cultural Club has brought joy, hope and happiness to each of them even when the world has felt so small. More than that, it has opened them up to the vast, diverse and rich experience of life. This has fostered profound compassion in each of them to shine a light on what is important in life, to inspire hope in others and to impart joy even in the darkest times.
Music. Reading. Theatre. Writing. Poetry. Storytelling. They transport us, teach us, transform us. They give voice to hope, words to courage and a stage for the story of grace in all of our lives.
You can be a part of giving education to children and youth that will connect them to the big, wide world around them and inspire hope and meaningful connection.
Photography and field reporting by Gabriella Akpene Samaty.