Fifty years on, much remains to be done, says Togo's King Mensah
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Togo’s most celebrated singer, King Mensah, came to Paris in early April to record his sixth album. Also a dedicated social activist, Mensah spoke to France24.com about his homeland as it celebrates 50 years of independence on April 27.
Musician King Mensah, whose real name is Mensah Mensah, was born into a poor family of six children in the Be Kpota neighbourhood of Lome, the capital of Togo. The son of a traditional Togolese singer, Mensah’s music is rooted in African culture but spiked with Western technology. After five albums, 10 years in France and a few more in the United States, Mensah, at 38 years old, is ready to change things at home. He says he no longer believes in the ruling regime or in the country’s opposition.
FRANCE 24: You were born a generation after Togo’s the independence on April 27, 1960. What does it mean to you?
King Mensah: It’s a day like any other. In these 50 years, good things have happened, but a lot of work remains to be done. April 27 should mark a new beginning, a new independence. My father died 25 years ago, but if he rose from his tomb he’d be able to walk home without asking anyone for directions. So little has changed! That doesn’t mean leaders have done nothing, but they have done more harm than good.
What do we mean by independence? For me it’s freedom. To be able to make things happen on our own. To not have to constantly ask for handouts from others.
F24: What are the main problems facing Togo?
K.M.: The situation has greatly deteriorated over 50 years. Today, women die at hospitals because they can not afford a caesarean! When I was a kid, if we had a headache at school we were given an aspirin on the spot. Hospitals were free. Today we pay for everything. If you do not have money, you’re dead. Education is also an ongoing problem. Two years ago they made primary school free, but they forgot to build more schools. Now they are at least 80 [students] per class!
F24: What are the hopes and challenges of Togo’s youth?
K.M.: Young people look toward Europe and America. I often say that Togo’s only enemy is poverty. Young people have degrees, but no jobs. Couples have two or three children, but can’t afford to send them to school. All that pushes people to take to the streets in protest. If they ever announced visas were no longer necessary for Europe or the United States, the only thing left in Togo would be its government. Every young person wants to leave.
This is not a solution, but there has to be a reason for them to stay. Why do you think people protest in Togo? It’s not because they are tired of the current president. It’s because they are fed up with no health care, no school, no work.
F24: What's your take on the presidential election held on March 4?
K.M.: It went well. Before the election I was among a dozen artists who organized a concert that was attended by 60,000 people. The theme was "elections without violence." And for the first time in years we held an election without bloodshed. For me, it was a success. Whether the election was rigged or not, I don’t know. The people who are protesting must have their reasons.
F24: What role can artists play?
K.M.: I think we, as artists, must stay away from politics, and when problems arise, tell people: “Don’t break things, don’t throw stones. Come together, the country is suffering.”
But this year many artists wrote songs for the [presidential] candidates. Even when we are offered two or three million francs (3,000 euros), we shouldn’t start singing praises for this or that politician.
Each artist must ask of themselves: What can I do to change the country? My orphanage, for example, is not an excuse to show I have money. It's just a way to show people that even with few resources, problems can be solved without waiting for help from the government or the European Union or the Americans.
F24: What makes Togo different from its neighbours?
K.M.: You can not compare Togo with Benin, Ghana and Burkina Faso. All of them have far exceeded us. Caesareans are free in Benin, and school has been free for much longer. These three countries have evolved and can help Togo move forward. The ruling party and opposition are responsible for this backwardness. Luckily there are artists and footballers who can give pride to our country's name, even if we have not been lucky in football.
F24: Are you hopeful things will change?
K.M.: I'm a little afraid of having to make the same assessment in 50 years time. Since the presidential election, there are demonstrations every Saturday in Togo. This is proof that there is a problem! Will that new beginning come on April 27? I do not know. We pray that it will.
The motor of change should be the government. The president is like the father of the country. Before going to bed he should wonder if all his children have gotten something to eat. If yes, he can drink his champagne and sleep peacefully. If not, he must figure out what to do so that they can eat the next day. If everyone can go to school, get a job, it will be okay.
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