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Togo drum troupe dances for future

Homeless kids in Lome perform for education and skills to build lives.

A handful still live in Zongo, including 15-year-old Assou and his twin brother, Etsevi. The threats are real. Assou says people try to rob him “very often.”

“Even this morning,” he said, explaining that a friend stole the tools he uses to detach metal parts for recycling. “It was someone I trusted. I asked him to watch over my things. When I came back he refused to give it back.”

It’s safer now that he’s 15, he said.

“We are a little older now. When you’re younger or alone they can come to you and beat you,” he said. “As soon as they notice you start making money, they attack you.”

Jerome Combes, country director of a Swiss international child protection organization called Terre des Hommes, said Amagan is successful because the kids can trust Osseni.

“It’s the best way for the children to find a solution, to be helped by people like themselves, because they know the situation,” he said. “You have to build confidence with the children. You have to accept that it will take months or years. It’s patience and follow-up that will win over the children.”

Combes, who is French, is helping Amagan’s kids enroll in literacy classes and has given advice about marketing and public relations. They are working on a website and Facebook page. He said it’s rare that an organization in a developing country is built from the ground up. He applauds Osseni’s work and says it can be a model for others, but also says that the best way to help the children is through education and job training.

“It will be hard for these children to make a living from drums or dance. Maybe one or two will manage to do that,” he said. “The main issue after that is the training they have. They have to keep this in mind. It’s good to strengthen the troupe and tour. Great. But in terms of protection, these children should all be in professional training and should all have literacy classes. This is a crucial point.”

Many of the children have limited reading and writing skills. And regarding travel, few have a passport, a national identification card or even a birth certificate.

Assou has learned how to carve wood to make jewelry boxes and other gifts. His brother makes shoes and sandals. The items are sold in the storefront but the children can sell their work in the streets as well — as other Togolese hawkers do.

When Assou looks to the future, despite his tough situation, he thinks about assisting others.

“One day I might get my own house and open my own shop,” Assou said. “Eventually, we want to be able to help other kids in our situation.”