“Is the Virus a Thief?” Togolese Women and State Violence in a time of COVID-19
*By Marius Kothor
Ph.D. Student, Yale University
On April 2nd, 2020, the government of Togo declared a state of emergency and instituted a curfew to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the small West African nation. A few days later, a woman known as Mama Taméa challenged the legitimacy of the curfew in a video that was widely circulated on various social media platforms. In the Gen language, Taméa asks “why are we being told to stay inside at night, is the virus a thief ? Taméa’s question humorously highlights the contradiction in the government’s efforts to restrict movement in the evenings while the virus is allowed to spread freely during the day. Beyond the comedic effect of Mama Taméa’s question, however, lies a deep suspicion of the true intentions behind the curfew.
Curfews are nothing new in Togo. Throughout the 52 years of military dictatorship in the country, curfews have been used by the government to suppress political organizing and enable military and police forces to commit atrocities. Thus, perhaps, the thieves that Mama Taméa is implicitly calling-out are not the ones who emerge at night to take people’s material possessions, but, rather the ones who have historically used the cover of darkness to rob people of their civil liberties and, often, their lives.
Since the declaration of the state of the emergency last month, women have been documenting the abuses they have suffered at the hands of government forces. 10 days after the curfew was implemented, a 65-year-old woman was severely beaten by soldiers on her way to use an outhouse at night. In a video published on a Togolese news website, the woman displays her wounds and answers questions about the attack. In doing so, she uses her body to testify to the violence inflicted on her. Similarly, in a WhatsApp audio note, an unidentified woman spoke out against the violence perpetrated by government forces in the village of Komea in the northern region of the country. In another voice recording circulated on WhatsApp, a woman who identified herself as a merchant working near the Ghana-Togo border in the capital city, Lomé, recounted how government forces were extorting money from traders and physically assaulting the ones who were unable to pay.
State violence against women in Togo is not systematically documented. Yet, as Togolese activist, Farida Nabourema, explains in a recent essay, moments of crisis in the country are often accompanied by increased state violence against women. Yet, as Mama Taméa and others have shown, Togolese women refuse to be silent about the violence they face at the hands of the government.
Togolese women have a long and rich history of resisting oppressive regimes. My dissertation research, for example, examines the various ways women resisted French colonial occupation in Togo. From financing the political campaigns of Togo’s nationalist leaders to crafting songs and chants that were performed at anti-colonial rallies, women were at the vanguard of Togo’s decolonization movement. As recently as January 2018, thousands of women, dressed in black mourning clothes, staged a nation-wide demonstration against the decades-long dictatorship of the Eyadema family.
As the COVID-19 health crisis quickly turns into a political one, women in Togo are on the frontlines, questioning the government’s actions and using their bodies and voices to document the violence inflicted on them and their communities. It is not clear when the state of emergency will be lifted or if the end of the pandemic will lead to the retreat of the government forces. What is clear, however, is that Togolese women intend to continue their historical fight against structural violence and injustice, insisting that the pandemic must not be used as a new justification for old patterns of violence and intimidation.
Marius Kothor is is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Yale University. She has with broad research interests in 20th century African history, gender, and Black Internationalism. Her dissertation focuses on women trader’s political and economic contributions to Togo’s independence movement and how Togo’s anti-colonial struggle informed African American discourses on decolonization in Africa. Marius employs a variety of methods in her research including; archival research, oral histories, and visual analysis.
Read her op-ed on immigration in the New York Times.
The views expressed in this entry belong solely to the author.