"Orphanage Without Borders" in Togo is a testimony to individual effort

SOTOUBOUA, Togo, West Africa - Amgna Kotoko comes from a poor farm family, and, growing up outside this small agricultural town near the Mono River in Togo's heartland, his childhood was one of hardship.

In part because of what he experienced as a child, Mr. Kotoko established a small orphanage here five years ago, distinguished for its local ownership and its manifest willingness to accept children of any nationality or ethnic group.

"I suffered a lot in my own childhood," said Mr. Kotoko, who is still in his early 30s, a young man of obviously intense feelings. "Because of all the various troubles in Ghana and Togo, many children have become abandoned. And I feel their pain."

The story of Mr. Kotoko's efforts to found and nurture the Orphanage Without Borders ("Orphelinat Sans Frontières") is a tale of hardship and struggle. It is also a story of how a single but highly motivated individual can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and, with a bit of training and community support, start and operate a successful and yet appropriately scaled indigenous development project.

At the present time, the Orphanage operates in a rented 16-room house, surrounded by a fenced-in courtyard. According to Mr. Kotoko, the project cares for about 30 orphans, and it has another 30 day students. In all, he said, some 108 children have been served by the orphanage since its founding in 1992.

He employs about a half-dozen staff, primarily women whose children have grown and who are willing to work now to care for other children. Each orphan is assigned to one woman and is reared in an atmosphere as much like a "family group" as possible.

Mr. Kotoko, who has been a Bahá'í since 1984, was inspired to found the project after attending a spiritual training institute in Côte d'Ivoire in the early 1990s. "The Institute focused on practical things, like poultry keeping, as well as spiritual deepening," said Meredith Folley, an American educator who was living in Togo at the time. "Mr. Kotoko came back very inspired with the pure intention to help give an education to the children in his area."

He began running a simple day school, offering basic education and Bahá'í moral training, but he soon came to believe that the real need was to care for orphans. As he had little experience in such projects, his formal advanced education consisting mainly of a correspondence course in journalism, the process of obtaining proper government permission and certification for his goal was difficult - especially in a place where most other orphanages are run by overseas-based humanitarian groups or religious organizations.

"At the beginning, he had to struggle a lot to find a site for his orphanage," said Parvine Djoneidi, a Bahá'í living in Niger whose duties have taken her several times to visit the orphanage in Sotouboua.

Early on, for example, Mr. Kotoko and his brother spent a year farming an extra plot of land to raise money to start the project, according to Ms. Folley. He also received a start-up grant of some $2,000 from the Office of Social and Economic Development at the Bahá'í World Centre, although it should be noted that this project is an individual effort and is not sponsored by the Bahá'í community of Togo or other Bahá'í institutions.

Mr. Kotoko's persistence and his reputation as a man of good character eventually paid off. He has managed to put together an increasing budget each year based on contributions from the government, various humanitarian NGOs, and individual contributions - some of which come from sympathetic Bahá'ís overseas with whom Mr. Kotoko has made contact. Last year, for example, he set for himself a budget of about US$110,000, a very solid figure for a project of this type in West Africa. Much of this money, he says, will go to purchase a larger and more permanent building.

For his part, Mr. Kotoko takes special pride in the efforts he makes to receive without prejudice children from all backgrounds. There are more than 30 different ethnic and tribal groups in Togo, as well as various refugees from nearby countries.

"We receive children from all countries, from Ghana, from Togo and from Benin," said Mr. Kotoko, which is why he named it the "Orphanage Without Borders." "In this way, we believe that the Orphanage Without Borders is helping to build a new world order."