When writing a comprehensive reference volume about a country not well known in the US, should you include biographies of the president’s mistresses? Are allegations of corruption among the rich and powerful too inflammatory to be included? How many rap artists should make the cut? I recently wrestled with all these questions, and more, while updating the Historical Dictionary of Togo from the previous edition that was nearly 25 years out of date.
When I accepted the job from the publisher of the “Historical Dictionaries” series (Rowman & Littlefield) I had already written entries for reference volumes on African countries, but nothing so comprehensive as a dictionary of all people, places and things a reader should know about the full history of a country. However, my own professional research had benefitted considerably from similar invaluable sources about developing countries where record-keeping is less than systematic, so I knew the effort would come with its own rewards. The truth is, not everything in the world is available online (like reliable, detailed breakdowns of election results in Africa), and plenty of what is there benefits from some interpretation as well as translation.
Togo is a small, French-speaking country in West Africa, and it turns out I am one of only a handful of English-speaking experts on it. I knew quite a bit about the political history from my own dissertation research on the attempted democratic transition there in the early 1990s, but updating the Historical Dictionary of Togo from the previous edition by Samuel Decalo was a massive undertaking after so many years. Many of the people, places, and things from the previous edition’s entries were not easily found by simple internet searching, and because so much had happened in the intervening years it was difficult to know what to cut and what to add.
Throughout the process I drew on Togolese, African, and French-language sources inaccessible to English-only speakers, and I was lucky to have three French-speaking Earlham College students in a faculty-student collaborative research project to help with francophone African social media and other types of research: Olivia Tienin (’20), Agathe Chapelle (’20), and Idai Makoni (’21). The book is a compendium of political, social, and economic actualities that people outside Togo might otherwise overlook, and a celebration of all things Togolese.