Of Markets and Millet

February 23, 2011

January 24, 2011

 

In the local languages here, the names of days depend on what day of the week is market day. There will be market day, day before market day, day after market day, etc. During more recent bike travels to visit other volunteers in villages in this region, I got a better sense of just how important market day is to people. Here in Kanté, we are right on the national road, so you can get bread and other things any day. But for people in small villages the once weekly market is a big event that involves dressing up, selling, buying if you have the means, and drinking lots and lots of tchoukoutou. There are lots of people who just travel around each day to where they are having their market day, trying to sell their wares. Ours is Friday, for instance, but Tchore is Wednesday, Namon is Thursday, and Broukou is Friday. In Namon, there was even a dance tent set up with a battery-powered stereo, creating ambiance and a place for checking out the latest human meat. On my long ride there, I was actually powered by dog meat that Travis in Tchore had bought at his market the previous day. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to try it, but since it was already there, I said why not. It was actually much better than other things I’ve had here – tasted like very dark chicken meat. I felt my iron supply replenishing as I chewed, and thought how unfortunate that women here are discouraged from eating this kind of meat for cultural reasons – they could definitely use the protein and iron.

 

My counterpart Catherine has been very motivated lately in working with the girls and in preparing for a Women’s Day event we are trying to organize for March 8th. I have been realizing, though, that some of the advice for girls and women that she is giving, and that is culturally appropriate here, is not exactly advice I would agree with. For example, in our girls’ club, she has been stressing the importance of obedience to one’s parents and not rocking the boat at home. Never refuse to do a task that your parents give you, she warned, even if your brother is not given anything to do and just sits there playing or making fun of you. In a skit she is working on with members of her mother’s women’s group, she emphasizes patience as the key virtue of a woman. Not to react strongly or aggressively when your husband comes home after seeing a girlfriend on the side, but to act calmly, welcome him as usual, and little by little convince him of his mistake through your own virtue and intelligence. I was skeptical, and told her so. Patience and obedience as keys to female empowerment? In my mind, those two things are part of what prevents females from being empowered. But Catherine defended herself well, and I think some of what she said is right. We can’t make men and parents feel too threatened; they have to come around to empowering their wives and girls through their own feeling that that is the right thing to do.

 

January 25, 2011

 

M. Pouna, one of the teachers at school, was telling me about the recent funeral for his father in his natal Kabiye village. It was my father’s uncle’s responsibility to organize the funeral and make decisions during the days of the ceremony, he explained. Your father’s uncle? I asked, disbelievingly. He is still alive? (M. Pouna’s father was in his late eighties when he passed away.) Yes, he explained. Here, we consider the sons of your mother’s brother your uncle if the mother’s brother has passed away, and even the sons of those sons we call “uncle.” It was weird how both M. Pouna and Catherine resisted agreeing with my observation that these “uncles” were really cousins, and not uncles at all, in a technical sense. No, no, they said, in our tradition, those are not cousins, even if they are the same age or younger than you are. Apparently the French word “oncle”is applied here only to uncles on the mother’s side, too – paternal uncles would be called “petits pères” instead, and they usually have a much lesser role as a guiding force for their neices and nephews.

 

Inspired a bit by M. Pouna’s newly shaved head to show, as a relative of the deceased, his mourning, we also talked about widow and widower rituals. Previously I had only heard about the period of isolation for women whose husband has passed away, a period that seemed like a control to prevent her from seeking out another man and to make sure that she is not carrying the child of the deceased. However, it seems that men whose wives have died also have a special mourning period complete with certain rituals, very similar to the women’s period but even longer – four months as opposed to three, during which time he, like the widows, must wear only one outfit, must not go to work in the fields, and must always carry around with him his own calabash to drink from so as not to use someone else’s if he is offered to drink. At the end of the mourning period, the widow or widower must give the clothing that they have worn during that period away and not wear it again.

 

January 30, 2011

 

I went to watch and participate in the millet harvest in Navarro’s mother’s field yesterday. She had assembled a gang of about twenty extended relatives, men and women and girls, to help out with the effort, which involved chopping the raised mounds of earth and pulling up the skinny manioc trees to reveal the tuberous roots, then cutting off the long potato-like manioc for the seemingly endless peeling, everyone sitting around with their own knife amid piles of manioc and peel scraps. The peeled manioc was then washed in dirty standing water from a nearby river (which I saw the girls who went to fetch it drink, unfortunately), before being set out to dry. It will be used to make garí, a crumb-like topping for certain dishes like black-eyed peas with palm oil. Early in the morning, Navarro’s mother had prepared a huge quantity of food for her team of workers, in the form of a dish made of a pea-bean-like thing called vuanju. I cannot find a translation of this food but it seems similar to something I found online called the pigeon pea. This was also topped with garí. The group had also transported large quantities of tchoukoutou, the alcoholic local millet beverage, to refresh and sustain their work. So, the two-mile trek on foot to the field was loaded down with weight on the girls’ and younger women’s heads going to the fields as well as returning with all that manioc. While there was no singing or dancing like I’d observed with the millet harvest in Agninkata last year, the cameradierie among this group of relatives (obviously the poorest members of the family) was impressive. I was told that they were not going to be receiving a share of the harvested manioc, and yet they seemed not to mind spending an entire day doing the tedious, tiring labor just out of respect for Navarro’s mother and to have a meal, drink, and company.

February 12, 2011

 

Walking down the national road today, I grew tired of people’s undying curiosity about me and requests for money. One woman, a very aged forty-something, with an eye seemed to be sealed shut perhaps from an accident with hot oil, held my gaze with her other eye for a noticeably long time after our exchange of hellos in passing. “I am hungry.” she said, to which I replied, as though I were agreeing to a pleasant coincidence we had stumbled upon such as being from the same region, “Oh? I’m hungry, too!” Which the woman, surprised, repeated to her companion and the two laughed. As if a yovo could be hungry! If they hadn’t gotten money, at least they’d gotten a moment of amusement out of the exchange. I, however, continued on my way feeling guilty about having compared my “hunger” with theirs. After all, earlier in the day hadn’t I spent probably the equivalent of that woman’s total food expenditures for four days buying the luxury items of two pieces of fried fish and two imported apples?

 

February 15, 2011

 

Radio and television yesterday spoke of Valentine’s Day, the day of love, but I saw zero evidence of it being celebrated by people in Kanté. No spare money for buying and no commercialization of the holiday, mean that, like birthdays, it doesn’t exist.

 

This week the directrice presented Cathérine and me with a Girls Empowerment task: a girl in 5eme (about 7th grade) who has skipped school since October was brought in with her parents. Her parents want her to continue school, but the girl has decided not to, and the parents say she does not spend nights at home. The girl refused, before the directrice and her parents, to explain the real reason why she wants to abandon school, saying that no, she is not pregnant. So, afterward, she was brought to us to see if we could discover her problem and convince her to come back to classes to finish the year at least. We were very nice to her, gave her all kinds of chances to express herself (declined, except for barely audible one-word answers and a response that she had too much work to be able to come back to school), and even gave inspirational (I thought) speeches full of advice for why she should stick with her studies. But at the end, her response was the same. She had already made up her mind, and she will not be returning to school, even though Mme Talim says she is intelligent, she comes from a family that can afford her school fees, her parents want her to continue, and she is aware that with so many seamstresses, that idea for making a living does not seem at all promising.

 

February 20, 2011

 

My new refrigerator is supposed to arrive today, so I’m already fantasizing about coming home to cold drinks, having water that isn’t lukewarm, being able to eat something for more than one meal, and encountering fewer rotten eggs. I will now be yet another step removed from the way of life of the average Togolese person. And if my running water comes through in the next month? Total luxury! They changed the rope on the bucket at our well and the new one is thin and nylon and really rough on hands – I have blisters on the insides of my fingers just from pulling up two bucketfuls each day.

 

Benefit Concert

December 23, 2010

Here are excerpts from the benefit concert we put on last weekend to try to gather community support for the construction of Cultural Center Espoir.

Transitioning to the New Year

December 15, 2010

 

I asked Catherine why the people here think burning all their fields in this season is a good idea – the mountainside near my house is lit up by fires now in the evening, and there’s a lot of ash waiting for me to sweep each morning on my front patio. Well, she said, it helps deter robbers, for one thing – when we burn down all the high plants, there is nowhere for them to hide. There are also people who use the cover of the corn and millet and sorghum stalks to hunt people – there is a black market trade for human heads and genitals, apparently, especially in Ghana. These parts are used as part of sorcery and gris-gris. People want their gris-gris to be strong, so they might even risk buying someone’s decapitated head in order to make it so. And then, she said, there are the mice – people like eating the mice and other animals that flee from the burning fields.

 

December 23, 2010

 

The benefit concert we held last weekend to support construction of a building for the Espoir Cultural Center went well in terms of sharing some of what we’ve been doing with the kids with the community, but financially we just broke even – there were too many expenses in terms of sound, renting the concert space, the chairs, bringing in semi-professional dancers from Kara, painting and installing a backdrop, etc. And, of course, there is too little in the pockets of most residents of Kanté to be able to contribute! You can watch excerpts from the concert at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kb3NRNZwLr8 .

 

December 24, 2010

 

The town market was especially festive today for Christmas eve, lots of people decked out already in their new holiday pagne outfits, the matching cloth especially cute on multiple kids within a single family. And I was able to pick up some interesting items from which to make a Christmas meal tomorrow: a coconut, a cabbage, guinea fowl eggs, a tiny can of sweetened condensed milk, white-fleshed sweet potatoes, small round white eggplants, and two grapefruits. I felt like I had done some great shopping as I bumped along the rocky roads back to my house covered by clouds of Harmattan dust, my single small backpack bulging with goods. Then as I was unpacking, I recalled supermarkets in the US and how I could never fit my purchases into such a small parcel there, and I thought–wow, maybe I am more integrated into the Togolese lifestyle than I’d thought!

In the afternoon I traveled to a small town a half hour away to see a ritual dance ceremony among the Losso people – definitely not a place for the delicate or squeamish! Despite the fact that two men with spears and pitchforks forcibly removed me from the central area where the competition of powers was to take place on account of my being a woman, I was able to observe plenty of new sights: bodies smeared in palm oil, some men wearing women’s clothing but the majority wearing nothing but underwear, some having stuffed things inside the front of theirs (I hear one of the magic feats the powerful men perform is to have their testicles descend to the ground while they dance), some with live or freshly dead toads and frogs coming out of their mouths, others having chests decorated with orange spittle and solid debris from the cola nuts they were chewing. Why do women not take part in the competition (the part that we didn’t get to see)? I asked. The answer, not quite satisfactory to me, was that it is because they are not as patient as men – whereas men are content to show their powers in this jovial, competitive way, if women were to show their powers in a competitive setting, they would not be able to restrain themselves and would use their full power against their competitor immediately, maybe killing her. For the stunts with the testicles and toads (they sometimes eat snakes, too, I”m told), I asked how they did it and was told matter-of-factly that they had to go and get another mouth or other testicles through sorcery, so what we are seeing now is not their true body part performing the action.

 

Christmas here is considered a holiday for the kids. If your family has any money, you might buy presents for the kids, but adults don’t exchange gifts. As for food, Catherine told me she was going to prepare rice – because it’s a kids’ holiday and that’s what the kids like! She explained. I tried to politely ask if they were going to eat anything else, maybe something sweet, but it seemed like nope – just rice, with maybe a staple tomato sauce. Compared to American kids, the kids here are so deprived! Can you imagine an American child longing for Christmas to come just so he can eat a plate of rice?

 

December 27, 2010

 

I trekked a bit over an hour by bike today to visit another volunteer in a nearby village. In my current fancy house right on the national route, my lifestyle is so much different and less intense than his. His counterpart and the village sage femme, literally “wise woman”= midwife, offered us a meal of sorghum pâte with lizard in sauce. I really didn’t want to eat the lizard but ended up not having to, since Travis was brave enough to eat all the lizard pieces from our dish by himself so as not to offend the hosts, even though he did not like the taste at all! On Christmas day, actually, my counterpart Catherine told me she was going to save me special donkey meat for the next day, which I had to politely decline. Maybe if it was in sauce and hot and I could confuse it for something else, but day-old, cold donkey meat? I knew I wasn’t the best person that could go to.

 

Since Travis is in the health sector, we visited the health station in his village where he often spends time. The sage femme showed me around and right in the middle of the few nearly empty rooms was her birthing room, which contained only a raised long chair/bed, two covered pans to catch her fluids, and an empty drip container which she called “serum” hanging on the wall behind the bed. During difficult births, the midwife often decides to send the woman to the hospital in Kanté for better treatment (what that is I am not sure. Here I’ve heard that women often have to be sent to Kara for care while giving birth). How does she get there? On a motorcycle, as there are no cars available! That must be awful for the birthing mother, I said, and the sage femme agreed but said there was no other choice. Of course, she said, she must be supported in back by another person, so there are three people in total on the motorcycle: one to drive, the ailing person in the middle, and a healthy person to hold onto the ill or birthing person at the back end. And that road, as I found out on my bike, is rocky and sandy and hilly, with of course no street lights of any kind.

 

Also interesting in the village was how Travis’ homologues thought that Kanté was like Paris – everything is so expensive there! they said. I never thought I’d hear this dusty, what I consider rough town compared to Paris.

 

January 8, 2011

 

For such a small country, the difference in climate from north to south is striking. I spent most of the last week in Lomé, on the coast, where I suffered from the humidity and relative heat, especially at night, where the conditions made sleeping a sweaty and difficult affair, even with a fan. Back up north, meanwhile, Harmattan continues with dry, sometimes windy dust, bush fires, and refreshingly cool nights. The language difference was also once again striking: Ewe, the local language spoken in Lomé, has such a different, I think more musical flavor to it than Lamba. I wonder what effect just the sound and flow of a language has on a people’s quality of life and general bearing. I would guess that people born into communities speaking harsher sounding languages act and feel angrier and less content than, say, Italians with their bella lingua.

 

 

January 10, 2011

 

Trying to get anything done with the girls at the CEG is difficult due to constant schedule changes and excuses for doing nothing such as a series of soccer games now being played on the only afternoon that the web of other very important other scheduled things, like sweeping the yard or sitting for hours in the classroom with no teacher, permits me to hold my girls’ club. The directrice was complaining today about how a couple of girls in 6eme are being courted by friends to go to Bénin, to “travel,” meaning try to get money by selling their bodies for sex. One of them refuses to cook for her handicapped father, and stays out all night. The directrice is telling me this not only to gossip, but because my official role here is supposed to be helping girls. Unfortunately, I feel very removed from such situations, and largely unable to respond. The girls here know what they “should”and “shouldn’t” do, but they are forced to make choices based on their circumstances and lack of perceived other options for them. At least with the girls radio show I produce, I feel like I have some control over my work and the possibility to send important and positive messages to and about girls here. And in the girls’ club, whenever that actually occurs, sure, I can pass positive messages and try to get the girls to educate their friends about how not to fall into traps, too. But send me a girl who is about to flee to Bénin in the hopes of finding money, or one of the 7th graders who is pregnant with the baby of a local motorcycle taxi driver, and what can I tell her? I do not feel like the moral authority, and probably the best help I could give these girls would just be to give them some money. That is what they, and it seems so many other people in this country, want from me and the other yovos anyway.

 

 

 

We are busy preparing the kids for a benefit concert here in Kanté scheduled for next week – percussion, music, dance, and some English speaking, too. On the Peace Corps Partnership website, it says that we have currently raised $1,115 of the $36,614 needed to construct the center. If you have not yet done so, now is the time to send in your tax-deductible contribution for 2010. If we can’t reach the needed funds in the next few months, we will still be able to use the funds gathered toward purchasing supplies for the center like chairs, sound equipment, a blackboard, and additional musical instruments. However, we don’t want to give up on the construction as planned just yet – we are relying on your support and any ideas you might have for organizations and others who might be willing to help. I am hoping to have better Internet access and continue my search for funds from Togo, but it has not been easy. I have heard that financially people are hurting in the US now – du courage! as they say here. I can only say that even small donations are much appreciated. The link again to contribute online is:

https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=693-355, or you can charge by phone, 1-800-424-8580 ext. 2170, giving the project number 693-355.

Harmattan is Here

November 20, 2010

November 11, 2010

I feel so naïve in my earlier reaction to finding a hen laying eggs near my doorstep – wow, what a miracle, what a good thing for me, I thought, with only a twinge of guilt for the feelings of the hen herself, going to the trouble of laying and incubating only to have her potential offspring diminished one by one each day….I casually mentioned my good fortune to a group of Togolese friends, and they couldn’t believe what I was telling them – I was stealing the eggs from the owner of that chicken! That is worse here than stealing money! Whereas I didn’t even think the owner was going to know or care how many eggs that particular chicken laid, that it was just like a fruit tree, or the rain that we gather in plastic bins, part of the landscape, and for the taking. So not only are eggs the worst thing to steal in this culture, it seems, but stealing is the worst crime to commit– this is why, when a thief is caught, people can’t control themselves and, to the dismay and condemnation of the police, even, sometimes take it upon themselves to punish the criminal, beating or burning him to death. So, while I don’t think that the old woman noticed the loss of the few eggs that I gradually took, I am certainly not going to take any more! I will have to content myself with the guinea fowl eggs from the market or the tasteless, almost white-yolked, something-like-factory-farm ones often sold at the local boutiques.

November 23, 2010

Harmattan season is arriving with surprisingly cool nights and a pain in my nostrils from the dryness and dust as I ride to the CEG. It is the start of this dry and windy season that causes people to catch colds, according to some teachers at school. I saw them counting out and distributing white pills from a small bottle, pills supposedly for the students, but better take their share, too – vitamin C! For once, a treatment that seems to make some sense in light of Western medicine.

November 26, 2010

Here in my house compound, on bush taxis, on the street, in shops, I frequently hear people talking about me using the word ”anisara.” I find it so rude that they talk about me right in front of me, as if I’m an imbecile and don’t understand the word for white person, as if it hasn’t been shouted at me as a greeting thousands of times. Or maybe they do know that I understand that word, but don’t care – it’s true that my Lamba or other local Togolese language isn’t good enough to understand the content of their comments, only “white person this” and “white person that.” It’s true that my status in Togo is so much more that of the outsider, not only because of the more insurmountable black/white distinction, but also because I live alone rather than with a family and do not speak the local language more than for greetings and saying basic things like “I’m full,” “I don’t know,” “Stay well” and “Diminish the price, please.” Everyone I have wanted to work and communicate with so far has spoken French enough not to give me a lot of motivation to study Lamba, but unfortunately I’m pretty cut off from learning from women who aren’t educated, since besides gestures, we don’t have a language in which to understand one another.

December 4, 2010

The other day I taught my group of girls at the CEG (the members of the “Girls’ Club”) how to make pomade (perfumed vaseline), skin cream, and liquid soap. It was exhausting and I personally did not think that the products were that exciting, but the girls had fun rubbing the excess cream from the bowl all over themselves and the “gel” for making the soap on their heads. My counterpart Catherine is enthusiastic to start selling the products at the school library, but even if we sell all of them, the profit will be maybe the equivalent of seven dollars for all the products combined. She and the girls would really like me to teach them to make cakes and cookies, but the problem there is the lack of an oven – at home, I’ve been forced to make those things in my frying pan, messily flipping them over half-way through the cooking time with a spatula.

preparing liquid soap with the girls' club

Just when my arms are getting used to the once or twice daily chore of hauling up water from the well in our courtyard and lugging the bucket inside, the well is now almost completely dry, not to recover again until the next rainy season. So, back to paying girls to bring it to me on their heads….unless what Akanto tells me might actually come to pass – that he convinced my landlord the commandant to pay for running water to be installed in our compound? That would really be an improvement in my quality of life, but I don’t want to get my hopes up. A shower without having to cautiously dump water over my head from a plastic scooper, aiming for the second bucket of dirty water just behind me? (This is how I just barely have enough water to flush my toilet once daily – using the runoff from my showers and laundry and dishwashing.)

Today on a walk I passed two girls receiving water from a raised pump into large basins on their heads. Our eyes met and one of them greeted me with an enthusiastic “Good afternoon. How are your children?” to which I answered, “Good afternoon, thank you but I have no children.” Even from somewhat afar I heard her pitying intake of breath. “May God grant you some,” she replied.

December 5, 2010

Today while at Catherine’s house (she had called me over to show me that the soap and cream we made have become watery and weird and fermented, respectively), a man came over fresh from the brush with a sack of soft things inside. Mice! He, like so many others in this season, set fire to his field, and took advantage of the resulting fleeing animals to beat the escaping mice dead with a stick. Do you eat those? I asked. Yes, Catherine said, and considered buying some, but she felt the man’s price was too high– the equivalent of twenty cents per mouse. Apparently they just burn off the skin and gut them, then enjoy.

In my English class at the cultural center the other day, we were practicing things like “do you?”and “no, I don’t” and I asked the small group of teenage boys, “Do you like dog meat?” At which most of them got really excited, mouths watering even, in their response of “Yes, I do. Do you?” At which I at first said, “No, I don’t,” but then I had to admit that I really wasn’t sure; I’d never tried it.

Close of the Rainy Season

October 16, 2010

classes continue at the cultural center in its temporary space


Navarro’s friend Arenga thinks it is so interesting that in the US we have institutions for crazy people. Here, they just wander the streets, saying and doing what they want, just maybe having to be shooed and shushed out of certain establishments, like Navarro’s bar, every once in a while. There is one fou, as they’re called here, who is always around the main stretch of the national road in this town – he is about 6’2” and is always completely naked; people just brush by him pretending not to see. I can’t help but think that he thinks of himself as a statue sometimes, and maybe makes the other men jealous with his well-endowed physique. There are others, women in rags, and I think, what do they eat, where do they sleep? But I guess they are doing okay because they are there each day, continuing their daily activities like everyone else.

I am reading a book called Into Africa, and am surprised at how relevant many of the cultural observations are to Togo, given how huge Africa is (according to the book, three times the size of the US!) and how many different ethnic groups it contains. For example, in the proverb, “Does the chick teach the hen to scratch?” I’ve come to see more and more how people refer to their elders or others with a higher educational rank than themselves instead of giving their own opinions. Girls who may be very expressive when alone will refuse to answer a question if they are with girls who are a grade or two ahead of them in school, deferring to the older/higher ranking girls to answer it. Also with regard to the festive funerals that may make us Americans uneasy – celebrating a death? Well, it’s not the death itself that is being celebrated, rather the ancestors in general, the strength of the family, and the continuation of their lineage.

The differences highlighted in the book between Anglophone and Francophone Africa are also interesting and seemingly valid here in Francophone Togo. While the British left a legacy of practical discussion, the French left one of form, philosophy, and long-windedness. Also politeness, especially in the case of a disagreement. I laughed when I read that the expression juste pour completer, literally just to complete [the thought/idea], is a sure sign that the person speaking is going to explain why he disagrees with you – that is exactly how I’ve noticed that phrase being used at meetings at the CEG. The equivalently polite thing to say in the US in that situation might be “Well actually, that is not quite correct,” which here, would be extremely insulting. The manner of speaking in Togolese culture often seems more important than what is actually said, which has been frustrating for me personally as someone who likes direct and coherent arguments.

In terms of women’s emancipation, too, the authors of Into Africa reveal an observation that I’ve been making since my arrival in country, comparing my experience here with in Azerbaijan – compared with there, here women are much less restricted. In fact, many of them seem to be centers of power! Yes, there are inequalities, especially with regard to education, and domestic abuse is a real problem, but you do not see women here trapped in their houses, needing permission from their husbands or in-laws to go out. They do everything on their own, and are often forced to do so due to abandonment by their husband or his death. In contrast to in Azerbaijan, where many women weren’t even allowed to go to the market, here, nearly all the merchants at the markets are women. The authors, Richmond and Gestrin, write: “As long as they fulfill their wifely duties, women in Coastal West Africa are given considerable freedom and allowed to engage in activities outside the home and to profit from them.”

Finally, religion: Islam is growing in popularity more quickly than Christianity in Africa, and according to the authors, it’s easy to see why: It is more tolerant of traditional practices and beliefs, such as sorcery and polygamy, requiring only that followers put Allah before all. A Christian, meanwhile, is told that he can only have one wife, and he must abandon the traditional rites such as sacrificing a goat at a certain tree inhabited by a certain spirit. Islam also has the advantage for Africans that it is more focused on the present than on the future – Africans don’t tend to attach a lot of importance to the future, or even think about it, so concepts of heaven and hell may not seem relevant to them. Perhaps the lack of winter contributed to the lack of planning for the future here, but in any case, write the authors, “People living on the edge of survival simply do not have the resources to think about the future.” I think this is related to the difficulty of the girls in my girls club to form goals for themselves, one of the suggested activities in our Girls’ Empowerment program. When I ask them to think about themselves in ten years, what they want to be doing, I don’t get the kind of clear ideas you might find with kids in the States.

October 22, 2010

I thought I had progressed in my eating habits since moving from my village abode into the light, that is, into a much nicer place with electricity. However, I just ate a can of kidney beans, entirely unprepared, just dumped into a bowl. I was seeking some sort of protein and last night’s trial of prichards in tomato sauce, packed in Bali, to accompany my rice, was a disaster. There was a certain overbearing quality of the fishiness that made me gag and have to give all but the one bite I was able to choke down to my cat, who had no such problem. I haven’t had luck in the scanning-the-horizon-for-fried-tofu game recently. I scan intently, slowing down on my bike on my way down the hill toward the lycee and my house, but all the clear plastic containers by the side of the road or on people’s heads are either empty or contain something else, like fried bean beignets or corn puffs stuffed with spaghetti. Either the women haven’t been making the soja recently or it’s just been my bad timing in not running into them.

October 29, 2010

The downpours during the last couple of months here have been intense – even stepping out of cover for two seconds is enough to soak a person through. Seeing kids get caught in such a downpour on their way back from school, I naively asked why none of them carried umbrellas. For me, carrying an umbrella was always a sign of caution and practicality that had nothing to do with wealth. Not so here – many of the kids don’t even have footwear besides the plastic flip-flop shower shoes that cost the equivalent of eighty cents. An umbrella? No way, that money would be better used to buy food to quell their hunger pangs, then maybe better shoes and another notebook. My question was laughed at, and I did indeed feel the outsider, and also very self-conscious about my own umbrella.

enjoying a plate of fufu


Sitting out in back of Navarro’s bar in the evenings, there are young kids who pass by and sometimes draw near to our table, eying whatever food or drink might be there enviously. The other night Navarro called the kids over, and he and his friend Arenga started asking them questions like where they lived and why they were hanging around. The story was the same: no money at home for food, if there’s a father at home he has no job, a mother maybe working late in the fields but at the end of the day coming back with nothing for her kids, the kids left to fend for themselves. It’s these kids who are going to wind up delinquents, Navarro said, giving one of them some of his pate. When you look at their faces, you can see they are bright, they have potential, but fate has dealt them this. It’s kids like these, especially, who we want to help at the center. Have a group of fifteen or so kids each year who are sponsored by us, school fees and supplies paid, a meal or two a day, plus the chance to develop their creativity through classes in music, dance, and other subjects.

October 30, 2010

Classes are going really well at the center – mine English and music, then percussion with our percussionist from Lome, and then dance with a choreographer from Kara. And we are preparing for a fundraising concert here in Kanté, but again, we are doubtful as to how much we can raise here given that in the most literal sense, no one has money. The amount that kids ask me for on the streets, and sometimes some women, too, is 25 francs, the equivalent of five cents. Receiving just that much would make their day.

I have found myself in the position of lending money, some large sums for Togo standards, to people I trust here. I guess I can’t justify to myself not doing so, since I have little need for money here, the individuals I’m lending to have proven themselves trustworthy regarding money matters, and what they are doing with the money, helping the activities and organizations they’re involved in, makes so much more of an impact than it would sitting in my bank account waiting for me to take a vacation to Ghana. Of course, the lending does underscore the divide between myself as privileged and my Togolese friends as unprivileged. In not giving, though, I wouldn’t be seen as any less rich, probably just less open and willing to help.

November 1, 2010

The Christian All Saints Day is a national holiday in Togo, thus no school or work today, supposedly so people can visit graves of the deceased and pray for them. Makes sense with the traditional importance of the ancestors in all the local cultures. The Togolese, meanwhile, are puzzled as to why most of us do not celebrate this holiday in the US.

I have been reading the account of a Peace Corps volunteer’s experience in Mali in the 80’s, and it has made me glad that so far I haven’t had to deal with invasions of snakes or scorpions into my living area – while those do exist here, I think that even seeing them in this community is fairly rare. The other really big difference between her service and mine was in communication. No cell phones certainly, no internet. Just letters trusted to the postal system and months in coming or going. Serving as a volunteer in 2010, or 2006 even, when I started in Azerbaijan, sure has changed as a result of technology. You join the Peace Corps maybe to get away from all that modern stuff, but then they issue you a cell phone, put another volunteer right in your town, and you wind up cranky from not checking your email after less than a week! The people who volunteered before this connected age that saturates even the third world sure do have rights to bragging and nostalgia.

November 6, 2010

One of the chickens in our yard belonging to the mother of the commandant has started laying eggs in a secret space just behind where I lock up my bicycle, so I’ve been enjoying a small fresh egg daily this week, being careful to leave the three earlier-laid eggs there so the hen doesn’t catch on to my thievery and decide to switch her laying spot.

November 8, 2010

When I’ve taught English in other countries, one of the units has been the seasons, combined with talking about the weather. Here, though, I can’t quite do it that way – there are no four seasons, just wet season and dry season, and people have never experienced a temperature below probably 70 degrees. So, winter, spring, autumn? Togolese may have heard these terms from somewhere before, but it’s hard for them to keep straight which is which since for them the terms are little more than fancies of white people.

Eating out with or among Togolese, I often ask for a fork or spoon rather than use my hand to scoop up the sloppy sauces, and I generally don’t feel that I am offending them. Sometimes they, too, choose to eat with a fork or spoon, depending on the meal. I try to be open to eating as they eat, even if my eyes tear from how spicy a dish is from the ubiquitous piment, hot pepper, or if there’s something else about the food that doesn’t quite strike my fancy. However, when it comes to meat, I reveal myself as the rich, spoiled outsider, no question. In Azerbaijan, we would receive at guesting occasions chunks of mutton that were often pure fat instead of meat, and so I got used to choking down a lot of fat on certain occasions so as not to offend my hosts. Here, though, I just can’t swallow the animal pieces sometimes; my body just rejects them as not something it wants to consume, so I am forced to remove myself from the table or group to spit them out. Whether it be liver, kidney, ligaments, some other tough chewy thing that certainly isn’t what Americans would think of as meat, it’s hard to find a piece of meat that is free from these other parts that we modern people aren’t exposed to when we buy our plastic-and-Styrofoam-encased, 98% lean something or other, which we secretly hope really doesn’t come from an animal, weighed to the hundredth of a pound. I’m then forced to explain that in America we don’t eat anything but certain parts of the animal, so I’m just not used to it, which the Togolese understand but which of course compounds for them the image of Americans as ridiculously overprivileged.

Holiday gift idea: Donate to Cultural Center Espoir! Include carla@carlaseidl.com in the confirmation email recipient box or forward me the confirmation and I’ll send you a copy of my CD for each donation of $100 or more. Donate $20 or more and I will do my best to send you thank you cards made by kids at the center before the holidays that you can give to your gift recipient(s). Just be sure to send me your mailing address. Donations of physical items, such as pens, pencils, notebooks, candy or other small items to sell, can always be sent to me at the following address:

Carla Seidl
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 63
Kanté, TOGO
WEST AFRICA

We need more soprano recorders for my music class, if anyone happens to have unused ones lying around!

Here is the link to the “Guinness video” we made to try to get Guinness to sponsor the Espoir Cultural Center (just got a form rejection email from them today, ah well):

September 15, 2010

Since my return from the US, the difference between my status and the status of an average Togolese has been all the more apparent: traveling from excess to scarcity makes you even more aware of things that are lacking, plus more appreciative of the ability to travel between the two.

The rainy season makes a huge difference in the landscape here, as well as the feel of everyday life. Instead of scorching and dusty, it is now tropically green, soggy, muddy, and abuzz in the evenings with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The well in my courtyard currently contains water, so I hoist up a cloudy bucketful for my “showers,” probably better called washings, which, I think due to high microbe activity in the water right now, are making my calves and shins itch so terribly (though they show no external sign of irritation) that I dread bathing. With the frequent heavy downpours since my return, too, I am able to gather a lot of rainwater for washing my clothes just by putting a couple of plastic containers outside my door.

September 16, 2010

When seeing me for the first time since my return from the States, people here remark how I’ve really changed. How? Well, I look whiter, also fatter, and probably softer. In short, more American. M. Pouna introduced me to the new class of 6eme (6th or 7th graders) as still smelling of America. For my part, arriving back here, everyone, including Akanto and my cat, seemed skinnier than before, when in fact, they had actually gained weight during my absence. Why the misperception on my part? It seems clear that it is due to my being used to seeing much fatter people and animals during my vacation than one ever does here.

September 18, 2010

Navarro tells me that he knows of at least one person who has decided, for lack of better work options, to become a beggar. Actually, the person was smart enough to probably get a job as a public servant, he says, but sitting on the street all day seemed more appealing. Total freedom. So, this man has been dedicating himself to begging for over twenty years now, and has saved up enough to build himself a nice big house in Lomé. Every day, though, he is out there on the street, a different part of the city each time, partly to avoid being found out by people who know he’s probably better off financially than they are. He was smart, Navarro concluded; he found the best way he knew of to earn his living.

September 21, 2010

The mills here are popular locations, where women bring all their crops to grind – corn into corn meal or flour, black-eyed peas, called simply, haricots, or beans, because that is the primary kind of bean here, into bean flour, plus soy, millet, sorghum, and even peanuts are sometimes passed through the loud grinding mechanism. While I always thought of mills as ancient things, picturing maybe the windmill in Don Quixote, here, people think of mills as very modern, as it was only in maybe the last fifty years or so that they began to be used here at all. Before, everything, even corn for la pate, was always ground at home on a rough stone grinding board with a thick stone pin. It is still commonly thought that grinding things by hand yields a better flavor, but not because of the consistency of the product—people are suspicious of the new technology of the mill, and think that residue from the metal of the grinders, the chemicals in the metal or the metal itself, enters into the food that is ground there. Causing cancer! A couple of locals told me. No, our old ways were better. But how can we go back? We are now used to the easy way – just bring the foodstuffs to the mill, and it’s done!

Navarro’s mother gave me a new Lamba name yesterday, Gnamssouwa, which means, she who gets others to move (act). The implication is that she is not afraid to speak out in the domain of men. This was a name that was first created for Navarro’s younger sister, as normally, females in this culture are not encouraged or expected to be movers and shakers. At first, I didn’t think the name was very fitting, since I don’t tend to think of myself as having a very motivational or imposing personality. But my opinion was outweighed by the others present, so there it is – Awora Gnamssouwa – celebrated, and then getting people to move. I guess if I live up to this name, as people tend to do in this culture, the name being kind of an omen for that person’s future, it will speak well of my work in Girls’ Education and Empowerment. Akanto’s second daughter was born earlier this week and I was surprised to learn that she does not have a name yet. Well actually, for the hospital papers, she must, Akanto explained, but we can’t formally give her the name and tell people about it until the formal name-giving ceremony, which I think will happen sometime next week. So for now, she is unnamed to everyone but her mother and father.

September 23, 2010

Akanto and I spoke to the assembled parents at the PTA meeting at school this morning to ask them to try to organize themselves to provide the community contribution for the well project I wrote that was accepted. They need to provide gravel, sand, transportation, and labor for the construction of the well that will be in the courtyard of the CEG and permit students to learn gardening as well as serve the water needs of the surrounding population. The directrice was quick to make the first concrete suggestion—we will use the CEG kids to collect the gravel, she said, so don’t be surprised when your kids tell you they have to come with a sack of gravel—this is what it is for. The parents nodded in approval, but Akanto interjected that in the West, and even in the laws starting to be formed in Togo, child labor is looked down upon. I think, he said, that the community contribution should come straight from you, the parents. To which one man in the front, in sort of regal dress with a Muslim cap on his head, well, you cannot expect me to come with a sack of gravel! That is not an activity of my stature; probably, it would not fit into my schedule anyway. I’m not sure how this is going to be organized, especially since the PTA president I worked with to plan the project recently died (age 38, no clear cause so perhaps sorcery?), and today, trying to elect a new group of officers ended in total chaos, arguments, all the parents leaving, and no result.

September 28, 2010

When I’d read African folktales back in the States, I remember picturing the yams they talked about (or tried to dig up?) as being giant sweet potatoes. Well, it is yam season in Northern Togo now, which means that you can buy koliko, fried yam pieces, like french fries, on the street, and you can also see and hear the pounding of the yams in giant mortars with human-height pestles, women and girls preparing fufu as a change from the staple pâte. The tubers are not at all like sweet potatoes – their taste is more neutral, like white potatoes or yucca, and they have a skin that peels off like paper. Some of the yams are up to three feet long, and must weigh twenty-five pounds. They are piled onto the backs of skinny bicycles and hauled into market through a lot of leg muscle power, to be sold, a pile of them, for maybe a dollar.

October 4, 2010

Our Saturday activities at the fledgling cultural center are picking up speed, with the percussionist Folly from Lomé currently residing in Kanté and the choreographer from Kara coming up each week. Prior to the drumming and dancing, I teach English and music, singing and how to read notation using recorders. We are planning a fundraising concert for the end of next month to show other community members what we are doing with the kids and to hopefully elicit some donations toward the construction of the center. However, I am doubtful – how much are people here going to be able to give, even if they are moved by what we do? A full-time teacher’s salary is $60-$80 a month, and the several volunteer teachers who are filling in due to lack of funds to pay standard teachers receive only $30 a month. Most of the townspeople don’t even have jobs, as they live solely from their agriculture and perhaps selling the random condiment item.

I want to sincerely thank those of you who have already donated toward the construction of Cultural Center Espoir. While I am currently unable to see who has contributed, at the end of the project, I should receive a list of names and addresses of contributors, so my community partners and I will be able to thank you personally at that time. At the current fundraising rate, however, prospects for the center as envisioned are not looking very bright. For building just the stage, performance hall, and dressing rooms, we have raised only 2% so far of the required budget, and I have already contacted I think almost everyone I know and every organization I’m connected with. So, if you’ve been thinking of contributing but haven’t had the time, please do. If you could forward the links to the video and donation page to your friends and contacts, that would be a big help, also joining the Facebook group. If you have an idea of a company, organization, or celebrity that might be able to make a charitable donation to this cause, please assist us by forwarding the links with information on the project to the relevant person or by letting me know so I can contact them directly. All donations are tax-deductible. As an incentive to donate, I am offering to send one of my CD’s to anyone who donates $100 or more – just forward me (carla at carlaseidl dot com) the confirmation you receive from Peace Corps and include your mailing address.

Here are the links again:

Video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Syuqj7eID-Q

Summary/Donation page:

https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=693-355

Facebook page:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Espoir-Cultural-Center/112389832150384

Thank you and I look forward to hearing your ideas and suggestions.

Here is the page for your “liking” pleasure:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Espoir-Cultural-Center/112389832150384

Espoir Cultural Center

September 14, 2010

We need your help to make the Espoir Cultural Center a reality! Please take a moment to read a summary of our project on the Peace Corps Partnership website and consider making a tax-deductible contribution.

Lessons and Transitions

June 11, 2010

Kanté landscape in the rainy season

When you want to buy something to eat here on the street, which is a very common thing for Togolese to do, you are asked how much you want to buy. Not how much food, but what price. For instance, rice. You can’t ask for a plate of it, but have to sort of guess how much the “mama” is going to put on your plate if you say 100 francs or 200 francs. When, a couple of times I have asked them what quantity of food they sell at what price, I have not gotten an answer but instead looks of irritation or fatigue. Just tell me what you are going to pay, their expressions said. So, since 100 francs or 200 francs is still under fifty cents, I say a number and then just hope that they will not put less on the plate than they usually do for others just because I am white and they think I should be able to pay more.

I spent a few days in Lome this week and it was weird to hear Ewe spoken instead of Lamba. I’ve gotten used to the sound of Lamba and being able to understand something of what is being said. Here, people from the north who speak another language are like foreigners, speaking French to communicate.

There is a Lamba proverb that says, “If you pick up the [fallen] millet, one day you will eat it.” (Translating from Lamba to French, Si tu soulèves le mil, un jour tu le mangeras.) Meaning, if you see a stalk of the millet plant on the side of a field or road that has fallen over, if you make the nice gesture of setting it upright, so that it can continue to grow and produce, someday, somehow, in some form, you will be rewarded for your action. A good proverb to encourage generosity and good deeds! We joke that this must be the proverb guiding Akanto and Navaro—like in most places in the world, many other people here seem to be out mostly for their own profit.

During my Lamba lesson today, I learned that the word for “sun” is the same word for “religion,” since traditionally one worshipped the forces of nature, represented by the sun. Also, there is no word to refer to “the weather” or the climate, since the traditional idea was that the weather was the same everywhere, so instead they use the word for “world,” which also means “nature.” So, to say, “I like the weather,” you say, in Lamba, “The world is good now.” The Lamba traditionally believed also that the world had no limits—if one walked in a single direction, one would continue forever. However, there was an underworld, but not a hellish one, a nice one—this is where all people, men, women, and children, were believed to go after their death—to join the ancestors under the earth. After a person’s death, the practice was, and continues to be, to leave a plate of food, and sometimes drink, too, in the deceased’s room, for a period of three months for a man, four months for a woman, so that his or her spirit could consume it. If the spirit does not eat the food, it is a cause for concern. Some people, upon finding the food still on the deceased’s plate, untouched, will go consult with the local charlatan to try to resolve the problem. “My dead husband is not eating!” they complain.

July 3, 2010

With a little bit of rain, finally, planting season is getting into full swing. The fields are all over, right next to the roads, so as I walk or bike into the center of town I pass plenty of people bent over with their short-handled hoe, the blade angled like the top hook of the decorated number one, hacking away at the soil, loosening it and forming it into long mounds and furrows. When you pass people working like this, you are supposed to say, in Lamba, “Min tmer,” literally, thank you for the work, or simply thank you, even though the work is not specifically for you. They respond “Yaa,” like okay, and you continue on. There don’t seem to be any strict roles for who does this type of backbreaking labor – men and women, young and old are out there, all doing the same hacking motion. I think the only roles in terms of this work are that if you’re poor, you have to do it, on your own land, if you have any, and maybe on others’, too. But you won’t find any rich people out in the dirt, that would be inappropriate. They hire others to do the work for them.

In my new house, I can hear, luckily only quietly, the call to prayer from the mosque up the road five times a day. Seems very out of place here, but then in Kara I did witness a big group of people kneeling down and praying on mats outdoors and there are a good number of women and girls in town who keep their heads covered with lacy scarves. Other newness from the new house is the experience of going out to the well to fish around at the bottom with a plastic bucket on a long rope for water, but finding the water level too low to have any water get into the bucket. The well is dry, sigh. Means I have to pay girls to bring me basinfuls each time, despite my tempting installed showerhead and toilet that looks like it might flush.

July 13, 2010

My perception of space inside vehicles in the US is going to be a lot different no doubt thanks to travel conditions in Togo. Paying for a seat in a taxi between Kante and Kara, for instance, means paying for actually half of a seat if you are put up in the passenger seat of the beat-up, somehow-got-here-from-Europe, how-is-that-thing-running Toyota Corolla, or, if you are in the rear, for three-quarters of a seat, since the usually five-passenger car (usually thought of as four-passenger for most Americans, unless you’re trying to sell one?) becomes the carrier of seven here in Togo, not to mention all of the heaping loads, huge sacks wedged in with chickens with their feet but not beaks tied and, if there is a yovo like me among the pack, the occasional small bag of canned beans and corn and lettuce and cucumbers and cookies, stuff only foreigners and traveled fonctionnaires would buy. Returning from Kara today, I was in half of the passenger seat, or less than half, really, since men here think they have the right to spread out and part their legs more. So, while I enjoyed the view, my butt needs some recovery time, as does my left leg from being pounded by the gear stick.

I am listening to the local radio station, which gives half of its news in Lamba and the other half in French, and I caught the French part. Today’s community announcements: a certain monsieur has lost two of his goats, one black and one white. One has an ear that is clipped and folded over. The missing were last seen yesterday evening, and were assumed to have escaped from their enclosure at four am today. Compensation will be provided for information leading to their repossession. Additional announcement: Citizens are reminded that collecting gravel from public locations such as roads and markets is strictly prohibited. Such action will be prosecuted with a fine. (The people are collecting gravel to try to sell, probably—this was actually an idea of the directrice as a way of acquiring funds to buy materials to teach the girls at the CEG how to bake cookies and make soap and such–to order all the girls to go around and collect gravel in a sack and carry it on their heads to the CEG to form a big enough pile that could be sold.)

July 16, 2010

I spent a couple of days visiting another volunteer in Guerin-Kouka, a town in the same region, Kara, but which, thanks to terrible roads, is fairly inaccessible from here. One of her summer projects is a micro loan enterprise program with lycee girls, loaning them money to buy materials to make and sell things like the drink tchoukoutou or small edible balls made of corn flour, the idea being that they can use the profits to pay for their school fees and back to school needs for next year. I took advantage of the opportunity to interview one of the girls, a superstar student and speaker who recently won the “Miss Guerin-Kouka” title for a radio project I’m starting that will try to feature girls’ and women’s voices and perspectives on the local radio. “Le blanc n’est pas appelé à souffrir,” she told us, suffering is not the calling of the white person. This is why, she explained, we as whites will quickly be given the only chair around when we are standing with a group of Togolese. Africans think that whites are fragile, she continued. You can’t take as much pain and inconvenience as we can; that is why we give you special treatment. Also, there is the power of your country, that is behind you. If we mistreat you, maybe they will come and destroy us! But if a Togolese goes to the US and something bad happens to him, do you think Togo will do anything for him? No! So, for you it is different.

Another thing that came up during this discussion was the idea of surpassing someone, of being more worthy of respect than another. In French here they say, “Il me dépasse,” which I am translating as, he is my superior. The girl in the microloan program was explaining why some of the other girls in the group don’t talk or answer questions when she and another girl are present. It’s because we are in terminale, she said, and they are only in première or seconde (lower grades in school than terminale, the final year of the lycée). Since we are ahead of them in school, they know we are their superiors so they leave the parole, the floor to speak, to us. If they happened to disagree with something we said, they would most likely hold their tongues, because openly disagreeing would insult our higher position. Does this depend on age at all? I asked, knowing the large mix of ages that are often together in a single class at school here. No, we don’t consider age at school, this year’s Miss Guerin-Kouka said. At home, in our families, yes, that is how we know who is superior, who to respect. But outside of the family, that depends on what level you’ve attained in school. Except, it seems, for the male-female factor throwing off the system—men in general think they are superior and worthier of the parole than women, she agreed. It’s a challenge for the educated women to assert themselves and prove that they are in fact worthy of more respect than their less educated male neighbors. With all this talk about who dépasses, who surpasses whom in the respect hierarchy, I really felt how much more equality based American culture is compared with other cultures. Sure, in the US we can think that we are more intelligent or beautiful than the person we’re speaking with, but we can’t act like we are better than they are; we can’t expect different behavior from him or her based on this assumed or implicitly understood superiority. Miss Kouka told us how, when she is sitting outside the classroom, if a boy from one of the lower classes walks right in front of her, she will scold him for not showing more respect and, I suppose, waiting or taking some other route that doesn’t cross into her direct line of presence or vision.

I’ve noticed that the Togolese don’t like to admit that they are wrong or have made a mistake, that they will go to elaborate lengths to maintain the illusion of having been in the right. It seems that unlike in the US, where admitting a mistake is a sign of maturity and honor, here, it is an act that brings shame rather than respect. Instead, the girl from Guerin-Kouka said, it is better to act like nothing is amiss, and try to re-establish friendly, normal relations with the person you’ve offended. Perhaps, she said, you can tease or poke him or her to gauge the response and the extent of the damage done to the relationship. If there is hurt and bitterness there, you will see if the person will be able to overcome that or not, and at least you will be in the right, having made the friendly gesture. But if you say, I’m sorry for what I did yesterday, it wasn’t right, the person will probably explode and insult you, and you will lose face and it will be harder for the relationship to continue.

In my first interview for this project, with a sewing apprentice in Kanté, I ended by turning around the microphone and having her ask me questions. Along with the question I frequently get when I talk to classrooms, that of what crops we grow in America, she asked me whether it is true that in America, everyone lives well, that there are few or no problems. No, I started, enthusiastically. In the US, there are rich people, poor people, and middle-class people, and there are plenty of problems. She looked at me expectantly and a bit skeptically. There is, ah, I said, well, especially in big cities, there is a lot of violence, and…(Why am I searching? I thought to myself, you know there are problems)…and then there’s the educational system…. But there I stopped. What was I going to say about the educational system that would make this girl think that it had problems? It is clearly so much better than education in Togo. Same with every other problem I thought of. Well, she said, isn’t it true that poor people in the US are like rich people in Togo? And I couldn’t really deny it, because in terms of actual earnings it is true, and also true in terms of things like access to transportation, communications, entertainment, water, electricity, and education. I had the urge to defend America and Americans, strangely enough, by pointing out the weaknesses of our culture. Yes, we have problems! I wanted to say. But for a Togolese person, do we really? We have problems for ourselves, sure, but what does my arguing that America isn’t the land of milk and honey serve here except to make myself feel less guilty about my position of privilege?

July 19, 2010

The traditional way of buying clothing here is to buy pagne, colorfully patterned cloth, and take it to a tailor to make you something. But if you want to buy ready-made clothing, you can find that, too, with Western styles like jeans and T-shirts being super popular. But even in upscale boutiques, you will not find a dressing room. So, how to see if an item fits? If it’s a pair of pants, for the Togolese, it’s simple—you compare the length against your legs, and for the waist, you wrap the waist of the pants around your neck. If it doesn’t wrap all the way around, it is going to be too tight. Extra material there? It will be too loose. I was more than skeptical of this method, but everyone here swears by it. So, upon finding a “dead yovo” pair of jeans in the market that I thought might be close to fitting, I tried out the neck technique myself. The two ends of the waistband just touched. Getting home and trying on the jeans, it was a fit! See? a Togolese friend said, you shouldn’t doubt our local wisdom without trying it out first.

Even though people’s lives here depend on agriculture, they seem to be much less worried about the weather forecast, than, say, office workers in the US. In fact, here in Kanté, I am told, there is no météo, no weather report. On the television, they skip over this town, and if they were to say anything about the weather here, people wouldn’t believe it. The local radio skips over the weather forecast entirely. So, for times like now, when the rain isn’t coming as plentifully as it usually does during the rainy season, people are left to complain and gather in groups at a sacred tree to shout and sacrifice an animal. But this last tradition is dying out, I am told, because with modernity and education, fewer people believe that sacrificing actually has any effect on the weather. Plus, when you go to do it, you risk that the chiefs will suggest that it should be you who pays for the animal.

July 20, 2010

As I’ve discovered earlier, it seems that even rational, well-educated, modern seeming Togolese believe in spirits and supernatural occurrences. M. Pouna, one of the teachers at school, was telling me about the “avions de nuit,” night planes, also sometimes referred to in the Losso language as “sky cars.” Oh yes, he said, sorcerers have always been able to take planes at night to travel from one location to another, even before the invention of the airplane by the whites. These people can go to bed in the north of the country, but through their powers of mind, transport themselves in those special vehicles to wake up in Lomé.

dance class at the fledgling cultural center

July 26, 2010

Today I got to see the Kabye ceremony of akpema, the initiation rite of girls 18-20, which this year was combined on the same day with the kondona ceremony of the young men. Despite what I had heard to the contrary, the girls in the village we went to, Lama Saoudè, were actually naked for the ritual, with only a string of some sort tied around their waists and a large splotch of some reddish seed puree on the tops of their otherwise-shaved-for-the-occasion heads. Each girl was accompanied from her home to a central location by a group of female family members and other supporters, who sang and danced and waved fans at the soon-to-be initiate. The richer the girl’s family, apparently, the more support she can usually get, because in some cases fathers hire singers to come and lead the chanting and festivities around her. M. Pouna translated some of the songs sung accompanying the girls for me, something to the effect of: “You can look now, but you cannot have—see this form, these breasts like mountains, this pubic hair like the growth of a certain fluffy plant; you may want to have her but you cannot; she will be only for her husband.” Apparently in Africa, or in Togo at least, a large amount of bushy pubic hair is a sign of attractiveness in a woman. So different from the American obsession with ridding oneself of body hair in order to look clean in bikinis or skimpy underwear! Here, it seems, they even have a beauty competition sometimes among the akpema girls in which the factor of pubic hair lushness plays a significant role.

The modern touch to the akpema ceremony we observed today was that none of the girls we saw actually sat on the sacred rock to prove their virginity. Instead, a woman from each girl’s entourage made the motion of bending her up and down several times in front of the rock, her behind nearly touching it each time, before quickly leading her on to continue the dancing, singing procession. What girl here can say she is a virgin at age 18 or 19, M. Pouna and Akanto joked. But apparently in the past, this was the case. Not many years ago, there was the example of one girl, the daughter of a minister or other high official, who swore to her father that she was a virgin and wanted to sit on the sacred rock as was the tradition. Her father and others warned her against it, thinking it improbable that she was actually a virgin and not wanting to risk that her blood would flow onto the rock, the outcome, as every Kabye knows, of sitting on the rock when one has already “known” a man, since that would be a huge shame on her family. But, the day of the ceremony arrived and the girl still insisted, so she went up to the rock and was placed upon it as in olden days. After a minute or so, when it was obvious to the crowd gathered that nothing was happening, no blood was pouring out of her, the people went wild with cheering. Such honor for her and her family! She was actually still a virgin! Her father never tires of bragging and telling the story now. But what I didn’t understand was the faith that the people had that if this girl hadn’t been a virgin, her blood would spill out onto the rock in such a way that people could see. Maybe if she was having her period, I said, but otherwise, how can you believe that? M. Pouna and Akanto looked at me with reproachful glances, as if to say, really, you don’t understand by now? And Akanto said, here, you have to suspend your belief in science sometimes. There are things here that everyone knows are true, that do not follow that kind of reason.

The male ceremony that followed akpema today was different from the kondona ceremony we saw last month in Farende – here, there were no big horns for the young men, no super elaborate costumes, and the candidates did not get up and dance like they did in the other Kabye village; they also did not run up and down real mountains, as far as I saw, but rather, at the end of a long line of moving in a slow, crouched over line while women danced and fanned and sang around them, each young man had to clamber up a huge pile of dirt that had been prepared in a central location ahead of time, the whole community watching and cheering, to declare his new manhood at the top by doing a little dance and attempting to clang the big iron instrument, called n’gbanè, which he held in his right hand, just once, loud and clear. Some of the young men attempted this move, jerking their arms up but not exactly at the right twist or force or angle, and missed the clang. There was no second chance allowed—maybe a third of the initiates will probably be ashamed about their missed clang for the rest of their lives.

August 5, 2010

The other day I tasted a local sauce that was a lot different from the usual ones you find here – it was thick with chopped spinach-like gboma and halves of small white eggplants. When I complimented it, I was told that it was the “sauce of rich people.” Why? I didn’t see a lot of meat in it, or other really expensive ingredients. Just think, if we served this to our kids, a man said, they would finish the sauce in no time! This was not a good thing. With our normal sauces, he continued, especially the gluey, elasticky ones, they are hard to pick up with the pâte, so you end up eating a lot of the inexpensive pâte and just a little of the sauce. That is ideal, he said, so that you spend as little on your kids’ food as possible. Money, and not, of course, nutrition, is the main concern here. So, I felt guilty about complimenting the sauce, because, once again, my comment identified me as the rich person, a person for whom taste and nutrition, rather than just filling my belly, are the main concerns when eating.

My service here seems to be involving a lot more concrete projects than my service in Azerbaijan did—here, I think I feel more motivated to pursue funded projects because the standard of living difference is so much more pronounced: people here can’t eat butter and mutton and sugar all the time here; they can barely eat anything at all! And infrastructure is basically non-existent, as compared with the glitz of Baku (which is perhaps worlds away from the rural areas of Azerbaijan, culturally, but which is still very present and largely felt in the country). The cultural center project, in its much-reduced form, looks like it will be approved to go up on the Peace Corps website in a couple of weeks. To fit it within anything remotely near a standard Peace Corps Partnership budget, I had to cut out a lot of key things—all the library materials and computers, the musical instruments, and the projector, for instance. So again, if anyone has any items they would like to donate to the project, please contact me. Especially valuable would be a used projector, any kind of used laptop or desktop, an 8-12 channel mixer, an amplifier, microphones, French-English dictionaries, or a small-ish (to fit in a large suitcase) whiteboard and markers.

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