Saturday, June 4, 2011

Mike In Morocco

For this entry, I will take a break from my usual tale of my life in Togo to tell you loyal readers back home about another African country that I was recently so fortunate as to visit using the remainder of my PC vacation days. Last May, Emily and I took a three week trip to tour the only North African country not currently experiencing (severe) political turmoil, Morocco.
While there we remarked that due to its close proximity to Europe, Morocco seems to be a fairly common destination for European travelers; the Spanish are even able to hope a ferry down on weekends. Yet, perhaps due to its distance across the Atlantic, or the fact that its located in the exotic, remote continent of Africa, or perhaps simply because for those willing to travel so far, France or England seems to have more appeal, it seems that Morocco is not a country heavily frequented by Americans. This is unfortunate. Morocco is an absolutely beautiful country, full of welcoming generous people, it has a history every bit as ancient, rich and complex as any old European power, and the food we had was some of the best we’ve ever tasted. If anyone reading this is even remotely considering a trip to Morocco, I would highly recommend it. Sitting now, back in my ghost town of a village (this is the start of the rainy season, and so this time of year, everyone spends the majority of their time away in their fields), listening to the rain gently fall on my tin roof, and wondering, since everyone is away, how I will pass this morning (updating my too seldom acknowledge blog is a good start), I admit I’m still mildly suffering from (for lack of a better phrase) the “just returned from a sweet vacation and now have to resume life as normal” blues. But I digress.
Towards the end of April, I was literally counting down the days till Morocco. I was in desperate need of a break from Togo. For all the nice things about this place, the hospitality, the fact that your at any time welcome to invite yourself over somewhere and have a meal, the free flowing tsuke, Togolese work habits can at times make this a very frustrating place to try to get anything done. There is, to paraphrase Paul Theroux, the odd sense of entitlement resulting from years of wantonly dumping foreign aid money upon the place. Meetings with potential work partners are likely to sound something like this: “We’ve got a great idea, I’m sure we can make it work, but we have no way to finance it. If someone would just give us the money, this would be a great idea.” The sad part is, most of the time, if a project does get off the ground it is because of foreign aid money. The project will go as long as there is an inflow of money from outside, and will fail as soon as the flow is cut off. I was always weary, growing up, of conservatives who claimed that state financed welfare programs will create a welfare state of people unwilling to work for themselves. Though I still certainly support social welfare programs, I’ve come to see first hand what they meant. In many ways I feel that aid here has left the people crippled. It seems people here feel incapable of accomplishing something without some external support. There is some validity to this feeling, since such a big part of the local economy is made of NGOs, there is not a very strong entrepreneurial economic structure. Since people aren’t investing in business (young students aspired to work for an NGO or the government, not a private business) they don’t know how to manage a profitable enterprise. Since they never learned how, they don’t pursue careers in business, and the cycle continues.
To illustrate my point that Togolese have come rely, and expect, foreign aid, I will give a counterexample. Emily, while at work with her NGO one day, was introduced to a man who had started and successfully managed his own business. In explaining what he had done, he boastfully emphasized that this business had been made profitable without any help from anyone else, no foreigners had given him money to get started, no organization somewhere off in Belgium was financing his projects, or paying his payroll. Instead he had taken out a loan, rented a location, and made money all by himself, paying back the loan, and not owing anything to anyone. Emily congratulated him (after all running a successful business, be it in the US, Togo, or anywhere, is no simple thing), but she couldn’t help but point out that, in fact, this was the normal way to go about setting up a business. The man had persevered, taken risks, and worked like a dog, but this is what all small business owners must do. He hadn’t broken new ground, or accomplished some remarkable, impossible feat, he had just run a business. If someone from the developed world had come in bragging because no organization somewhere far away had granted him a large sum to start his business, with no expectation of every recuperating that money, we would say, of course not, why would an organization do such a thing, why would a new business owner expect that to happen?
But here in Togo, it is often assumed that without outside assistance, projects are bound for failure. I wouldn’t dare say that Togolese are lazy (I’ve seem the way they work in the fields) but it sometimes seems like they have a sense of inevitable failure about certain projects. “How could I ever build a school, or install a pump, make an innovative business? That’s something that foreigners come here to do.” This sense of defeat, along with inconsistent Togolese work habits: being late for meetings, cancelling meetings altogether without ever telling me, and then wondering why things haven’t gotten done etc. all made me eager to take a small break.
As the days wound down, and May approached, I could hardly think of anything else. Then, three days before we were set to leave, the radio delivered reports of a bomb exploding right in the central square in Marrakech. Terrified that PC would forbid travel to Morocco right after such an aggressive act of terrorism, targeted specifically at tourists, Emily and I held our breath, and tried our best not raise alarm at our departure. The weekend passed without any news, which we took to be a good sign, we just needed to make it till Tuesday when our flight left. Then Monday, out of no where, news came that US forces had killed Osama bin Laden. After ten years of searching the US picked the eve of our vacation to execute its longtime military objective. The state department alerted travelers to the increased risk of retaliation against American citizens, especially in Islamic countries, and once again we held our breath. But finally no sign came that PC would inhibit our travel plans and we made it out on of 5 am flight Tuesday morning, but not before an airport janitor lamely cornered me while coming out of the bathroom to ask for a “cadeau” (gift) in return for having done absolutely nothing, even in an official place like the airport the strange sense of entitlement permeates the air.
We landed in Casablanca, and, having been informed that Casa was nothing more than a rather dull industrial city, high tailed it to the ancient city of Fez. Our first night in Fez we had not made hotel reservation, and so on the train from Casa, tried in vain to call some of the budget hotels in the guidebook (for about the first half of the trip we failed to read the advisory at the front of the book explaining that Morocco had changed its phone system and giving readers the new way to dial). Fortunately, a nice man sitting next to us offered his help. He said his brother, from Canada, had recently come home to visit him, and while there they had stayed in several hotels in Fez. We explained that we were looking for something cheap, and he gave us a number to call. We made the plans and the hotel even offered to pick us up from the train station. Unfortunately, there had been some miscommunication between us and the man on the train. We had been pretty sure he had said “budget hotel” but when we arrived at our abode for the night, we found ourselves being led by a charismatic but strangely mysterious man named Max into to apartment living room of a Fassie family of seven. On our first night in the country we had inadvertently (and admittedly pretty sketchily) landed ourselves a Moroccan homestay.
Upon our arrival the family was in the middle of an intense meeting, that we later found out was something of a parent-teacher conference regarding the academics of their youngest daughter, and so paid us surprisingly little mind. In fairness, our call half an hour before from the train probably hadn’t given them ample time to prepare for our arrival. The father finally explained the meeting and invited us to join him at the café across the street. Here, the whole neighborhood had gathered for a football match, and our homestay father set us at a table and quickly wandered off (a quirky bit of Moroccan hospitality, we later got used to this frequent occurrence in Morocco. It seems there is absolutely nothing impolite in simply walking off, sometimes practically in mid-sentence, only to return later and pick up the conversation where you had left off). Max our mysterious homestay coordinator returned to the table.
Max spoke perfect English, a mile a minute. He explained to us his various business endeavors. He not only organized homestays, but had also recently invested in and was restoring a riad (riads are old courtyard houses once owned by rich city dwelling Moroccans, but that have recently been taken up by wise investors and transformed into upscale guest houses for tourists), furthermore, informed us, he imported carpets to the US to sell at auctions, a highly lucrative business. We listened highly amused, to what Max said, but took it all with a grain of salt, we were still quite used to Togo, where a little lie or embellishment here and there, if it makes things more convenient, interesting, or enjoyable, is no great sin.
Max invited us to go have dinner at his place, followed by a night out on the town, but the prospect of putting all our trust into this total stranger, in addition to our fatigue from having travelled since 3 am that morning persuaded us to decline. Instead we spent the night. Instead we spend the evening with the women of our homestay family, who by the time we arrived at the apartment, had finished their meeting with the teachers. We passed an inevitably awkward couple of hours trying to get to know the two daughters (who looked to be in middle to high school). The mother spoke no French, but was smiley and welcoming, and even made us some late night soup, and by the end of the evening the children had begun to open up too.
The next day, we took off for the riad we had booked months in advance. Our homestay father took us to the café for breakfast, where Max made us promise to come see his riad before leaving Fez. Next our father graciously offered to take us downtown to the “medina” or old city. The old city was like a step back into the past. The lanes are windy and narrow (only big enough for a donkey cart to pass through), and only a seasoned veteran could avoid getting lost. That scene from Aladdin where he steals the loaf of bread and the guards chase him throughout the marketplace kept passing through my mind as we walked passed spice vendors and fruit carts (we couldn’t believe how many fresh fruits and veggies are available everyone in Morocco, back in Togo, if you want anything other than greens and okra, you need to go to a big city, and even then your choices are limited and expensive. Morocco, with its homemade yogurt and honey soaked pasteries at every corner, is literally the land of milk and honey).
Finally we came to our riad. Though we were, by and large, trying to see Morocco on a budget, we decided that the first couple of nights we would spoil ourselves in the luxury of on of these restored mansion courtyard houses. We figured that the stark contrast between our living situation in Togo, and the first class luxury of our place in Fez would make us appreciate it all the more. The riad, named Dar Roumana for those of you already convinced and planning your next vacation, did not fail to impress. The floors were all tiled with blue white and green mosaic tiles, which lead to a central courtyard with a gentle babbling fountain. All the doors stood 20 feet high, and were dark wood, meticulously carved with Islamic motifs, while the ceilings were either intricately painted wood, or equally intricately molded plaster. In every corner were low sitting tables surrounded by plushly cushioned couches. Once again the palace in Aladdin came to mind.
Our room, which was the cheapest one available, had its own stairway leading up to the top floor, and was essentially an entire wing of the riad unto itself. Though many of the rooms were occupied at Dar Roumana the place was so big it felt like we more or less had the whole place to ourselves. We spent our first few hours in Fez just running around this place giddy at the excessive luxury we found around us. Fez itself is a beautiful city. In the north of Morocco, at the foothills of the middle atlas, the climate is somewhere in between rolling green hilly pastures, and the cool Mediterranean. We spent most of our time just wandering around the medina, getting lost and paying children to help us find our way back.
Though we had a great time, we were taken by surprise by high pressure salesmen, and street kids hoping to trick you into tossing them a couple dirhams (local currency). Coming from Togo, we thought we were well prepared for whatever hustling might come our way. Everyone in Togo, it seems, is constantly trying to get as much out of you as possible, be it the mama at the market who wants to charge you too much for onions, to the cab driver who gets lost and then tries to overcharge you to find his way back, or even the villager who wants you to connect him with some NGO in Europe that he has a hazy notion will help him pull himself out of poverty. In coming to Morocco we were looking forward to a break from all this. Especially, we were anxious to just blend in to a group of people. In Togo, often you are the only white person for miles in any direction. You draw attention to yourself simply by existing. When we first landed in Morocco, Em and I looked at each other, “look at all the white people, were surrounded by them” we said.
Unfortunately, we soon realized that unlike sub-Saharan Africa, were anyone with skin tone lighter than ebony is considered white, here in Morocco we were still white (I was often mistaken for Spanish or Italian, and so was thus correctly categorized for the first time in my life as anything other than standard white American), they were Moroccan. With my darker complexion I could actually fit in sometimes, but my complete lack of Arabic, along with my Russian/Polish partner Em always eventually gave me away.
Though we thought Togo had prepared us for any hustle Morocco could thrown our way. We soon learned that Moroccans, who unlike Togolese, are from a country heavily visited by tourist. They had much more sophisticated, subtle, and convincing hustles, that had you giving up your money before you even knew what hit you. In Togo, people charge you too much, they ask flat out for money, they point out how rich you are because your white. These tactics are not only ineffective they are rude and frustrating, and so in Togo, you have no problem telling such a person off, and walking away head held high. In Morocco, the approach is much kinder, much subtler. Perhaps a store owner will offer you a glass of mint tea, free of charge, if you turn down a more expensive item, he’ll suggest something cheaper, a trinket, after all you’ve been here for a half hour, drinking his tea. Or, a hotel owner will give you a cheap price on a room, and then invite you to his overpriced restaurant. One store owner in the Mellah or Jewish section of town even tried to lay on the Jewish guilt for Emily. “We Jews need to look out for one another, plus your mother will really appreciate something authentically Jewish from Morocco”.
Even Max, who despite our suspicions about his various business enterprises, showed us on the follow day his riad (which was incredibly, three times the size of the one we were staying at, though still in its early restoration stage), left us questioning if there was some game he was up to. After having a worker show us his riad in the works (the worker himself was sketchy, telling us to follow behind him at a distance through the medina since he wasn’t an official guide and could get in trouble) he had us meet him at a carpet co-op. He showed us various carpets, and explained that next week he would be taking a trip to the US. Rich folks who had never left their own country, he explained, would pay ten times the value of something because it looked authentic. In another example of the cunning of a Moroccan hustle, he offered to show us a little about carpets. As he taught us, the carpet salesmen who spoke no English stood buy exhibiting the various styles Max informed us of. Next he told us how to say we like it, or skip to the next in Arabic, and had us go through the sample carpets. Before we knew it we were carpet shopping. Though we expressed little interest, Max told us we should really consider buying some carpets to auction in America. His deal was tempting, three hundred dollars here could sell for six thousand in the states. With one purchase, we could pay for our entire trip, and the next one. I’m still not entirely sure what his angle was. It didn’t seem to me like he would be making any money himself off of us trying to turn a carpet at some fancy auction, but he seemed so interested that we do it, we eventually lost what little interest we had. This deal was just too good to be true, and why did he want us to do it so badly? Like all things involving our first few days in Fez, it just seemed sketchy. So by the time we lit out from Fez I was ready for a break from the big city.
Our next stop was Merzouga a middle of no where town where desert sand dunes at the frontier of the Sahara attract tourist. We spent one night in a dive hostel in a nearby town of Rissani, it being too late to travel the last couple miles to the desert. I mention this only because it was here that we noticed, that even in the cheap hotels, the high value Moroccans put on aesthetics shown through. Though it was no Dar Roumana, all the floors still had nice tile, the rooms were kept clean, and anywhere else the dining area would have seemed like a nice restaurant, not a cheap hotel with a street side café. Coming from Togo, land of dirty hotel rooms, and rusty tin roofs this still took us quite by surprise.
The desert was fascinating. We stayed in a small guesthouse run by a French expat and her Moroccan husband known as Kasbah Sable d’Or. The first night, we took a camel trek out into the sand dunes. I will let my pictures do the taking concerning the dunes, since words would not do their unendingly vast, rolling beauty justice. I will only say that they are like a torpid sea, stretching on forever, with mountainous dunes couples with steep valleys in which one could easily lose their way. As we left the town and entered the dunes, it started to rain. Just a drizzle, but still, some desert, we hadn’t been there twelve hours and already it was raining. The drizzle soon fizzled out, but a gusty sandstorm remained. After reaching our campsite, we climbed the nearest high dune to watch the sunset, but the sand blew in our faces, getting into our eyes, and beating us into submission. For once, I fully understood the head wrap and turban or Bedouin people. We made a valiant effort to hold out till the sun set, but eventually we proved no match for the relentless forces of the desert. As we descended, I learned yet another clever use for a turban. Our guide unraveled his from atop his head, exposing nearly twenty feet of transparently thing black cloth. He told us each to grab a hold, and using the turban to cover our faces, we (at this point it was Em, me and two friendly dutch girls also staying at the same guesthouse) marched down the hill single file, and returned to camp, which was a small set of Bedouin tents constructed mostly out of vertically hung rugs.
Back at Sable d’Or took it easy, climb a really big dune at the edge of the desert, and hung around from an increbile dinner fusion of tagine and French cuisine. A tagine is a clay vessel shaped like a deep plate on the bottom with a conical shaped cover. Food is cooked slowly over a fire in the tagine and the lids conical shape causes all the evaporating steam to condense and fall back into the stew. Since no moisture is lost, meat prepared in a tagine stew is incredible tender, and literally falls off the bone. The stew is then sopped up using a type of bread that falls somewhere in between a baguette and a pita. It is fluffly and risen, with a crunchy crust, like French bread, but fairly flat and round, and can be easily opened to make a sandwich pocket, like a pita. Moroccan cuisine has two staple dishes, couscous, which in Morocco is way better than your average instant couscous back home, and the tagine. Common ingredients for both these dishes include a wide range of vegetables, and fruits, and normally a meat such as goat or chicken.
Morocco has mastered the art of savory-sweet cuisine. Though all dishes are loaded with veggies, they normally have some dates, figs, raisins or even caramelized onions thrown in to compliment the meat. The salty meets the sweet and is almost always delicious.
From Merzouga we bused it to the Dades Gorge. This less visited site is a natural beauty. The gorges stretches up from the main road several miles, all of which are easily hiked. The natural beauty of the gorge, with its odd rock formation, and green oasis flown through the bottom along the river which created the gorge, is complimented by medieval Kasbahs, which have been left unattended throughout the gorges. These ancient fortresses are in remarkably good condition considered the mud brick and wood used to construct them. Even better, they are free standing and open to be explored. So in the middle of a hike through some of the most breathtaking landscape you can find in Morocco, you can stop and freely explore an ancient castle hidden amongst the rocks.
From here we stopped over in Marrakech just long enough to recharge and head out of the town of Imlil, resting at the base of Jebel Toubkal. Standing at 13147 (I think) ft above sea level, Jebel Toubkal is the highest point in North Africa (in fact outside of east Africa: volcanoes in Kenya like Kilamanjaro, the Rwenzori etc it is Africa’s other highest point). Our guide book said that even in May Toubkal was likely to still have snow. Having lived in Togo for a year and a half now, seeing snow, even just a light dusty, was high on my “to do” list in Morocco.
The trek was set to take two days in total. Our first days hike was a leisurely (at the time it seems challenging, but compared with the rest of the climb, I’ll stick with leisurely) ascent, to the high camp, a climbers refuge about 1000m below Toubkal’s summit. The first day we trekked out of village, over a rocky flood plain, and into the hills. We passed a Muslim holy site, but weren’t allowed to stop, since the site was reserved for Muslim’s only.
Since we’d been living in tropical Africa before coming to Morocco, we hadn’t packed any winter gear, and so, everything warm we brought with us had been from the expansive dead yovo (dead white person, term explained in previous entry) piles we had scoured before coming. My gear consisted of my speedo draw string beach bag for a pack, a flannel shirt, a cotton sweater, and a beige pin-stripped sports jacket that had fit me too well to turn down. Similarly Emily had a pair of gloves, a sweater and a wind break she had brought from home. Between the two of us, she joked, we’d make one halfway prepared climber. All day the first day, we passed other hikers donning gore tex rain slicks, hiking poles, and tiny compressed subzero sleeping bags. We were beginning to worry that our light-hearted approached to this climb may have been a mistake.
That evening, while curled under a pile of blankets at the refuge trying to keep warm (for whatever reason they didn’t build a fire until even later that night), we noticed a large group of young people coming in, who seemed as underdressed for the occasion as we were. Some wore sneakers, others had no coat, and still others had socks on their hands as gloves. We soon learn that they were Americans like us. There is something distinctively cocky, low-key, and affirmative about Americans which stands out best only when compared to people from other countries. As a people we pretty much think we can do anything, and we love to improvise. So we naturally wouldn’t let the fact that we don’t have waterproof shoes stop us from scaling a mountain still entirely covered in snow. In fact the refuge was conveniently situated right at the border between snow and no snow, any further up from the refuge required gear.
Em and I naturally took to this other group, who it turned out were a group of study abroad students living in the capital city of Rabat. They had come with an instructor for a weekend trip to climb the mountain. Em and I had our own misgivings about scaling the mountain the next day. True to our American attitude towards this adventure, we didn’t think to employ a guide, and so we decided to set out the next day with the study abroad group. Their instructor had taken many groups before up the hill, and so seemed to know the way.
The next day we set out bright and early, crampons on our feet. The going was slow. Unlike yesterday, the path today was entirely covered in a good three feet of icy snow. The trail was also considerably steeper than the day before as well, occasionally turning to look down I kept remarking what a difficult ski run the trail would make and at times walk up it was easier to use all four to scramble our way up. Despite all these difficulties the views were incredible. It was still early morning and the inevitable storm clouds of the afternoon had not yet settled upon the range. You could see for miles.
As we made our way up, we were passed by a German outfit who looked pretty much our opposite in every way. They were a climbing club, consisting of mostly over 50 members. In the lodge we saw they had huge packs, in which they brought their own supplies (cheese platters, snacks, and (true to their own national preference) even beer). Following a guide, they scaled the mountain in single file line, all in their matching snow suits with climbing poles, demonstrating a Germanic love for organization, order and efficiency. Passing our motley crew, one gravely warned us “ze mountain is not a playground.” With this they marched onward.
A few notes on this comment: first of all, it’s not really true. As John Kraukauer points out in his book Into Thin Air climbing mountains is an irrational endeavor. There is nothing for humans at the top of a high mountain waiting for its climbers, and no cash prize waiting at the bottom, people climb the mountain strictly for the enjoyment of it: the view, the challenge, the feeling of trespassing into forbidden and inhospitable territory. So, in this sense a mountain really is pretty much a big adult playground, some place people go for amusement. With that said, however, I certainly understand what that German guy was getting at. Mountains can be dangerous. As I said, they are unnatural habitats for humans, and we don’t do well for long periods of time up there. There is no food, it gets cold, the weather is unpredictable, and especially for those who have not taken the time to become acclimatized, at times even breathing can be difficult. With all this in mind, we still thought the German’s were taking this a little too far. After all this wasn’t even a “climb” in the mountaineering sense of the word, there were no technical climbs, no glacial crossings rife with hidden crevasses waiting to swallow up unsuspecting climbers, and for the moment, even the weather was holding out. Underprepared as we were, we were still climbing with someone who had many times before summated the mountain (most other groups we noticed were without any guide at all), and though our clothing wasn’t professional it was certainly enough to keep us warm. Though it was through three feet of snow, this climb was, all told nothing more than a high altitude hike, albeit a particularly challenging one.
So once again in true American form, we took this comment as a personal challenge to get to the top before the German’s. Tired though we were, we pressed on. The climb up only took about three hours, but for all we knew it could have been the whole day. Several false peaks had demoralized us, and by the end we were digging deep to make it the last couple hundred feet. Though we took a different route, we made it to the top at about the same time as the German group, who greeted us with jovial astonishment, “zhurty years in ze mountains and I have never seen as group such as yours”. Despite the grave tone they had taken back near the refugee, at the summit, everyone was friendly, after all hadn’t we all just climbed the same hill. They took our picture, in our ridiculous gear, and we laughed and joked together. The German’s turned out to be alright, later that day, back at the high camp refugee, they even shared some of their privately packed (and delicious) food with us. Up at the summit, however, the clouds began to role in, and though through the clouds every now and then you could catch a glimpse of the epic view in any direct, for the most part, it just looked like a storm might be moving in. So it was time to head back down the mountain. The hike back down was much easier. We took advantage of the steep, snow covered hills, to glissade (a fancy French climbing word which translates roughly, slide on butt) down the better part of the hill. Three hours up and a half hour back down, and we were at the refuge, warming our soaked clothing, and preparing for the hike back down to Imlil.
Though the hardest part of the climb was over, we still faced a four hour hike back down the rest of the hill. Our other America friends had a to catch a ride all the way back to Rabat that night, and so they took off before us, while Em and I stayed behind to finish drying our socks. Already exhausted, the hike back down was a true test of endurance, and though our luck had held out the entire way up and down thus far, about an our outside of town we were caught in an flash hail storm that left us freezing and once again soaked. By the time we got to the bottom both of us were limping along, anxious to climb into a warm bed and rest.
The next day, muscles still aching, we caught a cab back to Marrakech, were we took up lodging a yet another (though significantly less expensive) riad right in the medina (the name of this riad escapes me right now but I would certainly recommend it, if your planning on taking a trip to Marrakech any time soon I’d be happy to search it out for you). Marrakech, though more touristy than Fez, is a sight to behold. The central square is full of snake charmers, belly dancers, and food vendors (Tall glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice sell here for 4 dirham a piece or about 50 cents). At night, even more acts come out, including story tellers, acrobats, dancers, and more. The medina itself is a maze of long and winding narrow streets, so much like Fez, we pretty much just spent our time wandering around and getting lost. Still exhausted from our adventure on Toubkal, we also took advantage of our riad’s private hammam. Hamman’s are ancient bathhouses, most of which are still in use in Morocco. In places where there is still no running water, the hammam (which is the only place in town, aside from the mosque, with running water) is simply where everyone goes to bath. But even in more modern cities, the hammam is analogous to a roman bath house, it is a place of social gathering and gossip. Everyone goes to the hammam to get clean and socialize with their fellow neighbors. Normally hammams are divided by sex, separating into a men’s hammam and a woman’s hammam. Patrons then strip down naked and submit themselves to the rigorous cleaning job of the emloyees who work there.
Though we did seek out this authentic experience, without much success, our hammam in the riad was something altogether different. Since they only had one room, Emily and I went together, striped down to our bathing suits, instead of nothing. The employee assigned to clean us was a big Moroccan mama, with arms thicker than mine, and looked more or less exactly like what you would expect a big Moroccan hammam worker to look like (images of some of the city dwellers in Aladdin once again come to mind). She splashed us with hot water, scrubbed us down with a hand glove that felt a bit like a cats tongue, and literally peeled away layers of dead skin, splattered us with clay mud for some undisclosed reason, let us bake for about a half hour before washing us off again and sent us on our now freshly scrubbed way.
From Marrakech we made one last detour in the Oceanside town of Essaouira. Here we climbed atop old city fortress walls, constructed by the French colonialists stationed there in the 19th century, and at all our favorite Moroccan dishes which had been given a new flair from all the freshly caught seafood. From here, we took a bus back to Marrakech, a train back to Casablanca, and a plane back to Togo, were we struggle to resume life as normal, and there you have it, our Moroccan vacation: the extended version. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You are certainly a more devoted blog reader than most. Perhaps I’ve even convinced a few of you devotees to book your next vacation to Morocco. For those of you who missed Togo this blog, have no fear. With all my vacation days used up, next time I’ll be sure to continue with the exciting saga of life back here in sub-Saharan Africa.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Finally, new post!

It’s really been a long time since I wrote a blog entry. I’m inclined to blame my lack of new entries on a technological breakdown. Shortly after my last entry, I went to plug my computer into the wall socket, and sparks flew. Power is not well regulated here and surges and fluctuations are common. Fortunately, the other end of my power cord was not plugged into the computer at the time and so I only fried the wire. My parents sent me out a new power cord, but after only charging it once, this new plug appeared not to work either. Frustrated, I resigned myself to the possibility that the second half of my service might be devoid of regular computer access. Fortunately, I gave the plug another try about a month later, and magic, it worked! (In addition to transmitting surges, plugs in Togo often simply don’t work).
Truthfully, however, this excuse for not writing really only brings me up to early January, and we are now approaching March. I confess, after my technological breakdown, the real reason for my delay in writing has been television. After a year of entertaining myself through purely pre-electronic era means, I finally cracked and took some videos from the impressive pool of digital media circulating the hard drives of us volunteers (unlike myself some volunteers actually have power (at least some times) in their homes, and thus such impressive collections make sense). So, whenever I could get a little bit of battery life, I have squandered it catching up on missed season of Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or watching BBC’s Life (which is awesome btw). But now, I’ve finally pulled myself away from the warm alluring glow of TV to fill you readers back home on what’s been happening in my life these past six months.
Where to begin…? Perhaps with the biggest news, when I last left off, I believe I was preparing to meet Emily at the airport in Accra, after which she would begin her Fulbright work here in Togo. She has now been in country nearly five months, seems to have integrated very rapidly (compared to the new NRM/GEE volunteers, who came around the same time she seems incredibly well integrated, I think knowing French beforehand, and having studied in Africa before, have helped).
Originally, she lived in Lomé, worked for an environmental NGO there, and lived with a homestay family. Visiting her homestay family was a always an interesting experience. They were something like the (almost) non-existent Togolese middle class. The father worked on computers, and only took one wife. They only had two children (as opposed to the usual, as many as the woman can pop out before she goes sterile), the kids (two boys age 7 and 3) both spoke French (in my village, children can’t conversationally speak French until well into CEG, which is the rough equivalent of middle school, and even then some kids have difficulty), and every night the whole family would gather round that alluring, glowing television to watch dubbed over soap operas (either Spanish or Indian, and both of which have certain charms).
What struck me as most strange about Emily’s Lomé life was how western capitalist it all seemed, in a weird uncynical 1950s way. Advertisements on television were simple, and straightforward, (the typical commercial hit upon two main points: this product is good, buy this product) to the point were they would come across as naïvely ineffective in America (really it was like watching an old dishwashing soap commercial from the early days of television), not that our ads really say anything more than there’s, ours just dance around the issue more and make the pitch seem less direct. Family life seemed like the typical American nuclear family, with of course strange African twists, like the distant relatives who would show up and stay for weeks with absolutely no explanation offered to Emily, or the family down the street who temporarily moved in (likewise without any explanation).
Even outside the family the life of the “Togolese middleclass” struck me as interesting, while Em was in Lomé she attended a “International Fair”, which seemed like much scaled down and more consumer oriented version of the World’s Fair. Basically it was a chance to show off new products that seemed, in general, completely inapplicable to an African context. Em’s personal favorite was the automatic fufu pounder. As I believe I’ve described in earlier entries, fufu is a favorite Togolese dish make from pounded yams. Normally the pounded is done with a good old fashion mortar and pestle, but this contraption (tantamount to an industrial strength blender) pounded the fufu automatically. People gather round, staring, faces pressed upon the glass of the display window. “There’s no way it taste like real fufu”, they said, generally voices their distrust of the new product. While watching to Togolese disbelief was certainly a highlight, the fufu masher 5000 ran around 300,000 F CFA, which is around the same price as a brand new moto, or a ticket to France… needless to say, your average Togolese doesn’t have that kind of money to be investing in specialized blenders, and I think we are still a long way off from seeing the fall of the mortar and pestle as a mainstay in any Togolese kitchen.
Emily being in Lomé was great, since Lomé is where I go to do any business that requires even the smallest degree of technology. I’m generally down there at least once a month, and with Farm to Market (a PC publication of which I am co-editor), I occasionally come down for extended periods of time. Furthermore, from Lomé it is fairly easy to get to my village, just a 2-4 hour taxi ride up the route national (depending of your luck that day) followed by a short moto ride on the dirt road/riverbed (depending on the season) that leads to chez moi.
Alas, this arrangement did not last. Understandably, Emily quickly grew tired of the expenses, the crowded roads, the dirt, the weird emerging capitalist society, the non-stop hassling from moto drivers and general passersby who look upon the only white person they’ve seen that day as their surefire ticket to America, Europe or at least a new car, and won’t desist until you have absolutely disillusion them of this notion and crushed their indomitable spirit by informing them that you have no interest whatsoever in their sacred offering of friendship. So, she found a way to work with her NGO out in the field, in a small village north of Kpalime, in plateau region. She has only lived their about a month, and so I have yet to go visit her, but I’m told that her region is probably the most beautiful of all of Togo. She seems very happy their, and though her village is certainly more developed than my own (it seems that many notable men of business and politics come from her village, which inevitably leads to investment and development), I think she is getting a taste of a more typical Togolese lifestyle, with long afternoon repos, cancelled meetings, poor communication skills, and lazy afternoons spend at the tsuke stand or sodabe still (which I recently learned is referred to here as the “cabaret”, an appellation I find misleading, considering it is normally a group of all men, either lazily hanging around a homemade still, sipping sodabe, and napping, or hard at work chopping wood, collecting palm wine from felled trees, and tending the fire… but in no way resembling a cabaret). Fortunately for here, there also seems to be a concentration of PCVs in the area surrounding her village, and so she has no shortage of America friends. In general other volunteers have taken to Emily, and have more or less adopted her as one of our own.
Though geographically, I believe her new village is closer to mine than Lomé, it is much harder to get between the two. Since there is no paved road, travel is done on dirt roads, taxis generally only run on market days, so unless travelling on certain days, one must take a moto on long uncomfortable rides (that run much more expensive than a bush taxi). I think, for the most part we’ve decided that it actually makes more sense to just go down to Lomé, and then back up the national road to get to my place, but such is life in Togo.
As for myself, I am doing very well. Life in village continues to be interesting and full of surprises. Work is good but moves slowly. My village is much to small to host any aid organizations, and so any work that is to be done tends to come from the people themselves, and since they are poor, and busy with their own farms and cares, both the financing of projects and organization comes very slowly. Still, I have managed to help a local farming coop start a mushroom cultivation project that promises to be a lasting source of supplemental income (which really requires very little work once established), I’ve continued work with other coops doing bio-intensive vegetable gardening during the dry season, to supplement both diet and income. At the request of local students I’ve started an “English club” in which I try to teach them “American” English. I enjoy the club, but find that the hardest part is keeping my English at their level. Since I speak either French or very limited Ewe when working here, I have next to no experience working with Togolese in language I in which I am naturally fluent. I find my tendency is to try to speak their version of English, which leads me to use a bunch of awkward phrases that hardly even make sense to me. Conversely, when I try to simply speak natural English, I often find the temptation to better explain myself, even though I know my speak will no be understood by my audience, too hard to resist. Still, I enjoy trying to teach English.
Since my two week trip to America, and my few days over in Ghana, I have hardly used any of my 48 out of country vacation days allotted me by the Peace Corps. The coming summer will be filled with PC summer camps, and after that, the end of my service rapidly approaches, and so this spring (in American terms, here of course the weather is nothing at all like spring. The first half our spring season here is the end of the dry season, which means intolerably hot weather, followed by the start of the rainy season, which means a slight break from the heat followed by a return of the heat but this time with all the humidity of the last rain) seems to be my season of travel. Next week, Emily and I head up to Burkina Faso, where, strangely enough, her best friend from high school is currently serving as a PCV. We will spend a few days in the capital Ouagadougou, followed by a few days in her village, which as luck would having is holding their big annual festival right as we arrive. Upon our return we will probably spend a few days in the Savannes region of Togo. I have many PC friends up there, but since it is so far away (about a 12 hour drive over some really crappy roads), and I’ve never really had any excuse for heading up, this is my first time seeing the place.
Next, we leave on our big trip in May to Morocco. Just today I saw that there were demonstrations in Casablanca, and so we are holding our breath that Morocco holds out and doesn’t go the way of nearly ever other country in North Africa. But assuming that all goes well, we will be spending 18 days exploring the Moroccan cities and countryside, eating some bomb couscous, riding on camelback through the Sahara, and haggling over imitation rugs in the market (as though we’ve not had enough practice at that here).
I certainly plan on keeping up more regular communication now that my computer problems have been solved and my initially overpowering urge to get caught up on American television culture has subsided. But just in case, now you all know what I have coming up in the next couple months. I wish I could write more about the last five months, there is certainly a lot more that has happened, but unfortunately, my battery life dwindles, and so it will all just have to wait until next time. Thanks as always for your continued readership and your patience in awaiting my sporadic updates. Au revoir!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

One Year Down

It’s official; I’ve now been living in Togo over a year. My group arrived in Togo to begin training September 19, 2009, and now in mid-October the one year anniversary of our swearing-in as a Volunteer (December 5) seems just around the corner, from there I will be officially half way finished with my service.
To risk using an extremely clichéd phrase, time has really flown. Compared to my first year of college, my first year in Peace Corps seems like a blink of an eye. If someone told me I had only been here a month, I’d be inclined to agree with them more than someone pointing out that I’ve actually been here an entire year. I hope this observation has more to do with the bustling, ever busy life of a Peace Corps Volunteer and not the first signs that, despite my best efforts I am growing up (I’m told that as you grow ever older, time continues to move ever faster).
While I am happy and proud that I have made it halfway through my time here, successfully living in Togolese village society, and without catching any bizarre, terrifying, tropical diseases, I cannot believe that I only have one more year left in country to do all that I want to do. It seems such a terribly short amount of time. I suppose I am only now beginning to realize the truth to the common RPCV complaint that two years just isn’t enough time to accomplish what you set out to do in village.
I suppose you, reading at home, won’t really grasp what I’m saying just as I, one year ago, couldn’t really grasp what all the older PCVs who had already been in country a year were saying. Two years seems like such a long time to be halfway around the world from your family and friends, in a remote location, among people whose language, worldview, and cultural background differ from your own in nearly ever way, and without any extensive means of communication to the outside world. This is certainly true, but when you think of the reasons you are in this remote corner of the globe, two years seems like hardly any time at all.
The fact that you are placed in among a people entirely different from you own is one of the big reason two years is such a short amount of time. Since I’ve been here, I have learned infinitely more than knew coming in about the Togolese culture and society (as I continually reaffirm to myself by talking to new Peace Corps arrivals), but just because I’ve found some answer doesn’t mean that I have less questions. To the contrary, every small piece of knowledge I manage to scrap out of my experience tends to present a whole other set of questions. For example, first I learned how to greet someone in local language, but then that posed the question of when to greet someone in village, when to use which greeting, who to greet, when to ask about the family, the wife, the work, and the food, when to just ask about the person, when to squat down to show respect, when to expect another to squat down before me. Though I’ve answered some of these question, I’m still working out the details for many of them, and not hardly a week goes by when I startle someone with an overly elaborate greeting, made only in passing, or embarrass myself by not squatting before a village chief. My service here may seem like a long time, but if Peace Corps gave a cultural competency exam at the end of service, two years would be hardly enough time to cram.
All this says nothing about the actual work that you do here in village. In the states, two years wouldn’t be enough time to educate an entire town on the importance of sustainable agricultural practices, of soil fertility science, forestry and integrated agriculture, and then on top of that education, encourage people to adopt new methods by which they can provide sustenance for themselves and their family. Consider that, and then take into account the extremely limited resources in a rural Togolese village, the low level of education, the language barrier, and the fact that these people have being practicing agricultural techniques handed down to them for generations. Two years to alter the basic method of sustenance for an entire society really isn’t very much time at all.
This realization of how fast my service has gone was really accented by my time spent as a Volunteer Trainer this week for the new NRM stage. In just a months time, the volunteers who came in a year before us will have finished their service, and this new batch of trainees will be sworn in to take their place, making all those who sworn in with my in 2009 the oldest volunteers in country. I still remember my impressions of the volunteer trainers who helped during our training. They seemed totally at ease in such bizarre surroundings, they were never fazed and didn’t seem to make the everyday cultural blunders that characterized my life at the time, and though they still seemed to think their French could use improvement, to me they seemed totally fluent.
I don’t know if I made the same stunning impression among these trainees. My week as a trainer suggests to me that my impression of my own trainers must have been a bit starry eyed to say the least. Though the trainees this week were comforted when I explained to that I came in with no prior French speaking experience (“look how well he speaks now”, they often remarked), I know that my French could still stand some serious improvement. Furthermore, I often feel fazed in this country, and am certainly not innocent of the occasional cultural blunder. I will say that stage certainly seemed easier this time around. Stage is largely conducted in French, so I think that is partly because I actually understood what they were talking about this time around. Still I can see how I may seem at ease and well versed in the culture in comparison with these new trainees, which only speaks to how far I’ve come, but as I said before, it is clear to me that I’ve still got very far to go as well.
All told, however, the week was very enjoyable. It was a real treat to get to know the new volunteers before they actually become volunteers. PCVs are a pretty tightly knit group, in a world of bizarre and unfamiliar sights, sounds, and experiences, other Americans tend to be both a reference point for keeping ones sanity, and in the absence of family and friends from home, the only support network available. So it was cool to get a glimpse of who my new best friends will be in 2011. Frankly, I think they will be a pretty good group, and I’m excited for them to swear in, they were fun to hang out with this week, and seem eager to head off to post.
Before that week at stage, I managed to use my short time here to accomplish one major personal goal. On September 26, I ran the Accra International Marathon. This was my first marathon, but after having run it, I doubt it will be my last, they say running gets addicting, and it seems as though I’ve caught the bug. The marathon itself was actually miserably hard. I had trained hard for nearly 4 months leading up to this marathon, in training actually running the first twenty miles (though I would like to run marathons in the future, I don’t know where I will find the time to train like that again, my long runs, which I started at 5 am, would take up nearly the entire morning). I had felt fairly well prepared for this marathon, and the twenty miles that I had trained for went by swimmingly. The last six miles, however, were probably the hardest physical thing I’ve ever forced myself to do.
By mile twenty two, every part of my body hurt in a different way. My back was sunburned (with not a cloud in the sky to offer relief), my thighs cramped with every stride, the arches of my feet felt ready to collapse, my stomach stung as a sucked for air, my underarms had chaffed from the stride motion, and on top of all of that a bee stung me right about the tail bone. Nonetheless, I managed to push my way across the finish line, not in record time, but at least I finished.
Upon finishing a friend of mine who had run the half-marathon greeted me and immediately asked if I would ever run a marathon again. Without hesitating I told her absolutely not. However, upon reflection, I think I probably will run again, training, though difficult, was in a weird way very enjoyable, and the race atmosphere was a lot of funs, all sorts of interesting people come out to run marathons. I met Ghanaians who had run a marathon the day before, and were out to try it out again (I couldn’t move correctly for about a week after running, how they ran two in a weekend blows my mind), I met PCVs from other countries who came out to run, and one old man, probably in his seventies, who claimed to have run 335 marathons in his lifetime, averaging about 15 a year (when I asked him how he does it, he replied “Well, I’m retired”).
Though I will likely run again, I doubt if I will ever run a full marathon in Africa again. Accra is the capital closest to coordinates 0-0 on the map, and the equatorial sun was unforgiving, the race, which started at 6:30 was run under unseasonable heat after about 7:30. Furthermore, many of the road upon which we ran were semi-paved, with uneven ground and plenty of potholes. The marathon, which only had about 200 participants, was certainly not big enough to close off roads, and so often we had to run in traffic. They say there two races to every marathon, the first twenty miles and the last six (as I’ve described above, I couldn’t agree more), and for us, the last six miles took us through an open air street market in oceanfront Accra. For the last six dreadful miles, not only did we have to deal with traffic, but also heckling natives, crowded street corners, and vendor carts.
After the race, I talked with a PCV from Mali, he an older man, and though he had only come to support other volunteers for this race, he said he had been a runner all his life, and to have ran many marathons before. As consolation he offered that these were the hardest course conditions he had ever seen for a marathon. So I think, with that in mind, in the future I will search out other races in colder climes, with perhaps a little more race support. He told me of one race in Bordeaux, France where all the water stations are positioned outside of famous wineries, who offer free samples of their finest vintage to runners (along with complimentary cheese and sausage of course). The runners themselves all dress up, some in friar’s outfits, some in tradition French peasant wear, or whatever creative impulse comes to mind. Though he said only a limited number of foreigners are allowed to run each year, I think I might try my luck, and see about running this “race” sometime in the near future. Of course, I wouldn’t harbor any delusions about improving upon my time for this race, but in such cases, competition certainly isn’t everything.
This coming week, I shall be returning to Ghana once again for a very different reason. Emily comes out to begin work on her Fulbright, and we have arranged to stay at a beach resort in Ghana for a few days before she is introduced to her new job here in Togo. When I last crossed over the border, I was nervous and uneasy about the upcoming race. This time the tenor of my visit feels entirely different, and I absolutely elated, and have taken to counting the hours. Even now, with just two days left until I start my voyage, I can’t seem to think of ways to fill up the time. Writing this blog helped, but unfortunately for me and you, the reader, my battery life in dwindling and I will have to bring this entry to a close. Until next time, thanks as always for reading what I have to say.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

C'est Comme Ca

When I last left off, I had written mostly about Camp UNITE. Now I am sitting in my room, writing this blog entry, the Sunday before heading back up country to the Peace Corps training center to be a camp counselor for Camp Espoir.
Sundays are quickly becoming my favorite day for writing blog entries. Everyone is at church, and so I have the entire morning to myself to do as I please. In this regard they feel a little bit like Sundays at home, albeit without the big bacon and eggs Sunday breakfast. Occasionally I have made eggs, though they are a hard find, as they are not available in village (despite my best efforts to promote chicken raising), and transporting eggs, by bicycle, over the five miles of bumpy dirt road from my market to village, can be a tricky task. Still, eggs without the greasy goodness of bacon seem incomplete, and bacon is simply non-existent in this country. The last time I’ve eaten pig of any kind in this country, it was from a bag of picnic bacon sent by a caring and devoted well wisher from the states. To her I am sincerely indebted, and she is all the more dear to me, thanks to the generous and hearty gift.
Fresh bacon, however, is hard to come by in these parts. The people of the south tend not to raise pigs, and though I’ve found no one with a specific food taboo against eating pigs (with the notable exception of course of the entire Muslim community), southerners seem to generally have an aversion to big not shared by their counterparts up north. When I mention how much I enjoy pork, and the various products to be made there from, friends in village look disgusted, and starkly exclaim “Pork is gross, if you eat it, you’ll die”.
While I know that pork is a meat with the potential to make its consumers very sick, and for this reason it has historically been a food tabooed by many cultures, I was very surprised to hear this from a people who will, generally speaking, eat almost any kind of meat. In village, snakes, bush rats, moles and all sorts of rodents found in the field, and even cats and dogs, are considered delicious fair. I know of several volunteers who, upon returning from a vacation out of country to their village, find that their beloved cat or dog, which they had entrusted to the care of a neighbor, has in their absence become that family’s dinner (attachment to pets is not something very well understood in Togolese culture). Meat is a fairly rare item on the menu, and so generally speaking, any meat is good meat.
Interestingly enough, despite this generally open attitude towards a whole plethora of meats that we in the west would generally consider inedible (or at least gross), some Ewe do have very strict food taboos. Though there is no overarching cultural taboo, various clans, villages, and families observe certain dietary restrictions, and if you inquire deeply enough, you’ll normally find an interesting story concerning why this particular group of people refuses to eat a certain animal. One example that our French instructor back in pre-service training gave, was a certain groups taboo against eating bats. Long ago, this group was fleeing from an enemy tribe, and came across a cave along the road. Though they knew that their pursuers would likely scour every inch of land and inspect every available hiding spot, the group was desperate and exhausted, and so decided to take up in a cave along the road. As their pursuers came to the cave, their leader called for a halt, and it was clear that he intended to search the cave. Hope seemed lost for the fleers as their pursuers approached. At the last moment, a flurry of bats spewed out from the mouth of the cave, terrifying the pursuers and forcing their retreat. They assumed that no one could hide in such a cave so infested with swarming bats, and so continued on down the road. Because the bats rescued them, they considered bats to be a friend of the people, and so descendants from this group are forbidden to eat them.
Still, despite the partial truth concerning the dangers of eating pigs, I generally consider my Ewe friend’s aversion to pork to be misguided hyperbole. It also seems like an excuse to point out how gross other groups of people are who do eat pork. Though no one raises pigs down south, up north, they are as common as household guard dogs. I can’t imagine the folks up north would continue the costly practice of pork husbandry if every time they went to eat one, they died (as those with whom I speak in village would have it).
When I tell my objectors how often I enjoy a ham sandwich, or a cut of pork chop back in the states, they roll their eyes saying, “Of course in America you can eat them, but not here. Ici en Afrique, c’est comme ca.” Just look how they will eat anything here, they will add, it’s gross (when I note to them how goats, the local favorite in mammalian fair have exactly the same dietary habits, they are un-phased in their opinion).
This response is the bane of any inquisitive foreigner’s existence. It is the catch-all term to extinguish any further discussion. The interviewed party walks always feeling that it has fully satisfied the curiosity of the inquirer, while the inquirer walks away with no further information gained, only that which, had he not noticed before beginning his inquiry, he likely would have never thought the inquiry necessary in the first place. What is most irritating about this phrase, I suppose, is that though often it used to demonstrate that a foreigner can’t possibly understand the way things work here in Africa, eg. “Perhaps in America AIDS has no cure, but AIDS here in Africa can be cured with the use of traditional medicine, ici en Afrique, c’est comme ca,” just as often it actually is the best response to a given question eg. “Why does it take four hours just to make a withdrawl from the bank?” “Ici en Afrique, c’est comme ca”.
But I digress. Though I seriously doubt the considered option of my comrades in village, I refrain from eating pork due to some combination of: it being hard to find in the south, meat in generally being hard to prepare and store in Africa, fear of the off chance that perhaps “ici en Afrique” it actually is “comme ca”. So no bacon and eggs this morning, although I did have some delicious leftover local beans with taco mix from the states (thank you very much Mom and Dad for the generous care-package).
In general, I don’t buy too much meat for many of the reasons listed above. It is hard to find, hard to store, and expensive. At the market, it is hard to tell the quality of the meat. The only way to be sure that the meat is fresh, is to buy the animal and kill it yourself. Then you no only have to kill the animal, but skin it, prepare it, and find a use for all the little bits. When choosing to by “in detail” instead, getting the meat home without spilling meat juice all over your bag and everything else you bought at market that day is another chore. Many of the recipes I know of call for chicken breast, in order to obtain a chicken breast; you must buy an entire chicken. Chicken in particular are considerably smaller than our corn fed birds back home, so no matter what portion you buy, you’ll not get much meat, and since all animals here are free range, the meat is thinner and chewier than what we are used to back home. Finally, the local recipes which, unlike my American ones, are actually catered to the meat available in West Africa, aren’t terribly appealing. The standard recipe involves taking all edible parts, boiling them in water, and then adding them to whatever sauce will go with you fufu or pâte (the staple foods described in a previous entry). In general, I find meat here to be more trouble than its worth (considering your mostly buying bones anyway, which is not always a bad investment considering how few other sources of calcium are available), and too expensive (the 1000 F CFA that will get you a whole chicken could just as easily have fed you for a week on a diet of rice, beans, pâte and peanut sauce). So in general, the bulk of my protein intake comes from sources other than meat.
So tomorrow I’m going to Camp Espoir. Speaking of comestibles, a trip to the Peace Corps training center is always a treat because of the abundance of food there. The Peace Corps chefs, who are well versed in both European and African cuisine, work around the clock to ensure that all staying at the center are kept full and satisfied. Each trip I’ve made to the center, I and my fellow volunteers have done the pre and post stay weigh in at the scale which (I believe in jest) is found in the mess hall. The only time I have failed to gain a considerable amount was my week with Camp UNITE where I dined with adolescent boys (apparently it is a cross-cultural trait of boys 13-20 that they can eat), who actually ate enough to leave the kitchen staff wondering where their usually abundant supply of leftovers and second courses went, while the boys themselves clamoured for more. On this particular week, I actually managed to shed a few pounds at camp. I’m hoping that this week with Espoir, which caters to a generally smaller age group, will prove more plentiful for us counselors.
Weeks at the training center are one of the rare opportunities to find good, well prepared meat. However, given the centers location in the central region of the country, where there is a substantial Fulani population, it is often better to maintain more vegetarian habits to enjoy the African delicacy wagash. The Fulani are a migratory group of cattle keeps originally from Nigera. Wagash is their cheese, which is most similar though not entirely like mozzarella cheese. Often it is deep fried, but prepared anyway it is always delicious. The only thing rarer than a good serving of meat down in the south is one of cheese, and so often I am won over by the vegetarian options up at camp, the protein in which is normally the locally abundant wagash.
Food aside, I am truly looking forward to camp, although I believe I have described the camp itself in some detail in my last entry. It will be interesting to see how it measures up to the academic and very goal oriented Camp UNITE. I’m told this camp is generally more fun for the campers, but since we counselors deal with a much younger age group, it can also be more work for the counselors. Whereas at UNITE it sufficed to tell your campers to meet at the cafeteria at dinner time (as if those boys would miss a meal), at Espoir counselors often have to adopt the primary school method of head counts, and lining up signal file to march to the mess hall together. The potentially more juvenile concerns also include bed wettings and homesickness. Nonetheless it should be an interesting camp. At least this time, instead of the sensitive topic of sexual health and reproduction, I was charged with the more neutral topic of hygene and health. Far fewer would object to instructing children on proper hand washing techniques than they would proper uses of contraceptives. I would love to go on, but as always, my battery-life will not permit. Ici en Afrique, c’est comme ca.

Summer Camp

It has admittedly been a long time since my last entry. My apologies. These past two months have been without a doubt the busiest of my service to date. When I last left off I had just come back from a VAC (Volunteer Advisory Counsel) meeting, one representative from each region is given a forum to voice concerns, comments, and ideas on behalf of the volunteers in their region to PC Administration. Since then, I have been to two trainings for Peace Corps Summer Camps, one Camp itself, have published a magazine and somehow managed to start several projects in village at the same time. I’ll start with the camps.
The first camp for which I was already a counselor was Camp UNITE. The camp was started several years back by Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) working with the Associated Peace Corp Director (APCD) in charge of the PC: Girls Education and Empowerment (GEE we have many Peace Corps Acronyms (PCAs)). The camp was originally a life-skills camp camp for girls, but has since expanded to include school aged boys and girls who are either enrolled in CEG or Lycee (the french educational systems equivalent to middle and high school) or doing an apprenticeship (which would be analogous to a trade school in the states). For those of you who, like I was when I first arrived in country, are not exactly sure what all is included under the title of “life-skills”, think all those things you learned in school but weren’t aware you were learning, topics range from self-confidence to budgeting to sexual health. Each year, PCVs elect motivated students and apprentices from their communities who they feel would profit from a week of life-skills education. The applicants are then examined by the organizers of the camp, which is a mix of PCVs and host country nationals (HCNs). The result is that the participants are truly a mix of students, from all over the country, with all sorts of different background and experience. Because they are chosen from PCV’s communities, many are village students who have never before left home, while others are more cosmopolitan city dwellers. This approach allows the camp to reach children who normally go unnoticed by similar programs run by non-government organizations (NGOs) based in the big cities. Effectively, the camp works because of PCV’s involvement in the life of their host communities.
Over the course of my service I have come to truly admire this aspect of Peace Corps approach to development. What we lack in funding for project, expertise of personnel, permanence and stability in organization, the list could go on, we absolutely make up for by truly knowing the people with whom we work. We are literally the only organization that “walks among the locals”. In talking with other NGO workers, I am at times astonished to learn that some can’t even great someone in French, nevermind in a local language. Truly this is a something small, though I can’t tell you how many time’s just saying an Ewe greeting has broken through the awkward tension at the beginning of a meeting, and put my on the side of the community in their own eyes. All the same this small example is demonstrative of a larger problem in development work. How can you possible hope to be successful, working amongst a people whom you don’t even begin to understand? As an enthusiastic student of Anthropology, I applaud Peace Corps for this approach (though of course for the anthropologist two years in the field is a bare minimum (something of a rite of passage) to commence scholarly work and claim any sort of cultural understanding).
The camp itself was exhausting. I was a counselor for the apprentice boys. These are boys who, for whatever could not continue their studies in school and instead decided to follow a trade. Common trades in Togo include carpentry, masonry, tailoring, metalwork, and auto-repair. The age of the boys ranged from around 12 to mid-20s. Though it is frequently the case I am always surprised to learn that the people I am teaching (and in the case of UNITE was responsible over) are actually older than I. This is at times difficult because respect and age are very closely linked. While we in America are taught to respect your elders, here in Togo the hierarchy is more extreme. Younger people are often expected to perform services for their elders, such as running into town to fetch goods. More than once I have seen teachers pull a passing adolescent (who may be completely unaffiliated with the school) and tell him to erase the blackboard. More frustrating, from my perspective, is that when your elder says something, he is not to be contradicted by someone younger, even if what he is saying is blatantly wrong. Formations in which I enlist the help of a counterpart can therefore sometimes be frustrating. To cope with this disadvantage caused by my youth, I have learned to make as little mention as possible of my age (leaving Togolese in the dark as to my age normally works to my advantage since generally speaking they are very poor judges of white peoples age, if I keep silent, it is often assumed that I am well into my 40s with several grown children who, they assume, must now be approaching my actual age).
Fortunately for me as well, the rules are much less strict concerning white people. Unfortunately this is not always just a matter of HCNs being lenient for someone whom they know comes from a different culture and was raise with a different set of norms. More accurately, it seems at times that whiteness is a trump card. Though I may only be 23, have never lived or worked in a rural farming village before, and have no expertise in tropical agriculture, I am white, and so, very often people will simply listen to me. Like I said, this often works to my advantage. I often think that if I were constrained to the same rules as a Togolese 23 year old man (who, depending on whether or not he has any children, is often treated like a large adolescent) work would simply be impossible.
Of course, every situation is more nuanced than it first appears, and most stereotypes are based in some truth. Often the people with whom I work simply should listen to me. Frankly, my education and life experience have afforded my skills and knowledge that villagers simply don’t possess. To take an extreme example, I one day set out to disprove to an elderly woman that tuberculosis (TB) was caused by infidelity. She believed what may seem to us like backward superstition, because in lieu of any formal education that distinguished between bacterial infections and other aspects of human life, she drew a conclusion based on commonly held beliefs, likely based on some observed cause and effect relation. Often this seems at first glance like mere foolishness, but it is important to remember that even we Americans, in our high age of medical advancement, have some commonly held beliefs that simply aren’t true. Being in the cold, for example, has nothing to do with catching a cold, and once you’ve caught one, your campbell’s chicken noodle soup will in all likelihood fail to remedy your illness.
In arguing such cases with the Togolese, I’ve often come to the conclusion that your average American can offer no more proof that his view on infectious diseases is valid than a can Togolese person of his. We take at face value our accepted medical knowledge (I’ve personally never seen an airborne bacteria infect a lung), just as a Togolese takes his. Of course, we can always point out that TB is totally (or at least largely) eradicated in the US, while it, and many other totally preventable diseases, still run rampant in places like Togo and all over the developing world. Of course to blame this solely on a poor understand of disease transmission would be a hit below the belt to a people who already have enough going against them as is. The point is, at some point we simply take our medical professionals at their word. The average Togolese forms his opinions about health and medication in much the same process, taking for granted established belief, in much the same manner.
But I digress. Though camp was exhausting, it was also extremely rewarding. As a fellow PCV pointed out to me, Camp UNITE provided some of the most immediately satisfying moments in Peace Corps. Normally, when you are in village, you give a formation, explain things the best you can, give it you’re all, and walk away hoping anything you said stuck. At camp, because you are with the kids all week, you can see them during the formations, witness the momentary confusion afterwards, talk through it in small discussion groups, and actually witness the exact “a-ha” moment when it becomes clear that they actually get it.
All counselors are required to give at least one, but probably two formations during the camp. Lucky me, I was chosen as honorary sex ed teacher, and given the formations on adolescence and sexual health. In my talk I got to cover the gamut of subjects ranging from the biological reproductive system to masturbation (a concept which is very poorly understood out here). Unlike the American education system, which has at least one class a year for students from the time they are 11 until graduation from high school for sexual health, the Togo often have no sexual education whatsoever. This means that I had two one hour fifteen minute sessions to explain as best I could, the highlight reel of sexual health. Mostly, the end goal was to get the participants thinking more about the negative consequences of unprotected sex.
My role as sex ed instructor offered an interesting opportunity to see such a class from the other perspective. Through elementary and high school, I often found myself resentful of the way teachers used scare tactics and exaggerated the dangers of sex. I distinctly remember the efficacy rate of condom usage rising from about a 30% failure rate to prevent disease and unwanted pregnancy in 6th grade, to a 99% success rate by senior year of high school (I highly doubt the medical community made such profound breakthroughs in latex technology is so short a time). However, in looking at the problem from the other side, I totally understand the use of such tactics. I was teaching kids, many of whom were hearing this information for the first time, and only had an hour to drive my points home. Sure, in truth, the rhythm method to prevent pregnancy is actually fairly effective, but would you trust young kids to be able to follow the method, do I have time explain the method correctly, do I want to give them any excuse, given that early sexual experience with many partners is totally standard here, to think unprotected sex is a safe practice. Furthermore, what if through some misunderstanding, I lead a kid into believing he’s practicing safe methods, and he contracts a life threatening STDs. I’m not at all saying that I endorse the “scare tactics” method of sex ed, but after having tried to teach it a bit myself, I do understand why people use it.
All in all, camp was a great experience, and I am now looking forward to my next camp, Camp Espoir, happening the last week in July. Camp Espoir is entirely different from Camp UNITE. While UNITE is a life skills camp from students, which focuses almost entirely on education, Camp Espoir is designed to give children who have been affected by HIV/AIDS (some participants actually have the disease, others have sick family members, or have been left orphaned because of it, they are known in French as orphelin et enfant vulnerable or OET), an opportunity to have a fun week, almost as though they were attending a summer camp in the states. While there are still educational formations at this camp, the focus is much less on education and much more on the camp song, games, and just generally having a fun week. It should be a fun week.
Though battery life is forcing me to cut this entry short, I will say that for those of you interesting in what you can do from the states to support these camps and the efforts of the Peace Corps in general, a bunch of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) have recently formed the UNITE Foundation. The Foundation is a non-profit aimed at raising money to fund Camp UNITE (available funding for these camps is always in question and hopefully the fund will soon provide a much more stable source of money). If I had internet I would find contact information, but since internet likely much more available for you guys back home, I would encourage you to try a google search for the UNITE Foundation. Anyway that’s all I’ve got for now. More updates to come soon.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sandwiches, Evangelism, and Drought

It is now just under two weeks since my return to Togo from my short, but pleasant, interlude in the states. What stood out to me most from my time spend back home was just how much of everything there was, especially food. We really don’t want for anything.
What also surprised me was how quickly one can adapt to that lifestyle. As it was my vacation, and likely my last chance to savor all the good things American cuisine has to offer, I did not hold back. Much to my surprise, what had been a feeling of fullness to the point of constant discomfort, in my first few days back, rather quickly gave way to a ravenous appetite. In a mere 11 full days in America, I proudly returned to Africa 10 pounds heavier than when I left (I blame at least the last three pounds to KF(G??)C’s satire of a “sandwich”, the “double-down”.
For those not familiar with this monstrosity, KFC undertaken the daunting task of taken excess in the American diet to new heights by introducing a bold new bacon sandwich that employs fried chicken in the place where more modest sandwich’s would have settled for bread. I have my true and trusted friends Will and Pete, who I’m sure had the best of intention in mind when buying me this bag-o-heart disease, to blame for my exposure to this new low in American fast-food. They showed up at my door minutes before my departure from Long Valley, KFC bag in hand, which was already completely translucent and dripping, so chock-full of grease were these sandwiches. Of there discretion in giving me this “most American of sandwiches”, as I said, I’m sure my friends had the best of intentions.
This parody of itself aside, in my opinion, the chief strength of food in America is that Americans feel no allegiance to any one kind of cuisine but rather they proudly integrate and mix cuisine from other places and cultures, thus making the variety virtually endless. I only truly felt this variety when comparing such variety with Togolese cuisine, in which your choices consist primarily of pâte (essentially corn flour dough) or fufu (pounded yams) and a slight variety in accompanying sauces. Contrary to the American spirit of adventure and variety in dietary pursuits, many Togolese hold the firm conviction that three days without fufu would literally be the death of them. To everyone’s favorite question (or rather demand) “You will take me to America,” my new favorite response is something along the lines of “You know, there don’t have fufu in America”, to which many have responded “I’ll just have to bring my own” (betraying a complete ignorance of the Airlines’ ever strictening baggage policy), but none have every responded “If that’s the way it is, I’ll sacrifice my fufu for an opportunity to make my way in the world’s most economically powerful nation”, hence why its my new favorite response.
In polite company here in the states, no one would dare mention that, in the two weeks since our last meeting you’ve put on weight at a nearly miraculous rate. Not so here in village. Of everyone I’ve talked to in the past weeks, no one has failed to mention how I’ve come back from America in much “better form” (rounder) than when I left. To this they also comment how much handsomer (paler) my skin has become in the less harsh northern sun. It is funny looking at how different cultural conceptions of beauty can be. It is also sad that in Africa, where 100% of the natives have black skin, light skin is seen as beautiful. I have heard other volunteers argue that it is simply a fact that you always want what you don’t have. Whatever is common among people is deemed less value that physical traits that are rare. This may have some truth, but I can’t help but think that five hundred years of culture hegemony by Europeans, in which those which lighter skin were richer, more powerful, more successful, and freer (less enslaved) than those with darker skin, has something to do with present African conceptions of beauty. This trend continues, and is perpetuated today. Minister’s, successful businessmen, and generally any man with money and power inevitably has a light skinned African woman on his arm as well, and there are no shortage of soaps, washes, creams, and traditional herbal remedies promising lighter skin (one can only imagine the harmful damage done to skin cells in order for one of these treatments to actually work). Though not nearly as common as the question “Take me to America,” I have on occasion been asked if I was born with white skin. To which the follow up inevitably is “How can I make my skin like yours?”
In other news, the reason I am taking this opportunity to write to this blog is that it affords me a reasonable excuse to remain in my compound and avoid church services. These past couple days have been the weekend of “Evanglisation au village”. A native of Lonvo, who has since moved out to Lomé a made a success of himself in the vague domain of “business” (this is the response of nearly all Togolese (peasant farmers aside) when you ask them their profession), has apparently decided that the best way he can give back to his community of birth is to fund a huge event in order to spread the word of Christ. Aside from the fact that their efforts evangelize have included blaring African church music full blast in the school yard not fifty yards for what is approaching 72 hours straight, I have mixed feelings about evangelization in Africa, my feelings about the blaring music being singularly negative. There is just something about evangelism in African that just seems so unwholesome. Telling the poor destitute people of the world not to worry about the miseries of this life and to look forward to the afterlife seems like a hell of risky gamble to be pushing. What about trying to make this life better? I can’t help but think that maybe the money put towards this weekend of proselytizing would have been better spend funding public middle school, which is desperately lacking here in village. On the other hand, perhaps I’m underestimating the real comfort people find in religion, the real solace that helps people carry on with their every day life, simply because I personally find no comfort therein.
However, I attended the opening ceremonies, Friday night. As much because it was a rare opportunity to see the whole community engaged in one activity, (singing, dancing, and praying) as because I was curious to see just what these evangelists were up to (plus here in village, you take any sort of “night on the town” you can get). One member of the evangelist group was kind enough to offer a translation free of charge. The content of the sermons (given by various preachers) was not at all related to biblical teachings. Rather it was merely a repeated call to “walk with Jesus” with the assurance that your life with instantly be the better (in what seemed like a very real, material sense) for it. It reminded me of the gospel of success televangelism of the states.
Evangelism of this nature is, in the states, big business, so I was naturally inclined to look for the profit to be had by evangelizing here in village. Alas there is none to be found, at least none that I, from my limited perspective of irreligious outsider, can find. These people have come in, bringing with them a stage, advanced P/A system, generators, lights, and a whole mirade of preachers, upon the whim of a benevolent benefactor, who is himself an active member of the church, at no cost to the village. I’d have to think that if profit were their main motive, they’d look for an audience a little higher-up the economic scale than an impoverished village of less than 1000 inhabitants.
What’s more, in casually talking to both the financer of this event, and the various participants throughout the weekend (preachers, musicians, electricians, friendly supporters come in from Lomé) they all seems to be genuinely into it, and exceedingly nice people on top of that.
Given the nature of this evangelization, which seems to consist in music, day and night, with sermon’s only in the evenings (which are themselves interspaced with frequent musical interludes, including dancing), I sometimes think that the benevolent village native’s main goal was just to give the inhabitants of his native town a big party. That sentiment I can relate to a little more easily. Perhaps this money could have been directed towards funding a school, but everyone in the international development community knows that dumping money on a development problem is the least effective way to fix it. Sure he could build a school, but how involved in this project could he really be? After building the school, who will maintain it? Who will teach in it? Who will make sure each student is adequately supplied? Who will ensure that villagers have adequate funding to pay for school fees (still an issue even in public schools)? There is much more involved in building a school than meets the eye.
On the other hand, these people deserve a party. Life is fairly monotonous here. Music is seldom heard, and large social gatherings are few and far between (unless someone has died, funerals are all around a high price to pay for a social life). The rains are already two months late in coming; people are beginning to worry about crop failure. There is, in the south, two rainy seasons a year in which to grow food. The first, larger one has already almost completely passed by with no rain. In many ways a weekend to sing, dance, rejoice in the mysteries of life neither they, nor anyone understands, and generally forget about the day to day worries, might be just what they need (short of two months of constant rainfall). And so, while wholly convinced of the benevolence of those who have organized this weekend, my jury is still out on the final judgment of evangelism in Africa.
To touch lightly again on the lack of rain, a subject of such grave importance to those among whom I’m living that I feel it deserves slightly more attention in my blog, there is generally a feeling a solemn apprehension in the village. It seems everyone is on edge, and excited to talk about how the rain has not come this year. Unanimous reports from various villagers forecast famine if the rains refuse to come much longer. I don’t know if this is hyperbole or not, but it seems to me that food shortages will be a serious problem if this growing season goes to waste. People generally only save what they need to eat. What grain does get stored generally goes to financing agricultural inputs for the next growing season, fertilizers, pesticides, etc., or getting families through the already long periods of the year in which they are not harvesting anything. The rains do seem to have come to other regions of Togo, and so it is not as if there will be no food to be found anywhere. But in a subsistence agricultural economy, I doubt that most families can afford to pay for the majority of their food. Currently most of what they eat is grown themselves, save the occasional fish or tomato paste added to sauce. Each day, I hope the rain will come, nearly every day it looks as if it will, but so far the rain clouds have either passed over us, or given us a light sprinkling, “just a taste” as the locals say, not nearly enough to quench the severely parched earth.
I have heard various explanations for why the rain is so late in coming this year. By far the most interesting was an account by a friend of mine at market this week. He explained that a group animists had recently killed a vagrant sleeping in a local church, and used her in their religious ceremony. The perpetrators of this crime, he explained, had since been captured, and was thankfully rotting in the prison several miles to the south, but the authorities had not yet performed the necessary ceremonies to appease the spirits for this atrocity. He wished they would hurry up with this ceremony, scheduled to take place any day now, so that the spirits would cease to be angry and the spirits would come. I have no idea if this story actually happened, and if so if they will actually be performing an appeasement ceremony, but if it will help the rains come I certainly hope they hurry up and get it done. Dying battery forces me to wrap it up here, more to come next time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Celebration au Village

This weekend is the induction ceremony for the local chief of my village. Therefore, everyone is busy preparing for the festivities. Last Tuesday we spent the morning constructing a roofing to house all the guests the day of the ceremony. Whereas in the states, if you are having a large function, you would rent a party tent, here in Africa, you simply build one. This is done by finding small trees/shoot of bamboo, placing them securely into freshly dug holes in the ground, and then laying other branches across them from one to the other to provide a frame for the roof. Then the frame is covered with palm branches to provide shade for everyone below. This may seem like a lot of work, but this is done for literally every social event, and since I’ve been here, I’ve not seen a weekend pass without a social event of some kind (unfortunately the vast majority of these have been funerals, death seems to be a very common fact of life among villagers). Furthermore, these coverings are absolutely necessary, as the heat of the African sun would entirely prevent large social gatherings otherwise.
This is especially true because of the Togolese love for dressing up. The Togolese take extreme pride in the way they dress, and how one dresses here speaks way more about a person than it would in the states. Of course, in the United States, one here’s adages such as “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” and college career centers spend inordinate amounts of time just trying to convey the importance of looking good for a job interview, but such meticulous attention to appearance in largely confined to professional realm and gaining admittance to fancy restaurants. Here in Togo, dressing well is a sign of respect for whatever it is that you are attending, and so wherever you go, people must try to look their best. Furthermore, how you dress is corresponds more directly to how you can afford to dress. Whereas our egalitarian ethic in the US tends to discourage showy dress (and truthfully most people couldn’t tell the difference between a $40 pair of slack and one costing $300), here in Togo, if you can afford to wear it, you do, as an outward symbol of your status within a community. As such people in my village dress themselves up in their Sunday best to go to market. Not only is this the equivalent of getting dressed up to go to Walmart (of course there is that, now famous, woman who wrote into her local newspaper that her favorite part about shopping at the dollar store was that she didn’t have to get all fancied up like she was shopping at Walmart… but I think we can safely discount her as the except to the rule in America) but many people walk the 7k to market, carrying their goods to sell on their head. All this is to say, at a social event you need a covering to prevent people from piting out their party clothes (unless of course your me, in which case you pit out everything you wear, no matter what your doing, simply by virtue of the fact that it is constantly hot as hell).
Fortunately, African dress tends not only to be much more accommodating to the heat than western formal wear, it is also much more fun to wear. Formal Togolese dress (I believe this holds true for most of West Africa as well) centers around a fabric called pangya (I have no idea if that’s spelled correctly), which is a colorful cotton fabric interlayed with bright designs and patterns. From this tailors make both mens and womens cloths. Pangya is sold sets of three sheets, for women this is used to make a top a skirt and and the third goes to either a head-wrap, can be left as an accessory to wrap around themselves (in case it gets cold??), or can be used (as it normally is) as a means to carry their baby upon their back. Because women must both do manual work, and take care of their children, this is the standard way to carry small children. You simply put the baby on your back, piggyback style, then wrap the sheet around the baby and yourself, and tie it off in the front. The baby fits snugly to you back, normally it will just go to sleep, and you can continue your work as though completely unhindered.
For men, the three sheets become either shorts or pants (long shorts seem to be an acceptable form of formal dress), and a loose fitting shirt that can either be buttoned up in a more western style, or slid into overhead in a more traditional African style. Sometimes men will make little hats with the third piece, or just forgo that piece altogether. Suffice it to say this weekend everyone in village and I will “nous mettons sur notre 31”, a French saying meaning literally I will wear my 31, but which is analogous to saying in English (and makes about as much as saying) “dress to the nines” (if anyone understands the origin of either of these phrases please feel free to enlighten me, I get the feeling they have to do with evening dresses and the end of the month, but that’s about it).
Anyway, in my last post I left off at about 8 oclock in my daily routine. Perhaps this is in part because from here my day becomes much less routine. If there are meetings with various farmers groups, I will attend them. At these meetings I offer what little advice I can when I see fit, although normally I find the usefulness of attending these meetings is much more to help me untangle exactly how peasant farming, cooperative agricultural endevours, and village life generally operates. Eventually, I think I will understand my village well enough to take a more active role, but as generations of Peace Corps Volunteers before me have advised, in a new village (that is a village that has never before hosted a volunteer) the first few months are just about learning about the place and letting them learn about you. Thus the majority of my day is taken up with various different activities, that range from just sitting around with the ladies who sell food by the street, to wandering around the village until I find someone working on something (rethatching their roof, chopping firewood, building a clay cookstove etc) and trying to help them, or just taking impromptu trips to the fields surrounding the village. While I can’t say that I have a set routine for the middle of the day, as the village is fairly small (only a few hundred people) there is a fairly common cast of characters whom I meet everyday.
First there is the old lady who lives behind my house. Every morning when I go to fetch water she stops me to greet me, and every time when I get the greeting right (and even when I don’t) she becomes consumed in laughter. She then questions me in Ewe until I’ve guessed the right responses or someone comes along and tells me the right things to say. Next there are the small children, who will often gather outside my door in between class at the local elementary school. After much conditioning, I’ve finally managed to stop them from singing the “Yovo Song”. The “Yovo Song” is a little ditty known by literally every man woman and child in Togo (I have no idea how they all know exactly the same lines). It is annoying enough to fill even the most patient, child-loving, white person’s heart with contempt. All the same Togolese parents seem to encourage their children to sing it (I think they think its cute), and as such when the children actually see a Yovo, they will follow him for hours on end chanting the ditty: “Yovo Yovo bon soir (this regardless of what time of day it is), ca va bien, merci!” over and over again. As I’ve described before the word Yovo although racial in nature, has no specifically derogatory significance and the Togolese, who are much less sensitive to sweepingly general labels than Americans (who, due in large part to our checkered racial history, are at time all too sensitive to such things), will use the terms simply as a way of addressing a white person. Yet all the same, to the ever sensitive American ear, it tends to be received as offensive (or at least unfair, as whether it is intended or not there are certain assumptions that come along with the title: the person is rich/should buy things for people/doesn’t know the right price of an item and so is easy to rip off etc). That coupled with the song following you around day in and day out is enough to drive you crazy.
And so, fortunately the children in my village, by and large, no longer sing the “Yovo Song”. Instead they demand high-fives, an American greeting which I attempted to teach them, but on which I think I missed the mark, now whenever they see me the goal is to collect as many high-fives from the Yovo as possible. They will also run around shouting “tortilla”, as I once made a batch of tortilla’s and brought them out to share with people outside my house, and apparently they were a big hit amongst 5-10 age bracket.
Possibly my favorite character whom I see on a daily basis is the little girl who will run all the way home every time she sees me. It has been almost every day going on three months now, this little girl, probably around 4 years old, will be going about her business, walking to the food vendors, playing in the sand, carrying water, etc. The minute she sees me, she drops everything and runs all the way home, no matter how far away home happens to be. I’ve watched her run at a dead sprint hundreds of yards through windy village paths. Now it is not at all uncommon for children to be afraid of the white man. In many cases I’m the first white person they’ve ever seen, and they just don’t understand it, so they get scared. Kids hide, babies cry, I’m used to it, and take no offense. But by now most of the children have warmed up to me, or at least gotten over their fear. Not this girl. I don’t know anything else about this girl, as every time I’m within eyesight of her she runs away, but I do give a heartfelt chuckle every time I see her bolting towards home at full speed, terror in her eyes.
Next I normally run into the old lady who always makes me dance. This lady is the typical, “I’m old enough to do whatever I feel like doing” type. She is outspoken, and given to doing odd things at odd times (like trying to make the Yovo dance in the middle of a meething). Fortunately for her, the elderly are highly respected and it seems that her eccentric character is not only tolerated but looked kindly upon. I for one think she is hilarious. The dancing thing started when I made the mistake of trying to dance like a Togolese at one of the funeral ceremonies. The whole village cracked up, and now I get invited to events just to be seen dancing. I have no idea if they laugh because they think its funny seeing a white person doing their traditional dances, or if its because I’m just so awful at their dance that they can’t contain themselves (I suspect the latter), but either way, the villagers love to see me dance.
This old woman in particular will try to make me dance every time she sees me. The first time she tried it I, feeling no particular urge to cause a Yovo dancing scene in the middle of village, told her that I couldn’t dance because there was no music. She shook her head, looking slightly defeated for a moment. Then an idea came into her head. She started singing “dancer, dancerdancer, dancer!” and dancing. At this point, I figured if she was this determined, there was probably no getting out of it, and so I started dancing with her. From then on every time I see her, she pulls me over and starts dancing.
I’ve noticed that there are a lot of children and a lot of old people in village. Children are everywhere, yet their presence is easy to explain, people in village have a lot of children. There is limited access to birth control, and in general, children are viewed as much as an asset as they are a cost. In developed countries, children mean another mouth to feed (and one who legally can’t even begin to contribute to the families income for the first 16 years of his/her life), school fees, toys, activities. In contrast, in the developing world, children are another pair of hands to fetch water, do farm labor, look after the other children, etc. In addition a high infant mortality rate means that if you want to have three children, you should plan on having six babies. Furthermore, since children are viewed more as a potential source of labor than a largely useless cost (or at least a very long term investment), the world of children is much less distinctly separate from the adult world. Children do similar work to adults, they eat from the same bowls etc.
The presence of so many elderly was at first slightly more puzzling to me. Part of it is surely, as I’ve touched upon, the fact that the elderly tend to take a much more active role in society here than in the States. There is certainly enough commentary in the States that critique how, through institutions like nursing homes, we separate out our elderly, keeping them out of sight and out of mind. Still, one would think that with the lower life expectancies found in the developing world that you would see less old people. However, I’m beginning to think that this actually works in reverse. The life expectancy rate is so slow because so many people in the developing world die in their youth or in their prime. As I think I’ve said it prior posts, I’ve been to more funerals here in two months than I have in my whole life before coming. Often the deceased are sick, or else they die suddenly from undisclosed causes. Largely they are middle aged. In such an environment selection pressures would seem to pick out those less fit to resist disease, and the hazards of everyday life. Thus those who do make it to their old age, are really really good at living. I’ve noticed that it is not terribly uncommon for village elderly to reach 100 years. Furthermore, although the nursing home culture in the states often unjustly works to keep the elderly out of sight out of mind, often the elderly in the States are no longer able to take care of themselves. This does not appear to be so here in
Togo, even those approaching 100 go out to the fields, carry water on their heads, and at least seem as fit as a 25 year old. So proportionately, the elderly are as numerous as the middle aged, since it is largely from the young and middle aged populations that people are taken. Then due in part to their sheer talent for living, and perhaps as well from their active lifestyle (not active in the western sense of running 5 miles every morning, but active in the peasant farmer sense of working from dawn till dusk every day trying to eek out a living from the land), they age incredibly well, and so are very active even until their final days.
Of course this is a completely pseudoscientific theory, lacking any statistical or even scientifically sound evidence to support it. It’s simply a guess based on my observations here in village.
Anyway its getting to be that time when my battery life is once again dwindling, and so until next time, perhaps I can actually finish describing a day in the life of a peace corps volunteer.