20 September 2009

Bumper cars in Lome

Birthday treat!

Things you don’t see every day... but I do # 4-7

4. Women with baby feet growing out of their hips

5. Lizards with orange and yellow tipped tails

6. Vans with loads twice as big as the van

7. Monkey stow-aways

Voyage-ing in Togo

18 September 2009

Well, I will call the moto guy, just as soon as I figure out how to get my bag out from under the goat on the roof.

--From a text I sent a few days ago

On my way from Sokode to Atakpame this week, I fell victim to the ridiculous hilarity which always ensues in countries with one paved road and lots of bridges. A bridge approximately the length of my prone body has broken to bits due the the river rising, etc.
So cars, taxis, bush taxis, 14-wheelers, semis, fuel trucks... are all diverted onto a little barely-two-lane dirt road. Very scenic. If by scene you mean an unchanging vista of semi-trucks lined up on the side of the road waiting for nightfall when they can pass because passenger vehicles (thankfully) generally get ot go first. We lurch along the road for a while, admiring the view of course. Stops and starts are common, so I wasn't too alarmed by our pause until the driver told us to get out and walk.
We were 8 km from the diversion off the Route Nationale and a good 10 km to the nearest town. It was at this point that I realized I really should have filled my water bottle before leaving. We trudged over the torn-up road, a couple of women laughing and saying things like “Look, we are the same, white and black both have to walk.” I responded cheerily with some egalitarian sweet nothings and reached to hold a little kid's hand.
Awww... until the kid screamed at discovering the white girl was holding his hand. Oh well. Our little journey took us in sight of the problem: a truck fallen over blocking half the road. A couple men were unpacking the truck in a very orderly way – workers or free-loaders, I have no idea.
A few cars got past the truck and I ran back to our taxi just in time to swing in and ride around the obstacle. You know how on a good rollercoaster there's always this huge seemingly insurmountable ascent where your neck starts to hurt from holding your head up and then a scary but very short teaser descent that leads into a nice little lull and then you turn a corner and are plummeted 30 yards straight down?
That was how my stomach felt when we rounded the fallen truck and saw the real problem – a huge truck loaded with wood fallen to the right, a second truck loaded with ignames fallen to the left with no room through the middle and muddy impassable guck on both sides.
Hmm. This is gonna take a while. So I dialed my Karren Waid girls' scholarship coordinators... and nothing. I had absolutely no reception, no food, no water, and no chance of getting out of there in less than three hours. It was almost noon, the hottest part of the day. I was no longer very cheery. I stomped back to the taxi, looking for a moto and my bags. Every moto I saw was occupied – smarter, more savvy travelers than myself, and my bag was nowhere to be found. I heard a bleating from the roof and looked up in dismay. My bag must have been sandwiched between the huge bags of charcoal and the goat on the roof. With my chaffeur and his assistant being good citizens off helping to direct traffic and clear the road, there would be no chance of a quick getaway by moto.
So I resigned myself to my fate and decided to go watch the fun. It was like a circus: a soldier/engineer as the master of ceremonies, the endless stream of ignames falling out of the truck like a bevy of clowns, the shouting, gesticulating truck drivers jockeying for position like dancing bears, and of course the elegant gymnastics of the hunt for escaped chickens. Finally the strongman made his appearance: a huge tractor to push the trucks out of the way. And we escaped.
I missed my meeting, but I learned an important lesson in humiliation by being defeated by a goat.

10 September 2009

Things you don’t see every day... but I do # 1-3

Things you don’t see every day... but I do # 1-3

People cleaning out their ears with car keys

Girls hiking up their skirts to pee in the ditch on the side of the road

Baby goats

05 September 2009

My Birthday’s coming up!

My Birthday’s coming up!
If you’re going to send me a gift, you probably already have, so this note is late but for future reference...

I have figured out where to get pretty much everything I want and need (and how to easily do without stuff), so the only stuff would be luxuries:

Lush solid shampoos (any flavour)
Lush solid conditioner – the last chunk that S sent me (thank you again!) has garnered so many exclamations of “You smell soooo good!” that I need to get more :)
And, as always... can never have too many rechargeable AAA batteries

or gifts/fun stuff to give to kids in village or at Camp UNITE:
coloring books
cool yarn


04 September 2009

On crossing borders

On crossing borders

Yesterday, I smuggled an empty gas bottle over the border so I could exchange it for a full one. Well, technically I didn’t do the smuggling, I paid someone to do it. As L put it: “When you know a guy who know a guy who can get you what you need in under 24 hours.. you are definitely bien intégrée.” Although I didn’t cross the border myself, I did have to dodge semi-trucks and zemijohns (moto taxis) across a four-lane busy stretch of the Route Nationale, carrying my gas bottle to et it to my “contact.” I felt pretty cool. Even more than cool, I felt relieved. Huzzah I can cook again!
Because it’s the petite dry season, there isn’t a lot of coal or wood available for cookfires so more people are using up gas, but businesses here aren’t terribly good at predicting market fluctuations – even in the face of decades of experience that August will always have higher demand. I boiled my water with coal for 3 days trying to find someone who could replace my tank. As an aside, let me just say that smoked turkey, smoky cheddar, etc. are all lovely, Smoked oatmeal on the other hand is just nasty. The taste of my smoky boiled water for three days finally drove me to the above-described smuggling.
Although I personally didn’t carry the bottle over the Western border to Ghana, I did cross the Eastern border recently. On the 22nd, just after the swear-in of the new CHAP and SED training group, I headed over to Grand PoPo in Benin under orders from A, a CHAPer who just finished her service. It was H, A, N, A, N, A and myself of course. (Hmm that list is incomprehensible in initials.) Grand PoPo was gorgeous and so relaxed. It was exactly what I needed after 3 weeks of camp and a stressful week in Lomé doing scholarship administration, saying goodbyes and hellos. We lay on the beach, played in the sometimes frighteningly strong waves and drank alcoholic beverages out of coconuts in a clean little hotel filled not only with reggae music but also with murals of Rastafarian greats and their philosophies.
It was blissful and put me on good footing for getting back into the village groove.

03 September 2009


In the last week of camp the trainers themselves staged an insurrection, a very polite one, well, perhaps an intervention. We’d cancelled the traditional parade into the village because of all the changes in schedule due to the visit of the Ambassador, the Secretary of State for Youth, and the acting Country Director of Peace Corps. With all these exciting muckety-mucks around, I will admit I lost some perspective from the participants’ side.
To make this more comprehensible for my readers who have not been to Camp UNITE, let me explain the context: The main point of Camp UNITE is to form Togolese youth from diverse backgrounds into peer educators in their communities. To do this, we spend the week not only on typical peer education topics like HIV/AIDS prevention, but also address key personal development topics like the changes involved in adolescence and puberty, how to communicate effectively, rather than passively or aggressively, and self-confidence.
In between session, the participants work on team-building and problem-solving through challenge activities. They discuss tough topics like harassment and child trafficking in small groups and prepare traditional dances with the other participants in their cabins.
The normal schedule for Friday of camp includes a parade into town, everyone dressed in Camp t-shirts – this year sporting a fabulous cartoon banana with strategies for success inscribed on each jaunty peel.
We sing, dance, and invite the village back to the centre to watch a few “life skills” topic skits and learn about what we do at camp.
As the trainers who approached us in a small but determined group put it: The parade is a source of pride and fun for the girls, getting them excited about the skits and overcoming their shyness. It’s a unifying event – moving beyond the small groups of cabins or colors and raising our voices together.
And we’d cut it out. Oops.
In our defense, our original logic was based on the possibility that our guests would be leaving by 4pm and we weren’t sure how equipped the Minister and the Ambassador would be for a hike out to the village in the hot sun.
The trainers’ intervention was well-timed, well-intentioned, and absolutely correct. We had an “executive meeting” of the organizers and changed everything up. Every well-laid plan gets tossed in the air as soon as the clock starts anyway.
We sent the girl students out for the parade right after lunch while the guests were still eating. So I got to schmooze while my co-organizers sweated and strained their vocal cords – not a bad deal!
The compromise was fabulous. The students came back from the parade just as we were finishing lunch, so they greeted us with songs and cheers. Then they worked on their final challenge activities before passing to the big ceremony with skits and dances by the participants and lots speeches by the guests.
It was a perfect blend because we split the organizing team – half handling the participants and counselors, the other half handling the guests. So we all knew where and when we were respectively supposed to be and we didn’t have to fret about the other team.
The participants were surprisingly unfazed by the special guests; even the girls who were interviewed by the television station were pretty calm about it all. Having guests didn’t shake their confidence or their enthusiasm, but when the Minister said, “Each and every one of you is important and can do great things.” during her speech, several girls began crying, overwhelmed. It’s not every day that a 16 year old Togolese girl from a small village gets told that she’s important, especially not from a fantastic female role model like the Minister.
It was no wonder that Pagala almost flooded for a second time at the outpouring of tears when the girls left Saturday morning.

The Orphan

The Orphan
Conte de Kabye

Once upon a time there was a little boy in a little village who was more than a little sad. He had just lost his parents. His hair had grown while he was in mourning and his mother was not around to shave his head for him. Because he was an orphan he had no money and he could not find someone willing to cut his hair for free. Although he was poor, he was very clever, so he wandered through the village looking for something he could use to trade for a haircut. He arrived at the market and wandered around until he came to the place where the women sat all day selling salt. He stared at the ground and was scuffing his feet in the dirt when suddenly he noticed a small white shiny stone. He picked it up and discovered it was a single grain of salt that a buyer had forgotten in his haste. He picked it up carefully and found a stone to crush it into a fine powder. He gathered the powder and sprinkled it over his hair but he needed water to rub it in. The orphan was so poor that he didn’t even have enough money to own a calabash cup to drink from; so he asked a passer-by to give him a few drops of water. He wet down his hair and spread the salt dust over it.
Then he went to find Malo the Hairdresser and, telling her his story, he begged her to cut his hair. Malo pitied him and accepted. The orphan asked her to carefully place his cut hair to one side. Malo went to work and soon after the orphan’s hair was neatly shaved. The orphan stood and said to Malo:
“Tell me, Malo, do you want to taste my hair? Everyone tells me that it has a special taste.”
“I’ll try it”
Malo tasted the hair of the orphan and, greedily ate all of it.
“Ah! It was so good!” she said.
When the orphan was about to leave, Malo asked him to pay her for the haircut. The orphan and thought that Malo had accepted to do the haircut for free and was not happy. He angrily demanded that Malo give back his hair. She obviously couldn’t give back the hair so after a long discussion she gave him some shea oil in exchange.
The orphan took the oil, left the village and went to the shore of a lake nearby so he could perform his religious purification. While he was washing himself, the lake’s waters rose and lifted up the bottle of oil, tipping its contents out upon the waves. When the orphan emerged from the water, he was devastated that he had lost his fortune and sang a lament:
Lake, give me my oil!
This oil is from far far away,
It comes from Malo the Hairdresser
Malo the Hairdresser ate my hair
The oil was payment, not a gift
My hair is from far far away
My hair was given to me as my inheritance
From my father and my mother

And the lake, pitying the distress of the orphan, since it could not give back the oil that had spilled and spread itself in tiny droplets all over the surface of the water, gave him the gift of a huge fish.
The orphan thanked the lake and continued on his path. He arrived in a forest at the edge of the wild jungle, and there he found a piece of wood burning with fiery embers. Since he was starving, he tossed the fish in the flames to cook it, but the flame was too hot and burned the fish up. The orphan cried at his misfortune and asked the fire to give back his fish, singing:
Fire, give me my fish!
That fish is from far far away
It comes from the lake
Who exchanged it
For the oil of Malo the Hairdresser
Malo the Hairdresser ate my hair
The oil was payment, not a gift
My hair is from far far away
My hair was given to me as my inheritance
From my father and my mother

Touched by the desperation of the orphan, the piece of wood gave him some charcoal. He thanked the fire and continued on his path.
He soon arrived at a blacksmith’s shop. The blacksmith asked him what he was carrying. The orphan held out the charcoal and the blacksmith took it, adding it to his fire so he could continue his work. The orphan got upset and sang:
Blacksmith, give me my charcoal!
My charcoal wasn’t a gift
It comes from the fire
Who exchanged it for my fish
My fish wasn’t a gift
That fish was from far far away
It comes from the lake
Who took my oil
The oil was from far far away
It was from Malo the Hairdresser
Malo the Hairdresser ate my hair
The oil was payment, not a gift
My hair is from far far away
My hair was given to me as my inheritance
From my father and my mother

The blacksmith, ashamed of having profited from the poor goods of an orphan, gave him in exchange the gift of a newly forged hoe. The orphan thanked the blacksmith and continued on his path.
He soon arrived in a country where all the farmers were using pieces of broken plates and bowls to dig and plow their fields. He addressed the farmers:
“What miracle do you hope to accomplish here? Why are you farming the earth with broken bits instead of metal hoes?”
“But we don’t have any of those, we don’t even know what they are!” responded the farmers.
“Well then, if you want it, take mine.” The orphan said to them.
So they put to use the orphan’s hoe and by using it, they increased their harvest and had much less difficultly working in the fields. As a gift they offered to the orphan a bundle of millet. He thanked the farmers and continued on his path.
Next he arrived in a country that was suffering from famine. In passing along side a river, he came across a woman seated on the bank with her children, trying to coax them into eating the wet sand.
“Tell me, Woman, don’t you want to give millet porridge to your children?”
“I would very much like to, but I don’t have any millet to prepare porridge. I have nothing to feed them.” She responded.
The orphan offered her the bundle of millet and went off to find a place in this country to settle.
A few days later, he returned to the woman’s house and asked to collect his debt. Because the woman was poor and had nothing, she could not give back the millet; therefore she gave in exchange the only thing she had left: one of her children. The orphan took the child, thanked the woman and left.
He chose some land in the country and had the child build him a hut, the child became thus the first slave. And he lived in the hut with his slave.
This is how, in the beginning, we used to exchange people for food.

And here's an alternative ending for those of you who thought that was a little weird:
The orphan married the woman’s daughter and together they built a hut and worked the land and raised many children.
This is how even poor orphans can succeed if they are clever and resourceful.