Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hanukkah, everyone!
I am sorry that I haven't sent news to anyone for quite a while. As for the total lack of letters from this side of the world, my only excuse is that I completely ran out of money and couldn't buy any stamps. Every PCV will tell you that you end up poor at the end of your first three months, what with having to buy furniture and all. Well, they were right! I biked, and I mean "biked" because I couldn't splurge on taxi fares, around my village for a week and a half with $2.75 on me--the last remaining portion of the $14 I had borrowed from my closest neighbor (Saint) Becky. The funny thing about it all was that I didn't even feel that poor! Sure, I could only use my last 2,000CFA for four stamps to the US, but I could actually buy quite a lot of food for that amount, so I wasn't worried! And, the very day that I ran out of milk and realized that I didn't have enough money to buy more, I received a care package with powdered milk from my (also Saint) Aunt Jayne! Life is good.
As for electronic news, I figured that maybe nobody would worry about me if I just kept updating my website, but that plan fell through, too. On two separate occasions, I biked in to Kara and made some changes to the site. Both times, though, when I came back to edit this Welcome Page, which I regard as my newsletter, the Internet Café was full and I couldn't get online. There are only four or five of the sixteen computers in operation, so I would have to wait for someone else to get offline. That would normally be fine, except that I HAD to bike back to post--staying in Kara is more expensive than cooking at home--which means that I HAD to leave Kara well before dark. Thus, the newsletter went unedited. I have learned my lesson though, and this short introduction is proof of it. Even though I only have a few minutes before walking back to the Peace Corps house to cut three of my colleagues' hair (scary, right?), I am updating the Welcome Page first, just so the four of you who actually read this page (it would be five, but Mom's hard drive fizzled and died) will know I am alive. My plan is to come back in a few hours and write some more, but that plan could always fail.
Back from playing barber, washing laundry, and eating dinner...
Since it's the holidays, I assume everybody is undergoing a little stress. I'm even feeling it from this side of the pond. Instead of comparing my small stresses to those most of you are probably feeling, I think I'll just give you a little run-down, or play-by-play if you will, of my last few days.
Drumbeats dragged a sleepy 3am into reality on Wednesday as they had done every day for the past couple of weeks. Normally I get to sleep undistrubed until the 4:30 Prayer Call, but since it's now the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a drummer circles throughout each neighborhood to wake every household at 3:00. This way, everyone can eat before 4:30 Prayer Call, which marks the point after which they cannot eat or drink again until sundown.
Because I had discovered several days before that the benefits of pulling my mattress and mosquito net onto my porch are stargazing as I drift off to sleep and cozying into my fleece pullover for a chilly bright pink sunrise, I was only a few meters from the mother of my compound, Azétou, as she began boiling sorghum for bouilli. "Bouilli" just means "boiled" in French, and, having tasted the stuff twice, my conjecture is that you can boil an athletic shoe and come out with the same flavor. The unpleasant memory of those two events was shattered by Azétou's pounding first on the door of her husband's room, then on the room shared by her 18-year-old brother-in-law Moussa and Djobo, a 14-year-old student whose parents live so far away he stays in my neighbors' house in order to walk to school. Last Azétou peeked into her own bedroom, where she yelled for her 13-year-old son Gawiwou, 9-year-old daughter Amina, and 3-year-old daughter Latifa to get up. It was dark and there was a palm-frond fence between us, but I suspected that Roukeyatou, her 2-month-old baby was pagned tightly to Azétou's back as she always is.
At some other nearby house, two people rythmically crushed boiled chunks of ignames--yams--with baseball bat sized, Q-tip shaped carved sticks. They seem to be pounding fufu, which is normally consumed for dinner with a spicy sauce. Although I heard each thud of wooden stick against wooden bowl, I had become so used to the sound that I no longer flinch. I just rolled over on my little mattress and continue to drift into and out of consciousness until daylight.
When I did finally pull myself off the mattress, I dragged into my kitchen the precious garden tools I'd used for hours the previous day digging up my small back lawn. My plan is to break Togolese tradition and allow--even encourage--grass to grow in my little fenced-in space. The Togolese go to great lengths to make sure not a single piece of grass grows in their compounds. They are terrified (God bless them) of snakes, and assume that even a single blade left rooted in the ground might hide a Green Momba (or any other variety; they regard each snake as deadly poisonous). After hoeing or macheting at the root of each little patch of grass, they use a broom to amass the cut weeds and carry them out. This compound-sweeping is a task that takes place every single morning, and I would again appear the lazy, spoiled white lady if they could see through the fence to my grassy plot. And they would never understand why I had dug through a hard-crusted layer of baked clay, removed 150 lbs. of small rocks, and poured grass seeds on the area on purpose.
I packed clothes to go to a friend's house for the next few days, made a make-shift plant waterer for my 6-foot tomatoe plant and my 10 tree seedlings, and headed out. The trick was that I had a very special package to take to Kelly's house--a 45-lb. tank of gas that was absolutely essential to our cooking Thanksgiving dinner when we got to her village.
I can imagine Azétou's horror when she saw me surface from my little fenced-in world. I had a gigantic hiker's bag on my back and the gas tank precariously balanced on my head as I struggled to open the gate with one hand. I have never figured out whether the Togolese think I can't lift anything because I am small (taller than most of them, but thinner than most of them), female (although the women do most of the heavy lifting here), or white. My best guess is that it's the latter, because all of us Americans complain that our neighbors seem to think we're puny. I have tried to cope with the constant annoyance of it by insisting that I carry my own things; I even recently earned Azétou's approval--when she saw that I had progressed to carrying the largest waterbasin on my head from the pump as many trips as it takes to fill my jar, she learned how to say, "You are strong!" in French. Although I refused to let her, baby still wrapped to her back, take the gas tank off my head, I was guiltily relieved when a grown man carried it the last 20 yards to the taxi station for me.
There were only two of us ready to go to Bafilo, so I offered to pay the fare for myself plus the four remaining passengers. That insited a small tiff between me and the taxi driver because I insisted on only paying for four places when he found another man to ride with us. I yelled to him that I live here, know the rules, know that he was trying to cheat me, and demanded to be let out at the big taxi station instead of Becky's neighborhood in Bafilo. I won the price war but he won the dropoff location war. On one hand, it was right that I get the right price--that's how the rules work. On the other hand, I know well that he desperately needed to let me off in Partou because he didn't need to show up at the taxi station, no doubt where his boss is, with a fuming white person in the car. I figure we both lost--he got yelled at, and I had again gotten worked up over 37 cents.
After dropping off a few things for Becky's Thanksgiving party, I walked down to the big taxi station, recovered my gas tank where the taxi driver had left it for me, and found the car for Kara. Sometimes I wonder whether I have "Sucker" written on my shirt in ink that's visible only to taxi drivers and merchants, and Thanksgiving Eve was one of those times. This time it wasn't the taxi driver himself who tried to pull one over on me, but one of the boys who solicit passengers for the taxi drivers. As soon as I plopped down in the car, still waiting for four other Kara-bound passengers to show up, he peeked his head in and said, "Madame, it's 200 francs for your bags." Now, I was already furious because I had to argue with the first taxi driver for the fair price; this set me off. I yelled "What?!?!" at him three times while I shoved the door in vain to get it open. The last shove was pretty forceful, which made him reduce his price to 150 francs, but Yours Truly was already in motion. I rolled down the window and unlatched the door from the outside, at which point he decided that he would try to keep me in the car by standing in front of the door until he could appease me into not finding another car. Not caring whether he was there or not, I shoved the door as hard as I could, smacking him across both legs with it. Now the spectacle was on. The three people in the station who weren't staring at me already certainly started to when I bellowed, "Who are you and why are you trying to cheat me?!?!" He looked a little stunned. OK, a lot stunned. He cowered down when I took a couple of steps toward and demanded, my fingers pointed 8" from his face, "What is your name?"
I could see myself from above, and I was wondering, hmmm. When that crazy lady gets his name, exactly what does she propose to do with it? Fortunately, he seemed not to question that I could do something unpleasant with it, as he refused to give me his name, and quickly got pulled into a crowd of people who insisted that he was new, that he didn't know the rules, and that they were all sorry there had been a misunderstanding. Not knowing what the Heck I was going to say next but not wanting there to be the least pause in the conversation, I yelled, "Who is the chauffeur and when are we leaving?" I'll admit that I was mad, but they must have thought that I was madder and more powerful than I am because we left immediately, even one passenger short, which has never happened in my presence since I've been in Togo.
When I got to Kara, still fuming at being constantly cheated and at being constantly upset about being cheated in turn, I baked the most lovely cheesecake you have ever seen. I even whipped cream to put on top (just a little Phynnie Farmer tip: if you don't have a mixer, you can shake the crap out of whipping cream in a Tupperware container to make whipped cream!) and poked chocolate chunks into it. You can imagine my frustration when I then DROPPED said cheesecake on the ground as 8 of us loaded up for Kelly's house. That's a whole other story, but the good thing is that every guest was a Peace Corps Volunteer, so we ate the cheesecake anyway. Greer even said that the surprise bits of sand and leaves added an interesting element to the texture of ordinary cheesecake. Ha!
Kelly's house is a beautiful building in Tamburma country. Since the French Volunteers (and all volunteers except Peace Corps) have all been pulled out of Togo in protest to Togo's government, the French convinced Peace Corps to post a volunteer in their house in order to protect it. The place is amazing--three bedrooms, a kitchen, foyer, sitting room, gazebo, shower room, and dining room--all serviced by a water pump and solar panel/battery power! Twelve of us crashed there for a day and two nights. We grilled four guinea fowl--I didn't have to kill them, but I did pluck them--cooked mashed potatoes and gravy, and baked pumpkin pie, oatmeal cookies, apple tarts, sweet potatoe casserole, eggplant chips, and mixed a huge salad. It was a fantastic day of feasting for all of us!
Unfortunately, I managed to get miserably sick after that, and spent all of Thanksgiving night running to the restroom. In my effort to look on the bright side as much as possible, I figure that this is actually a way to pay off my student loans. From time to time, when I get stressed about how I am going to pay back SO much cash to Uncle Sam, I come up with money-making schemes for when I get back to the US. Thus far, my options are making a workout video of all the stretches I have perfected while still pedaling one's bike, and (my personal favorite) touring the country talking to Elementary School kids about how I trained for the Gold in the new Olympic Sport called the "Twenty-yard Dash to the Latrine." Yep, I can just add Thanksgiving night into the countless mornings that the intestinal critters have gotten the best of me at, say, 2:17, and I have had to locate flashlight, shoes, and large cement latrine in 4 seconds flat. Good times, good times!
Well, on Friday, I was feeling miserable from a full night of sickness. I really didn't feel like arguing for 2 hours with another taxi driver, but I did it anyway. It is positively exhausting to have to constantly fight for your rights, especially when on one hand you feel like your money would better serve the people who are trying to cheat you, and on the other hand like people shouldn't think of cheating others (especially those who come to help them) as the only way to get ahead in life. I have never thought of myself as a very ruthless person, but lacking lawyers and the Pentagon (the people we usually call ruthless, yet appreciate for being the hard-noses we don't want to be) here, I feel like I have turned into one here. I can't hope for anything more than to turn back into a person who doesn't yell when I get back to the States!
I had planned to go back to village on Friday, but it was much more convenient to stay near the flush toilets and sinks of the Kara Peace Corps house while nursing myself back to hydration and health. I am feeling almost good as new now that it is Sunday and I have been able to hold food down for two days, so I will probably go back to Tchalimdé, or at least to Bafilo, right after church with a team of really cool US missionaries stationed in Kara.
I hope all of you are well, that you have had wonderful holidays, and that I hear from you soon.