Once upon a Time...
#20 Happy Valentines Day
#20.5 Bathtub Cake
#21 Let's talk about work
#22 Introducing Yacabou
#23 A Crazy Party
#23.5 Whine Whine Whine
#24 Bugs, Mail, and work...oh, nope, no work
Thu, 14 Feb 2002
Hello All, and a Very Happy Day of Lovin' Too!
Valentines Day: A Hallmark Holiday that almost
passed me by unnoticed. I looked at my calendar yesterday and thought, "um, tomorrow is the 14th, that's Valentine's
day. How did that happen so quickly without me even noticing?". The simple answer is that I am in Togo.
A place void of chocolate hearts and Charlie Brown V. Day cards. None-the-less, I send you all my love and urge
you to hug and kiss each other, as you have the gift of being able to do so tangibly.
I had one of those temporary moments of insomnia last night, and by 1am I got tired of
trying to sleep. So I got up and went into the kitchen and started to eat the leftover Mango Crisp that I made for dinner
(the joy of living alone: eating dessert for dinner with no one around to tell you this is not a good idea). Now,
I am perfectly aware of the fact that the cockroaches come out at night, and was not surprised when they started running across
the floor and up the walls. I simply step on the ones on the floor and squish the ones on the wall with any random object
within reach. After killing three big ones and ten little ones, I stopped and looked at myself (as we often do when
we find ourselves in a ridiculous situation). I was standing in a kitchen in Togo at 1am, wearing a tank top, underwear,
and flip flops, tallying up the bugs I was casually squishing, and eating cold Mango Crisp which seriously resembled the cockroach
guts that I had just squirted across the floor. And this felt normal. So this is my life.
I'm not really working in Bafilo yet. Right now my job is
to learn French, integrate myself into the community, and schmooze with the important people in town in order to gain their
support. Yesterday afternoon, I went to visit the Prefect to thank him for helping Josh and me out with a problem
with the chief. The Interim Chief of Bafilo is a pompus 22 yr old schmuck who thinks Yovos should pay $7 to hike out
to "his" waterfall. Josh complained and the Prefect gave the Chief a good slap on the wrist, which, in interest of my
schmoozing, I felt obliged to thank him for. The Prefect is nice, a bit too nice for a girl to visit alone.
So I waited for Safiou to be able to accompany me, and we walked up the mountain to the prefecture together. The Prefect
was out, so we went next door to say hello to the Secretary General (wouldn't want to waste a trip up the mountain).
We talked for a while and I was proud of my ability to converse in French with this important man.
On the way back down the mountain, I was hit by how very much my
status as a "rich foreigner" affects my life here. I am acknowledged, laughed at, taunted, respected...I can walk into a government
office without an appointment, and be received warmly. I wasn't able to come to any conclusion about how this makes
me feel, as I was suddenly pulled into large building by Safiou. I found myself in an immensely long room. "The Bafilo
Cloth", he explained, as we watched two young boys at small looms weaving 50ft long strips of cloth. Every tenth thread
was gold, and the others were rich green, blue, red and white. I stood behind one of the boys and watched him toss the spool
back and forth through the loom gracefully and automatically; as a young boy of the states might plow through the first
few levels of his favorite video game. I made a mental note to someday ask this boy if I could take his photograph.
In this moment, I was struck by the richness and beauty of life, represented so well in this Bafilo cloth.
And yet, there's always a catch. These boys probably
don't go to school, play soccer with the others, or even dream about what they will do when they grow up. They
will likely sit at these looms for the next 50 years. Just as 95% of the people of Bafilo are unable to obtain an audience
with their Prefect, certainly not with the ease and reception I had just experienced. And so, another day was checked
off on my calendar as a valuable learning experience. Which is what brought me to realizing that today was Valentines
And how will I celebrate? With chocolate cake...hopefully.
After emailing, two friends and I will return to the PC house to try to make a cake. We have all the ingredients, but
our stove is out of gas. Thus, we will make the cake, put it in the dutch oven (a big pot with a lid and tin cans to hold
the plate off the bottom), and bury the oven in hot coals in the back yard for awhile. I'll let you know how it goes.
Somehow I picture us eating the batter and going to bed with stomach aches. Happy Valentines Day!
Fri, 15 Feb 2002
THE CAKE ~I have to tell you about the cake. I mentioned in the TNL that my plan was to eat chocolate cake for V.
Day last night, but we had no gas for our stove. This discouraged the others, who thought my idea of baking a cake in
the back yard was a little unrealistic. But I wanted chocolate cake. Normally we bake by creating a Dutch oven
out of a big pot and putting it on the stove, so why couldn't we do that without a stove? All we needed was heat, right?
We have an old bathtub in the backyard which we use as a grill. At 9:00 last night I pulled the top off the "grill"
and noted that the charcoal from our Superbowl cookout still had some life in it. With the help of a tub full of paper
and dried leaves, I convinced the charcoal to burn again and nestled a metal bowl into the middle of it. I knew the
coal wouldn't last long so I yelled to the others to hurry up and make the cake batter. They told me to chill out and
brought me Malibo and Pineapple juice to drink while I fanned the coals. We poured the batter into a spaghetti pot,
propped the pot up on a tomato paste can in the middle of the metal bowl, covered it with another metal bowl, and waited
for two hours (checking it every 15 minutes), when it was done (yes, it actually solidified), Jeanne poured a confectioner
sugar and Malibo glaze over it, crumpled up chocolate bars to sprinkle over it, and we cut in. It was perfect.
PERFECT!!! Warm, moist, and perfectly consistent though-out. It was the best chocolate cake I have ever eaten.
I'm not kidding. That's not even my immense pride in the accomplishment speaking (well, not completely anyway).
So go out in your backyards and make a cake. I highly recommend the experience.
Fri, 22 Feb 2002
Subject: TNL #21
I know, I know, I said I wasn't going to email again until March
1, but when I said that, I was forgetting a small detail: work. I work here in Togo, just a bit, but work none-the-less.
And as my first project is being done in Kara with 2 other volunteers, all of my meetings and such are in the city, and thus
staying in Bafilo for two weeks straight would have been a bit of a slacker move. I hadn't really planned on writing
a TNL today, but there's a big Fete (festival) all over Togo today, so none of the business women who I had hoped to meet
with today are actually at their businesses. Lots of walking in the hot sun and nothing actually accomplished, this
seems to be the theme of work here thus far. So I decided a TNL would make me feel like I accomplished SOMETHING.
So maybe I'll tell you a bit about this project.
Take Our Daughters To Work Day is a project that has been going
on in many countries for a few years. Generally, in Togo, it's organized by a couple new volunteers as a way to "ease"
them into working with the community, girls, and well, Togo in general. I laugh a bit at the word "ease", because this
is actually a heck of a lot of work. 16 volunteers will be sending us 2 girls from each of their villages for a 3 day
long conference in Kara. We'll take them to the work places of different successful, educated women. They'll visit
the hospital and hopefully observe a painful birth or a really ugly case of some STD, and thus think twice about sleeping
with their 13 year old boyfriends, and their teachers (as many of them do, to get better grades). Then we have a friend
of mine from Bafilo who will talk to them about Women's rights, and some other stuff. For the three days BEFORE this,
I've got 6 girls in Bafilo doing a mini conference at the small town level. These girls will hopefully prove to be motivated
enough after the conference to help me start some girls clubs, AIDS Awareness clubs, and other issue-based clubs, around Bafilo.
This all happens during the first week of April, so I will be in Kara a lot during the next month. It feels good to
finally be DOING something (you know, other than reading, drawing, sleeping, eating, reading, writing, reading, talking to
myself, learning French, reading...).
Over the past week we have made the instant transition from Harmaton
Season ("cold"), to Hot Season (HOT!). I am melting. I've started to seriously appreciate the wonderful phenomenon
of sweat, our natural cooling systems. I haven't been dry for days. So now, I will wait till the sun
chills out a bit, and then drag 3 other PCVs back to Bafilo with me. My neighbor, Safiou, is killing three sheep and
a cow for tonight's Fete, and I promised to come and help eat them. I will then spend tomorrow with my friend Jeanne,
who misses Florida too much, and will be going home Monday. That's four down from my training group so far.
I miss you all more than Jeanne misses Florida (I just happen to like Togo a heck of a lot more than Jeanne likes Togo). Catch
you later alligators,
Fri, 1 Mar 2002
This weeks Lesson: Check bath towel before drying off after shower. Turns out LARGE cockroaches
like to hide from the heat in damp bath towels. When one jumped from the towel, to my head, to the floor, I wasn't sure
which of us was more traumatized, me or it (probably it, as those were the last few seconds of it's cockroach life).
Yacabou: Have I told you about Yacabou? Let me tell you about Yacabou. Yacabou lives next
door, but he used to live in a room in my compound as a caretaker of the property. His brother owns the house and word
is that the family didn't know what else to do with him, so they gave him a job at the rental property. Lori, the previous
PCV, had him fired after a year, which the family was very understanding and supportive about. After he continued to
spend half his day hanging out in her yard, she had him banished from her compound all together. When I came, he did
everything he could to become my best friend, and I eventually started letting him use my well (I'm such a sucker). Then his
wife started using my well. Then I realized I was never alone. Yacabou, his wife, and their friends have completely
invaded my yard for the past couple weeks.
I reached the end of my rope when I discovered that the bench was missing off my porch the other
day. I asked Safiou (the neighbor) about it, and he said it couldn't have been stolen. Things don't get stolen
in Bafilo. This from the kid who stole from the previous PCV consistently. Right. So we went over to ask
Yacabou about it. I've never visited Yacabou's house before, so he was a bit surprised to see me.
"Bon Soir Beckum!" (yes, he calls me Beckum)
"Bon Soir Yacabou. Do you know what happened to my bench?"
"Yes, my brother is using it"
"Yacabou, why is your brother using my bench?"
"Because it's my bench."
"No Yacabou, it's mine, I bought it from Lori."
"It wasn't Lori's to sell beckum, it's mine. So is the table in your bathroom and the freeoge"
"Yacabou, I don't understand you."
So he took me back to my house, into my backyard, and pointed at the wall behind the kitchen while making crazy motor sounds
and repeating, "Freeoge, Freeoge!"
"Oh! Frigo, the refrigerator is yours?!"
At this point he was annoyed with me and indignant that I would question his free-access to my house. I told him
I'd talk to his Uncle about that (his uncle being the member of the family in charge of keeping Yacabou in line), and he immediately
returned the bench and became instantly very nice. Yesterday he spent 6 hours in my yard, at which point I lost my cool
completely and told him to get all of his things and himself out of my yard. Josh says the family (my whole neighborhood
is Yacabou's family) is amazed that I've put up with him for so long, and they will support my decision to re-banish him.
I know, I know Dad, "Trust the tribe". It's just that I didn't know if this was supposed to be a lesson in patience
or discernment. I've been trying to work on my patience, but I guess for the next couple years I'll have to direct my
efforts more towards discernment. On Monday, I will be having my first serious confrontation in French, and then I will
put a lock on my gate. I'm learning about more than cockroach awareness here.
After all this Yacabou stuff, and a serious bout of homesickness,
I was in a worse mood than I think I've ever been in last night. I woke up this morning still feeling it a bit, so I
cancelled my French class (no need to scold, Josh already told me that this was a very irresponsible move...although I don't
think he meant it as he had no interest in sitting around waiting for me to have my lesson either), and went to wait for the
mail. We got there early, and had a couple Fantas while we waited. And was it worth the wait? Heck
yeah. I was pulled right out of my slump by incredible packages from two of my very favorite people. All Josh
got was our weekly delivery of NEWSWEEK. I didn't feel too bad though because he gets to go eat bagels in New Jersey
OK, that's all for now. Peace,
Sat, 9 Mar 2002
Subject: TNL #23
I'm going to tell you all about my twilight-zone-bizarre Saturday
night. But first I will tell you that no matter how I describe this experience, the explanation will do no justice to
the strangeness. I honestly woke up Sunday morning wondering if my anti-malaria meds, which generally induce vivid dreams,
had gone into overdrive.
Last week, the guy who runs to taxi station in Bafilo asked me to
come to a party. He said that it was really important that I go, it was by invitation only, and I should bring PC friends
if possible. This is a guy that I've learned to avoid a bit (for reasons that would land him in sexual harassment court
in the states, but are normal here), but two thirds of the PC job is cultural exchange, and parties are always a big dose
of that, so I said OK.
When I tried to leave Bafilo for Kara Friday morning, he wouldn't
let me get in the car until I promised to return before the party the next day. It took a bag of peanut M+Ms and two
Sports Illustrated to bribe my friends Jonnett and Lynn into coming back to Bafilo with me for the night. We sat in
my house until 10:30pm (way after our normal bedtime) when the party finally started and Safiou came to get us.
He escorted us through the mobs of uninvited people and into a very nice compound on the other end of my neighborhood.
The yard was full of tables and chairs and there was a DJ and a covered dance floor with disco lights. Had we
just stepped out of Togo? We were shown to our table, the one right in front of the dance floor, and the only one which
was reserved. It had a sign on it that said, "Corps de la Paix de Bafilo". Once we were settled, the music stopped,
a video camera and spotlight appeared out of no where, and we were being introduced over an intercom system. Turns out that
this was the Association of Prestigious Young Men of Bafilo, and I was somewhat of an honored guest. There were a lot
of women there too as none of the members were allowed into the party without at least one woman. Safiou was the only
non-member male there, as he goes everywhere with me (I recently heard that one of my nick-names in town is "Safiou's Yovo").
They kept on bringing our table course after course of food.
Supposidly, people had come from Benin, Ghana, and Germany for this party. I could write you a book about all the crazy
things Lynn, Jonnett, and I observed and laughed at over the course of the night, but I think most of it falls into the "you
had to be there" category. We danced and ate and ate and danced until 3:30am when we were finally given permission to
leave. The highlight of the evening was around 1am when the taxi guy (who was running the whole event) started walking
towards our table speaking into a microphone. The music stopped. The camera and the spotlight returned.
Everyone was looking at me. I think I've mentioned before that I don't understand French after 9pm. Jonnett leaned
over and said,
"Becky, they want you to make a speech." WHAT!?! Do I tell them why I'm here? Why AM I here? Do I give them heartfelt
thanks for their hospitality? Tell them how much fun I'm having?...Words spun around in my head, and I was blinded by
the spotlight. I froze...
"Um, Bon Soir..."
And then taxi man took the microphone back, "Mariama, the American, said 'Bon Soir'"
Beautiful. Did that eloquence just come out of my mouth? Where am I? What is this? Yes friends, that
was your guest of honor.
We finally passed out at my place at 4am, and woke up a couple hours later wondering if we had just all had the same bizarre
Oh, by the way (this will be of great interest to Anna), Ed is back. Unless
Ed Jr. has arrived to live out his father's legacy as a sink dweller...what is a lizards life span anyway? So
many important questions in life, so few answers.
One more side note: I finally found out what my local name means.
"Mariama" is "2nd Wife of Mohammed". Peace out all,
Sun, 10 Mar
Subject: une petit add-on to #23
It's one of those days when I have to whine a bit, partially because
I want to whine, partially because I'm trying to share as much of this experience with you as possible, and partially (ok,
mostly) because I want someone to laugh with me about my miserable morning.
So I started to lose my voice yesterday. Now, my American accent is so thick that it's hard for people to understand
me normally, but when I sound like a 13 year old boy with my voice cracking every third syllable, it's even tougher.
This morning I woke up with no voice at all. After blowing half my brains out through my nose I realized I had
a sinus infection. I started making myself some tea, but I burned my finger on the stove. I put some kind of ointment
on the burn, but it was the wrong kind and hurt like hell. As I was washing it off, I had a sudden on-set of what may
be food poisoning. This was followed by a couple hours of violent illness. Then I tried to make tea again.
During the tea making process, I bit the inside of my mouth and started to bleed. Grumbling about that, I returned to
the tea and was a bit too careless when adding the honey. I spilled honey all down my skirt...my only skirt that I have
in Kara. So I put my pajamas on and came to email. And now I should finish and get back to a place where bathrooms
are not so far away (coming here was a bit risky for the gastrointestinal scene).
I hope you all have a fabulous week. I'll be back in touch next weekend, at which point I hope to be in much better
shape. Lots of love,
Fri, 15 Mar 2002
A collection of tidbits from my week;
*In the misery of my minor illness last week, I was peer-pressured into staying in Kara for an extra day. Approximately
24 hours after my woe-is-me email to you all, I was partaking in a diving contest with my fellow PCVs at one of the nicest
pools in the country. It was one of those, "Am I really in the Peace Corps?" moments.
*Upon arrival back in Bafilo, I checked my mail. MOM AND DAD, THE AIRCHAIR HAS ARRIVED, and I LOVE it! Besides
the air chair (which is not only the most comfortable variation of the hammock ever invented, but also another reason for
me not to work), I also received a birthday card from Becky Roemen. She sent it on November 14th. This got me
wondering what else may be floating about in postal-no-man's-land. I will tell you all that I reply to every piece of
snail mail that I get within 2wks. Thus, if you've sent me something, and it's been a couple months with no reply, something
is amiss. And things being amiss in the world of international post is (unfortunately) normal.
* I had another large insect invasion. Except this time instead of shadow-casting
monster ants, I got some kind of wingéd creature. Perhaps a Togolese termite of sorts. I am not exaggerating when
I tell you that I spent TWO HOURS stepping on them and sweeping their squished bodies out the door before I realized that
they were coming in faster than I was exterminating them. After much investigation, I found three entrance holes, which
I patched up using a combination of that gooey stuff used to stick posters to the wall, white out, and duct tape. And
then I stomped and swept for another hour. At one point, one of them climbed into my shoe. I accidentally kicked
my shoe right across the room in an attempt to get rid of the invader. As I hopped across the kitchen on one foot, with
a broom in one hand and a roll of duct tape in the other, listening to the crunch of termites under my remaining Birkenstock,
I said to myself, "Oh, this is going in a TNL". Never a dull moment.
Other than that, I redecorated my living room. I'm telling you, it could be on the cover of an issue of Better Homes
and Garden. We're talking matching couch cover, cushions, and curtains, framed photographs, and a well stocked bookcase.
Again I ask, is this really the Peace Corps?
You'll notice I didn't mention work. Yup, no work this week. I could pretend and try to impress you all with
all the hard work, long hours, sacrificing, and suffering that you'd expect from a week in the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer...But,
I'm a horrible liar (unless it has to do with Togolese men and my marital status).
Peace out all,