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Becky Binns--Togo News Letter

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TNLs #15-19
And Here We Have...
#15 I'm Given a Name
#16 Ed and Paint

#17 Visit to the Waterfall

#18 Fete wherein boys hit eachother with large sticks

#19 Thoughts on; Why am I here again?

January 11,2002

Hello from Bafilo,
          Or rather from Kara as I have escaped to my regional capital for the weekend to email and eat hamburgers, mmm.  While I'm sitting here, digesting one hamburger before I can go get another, why don't I give you a few notes about my first week in Bafilo:
Note #1:    I was in my house for three days before any one of importance noticed that I had arrived.  In order to not go crazy, I wandered around the market for at  least an hour a day talking to people (or rather greeting them using the few Kotakoli words I know), but somehow word of my presence did not get sent through the rumor mill to the people I'll be working  with until half way through the week.  By this time I had read two books, plastered my dining room walls with drawings, written an entire "book" of random thoughts (inspired by Jack Keroac), worked through the somewhat depressing loneliness, and started to enjoy the solitude.  Tuesday night I was thinking to myself, "Wow, this is really good alone time to figure myself out...", when all of a sudden someone was at my door. And I haven't been alone since.

 Note #2:    Everyone in Bafilo wants to give me a Kotakoli name, and thus I've been named at least 20 times in the last two days.  I finally decided to go with the  local chief's suggestion because I like him, and his suggestion.  I am no longer Becky, or Yovo, or Fati (previous PCVs name)...I am now Mariama. 
 Note #3:     I haven't been sleeping at night for some reason, and this morning, at 3am, after laying in bed for hours counting the holes in my mosquito net, I  suddenly sensed that I was not alone.  I turned on the light and immediately realized that I had been invaded by immensely large ants.  They had faces. There was visible space between their bodies and the floor.  They cast shadows.  I followed the thickening swarm of them down the hall and into the bathroom, where about 100 of them were dragging the cockroach that I had killed at midnight out the door at great speed.  One  could have done the job alone.  I went to my room and put on shoes, and grabbed a big wooden clog.  I also got the bottle of kerosene and a broom.  I surrounded them with a circle of kerosene spilled on the floor (so they couldn't escape to other areas of the house), then I smashed them with the clog (cockroach crew first), then I stomped all over them, and swept them out the back door.  The entire process took almost an hour, after which sleep was not at all an option (not that it ever had been).  I spent the rest of the night reading Jack Keroack.  Which made me get all philosophical about the ant attack, but I'll spare you those thoughts:)

          So now here I am in Kara.  Feeling proud that I've survived week one, and altogether excited about Bafilo as a whole.  I was watching the professional Bafilo soccer team practicing the other day, while walking around schmoozing with all the people in town, and already I'm feeling a part of a complex, but fascinating and kind community.  Life is good.  I miss you all.  Peace out!

TNL#16  January 19, 2002
Hello All,
   There's a lizard who lives in my kitchen sink.  He's only about 4 or 5 inches long and basically just sleeps all the time.  Sometimes he swims around too, (when I run the water and wake him up).  His name is Ed. 
        The other day I had a hard time closing my back door.  When it finally closed something flew from the bottom of the door towards my feet.  It was Ed.  Well,  actually, it was half of Ed.  I opened the door and there was the other half of Ed, his butt and tail, flopping around on my back step.  His front half still had a head and four legs, sort of, and it just sat there looking stunned, not nearly as spastic as his latter half which flopped its way off the step and into the grass.  It kind of reminded me of the chicken  head when it continued to squawk at me after I separated it from its body (previous TNL).  Anyway, I left stunned-buttless-Ed on the back steps, and guess what? He was gone an hour later.  No, he didn't get eaten.  He grew a new tail and ran away.  Really, he did.
          I painted for a total of 30 hours this week.  I now have a yellow guest room (honeymoon suite actually, Heather and Kris, hint hint), a purple bathroom, a blue bedroom, and an aqua kitchen.  I had to stop after the kitchen because it seems that the blue dye created clusters of chemical burns on my finger tips and thumb joints.  They don't have warning  labels such as "avoid skin contact" on stuff here. Blue dye?  Why was blue dye involved in painting your house Becky?  Good question.  See, here in Togo you don't just go out and buy a few gallons of the perfect aqua-marine.  You make it.  This is the roughing-it part of the Peace Corps that I forgot about temporarily when I found out I'd be living in a palace for the next two years.  So last weekend I went out and bought a 20 kg bag of golf ball size white rocks, and bottles of condensed yellow, blue, and red  dye.  I was told to mix the white rocks with water, salt, and dye; and to not be surprised by the reaction of the rocks and water.  It promised to be interesting, but safe.  Supposedly these rocks are non-toxic, edible even.  Right.  I put a couple inches of rocks in the bottom of a bucket and covered them with water.  One rock immediately jumped back out of  the bucket.  Then they all went crazy popping everywhere and spraying white paint all over my kitchen.  To top it off, the reaction created so much heat that I couldn't get close enough to the bucket to cover it for fear of being sprayed by the boiling, white, liquid rock substance.  Eventually, it chilled out and I made yellow paint.  I was really quite proud  of myself.  I painted room #1 and put the extra paint in a glass jar on a box in the kitchen.
          The next day I needed something from that box.  I looked at the paint and thought, "If I just lift the lid a little, it won't fall off".  What is it in my brain that blocks the rational "remove glass jar from box before lifting lid" command?  I don't know.  I asked myself this question for an hour as I cleaned up broken glass and yellow paint.  Somebody ask my Dad. He may know. They're his genes.  The same genes that let my walkman eat three tapes last week in a matter of ten minutes before deciding that it was broken.  OK Dad, so maybe you would have stopped at two, but you have had half a century to learn from YOUR mistakes. 
          What else did I do this week besides paint my house, make a bunch of messes, and cut Ed in half?  I went to a professional soccer game.  Turns out Bafilo has one of the best teams in Togo, not to mention an immense stadium.  I went for a lot of saying-hi-to-people walks.  I made a bead curtain for the doorway between my kitchen and dining room.  Yup, I hand rolled over 300 beads out of strips of magazine.  I'm not kidding.  I have some serious time on my hands here.  The good news is that I haven't  gotten bored yet. 
              Zenabou, my language teacher, comes to live with me tomorrow.  She'll stay for three weeks, at the end of which I will be a French genius.  Rumor has it she also speaks Kotakoli and cooks really well, so I'm looking forward to the learning experience, and her company.  
          I gotta stop now, it's hard to type with blistered finger tips (thank you blue dye).  Until next  time, peace,

 January 25, 2001
Hello All,
          I've just spent the last week totally immersed in Franšais and Kotakoli, and thus the creative juices usually invested in my TNL are a bit dormant.  That is my disclaimer, now on to the news. 
          I spent all day Sunday and Monday sitting in my house waiting for Zenabou, my language trainer.  People don't call when they're going to be 36 hours late here.  But then, I have no phone.  Zenabou will be living with me for 3 weeks, which I'm sure will do me great good.  I can already feel the effectiveness of the plan in my constant throbbing headache which generally accompanies brain overload.  We do intensive French lessons all morning, practice talking to people around Bafilo all afternoon, and spend the evenings working on Kotakoli and reading Le Petit Prince.  And then I get to sleep (Thank God!)
          On Thursday I took the morning off to go visit the waterfall near my house, and give Zenabou a break.  Just after breakfast, I got on my bike for the first time in over a month (later that night I realized that my tailbone is not yet ready for this), and rode in the general direction of the falls, trusting that Josh, my PCV neighbor, would find me before I got too lost.  He did, and we rode together for about 5km before stashing our bikes in a bush so we could hike the rest of the way.
          Along the path, we came to a little bridge.  Crossing it, we realized that we were not alone.  Millions of ants were crossing with us, creating an impressive, intricate, live tunnel.  The tunnel was an inch wide with half-inch-tall walls of stacked ants. Then there were bigger ants (almost as big as my house invaders ~previous TNL), and these ants actually straddled the two walls creating a roof for the tunnel.  A neat line of ants moved quickly through the protective passageway to join a grapefruit-size sphere of ants on the other side.  It was the most impressive display of ant talent I've ever seen.  And I've seen the movie "Antz".  We oggled at them for a few minutes, poked at them with blades of grass (which they fought off bravely and efficiently), and then continued on our way.
          We were still a long way off when I saw the water falling down about 150 feet of the wall of mountains before us.  I had no clue I'd been living so close to such beauty.  As we reached the base, the air suddenly became 15░ cooler, which was good considering we had a  144 steps to climb to getto the top.  Steep steps.
              Finally, we reached a deep, icy pool.  I won't even try to explain the view.  I felt like I was sitting on God's shoulder. For over an hour we sat in silence; Josh reading his Tom Clancy novel, and me writing.  OK, so I didn't actually have anything to write with, but I wrote volumes in my head.  And I prayed, listened, daydreamed...When Josh asked me if I wanted to go explore the bottom, I wasn't even remotely ready to come out of my solitude.
          But it turned out that the bottom was even better.  We scampered (did I just use the word "scamper"?) over piles of patterned granite to sit on a fallen tree over a cluster of crystal pools.  There were blue and yellow butterflies, red dragonflies, birds, lizards...Josh tells me that during rainy season when everything is greener and the waterfall is bigger, it looks like a set from a Disney movie.  
          In the tradition of writer Bonnie Colton, my Omma (I think Omma means Grandma in German.  No, we're not German...actually, I don't know why we call her Omma.  Mom, you want to field this question?) Anyway, inspired by Omma, I summed it all up for you in a poem.  A poem!? The TNL hasn't gone serious has it?  No, just thought I'd add a little variety.  That and my brain is fried from French.  Ha, my brain is French fried, get it? Yup, exactly why I'm staying away from humor this week.
 Awaken by Mosque's
 Bellowing prayer call.
 Stretch, yawn, think
 To the Millions of Allah's followers
 Kneeling by their beds at 4am.
Anticipation brews.  I am
About to embark, to explore,
To experience
The falling waters of Bafilo

For the first time.
Hours later its mine;
This place, this space,
This shoulder of my Allah.
My God!  It's Breathtaking!
Date with my maker.
Miles of table before me,
Set for a feast  of all senses,
Consumed in an instant, an eternity.
Vast icon of grace is all I see.
Cold spray.  Warm wind.
Calmness in my being.
Roaring in my ears.

This shall be my prayer call. 

peace out all,

Subject: TNL #18 (2 Feb.)

Hello All,

          It's been a good week in Bafilo.  After noon on Tuesday, my friend Jonnette, Zenabou,  and I took a taxi 8km down the road to Kollo, Josh's village.  The chief of a village near Josh invited him and his friends to a fete (festival).  Josh, Jeff (another  PCV), Jonnette, Zenabou, and I walked to the village together, and, following protocol, went directly to the chief's house to present ourselves before entering his village. After greeting us, the chief sat us down in his meeting hut, and had one of his wives bring out a jug of their best palm wine.  That is, she brought out a plastic gas tank full of fermented liquid  Elmer's glue.  We were each given a generous bowl full, the guys first, then Jonnette and I, then Zenabou (rank is important here, and is established by both gender and race; I'll spare you my western views  on this as I'm sure you can guess them).  I sipped slowly until I was light-headed and a bit nauseous and had to discreetly pour the rest of mine into Josh's bowl.  He loves the stuff and polished off four bowls  which greatly pleased our hosts.  Everyone drank for awhile, including our Muslim companions (they can drink inside because there's a roof and God can't see them. No joke.), and after a while one of the chief's men asked Josh if he could buy Jonnette.  Although he could have made off with quite a few goats, and probably even a cow or two, Josh refused the offer. The whole conversation took place in Kotakoli, which  only Josh and Zenabou understand, but Jeff decided to "translate" for me; "No?!? Come on man, I'm serious, I really want to buy your woman.  I have a lot of cows". It was becoming a bit difficult to maintain a polite  demeanor, so we excused ourselves and headed out to the fete field.  I'm starting to learn that "marriage proposals" like this are supposed to be the highest form of compliment, but they still make me cringe a bit.  

       We waited and played with kids for two hours before the fete began.  Let me tell you a bit about this fete.  It happens once a year and is a sort of  coming-of-age ceremony for boys.  Each boy chooses a partner from another village, and they stand together in the middle of the circle of spectators and take turns hitting each other with a long, whip-like stick across the chest.  The boy being hit has to stand with one hand behind his back and one hand on his head.  If he moves, he can never get married.  If he doesn't, the other boy pulls his hand off his head in congratulations after the third hit, and a bunch of women run out and pour baby powder all over the triumphant new 12 year old "man".  We were in the  seats of honor, close to the action, and were therefore covered in powder ourselves within the first  5 minutes. 

          It was painful to watch, as each blow made us draw back in empthetic pain, and a few drew blood.  But it was also somewhat thrilling to see each boy succeed.  And they all did. 

        Once the ceremony was over, the older men came out dressed in skirts, bras and make-up.  They don't consider this drag, as even the concept of  homosexuality is impossible for 95% of Togolese to understand.  It's just that bras and skirts are festive, colorful, and also intimidating; and they were going to war, so intimidation was important.

          They all carried big painted sticks, and had a huge, confusing, violent, war for about 15 minutes.  Then it was all over and we ate ice cream and went home. 

Back in Bafilo:   The last PCV in Bafilo was given the local name Fatima, Fati for short.  Thus, everyone in town calls me Fati, as they don't all know my name yet.  On  Thursday afternoon I went for a walk to clear my French fried brain, and ended up walking across a crowded school yard.  All the kids started yelling "Bon Soir Fati" really loud.  After four weeks, I've had enough "Fati", so I stopped, turned around, and looked at them all.  There were about 50 kids, and they all fell silent immediately.  What was the Yovo going to do?  I spit out one of the only Kotakoli sentence I know, "Fati Whehgby! Bi am ah sway Mariama!" (Fati's gone, my name is Mariama).  Silence. No one moved.  So I turned around and walked away.

All of a sudden they were all surrounding me and walked me all the way across the yard and into the next field, until their teachers came and retrieved them.  It was a good moment. 

          Other than that, my time with Zenabou is going well, but I won't deny that I'll be happy when this next week is over and she goes home. Peace Out,


Sun, 10 Feb 2002

Hello All,  

          I  just rode my bike here.  25km to Kara and another 5km to the house.  Have I mentioned that I live in the mountains?  I am tireder than a tire.  Derriere update after 30km on bike?: Ouch!  But it may have more to do with the mountains than with the broken tail bone.  Do you realize its been 2 and a half months since I broke it.  How time flies.  I can still feel myself flying through the air away from my bike...On to the news: 

          Not much news today.  Mostly just thoughts on Togo. The other day I was talking to another PCV, and he was questioning what we're getting out of this experience. WHAT WE'RE GETTING??? I think about all the things  I've learned in the past few months, all the things about Togo that make me laugh, all the people at home who I feel more connected to through recent correspondence, all that I have yet to experience...but I didn't know how to put it all in a nutshell as an answer to his question, or maybe I didn't want to sound like a brand-new-idealist-PCV, so I just said, "Well, you'll get a book out of it, right?" (he writes).  And he said he hadn't "figured Africa out" enough yet to write a book about it. 

Well geez, you show me someone who claims to have figured Africa out and I'll ask them what they're selling.  I've stopped trying to figure this place out, and started to try to just observe it with  an open mind.  I say "try" because sometimes it's very hard to observe Togo with an open mind.  What makes a person think it's a good idea remove the spare tire from an old bare-tire car in order to load 800 lbs of rock into the trunk?  And just because a cow will fit in the trunk if you tie her feet together and leave the back open, does that make  it smart?  If the goats are eating your crops, wouldn't a fence be a good solution? If you're a waiter and every time your regular customers come to eat, you have to return from the kitchen 5 times to ask  them what they ordered again, wouldn't you eventually think to bring a pen with you and write it down?  Why does it make sense to wash your clothes and then lay them in the dirt to dry?  I'm constantly stating that I live in a logic-free zone, and this makes me wonder if I'm just not trying hard enough to understand the culture of my host-country.  I can respect it, even as I laugh at it, but I've decided there just is no figuring it out. 

             During the same conversation, we talked about how hard it is to trust people here.  The other day I said hello to a young girl who I greet everyday.  She ran up and gave me a hug and tried to put her hand in my  pocket.  When I caught her, she actually asked for the money she had tried to take.  I found out that my neighbor, Safiou, who holds my spare keys, used to come into the house and borrow the old PCVs bike when she was out of town.  He also took stuff from the kitchen and dipped into her immense supply of soccer equipment (gift from US to start girls soccer league), and sold the stuff around Bafilo.  He is still my friend, but he doesn't have my spare keys anymore.  Everyone who's come to talk to me about working with them sees me as the source of money needed to accomplish their project goals.  I've started to come to grips with the fact that I am a walking dollar bill to most people here; and that my things, my presence, even my friendship, are a source of temptation.  It's hard for me to understand, because I've never been in need. It seems somewhat unimportant who Becky Binns is, rather what one can get from "Madame Mariama". 

          And so, the other PCVs and my home support system have become crucial.  I don't want to put up a "me vs. them" wall, but I am learning to be cautious of  people's intentions. 

          This whole conversation started when my PCV friend made the random comment,

"you really miss home, don't you Becky"   

"yes, yah, I really do"

"If you'd be happy there, why be here?"

"I could go home tomorrow and be perfectly happy.  But I'm here.  that's how I know I'm supposed to be here"

          I don't think my response did much for him, but it reassured me. In Togo, life stops for 2 hours in the middle of each day so everyone can sleep.  People  greet their guests with their best (and sometimes only) food and wine.  Life is slower, and thus people come before work.  Children stay busy for hours playing with a tin can (they may pee in the can and then drink  out of it...but it's still simpler than Toys R Us). Life is good.  And somewhere between learning and surviving, I'm having a hell of a good time. 

          The other day a lizard fell off the roof onto Zenabou's head.  Though I was distracted by Zenabou's screaming, I tried to study the stunned lizard as it ran away.  It was light brown, with a very short tail, and the nervous look of a Post Traumatic Stress patient.  I think it might have been Ed.  Peace out all,

~Becky (aka Mariama)