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Becky Binns--Togo News Letter

TNLs #30-34
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Some Stories.
#30 Holy Stolen Electricity, Batman! 
#31 Yacabou, Bugs, and Books (Oh my!)
#32  Taxi Stations (dundundun)
#33  Whopper with Cheese no Onions
#34 Adventures in...RI?
Thu, 2 May 2002
Subject: TNL #30
Hello All,
          A couple of months ago, my electricity bill came in at 9000cfa.  This is about twice what it should be.  I didn't think too much of it as I have a history of unintentionally using more electricity than I need (my  roommates informed me that our electricity bill was cut in half when I left for Togo).  However, my French teacher said it was way more than what her whole family pays for electricity, and Safiou said it's twice what the old PCV ever paid, and they both agreed that someone must be stealing my electricity. 
        They also observed that Yacabou The Great (my sometimes difficult neighbor) has lights, and a TV, but no electricity box.  Yacabou is an electrician by trade, and thus knows how to, um, rewire things.  However, I didn't want to jump to any conclusions and go around making false accusations.  So, Safiou and I put on our detective hats and got to work.
          First we turned off and unplugged everything in my house and looked at the electricity meter.  It was still moving.  Then we searched the property for suspicious looking wires.  We decided that they must be buried under the ground between my last spare room and my wall.  
         I went away for two weeks and decided to turn off the electricity while I was gone.  I apologized to Djalilou and gave him a kerosene lamp to use while I was gone.  He understood and immediately joined the investigation.  When I came back, I was informed that Yacabou had been asking about me, "Does anyone know why Mariama's electricity isn't on?". 
             Tuesday morning, Safiou and I went to talk to the electrical company.  This took all morning as my flip flop broke when we were almost there and Safiou insisted that we walk the mile home for a new shoe before returning to our destination.  The guy at the electric company assured us that Yacabou (who he's known since childhood) had likely wired his house to my last spare room, and he gave us instructions on how to cut the wire ourselves from Djalilou's room.  We all decided not to say anything to Yacabou.  When Djalilou came home from school that night, we turned off the electricity, and Djalilou and Safiou borrowed some scissors, tape, and a flashlight and got to work while I stood watch.  Sure enough, Yacabou came over "to say hi" as soon as he heard the subtle commotion we were making.  I did a horrible job covering and Yacabou looked over my shoulder at the work zone, grumbled something in Kotokoli, and then walked away, silent and angry.  Seeing as how Safiou is related to Yacabou, and Djalilou is fed by Yacabou's wife every night, they were both making a significant sacrifice helping me out.  When we turned the electricity back on, the light in Djalilou's room didn't work.  Safiou fumbled with it for a while longer, almost electricuted himself, got it working again, and walked away looking satisfied at a job well done. 
          Djalilou walked away looking a bit nervous about being discovered by Yacabou.  I walked away extremely grateful to have these two friends in my life.  Another chapter in the saga of Yacabou comes to a close, and I wonder with amused anticipation what the next chapter holds. 
Blessings to you all. 
Fri, 10 May 2002
Subject: TNL #31
Hello All,
Yacabou, bugs, traveling, books, absent-minded you know, this is my life, and this week, I had a little bit of it all.
You may have noticed that I spend about as much time out of Bafilo as I spend in.  My latest voyage was North to Dapoang, the northern most regional capital, and home of my good friend Fiona.  Fiona broke her foot in a bike accident, so I figured I'd go sit around with her for a couple days. Now, I'm not normally a jealous person, but Fiona's work situation made me turn blue, green, and violet with envy.  She works with an amazing woman named Tina who makes Batiks and has a bunch of apprentices who live with her, and who she's trying to build a boarding school for.  I asked Tina if she could make a Batik for my sister for a wedding present, and she said she could, but she wouldn't be around the next day, so if I wanted, I could make it myself.  Free reign of someone's workshop?  I jumped at the chance.  With the help of 3 little kids (my favorite, an 8-year old boy named Treasure with huge dimples, was never further than a foot from my elbow as I worked), and Tracy Chapman in the background, I worked and talked to Fiona all morning.  My goal when I get back to Bafilo after my trip home is to find a place like this near me.  Although I have a hunch that Tina and her children (none of whom are her own) are likely one in a million, completely and helplessly unduplicatable.
I cook on a table-top gas stove.  It's a very simple contraption; a piece of metal with two burners and a tube connecting it to a gas tank.  The other night I turned the burner closest to the tube off, leaving the far one on.  This means that the gas had to pass the first burner, which apparently was leaking, to reach the second.  All of a sudden 3 foot flames burst out of the first burner's control dial.  My mind snapped back to elementary school fire safety; "stop drop and roll?  No, I'm not on fire...yet...water? No, not for a gas fire...I know, I'll cut it off at its source!" I ducked under the flames, almost catching my head on fire, and turned off the gas tank, temporarily creating larger flames as I turned the dial the wrong way.  Sometimes I think there should be an ongoing hidden camera of my life so I could proudly collect $10,000 from Bob Sagget every once in a while.
George Packer was a PCV in Togo in 1982, and after leaving the PC, he wrote THE VILLAGE OF WAITING; a great description of Togo and of what it's like to live here as an outsider.  Interestingly enough, the only thing that seems to have changed over the past 20 years is the way PC is run, and even in that there are only slight variations.  Halfway through the book, I had an urge to recommend it to all of you.  While I write with the naivety of fresh experience, he wrote with the experience of time, reflection, and separation.  His experience was perhaps more difficult than mine, and so, in a way, he does a lot of complaining.  Perhaps I want you to read it because he complains about the very things that drive me nuts, so I don't have to.  For its these things that are hardest to talk about.  He also talks about the fascinating and sometimes ludicrous history and political system here, which Peace Corp's apolitical policies keep me from talking about.  It's a fast read, and a great explanation of so much of what I'm living right now.  And so, with two thumbs up, it comes highly recommended from your not-so-local PCV.
Thursday afternoon I'm lying in my room reading when I hear Yacabou-the-Great talking in the backyard. His daily water trip.  I decide that I don't have the energy to go make small talk, so I stay in my room.  Then he starts clapping (West African form of knocking on someone's door) and calling me by a shortened version of my local name, while, apparently, talking to someone else, "Mrama! Mrama! Is she here? I think she's here, the door is open. Mrama?"  I give in to the moment of broken peace, pull myself from the last chapter of my book, and go out to greet my neighbor.  He is alone.  I almost ask him who he was talking to...but stop at the realization that it was himself.  He asks me to follow him to the other side of the house where he points up at the mango trees and says, "The house is for you, the mangos are for me, I will climb up and take them now." He knows he has no legitimate right to the mangos, and he looks at me like a 13 year old asking his mom if he can go out drinking in the big city.  He expects me to argue.  I take inventory of the possibilities; mangos are cheap, mine are puny anyway, I really don't feel like fighting this battle for the remaining months of mango season..."OK Yacabou".  He looks startled, assuming I misunderstand, "I will climb up there and take them now."  "OK, be careful." And I turn to go inside.  He runs to the tree before I can change my mind and I spend the next 30 minutes running to the window each time a branch breaks and comes crashing down.  But each time, there he is comically, acrobatically, and safely elevated above my front yard. 
After the Yacabou encounter, I put my book down on the shelf at the head of the bed, and didn't come back for it for an hour.  When I returned for it, there was a solid black line connecting it to the top of a wine bottle candle holder next to it.  Looking closer, I realized that the black line was a spider web with hundreds of freshly hatched new spiders.  My first thought was to remove it from the vicinity of my bed, so I scooped the whole party up in a bandana and headed to the kitchen sink.  Before I even exited my room, spiders were crawling halfway up both arms.  Washing my arms off, I contemplated the many great mysteries in life; What made me think hundreds of spiders could be contained in a bandana? How had a spider managed to weave a web, produce an egg, and have a few hundred kids in a matter of an hour? And where the heck was that hidden camera?  Until next time, Peace Out                                                      
Sat, 18 May 2002
Subject: TNL#32
Hello All,
          I spend a good deal of time here sitting in taxi stands watching Togo.  Most taxi stations consist of a big dirt parking lot with a bunch of decrepit old vehicles and a line of shelters with town names on them.  If a traveler wishes to go somewhere, they go to the appropriate shelter, pay for a place in the car, and wait for the rest of the car to fill up. This can take 10 minutes, or it can take 3 hours.  Thus, being someone who travels at least once a week, I have a lot of people-watching time in my life.
          Who am I watching in these stations?  Well, generally, taxi stations are full of young men; chauffeurs, apprentices, money collectors, and random guys with nothing else to do.  These men are at the top of their world in that they were born with gender on their side.  They are at the bottom in that they are the underprivileged in a world full of inaccessible wealth.  When I walk into a taxi station, they welcome me, guide me to my car, and tell me they want to be my friend because I am an American.  often, one of them  is wearing a Bin Laden t-shirt (the new pop-culture rage in underdeveloped Muslim communities).  They stare, or make small talk.  They ask questions, or ask for  money.  They talk about me in front of me in local language so that all I can understand is that I am the subject.  Yet, they go out of their way to make me feel comfortable and welcome.  I am female, but before that, I am white/American/privileged.  And so I am treated differently from the other women.  As Togolese girls walk through the station, they are pinched, told to bring water, or (more likely) ignored.  They may also be propositioned for sex.   A request sometimes granted simply because to decline doesn't always seem an option.
      When we are ready to go, I am guided to the car, generally a 5 passenger heap of rust from the early 80's, held together with wire and rags.  3 people in front and 4 in back fill it (plus some chickens, goats, children, and sometimes a cow).  I'm usually given the front middle seat, the emergency brake seat.  I get the front because I'm white, the middle because I'm a woman.  Sometimes I ask to sit in the back where it's more comfortable, safer, and where I don't get a 4th gear bruise on my left thigh. Squished in between the market mamas in the back, I hope to chip away at the stereotype that all privileged whites have to sit in front.  But gender works against this goal, and its assumed that I sit in back because I know my place as a woman. 
          As I talk to young women around Bafilo and prepare to start the programs that seem possible here, I think about all these factors, and how deeply ingrained they are in society.  I picture myself hitting my head repeatedly against numerous brick walls.  I know I will not knock them down. Maybe I hope to make enough noise that someone on the other side will be curious enough to make a hole in the wall so they can see what's going on.  Maybe they'll like what they see
and start breaking away at the wall themselves.  Then again, when they peak through, all they'll see is a crazy white girl with a very bruised head.  But at least they'll  be a hole. 
           Anyway, I wanted to share some of today's taxi station thoughts with you. Thanks for "listening" to me ramble.  I'm living  in a place rich with learning experiences...or perhaps it's just an ideal place to go a little crazy with your own thoughts; either way, life is rich.  Until next time, Peace Out,
TNL #33 
 May 28,2002
Hello All,
   I'm sitting here eating a Whopper (with cheese no onions), drinking a Mike's Lemonade in a chilled glass, and trying to figure out this damn American keyboard. The punctuation is all in the wrong place, and my fingers now refuse to believe that the 'A' isn't located on the top row.  But, at least there's spell check.  Gotta love spell check.  So, as you may have guessed, I'M HOME!!!! Let me tell you about the voyage. 
     I left Bafilo with a couple friends Monday morning.  The taxi was going to come pick us up as soon as it was full to go to Lomé.  They said 7am, so I expected them at 8 or 9.  At 9:30, the man who runs the Bafilo taxi station came by on a moto to tell me they were going to eat and then come get us.  At 11, I got impatient.  I told Djalilou I was going down town to check it out, and left.   After speed walking the mile into town, I was told to be patient and wait for someone to go check it out for me.  Five minutes later, I was told that the taxi already went to my house, so I sped walked halfway home before I ran into it.  My friends and luggage were all aboard.  Safiou had locked up my house, and Djalilou sent his goodbye.  He was upset because he had stayed home to see me off, and it seemed our goodbye was missed.  Feeling very scattered, I climbed into the van and headed south.  After a few near-death experiences on the road, we arrived in Lomé in time to eat some crepes and go to sleep. 
           I spent a couple great days in Lomé, and was packed and ready to go by Wednesday morning.  A few hours before I was planning to go to the airport, I ran into a missionary friend from Kara who was going to pick up his father-in-law at the airport at the same time that I was going, so I hitched a ride, and had a friend to send me off.   After a short flight to Lagos, I was bound for Paris. 
      Once in Paris, it was discovered that I had somehow gotten through the first half of my journey with a pocket knife in my carry-on.  I had no clue it was in there, and this made the guards a bit mad.  It took me 3 hours to convince them to let me keep it and check it in my luggage.  By the time I was talking to person #4 about my knife, I'd convinced them to give me a box to check it in, and was feeling pretty good.  I was even happy to have killed 3 of my 7 hours in Paris dealing with such an important task.  I was speaking French, running on adrenaline, and happy to be going home.  And then the woman gave me the box, looked at my passport, and said, very sweetly, "And you're American? You should really know better".  Then she smiled, patted me on the arm, and I started crying.  Right there in the middle of the airport, my exhaustion, anticipation, and overly emotional state of mind took over, and I lost it.  I was so mad at myself for crying in front of her, that I cried more.  She felt bad, so she got nicer, so I kept crying.  I tried to make small talk to cover up, pretended to have something stuck in my eye, and then walked away completely embarrassed. After that, I never did regain my emotional stability.  I cried during all of the Paris to Boston in-flight movies, including the five minutes of a horrible movie called Joyride.  For the last hour of the flight I stared at the TV map on the back of the seat in front of me, watching the little cartoon airplane get closer and closer to Boston. 
         When we landed in Boston, they made us stay on the plane for an excruciatingly long half hour, then every customs person took personal interest in me and my West African baggage, then I FINALLY made it to the greeting area. 
      I saw Meaghan, pushed my luggage cart out of the way, landed in a long awaited hug, and started crying (again).  Trembling, and crying, and laughing, we started walking out of the airport, but hadn't gotten far when I heard someone say, "Hey Yovo".  I spun around wondering who the heck was calling me a Yovo in Boston, and I almost ran right into a handful of flowers. 
        Surprise #1, Wyn was not only in New England, but he had come to the airport with Meaghan.  I was on cloud nine, sleep deprived, trembling from head to toe, and sitting in a car in wonderful Boston rush hour traffic with two of my favorite people on God's green earth.  Life was feeling pretty good.  Back in my old apartment in Providence I took my first HOT shower in over 7 months, and waited impatiently for surprise #2; Rachel.  When she came home from work I was sitting on her bed.  Her scream may have broken the sound barrier.  She tackled me, and my smile stretched a foot beyond my face on either end.  Again, life is good.  Ridiculously tired, I had a solid night of insomnia, blessed by perhaps an hour of dozing off, although it may not have been sleep at all, as even my reality feels like dream-land right now.  
             This morning I got up, took another HOT shower, and headed south for surprises number 3, 4, and 5.  First stop, Dad's office.  No screaming, but the shock factor was good; more trembling on my part (aided by the fact that I'd just consumed my first iced coffee).  Then over to the house to surprise Mom, and on to Heather's office to do the same.  Why were they surprised?  Didn't they know I was coming home?  Yes, but they were expecting me next week.  I love surprises.  To top it all off, I finally got to meet Rick the mail man who has been reading my TNLs, and faithfully getting mail back and forth from my folks to me. 
          I haven't really slept in over 60 hours, this keyboard is driving me nuts and I've got a very cool 3 year old and his stuffed elephant climbing around the computer.  It's clearly time to play. 
Peace and blessings,
Mon, 17 Jun 2002
Subject: TNL#34
Hello All,
    In a few hours I'll be hopping the next jet to Paris where I will likely argue with airport officials about some trivial matter like why a peace corps volunteer can't carry heavy artillery in her carry-on luggage.  After which I'll hop a plane south to Nigeria and Togo where I will suddenly be hit by the realization that I won't be home again for a year and a half and I will zombie my way back up country in complete shock where my dear missionary friends will be forced to nurse me back to emotional well-being andbreathe Beckygeez, transition makes me a bit dramatic.
           It's been a wonderful three weeks, but I do believe I'm ready to resume life in the tropics.  Over the past 25 days I've enjoyed some awesome surprises, eaten at some incredible restaurants, sat on beaches and rocks, laid about on quilts in gardens with real grass smiling at the beauty, seen some movies and some theater, eaten sushi, drank ice coffee, sailed through the bay, enjoyed my own personal magic show in the basement of the Brown science building, had breakfast, lunch, and dinner dates, been poked and prodded by medical officials, only to be told I have a plethora of parasites, sped about on roller coasters, drove cross country, square danced at a medieval wedding, enjoyed the company of many of you at a cookout in my parents backyard, solved the mystery at a murder mystery dinner (and thus won an all expense paid trip to Africa...ha), got my first ever pedicure and manicure only to end up with nails that were blue with painted daisies, walked down the aisle and watched my sister say 'I do', danced with my dad, and ran barefoot through the waves in 50 degree clouds, hung out with long lost relations, and my closest friends.  And that's only the tip of the wedding cake.  It's been a darn good, crazy full, fulfilling, head-spinning trip.  But it's time to hit the road, or the clouds as it may be.  I want to thank you all for any small or large part you've played in my time here.  I'll be in touch next week.  Peace out.