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Becky Binns--Togo News Letter

TNLs #35-39
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And Here We Have...
#35 Back over the Great Blue Puddle
#36 Djalilou, Safiou, and Yacabou
#37 Bafilo Market
#38 Serina
#39 So many stories to tell you
 
Fri, 21 Jun 2002 
 TNL#35~The Long Voyage Back
Hello All,
          Monday afternoon, my family dropped me off at the airport in Boston.  Turning away from my Dad with my luggage cart loaded down with newly acquired American treats, I realized that I was feeling too much to let myself feel anything.  "Just another transition Becky, you can do this.  That something is difficult makes it all the more worth doing.  January 2004 is just around the corner.  You are where you're supposed to be." Pep-talk to self out of the way, I snapped into travel mode and was soon speeding down the run-way.
          Air France has this great new feature wherein they've attached cameras to the front of the plane so that their passengers can turn away from their windows and watch take-off on a TV screen.  The best part of this is that after the plane leaves the ground, they unexpectedly change camera angles from the front of the plane to the bottom so that you momentarily believe you are headed back towards the pavement.  After my heart resumed its natural rhythm, I closed my eyes and started to think about this transition.  At which point the flood gates opened.  The cool thing about crying on an Air France plane is that everyone's got their own personal TV, so you can flip yours to the saddest movie on the menu...and pretend that it's such a sad movie that even the opening credits seem to have moved you to tears.  It was a long flight. 
          In Paris, I found an empty glass hallway and watched the sunrise.  I was just starting to enjoy my solitude when I heard someone calling my name.  It was another PCV coming back from vacation.  We walked to our gate together where we met 19 students from Harding University in Arkansas on their way to Togo for a summer internship.  Nine of them will be living in Kara with my missionary friends, so it was cool to travel the last leg with them. 
          A cool evening breeze greeted us in Lomé. I told my new friends not to get used to it, hooked them up with their hosts, and headed off to my hotel.  As soon as I was in my taxi, the strangely comfortable smell  of Togo filled my nose.  Yup, here I am.  I settled into my room, took a quick shower, and found another taxi to my favorite Lomé night-spot: an outdoor movie theater/pizzeria called Greenfields.
          The missionaries had taken their interns there for dinner, and a few other PCVs were there too.  They were surprised and happy to see me.  Turns out they were half expecting me to not come back.  The "promised land" can be a tempting place to stay for a PCV who vacations too early.  It was a wonderful homecoming.  Wednesday morning I caught a ride half-way up the country with my director and stayed at my friend Laurie's house for the night.  I was sitting in her house alone re-reading The Poisonwood Bible when Laurie came in to tell me that her neighbor's daughter had just died.  Here I am, back in Togo, where death is as common as life.  Five minutes later she returned to tell me that it wasn't her daughter, it was her son, and he wasn't dead, he  was diagnosed with AIDS and sent home to die.  Here I am, back in Togo where communication between us and the locals is almost always miscommunication.  I could hear the mother sobbing outside.    
       Laurie and I stayed up late talking about home, and being far from home.  In the morning she made me French toast and sent me on my way.  Three bush taxis, two engine breakdowns, six hours, and 200km later, I was in my house.  Alone.  Sort of.  The cockroaches had taken over.  The mice had eaten my gum.  There were strange bugs in my flour, crickets in my fridge, a lizard in my couch, and spiders everywhere.  The spiders had created master pieces between every piece of furniture and in every door frame.  I cleaned for an hour and then passed out, sleeping the afternoon away, and waking up after dark. Wide awake, and very alone. 
          My solitude had never felt so heavy.  "I am where I'm supposed to be.  That something is difficult makes it that much more worthwhile.  These 18 months will fly.  This is a good life."  Pep-talk to self out of the way, I let my solitude sink in, and I cried, a lot. 
           In the morning I ran around town letting everyone know I was back.  People were welcoming and happy and forgiving of my dormant French.  They fed me and set appointments with me and expressed their enthusiasm in the fact that I'm back and ready to start some new projects.  On the roller coaster ride of transition, I was flung back up.  I took my good mood to Kara, and experienced more of a fabulous homecoming, and then decided to come here and tell you all about it.  This IS a good life, and I AM where I'm supposed to be.  No pep-talks needed...today anyway.  Peace Out to you all, until
next week,
~becky
 
TNL #36
Hello All,
          Every once in a while, as Friday draws near, I wonder what I will write about once I reach the air-conditioned haven of my favorite internet cafe.  This is one of those weeks; full of the small nuances of living in Togo, yet void of any real adventure.  I've been easing my way back into the solitude of Bafilo, and the mere four days I spent there this week seemed to last a month.  I had a couple planning meetings, which felt productive, but I walked away from them feeling as if I'd missed half of the information presented.  And I was the one chairing the meetings. 
          So, I went to see my old French tutor and got us back on a regular schedule.  It's become painfully obvious that in a town this advanced and motivated, my French level makes me sound like a kindergartener trying to prepare a bunch of 8th graders for high school.  Luckily, I have some strong Togolese friends helping me out. 
          Speaking of Togolese friends, let me update you on the 3 who you already know well.  Djalilou (the kid who lives in a room in my compound) took his exams while I was gone.  He's at a very difficult point in high school that many students never get past.  These exams could mean passing into the last year of school, or they could mean repeating the previous level, which many students do 6 or 7 times before giving up.  86 students took the test, 31 passed.  Djalilou was one of them.  I experienced a strange (and obviously undeserved) sense of pride when the results came in. 
         Safiou (my friend and neighbor) was also busy in my absence.  Whereas I usually see him everyday, I'd only seen him twice since my return.  So I went looking for him, and found a bunch of young women in his house, but no Safiou.  My French tutor filled me in on the gossip/news that Safiou had failed to tell me himself. My 25 year old friend who was holding out for a western woman because he didn't trust Togolese women, got married three weeks ago to an 18 year old Kotokoli hair dresser.  Needless to say, I don't see him much anymore.  And Djalilou has returned to his parents village for the summer.  So it's been a bit lonely.
          However, there is one person who will never desert me. That's right folks, your favorite electrician and mine...Yacabou.  He came over the other day and asked me how I was feeling.  The automatic "ca va très bien" hesitated on its way out of my mouth.  Might as well be honest with a man who makes himself such a dominating part of my everyday life.  "Ca va un peu Yacabou, ca va un peu". He told me he was only a little OK too, and then he went and picked a mysterious fruit from one of my trees.  He called me over, carefully opened the fruit, and taught me how to eat the sweet, lung-like, part inside.  It was good, and I was ever so slightly cheered up.  I even considered the fruit a gift as Yacabou loaded up his arms with fruit from my other trees and left my yard smiling.  The niceness didn't stop there.  Yesterday, Yacabou noticed that I'd left my porch light on all day, and reminded me to turn it off so I didn't pay too much for my electricity.  Thanks Yacabou.  Incidentally, after cutting him off from his supply of stolen electricity, my bill was cut in half.  The man is a trip. 
          Other than that, my life has been full of ant invasions, walks through the green beauty of rainy season, bed bugs, some brave new lizards who inhabit my couch, trials, tribulations, and thanksgivings. Until next time, Peace Out All,
~becky
 
 
 Mon, 8 Jul 2002
TNL#37
Hello All,
          I decided to spend this weekend in Bafilo, partially because I spent the 4th of July in Kara, and partially because I wanted to check out Bafilo's Market Day.
    Bafilo has a small market everyday, but on Saturday people come from all over the prefecture to buy and sell.  It's an event that I almost always miss, as I spend most weekends in Kara.  So, Saturday afternoon, after a morning of laundry and housework, I headed down to the center of town to explore.  You can't be in a hurry walking through a busy market, as it often takes 5 minutes to make 5 ft of progress.  You also can't really browse, as someone behind you might be in a hurry.  It's a mob scene, but one with the familiarity and ease found among people who have been neighbors for uncountable generations.
        The section of fruits and vegetables, fish and grains is full of  women; babies on backs, colorful traditional Muslim headscarves, breasts hanging out, the kind of constant, simultaneous chatter that makes you wonder if anyone's actually listening.  The men sit around in a more subdued social setting nearby, selling goats, chickens, hammers, nails, and bits of string.  The center of the market is raised on a stage-like platform with different levels displaying the traditional Bafilo Cloth woven up the mountain from my house.  This genuine and expensive product is surrounded by hundreds of less expensive imported fabrics; walls of colorful patchwork providing small bits of shade for their vendors.  Behind the textile stage is the more interesting part of the market.  It starts with prayer mats, books written in Arabic, Bin Laden T-shirts, prayer beads, and then progresses to an assortment of random, unidentifiable objects sold by worn out old men and crumpled up old women.  There are boxes of assorted pills, dried animal parts, shells, stones, birds' feet...it's the grigri section of the market, anything and everything a "doctor" may ask you to bring him so he can work whatever voodoo you've requested.  Past the grigri paraphernalia is a small cluster of hand built pottery.  The potter, whom I had hoped to talk to, was no where to be found.  So, I headed home, stopping at my favorite fruit lady to buy some bananas.  As I handed her a few coins, a girl passing by tripped and spilled little plastic water pitchers everywhere.  Helping her pick them up, I felt I should make small talk, which led to me asking how much she was selling her wares for, which led to me feeling I should buy something.  Thus, I headed home with bananas and a little blue plastic water pitcher, which I really didn't need.
   I went in looking for pottery and came out with 50 cents worth of blue plastic.  The realization made me laugh, and by the time I got back to my house, I'd realized that so often in life the opposite is true; I go looking for plastic and come back out having been given some outstanding ceramic masterpiece.  Cheesy analogy? Yes. Reminder that life is good?  That too.  Until next time, Peace Out,
~becky
Fri, 12 Jul 2002
Subject: TNL #38
Hello All,
           There is a woman who speaks English in my town.  You have no idea how happy this discovery made me.  I was walking to the taxi station in Kara a few days ago, when a car pulled over next to me.  The driver recognized the Bafilo Yovo, and asked if I was headed home.  "Yes, Thank you".  I climbed into the backseat next to a large Togolese woman.  At least I thought she was Togolese.  She asked me how I was doing in English, but I just assumed she was trying out the one line that most Africans know in English, "how are you?".  So I answered in French and English, and we continued on in silence for awhile.  Then she said something else in English, which has since slipped my mind. 
"You speak English?" I asked, surprised. 
"Yes, I'm from Ghana".
"And you live in Bafilo now?"
"Yes, my husband is Kotokoli, I have been living here since eye-fo"
"I'm sorry, since when?"
"Eye-fo, eye-fo...nineteen eye-fo"
"Oh, 1984?"
          OK, so Ghanaian English is almost as hard for me to understand as Togolese French, but I was still happy to meet this woman.  Her name is Serena, and she sells petrol across the street from the place where I get my mail.  She's been watching me for six months, but was too shy to introduce herself.  For the rest of the ride she spoke to me in English, to the driver in Kotokoli, and I spoke to the driver in French.  Serena has never learned any French.  "It is too hard a language to speak."  Before we reached Bafilo, she turned to me and said, "I will take you as a friend!" "Thank you Serena, I will take YOU as a friend."
          It was the first time that a Togolese (or Ghanaian) person has asked for my friendship without me being cautious of their intentions. 
          Other than that, let's see, what is the news of my week?  I've been in Togo for nine months now, exactly one third of my total time here.  I received the last immunization (barring unforeseen events) of my Peace Corps career the other day.  I am now medically invincible.  My yellow card looks like an Applebee's menu.  I'm getting serious ant invasions after every rain fall lately, and it rains everyday.  The termites are eating all my windowsills; a home owner's nightmare.  Luckily I don't own the home.  And I think I'm getting a cat, a dog, and maybe a chicken soon.   
 Until next week, peace out all!
~becky
ps  I read a fabulous book this week.  Julian Barnes "A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters". I highly recommend it.  "Stunning...a flawless diamond" ~Chicago Sun Times. 
"Better than Fufu and peanut sauce!" ~Becky Binns, PCV
 
 
 Wed, 17 Jul 2002
Subject: TNL#39
Hey All,
          It's been one of those weeks that presents a TNL around every corner. Seeing as how I have a strange obsession with sharing all that happens to me with you all, this is quite overwhelming.  So when I realized I had to pass through Kara this morning anyway, I figured I'd unload the brain into an early newsletter.
  So here we go, bulleted and condensed into fast-read format for your convenience and mine...the last four days of my life.
 
*  Saturday morning I was suckered into giving an impromptu speech about my work...in French, which was followed by over an hour of questions and answers (I think I was the one who gave the answers, not sure though).  I'd gotten so used to Pretending that I understand French that having to Actually understand and respond, to an audience, caused some serious brain-burn.
*   Went hiking with my friend Sarah all day Sunday.  Sarah's a great girl and is becoming a valued friend.   She's also a hard core hiker.  We talked and speed walked up and down the Bafilo mountain range for about six hours.  Strenuous and rejuvenating.  On our way back towards civilization we got caught in a monsoon and were picked up by some Swiss tourists who were passing through Bafilo.  Twilight zone convenience there.
*  My friend Josh was hanging out at my house while I was at work Monday when he heard someone at my gate.  He jumped out of the shower to see who it was and caught 7 or 8 boys sneaking into my yard.  After chasing them halfway to the road, he realized he had no shirt on, and had to return to the house quickly (Muslim neighborhood), and so they escaped his wrath. And I am now a bit more diligent about locking the gate.
*   The same Josh was trying to scramble eggs in my kitchen when he had a problem turning the stove on.  Turns out it was out of gas, which can only be bought in Lomé.  Big inconvinence.  He turned to me with a bowl of raw egg and said, "Well at least you can't burn your house down now." (sometimes it's painful how I wear my scatter-brainedness on my sleeve) "I couldn't burn it down anyway, It's made of concrete." He gave me a YOU'D-figure-out-how look as he headed out to the yard to start a fire.  He's probably right.
*  It rained all day Tuesday.  Cold rain.  Perfect hot beverage weather.  No gas in stove.  So I melted a bunch of candlesticks to my kitchen counter, balanced a metal towel rack on some tin cans over the candles, and boiled water over candle-light.  That's right folks, it boiled.  It was a moment of pride. 
* Before it started raining, someone came over to tell me that the chief of my neighborhood (the man who named me Mariama) had died.  I dropped everything and went to greet the family, who informed me that it was actually his older brother who died.  And his older brother is chief of prayer for all of Bafilo. The town was turned up-side-down.  Djalilou came back from his village to greet the family.  A wealthy man showed up at my door and asked to sleep in one of the rooms in my compound.  Turns out he's my landlord, who I had never met. 
*  As I was talking to my landlord, Yacabou came over and in the middle of our conversation turned to the landlord and said, "Unfortunately there is no light in your room because Mariama cut the electricity" (side note to newcomers: Yacabou had been stealing my electricity via my extra room, so I had to cut the wires).  I was shocked that he had even gone there.  Josh was still there too, and he found his voice faster than I could, "Is that Mariama's fault Yacabou?"  All of us knew the story, none of us really wanted to get into it.  Yacabou and the landlord left after some nervous laughter and a brief "See ya later". 
*   Back in the house, I decided to do a quick home-improvement.  Dust, bugs, and dirt had been falling out of the bottom of my bathroom door for weeks, so I thought I'd take it off and replace it with a curtain.  Josh and I pulled pushed and swore at the door for about ten minutes before we realized that it lifted quite effortlessly out of its hinges.  Carrying it outside we noticed that it rattled...a lot.  Doors aren't supposed to rattle.  So we pulled it apart and found that it was full of roaches, nests, lizard skeletons, and (most curiously) sea-shells.  Old remnants of someone's voodoo?  Who knows.  Not a mystery worth solving, I'm just happy to be rid of it.
*  Josh left for Kara
*  Yacabou came over to ask to borrow my kerosene lamp for the landlord. Ha.
*   I made myself some candle-stick spaghetti. Went to bed, woke up, had a French lesson, and scored a ride to Kara with my teacher's husband who (surprise!) speaks English.  Who knew.  We talked  politics in fr-english all the way to Kara. This is illegal on my part, but exceptionally interesting. 
*  So here I am, and here I go. Off to my friend Lynn's village for her birthday.
Peace Out All,
~becky