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Becky Binns--Togo News Letter


And here we Have...
#76 What do you eat over there?
#77 Big Mama talks faith.
#78 Questions, Questions...
#79 Fofana
#80 Mali

Date: May 26, 2003 (received via "snail mail" June 5th, 2003)

Typed by Mom Binns

Subject: TNL# 76

Hello All,

         No, I'm not in Kara. I am still confined to Bafilo. But if the Postal System cooperates, you can get your (almost) weekly edition of the TNL anyway. All thanks to my Mom, who has not been torn away from all forms of communication.

         People ask me about food a lot. I mean A LOT! When I was home last June, approximately 97.5% I talked to asked this question (ver batim) , "So Becky, what do you eat over there?". I eat snakes, live leeches, and bitter yellow berries. OK, not really. I only eat that stuff on special occasions. Actually I eat quite well here. I'm able to buy a good deal of food basics (pasta, rice, sugar, powdered milk) in Bafilo along with onions, tomatoes, and ginger root (I love ginger). And I get lots of veggies, eggs, and grocery store food in Kara.

         Also there's a lady who bakes bread near my house every morning around 6 am. So I used to have toast or French Toast every morning. But not anymore. Now I eat Yougur every morning. Yes, EVERY morning! I'm stuck in a yogurt trap, you see. In early May, while I was in a tipped over Toyota, Phynessa was house-sitting for me, and she discovered that yogurt is very easy to make. She left me some, and I immediately made some more using the culture from her batch. A bowl lasts a few days before it starts to sour, so you have to eat it quick, save a spoonful, and make another round, so as to keep the culture going. Thus I eat Yogurt every morning. Yogurt with cereal, yogurt with mango, yogurt over pancakes, yogurt over biscuitsdid I mention yogurt with Mango? It's mango season. And I have Mango trees. So I eat a lot of Mangos. Phynessa makes really good mango jam and I make yummy mango crisp. And then there's mango yogurt.

         A lot of what we eat here is based on the season. In orange season, I drink a lot of orange juice. In yam season, there's fufu (gooey starch dish). Grilled corn comes around in June, and passion fruit and papaya come in September. Luckily, I can get wagashi year round. I eat wagashi every day. In peanut sauce, tomato sauce, over rice and pasta, in sandwichesyum! What is wagashi? Local cheese; which doesn't melt. Thus you can fry it, season it, and treat it like meat (without having to butcher it). I believe it was Dario who said, "If my Mom knew fried cheese was part of my daily diet, she'd flip!".

         I was asked recently on a health questionnaire what my source of protein is. I wrote "wagashi". I was then asked about my calcium source: "wagashi". I then became a bit confused as to whether it actually was protein, or if I just considered it such since I think of it as meat. I do sometimes eat real meat, bought in the crusty, fly-filled Butchery de Bafilo. I soak it in vinegar, beat it with a piece of heavy metal, and boil it for hours before chewing on it for a few more hours (mmmfree range). I only do this when my iron levels are so low that I crave a good chew on my Birkenstock.

         I bake a lot too, in a big pot called a Dutch oven, on top of my stove. I bake cakes, biscuits, and pizzas (and lately, lots of Mango Crisp). I go through at least a kilo of flour a week. Sometimes it seems silly that we use so many mixes at home: cake mixes, muffin mixes, even pancake mixes. But who knows, perhaps in a year, I'll be going through a kilo of Bisquick instead of a kilo of flour.

         Sometimes I eat street food: rice and wagashi, beans, meat on a stick. And I eat in a German-run restaurant when I'm in Kara. But most of what I eat, I make at homelike yogurt. Until next time, Bon Appetite!

Date: Sun, 8 Jun 2003

Subject: TNL#77

Hello All,

         Crossing the river the other day, a group of bathing adolescent girls called out to me to give them money. I ignored the request and greeted them. It's basic protocol here to greet someone before talking to them about anything else, but when it comes to Yovos, folks often skip protocol and get right to the point: you have money and I want it. I told the girls to have a good bath and a good day, and I continued down the path.
They ran after me. "Give me money!"
I turned around and looked at them, "Why are you asking me for money?"
"Because! Give me money!"
"You ask me for money because you think I am money. I am not money though. I am a person like you."
"No You're NOT!"
"No!? Than what am I?"
(pause) "You're a Big Mama!"
I am a big mama in the eyes of a bunch of 14 year old girls. Oh Joy.

         I tell you this story not because its all that unusual (although I've never before been called Big Mama), but because its one of the small moments from the past couple weeks that add up to make my life here all that it is. However, none of my most recent moments seem to add up to a TNL. I've had at least three lizards jump out of things in my house at me lately. But there's not much to say about that. Some Muslim men had to tell me that it was Ascension the other day, a Christian holiday (they were a bit disconcerted that I didn't know). Oh, Right, and the President who's been in power for 36 years (the longest current African leadership) just got another five years. But I'm not allowed to talk about that (although I'd LOVE to). I've been listening to lots of BBC (hourly updates on the activities of the G8). And I've been doing lots of Yoga (a couple hours a day guided by "The Complete Idiots Guide to Yoga"). There have been many walks, and many visits with the women of Bafilo. But nothing too noteworthy.

         Perhaps the most interesting moment of my last two weeks was a conversation I had with Djalilou on the night that the election results were announced. We were talking politics, democracy, and world affairs for about an hour when he suddenly said, "You know in Islam we don't say we are the children of God".

         This was seemingly out of the blue, but Djalilou has heard me tell people that we are all God's kids in the past (usually when I'm trying to prove our equality when white superiority beliefs come up), and I suppose it's been bothering him for a while that I would say this to his fellow Muslims. It was something I'd never even considered. So I asked,
"Well then, what are you?"
"We are God's creation."

         Oh. So I explained that we say we are his children because he made us, and therefore we also say we are his creation. He asked if God has a wife. No. So how can he have children? Because he's God. This launched us into another hour of Christian/Muslim debate. He asked me to go get my Bible, and he got his dictionary and a list of scripture he was having a problem with. I wondered where Phynessa was (she got her Masters at Harvard Divinity). The bugs were launching a mighty attack in the beam of my porch light. Djalilou missed prayer. The words of Moses were interrogated. The five pillars were discussed. Djalilou was telling me all the problems with Christianity when he got to prayer, "Another problem; Prayer! God tells us to pray five times a day and Christians don't pray."

         I explained that most Christians do indeed pray, but it's not structured like in Islam. It's different for everyone. For example, I pray three times a day (in the morning, at dinner, and before bed) which wasn't mandated by a church, but rather learned from my family. He was silent for a moment,
"You pray everyday?"
"Well...this is why Muslims and Christians should talk to each other more often."

         In my prideful moment of feeling like I'd just scored a point for my faith, I neglected to tell him that I don't always pray three times a day, and that Christians could learn a lot from the diligent prayer life of their Muslim sisters and brothers...or fellow members of creation. It was 8pm, an hour after the last prayer call of the day.

"Djalilou, you're really late for prayer."
"God'll understand, I'm doing his work."
"Goodnight Djalilou."

         Most people here think its pretty cool that I'm a Christian living among Muslims. I never expected to have someone question my faith, because people are generally just happy that I believe in God. But Djalilou has become my best Togolese friend, and I think he's genuinely worried about my misled perspective of God. The boy has the weight of the world on his shoulders. His country feels hopelessly far from democracy, he's struggling to study for his BAC (the impossible test he's got to pass to graduate from high school), and his friend Becky is on the "wrong" faith path. God save the Big Mama. Allah bless Djalilou.

Until next time,

Sun, 15 Jun 2003

TNL #78

Hello All,

         I just typed for 30 minutes and then lost it all in the cyber-Togo-world; a great vast black hole that holds so many of my words from the past year and a half. grrr... OK, lets try again. Today I will answer a few frequently asked questions. I will even put the questions in BOLD so that if one question doesn't interest you, you can just skip down to the next one. I do try to be reader friendly. OK, here we go.


         Not well. Once every week or two I fill two huge metal bowls water and put them at the base of my back steps. I put all the white cloths in the wash bowl and pile the dark clothes, red clothes and really really dirty clothes on the top steps, so as to dirty the water in an orderly fashion. I then sit on the bottom step and use a chunk of soap called BF to pull most of the dirt out of each item. If I scrub too hard they will wear out too soon, so I'm usually happy just to get the big dirt spots and make the clothes smell like BF. I run everything through the rinse bowl, ring the bajeebies out of it, and drape it all over my backyard lines.

         Undergarments aren't supposed to be hung outside where they can be seen, nor are they supposed to be washed in the same water with other clothes. So, I do them separately whenever my clean underwear pile gets low. This used to be once every couple weeks, but since my sister sent me about 10lbs of underwear for Christmas it's become a once every six weeks activity. Which means that once in a blue moon there are about 30 feet of colorful decorations adorning the lines in my prayer room.


         The bungalow (the name of my house, christened as such awhile back by fellow PCV Sarah Lincoln) is quite the place. No cardboard boxes. It's probably a little less than an acre of land surrounded by a brick wall. Within the wall is my house, a garage, and a line of small rooms in front of the house along the side wall. Djalilou lives in the first of these rooms. It's a pretty cool deal for him because he doesn't have to pay rent and he's got electricity, water, and lots of peace and quiet. Most kids who have to live in Bafilo to go to the high school are obligated to pay to live in small, crowded rooms around town. Sure Djalilou has to put up with my music and my strange friends (Just the other day Phynessa came over with a Scorpion in a Jelly Jar. We released it, took pictures of it, and then violently killed it ten times over. When confronted, Djalilou admitted to having told this crazy American story at school). But at least he doesn't have to pay rent.


         Not much. I spend a couple hours there most weekday mornings. It's a drop in center for battered women, among other things. But only Christian women usually come in for that, not Muslims. And since Bafilo is 95% Muslim, it's usually just me and the ladies that work there. I talk to these women. They give me candy and avocados. I bring them cake. They speak Kotakoli and laugh at my intent expressions as I try to understand. We sort beans, gossip, play with the kids, and talk about the men. They play with my hair, study my feet, and pet my arms. I try to convince them that we're all the same.

         It's my favorite part of my job here, and sometimes I feel like it's the most productive, though I have no way to explain why. There's nothing quantitative or tangible to write on my quarterly reports about the women's center. But those women and their kids keep me here, and I love that they've been woven into my daily life.

         Yesterday, Cherita, a beautiful young woman who just had her second baby, asked me if I was looking forward to going home in six months. I told her I was but that I was very sad thinking about leaving this place. She looked down, touched the ring I wear on my left index toe, and told me I shouldn't go.

Until next time,

Sat, 21 Jun 2003

Subject: TNL # 79 ~Fofana

Hello All,

         Four months after I swore in as a PCV, in early 2002, I helped organize a girls' seminar; and Fofana was one of the girls chosen by the school director to participate in it. I later learned that she had been chosen because she was a dynamic, social student, known by everyone. And she was about to drop out of school. It was just too hard. She was 21, sweet, curious, and emotionally intelligent. And she quickly became a good friend of mine.

         Before I go much further into Fofana's story, I should give you a little background information. The Togolese school system is the same as the French; the grades go backwards. For example 6éme is the equivalent of 7th grade, 5éme is 8th, 4éme is 9th, and so on. Also, it's important to know that most students repeat most grades. Hence Fofana is 21 and on her second go at 4éme.

         During that girls' seminar last year, Fofana made the tearful decision to try to stay in school. Shortly thereafter she found out she'd failed 4éme again, and prepared to go back for a third shot at the same level. Over this past school year, she's been an amazing help to me in my work. She helped with girls' clubs, aided in the Bafilo girls conference in April, and visits me at my house regularly.

         This year she also got engaged. The boy is 19, and Fofana is now 18 (people here often go to the Judge to officially change their age for one reason or another). Mr. Fiancé visits from Lomé once every few months to try to convince Fofana to quit school and get married. After a few arguments over this, Fofana finally convinced him to let her finish school through 3éme, and then she would go to Lomé with him IF his family pays for her to go to a technical school in the city. He agreed. I was so proud of her. But I was also worried that she wouldn't pass 4éme this year.

         A couple days ago, my PC director, Rose, came to Bafilo to talk about my work and start preparing for my replacement volunteer. We went to the school to visit with the Director there. The Director is a dynamic, hardworking 54 year old kid who is asthmatic and probably ADHD. He ran around unlocking doors, gathering chairs, and chattering about final exams while we laughed at him. Finally he sat down to talk, bouncing his knees, looking over our shoulders, but very much into our conversation. He told Rose about the Girls' Seminars and how the students involved have been teaching the other students. He then started talking about Fofana. A year ago she was ready to drop out, but after the seminar she had hope and stayed. Its been hard for her, but she just passed into 3éme.

         She Passed?! Fofana?! I told them I was so happy I might cry. And then I did. It was a little embarrassing. But I think they understood. Rose teared up a bit too, and told me that my service was successful if that's all I ever accomplished. And the director focused in on us and smiled from here to Timbuktu.

         After all our meetings, I had Rose drop me off downtown so I could go and congratulate Fofana, but she wasn't home. Later I realized that she may not know her grades yet, so I probably shouldn't congratulate her until she comes to me to tell me she passed. But she heard I'd been to her house, so the next morning she came to visit me. I asked her if she had her report card yet. No, not yet, why? She could already tell I was excited about something...SO I told her all about my meeting with the Director and Rose and how happy we all were for her. She smiled, but tried to stay cool. We talked about other things; my work, her fiancé, etc. She only stayed about ten minutes, but when she left, she turned to me teary eyed and smiling, and did something Togolese rarely do. She hugged me. All I could think was; God, I hope the Director wasn't mistaken.

Until next time,

Mon, 30 Jun 2003

Subject: TNL #80?

Hello All,

         I've just returned from Mali (that dusty country 24 bush taxi miles north of me), and I have so many stories, I feel like a little kid in a candy store trying to decide which ones to tell you. I may as well warn you, if the computer cooperates, this'll be a long one.


         My friend Jonnett and I hopped in a north-bound bush taxi early Sunday morning, and after a brief night's sleep in Ouagadougou (the capital of Burkina Faso), ended up Monday evening in Koro, Mali. Our goal was to find a guide to lead us on a three-day hike through Dogon Country (a anthropologist/tourist destination for years). But everyone says that guides in Koro are unreliable and usually out to scam naive tourists. That and they are rarely actually from Dogon.

         We were in the Koro taxi station looking for a driver to take us into Dogon Country when James found us. When he approached us I asked him if he was a driver. No, Im a guide. Then we dont need you. The station was crazy. Everyone wanted to take us somewhere. Everyone was talking at once. This James guy was annoying as heck, and we'd just been confined in dusty vans and buses for two days. I'd love to tell you all the arguing and debating that happened that night, but to make long story short, twelve hours later we found ourselves piled in the back of an old pick-up, headed to Dogon...accompanied by James.

         James was too cool for words. He's a stylish 24 year old Rasta dude who grew up in a southern Dogon village. He's been a guide for six years, and knew every Dogon story there was to know, and everyone we passed seemed to know and love James. He wore shades, even at dusk, and twirled his dreads whenever he wasn't sleeping, eating, or smoking, all of which he did a lot. He was sleeping in that first pick-up ride when a tire exploded. He, luckily, stayed put, but the wide-awake guy next to him bounced right out of the truck and rolled away from us. No worries though. He was OK. Never a dull moment on an African road.


         Tuesday afternoon we reached our first village. The people were kind and the landscape was amazing. Dogon Country is based along a breathtakingly high cliff range. The top of the cliff is a plateau, then it falls straight down a couple hundred meters and trickles down a rocky slope to the prairie below. Thousands of years ago, the Dogon people came and decided to build houses in the sides of the cliff in order to be out of range of dangerous animals. To reach their houses from the prairie (which used to be forest) they had to walk up hundreds of feet of steep stair-like boulders. They used mud and stones to build homes, bars, grain mills, and sacred places to make sacrifices, all under a dramatic overhang in the cliffs. Three hundred years ago, the animal population had dwindled significantly, and the brave (and tired) Dogon began to build homes on the prairie at the foot of the mountain. Now only one elder lives in the upper city of each village. His job is to oversee the spiritual well-fare of the village and make the proper daily sacrifices to the Gods each day.

         The second village we visited was James' home town. We left our backpacks at his family's house and followed him up the mountain. After an exhausting climb, straight up the slope, we reached the old city. He took us around through houses, up and down ladders, to the breweries and the drinking holes. We sat up there until dusk and then climbed down and hiked 5km to the village where we spent the night.


         Day two we woke up early, waited for Sleepy James to wake up, and hit the trail. We reached our midday destination by 9:30 and sat in comfy bamboo chairs talking, eating, and sleeping until 2:30pm. We were in the mood to hike, so we were a bit disappointed when James told us our afternoon hike was only 4km. And it was an easy the base of the mountain. Turned out that our next village was on the plateau, at the top. It was a fun and exhausting hike up. About an hour into the hike, I pulled myself up over a ledge on all fours, and when I stood up I found myself on the edge of a beautiful rocky village. A nice man poured a cup of cold water over my head, and we were once again settled into comfy bamboo chairs.

         It was an amazingly clear night; full of breeze and shooting stars (I saw at least ten). Our hut was on the edge of the valley, and we pulled some mattresses up onto the roof to sleep. As we settled down, I noticed some huge rock formations on the other side of the valley. Jonnett shined her flashlight on one, and I made a shadow puppet of Mama Cass (OK, it was a bird, a bird is the only shadow puppet I know how to make). Mama Cass the Bird sang Dream a little Dream of Me and everyone who was still awake laughed. Someone said, Ha! Cest la theatre American! I slept like a smiling baby that night, and woke in a rocky sunrise.


         The next morning we hiked back down and met up with a cow cart that James had arranged to carry us the 20km back into a town. Now, when you picture a cow cart, Im sure you picture something much more glorified than our cow cart. Perhaps you picture a cart that carries cows, or a cart pulled by multiple cows. Something with four wheels and boarded sides? We had one sad, skinny, little cow, a rope harness, and two tree limbs connecting the harness to a 3x5 plank on a 2-wheel axel. Our bags went in the middle and we balanced ourselves on the edges. If we sat too far to the back, the cart would flip back and fall off the cow. Amused and a bit apprehensive, we took off across the prairie. On the down-hills, the cow ran. On the up-hills, we got off and encouraged her to continue. The man who owned the cow sat right behind her, yelling the whole time to keep her going. If the cow was going too slow he pulled on her tail or (and this seems to be a commonly accepted mode of speeding cows up) tickled the cows anus with his finger. At one point the cow decided shes had enough, and she laid down. Our cart flipped forward and we jumped off feeling rather sorry for the cow. The cow's man however, felt rather angry. He yelled at the cow, kicked the cow, and CHEWED on the cows tail for a good two minutes before the cow grudgingly got back on its feet. We were told to get back on, but after a few minutes I decided to hop back down and walk (no, saunter) next to the cow for the last few kilometers into town. We only spent three hours on that cow cart in the blazing sun. But it felt like three days.


         By early afternoon that day we were saying goodbye to Cool Man James and hopping a bus back to Ouagadougou. Crossing the border back into Burkina, we were stopped for not having visas (yeah, we thought we could get away with it). While we filled out the necessary paperwork, our bus waited half a km down the road. As we were running to catch up with it, we noticed that the whole horizon to our left seemed to be on fire. Huge red billows rose up to the sky. And the billows were advancing on us. We dashed onto the bus as a man closed all the windows. Within minutes we were completely engulfed in a crazy dust storm. Eventually it turned to rain. Eventually we found ourselves in Ouaga.

         We spent a day in the city enjoying the US embassy Rec. center, and then continued on our way to Kara; our last twelve hour stretch. Twelve hours on a bus when youre healthy is OK, but I'd been drinking unfiltered water all week. And it was catching up with me. I put my pride on the shelf when I asked the bus to pull over for me so I wouldn't lose control of my bowels ON the bus. I knocked my pride right over and shattered it when the bus stopped in a town and I jumped out and relieved myself on the side of a busy street.

         Every PCV has a story like this. Luckily mine happened in a country where I knew only two people.

         A good time was had. If you're still reading this, I'm impressed. I did get a bit long-winded. It was a good trip. Life is a good trip. No not THAT kind of trip. Until next time,

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