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Becky Binns--Togo News Letter

TNLs#81-85

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TNL #81
Fri, 11 Jul 2003   
 
Hello All,
 
     It's been a couple weeks, so how 'bout some updates?
  


HEALTH UPDATE
     My stomach still wasn't quite right when I got to Lomé last Tuesday, so I spent a couple days leaving gifts with the Medical unit stool-sample-lovin'-lab-guy. Thursday afternoon, Phyn and I were sipping cappuccinos in a fancy hotel lounge when we realized the med unit was about to close for the weekend (due to Independence day and all). I quickly called Kwaku, the med unit secretary and asked him for my lab results. Our new PC medical officer is a character, and when she heard it was me on the phone, she jumped on the line.
 
     "Becky Binns?! Is that you? Get in here right now!"
 
     "Connie, I can't, I'm across town and you're closing. What's up?"
 
     "YOU GOT IT ALL! Amoebas! Giardia! Cysts! Trophs!"
 
     She left me some high octane drugs with the guards, and I was content to know I had something curable. All the PCVs sitting in the waiting room where Connie was on the phone were happy for me to...if not a bit amused.
 
  
 
REMEMBER THE BREAK-IN?
      So back in May I had a burglary. Two weeks later I told my landlord's brother about it (the landlord himself lives in Lomé). I let him know that the garage door was broken, and he might want to fix it, though since I didn't use the garage, it was nothing urgent.
 
      He was at my house the next day with a builder. The two of them studied the door closely, and from far away. They looked at the inside of it, then the outside, then the inside again. They studied the door for so long I thought maybe they were hoping to fix it telepathically. Then they looked up at me and the landlord's brother said, "You know what you need?" "A new lock?", "No, a higher Wall!"
 
     Right. A lock costs $2, a higher wall would cost at least $100, who's gonna pay for that? They assured me that the landlord would, and I sent them off with a smile knowing a wall would not happen...
 
     A week later an immense noise shook my whole house. I ran outside and Djalilou and I watched a dump truck inch up to our gate via the FOOTpath. "Djalilou, why is there a truck on our footpath?" They say they are here to bring materials for your wall". Well, go figure.
 
      Yesterday the wall was completed. I am now surrounded by 7 feet of cement. It's strange not to see people's heads bobbing by all the time, but I don't feel too closed off. You see, my gates are still short enough to hop over.
 
  
   
HOW SEKINA LOST 10lbs IN A DAY!
     My good friend and co-worker, Sekina, figures she's been pregnant for about eleven months. I was beginning to assume that the baby in her belly was a permanent fixture. Or maybe she was just fat.
 
     I got back from Lomé Sunday night, but spent three days in bed letting the parasite killer do its thing (parasite medicine makes a trip to the kitchen to get water feel like a stroll up Kilamenjaro).
 
    Wednesday morning I finally gathered enough energy to drag myself up the mountain to Sekina's house. And wouldn't you know it, she was a little less fat. And very happy. The previous morning (from 7am to 7:25am) she popped out her fourth child; a big hairy boy child who will be named sometime next week.


Yup, life keeps dishing itself out over here.
Until next time,
 
~becky

 

 

 

 

 

TNL # 82
Sun, 20 Jul 2003


Hello All,
 
           I suppose its time to break it to you. Yacabou and I have become friends. For those of you who don't know about Yacabou, in short, he's my crazy neighbor who provided many frustrations and difficult moments in my early days here. He also provided many TNL stories.
 
            I don't know how it all started. I suppose it kindda snuck up on me. About a year ago, I banished him from my yard...and he actually complied. We would great each other when I passed by his house each day, but other than that he became non-existent in my life. Every once in a while a TNL
reader would ask for a Yacabou story, but I had none to give.
 
           He continued to bring me my bills, which always go to his house, and he often reminded me to turn off my yard light in the morning, but he stopped walking through my gates altogether. Especially after I got Einstein. Yacabou is very scared of Einstein. This Mango season (March) he even sent a kid to climb my trees and take the mangos instead of doing it himself.
 
           There were a couple times when he was sent over to talk about my rent payments (he's related to the landlord), but when I asked him to sit on the porch to talk he hesitaated. Once, after one of these interactions, he began to walk away, but turned back to say, "Marium...you are...kind!" in a  bewildered voice. Geez, how horrible WAS I to this man? 
 
   
           About a month ago, my electricity kept shutting itself off. So I went to find the only  electrician I know, Yacabou. He was sleeping, but showed up a few hours later apologizing for not coming earlier, "I was sleeping because I could not shower with soap this morning. I have no soap."  For some reason these types of explanations have begun to make sense to me.
 
           A half hour later, Yacabou was sitting on the floor in my  back room pulling some wires out of the wall. I was sitting next to him holding the flashlight. He kept looking over his shoulder at my prayer space, which is furnished with a Muslim prayed mat. Finally, I said, "It's where I pray." He continued to work, with a half smile on his face.  As he got up to leave the room, he looked back at the prayer corner and said, "Marium, this is good."  When he left, I gave him a few coins and a bar of  soap, and again he gave me that bewildered look, as if he expected to be yelled at as opposed to being paid for his work. 
 
   
           A couple weeks ago, I ran into a dilemma.  I was going to Lomé and Djalilou wasn't around to feed the dog. I could ask Phynessa or Dario to do it, except they were coming to Lomé too. There was only one reasonable person left to ask...I hesitated asking him because although things were going well with Yacabou, I still didn't want him to get too comfortable being at my house all the time again.  And to be honest, I kindda liked that Einstein makes him nervous. But there was nothing else to do. Less than an hour before I left for Lomé, I sucked up my pride and asked Yacabou to take care of my dog for a week.
 
           When I got back, all was well. The dog was happy and healthy. Everything was in its place. And as Yacabou brought over the last meal of his contracted week of dog food, I noticed that he was still uncomfortable if Einstein came too close to him.
 
   
               Tuesday morning, I lost Einstein. We went out to the waterfall with some visitors, and once we were away from other people and animals, I let him off his leash. Somehow, he found another dog, and they ran away together (she WAS quite lovely). I assumed he'd eventually catch up with us, but he never did. That night, right before sunset, I rode my bike back to the waterfall calling his name. No luck. By 10pm I was pretty depressed about it, when I heard a noise outside. I went out just as Yacabou opened my gate to let a filthy, tick-filled Einstein in. I was so relieved. Yacabou said he'd been out in the fields and Einstein recognized him and followed him home. I thanked him and told him I'd been very worried. He said,
 
     "You know, one died today."
 
     "I know, I saw it on the road" (earlier I had seen a dead dog freshly hit by a car, which had heightened my worry factor regarding Einstein.)
 
Yacabou looked at me confused,
 
    "No Marium, the one who comes here from Kara on his moto."
 
    "Yacabou, are you talking about a person?" 
 
    "Yes! Our neighbors brother, he died at 7:30 tonight."  Yacabou and I have never been very good at communication.  He explained that the man had fallen ill and died and that there would be a funeral in the morning. As he started to walk away, I asked him if the man had been a friend of his.
 
    "Yes! He came here from Kara twice a week. We are all brothers here."
 
Death is usually regarded as just another part of life here. But Yacabou was clearly upset.
 
    "I'm sorry Yacabou. I'll  pray for your heart."
 
He gave me that bewildered look again, and whispered a thank you as he turned back to his house. 
 
   
           This is a man who was my sounding board as I learned how to yell, scream, and holler in French.  Heck, he was probably the first grown-up who I've ever yelled at at all. I pay more attention to his daughter than I do to him, which is a blow to any Togolese man's pride. And I secretly supported his wife when she decided to leave him last year (she has since returned). Yet he has never hesitated to help me, and is continuously surprised and kind when our interactions are positive. The Togolese ability to forgive and forget will always amaze me.
 
           OK, sure, the man hung out in my yard constantly for my first three months, climbed over my wall when I locked the gate, and stole my electricity. But he gave me stories. And perhaps the Togolese are teaching me something about forgiveness too. Until next time,
 
~becky

 

 

TNL#83
Thu, 7 Aug 2003
 
Hello All,
 
          Last week I told you I'd write a TNL about Djalilou. For those who don't know, Djalilou is a high school kid who lives in a room in my compound.  He is also my best TTogolese friend. Djalilou just experienced an immense disappointment. I'm sad for him, but to be honest, his disappointment works out for my selfish best interest.
 
          Let me explain. Terminale is the last year of high school here (French system), and the only way to pass terminale and receive a high school diploma is to pass the BAC, an extremely difficult test. Most kids spend 2-5 years in terminale trying to pass the BAC. Djalilou had his first go at it in May. For the months before the exam he did nothing but study. Hours of Calculus on the chalkboard in our yard. Night after night in a cloud of bugs under my porch light. He led study groups for his friends, and asked me to teach him how to draw as an extra credit option.
 
          You know where this is going. The results came in two weeks ago. While we waited for them to arrive, we talked about what he would do with those results. If he passed he'd go to university in Lomé.  If he didn't he'd spend another year in Bafilo with me. Another shot at Terminale. He was worried. It had been a five day long test, and on the second night be became very ill. He had struggled through the last three days with a high fever and then spent a week in the hospital with malaria and a bad stomach virus. His studying, in my opinion had beaten the heck out of his immune system.
 
          He came back from checking the results with a resigned look on his face. I told him I was sorry. Out of the 49 kids who took the BAC, 16 passed. He usually ranks 6th or 7th in the group. Frustrating.
 
          I took him out for a coke that night. It was his first time in a bar, unless you count picking up drinks for my predecessor, and he was watching me for social cues in a place where I am usually the main fumbler. We toasted to another year as neighbors, and then I forgot to take a sip. As I put my glass back on the table, caught myself, and picked it up again to take a sip, he did the same thing. And I realized how much I adore this consequential little brother of mine. Phynessa and her friend Kate met up with us after awhile. During the conversation Kate asked Djalilou if he planned to travel at all during summer break. He said he had planned to go to Lomé, but only if he'd passed the BAC, since he didn't, he'll just be in his mother's village until school restarts. His voice had been quiet, and his hand went up as a wall between he and I. We made brief eye-contact, and his were bloodshot. He had resolved earlier in the day not to cry.
 
    
 
          Djalilou returned to his Mom's village and I didn't see him again until this Monday morning. I was stopped in a bush taxi on the side of the road 10km south of Bafilo in what turned out to be Djalilou's village. Someone reached in the window and grabbed my hand. I jumped a mile and then turned to see a smile I hadn't seen since before those results came in. He ended up following me back to Bafilo.
 
          A couple hours later, we were in our yard moving the water barrels that had been used to build my new wall. Dumping out worlds of mosquitoes that had established themselves as my neighbors, we found a small silvery worm. We both crouched down to investigate. It was actually a tiny snake. Djalilou showed me how to tie it in a knot and then watch it gracefully and instantly untie itself. Tiny Silver Houdini.
 
          Huddled in the dirt like four year olds exploring the undersides of rocks, I found myself grateful that my small brother wasn't going anywhere just yet.
 
Until next time,
 
~becky

 

 

 

 

TNL #84
 
Hello All,
 
      I just spent a week out in the woods with mosquitoes and campers, singing and dancing, and dining room game playing. Even in Togo, I seem to have found myself involved in summer camp.
 
      Every summer, a group of PCVs puts together a camp for students. This year, it was decided to also include a week for female apprentices; girls who are learning their trades outside of school, and therefore miss out on all the extra-curricular activities. So thirty young apprentices showed up at our PC conference center for a week of summer camp fun.  And this turned out to be an excellent idea.
 
    These girls were a bunch of dynamic information sponges. They participated enthusiastically in a packed schedule; sessions on AIDS, health, women's rights, debate, self-confidence, planning out their lives, making money, financing, the list goes on.  And they spent all their free time copying notes from the various presentations.
 
      It was awesome to see some of their patriarchal-society-"knowledge's" come tumbling down. In this polygamous, male-dominated society, a lot of truths are twisted to benefit men. Science and health teachers in the schools actually teach kids that a lack of regular sex is bad for one's health. And it is indisputable common knowledge that the population of Togo is 25% men, 75% women.  Therefore to abolish polygamy would leave half of the population single.
 
    It was refreshing to see a group of young women so ready to hear the many truths that have been denied them.
 
      
 
    Towards the end of the week, I was leading a session with another PCV, Kelly. The session was on making a "Plan d'action", deciding what to do with this new information after camp. Kelly and I wandered around the room while the girls mapped out their goals and how they planned to reach them.  Most girls had goals such as; become a hairdresser, make more money, teach others about AIDS.  But one small girl had written "get a boyfriend" as her goal.  The over-zealous feminist in me wanted to say, "Geez, that's the LAST thing you need right now!"  But love is a pretty universal and understandable goal. I asked her what dangers she might encounter in trying to achieve her goal. AIDS and babies. How was she going to avoid this? Abstinence. Excellent. So I asked her what she'd do if her boyfriend really wants to have sex. She'll use a condom. Wait, did SHE want to have sex? No, but if he does, she'll use a condom. I took a deep breath and asked her what she'd learned this week about self-confidence, about making decisions based on her own best interests.  She looked embarrassed. She'd spent 14 years in constant servitude to the needs of men. And she'd just spent 5 days looking at her own needs. How easy it was to slip back. And she was still at camp.
 
     These girls have a tough life. A number of them won't be able to do much with this new information, but it'll be on their mind. A number of them will pass it on to their daughters and sons.  Some of them will take big steps towards bettering their own lives, and some will help to better their communities. And I believe all of them have found friendship and understanding among each other. But then hasn't that always been the universal nature of summer camp? Gotta love it. Until next time,
 
~aunt becky
 
(yup, that's right, I'm an aunt to a gorgeous boy named Kristof Tobias born on Sunday. I can't tell you how psyched I am about this. Oh Yeah!!!)




Sat, 23 Aug 2003

TNL #85

Hello All,

     About a year ago I was walking down the street in Kara when a young man walking in the opposite direction grabbed my thigh as he passed. I was speechless with anger and disbelief. Five minutes later I had replayed the scene in my head at least ten times. Each time, I imagined my own reaction, not the stunned silence that actually happened, but the various violent responses that I COULD have had had I been more on my toes. I could have punched the man, broken his nose, and lectured him on how foot scum is more desirable than men like him.

     Back in March I was in a taxi in Lomé when another man reached in the window to grab me in a similarly invasive and revolting way. Again my response wasn't quick enough or adequate enough to put this man in his place. Again I daydreamed about how I could have done it better, made him feel completely awful about himself. My responses have always seemed regrettably slow.



     Yesterday, Greer and I were cleaning out the garage at the Kara house. We decided to put all the stuff we didn't want out on the road for people to come pick through. Fifteen minutes into this project we had over 50 people shuffling through our junk and leaning over our wall asking what else we had. They saw some PCVs' bikes and although we told them repeatedly that we were not giving them away or selling them, they demanded again and again that we do. Over and over for a half an hour straight, men leaned over a wall in masses continuously trying to convince us to sell these bikes that A. didn't even belong to us and B. cost more than an annual salary in Togo. We told them this. They still believed us to be bluffing.

     I could feel my blood rising as I put the bikes inside the house, regretted giving all our stuff away, continued to be bombarded by bike requests, and tried to get the crowd to disperse.

     A man had paid us a few bucks for an old fridge and Greer and I were trying to move it out of the yard for him. As I tried to open the gate, a HERD of men plowed forward making my exit impossible. They yelled and cried for the darn bikes and I made an impassioned 50th announcement that the bikes were not for sale. One young man said, "Fine, then I'll just buy YOU!" It was not an unusual comment in Togo. Men are allowed to say stuff like that. They expect to be greeted with a giggle from the receiver of a "compliment" like this. But I was at the end of my thread. I looked at Greer in disgust, then I turned back to the man. And I spit in his face.

     It happened in an instant, no time to process the decision, I had finally reacted immediately to an "attack". And I was immediately ashamed. I apologized to the shocked crowd. Greer says I apologized to the man personally... but I don't remember that. A few hours later, sitting around after dinner, I was hit by another blast of unbearable embarrassment. I wanted to find the man and apologize again. How horrible to be spit at! And all he was doing was lightening up a stressful situation. Yes, it was rude, yet it was also acceptable in his culture. And what he got was a blast of all the anger I've been building up against so many Togolese men over a two year period of time living in a country where sexual harassment is just the way it is.

     And the "revenge" did not feel good. I may as well have spat in my own face. I would have felt a bit less disgusting. And so I have come to realize that breaking a man's nose with my fist might not feel so good either. Nor would coming up with the perfect insult at the perfect moment.
Ahh, the growing pains.

Until next time,

~becky

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