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Becky Binns--Togo News Letter

TNLs#86-90

And for you we have these lovelies...

TNL #86

Sat, 6 Sep 2003

 

 

 

Hello All,

          If you read the TNL for quick bits of entertainment, this'd be a good week to skip.  Its kind of a long winded soap box week.  Youve been forewarned.

 

          I know, its been awhile.  Ive had some stories to share in mind, but Ive also been trying to process how best to respond to your responses to my spitting TNL.  Ive received advice from some of you on how I could have handled this situation better, and I know your intentions are golden, but I hope its clear to all that I was pretty embarrassed about my behavior and dont plan to repeat it.

          My godmother had a really good point in that situations and reactions like this help us to understand the phenomenon of war.  To understand it, she said, not to accept it. I wish I still had her words in front of me, but basically, after experiencing this kind of anger and letting my human nature react first, I became more aware of how quickly violence can be the easier reaction, easier than talking things out.  Because talking things out involves language barriers, cultural barriers, concrete-uncrossable-I-think-this-way-you-think-that-way-BARRIERS.

          I have conversations with men literally every day here about their treatment of women.  Sometimes they listen, sometimes they debate, often they laugh.   When I spit at that man, no one laughed.  The Togolese people around me agreed that the man deserved my spit, he was being disrespectful, what did he think, I was a schoolgirl?  The PCVs around me said they would have done the same thing.  Good for me for finally reacting.  I received encouragement and reinforcement for my actions.  It was only the nagging disgust at myself in the pit of my stomach that made me see that something was not right.  This is scary.  Violence is too easy. 

          And this act of violence on my part did not come about due to a lack of cultural integration.  No, the purely American me would have pulled one of my handy little speeches out of my pocket and told the man just how rude he was.  But Ive been here for long enough, and Ive been tired of repeating myself for long enough, that I resorted to a more Togolese form of reacting to an insult.  However, this particular insult wouldnt have happened in an interaction between two Togolese people.  Nope, this one needed the clash of cultures.

          You see, in Togo, there is a clear and present hierarchy; Age above youth, men above women, money above poverty, educated above uneducated.  And (cringe cringe cringe) Foreigners: whites, above Africans: black.  Ive had long conversations trying to rationalize how stupid this hierarchy is, but I speak to brick walls, to a culture Ill never fully understand.  Just as they dont understand the equality we strive for.  God made this hierarchy dont you knowBut thats material for another TNL.  Back to the man and me and the insult and the spit.    I do not want to be put on the hierarchy.  He didnt know where I was on the hierarchy, and decided to entertain himself and his friends by testing me.  Could he treat me like he treats other young women?  No! I do not want him to treat anyone like this! He caught me on a bad day! Very bad moment! I am an equal! We are all equal! We all deserve respect!  Equality!  (But then, would I have spit at an old man? A white man? A child? Oh we dont have to look at that right now)  I am fighting for equality because I am an American (and because I had been gravely insulted).

          Back to war.  War generally happens between different cultures.  Groups of people who dont understand each other, who have very different social rules at their very roots.  There is essential peace between Togolese because they generally accept their place in a hierarchy.  There is general peace between Americans because we generally accept everyone as equals.  But when the cultures mixyou have people confused as to where other cultures fit into a hierarchy, people trying to change other peoples minds, people sticking to whats always made sense to them, people being mocked, people mocking, people testing.  Anger is easy.  Agreeing to disagree can also be easy, but not for everyone.  People who are controlling, or perhaps the part of each of us that is controlling, cant accept these fundamental differences, differences that become bigger and more severe the more familiar each group becomes with the other.  Yes, conversation works, but it takes patience; it is way too easy to become physical.  Physicality being the only obvious way to communicate with perceived ignorance and  lack of education.  Again, this all scares me. 

          It also scares me that when I try to discipline children in my neighborhood for hurting each other or stealing my glasses, they only laugh at me.  Its not discipline unless it hurts.  It scares me that many PCVs I know (myself included) never once hit or yelled at another human being until they came to this different culture, that that violence has been inspired by the melding of two cultures.  (Some of you are sitting there an ocean away saying it wouldnt happen to youspend six months here and well talk)  It scares me that most of us, even those of us who dont act on them, have violent urges often.  And it scares me that most Togolese who I talk to, unless they are very close friends with an American, do not seem to consider us real people.  (Even Djalilou, my best friend here, drew a picture of me, sitting at a table.  The table was covered with stacks of money.) It scares me that most of them believe in their very being that we, because we are white, are intellectually superior (but certainly not physically), always a divide.

          Just the other day I was in Arianas village, which is on the border with Ghana.  We were speaking with a Ghanaian man, very educated, and pretty wealthy.  He said what people say to us all the time, but he said it in English, which is somehow more real.  God made Black people to Suffer, and he made white people to help them.   It made me sick to my stomach.  If we cant see each other as equal, despite whatever situation we find ourselves in, how will we ever learn to deal with each others frustrations differences, blunders, goals, lives, without resorting to the physical?

          Sometimes I say these things to people here.  Sometimes they laugh at me.  Sometimes I cant find the French.  Sometimes I succumb to my role as a woman, or as a foreigner, or as a rich lady or as whatever, because its easier than causing ripples in the peace around me.  Trying to understand another culture without wanting to change it, (unless change is necessary to facilitate justice, in my mind, or is justice a debatable standard?).

 

          It is a boggling balancing act.

 

          I stand on this soap box trying to get some of it out to you, because I was kindda scared after my last TNL, scared that Ive only given you 1% of the picture, scared that no one really knew how multi-dimensional this all is.  And in just a few months Ill be over there trying to process it all with you, my home support system.

          My old PCV neighbor, the one who left last August, said that no PCV can get all the way to the end of their two year commitment with out going a little

nuts. Literally.  Peace Corps offers to pay for two sessions with a therapist of your choice when you get back to the States.  I will definitely be taking them

up on that offer.  Woohoo free therapy!!!  (They could do a remake of One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest with Returned PCVs.) 

 

Thanks for reading all this.  I promise to return to fun and entertainment next time. Maybe Ill even start writing a screenplay

 

Peace and blessings,

~becky

 

 

 

 

TNL #87

Wed, 17 Sep 2003

 

Forward:

Email has been off 90% of the time over the past two weeks. Don't know how long it'll stay on right now. Maybe only long enough to copy a TNL from my disk to email, maybe long enough to actually read and respond to email. Just wanted to tell you about the technical difficulty so you'll understand if I can't communicate well individually. Peace to all. And on with the TNL.

 

TNL #87     

Hello All,

          A couple months ago, Yacabou came over to ask me to stop playing with the children in the neighborhood.  Essentially, he explained, the adults have agreed that since the children have been playing with me, they have become disrespectful of other adults.  They try to play with other visitors, and they go around singing Mariama, Mariama! all the time.  Yacabou sung it for me.  I smiled at him.  He stopped singing and asked if I could please stop encouraging the children.  Could I please just ignore the children like every other sensible adult? 

Now, I dont believe that every adult here ignores their children, but the concept of playing with them really is quite bizarre.  I explained to Yacabou that in my culture, we talk to kids and play with them because its fun, and its good for them.  (I wasnt going to let go of my selfish kid-therapy so easily.  I didnt tell him that though.)  I just said that even though it takes a bit of time and work for the adults, it's best for everyone in the long run if you interact with kids more.  They will feel more secure and confident and, well, I basically gave him a mini educational psychology talk in small-small broken French.  He paused for a moment in deep thought and then told me that yes, he could see I was right, playing with kids DID indeed create more work for adults.  He was glad I understood and trusted I would stop spoiling the children with attention.  Something was lost in translation, or perhaps it was a case of selective comprehension.   Either way, I wished Yacabou a lovely evening and told him I would try to respect the wishes of the adults.  It is a different culture.  We wouldnt want someone coming into our culture challenging our child-rearing tactics

          So now I sneak my kid-time.  About a week ago, Mma (my four year old neighbor) and I were standing outside my gate enjoying the sunset.  It was one of those sunsets that had just burned off a big rain shower, misty and cool and pink.  Mma was wrapped around my waist, standing on my feet, looking up at me, babbling away in Kotakoli. I was looking down pretending to understand, shuffling my feet under her feet, trying to throw her off balance.  Totally irresponsible play.  I am a sad excuse for responsible adult.  And to top it off, we got caught.  A Mama popped her head out of Yacabous compound and called Mma away, gave her a coin, and sent her on an errand.  Mma took the coin and ran back to me to play more.  The Mama looked on in disapproval.  I smiled so only Mma could see and sternly told her she better hurry up and not keep the Mama waiting.  She ran off.  The Mama greeted me warmly, happy to see me encouraging obedience, and retreated back into the compound. 

         

Oh the cultural balancing act. 

 

          Yacabou disappeared last week.  His brother, my landlord came over to tell me I needed to hire someone to dig up all my grass.  I told him I was going to cut it short so I could have a lawn.  Silly American.  Doesnt she know grass is dirty?  Doesnt she know swept dirt is the only proper lawn to be had?  Of course they have a point, considering that snakes like grass and all, but I like grass too.  We argued politely for a while and then decided to let his friend turn the front lawn into an ideal patch of swept dirt, and he would leave the back yard to me and my need for grass.  I am a difficult tenant. 

          Then he told me he had taken Yacabou and his wife to Lomé with him a week ago.  Yacabous wife is sick, and they need the financial support of the Lomé family to help them out.  Yacabous daughter had gone to live in Lomé a few months ago, and now the whole family is there. 

          Yacabous house is now depressingly dark and quiet.  And I am worried.  Ive always wondered about Yacabous health, and if I am correct, his whole family could be infected with HIV/AIDS.  But perhaps, hopefully, its just a blind and incorrect assumption.

           Perhaps he will be home soon.  He has a job to do up here.  Without him, who else will keep the neighborhood Yovo in line?  And who else will swing from my mango trees?

 

Until next time,

~becky

 

TNL #88

Sat, 27 Sep 2003

 

 

Hello All,

          Last week, I was enjoying a quiet evening alone when I heard a crash in the kitchen.  I put my book down, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.  D"ā@*!*# mouse!  I've been at war with this solitary fat mouse for weeks.  I took a flashlight into the kitchen.  Things were knocked over on top of my cupboard.  I shined my light behind the cupboard, and there he was, sitting on a banana.  Somehow he had wedged my last banana down between the wall and the cupboard, completely out of reach from any direction, and he was using it like a hammock.  Lounging comfortably.  Humming Miles Davis.  With a Cuban cigar stuck between his thin mouse lips.  Ok, OK, so mice don't hum. 

             Anyway, I fought him for an hour. Or maybe it was just ten minutes. I saved the banana, broke a sweat, and lost the mouse.

  

          The next morning I noticed fresh mouse droppings, but decided not to think about it. I had a party to be at. A baptism actually. My good friend, Sekina, had a baby a couple months ago, and his baptism had finally rolled around. I've always wondered what they do at Muslim baptisms, so I made sure to be on time so as to find out.

          Turns out it was just a really long open-house to come see a baby, eat some food, and put handfuls of coins in the mother's hand.  Sekina made me stay in the receiving room with her most of the time. I was in charge of discretely transferring money from her hand to a place under a pillow while she greeted visitor after visitor.  There was DJ. There were drums and dancers. And it drizzled all day. A wet and memorable event.

 

             Monday night, I was relaxing after a busy weekend; the baptism, a trip to Kara, etc.  I put down the book I was reading to head to bed, and I heard a crash in the kitchen.  D@*āį!# mouse!  I picked up a flashlight, took a deep breath, and prepared for another chase.  It never really occurs to me what I'll do if I CATCH the mouse...but the chase must happen.  I MUST defend my territory.  There he was. Behind the cupboard again, only this time he was standing vertically on the wall, completely defying gravity. 

          I kept the light on him, creating a deer-in-the-headlights effect while I considered my options. I could chase him out and then...I had a frying pan in my reach. And a spatula. But those could both be real messy.  The mouse and I starred each other down. And then suddenly I knew what I had to do. I put down the flashlight. Placed both hands on the upper edge of the cupboard, and slammed the whole thing against the wall. There was a sliding sound.

  

          As I scooped the mouse into a dustpan, I noticed two things. One, that he was disappointingly cute.  Two, that he was bleeding. A lot.

          It often occurs to me that my time here is winding down. Baptisms and parties, Sekina's trust in me, drums and rain, make this a very hard realization.  Mouse blood, (and general vermin control) make it quite an exiting prospect. 

 

Until next time,

~becky

 

 

 

 TNL # 89

Tue, 14 Oct 2003

 

 

Hello All,

          I havent seen Bafilo for two and a half weeks, and itll be another five days before I do.  Ive been on the road and in the air and all over the place.  There has been little time to write or even to sleep or take a deep breath.  But the time has been high quality.   Let me give you a quick summery of my last couple weeks.

          Home sweet home:  On the night of September 30, I hopped a flight to Boston, landing the afternoon of October 1, exactly one week and five hours before turning around and heading back to Togo.  It was a fabulous week on US soil.  I had the honor of standing for my life-long friend, Rachel Grenier, in her marriage to Richard Smith.  The ceremony was beautiful, the bride gorgeous, the reception kickin, and the company a blessing.  The next day I headed to MA with the family and my good friend Wyn to see my friend Ellen get married to a very nice man named Bo.  Ellen has been a surrogate big sister since my pre-teen days, and it was awesome to be present for such an event.  Yup, two weddings in one weekend.  And then there was Kristof Tobias.  Thats right, I finally got to meet my nephew.  And let me tell you, he is better than anything even before the invention of sliced bread.  The kids got class, personality, impressive burping technique, 27 different smiles, and two very proud and able parents.  Aunt Becky was in awe. 

          On October 8th I fought my way through the Red Socks paraphernalia of the Boston airport and slept my way all the way to musty, dusty Lomé.  I had a strong feeling that Id just come back to say goodbye.

          I had five days to kill before today when I was scheduled to meet my PCV group in Lomé for our Close of Service conference.  Five days in Lomé will leave a girl broke, but five days wasnt long enough to travel north to Bafilo and back.  So I asked the powers that be if I could spend a long weekend in Kpalime (the training town just north of Lomé) and meet all the new trainees, one of whom will be my replacement.

          It was my first time back in Kpalime since I swore in after my own training the first week of 2002.  As I stepped onto those dusty Kpalime roads, I was overwhelmed by a strong insecure nostalgia.  It had been a challenging chapter in life, training.  I felt like at least five years have passed.  Kpalime smells like no other place Ive ever been.  The dust, burning trash, the mixture of herbs and cooking oilcome together to create an aroma unique to those eleven weeks of my life; when I spoke no French, got no sleep, and had not an ounce of brain power to spare. 

          I arrived in Kpalime Friday night and finally gathered enough motivation to walk five km to my host familys house on Sunday afternoon.  I could hardly

believe Id walked this route 2-4 times a day for the second half of my training (after I broke my tailbone and couldnt bike it anymore).

          I went with a gallon of wine and a handful of lollipops, a gift for the eleven people that made up my houseful of host family.  As I walked I imagined hugs from my favorite sister, Elizabeth, and her children.  I thought about how I would be kind and forgiving with my unfavorite sister, Gertrude.  I wondered if Mama Nicole would guilt trip me for staying away for almost two years.  And I anticipated the crowded house Id left behind. 

          On the way there I passed my brother Koffi.  Hes 17 now, with facial hair.  I smiled as he passed.  He didnt recognize me.   At the house, Dobera, now 11 saw me, smiled, and ran to get Mama Nicole.  I walked though the dark house to the porch, and sat to wait.  It felt quiet, and empty.  Nicole came out and hugged me warmly.  Everyone but she, Koffi, and Dobera had moved away.  The house was transformed in its near solitude.  Nicole admitted to having been mad at my absence, but she quickly forgave me when I pulled out the wine.  There was a sense of peace and sadness.

          Koffi burst into the room and called out to me.  He bubbled with questions.  Why hadnt I called out to him on the road?  Where had I been?  He told me all about school, how he was now studying pottery at the art center in town.  I was so proud of him.  But I was also thinking about how hed stolen from other trainees in the house, and possibly from me.  Such a place of mixed emotions. 

 

          So Ive gone from America to Lomé to Kpalime and back to Lomé, a repeat of October 2001.  And now I will go to my COS conference and learn how to write resumes and be American again.  And then its back to Bafilo, to build some latrines and enjoy my last windy Harmatton season. 

          Time is in flight.

 

Peace out,

~becky

 

 

 

 

TNL # 90

 

Tue, 21 Oct 2003

 

 

Hello All,

          I just got back from my Close Of Service (COS) Conference, which took place at a beautiful resort on Lake Togo.  It was a lovely week of drinking orange juice out of wine glasses, and lounging by the pool.  It was also very educational and emotionally draining.

          The next two months will be a tough transition; making sure my projects are finished, handing over duties, buying goodbye gifts for my co-workers and Togolese friends, introducing my replacement to Bafilo, saying goodbye to my Bafilo and Peace Corps communities, leaving my dog, and going back to a place where (they tell me) you're not allowed to pick your nose in public.

          We were told that reverse culture shock lasts for a year.  Which means that for a year I will continue grunting at you mid-sentence.  I will beckon you by flopping my fingers up and down, and beckon taxis by flopping my whole arm.  I will use French words, not because (snooty accent) I've been abroad and (snooty laugh) can't help but show off my French skills (end snooty accent) but because the Togo slang won't get out of my brain.  I will be a mopey, misunderstood adolescent on some days, and wasted food will make me sad, and I will wash and re-use zip-lock bags.  But I will also probably forget myself and drop my trash in the gutter as I walk down the street.  And I'm liable to throw chicken bones on the floor in a nice outdoor restaurant.  This goes on for a whole year?  Are you sure you want me back?

          We also learned about resumes and interviews, personal statements and grad school.  The whole thing's got me pretty exited about researching and discovering my next step. 

          In the meantime, I've been back in Bafilo for two days and I've barely stopped to breathe.  The lawn needed cutting (without a mower this takes some time and effort), the garden needed weeding, the house needed cleaning, all my clothes were dirty, and the dog needed a bath.  The latrines I'm building at the school were waiting for me to come back with some money so they could move onto the next phase, so the bank needed visiting.  The women's center was feeling like I'd been gone too long, so some guilt trips (loving guilt trips of  course) needed to be listened to.  Plus, everyone's getting married because Ramadan starts next week, and its traditional to "honeymoon" during the month long fast.

          I'm on the cusp of transition, yet pulled deep into the everyday grind and joy of Bafilo.  And I'm working on the nose picking thing.

 

Until next time,

~becky

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