29 Oct 2003
school year is well under way. The kids are in their groove, and so it's time to start extra-curricular activities. OK, so I'm the only extra-curricular activity that I know of, but it's time for me to start. Girls Club, ahhh. Its a beautiful thing, to stand up in front
of a bunch of teenage girls and talk to them in broken baby French about things that no other adult talks to them about.
first club meeting was last Wednesday. About half of the 30 girls present were new to Bafilo, and a few others were in my
club last year. We started with some wake-up games and introductions. They decided they wanted to call me Becky this year instead of Mariama.
One girl indignantly pointed out that they should be calling me "Madame", and I said that was her choice, that I appreciated
the respect. But we were all sisters in this struggle against patriarchy (or something poetic and cheesy like that) so first
names seemed just fine to me. Their eyes twinkled at me.
talked about the importance of Girl's Education and Women's Empowerment, about how girls' education is so important
that Peace Corps has sent over 100 Americans in to Togo to work full time for this gender equality. They were impressed. I could tell.
I had them list all the occupations they thought a man could go into. These kids
were like one of those classes in the movies, raising their hands and answering enthusiastically. I felt like Sharon Stone in "Dangerous Minds". I danced across
the blackboard and hooted at good answers. Then I asked them to tell me all the
occupations a woman could go into. Hair dresser.
Seamstress. Teacher. Doctor. President! Oh, they were on to me. They listed
all the jobs they'd listed on the men's side, and then some. I asked them if they really believed that they were as capable
as the men. Yes. Really? Yes!!! Before long we were all chanting, "Je suis capable
comme les homme!" (I am capable like the men). I was in a groove.
Eventually someone asked about AIDS and I started in on my "Lets talk about abstinence before we talk about condoms"
speech. I asked if any of them had boyfriends...and just as I did Madame Yaya
walked into the room to check up on me. I greeted Madame Yaya, and asked the
question again, and the girls froze. All of a sudden, they couldn't understand my French. We spent a couple minutes trying
to figure out what exactly I was asking them (the translation for "boyfriend" can mean a variety of things). Madame Yaya gave me a pitying look and walked out.
Don't you hate it when just as an opportunity to show-off arises, everything collapses? The wind ran away from our sails and we were unable to recover. So I dragged them all out onto the veranda,
played another wake-up game, and then had them yell (repeatedly) across the school yard, "JE SUIS CAPABLE COMME LES HOMME!!!" Hear that boys?! Hear that Madame Yaya?! Yeah, we're cool. I have no shame.
shame in Togo anyway. Sometimes I wonder if this lack of inhibition will follow
me home, or if it's a special brand of Becky specially formulated to live and work in Togo...I'll find out soon enough. In the meantime, listen closely to that southeast wind. You may pick up a hint of
a hopeful chant. Someday they may come to truly believe it.
9 Nov 2003
Have I mentioned that Im building latrines
at the school where I work? The Wakefield Rotary Club (of my hometown) offered
to help fund a project here in Bafilo awhile back. I appreciated their generosity,
but I also hesitated in accepting it.
Early on in my service, I had decided not to do any projects that involved outside funds. You see there's a difficult debate going on in the development world (and very much in the Peace Corps
world) about whether it's best to bring funding into development projects or if we should just offer information and technical
support. A rather depressing mentality exists among many Togolese that if it's
important (i.e. if it involves education, health, or development) than someone from another country will come and take care
of it. Therefore, any available local funds can be used for funerals and parties
and other social expenditures.
This goes hand-in-hand with an inferiority
complex that makes me want to cry. If it's important, it'll take a white man
to do it anyway, as they are much more capable than us Africans. And then there's
the idea that every foreigner (myself being the current foreigner in residence) represents Santa Clause. These mentalities are the vane of my existence here. To
top it off, my predecessor imported over 1400lbs of donated sports equipment. People
often ask me what tangible gift I'm going to leave so that they will remember me.
NOTHING TANGIBLE! Education! Knowledge!
Empowered, confident young women! I will crush the inferiority complex! I will destroy the Santa Clause expectations! I want
them to do it for themselves! OK, OK, I also have an American need to be seen
as something other than a potential gift, but I have pure intentions too.
But then again, what do I know? I know the school could use a latrine. That
if they had one the girls wouldn't miss a week of class each month. I know Bafilo
can't afford to do it on its own. I know I have access to funds over yonder in
the land of plenty, the land where a school with no toilet seems criminal. So
I struck a compromise. I had the sanitation center design me the simplest concrete
latrine they could think up (strong, but not flashy). I wrote a budget that had
Bafilo footing 33% of the bill. I jumped through all the Peace Corps red tape. And the construction began. Actually,
it flew. It's been three weeks and the structure is almost ready to be painted
The entire project was going suspiciously
smoothly. Until Monday. Monday morning
I got to school and was immediately called over by the Director (a man who I adore, except not so much on Monday). He explained to me that they had changed the design of the latrine a bit by adding a wall in front of the
line of latrine doors. This way, if the wind blew a door open, there would still
be privacy. I said, Oh, they had enough leftover cement for that? No, he said, they didn't. So I suggested the much cheaper
option of having latches on the doors. He said latches don't work in the hot
season when all doors swell. I suggested rope latches to compensate for this
He admitted that they'd already bought
the cement and made the bricks. How much cement?
Five sacks. That's $30. Who's
going to pay for that? I asked them. They just looked at me. I know how they've struggled to come up with their 33%. They
themselves can't afford to spend another franc. An eerie rendition of Here Comes
Santa Clause popped into my head. I took a deep breath and walked out to
the latrines with Madame Yaya, the school secretary. I explained to her that
I was mad at them because they made a change without talking to me and expected me to pay for it. She looked uncomfortable. I said it took months of paperwork
and red tape to get the exact amount of money needed to build a SIMPLE latrine.
We walked in silence. Then I folded and admitted that there was a little extra money in the budget due to a change in exchange
rate between our request and the delivery of the funds. I told her I'd look over
the receipts and supplies and see what I could do. When I left, she asked if
I was still mad. Having the Director and Madame Yaya humbly ask if I'm mad is
like having your parents beg your forgiveness. It's embarrassing. I told them no, they were my friends, and I had a hard time staying mad at them for more than five minutes. But, I told them, this is still a hard situation for me. They nodded, and I said goodbye for the day. It was the first
time they'd ever tried to take advantage of me, and it hurt.
I crunched numbers all night and came up with a little more than we needed to cover the extra cement. The next day, I went back to take more pictures of the construction
site. The Director and I walked out there together. He told me the regional inspector had stopped by and was very happy to see the latrines going up. I told him that I was impressed with how quickly he was getting it all done. It was indeed a beautiful structure. The
roof had just gone on, and the whole thing (picture an above ground concrete bomb-shelter) looked like it could withstand
earthquakes, tornadoes, and meteors all at once. I've never seen anything more
basic and solid.
Walking back across the field, the Director veered off to the left saying, Je vas faire la peepee. He was going to go make peepee. How could
I have ever been angry with this man? We met back up at his office. He was all
smiles. He's always all smiles. He
told me that now I would be remembered. Lori gave them soccer balls; I'm leaving
them with a latrine. So I will not be forgotten.
It was meant as a compliment. Its a good thing I love these people.
21 Nov 2003
I know, I've been talking a lot lately about the passing of
time. And I'm going to do it again. Because
two things happened this week that define the passage of time for me; I turned
26 and I got replaced.
The turning 26 thing was pretty
cool, mostly because I recently read in Newsweek that 26 is the perfect age. No
joke. Allegedly, everyone under 26 wants to be older, and everyone over 26 wants
to be younger, leaving 26 itself to be the perfect medium. You're all jealous,
So how did I celebrate this great landmark? I went to the waterfall with the Peace Corps Family; sister Phyn, Brother Dario, and
Little Brother Kelly. We swam, ate peanut butter sandwiches, climbed rocks, napped
in the misty sunlight, and saw a Black Momba.
The Black Momba was curled up in a
tree over our sitting spot. We moved. I've only seen two big snakes in Togo.
The first was a six foot long Green Momba, at the waterfall, on my 25th birthday. Coincidence?
I like to think the wilds of Togo have gotten in the habit of coming out to salute my big day.
Let's back-up a minute. A paragraph ago, I said Little Brother Kelly. Who's Kelly?
He's the one replacing me. He's 22, a year younger than I was when I got here, the same age as Djalilou. Djalilou
loves him. Kelly is eager and smart and motivated. The folks at the
school love him. He runs laps around my house with Einstein (the inside of the house). Einstein loves him. He
already speaks French and has learned more Kotakoli in a month than I did in two years.
He wants to paint murals, start boys clubs, continue my work, incorporate theater, and learn Arabic. The whole town loves him. They've named him Mohammed. Yes,
after the Great High Prophet.
For months I've been hoping for a quality replacement, wanting Bafilo to get someone who will treat it right. When we found out that it would be a boy, the people I worrk with were disappointed.
How would a boy do they same work I'd been doing? I gave them many a pep talk
on how great it would be to have a man working for women's rights. I needn't
have bothered. As soon as anyone shakes Kelly's hand and hears his Kotakoli,
their eyes twinkle, and they know, regardless of gender, they got a good one.
I'm a bit jealous. But at the same time, everyone who expresses adoration for young Mohammed expresses just as much sadness
to see Mariama's time winding down. When Sekina's daughter, Danya, met Kelly
she clung to me for dear life, refusing to shake his hand, burying her face in my neck. Three year olds are so loyal.
Anyway, I'm mostly having a pretty
good attitude about being replaced. (REPLACED!!! Aggggggg! Deep breath.) I'm happy to see that my work will be left in worthy
hands. And Kelly's just so darn likeable that I can't go around entertaining these spurts of jealousy. I do however find great
satisfaction in Phynessa and Dario's habit of calling him "Little Brother". Kelly
doesn't like it. Probably because he's jealous that he's not the older, wiser, Big Sister.
26 year old Big Sister. The perfect age.
30 Nov 2003
Happy Thanksgiving ! It was another deep-fried-turkey holiday in Bafilo.
Turkey #4. This time we didn't name him.
Which is good, because I tortured the poor bird beyond forgiveness, and thinking of him as just a piece of meat helps
a great deal in getting over my Post Traumatic Stress. His PTS was hopefully
cured by the time he hit the 15 liters of boiling oil.
when it came time to kill the bird, it was only my friend Alice and myself at the house. Alice hasn't even killed a chicken
yet, so to start with a Turkey would have been a bit overwhelming. I was pretty much OK with doing the deed, but two problems came into play; one, I
decided to use the sharpest knife I have, which happens to be a two-inch Leatherman blade, and two, I had become cocky about my ability to kill turkeys. This was a problem because it caused me to not think
it through all that well. I just stood on the bird, grabbed his head (gently, and only after giving him his last sip of water),
and start sawing, as if I do this everyday. But lo! the blade, while sharp, was
not nearly long enough for any effective sawing action, and so I had to put all of my strength and attention into the sorry
cutting task, drawing attention away from my feet. I blinked and the Turkey was out from under me, flapping about at the end
of his five feet of rope. Oh no! I
caught him, stepped on him, and started sawing again (in a new place I fear). I'd just hit bone when he got away AGAIN.
I looked at Alice. This is not how
it's supposed to go. I caught the poor bird again, stepped on him again,
stabbed wildly where the trachea should be, twisted the knife, and sawed again. Blood sprayed all over the house, the well,
and me. I dropped the knife, grabbed his neck in both hands and snapped the bone. I
then jumped up to avoid the fountain of red. He ran again, this time with his head flopping unnaturally against his shoulder.
He fell, and I bent over him. His eyes were closed. It was over. I stood up, trembling, bloody, introspective. Are you a vegetarian yet? I asked myself...Nope, this is going to be delicious.
And it was. The food was plentiful, the company was excellent, the proclamations of gratitude were sentimental
and heart-warming, and the Leatherman was washed off and put away, never to be used for such things again.
The server is quite moody today. I've read all your emails, but responding has been tricky. Things keep getting lost. Might
have to wait till next time to respond. Sorry. Peace Out.
PPS There is a techno medley of The Barbie Girl song, The Titanic Theme and Christmas
music going on in this email place. Probably, shocking the server into all loss of function.
I woke up in the realization of something
big, like Christmas morning or a birthday, but less joyous. 6am, my last morning in Bafilo. I lay under my mosquito
net listening to the familiar sounds of this house of mine. Phynessa rolled over in the next room. Dario took a deep
waking breath out on the couch. The dogs waited for us on the porch (mine and Phynessa's). I listened to Einstein whimper
impatiently. I heard the birds wake up as the bugs went to sleep. A neighbor poured grain into a metal bucket,
and Djalilou poured water over his morning self next to the house. These sounds suddenly registered as nostalgic.
I tumbled out of my bed for the last time to go buy bread for the last time. Opening
my door for the last time I breathed in the dawn air. Then I went to check on Phyn's dog Cooter, who had been sick for
a few days. She was lying on the end of the porch. Not moving. Oh no. "Dario, can you come out here?"
"What? Did Cooter die?" "Yes." I touched her again to make sure again, and again she did not move. Phyn
came out, not wanting to believe what she had just overheard, crying, crushed. Good morning heartache.
Djalilou took Cooter to an old unused well, the same well that my puppy was "buried" in over a year ago. And we all tried
to move on with the day, but the tone was set. Even Einstein was depressed.
A couple hours later, sitting
in the mid-morning sun, we ate watermelon and watched Dario and Djalilou as they played a simple game of cards over and over
again. And we waited for the car that would come to take us away. I sat with Einstein, I packed, repacked, checked
the house for things I'd forgotten to pack, checked the house again, sat with Einstein again, ate some more watermelon.
People came to say goodbye. I visited. We all waited. I could have spent all day on that porch, content
in the fact that the car had not yet arrived. Prolonging departure.
But suddenly an American voice was at my gate. It was 10:30, and the car had come. Helpful hands took my things
up to the road for me. I locked the house. And I hugged Einstein. Twice. And then I left.
Halfway to the road, one of my neighborly Mamas stopped me. "You are leaving? Right Now?!" Yes. Her sweet old
lip quivered. She tried to stop it, to hide it. But she cried. I didn't know, hadn't known, that she would
be sad. I wanted to go to her house for tea and get to know her. But the car waited. And she was embarrassed
and lagged behind as Djalilou came back from the car to walk with me. My five year old neighbor, Mma, jumped into my
arms, and I registered how big she's gotten. Of course. She was three when I got here. I hugged her and set her
down. I hugged Madame Yaya. Hugged Djalilou, and was ushered into the car through a crowd of curious children.
These children who I would greatly miss. The door closed, and away we went. I looked back at Djalilou, unspoken
promises of friendship, of not forgetting.
We dropped Dario
off in his village, and Phynessa came to Lome with me. My last trip down this beautiful, boggling, difficult, amazing
country, tempted at many points to jump out and hitch my way back north. But no. It is clearly time to go.
From Kahlil Gibran's, The Prophet, a longish quote that is dear to me as I walk away from Bafilo.
as he descended the hill, a sadness came upon him, and he thought in his heart:
How shall I go from this place without
sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.
Long were the days of pain I have spent within
its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?
many fragments of the spirit have I scattered in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked
among these hills, and I cannot withdraw from them without a burden and an ache.
It is not a garment I cast off this day,
but a skin that I tear with my hands.
Nor is it a thought I leave behind me, but a heart made sweet with hunger
and with thirst.
Yet I cannot tarry longer.
The sea that calls all things unto her calls me, and I must embark.
to stay, though the hours burn in the night, is to freeze and crystallize and be bound in a mould.
Fain would I take with
me all that is here. But how shall I?
A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone must
it seek the ether.
And alone without his nest shall the eagle fly across the sun.
And when he reached the foot of the
hill, he again turned towards the sea, and he saw his ship approaching the harbor, and upon her prow the
men of his own land. And his soul cried out to them, and he said:
Sons of my ancient mother, you riders of the
tides, How often have you sailed in my dreams. And now you come in my awakening, which is my deeper dream.
am I to go, and my eagerness with sails full set awaits the wind.
Only another breath will I breathe in this still air,
only another loving look cast backward.
And then shall I stand among you, a seafarer among seafarers.
you for coming along.