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Becky Binns--Togo News Letter

TNLs #70-75
TNLs #1-5
TNLs #6-9
TNLs #10-14
TNLs #15-19
TNLs #20-24
TNLs #25-29
TNLs #30-34
TNLs #35-39
TNLs #40-44
TNLs #45-49
TNLs #50-54
TNLs #55-59
TNLs #60-64
TNLs #65-69
TNLs #70-75
TNLs #91-95

#70 An American Abroad

 #71 Take Our Daughters To Work

#72 The Conference Table in My Head

 #73 A Burglary, an Injured Dog, and a Run-in w/Gravity

#74 Phynessa's Field...ouch

#75 Work Update Sat, 29 Mar 2003


 TNL #70

Hello All,

        I recently had the privilege of sharing a meal with a couple of Europeans who were traveling through Togo. Jean Michael was a Dutch kid here on a photography mission for his final project at art school. Hans was a German journalist who'd been covering parts of Africa for 20 years. The three of us met on a bush taxi coming up from Lomé, and as we passed Bafilo, they convinced me to stay on the bus and accompany them to Kara.

        Ten minutes into dinner, Jean Michael blurted out, "You know, you Americans are HATED in Europe right now!" I was the first American Jean had ever encountered, and it seemed he'd been holding this in for quite awhile. Hans leapt in and reminded his young friend that it was the government that was hate-worthy, not the people. Thank you Hans. I confessed that my friends and I often feel the need to apologize for our American-ness while traveling abroad. They said that that said a lot for my personality. How easy it is to bash my country, especially right now.

         I just spent the day reading all the March Newsweeks. My mind is in a muddle. I've read about Bush's faith, the reasons the world fears the US, the banning of French toast in the capital, the comparisons between different wars and different administrations. It can be so tricky to weed through the propaganda of both sides, to stop the knee-jerk reaction to bash the US, and to try to see...SOMETHING, positive. I'm sure you all know this.

          The BBC was interviewing a Kenyan man who said, "I hate Bush. If Bush were here I'd cut him like a goat... (long pause)...or a cow!" I laughed at the man's afterthought. Then felt bad for one of the world's most criticized men; a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. A man who really seems to think he's doing the RIGHT thing... If I were home would I be marching in war-protests? Would I see things more clearly? Would I still feel the need to apologize for my American-ness?

          I sit outside thinking in the fading light of Bafilo. A crowd roars in the distance as a soccer match comes to a close. The bats swoop by my head, always seeming to miss me by a hair. Flies buzz around the mangos, creating a calming hum in my yard, a peacefulness interrupted as my dog dashes around the corner and lands half in my lap. Einstein is not a small dog, and the effort of a moment of play sends sweat down my back. It’s a 100° evening. A lizard passes over my feet and Einstein takes off after it. The electricity hasn't been working, and as the darkness closes in on my Togo day, I feel so far from all the questions of the world. And this is a blessing.

        "Bon Soir Mariama!!" The cry startles me from my thoughts. Oh. "Bon Soir Yacabou." My crazy neighbor brings a smile to my face. He and I were wearing matching shirts today. Shirts donated by the last PCV. We were number 4 and number 5 on some Montclair, NJ child's sports team. I briefly wonder what Yacabou's view on the war is. Then I realize he may not even know about it. I never thought I'd be envious of Yacabou.

 Until next time, peace be with us all,



Thu, 10 Apr 2003

Subject: TNL#71

Hello All,

        I ended up not writing a TNL last weekend due to the fact that I was passed-out-exhausted after a week of very rewarding work (or play, however you'd like to look at it). For those of you who were with me last year, you may remember the "Take our Daughters to Work" project I organized with two other then-new PCVs. The seminar consisted of 40 Jr. High girls, 3 days in their local cities (Bafilo, my home, being one of four of these), and then 3 days in Kara, the Big City.

          The girls met with successful business women, hospital staff, NGOs, and AIDS awareness groups. They also learned how to make soy products, and clay stoves so they can have small-money making skills while still in school.

              April vacation rolled around this year, and the PCVs in my region decided to come together again to plan this great event. Problem being that Peace Corps Washington had decided not to fund any more "Take Our Daughters to Work" projects. So we renamed it "Life Skills Seminar for Girls" and were immediately granted about $1300. Dishonest? We like to think of it as resourceful.

          This time three new PCVs planned the Kara section and I took hold of the Bafilo seminar. The girls were fabulous and the program went off without a hitch. The only unfortunate thing being that I have no funny mishap stories to tell you. Oh, except for when we Yovos tried to teach a large group of people how to make soy cheese (tofu), but our cheese didn't solidify. So a couple girls stepped in and did it again, and it worked. Thus proving that us Yovos know much less than people believe we know. Very good moment in my eyes. Then, during the soy presentation, Peace Corps Lomé decided to stage an Emergency Action Plan Test (kind of like a country-wide fire drill), so my Peace Corps issued cell phone (which I've been trying to hide from the locals) kept ringing as directors called to see if I knew where different PCVs were. Meanwhile, there hadn't been electricity in Bafilo for three days straight, so my phone battery was dying...I suppose, just by the nature of Togo, nothing can run completely without a hitch. Perhaps this is the nature of the world and not just Togo.

         The last night in Bafilo, we treated the girls to a "fancy" dinner and they entertained us with skits they had created on topics such as child trafficking, polygamy, and sexual harassment. I realized (not for the first time) how privileged I was to be working with such a dynamic and talented group of people. The days in Kara that followed were just as rewarding. Our 10 girls joined 30 others, and became quite the impressive force. The time ended with a long night of dancing under the stars.

           The Togolese girls dance so joyfully and naturally, like no one's watching. They laughed at us silly Americans as we tried to teach them the electric slide, the Hitchhiker, and various swings moves. Why make it such a show man? Just DANCE! Lesson learned. In fact, I'm sure I learned more that week than any one of those girls. Such is life here. Until next time (just Dance!),



 Fri, 25 Apr 2003

TNL #72

Hey All,

       Complete and absolute writer's block today. Absolute! Life is good. There are lizards and bugs and girl's clubs and mornings at the women's center. But I've written about all that already. So I've found a TNL that I wrote months ago and never sent. Re-reading it now, I realize that I've become much peace since the beginning of the year. I suppose that's a disclaimer as I give you a piece of myself that only sometimes still exists.

      Here we go: There's a conference table in my head. Sitting around this table are a number of characters, all inhabiting my every thought process here in Togo. It could be that they've always existed, but I never noticed. They've never been so loud and conflicted before.

        Let me give you a small example of how they function; A ten year old boy passes me on the road and calls out "Hey white lady, give me some money, eh?"


(The first to react is Angry Cynic who dwells just below the surface and tries to convince me to get violent. I don't claim ownership to this personality, but I do admit that she exists.)


Angry Cynic: How dare he call you that! How dare he ask for money! Go over there and show him how to be respectful, eh!


(Enter The Idealist and The Christian. although they don't always agree, they can usually be found hanging around the same side of the table.)


The Christian: What, are you just going to turn your back on someone who asks for your help? You know you have the means to give it.


The Idealist: Oh my dear, you also know you can't actually go around giving out money. Not to be too cliché, but its better to teach a man to fish than to just hand him a fi...


Cynic: You're forgetting that all YOU know how to catch is American fish. How are you going to teach folks how to catch Togolese fish with an American pole? It just doesn't work that way. That's like trying to get from Lomé to Bafilo with a map of RI.


The Christian: Can we just stop and pray about this?


 (enter The Hammock-Dweller)


Hammock-Dweller: Yawn. Or we could go home and take a nap.


Cynic: That's right, sleep off the anger. Run away. Don't ever learn to deal with it.


Hammock-Dweller: Come on, naps are good. Rejuvenating.


The Christian: Can we get back to the topic at hand? So far we've said nothing to that sweet little boy  (Cynic: Sweet. Right.) and he's about to walk away feeling very unloved. Remember, "what you didn't do for the least of these, you didn't do for me"


 Idealist: OK, but we're not giving him anything tangible. That's just not sustainable.


 Hammock-Dweller: Let's just joke with him a bit, ask HIM for some money, then go home to that Kingsolver novel.


Idealist: How do we expect to learn anything if we hang out at home all the time?


 Hammock-Dweller: Learn? I've read over 50 books here, at least a quarter of which were about Africa. I'm learning plenty.


Cynic: Oh joy. The boy is following us. Wonderful. He's singing our song.


(boy sings "anasara yovo yovo, anasara yovo yovo", which means stranger, whitey whitey, stranger whitey whitey.)


Christian: Can we at least turn around and smile at him already? (We do) Thank you, that's better.


 Idealist: Hey guys, we can deal with this. Demands for money and racial slurs don't HAVE to inspire such anger. You know you have to work on yourself before you can help others.


Christian: Yes, you must remove the plank from your own eye before...


Cynic: Oh my God, did I stumble into the Little House on the prairie? “Papa, I learned how to be nice to my neighbors today”, “Oh, Laura, I’m so proud of you…”


Hammock-Dweller: I think we best go home and sleep this off.


       We greet the kid, joke around with him a bit, teach him to call us anything but anasara and yovo, and continue on our way feeling like we've done OK. It is known that none of these personalities could last a day alone here. And they are not the only four. There are many more battling it out at my mental conference table. There's the Integrator who thinks another 10 years here would be nice, and who likes to spend all her time in town talking to the women. And the Solitary One who can't get enough of the abundant alone time. There's the Socializer who loves having other PCVs over. There's a fascinated 6 year old, an insecure 13 year old, an overly confident 18 year old, and a calm 75 year old. The list goes on.

        To ignore them all would be refreshing at times, but to acknowledge them helps me to better understand the confusion, joy, helplessness, contentment, and craziness of my interactions here. Until next time, we all wish you a good day,



Thu, 8 May 2003

TNL#73~a burglary, an injured dog, and a run in with gravity (Oh my!)

Hello All,

      Last time I was in town emailing, someone broke into my garage, stole one of Yacabou's bikes and some insignificant stuff of mine, and left me with a broken door and a diminished sense of security. Yacabou, Djalilou and I went to talk to the Chief the next day. I started to explain in French, but couldn't find all the words I needed, so Djalilou took over in Kotakoli, "It’s not too big of a deal. Yacabou still has his other bike, Mariama didn't lose anything important. We're just afraid that it could be the house next time."

      Sometimes I think Djalilou translates my thoughts directly as opposed to my stuttered words. The chief, and his brother, the other chief, are both very concerned and saddened. They are looking into it. They tell me not to be afraid. That it will all come to pass. And after a couple days I finally stopped guarding my house around the clock, and ceased to flinch every time the dog barked. Yacabou, through it all, has been in a jolly good mood. Perhaps he handles loss well, or is acting as my supportive ally through it all. There are more incriminating theories, which make sense, and don't make sense. Maybe I just don't want to look at these theories because somewhere along the line I came to genuinely like Yacabou (I haven't caught him swinging from my mango trees in almost a year).

           I dutifully filled out a Peace Corps accident/incident report, covering all my complaint bases; chiefs, friends, neighbors, Peace Corps. What good is an invasion to your space if you can't complain about it? I did have to pull out my English dictionary while filling it out to determine if the incident was a burglary, robbery, or theft. Three very different things don't you know. I settled on Burglary. [bur'glar n. one who breaks into a building to steal -buréglary n.,pl-ries.]

       We weren't sure where Einstein was during this whole burglary. He may have been sleeping on the front porch. He may be the reason the burglar didn't empty the garage completely. Two days later I noticed that Einstein has somehow acquired a very painful injury. Whether it was related to the break-in, I don't know. Every time he sat down, he yelped and ran away. Finally I noticed that, um, parents, you may want to remove your children from the room before reading on...well, his testicles were huge, purple, and crusty. It took me four painful days to hunt down the vet. When he finally showed up, he muzzled the dog and had me hold him like a baby while he pulled, pushed, and prodded. Einstein looked up at me the whole time, over the top of the muzzle, as if to say, "Why are you letting him do this to me?" The vet picked the top layer of scab off while I tried not to hurl. Then he took out some "Bleu de Methylene" (a.k.a bright blue paint) and carefully painted the injury blue. I was a bit concerned, "You know he's going to lick that off. Is that OK?" The vet came back with a Togolese standby, "Ca ne faire rien", No Problem. The bottle said in big red letters, "Do Not Swallow". Hmmm. We removed the muzzle, and moments later Einstein's tongue was blue. I was told to keep an eye on him, and re-paint the injury when the blue wore off. Yeah. Problem being I was leaving town the next morning for three days. Phynessa had already volunteered to house sit, so I wrote her a note;

         "Phynessa, vet finally came. Painted injury blue. Have to re-apply when it wears off. That may happen while I'm gone...yes, I'm asking you to paint my dog's testicles blue. You are a good friend. First time we did it he had a muzzle on, so, um, 'doucement, eh'" ['doucement' is the Togolese way of saying 'Be careful' in painfully obvious situations, like when you trip over yourself in front of a bunch of school kids, 'Doucement Mariama, eh' Thanks Kid.]

           So away I went to my friend Sarah's village so I could observe her in the middle of a huge AIDS seminar she had organized for her village. It was fascinating, but before long, it was time to leave. Sarah's village is probably only about 100km away by way of the blue bird, but due to road placement (and condition), and vehicle frequency (and condition) its generally a full day's travel. At 7am I scored the best place in an old Toyota pick-up (due to being the first person to sign up for this vehicle that finally left 6 hours later). The driver, and a high school principal, and I squished into the front, while about 12 other folks super-squished into the cow-cart structure in the bed of the truck. Then a few feet of building supplies were piled on top and we were off. Our bumpy voyage was going rather well until we came head to head with three goats. Two ran. One tumbled along our undercarriage. An hour later, the driver suddenly noticed that the steering had locked. Whether or not this had anything to do with the goat, we don't know. But as we left the road and headed up an embankment towards a field I wasn't thinking about the goat, I was thinking, "What luck to have to leave the road in a treeless place." Then I thought, "Oh, my, we seem to be tipping."

         And ever so slowly, we did just that. While I was calmly aware of all that was going on, I was still taken by surprise when gravity shifted and it became very difficult to stick to my escape route window. It had become a sky-light you see; a sky-light which I pulled myself out of (trembling a bit). The principal's foot was stuck in the gear shift. So I stuck around the cab until he was freed, and then went to survey the crowd. No serious injuries. All of the women were coming up to me to hold my hands in theirs and say (in English) "We tank da Gawd!" Yes we do. By some miracle (We tank da Gawd) I got home before dark. Einstein was in great shape. I called Phyn on her village phone. She had just left my house. No, she didn't paint the dog. She thinks he's nervous around her because he once came in contact with one of her wayward tie-kwon-doe kicks. But she did leave me notes and treats, and when I called her she gave me comforting credit for all I'd been through. So, you know, burglaries, dog injuries, and encounters with rusty Toyotas are all handle-able when you've got a good neighbor to pick you up, brush you off, and house sit for you. The accident/incident reports are fun too.

Until next time, We tank Da Gawd,



17 May 2003


Hello All,

       My lovely neighbor, Phynessa, is an environmental PCV (Natural Resource Management if you want to get technical). Part of her job is to teach her village innovative farming techniques. Thus she was given a piece of land on the outskirts of her village in order to make a demonstration field. Recently, she decided to get going on clearing this land (which hasn't been touched in years). Nature had taken over. The grass was over her head, but she managed to clear that on her own in a day. Amid the grass however were trees and deeply rooted bushes of many varieties. Somehow it was decided that Dario, Greer, and I would go out to the field with Phynessa and help her eradicate her land of these pesky aspects of nature.


[Side note: When Meaghan was visiting here from the States, she made a comment that it must be a Peace Corps Togo requirement for their Volunteers to have bizarre names. I'm not sure how I got in.]


 Back to the story: Four people, about an acre of harmless vegetation, and some tropical sunshine, easy, no? Actually, no. Fun, yes. Mother Nature had a good laugh. I arrived in the field on my bike a bit before 8am on Monday. The other three (who had slept in Phyn's village- after a meeting of the secret society of crazy names I'm sure), had been waging war with the bush for an hour already. Dario was in one corner violently (and vocally) destroying the shrubbery with his coup-coup (we all had coup-coups; machetes). Greer was in another corner with her coup-coup. Phynessa was digging up the Hawaii-deep roots with her hoe. And there were fallen trees and bushes everywhere. I do believe Dario's hands were already bleeding when I showed up. Let me tell you a little about Togolese farm tools. You have your coup-coup; big curved knife. And you have your hoe. A hoe here is a spade of metal stuck onto a two foot long piece of wood at a 30° angle. In order to use either of these tools, you must bend your body in half so that your hands are at ground level. In collecting that which you've cut, you also have to bend over and use your hands as rakes until you've gathered all you can reach, at which point you pivot (without standing upright) and gather more. Upon my arrival, the others took a small break and gave me some duct tape so I could make fingerless gloves. Peace Corps should be the principle advertisers of duct tape. I then coup-couped for awhile (fabulous stress reliever) and dug up a couple roots. But because I was a little worried about my back post-Toyota-tip-over (refer to TNL 73), I soon became the main gatherer.

           By 12:30 we had cleared most of the surface vegetation and constructed five compost piles. We were hot, exhausted, blistered, bruised, filthy, sun-burnt, and very much proud of ourselves. And the Togolese say Yovos can't work a field!

           We rode back to Phynessa's house, but were too tired to continue home, so we all spent the night. The next morning we were in pain, but still functioning. Dario, Greer and I dragged ourselves to Bafilo along the hilly 12km line of dirt that connects my home to Phyn's. Thank God I could stop there; Dario still had 8km straight up the mountain and Greer had 25 km to Kara to go. God Bless them. By noon that day I could barely walk, or bend over. The next morning I was happy to come just 17" from touching my toes. By nightfall I was only 13" away. This made me happy.

        I'm inspired to plant a field of my own. As soon as Togo gets tools with long handles, roto-rooters, chain saws, and those weed cutters that you can plug into your house via miles of extension cord. Until then, I'll keep sweating it out in the classroom.

 Peace out folks,



 Date: Sat, 24 May 2003

Subject: TNL# 75

Hello All,

               I'm afraid I'm rushing around a bit and haven't thought much about writing a TNL. I'm spending my last day in Kara before two weeks of “Standfast”. Standfast is basically when every PCV has to stay in their village and check in with PC every once in awhile. The presidential elections here happen on June 1 (my parent's 28th wedding anniversary) and we will be in Standfast for the weeks before and after elections. I can't really talk about the elections at this point, but listen for us in your news. Even if we are just a little unknown country, it’s a pretty big deal.

              Let me give you a little work update. First of all, work has been excellent lately. I'm pumped about it. After that girls' conference in early April, the PCVs in my area (Phyn, Dario, and Greer, and I) decided that we needed to do some kind of follow-up. You see, only two girls from each middle school were able to attend the conference, and we wanted the information to go further than that. The girls that did attend formed a dynamic and knowledgeable group of young women. They were eager to continue working with us. So we planned a little tour. Each of the girls chose a topic (AIDS, Sexual harassment, money making tactics, child trafficking, birth control...) and each girl became an expert on her topic. They rehearsed and perfected dynamic speeches. And we took off for our first school.

               Over a hundred girls gathered to listen. Our girls lead the show. They were impassioned. They answered questions, or told girls where to go to get answers to medical questions. They were unbelievable. Over two months we visited five middle schools and talked with over 500 girls. Each school inspired our girls to become more outspoken, more dynamic, to answer questions with more authority. And they knew their stuff. It was an awesome couple months. Now they are taking their exams, and planting their fields. People are too busy for the extras that I bring along, but plans for the summer are developing. They may be brave enough to speak to groups of boys...we'll see. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to two weeks in Bafilo without the distractions of other PVCs, Kara, restaurants, and email. Though I may go stir crazy by day two.

I hope you are all well. Until next time,