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Becky Binns--Togo News Letter

TNLs #60-64

Fete Fete Fete Fou
 #60 Christmas Fete etc.

#61 Whipping Fete

#62 Parade Fete

#63 Work Fete

#64 Fou Fete


 Hello All,
            It's been three weeks since my last TNL and it seems I've enough news for 10 newsletters.  Thus, I'll be skimping on the storytelling a bit and filling this  page with summaries instead.  In the style of my family's Christmas newsletter, I'll even add sub-titles for easy reading. 
            My good friend Wyn flew in for a couple of weeks on December 20th. There are a million stories and laughs and smiles to go along with his time here, but I'll just list a few for now.  There was a young  village mother who was petrified of white people and very nervously joined us in a taxi (then got back out, then back in, then back out...).  Once she was settled in the car, Wyn gave her a friendly wave and she absolutely freaked out.  It took the coaxing of a village mama to keep her in the car with us.  There was a man who made a spare key for my house using a scrap of metal, a chisel, and an engine block.  It didn't work, but it was fascinating to watch him and see the very key-like result.  There was a long, friendly debate with my coworker, Madame Yaya and her husband about polygamy (Madame Yaya is the first of three wives).  At the end of the discussion, the four of us went together to the mosque for afternoon prayer.  My friend Sekina, a woman from Ghana, sent us about 2kilos of local cheese and a half dozen eggs so I could "make good meal for man".  There was a soccer game that Wyn joined that had everyone cheering for the Yovo.  Guys are now coming over in the evenings to  ask if my brother/my husband/the white man can come
out and play.  And then there was my forgetting to tell Wyn how not to give the "dirty handshake" before he accidentally made a very suggestive proposition to my (slightly shocked) old man neighbor.  These moments are just the tip of the fufu-burg (there are no iceburgs here).  It was an awesome visit.  And yes, that is an understatement.
            The morning of Christmas eve, Wyn, Ariana, and I went next door to pick up Earl's brother (a nameless, tall, skinny bird with a quiet disposition).  Before Wyn's arrival, my friends and I had decided that he should kill the Christmas turkey as a sort of bonus to his experience in Africa.  The bird had been tied up outside for about 5 minutes when Wyn good-naturedly picked up the knife.  He had the knife for about 5 minutes before he passed it off to Ariana.  Ariana held it for another 5 minutes before giving it to Sarah, who asked if we had a neighbor who could come and do the deed for us.  The idea of calling in Togolese back-up hurt my pride just enough to pick up the knife and start sawing.  Wanting to see a headless turkey run around, I stepped back with a head in one hand and a bloody knife in the other, and we watched as the sad bird flopped around the yard.  I know I know, morbid Christmas activity, isn't it.  But we are Peace Corps Volunteers.  We have no TV.  The bird was plucked, washed, gutted, and fried.  Seventeen people feasted that night on unspeakable amounts of food and Sangria.  Christmas morning found us all hiking out to the waterfall, which was a bit dried up, but still made for an excellent Christmas. 
***To Wyn's credit, he did try to kill the bird, but the knife was a bit dull, and he didn't break the skin. 
            Wyn and I were in my favorite jazz club in Lomé when 2003 rolled around.  No one else really seemed to care that it was midnight (despite Wyn's attempts to make them care), so we took off and convinced the guards at our hotel to let us take a 1am dip in the pool.  The pool guard was a bit grumpy (as we interrupted his sleep), but the other guards helped us out by turning on all the lights and teasing the uptight sleeping guard.  A few hours after our New Year's swim, we woke up and headed to the border.
            The next couple days were spent near Cape Coast, Ghana.  We hung out at a beach resort (which was out of rooms, but gave us a tent 100ft or so from the waves), and went to Cape Coast to tour the slave castles.  These castles are full of horrific history, but it was cool to learn more about that part of West Africa's past.  January 3rd saw seven hours of bush taxis as we made our way back to Lomé and back to the airport. 
            Back in Bafilo people were buzzing about liberation day, which was confusing because Liberation day isn't until April here.  This morning, as I was doing laundry, I heard drums, singing, cheering.  So I went out to check it out and it turns out the Bafilo was indeed having a sort of liberation day.  All of the men from my neighborhood who were thrown in the Kara jail over the past 6 months were freed today.  Of course none of this has anything to do with politics (um, yeah).  In completely unrelated news (are you convinced?), Mr. Prez just successfully changed the constitution so that he can run once more and rule (er, um, serve) for another 5 years.  Which is great since he's only been in power for the past 40 years. At any rate, its good to have my neighborhoods back.  And its always good to have a reason to party.
OK, so that's my half-baked summary of my last three weeks.  I hope you are all well and enjoying the new year.  Peace Out for now,        
  Sun, 12 Jan 2003


Hello All

          For those of you who have been with me for the past year, you may remember last years "whipping fete", a coming of age ceremony that I was privileged to attend last January.  Well, whipping fete season has rolled around again, and this past Wednesday was the first in a string of crazy whipping events. 

          Let me give a quick explanation.  The ethnic group by the name of Poulle (which I've probably spelled wrong), used to be nomadic.  But now they've settled down in my area.  Because of their nomadic past and their connection with the remaining nomadic tribes, they are considered outsiders of sorts.  But everyone comes out to see their fetes as they've maintained them so well, even in their attempts to integrate with the Kotokoli. Each year, Poulle boys around the age of 12 prepare themselves foor the whipping fete, an even not to be missed.  About 20 boys pair off at a time in the middle of a big crazy circle of a crowd, kept in control by a man running around its interior perimeter swinging a goat tail whip.  Each boy gets whipped with a long stick across his chest three times by his whipping buddy.  If he cries, he doesn't get to marry.

          No one ever cries.  Once he's been whipped, all the members of his family run out and pour baby powder on him, hug him, lift him up, and jostle him around a great deal.  He himself is usually quite zombie-like.  And that's it.  These boys are actually pretty secondary to the real hype of the day. There are drummers, dancers, palm wine, fights, men in bras and wigs, trees full of spectator children, and more drummers. 

          On Wednesday afternoon, Dario and I headed out to Phynessa's village for the opening day.  We greeted the chief of her village who gave us palm wine and called in the drummers (or did they follow us in without an invite from him?).  One old drummer in a long green man-dress drummed in our faces for 5 minutes, playing out some conversation of rhythm.  He had us mesmerized. What a cool connection.  Then he asked us for money.  Such is life in Togo.  But then, he deserved it.  We then went out and watched the boys whipping each other. There were a couple of bleeders and some of the Dad's got into fights with each other, but nothing too shocking.  Until the boys part was over and the men came out to play.  This part was so chaotic last year that the fete was ended early.  The men run out in bras and lace, make-up and miniskirts, wigs and stylish fur hats.  And they carry big sticks.

          Then they proceed to hit each other and a mock-war breaks out.  Which quickly turns to a real war.  The man with the goat-tail whip is going nuts trying to keep the crowd under control.  Then he starts attacking the "players".  Then it seems everyone is attacking everyone.  Phynessa's friend, Yerebé says, "This isn't how its supposed to go..."  How's it Supposed to go? Peacefully? Organized? There doesn't seem to be a possibility of anything but chaos in this situation.  I mean, its a full out testosterone party with no holds barred.  The chaos becomes a bit boring due to the large moving mass of spectators blocking the view.  So we thank the chief, thank the drummers, and leave.  Thursday morning we return to see a dust cloud of the exact same thing we walked out on Wednesday night; a large mass of spectators surrounding a loud stick war.  Once in a while you could see a stick flying over someone's head.  We left after 15 minutes as we couldn't breathe or see through the dust anymore.  On Tuesday we will go to the same fete in Gandé, a village between Phynessa and me.  There's only so much hitting and shouting you can observe before it gets old, but I like going for the drummers and the wig-ed, bra-ed, made-up warriors. Nothing like it.  God Bless the Poulle.  Until next time, peace out,


 Fri, 17 Jan 2003


Hello All,

          This past Monday, January 13th, was the big national fete and parade.  Fete for what, you ask? Well, about 35 years ago on January 13th, General Eyedema (Togo's current Prez) led an attack which killed  the then-Prez, thus leaving a vacancy for Eyedema to step in and take the reins.  Which he did.  And as he's held onto those reins so tightly, he is still in control, and still mandates that every January 13th be set aside in celebration and recognition of His Excellency. 

          And so Bafilo geared up for the big day.  New parade lines were painted down the middle of the route national.  A tent was set up so the VIPs could have some shade.  And instead of going to school, the children spent all last week practicing marching.   

          Monday morning, Djalilou and I headed down town together, but eventually separated.  Djalilou was trying to be inconspicuous as he's told his school he was sick and couldn't march.  He told me he was a student, not a soldier, and refused to partake in the parade.  So, he was laying low, and I was whisked away to the VIP tent.  The whole town sat and waited as the parade couldn't start without the Prefect (senator-type), and he was two hours late.  Finally, things got rolling.  Drummers and dancers came by.  Then they played recorded marching music as the entire town marched down the road.  Women's groups, taxi drivers, butchers (carrying cow legs), bakers (carrying bread), the hospital staff (on a float demonstrating a mock-birth, using a blond, blue-eyed, plastic doll), the Bafilo radio station (which doesn't actually exist), the video clubs (folks who own VCRs and charge others to come over and watch kung fu videos), the hair dressers, NGE (New Generation for Eyedema), and the guys who play bocce (each holding a silver bocce ball). 

          Then came all the schools, children in tan uniforms marching like stiff unsmiling soldiers.  People were carrying signs that said, "The life of Togo is a life of Peace renewed with Eyedema", "Thank you Papa Eyedema!", and "Hope for a long life for Eyedema".  The soccer teams passed by with a sign that said, "Thank you Papa Eyedema for a life of sport in Togo".

          After awhile, I realized that the marching music blaring over the loudspeaker was a rendition of "I have decided to follow Jesus", and I smiled as hundreds of Muslims marched past.  After all the kids, there was a Mac truck with no driver.  A man walked next to it leaning in to hit the gas every few minutes.  Then there were traditional dancers.  My favorite.  These men spun and danced and drummed and held sticks which they hit together with another dancers sticks on every 10th beat. With all this hype, I almost felt myself start to get a little patriotic.  Almost.  OK, so maybe not even almost.  But the hype was sadly contagious and made me understand a lot about the passivity of the Togolese people.  As I'm not sure whose going to read this, and as I AM an apolitical PCV, I won't get into my opinion.  I'm sure you've a hunch how I feel about all this.

          On the subject of fetes, I went to another whipping fete this week.  Same as the other essentially.  This time I noticed that while the boys have a practiced stoicism on their faces, their eyes often burn with fear.  I noticed that the smallest boys hit the hardest.  I noticed that the young girls in the crowd cringe and bite their nails as they watch their male counterparts being whipped.  Also, I noticed that once its all over, the boys seem to carry themselves as men; an observation noted mostly in the bleeders. 

          After the fete I met Pynessa's eccentric village friend, a man who owns the only healthy Togolese horse I've ever seen.  He made me sit on his horse with his baby boy for a picture (bizarre moment).  Then I hitched a ride back to Bafilo with an off work taxi man.  Walking the last km home, I stopped to pound fufu with some ladies, had a brief Kotakoli lesson, played with the kids on the corner, and was greeted at my gate by Djalilou and Einstein.  I often have moments of realizing how GOOD life is.  This was one of those moments.  Heck, in some way, the whole week was.  In all its complexities and hang-ups, life is still good.  Until next time,


 Sun, 19 Jan 2003


Hello All,

          Dry spell is over.  I'm finally working again.  You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned a word of work in months.  This is because I haven't worked at all since November.  Early November.  A friend from Idaho mentioned that it seems I'm always on Holiday.  Well, yes, I do spend the majority of my time holidaying.  When Ramadan started on November 6th, it was decided that we wouldn't work until after the fasting, which lasts a month.  Then there was a trip to Lomé, then another trip to Lomé, then Christmas, then New Years, then the Celebrate-the-Prez day.

          Togolese like holidays.  So do I.  But I also like work.  So I was psyched to re-start my girls club classes this Wednesday.  We had a class on decision making and looking at life choices.  It went well, mostly because its just fun to be with the girls again.  I like having a space for the girls to express themselves out of male earshot.  I like it when the couple girls who understand Becky-French translate into Togo French for the rest of the class.  I like being laughed at because I'm always covered in chalk from leaning on the board and wiping my hands on my skirt.  And I like staying after class to talk to the girls about their boyfriends, or their lack of boyfriends (God Bless them).  So it's good to be teaching again; a nice break from the holidays:)

          On the subject of teaching, some months back I mentioned that I'd been asked to teach some women's Koran classes, and being a young Christian woman in a Muslim community, I'd declined.  That TNL is still getting responses from folks who recommend that I step up to the Koran-teaching plate.  I have to say, I still believe this to be a bad idea.  Let me explain.  First of all, there are capable Muslim Togolese who are able to teach the classes, and I wouldn't want to discourage the phenomenon of them helping each other.  For years Togolese have been in the habit of stepping back and letting the foreigners do things they can do for themselves.  This is one of those things that they can do much better, and that should be encouraged.

          Secondly, while I do have an English Study Koran in my possession, and while I have read a small part of it, me teaching the Koran would be like a Muslim teaching Bible classes because, hey, he owns a Bible, and he even flipped through Genesis once.  I've been to observe a couple Women's Koran classes, and while they're not perfect, they are getting started.  It's encouraging to see these groups genuinely wanting to learn, being taught by caring, liberal men, and praying together before the end of class.  There is so much about development work that needs to be more about observation and encouragement and information resource, and less about stepping up to the plate.

          After decades of relaying on foreign aide and volunteers, a few people in my town are finally starting to realize they can do it for themselves, which is awesome.  Allah Bless them.  If I tried to teach a Koran class, it would be a circus show of language problems, misunderstandings, and "hey look, the Yovo is trying to teach our Holy Word, and in Arabic!" Right. 

     I do appreciate your suggestions, and I understand the desire to see faiths mix in harmony.  But this isn't the way to do that. 

          I was talking to a couple of ten year old boys the other day; one Christian, one Muslim, best friends.  The Christian asked me if I was Muslim since my name is "Mariama" (my local Islam name).  I said that no, I was Christian, but I prayed in a Mosque with my Muslim friends once recently, and it's the same thing.  He replied with, "Oh Mariama, that is very beautiful!"  I didn't know whether to laugh at the intensity of his response, or thank him.  So I did both. 

Until next time,



 Sun, 2 Feb 2003

 TNL #64~The Yovo and the Fou

Hello All,                                       

            On my way to the bank the other day, I was stopped by a man across the street yelling to me in a hurried combination of French and  English slang, "howzitgoin? Howsitgoin! Mademoiselle, HOWZITGOING?!!!!!"   The man was very well dressed and enthusiastic, and as he ran through traffic to catch up with me, I continued walking, but braced myself for the interaction.  He caught up quickly and walked shoulder to shoulder with me for a moment before grabbing my hand in a death-grip handshake, forcing me to stop and face him. As he pumped my hand dramatically, people stopped to watch and giggle.  And I realized that this man was a "fou".

            Anyone who's "not normal" here is classified as a "fou".  My neighborhood fou is a middle-aged man with Tourette's syndrome (a diagnosis by Phynessa who seems to know what she's talking about).  He also seems to hear voices and see people who aren't there.  When he's disturbed and active, people walk by him and look away, or laugh to each other.  When he's calm, he crouches down in front of someone (often me) and quietly watches them until something in his head wakes him up and makes him speed walk away.  He is one of my favorite people in town.  Without underestimating his struggles, sometimes I feel I can relate.  The Bafilo taxi station fou is a fat, mostly naked, dusty woman who sleeps on warm pavement and carries a tin can around on her head.  A village 8km from me is full of fous as the Sorcerers there are known for "curing" fous, sometimes by putting them in shackles left-over from the slave trading days.  One fou in that village used to be friends with the PCV who lives there.  The fou's name is Mike, and he wore nothing but an open trench coat.  Sometimes these fous have real (chemical, physical, mental) problems, problems that would have them in a hospital or group home back in my world.  Some just seem to have gone mad living in this place. 

            George Packer, a PCV from the 80's, wrote about a rich woman who turned into the village fou when her French husband left her to return to France and his French wife and kids.  Fous are mostly ignored here, but often laughed at.  They are never held accountable for their behavior, nor does anyone attempt to understand or give compassion.  They have become an integrated part of my daily life.  The only abnormal thing about the man who had me in a death-grip handshake on the road to the bank the other day, was that he was well dressed and very clean (a rarity in a fou).  As he shook my hand and talked to me in rapid French and English, as everyone on the street stopped what they were doing to laugh and see how the Yovo would handle the Fou, I was flooded with all the emotions I always feel in situations like this; embarrassment, pity, anger, amusement, sadness.

            I told him to let go of me, "Laissez Moi!" and he proceeded to hold tighter as he danced around singing, "Laissez-Moi, laissez-Moi!".  Then he stopped, looked directly at me, tapped me on the chest with his free hand, let go, and skipped away like a three year old.  Singing.  And I walked on in the echoes of their laughter, embarrassed, sad, amused, and feeling (as I sometimes do) like a fou out of my element. Until next time,