Oh, the Fifties!
#53 Alli (and the fields)
#54 Yup, no TNL 54
Sat, 12 Oct 2002
In honor of my 50th newsletter, I had a relatively uneventful week. Nothing
to write about. So I think I'll answer a couple of questions that have come up as of late.
WHAT THE HECK WAS ALL THAT POLITICAL TURMOIL BACK IN JULY REALLY ABOUT?
Well, everyone's got a different story, and everyone's pretty allusive
about the story that they do have. And then there's the language barrier. But I can tell you what I do know (or
what I think I know). Togo is made up of many different ethnic groups or tribes. Much of Northern Togo is made
up of Kabye people. The man who has been "president" of Togo for almost 40 years is Kabye. The Kotakoli people
account for a small, but significant, portion of the Northern population. The Kotakoli are wealthy. And political.
They are a fly buzzing around the head of the president. Even more so as the elections (which may or may not happen
in March) approach. Constitutionally, Mr. Prez isn't allowed to run again. And the Kotakoli represent much of the opposition
party. Bafilo (my town) is 95% Kotakoli. You see the tension, yes? So, back in July, a small neighborhood
conflict turned into an opportunity for rumors and allegations. An opportunity to put some Kotakoli in their place.
Some of you have asked about religion. Kotakoli are Muslim. Kabye are Christian. So does it have anything to do
with Christian-Islam tension? Every factor plays some part. I see this as the smallest. I think if religion
enters this conflict, it's because religion has become the scapegoat. It's too uncomfortable (and risky) to talk about
politics, so why not peg it on the age old conflict expert: religion.
On to the next question.
WHERE HAS YACABOU GONE?
For those of you who have joined more recently, Yacabou is my slightly
insane, quite annoying, and extremely entertaining neighbor. Most of my interaction with Yacabou was during dry season
when he had to use my well everyday. It has been raining for months, and my well (which is overflowing) isn't needed.
Also, I think the landlord found out that Yacabou had been stealing my electricity and had a talk with him about trying not
to scare me away. So our interaction is limited now. We still greet each other almost everyday. Sometimes
he sneaks up on me and yells, "BONSOIR MARIAMA!" in an attempt to make me piss myself I'm sure. Sometimes he sits in
front of my gate reading French text books. And when I forget to turn my outside light off in the morning he comes over
to tell me to do so. So that I don't waste any electricity. Always looking out for me that Yacabou. Recently,
my circuit breaker flipped off and wouldn't go back on. Yacabou is the only electrician I know. He came over and
started digging in my backyard. And the electricity came back on. Only in Togo does digging in the back yard make
the lights come back on inside the house. While he was digging we talked, and I realized that my French had become slightly
better than his (as he usually only speaks Kotakoli, this isn't too big of a deal). I think he noticed too, because
he started talking MUCH louder (to cover it up maybe?). He asked me to go turn a light on, and when I did, I got zapped.
I think he did it on purpose. I gave him a bit of money and some Yams, and I made lunch for him as payment for his services.
Our interactions are still limited. But it will stop raining soon, and come November or December he will be over for
water each day. It's like waiting for the season premier of my favorite sitcom. Sort of. Sitcoms don't wire
their house to yours, or sit on your porch doing their laundry, or climb the trees in your yard to steal your fruit, or...well,
you get it. God bless Yacabou. And God Bless all of you.
Until next time,
Tue, 22 Oct 2002
A small TNL (#51)
This'll be short as I'm running back to Bafilo in a few minutes. I'll
send a longer newsletter next week and I'll spend more time replying to stuff too. So some quick updates;
ˇ Just spent a few days on a beach in Benin with the group of women who I came
to Togo with. A little one year anniversary vacation. We arrived in Lomé on October 20, 2001. Somehow that
feels surreally like last month.
ˇ While walking through Lomé last week I was flagged down by the people who run
the Peace Corps Hotel, the ones who are taking care of Einstein (the dog I almost adopted in Aug). They asked me to
please take Einstein for them. So he made the 6 hour bush taxi trip with me yesterday and will accompany me to Bafilo
ˇ This upcoming weekend is Togo's parliamentary elections. Shouldn't be
too much turmoil as the opposition is sitting out, but I'll be spending a long weekend in Kara with other Americans anyway,
avoiding the election scene.
For now I must jet. Until Friday...Peace,
Fri, 25 Oct 2002
Subject: TNL #52
It's been a good, full week, but I'm not sure that I have any real
stories to tell. Which is usually the cue that its time to talk a bit about my work, no? I recently started a girls
club in the Jr. High near my house. We meet every Wednesday afternoon and generally talk about all the issues that go
along with being a girl in Togo. Normally, I run the meeting with two other women and the director of the school, as
these are the people who will continue my work when I leave. This week however, none of the grown-ups showed up.
Probably because they are all so busy getting ready for elections. So, it was just me and the girls. For awhile
we just talked, hoping the others would eventually come. The girls helped me out with my French; 20 teachers to one
student. Then I started asking them what they are responsible for on a daily basis as the girls of their houses.
They cook, they clean, they tend the family store, they pick up after their brothers, they watch the babies, they care for
the grandparents, they buy the food...AND they go to school. This makes them the luckiest ones, and the busiest ones.
My original plan was to talk to them about time management, so we could figure out when studying fits into their schedules.
"Do you even get to rest at mid-day?"
"No, we cook, we clean, we come back to school."
"Do your brothers rest?"
At this point they were getting pretty riled up. Uh oh, what
was my point? I'd completely forgotten the reason for my questioning. Blame it on the heat. Or the ridiculousness
of these girls' situations. But I'd have to think of something to say to calm them down before sending them home...
"Um, so I know this is really hard for you. Even harder if you stay in school. But you've got to. And
you've got to talk to each other, because the other girls in this room may be the only ones who really understand..."
At this point we all just looked at each other. Some had half smiles.
Some looked confused. Some probably hadn't understood my broken French. Some just looked hesitant. These
girls are taught not to talk about their feelings, not to complain. They are taught that they essentially come last.
I was a bit lost as to where to go next,
"Yeah, so, thanks for your participation girls. Good job. I'll see you next week."
I fumbled and stuttered and said things that were neither French
or English or any real language, but I walked out of there pumped up. I wasn't thinking of these girls when I came to
Togo, but technically speaking, they are the reason I'm here. And each interaction (thus far) with them has given me
more reason to stay. So the girls are good.
In other news, Einstein is adjusting well to Bafilo. He sings along
to prayer call, and I believe is louder than all 100 mosque intercoms put together. Especially for the 4am wake up call.
He's full of personality and is a good addition to the area. Now instead of calling me "anasara" (foreigner), the townspeople
call me "anasara de fa" (foreigner of the dog). AND this morning a PCV who didn't know I'd adopted Einstein gave me
a very adorable puppy. I'm still trying to decide whether or not to keep them both...I'll keep you posted. The
girls are good. The dogs are good. Life is good. I hope the same goes for all of you. Until next time,
Sat, 2 Nov 2002
Subject: TNL #53~Fields are burning and Alli's a building
I spend a good deal of time here walking around the fields.
The landscape of Bafilo is beautiful, especially right now. The brilliant green of rainy season has faded into a palette
of dark greens and golds, reds, maroons, honey, and molasses. Togo's version of a New England Autumn. This week
however, they've started the burnings. First I noticed a couple of flames on the side of the mountain at dusk the other
day. Then some of the plots on my normal route to town had turned black over night. By early December most of
the fields will be charred; black with a dull speckling of yellow and green. Beautiful in its own way. But it
still makes me sad. And it makes me realize how very differently they do things here than in my own culture. The
more I observe, and the more I interact with people, the clearer this becomes.
I recently met a carpenter named Alli. My interactions with
him are so typical of my time with so many of my Togolese acquaintances, that I feel the need to tell you about him.
Alli came to my house a few weeks ago, introduced himself by showing me his ID card (which he proudly carried in a large plastic
bag), and asked if he could meet with me. I knew it wasn't about my work, but he wouldn't tell me what it WAS about
until I agreed to meet. So I told him to come to the Women's Center during work hours the following week, and I'd meet
with him then. He finally caught up with me this Monday. We sat under a tree in front of the center with Sekina (a co-worker).
He looked uncomfortable with her presence, but I've become too guarded to send her away. And she's become too protective
to leave. So he began his pre-planned speech; slowly , quietly, and in broken English. He told me about his education,
his dreams, his aspirations, his lack of work here in Togo. Then, as if no one else had ever thought of this solution,
he told me that I could help him get to America, where all his problems would be solved.
Six months ago; I would have exploded at him. How dare he
try to use me like that! Does he think he's the only person who sees me as a walking green card? Does he think I appreciate
that? I'm a real person you know! Grr Grr Grr and so on and so forth. But I've gained a very small amount of perspective
and patience here. Enough to calm me a down a little anyway. (Although I do still give my little "I'm a real person"
speeches on my not-so-good-days). I've learned that the Togolese have a philosophy. If you don't ask, how can
you ever expect to receive? I told him that I understood where he was coming from, but that there was nothing I could do to
help. It's hard to get into the US. Especially after 9-11. Knowing an American doesn't help. And if
he IS lucky enough to get there, it'll be just as hard (if not harder) to support himself there than here. Can't he
just be someone's live-in houseboy? "I'm soorry Alli, but Americans don't have houseboys." Somehow, by the end of the
conversation, even with his bubble burst, he had arranged an appointment to come to my house later that day and fix some broken
furniture. It took ten minutes to fix, and when he was done, I asked him what I owed him. He said it was a favor,
done in the name of God. Perhaps one day I will be able to do something for him.
I wasn't really interested in being indebted to Alli, so, without thinking, I said, "Wait, Alli, I have a job for you, one
I want to pay you for." Think fast, what do I need..."Um, I have this wooden armchair, and it would be much better if it were
a rocking chair. Can you put rockers on it for me". He was very confused by this, so I drew him a picture of a
rocking chair, drawing the rockers in a different color so he would know what to add. He studied the picture for a very
long time, looked at the chair, traced the rockers with his finger. "So, Alli, do you think it's possible?". "Well"
he explained, slowly and deliberately, "Well, here in Togo, all of our wood is straight (pause), this here (pointing to the
rockers) isn't straight". I guess I will have to wait until I'm back in America to relax in a rocking chair. And I'm
still indebted to Alli the Carpenter. And the fields continue to burn. And as much as they boggle my mind and make me
think that I could have done it better (whatever "it" may be in the moment), the ways of Togo continue to humble me, impress
me, confuse, challenge, and amuse me. I used to call Togo the "Logic-free Zone". Now I believe I may have been a bit
pompous in that assessment. It's just a different logic altogether than my own. One I may never understand. Until