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Becky Binns--Togo News Letter

The beginning of my 26th year: following my 25th bday....

#55 Description of my Town

#56 25th Birthday with Wildlife

#57 Thanksgiving and Earl

#58 The Rage

#59 Party at the Embassador's

 NO#  A Christmas Wish


 Sun, 17 Nov 2002

TNL #55

Hello All,

          How about a description of Bafilo? Have I ever really described it? I wonder what you all picture when you picture my Togolese home...OK, close your eyes...Wait, no, open them. You can't read with your eyes shut.  Right.

          OK, you're driving North along a curvy paved road, through forests and around rocky ledges.  You come around a corner and you're high up on the edge of a mountain.  The view spread out to your left is breathtaking, rolling yellows and greens with a rick-rack border of purple mountains.  You turn another corner and there on your right is a simple blue sign with bold white letters.  BAFILO.  You pass a few small houses and shacks with pieces of slate lined up along the road; Bafilo Slate for Sale.

          Slowing down, you reach the center of town; a bar, a Texaco station, goats and dogs and bikes and motopeds.  Makes driving a bit tricky. Here's where you get out  and walk.  Turn right onto a wide dirt road.  Main Street Bafilo.  The smells of goats, local cheese, hot sauce, urine, pollen, and gasoline blend themselves into something almost pleasant, if not comfortably familiar.  The street is lined with women selling propane in old wine bottles, small shops, mosques with piles of flip flops at the door, children calling out "Anasara yovo yovo!" (foreigner).  A large dusty naked woman walks by muttering to herself. 

          Passing by the taxi station, a driver calls out in French, "My Friend, You are here?"  Yes, you are here.  He smiles at you through rows of decrepit five passenger cars, full of baskets of produce, goats, market mamas, and business men dressed in their best Muslim Man-Dresses for travel.  Continuing down the road, you try to walk on the packed down sand because the loose sand makes you trip over yourself, but if a bike or moto comes along, you give them the packed path so they don't slide and crash into you. 

          As you walk, you realize that most of the people along the road with radios are tuned to the same station (one of 2 or 3).  Shaggy's latest hit becomes the soundtrack of your moment.  Next song: Bob Marley.  Much better. No Woman No Cry. You pass the banana lady, and she asks why you haven't been to see her.  You  assure her you haven't looked twice at anyone else's bananas.  It's 1pm (or 3pm, or 7pm, or 4am...) so the mosques have begun their singing.  Over 100 intercoms fuzz into action, and the air is full of Arabic, "Come and pray, come and pray..." followed by readings (singings?) of the Koran.  Women in flowing colorful scarves make their way past you to the closest mosque, stopping at the door to ritualistically wash their hands, feet, and face before entering.  Men do the same.  But with less color.  You turn left at the biggest mosque.  And people stop calling you "Anasara" and start calling you by my name.  Mariama. Even if you are not a woman.  Because for this moment in the history of Bafilo, all foreigners are "Mariama".

          You are in my neighborhood. There is a smoky smell.  Someone is burning their trash.   There's a loud rumbling noise.  Someone is grinding cornmeal in the mill.  The mill is black with large white English letters painted on the front, "NO FOOD FOR LAZY MAN".  Across from the mill is an elementary school where kids are playing soccer.  Barefoot.  One is squatting in the corner of the yard relieving himself.  A young boy walks by slowly, holding a bowl in one hand and one end of a stick in the other.  The bowl has coins in it.  The other end of the stick is grasped firmly in an old wrinkled hand; the hand of a man with hollow eyes.  And a million dollar smile.  You walk by, not wanting anyone to see you giving money to anyone.  And you are humbled when two villagers drop coins into the bowl.  You hang your head and fish some coins out of your pocket.  Clink Clink.  The coins in the bowl brighten the million dollar smile.  Brighter than the hazy sun behind its curtain of harmatton dust, blown over from the Sahara.  Sun block in the sky.       You stop at a yellow cement shack.  It has my phone number painted on the side.  The men there point you across the road to a path.  The path to my house.  They know it well.  They run down it every time I get a phone call for the fee of about 10 cents.  Winding down the path you pass corn, high walls, goats (yup, more goats), human feces, a neighborhood dump, small children singing "mariAMA, mariAMA", Yacabou's house (he is sitting on his steps chewing on a stick with sawdust in the corners of his mouth), and then my gate.  My dog.  My house.  My world. 

Until next time, Peace Out,




Mon, 25 Nov 2002

 TNL #56

Hello All,

          First of all, "thank you" to all the folks who sent me birthday wishes.  Smiles all round for that, and if I haven't replied yet, I will.  I promise. It seems that just last month I was sending out TNL #7 (was it?) all about turning 24, eating crepes at the pool in Kpalimé, jumping over my host families 7'wall in a skirt at 1am, and not knowing enough French to explain to Mama Nicole why I was jumping over her wall at 1am (Perhaps it was obvious.  The woman did lock me out).   But that wasn't just last month.  It was 49 TNL's ago, 5 different intestinal parasites ago, a broken tailbone ago, a visit home ago, a move to Bafilo ago, and a making of friends and work and a home ago.  And low and behold, it seems I've turned 25.

          Last Sunday, 8 PCVs came over and made me Mexican food.  The next morning, my birthday, I woke up to birthday wishes, french toast, and gifts from here and home.  Then this group trustingly followed me out to the Bafilo waterfall.  It was a beautiful day for a hike; the sun was strong, the hillsides on fire, and the sand and gravel underfoot seemed to be working extra hard at making the walk precarious.  After an hour of burning and sweating, we dragged ourselves up the 150 steps to the waterfall.  Leading the group, I sped up as we were almost there, but skidded to a stop when I saw a movement a couple feel ahead of me on the path.  We all froze as a 6' long, bright green snake, as big around as my wrist, slowly moved out of our way and wove himself through the vines away from our path. He was beautiful. And scary, especially since it was the first big snake that most of us had seen outside of a zoo.  It took a couple minutes to get everyone composed, and then there was some discussion of water snakes.  But we concluded that snakes would both be scared of us and they would float and be visible.

          So we all jumped into the pool and started to enjoy the chilly water.  Until we heard a barking sound.  High up on a cliff above our waterhole was a monkey.

He was checking us out.  And as wild monkeys are rare here in Togo, we were checking him out too.  He was joined by another monkey.  Then another.  Then they started to bark really loud...and descend towards us. At this point we noticed how very big these monkeys were.  There was a suggestion to stay in the water, because according the The Planet Of The Apes, monkeys can't swim.  The proposal stayed on the table for about 2 seconds.  By the third second we were all dressed and running down the mountain.  We spent a couple more hours lounging around at the bottom of the falls, and then headed home. 

          Back at the Bungalow (as my house has been nicknamed), we sat around on the porch drinking champagne and orange juice.  A very large chocolate cookie was brought out with magic candles in it (Where they found magic candles, I don't know.  I do know that Djalilou looked very confused at my inability to extinguish them).  It was a relaxing end to a fabulous day.

           The last of the guests left Wednesday morning.  Thursday I met my new Health PCV neighbor, Dario (another trip out to the waterfall to show him the benefits of living in the area).  And the weekend was spent in the peace and quiet of being home alone.  Now, its time to prepare for a day of deep fat fried Turkey (a turkey named Earl has kindly agreed to be my cooking guinea pig), and more house guests.  Life is good.  And what about work Becky?  Well, its Ramadan.  When people don't eat, they don't work either, so its been a relaxing month.  I wish you all  a blessed Gratitude Day.  Until next time,  Peace Out,                                                              ~becky


November 30

TNL #57

Hello All,

          Some months ago, it was decided that on this year's observance of the day the pilgrims feasted in celebration of their landing, hungry and tired, on the shores of the someday-US-of-A, and were fed by the generous feather-clad natives who sold them land to plant corn on for the price of just a few bottles of whiskey...where was this sentence going?...Oh, yeah, it was decided that Turkey would be eaten by a bunch of PCVs at my house in Bafilo. 

          My neighbor raises turkeys, and early this week he and I came to an agreement that I would buy his biggest turkey for the bargain price of about $20.  I named the turkey Earl (so I could get good and attached to him before slitting his throat), and started preparing for the big day.  Tuesday was spent in Kara buying food.  Wednesday was all baking and cleaning.  Wednesday night my friend Ariana came over to give a helping hand.  Thursday morning started with some backyard prayer (because Ariana and I both woke up early to start the day with thanksgivings without disturbing the other one, discovered each other sneaking prayer, and decided maybe we should do it together), french toast, and a trip next door to get Earl. 

          Now let me back up for a minute and answer a question that you may or may not have.  How exactly did I plan on cooking a turkey for 10 people with no oven? To be honest, this made me a bit nervous at first.  I considered using a very big Dutch oven (my metal wash basins turned over onto one another), but it would take days to cook a turkey this way.  I could cut it up and cook it like chicken, but that's no fun. I'd heard about a southern US trend of deep-frying turkey, but I had too many questions about that; how much oil do you use? How long does it take? Do I NEED a turkey fryer, or could I improvise? And how would I know when it's done? Luckily, an angel of a woman named Candace (my friend Sarah's mom) emailed me clear instructions on how they deep fry turkeys in NC.  She also reassured me that it would taste great, and gave me tips on how not to blow myself up in the process.  So, a very large pot and lots of oil were purchased and the how-to-cook-a-turkey-in-Togo crisis was over. 

          Back to Earl.  He enjoyed an hour or so of complete fear tied up in my backyard while Ariana and I boiled water (for plucking).  Ariana then stepped on his wings and feet, grabbed his neck, poised her knife...and stopped.  She's used to killing chickens, but Earl was bigger.  And he had personality.  And a name.  She couldn't do it with me watching.  So I strolled around the house to check on my dog, Einstein, and then strolled back about half a minute later, to a scene of red splattered everywhere.  I ran over to help hold Earl down while he jerked around and sprayed blood all over both of us.  It was a traumatic event.  We plucked him, gave his feet and head to Einstein, rinsed him off, and then got completely lost trying to find and extract his innards without cutting him apart.  So he was hung from my kitchen doorknob while we waited for a decent hour to call home and wake up my mom.  Moms know stuff like where a turkey keeps his guts.  Noon here was 7am there and a call was made and the process was able to continue.  Einstein had another meal of heart, liver, kidneys, and stinky intestines, and Earl was again hung on the doorknob to dry.  People showed up bringing food they'd saved from trips to the states (like stovetop stuffing), and  Earl was successfully fried in about an hour. There was a small incident of me losing a band aide (which had been covering a food preparation wound) while carving the bird.  But the Band-Aid was found (not in the turkey) and the table was set; Fried Earl, mashed potatoes, stuffing, baked yams, carrots, green beans, biscuits, cranberry sauce (in the shape of a can), cake, pumpkin pie, jello, and gravy.  We were in heaven.  And then we bit into the Turkey.  It was the best Turkey we'd ever had (and that's not completely  just because we live in Africa).  We were amazed.  Not to mention boggled at why Americans have for years been sweating and basting over an oven for hours each Thanksgiving.

We ate and ate until we hurt.  Then we ate some more.  Half the crowd went to Kara to sleep, and the rest of us went to bed at my house, woke up in the morning, put the food back on the table, and did it all again. Then everyone went home and I ate an Earl sandwich while making Earl soup. 

          God bless Earl.  And God bless Candace and whoever came up with deep fried turkey.  And God bless you all too.  I hope your thanksgivings were full of gratitude, good people, and perhaps a yummy distant relative of Earl.  Until next time, Peace Out,



 Tue, 10 Dec 2002

 TNL #58 The Rage

Hello All,

          It occurs to me that there's really no way for you to have a clear picture of my life here without knowing about "The Rage".  As a good friend was preparing for his final departure from Togo a couple of weeks ago, we were talking about what he's gained from two years of life in Africa.  His response was that he found his rage here.  I would have to agree.  While life is full, sweet, wonderful, and fascinating here, it also inspires moments of intense anger and frustration.

          After a couple hours of pure anger this past Tuesday, I decided to try to write a TNL about it.  This is something that I have hesitated doing in the past because it's hard to adequately explain without people who haven't experienced it thinking you've gone off the deep end.  A few months into my service, I'd hear older PCVs talking about their anger and I'd think that perhaps it was time they went home.  During those first few months, I also read a book by a PCV who was often very angry in his experience.  I thought that he obviously wasn't adaptable enough and that I'd handle myself much better.  And then I ate my words.

          Back to Tuesday.  I swing by the post office on my way to the market and discover that I have received a package.  While the nice post men of Bafilo don't try to take advantage of my perceived wealth, this package had made a stop-over in Lomé where the less honest postal men had decided that if one American was willing to pay $20 to send it, why wouldn't another American pay $10 to receive it? I do believe that there is some international postal agreement wherein all the countries pretty much agree to deliver mail paid for in other countries in exchange for the same service in regards to their own mail.  It drives me nuts that this agreement somehow does not apply to Togo.  As I empty my wallet of every last franc, The Rage begins to burn. 

     On my walk home, a young mother holds her baby up in my face.  The child screams, obviously petrified of white people, and the small group of women present laugh hysterically.  The mother does it again, happy to have the attention of her friends.  She has not caught me in a very tolerable mood.  I look her straight in those twinkling eyes, "WHY do you DO that!? Your child is scared and YOU think its FUNNY???"  I glare at her and stomp away, wondering if she even understands French.  I see an older man grabbing at a young girl.  She smiles nervously and inches away from him.  I want to ask him if he still touches his wives like that, and shake my head at him in disgust.  Another young girl greets me as I pass, "Bon Soir Madame! Give me 25 francs!" "What did you say?" "Give me 25 francs!" "Why? Why should I do that?"  She looks confused and embarrassed.  This interaction would be similar to a 10 year old American excitedly demanding with his fist that a passing Mac truck honk its horn, and if that truck driver stopped, jumped down from his truck, and yelled, "How dare you make such a gesture at me kid! Why ever would you DO that?" The child would freeze in fear and confusion, as this girl did now in the beam of my dagger eyes.  I continue on my raging stomp towards home, imagining that everyone feels my anger, seeing them walking big circles around me.  A group of men call out in greeting, then proceed to mimic and laugh at my weak reply.  I walk on muttering under my breath, mean things about them, AND their ancestors, AND all their offspring too.

           Still muttering I pass a man who  is a friend.  He asks me how I'm doing in the manner that people ask when they know you are not OK.  I get mad at him for my own transparency and lie with a hurried and unconvincing "I'm Fine".  Another man greets me by name, but in a high-pitched tone that some Togolese use to address white women, because that's how they think we talk (I blame excitable French tourists for this).  I ask him if he has a sickness in his throat that makes him sound like that. He is silenced and I keep walking.  Children sing as I walk "Yovo Yovo bonsoir, Anasara Bonsoir!" Hey Foreigner!

I'velivedwithyouforalmostayearandyouSTILLinsistoncallingmeTHAThorriblenameEVERYsingleFREAKINGDAY?!  I HAVE A NAME YOU KNOW!

Every interaction tightens my fists, contracts my jaw muscles, twinges in my tear ducts.  I realize that my rational anger has become irrational, and (a bit embarrassed by my behavior) I begin to get over it.  This 2-3 hour cycle happens every few weeks or so. Sometimes I think it's perhaps a bit of displaced anger inspired while watching the people I care about living such hard lives in such a corrupt society.  But I have to be honest and say it has much more to do with my own adaptability.  I grew up in a place where there are occupations full of people sticking up for the justices and liberties of the American people.  Here most battles are individual and often hopeless.  In my society blatant taunting generally stops (or at least becomes more subtle) around the eighth grade.  Here, it never stops.  There, sexual harassment is illegal, here it is a liberty given to all men.  There racial slurs are unacceptable.  Here they are simply a way of referring to someone.  There fear and sadness are respected.  Here they are laughed at.  So maybe it is just a question of adaptability, but I've decided that 100% adaptation isn't so desirable. The corruption, the domestic violence, the sexual harassment, being called names, being seen as a non-human, these things will always make me angry. And the Togolese postal system will always make my blood curl (or is it curdle?)

          None-the-less, (and this isn't a disclaimer to balance out the mood, but merely a fact that must be stated) life here is rich, the people are generous, and the discovery of my anger is something that I actually value.  Keeps me on my toes, always trying to discern the life around me and reflect on how it hits me, both emotionally and rationally. And if I react inappropriately, God knows tomorrow will give me another opportunity to do it better.  Perhaps another 50 years here would be enough to get things figured out with a little more insight.  But I haven't got another 50 years.  I've just got one, which, in my book, is perfect.  Until next time,


PS  This was a pre-written TNL, and a couple days after I wrote it, I found myself sitting on the grassy sidelines at a soccer match.  My stomach was contently full of my friend Sekina's rice and peanut sauce, my date (ten year old Odom Yerima) was kneeling protectively next to me, holding tightly to Einstein's leash, non-functional headphones plugged stylishly into his ears.  A group of young girls were clustered behind me playing with my hair.  And I thought to myself, "This is my life, and I couldn't be more blessed.  Can I really write home describing such anger?"  Then an 18 year old kid yelled, "Hey Yovo, what are you doing sitting on the ground with the kids?!" And I thought, "Hey Kid, let me tell you about The Rage."


Sun, 15 Dec 2002

: TNL #59

 Hello All,

           I'm in the middle of a whirlwind of a week of traveling, and parties, and other things that have made me forget until just now that I'm due to write a TNL.  What to write, what to write.  I suppose the most interesting thing to tell you about as of late is this past Thursday night at the ambassador's house in Lomé.

          This year marks the 40th anniversary of Peace Corps Togo.  This milestone called for some celebration, and so a party was planned.  All of the PCVs in the country, along with a bunch of Togolese friends and other expatriates, were invited down to Lomé to attend a gathering at the Ambassador's residence.  Wednesday morning, a bunch of northerners and I piled into a rented van and headed south.  We were greeted by the craziness of almost a hundred PCVs all in one place, and danced the night away on the roof of the Peace Corps hotel.  The next day was all preparation and dressing up, and by 6pm we'd all begun to swarm the Ambassador's yard.  There was a play put on by my friend Jessica's drama group on the tragedies of forced marriage.  This group of teenagers had never even seen a paved road, and here they were in the posh ness of an aristocratic soirée.  They were a bit nervous, and somehow the play ended half way through.  Food was brought out on trays and three bars flowed bottomlessly.  A live band played American hits and a bit of international music.  We were all clean and dressed up, dirt scraped with pallet knifes off our feet and fingernails.  It was a bit twilight zone-esk, and we were all feeling a bit spoiled.  There was a brief ceremony for the swearing in of 32 new health and education PCVs. 

And then the night just got crazy.  The food ran out, but the drink didn't.  A number of us put two and two together and realized that in the absence of food, perhaps we should stop drinking.  But it was a small number.  At one point three PCVs showed up on the dance floor soaking wet.  They had taken a small dip in the ambassador's large invitingly lit up pool.  I wandered over to see what was going on in the pool area.  No one was in, but Ambassador Karl Hoffman was standing by the edge.  I walked up next to him and said, "So, what are your thoughts on people ending up in your pool?".  He said he had mixed feelings about it.  I was about to reply when my friend Andi grabbed my hand and dove, pulling me from the Ambassedor's side to the bottom of his pool.  Within a half an hour the majority of the guests were in the pool in their formal attire.  Karl made an announcement that we could swim for another 15 minutes as long as no one was pulled in against their will.  A brand new PCV decided she wanted to swim, but she'd rather not get her clothes wet...

As soon as she splashed down "sans habits" the party was ended and we all found ourselves dripping wet on the sidewalk outside the gates of the Ambassador's Residence. The party moved to a Jazz club, then a dance club, and I eventually fell asleep in a huge bed at my favorite restaurant with 3 other girls.  Who says Peace Corps volunteers don't know how to have a good time? 

          I had considered writing a TNL on reflections of what 40 years of Peace Corps Togo has done.  What it means etc.   But considering the seriousness of the last TNL I figured we were due for some fancy drunken crazy (sometimes naked) dancing and swimming, no?   Until next time, hang a strand of Christmas lights for me. Until next time, Peace out,                                                      ~becky



Tue, 24 Dec 2002

Not a TNL, just a Merry Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas All!!!!!

          Christmas Eve morning and I'm running about, gathering ingredients for a smashing Bafilo Christmas; lots of food, about 15 PCVs, one Wyn, and Earl's brother will all be involved.  Turkey number two will be excellent I'm sure now that we've got the Turkey thing down.  I'll tell you about all of it before 2003.  In the meantime, drink some eggnog, enjoy your loved ones, sing about Rudolph, and have a fabulously Joyful Noel.  Peace and Blessings and Good will to you all!