The trip to Tchekpo
I was picked up at my host families house at 5:30 in the morning. I had packed almost everything in my room including my mosquito net. I’d been advised that I should take with me as much as possible to the house I’ll be staying in for the week, and as of August 8th, the house I’ll be living in for two years. So I had two suitcases, my water filter, my mosquito net, a new petrol stove, pots and pans and food. Hopefully enough for a week. I was picked up in a van. My Togolese French instructor Aeisha, and my Togolese Ewe instructor , Kossi, were both in the van. We picked up two other PCV’s, and we would also pick up each of our homologues (community partner) at the local hotel. There was a total of nine people in the van including the driver. The homologues had just finished a two day meeting regarding what is expected of them, as our partners, during this first week, and over the next two years, and they reviewed what their expectations were. I met my homologue on Friday morning, the day before we left for our “post visit”. All the PCV’s and homologues met each other for the first time. My homologue was a rather stern, yet prideful looking, small framed woman. Her name is Alougba (Aw-loo-baw). She is fifty-six.
We were on our way by 7AM, and we began our weeks journey to our new home. I tried to talk with Alougba on the way to Tchekpo. I tried to communicate my enthusiasm through my tone, and smile, and laugh. I spoke in my very best French, and had actually practiced a few phrases. Alougba stared straight ahead, and said to me, Je ne parle pas Anglais!!! I don’t speak English! I had to laugh at the situation, at the same time wanting to throttle my new found friend. I was not speaking English…I was speaking French. Every single time I tried to say something to her that day, she told me…I don’t speak English. I smiled, but inside I was doing the silent scream. I looked for ways to jump from the van, and run for my life, but there was no escape. As it turns out, Alougba speaks quite a bit of French, but primarily she speaks Ewe, and everyone in Tchekpo speaks Ewe. Most of them know quite a bit of French, but it is not at all the same French that I’ve been learning for the last eight months. Ok. Ok. Ok. Hmmmmm. Well let’s just see how this all works out.
My town, Tchekpo was the first town on our route, so I was the first to be dropped off. I’ve been wondering what the town would be like, and what my house would be like for a long time. Tchekpo is only about ½ hour from Tesvie, so we didn’t have far to go. When we got to Tchekpo we took a dirt road about ½ mile, and eventually came to my compound and my house. I have to say, I was delighted when I saw the house. It really looked… well, just charming. I mean it’s not Meryl Streeps house in Out of Africa, but it was really cute. My house is a palace compared to how the rest of Tchekpo housing. So when you see pictures of it, you need to know that it is not at all a representation of Tchekpo. The village, nor my house has electricity or running water.
Everyone got out of the van, and they brought all my things into the house. The inside of the house was really nice too. I thought..ok, ok, I can do this. The other PCV’s were talking about how cute the house was, but they were anxious to leave and go see their own places, so they quickly left. And all of a blatantly, surreal sudden moment, there I was in my little house with my little homologue, in a little village in Africa.
Alougba showed me around the house, and then she quickly had me lock it up. We started walking towards the village, down the same dirt road we had just driven up. I had no idea where we were going. By this time if I said anything…I said it in English, and Alougba was talking to me in Ewe. We both acted as if we were understanding each other. She’d say something in Ewe, and then she’d say…comprend?? And I’d say yes, and then I’d say something, and say comprend? And she would nod her head yes. I was able to catch a word here and there, and I did gather that we were on our way to see the chief, but other than that, she and I didn’t have a clue as to what each other was saying.
I was surprised that I was going to meet the Chief so soon, but thought this was a good sign. Nothing like just jumping into the frying pan. Once we reached the main road, Alougba had wanted me to catch a moto with her, but I did not have my helmet (which by the way, they call a casket) with me. I told her I could not ride the moto without my casket. She seemed a little irritated by this, but she gave up, and waved a taxi over. The taxi….oh my god the taxi. I’m sure it’s the first of many horrific taxi’s I’ll be riding in. It was filthy, and I was pretty sure I’d get parasites just from sitting in it, but sit in it I did. Luckily we didn’t have far to go. We came to a large yet completely un-ostentatious and unassuming compound. Whenever I talk about compounds, it means it is a walled area with a gate/door, where one or more houses are located inside. This was the Chief of Techkpos compound. There was a porch area, one step up, around the inside circumference, and doors to rooms off of the porch. The square area in the middle of the compound (which is an open courtyard) had a rough and cracked concrete floor. As we walked into the square I could see a man and a woman sitting at a plastic table at the far end of the courtyard. There was absolutely nothing else in the courtyard. We walked over to the table and stood across from the man. The chief. I bowed to the chief, and smiled at the woman. The chief motioned for Alougba and I to sit down. The only thing on the dirty white plastic table was a crystal decanter and two shot glasses. The decanter was filled with what I assumed was whiskey. The Chief filled a shot glass and slid it towards me. Oh mannnnnnn. Ok….I can do this. I raised the shot glass in a cheer to the Chief, threw my head back and downed the shot. I was determined to not wince, thinking it might earn me a little respect. Drinking a shot of rot-gut whiskey at 10 in the morning with the Chief, his wife and Alougba my homologue (with sweat dripping down my face.) Uh-huhhhh.
I must have whinced a little in spite of my effort because the Chiefs wife laughed a little, but I do think the chief was duly impressed. He spoke very broken English, but we could communicate fairly well. He told me that he learned English in his village from a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 60’s. For that reason he would like me to consider teaching English at the local highschool. This is not something I have to do, but I think I will enjoy it, and I told him I would teach mornings, at least three days a week. The very first thing out of the Chiefs mouth was, “I want to build a new school. I want you to get money from the United States for this. I know this is possible, and I know you can do this.” Hmmmmmm. Well that is not part of my mission, but I smiled and nodded my head. Uh oh!!! He then proceeded to tell me a bit about himself. The Chief had only been Chief for about a year. It seemed that he took the position very seriously. He previously worked for the National TV station in communications (even though Togo is called a democracy, it is more of a dictatorship, and the TV station communications would more than likely be carefully controlled by the government – also I would guess that less than 5% of the people in Togo have access or have even ever seen a TV, so I imagine the Chief of Tchekpo is a somewhat important political figure in general in Togo.) He had only been named Chief in the past year. His great grand-father had been Chief of Tchekpo. The Chiefs wife kept her eyes on me at all times, and appeared to be thoughtfully studying me. The Chief said his wife wanted to know why I wasn’t married. This wasn’t easy to answer in broken French, but I think I pulled it off fairly well. I said, I went one way and my husband went another way. They interpreted that literally and differently than I meant, but they seemed to accept my explanation. They talked about my response with each other and nodded an understanding of my response to each other. We then talked about my children and their children. He asked what other places I had traveled to. They seemed impressed when I went through that list. At one point a friend of the Chiefs stopped by. The Chief told me this man was a very good friend of his, and it was apparent they were quite fond of each other. He was an older man and came with a very young, shy girl. He was introduced to me, and the chief told me that this man was the press secretary to the Prime Minister of Togo. The man and his girl both drank a shot of whiskey. The Chief and the man laughed a bit together and then the man and his girl promptly left.
The Chief proceeded to ask me more questions about my Peace Corps mission in Togo. He said that he would be in close touch and that he would probably talk to me every day. I discovered during the meeting that Alougba (my homologue) was the Chiefs sister. They had the same mother. They all laughed that I was taken by surprise with that information. Finally after a couple hours the meeting ended. The Chief asked if I was tired, and I said, yes, I was a little tired. At that point he called a boy over and said something to him in Ewe. Then the boy carried a mattress and two chairs out of one of the rooms in the compound. This was to be my only furniture for the week. We all walked out of the compound, they tied the mattress and two chairs to the waiting dirty taxi, and we proceeded to drive back to my house.
I would see and meet with the Chief again, later in the week in a more formal setting. Alougba left me on my own to rest, and she walked down the road out of sight. I was now completely alone in my house with my mattress and two chairs.
Tchekpo Compounds – The village
Several hours later, after I had rested, Alougba showed up at my door, and she was ready to go again. She took me on what would be one of many tours of the village. We wandered a maze of dirt roads, in and out of compounds, meeting and greeting people all along the way. Compounds in Tchekpo are quite different than compounds in Tesvie. This is a poor farming village. Most of the houses are made of mud bricks and have either thatched or tin roofs. There is almost always someone, or usually a group of three or more women sitting around a hot wood or coal fired caldron cooking a big pot of something. They are still compounds, but not compounds surrounded by stone walls (like mine in Tchekpo, or like most of the compounds in Tesvie), more like compounds that are a little group or nest of mud huts. I think one would liken these groups of residences to a “block” in the united states. It seems that extended families live in the “nests”. For example, my homologue. She has a little one room hut that is connected to several other huts. She does not have a door that she can close, but she has a curtain hanging over the doorway. She lives in this cluster with two adult nieces and the nieces children. Each person has his/her own little hut. Their huts are about the size of a small bedroom. They keep their few possessions inside these huts, but most of the living is done outside in the courtyard. We wandered through at least a dozen compounds (neighborhoods) that afternoon and I met a lot of people. They were all very happy to meet me, and they smiled and laughed. I learned a couple phrases of Ewe, so that when I was introduced, I would say…awwwwfois, which means nice to meet you, and doe-bee-joe which means how are you. They were thrilled to hear me attempt their language. Many people would stop dead in their tracks at the sight of me, a white person walking around in their neighborhood. The children would just stare in wonderment at me. Some would cry, and some who were brave enough would come up and touch my skin. I was told they touched my skin because they thought the white skin would/might rub off.
The end of day one in Tchekpo
We returned to my house after a very busy day. Alougba told me she would return early in the morning (Sunday – day 2 in Tchekpo) for another day of introductions, sight-seeing and meetings. Alougba smiled at me for the first time, and patted me on my arm. I appreciated this small act of kindness. I gave her a little hug and said goodbye to her. Even though I was very hungry, I was really too tired to fix myself dinner, and it had gotten dark all of a sudden. The only light was from my flashlight. I sat on my porch, looked at the stars and listened to the silence, and I felt extremely lonely in this place where nothing and no one was familiar. For the first time since I’ve been here, I wondered how in the world I was going to make it for two years. I tried to recall exactly why I had come in the first place. I thought about my children and my grandchildren and my friends, and my house and my patio, and then I thought about how good a cheeseburger and a diet coke with ice would be. I went inside, crawled under my mosquito net onto my dirty mattress that was on the floor, and plugged my ipod in my ears listening to James Taylor Steamroller Mother-fuckin blues (what can I say??.) My last thought of this very long day was about Alex. I thought about her smile, and her laugh, and her beauty and I thought about how much I enjoyed spending time with her and how very much I miss her. As I drifted off to sleep I hoped that some day she would know that part of the reason I am here is because of her, and I wondered if my reasoning was sound. I love you Alex!
To be continued: Day 2 in Tchekpo (It gets better :-)