Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shades of Africa

I never imagined I’d be saying, what I’m about to say.  And now it seems ridiculous that I haven't had an awareness of this all along.  I have come to love the colors of Togo!  I’ve spent a lot of my time here thinking how awful and dirty and ugly everything is from a purely aesthetic point of view; and more than once wondered what it would be like for people from my village to wander the streets of Paris or Madrid or walk through Loose Park in Kansas City.  Everything green and lush and orderly and clean.  I showed Leah’s mom photographs of Spain.  I could see that she was stunned by the beauty of it.  She’s barely ever been out of Tchekpo.

It seemed like suddenly I was seeing colors and landscapes that stopped me in my tracks with their unique beauty.  I don’t know if it’s because at this time of the year the colors are more enhanced or if it’s always been this pretty, and I just didn’t see it.  Where once everything seemed just dirty, dark red.  Everything.  Now I see a unique red and different variations of red; a lot of yellow and gold.  Colors that glow in the sunlight and at dusk.  Most people’s huts are made of clay bricks.  I used to find it dismal.  Now I walk down the path and think how beautifullyand naturally  they fit into the landscape. Every now and then someone has painted their house.  There’s a beautiful compound just down the road.  I admire the woman and her son who live there.  They just painted their house the prettiest blue.  It's almost violet and it blends in so beautifully with their clay courtyard and garden.   There is trash and waste scattered everywhere along the way.  But inside the compounds are clean, comfortable and pleasing to the eye.

I’ve caught glimpses of beauty here, but it isn’t easy to see past the squalor in Togo.  Pagne has always captured my attention. It’s always been a pleasant diversion for me. Pagne is the bright colored fabric that is ubiquitous in Africa.   I especially look forward to seeing the kaliedescope of colors and design on the men, women and children for special occasions and for Sunday church service.  If someone hasn’t done a photography book on African Pagne, they should.  There’s nothing more vibrant or more revealing than the world of pagne.  I revel in the variety, the colors, the personality of pagne and those who wear it.  There’s no black or beige or taupe here!  I often spend my time in church examining everyones pagne.   I wonder about the steps each person took to arrive at this creation, this pattern, and design.  Each one so uniquely different, and most are beautifully sewn.  The designs and colors are such an expression of the person, family and occasion.  No one fears going over the top.  No one snickers at the woman whose headscarf is defying gravity and sparkling at the same time.  They embrace this expression of individuality.  Nothing aesthetically defines Africa like pagne.

Doors have also captured my attention over my time here.  I’ve come to realize that doors to compounds are a sort of status symbol.  There are reed doors, and wooden doors, and metal doors.  The metal doors are handworked and their patina changes color over time.  They are made by artisans.  A metal door and a cement compound floor is upper class in Tchekpo.  Most people have reed or wooden doors and dirt floors.  None of the doors could keep even an inexperienced robber out.  Doors are for the most part, decorative and they feign an air of privacy.  A spry child could be hoisted over almost all the doors and/or compound walls. 

Their doors are just another expression of their identity,  as is the pagne they choose or the scarification they have on their body.  This is who I am! 

Colors.   I’m more than a little surprised that my sense of  the beauty that is here took so long to appreciate.  I do long for green fields of grass, big huge Midwest trees, and all the colors and seasons that come with that.  But for now I appreciate more fully the beauty that surrounds me here in Togo.

I often ride in the bush taxi from Tchekpo to Lome seeing the poverty and squalor; the ugliness of it.  The chaos of it.  The grayness of it.  The pollution of it.   But that is on the national road.  Togo can’t be judged by what you see from the bush taxi on the national road. Beyond that, behind the national road where the small to medium size villages are, and in remote areas the colors and shapes become uniquely African and vibrant in their own way.  They become beautiful.  I’m so glad I can see it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

For Vivianne, Du Courage!

I've been processing the event yesterday.  It was A Community M.A.P. Event and the topic was Empowering Girls and Why Education is Important.  We used literature from Peace Corps Togo M.A.P. Program and from a U.S.Aid Program.  The Tchekpo M.A.P.  Committee did an awesome job.  They did a fantastic job!  I’m really proud of them.

At times it was little hard to gauge how it was going.  Almost all of it was given in Ewe.  I had one or two people interpret for me from time to time.  It seemed all the points we had wanted to cover were being discussed.  Empowering girls. Talking about the importance of education.  They were asked to think about other things they can do before they have a family.  Talked about condoms, talked about and demonstrated perceived gender roles.  The presenters and topic captured the attention of the audience of primarily young women.  I saw the principal of the highschool and the teachers learn things too, and they would jump up from time to time to speak their mind or emphasize a point.   There was a healthy back and forth participation between the audience and the presenters.  Excellent audience participation, the young women fearlessly asking smart questions.

Huge crowd, about six PCV's came, which was really nice.  The principal of the high school and most of the teachers came.  Lot's and lot's of kids, lots and lots of girls all dressed up in their school uniforms.

There were some glitches, that didn't matter...we should have had a megaphone....

Katanga and Georgette!!
The sketches were great...the kids who performed them were quite professional and prepared...they were loud and faced the audience and had  props and the sketches were very fitting for the topic.   Three women spoke in all.  We chose women who exemplify strength and poise and are a good example that women can do anything, even in Togo...Georgette, one of my community partners and friend was a speaker.  I was really impressed with the content and how she delivered her speech about gender equity.  Next a woman with Borne Fonden (NGO) spoke.  She spoke about the importance of girls staying in school, and then Katanga.  Katanga is a Director for an NGO (not-profit) organization here in Togo.  I had heard her speak at a regional association conference, and she was dynamic.  I tracked her down and asked her if she would be interested in speaking on this topic for our event.  She was great.  She inspired the girls, and I think  the teachers as well.  (The teachers are all male.)  Katanga has a gift!

The jeweled crown of the day, came after I went home, I was resting, doors/windows closed, but someone knocked.  It was Honou Koffi with a girl about his age.  Vivianne.  She was a beautiful girl.  She wanted to thank me for today and she wanted to talk more about opportunitites for girls.  She excels in Physics and math.  I know that Katanga asked the girls how many were interested in science.  What an awesome  question for these young village girls.   Peace Corps has an annual science camp that I'll get Vivianne into, and set her up with a mentor.  You could see something in her face. I don't know what to call it, but It turns out to be just what I was looking for here.... I think it's a look of intelligence and determination. 

Some  girls were inspired.  Some people learned about community organizing, while others
experienced the importance of volunteering.  I'm quite content about it all.  I know this Peace Corps Training and event will have a positive, sustainable impact on many people in different ways.  The organizers and the participants.  This is just what we are supposed to be doing, so..  cool.

For more about M.A.P.:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Vignettes - Numero Deux

Leah…my thirteen year old neighbor, friend, helper.  I’ve only been here for a little over a year, but this year has been one of a giant growth spurt for Leah, both physically and emotionally.  I think she’s grown at least 3 or 4 inches.  I remember one of the first times she carried water for me.  She had the bucket on her head, was walking through the compound door, and I could see that she was starting to wobble.  Our eyes met and we both sensed what would happen next, the bucket of water being too heavy for her little self.  She fell over from the weight of the bucket, crashed to the ground, spilling the water.  Dripping wet, she was so, so embarrassed.  I rushed out to her, helped her up, dried off her face.  She was not hurt, but her pride took a hit.  To get her to laugh, I mimicked her wobbling, and I fell down to the ground.  It worked.  She laughed.  We’ve been best friends ever since.  Well except for the many times that she’s mad at me.

 She starts school on Monday.  It will be her first day at the Lycee (high school.)   It is an understatement to say that it is quite an accomplishment to graduate from the primary school to the Lycee, especially for a girl.  There are over 500 students attending the Tchekpo Lycee.  About 15% of that 500 are girls.  Students must study hard in primary school and pass a rigorous three days of tests before they can attend the Lycee.  The day Leah got the certificate for passing the tests she came to my house to show it to me.  She was so proud of herself, and I’m so proud of her.

Leah is a typical thirteen year old girl in almost every way.  She is very moody.  One minute she will be smiling and laughing with me and the next minute she is sulking and refuses to speak.  Luckily I had experience with my own teenage girls.  When she is in one of her “moods” it affects me in the same way it did when my daughters were in one of their moods.  Very exasperating.  But, it does help to know that these are typical manifestations of teenage moodiness.  And just one more proof that we humans have universal emotions.

Yesterday Leah came to my house.  She had been in Taglibo with her grandparents for about a week.  I had seen her just before she left.  She was very excited about going.  She was going to see her father who lives there with his new family.  Leah’s mother and father are divorced.  She told me she was going to see her father and he was going to buy her some school supplies.   She makes the trip there occasionally to see him and to see her grandparents.  She came over several times before she left to tell me how long she would be gone, and to make sure I had enough water until she returned. 

When she showed up at my house upon her return, I could tell something was very wrong.  She came in my house, sat on a chair in the corner, and looked very sad.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.  She didn’t answer, just sat there looking very forlorn.  Finally she told me that her father had not shown up, and she was unable to buy her school supplies.  Because this was Friday afternoon, it would be impossible for her to get the supplies she needed before school starts on Monday.  She was desolate!  Just like any teenage girl would be who did not have what they needed before their first day of high school.  I felt so sorry for her.  I think it was not just the supplies but also the fact that her father had let her down.  It was late Friday afternoon, much too late for me to be able to go to Tesvie or Taglibo to get what she needed.  As a matter of fact I had just returned from Tesvie, where I bought Mahsoblee supplies for her first day of school.  Leah and I just kind of sat and looked at each other.  Tears were running down her face.  Finally I decided I could give her a few things that I had bought Mahsoblee.  This being Mahsoblees first day of school ever, I knew she would not need everything that I bought her.  So we went through Mahsoblee’s things.  I pulled out a bright pink ruler, a couple of pens, an eraser, a notebook, and also the most coveted Lycee tool….a little case that housed a geometry compass and pencils.  I had actually bought the compass as a gift for Moses, because it is his first day at the Lycee also.  I decided Moses would have to wait.  I hated not to have something for Moses, but he wasn’t expecting anything.  I could get him something next week.  Then I went in my bedroom and got a light weight book bag that I rarely use.  We put everything in the bag.  It was all make-shift, but it was enough to get her started.  Her mood lightened.  She was very grateful in her little teenage way.  “Thank you very much.”  she said in English and gave me a rare hug.

A little while later she came over and demonstrated her appreciation.  She washed and scrubbed my porch and the chairs on my porch and my screen door.  I heard her singing and laughing.  I told her I was going to take her picture the Monday morning when she goes off to school.  She beamed.

Milestone for Mahsoblee
Mahsoblee is six years old, or so her gramma thinks.  Most kids in Togo start school at age 4 or 5.  Mahsoblee didn’t go to school until now because of her health.  She was too sick, too fragile to attend. 

If you’ve read some or all of my posts about Mahsoblee’s journey, you will know that it has been quite a challenge.  My goal was to get her well, and then help educate her gramma on how to maintain her health.  Mahsoblee has sickle cell anemia.  It is a lifelong chronic illness, with the age of 30 being the life expectancy here in Togo for those who have sickle cell.  Many, many die before they reach five years of age.  All suffer with daily pain.  Sickle Cell is difficult to maintain in the United States.  It is a monumental effort to maintain in Togo.  Medicine, nutrition, water, malaria prevention….

Since July she has endured two blood transplants, twenty days in three different hospitals, pin pricks, IV’s, and a myriad of consultations from doctors and surgeons, poking and prodding her tiny body.   Until at the end we were armed with information, knowledge and a plan that we could only hope will help maintain her health and keep her disease at bay.   She will continue to go to the Kouve Hospital once a month for doctors consultation and for laboratory tests.  When I leave in August 2012, I have recruited the nuns from the Kouve Hospital and a person here in Tchekpo to help Mahsoblees gramma maintain Mahsoblees health, education and well being.

The last doctor we saw in Lome was Dr. Wossonou.  He is a pediatrician specialist.  He explained to us the challenges Mahsoblee has in front of her.  He also emphasized the degree of pain that she endures every day.  I asked him if she could start school.  He said that she could and she should start school, but that Director and her teachers should be aware of her illness.  I was excited about this news.  All last year I would see Mahsoblee sitting on the stoop in front of my house when the kids were going and coming from school.  I wanted her to be able to go.  She’s a very, very smart little girl. 

Touissaint and Mahsoblee
We used some of the donated money to have a school uniform made for her, and to buy her some school supplies and a book bag.  Each day for five days before school started I gave her some little thing for school.  The day before school I gave her, her uniform and her brand new book bag.  She was very happy, very excited, and I think she could not imagine what this new adventure would be like.

The first day of school arrived.  She came by my house early in the morning dressed in her uniform with her bright pink book bag.  She looked scared, apprehensive and happy.    She and Toussaint waited patiently by the water pump for the school bell to ring.  I watched as she ran off with all the other children, to her very first day of school.  She doesn’t have to sit on the stoop this year and watch everyone else pass her by.

Ohhhh Yo-Vo I love You!
Tchekpo is located smack in the middle of Tesvie to the west and Taglibo to the east.  About thirty miles in each direction of the most notoriously bad road in Togo.  Full of ruts and holes.  Vehicles cross several bridges between Tesvie and Tchekpo.  I have seen, on more than several occasions,  trucks and bush taxi’s that have gone off the bridge or the road…..mangled messes of twisted iron.   One time there was a large semi truck precariously and dangerously hanging half over the bridge guardrail, wheels spinning, engine spewing smoke.  That day I had to get out of the bush taxi I was riding in and walk the two miles back to Tchekpo.   I walked with maybe 30 to 50 other people who had also gotten out of their bush taxis because the vehicles they had been riding in were also unable to pass.   But the Togolese always seem to make the best of every situation.  On the walk people were singing, and laughing and dancing.  The road was shut down for several days, with semi’s and work trucks backed up for miles. 

Almost every day when you travel this road you see a team of two or three men or young boys, filling the pot holes and ruts with dirt.   This temporary fix lasts only a few days, until the dirt is gone and the rutt  reappears.  These crews of men are sweating, shirtless, shoeless with only their hoes; digging dirt, filling the holes. They stand and bend and kneel in the middle of the road without any shelter from the blazing sun and heat.  Their bodies and muscles glistening from the sun and the sweat.  This is their job from dawn to dusk.  These men only hope that the cars and trucks and moto’s  will throw some change to the ground as they pass.  There are no guarantees, no promises of being paid for their back breaking work. 

 There are usually four or five men or boys working  together at various places along the road.  They will make a vine and stretch it across the road.  As vehicles approach they raise the vine as if this will block the vehicles from passing.  However…always, always they drop the vine the second before the vehicle gets to it.  Much more often than not the driver will make a motion with his hand, as if saying…I’ll catch you on the way back.  Unfortunately, only very occasionally do I see a driver toss some coins…..I always turn around to catch a glimpse of the workers whether coins have been tossed or not.  When they have been tossed I see the boys whooping and hollering, laughing and jumping and waving their hands.  When coins have not been tossed I see the same thing.  It’s remarkable I think that they seem surprisingly unresentful when no coins are tossed.   It’s hard, hard work, and really very helpful to drivers of the road.   It’s a job of chance.  No one has promised them anything.  They don’t expect anything.  They only hope their efforts are recognized and rewarded.

I now always try to remember to have a few coins ready to toss.  I’ve never seen passengers toss coins,  but why not??!!??  My ride is easier because of what they do.  I have one less bounce, one less knock in the head from  the taxi hitting a rutt.  And besides, I absolutely love to see the look of surprise, and then delight on their faces when a yo-vo (white person) has tossed some coins.  They know, and I know that their hard work is appreciated.

One very hot day the taxi I was in approached a road crew.  They had their vine stretched across the road.  It was a group of teenage boys.  It was obvious they had been working very hard.  I had seen holes filled for the previous  few miles.  They held up the vine as the taxi approached.  The driver slowed down and then waved to them that he would catch them next time.  Aha!  I had my coins ready.  The driver saw me reaching for them and he slowed down, smiling.  I tossed the coins out the window.  One of the teenage boys…jumped, and hollered…He came over to my window smiling ear to ear.  He said Ohhhhh yo-vo…..I love you (he did! He said that in English!)….then to my surprise he reached his hands inside the window took my face in his hands and playfully gave me a kiss on the cheek..  All of this happened in a micro second, as the taxi slowed down.  The taxi driver was laughing too as he picked up speed.  I turned around for one last look, and the boy was  still jumping up and down, waving his arms.  “Bon Travaile,” I shouted, laughing. (Good Work!) 

I has wished that I had my camera handy to capture the moment, but the memory is forever etched in my mind. 

Sixth Sense
I suppose the weather here is similar to any tropical climate.  Storms form and swoop in, in an instant, with downpours that seem like they will never cease, flooding the roads with rivers of rapidly flowing, muddy water.  And then the storm is over as quickly as it began.  The rivers of rain dried up within a few hours.  More days than not during the rainy season, I ask not one, but two or three neighbors, “Is it going to rain today?”  I just like to know before I set out if I should take an umbrella. And I like to ask more than one person because #1, I still never believe them, and #2 I want to see if they ALL have this sixth sense. They ALWAYS know.  I’ve never yet, seen them be wrong.  It’s an amazing feat, because many times clouds are rolling in, it’s thundering and I would bet my last dollar that it will indeed rain.  Most of the time, when I ask, they don’t even look up at the sky, they just say yes or no.  Sometimes, though, they do look at the sky,  I guess having not thought about it before I asked.  One of my favorite neighbors Koku, I think has tired of me asking.  He probably wonders how I wouldn’t know this, but he patiently if not condescendingly answers me, none-the-less.

Last week a storm rolled in just before daybreak.  I was sitting at my computer drinking my first cup of coffee listening to and enjoying the cool thunderous storm.  Suddenly I heard the loudest crash I’ve ever heard here.  It startled me, and made me jump.  I couldn’t imagine what in the world it was.  I ran to my window, and there in front of me was a paillot (overhang) that had crashed to the ground from the weight of the pouring rain. 

Yesterday, I was on my way to a Tom-Tom dance.  It surely looked like rain.  I was quite sure it would rain any minute.  I didn’t know whether or not to go because everything is just immediately cancelled when it rains.  I asked Koku, “Is it going to rain?”  He looked up at the sky, and said, no, no, no rain today.  Impossible I thought.  This will be the day that their powers are proven fallible.  But I went on my way, and by god, it didn’t rain, and I enjoyed the party.

Today, Leah was going to wash my clothes, but it looks like rain.  Rain never impedes them from doing their laundry.  They could care less if just as they get their clothes hung on the line it rains.  But, I’m a bit more prissy, and if it’s going to rain, I’d prefer to wait so that it won’t take days for my clothes to dry.  “Leah, is it going to rain today?” I asked before she got started.  “No, no,” she said.  “No rain today.”  She washed my clothes this morning, and so far, she’s right…but it sure looks like it will.

Maybe all or many farmers back home have this instinct, but I don’t think they would be so absolutely positive as the people I ask here.   Oh! If the meteorologists in the U.S. had this ability!!

A L’occasion des ceremonies de ses Jumelles

I just returned from a classic Voodoo ceremony.  It was a celebration in honor of Monsieur and Madame Touglo’s twin girls.  The girls are about six.  I would say this voodoo celebration is something like a baptism or Jewish Bat Mitzvah.  That being a very loose comparison, meaning it is a celebration of a turning point in a child’s life, and in this case an official voodoo initiation of being twins.  And so this day was to recognize and celebrate the gift of the Twins, and to thank the spirits for this blessing.

Monsieur Touglo teaches at L’ecole No. 5, a primary school.  Mr. Touglo is one of my favorites.  He’s always happy, and polite, and I know he’s very smart.  I was pleased that I was invited to this important occasion.  Monsieur Dove and Kaizai came by my house earlier in the week with a handwritten invitation to Monsieur Touglo’s Fete’.  They told me they would come to my house at 7am on Friday and walk with me to the event….and so they did.

The Ceremony
It was fascinating…..full of rituals, both African and Voodoo.  It’s a natural manifestation of the Voodoo philosophy that twins would be considered special.  Twins are viewed as two halves of one soul.  They are given status and looked on as having special powers.  Twins never die in the Voodoo Culture, they live on to be spiritual guides for the generations to come.  Mr. Touglo has three daughters.  Following folklore the child that comes after the twins is even MORE special because that child will benefit from the personal guidance of the Twins. 

There were many people; neighbors, extended family and some dignitaries and while the Chief couldn’t come, there were representatives of the Chief present.  The ritual began with the family (mom, dad and the three children) sitting in the middle of a circle of probably over 100 guests.  During this time they were presented with many beautiful necklaces and other jewelry,  all of which were  ceremoniously placed on each of them.   Earrings, necklaces, bracelets.  Drums beating in the background.  Then the girls, all three of them, were taken aside, away from their parents  and eye makeup was applied to each one of them by a voodoo priestess.   I didn’t understand this part, but later someone told me it is part of the voodoo ceremony.  The eye makeup represents keeping bad spirits from entering through their eyes.  I’m sure there’s probably a little more to that, but I was kind of glad to hear this interpretation.

The ceremony was very serious during the presentation of the jewelry, but the rest of the time it seemed to be  lighthearted, like a party after a First Communion.  The guests, mingled, drank and ate, listened to music.  All three of the girls seemed to enjoy themselves.  They were serious and well behaved when they needed to be and then they were playful when left to their own devices.   I could see that the whole family was very proud of this event.   I think maybe they were a little nervous also.  It was a “big to-do,” for a little village family.

I learn more about voodoo as I go along.  There are so many misperceptions.  From what I’ve learned thus far, it is really a wonderful, quite beautiful philosophy, though sometimes quite complicated, for this western thinker.  It’s difficult to find accurate, indepth information about voodoo, primarily because one of Voodoo’s tenets is that it is an “oral” history.  The tenets and traditions of this religion have been passed on orally from generation to the next for over 6000 years.  It has also gone through a variety of manifestations as people migrated around the world.  The basic tenets of voodoo are the same everywhere, if not all the details.

The Essence of Voodoo
“Within the voodoo society, there are no accidents. Practitioners believe that nothing and no event has a life of its own. That is why "vous deux", you two, you too. The universe is all one. Each thing affects something else. Scientists know that. Nature knows it. Many spiritualists agree that we are not separate, we all serve as parts of One.  So, in essence, what you do unto another, you do unto you, because you ARE the other. Voo doo. View you. We are mirrors of each others souls. God is manifest through the spirits of ancestors who can bring good or harm and must be honored in ceremonies. There is a sacred cycle between the living and the dead. Believers ask for their misery to end. Rituals include prayers, drumming, dancing, singing and animal sacrifice.

Some people associate Voodoo with evil, but many of its rituals, even those that include the sacrifice of live animals, focus on respect and peace. Its religious leaders become community leaders, providing guidance and settling disputes. Leaders also frequently provide medical care in the form of folk medicine. Priests, priestesses and other practitioners typically dedicate their work to helping and caring for others “

Ablo (A traditional Togo Meal)
The “After Party”
I had to leave the ceremony for a meeting after about three hours, but I got to see the ceremony.  Dove and Kaizai were demonstratively disappointed that I had to leave so soon.  On the way to the event they seemed upset when I told them what time I’d have to leave.   When I left  I’m sure the festivities were barely started and that this party would go into the night if not the next day. 

Kazai and His Father
Dove and Kaizai had other plans for me.  I almost foiled them.  I couldn’t understand what they had in mind as we were walking.  I thought I was going home to get ready to go to a meeting in Taglibo…..but I  could tell that they had something else in mind.  After a short walk we reached Kaizai’s house.  I had never been to his home before.  His entire family was there…his wife, his father, his brothers, children.  I don’t think they were there because of me, though they were really welcoming.  I think this whole family shares this compound and the ones next door, and this get together is somewhat of a daily occurrence. They were all busy doing something.   Kaizai’s wife was cooking, his mother was holding her grandbaby.  Kaizai’s brothers wife was sewing, Kaizai’s father was sitting in a doorway on the stoop, shucking corn.  Little kids were running about.  

The Girls
The Boys
It was really nice to meet Kaizai’s family. I loved his family.   They asked me to take photo’s.  After a short while meeting and greeting everyone Dove and Kaizai led me across the road to his brothers house.  His brother and his wife had a meal prepared for me, a very traditional African meal.  Ablo.  It’s made of cornmeal, and there is a spicy sauce that goes over it, and usually chicken.  I really, really like ablo.  It’s kinda got the taste, if not the consistency, of cornbread with a spicy sauce.  They had a little table set up, just for me and brought me a couple courses of food.  I think they were very pleased to have me as a guest in their house, and they were thanking me, and getting to know me.  We joked a bit about the fact that I don’t eat meat.  That’s a little shocking to them and hard for them to understand.  It gets about the same reaction as when you say, “I’m divorced.”  They talked to me while I ate, I kept asking them to join me, but that’s not the normal tradition. 

They didn’t keep me long.  They knew that I was pressed for time.  I appreciated that I got to go to Kazai’s.  It’s obvious they were planning on having me there for a meal.   After I ate I said good bye to everyone, and thanked them.

It was such a nice day.

I had a lot to think about on my walk home.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Peace Corps Goals 2 and 3....Check

Our Andrea 
There was only one thing missing, and that was my oldest daughter, Andrea.  She had decided not to make this journey.  She had a list full of valid reasons.  Eric, my son, Emily, my daughter and I completely understood and were very accepting of why Andrea didn’t come, but during peaks and valleys of the trip we felt the void none-the-less.  The conversation often fell to, what would Andrea have said, what would Andrea have done?  And then we laughed…knowing.  With the miracle of technology we were able to have her share our trip and keenly felt her presence and sense of humor throughout.

The Airport..They have arrived!
Eric and Emily arrived in Togo on August 17th.  I had been looking forward to their arrival for at least six months.  I worried a little, maybe a lot about them taking their precious time off, and spending their well-earned money to come to Togo.  I would bring it up occasionally when speaking to them on the phone.  Are you sure?  It’s not comfortable, or pretty.  It’s hard.  Are you sure that you want to spend your time and money coming here?  It’s okkkkkk if you don’t.  Each time they reassured me, until finally and to their relief I stopped asking.  So, the day had come for them to arrive.  I was beyond excited.  I had seen Eric six months earlier when I went to Spain, where he works and lives.  I had not seen Emily for an entire year.  We both have remarked this is the longest stretch of time we’ve ever gone without seeing each other. 

Eric is a world traveler, but Emily prefers to stay a little closer to home in Overland Park, Kansas.  Her interest and determination in coming here surprised me.  They were only going to be here six full days, so I had to make it as efficient as possible.  It’s not easy to be efficient in Togo.  Their flight arrived at 3:05 A.M.  With the help of Peter, the Peace Corps Security Officer I arranged to have a driver pick me up and take me to the airport at 2:00 A.M.  

House in Lome
I have become friends with Francoise, a woman who lives and works in Lome.  She and I are working on a project together.   Francoise has a house located about six blocks from the Peace Corps Headquarters.  She has generously invited me to stay at her house anytime I’m in Lome.  Staying in hotels in Lome is the one thing that I will never get used to, and the thing I hate to do most during my service here.  I hate the thought of it more that bush taxis.   Even the best of them are always moldy and mosquito or other rodent ridden.  Often dirty.  Nothing works; not the shower or the supposed air conditioning, or the advertised wireless capability.   I’ve learned always to bring my own sheet with me, for obvious reasons.  Francoise was going to be out of the country in August, so I asked her if Emily, Eric and I could stay in her house during the Lome part of their visit.  It was a comfortable way to kick-off the trip and to end the trip.  The house is quite lovely.  She has a patio and pool in her back yard, and a little patch of real grass around the patio and pool.  There’s no real grass in Togo, so when I go to Francoise’s I always take my shoes off and walk around in the soft, green grass.  It’s the little things.

The pool (obviously)
The driver showed up at the house on time….good omen.  I got to the airport about an hour before plane landed.  I was so excited.  I couldn’t wait to see them, and touch them and put my arms around them.  The airport guards kept the few people who were waiting for arrivals outside the arrival door.  A guard stopped and talked with me.  He asked me who I was, and who I was waiting for.  Peace Corps almost always solicits a welcoming, positive response, and it did this time as well.  I told him I was waiting for my children to arrive.  I could see that my excitement and happiness made him happy as well.  When the plane arrived no one was allowed in.  You couldn’t even see in the room where they would pass through customs.  I stood by the door that would open and shut occasionally hoping to get my first glimpse.  There they are!!!!  There’s Eric, there’s Emily!!! They hadn’t seen me yet, but my heart soared!  The guard saw me,  and escorted me into the room where no one else was allowed.  Eric, Emily and I were overjoyed to see one another.   The occasion exceeded all expectations. 

They passed through customs with ease.  Eric generously tipped a man who was showing him what to do next.  He unknowingly gave the man about a months’ salary.  No wonder they like Americans!!  Once through customs my driver was outside waiting to drive us to the house.  It was about 3am.  We were exhausted.  After taking a tour of the house and visiting for a little while we all three fell asleep for about four hours.  Emily and I woke up first.  We tried to rouse Eric, but he kept saying, just a minute, just a minute (Ha! Some things never change).  Emily and I walked down the road to a street vendor where I always go for breakfast when I’m in Lome.  It’s also near the Peace Corps Headquarters.  There were three other PC Volunteers there eating breakfast at a plastic table.  Emily and I sat with them, ordered, and visited with them.  To say Emily is a picky eater is putting it mildly.  I know she was worried that she might starve to death in Togo.  Well this would be her first cuisine experiment.  This little street vendor happens to make the best egg sandwiches ever, and they have a version of café au lait’ that is always a treat for me when I come to Lome.  Emily and I had an egg sandwich and each had a café au lait’.  We ordered an egg sandwich to take back for Eric.  She liked the egg sandwich and loved the café’ au lait’!  It’s brave eating at these little street café’s for the first time.  It’s a little like a concession stand at a ballpark.  They have stools, and a canopy that hangs 
Emily making foo-foo, traditional African Meal
over the seating.  From the outside and until you duck under the canope, all you can see is the stools and a row of customers butt’s.  There are also lots and lots of flies.  They wash their pans/skillets and dishes in a big bucket right in the street.   It’s funny how arduously they sit and scrub, and scrub and scrub the pans until they shine using very dirty water.  The cook stands at the petroleum powered stove, breaking eggs with a knife and a flick of his wrist.  He has a method and a rhythm to his cooking.  He uses one knife for everything, and one cutting board which probably gets washed at the end of the day in probably the same dirty water from the morning.  The menu is as follows…egg sandwiches with or without mayonnaise and piemont (spicy hot).  The egg sandwiches are served on very good French bread. Also on the menu is spaghetti with tomato sauce with the option of cut up Togo hotdogs and/or an egg on top.  Rolls of toilet paper are strategically placed along the counter to be used as napkins.   I happen to like everything at this little cafeteria.  Apparently they have good word of mouth advertising because the stools and plastic table are almost always full.  They were smart enough or lucky enough to locate their restaurant between the Peace Corps and a business school.  I went one morning with PCV Solomon.  It was his first time there.  It was full of people.  We had to wait for a stool.  Solomon said, “What is this Togo's version of Wall Street?”  All the customers were Togolese in American clothes, most of them looking like any young businessman/woman you would see in the States, dressed in nice crisp shirts and ties.  This little food stand has done so well that recently they moved to an actual indoor building across the road.  To my surprise, last week when I went, the stand was gone.  Someone directed me to the building across the road.  The manager, who not only knows me, but all the regulars, looked very proud indeed, with his new establishment.  

Emily was taking it all in…..eyes wide.  Her first cuisine in Tchekpo.  I think she felt relief on this first day of her trip that she might not starve in Togo after all.

After breakfast, we walked the few blocks back to the house and found Eric up and eager to get started with the day.  He ate the egg sandwich we brought him and we headed out for the Peace Corps Headquarters.   There, I introduced them to anyone I could get to stop long enough.  We toured the PCV Lounge, met a few more volunteers, and went upstairs to see who was there from Administration.  Everyone knew Emily and Eric were coming, and everyone made a big to-do…laughing, taking their hand, sometimes hugging them.  I was happy for all of them to be able to meet each other. 

The Phoenicia
Me and Eric
After the Peace Corps Headquarters we walked about six blocks down to the ocean beach.  It’s the same road I travel when I spend the night in Lome.  I showed them the Phoenecia Hotel, where I usually stay.  We took a picture of the hotel.  Emily said, “Now I’ll have some idea where you are when you tell me you are at the Phoenecia.”  Uh yuh..this is where I usually stay when I'm in Lome, and this is one of the better hotels that I stay in.  Capice?  We reached the ocean front beach.  It’s beautiful to look at.  I have spent very little time there.  Several reasons.  PCV’s have been cautioned that it is not very safe.  We should never go at night, as robbers roam the beach, preying on foreigners, and for some sad reason, it serves as a latrine for Togolese.  They go there to poop.  You must keep your eyes open wherever you walk.  Emily and Eric could not, would not believe that to be true, but once on the beach they could see it was.  However, it is possible to walk the beach and avoid robbers and poop; so we did.  It was a beautiful and peaceful as we walked by fishermen readying their nets and boats for a day of fishing.  The day was sunny and warm, but not so warm that it was uncomfortable.   We stopped and talked with a few fishermen and had our pictures taken in front of one of their boats named ‘Remember’.  It was a perfect way to start our adventure. 

We walked the beach for awhile and then caught a taxi to go to the marche for lunch.  All along I wanted to impress Emily and Eric with my French and my negotiating skills with taxi drivers and vendors.  All along I saw a bemused if not respectful look on Eric’s face.  He like my fellow PCV’s is incredulous that I switch from French to English from one word to the next, mid sentence, without flinching.  I don’t really realize that I do it.  I simply speak French until I don’t know a word and then I will slip in an American word without skipping a beat, as if this is a perfectly acceptable, hoping that 1) it will go unnoticed and 2) they will somehow understand my English injections.  It is noticed more often than not…and I am not understood more often than not.  Eric…being quite linguistic capable, was quite confused about my methods.  Hey….it works for me.  I negotiated in French with a cab driver to take us to the Grand Marche.

The marche…..Pure Afrique.  We were to meet John my PCV Program Trainer, and Alex my Program Director for lunch.  We got there a little early so had time to roam the marche and buy a few items.  Now Emily and Eric relied on me to disquiter (negotiate prices) with vendors.  I do think I impressed them.  Ha! How would they know?  The marche was wildly crowded, bustling with cars and vendors and people walking shoulder to shoulder, many carrying massive items on their heads.  I stole a couple glances at Emily and Eric.  Emily was wide-eyed, snapping photos of the chaos that surrounded her.  Eric was curious and pensive; studying everything with the eye of the world traveler he is.  Neither seemed afraid.  Both appeared to know this experience was something quite unique and special.  At one point we were looking through the items of a row of vendors.   Eric had found some things that captured his attention while Emily and I roamed a little way around the corner.  This is where I almost died, and Emily almost witnessed my death.  I was standing very near the street, where cars and moto’s whiz by.  I had a light-weight backpack on my back.  The backpack had only nylon strings that fastened around my shoulders, under my arms.  All of a sudden a moto came by, turned the corner and the moto handlebars hooked under the strings of my backpack, pulling me into the street and knocking me down.  I don’t know if the moto driver was aware that he had caught me.  I think probably he was, though he didn’t slow down, but luckily his handlebars turned enough that it dislodged from my backpack.  By this time I was already on the ground.  Everything was kind of a blur.  I saw Emily above me.  She had a look of horror on her face.  While lying on my back on the ground I could hear her and some of the vendors standing over me asking me if I was ok.  I really wasn’t sure if I was.  I didn’t see how I could be, but I was…I was ok.  Luckily I had not hit my head and, really, by some miraculous feat I hadn’t hurt myself….  There were five or six vendors who were very attentive and concerned and insisted that I sit on a little squat bench for awhile.  After a few minutes I felt I was ok.  I tried to get up, but they; all of the vendors and Emily made me sit a while longer.  Soon Eric moseyed around the corner, completely unaware of the happenings.  He saw me on the bench and saw Emily and the vendors hovering over me.  Emily relayed the story to Eric.  I'm not sure he fully grasped the situation.  He just looked so confused.  I finally insisted I was ok and it was time to move on, although I felt a little spacey.  I think Emily and I both knew that it had been a very dangerous situation.  We just proceeded, as if nothing happened?  Yep.  We hit a few more vendors then headed to the restaurant.  Welcome to Togo!

John, Emily, Eric, Alex
The restaurant…Al Sultans, is one of my two favorites in Lome.   It is owned and operated by a Lebanese family, and quite popular with ex-pats,  yo-vo’s and PCV’s.  Their food is excellent.  Fresh vegetables, nicely cooked entrees. They also put forth effort and take pride in the presentation of their food.  I love their Greek salad, their fatoush salad, humus and my favorite is their crispy chicken, which is basically chicken fingers.  It’s all very delicious.  Eric, Emily and I arrived about a half hour before Alex and John.  We sat at a table outside, enjoyed the breeze and all the activity in the heart of the marche.  Right next door about thirty Muslims were gathering for their noon prayer, spreading their matts out on the sidewalk, taking their shoes off, kneeling and bending over touching their heads to the ground; chanting.  Ahhh Afrique!  

Alex and John showed up on time.  We had a lovely lunch. John is a big teddy bear of a man; soft-spoken, kind, sweet, extremely serious about his work.  He has two masters with a specialty in renewable energy so I thought that he and Eric would have a lot to talk about.  John and Alex are both born and raised in Togo, but both speak fluent English.  Alex attended American University in Washington D.C. and lived in Washington D.C. for six years.  I love Alex.  He can and is serious when he needs to be, but he has a wonderful sense of humor.  I go out of my way just to make him laugh, so I can hear it.  Eric gave me an awesome safari like hat before I came here.  Alex loves it.  He always tells me he'd like to have one just like it.  I plan on giving it to him when I leave.  Lunch was pleasant.  I was happy that these four people I care about could meet.

After lunch we caught a taxi back to the house, sat by the pool and visited for awhile, and then took a nap (repose.)  When we woke up we walked back to PCV headquarter.  I introduced Emily and Eric to a few more people, and arranged to meet some of the PCV’s for dinner that night at my other favorite restaurant; Philopat’s  We stayed at the Peace Corps office until time for dinner.   I double checked with Peter the PC Security Officer that our driver would pick us up the next morning around 8am to go to Kpalime.  The restaurant was located right at mid-point between Peace Corps Headquarters and Francoise house.  Dinner was lovely.  We had salad and pizza and wine, and four Peace Corps Volunteers joined us.  After dinner we walked back to the house, sat around the pool for just a little while and then fell into bed exhausted.  I fell asleep so happy and content and thinking how smooth everything had gone so far, with the exception of my near-death experience.  I really couldn’t believe our good fortune….cause nothing is easy in Togo.

Me and Ashley
The next morning, again Emily and I went to my favorite little vendor for egg sandwiches, and again Eric wasn’t up so we brought him back a sandwich.  Emily and I walked to the PC Hdqrts to meet the driver and Ashley.  Ashley is a Peace Corps Volunteer who lives in Kpalime.  Ashley was the PC Volunteer I was closest with during training.  We spent a lot of time together.  I admire her, and have a lot of fun with her.  On Halloween last year there was a PCV party.  Ashley went as Beyonce and I went as Jay-Z.  Mmmhmmm. Ashley was waiting for us at the Peace Corps Office when we arrived and once again the driver showed up on time.  Ashely had really been looking forward to meeting Emily and Eric.  We drove to the house to pick up Eric and the luggage.  The drive to Kpalime was fraught with danger!!!  Our driver drove about 100 MPH the entire way.  I’m not exaggerating.  Emily took a picture of the speedometer to have proof.  Ashley was in the front seat.  Eric, Emily and I were in the back.  I have taken cars like this before.  The driver driving so fast that I am in a constant state of anxiety; maneuvering simultaneously with the driver, bobbing my head this way and that as we round curves or pass a car; as if the gravity of my bobbing head will help just enough to ease the car in the direction or angle I think it needs to go to avoid catastrophe.  And so it was with this trip, with this driver to Kpalime.  I could feel tension in Emily.  I could see her big eyes and the worry on her face; looking at the driver, the road, the speedometer.  Pure fear.  In juxtaposition; Ashley sat in the front seat with not a care in the world, reviewing paperwork.  Ashley having acclimated to the ways of Togo.  Emily kept looking at me, pleading with her eyes to intervene.  She said, “Mom, he is falling asleep…I can see him in the rear-view mirror…his eyes keep closing.  He’s nodding OFF!”  Eric was
Dinner at my house...They are SO brave!
worried as well.  His fists clenched so tightly that his knuckles were white.  I hated seeing them so worried.  I told Ashley that the driver seemed to be falling asleep.  She non-chalantly looked at him and quietly asked him, “Are you tired?  Are you falling asleep?”  He replied, “No, no…I’m fine.”  He didn’t slow down and he continued to nod his head in drowsiness.  Ashley went back to her reading….I prayed we would get to Kpalime without incident.  My eyes darting back and forth between the driver and the road…bobbing my head, hoping the force of that would save us from peril.  Emily and Eric remained probably as alert as they’ve ever been in their lives.  We made it.  Three hours; Usually, at least a four hour trip.  So…Emily and Eric experienced their first real Togo experience.   Danger, at every turn.  Not danger from lions, or tigers or natives, but the dangers of the road.  Every day, any trip you take; on moto or bush taxi could be your last.

Eric, Chantal, Ashley
Arriving safely in pretty Kpalime was a welcome respite.  Kpalime, where Ashley lives, is a lovely little village at the foot of mountains.  It is the artisan center of Togo.  Ashley had arranged a wonderful couple of days for us there.  We stayed in a delightful hotel with a scenic view of the mountains that was located just outside of town, and only a few short blocks from Ashley’s house.  We checked in, were delighted with the accommodations, and then quickly left for our appointment with Chantal.  Chantal is an artisan who designs and produces batik fabric.  A variety of designs are carved into wooden blocks by her brother.  The wooden blocks are dipped into hot wax and placed on the fabric, leaving an imprint.   The fabric is then dyed, leaving the imprint of the design.  Voila!  Batik!  Chantal has benefitted greatly from the help and advice of the Peace Corps.  She now exports her products, has a website, employees, and she makes a very comfortable living for herself and her children.  She is a successful example of entrepreneurism we like to spotlight in Togo Peace Corps.  When we arrived at Chantals house, Chantal, a couple of her sisters, and a couple of her children were waiting.  Chantal’s children are beautiful, as is she.  She has a little baby of nine months.  Chantal named the baby Ashley Rose after Ashley the Peace Corps Volunteer.    They had two tables set up, the white fabric ready to imprint and blocks of wood for us to choose for our designs.   It was SO much fun to do this.   Eric, Emily and I thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality and the creative process of designing our own fabric.  Eric and Emily went first, as there were just two tables to work on, and then I worked on my fabric.  We each had time to look through the rest of Chantal’s beautiful display of products; purses, backpacks, shirts, skirts etc; in addition to her fabrics that had yet to be made into something.  We each made several purchases and were each very enthusiastic about the items we purchased to take home to loved ones.  While I was finishing my batik and Emily and Eric were perusing Chantal’s products, Chantal made us a delicious little snack of fried yams and a spicy sauce.  It was delicious.  We got to choose the color of our batik and stayed long enough to observe the process of dying the fabric.  We returned the next morning before our journey to Tchekpo to pick up our finished “work of art.” 

“No rest for the wicked”  Immediately after finishing our batik Ashley had moto’s waiting for each of us at Chantal’s and we were on our way to the mountains to tour a coffee plantation.  The coffee plantation is another successful business the Peace Corps helped grow.  The moto ride was exhilarating fun and a beautiful scenic ride through the mountains and mountain villages…higher, and higher we climbed until finally after about half hour ride we reached the top.  Once there we were greeted by the owner of the plantation.  He guided us through a fascinating tour of his coffee plantation, stopping all along the way to explain the process and each step of the process to the grand finale of roasting the beans and packaging them.  He also opened a mature Coffee fruit plant, showed us, and had us taste it.  Observing the roasting of the beans reminded us how very primitive this business still is.  The beans are roasted over a small clay oven in a primitive metal pot outside in a thatched roof paillot, with a woman constantly, manually stirring and taste testing the beans until perfect.  The packaging would fool anyone about the primitive process the beans had gone through.  The packaging is as bright, and nice as any coffee packaging you would see in the U.S.  The packaging technique was just one of many advisory contributions the Peace Corps made so that this man would have a viable product to not only sell locally, but also to export.  After the tour we were all tired, but excited to take the final moto ride back down the mountain.  Our moto drivers had patiently waited for us to finish our tour, and a couple of them had even joined us.  The ride down the mountain was even more fun; faster!  The weather was beautiful and the view supreme. 

It had been a very full day indeed.  From the danger ridden ride from Lome to our very own art project and the coffee tour.  We were all famished though so we ended the day at a lovely little restaurant in Kpalime.  We were served a delicious meal and ice cold beer.  From there we went back to our hotel.  Eric immediately hit the sack.  Emily and I stayed up and chatted and posted pictures on facebook for awhile.  All three of us were sharing a king-size bed.  Oy veh!  Emily and I could not stop giggling about it, and laughing that Eric’s back was to us as if he refused to acknowledge the fact that he was sharing a bed with his sissie and his mommy.  Emily and I snapped a few pics, unbeknown to him, as evidence….giggling uncontrollably the whole time.  Then we fell fast asleep, awakening the next morning to the sounds of roosters.  

We had a lovely and delicious light breakfast at the hotel.  Emily and I walked the few blocks to Ashley’s house and visited with her for a short while.  Eric was feeling sick to his stomach….thought it was something he ate…thought he might have a parasite.  I was worried, but know that this is a common ailment here in Africa and hoped that it would quickly dissipate, which it did.  I know he was worried and imagning that he might possibly have some parasite that was growing bigger and bigger inside him with every passing minute.  It was not that far-fetched for him to think that!  Once again Ashley came through for us, and found a driver to take us to Tchekpo.  About a four hour drive.  When we were saying our goodbyes and piling in the car I heard Ashley instructing him to ‘aller lentement’….go slow!  And he did…or a very reasonable pace the entire way.  He spoke English, was pleasant and told us a bit about his life.  We all relaxed, and had an opportunity to kind of rest for awhile from the busy day before.  I was very excited.  We were going to Tchekpo for three days.  My village.  With my kids.  I must say I had been so curious about what it would be like for them, how it would go, what they would think.  I was quite excited about seeing all this through someone elses eyes.  I’ve been here for over a year and am quite acclimated to everything.  The climate, the people, the traditions.   It was hard to imagine how they would process it.

We pulled up to the entrance of my house.  I could detect that Emily and Eric were a little apprehensive, but at the same time glad to finally be in my village, not to mention out of the car.  Before we had all our feet and luggage out the door, Mahsoblee and Regina ran up to us and greeted us.  Mahsoblee is the little, six year old girl I’ve been helping and Regina is her BFF.  They are a pair! A hilarious, adorable pair of little girls, who, during waking hours are never more than a shout away from each other.  They repeat each other, and mimic each other.   I thought it was a perfect entre for Eric and Emily, into my world.  Mahsoblee and Regina come to my house daily.  We sit and laugh and talk, and sometimes blow bubbles or practice English.  I teach them basic English words and phrases and they are rewarded with a piece of chewing gum or candy.   At some point during their visit they both tilt their head up and say…shoo-ing gummm, shoo-ing gumm; which I give them.   It was so fine that Mahsoblee and Regina were there waiting for us.  When I introduced them, Mahsoblee and Regina, without a moment’s hesitation and with wide, wide smiles, ran up and hugged Eric and Emily’s knees.  Emily and Eric knew all about Mahsoblee, and I know they were delighted to meet her.  The driver helped carry our suitcases in.  Emily and Eric, now adjusting themselves to their third new environment.  First Lome, Second Kpalime and now Tchekpo.  Three very different experiences to be sure.  It was now Friday.  We
Emily and Eric with some neighbors
would stay in Tchekpo until Monday afternoon.  I really had nothing planned in concrete for Tchekpo.  For one thing…you cannot plan anything in concrete in Tchekpo.  I had three things I wanted to be sure and do, but nothing on a schedule.  I wanted them to go to a Tom-Tom dance, meet the chief and go to my church on Sunday.  School was not in session for the summer.  I was disappointed they would not be able to experience the schools, as I know they and the students would have very much enjoyed that.  As fate would have it, my church was not having service on this particular Sunday.  There was going to be a special service in Ahepe about twenty miles down the road.  The bishop was going to be there.  I so wanted them to attend my church.  It’s such a good representation of things that are good here.  I decided we would go to Ahepe on Sunday though….I thought they would enjoy it, and they would have a chance to ride in a bush taxi, which I felt they must experience at least once. 

My House
So….we came in the house and got situated.  My villagers always give me a chance to settle in when I return from a trip.  Over time I’ve noticed that they appear to consciously afford me this courtesy, and I appreciate it.  But after an acceptable amount of Togo-time the procession started.  One by one and sometimes in threes and fours and fives, adults and children filtered in to meet my kids. They all felt they knew them, not just from me talking about them, but I have a picture collage on my wall of my family.  Everyone has gone through the drill of looking at the pictures and identifying who is who.
 Emily and Eric had brought a bevy of gifts for children and people they had heard me talk about.  Wonderful, fun gifts.   They showed me everything, as I oooohed and awed, knowing how these things would delight my peeps.  Emily and I organized them all, lining up the cadou’s (gifts) in the hallway out of sight.  They had a few very specific gifts for dignitaries (my favorites), such as the Chief, and Mahsoblee, Honu Koffi, David and Moses.  The rest we would distribute as we saw fit.  There were glow necklaces and bracelets, bubbles, hats, Frisbees, magic markers and coloring books, etc., etc., etc..  Oh boy!!!!

Mahsoblee, Eric, Honou, Komi, Emily
I had two moments that were lovely beyond measure; and many, many moments that just made me so deeply happy and content.  Watching Emily give her gifts to Mahsoblee and Regina was one of the special moments.  She had bought brightly colored little visor hats.  She sat on my front porch and artistically wrote their names on them and drew a little picture as they both stood watching with anticipation.  The hats were adorable.  Mahsoblee and Regina loved them, and ran giggling out of the compound to show their friends and families.  Ohhhh Mahsoblee and Regina came back almost hourly to see what else they could get, and they did get many other little tidbits, but it just made me so happy to see Emily and Eric with them, laughing, talking…..loving them as much as I do.  The second moment was when Honou Koffi came over.  Honou is definitely one of my very favorite people here.  I’ve written about him in my blog a few times.  He is handicapped and gets around on crutches.  He had just returned that very day from the Peace Corps first annual Camp Joie in Pagala.  A camp for handicapped youth in Togo.  Two boys from my village went.  Honou and Komi.  They had been looking forward to going for weeks.  I’m beyond impressed with what my fellow Peace Corps volunteers accomplished with this camp.  Honou and Komi came back armed with information and tools to start a club for handicapped here in Tchekpo.  They also came back with a new and fierce self-confidence that was palpable.  Honou knew Emily and Eric would be here when he returned from camp, and he was very much looking forward to meeting them, checking and re-checking with me that he wouldn’t miss them while he was at camp.  Honou and Komi showed up the first afternoon Emily and Eric were here.  I had asked them to get Honou a really nice French-English Dictionary.  He is President of the English Club at the Lycee (highschool).  Honou and Komi were both glowing and ebullient, fresh from their week at camp.  We visited for awhile on the porch.  Then Emily went in the house to get his gift.  They had also gotten him a really nice book bag.  Thoughtfully they had chosen a bag narrower than most, thinking it would be easier for him to manipulate this bag with his crutches.  They were right.  Inside the bag was the dictionary, and pens and pencils and a notebook and a calculator, and a few other school supplies.  Though we didn’t have anything specific for Komi because he hasn’t been one of the regular people I talk about, we were able to put together a nice little package for him.  They gave him a really nice wind breaker and a light weight book bag, with supplies in it.  They were both thrilled.  But when Honou opened the bag and pulled out the dictionary…well that was the moment I was waiting for, and that was the moment that was beautiful to share with Emily and Eric.  He slowly peaked in the bag, and slowly lifted the dictionary out.  He was speechless for a few moments, and then he just kept saying wow….wow….wow!!! and he laughed softly and a little nervously.  He truly could not believe his good fortune.  A few months ago Honou came over to my house; worried and fretting.  He told me he thought he was cursed, and maybe his house was cursed.  We talked about it.  I tried to convince him he was not cursed, but he wasn’t so sure.  After his week at camp and his gifts, I asked him if he still thought he was cursed.  With a very bright smile, he said, “no,  I think I’m blessed.”  The other side of this moment was the look on Emily and Eric’s faces when they saw just how much that little book meant to Honou.  I’m sure picking that up during their busy days before the trip was a small nuisance, and probably they had no idea of the significance or the joy it would bring.  The looks on their faces was first love, I think, and second surprise.  Surprise that the gift of this little book brought this seventeen year old boy such joy.  It was a beautiful, enriching moment, for all of us.  Whenever we are complaining that we don’t have the latest toy, or the newest fashion…it will be difficult not to reflect back on this moment, and try to make sense of the world we live in.  They got up to leave, Honou and Komi.  Honu on his crutches with his new book bag on his back, the tags still hanging off of it, and Komi limping beside him.  We watched in silence and contentment as they maneuvered their broken bodies through the yard and out of the compound door.  None of us had words to express our feelings.  Nothing really needed to be said.

The rest of day was filled with visitors.  Aloughba, Margarite, David, Rachel…so many people.  So welcoming and happy to meet my children.  Leah, my thirteen year old water girl, friend and most constant companion in Tchekpo stopped by often.  We took her into the hall and let her have the pick of the gifts.  She chose an adorable purple wig made of shiny streams of paper.  One of the many gifts that Emily and Eric brought that I thought was so fun!  That night, after dark, we went over to Margarites hut.  She has eight children.  We took the tube of necklaces that glow in the dark.  Their compound was pitch black except for the remnants of coals burning in the nightly fire they use to cook their dinner.  Eric and Emily and I were excited to show them the necklaces.  Ohhhhh they loved them.  The kids were laughing and so excited.  As we left their compound we could here laughter and squeals of delight all the way back to my house.  We still had a few more visitors.  David, my French tutor and community partner, and his fiancée Rachel stopped by.  David and Rachel both speak English, so, a little language reprieve for Emily and Eric..(oh ok, me too).  As they were getting ready to leave, Fidel, my next door neighbor knocked on the door.  I love Fidel.  He’s an administrator for the high school, and he also teaches German.  He’s a gentle-man.  Very sweet and funny.  On this
Fidel and his two wives!
night he was just giddy with excitement.  He had just taken his second wife!!!  He brought both of them to introduce them to us.  He was giggling and laughing, and probably more than a little drunk.  The women looked happy indeed to be his wives.  It was a particularly fun visit with a lot of laughs.  I think Fidel was one of Eric and Emily’s favorites, I know he is one of mine.

We all slept well that night.  The next day was my 61st birthday.  Aloughba and David came by to take us to a tom-tom dance.  It was actually a celebratory tom-tom dance held for a funeral.  The mother of a man who I know quite well.  We were welcome guests.  He was honored and appreciated that we were there to pay our respects to his mother.   After the somber and dignified burial service the dancing and celebration began.  Emily and Eric both enjoyed this day.  It was a cultural phenomenon, specific to Togo.  The children, the dancing, the drums, the drinking.  I was coerced to dance.  It didn’t take much coercion.  I explained to Emily and Eric that this particular dance and dancing is a voodoo tradition that is all about being filled with the spirit.  People would get up at will, and start to dance.  Other people would stand around them fanning them and wiping the perspiration off their face with a cloth.  That is part of the ritual.  When the spirit moves them they get up and dance.  It’s something like talking in tongues, or chanting or meditation.  It’s a place one goes to where the material world is blocked out.  Only the spirit resides.   The spirit moves them.  I’ve been to several tom-tom dances, and I’ve danced at each one; much to the delight of my Togolese friends and neighbors.  The days following these dances people will pass me in the village and make the motion of dancing.  They laugh and smile and congratulate me for having joined them.  It was a great way to spend my 61st birthday.  I’m not sure I felt the spirit, but I felt something.  Maybe just a bond between humans and cultures.  Again, I spent a lot of time watching Eric and Emily.  They were full of fun and curiosity about everything that was going on.  I liked seeing the smiles on their faces as I danced.

Catholic Bishop of Togo
Sunday.  Ahepe and church.  This was the most arduous day.  We got up early, dressed up, walked down the road and caught a bush taxi to Ahepe; arriving about a half hour before services started. Komi and Moses accompanied us in the bush taxi from Tchekpo to Ahepe.  About a 20 minute ride.   Church service In Tchekpo generally lasts about two hours.  This however was a big celebration for some new priests, so it was a long, drawn out affair.  The bishop of Togo arrived in a big parade.  There was a lot of music and singing, and of course beautiful African colors and clothes.  To me, the icing on the cake, the reason for going to church at my church in Tchekpo is the procession at the very end of the service.  Oh, I like it all, but my mind does start to wander about an hour and a half into it, and during the sermon which is given in Ewe, the local language.  But I always busy myself with the little kids who clamor to sit by me.  I often make them laugh, by making funny faces at them, and more often than not, a strict Togolese catholic woman will turn around and bop them on the head for being too noisy.  When she turns back around I grimace at the children….and quietly whisper…”.Je suis desolee (I am sorry)” for getting them in trouble. (Note to Michael John….as you said, some things never change!)  All of this makes them laugh even more.  But at the end of every church service, the celebration really begins.  There are trumpets and drums and almost everyone gets out of their seats and processions around the church holding their arms up to the sky, with joyous looks on their faces, praising their God, and their good fortune.  They always sing the same song, which has a lively, hypnotic rhythm and energy.   It’s well worth the wait.  It never disappoints me.  It never fails to give me goose bumps.  Each time I am awed by their joy and faithfulness and their particular understanding of God.  This is something I wanted Emily and Eric to experience.  I knew they would have this same procession at the end of service in Ahepe.  They did.  However it wasn’t quite the same feeling as in my little church in Tchekpo.  But it was uplifting all the same.  The four hour service in the very hot church, with nothing but a foreign language being spoken, I think diminished the finale a little bit. 

After church we went out to the road and tried to catch a bush taxi.  For some reason there were none to be found; especially for five people.  Emily, Eric, myself, Moses and Komi.  The sun was blazing.  It was so hot.  We stood on the side of the road with no shelter.  When a bush taxi would stop they would either try to charge us twice as much as they should because it was three white people, or there simply wasn’t enough room for all five of us.  We were all tired and hot, and the glow of god’s grace was not filtering down to us.  After much frustration and a two…yes TWO hour wait, I finally convinced Moses and Komi to go on without us.  Emily and Eric and I waited a while longer.  Never once did Emily and Eric complain; and on this day there was a LOT to complain about.  I on the other hand, had a little mini meltdown (perhaps not so little).  Finally we decided to hail three moto’s.  They didn’t have helmets, but it was a short ride, so I thought/hoped we’d be ok.  Eric didn’t like the idea of riding on a moto, but at this point we’d all do anything to get home.  When Eric got on his moto, I put my hands on the drivers’ shoulders, looked him in the eye and said, “aller lentement.”  “GO SLOW.”  This obviously is an often repeated and unheeded phrase in Togo.  He nodded with assurance….Then proceeded to take off like a bat out of hell!  Emily and I just stood there with our mouths open, then nervously laughed as we got on our moto’s.  Eric was out of sight.  I was furious.  Neither Eric’s moto driver, nor Eric had any idea where they were supposed to go.  When we reached Tchekpo, at the entrance of my road I had our moto driver stop and let Emily and I off.  I could barely see Eric, wayyyyyyy up the road.  By this time I had lost all patience, and started yelling at my moto driver….punching him in the arm to go get them.  Again…Emily stood there with her mouth open.  She was a little surprised to see her sweet mommy beating this poor Togolese Driver up.  Oh well.  My moto driver managed to catch up with them, and brought Eric back to the road where we were waiting.  Eric’s eyes were as big as saucers.  His hair was standing on end.  Poor guy.  We walked home, each of us exhausted, but laughing and lamenting about our near-death experiences.  I made a big lunch, and we rested In between visitors, for the remainder of the day.

Eric, Leah's mom, Emily at my water pump
Monday, Our Last Day….  Monday is marche day in Tchekpo.  We had decided to spend the morning in Tchekpo.  My friend Raoul had found a driver to come to my house and take us to Lome in the early afternoon.  In the morning Emily and Eric packed everything up.  We ate a good breakfast of eggs, fried potatoes and toast, and then we headed down to the marche.  It’s a small marche compared to Lome or Tesvie, but big and impressive none-the-less, and bustling, noisy, entertaining and interesting.  I work with the Women’s Marche Groupement (assoc.)  Seventy-five of them.  These are the women who sell their goods in the marche.  We were quite the center of attention wandering through the marche.  Honou, Moses, Raoul and Aloughba accompanied us.  Quite an entourage.  I stopped many times, to introduce Emily and Eric.  They were greeted with smiles and salutations.  By this time Emily and Eric had learned the Ewe greeting which delighted my villagers.  We circled the entire marche, stopping to look at this and that.  After the marche, Aloughba, Emily, Eric and I stopped by the Chiefs Palace (Emily 
Eric, Le Chief, Emily
and Eric always laugh when I say palace, but that’s what it is called.)  Emily said….”.THAT’S THE PALACE??!!!”  The description didn’t really jive with what she was looking at.  Eric had brought a bottle of wine for the Chief.  He was happy to meet my children, and had wanted us to come to his house for dinner.  I was sorry to tell him that we had to leave that afternoon.  Of course the Chief being the opportunist that he is didn’t fail to ask Eric to perhaps build a new building for the High School.  It was a nice visit.  The Chief appreciated the wine and was understanding that we could not make it for dinner, and wished them a Bon Voyage.
It was time to go.  Time to leave Tchekpo.  The car arrived on time, and we had a relaxing ride back to Francoise house in Lome.  We caught a few hours sleep before we had to leave for the airport at 4am.  I worried and fretted that the same driver who had taken me to the airport to pick them up would be able to find the house again, and would arrive on time.  Emily and Eric were too exhausted to worry about it.  The driver came right on time, and we were on our way to the airport.  I was feeling just a little desperate, not wanting to say goodbye, but very satisfied that we’d had such a great time, and for Togo, that everything had gone so smoothly.  When we arrived at the airport we checked in at the outside counter.  I started to go in the building with Emily and Eric and the worker told me I was not allowed.  WHAT???  I was not prepared to let them go at that instant.  “No,” he said.  It seemed final and official.  Eric and Emily both hugged me and started through the door.  At that point the worker asked Eric, “Is this your mother?”  Eric said, “yes.”  Well, he let me pass, and go with them.  It was such a kind, sentimental gesture for him to break the rules for me, because I was their mother.  We sat and waited and visited for about half an hour until they had to go through the gates to board the plane.  We took one last snapshot.  I think that photo speaks volumes.  They went through the doors, turning several times to wave good-bye.  And then I was alone.  But I was alone with memories that will stay with me forever.
Pooofffff....They are gone! But what a trip!

The Peace Corps' mission has three simple goals:
1.  Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2.  Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3.  Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

I know we definitely accomplished Goals 2 and 3.  The people of Tchekpo will never forget you Emily and Eric, and I doubt that you will ever forget them.  Here's what the people in my village now know. Because of you...They know that Americans are kind, compassionate, funny, curious, generous, adventurous and thoughtful.  Thank you.