The roosters wake before 5, and I, at 5. The sun rises at approximately 5:20, as do the taxi-moto men who whizz by my window on roads that swallow dump trucks and semi-trunks when the rains come. I lace my shoes at 5:15am, and walk to the entrance of our compound to greet Ablagan, my host mom.
“Il fault faire doucement, eh? Il faut aller revenir vite,” says Ablagan every morning as I leave the house for my morning run. “Be careful, and safe journey,” or literally, “One must do so gently. One must go and come back quickly.”
Out the door, I take a left, turning onto a side street where water is pumped into 60lb. yellow bidons for 25CFA each, that small-framed women hoist onto their heads and transport in flip-flops on the same roads that capsize construction equipment. How can ones neck possibly support that much weight safely?
“Bonjour, maman. Bonjour, monsieur.”
“Woezo loo!” Welcome!
I pass a trash burning pit at the center of an intersection. Chickens, goats, and pigs, belonging to anyone, pick through black plastic bags, unusable sections of decaying wood, unidentifiable bottles, and discarded bits of clothing the color of red dirt for anything edible. On my left is a sign for Madame Joie’s couture business, one of the many in the area for all your tailoring needs. On my right is another mama clearing the debris in front of her home. There is a baby wrapped in colorful panya on her back and a large palm branch in her hands.
After another few “Bonjours,” I make it to the end of the road Chez Monsieur D where Will lives. There is a footpath at the end of this road which leads to a slew of more tin-roofed concrete homes with thatched outdoor cooking areas, families fanning charcoal and relaxing on stools while breakfast is being made. Bouille à la… I can only imagine. Hot cereal, perhaps some bread. Past a small garden of corn, I cross another side street and take a right at the next one, turning towards the main road I have yet to see a sign for.
On the corner, a woman is making beignets, delicious balls of dough fried golden-brown in red palm oil. They taste like doughnuts, slightly sweet with a crunchy exterior. Innumerable empty stalls on my right stand skeletal, awaiting Thursday market day when all of the village congregates in one area: farmers, teachers, students, carpenters, electricians, and roughly 16 Peace Corps Trainees. We are twenty-year-old infants able to comprehend, at most, basic Ewe that rolls effortlessly off the tongues of everyone around us.
We walk cautiously, huddled together, arms outstretched and fingers cloying to feel new textures and taste new foods. Our ears catch everything, the hisses and kisses often only meant to grab our attention, the Yovo Song that gaggles of babies burst into before they even learn French or Ewe, or to speak in full sentences.
“Yovo yovo, bonjour! Ça va bien? Merci!” White person white person, good morning! Are you well? Thank you!
“Yovo Yovo, bonsoir! Bonne arrivée, Yovo!” White person white person good evening! Welcome, white person!
They see us before we see them, popping their heads around corners 50 yards away, racing towards us with treasured marbles in their hands, the spoils of their last game. They come rolling tires with sticks, on old steel frame bicycles too big for them, with babies in their arms while they themselves are oftentimes only a few years older. They come butt-naked. They come clothed in worn panya and that of freshly made by Madame Joie. They come with few words of French, sometimes just “manger,” pointing to their stomachs, other times with rust-colored hair and distended bellies. They come with curiosity, smiles, and outstretched fingers wanting to touch your hair. They come cautiously, as if to see how close to you they can get.
Our ears sometimes catch harassment, in my case, Jackie Chans, Hee-Haws, and Ce n”est pas possible que vous êtes américain (It is not possible you are American). For women, it comes in the form of catcalls, marriage proposals, and hisses and kisses meant to grab their attention. It can be Yovo as well, depending on how it is said. When my host father and I are talking in front of our home and someone asks him a question about me he does not like, he comes to my defense. “Why do you feel the need to ask such a question?” he says to them.
Our eyes are seeing things they are not accustomed to, dogs and goats being kicked, a woman shoving her umbilical cord into her panya as she races on the back of a motorcycle to the hospital, public corporal punishment. The other day on the way to school, we saw a man with his wrists bound behind his back, writhing in the dirt as the village gathered around him. Another volunteer was kicked by him as the man said to him in English, “Help me, my brother!” Another volunteer observed him running over to a lady preparing fried beignets and saw him stand barefoot in the boiling pot of oil. He did not even scream. “Today was a day,” said Jonathan, “and tomorrow will be another. Some will be weird. Some will be awesome.”
Yesterday, I was biking through the village as quickly as I would in Minneapolis, and a young boy, maybe ten, on a bike that would have been large for me, began pursuing me with an enormous grin on his face. I encouraged him to follow, and we raced to the market. When Togolese children begin the Yovo song and you wave at them, there is nothing but pure joy in their smiles and waves. They ask me everyday, “Comment t’appelles tu?” What is your name? Instead of calling me Jackie, I now get “MA-CHOO! Ça va?”
Ablagan spent the better part of two hours this past weekend peeling peanuts, roasting them over a fire in a bowl with sand, and took it to have them milled into two cups worth of delicious peanut butter. “Merci mille fois!” I said, ecstatic to have peanut butter and bananas on toast for breakfast. “Oh, c’est gratuit,” she says. It’s free.
Up ahead is the roundabout filled with red flowers and another taxi-moto station where a young apprentice greets me everyday with oil-slicked hands and a big grin on his face. I take the first right down a road that narrows as it leaves the village. Flies chase me as I pass farmers and women carrying baskets on their heads. It is light enough to make out all the cracks in the dirt, the weave of the women’s baskets. Drew’s house is on the left, and no doubt, his buddhist father is chanting away in his prayer room. I turn around as my watch reads 15 minutes, before the road descends towards the next village, and return to my compound.
“Akkodé!” says Ablagan, Tuesday, as she is known in Ewe. Komlan, my host father and male Tuesday, is preparing bouille, hot cereal, accompanied by his favorite, an egg sandwich with tomatoes, onion, and piment vert, hot green pepper. He slices the vegetables with an old pairing knife in his left hand. Rachel, my one year, three-month-old baby sister is sitting on the ground in a faded peach-orange Tigger sweater playing with a 50 CFA coin. She looks up when I enter, feigning indifference. “Elle est en grève,” Ablagan often says. She is on strike against you. Ablagan has begun to give her things to hand to me, and today, as she gave me bread for breakfast, she smiled and waved as I said, “Bye-bye!” Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid. Little by little, the bird makes its nest.
I stretch in our yard as baby goats BAAA for their siblings, their mamas, and eat the leaves off the okra plants that have yet to bear fruit. Les bêtes, they are called, beasts, for the damage they do to crops. I pour water into my bucket from the bidon, taking my time before school begins. Looking up, the shower is open to the elements. At night you can see the stars and hear funerals raging till the break of dawn. It is funeral season, and you can tell by the amount of sleep that you will not be getting every Friday and Saturday evening. Two men with microphones near my house rapidly scream back and forth to one another as if commentating a 90’s arcade fighting game. Drums and chanting can be heard throughout the entire village in between the chirping of the one cricket in your room you cannot find and the light scraping of men passing by your window in their tapettes.
It has been one month since arriving in Togo, and I have begun to question many things: how paradoxical Togolese society is with its corporal punishment and the prevalence of cell phones, my role as a Peace Corps volunteer, what it means to be in a country where many of the things you identified with back home are no longer an option, how circumstantial that makes identity seem.
I will end this post with something my host mom said to me last night. I told her about the journal I keep for reflecting, and she told me, “Every morning, before I leave my room, I ask myself, what can I do to not do any harm to anyone, and what can I do to bring the most joy to others?”