Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The next installment...

More from Africa, a place where occasionally we look at each other in astonishment and acknowledge that we are really here on this continent. It seems surreal at times. But then we slap that mosquito, wipe the sweat off our brow, take a cold shower and eat fu-fu for dinner, and we are reminded of where we are and where our home will be for the next two years. Someone asked us in an email (thanks, Pam) if we were happy, and the answer to that question is quite simply “yes!”.
It has been a while since we wrote last. We have returned from our week- long ”post visit” where we had a great time getting to know Atakpamé, our future home for the next two years. We spent time with the PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) who has been there and was about to return home. She was well-loved and is leaving some big shoes to fill. She was well “integrated” into the community (a Peace Corps goal) and helped select both of our host national counterparts who will be helping us integrate. It was a busy week: We had dinner in four different Togolese homes, tasted the local millet beer, “chuch” which is served out of large plastic garbage cans and served in half of a dried out gourd (I wonder if that has anything to do with a small recurrence of the runs), attended a neighborhood football (soccer) match that was organized in honor of 2 departing PCV’s, and went to a meeting of the two HIV/AIDS NGOs (non-governmental agencies/non-profits) with whom we will be working! We even went to check out a Tai Kwon Do class at 6 a.m. one morning with the departing volunteer.
Best of all we attended a large luncheon in a nearby village that was set up by the director of the middle school there to say “Good-by to Kelly” (former PCV) and “Welcome to Cate & Wayne”. Kelly had helped get funding to build 3 new classrooms which reduced the size of their classes from 164 to “just” 87. The director of the school of 1000 students organized the luncheon at a large bar and 30 distinguished members of the village attended Not surprisingly for the culture, they were all men. Two chiefs were there (dressed in traditional cloth, one with his sceptre in hand and his cell phone in the other) as well as the regional education inspector (Superintendent) and 3 of his directors. We sat at the head table with the inspectors. Cate used her young French to charm the regional inspector. Once he seemed to know how little French we spoke, he felt free to use his limited English. So we had a nice conversation during lunch, which consisted of deep fried bread dough, hot sauce, spaghetti, bread and “interesting” beef pieces to eat with the traditional “sodabi” (a strong fermented palm wine), beer and chuch to drink. I sat between Cate and the only female education inspector in Togo. When it came to making speeches, Cate and I were asked, in good fun, to out-do the former PCVs with regard to building school buildings. Since THEY raised funds to build 3 classrooms, they want US to build six classrooms in two story buildings! There aren’t too many 2-story buildings. The former PCV gave a nice speech in good French (nearly made Cate cry even though she only understood half of it). It was reassuring to hear her communicate so well in such a setting, because she told us our French is better than hers was at the same time when she arrived in town. Cate jumped up when given the chance and charmed everyone with her very basic French telling them we were still learning French “un peu un peu” and saying “merci beaucoup pour votre bienvenu”. They laughed. Was it the pronunciation or the slow articulation? Whatever, we are slowly working our way into their hearts and it comes as a nice surprise that it is our limited French that is at work.
So enough details of our trip. I have noted a few cultural things to share and listed them below:
1. Always carry your baby on your back tied on with a colorful cloth. I have yet to see a baby crying in this position – but I have seen many napping. Sometimes you will see an “older” sister of 6 or 8 years carrying a 2 year old who looks almost half the size of the one doing the carrying.
2. Always pay for your purchase with your right hand. The left hand is reserved for bathroom tasks. It’s impolite to use it in greetings or business transactions and we have been warned it is quite bad etiquette to use it for eating.
3. Material success brings with it responsibility for the extended family. So think twice before you work hard towards success because you will probably be sharing it with your very-extended family. (C & T, can we come live with you in 2 years?)
4. Get well cards and flowers make no sense to Togolese. They expect fruit or money when you come to visit a sick person. Have to admit that their customs are much more practical!
5. Greetings are taken seriously. You greet everyone in the room when you arrive, normally with a handshake and appropriate salutation. Street greetings of “Bon Jour, Bon Soir or Bon Arrivée ” are common as well for anyone with whom you make eye contact.
6. All foreigners are greeted by any children who see them with “Yovo!” They will come running to greet you and sing the “yovo song”. Sometimes they want to touch you. It is difficult to be anonymous here, or just to go out and take a walk without kids “taunting” you with the song. We understand that the song is part of a rote greeting interchange that missionaries used to teach French. It drives some volunteers nuts as the singing draws constant attention but usually the kids are just having fun and want to acknowledge the unusual occasion of seeing a foreigner. They can pick out African-Americans as readily as us pale-faced yovos.
7. Wearing shorts is only for boys and old men. Working men wear pants.
8. Women normally cover their knees (and usually their calves) with dresses, or occasionally, pants. Revealing knees and legs is a sign of a loose woman.
9. It is impolite to cross your legs when meeting with a social superior.
10. If you are offered something to drink, even if it is not acceptable to you to drink (like unsafe water), put it to your mouth and let it touch your lips. Otherwise you will offend your host.
So now we are in our last 2 weeks of training and will soon be headed to our new home, assuming we pass all the requirements. All the volunteers are ready to go. Training has been very structured and at times frustrating and tiresome, and we are all anxious to get started on our own life and work in our respective villages and towns throughout Togo. Many of the returned volunteers we talked to on the phone before we started training said “just get through training”. Now we know what they meant. It will be sad, however, to leave the group of 23 volunteers that we have come to know quite well. We are making some good friends (who will never replace our true friends), and perhaps our next email will tell how they are helping to shape our lives here also. We think that we may come back to the US a lot smarter. (More on that in our next intelligent email).
Love to you all,
Wayne and Cate