Sunday, December 18, 2005

Waiting for Christmas

It’s the Fourth Sunday in Advent, and we’re still Waiting. For those of you not familiar with the official seasons of the Church Year, Advent is the period of time that is the 4 Sundays before Christmas when we “wait” and “prepare” for the birth of the Christ child. In the states, when the commercialization of Christmas starts just after Halloween, the waiting is long and hard. This morning the 2 of us held a worship service using the home made altar in the photo. We found the joyful, whimsical cross in the street, a discarded piece of cement.

But in Togo, they really know how to Wait. As we write this one week before Christmas, there is no sign of Christmas. No advertisements, no grand finale sales, (imagine the very biggest store in Atakpamé, a grocery store, being smaller than most 7-11s), no Christmas trees, no twinkling lights, no festive sweaters, scarves or gloves (or tank tops), and unfortunately, no Christmas concerts. We have heard that two days before Christmas, lights will start appearing, at least on some of the homes that have electricity.

We think we are integrating pretty well into the Togolese culture. (You might have enjoyed seeing us learn the traditional circle dance to drums in the street the other night. The locals loved it). But in the privacy of our home we are looking more American. We have “already” put up a string of Christmas (we don’t call them holiday) lights, we have an 8” wooden Swedish Advent tree with candles on our table, a poinsettia table runner and wall hanging, and we are playing Christmas music. Tonight we attended a concert: Handel’s Messiah, by the London Philharmonic—right in the comfort of our home (on the 2 inch speakers of our laptop). After the concert, we went out for dessert (moving to our tiny kitchen). OK, it wasn’t the same as our favorite place in Seattle, Decadent Desserts, but the Oreo’s sent from the US were a very good second.

Christmas trees would be a real anomaly here, where deforestation is a blight on the land. Wood is a rapidly diminishing resource which is used primarily for cooking and furniture. We are not missing a tree this year.

Gifts? We think the Togolese don’t place a lot of importance on them—unless they are from the rich Americans. We are often asked to give gifts (like our watch, our camera), but it has nothing to do with Christmas. We have noticed a sudden introduction of the sale of balloons (not inflated yet) on the streets, so we think that balloons might be a typical gift for the children. We don’t see any toys for sale. What we see is poverty that is hard to escape and people who are coping with it.

Another observation: Even in the midst of poverty the household budgets seem to accommodate good holiday appearance for the women. The “coiffure” (hairdresser) business is really picking up. The women are looking very elegant indeed! Their tresses (braids, etc.) last for up to 2 weeks, and it appears they are getting ready for Christmas with complex, beautifully designed hairdos.

We had a delightful time yesterday teaching a Christmas carol, “Silent Night, Holy Night”, to a group of youth that meets every Saturday. They seemed to recognize the tune from the radio and were eager to learn the English words. (Jingle Bells also). Then we became the students and they taught us a song in French. We all laughed and it was good for them to see us struggle with the song they sang so beautifully.

To anyone reading this, we wish you a blessed Christmas, happy Chanukah, or simply joyful holiday season. Whatever is appropriate for you. (I hear celebratory drumming in the background which reminds me not to forget the animists, whose beliefs seem to be interwoven with the newer Christian and Muslim faiths here). For us, we will be missing family and friends, but celebrating Christmas on the coast in Accra, Ghana, where we hope to find a place to worship with other Christians.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

World AIDS Day

Greetings on December 1, World AIDS day. We hope and assume you have seen/heard publicity in the US. As Peace Corps representatives, we were involved with festivities in Togo to recognize the day. We have been on an organizing committee to help plan a 4-day theater festival which started today.

The day started with a 2 mile march of 150 actors (and 3 Peace Corps Volunteers) singing, drumming and carrying signs through the business streets of Atakpamé and ending at the High School. There we held the opening ceremonies with singing choirs, dancing troupes, speeches and theater skits. Then the dignitaries (which included us) went off to a short reception at the nicest run-down hotel in town. This was the opening of the 2nd annual FESTHES, Theater Festival for Health, the first (as well as the second) being organized by Cate’s Togolese counterpart, Eugene. This year’s edition has over 20 theater groups performing skits about how to prevent the spread of AIDS. The skits are spontaneously given on the streets in the community near places where people gather, like the market or the stadium. They are in comedy, and are quite sexually explicit in their language and message, as they need to be to get the message across. The message is 3-fold: Abstinence, Fidelity and Condom use (not always in that order). There are 4 days of events starting today with the activities already described followed by street theater performances in Atakpamé. Tomorrow is a full day of skit performances by the troupes in the Jr. High and High Schools, followed by a USA-Togo soccer match (Peace Crops Volunteer Trainees vs. actors). Then there’s a rap contest in the evening (AIDS related). On Saturday the troupes go out to the neighboring villages and perform there. On Sunday there’s an acting class for the actors and the closing ceremony.

FESTHES is a small example of the effort Africans are making to combat AIDS in Africa. The funding for this festival comes from Western sources (however this year’s festival only has $3500 to work with), but the organization and efforts came from Africans (with a little help from Peace Corps). There is awareness – AIDS permeates family life, society, and the economy. The estimated AIDS number in Togo is roughly 6% (about 300,000), but most think it is even higher. Even at 6% it’s high enough to touch every extended family in the country on the average. FESTHES plans to get the “Stop SIDA” (Stop AIDS) message to about 20,000 people. We know there are many other events throughout Togo that will also be helping to spread awareness and hopefully action. The goal is to make the message real enough that the population is convinced that it can happen to them and they need to act responsibly to prevent it.