A March into the Unknown

March was supposed to be the easiest month, the month of auto-pilot as I awaited the end of it, when I would board my first flight since last May and spend my two-week spring break in France, drinking wine, wearing sweaters, and exploring new avenues with my own personal tour guide. Instead, I write this halfway through my two-week self-quarantine in a trailer outside my parents’ house, after the Peace Corps decided to evacuate all volunteers worldwide as COVID-19 uprooted lives everywhere.

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Sharing goodbye beers with some of the best ladies in town

But March had already started out rocky. A week after my birthday, on another long run, rounding a corner in a neighboring village, three familiar dogs emerged running and barking at me. Years of running in unfamiliar places has taught me that a convincing reach to the ground to grab a fake rock to fake throw will almost always scare local dogs off. It had worked with these three dogs many times before. Except that day, they continued approaching, and I freaked out. I turned and sprinted the opposite direction, they chased me, I screamed, one nipped me in the butt, and soon enough it was all over. I continued on my run, assuming the bite had done no harm, until a mile later when I was far enough into the bush to stop, pull down my shorts, and check. To my complete dismay, there on my right cheek, two puncture marks that had, in fact, broken the skin, which meant I would be calling the medical office in Lomé and, probably, going there. Sighing, I turned around early and stopped to chat with the dog’s owner, who told me that yes, they were vaccinated, but no, he did not have the cards proving so with him. Three hours later, I was searching for a car to Lomé armed with four days’ worth of baggage, and six hours later, I was in the medical office receiving the first of two rabies shots, spaced three days apart.

An especially good run, without any dog bites

No part of me wanted to spend the entire weekend in Lomé, but in not-unusual fashion, I made the most of it. On Saturday morning, disappointed outside the closed Independence Monument, a stranger befriended me, convinced the gardener to let us inside the monument so I could see it, led me to the nearby soccer stadium to watch part of the Togo women’s team’s scrimmage, and then brought me to his artists’ collective, where he and his fellow artist roommates provided, over the next many hours, coffee, pâte, rice, guitar and vocal music, a gallery viewing, and great conversation. By the end of it, I had agreed to join their “spectacle” in a few weeks and play saxophone with them, if they could find me a saxophone to play, and they bid me farewell with a beautiful wood carving as a gift.

Live action shot of pâte and beer with Christophe

On Sunday, I submerged myself in the ocean for the first time in far too long, and for the first time in Togo. Because Togo’s coastline is quite rough and dangerous, another volunteer and I went to a beach featuring a built-in rock wall and rope protecting swimmers from riptides and unpredictable waters. The weather and water were perfect, and it felt so amazing that I might even say the dog bite was worth all the trouble for that. I also left Lomé having sampled plenty of delicious food so rich it made me a bit ill, having been exceptionally lucky finding clothes at the giant market full of Goodwill’s and other thrift stores’ shipped leftovers, and having passed many lovely hours talking with other volunteers.

A soccer match between my two schools, which ended in a tie

Three days after my return from Lomé, and two days after a wasp finally stung me between shoulder blades and between classes in the karmic culmination of my constant battle against them in my house, Peace Corps made the decision to restrict all international travel. This meant, of course, no France, which for me also meant a broken heart. I passed the weekend with many tears, punctuated with brightness by a belated Women’s Day parade, a visit to a good friend’s village, and an entire day spent reading a book cover to cover. That Sunday night, I sat on the steps outside my house gazing at the stars while Joni Mitchell’s Blue played inside and I wrote in a note on my phone I feel impossibly at peace, triumphantly comfortable alone, ready for whatever came next.

The parade celebrating International Women’s Day

Perhaps that is why, when I woke at 4 a.m. the next morning to the news that Peace Corps was evacuating all volunteers around the world, I felt like I had already prepared for that news, which was in some ways the worst possible. Still, the following days, in which I packed my life into three suitcases, gave much away, talked with my friends and work partners and students, and assured everyone including myself that I would be back, though I did not know when or how, were excruciating. In times of crisis, I am calm and task-oriented, and so I compartmentalized the uncertainty of it all, the seeming finality with which I must leave my village, suddenly and without warning, and I took comfort in the fact that 82 other volunteers in Togo and over 7000 other volunteers in the world were going through the same thing. And that people all over the world were changing their lives for the sake of mitigating the virus’s spread.

The last walk to school, featuring cows and students

Now, a week since arriving back in Oregon, still often disoriented, devastated, and full of dread (but also comfortable, healthy, plugged into all amenities, and benefiting from the generosity of family and friends), I have not yet made sense of it all. It is certainly not as simple as me, a privileged American, being sad to leave my borrowed home and job across the world. I am most disappointed for my village, and every site in the world, for being abandoned so swiftly and with little idea of what comes next. Yes, I want to go back, and if it is at all possible I will do so as soon as I can, but I also know I cannot just wait; I must do something in the meantime. And yet, for the time being, it is a time of doing nothing, of staying home for the good of everyone. Likewise, I have many emotions and experiences to un-compartmentalize and process before they begin to sour and rot. So, it seems the only thing left for me to do is navigate how to make Oregon feel like home again, and how to make something of my days here, when a tiny village in the mountains of Plateaux and a tiny country full of endless fascinations, lessons, and kindness still have a hold on my heart.

Observing a Starry World

I just turned 25 in Togo. My birthday is always important to me, but this one felt both more and less so than any in recent memory. Last year, I celebrated in Portland; this year, in my small village. In a side by side panel montage of this year and last, there is much similarity. In Portland, I had a snow day off from work; here, I taught my 6eme (6th grade) class how to sing “Happy Birthday” and then proctored their biology midterm. I baked my own cake both years–in Portland, tiramisu; here, chocolate. I danced at Lovecraft Bar and at a Mississippi Studios show last year; this year, I danced to soul music with my neighbor’s two daughters (ages 5 and 3) in my kitchen. I had a few drinks with people important to me both years. This year I ran half my age in miles; last year, I ran 10 a few days after.

My two faithful companions

But what is most significant is the profound lack of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) I felt. FOMO may be a mere acronym for the digital age, but for me it is real and sometimes stifling. In the 1997 Zang-Anderson family Christmas letter, my father wrote of me, then 2 ½, “A social butterfly, she doesn’t like to be left behind but can adapt to almost any situation. This won’t change, right?” It hasn’t. Even then, I think, FOMO had a hold on me. But I find that the longer I’m in Togo (and I am now one third through my service), the less I care about all the things I’m not doing. Of course, I still want to see and experience everything I can, but this experience, in all its nuances, is one I could never repeat anywhere else, at any other time. So, for now, the most FOMO I feel is when music blasting through my village in the middle of the night wakes me and I never know for certain the occasion.

Sunrise view at a weeklong training

When I sat to consider the last month, I did not think I had anything new to share. In the poem “For Memory,” Adrienne Rich wrote, “Freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine remembering. Putting together, inch by inch the starry worlds.” I started teaching at a second school, a 30-minute walk from my first school and a 40-minute walk from my house. Between my classes, my on-foot commute, and the two English Clubs at each school, much of my time is now spent teaching, planning for teaching, and getting to and from the teaching. And I have found freedom in this routine because I feel useful, and even if my students bring me close to tears from their misbehavior one day, they bring me close to tears the next from their excitement about my birthday, or their seemingly sudden jump in English ability. There are not always obstacles overcome to report, or profound revelations, or deep personal growth. But there are moments.

Action shot of (a small portion of) my 6eme class

The other day, I walked to a neighboring village in search of credit to buy data on my phone. When I got to the boutique, the vendor had gone out. I peeked behind the shop, where I saw two well-postured, tall, slender, beautiful people sitting near their multi-roomed, turquoise-painted house. I knew them to be the parents of perhaps my brightest student, a boy in 5eme (7th grade) who sits in the back but knows all the answers and participates both frequently and respectfully. When I greeted them in French, they stared back blankly and called for their other son, who emerged surprised by my presence and rushed to put a shirt on. Like his younger brother, he was kind and courteous, and after I told him I sought the credit seller, we chatted about his family. He lives in Lome, where he is pursuing apprenticeship in a craft, though he does not yet know which one, because he was sidetracked by an operation, I think in his appendix. 

Dirt roads between villages

My student, it turns out, is the youngest of seven children (four boys and three girls), who are scattered as far north as Kara and as far south as Lome. His mother is Akposso, the dominant ethnicity of my village, and his father is Kotokoli, with a culture and language far different. As I suspected, neither speak French, and I am not sure how much crossover exists between her Ikposso and his Tem language. In the Togolese school system, French is the official language, and local language is forbidden, but many students do not speak any French at home. Though my student’s home situation is not particularly unique, it reminded me how remarkable it is that he could be so skilled in English, not to mention French, from just five hours a day at school, sans textbooks and other resources. I asked his brother to introduce me to his parents, to explain that I teach their youngest English and that he is a spectacular student, and they seemed both happy and grateful. 

Rooftop view in Kpalime

I find it difficult to communicate the significance of this interaction, because so much depends on context, but I think the key is the reminder that so much is possible, against all odds, and if I can contribute in some small part to the success of my students, that is worth all the frustration and doubt. I fear that through this blog I will become a broken record of “look at this small thing that happened, it means so much to me!” but I also feel that is the best I can offer as a glimpse into my life here, into my “daily, prose-bound, routine remembering.” As the two shooting stars I saw in quick succession the other night reminded me, Togo really is a starry world, and I will do my best to share it.

New Year, Same Village

This morning I ran a half-marathon. The last time I ran this far was in May, in the Redwoods, while my mother simultaneously ran her fourth full marathon. Today, Confiance, my neighbor’s dog and the grandson of Paix, was my only competitor. Mostly trotting alongside me but occasionally darting after goats or pouncing into the bush, he was delighted to have been invited. We ran through a neighboring village, up a dirt road past a house built by German vegetarians that now houses soldiers and a horse, and on until my watch read 6.55 miles. We paused at the top to absorb the view, and on the descent back down, I noted how even almost three years removed from competitive running, even in a village in the hills of Plateaux with a million other things to think about, nothing compares to the satisfaction, elation, and sense of rightness that fills my mind and body, perhaps even my soul, for the middle miles of a long run, and again at the very end, having completed something significant.

Confiance at the turnaround

It is, I think, my most consistent experience of a flow state. This first month back teaching after a break between trimesters, considered as a whole entity, feels similar. Though the day to day still often resembles a grind, when I zoom out I see instead progress, motivation, and perspective–both in myself and my students. I can confirm, finally, that I enjoy teaching, that I think being a teacher–and specifically a language teacher–is both conceptually important and contains the appropriate balance of challenges and triumphs for my personal pursuit of job satisfaction. My students frustrate and delight me daily, and the relief that follows the last class of the week is palpable, but so, too, is the buzz of potential energy that follows Wednesday afternoon English club, a new addition to our schedules. One of my brightest 5eme students also works at the only boutique in my village with cold drinks (his father is the owner), and over the break I arrived to a new installation: green rope dotted with saved bottle caps bent around it, hung and tinkling in the doorway, designed and created by him. A utilitarian and aesthetic display of creativity, and something I am now saving my own bottle caps for so he might create a duplicate for my house.

Hazy Harmattan on the walk to and from school

Mixed in with the daily positives, loss has also announced itself as a steady theme. The only boy from Paix’s litter, energetic and sweet to a fault, died last week at his forever home. Animals, and especially young ones, are vulnerable to so much here, and I know through the volunteer community that such sudden loss is common, but still, of course, it hurts. Two of the people closest and most important to me have also recently left Togo for various, unavoidable, and valid reasons. Navigating the shift in their support and roles is re-teaching me patience, compassion, and reminding me, too, how to embrace occasional loneliness. 

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A familiar scene on my steps

Despite how monotonous and routine it can feel, when I consider how much change I have encountered in my eight months here, I am startled by its simultaneous swiftness and slow-burn. Even in my water routine, there is loss. I waited one day last week until 5pm before I asked my neighbor why the pump was not open. She told me the woman who held the key, a woman I saw each time I pumped water but never talked to beyond local language greetings, had died, and they had not yet identified a new person to hold the key. When I asked, to three separate people, what happened, they each told me she fell, and that was it, c’est fini. The silver lining to this was that I found the president of the Community Development committee, who led me to his brother, who held the key and opened the pump for me, which in turn opened it for others who use the same pump, who had been trekking five times as far to a river for their water. Now, they seem to have found another holder of the key, and life goes on as before.

Sunset above my latrine and shower area

As February arrives, I remember fondly how I welcomed the New Year. Madde, my best friend from the north, made the journey down (I spent Christmas in her village) and on New Year’s Eve, nervous and excited, we decided which pagne to wear. I had a complet–a shirt and pants–made for the occasion, but I felt too ridiculous wearing both halves given the stiff collar on the shirt and the extra-loud print, so we shared. I wore the pants, Madde wore the shirt, and we ventured out into the village, matching in pagne, gold hoop earrings, and hair length (we shaved each other’s heads in July), clearly dressed up, looking for the party. Unfortunately, we learned too late that the main celebration is on New Year’s Day, not New Year’s Eve, so after a bit of an improvised dance circle with my CIF and other friends, we returned to my home at 10pm and fought to stay awake till midnight dancing in my kitchen. 

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Coordinated outfits, coordinated beer, plus Paix

Fortunately, the next day, January 1st, the whole village emerged in their best celebration pagne; Madde and I settled for our second-best celebration pagne. Before sunset, my CIF led us to what felt like a speakeasy, a decidedly spirited gathering of Kabye folk deep in a neighboring village featuring Kabiye music, dancing, and tchouk. I could have stayed there for hours, but instead we returned to my predominantly Akposso village to celebrate with more tchouk, sodabi, beer, and dancing to Togo’s most popular ear-worms. I’ve heard that you should start the year how you want to spend the year, so I have high hopes that 2020 will bring great friends, great community, and, as always, plenty of dancing.