Moments from a Month in Village

This morning it rained in daylight for the first time in weeks. Because I do not teach on Fridays, I am home with two dogs at my feet and the pressing question of which book to read next. I have learned to once again savor my mornings and hardly ever feel the pressure to ‘get things done.’ Right now, my experience in my village happens in moments, seemingly disparate but somehow woven together.

A sunset at chez moi

Teaching is at once the highlight and most challenging part of my day, four days a week. I teach 6eme (6th grade) and 5eme (7th grade), and the students themselves, even when they understand nothing I say, invariably uplift my spirits.

I spend many afternoons reading voraciously, sometimes because I want to send the book to someone quickly (The Goldfinch) and sometimes because the material is too disturbing (In Cold Blood).

My dog is pregnant. Her grandson, who belongs to my neighbors, was hit by a car a few days after I arrived and suffered a gash and a large chunk of scalp missing; what began as an open wound with no treatment other than a daily dousing with hydrogen peroxide has almost entirely closed and healed. I tried for a long time to teach him to stay out of my house, especially with the wound, and in fact found his company irritating. Somehow, through persistence and a refusal to accept my rejection, he crept his way into my heart and now, defenseless against his charm, I only forbid him once the sun has gone down.

Pregnant Paix and Confiance

Children, too, have somehow won me over with their shirts full of mandarins to gift me, their convincing of me to accompany them to the farm, and their excellent interpretive dance skills to everything from indie women singers to Prince. The youngest child in my compound, a two-year-old, does occasionally run after me with a stick, though.

On thé way to champ

The weather is shifting, and with that a seeming influx of insects. At school, blue bugs that I have seen nowhere else flock to my ankles and leave bites that eventually–always mysteriously after sunset–itch. On the walk home, miniature wasps buzz before and around me. Because I refuse to kill spiders, I shelter a small collection of them within my walls.

The walk from my house to the other side of my village takes less than ten minutes without stopping, but offers a chance to greet people I know and people I don’t, to occasionally purchase a semi-cold drink from the only solar-powered fridge in town, to check in with my moto-driver-turned-friend, and to receive compliments on my fanciest pagne dresses from ‘Maman.’

The road I run on

On a Sunday morning, I came home from doing some of the 73 surveys I must complete by November to find a small crowd in my compound. The mason–also the older brother of my neighbor–was in town from Cote d’Ivoire for the first time in years, and family and friends from both inside the village and out had come to celebrate. They probably would have welcomed me into the festivities if I had asked, but I wanted a reason, so I cut up the pineapple I’d been saving and offered it around. I was soon ushered inside, to a room with couches and men eating pate and drinking sodabe and beer, and quickly became one of them. Later, the women suddenly danced and sang in the local language, so of course I joined them, too. All before noon.

Sunday evenings are my favorite part of the week. For on Sundays, nobody goes to farm and instead goes to church and, later, to drink tchouk–a local beer that to me is reminiscent of both kombucha and sours, so naturally I love it. I partake in the latter, which involves drinking the tchouk from calabashes, or bowls, and for me, having meaningful conversations.

On a promenade

Though I typically work from limited ingredients, I have become a more patient and attentive cook here, most notably mastering the preparation of beans from their dry form. I also ‘made’ a Dutch oven by purchasing a giant marmite (‘Size 10!’ I tell my local friends, and they nod approvingly, impressed) and some pans to rest inside it atop my gas stove. So, I often bake banana bread, or cookies, or oatmeal cake, and then I share it with all of my neighbors; so far, all have been met with an enthusiastic ‘c’est doux!’ I remember as a child asserting that I would never cook and that I guess I would just have to find a husband who would. That all changed when I surprised my parents by going vegan seven years ago and, as a result, became culinarily skilled for my own health, to prove a point, and to avoid having to find a husband. Now, with plenty of time on my hands, I have grown to love the art of meal preparation regardless of how long it takes. And when I crave pate, my neighbors prepare it for me sans the fish that is in every other sauce.

My Dutch oven

My mind feels clearer, calmer, more mindful and more imaginative than I can recall it feeling in years. Though sometimes this means an exceptional ability to be escapist and daydream (last weekend I sat in the post office for over an hour so content just thinking about college that I did not care or really notice that the systems appeared to be down, the workers were absent, and I could have dropped off my mail easily despite these issues), it mostly means I have been able to freely process difficult emotions, to consider and change bad habits, to inhabit memories without a kind of despair, and to match my music to my moods (Joni Mitchell my most constant and faithful companion) as a form of catharsis. It’s as if the cool mountain breeze has dissipated my angst and replaced it with presence, or perhaps distance from the source of it.

They tell us the first three months are the hardest, and/or the loneliest, and/or the most what-am-I-even-doing? So early on, I embraced the ambiguity and sense of almost hopeless surrender to the still-mysterious rhythms and workings of my village, and the first of those three has been, for me, occasionally frustrating, often open-ended, always surprising, and sometimes satisfying.

Like carrying water on my head. Every three days, I interrupt my afternoon slump to make three trips (about 300 meters round trip on uneven ground) to the pump, where, much to the amusement of the local women who shoulder far greater amounts, I pump water to fill my bucket, squat to lift it onto my head, seek my Birkenstocks with my toes, walk doucement slightly downhill and up the steps to my house, and pour it from as high a level as I can manage into my house basin, watching the wide stream as the level rises. After, I feel strong, capable, and a tiny bit closer to integration in this new home of mine.

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Shaving Heads and Swearing In

‘I have done nothing all summer but wait for myself to be myself again.’ -Georgia O’Keeffe

The final stretch of PST commenced with a self-ceremony: shaving my head. I had decided to do it long ago, but I waited until a symbolic moment, and until my meilleure amie could do it with me. So, at lunchtime on the new moon in Leo, I simultaneously received the shortest haircut of my life and performed my first haircut. The results are nothing short of liberating, confidence-boosting, cooling, and incredibly low-maintenance. When people ask me here, in the cool breeze of my village, why I did it, my typical answer (‘il fait chaud!’) doesn’t suffice. So I shrug, say it’s easier, and hope that soon I can put into French a curiosity to see my hair at every length, a desire to challenge standards, and the symbolism of starting afresh. Plus, I won’t need another haircut for the next two years.

Action shot with the meilleure amie

After site visit, I had somehow reached the necessary language benchmark for French, so while I continued pushing it further with more in-depth subject matter in my two-person class—punctuated with rummy breaks, a game at which I seem to thrive—I could continue with peace of mind that I would swear in as a volunteer. We also switched to practicum, two weeks of teaching in a Togolese classroom to secondary school students who chose to learn English, agriculture, and health despite being en vacances. The first few days, the youngest class, 6eme, presented a wild ride of energy, confusion, and trying to put everything I’d learned into practice. I stumbled through co-teaching, then moved on to 4ème, the oldest (and smallest) class, and soon decided that I both can and want to teach English, while also dreaming of perhaps teaching in a university classroom une jour.

Gave a ‘grand merci’ to our trainers

The final weeks of PST were difficult, draining, stressful, and emotional. But they were also gratifying, rich, and worth it. At the conclusion of practicum, it was fêteing season. The school threw a graduation fête with dancing, awarding of top three students in each class, and speeches. The next day, after our final language test, I and the other education volunteers spent our last training Saturday together. Monday, we donned matching pagne with our host families at yet another fête with beaucoup dancing, feasting, and more speeches. After that, I returned home to my family and we all changed into another matching pagne that I had gifted them for a picture (we had to wear the first pagne to the fête so we could also match the education volunteers and their families. Clearly, matching is important.). Early the next morning, we said our tearful goodbyes and loaded a bus to Lomé.

Almost all of my family minus one

Thé almost-week in Lomé was a blur of last-minute things, an air-conditioned bureau, free time, shopping for big things like a mattress and small things like dark chocolate, nighttime synchronized swim-dancing pool parties, digestive systems returning to normal, losing a lot of sleep on purpose, and the main event: the swear-in ceremony. On Friday, we traveled to the U.S. ambassador’s house—once again in matching pagne, this time by sector—and took two oaths. The first was the standard foreign service oath to uphold the constitution, but the second was Peace Corps specific and brought tears to my eyes when I promised to serve with an open heart and mind, approach challenges with determination and humility, and strive toward the goal of world peace and friendship. Though I have had my doubts and questions, in that moment, standing with 40 other volunteers, trainers, and administrative staff—people who have come to mean so much to me—I felt a decade-long dream come true, and I was proud.

All the English teachers ♥️

After a final fête at a nice hotel that night, we hugged goodbye (for three months, until we meet again at in-service training) and loaded our respective cars to our site assignments. Again rising into the mountains—this time fighting sleep—I arrived at my village feeling already at home. Within the first five days, I received beans at 8am, peanut sauce with pate for dinner, the company of friends old and new, a swarm of biting ants outside my shower, the daunting task of finally moving from suitcases into a two-room home, food poisoning by my own cooking, help installing my lime green toilet seat, time to think and time to wander, the inheritance of furniture and a dog, rain after a month without it, the unpacking and wearing of my favorite sweatshirt, and a sense of anticipation, gratitude, and wonder for all that the next two years might bring.

Site Reveal and Visit

‘I change every day, change my patterns, my concepts, my interpretations. I am a series of moods and sensations.’ -Anaïs Nin

On a Wednesday, our language teachers drew a map of Togo in the dirt and placed sticks with village names attached—each representing one of 40-something site placements—in four of five regions (from south to north: Maritime, Plateaux, Centrale, Kara). Our host moms arrived (mine in a matching dress to mine) and we all danced in a line around it. Then, by random order, our trainers read our names one by one along with our region and village and we moved to our defined stick. I had mentally prepared by identifying at least one positive aspect to each region, so I had no preference and also very little knowledge about the actual differences.

My name appeared early: Plateaux region, village to remain unnamed here. My positive Plateaux tidbit: fruits and vegetables aplenty. Then, I was handed a packet of information where I learned my order. Peace Corps Togo places volunteers in villages in three-person, six-year cycles; I will be the third and therefore last volunteer in my village.

First sunset at chez moi

Three days later, I loaded a rented bush taxi with half of my things, my closest trainee neighbor, who will live in a village near mine, and both of our ‘Community Integration Facilitators’ (CIF) for our ten-day site visit. After three hours, when the car ascended into an actual mountain, I was awestruck. Before leaving, my vision of Togo was hot and flat. So, when I arrived in my village on and among the mountains and felt a cool breeze, I nearly cried. As the car left with my neighbor and his CIF, my own CIF accompanied me to meet the village chief and his notables. They toasted my arrival with a beer, I practiced my meager phrases of local language, and we all joined the parade forming outside to walk the length of the village, dance and sing to the music, and, inexplicably, be covered in baby powder.

Post baby powder and pre-unpacking

Over the next ten days, I spent a lot of time with the volunteer I’m replacing, but I also, finally, had time alone, to read and to think and to write and to feel present. I ran alongside beautiful views, I stumbled through French conversations, and I ate a lot of soja (tofu), often while simply sitting with the neighboring women. I hiked to the school where I will teach, even further up a hill with a view of the whole village. I met Paix, the dog I’m inheriting, and two more generations—her puppy and its puppies.

Paix!

When it rained, and even when it didn’t, the lushness of it all stunned me. Acres of forest stretch in every direction; the full moon lit the electricity-less streets and days later the stars crowded the sky. As I lay in bed at night, creatures sung and chattered without rest.

A green to rival Oregon

On a Friday night, seemingly the entire village was out for a funeral, which, here, is a celebration of life spanning at least a full night and often to the next day. People filtered in and out of chez moi and the rain started. Amid all the excitement, I used my latrine, a bucket flush. After I gathered the water in the bucket, I saw the unmistakable slithering of a black snake at the hinges of the latrine’s door. Terrified but silent, I stood watching its body rise through the hinges until I gathered the courage to throw the water into the toilet and flee. When my host mother knocked on my door a bit later to ask me something unrelated, I informed her that by the way, there’s a snake in the latrine.

“Why didn’t you tell me!” she said, then sent her husband to investigate. A minute later he relayed a message and she smiled. “C’est fini,” she said. “He killed it.”

Days earlier, mid-sentence, my French tutor grabbed a rock and threw it at a green mamba I had not noticed clinging to the side of the school. Though I am seven-years vegetarian and could never do it myself, I am grateful for Togolese men’s ability to save me from snakes. And for the nonchalance with which they do it.

Football before the storm

Besides confronting my fears, I also learned to walk slowly, luxuriously through the village. I re-learned to entertain myself with my own thoughts. I gathered water from the pump—though not yet on my head. When the local soccer teams marched by singing, I followed them along with most children in the village to watch the Sunday afternoon game. I ate fried bean dough—beignets d’haricots—and peanut butter from tiny plastic bags. I met a lot of welcoming people, including a woman who shares a version of my name—Monique. I rode stuffed into a bush taxi to meet other volunteers at a nearby marchè while pondering the nature of memory with my closest neighbor. I discovered an incredible grain called fonio which tastes and feels like heartier quinoa and grows in very specific areas, including mine. I learned that a lot of local language can be responded to with a neutral “Ehh” or “Yoo.”

View of the village from school

At the end of site visit, all of the Plateaux trainees met some other volunteers in our regional capital and experienced the increased freedom and adventure that will come after training, once we move to our sites. We shared stories, we danced, we ate fries. Now, back in the swing of training and back in my much hotter, much flatter training village, I am at once comforted to return to the constant company of my fellow trainees and eager to return to my site, a place I can finally envision.