‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.