My arrival in Sagbiebou (Aug. 27) stressed me out considerably more than the post visit wedding-style welcome. Within moments of pulling to the highway shoulder, a small crowd gathered to help carry my possessions into my house. I know I should be grateful, but I don’t like people touching my stuff. I’m not usually overly-possessive or even neat, but when I move, I just want to put things down where I want them and at my own pace.
When I got into the house, the “bedroom” was locked and “Where’s the key?” got no satisfactory answers. In my absence, someone moved the bedroom stuff, including the clothes and books I’d left, into my “kitchen”. The kitchen stuff was in the living room. Once everyone left, I discovered that the clothes, which were left under the window, were all a little damp and moldy. Gross. So I had a wet mattress (it rained on the way up from Lome), no bedroom and one pair of extremely moldy pants.
After the initial desire to sit in a corner and cry, I unpacked what I could, ate something and got over it. The next day, I got my bed, table and two of the four chairs I ordered, and we got someone to break into my room. I have different locks on all three doors in my house, and the locksmith locked the bedroom keys inside the bedroom. That’s where the keys were.
The first three months at post are meant for figuring things out: get to know the community, identify potential work partners and projects, improve local language. At the moment, my goal is to leave my house at least once a day to do something besides run or ride my bike. I’ve succeeded so far, although I can entertain myself for hours in my house, cooking, baking, sweeping, reading, writing letters and checking how much water my filter’s filtered.
Sadly, every small task I complete is a big deal.
“I hung TWO laundry lines! I’m fabulous,” and “I burned my trash. Good day, good day.”
When I do leave my house to stroll around Sagbiebou, I get a taste of what life as a celebrity must be like. Everyone in village knows my name and they yell, “Madame Awa!” from distances so great I’m unsure who’s calling me. I just walk around waving at everyone and telling them, “Ca va.”
The only day I really do anything that can pass as work are Wednesdays, when we weigh and vaccinate babies at the dispensaire. I mark the babies’ weights on their growth chart and mark what vaccinations we give them on another chart. Ideally, we would take time to ask each mother if she’s exclusively breast-feeding or advise her on how she can help her baby gain weight (most of them are underweight). However, it’s extremely chaotic with 25 screaming children, and I can hardly ask a mother her child’s age, much less what she’s feeding it. Also, I ask the age in Tchokossi, and of course, the mother only speaks Gam-Gam or Peul or some other local language.
I hoped to find a language tutor immediately, but the tutor seems to be in the same place as my house-assistant girl, and I don’t know where that place is. So I walk around and try to pick up little phrases and words from strangers (okra, eat, I already ate, bon appetit). I also try to learn kids’ names, but I ask a child his or her name and the responses sound like the kid just made a noise.
“Nzda? Really? Your name is Nzda? Oh, NzDAN! Of course.” So I still have to work on wrapping my brain around the vowelly names. I’ll get there (I hope).
After 10 days of hanging out in Sagbiebou, I hopped in a bush taxi (that broke down) to Dapaong, where I’m staying for another 10 days. I only planned to stay the weekend, but my counterpart asked if I could attend a nutrition conference here this week, so I said yes. I don’t plan on dividing my time equally between village and capital, but I call this gradually settling in to life in the bush.
I do have a new address, although the old one also works. Please send mail to
(West Africa – if you feel this will confuse your postal workers, leave it off).
Finally, on a subject mostly unrelated to life in Togo, I found out (two weeks after the fact) that St. Bernard Project, the organization I worked with in New Orleans, was on Oprah on August 29th, the two year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. For an organization that started small and is barely a year old, that is amazing progress. You can check them out at www.stbernardproject.org. I'm so proud.