Friday, March 21, 2008

Why It's Easier to be a Togolese Man

Zenabou was a ninth-grade student in Sagbiebou. She was one of the three girls on my six-person Women’s Day committee. She came to clubs, ran with the “footing” group every Saturday, and was one of the more talented girls on our newly formed soccer team. Two weeks ago, she gave me a little local language lesson while we waited for the car to take us to the team’s first real game in Gando. That Wednesday, on the sidelines at a boys’ game, she was kicking a ball around with her friend Adjara .

This Monday morning at our training in Pagala, my counterpart, Bila, told me that Zenabou died Sunday night. He didn’t know why, so during the day, I came up with my own answers. Young people who have died in my life died from meningitis, Long Q-T Syndrome (a heart condition) and car accidents, so I grouped Zenabou into the random deaths club, blaming maybe meningitis, maybe some other viral infection. These were situations I could handle.

Bila caught me on my way to dinner that evening, and once again, corrected my idealistic assumptions. Zenabou took pills to give herself an abortion. And she succeeded all too well.

I have so many questions. Did her friends know she was pregnant? Did she tell anyone what she was going to do? Was she already dead when they took her to the clinic on Sunday night? Who’s the father? What will happen to him? What could I have done to help her?

In the very back of my brain, I feel like I should have done more – made it clear to the girls on the soccer team and in the clubs that I was available if they needed to talk. Had club meetings on more than just HIV/AIDS. Started sex-ed classes. The irony of the situation is that the day I learned all this, we were talking about family planning and sex-ed classes in schools. Now I’m definitely going to address the situation, but it shouldn’t have taken a failed abortion for me to realize that there was a situation that needed addressing.

So. That’s life in Togo, because unfortunately, this isn’t a unique incident. Abortion in Togo is only legal in cases of rape and incest, so girls will take herbs (or pills) to self-abort. The volunteer who led our sex-ed session said she found that in her classes, girls really didn’t make the connection between sex and pregnancy. So condom demonstrations and encouraging abstinence are probably a waste of time unless you start from the very beginning, which it seems is what I’ll have to do.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Women’s Day went ok, even though we started three hours late, and the chief’s representative didn’t really know what he was attending (“Today on the International Day of… Nutrition? What is it?”). We had a crowd at the soccer game, and in organizing a student vs. apprentice game, I also started a Sagbiebou girls team.

I wish we hadn’t just lost one of our stars.

Monday, March 3, 2008

It Takes Some Getting Used To

Although I’ve been in Togo for almost nine months, there are certain parts of the culture that still surprise or irritate me and that I have yet to fully appreciate. The two that stand out most are touch and observations.

Most Togolese and I have vastly different concepts of personal space. I like personal space; they like to share my personal space. Obviously, in overcrowded bush taxis, there is no option but to acquaint your thighs with your neighbors’. But about a month ago, I got a ride from a counterpart’s friend. I had the back of this Mercedes to myself until we picked up a lady heading home for a funeral. We talked a little, and then she started stroking my hair. I realize my hair is different, and I didn’t really mind. My friend’s counterpart regularly puts her hand somewhere on my friend’s person – thigh, butt, shoulder – and leaves it there throughout the meeting or car ride. So I can handle a little hair-stroking.

The touching seems to be restricted to same sex (again, aside from bush taxis, aggressive street vendors and creepy men). I rarely see public displays of affection between men and women out of adolescence. But boys and men will hold hands or put their arms around each other and no one blinks an eye. In the States, if your son was holding hands with the neighbor boy, you might wonder. Here, it’s a sign of friendship. But if a dude tries to hold my hand, he’s not trying to be friends.

So the touching surprises me; what irritates my politically correct background is the statement of the obvious. Not just things like, “It’s hot,” but the speaking aloud of things we, as Americans, observe and keep to ourselves. If we meet someone overweight, we see that; here, he or she is called “le gros/la grosse” (the fat boy or girl). If you’re white, you’re “The White Man/Woman” and if you’re Asian, you’re “the Chinese”. If you suffer from acne, you will be reminded of this and questioned why you have those “buttons” on your face, and do they hurt? This week, a man asked what was going on with my chest (I have little bumps, probably from the heat, that show if I wear a tank top). I told him I didn’t know, but it was ok.

"Du courage!” he said. Have courage, a common Togolese phrase. I burst out laughing, which is probably rude, but usually I just get angry.

In Lome in December, I walked into a bookstore. It was hot outside (surprise!) and I was sweaty (surprise!). The doorman, who makes sure you check your bag into a cubby, instructed me to do so, giving me the once-over. Noting the sweat droplets and stains on my shirt, he shared his assessment with me.

“You are really suffering from the heat.”

“And you are very observant,” I said, which does not translate (“observant” is NOT a French word).

Anyway, those are the main things that get me. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes frustrating. It usually depends on if you’re the first or tenth person telling me I’m a white, sweaty person.