6 Nov 2008
I learned somewhere that it’s best to end things on a positive note, so I’ll give my depressing news first, then end on what I consider a fantastic note.
Last week, a village acquaintance died in Mango. He was good friends with my neighbors and spent many hours in our compound. He and I joked that when I taught his kid English, he would give me motorcycle lessons, which is against Peace Corps rules so not something I could do anyway. He had an accident a few months ago that put him on crutches, and when Alima (Mrs. Neighbor) told me he died, I realized I hadn’t seen him for a while. I assumed this was because I’d been running around Togo, but he’d gone to Mango and Kara for treatment. In Kara, they sent him home to his family in Mango, I guess to die. Alima said he had a liver problem. Saibou, my nurse counterpart, guessed a tumor. He’s probably right – the man was always extremely thin. I was still surprised, because I didn’t know he was sick.
On Tuesday I heard more sad news. While I was visiting the new volunteer in Mango, his counterpart, Mr. N (“N” because his name is long and I’ll only butcher the spelling), came by to explain why he could not take the volunteer to see his village that day. His son had drowned in the Oti River. Mr. N had called the new guy to tell him the night before, but New Guy only understood “accident”. I’ve talked to Mr. N frequently in the last months because he was coordinating the construction of New Guy’s house. He said a few kids decided to go out in a canoe and it flipped. Some of them could swim, but not his son.
“Why wouldn’t you teach your kids to swim if you live near water?” I thought, and for once I only thought it. He was composed for a father who’s just lost a child, but people react to death differently than we do in the States. I haven’t seen many adults cry since I’ve been here. Maybe people are just more accustomed to death.
And now the positive note. On Wednesday morning, I woke up and from various radio stations, pieced together that America elected its first black president. I listened to the stories on the BBC all day (based on the broadcasts, all other current events took a holiday to celebrate Obama’s elections), breaking up my listening with excursions around Sagbiebou, where everything was exactly same. United States what?
I got a little thrill out of delivering the news to Mr. Neighbor, with my toothbrush hanging out of my mouth (what a messenger). He thought that was great, but now comes the real test: will Obama govern well? He compared getting elected to getting married – good job, you got married, but now let’s see if you can manage your family. Then he went off on Bush and how America has wasted lives and billions of dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Someone’s done his homework.
Saibou and I also had an interesting conversation. I asked him if he’d heard the news and he said, yes, that’s why he was tired. He’d stayed up watching television in Mango while the American fell asleep by 10:45 in village. He asked why so many people were crying. Again with the crying – what adult cries in public, especially at election results?
“They’re happy. He’s America’s first black president. This means a lot for many people,” I explained. “I cried a little when I heard. I’m about to cry now! It’s a big deal.”
“Ok. Is he really considered black, though? He’s really light-skinned. But his dad’s from Kenya, right?”
“Yes. Some people said that he wasn’t ‘black enough’, but yes, he’s black.”
Later he asked if in the States, people call out, “Black man! Black man!” or “White man!” like the kids here yell, “Yovo!” at any light-skinned person here. I said no, that would cause problems in most situations.
Finally, he asked why the rest of Africa was so thrilled.
“What do they think Obama is going to do for them? He’s America’s president, not Africa’s.”
I decided that was a rhetorical question, but I think he’s right. No matter what foreign policy or international aid changes occur in the next four years, I doubt places like Sagbiebou will see much change.
And now I’ve totally failed my goal to end positively.