Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving update

21 Nov 2008

No death or disaster in the last few weeks, so I promise only good, interesting stories today.

I got the PSI job! I’m waiting for the official letter, but last week, the Peace Corps country director heard me complaining about my state of limbo (do I start new projects or am I moving?) on the ride to Dapaong in the air-conditioned Peace Corps car. She called Lomé and confirmed my invitation to begin at PSI in January. I haven’t told anyone village yet, but the Peace Corps community knows. Our rumor mill is so effective: tell two people, and complete strangers congratulate you on your way back to village.

I’m sad to leave Sagbiebou and “Madame Awa.” Children will not shout my name and run up to touch or grab my hand each time I pass. Lomé means anonymity, but that’s ok – less of a readjustment to make when I return to the States. Finishing my service in the capital will also be less satisfying than completing two years in village. But every time people come late, if at all, to a meeting, I look forward to working with Togolese in a professional setting (where I will also probably be made to wait for meetings to start). Maybe I’ll hate it. Lomé is certainly more stressful than village – more harassment, more filth, more traffic. And it’s dangerous, but so are New Orleans and East St. Louis. I’ll just make friends, watch my back and hope for the best.

Volunteers say everything in Togo is more intense, especially our emotions, our ups and downs. So it’s difficult to say if all the coin-flipping and deliberating preceding the PSI news was my own indecisiveness or that compounded with the Togo intensity factor. It’s also hard to say whether my reaction to the following incident was normal Linda or Linda+Togo.

Yesterday, for the first time, someone who is neither Gabe nor my parents called me from the States. One of my college roommates got engaged on November 9th and finally succeeded in reaching me on the phone. Logically, I reacted by squealing, laughing, crying, dancing and jumping around my house, even after hanging up. I realize this is old news to the rest of the world, but congrats to Katie and Kris, and thanks for making my day.

That day was proceeding bizarrely, as days in Togo tend to do. I spent an hour at the middle school waiting for someone who never showed. Then I moved on the clinic, stopping at the Catholic deacon’s house to drink tchakba (millet beer, which is gross. Also, he may not be a deacon, but he helps leads services) and eat soja, which is basically tofu. I had been checking on their youngest daughter, who had diarrhea for weeks, but I think she’s ok now. I still check now and then, and sometimes I time my visits for Thursday mornings, tchakba and soja day. (Update on 11/27/08 - actually, I went by again yesterday and found out Irene, the little girl, died on Tuesday in Mango. I just love when my assumptions are so off-base).

I arrived at the clinic just as the mid-wife received a little boy who had fallen and bitten through his lower lip. They sent him to Bila for stitches, and because blood and needles make me all twitchy, I watched. Bila asked me to “help”, so I held the kid’s hand and tried to distract him by trickling cool water on his burning forehead. Either the anesthetic the clinic uses doesn’t work or they don’t wait long enough for it to settle in, because the kid cried the whole time. Granted, the needle looks like a curved industrial staple and Bila shoved it through the boy’s face six times. I wanted to cry. He was a very brave boy, because he could have screamed and fought, but opted just to cry. If the clinic had lollipops, I would have given him one.

That evening, it rained, which is absolutely freakish. We’re in harmattan, the dry, windy period that falls between the hot and rainy seasons. The last rain fell mid-October, and it’s really not supposed to rain again until May or June. I liked it, but it’s not good for people’s cotton. Andrew, my neighbor, also picked exactly this hour of the day to bike back to his village. When going for a bike ride, never believe a Togolese when he says it’s not going to rain.

The day before the rain and stitches, the landlord celebrated his son’s baptism, or naming ceremony. They call it baptism, but since they’re Muslim, I’m sure it’s different. I can’t actually describe the ceremony, since I missed it. No one called me, and I was taking my cue from the women who were sitting in the compound courtyard. I kept an eye on them while I baked a cake, planning to join them when they went outside the gate, where the ceremony was to be held. Then all the men came back and I was told, “Baptism’s over, time to party!”

Despite carrying the baby for nine months and then delivering it (you know, like the mail, no big deal), the wife doesn’t participate in the naming ceremony. None of the women do. They just get up at four in the morning and cook all day for the men, then sit around waiting to serve them. WHAT?

I did get to go to the dance party that night, but after dancing with all my little kid friends, who insisted that at least four of them hold my hands at all times, I was pooped. Then the dance party turned into a dance show, with everyone else watching two to four people show off unimpressive dance moves. I need more than that to keep me from my bed.

Anyway, the kid has a name now, which I forgot. His sister, a few weeks older and born to the other wife, the one I didn’t know was a wife, is Rachida. And for the record, my landlord has three wives. That’s a lot of wives.

25 Nov 2008

On Sunday, I celebrated my 25th birthday by organizing a small party for friends and co-workers in village. I invited about 17 people. I was worried that all the uninvited would be angry with me and that the party would be a disaster (I’m a pessimistic worrier when it comes to my own plans and projects). Instead, it went better than expected and only one person has commented about his non-invitation.

During the week before the party, I bought ingredients for the dinner, following Saibou’s wife’s instructions. I gave money to a clinic employee to buy 10 guinea fowl. We decided he could probably get a better deal than me with my Caucasian disadvantage (white=rich=higher prices). On Sunday morning, Falila, Saibou’s wife (la grosse, “the fat one”, as opposed to “the one who works for the microfinance”), prepared the food. In a text message, I asked Saibou what time I should come over to help.

“The cooking starts at noon.”

When I arrived at 12:20, the cooking was nearly finished, and I doubt Falila would have allowed me to do anything anyway. They let me buy and transport the kaffa, the white startch we ate with the sauce. Then they fed me fufu for lunch.

After all Falila’s work, I hoped she would come to dinner. I told Saibou to bring a wife, but as usual, the women stayed home. Still, the male to female ratio was pretty close (7:5) – Madeleine and Yendar from the clinic came, and Maïmouna, my market friend, and Moulika, the seamstress, were also there.

We had dinner at the bar, crowding into one of the round, thatched-roof pavilions (“pavilion” is really too grandiose a word for what the Togolese call a paillot. It’s not a hut, because it doesn’t have walls. It’s a paillot. Best word there is for it). Everyone ordered beer, or soda for the more observant Muslims, and then we ate our kaffa, sauce and guinea fowl.

While waiting for the eating to begin, people told histoires drôles, or “funny stories” – jokes. Some PG, but mostly really dirty jokes, with gestures. Some of them were funny, but perhaps I should have provided music for dancing, instead.

Before the night ended, my guests surprised me. While we rested before second helpings, Saibou, who I assumed was on his cell phone in the bar’s yard, stuck his head into the paillot:

“You know we’re not here for a funeral. Santa Claus is arriving soon.”

Then Bila came in carrying a plate with four candles and a “cake”, a pile of Animal Cracker-like cookies. Everyone sang “Happy Birthday” in French, I got teary-eyed and then failed at blowing out only four candles at once.

And that was my party. We ate watermelon for dessert, and then people went home. I’ve had better parties, but this certainly beat last year’s 50k bike ride and warm Coke. Plus, some volunteer friends are spending the night Wednesday, and I expect there will be more celebration then and on Thanksgiving.

On that note, I wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving (sorry if this is late, I’m not sure when I’ll get to functioning internet). Thanks to all who’ve read and commented on my rambling notes all year.