Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Progress and Hard Work (Part II)

Never have I seen people so willing to laugh during the work day.

The obstacles that I spoke of four months ago are ostensibly years away. Of course, new challenges have moved in to replace the old ones. Much work remains during our last months, but we do not tire from our toil. We look forward to bringing our gardening and tree nursery project to fruition in our closing months. Below is a rundown of the past four months.

In short, construction is completed. The cement foundation was laid. The cement posts were poured. The fencing was laboriously pulled taut covering all 300 meters. Two cables run parallel to the ground, stabilizing the fencing. Every fifty yards, a metal turnbuckle tightens the cables to achieve maximum tautness. Oh, how the citizens of Ogaro marvel at our fence!

The final step during construction was to attach the fencing to the cement foundation, permanately locking the animals out and the goods in.

Again, let me reiterate the importance—nay, the necessity—of this fence. Domesticated animals pose a threat to anything undergoing photosynthesis, with the exception of toxic plants. Another menace to gardening and tree nursery projects is the Fulani, one of the few nomadic tribes in West Africa. The Fulani are cattle herders who are known to roam the Sahel but also dip down in the Savannah. Skipping from place to place, their cattle inevitably graze in farmer’s fields, disgruntling locals. Nomads and agrarians will always be at odds with each other. It’s a story of worlds colliding.

But now, with our fence standing firm, our project no longer has the possibility to clash with the Fulani’s cattle, nor with any domesticated animal for that matter. With some cost and many a man-hour spent, the problem is solved.

Another cliffhanger from the first update was the well. We were at a standstill, as water was entering too fast to make any headway. Precious time was ticking before the exodus into the fields began. One day our committee president, Datchigli Djarjangou (it took me a full month to pronounce his name fluidly) had an idea: why not take wooden pegs and drive them into holes where water was entering? I’m not sure who said it first, but the answer that makes most sense is usually right. Four men worked tirelessly for three days at an alarming rate of one meter per day. We reached a depth of eight meters. And then came the rains. Although we didn’t hit our target of nine meters, I consider ourselves lucky. If not for Datchigli’s epiphany, we would have been up a creek. The water level has already swelled to six meters with a month of rains yet to come. The remaining meter will be dug next dry season.

As I’ve said earlier, free time for farmers dwindles once the rainy season begins. With this fact in mind, our management committee devised an all-day event to kick off the tree nursery. The scheme was ambitious, but with great enough numbers, we deemed it a viable plan. I admit though I was on edge; much hinged on this one day.

Our first task was to transport soil to the center. Presently, the soil at the center has too much clay to allow water to sufficiently absorb. Roughly a mile from the center however, lays a grove of cashew trees. The ground under the trees has lain fallow for some twenty years. Their leaves fall, decompose, and leave a natural compost. With 4,500 plastic baggies to fill, we estimated that each of our five villages should take two wagons full of soil to the site.

Loading dirt, the old fashioned way.

At 7 a.m., I sat under the cashew trees awaiting the first donkey-led wagon. 8 a.m., nothing. At 8:30, the first donkey rolled up. With some difficulty, the donkey backed in the wagon toward our dirt pile. After a few minutes of scooping, the donkey, jockeyed by children no older than ten, trotted slowly towards our project site. Thus the arduous task of hauling perhaps a ton or two of earth began. Once operations were running smoothly, I biked over to see our friend and tree nursery expert, Yao.

Five years ago, Yao and his wife spent nine months learning progressive agricultural techniques at a French run organization, CARTO. While a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man, his enthusiasm concerning agro-forestry, the combination of crops and trees, is unsurpassed. By planting trees that take nitrogen from the air and fix it into the soil, the ground naturally replenishes itself without the use of chemical fertilizers. Most impressive to me, the nitrogen is visible, forming small nodules on their roots, offering visible proof to an abstract concept. (Planting trees near home also provide a source of firewood, preventing women from journeying deep into the bush.) We assigned Yao tree nursery czar for the day, fit to call the shots on when, where, and how we would plant.

Arriving at the center around noon, I was disappointed to see no more than fifteen people filling baggies with dirt. A forerunner was sent to the market to rally the troops. By two o’clock, the number was 50. And people kept coming. Old, young, men, women, farmers, tailors, seamstresses, and teachers all filled baggies. With Yao’s assistance, each village properly lined their baggies together in their nursery bed.

Women and men alike participated in the lengthy process of filling plastic baggies with dirt.

At four o’clock, refreshments were served. With Ogaro numbering 100 people, the local millet beer, tchakpa, was given to all willing parties. It would be considered a grave faux pas to act otherwise. If anyone invites friends to work with them, tchakpa must be served.

Suddenly, a fierce gale swept across the Savannah. The dust punished anyone who opened their eyes wide. Ice cold rain drops spit down on us. Yet the rain kept at bay, and everyone continued plugging along, placing their baggies in neat, precise grids. Seeds, having been steadily collected during the previous months, were placed two to three per baggie. At the time of planting, the sun sneaked behind the plateaus on the horizon. The wind died down. With some haste, the baggies were all planted with seeds.

As the calm twilight crept towards night, we had one last demonstration to give: how to transplant a tree. Earlier in the day, we had secured a few mature seedlings from CARTO. Datchigli Djarjangou and Yao conducted the how-to in our local language. Although we had planted thousands of seeds, we hadn’t put a seedling in the ground. And that is simply poor Arbor Day etiquette. With our tree in the ground, we parted in good, although thoroughly fatigued, spirits. We had done it.

At dusk, Yao and Datchigli finish the day with a how-to demonstration on transplanting a seedling.

Two and a half months after the fact, the tree nursery looks robust. Presently, we are organizing a strategy to generate interest for purchasing the seedlings. Many of the trees’ beneficial qualities are not known by the public. Nitrogen-fixing trees, of which there are four (Cassia siamea, Albizia lebbeck, Samanea saman, and Leucaena leucocephala), should be planted alongside or in their fields. In a best case scenario, a farmer plants these trees in rows roughly ten meters apart, a technique known as alley-cropping. But this is a tough sell.

Advocating a new and improved farming technique is a delicate situation, no matter where one is working. In this respect, we’ve proceeded with caution. Farming tradition runs deep in Ogaro. Accumulated knowledge has been passed down from their ancestors. Ceremonial dances even emulate the hoeing movement. In short, a farmer is not likely to be persuaded over a calabash of tchakpa in the market. But headway can be made through a prolonged campaign of disseminating unbiased information.

Most importantly, alley-cropping and other uses of nitrogen-fixing plants should not be promoted as a silver bullet for food production. Reaping the benefits of trees in ones fields requires an intensification of manual labor. Protecting the trees from animals the first year the trees are in the ground necessitates some tenderlovingcare. Afterwards, pruning is needed to prevent the trees from absorbing too much sunlight. During the dry season, leaves (which also contain nitrogen) should be turned into the soil. Another problem is the lag in results. The handful of farmers employing agro-forestry in their fields say the third year marks the first significant improvements in crop yield; the nitrogen takes a little time to build up to levels making a difference. Each coming year sees more improvements however, the nitrogen continually multiplying. Even so, few farmers will be willing to commit to this regimen. I understand. But what is the alternative, the status quo?

The present course presents a much bleaker picture. Whereas nitrogen-fixing trees replenish the soil more with each-coming year, the opposite holds true for chemical fertilizers. If a farmer buys five bags of fertilizer for a hectare of corn this year, he will need to buy perhaps six bags next year to achieve the same yield. With each year, farmers buy more and more fertilizers to treat their increasingly depleted soils to feed a rapidly increasing population. Sooner or later, farmers need to confront this system, which doesn’t bare any semblance to sustainability.

Presently, the tree nursery looks swell, but needs constant care: weeding, insect and pest control, turning the baggies so their roots do not dig down too deep into the ground are but a few.

Some farmers—not an excess, but some—in Ogaro are receptive to supplementing their fields with soil-enriching trees. Farmers will first experiment with a trial run, allotting perhaps a fourth of one hectare to see if any changes ensue. Agro-forestry won’t magically dissolve all problems in Ogaro. Nevertheless, it combats myriad problems; desertification, erosion, and food shortage. I believe it is a campaign worth fighting for.

Another campaign of a different nature will be launched for Moringa (Moringa oleifera). With this tree, I’m confident in a unanimous juror. As opposed to the previous trees, Moringa doesn’t require the same commitment. All one does with Moringa is to keep the tree alive and consume its leaves. Moringa’s leaves are packed with such nutrients, the tree almost defies belief. For children, Moringa offers a much needed boost to an eating regimen clearly lacking important nutrients. Corn mush, known as pâte, served with a light peanut sauce is woefully inadequate day in and day out. The tree is also resistant to prolonged dry spells and will be the only tree tough enough to plant this year.

Fati and her infant, Emma, picking Moringa leaves in our backyard. For Volunteers, encouraging the consumption of these leaves improving child nutrition is, to say the least, not a tough sell.

The Neem tree (Azadirachta indica) is also resistant to drought but serves a different purpose. The tree serves as a repellant. For one, animals want nothing to do with it. Equally important, Neem’s leaves as well as its oil (which can be produced by harvesting and boiling its seeds) prove a potent natural insecticide. Ironically, Neem can also be used for human hygiene purposes and is found in various soaps, crèmes, and lotions. Finally, its wood burns slow (for food preparation) and is strong (for construction purposes, including the frame for hut ceilings). All in all, a versatile species well adapted to our milieu.

Finally, we have a tree with a small cash crop, the cashew tree (Anacardium occidentale). The cashew is found widely in our region, as it produces both cashews and a delicious fruit, which I liken to a tart tangerine. I like the cashew tree. An aesthetically pleasing tree with a stout build, its thick foliage is an ideal bastion from the sun. I’m no botanist, but there is something peculiar about the tree. Unlike your peach, your plum, your mango, where the seed is securely hidden inside the fruit, the cashew nut hangs down from the derrière of the fruit. However, the nut has developed formidable protection from any unwanted predators. The shell is abnormally thick, with a tessellating pattern inside akin to honeycomb. The sticky liquid can be used as a substitute for petrol. (The cashew orchard where we excavated the dirt was originally a government-financed operation planning to exploit the technology but was soon abandoned.) The oil leaves a bothersome black filament on one’s hands. This fact, coupled with the laborious chore of cracking the hot, freshly roasted, rock hard shell makes a guy work for his cashew. The fine folks of Ogaro don’t seem as perturbed as Kat and I in this respect.

And that concludes the line-up of trees. For each tree sold, 50% will be funneled back into our project account and 50% will go to their respective village, where savings will ideally catalyze other projects. Money staying with the project will buy baggies for next year’s nursery and handle any repairs. If all goes well, the tree nursery could grow with each coming year. Of course, this center is not just for a tree nursery; there’s also gardening to be done.

Dry season gardening will kick off next month. Oversight, or gentle prodding, as I like to define our role, will keep us busy in the waning months of our service. My official counterpart, Simplice, has managed just these types of village gardening projects for twenty-five years throughout our region. Undoubtedly, he will prove an invaluable asset.

The third installment will arrive in December. If the homestretch of our service proves hectic, I might just be writing the finale in the comfort of my home…the first one, in South Dakota.

God bless.

The Reserve List


For two years, when spending time with Americans, Peace Corps Volunteers hang out almost exclusively with each other. Sure, there are visitors, passersby, and the occasional run-in with Embassy acquaintances, but these are few and far between. Somewhere during this two-year window—and no one is certain exactly when—something happens. Our isolation breeds a subculture. Our vernacular scrambles French words in English sentences and vise versa. If particular emphasis is desired, we might even sprinkle a few words of local language into the mix. Our jokes become increasingly cryptic; outsiders have not a clue of the punch lines. Non-volunteer Americans could perceive volunteers as clicky, obnoxious, or perhaps just knuckleheaded.

Try as we might to control this unavoidable side effect, it requires constant vigilance, like making sure a harsh word doesn’t slip near your grandparents. I often read the expression of on a newcomer’s face. Their glossed eyes contemplate, “Who are these people?” Occupied as we are with fitting into a foreign culture, we slowly forget accepted norms of our own.

As I celebrated my 25th birthday a few days ago however, a fellow Volunteer gave me a present offering absurdity for both worlds. Following a tradition in his family, he designed a pseudo-wine entitled Chateau Ogaro inspired from our locally made beer, tchakpa . (He spent the bulk of my actual birthday crammed in the mail room, singularly possessed in his work, like Captain Ahab stewing in his chambers en route towards the white whale.) Tickled as I am with this invaluable souvenir of Togo, posting the blurb written on Chateau Ogaro only seems fitting. A few phrases are esoteric, but on the whole, the masses can tap into the hilarity. To be sure, this is a rare event. Any time a Volunteer rises above our specific lingo and reaches a larger audience, he needs a pat on the back. Enjoy Chateau Ogaro: Quarter Century Edition, complements of Andrew Jacobs.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fairest of the Seasons

Second only to friends, family, and leather couches, I often pine for the seasons. My seasons.

A spring rain, a summer twilight, a fall wind, and yes, even a dark winter night. But I find not the Midwest seasons in Ogaro. The seasons in our savannah region can be divided roughly into three increments; Harmattan, hot season, and the rainy season. I lament saying that none of these seasons are bliss. Yet each, despite their hardships, brings with them aspects I look forward to and enjoy. Best to commence from the beginning, December 15th, 2007; our first day living in our house. The first day we could, with some reluctance, call Ogaro our home.

By all accounts, December is not a bad month to arrive in Ogaro. Harmattan is under way and the harvest is finished. People are benefiting from a much needed rest from their toil in the fields. Harmattan, while it takes on the name of a season, is actually the name of the winds that blow down from the formidable Sahara Desert. Ironically, these winds, while torrential and relentless, are also cool. When hitting the hay, a sweater and pair of socks are placed next to our bed. Around 3 a.m., giddy with nighttime chill, I wake up, put on my garments, and fall back to sleep. Togolese don’t seem to derive the same pleasure. In the morning, their eyelids caked with sleep, they huddle around the boiling pot making breakfast, shivering all the while. Plan B is to stay curled up in bed until nine. Personally though, an ideal morning I wake-up at 7:30. Crawl out of bed and make a steaming cup of mud. Read, write, or practice French until nine with the blinds shut. This exercise is not to block out anyone outside, but rather is a feeble attempt to fend off the dust.

Unknown quantities of dust are stirred up with the strong winds. There is no hope of stopping it. A hard-nose policy of containment is the only feasible machination. But even this defense is futile. Dust knows no boundaries, finding its way into every nook and crevice. At times, when my broom weaves around the table to hit a hard to reach cranny, I drift off to a season of cleaner times, but these thoughts are short-lived. The ability not to perspire, this is a gift that trumps all others. But there are other advantages as well.

Small scale gardening is done in a nearby village. Small yellow melons, assuming the taste and texture of a muskmelon, and watermelons are brought by the wagon full. Tomatoes, onions, cabbage, and carrots abound. Cassavas, smashed and pounded to make the delicacy fufu, are unearthed and sold like hotcakes in the market. The farmers, having stored and sold their grains are ever ready to instigate good cheer among their neighbors. Building and repairing houses occurs during this time, whether it be cinderblock or mud. The combination of dust and wind however, takes a toll on everyone’s energy. Despite the upbeat mood of the season, fatigue trumps all.

While this is an axiom for humans, animals are another story. All the harmattonic pet sounds are wretched to my ears. Frisky adolescent dogs carouse the fields at night, chase one another, bark, and generally raise hell. Guinea foul and roosters are ever mindful of the impending sunrise. But of all the pet sounds, the donkey is the most heinous. I can say with some certainty that their despondent calls echoing derive from frustrations that only a biological urgency to procreate can generate. The angst propelling their ‘haw’ couldn’t possibly signify anything else. All this animal cacophony, never ceasing completely, leads to a certain frustration among us, particularly when we might be entertaining the idea of (or amid) a romantic act ourselves.

In late January, the winds loose their buoyancy, the coolness fades, and the dust settles. The fate of hot season is palpable. If a can be frank, hot season, spanning from February to the end of April, is the harshest climate I have had to endure. Surely a South Dakota winter, relative to temperatures suitable for humans brings a fury not met by the savannah heat. But I can hardly say I have endured any of these winters against the elements. Snow football, the ensuing hot chocolate, hot shower, and warm bed do not suffice. Too many artificial settings. We endure hot, still days as they are and rejoice the rare days when it is mild, perhaps in the low 100’s. These three months however are not all doom and gloom. Mangos and outdoor sleeping are both thoroughly enjoyable and specific only to hot season.

The mango is surpassed by none. Their sumptuousness, their plentitude, their price, their variety, their impeccable timing, all these factors deserve to be fully explored at a later time. Suffice it to say that mangos are the nectar of the gods, coming down from the heavens only when we need it most, during the entire span of hot season.

If mangos provide solace during the day, the night needs no celestial ambrosia to match up. The night, not having a sun, is enough. During hot season, I never shower before dinner. I would be disgruntled, perspiring mess at the end of it. Showers directly before bed are the only option. The dry heat—or absence of humidity—allows temperatures to dip down into the 80’s at night, just low enough to prevent perspiration. Few things are treasured more than lying down by your loved one under the abundant stars of the African sky. And no water or humidity equates to no bugs. What a blessing.

I recall I once had a similar inclination to sleep outside at Lewis and Clark Lake. How I bristled with excitement as I carried my sleeping bag and pillow to the beach spot of my choosing! The next morning, there I was, ill-tempered after an endless night of tossing and turning and a layer of sand covering my entire body. A swarm of mayflies, after completing their twenty-four hours of existence, lay peacefully at rest on my dry, cracked lips. Outdoor sleeping, romanticized as it is, rarely leads to tranquil mornings. We come pretty close here.

I’ll wake up at night, check the position of Orion’s Belt drifting slowly towards the western horizon and know how many cherished hours I have before daybreak and the wrath the sun will soon bring. At about 5:18 a.m., I awaken to the first barn bees buzzing overhead. I’ll rise out of bed, make some oats, and swiftly take care of anything involving physical labor. Until 7 a.m., the cool air holds its own. From 7 till nine, the cool air and sun do battle, with the sun gradually taking control. At 9 a.m., it’s all over. Temperatures are in the 100’s and rising. The only sanctuary is the shade.

Passing the bulk of our days in the shade, we nonetheless still sweat all day. Or at least we lose water rapidly. The dry heat plays a nasty trick. Our sweat evaporates without a trace so that we often become dehydrated without knowing it. We have learned to perpetually, habitually drink water no matter if our body “tells” us to or not.

Inevitably though, even if it is for an increment of time as little as fifteen minutes, we have to step out in the direct sunlight. I, more so than Katrina, do not handle it well. A primordial panic takes hold as I feel myself literally being baked by the sun. This fact has caused a problem; I simply can’t do the work Togolese do because I cannot stick it out in the sun. I throw the blame on my skin, my superb ability to absorb vitamin D, evolution and all that gibberish, but deep down I may just be a wimp. Much to my chagrin, this fact manifested itself quite clearly during the construction of our gardening center. Luckily, the hottest days of the year are confined only to little more than two months.

Before the swollen clouds spit their first excess to the parched earth, something very peculiar occurs: A wind rolls through the savannah like a hurricane. You can hear the palms slapping against each other as the wind approaches. You can see the thick cloud of dust and debris drawing nearer every second. There is a mad dash to gather all belongings outside to put them in safe storage. The moment the fierce current hits, everyone settles inside. For half an hour, the wind produces deafening noises. Tin roofs are banging up and down, animals are whimpering, branches are rattling. It’s the dry season’s last stand. When Judgment Day is upon us, I imagine it will be set in motion with such a wind.

And then it rains.

The first rain sparks a flurry of activity. Men, women, and children alike begin tilling the soil to prepare for planting. This is accomplished in one of two ways. The first method is done all by hand, using only an enlarged hoe to turn the soil into rows. One could say this is the traditional way. The second, more modern technique is to harness the energy of two oxen to plow the land. One person is in front, guiding the oxen with the rings in their nostrils. Another is in back, guiding the plow. For two adults, this is a manageable task. But almost without exception, kids are involved. Six (or more) kids under the age of ten trying to keep two ornery oxen in line are quite a spectacle. Inevitably, the youngest will be no more than the age of two, trying to keep pace. A cornstalk will be in hand, ready to put all his might into a whack, should the need arise.

So goes the toil of the rainy season, a livelihood that won’t offer repose until the later months of the year. When the picturesque fields are tilled, planting begins. Women walk with a small branch, poke a hole in the ground, drop the seeds in the hole, cover it up with their feet, take a step, and repeat the process. Corn, millet, sorghum, black-eyed peas, cotton, peanuts, and soy are all planted in varying degrees.

As May, June, and July drift on by, weeding fills the time. The same two aforementioned techniques are employed with this task as well. Typically, two or three rounds of weeding are completed before harvesting, depending on the amount of manpower available. (Without the presence of farm machinery, farmers argue that the extra labor—multiple wives, myriad children—is essential for a bountiful crop.)

The rain itself differs little from those on the Great Plains. Warm drizzles, cold sheets, and everything in between nourish the earth. Flies flourish exponentially with each new rain. The flies, not yet lulled by suburban complacency endemic in the States, buzz about with guerilla-like intensity. Stinkbugs, preying mantises, grasshoppers, moths, and various other bugs share space with the flies. Then there are the mosquitoes, a most unfortunate product of the rains.

Mosquitoes bring malaria and all its wrath. In fact, Volunteers dub these months “malaria season.” A child’s first bout is the toughest to ward off. Infants lack a strong immune system to fight off the nefarious disease. Adolescents struggle to build up resistance. Adults are also inflicted, but after having malaria for a –teenth time, mortality is no longer a threat. Malaria—like a host of other problems—is just one more thing that the Togolese deal with. But the work must go on.

August brings the first wave of harvests. The rains recede. Scores of corn, millet, and peanuts are laid out to dry in each compound. After the corn is sufficiently dried, branches roughly equivalent to a baseball bat are used as devices to smack the kernels off the husk. Large groups are involved, often singing songs or sharing a laugh. The kernels are then put in giant sacs and stored for the rest of the year. I similar process is done to all other crops. (The cotton is especially fulfilling for the kids, having enormous piles of fluff to prance on.)

Harvesting continues in the following months. Again, all harvesting is done by hand, taking extensive amounts of time. Ideally, harvesting is finished by the time kids end their summer break in mid-September. October and November slowly transition into dry season. The heat soars once again, but not to the degree of March and April. Then one unsuspecting night, I’ll awake. Are those goosebumps on my body? Harmattan is near.

Perhaps savannah seasons aren’t as magical as the ones back home. I say magical because inextricably tied to the seasons are past memories. All nostalgia associated with weather is still in its formative stages here. A nighttime harmattonic chill doesn’t incite the rush I feel, say, on a brisk September evening back home. September evenings brings floods of memories from running around as a little kid at football games, to country drives, late night college drives, studying or otherwise. Harmattan reminds me of just one year ago, arriving in an empty house where I knew no one. When I return home, I’ll miss the seasons here to an extent; they’ll forever be tied to my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. But I haven’t fallen for them. After all, these are not my seasons.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Life in the Still

At my own admission, I tend to be a smidgen on the verbose side. If only once, perhaps it is beneficial that you strictly observe Togo with your eyes. Below is a collection of pictures taken in Ogaro, with the exception of the gentle Vietnamese woman who owns a hostel in Lome where most Volunteers spend their nights when in the capital. No overarching theme exists (though there probably should be). With no accompanying story, you yourself will have to contemplate who these people are, what they do, where they sleep at night, etc.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Meet the Flindjas

A waiver to the reader: This is the thorniest piece I have written on Togoland. I have just read through the blog for a final time and am disappointed. There’s not enough space for you to grasp any one person. Some I portrayed in too dim a light, others too emphatically. However, if I spent a whole day revising the following, the result would be the same. I would not find the elusive equilibrium I seek.

You may also notice that I write very little of relationships between the family. This is due to my own ignorance. Even though Katrina and I have an unadulterated view of the Flindjas, we cannot feign to have any real knowledge of the family’s inner workings. Nevertheless, this is the family we know best. Enjoy.


When I think of Bawa, Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. Perhaps Abe faced slightly more harrowing circumstances preserving the union, abolishing slavery, and so on. But that’s not to say there aren’t a few similarities.

Both come from humble beginnings and have risen in the ranks to become venerated figures. Both posses a moral soundness matched by few men. Both exhibit progressive thinking. Both take solace in knowing their actions can ameliorate other’s lives. Bawa often says he sleeps little; his mind races with all his responsibilities of supporting his extended “African” family, (certainly smaller than the Union via 1860, but much larger than the American nuclear family). Bawa’s anguish conjures up images of Abe pacing the silent White House floors feeling the weight of the nation on his shoulders. Both are exceptionally amicable gentlemen, but exude a sort of preternatural melancholy, unable to neglect the injustices, cruelties, or just bad luck this big world can bring. Hence, a good sense of humor is imperative for their wellbeing.

On one occasion, Katrina was hosting her boss for a day in Ogaro. Rose, the head of Girl’s Education and Empowerment Program, was talking to students about the upcoming International Women’s Day. As a Togolese woman who has risen from rags to riches, so to speak, she has quite a success story to relay. Charismatic and energetic, she commands large crowds with ease. Bawa sat listening and finally asked with an inquisitive look, “But Rose, what about International Men’s Day? Don’t we get a day too?”

Rose was not impressed. Meanwhile, Bawa convulsed with laughter, legs in the air, slapping his knee repeatedly, nearly choking, he was so pleased with himself for injecting a little humor onto the scene. He loves—nay, needs—to laugh. And he doesn’t count on a few for his kicks. Bawa draws on the masses for his insatiable need for laughter. In turn, the masses are always nearby to catch his contagious nature.

One peculiarity of Bawa is that he has fits when he can’t remember names. Important ones. When telling a story awhile back, his second wife came into the picture. His eyes looked up and to the left, his mouth hung open in thought until he said, “the other one.” While this episode may be sad on a number of levels, the immediate comic value was priceless.

Despite his sporadic absentmindedness, no one is more active in community affairs. Village Development Committee, President. Committee against Child Trafficking, President. School board, active member. Agricultural cooperative, presiding member. There are others.

Men like Bawa are rare. One hopes these guys stick around for awhile. Unfortunately, Bawa doesn’t share these feelings for himself. He says he wants to go at age 60, no later. For a man who is financially responsible for many, being an economic burden on someone else is a pain he cannot bare.


Among Togolese, there is a certain sass that is revered by all. Akovi personifies this woman. In classical Togolese tradition, hyperbole is her game. This is a terribly confusing trait to decode. In our first months in Ogaro, a quarrel arose between a man and her in our compound. For no less than fifteen minutes, they shouted with such animosity, that I was sure blows would ensue. Then, with no pretense to what was to come, uproarious laughter broke out on all sides. Having little understanding of our local language, I have no clue what words were spoken. It’s a shame too. It’s clear everyone enjoys her sense of humor.

Slowly bubbling under the surface of her charm and sass however, lays a temper. No more than a month ago, a similar occurrence took place, but with an alternate ending. Serious blows did ensue. Out of the ten or so fights I have witnessed in Togo, nearly every one is a woman fighting another woman. This strange phenomenon reveals a certain relativity concerning each sex’s temperament. Grown men, for example, are prone to hold, and even lovingly caress, hands in any forum. (The idea of homosexuality is so far removed from mainstream thought that no eyebrows are raised in suspicion.) Such solidarity is rare among women.

Akovi is a woman with obvious potential for success. What she does do, she does well. But, as with most women her age, she is illiterate. While she does sell local beer and tofu in the market, she has little ability to expand her entrepreneurial spirit. She represents in many ways, the Togolese woman; a capable person destined to live in, and be held back by, her time and her place.


The oldest of Bawa’s kids, Sakoundja takes his role as big brother and exemplar seriously. First off, he excels in school. He was third in his class last year, (all students know exactly how they ranked within their class). At night, he will often be seen with a flashlight wedged between his shoulder and chin, reviewing his notes.

His first year of English was an exciting time for him as he is ever eager to win our respect. Everything he knows in English he uses at every opportunity, regardless of its practicality. One day, after learning a dialogue verbatim in class, he approached me and, unbeknownst to me, began the dialogue. It went as follows:

“You! Over here!” *Angrily*
“Who me?” *Leaning back, pointing finger at himself, very surprised. He comes forward.*
“Passport please.” *Tersely*
“Here you are!” *With umph*
“Where are you going?” *Accusingly*
“I go to Lagos.” *Confidently*
Pause. Man looks over the passport.
“O.K. You can go.” *Professionally*

The hilarity of the moment was due to the fact that Sakoundja was so elated at learning a new English dialogue, it didn’t register that the conversation deviated in any way from our normal parlance. We both had a good laugh and in the days that followed, repeated the dialogue several times in passing as if we were simply saying hello.


This kid is all laughs, no business. I hesitate to say a serious thought can pass through his head. His days are spent in joyous revelry. We have a silly game we oft-times play. It’s a staring contest to see who can hold out the longest before breaking a smile. I never lose. Before smiling, his eyes flutter like those of a teenage girl trying to woo a young sprig.

He’s undeniably flamboyant in his idiosyncrasies. In one instance, we were playfully throwing rocks at each other from afar. Each movement to dodge the incoming rock could only be deemed a prance. Each maneuver was crisply, judiciously, yet blissfully carried out. Without view of the soaring rocks, one would think he was practicing an interpretive skate dance, without the skates.

Jean also likes to try his hand at fishing. During rainy season, a nearby crick is sprinkled with small fish. After a few hours incognito, he will return home. Charging in with his chest puffed and his wooden fishing poll carrying a handful of fish, his smile nor the pride in his eyes can be withheld. Never mind his catch stretch no more than a pinky width.


Even after a year and a half in Ogaro, Dapandja has trouble opening up to us. I partly blame ourselves. His two other brothers, Jean and Sakoundja, quickly became confidants in our compound. Dapandja’s presence was slow to materialize, and we didn’t do a great job of extending our hand in friendship.

Tentative and quiet, he is nonetheless an intelligent kid. Roughly the same age as Jean, Dapandja opens up in his presence. The two, who apart seem to be polar opposites, suddenly seem very much alike together. They often stroll down to the nearby crick with slingshots and a pouch full of rocks to track birds and take aim. While their success rate is minute, their accuracy should not be understated. Killing a pigeon with little more than a pebble is considerably more difficult than say, dropping a pheasant with a 12-gage.

I was taking a walk one evening and saw the two skipping along. There was magic in the air. The lawlessness and freedom of this crick overwhelmed me. I looked at the two, clothed only in their worn undies and thought of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer cutting out to the woods to escape the rigid social norms of their day. Methinks, every boy needs a crick like this and every boy needs a brother like Dapandja to share it with.


On August 27th, 2008, I was awakened in the middle of the night. It quickly became evident that everyone in the compound was up and milling about. This was understandably a startling fact. I stepped outside and prepared myself for the worst. One of the younger kids noticed my presence and simply said, “Trace, baby.”

Then I heard the baby’s cries.

In her mud hut, Fati had mothered her first girl. She did this without waking anyone and without anyone to assist her. It was the baby’s cries, not the agonies of labor, which awoke everyone. If I have but one memory of Fati that will not be distorted by the prism of time, it will be there in that mud hut, all alone in the quiet of the night, sweating and panting and doing everything else women do while in labor, experiencing the miracle of birth with just her and her newborn.

Since Emma (Katrina was given the honor of naming her), there has been a marked change in Fati. Call it a mother’s glow. Before the birth, while dejected would be too strong a word, there was a submissive, forlorn air to her. Now she seems at peace. This is no coincidence. In a society where a woman’s role is traditionally confined to preparing food, fetching water, gathering wood, keeping up the house, and child rearing, the latter is the most enjoyable. While a baby’s infancy is certainly a special time anywhere, I would argue its “specialness” is augmented here. Those times when a mother is nursing her child, before the rigid task of passing down all the tricks of the trade (to begin a few mere years later), this is the time when a Togolese woman is in her element.


While still an infant, Emma’s first signs of character are taking shape. Wide-eyed like her dad, all objects in her view seem to be looked at through the lens of curiosity. But I suppose that’s a rather humdrum observation. What child seems bored with life after nine months of existence?

In the long run, I believe Emma will grow to be an open and accepting person. My evidence? She has taken a liking to us in record time. No other baby has performed this task in under a year. It’s a record that could be on the books for awhile with no immediate contenders vying for the crown.

She also has quite a pair of legs on her. While not able to stand yet, if one steadies her body and begins humming a rhythm—dun-di-di-dun-di-di-dun—she will begin jumping wildly. By all accounts, she takes the greatest pleasure in this exercise and does not easily exhaust herself.

(Picture to be posted soon)

A number of names come to mind when I think of Fati’s other kid: a strange bird, an odd duck, a turkey.

Although separated in age by some 60 years, he bares a striking resemblance to his grandpa—Bawa’s Dad—who also lives in our compound. This is a semblance I wouldn’t wish on many people. Perhaps the teeth logically lead me to the comparison. Too young yet to fashion himself a toothpick, he has a film of food lining his gums. His teeth also seem especially small, even for baby teeth. Both facts point in grandpa’s direction. Over the years, his teeth have been reduced to small stubs. While food doesn’t line his gums, his pipe, always nearby, has caused his teeth to turn an off-off-white, giving them a similar esthetic. Luckily for Jean-Marie, stalactites of saliva do not form in his mouth when talking. But enough of dental hygiene issues.

When he’s home, he spends his time running around with other kids, chasing animals out of the compound, singing song fragments that he has picked up from the radio—typical kids stuff.

While admittedly he may be a little behind in the game, time has a way of evening things out. Even in his first year of school and he proudly greets us in French when he sees us. I can’t help but recall my parent’s telling me of their uneasiness when my elder brother was busy mastering state capitals and I, lisp and all, had yet to master the art of speaking in coherent, complete sentences.

The fact that Jean-Marie is an odd duck doesn’t bother me at this point. If I had to guess, if we came back in ten years, this hapless little duckling will have grown into something beautiful.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Journal Entry: April 27, 2009

Let it be put to record that on this day, Monday, national Independence Day of Togo, that The Great Lamboni, finding, buying, and butchering fine quality pork to Ogaro’s swine-hungry masses, a man who no more than a week ago visited us at our humble dwelling and presented us with a fine chicken producing eggs, a meat man who has for more than a year talked at length of how we are valued customers, a peasant who we have so exhausted with banter of buying, negotiating the price of, and slaughtering pigs that he may one day be driven to call it quits and broach the subject of goats, a gentlemen for whom Katrina and I have discussed buying a scale to increase his profits, a trepid warrior second in grandeur only to the man from which his nickname derives, the great Lombardi, presented himself to us at a local watering hole with his same excited air and, without a tinge of humiliation or hesitancy, promptly asked for both of our names, for he knew not either.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Love Beep

Four men sit around a derelict wooden table at the local bar. Two men look strikingly occidental; one adorns a clean, white t-shirt and wind pants, the other wears a pair of jeans with a grey UNICEF shirt. The third dresses in a traditional fabric, pagne, his chosen design a redundant mug shot of Togo's first President glowing from head to toe. The last man looks like an outsider, but not only from his Sahalian clothing. His disposition, his cool smile, the way his eyes hold water all highlight that he is not from here. He is a stranger. Seven bottles are on the table: three empty beers, three freshly opened beers, and a half-full Coke reserved for the last, faintly exotic man.

The outdoor tavern is nestled up next to the market. Although protected both from the noonday sun and the gaze of the market-goers by a blockade of woven straw held up by termite-infested wood, the men do not escape the clamor—nor the excitement—of market day. Two general stores blast local Afro-pop from blown out speakers. The giant truck carrying goods of all kinds has arrived, parking parallel on Ogaro's sole narrow, dusty road. Orders are given left and right as the market women, packed like sardines in the back of the truck, rush to set up their items and land their first sale. The cacophony from the mill churning grains into flour and the blacksmith bending steel lends an industrial air to the scene. The intermittent clicking of a foot-powered sewer comes from a tailor frantically stitching up school uniforms. The meat vendors are out, selling skewers, innards stew, and rare meat, leaving the heads of animals tied to a tree branch, blankly staring at the scene before them. Other vendors pile giant potato sacks filled with charcoal outside the mosque, waiting for any wandering eyes drifting their way. One would be hard pressed not to note the scarcity of trees off yonder, leaving only barren corn and millet fields. Dispersed throughout, thousands of discarded black plastic sacs, like fallen soldiers on a quiescent battlefield, litter the landscape.

Inside the bar, the men have just been served a heaping plate of dog au jus. An aged blue plastic cup, looking like it might have been lifted from a daycare, is passed around to wash their hands. Conversation around the table doesn't deviate from the norm; the meat is too salty, political affairs are undesirable, the price of food is rising, if the rains are coming.

Simultaneously, two things occur. A wind cyclone stretching 150 feet into the air plows through the south side of the market. The wind velocity rips off several straw roofings and hurls them violently unto the ground some thirty feet away. Goods have scattered, clean clothes are coated with a filament of dust, but no one is injured. Amid the raucous of wind and screams, a man's cell phone rings. Diverting half of his attention to the temporary chaos outside and the other half to his cell phone, he is not sure what his next move should be. Before his mind is made up, the ringing stops. His brow furrows in contempt. Then comes a gesture reserved only for the most hazardous of social situations: a long pause, his facial muscles frozen, his eyes wide with madness, in the tune of a falsetto, his voice breaks the silence with a short, precise, “oh!” The man has just been beeped.

... ... ... ... ... ... ...

Now I've always held to the tenet that a man's money is his own business, no if, and, or buts. There are, of course, certain indicators in which society judges a man: his car model, his house, which company made his watch, etc,. Here in Togo, such indicators are often opaque.

Tangible signs of wealth would enable one to ascertain a man's net worth, so to speak. But this task proves difficult. Building anything more than a three room, cement rectangle would be viewed in Ogaro as an abomination, a flagrant, nefarious display of arrogance and excess. The result is a remarkable uniformity in appearance when looking at family compounds. Sure, some will have more mud huts than others, some with a cement building and others not, but no blatant signs to discern wealth. Motorcycles are one area where there are fewer shades of gray.

Lengthy and engaged talk of motorcycles seems a universal quality in men. Engines and pistons and such are more commonly conversed about, but prices come up as well. Most men calculate with amazing precision the price of any motorcycle in town. But even so, the men with motorcycles in town are few.

Perhaps bank accounts could provide us a much-needed hint. Truth be told, few men have any money in a financial institution. It was not until last July that Ogaro's first micro-finance institution set up shop. Before this, money was placed clandestinely, evoking images of buried riches and treasure maps. Imagine a family's savings for an entire generation stored underground. The ground has been dug, then packed tight as to leave no clue in case of an intruder. Or a woman scurries off to a nearby grove, performing a similar task in the still of the night. Maybe digging isn't her bag. She prefers to wrap it tightly in some old worn pair of slacks that her husband has outgrown. Or better yet, spread out the wealth a little bit. There's also a pair of long johns in the corner...

Let me be clear. All these scenarios are hypothetical, but this is, in short, what Togolese have with which to work. In the long run, this is far from a fail-proof plan. Mud huts can catch fire. With roofs made of corn stalks and a few branches to support them, the hut will immediately go up in smoke with no chance for entry. Or sometimes, a person simply forgets where some—or all—of his or her savings is hidden.

So where does all this nonsense leave us? It leaves each man uncertain of how much his neighbor has stored away. Imaginations run wild with thoughts of neighbor's riches. This causes much strife with cell phones and particularly, the beep. A beep is a device used to signal that the caller lacks phone credit to call. He wants the receiver to call back. This sparks incredulous responses.

“What is this guy doing? He's beeping me? Let me ask you a question, 'do I have the money to buy credit?' There isn't the money!”

Many times, the receiver of the beeped talks into the phone as if he wants to transmit his thorough disgust to the other end of the line.

But I will say one thing, phone credit is extremely high relative to income. There are no pre-paid plans to be had—no free nights, weekends, or Holidays. Any call is automatically emptying the pockets of the caller, although no charge is applied to the receiver. No exceptions. A one-minute call amounts to the cost of a deluxe lunch at the market: rice, peanut sauce, and a small morsel of hastily cut goat. To compensate for the exorbitant price of calls, Togolese have developed an incredibly efficient system: hello, how are you (and your wife, kids, health, fields, fatigue, etc.), goodbye. No joke, I've seen such a call clocked in at nine seconds. The consideration however is rarely taken for granted. What is not appreciated is the beep. Some see it as an insult, a blatant signal saying “you have more money than me, so why don't you call?” Beeping after a long separation is particularly bad etiquette. Who, after a long absence, calls for a favor in the form of a beep?

... ... ... ... ... ... ...

The audible sound of laughter prevented the beeped from advancing towards the market. He knew all was well. The man's calloused, dark hands slid down into his pocket. His expression slowly digressed from a furrowed, compact anger to raised eye-brows and pursed lips, as if waiting for a response from his child rolling in two hours after curfew.

He held the phone at eye-level, starring blankly at the number. His eyes showed no change in emotion. The only difference in fact was a subtle change of hue in his cheeks. They blossomed into midnight crimson, the color one might imagine being formed in one's mouth after five seconds of squooshing a chocolate-covered cherry. Unnoticeable to him, his head gently shook from side to side. His pursed lips gave way to a pure smile, holding unquantifiable amounts of both joy and sadness.

“Ohh, my dear friend!”

He soon told marvelous stories of adolescent merriment and mischief with his friend, who has since moved to the Ivory Coast in search of work, a better life. If only for that one moment, the beeped and the beeper were one.

... ... ... ... ... ... ...

I forgot to mention one exception. The love beep. A beep that necessitates no return call, but is merely an action to express, “I just beeped to say I love you.” When pressed for answers—how do you differentiate any ol' beep from the love beep?—only wholly unsatisfactory answers will follow. “You just know,” they will say.

The only conclusion that I can draw is that the love beep is as rare and pure as true love itself. An indestructible bond that is formed in the deep, mystic abyss of the human spirit.