Here is a short video of a few random clips I found laying around. I put in titles to help give you an idea of what you are looking at.
The song that is playing is MzBel - 16 years. A great song that was popular around here a couple months ago.
ps. Here are a couple posts that I pulled out of the collection that I have gotten the most comments on.
Travel in Togo
Killing a Turkey
Posted by Aaron on 12/28/2006
The other day a fellow volunteer told me an interesting story that I felt sums up much of our job as Peace Corps Volunteers.
A couple weeks ago she was sitting at the market drinking the local beverage, chouck (I’ve written about it in past entries… I think there is even a picture of me drinking it somewhere in the archives.) A little girl (probably 5 or 6 years old) and her mother were there as well, sitting a few feet away. My friend saw the girl point to her and ask a question to the mother. We are all very used to being talked about and she thought nothing of it.
Again the little girl asked something of the mother and pointed at my friend. This time the mother got up, and slightly sheepishly walked over to where my friend was sitting and asked, “I’m so sorry to bother you, but, my daughter has never touched white skin before. Would you mind if she touched you?” My friend being the good sport she is thought for a second and said, “Sure.”
The mother motioned to the girl who timidly approached my friend, slowly put out her hand and touched the white arm. Her eyes went large and she quickly pulled away. She stood there, staring at my friends arm, and finally reached out to touch it again.
This time she gave it a few strokes then looked up and said to her mother, “It’s the same as black skin!”
There are times in Peace Corps when I become consumed with my work. When that work isn’t going quite so well I get depressed and begin wondering why I am even here. Then there are the little day to day exchanges like the one my friend had that bring me back to reality and remind me of my real job.
Note... Don't forget to read the entry about the project I am working on!
Posted by Aaron on 12/04/2006
Sorry for the long delay in posting. I have been getting online every day hoping that I would check the status of the project and it would magically have been fully funded. Each day I said to myself, "If you leave the project posting up for one more day maybe tomorrow it will get funded."
As of now people have given close to $2,000. I first want to say thank you so much to everyone who has given. I can't wait until I can show you what that money you have given can do!
Second, I have decided that in the interest of time (I have less than one year left here) I am going to cut the funding short, take whatever is there, and do what we can with it. I am going to leave the project up until the 15th of November. If you want to give please do so before that time.
In other news...
The telecoms provider in Togo recently launched a wireless internet service across the country that I have signed up for. That means that I have fairly reliable, fast internet at my house! I know... I can hardly consider myself a Peace Corps Volunteer anymore. If you use Skype and would like to try calling me, my Skype name is 'awchilds.' This new connection will also allow me to do fun things like video blogs, live web cams (who wants to see a live shot of the street outside my house?) and so many other things!
Thanks for your patience with the lack of updates. I'm totally back and ready to rumble!
Posted by Aaron on 10/27/2006
As a Peace Corps volunteer one of the options for work is to find a need in our communities, create a project responding to that need, find funding, and finally implement it. Since being here I have seen a huge need for computer skills in the people that I live and work with.
In response to this I began work with a local school to create a project to build a community computer center. The project throughout the past couple of months has changed and morphed to something that we are all very excited to get off the ground.
Sadly we need to find a little over $10,000 to put it into place. There is a program called Peace Corps Partnerships where volunteers write proposals and then solicit funds for them. With no other source for that much money I decided to do that.
In a nutshell my idea is to create a community computer center that lowers the cost of learning about computers and then using them to as close to nothing as possible. To do this I have teamed up with a local private school that has agreed to take on all costs associated with the maintenance and upkeep of the center. In return for this investment they will have preferential access to the center 40% of the time. The rest of the time it will be open to the community for classes and open computer time.
Throughout my time here I have seen a number of computer centers that have been built on one of two general models: totally public and funded through a big NGO or totally private and financed completely by classes or internet use. The problem with the first model is that it requires constant funding from the NGO. In other cases where they turn management over to the local community or government, funds are mismanaged and the centers fail. The second model, while normally functional, charges upwards of $200-$400 for each class, pretty much what the average person here makes in an entire year.
With this project we have created an entirely different model based on a combination of both public and private. The school has it in their best interest to pay the bills and make sure the center works. If they chose not to they will lose the notoriety and the new students brought to them by the center. At the same time they also have it in there best interest to keep it open to the community.
Take for example our plan to partner with local public schools. We open the center each day to a different public school. Towards the end of lunch the students will begin walking to our school, take a one hour intro to computers class, and then go back to their regular studies. With 25 computers and two students to each computer each paying 200 francs CFA (about 40 US cents) for the entire eight week class the center will make a profit of 10,000 francs (about $20.) Run one class a day, five days a week and that is a sizable profit. All this money generated will be put into a computer center account, separate from that of the school’s general fund. This separation is currently being laid out in a detailed constitution that will be used to gain official NGO status from the government of Togo.
I am working with a man who wants to do a tourist guide for our city. He has done an amazing job laying the entire guide out by hand, writing all the information, and finding local business partners. The problem is that he does not have the computer skills needed and the physical access to a computer to make his project a reality. The computer center will directly respond to this need of lack of skills and access to computers. I like the idea of us being a place where people can first come and learn how to use computers then outsource their actual computer needs to us. This will allow people like the tourist guide creator and the public schools to have access to a computer just like it was sitting in their living rooms or in their own schools. We are allowing them to put the burden of acquisition, management, and upkeep of a computer on us.
We are taking this idea even further through a set of advanced classes that we are planning on offering. So far we have plans to offer video editing, music creation, web design, graphic design, and intro to programming classes. Each of these classes will offer more advanced students a chance to learn a new, marketable skill. For example, we plan on buying a number of video cameras for use by our video editing class. With the help of other Peace Corps Volunteers we will teach them how to properly shoot and edit video. After the class we will encourage them to go out into the community, advertise their services to people having weddings, funerals, and parties who want the event recorded. They will then use the centers cameras to shoot the event, the centers computers to edit and burn disks, and eventually make a profit. The same concept will be used for web design and logo creation. The center, along with being a place to learn, will also become a hub for a bunch of micro businesses. We are giving these students the knowledge and the physical resources they need to let their creativity and motivation work for them.
Last week I was training the computer teacher for a small computer center that another volunteer built in a neighboring town. After a couple hours of work we took a break. I left the room and came back to find a group of people gathered around the computer all using a multimedia encyclopedia. They started by wanting to see what it said about Togo and their own small town (not much). They listened to the Togolese national anthem, saw pictures of the capitol city, and read about its history. After exploring a bit they started to branch out to bordering countries. After looking at pictures of Ghana and Burkina Faso they got more adventuress and looked at all of Africa. Eventually they had found remote regions of Europe, listened to the first broadcast from the moon, and saw pictures of New York at night. It was an incredible experience to see these people go from their limited knowledge and experience and eventually find things that are so far from their every day lives. I realized that the main reason I want to build this computer center is not just to teach people how to use computers. I want to give the people of my community the opportunity to see what else is out there. I want them seeing what people in Europe and the US live like. I then want them to say, “Wait a second. Why do they get to live like that and we don’t?” These kids will grow up and demand more. I want to show these people that there is more out there and that they too can have it. They just need to know.
Sorry this has gone on so long. My initial intention was just to write a brief outline of the project and post it with a link to my project. The problem is that I feel so strongly about this and know it so well that I could talk for hours.
The overall cost for the project is $10,512. At the end of the proposal is a detailed budget showing exactly where the money will be going. Here is a brief chart showing amount of money given to what it will buy to give you a better idea of what your money would be going to:
$35: Desk with 2 stools for computer
$80: Video camera
$160: Basic Pentium 2 computer, monitor, keyboard mouse
$300: Pentium 3 computer for advanced classes, monitor, keyboard, and mouse
$500: Display system for classroom
$1000: My love forever J
The project is run under the oversight of Peace Corps Partnerships. What is nice is that every penny given goes directly to the project and is totally tax deductible.
Download the full proposal(Thank you Ben for the space!)
More info on Peace Corps Partnerships
To donate (This is the page describing my project. Click "Donate", scroll down to "Togo", find "Computer Center", and enter the amount you want to contribute.)
If you have any other questions either post them, email me, or give me a call. I am always ready and willing to talk.
Thanks in advance for all your help.
Posted by Aaron on 7/26/2006
Before I begin telling this next story I want to say that I am totally fine. While what I am about to write was scary, I am very lucky in that it was not much worse. Now that it is two weeks later I sit here in good mental and physical health, with only a few scars to show for my experience. With that being said…
I was in Lomé, the capitol of Togo, two weeks ago to do some work. The first night I was there I went to a bar a few blocks from both the Peace Corps office and my hotel with a couple friends. It was a normal evening with us drinking a couple beers and complaining about our parasites. Around 12:30am the last four of us still at the bar decided to walk back to the hotel we were all staying in. We walked the first couple blocks down the dark sandy road. As we were walking past the Peace Corps office a young guy came up behind us and tried to start talking to us. Living here you get very used to people trying to talk to you, and we all continued walking. After a few more steps I felt something poke me in the back.
I turned around to see the kid motioning to the small bag I held with his left hand and a full size machete in his right. I looked up from this attack at the lights glowing on the high security walls of my US Government employer and thought, "Guards! Walls! Safety!" I started screaming in both French and English, "HELP ME! HELP ME!" And ran to the metal door next to the main guard booth. I had visions of guards with large sticks streaming out the door, coming to my aid. I reached the stoop next to the door, continued to yell and turned to face my assailant. I watched in horror as he brought the machete down twice on my left arm.
At this point I don’t remember much of what happened next. I know I stood there for some amount of time trying to call someone to my aid. I know he hit me a few more times with the machete.
The attacker eventually gave up, turned around, and hopped on the back of a motorcycle manned by an accomplice.
I then walked back and found my friends who had run the other direction and been sheltered two blocks down by a shop owner who had heard my screams and opened his door. With the protection of the shop keeper and his brother we walked back to our hotel.
I came out of the entire experience with two gashes on my left arm, one on my upper shoulder blade, one on my lower back, and two on my left thigh. I’m not totally sure if the blade was dull, the attacker wasn’t 100% into it, or if it was just my iron like physique that kept the wounds from being worse.
I got really lucky. I know that. But in the end I figure that this sort of event is the price that I have to pay to live the amazingly interesting life that I do. These sort of things happen. I’m just thankful I’m still alive.
Posted by Aaron on 7/18/2006
Scratch another one off the list: cat. I know it has been said a million times, but, it kind of tastes like chicken; only better.
A couple weeks ago I was drinking the local equivalent of beer (Tchouck… see a picture of me drinking it posted a few months ago) and talking with a couple Togolese friends about meat. We ended up on the subject of dog and cat. I eat dog a couple times a week. It’s a darker meat that tastes a lot like roast beef. (One of these days I want to get some, make a nice brown sauce, and put it all onto a piece of toasted bred. Sooooo good! ) After some discussion we figured out that for the equivalent of about $10 we could get a dog and a cat and have a party.
I am always ready and willing to try new things. I firmly believe in the “you must try everything once’ mantra (except baby birds on a stick in the south of China… I’ll leave that one for my adventurous little brother). After some discussion we decided to have a party where we would have a dog and cat killed and roasted, a bottle of fermented palm wine (a drink with an amazing flavor and very strong, moon shine, type kick) and Tchouck. I offered to put down the local equivalent of around $20 to pay for everything including the gas (crazy expensive these days!) for my friend to go to surrounding villages on his motorcycle and buy all our intended victims.
I got a call this morning around 9:00am from my friend saying, “We have the dog and cat! Do you want to come watch us prepare it?” Thankfully I had a Peace Corps friend in town and declined. I am down with eating dog and cat. I just really don’t want to see someone slit their throats and throw their dead carcasses over a fire. I said I would be there around 1pm.
I met my friend around the appointed time and we started walking to the house of the person who had taken care of the preparation. On the walk we were talking about animals eating the meat of other animals. At one point the two Togolese guys I was with said, “Cats will eat cat. No problem. But good dogs won’t eat other dogs. Bad dogs yes. But good dogs no.” I could not believe that dogs could somehow know that a piece of meat sitting in front of them was dog and not eat it. I wouldn’t believe it.
We got to my friends house, went inside and sat down on the great red velvet covered lounge chairs he has (I would love to know what sleazy 70s lounge these chairs came from!) He bent over behind the table in front of us and pulled out a black, very full plastic bag and a covered stainless steel bowl. He picked up the bowl, walked over to where we were, and with the smile of a proud parent, opened the lid. I leant over, looked inside and saw the head of a small animal, its mouth wide open, teeth daring anyone to touch it, tongue sticking out in a horrid death pose, staring back at me. This was the cat.
I looked over the assorted pieces of what I had, until this point, only experienced as an entire being. I finally reached into the pot of meat and tomato/onion sauce and grabbed what looked to be a leg.
I waited for everyone else to get a piece, looked down, and took a bite. It was amazing! I hate to say it, but, cat has to be one of my favorite meats. It has a taste of chicken yet with a richer, more savory flavor. The leg was probably the most tender, juicy pieces of meat that I have eaten in a long long time. I sit here now, hours later, craving the taste of the juice spurting into my mouth.
After we ate our piece we each had a shot of the distilled palm wine, ate a piece of dog (total let down after the wonderful, delicate flavor of the cat) and looked down at the bone, now devoid of meat, sitting in each of our hands. The owner of the house took the bones, pulled aside the curtain covering the door, and walked over to the two dogs tied to a tree and threw them the cat bones. They ate them with the relish that only a starving Togolese dog could. When he walked back to where we were all standing, I looked at the bag of dog meat in his hand, then at the two dogs, smiled, and said, “Give them a little dog meat.” He smiled, reached into the bag, pulled out a morsel of freshly cooked dog meat and threw it to the two chained animals. It was amazing. The first dog left his cat bone, walked over to the meat, smelt it, and walked away. I had NEVER seen a dog turn down meat. He knew it was dog! The second one though, walked over, smelt it, and greedily swallowed it in one go. I looked at my friend as I saw this and he said, “He’s not a good dog. But the other, he’s good.” The bad dog ate the meat and the other didn’t. It was true!
We finally ended up a few houses down sitting on wooden benches under a mango tree, small table in front of us, and bowls of tchouck resting in their plastic holders at our feet. My friend set the bag of dog meat on the table, put some very spicy powder (I am actually learning to love spicy food) down next to it, and took the first piece. As we ate other people came over, took a couple pieces, and went back to drinking.
A couple hours later all the dog was done, a couple bowls of tchouck was in each of our bellies, and we were ready to go home.
As I biked home I thought of a wonderful sandwich that would probably taste close to the shredded pork sandwiches my grandmother makes and I crave on a daily basis…
BBQ Shredded Cat
Ps. Despite my last two entries being either about castrating a cat or eating a cat I do in fact love them. My cat and I are both doing very well after our (his) traumatic experience. Thanks for all of your emails and messages concerned about his and my well being!
Posted by Aaron on 7/02/2006
As I sit here writing this I can feel the blood dripping down the side of my right hand and splashing the keyboard. I had my cat castrated this morning.
I decided that it was finally time to have my cat’s manhood taken. People have been telling me that if you don’t castrate a male cat he will eventually start spraying urine all over the walls of your house. With the weird smells that already permeate my life here I decided that that was something I defiantly did not need.
I had heard stories of past volunteers having their animals castrated and afterwards almost bleeding to death on the living room floors. Or how for cats the vet got a cardboard box, poked a hole in one side, stuck the soon to be gone body parts out the hole, and cut. I had been putting off the castration for the past couple months, knowing it wouldn’t be fun.
Last night I finally got up the courage and called the vet. He said he would be at my house at 7am and that the entire thing would cost the equivalent of 3$. I got off the phone 35 seconds later and thought, "Wow. That was really easy. This really won’t be a problem!" HA!
I made sure to be up extra early and eating my bowl of cornflakes (you would be surprised at how good cornflakes and freshly made condensed milk and water tastes) and drinking my overly strong cup of black coffee well before the time of cutting. At around 6:45am the bell rung and I opened the door to find a smiling middle age Togolese man standing at my door.
The first thing he said was, "I have been working with Americans for a long time and know they always like to be on time." Good thing number two.
He came in and we talked a few minutes about the volunteer I replaced and his dog, my garden, and finally caught sight of our victim casually walking out the cat size hole I cut in my screen door.
The vet looked around and said, "Do you have a second?" I was confused. Are we fighting a duel? Do I need a second to defend my honor? I looked confused and he continued, "To hold the cat." I confidently responded that this was my cat, he loved and trusted me, I could hold him by myself.
The vet shrugged, said ok, and pulled a little packet with a fresh razor blade from his pocket. I took the cat, laid him on the concrete floor of my patio, took his front two legs (that up until now have done nothing more violent towards me then bat at my moving toes) in my left hand and held his neck gently but firmly in my right hand. He was a little unsure, but, in the end he is a very trusting cat (he’d never had his freakin balls chopped off before!)
The vet took his back legs in one hand and carefully lowered the razor blade to the small soon to be empty package. With the first slice of the razor blade I saw my cat’s eyes bulge, heard the yelp that one would assume came with a male having his defining parts removed, and he began to fight.
At one point during the cutting I felt all five claws of one of his back paws dig into the top of my left hand. As I reacted to that attack I felt his head shimmy out of my right hand and teeth enter into my palm. I didn’t blink an eye, didn’t bat an eyelash. We were here to do some cutting. I don’t know how I got control again. The entire scene is a blur of blood and yelping at this point. He got out of our grip a second time and I felt multiple paws and teeth all at the same time digging into my exposed flesh.
I looked down at the opposite end (I had been focusing on the teeth wielding part) and saw the vet gingerly pull what looked like two small grapes attached to flesh colored cords from my cats nether regions.
It was over.
I tried to let go of the screaming animal but found he had latched onto my hand with teeth and nails. He finally understood that he was done and let go.
I was badly shaken (all the caffeine sure as heck didn’t help any). I went inside to find a sterile bandage to help stop the bleeding from my many injuries. When I came back I saw the vet pick up the lost cat parts, walk over to one of my flower beds, and bury them.
The vet tried to apologize for my wounds. In broken, very shaky French (I could hardly speak English at that point let alone anything else) I said, "It's ok. My cat is bleeding and suffering over there. I guess I can too… And I still have my balls."
Posted by Aaron on 6/21/2006
One of my goals whenever I live in a different country is to be able to do things like a local, buying or asking for something with only a few, short words. I always try to use hand gestures, head tilts and one or two quietly said words to get what I want. There is something about the lack of verbal communication that communicates what I want in a way only someone that KNOWS how to order something would order it.
One of my favorite restaurants is on a dusty road on the way up a hill next to the school where I work. In a past blog entry I wrote about how when you eat on the street there is usually a very big bowl of some carb based food (rice, pasta, ground up corn mush balls etc) and a sauce. This restaurant is different in that instead of one pot of sauce there is a table with around 20 large cooking pots full of sauces of all type of color and texture. There are green sauces that have a stringy snot like consistency (gumbo…. HATE!), red sauces with chunks of assorted fats or curled up rolls of skin (actually learning to like both skin and fat), and various colored liquids with chunks of meat (of various quality). The sauce I always go for is the first one on the far right of the table: Antelope (here known as Biche).
When you walk in the door you enter a concrete room about 10 by 20 feet. On one side are two low tables about 8 feet long. Each table has two long benches on either side that sit only a few inches bellow the eating surface. This means that everyone sits, semi-hunched over their metal bowl of carb and sauce, massaging and then gently tossing the food from hand to mouth. On each end of a table sits a large plastic, multi-colored bucket filled with water, a plastic basin and cup. When you sit down at a table you fill the cup with water, position the basin in front of you, and using your left hand pour the water over your right hand while rubbing all the fingers in order against your palm.
I walk in, turn to the round motherly lady manning the pots, and order with a total of seven softly spoken words:
"Riz cent francs. Biche trois cent." (I then sit down and say to one of the young waitress girls) "Castel."
I sit down at my favorite spot (far right of the table directly across from the entrance with my back against the wall) and wait for my food and beer.
By the time I am done washing my hands the first glass of beer has been poured and placed on my left and my shinny stainless steal food filled bowl put in front of me.
When I first started going to the restaurant I always ate my rice and antelope with a spoon that the ladies automatically put in all bowls for foreigners. The other day I sat down to my usual meal and without thinking, put the spoon on the table, and started mixing the rice and sauce with my hands. After eating my first bite of food I realized that I wasn’t eating the way I have been eating for so long. I instinctively picked up my spoon and took another bite. It didn’t taste right. There was something about the metal mixing with the spicy flavor of the sauce, the warm sticky alive feeling of the rice being marred by the dead spoon that I put it, now dirty, back on the table.
I’m waiting for the day when the waitress notices the clean spoons and eventually treats me like everyone else.
Posted by Aaron on 6/17/2006
When I lived in India I hated the taste of coconut milk. My brother loved it. I remember the milk having a sour, unmilky flavor that I just couldn’t enjoy. I don’t know if it is my body’s continual search for more liquids (no matter how much I drink I always feel dehydrated!), the taste of something different, or just the newly discovered subtle sweetness that has changed my mind?
To pick a coconut is not an easy task. The trees are usually 20 – 30 feet tall with the coconuts holding on in grape type bunches all the way at the top. It is part circus trick, part Olympic feat what their pickers accomplish. The job is usually given to a boy aged 13 – 17. Like a pirate climbing into the rigging chasing a stowaway, they put a machete between their teeth, look up at the eventual prize, and half shimmy, half walk up to the fruit. For the five minutes while he is suspended high above, there is a continual rain of heavy green giant orbs falling all around.
You can see a coconut seller lady from the other side of a market. She has a large basin stacked almost double with basketball sized coconuts and machete at the ready. These are not the dead brown "coconuts" that’s you get in American supermarkets. Here they are always newly picked in all their giant beautiful green freshness. You call her over with a glance, quick up side down beckoning motion of the right hand, or (depending on where you are) a simple, "Ko!" (Come in Kabyé) or, "Vien!" (Come in French.) Then with your help (ALWAYS help get a basin on and off someone’s head) she expertly takes the basin off her head and sets it on the ground between you.
Then comes one of my favorite parts. She chooses a coconut depending on how much you want to spend: 10 cents for a smaller one 20 for big. In preparing her wares for market she takes each coconut and expertly hacks off the top third of the hard outer green layer showing the light brown inner milk container. She then takes the coconut in one hand, machete in the other, and somehow without chopping her fingers off (I usually count to see if my ladies still have all ten digits. They always do.), removes in small quick blows the remaining two thirds of green outside. The chopped out light brown core, after the chopping, is usually about a third as big as the original fruit (coconuts are fruit… right? Or are they nuts?). Finally she holds the coconut in the left hand and, with the right hand brings the machete expertly down on the top. After three or four swift chops a nice little quarter sized circle opens up showing the wonderful wonderful juice inside.
She then hands the container to you, you take it, throw your head back (there is an iconic picture reproduced all over Togo that shows a bare breasted, Togolese women, drinking from a coconut on the beach. Her head is thrown back in complete abandon, juice flows over her bare torso, the sun sets in the distance. It is this ideal that I strive to recreate with every purchased coconut.) and drink the milk in a single go.
When you are done, without saying anything, you hand the now empty nut (is it a nut?) back to the lady who takes it again in her left hand, and brings the machete down hard on its side, cracking it open and splitting it into two halves. Then either with the end of the machete or a small shard of the green outside, she separates the meat from the shell, places it back in the halved coconut, and hands it back to you to eat.
Posted by Aaron on 5/21/2006
The other day I was asked to talk to a high school class who was studying the US. I decided that it would be more interesting for the students (and less work for me… always good… :) to go in and ask for questions. After about 20 minutes of questions one kid raised his hand and asked, “Are Americans an individualistic or group oriented society?” I responded by asking which category his culture fell into. He answered immediately saying the Togolese were group oriented.
In an earlier post I mentioned the word Yovo. Roughly translated (and this depends on who you talk to) it means stranger, outsider. Over the years it has morphed to mean white person, European or even non-African (which from a Togolese perspective are all outsiders, strangers etc). It is not necessarily (again, depending on who you talk to) derogatory. Instead it is a label given to a group of people.
This word manifests itself every time I leave my house. As soon as I walk out my front gate (thank God I have high outer walls!) children hidden all around start screaming, “Yovo!” Or, “Anasara!” It isn’t so much calling me or trying to say good morning. It is more like when a young kid in the US yells out, “Train!” Then as I bike through my neighborhood there is a wave of this yelling that follows me to my destination.
Most volunteers HATE this. As an American I can understand their point of view. As Americans we were always taught the value of the individual. All through school we were taught that we are individually interesting people and that grouping someone is bad. We cringe every time we hear someone refer to another person as black or white. Now imagine walking down the street and having mobs of kids chasing after you seemingly grouping you, judging you for the color of your skin.
Some volunteers get angry. Others come up with clever ways to change what the kids say (one taught all the kids to call him Champ.)
In the end I just deal with it.
Posted by Aaron on 5/01/2006
There is an ethnic group in this part of the world called the Fulani. (What I am about to describe is based purely on asking questions and not on hard fact. If there are things that I get wrong, please forgive me.) They are a nomadic group of people that are all over this part of Africa. Fulani men are paid by rich people to herd cattle from one place to another. In Togo they normally walk from Burkina Faso (North of Togo) to Lomé (the capitol in the South) with herds of 15 – 20 skinny skinny cows.
For some reason Fulani all dress alike. The men wear baggy, loose fitting, solid color MC Hammer type pants with a very loose tunic type shirt (oftentimes the shirts will be second hand western women’s clothing like a blouse.) They ALWAYS have a walking stick in one hand, water bottle on a string draped over one arm, bag (most often women’s purse) draped over the other arm and a hat (usually straw but on occasion white lacey kind of hat little girls in the south wear to church). For some reason they also all wear solid colored plastic (gummy kind of) shoes.
I’m not sure I have ever seen a Fullani woman. I think I have. They usually have children in their arms, colorful beads in their hair, and a far away look to their eye. Their clothing is usually a deep red color.
Having lived here for a number of months and traveled a bit I have gotten used to seeing things that are foreign to me. I don’t think I will ever get used to seeing the Fulani.
Two weeks ago I was in a car driving from a city in the south of the country to my home further north. We stopped next to a thriving market in the full swing of market day. The market looked like most other markets except for how many Fulani there were. Groups of two or three Fulani guys (probably 17 – 25 years old) were casually wandering around, not buying anything, just being seen. Imagine middle schoolers in the US going to the mall on a Saturday afternoon. Before going they put on their best shoes, do their hair just right, and hope to be seen. These guys had done the exact same thing… just Fulani style. Some of the guys wandering around had on makeup; some of it turning their face a clown like white. Others had painted white circles on their cheeks, white streaks under their eyes, and white on their lips. There were groups who had giant Afros (and the accompanying hair pick). Others had very nice purses and the white hats of the southern nine year old at her first communion.
Yesterday, I was leaving the market with arms full of black bags of veggies. As I loaded up my bike bags I looked up to see two Fullani guys staring at me and whispering to each other.
They were talking about me.
Between two guys who walk around carrying women’s purses and lace hats I was the foreign one. I was the alien. They belong to an ethnic group I understand about as well as the accordion, who know and think exactly the same about me. I didn’t need the makeup, purse, or walking stick. Instead I had my jeans, messenger bag and Trek bike.
And I was weird.
Posted by Aaron on 4/19/2006
A couple weeks ago small traffic lights suddenly appeared at the 4 main intersections of my town. For the first week that they were up none worked. Riding through the intersections where my life has been nearly taken from me, I was excited about the idea of having something to control the flow of motorcycle, car, huge truck and people traffic.
About a week after the signals magically appeared in town I was biking to use the internet. I turned on the main intersection only to be stopped on the next street by a policeman who said the road was closed. Not totally sure why (but not questioning… you learn to let things slide after being here for a while) I turned around and tried to turn down another road of the intersection only to be met by yet another policeman. I finally decided that something was going on and pulled my bike over to see what would happen. After a few minutes of waiting I started hearing drums. In another minute or two I saw a group of Tem (one of the local tribal/ethnic groups) dancers (guys dance with two sticks in a line, spinning and hitting the other guys sticks rhythmically) followed by a group of horsemen dressed (the rider and horse) in traditional garb. The riders were pulling on the reigns, making the horses rear up every few steps.
The dancers and horses were then followed by a small fleet of Mercedes that stopped in the middle of the intersection in front of me. A group of besuited (anyone wearing a suit in this country is both very rich/important and (in my opinion) very crazy (SO HOT)) men got out of the cars walked up to one of the newly traffic lighted parts of the intersection and cut a white ribbon that had been hung across the road.
There were a few more minutes of dancing as the suited men all shook hands and finally got back into their air-conditioned cars to be driven away to whatever office they worked in. Crowds milled around the intersection for a few more minutes until the traffic lights were finally turned on and traffic started flowing.
Weeks later I still see people just sitting, watching the controlled flow of traffic and the lights magically changing colors.
Posted by Aaron on 4/05/2006
I have been crazy busy recently and have falled behind in my writing. To make up for that I have taken the easy way out and posted a new series of pictures.
This is a photo of me with my local counter part in our current computer lab. The coats we are both wearing are used by all Togolese private school teachers to keep chalk dust off their clothes. The school had one made for me my first couple weeks there. On the pocket it says 'Ismael - Informatician' (Translation: Ismael - Computer God)
That does it for this little update. Look for an interesting update about a project I am working on coming online in the next couple weeks.
Posted by Aaron on 3/14/2006
In the past week I have seen two new shirts that I had to post.
When i wrote my post on the shirts I had a comment or two on each one. These two new finds are so good they pretty much speak for themselves.
1. Young guy on a motorcycle with a light green shirt that said "Poop Queen." ... No comment.
2. "What if the Hokey Pokey was really what it's all about?" Wow! That's all I can say. Wow!
Until next time.
Posted by Aaron on 2/27/2006
Me sitting drinking a local brew called Choock (sp?) thats made from fermented millet and has about the same alcohol content as beer. Actually REALLY good. Kind of has a sweet flavor to it. It takes about three days to make. Those bowls are called calabashes and are made from a dried melon type thing.
What I see every time i open my gate to leave my house.
My entire Peace Corps training group. One person in this group hadnt showered in a week. Welcome to the Peace Corps! (DANG HIPPIES!)
My amazingly cute host sister during training.
My host father holding a bush rat before it is cleaned and prepared for me to eat. One of my favorite new types of meat (my other favorite is Antelope. SO GOOD!)
Posted by Aaron on 2/21/2006
Have you ever wondered what happens to your old shirts? What ever happened to that free t-shirt you were given when you ran that marathon back in ’92? Or how about the shirt that you were given when you helped elect McGovern to the State Senate in ’88? Or how about that stint you pulled working at Best Buy. Are you saying you didn’t continue to wear that classy blue polo?
My guess is that like many Americans, you threw those cloth pieces of treasure into a box until you or your significant other got fed up at how much space it was taking up and took it to Goodwill or some other charitable organization. Did you ever wonder what happened to what was in that box? Did you ever ponder the idea that someone else in the US or wide world would somehow end up with your clothing?
I know where your shirt is…
(I plan on writing a full entry on this next subject. But I need to include a brief summery here to tell the rest of my story.) Here in Togo all foreigners are called Yovo. Loosely translated (and depending on who you talk to) it means outsider, foreigner. (Again, I will talk more at a later time on this wonderful wonderful (SARCASM) word and its many uses.)
No one here can afford to purchase clothes in a store or buy clothe to have them made. To fill this gap in affordable clothing people get there hands on large quantities of second hand, donated clothing. My guess is that they are either purchased by the truck load in the US from Goodwill and shipped here or are “given out” by local NGOs for distribution. Either way piles upon piles of used clothes end up on plastic tarps all over the country. It is known that this abundance of clothing comes from the outside world. The Togolese can not understand why some Yovo (there’s our new word for the day!) would ever give this stuff away. The thinking goes that to have given away something so great the giver must have died. Thus the markets that sell this stuff are called Dead Yovo Markets. Who still living could ever part with these wonderful expensive treasures?
It is a fun game among Peace Corps volunteers to compete for weirdest shirt seen. Now remember, the people buying this stuff don’t read English. They buy it because it doesn’t have holes (usually) and will protect them from the sun.
Here is a nice selection of shirts that I have seen in my short 5 months here.
•Young boy with a shirt that said, “This is what 40 looks like. Jealous?” I doubt he was 40, but I have to say I was a little jealous at how youthful he appeared.
•“Elect Thompson to City Council.” Wait a sec… there are no city councils here!
•Small Girl, less than 10 wearing pink shirt that read, “Sexy Bitch.” I thought she was cute. Not sure she was a “sexy bitch.” But who am I to judge?
•Countless McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and UPS polos. What? It’s a polo shirt with a small logo on it. That works for a business meeting!
•“I’m PMSing” Now my knowledge of biology isn’t great. But, I didn’t think a 45 year old male carpenters could PMS. But who am I to question.
•“Buy Malidu from Me!” I almost asked for a shot. Then I remembered that due to the lack of electricity it probably wasn’t cold. Who wants warm Malibu from a 10 year old at 8:30 in the morning?
•“I’m not easy. I’m just popular.” You know what. I’m happy that that 11 year old boy has friends. Good for him!
•Black shirt with three pictured panels and the heading, “How to Grow a Mullet.” I looked a little more closely and you know what? If the kid wearing the shirt ever wanted a mullet, he was set!
•Countless Graduating Class of ’91, Class of ’89 Reunion, ’93 Soccer Champ shirts and the like. Who knows? Maybe the kid wearing it really did go to Middlebury Middle School in the late 80s?
I’m thinking about casually sneaking my CS@GW shirt with “It’s ok! I’m a computer scientist” written in big yellow letters on the back into one of the piles. If I create no computer scientists through the classes I teach I know that there will at least be one in name wandering around this country.
Posted by Aaron on 2/07/2006
To fully discover a country one needs to eat its street foods.
I remember wandering the streets of Guangzhou with my brother looking for something to eat. We ended up at an open store front with tray upon tray of deep fried food on a stick (I once wanted to open a restaurant called “Everything on a Stick.”) At the far left hand side of the middle row was a tray filled with skewers of deep fried baby birds. My brother being who he is (love the kid) went straight for them. As he bit into the first baby bird I remember him saying, “It’s not so much that I can feel the bones breaking or the innards exploding in my mouth. I don’t mind that. The thing I don’t like about this… it tastes AWFUL!” The point of the story being that for Eric and I to understand the culture we needed to taste the food that people grabbed on their way to work, on a date, or window shopping.
While there are no deep fried baby bird sticks here, there is still a very interesting world of street food to be had.
One of the staples of my diet is a wonderful thing called Bui (not sure of the spelling) that I always eat with a Benyay (again… not sure of spelling.) Bui is ground corn (the most common), millet, or tapioca (my favorite and most uncommon) cooked with boiling water. That’s it. When cooked it becomes very liquidy and easily drunk from a bowl. Every morning when I go to school I sit out front before my first class and get 25 CFA (5 cents) worth of Bui (a small bowls worth) and a Benyay (deep fried dough ball) for another 25CFA. One can always tell women that serve Bui because of the large plastic tubs covered with a simple insulator of plastic and cloth sitting on a crude wooden table in front of them. There is something about the warm lumpy stuff that really satisfies an early morning hunger.
Another one of my main food sources is Wachi: rice cooked with beans (everything here is very simple.) You can spot a Wachi women (I like the ring of that…) by a large metal tub that contains a giant lump (the rice and beans) wrapped in plastic and cloth. It is ordered by price (100CFA is what I normally get), scooped out by hand (her RIGHT hand of course! That’s the clean one!) and placed into a plastic bowl. Sitting next to the metal vat are usually an assortment of different size stainless steel, lidded pots. In each pot (sometimes there is only one) is a different sauce (but always palm oil based and very very red.) There is usually the fish chunk sauce (I stay away from that one) and sometimes the overcooked goat chunk sauce (usually stay away from that one… sometimes I get brave or inebriated and end up tearing at a few pieces… not the best idea.) Occasionally you get lucky and mixed in with the fish sauce are pieces of a local “cheese” called Wagash, deep fried to the point of breaking your teeth (SOOO GOOD!) I put cheese in quotes because I’m not 100% sure that it really IS cheese. It is cheese in the sense that milk (or some dairy product) was somehow made hard (my cheese making knowledge is not that extensive). One can purchase Wagash at the market in large red (they die the outside with millet to help preserve it) wheels stacked on a metal tray carefully balanced on a women’s head.
While I love the taste (most of the time) of the street food, my favorite part is the interactions that take place while eating. There is something bonding about sharing the food of another’s culture.
In the future I will write about other street foods and specific eating experiences.
Posted by Aaron on 1/23/2006
I am lucky by Peace Corps standards. I can get lettuce every day of the week.
Where others are happy to have a market every 6 or 7 days, I live in the second largest city in the country. That means I can find fun things like onions, lettuce, green peppers, and wonderful wonderful soy cheese (how I crave protein!) at the Grande Marché (main market) EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK! When I go to visit friends I usually bring along a large bag of food to put a little meat on their skinny skinny frames (Peace Corps diet works WONDERS!) Some of my friends have to bike 4km to find a loaf of bread, other friends are lucky if they can get tomatoes in their village.
I usually stop at the market on my way home from teaching. The market is a large concrete structure (uncommon except in the largest cities) with wooden framed and metal roofed stalls overflowing on all sides. I usually park my bike at the Post Office across the street. In getting to the post office I cross a lane of oncoming motorcycle, ox cart, car, and people traffic. I swear that crossing will be the death of me! But it will be worth it for all the wonderful food it has given me.
I lock my bike with the blue Chinese made (everything comes from China around here. God bless Globalization's cheap prices) bike lock and cross back over the street. All Peace Corps volunteers have "their lady" at the market. All that means is the one veggie seller who was lucky enough to be nice to you on your first week at post that you have continued to go back to. My lady has a great smile and very fresh veggies. To get to her stand I need to duck into a small covered walkway boarded by stands on both sides leaving about 2 feet of space to walk. The first stand on the right as you enter the small walkway sells rice. They probably have 7 or 8 different types of rice in huge bowls sitting open, waiting for some nice person to take some home. On the left is a stand with the same large bowls only filled with beautifully orange palm oil. You usually buy it in small slender see through bags that are kept in yet another bowl. They kind of remind me of buying fish when I was little and the fish store guy putting them in bulging, water filled plastic bags, only here it is palm oil and smaller.
The next stand sells fetish items. The three main religions of Togo are Christianity, Islam, and Animism (aka Voodoo) A fetish stand sells things for voodoo ceremonies: gnarly bone handled knives, different size rusty and non-rusty nails (gotta be able to chose!), an assortment of dried skins and furs from something that used to be alive, and powders of all color and consistency. Animism is an old religion still practiced by many people in West Africa. I have friends that live in small villages (small villages way out in the wild are the biggest practicers of the traditional religion) who tell stories of Witch Doctors doing demon dances, chicken sacrificing (what a nice welcome!), and other interesting (sometimes kind of scary) stories. I don't see much of it as I live in a largely Muslim city. The extent of my exposure to the practices are the occasional talisman (string with various things from the fetish table attached to it) hanging in a tree next to a house to ward of spirits.
After the fetish stand I enter the concrete structure that houses most of the food sellers. All the ladies that work in this corner section know me and try to get my business. But I walk, saying hi to everyone, and head straight for my lady. She always has a great pile of lettuce, cucumbers, green peppers, green beans, and the occasional (what a great day when they are there!) eggplant. Everything is ordered by price. For example I say I want 100 CFA (that's 100 West African Francs, equal to about 20 cents) of lettuce, 100 of cucumber, and 200 of eggplant (that comes out to 4 small heads of leaf lettuce, 1 cucumber, and 1 or 2 medium eggplants). She puts it all into one of the ubiquitous black plastic bags, adds a cadeu (Present in French) of a pile of green beans. I then look for someone with nice tomatoes. Everyone specialises in a couple of veggies, selling only them. Tomato sellers always stack their tomatoes in pyramid piles of either 50 or 100 CFA (10 or 20 cents). For that you get about 4-6 small tomatoes. I finally leave followed by calls to buy potatoes, more tomatoes, and all other sorts of wares. I cross back over the street and get a loaf of bread for another 100CFA that's a soft crusted baguette (one of the only good things the French did in Africa (I like to pick on the French) was teach people how to make bread.) I finally unlock my bike and head home.
Posted by Aaron on 1/16/2006
In the US we take getting around for granted. Most people have cars. Others, like me who at 23 is still licenseless, use public transportation to get where they need to go. Paved roads connect almost every house, shopping mall, and school.
In Togo there is one paved road that runs from the capitol in the south to the most northern border with Burkina Faso. There is nothing else. If you turn off this main road you turn onto pot-holed, dirt roads that can become impassible during the rainy season.
To make travel in this country even more difficult imagine a population that can not afford to send their children to school for $8 a year. Then ask yourself if that population owns cars.
There is no public transportation. There are no local airports, no local or national bus routes, no subway systems. The way people get around here is a wonderful thing called a bush taxi. In my opinion it is wonderful wonderful capitalism at work at its best. In a market economy if there is a need of a service, that need is filled by an individual who hopes to profit.
A bush taxi in its simplest form is a car that drives along the national route picking people up along the way and then dropping them off along the route closer to their final destination. That sounds fine.
In reality bush taxis are cars that have been out of service in the US or Europe since the late 80s that are shipped to Africa and sold for a couple hundred dollars. These are held together and driven until they literally FALL apart on the side of the road. I was once in a bush taxi that had to stop 4 times to pick up different pieces of the car that had fallen (muffler, hub-cap, some pipe from under the car, and a strip of metal about 6 inches long… Guess none were that important.)
It makes sense for a driver to want to fill his car as full as he can with people. I have been in a basic 4 door sedan that is meant for 5 (driver plus 4) filled with upwards of 11 to 12 people. That works out to 4 up front (two in the driver's seat and two in the passenger seat… sometimes three in the passenger seat) and anywhere from 5-7 people (and we arnt talking small children… We are talking full grown adults) jammed into the back. There are also larger passenger type vans that normally hold 15 people. They have the front section (cab) and then 4 rows of benches. I have seen these cars filled with as many as 30 people. There are no seat belts, no air-conditioning, and only rarely a window that will open. You have no idea how after being crammed into the back seat with 5 other people for 4 hours you CRAVE the luxury of Economy Class flight.
For example, if I want to travel to see my friend who lives 40k away I walk to the main road. I stand and wait for a bush taxi to pass in the direction I want to go (there are only two ways to go in a place with only one road.) He stops, I jam into whatever space I can find and we are off. It takes a car about 25 – 30 minutes to travel 40k (about 25 miles) in the US. Now imagine that you were driving a bush taxi where you have to stop every few miles to "show your papers" (wink wink) to the police at a checkpoint, not drive over 30 miles an hour for fear of hitting one of the pot holes (craters), and stopping every few minutes to pick up or drop someone off. That normally 30 minute car ride turns into a hellish two hours. Try to imagine not being able to get out of a crouching position for hours at a time. For the longer trips (it takes about 6 hours to get to the capitol from my city) there are no bathrooms. Every once in a while the car will pull over next to a field and everyone (women included) get out and do their business.
While it is never fun to be stuck in a car with 29 other people, 4 chickens, and a goat it is amazingly interesting. No one complains. It is just the way life goes.
Posted by Aaron on 1/16/2006
If I am walking down the street in the US and happen to see someone I know, I either try to avoid making eye contact so as not have to say anything or give a quick head nod and a, "Hey." If I am feeling friendly I might throw in a "What's up?" But after having done my small duty, continue on my way.
A typical exchange on the street here would go like this:
(This local language is called Kabye. I am also writing everything out phonetically as there are letters used that we don't have in English)
Person 1: Un-la-waa lay (Good morning)
Person 2: Yaa. Alafia. (Yes, it is good.)
Person 1: Alafia way? (How are you?)
Person 2: Alafia. (Fine.)
Person 1: Toe-mee-ai yo? (How's your work?)
Person 2: Alafia. (Fine.)
Person 1: Halow yo? (How's your wife?)
(Note: If the person has two or more wives, not uncommon, you would say, "Pay-way Alafia?")
Person 2: Alafia. (Fine.)
Person 1: Pia yo? (And your children?)
Person 2: Alafia. (Fine.)
Person 1: Plab-tassi. (See you later.)
Person 2: Plab-tassi. (See you later.)
Along with this exchange both people slightly squat down, putting their hands on their knees in a sign of respect. I have seen women carrying huge bowls filled with vegetables on their head squat down without even thinking about it. In the local language of my city, Kotokoli, towards the end of that exchange both people make a sort of grunting sound back and forth. Just a little "mm" or "ungh." They go back and forth grunting for sometimes upwards of 10 seconds.
(After all other greetings)
Person 1: Ungh
Person 2: Unn
Person 1: Ungh
Person 2: Unn
Person 1: Ungh
Person 2: Unn
Person 1: Ungh
Person 2: Unn
Its almost musical, kind of like a song being passed back and forth.
I have asked many people why they do that. The only response I get is, "That's just part of it." It's such an interesting way to greet someone, seemingly not saying anything. But that's just how it's done.
Sometimes in Kabye after all the questions the person being asked will shake his hands back and forth and go, "Ya ya ya ya ya." That basically just means, "Everythings great."
There is something about the idea of asking about someone's life that I really like. While it does get a little old to be asked about my work 10 times a day, it is still nice to know that that human contact is there. This is a culture that values the relationship between people.
ps. Sorry I havnt posted in a long long time. I spent a wonderful Christmas at home with my family and am just now getting back.
Posted by Aaron on 1/13/2006