More on Yovo

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.

11 comments:

VAtoOR said...

Aaron, former roomate Matt here just back from Colorado. your blog looks great, reminiscent of my bike trip blog. i swung through DC on my drive home and saw some old friends who told me about this site which i plan on visiting more often now.

Gary said...

If the collective remembering of the Togolese connects white/ European/etc people with oppresion, colonialism, slavery, whatever, then maybe it's understandable to yell out a warning: Don't get hit by the oncoming TRAIN (i.e. white guy). Of course, you've lived there for ahwile and shown your definite untrainlike qualities. Too bad the calls continue. Wonder what they'll shout when we visit?

idgaff said...

dude,

you're basically a racist. it's okay though soon you'll be back home with all the other racists.

love.

j-ster said...

This comment comes a little late, but its pretty much the same thing in most countries you travel to, especially where the country is more collectivistic and where the foreigner is visibly quite different from the local population.

In Japan they are 'gaijin', in China they are 'gwailo', in Thailand they are 'farang', and in New York they are 'tourists'.

The tricky thing is tho, that in a collectivistic culture, there is really no place truly outside the community.

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