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 KabyĆ©) 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.

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.