Wow–just got a message from an old friend in Togo, West Africa. Now, I guess I’ll say friend, though we were not the best of friends at the time. I was trying too hard, maybe, and our cultures were so different. Not even because of the world apart aspect so much as that different things were important to us, our personalities, and that we were immature and in our twenties, each going through culture shock, loneliness, who know what else, for her. There was a bit of a language barrier, too, as I was just gaining fluency in French while she had no English.
That was in 1986, thirty years ago, in a cultural exchange between our countries that took us to rural areas to live with traditional farming families. I at least had come from the country and knew about farm work, she was from a more urbanite background, and it must have been harder for her to get up at 5:30, feed the cows, milk, shovel pig and hog manure, pick rocks and hay, milk and feed again, then to supper and bed in our host home in our little shared room painted deep cyan. At least it was summer. Then in Togo, though we lived for three months in a village with a family that practiced agriculture, the hosts were uncomfortable with their “guests” sharing the work, so except for one occasion after I pleaded to go with them out to the fields to work, we pretty much lazed around and did our own thing, supplied by the family out of the program’s allowance with fruit, meat, coffee, and fufu. I think that was part of my problem, having no real role except to absorb things, write, sketch, wonder if I was gaining weight, try to learn the local language from the children, and feel frustrated that my Togolese counterpart and I weren’t becoming bosom friends.
So now we’re friends on FaceBook. A bunch of the other Canadians are on there too, but we all pretty much live very different lives, all across the continent, some in French, some in English. As I message my Togolese counterpart, I’m amazed at how easily my French comes back to mind. What a thing the mind is, holding things in reserve just in case for twenty years.
I was so very lonely there. I wrote and wrote, dragged myself through the routines of meals, water filter maintenance, my nightly shower, and flopped down on my foam mattress under the mosquito cover, grateful to sink into sleep. The shower was a favorite time as I washed off the sweat of the day and rinsed out my lingerie, looking out toward the forest and the tropical storm clouds raining and thundering a few miles to the west.
Sometimes I’d get a visit from the chain smoking Quebecois who would play my guitar, while I rolled him a few cigarettes, or one of the other Canadians. But except for our weekly get together with our group leader , our lives were in our host family homes with our counterparts. I enjoyed the company of my compatriots, but didn’t find a deep friendship there. There were only seven of us, and we supported one another, but what a set of different personalities and backgrounds. The program selected us that way, as a matter of fact. I thought I’d get on well with one of the guys, but he was asked to leave before we flew to Africa, apparently for a drug offense, so It’s just as well, for that and other reasons. One of the women was apparently almost sent home too, for being too cozy with the local Africans and their traditional African. No one was quite sure, except that she was giving our group leader some sleepless nights, and was put on a kind of probation.He certainly had his troubles, Pierre did, with an alcoholic Togolese group leader and trying to keep everyone secure as several coups d’etat were struck in the capitol a few hours away, curfews were declared, soldiers rolled through every few weeks and the village young people proclaimed their loyalty in elaborate and very African-groove song and dance rallies. Drums and traditional cloth outfits, leader call and chorus answer songs, President Eyadema came, and there was light.
And then there I was telling Pierre I didn’t think I was going to make it, fighting what I realize now was depression, and him insisting he needed me to stay, feeding me scrambled eggs with maple syrup and telling me I was the most mature one he had, so would I please just hang in there for one month more and see. Finally I said I’d do it, and somehow I made it. The turning point was giving up on my expectations for a close relationship with my counterpart. I treated her as a co-worker, stopped trying to “get to know” her, just let her do her thing, kill and cook a chicken now and then, show me how to make a nice sauce not as spicy as the local version, how to make yesterday’s beef stew last another day without refrigeration. The children, a set of four from an assortment of loosely related aunts or foster aunts, were a blessing–I’d draw sketches of things and ask them what the word was, and they’d get all excited, debate what I meant, and tell me the Kotokoli word. Scorpion! Chaliamlu!
I had this little song I made up and played on my guitar, with their names in it, Teba, Nura, Falila and Celimata, that they got a kick out of. They all had such unique and distinct faces–I’m sure I could recognize them as grown-ups.
My host brothers used to like to hang around a bit, and they at least spoke French, while my old host father and his two old wives didn’t. One was just a sweet young man, though he would use a razor to hack away at his plantar warts on the cement floor of my hut. I thought his intentions toward me were refreshingly platonic, compared to the city boys hinting they would like a “souvenir” before we parted. That’s the way I gave away my harmonica about a week after we first arrived in the capitol city, to a nice young man who worked at the community center where we lodged, who befriended me, even invited me to his family home and gave me soda as we sat in the living room with “Dallas” on TV, of all things. He wrote to me for over a year as if we were betrothed, though nothing happened between us. One of the other women had the same experience. I still feel that sourness. that sense of being wronged, for all of that, and for being begged from in the cities just because I was white. I didn’t want to go to Africa to develop bitterness against Africans, not the plan at all.
Later in the village, after several months of foster sibling friendship, my host brother shyly asked for a souvenir too. I explained to him that he was like a brother, that i liked him but not in that way, and he gave it up and sort of went back to normal, but I never felt the same ease in his company.
Problems within our group arose too, among the African exchange participants and us. We figured out among ourselves that the Togolese young people had not been chosen for their cultural openness or ability to communicate cross culturally, as we Canadians were, through a series of special activities observed by screeners. They were mostly urban, privileged, and well connected politically, hoping to nab some of perks of the Western world. Two of the Togolese men in another group were sent home for a semi-hushed up sexual assault charge. Another two were basically leering, chauvinist jerks who drove all the Canadians, both men and women, nuts. Another was screwing a series of local Togolese village women who perceived him as a good prospect. The one Togolese participant we liked, and who therefore received all our fond attentions, had actually worked at some kind of tourist place and had a lot of experience with Westerners, and also spoke English. He was culturally sensitive, respectful, and a lot of fun. He and one of the women of our group fell in love and married after the program. He was from a traditional village, and was just a more wholesome, mature guy able to relate to anyone.
Our recourse for dealing with the spoiled chauvinists was to help their Canadian counterparts and group members let off steam on the weekends by making up derogatory songs and rhymes about them. That was after trying to convert them into sensitive new age guys, which failed utterly. Some of the Togolese women weren’t much better, gossiping and tittering and all catty. Mine at least was only guilty of being taciturn and scowling in an intimidating way, at least to my young, sensitive feelings. And now it turns out she kind of did, or does, want to be friends, at least on FaceBook.
More memories there–i can feel them peeping in at the edges of consciousness. I wonder where my writings from that time are–in some box or other fading away on the cheap notebook paper I got in the village market. I wrote reams to my family and to a boyfriend who didn’t manage to wait for me, and when he expressed his interest on my return, i was too emotionally exhausted to accept him.
It did change me, and I guess the goal of the program, to teach young people about rural development and experience cultural differences, was achieved. I lost my shyness of foreigners, was glad to meet much more likable Africans at university in Nova Scotia, got to see the world, and there’s nothing to compare with that. But I never felt tempted to switch to an international development major, or lead an exchange myself, as it seems many of the participants did. I don’t hang out at community cultural centers, or follow any Eastern religion, and never even went for dreadlocks or henna. Wearing a swirly skirt in the summer once in awhile is enough for me. I don’t want to go back.