Bread From the Sky is featured today on Spalding’s Racket, a blog featuring indie authors, and has received two five-star reviews on Smashwords. The second reviewer, Ahmed Choudhary, is from India and unable to post his review on Amazon. Below is an excerpt from his review (and please keep in mind, English is not his first language):

“Even though this is a non-fictional book it is filled with characters some that I hated and some that I loved, it has its fair share of Happiness, Thrill, Sadness, Adventure, and many many funny moments, I really liked the book and that’s why maybe I tried to finish up at the first time I started reading it and I almost read it the whole night, I was so much hooked as the Journey throughout is so much captivating.”

In an email to me, Ahmed — who once told me he didn’t read much — gave me the greatest compliment of all:

“You know maybe the best thing that happened to me (reading this book and apart from all the learnings) is that I shall begin reading books from now on!”

I couldn’t be more proud.

My Togo memoir is now available as an e-book on Amazon and Smashwords. The title is Bread From the Sky. (Also available on Amazon UK.)

How many cat heads do you have to eat before you acquire the characteristics of a cat? Why do you hang a snail shell in a tree? How do you get a curse removed? And who buried a gri-gri in the yard? These and other questions are answered in Bread From the Sky.

Here’s a synopsis:

    Wanting a career change and armed with a graduate degree in international studies, a woman in her mid-40s leaves her divorce and ordinary life behind for a two-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, West Africa.
     

    She learns survival skills in order to live without electricity or plumbing like the rest of the people in her adopted village. She also gains language skills as, in addition to French, which is still the official language, there are over half a dozen local languages in common use at her village. Adjusting to a new culture, several different languages and some very old attitudes is sometimes difficult, frustrating and funny.

    There are friends to be made, foods to get used to, bureaucrats and insects to contend with, health issues to recover from and red tape to choke on. Dealing with people who want to rip her off, who harass her (sexually and otherwise) and who always want something from her isn’t easy. The challenges are offset by the warmth and friendship that was found along the way as well as some amazing experiences. As a wise man said to her, “Africa will change you, whether you want it to or not.”

Bread From the Sky is the true story of my two years in Togo as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The book is progressing nicely. There are 19 chapters plus an epilogue.  The first 14 chapters are in reasonably good shape. The final four are still a bit rough, but since they’re mainly a straight transcript from the handwritten journals I kept while in Togo, that’s to be expected.

While what’s here on the site should give you a fairly good indication of my writing style, everything that is on the web has been polished.  The book will include all the material here, although all of it has been edited since posting on the website.

If all goes well, it should be ready for publication in January 2011.  My plan is to have an e-book version out first.

I’m now working on a fairly regular basis on the transcript of my Togo journals. I had expected, by the time I got around to doing anything serious with them, that I’d only have a handful of memories left.  That was the basis for the blog title and the working title of the manuscript. After having transcribed all the handwritten material, there’s much more than that.

The journals are being transformed into an e-book.  My goal is to have it finished, self published and for sale on Amazon by December 2010.

The last  installment describes The Pagala Training Camp.  A couple of years after I left Togo, the Pagala training camp was abandoned by the Peace Corps.

From 1996 to 1998 I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, a tiny country barely touching the coast of West Africa. On this site are a handful of memories from my Peace Corps experience and some tales of Togo I can never forget.


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Here are a few of my favorite images from my two years in Togo.

It took about one and a half hours to get to the Langabou junction from Sokodé where Mensah was waiting in the Peace Corps truck to take us to Pagala.  The ride from Langabou to the PC training camp at Pagala took about 15 minutes, and the countryside was beautiful with rolling hills and plenty of trees.  It wasn’t the jungle, but it was pretty and it was still exciting just to be in West Africa.  The training center was pretty, too.  Lucky for us, we were a small group of only 19, so we were each given our own dorm room.  Normally trainee groups were so large that they had to share a room.  I immediately unpacked and felt at home.

All the professors in the training center know my name, even the ones who aren’t my teachers.  My reputation must have preceded me.  Several of them had come to Mamy’s in Lomé to meet us, and I hit it off with a few of them.  I especially liked Rose and the two Koffis.  (In addition to the Koffi whom I had sat next to in the dining room the night of our arrival, there was another Koffi who was the head trainer for the Small Business Program.) The feeling was obviously mutual.  They all had great, loud laughs, and I had been cracking them up in Lomé.

Little by little I began to connect names and faces of the Togolese professors and the staff at Pagala.  I also became well known for amusing the professors at the dinner table.  Everyone had also seen me dance at the little party Damase had for us Tuesday night.  They liked that, too.  I was more than twice the age of most of the stagiares, so I had little in common with them.

Several times I attempted friendly overtures to some of them, but there was never any reciprocation.  At first I didn’t feel as if the age difference had anything to do with it, but maybe it did.  My attitudes towards so many things were so different from most of the others.   I had traveled a bit overseas already. I grew up in the country where there were bugs, so the bugs in Togo didn’t faze me. I had also spent the last five years learning French in undergrad and grad school, so I was fluent and could easily converse in French with the Togolese.  Not only that, but having studied underdeveloped countries and cross-cultural issues as part of my international studies master’s degree, I was more familiar with the problems and issues we were likely to be facing.  In my graduate studies, I had also come across the concept of culture shock, what it was and how to cope with it. Finally, being in my 40s,  I had been independent for a long time.  I never suffered from homesickness or culture shock.  I began spending more and more time with the Togolese professors.

Dogs and cats aren’t common in the villages of Togo nor in the larger towns. Poor people can’t afford pets. If they have a cat or a dog, that animal is there for a reason, and it isn’t the bond of affection between human and beast.

People are so poor that it’s rare that anyone has any leftover food to give even to animals which they raise for food, such as chickens, ducks or pygmy goats. The animals have to forage around the village for their own food. I never could start a compost pile because no matter what I threw out there, and no matter how stinky or disgusting it was, it would get eaten almost immediately by passing chickens and ducks. Potato peels, spoiled food that reeked and had mold growing on it. It didn’t matter. The chickens, ducks and pygmy goats ate it all.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see a cat in my host family’s compound. Mimi was a skinny, dirty tabby that belonged to Komi, my African father. My first meeting with Mimi was when I ate dinner with the family one night, a few days after my arrival in Blitta village. We were eating outside, as everyone did. It was customary just to drop the bones or whatever part of your meal was inedible on the ground. Mimi was friendly and rubbed against my legs, waiting for her chance. As soon as I dropped a chicken bone on the ground, I heard crunch, crunch, crunch as Mimi ate anything that was dropped. I liked her.

Mimi was pretty skinny and resorted to stealing food from any of the women in our compound who were preparing a meal the second they weren’t paying attention. So all the women in my area hated poor Mimi. Everyone hated her but Komi and me.

After a month or so, I noticed Mimi’s absence. I asked around, and no one knew what became of her. She could have died of starvation or gotten hit by a car. Life is hard in Togo for both animals and people. So time went on, and I sort of forgot about her.

I developed a friendship with Wentarba, the village’s best carpenter. He, unlike my family members, would sometimes fill me in on interesting events that took place in the village that I would otherwise have not known about. Although French is the official language in Togo and I was fluent in French, there are also dozens of local languages. In Blitta alone, there were at least four. Not everyone spoke French. In my family, everyone could speak French, but they frequently spoke Aniangan or something else with other villagers. And they certainly were not going to translate every little thing for me. Wentarba lived a quarter mile up the road but would stop to say hello each time he passed by my house. Sometimes we would go out for a beer and he would tell me things that no one else had, which made me feel less socially isolated. Plus, he was one of the few people in the village who wasn’t trying to get money or something else out of me. He was a true friend.

A few weeks later, Wentarba went on a trip to his old village to visit family. He was even nice enough to stop by before he left to let me know he was going to be gone for a while. Turned out he was gone a couple of weeks, and I definitely missed him. While there were others who would say hello, no one else really engaged me in conversation like Wentarba did.

When Wentarba returned, he stopped by my place a day or so later in the evening to visit and invite me out for a beer. We walked over to the bar at the Motel de Paillotes (PYE-yotes) and sat outside under the big paillote. A paillote is essentially four poles holding up a cone-shaped thatched roof. The French word for straw is paille, hence the name. It serves as an outdoor room. Since it has no walls at all, it was cooler to sit under than sitting inside the cinderblock building where the bar was.

We each nursed a Bière de Benin, the Togolese manufactured brew, and he filled me in on what he did on his trip. Finally, he dropped a bombshell.

“Do you remember Mimi?” he asked me.

“Sure, she was Komi’s cat.”

Wentarba went on to say that on his way back to Blitta, he made a stop at a nearby village, some place north of Tchebébé, and saw some of his friends by the road. They invited him to eat with them, which he accepted. It was a special dinner, because they were having cat. I immediately knew what had happened to Mimi. But there was more.

It came up during the conversation over dinner that the meal had been purchased from a woman who lived in the white house near the road in Blitta. Well, there was only one white house near the road in Blitta – the one that I lived in. But which one of the women in my compound who so hated Mimi had done it? Wentarba revealed that it was Komi’s daughter, Marie. She waited until Komi was out of town and sold Mimi to someone who had stopped by the house in a bush taxi and saw the cat in the yard. Not only did she get rid of a nuisance, but she got a little money for it at the same time.

In Togo, cats and dogs are considered a delicacy, especially for certain ethnic groups. The Kabyé are known to be particularly fond of dog. A few Volunteers had been offered dog and had tried it, and one said it tasted like chicken, but I’m pretty sure he was being a wise guy. As for me, I don’t think I could have brought myself to eat cat or dog if offered. I’m glad I was never in a situation where it was offered.

I mulled this news over awhile. It was interesting because, although Komi was well liked by some, he was also feared by many. It was surprising to me that his own daughter, who knew that her father liked that cat, would be the one to get rid of it. Maybe she thought she could get away with it because she was just visiting and lived in another village rather far away, plus she left to go back home before Komi returned. I’m sure the other women in the family knew all about this, but no one had said anything to me. Maybe they thought I would tell Komi, and he would be mad at all of them for allowing it to happen.

I was sad to hear of poor Mimi’s demise, but the rest of the story was even more surprising. After they had eaten Mimi, they began to bid on who would get to eat her head. Wentarba told me that some people, and I inferred that meant those who believe in witchcraft, believe that if you eat seven heads of the same kind of animal, you would acquire its characteristics: In the case of a cat, if you fell off a wall, you would get up and walk away. If you got in a car crash, you would get out and walk away. He told me that he had given the highest bid, and he was the one who got to eat Mimi’s head.

I was trying not to screw up my face and go “EEEEWWW!!!”

“The whole head?”

“Yes, the whole head.”

“Brains and eyes and everything??” I was trying to imagine if they just scooped out the brains or if they crunched it up, skull and all. It was the second one. Useless to ask how it tasted. He would have said it was good. But the truth was, I didn’t really want to know.

“Yes, everything.”

“So, how many cat heads have you eaten, in total?”

“Five.”

The story reinforced to me that it wasn’t a good idea for a Volunteer to have a pet. Some Volunteers couldn’t help themselves when confronted with the sight of puppies or kittens in their village but then had to deal with finding their pet a home when their term of service was over. I’m sure many of them never realized why it was so easy to find a “home” for their Togolese pets or what would really happen to the animal the moment the Volunteer left the village.

I was just glad that I hadn’t seen Mimi enough to get attached to her before her disappearance.

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