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