I had not been in Togo long, and on this day I had been escorted by Felix, one of the village school teachers, to introduce me to the Prefet. The Prefet was the man in charge of the prefecture of Blitta. Togo is administratively divided into prefectures, regional areas approximately the equivalent of a county or parish. Thus, the Prefet was a local big cheese. Things could get done or not get done, depending on his whim. Peace Corps Volunteers were local celebrities, so it was necessary for me to go meet and greet the king.

The prefecture building, old and crumbling like every other governmental building in Togo, squatted in the blazing sun with few trees nearby. There were perhaps three offices in the building and no reception room. The front of the building had a roof overhang and a sort of cement bench built into it which provided an open-air waiting room where people came to wait their turn to see the Prefet.

As is usual with governmental buildings, there was a gendarme posted outside with a large gun in his holster. His purpose seemed to be mostly to ask people why they were there and pass that information on to the Prefet’s secretary inside.

Felix had made an appointment so that we would be sure to be seen. The time for the appointment came and went, so we were waiting. And waiting and waiting. It was a pleasant day in Blitta Gare, not too scorching, and since I was seated and in the shade, it wasn’t altogether horrible.

While we were waiting and waiting to see the Prefet, his secretary came out of the office with a stapler. He spoke to the gendarme, probably in Kabye or who knows which one of the hundreds of indigenous Togolese languages. All I know is, it sure wasn’t French. I didn’t understand a word they were saying, but it was clear that the stapler was empty and he couldn’t figure out how to open it to reload it. The secretary and the gendarme huddled together, turned the stapler all around and tried to figure it out. They would say something to one another occasionally and keep fiddling with the thing. Felix finally went over to help.

Now there were three of them baffled by a stapler. There was much discussion but no progress. It was comical to see three grown men mystified by such a simple object, particularly that scary looking gendarme with the great big gun. I had to look away to avoid busting out laughing. I really wanted to help them, but I didn’t want to bruise their egos. After all, I was sitting right there in front of them and they had chosen not to ask me. Maybe they were embarrassed that they couldn’t figure it out. But after all, common though a stapler is to an American like me, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of Togolese villagers have never had one in their hands. Maybe they were afraid I would think them stupid. Probably both.

After about 20 minutes, they gave up. In desperation the gendarme sheepishly handed the stapler to me, asking “Madame, vous pouvez ouvrir?” (Can you open it?) It was a French stapler, designed a little differently than American ones so that the latch was not where I expected to find it. Togo, being a former French colony, still trades with France so it’s not surprising they had a French stapler at the Prefecture. I don’t like French office supplies. Not only is their paper a weird size and their staplers hard to open, but worst of all their copycat Bic pens leak like sieves.

Nevertheless, I figured out the French stapler in a jiffy and had it open in two seconds. I handed it back to them with a smile and received their grateful “merci, madame!”