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Issa (top row, far left) is a Muslim mason who lives in Blitta. Here he is with his some of his brothers and sisters. His father had five or six wives, and more than 30 people lived together in his compound. Impossible to figure out who was who. He was very sweet natured. I hired him to do some work on my shower stall. He did a very good job and didn’t try to rip me off as is normal with the newcomer when you move to an underdeveloped country. I liked him very much.

Issa knew I had a camera, so when he asked me to come and take some photos of his family, I was delighted. Photos are very important to everyone in Togo, and at the time it wasn’t easy to find someone with a camera. Not only that, you had to go to Lome to get the developing done. (This was before digital cameras had been invented. ) That was a five and a half hour bush taxi ride, one way.

I understood, without him asking, that this was a favor I was doing for him. He had been kind to me and especially after seeing how poor they were, there was no way I was going to take any money for taking a few photographs for him. When I brought him the photos later, he and his father were very grateful, even more so when I refused reimbursement.

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I think that’s his mother standing right next to him in this photo. Also some of his father’s other wives, and more brothers and sisters.

Although there’s no question that they were quite poor, consider this: in Blitta there were many houses that were made of mud with straw roofs. This family had a cement block house with a tin roof, plus they had their own well within the walls of their compound. And the building they’re standing in front of, that’s not a barn. That’s their home.

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Issa sits here at the edge of the uncovered well. Since there is no electricity and no running water in this village, water is drawn from the well in rubber bags at the end of long ropes. There was a similar well in the compound where I lived.

This is the typical way that larger Blitta houses were built. The compound is large, so they had four wings, built in a square formation. There are separate rooms in these wings, none of which connect to each other and each of which opens out onto the courtyard. In this way, they didn’t need to build a fence around their land. The house itself served as the “fence.” There was one small opening between two of the wings where people could enter into the compound.

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Here is Issa with his father and one of his father’s wives. She is washing dishes. Just beyond her and to the right is her stove: a very simple brazier. Outdoor kitchens are the norm in the villages. When temperatures frequently exceed 100 degrees outside, add about ten degrees to that to a room with a tin roof. Plus, there’s the smoke. The Togolese don’t know how to build chimneys. The one advantage Togolese “kitchens” have is that you do all your cooking and food preparation sitting down!

The little stool the woman is sitting on is her all-purpose stool which she sits on for food prep, cooking, washing dishes and probably washing clothes. I had a local carpenter make me one as soon as I arrived in Blitta. He designed it just a little taller and wider than those made for everyone else. It was made of teak and cost something like three dollars. It soon became a cherished necessity. When I left Togo, I was shipping six boxes of Togo souvenirs home, and I really gave it a lot of thought whether I wanted to go to the additional expense of shipping yet another big box with a very heavy teak stool in it. I finally gave it away to a village family. Although I felt good about it at the time, as they had so little and I was after all taking home some amazing woodcrafted items, it was a decision which I have regretted ever since. Stupid, to be so sentimental about a piece of wood, but that’s me.

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