September 1996

The group of volunteer trainees I was traveling with was met at the Lomé airport by Peace Corps personnel, whisked through customs and driven to our “hotel” in fairly late model vans. I use the term “hotel” loosely, but more on that in a moment.

It was only about 6:30 p.m. or so on a Thursday night, but the sun goes down at that time in Togo all year round. The air was a bit steamy but not unpleasant, especially without direct sun.

The sides of the road and the sidewalks as we drove through Lomé, Togo’s capital city, were alive with activity. Everywhere people were strolling and vendors still trying to make a sale, their roadside stands lit by candlelight or small kerosene lamps. Streetlights were few and the streets were dim, but people were everywhere.

Loud African music was blaring from boom boxes or from stores, women in colorful clothing were walking down the sides of the road with huge loads on their heads. Buildings were mostly in a state of disrepair or decay. There were many that looked like shacks and had corrugated tin roofs. The road, when it was paved, had lots of potholes. Mimosa trees, banana trees, palms and other tropical foliage erupted from everywhere. Decay and poverty notwithstanding, the atmosphere was like a giant block party. It was my first glimpse of West Africa, and it was exciting.

We pulled up to a two-story whitewashed cement block building that had seen better days. This was Mamy’s, a hotel that did no advertising because it was so often filled by stagiares (trainees) and Volunteers. Most of the larger houses in the city were surrounded by an eight-foot high concrete cinderblock wall. Mamy’s was, too, and always had someone posted near the front door who could open the gate. There was no sign, and no street numbers appeared on any of the buildings on the street. If you didn’t know it was a hotel, you’d never guess it from the exterior. But finding an address is never a problem in an underdeveloped country. All you have to do is ask anyone and they’ll give you directions, because everyone knows where everything is. It takes a bit of getting used to, but get used to it you will if you stay in Africa for any length of time.

Entering the grounds of Mamy’s, I saw that the pool had been emptied long ago, the yard was somewhat overgrown and there was a thatched roofed hut built on top of the flat roof. I expected Mamy to be African, but she was instead a wiry Vietnamese woman in her 60s or 70s. The drivers of the Peace Corps vans that brought us here helped us bring our ridiculous amount of luggage to our upstairs rooms, then we assembled in the dining room.

A few brief remarks by the Peace Corps Country Director preceded dinner, then we were served. The dining room held several rows of wooden chairs and tables,which were covered with plastic tablecloths. I sat at a table at the back of the dining room and discovered a relative I didn’t know I had.

Koffi (pronounced COE-fee) was the trainer for the small business program. He spoke excellent English, and we talked about all sorts of things. I asked him about his children, which pleased him. In Africa it is courteous to ask about the family members. Koffi then invited me to guess his age. I said 42 or 43. He was 45. I told him I was 43, and he smiled broadly. He said, “In Africa one would call you ‘my little sister.’” And so I became his petite soeur.

After dinner we settled into our rooms, which were clean and spacious with four beds to a room, each bed topped with filmy white mosquito netting. Excitement was running too high to sleep despite our exhausting flight, so a bunch of us walked three blocks down the sandy, unpaved road to Mandela’s, a bar frequented by Peace Corps Volunteers, along with a couple of Volunteers who had been in country for three months. Mandela’s outdoor seating was festive and romantic under a thatched roof illuminated by colored lights. It was great.

Everyone ordered Bière de Benin while I had a Lionkiller, a local soda somewhat like 7-Up, only because I simply don’t like the taste of beer.

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After about an hour of animated drinking and chatting, I was starting to wind down but no one else evidently was, so I walked back to Mamy’s through the dim, sandy streets alone.

Curious about the thatched hut on the rooftop, I climbed the stairs to investigate. Several of the houses in the quartier (neighborhood) had them. Mamy’s didn’t have air conditioning, so the rooftop hut was just a place to catch a breeze and get out of the sun. The roofs of almost all the houses were flat and were used like a patio or to hang clotheslines.

The moon was full as I looked at the stars from Mamy’s rooftop. Ah, Africa! Quelle aventure!

There was to be an eclipse that evening at about 1 a.m., but I was too tired to stay up for it. After a refreshing shower, I crept under my mosquito net and called it a night.

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