One of Pam’s favorite village children in Bitchabé was Abouma Lamalá. He was about five years old and had a lot of energy. One day she asked one of the people who spoke French how to say to him, “you’re acting silly” in Bassar. This got translated into Bassar into something like “you move very quickly,” and in French it came out as “aboum a lam a lá.” Everyone in the village, including his mother, called him that ever since.

The kids were really curious about Sally and me, but Sally didn’t spend any time with them. We had been told at the Peace Corps health briefings how we should be very careful about diseases and infections to the point where one Volunteer confided to me later that after the briefings, she was almost afraid to touch any of her village kids. Maybe Sally had been spooked by the briefings, too.

Sally, a young woman from New York, was sick most of the time we were there, even though she didn’t eat anything but a pasta dinner that Pam made the first night. Aside from her being sick and holing up in the house all the time, she seemed uneasy with the living conditions. I got the impression that she was way out of her comfort zone.

The next day was Friday. I went around the village with Pam and met people while Sally stayed in the house, still not feeling well. I met Felix, the village doctor, at the three-room Centre de Santé (Health Center), and we saw a four-hour-old baby. Pam was then called away by the village chief, who had sent someone to find her. Apparently they wanted to do something with the leftover cement that the Peace Corps had left there after Pam’s latrine was built, and they wanted Pam to give it to them. She made them buy it.

Then Pam wanted to go back home and write some letters. I opted to take another walk by myself around the village. Sally opted to stay close to the latrine. I went back to the Centre de Santé where Felix asked me to take him to the US and marry him. He was kidding, sort of. We were told at our briefings that women stagiares should expect many marriage proposals while in Togo. The Togolese had a great sense of humor, and this was one of their favorite jokes. But Felix really did want to go to the US.

Later on Pam and I took yet another walk and saw a ritual animal sacrifice. A village woman came to the chief saying that someone had put the evil eye on her, and she wanted him to counteract it. A chicken’s throat was slit over a cone-shaped rock and the blood squeezed over it. They then pulled a bunch of feathers off the chicken and dropped them all over the blood-soaked rock. A baby pygmy goat’s throat was then slit, and its blood was also poured over the rock. The ritual was done in Bassar, so Pam and I didn’t understand much of what was going on. My research before I left served me well. I had read that these practices still existed, so the spectacle didn’t come as a complete shock to me. It was fascinating, even though morbid.

After dinner Pam and Sally stayed inside, but I couldn’t. It was too warm in there, and there were too many stars in the sky. It was only about 6:30 pm but already completely dark, as the sun always sets around 6:00 near the equator. Looking at the sky all by myself soon lost its charm, and I required a little more stimulation. I heard voices coming from the family compound in front of Pam’s house, so I grabbed my flashlight, made my way through the pitch blackness of the moonless Togo night and went over to hang out with whoever was out there.

I must glow in the dark, because long before I could see any of them, I heard several children’s voices calling my name: “Da Marie! Da Marie!” “Da” is short for dadavi, which in many local languages means “sister.” It is the courteous form of address of a younger person to an older person. The way the Togolese ran together the syllables, it came out sounding like “Dama Reeee.” They rolled the “r” a bit and elongated the final syllable for about two seconds. That was what everyone called me the entire two years while I was in Togo, and I really liked it.

I shone the flashlight in the direction of the children’s voices and saw a group of smiling faces, among whom I recognized Abouma Lamalá. They were all busy shelling peanuts, mostly in the dim light of a few distant kerosene lamps on the ground at the far end of the yard nearer to several women who were preparing dinner. I sat down on the ground near Abouma Lamalá, and he solemnly gave me a handful of his peanuts. I put them in my pocket. Then one by one, all the kids started coming up to me and giving me handfuls of their peanuts until my pocket was full. And again until my other pocket was full.

I played with the kids awhile then went to sit with the women. They smiled, said my name and a bunch of other stuff in Bassar. This village being so far north, not many of the villagers even spoke French, so I couldn’t communicate with them at all. I just smiled and said “alafia” (alla-FEE-yah, a common greeting, the meaning of which I’m not quite sure) or “ah HANH” after everything they said. That was the African version of “uh huh,” only more nasal, more forceful and of course the final syllable elongated for several seconds. It was an expression you heard all the time. Though we shared no language, it was clear these women seemed to get quite a kick out of me.

Soon they began to eat dinner, the adults first. I was invited to partake, but I had just eaten. Also, since I had only been in country a few days, wasn’t used to the local microbes and was unfamiliar with their level of hygiene, I couldn’t risk becoming sick or especially having diarrhea on the long bush taxi trip to Sokodé the next day, so I declined. After the adults finished eating, the children ate the leftovers from the same plates. It was a custom that took a little getting used to, but here that was the way it was done. No food went to waste ever. There was always a hungry child who would gladly eat whatever you handed them.

When dinner was over, a little girl came to me and said, “venez, nous allons danser” (come, we’re going to dance). A little boy brought out a drum and sat near me. The kids made a semicircle in front of me, and someone placed a kerosene lamp near my feet. The drummer began to pound out a rhythm, and the children began to dance. It was utterly charming. But I’m not one who likes to just sit and watch, so I soon got up and danced with them.

The kids were so happy that I was dancing with them that they got all wound up: laughing, screeching and jumping up and down. The women were hooting with laughter, too, and egging me on. They were not mocking me, they were all just very delighted that I was dancing with the kids. By their reactions it was clear they thought I was doing one hell of a job. We couldn’t understand each other’s language, but in this moment there was no need. I was having a great time, and they were very happy that I had come to spend time with them.

Soon a flashlight came around the corner and the kids began calling, “Ja-chooooooo!!! Ja-choooooo!!” which is Pam’s African name. It means, “the second,” because she is the second PCV they have had in Bitchabé. The kids always elongated the second syllable, and it sounded really cute.

Pam said, “I could hear all the laughing in my room! I had to come and see what was going on. I figured it was you, Marie!”

We both danced with the kids, then we sat with the women and watched the little girls dance and sing. We all sang a lullaby to a baby, they in their language, Pam and I in ours. We were there a long time before we finally bid them good night. As I lay on my mattress, I could still hear the drumming, the laughter and the singing. It continued long after I fell asleep.

As Featured On Ezine Articles

This story was featured on under the title, “Upcountry Live-Ins With Volunteers, Part 2.”