Over the next few days we had more meetings about the Peace Corps Volunteer live-ins we were going on. We were to spend three days with PCVs who had been in country for a year and see for ourselves what PCV life au village is like. We tried out bicycles and helmets. I started getting over my bronchitis and feeling better.

The night before we left on our live-ins, there was an afternoon reception at Mamy’s for the stagiares. Johnny Young, the US Ambassador to Togo, was there. I was impressed with his French. Some local Togolese government officials were there, also. Kodjo Amesefe (KOE-joe Ameh-SEF-eh), who was to be my boss at PC headquarters, in his welcome speech, said “Welcome to Togo. Please stay. We need you.” His plea for us to stay was based on the amount of Volunteers who came then asked for early termination within a few months after their arrival. The Peace Corps is not like the Army. You can ask to leave any time, and they’ll send you back home. Finally, at the end of Kodjo’s speech he said, “Africa will change you, whether you want it to or not.” That turned out to be very, very true.

After the reception I went to Mandela’s, the nearby Peace Corps Volunteer watering hole, for a beer. Everyone else went back to Mamy’s relatively early because we were leaving early the next day for our live-ins. But as I had spent the last few days lying around with a sore throat instead of partying, I stayed late listening to several PCVs spill the dirt on all kinds of things. The biggest complaints were about the performance of the country director and one of the assistant country directors, none of which, I came soon to realize, were overexaggerated.

The next morning we got up at 5 a.m. to get ready to leave at 6:30. This was done easily and without alarm clocks. Sunrise near the equator happens all year round at between 5:00 and 5:30 a.m., and the curtains in the rooms at Mamy’s venerable less-than-one-star establishment were covered with no more than a sheet, if anything. It did nothing to block out the light, so the light would wake you up. But if you insisted on sleeping through the breaking of dawn, the nearby church with its clanging bells would have you up and at it in no time.

Those of us who were headed north piled into the PC van and headed to the office where we picked up the bikes, helmets and mattresses. The Peace Corps was sending mattresses with us for the live-ins because most of the Volunteers who lived au village only had one mattress for their own use. But the guy who had the helmets wasn’t going to be there until 8 a.m., and the helmets weren’t around where anyone could find them, so we had to wait. Damase (dah-MAHS), the training director, came by and got really mad when he heard about all this. We finally got on our way about 7:30.

I was assigned to spend the three-day live-in at Bitchabé (BEECH-ah-bay) with Sally, another trainee. It was one of the far northern posts, but not the farthest away from Lomé. Still, we would be one of the last of the trainees to reach our destination.

Mensah was our driver. He was cheerful and funny, and he helped make the time pass on the long journey northward. “Any time you want me to stop, just tell me,” he assured us. He was referring to pee stops. We were going upcountry, out in the bush. There are no rest stops with toilets in Togo like you’d find in America. Out in the bush, if you had to go, you were obliged to go in the bushes.

We dropped off a trainee in Atakpamé (ah-TACK-pah-may), a large town nestled in the hills in southern Togo. Had lunch in Sokodé (SOAK-oh-day), one of the large towns in the northern region, and dropped off two more. The further north we drove, the prettier the land around the main road became. We drove through beautiful teak forests and rolling hills. Bassar (bah-SAR) was one of the smallest towns we went through, maybe with 5-10,000 people, and I liked it the best.

We made a pee stop. Even in the larger towns, finding a place to use the toilet, if you could even find a toilet, was an impossible task. If you were lucky, the squat latrine that you did find wouldn’t be too disgusting. Most of the women trainees hopped out of the van and squatted among the six-foot high grasses by the side of the road without a fuss. The grass was more than tall enough to offer perfect privacy. Most of us didn’t even bother with toilet paper.

But there was one woman who was not about to pee in the grass. This was the same trainee who brought a blow dryer to Togo. In the first place, this is Togo, not New York, and you’re not ever going to find yourself in a situation where you’d look out of place if your hair wasn’t perfectly coiffed. In the second place, this is Togo, and there isn’t electricity anywhere except in Lomé and in a very limited way in the larger towns. In the third place, this is Togo. Get over yourself.

I had noticed Angelica curling her lip in disgust and deliberately not drinking much water, dehydrating herself so as to avoid having to pee alongside of the road like the rest of us. In the African heat, that was not only stupid it was dangerous. If she succumbed to heat stroke, we were far, far away from any medical facility. Brings a damn blow dryer to a third world country and won’t pee in the bushes. Those were sure signs of trouble. She had also been a complainer ever since staging in Washington, DC. I wondered why she ever applied to the Peace Corps and how she managed to get through the recruiting interview without curling her lip. This was no place for princesses.

The road to Bitchabé was blocked by a fallen tree, so we had to take an hour and a half detour to get there by another road. We were now more than eight hours away from Lomé in a beautiful wilderness. The remoteness of the location made me a little nervous. If anything happened and you needed medical attention this far away from Lomé, there were no doctors and no hospitals you could go to. And there were plenty of things that could happen. People in Africa often die of causes that would be simple to attend to in the U.S., where medical care is easily available.

Finally we reached Bitchabé, a small village near gently rolling hills. There were mud huts with thatched roofs, some falling apart. There were some cement shacks with rusty tin roofs. Garbage was casually strewn about pretty much everywhere. Among all the beauty of the surrounding nature, Bitchabé was a canker sore. We pulled abruptly into a space in front of one of the dilapidated houses, and Mensah cut off the engines. Angelica sneered, “this is for you!” She was feeling superior because she was going to spend her live-in further north in a larger town with a Volunteer who had a house with electricity. I gave her the evil eye but resisted the urge to say, “shove it, bitch!”

After I got over the initial shock of the extent of the poverty and the trash, I soon saw the beauty of the plants, the trees and of the entire surroundings. I was not the one who curled up my lip at the thought of urinating outdoors and I was not the one who whined frequently and loudly about doing without what I was used to having back in the States, so I easily shrugged off her snotty remark. That princess wouldn’t last here ten minutes. Mensah helped Sally and me carry in our bags, and we waved goodbye to him and the evil princess.

Everything in Bitchabé was in poor repair, but it was wonderful anyway. The people were extremely warm, welcoming and friendly. Pam, the Volunteer we were staying with, had a three-room house behind her African host family’s concession. A concession in Africa is a complex of buildings which form a family’s living quarters, often surrounded by a fence or wall.

Pam’s house had a brand new latrine, only steps away from her front door, which was for her exclusive use. This was required by the Peace Corps. Most families in Togolese villages don’t even have a latrine. If you do have one, you have to keep it locked so that other people don’t use it. It sounds terribly selfish and unkind, but there are reasons. People are very, very undereducated in this country. They don’t know that you can’t throw your garbage in a latrine. They will throw anything and everything in there, including dead flashlight batteries. Not only that, but people in the village are often jealous of anyone who has something they don’t. Vandalism is not unheard of. Pam also had an outdoor douche (bathing area: four cement walls with a cement floor and no roof), where I learned the art of the bucket bath.

The first evening we just talked. Sally and I asked Pam hundreds of questions, which she was glad to answer. She didn’t get many visitors due to the remoteness of her post, and she was glad to have us there. Sally and I were both a bit nervous about being so far off the beaten track, but I wasn’t panicked by it. It certainly did make me think, however, that I did not want to spend two years in an area so remote as to make it difficult to get to medical care should I need it. I might not have thought too much about it if I had been in my 20s and fresh out of college like everyone else, but I was more than twice the age of the average Volunteer, so I had a different outlook. That turned out to be one of my considerations when I later chose the village where I was to be posted.

The next day we walked around the village and met a few people. Pam taught us a few words in Bassar. The greeting was something like “a dom pa,” to which you reply “alafia” (alla FEE ya). Another great phrase was “nyan ga pa,” which means “that’s good.” The villagers were always delighted when they discovered that Sally and I knew even two words of Bassar.

We then got into our first bush taxi, a 1940s vintage long-bed truck with a hard cover over the cargo area, and headed for the marché at Banjeli (BAN-jell-lee), 9k away. The driver invited us all to sit up front. The front seat of a bush taxi is generally more comfortable, and African hospitality is such that they will offer the most comfortable seat to the yovo (white person), the guest in their country. Sally and Pam climbed up front, but I thought four in the front would have been too crowded. (I was so green!) Besides, I really wanted to ride in the back with the Africans and see if it got too claustrophobic for me.

Even with 19 other people, a ton of cargo and a few chickens which eventually all squeezed in, it wasn’t too bad. The rear shocks were totally shot, so it was kind of like an amusement park ride, with people bouncing off the seats when we hit a bump. Everyone just laughed when that happened, and it happened often. The ceiling was low in the back of this truck, and when we hit one pothole, I bounced off my seat and hit my head on the ceiling. Everyone laughed, including me. No one takes things like that too seriously here. The Africans’ sense of humor was something I always loved. No matter how horrendous the situation, they always seemed to manage to laugh or at least smile in spite of it.

The Banjeli marché was great. Big enough but not too big. Marchés were the local equivalent of a supermarket. Different villages had a market one day a week, each on a different day. Thus, if you missed the market in Banjeli and needed something, there was bound to be another village nearby with a market day in the next day or so where you could go get your necessities. You could get most things at village marchés that you would need. In addition to fresh locally grown produce, there were plastic cups, tin dishes, bars of soap, candles, matches, kerosene lanterns, used clothing, even toilet paper, but there were no tourist trinkets. It was too far off the beaten path, too far north from Lomé. This was truly an African market, selling food and everyday items. For tourist souvenirs, you’d have to go to Lomé, Kpalimé or one of the other regional large towns.

I was fascinated by the beautiful outfits of the Africans. The fabrics they wore were colorful, the patterns large and vibrant. I got lots of really great photos. Unfortunately, none of these great photos survived. A few weeks later when we were at the Pagala training camp, I mailed the roll of film back to a friend in Los Angeles to get it developed. I had read on the internet before I left the States that film processing was almost impossible to get done in Togo. That information was very much outdated, but I had no way of knowing that. We also hadn’t been told in any of the Peace Corps orientation meetings in Lomé how easy it was to get film developed in Lomé and most of the large regional towns. Not only was I horrendously overcharged for the postage, but the film never arrived in L.A.

When we left the marché it began to pour down rain. At first we didn’t think we would be able to get a taxi ride back. If you wait too long, the taxis won’t be going in the direction of Bitchabé. After all, once the marché is finished, there wouldn’t be any customers going in that direction. One driver said we could ride on the roof. It would have been dangerous enough in fair weather, the way the baggage was piled up so high, so we passed. Finally found another bush taxi and piled in. By the time we got back to Pam’s, the torrential rain had stopped.

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