West Africa


I’m now working on a fairly regular basis on the transcript of my Togo journals. I had expected, by the time I got around to doing anything serious with them, that I’d only have a handful of memories left.  That was the basis for the blog title and the working title of the manuscript. After having transcribed all the handwritten material, there’s much more than that.

The journals are being transformed into an e-book.  My goal is to have it finished, self published and for sale on Amazon by December 2010.

The last  installment describes The Pagala Training Camp.  A couple of years after I left Togo, the Pagala training camp was abandoned by the Peace Corps.

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From 1996 to 1998 I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, a tiny country barely touching the coast of West Africa. On this site are a handful of memories from my Peace Corps experience and some tales of Togo I can never forget.

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Here are a few of my favorite images from my two years in Togo.

It took about one and a half hours to get to the Langabou junction from Sokodé where Mensah was waiting in the Peace Corps truck to take us to Pagala.  The ride from Langabou to the PC training camp at Pagala took about 15 minutes, and the countryside was beautiful with rolling hills and plenty of trees.  It wasn’t the jungle, but it was pretty and it was still exciting just to be in West Africa.  The training center was pretty, too.  Lucky for us, we were a small group of only 19, so we were each given our own dorm room.  Normally trainee groups were so large that they had to share a room.  I immediately unpacked and felt at home.

All the professors in the training center know my name, even the ones who aren’t my teachers.  My reputation must have preceded me.  Several of them had come to Mamy’s in Lomé to meet us, and I hit it off with a few of them.  I especially liked Rose and the two Koffis.  (In addition to the Koffi whom I had sat next to in the dining room the night of our arrival, there was another Koffi who was the head trainer for the Small Business Program.) The feeling was obviously mutual.  They all had great, loud laughs, and I had been cracking them up in Lomé.

Little by little I began to connect names and faces of the Togolese professors and the staff at Pagala.  I also became well known for amusing the professors at the dinner table.  Everyone had also seen me dance at the little party Damase had for us Tuesday night.  They liked that, too.  I was more than twice the age of most of the stagiares, so I had little in common with them.

Several times I attempted friendly overtures to some of them, but there was never any reciprocation.  At first I didn’t feel as if the age difference had anything to do with it, but maybe it did.  My attitudes towards so many things were so different from most of the others.   I had traveled a bit overseas already. I grew up in the country where there were bugs, so the bugs in Togo didn’t faze me. I had also spent the last five years learning French in undergrad and grad school, so I was fluent and could easily converse in French with the Togolese.  Not only that, but having studied underdeveloped countries and cross-cultural issues as part of my international studies master’s degree, I was more familiar with the problems and issues we were likely to be facing.  In my graduate studies, I had also come across the concept of culture shock, what it was and how to cope with it. Finally, being in my 40s,  I had been independent for a long time.  I never suffered from homesickness or culture shock.  I began spending more and more time with the Togolese professors.

One of the side benefits to spending several days with Volunteers au village was that it gave the stagiares the opportunity not only to learn first hand how to get around on the bush taxi system, but it also gave us an immediate opportunity to use what we learned. Although the Peace Corps had driven us to the live-in posts, the stagiares were expected to get themselves to the training camp at Pagala by themselves, on bush taxis.

On the way to the live-in, we had driven through the junction at Langabou that led to Pagala. The Route Nationale, the main (only) paved north-south road that went from Lomé to Ouagadougou, formed a “T” junction at Langabou, and the only other road connecting to the Route Nationale there was the road to Pagala, so it wouldn’t be at all hard to get there.

We all woke up early. We had been told it was always best to get an early start because with the bush taxis around Bitchabé, you never know what’s going to happen. It rained like hell for about a half hour, then we went out to the taxi stand. Bitchabé is on a dirt road well off the Route Nationale, so it doesn’t have the best access or service. Not many taxis would be coming there that day because the heavy tropical rains turned the dirt road into a muddy soup that the taxis could get stuck in. Pam would accompany us to Bassar and make sure that we got on a taxi there that was bound for Sokodé. To get to Pagala, we would have to get off the bush taxi at Langabou and find a local taxi that made the Langabou-Pagala run. After you do it a few times, it’s no more difficult than changing trains on a subway system, but for the very first time, Sally and I were just a bit nervous.

We finally got a place on a bush taxi. It got a flat on the way to Bassar. They fixed it. Then it couldn’t get up a small hill with the load it was carrying, so we all had to get out and walk up. But finally we made it to Bassar and got a taxi right away for Sokodé, where we were to spend the night at the Peace Corps maison de passage. There was no way to make the trip from Pam’s house to Pagala before nightfall unless you were being driven there in a well-maintained Peace Corp vehicle which didn’t make any stops.

Maison de passage was a rather glamorous name that evoked a gently decaying colonial mansion serving out its final years as a hotel for Peace Corps Volunteers who were passing through. No doubt it was staffed by the Peace Corps and although the place was old, the rooms were clean. This charming fantasy couldn’t have been further from reality.

Peace Corps Disgusting Filthy Flophouse was far more accurate. It wasn’t staffed by anyone, just used frequently by the PCVs in the region and was available as an overnight stopping place for any PCV passing through.

As there was no one to let you in, the method of entry was ingenious. The front gate was secured with a combination padlock. Affixed to the gate was a small sign with clues to the padlock combination which were impossible to decode by anyone but the PCVs. For example, for the first number, the clue was “an American TV show named ____ is Enough.” They don’t get American TV in Togo, and most people don’t even have TV sets, much less electricity, plus very few Togolese speak English, so there’s no way any Togolese would have ever known about that program.

Walking through the gates, you had to watch your step, as the sidewalk was broken and you could easily trip. The maison was on the second story of a dilapidated building. The handrail on the steps wasn’t fully there.

As the maison was not staffed, no one was responsible for cleaning it, either. For payment, you just left $1,000 CFA per night ($2.00) in an envelope in one of the drawers in the hall bureau. From time to time someone from the Peace Corps would come to collect the money.

It was so disgustingly filthy that I couldn’t even stand the thought of taking a shower there. It seemed ridiculous anyway, as I had no clean clothes, there not having been enough time to wash them when we visited Pam.

There were some quaint and charming filthy mattresses on the floor for people to sleep on, with dustballs as big as tumbleweeds floating around everywhere. About the only positive thing I could say about the place was that because there were no wooden bed frames for bedbugs to hide in while they waited for their next tasty meal, I didn’t get any bug bites there. But I never stayed at a Peace Corps maison de passage again.

Bad Attitudes

Went out for a beer that night with some Volunteers who were also staying the night at the co-ed Filthy Flophouse. They had been in Togo a year, and like most Volunteers, the majority were women in their early 20s. A few of them had really crappy attitudes towards the Togolese, especially one woman who was extremely rude to a Togolese man who saw us all sitting there and came to introduce himself out of curiosity. She refused even to try to speak French with him and rudely ran the guy off, saying how sick she was of these obnoxious African men. I told her it seemed to me he was simply being friendly.

The rudeness and nasty attitudes of these Volunteers were embarrassing to me as an American representing my country in a foreign land. I hoped that not all Volunteers became as cynical and bilious as these people were. Once again, I was sorry that I had gone out somewhere in a group.

One of the reasons we were there at the bar was that one of the Volunteers was taking an Early Termination. He had a really bad attitude concerning the Peace Corps work he was doing, despite the fact that the country director had allowed him to change his post and his job responsibilities more than once. But at least he liked Africa and the Africans and spoke French with them. Two Togolese musician friends of his who he jammed with, came by to say goodbye and give him a parting gift.

Practically no Volunteer except the soon to be departing Volunteer spoke to the two Togolese musicians, partly because their French was lousy (the Volunteers’ not the Togolese) but mostly because of extreme lack of interest. After I finished pumping one of the women Volunteers for information on what it was like to be a Volunteer in Togo, I turned my attention to the musicians and had a very nice conversation with them. They were impressed with my French and assured me that any time I’m in Sokodé, I now have friends there. They gave me their phone number.

I don’t like Sokodé. It’s really hot, really dry and nothing about it is interesting, but now I want to return to listen to Inoussa and Esso play guitar.

I then went to dinner with a health Volunteer who was close to my age. We had a nice conversation, but she was not very social and I did not at all get the impression that she was interested in developing a friendship. So much for my support system in Africa.

Couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Sokodé the next morning and get to Pagala, where we would train for the next 12 weeks. I had brought only one change of clothes for the three day live-in at Bitchabé, which normally would have been enough, but not, as I discovered, when it’s humid. Not only was there no time to wash clothes, but they took several days to dry if they were hung up inside. I couldn’t wait to get to Pagala, get cleaned up and be reunited with my suitcases and some clean clothes.

Finding a bush taxi to Pagala was easy. There was a gare, a taxi staging area, a couple of blocks away from the Filthy Flophouse. Anything going south would get us there, so it was just a matter of waiting for the next minivan to come along. I was happy to leave Sokodé, but we would meet again.

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.

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

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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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!”

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