Dogs and cats aren’t common in the villages of Togo nor in the larger towns. Poor people can’t afford pets. If they have a cat or a dog, that animal is there for a reason, and it isn’t the bond of affection between human and beast.

People are so poor that it’s rare that anyone has any leftover food to give even to animals which they raise for food, such as chickens, ducks or pygmy goats. The animals have to forage around the village for their own food. I never could start a compost pile because no matter what I threw out there, and no matter how stinky or disgusting it was, it would get eaten almost immediately by passing chickens and ducks. Potato peels, spoiled food that reeked and had mold growing on it. It didn’t matter. The chickens, ducks and pygmy goats ate it all.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see a cat in my host family’s compound. Mimi was a skinny, dirty tabby that belonged to Komi, my African father. My first meeting with Mimi was when I ate dinner with the family one night, a few days after my arrival in Blitta village. We were eating outside, as everyone did. It was customary just to drop the bones or whatever part of your meal was inedible on the ground. Mimi was friendly and rubbed against my legs, waiting for her chance. As soon as I dropped a chicken bone on the ground, I heard crunch, crunch, crunch as Mimi ate anything that was dropped. I liked her.

Mimi was pretty skinny and resorted to stealing food from any of the women in our compound who were preparing a meal the second they weren’t paying attention. So all the women in my area hated poor Mimi. Everyone hated her but Komi and me.

After a month or so, I noticed Mimi’s absence. I asked around, and no one knew what became of her. She could have died of starvation or gotten hit by a car. Life is hard in Togo for both animals and people. So time went on, and I sort of forgot about her.

I developed a friendship with Wentarba, the village’s best carpenter. He, unlike my family members, would sometimes fill me in on interesting events that took place in the village that I would otherwise have not known about. Although French is the official language in Togo and I was fluent in French, there are also dozens of local languages. In Blitta alone, there were at least four. Not everyone spoke French. In my family, everyone could speak French, but they frequently spoke Aniangan or something else with other villagers. And they certainly were not going to translate every little thing for me. Wentarba lived a quarter mile up the road but would stop to say hello each time he passed by my house. Sometimes we would go out for a beer and he would tell me things that no one else had, which made me feel less socially isolated. Plus, he was one of the few people in the village who wasn’t trying to get money or something else out of me. He was a true friend.

A few weeks later, Wentarba went on a trip to his old village to visit family. He was even nice enough to stop by before he left to let me know he was going to be gone for a while. Turned out he was gone a couple of weeks, and I definitely missed him. While there were others who would say hello, no one else really engaged me in conversation like Wentarba did.

When Wentarba returned, he stopped by my place a day or so later in the evening to visit and invite me out for a beer. We walked over to the bar at the Motel de Paillotes (PYE-yotes) and sat outside under the big paillote. A paillote is essentially four poles holding up a cone-shaped thatched roof. The French word for straw is paille, hence the name. It serves as an outdoor room. Since it has no walls at all, it was cooler to sit under than sitting inside the cinderblock building where the bar was.

We each nursed a Bière de Benin, the Togolese manufactured brew, and he filled me in on what he did on his trip. Finally, he dropped a bombshell.

“Do you remember Mimi?” he asked me.

“Sure, she was Komi’s cat.”

Wentarba went on to say that on his way back to Blitta, he made a stop at a nearby village, some place north of Tchebébé, and saw some of his friends by the road. They invited him to eat with them, which he accepted. It was a special dinner, because they were having cat. I immediately knew what had happened to Mimi. But there was more.

It came up during the conversation over dinner that the meal had been purchased from a woman who lived in the white house near the road in Blitta. Well, there was only one white house near the road in Blitta – the one that I lived in. But which one of the women in my compound who so hated Mimi had done it? Wentarba revealed that it was Komi’s daughter, Marie. She waited until Komi was out of town and sold Mimi to someone who had stopped by the house in a bush taxi and saw the cat in the yard. Not only did she get rid of a nuisance, but she got a little money for it at the same time.

In Togo, cats and dogs are considered a delicacy, especially for certain ethnic groups. The Kabyé are known to be particularly fond of dog. A few Volunteers had been offered dog and had tried it, and one said it tasted like chicken, but I’m pretty sure he was being a wise guy. As for me, I don’t think I could have brought myself to eat cat or dog if offered. I’m glad I was never in a situation where it was offered.

I mulled this news over awhile. It was interesting because, although Komi was well liked by some, he was also feared by many. It was surprising to me that his own daughter, who knew that her father liked that cat, would be the one to get rid of it. Maybe she thought she could get away with it because she was just visiting and lived in another village rather far away, plus she left to go back home before Komi returned. I’m sure the other women in the family knew all about this, but no one had said anything to me. Maybe they thought I would tell Komi, and he would be mad at all of them for allowing it to happen.

I was sad to hear of poor Mimi’s demise, but the rest of the story was even more surprising. After they had eaten Mimi, they began to bid on who would get to eat her head. Wentarba told me that some people, and I inferred that meant those who believe in witchcraft, believe that if you eat seven heads of the same kind of animal, you would acquire its characteristics: In the case of a cat, if you fell off a wall, you would get up and walk away. If you got in a car crash, you would get out and walk away. He told me that he had given the highest bid, and he was the one who got to eat Mimi’s head.

I was trying not to screw up my face and go “EEEEWWW!!!”

“The whole head?”

“Yes, the whole head.”

“Brains and eyes and everything??” I was trying to imagine if they just scooped out the brains or if they crunched it up, skull and all. It was the second one. Useless to ask how it tasted. He would have said it was good. But the truth was, I didn’t really want to know.

“Yes, everything.”

“So, how many cat heads have you eaten, in total?”


The story reinforced to me that it wasn’t a good idea for a Volunteer to have a pet. Some Volunteers couldn’t help themselves when confronted with the sight of puppies or kittens in their village but then had to deal with finding their pet a home when their term of service was over. I’m sure many of them never realized why it was so easy to find a “home” for their Togolese pets or what would really happen to the animal the moment the Volunteer left the village.

I was just glad that I hadn’t seen Mimi enough to get attached to her before her disappearance.


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.

As Featured On Ezine Articles

This story was featured on 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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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.


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.


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.


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.

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!”

Just before going to Lomé at the end of January 1997, I noticed a very young little black hen in our yard one morning. She had two broken legs and couldn’t move. No one in my family owned a chicken, and it didn’t seem to belong to any of the neighbors as no one came looking for it.

Animals for the most part run free in the village. Most Togolese don’t have money for fencing. The free-roaming animals eat up any scrap of anything even remotely edible that is dropped anywhere, and things are dropped everywhere. It’s the custom for people to eat outside in the yard, as the tin roofed houses have the ambience of an oven. They drop bones on the ground, and during food preparation the women drop peels and kitchen garbage on the ground. Pygmy goats and occasional ducks or chickens which wandered through our yard would eat some of these scraps. Villagers don’t have money for animal vaccinations, much less for animal feed, so for the animals it was eat everyone’s garbage or eat nothing.

Every morning the first chore of the day was for the women to go out and sweep the dirt in the yard with their African brooms with no handle. Whatever trash and food scraps dropped in the yard which hadn’t been eaten by passing foraging animals the day before was swept up and thrown in the field across the street. People would then start again dropping kitchen trash and all other garbage in the yard all day long, and the dirt would get swept once a day first thing in the morning.

Since there were no fences in this village, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see a chicken in our yard. No one came looking for it because people didn’t seem to keep track of their animals unless perhaps they were about to become dinner. None of the people who passed through our yard paid any attention to it at all. If it were diseased, that would be prudent. I overcame my initial desire to help the injured creature and asked Colette, my host mother, what happened to the little black hen.

“Did she get hit by a car?”

Colette shrugged.

If it had gotten hit by a car, it probably would have ended up closer to the road because no one would have touched it. But from the way it looked, that seemed to be the most logical explanation.

“What happened to it?”

“I don’t know, Da Marie.”

I couldn’t understand why no one would made any attempt to care for the animal. After all, a small amount of care would enable the chicken to live long enough to grow a little more and make a better meal. At any rate, I wasn’t going to ignore an injured animal in the yard, so I approached the hen to see how bad her injuries were.

Other than being unable to walk, the chicken seemed to be in good health. She was not bleeding, she was alert, and her feathers were in reasonably good condition. She was small, as most village chickens are, and looked to be less than a year old. I observed the hapless immobile creature over the course of the morning. No one fed her or made any attempt to care for her. I couldn’t bear witnessing the chicken’s slow death by starvation and dehydration, so by mid-afternoon I started to care for it. Fortunately she was in the shade so I didn’t have to deal with moving an injured animal. I brought her some instant oatmeal that I had bought from the little store nearby a few days ago for breakfast and some water in a washed-out tomato paste can. The chicken drank eagerly and pecked at the oatmeal with good appetite after her initial apprehension at my approach. I continued to feed her and brought her water several times more throughout the day, much to the amusement of my African family.

If the hen had been hit by a car or mauled, she might have internal injuries and not survive, but if all it needed was a little care and feeding, I didn’t mind doing it. If it did survive, it would no doubt hang around my house because I would continue feeding it. However, I didn’t want to be accused of stealing it at some point by a jealous neighbor who decided he wanted it after I had gotten the chicken fat and healthy. No one knew whose chicken it was, but with my care I could foresee the chicken becoming a bone of contention. I thought it wise to get some local legal advice. The next day the village chief strolled by our yard, as he often did. My African host father was one of his cronies.

“Chief, ” I said, “this chicken here has two broken legs and can’t walk. No one knows who is the owner. No one has come to claim it. But also, no one will feed it, and it will die because it can’t walk or find its own food. I don’t want this chicken to die if it can be saved, but I am afraid that if I save it, one day someone will come to you and say ‘Da Marie has my chicken!’ If I save it, can it be mine?”

“If you want to go to the trouble, it can be considered yours, and everyone will know that you did not steal it,” the chief replied.

Great! My chicken custody problem resolved, I left for Lomé the following day, asking Colette to take care of my chicken and not to let it die in my absence. When I returned a few days later, the little black hen was a little more lively and could even move a little. After about a week, she was walking with a limp. Now, one month later, she has a crook in each leg but gets around fine. I continue to toss the little black hen some oatmeal whenever I see her, and she is always there in the yard in the morning when I get up.

In the village there is a little three-year-old girl, Giselle, daughter of Nadange, a friend of one of our neighbors. Nadange would always stop by to say hello to me on her way to visit the neighbor, and Giselle would always hide behind her back in terror. Although most Togolese children are friendly and curious about white people and some get very excited like you were a celebrity, there are a few who are terrified. We probably look like we should be dead, as pale as we are.

At any rate, Giselle was always so afraid of me I never even got her to talk to me like the other kids. Nadange stopped by one morning, with Giselle hiding behind her skirt as usual. Nadange grinned as she told me that when Giselle saw a black chicken a few days ago on the other side of the village, she asked, “mama, is that Da Marie’s chicken?” Every black chicken Giselle sees is now “Da Marie’s chicken.”

A week or so later, I went on a trip to Lomé for a few days. When I got back, I didn’t see the little black hen. The next morning, she didn’t come around for her oatmeal. Nor in the afternoon, the evening, nor the next day. I asked Colette if she had seen the chicken or if she knew what happened to it.

“Oh, Da Marie, it died.”

I felt a momentary twinge of sadness. It was fun having the little black hen around, but Africa is a tough place for animals and people to survive. I’m sure the little black hen did die, but thinking about it now, I bet she ended up in someone’s cookpot.

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