A Whirlwind of a Start !
Hello my dear friends and family! I’m writing this from my new home for the next ten weeks – in a little village called Zafi in the Maritime Region of Togo, just under two hours from the capital, Lome. I am posting this, however, from the internet café in the next village over – which is about a 30 minute bike ride from Zafi. We’re now about two weeks into the homestays and training, so I’m feeling settled in and excited about the work!
We haven’t been in country very long, but we’ve done so much traveling, met dozens of people (not to mention each other,since there’s nearly fifty of us), been briefed on immediately essential items during four days of orientation in Lome, and finally moved to our training sites and started our training and language sessions last Tuesday. It’s been a lot – physically, emotionally, and mentally. I know I heard from a number of current or RPCV’s that Stage (the training period before I’m sworn in as a PCV in late August) is one of the most intenseparts of the experience and I’m definitely understanding why. I go through an array of emotions and thought processes every day here, it seems! And by the end of it, all I want to do is sleep.
That said, the experience so far has been amazing. I’m at a loss for where to start. I suppose one of the most comforting things I keep feeling is just how good and right it feels to be back in this region of the world. It’s been nearly two years since I left Ghana, and that was much too long to stay away from West Africa. I’m enjoying the sun, which isn’t too hot yet during the rainy season. We had our first thunderstorm a few days ago and I loved the thunder and the sound of the rain on my sheet metal roof. I’m eating some interesting foods again – really delicious fish that I forgot how much I liked, peanut brittle, yams, fresh bananas and pineapple! There’s also the open markets with such a strange mix of things, including gorgeous fabrics which I’m already eyeing for some skirts to be made. I’ve essentially turned into a morning person again (gasp!) since no one sleeps in past 5am here. I’m considered pretty lazy, rolling out of bed at 6:30, I imagine. I also successfully did my own laundry by hand last weekend– with a lot of help from my Mama, to be fair. I know the novelty of these things will wear off with time and many days I’ll hate it, but whether small or significant, it has been wonderful to have these things back in my day to day life.
I remember I wrote about what it felt like to return to Ghana a second time two years ago, and thinking back to how that felt, it’s similar this time around. But the things I’m lovingperhaps the most here are ones I didn’t have there – like the extensive technical and language training I’ve already started. For now, we’ve been focused on PC policies, health issues, safety concerns,Peace Corps’ philosophical approach to development, and Peace Corps Togo’s programmatic approach to development. DeeperEnvironmental and Food Security technical training will come later, but our French language training is well under way already. We were tested in Lome and divided into groups based on our levels. My class has only four students, and with two full days of language every week and the other three half-days, it’s a lot of language! My only complaint so far might actually be my French class. It’s not moving as quickly as I’d like and much of it feels too much like review, so it’s a little frustrating. We haven’t been learning very relevant vocabulary and phrases for our work, other than cultural things like the Togolese style of salutations. But it’s only the first couple weeks… I know much of my angst is impatience with myself rather than the class, so I’m studying on my own and seeking out people in village with whom I can practice some more difficult things that I’m not getting right now in class.
I do absolutely love using and learning more French every single day. Whether formally or informally, whether remembering words I’ve forgotten or learning how Togolese French differs from the Parisian French I’ve learned – I’m growing through every conversation I have. My brain has now permanently turned on its “foreign-languagemode,” so I find myself thinking something in English and then realizing half of it was actually in French. And even more important, my mind has stopped asking, “howcould I translate this, word for word?” and moreso, “how would this be said in French?” – a slight, but essential difference in languages, one I’ve never truly had a handle on before. (The tutors in the Foreign Language department at my university used to laugh with me when I would ask them for help working on my French Literature papers, and tell me rather bluntly that while my papers were indeed written in French, they read like English. This was not news to me). Where I am and what I’m doing now is exactly the path I wanted to be set on with my French.
Also, I’m living alone here, but also with a great host family, and all my neighbors are my fellow PCT’s and their families, so I’m getting the best of all the worlds. It’s difficult to describe my home, but I live with my host family on a pretty huge compound for such a small village, so there are tons of people around all the time, half of whom I can’t tell whether or not actually live here, but I do have my own space as well. My little “apartment,” I guess I’ll call it, has two rooms – my bedroom, with just a bed and a little window, and a front room, with my table and chair for dining and having guests (I suppose?). That’s actually what I use it for, though.
As a guest and a foreigner here,I am afforded an elevated level of respect, which I’ve done nothing to earn,from my Togolese community members. It’s culturally very important to them to be good hosts and show deep respect for guests of any kind. This means that my host mother serves me dinner first, with triple the amount of food I could ever eat, and everyone sits in my front room and just watches me eat it. Almost no one I’ve spent time with on my compound speaks any French, except Mama’s fifteen year old nephew, my “host cousin.”So dinners are always pretty interesting… and awkward. I get to show them pictures of my family, though, as well as the photobook of Maine I brought to show them. They’re also teaching me a few Ewe words here and there, and they laugh so much whenever I use them!Otherwise, my cousin and I talk as much as each of our levels of French will allow. Over time, I’m getting used to his accent and he’s getting used to mine, so I’m able to ask more questions about him and the family and communicate with my Mama and our family through him. Slow in going, but I’m loving it because with each new phrase or word I pick up on, I get to learn more about them and share more about myself.
Side-note/explanation: Someone’s French language ability here almost completely depends on the level of education they’ve reached, since it’s in school that they learn French. It was the same with English in Ghana. So if someone never attended school, or only had a few years, which is common in a very rural area like Zafi, they very likely don’t know any French. Unfortunately, this also presents a very clear difference between men and women, particularly for older generations. It’s often fairly clear who had the means, opportunity, and encouragement to complete school and who didn’t. The majority of the men I’ve talked to around the village speak pretty good French, while the fouror five adult women that are regularly on my compound speak only basic words and greetings. What’s encouraging, is that every teenage girl I’ve met does speak French.
Then the front door of my apartment opens up into the courtyard of the compound. I count about a dozen doors all around, some of which I’ve never seen opened, so who knows if anyone actually lives in them or not. My cousin told me many of them are renters or family members who live here, but work during the week in Lome, so usually they aren’t around. It’s difficult to understand who is family and who isn’t, but I am certainthat I have at least my Mama Yawa (and she’s wonderful), my two little brothers, Nassis and Abednego, a verysmall sister, Blantine, who is still afraid of my whiteness and cries when I come too close to her (although she’ll bashfully wave to me from afar now!), and a veryoldGrandmama, who clearly finds me a most peculiar thing to have joined her home. The first night I was here, everyone along withsome extended family was in my front room during dinner and my Grandmama came in, puts her hand on her hip, looks me up and down, stares me in the eye, and says to her family in Ewe what I’m certain was something like, “So this is the white girl, huh?” And then she left. Hilarious. I think she’s my favorite.
It’s a good place to call home for the next couple months! I’ve written enough for now, but I do want to expand on many more things later, like our welcome ceremony here in Zafi the night we arrived, about how well the village chief has treated us all, about the stories I hear from the elderly people in the village who had a PCV teach them English in 1966 or 1970 – still able to tell me their names and where they were from, about the PC training I’ve received so far and reflections on them, some cultural curiosities I’ve picked up on already, the sleepless night I was convinced there was a bat in my bedroom, about how I think I may have inadvertently joined a middle school drum circle / dance team, about the glorious bike ride I took around the surrounding villages last weekend, and especially all the other wonderful Trainees I’m working alongside and getting to know.
Again, there’s so much to say and I find it difficult to put so much into words, even in my own journal – but my one take away from my first few weeks has been the absolute assurance that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. Not just because it’s now a more familiar place to return to, but also because I can already see and feel the enormous spaces where I will grow, beyond what I could have gotten anywhere else. That is uniquely terrifying, empowering, and exciting.