Have had quite a busy time since I wrote last - hospital cleaning, Togolese church, my first African rain/storm, not to mention a dance class for a wedding which is next week...
My first weekend here, Alison mentioned that she was doing a kind of dance class and I said oh that sounds like fun, I'd quite like to come. Thanks to that I'm now part of a group dancing at someone's wedding next Saturday, having had a grand total of about 4 hours to learn the dances - one of which I start... It's really the Togo version of Strictly, except my yovo status adds an extra sort of frisson! I'll let you know how it goes and hopefully post some photos/videos as well after next week - still can't believe this is me about to dance at some poor person's wedding! We're doing two dances, one Indian sort of and one sort of country style. When I say sort of... it's a loose description to say the least. Mama has said that Africans dance 'like monkeys' and it is true that they just have a sort of grace and a way of moving that is totally unique and unlike anything us Europeans can come up with. Just like in church, something I experienced today!
We went to an 'assemblée de Dieu' which is a sort of Protestant gospel style service and the only way to describe it is to say that it was an experience... Never having really been a fervent believer (or if truth be told, a believer at all!) the power and the faith that these people have is amazing. It's quite frightening to think of the consequences if that power was misused because they really put their everything into worship. The whole thing is so physical - they pray out loud, together, with music, with actions, standing up, sitting down, dancing, singing and they fully believe every word. The preaching is intense to say the least, and when we arrived there there were about 5 preachers all going for it in different point of the church! They also have a translator to translate the French into Ewé which I found very interesting, and most of the songs are in Ewé except I'm sure I heard some English at one point which was very bizarre! The church itself is also decorated beautifully - pink and white striped material behind the sort of stage, flowers, pink ribbons hanging from the fans (which were drastically needed as it was 36°C there today despite the storm last night...) and there were two signs which particularly struck me - at the back of the stage it said 'enter to adore' and above the door it said 'go out to serve'. The colours and the dresses there today were the best I've seen since coming here - SO many colours, so many amazing headdresses, so many different types of dress - I felt dramatically underdressed! And resolved that instead of the one dress I was going to get made I need at least 3!
Only one word to say about the storm last night - IMPRESSIVE. (and scary!)
Spent Saturday morning cleaning at the hospital Tokoin which is about a half an hour walk from chez moi. Walked about halfway but then thought 'hmm don't actually know where this hospital is...' so got a moto for the rest. Was definitely an African 8am start as we all rolled up between about 7.50 and 8.20... We were then handed mops, brooms, and buckets - no prizes for guessing what we were going to end up doing! We cleaned the paediatric unit of the hospital which was 3 consultation rooms and a room for in-patients. Am going to write the events as they occurred and describe things as we found them without passing judgement on anything, because I think it will become very clear to you soon without me having to say anything.
We were separated into 4 groups, one to clean the ceilings, one to sweep the floors, one to mop the floors, and the other to wash the windows/doors/etc. In total there were about 10 volunteers, 4 members of Projects Abroad, and about 6 members of the local football team who also pitch quite often apparently. We started by cleaning the consultation rooms, and then moved onto the in-patients room. There were 11 children currently there - the full capacity by the number of beds - in a room about the size of a small living room. And by that I mean think average size for the majority, then go small. The children were all very small, ranging from babies still being breastfed to children about 4 or 5 and when we arrived the room was also full of mothers and families there with their children. Of course we had to move all the beds out to clean this room, so these families ended up outside where fortunately there was some shade, but the children spent 3 hours there without any medication being given that I could see. There were also several drips in the room; some of these were metal, similar to the ones we would see in a hospital at home, but others were wooden, and sort of ressembled hat-stands. It took our team of about 20 people in total 3 hours to clean these 4 rooms and the childrens' beds and they still weren't clean at the end. I don't think I need to say any more.
The one image I will always retain from that isn't the dirt, or the crowded room, or seeing a doctor take up a needle that had been sitting in an inch of dust to use on somebody; it's a family I saw outside. They were asleep on a cover together, a mother and an older boy on the outside, sheltering a little boy in the middle around whose tiny dark wrist there was a white hospital band, and on the back of his hand, in the place where a IV needle would go in, was a white gauze pad.
I love Togo, and I'm having so much fun, but you cannot help but have your eyes forcefully opened at times. But perhaps that's because they need to be. My perspective is changing so much here, and I'd say it's probably impossible to go back home the same person as how you started here - it's certainly not going to be the case for me.
This Saturday Virginie and I went to Togoville - which was my first sortie outside Lomé since arriving here. Left the house at 6am (il fallait un grand effort...) and caught moto-taxis down to the Hollando stop where we had to change to a car to travel the 40 minutes (without traffic - what bliss!) to Agbodrafo where we boarded the pirogue (sort of canoe/kayak thing) to cross the sea to Togoville. Was such a calm crossing and totally chilled out or tranquille as they say here because there were no horns beeping for the first time while I've been here. Utter paradise! Togoville is in fact the town which gives its name to Togo the country; in the ancient language, Togo means the place where the lake and sea meet so Togoville marks that place and was the first major town here. We got off the pirogue to be immediately, and unsurprisingly, greeted by an entire crowd proclaiming to be THE official guides to Togoville... Yea right! We politely refused and kept refusing... and made our way past the really cool sign for Togoville which I will upload a picture of - incidentally the only sign in the town which didn't say 'telephonez' - and into the town itself. The first thing we came across was the tourist office - very tribal outside - where we thought it might be useful to find a map or something of the sort. Or perhaps not. This was essentially a gift-shop with workshop attached, but also included a visitors' book for all the yovos to write in before they left! As we discovered, as touristy as Togoville should be in principle, it lacks certain seemingly essential things - signposts for example... We had an adventure however so not all was bad! We saw the cathedral, with outside shrine to the Lady of the Lake Togo and apparently the very pirogue she crossed the waters in in the 1800s - wonderfully well preserved for its 200 year age...! This was beautiful and very peaceful, with the wind blowing and the sound of drumming wafting pleasantly between the trees. Quite unlike any other cathedral I've visited and I very much preferred it. We also discovered by accident a voodoo priest who explained several of the ancient rites to us. As this was all in broken Togolese French which I struggle to follow at the best of times still (I have become expert at lip-reading and discerning meaning from that!) I didn't catch all of it, but I did catch lots of bits and pieces which were extremely interesting. As well as these we stumbled upon two separate cemetries, a kapok tree which is very beautiful as its fruits are covered in a material which looks and feels something like cotton wool crossed with feathers, plus an old railway line leading right into the distance - oh the potential...
Our main goal was the Protecting Tree of Twins as Viriginie has a twin sister in France. After many many hours we eventually got there with the help of two young guys (one of whom later asked if I was married, and as he didn't believe me when I said yes, I got to use the ring I bought as proof for the first time - so useful!). This tree is literally just in the middle of all the people's houses and would have been impossible to find without help. It's so strange because in England, we are so accustomed to seeing things preserved, put in museums, protected from human contact, separated from the day-to-day life in all and this tree was just another part of the village, as much as any house. It consists of two baobab trees intertwined, one carved into the shape of a man, and the other a woman. Sacrifices, rituals etc often take place around it - there's even a special hut right in the middle of it for the priest to carry these out. And everyone believes very strongly.
On the way back, we also stopped at the Maison des Esclaves. Again, not commercialised (except for the mandatory entry fee) but very interesting although not much to say as will put pictures up to explain better. Also had my first Ewé lesson this week - have learnt so much, not only that there are 9 different ways to greet someone, depending on the time of day, their age/relationship to you, and how long ago you last saw them! Have also learnt simple self-presentation, a bit about the family and numbers 1-10! Not to mention a little song which I'll quickly write out as a finale to this post as am seriously running out of time!
Ewé also has some different letters but I'll write them normal for now and will explain more another time.
nufiala nye, nufiala nye,
mado vevie nusonsron,
ne mese ga wodi gbag ko
maso nye kpe, masi du.
Concise translation: a promise by a student to his teacher that he will be a very good student, be attentive in all his lessons and when he hears the bell sound he will take his kpe and run as fast as he can to school! Is sung to music I recognise although can't remember the English words! Bises à tous, ezanenyo et yoo!
Day number 7 today - can't believe that this time a week ago I was in Heathrow, just getting on the plane to come here and so so nervous! The strange thing about coming here is that it makes you think, well if I can master the art of bartering, visa collecting and travelling here (not to mention taking a class of over 100 pupils...) then I can manage everything; and at the same time you are convinced that you will never manage any of these things because at the beginning they seem so extraordinary. Life for people here is not easy, Mama has been telling me some stories about her childhood, and shocking is the only word to really describe it. Likewise at school - it's not surprising at all that there are 22 year olds in what is technically a school for 12-16 year olds, when you consider the environment and way in which they are expected to learn here.
Will talk more about the school when teaching really gets under way as atm it's devoirs surveillés (think I might have said this already) which are tests done in silence for this week. But just to give an idea of these conditions... The school is split into 4 year groups - 6è-3è - and each of these is split into 3 or 4 groups, labelled A to D according to age. This in theory is to reduce numbers and make it easier for teachers to teach, but in one of these 16 or so groups there are over 100 children. So far I've had classes of 39-75 and these are considered as middlingly large. The desks are old and mostly tip up at the slightest movement, the blackboards are covered in old work so it's hard to tell which is the old and which is the new. There are no proper windows, just vents in the walls. The walls themselves are decrepit and there are holes in most of the roofs so when it rains... And it rains with FORCE in Togo! The floors are uneven and most have holes all over the place. The children tear pages out of their cahiers (school books) to write these exams on and many many cheat beyond belief. Another volunteer found 3 separate copies prepared by one child in one exam, just to cover all possibilities! The corporal punishment is also hard to come to terms with as they punish for trivial things, like a spelling mistake, yet leave larger problems like cheating. Will tell you more about it when I've bitten the bullet and done a class!
Had the first PA volunteers Tuesday the day before yesterday, which is a chance for 'cultural activities' with the rest of the volunteers. Met some other English-speaking people which was a nice break! The acitivity this week was fufu-making, what fun! This is a traditional dish of Togo and is basically pounded yam, which they usually have with some kind of sauce, usually spicy. Looks a little like chewing gum when is nearly ready and can't say it's my favourite but I liked it better this time than the last. Although perhaps that was only cos I'd worked up an appetite! The fufu-making noise is one I will never forget, as we hear it at least every night and almost all day on Sundays! There is a definite technique to it - don't think I'm quite a master of it yet... V hard work but such a unique sight. One lot of fufu takes two people, who each pound the yam with a huge rounded stick and have to coordinate so one goes down while the other goes up which is what makes the characteristic noise. Il faut un grand effort! Will try and put some photos somewhere soon but not quite sure how or when yet. We got to eat the fufu afterwards which was much appreciated and as there was no cutlery had my first meal totally African style - what an achievement!
My Ewé lessons are to start soon and can't wait! Have learnt new word today - amaton (with stress on the ton) means 3. Had thought it meant third finger but apparently that's just what Mama was demonstrating with... Doing my first excursion on Sat to Togoville which isn't that far away but you have to get a kind of canoe thing (it appears I can't escape it Daddy)... So excitement all round here!
Hot and sticky here atm but this is COLD for Togo - all the children wear extra t shirts under their uniform and everyone is in long trousers and sleeves except me who is wearing as little as possible and is still hot! Mentioned that it was hot to the principal of the school yesterday when he asked me how I was finding Togo and he died of laughter. March is the hottest part of the year here and he kindly told me with great delight - 'Tu vas souffrir!' Oh how I am looking forward to that..
Slight moment of panic then, when I thought the computer was so old I wouldn't be able to get on here! But as with everything else here, there is a way around these things that Europeans deem so essential.
So, this is my 4th full day here and it is incredible. There are so many things that I've done or seen for the first time, and the amount of life here is insurpassable. I arrived in Lomé at 3.35 am Friday morning and after a long visa wait including a hairy 20 mins when the man took my passport away and wouldn't give it back (!) filling in 2 forms and paying £5 too much because apparently they 'don't give money back' at the airport... I finally got out and was met by Sarah. We drove through the city which was deserted (deceptive first impression as in the daytime it is anything but deserted) and arrived at my host family's house at about 5am. I was not expecting Mama (my host mother - so so lovely) to be awake but she was, and so was Léa who is our sort of maid/cook. That just about sums up Togo, as everyone is truly on your side. Whenever you enter somewhere, so school or back home after work or even to this internet cafe (sadly lacking in the cafe part...) you are greeted by 'Bonne arrivée' followed usually by a 'comment ça va'. In the streets we are hounded by cries of 'yovo' which is Ewé for 'foreigner' or rather 'white person', but these are not in the slightest mailicious. In the case of the children, it's delight and curiosity and sometimes fear as some of them have never seen anyone white before - they even sing us songs which mainly consist of 'yovo, yovo, ca va bien avec toi'! In the case of the adults, it can just be a sort of observation, or a greeting and most also ask how we are. The thought of a Togolese receiving the same welcome in London is unimaginable and it's sad to realise how isolationist we can be as a culture and society.
So far in the city I've seen the Grand Marché - TERRIFYING but tremendously exciting - and the beach - nice but no sunbathing, as you should cover up stomach and legs here and no swimming as there are huge rip currents. Interesting fact I've learnt - the road which runs parallel to the ocean is supposedly the old German route - it's actually the third version of this as the others are now about 100/150 metres out at sea! Lomé has so much to discover but as most of you will know, for 90% of the time I have absolutely no idea where I am, how I got there or how to get back... Hopefully this will improve by month 7... The other truly terrifying thing about Lomé are the moto-taxis. I don't advise that your first foray into motorbikes should be on the back of one of these. They squeeze through gaps smaller than people and I've rarely seen one brake - they prefer to beep as an alternative. Add to this the other cars on the road, and the taxis-voitures which also don't seem to have brakes plus the people walking or crossing who often have babies on their backs, buckets or similar on the heads or a combination. On only my second morning here I saw a man carrying an extremely long plank on his head - flat so stuck out for at least a metre either side! These taxi-motos are however strangely thrilling, and give a great adrenalin rush, but aren't so good for bad tummies... The one annoying thing is the bartering that goes on. You have to know what price you want to pay, what you would pay if you had to and how much the driver is likely to exaggerate these figures. You can end up refusing them as some just will not budge on their prices, using the excuse that there isn't a fixed price (quelle surprise...) and you also have to take into account the 'yovo' factor which can probably add a good 10% onto the price. At the moment I haven't taken that many but took my first on my own today which was scary indeed! Especially when the engine began to just cut out and fail to restart...
The main roads are normal (ish) roads but most of the residential areas are not paved at all, just red sand - don't think my feet have been this continuously dirty for so long ever! The dust penetrates everything and the other volunteers have warned me that soon you just give up trying to be clean al the time... I'll let you know when I get to that point! Houses are mostly sqaureish concrete blocks, with some kind of courtyard and then covered, tiled terrace area. The one where I am staying has 2 rooms on an upper floor as well but I think that is unusual. All the cooking is done outside, either in the covered and tiled area or the covered corridor where there is a fire, so if you go outside around 6-8 pm the mix of smells is just delicious! I'm liking the food here so far - colico is my favourite at the moment (like roast potato but better) followed by dgege (couscous with sweet milk or yoghurt and ice with sugar à ta plaisir) and then perhaps fufu (kind of pummelled sort of starchy something... takes a little like chewing gum and looks a LOT like it) will become the third but I think it's rather an acquired taste... But thus far I've had something different every day which is lovely, and have eaten with hands a couple of times, but haven't yet managed an entire meal. In 7 months we will see how African I become - everyone has told me that after that length of time I will be practically Togolese, and Mama says I have to marry a Togolese man and have African babies so that I never forget coming here!! Don't think I'm likely to either marry (although not for want of offers!) or forget here in a hurry!
One last lovely thing - in Togo, traditional names are the day of the week that you were born and Mama was struggling with my English name so now at home I am Amave, for Saturday which is coindicentally the same day as her! What a small world... Takes some getting used to but already know that an 'Amave!' requires a 'Mama!' Have so much more to say about the school and all that but will leave that for another time as only have 5 mins remaining on the clock here!! (4 mins now as it takes so long to type as am on old French keyboard). Bonne soirée à tous et à tout à l'heure. Yooo!
Last thing - Simpsons has just come on TV here!!
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