|Bruce and Debbie Edwards|
|Lome, Togo, Africa
September 2001 - March 2002
Wed, 12 Sep 2001|
We wanted to connect with our friends during this unbelievable time. Please know we are safe. The school closed down yesterday and today we fly an American flag at half mast to respect our loved ones and families in this tragic event. The embassy ordered all markets in a particular area to close and they are on alert. We feel ok about our security. The population of Lome is about 25% Muslim but everyone seems to be calm and saddened by this event. We wish everyone peace and understanding, our prayers are strong. It is a bit of a challenge with no tv or english speaking radio but we will catch up with you all as the days progress. Presently we write from a closed school but we will fill you in when we get our own system hooked up.
Deb & Bruce
The Flower Market
brother and sister
Sun, 18 Nov 2001|
Cemetery Celebration November 1st
The day after Halloween, there was a celebration at the cemetery. "That should be different", I thought. Geri, the director of Debís school, came by the house just before dark. She knew where the cemetery was, so off we went. It was actually a straight shot right down the street parallel to the beach road. As we approached the gates, we could see in the distance, throngs of people gathered around the perimeter of the Kodjoviakope (our city districtís) graveyard. We had picked up Matt on our way. Heís a journalist from New York. So the four of us white people went into the cemetery. There are only a handful of streetlights in the entire city and we were miles from the nearest one. It was dark. The moon was very full . People were everywhere inside. There were a lot of candles. People were singing, praying, dancing, and carrying on discussions with their departed ancestors.
According to Ewe (pronounced ev-ay) tradition, when a person dies, their reincarnated soul, or "djoto", will come back in the next child born into the same lineage, while their death soul, or "luvo", may linger with those still living, seeking attention and otherwise creating havoc. All Saints Day or Martyrís Day, (as in "happy martyrís day..sorry, couldnít resist ) as it is known in Togo is a time to celebrate with the departed. The entire cemetery is paved with tombs. You must walk on graves just to get around. Everywhere people are lighting candles, laying flowers , carrying on conversations, or just quietly sitting amidst the clamor. Without a doubt, this was as Halloween as I was ever going to get. Under a huge full moon, nothing but candlelight and the occasional firecracker, singing, drumming, dancing, chanting, and all the tombstones you could imagine. Lots of tombstones had "RIP" written on them. I thought that was only in cartoons. Matt can speak French, and so got permission for me to take pictures of one of the families at their grave site. See attached.
We got to use Geriís car this week. The circumstances were sad. Her dear friend passed away after a bout with cancer. Geri hopped a plane to Seattle to attend the services in Spokane on Monday. She left Deb and I with her Peugeot wagon. Kinda surreal, I learned to drive in a Peugeot wagon. My dadís car after we returned to Vancouver from a posting in France, letís see, that would be 1962. Sheesh!
I felt like I was learning to drive again. You have to be careful on all the side streets. Itís easy to get stuck in the soft sand. Iíve been in awe of the drivers in Togo, and now I was one of them. We packed some food and drink and armed wih "the Lonely Planet", our guide book, we ventured out. Everyone drives too fast. The real trick in driving here is to drive too fast like everyone else. It is not really relaxing thatís for sure. If you slow down to what I would consider a reasonable speed, people get kinda pissed off and try to pass, compounding the danger. Very close tolerances at 60 mph are commonplace.
We headed east along the beach road towards the next country called, Benin (pronounced Beh-neen). No AC, so we have the windows down, thereís a hot breeze off the ocean. As we leave the city the rural scene becomes a farming community. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens abound. As we near "Lake Togo", a sort of brackish lagoon, we see kids on the side of the road waving bundles of trussed up live crabs. They are small crabs and coming from a somewhat questionable source, so we smile , wave and drive on. This time of year itís like being in a picture postcard environment the palm trees, sweeping beaches of golden sand, hand carved dugout fishing boats and people in colorful fabric. But stop the car, eliminate the breeze of the moving vehicle and step into Death Valley heat. You begin to understand why people move so slowly. Itís a matter of survival. Park the car in the sun for a while and you come back to a real treat. A sauna sedan.
When we reached the Benin border, we turned around and headed back. At the border town we spotted a park like place with benches overlooking the ocean. It was deserted, and so we stopped to look. The view was beautiful, and typical of everywhere weíve been so far, children begin to materialize. Bright handsome kids chatting away in Ewe, French and broken English. Polite, respectful, but very, "in our face". Most of them leave us to focus their attention to wiping down our car, in hope of a few CFAís, while we are left with a remnant of kids that just watch us with great interest. There were several Vou-Dou fetish "installations" in the vegetation. they look not unlike scarecrows, but containing a good deal more found objects. In the intense heat, that no one seemed to feel but us, the whole scene took on an otherworldly air.
We gave the car wipers a 500CFA note (I think we are 730CFAís to the dollar) Happily, they were thrilled. Every single one thanked us heartily. This Togo is an extremely humbling place. Itís really just starting to sink in ........we have a lot of stuff, certainly, compared to a Togolese , and ,I suspect most Africans.
Even before we left for Togo, Geri, Debís principal, said to bring one set of fancy clothes for the Marineís Ball. They held it at the Sarakawa hotel last night. Security was pretty tight. We had a lot of fun drinkiní and danciní with a very eclectic group of almost 200 foreign service people, diplomats, and a half dozen Marines assigned to the embassy
Just before we jumped in the car, Deb insisted we have Acouti (our night watchman) take our picture. Since we were all dressed up fancy, we wanted to share it with everyone, which meant using the digital camera. Geri had just pulled up outside, and was waiting for us in her car. We didnít have much time. I called Acouti over and asked (as best I could) if he would take our picture. He was thrilled and ran right over and began posing. "No, no, us, you take a picture of us." I handed him the digital camera. He was as fascinated as I was when I first saw the digital display. I finally got him to stop putting it up to his eye and hold it away far enough to see Deb in the viewer, then I jumped around to get in the picture. I told him to press the button slowly. He seemed to get the hang of it and the camera flashed. We thanked him enthusiastically and headed for the ball.
When we finally got home after midnight, exhausted and sweaty from dancing up a storm, we got out of our duds ,showered, and decided to check out the photo. I found it slightly more hilarious than Deb did, but judge for yourselves.
blessings to all, Bruce and Deb
dancin' at the cemetery
coast near Benin
Acouti's first digital photo
Fri, 23 Nov 2001|
Subject: something to consider
Hello everyone, (I'm blind CCing this to over a hundred of our friends)
In case you were wondering how to make the world a bit brighter this Christmas....have I got a deal for you!!
This coming week, if possible, go to your closet or a thrift store and round up any or all of the following:
KIDíS CLOTHES: summer stuff only (85-90 degrees all year) cotton is best. Clean, no holes.
- shorts,- shirts,- t-shirts,- undies,- dresses,- skirts,- shoes,- thin socks,- baseball caps, Doesnít matter whatís printed on them . Other options would be: - towels, - toys, - ream of paper for drawing, -crayons, -water base markers,- pencils - candy
I wouldnít reccommend trying to get all this stuff. ANY of it would be SO appreciated, you just wouldnít believe it! If any of this stuff is laying around and on the way out anyway, consider it ending up in Africa. We are surrounded with the sweetest kids, Christian, Moslem, Ewe, Vou-Dou, and they are poor like you canít believe.
The sooner you can get a package in the mail the better. They have just reopened the diplomatic pouch at the Embassy after the anthrax scare and the secretary there said I could use her name on the address and have everyone sending stuff to the kids, put a "BE" down in the corner so she will know itís for our (Deb and my) neighborhood kids. If you can afford to ship UPS or Fed Ex. so much the better. Itís not cheap, (In fact the whole damn idea is a pain in the ass) I know, but talk about $$ well spent in the spirit of giving!
There will be follow up stories and photos, if we can pull this off. This has been a 100% NON-obligatory solicitation from Santaís helpers- West africa Division.
c/oDepartment of State Lome 2300
Washington, DC 20521-2300
(donít forget to include "B.E." down in the corner somewhere.)
God bless us, everyone.
Bruce & Deb
Deb & neighbor kids
Thu, 29 Nov 2001|
November 29th 2001
The first time I got my haircut in Togo was shortly after I arrived. There was a sign over a door with a picture of a man, a woman and a pair of scissors. When I went in and they were sure I knew where I was, they called the barber. He sat me down and ran a rather crude electric clipper thing over my head, Ďtil Iíd had enough. He asked for 2000 CFAís (about $ 2.50). And I was good to go. While I was there, I took a photo of the people in the shop and when I had it developed, I went to drop it off. (Everyone loves a photo here.) Lo and behold, the barber shop was now a telephone, fax and internet place. As my hair grew, I was on the lookout for a new barber shop. There was one for a short while on the busy street by the school. Very small and dark. Three chairs, three barbers, three guys at a time. I didnít see anyone get out of there with more than an eighth inch of fuzz. One day it became a little shop.
When you get into your fifties and youíre fighting extra little flips and curls in your thinning hair , not to mention the heat and sweat factor...well, suffice it to say I was getting desperate.
Deb and I have made friends with Rose, the wife of the owner of the "Salam Motel Bar" on the beach road. Rose is possibly in her late thirties or early forties. Her husband is a good deal older. Heís a grumpy old Lebanese. Rose was once in England, lived in Ghana and speaks English fairly well. She doesnít , however seem to use the pronoun, "he". So everyone, male or female is referred to as "she". I was asking Roseís help in delivering the clothing etc. for kids that is on the way. She knows all of the hundreds of kids in our neighborhood, and since she is Muslim, will be available Christmas day to pass out the right amounts to the various compounds where everyone lives. We have sworn her to secrecy, as we donít want anyone to know where the stuff came from. This is not some pious act, but merely a way to protect ourselves from being perceived as a place for free stuff.
"Hey, Rose, do you know where I can get a haircut?" I asked as we wound up our Christmas plan talks. "Why not just here?", she said, referring to the Motel. (I use the word loosely, since it in no way resembles what would come to mind when using the word, "motel", but thatís a whole other story) "Thereís a Lebanese staying here, she cuts hair good". "Really, that sounds great," I said. Whenís a good time?" "Come six thirty tonight, sheíll be here"
The Lonely Planet travel guide to West Africa 1999 edition describes the Salam Motel as : "having clean, cramped rooms with twin beds, fan and grubby shared bathroom for CFA 4000. Recently it has attracted itís share of drug dealers and lowlifes"
Earlier in the day, Rose had allowed the local women space on her front sidewalk to dry their sardines. I noticed these were all picked up by the time I came looking for my barber. Ali , the guy who can cut hair was neither a "she" or a Lebanese, but a Palestinian who had been living in Lebanon. He spoke only Arabic. He had me sit on one of Roseís small wooden chairs under the bare bulb on the sidewalk. It was totally dark out and the traffic to Ghana lumbered along on the other side of the hedge about ten feet away. Ali , as it turns out, is dealing cars out of Germany with his brother who he was on a cell phone with in the midst of my haircut. I learned all this from talking to another Ali, (who I will refer to as "Big Ali") who spoke English fairly well. This ought to be good, I seldom get what I want from a barber I can talk to, so after having to remove my shirt and draped in a towel, propped in a chair with my shoulder bag draped over the back, and literally surrounded by Arabs, I was thinking, "wow, this ainít Great Clips!" Aliís tools were a pair of scissors, a comb, and a rather ominous looking straight razor. "Cool", I pretended to think. Actually once I was in this deep, I found it pretty easy. Big Ali was telling me a sad tale of getting ripped off by the Ghanian Mafia, an organization that up Ďtil that minute I hadnít known existed. Apparently Big Ali was honestly attempting to purchase a forged visa for somewhere in Europe, and being the best man he ever met at such wheeling and dealing, he was sure he could handle a few African visa salesmen. He paid $7,000 for it and when he presented it to customs and immigration, they ripped it up, and ripped a key page from his recently purchased South African Passport. Although he was glad not to be in prison, he was stuck in Togo. He wasnít alone. The Motel seems to be a place where lots of Palestinians get "stuck" many face imprisonment if they return to Lebanon or wherever.For those who havenít noticed, Iíve been afflicted with a tendency to like almost everyone I meet. Big Ali was no exception, like he said, 30 years of war was enough, he was glad to be out of the Middle East, but desperate to find a way to Europe or the States. Rose says, referring to them all, "She should go back home, even jail is better."
Ali, the barber is snip, snip, snipping away, by now, I have a lap full of hair. Ali asks Rose for a mirror so I can see what heís done so far. My God, I canít believe my eyes! A bowl cut and he didnít even have a bowl! Maybe a little more on top, I suggested, not wanting to offend an Arab with a straight razor in these troubled times. One thing they all wanted me to believe was they abhorred the acts attributed to Bin Laudin. Since I have the good sense to acknowledge that my skills as a political analyst are limited solely to my universal plan for world peace. I was happy to share it with them all, and so, using Big Ali as interpreter I explained that as leader of a country like the US, I would set my brightest and my best minds to the task of discovering what our "enemies" or those who hated us most really needed, not what the government wanted, but what the people needed. We would then, simply give it, be it food, medical care, whatever resources could be offered would be a minute fraction of the defense or arms budget. ......Hoo-boy, poor little, naive, weird haircut ,Canadian-American guy.
Ali would take no money for his haircut, and in spite of a slight nagging thought that maybe this was his little way of getting even for some political injustice, I sincerely think Ali did the best he could with what he had to work with, tools and client considered.
On my part, Iíve never had a haircut quite like this. As a result, whenever I catch myself in a mirror, Iím reminded of movies of German soldiers. ...Actually, thatís at best. The shaved sides and mop on top with the side trimmed beard give an extra long almost peanut shape to the otherwise distinguished head. Thankfully, Iím reasonably comfortable with who I am spiritually, or Iíd be worried. You know how sometimes, you sort of have an idea of how you look based on how you are feeling then you see something that doesnít fit with those feeling looking back at you from the mirror? It used to be cool or uncool, now itís like young and old, bordering on the alarming.
My God, I do go on! Ober Lieutenant Von Peanut -head , (just glad to have a head at all.) signing off.
Blessings to those of you who made the effort to ship stuff for the kids and sincere and equal blessings for those who didnít.
PS Iím sending an article I truly admire, by a woman I truly admire. One photo is self explainatory, the other is the little kids at Deb's school, posing with the pre school teacher, Miss Judith
Geri's kids & Judith
Mon, 3 Dec 2001|
Dearest family and friends,
Wow i woke up in Africa with Ramadan prayers, roosters, and incredible heat at 5 am... I reflect upon peace and quiet and remember last Saturday...
Every sight along the dusty sandy roads reminds me of the contrasts over and over in Togo. You walk along the beach and the breeze brings such needed relief and you begin to experience some down time when all of a sudden you are surrounded with a large group of kids all asking questions, all anxious for a gift "cadeau, cadeau" they shout... I imagine a possible negative encounter and Bruce laughs and we stumble through broken French and he gives them money and on we go. Hours later I found myself pondering my suspicions, the poverty, the naive children... and I thought about the contrasts in my own mind, the ying-yang, the optimist-pessimist
I also thought about wabi-sabi, the Japanese tradition of celebrating the beauty in what is worn or flawed. Wabi-sabi reminds me that we are all transient beings on this planet, that our bodies and the material world around us are in process of returning to dust. The cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are within frayed edges, abandoned buildings, rust, and liver spots. This thought train helps me embrace the glory and the melancholy found in the marks of passing time. When I stop and reflect, I realize it doesnít take money or special training; it takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate beauty, courage not to fear bareness and a willingness to accept things for what they are.
Or recognizing that every little thing passes, yet the death of someone really jolts the illusion of permanence we seek to sustain. When Geri, the school director, lost a very dear friend, Annette I began thinking about our precious friendships. All of life is in a constant state of change. I am thankful for Bruceís life here and our present health; yet change is so poignant. I ponder my life as a partner, wife, mother and teacher and wonder what new changes are in store for me?
I am currently teaching or rather introducing some large themes in history like exploration, survival, solidarity, political & economical swings, invention, individual freedoms within societal needs and finally global peace. Using Helgelís thought train of the dialectic process I want the kids to better grasp the ebb and flow of change that is directly connected with human error and human triumph. History has been recorded in such bias forms that we as teachers must explore the mutifacets of events and expose students to several points of view. Hegel uses an idea explained within the cycle of thesis - antithesis - synthesis; human changes emerge within this cycle of problem - one paradigm resolution -then the exact opposite paradigm view - finally a combined solution but only for another problem to emerge. And the cycle continues to repeat itself. Of course this is only one way to examine history. Many think Hegel is well definitely outdated, itís working for the me relaying the big picture.
I feel a bit dwarfed here in Lome because within the American foreign service almost everyone has a degree in History but then again almost each one of these people is a staunch republican, including a few parents of American students I am teaching. Ah onward and upward.....
The sun is about to set behind the bogainvillas; the rooster crows every two minutes; the men right next door build build build, pounding away into cement, raking rocks and sand. The kids laugh, argue, cry and run up and down a pile of sand right outside our door as the sea breeze finally begins after a long very hot day. I have no plans but to correct student papers and listen to the sounds. Mothers scream at kids and make Ewe orders I can only guess at the meaning. At one point I did not hear the babies crying now I do. It is from hunger I learned this week families consciously keep the kids right on the verge of hunger so they wonít know what it is really like having a full tummy. I also imagine teething as a problem for the wee little ones.
If I go to buy bread at the street bakery, the momma there will beg me to take her to America, "she can cook, she can clean, she can do anything I wish." She knows that "if I love her I will help her." I try to imagine these people at home with madame and photo yobo man... I donít want to go tonight. The air smells of charcoal and strong fish, dinner is being prepared on the streets now. Women cook in aluminum pots over coffee cans lined with charcoal. Anyone can come up for a bowl of fish soup or beans or whatever she has prepared for a simple fee. I havenít quite acclimated to the hot peppers and sauces. Everyone seems mellow, seems fed, reasonable but three people were shot and killed about 6 blocks from this house around the Ghana border; so the pains of poverty are still strong and driving a particular behavior. Two days later a car was stolen at the French school 5 blocks in another direction and the bank was robbed. All in a hourís work in the states but news travels fast via word of mouth here and every little thing is so precious. Itís nearing Christmas and there is a stronger urgency to have or to recognize what you donít have. Well it feels good to give even if it is a little, for in truth I am just a witness while I learn and teach and grow...
...and sweat and attempt to control the ants in the kitchen, (Bruce loves the ants) the cockroaches in the classroom and wow I continue to wake up in Africa.... Itís a bloomin miracle!!! I am so fortunate to have such incredible friends and family.
Much love to everyone, believe me we look forward to each personís precious words.
Merci, Akbay, Shukria, Gracias, Thank you.Shalom and a warm December blessing
Date: Tue, 25 Dec 2001|
Subject: Christmas Letter
Christmas Day 2001
Blessings to all our dear friends and relatives from Lome Togo. Deb and I are having a relaxing day, reading under our overhead fan, thinking of you, and listening to an old recording we have on tape, of a French boys choir singing Christmas Carols. The Harmattan season has begun here and in most of West Africa. This is a dry wind that blows from the north carrying grey dust from the Sahara. Even when the wind stops blowing, conditions will remain hazy until the first May rains. The heat and humidity are quite oppressive at times. The best hours to be productive are just before dawn , until about 9am. All shops close from 12;30 to 3. Just too damn hot. We spent Chrismas Eve with friends in the Foreign Service. A nice air conditioned home, a big American style dinner, and to top it all off we had the surreal experience of watching "Pearl Harbour" on their home entertainment system. A bit of a shock to the system after no TV for the past 4 months.
Back here in our neighborhood, last night we passed out the last of the clothing, art supplies, and gifts, that had arrived through the Embassy. According to your emails we will still be seeing more boxes arrive in the next few days and possibly weeks. The incredible appreciation of the recipiants is in itself a great reward. We made up special boxes for the few families we knew well enough to specifically suppliy each of their kids. We then passed these to one of the parents for distribution. "God will Bless You" was the reoccurring response, (and Iím passing it right on to you.) The remainder of the articles we brought to Rose, who as I have mentioned before, knows all the moms and kids in our neighborhood. We trust her to do a much more informed job of distribution than we could. Itís also a way to remain anonomous...we hope.
Our trip right up through the center of the country (Dec 15-22) was a wonderful 1600 Kilometer glimpse of Togo. Mike, the historian of the British School and Kimberly, a travel writer for the Lonely Planet and Deb and I in Mikes car, checking out all the places to stay and eat in towns with names like: Atakpalme, Notse, Sokode, Mango and Dapaong. With lots of interesting side excursions.
Mike had connections to an orphanage and we spent some time there being entertained by the kids. They were very happy and we gave them clothes and toothbrushes.
One of our stops was the hotel Parc Fazao. A Togolese National Park and wildlife refuge of 200,000 hectares . It was being helped by a Swiss Foundation. After so called "Democracy" came to Togo (1970-80) most of the animals were killed and eaten, in what was obviously a misunderstanding of freedom. Now there are education programs, regular patrols, and a concerted attempt to protect and reintroduce the park animals. We took the 6am "safari" into the park. I loved it even though it was a far cry from the safaris of the movies. We bumped along in a nice new Toyota Landcruiser where we saw waterbuck, a troop of baboons, with their babies on their backs, a dik-dik (so, look it up) crocodiles, eagles, hawks and an incredible metallic blue kingfisher. They say the park has a herd of 60 elephants, which we did not see. Itís an uphill battle to preserve land when poverty is so huge a problem. We concur with a quote from the lonely Planet," put simply, the ideal solution to poverty, ecological issues, is to raise living standards in Africa, but at the same time reduce western consumption with everyone using resources at a sustainable rate." Put simply, is a real understatement however.
Back on the road the reality of the country really sinks in. There are SO many people, and, donít think for a minute that you have to go way off in the bush somewhwere to see people living in mud huts. Mud hut villages are everywhere in the Togo countryside. And, if you find a village on market day and venture out, it is an assault on our western senses, a real overload of sounds and smells and color and people of all ages. Like being in Safeway on acid. (or so Iíve been told).
Another side trip was to the Tamberma Valley, where the people were begining to finally warm up to visitors. Old folk were sitting under a huge baobab tree smoking pipes. Women , bare-breasted, some nursing also smoked pipes.Their conical roofed mud "castles", called tatas, were like little forts an arrow shot away from one another (thatís reportedly the way a son determines where to build his home...an arrow shot away) It was fascinating to tour through the 3 story huts. They were built with no tools. Men and goats and weapons were all downstairs with animal skull fetishs on the walls. Up the notched limb stairway was where the cooking was done. Corn and millet were stored on the roof where women and kids slept. The US is trying to build a school in the valley, and we ran into the Ambassador in a restarant in nearby Kara. Heís a really nice guy and came over and we traded stories.
Iíve written about another village carved into the side of a cliff. We had to climb down a ladder. Itís all in my journal and eventually Iíll type it up. But, at this time iíll leave you all with blessings for the upcoming year. Iím not sure if it sounds like it or not, but , we are very glad you are all there for us to come home to, since we really miss everone like crazy.
PS A few hours ago our bell rang. The bell is on the wall around our house, literally on the street. We never know what to expect upon opening the metal gate. in this case it was a young man I will guess about 20, though he could have been younger. He was very nervous for disturbing us. He was also very very thin and uhealthy looking. He spoke mostly French and explained he was living just a few houses toward the beach road from us. He showed me his diabetes medicene, and said he is very sick , that a "woman" had come to see him and told him he has aids and now the people in his house want him out. He was so emotional, I urged him to come into the yard and off the street. He was asking me to help him to take a bush taxi to his motherís village so he could be with her when he died. Sometimes you just canít believe things are happening to you. I gave him the money he said he needed plus a small amount for "chop" (food). I blessed him with all my heart and went back to the house to relate this event to Deb. I felt like Iíd been hit by a truck. A few hours later, the bell again, he returned in a very shook up state. He couldnít get the taxi to take him for the amount of money he had. Hereís where you decide if you are being conned or if this boy was what he claimed. Regardless, he was in really bad shape, and in spite of wiser reasoning, Iíve always fared better believing than mistrusting. I sincerely hope he finds comfort with his mom.
love, Bruce & Deb
Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2002|
Subject: thank you
Sunday, January 6th 2002
We wanted to write a special note of thanks to everyone who has made our neighbors and people of the village of Bala happy by sending your generous contributions of clothing, treats, toys, art & school supplies etc.It all seems carefully orchestrated by a mastermind who just sat around and let everyone else do the work and carry the expense, while we just had the fun of distribution. Too true, too true.
Although there was a bit more to it than that, we thought weíd pass on some of the experiences.
Locally here in the Kodjoviakope neighborhood of Lome, where we live, most of the items from seven boxes that we received just before Christmas, were separated into amounts and items for families we have gotten to know. Five families received special parcels containing items for each of their kids as well as mom and dad. the remaining items we gave to Rose, a warm hearted woman, who will do a great job of passing things to kids in need. All concerned were radiant with gratitude.
Deb and I "escaped to Grand Popo beach in Benin for a couple of days and when we got back there were 12 more boxes waiting for us. David the man who helps with cleaning and cooking , (I suppose I should say here, that if you donít hire a house person from the largely unemployed community, people will be lining up daily to ask for the chance of a job. In the end, you get help and support a family.). We found David, after holding out for a couple of months, wrestling with the moral dilemma of having a "servant" . He came recommended as trustworthy, English speaking, and a good cook! Lucky us! His village which he left to find work is about a 2 hour journey north. Itís called Bala, and Davidís 5 children, his mom and wife all live there. We decided to ask David if he would take us to his village, so we could deliver gifts for his family and friends. Deb and David figured the best thing would be to leave the goods in charge of Davidís mom for distribution, a good idea, as it turned out.
The parents of two of Debís students were most generous in allowing us the use of their jeep while they went to the States for Christmas. We loaded the back and the three of us headed north. Kpalime ("K" is silent) is the town nearest the village. This, as turned out quickly became our favorite area so far in Togo. Much quieter, and more lush with forests and waterfalls, reminiscent of Hawaii. The climate is much cooler and very comfortable. By the time we had climbed up to Bala there were no mosquitos at that elevation. The village is on top of a small mountain overlooking the neighboring country of Ghana. The entire area is world renowned for itís diversity of butterflies, and people were trying to sell them in display cases on the side of the road. Tempted as I was (they really are beautiful beyond belief), it didnít seem right supporting their destruction, though, again the dilemma of someone making a living. We met "Prosper" an insect collector and artist who uses natural pigments from local plants to create his art. He gave us a demonstration. Bugs and artwork...does it get any better??
Davidís mom and wife were working in the coffee fields when we arrived, so we set about transporting all the boxes (We had divided things up...girls, boys, adult, toys etc.) Plenty of willing hands placed the boxes on heads and laughing and joking their way down a small path to Davidís little house in the forest. A small patch had been cleared in front. They were growing cassava and ginger. The house was a simple rectangle of mud packed on a wooden framework, with two simple windows, dirt floor and a corrugated metal roof. Surprisingly, there was a room with a lock inside the structure and this is where we placed the boxes, until Davidís mom had time to properly distribute them.
Iíd like to mention here something that left a real impression with me. As soon as we arrived, a man approached our jeep making all kinds of boisterous outcries and gestures. David explained his name was Koffi and he was deaf and dumb. He never left our side. Someone had taught him some sign language and he and Deb hit it off with a few of the universal signs she remembered. (Since itís a universal language, why isnít it compulsory in schools world wide? Just imagine all the quiet animated conversations we could have anywhere on the planet.) Ahh, but I progress.
What impressed me, much like the impaired in our neighborhood in Lome, this person was part of the community. It simply went without saying, everyone was kind and tolerant. (He farted like an old horse going up the trail and no one paid him any mind. This seemed remarkable at first especially since there were such a throng of kids with us, but then he had never heard a fart in his life and I suppose no one wanted to wade into the idea of teaching him how to be sneaky and silent like the rest of us.) The relationship of this man to his village said a lot to me about tolerance and acceptance. By my standards based on western "correctness", he could easily be dismissed as annoying, rude and at times overbearing. Among his people, he was just another person, and as such, displayed great energy, delight, and joy in all things present. When I showed some interest in the ripe coffee, he immediately ran to the shrubs and broke off a branch so we could see the red "cherries" close up. He couldnít do enough for us.
We met the Chief and his sub chief, who invited us back anytime. This is a very friendly village with more old folk than we usually see and lots of kids. Davidís mom finally got word and left her work to visit with us. She is a small slender lady obviously very strong as are most Togolese women, with a smile, that although missing a few teeth, was warm and friendly. She insisted on giving us a huge bunch of bananas. Davidís wife and little baby smiled and posed for pictures. Words of gatitude abound.
David & Chiefs
Kids in Bala
Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2002|
Subject: ant boy
"Consider the ant, thou sluggard." I donít have the Old Testament handy to check, but I think itís in Proverbs somewhere. Iíve always liked that saying, but it does tend to cause me some consternation...is that a real word? Sounds like evaporated milk, as in "Consternation, Home of Contented Cows." OK, Iím back considering ants. I love to consider the ant, and as long as that's what Iím doing, allís well with the world. But, after, letís say an hour of considering, in fact absorbed beyond measure, a mental duel begins. Granted, itís just background thought pollution compared to the real world of watching ants, but there it is non the less, and if you are still with me youíre going to hear about it.
First and foremost is ant consciousness. This is the quiet, thoughtless observation, awe and worship of these busy little beings, who have absolutely no regard for me whatsoever......unless I start, like, messing with them. (An hour later) "Wow, am I wasting time? But wait, the Bible says to consider the ant. Whew, Iím OK, Iím a good man, look at me considering the ant! But what about that, "thou sluggard" part?" Should only sluggards consider the ant? Or is my fascination with these creatures an admission of sluggardness? So the mental duel begins and I start to regard these social, organized, self assured little specks with a twinge of envy. After all how many of them are running around thinking,"Say, isnít that a sluggard staring at us?", or, "Wow, look weíve captured the interest of a real naturalist, look sharp everyone."
We have two major ant populations that dwell in our house. Both are disarmingly savvy in their collective intelligence. The big, as in half inch, black ants, come sauntering into the kitchen every night as soon as we turn out the lights. Walk in, snap on the light and there they are sauntering, in no big hurry, unless attacked by, say, a sluggard, then they are unbelievably fast and agile. these ants come every night to see if they can figure out what we had for dinner, based on drips and crumbs. If they find something interesting, they call their friends over to share and discuss. Iíve never seen them gang up on something and try to drag it away like the guys in the yard. The smaller yard guys can work together a hundred at a time to drag a piece of popcorn 35 feet in about an hour. This is just about the time the entire operation gets clouded with dueling thoughts. But the kitchen ants are something else,. Every night, out they come, even if non-sluggardly types bleach all the counter. There they are going, "wow, look they bleached everything, how unhealthy, lets pray for them."
The other house ants live upstairs, they come from above, and are truly heavenly little beings. They are tiny, tiny, and could care less if I watched them. There are two places they will frequent. One is the table where I do my artwork. One drop of sweetened coffee can bring hundreds of them. They will send scouts who in turn will run off to bring their friends to set up camp . They like my watercolor paint and seem to enjoy a visit to the shores of pthalo blue whenever possible. If all goes well, as in, I donít discover them for a day or so, there they congregate singing silent antennae hymns and carrying on. They really care for each other. If during my sluggardly considerations, I should flatten one of these tiny creatures with a finger tip, they in turn get very excited and the whole tempo of the troupe escalates. Many friends of the recently squished, gather excitedly at the scene and form a "no ants land" for an inch or so around the victim. The stream of moving bodies makes a respectful detour.
Their other favorite place is the toothpaste. Like victims of the tar baby, they will sacrifice themselves to a smear of the stuff. the sluggard thinks," If toothpaste doesnít contain sugar, then whatís the great attraction? Itís got to be that sweet taste. What is that? Is this the first generation of ants to switch to saccharine or nutra-sweet? And if so what are the far reaching consequences for us? The sluggard rides another thought into oblivion.
There were ants on the lawn in front of the place we stayed in Benin. these ones covered all their overland trails with carefully constructed tunnels of dirt. Iím assuming as a deterrent to becoming bird or lizard food.
On our porch in Lome, I discovered a colony of very tiny ants with white abdomens, who gathered around my finger painting (in sweetened coffee) like miniature beasts to a watering hole. I made a smiley face and they completed the "installation" by outlining the eyes, nose and smile with their dense pointillism. A very remarkable, fleeting, satisfying little collaborative art piece. Consider the sluggard thou ant. attached photo: Army ants Fazao National Park (note jaws on soldier ant)
Date: Mon, 11 Feb 2002|
Subject: the Answer
OK, what is the answer? The ANSWER to all and everything. That deep internal, eternal, questioning quest to know for once and for all. That "end all" to questions, a-n-s-w-e-r. Something to simplify our complicated mind. A soothing balm to heal our anguished angst.
When I was younger I believed in such a thing. Indeed, my hope and faith was, that we could find an Answer and step into a new world. Why am I here?...solved. Why am I me? ...simply explained. No puzzle of the universe too complex or mysterious for...the ANSWER! Then as a species, we could set about fixing the questions. Questions like: Why are some of us starving . Or, why do some of us hate each other? Or, how did greed get so popular? Or, how did "religion" become more important than God? If Jesus, and Mohammed, and the Buddha all found each other, would they have a big fight over who God likes best?
Think about it. One clean , clear answer, and poof! , the world makes sense. Well, donít hold your breath. (you realize when I write, Iím talking to myself?) "I am you and you are me and we are all together" (Beatles) Wouldnít it be nice? (Beach Boys) I mean if there really WAS an Answer?
OK, so I wonít pretend I am still wrestling with this question, but the other day I was sitting in our living room, we had, in the last few days been invaded by the large nocturnal ants, who tend to swarm rapidly around the kitchen the moment the light is out. Their uninvited presence always divides my mind. On the one hand I concur with Deb, they are there to spread disease and therefore,our slow death. On the other hand, they are just damn fascinating and to be honest, I kind of like them. So, Iím in the living room when Deb walks in and after a momentís observation announces, "the ants are in the living room."
Well, there you have it! The great white light of recognition fluttered fitfully on. If the truth is spoken clearly, and there is only me to hear it is it still truth? (Bruce) There was no one else there, just Deb and I, but the truth pierced the still, and humid evening, like the light from a flawless diamond!
I am in the living room," the Answer in the living room."
Date: Wed, 6 Feb 2002|
Itís February in Togo
Down the backside of the halfway hump of our contract time here in West Africa. Hard to believe weíve been here 5 months. Iíve started some "ESL" (English as a Second Language) Classes at Debís school. My 4 students are from the Congo. Their dad is a Mobil oil guy. Isaac and Danielle are twins about 6 years old. Patrice is 8 and Sarah is 9. They came to the school a few weeks ago, only speaking French. My friends at Fall City Elementary had sent some simple reading books, and flash cards in one of the "care packages" . Iíve been using them every day.
I go to the school at 10:30am and help with the elementary math. Then, at 11:15, I take the 4 kids upstairs to my small classroom. I donít have the luxury of an air conditioner, (like the paid professionals) but we have a fan and once the windows are open, thereís a breeze. Itís actually fun. I draw stuff on the board and ask what it is in French, then we all practice saying it in English. So far weíve worked on learning the colors, by holding up crayons. We also say the alphabet, a lot of it is pronounced differently in French. We are learning, sky, flower, tree, butterfly, cloud, water, sun, moon, ocean, boat, fish, whale, hot, cold, man, woman, bird, monkey, bee, dog, cat, pig, horse, cow, sheep, goat, house, door, up, down, hat, coat, shirt, pants, socks, shoes, apple, fork, knife salt, pepper, plate, spoon, cup, saucer, glass, napkin, in, out, happy, sad, angry, worried, afraid, laugh, cry, nose, head, ears, eyes, neck, arm, cheeks, chin, mouth, knee, elbow, leg, foot, toes, fingers, thumb, hair, sit down, stand up, pineapple, banana, cake, cigarettes and whiskey. Just kidding about the cake.
Yesterday, Sunday, Geri, the director of the school, Bob Pinto, the high school teacher and "Miss Deborah", as the kids call her, and myself, all piled in Geriís Peugeot and drove to Kpalime, an hour and a half away, to scope out a potential field trip for the kids. Itís close to 90 degrees, the Harmattan winds, filled with dust from the Sahara, no air conditioner, Mr. Pinto, a native Togolese is driving like thereís prize money involved. The exhaust system fell apart on a hilly road. A local guy "fixed" it with wire. A kid named Noel became our guide. We thought he was taking us for a short stroll, something the little kids could handle, so we left our water in the car. Three sweaty hours later, Noel "guides" us into his friendís little bar where we had to either buy some cold drinks, or drop dead on the spot. Some little kids had made drums from tin cans and plastic bags and were our "lounge musicians". The nature walk was, in spite of the heat, just fantastic. We were constantly walking into clouds of butterflies. I become transfixed by new bird calls. We stopped to look at a large turquoise and black bird with a bright orange beak. I miss not having a field guide. Apparently no one has bothered to make one for our part of Africa. There are remarkable insects and flowers. I was continually straggling , stopped in my tracks by some plant or bug Iíve never seen before. There were several towering Kapok trees with their flying buttress root systems. Baobabs with their fruits hanging by rope like stems. Philodendrons winding their way up the tree trunks. Wild nuts and fruits Iíve never seen before. Columns of ants making their way up the tree trunks. I was astonished at one point to see a crab about the size of my fist, scuttling on the bottom of a fresh water pool below a waterfall. It looked for all the world like a crab you would see at the ocean!
As we leisurely tore home at breakneck speed, we spotted a kid holding up a large snake. His friend was holding a bush rat (agouti). The bush rats are a very common sight on the road. Kids are always holding them out for you to see, and hopefully buy for dinner. People set small fires in the underbrush and hunt the large rodents as they try to escape the flames. Perhaps the snake met the same fate. At any rate, we stopped the car, and the kids ran to us with snake and rodent in hand. The snake was about four feet long with a very thick , powerful body. The boy had a cord tied around itís neck. It was quite dead. Itís comparatively small head contained the two large fangs that identified it as poisonous. A Gabon or pit viper I guess. I wish now I had taken a digital photo, but I got a 35mm shot, and we gave the kids a few cfaís (Togo $) for the privilege.
Even far out in the country there are people walking along the roadsides, carrying heavy loads of firewood, or water, or yams, always on their heads. Mostly women and kids. Itís very common, but I still stare at the sight of a woman with a heavy load balanced on her head, a baby strapped to her back, it,s two little bare feet sticking out like six-guns on her hips. Another kid or two behind with a smaller version of the load on their head. Single file, beautiful posture, they often smile and wave, especially if they are greeted first.
As we get closer to the city of Lome, the people are in larger and larger groups. Motor bikes and bicycles, small herds of goats, cars, trucks, taxis, roadside stands selling dry goods, canned goods, drinks, rope, beds, cell phones, pineapples, lottery tickets, live chickens, and every few yards another hair , "Coiffeur" sign. These are hand painted sandwich signs, and might show 3 or 4 elaborate hair doís for men and/or women. I think they may be the only authentic contemporary "folk art" in this part of Africa. The "salons" sport such titles as: "God never Sleeps" , (yes, in English) or the "Trust in Jesus Salon" or, "Truthful Trusses" , or, "Honestyís Hair Emporium" . Iím not making most of this up.
Just the sheer volume of traffic of all description, combined with the multitudes of pedestrians and merchants, the smells of exhaust, sewage, and soap. The brilliant colors of goods and shops and clothing, all fading into the fog of the Harmattan at the end of the block, combine to overload the senses. You look out the window and there are a dozen moto-taxis with a passenger or two aboard a few feet away, all barreling along, weaving in and out , passing on the right or left, wherever thereís room . The ancient, overloaded truck ahead displays its wildly wobbling rear tire through a blue-black cloud of exhaust . A couple of guys sitting atop the load smile and wave. Very loud, badly distorted rock music blows in and out our open windows. We look forward to Kodjoviakope the district where we live, with itís streets of sand and somewhat quieter atmosphere. Our night watchman, Akouete (Ah-quit-ay) greets us as we arrive, and ushers us through the large doors. Another amazing day in Africa.
fixin' the muffler
kids and drums
funeral from window copy
more kids copy
The Red Badge|
Thu, 28 Mar 2002
There are several reasons why we need to go to the U.S. Embassy occasionally. For one, we can write a check from our bank at home and get the best exchange rate in local cfaís. Itís even better than the money changers on the street. For that reason, alone it was worth it to get a badge. However, there were friends to visit, and a cultural center with books and magazines etc. The badge is a plastic coated photo ID. It can be worn around the neck with a heavy, red ribbon. Before I was issued an ID, the procedure was this: you pass through a host of uniformed guards. They are posted on the street by the guard house. After entering this small "house", more of a dislocated hallway, you must cue the line of people waiting to be checked. All baggage, packs, shoulder bags, packages, must go on the conveyor belt and into the x-ray machine, just like the airports have. At the other end is the ID check. If you didnít bring your passport, forget it. State your purpose and step out into the Embassy compound, where you are swept over with those black beeping wands. All metallic beeps must be accounted for. You are then free to go on. The first thing you see is a sign explain "Redundancy Screening in Effect". Understandable, these are tough times. Down the block long sidewalk, past many more guards, a left turn, another block to a small heavy black door. there is a blast of conditioned air as you again wait in line to see the officer behind the small glass window. Here, you are required to state your business and leave your passport. He will call the person you wish to see if you have an appointment, if not, someone you know on the inside must come and get you. Sometimes they are not at their desk and you are asked to sit and wait. Once your visit is verified, you must again go through an airport type beeping arch where the men with the black wands await you. your bags are searched at this time. If you pass, you are issued a temporary card. Then through another heavy door and into grass and flowers, sidewalks to painted buildings and smiling faces. Bing!, inner sanctum, U.S. Embassy, Lome, Togo. After we got to know some of the embassy people, they leaned on whoever to issue us ID badges. One day in October early November, everything fell into place and they sent me to , the guy who makes the badges. He is a nice guy, with a large ink drawing, cartoon style of a fierce looking guy pointing a gun at anyone in his small office. The badge guy is named Richard and he seemed to have a lot of irons in the fire. I sort of came in on top of other things he was doing , so he sat me down, clicked a photo, and rushed me through the process. In half hour I had my badge.
The difference was night and day. If someone loaned me their car, I just waved the badge and up went the gate, they were still required to look under the hood and under the car with mirrors on long poles, but it was very fast and efficient. Everyone smiled. Some even saluted. Car trips were pretty rare, usually I walked or staggered in off a harrowing moto taxi ride. The first few times I was eyed suspiciously as I fumbled in my bag for the badge. But, as soon as I dropped it over my head, the "seas parted". Head of the line and through the doors, lots of smiles. One day I brought an armload of paintings to show to the Administrative Officer. She noticed my badge. Her eyebrows shot up. ĎWhere did you get that?" she said. I thought she was kidding, she was one of the people instrumental in getting me the badge. My badge had a RED background. High priority. Richard screwed up. I wonder what everyone thought all this time. I would come in after walking through the crowded market, or get deposited off the back of a motorbike, all sweaty, sporting the weirdest of haircuts, grope around for the badge and get treated like royalty. I started pretending I was CIA. I stopped with the goofy smiles, and just looked the guards in the eye knowingly. That almost imperceptible nod of acknowledgment. I would put on my sunglasses and stroll around nodding my all-knowing nod to one and all. I didnít need to be undercover, once I was inside, everyone knew I must be CIA..with a Canadian passport...very clever. Everyone, that is except a few friends weíd made who knew of Richardís mistake, and thought it was kind of ..... amusing maybe? There was an exception. The Regional Security Officer spotted my badge one day and barked, "You need to get a new badge, you need a brown background". Brown, yuk, how common! Took him long enough though. Probably been checking my dossier just in case. I still havenít gotten around to visiting Richard again. Deb had timing problems linking up with Richard for a badge, but she can get through everything pretty fast with Red Badge Boy. We visited the Embassy today and learned that all the badges will be obsolete soon. Everyone will be issued new badges. Too bad, everyone should get to be High Priority once in a while. Probably some High Priority should lose the status once in a while too.
the Field trip
Fri, 29 Mar 2002
Deb organized a field trip with the middle school kids. We were given a nice new air conditioned van and driver for the outing, compliments of the U.S. Embassy. We were followed by Vince and Linda Romero, the parents of Katrina one of Debís students. Our destinations were, first a geology site based out of a Peace Corps training camp. The geologists were test drilling for zinc, they had been working there for two and a half years. We were then to push on to Fazao National park where we would spend the night and experience a tour in search of animals early the next morning.
About twenty kilometers out of Lome, we were winding slowly around a sweeping curve in a small village, when an enormous, grossly overloaded, top heavy, tire wobbling semi truck came leaning into us around the curve. It began going over as it pulled alongside. Everything happened like a slow motion movie. Out the back window of the van we could see the huge load pass itís center of gravity and begin itís fall towards Vince and Linda. I have imprinted the look on their faces as Vince hunched up and floored it. The SUV was going slow and in third gear, so it didnít exactly leap, but it was enough. The toppling truck missed them by inches as it hit the street with a terrific impact. Lida was still shaking when we made our first stop an hour later.
We took the kids to see the place where some of the first bullets flew at the start of World War 1. A German officer was shot from a tree by a British sniper, as he was trying to access the "enemy" . In the ensuing firefight several soldiers on both sides were killed and their graves are marked with newly furbished monuments. Further on the German Embassy has gone to some effort to restore and commemorate the gravesites of several more soldiers German and otherwise in a somewhat surreal setting of a peaceful Togolese village. This spot was adjacent to a regular Togolese school house. The classes were open air with benches and a blackboard. That was it. An eye opener for the kids to see the great difference and how privileged we really are.
The Peace Corps camp was, well, peaceful. They werenít training there and there were just a few people from the geology team. They were expecting us and served a nice lunch. We then headed out to see the drilling operation. They are very environmentally aware and disturb the area as little as possible. They have a whole house full of core samples and thick plastic bags of soil from the field. Small amounts are prepared for testing in South Africa. The next step will be to decide if the zinc they have found will be enough to justify the expense of mining it. I kind of hope it does.
Togo could use all the economic help it can get.
We were really hoping to see elephants in Fazao, but alas we had to be satisfied with their enormous tracks by the water holes. While we were out on the "tour", I hesitate to call it a safari, since the Sahael is so much different from the grasslands teeming with animals, one usually associates with a safari. No, we were touring the park in thick scrub and lucky to see the few antelope, and baboons we encountered. The crocodiles at the watering holes were also a crowd pleaser. There were birds, a dry river bed with cool rock formations, and termite "castles" . We were stopped on our route because some people had chopped down a large, hollow tree to get at the honey. The tree lay across the road and the bees were still pissed off. African killer bees? We didnít get close enough to find out. The honey poachers had chopped a hole big enough to get the sweet stuff and I assume beat a hasty retreat. We detoured and headed back. Non the less, the hotel was pleasant and had a great pool so the kids had a good time. Who am I kidding, so did the adults. We got back to Lome just before dark.
- Deb and kids in a village school classroom
- Dinner time at the park
- Kids we met on the way home (where we stopped for a bathroom break)
We were sound asleep when the robber came in. He waited Ďtil our watchmanwas quiet on the other side of the house. Our house is a duplex. The neighbors are Libyans. Their watchman goes inside off the street at around 3 in the morning. It must have happened between 3 and 4 am. Akouete, our guard begins sweeping the grounds at around 4 and goes home between 5 and 6 am.
Deb woke me up at dawn with a, "Did you get up in the night and move stuff around?" "No", sez I. "I think we had a visitor ", sez she. The humble home entertainment system was missing. A portable CD player. More disturbing was the fact that our thief walked not 6 feet from where we lay in slumber land. We played out the mini-drama in reverse. From the location of the CD player back upstairs, we pass a smudge of 3 dirty finger prints on the wall at the bottom of the stairs. In the room where I used to paint before it got too hot, the story revealed another glaring sign. The screen in the locked screen door was neatly cut. We liked leaving the screen door open at night. We assumed the only thing coming through would be a nighttime breeze. Our thief reached through the cut and slid the meager bolts that locked the screen door and slid inside. When I walked on the narrow balcony I looked carefully for any signs. I rounded the corner and looked down, suddenly hearing a silly song my mom used to sing for fun, "Poor olí Robinson Crusoe, didnít know what to do, so...he went home." A clear, distinct, obvious, yet somehow annoyingly redundant, footprint. A layer of dirt cleanly picked up from a moist bare foot revealing a wide print about my size in length. I know it was a stretch to do the Man Friday thing, but do it I did. Here was a clear footprint of a person, who just hours ago was intent on entering our house. For a short time while we slept we were not alone on our island. What if I had gotten up, half asleep heading for the bathroom for a nightly whizz? Suddenly there he is on the stairs, CD player in hand, me with no weapon but a full bladder, I shudder to think. This hypothetical is best left undone. Back to the balcony, the prints are more obscure on their way back, but they were there nonetheless. He was agile, Iíll give her that , (he or she is "la meme chose" in a footprint). OK, so, from the sandy street , he or she ....who am I kidding, HE climbed to the top of our car-less garage, over the thorny bogainvillas hedge, along a narrow ledge, and into the dirt on our unused , narrow balcony, around the corner, slit the screen, unlatch the door, slip inside, past the sleeping tenants, down the stairs, dirty fingers on the wall for balance in the dark, getting a bit nervous, grab the CD player, about turn, back up the stairs, pray not to meet an unsuspecting adversary with a full bladder, past the room with this very laptop computer, into the screen door room, back out on the balcony, ledge, hedge, garage roof, sandy street and away! We are quite seriously thankful...it could have been worse.
Weíre supposed to report this kind of thing to the Embassy. So I did. The RSO and the FSNI came ASAP. I felt a bit like a tour guide to something historical. "Hereís where we kept our home entertainment center, and over here you can clearly see the finger prints on the wall. Now, look at this screen, cut by a sharp knife." We crowd the narrow balcony to peer at the redundant foot print. The RSO and the FSNI agree. Up on the garage, through the hedge, along the ledge etc. Iím thinking, I might be able to get a job as an RSO or an FSNI if this artist thing doesnít work out. "Hello Dad, Mom, yeah, itís me Bruce, your son, I just got a job as a Regional Security Officer. I was trying for the lesser FSNI , but I didnít know what the letters stood for."
Now we lock the balcony door that leads to the screen door. Deb ordered up a new lock from the school for the sun room our burglar gained access to. I guess Itís not impossible to break in now, but it would sure be noisy and confusing. Akouete has assured me he would kill anyone with his machete if he caught them robbing our house. Deb is on pins and needles enough to add the required decibels to the mix and with me peeing over everyone, I think we may have a pretty good security system in place. Iíll check with the RSO and get back to you.
Fishing with Toky|
Date: Thu, 9 May 2002
From: Bruce Edwards
well here's a story for you. Be warned, it's about 6 pages, so you may want to print and read at your leisure....or just delete the darn thing
PS Hi Brent...just found your email address
Fishing with Toky
Poor Toky, every time he comes by I ask question after question about his fishing experiences. I am captivated by the thought of this man and two friends paddling and sailing a hollowed out log straight out into the warm rolling Atlantic to catch fish. Iíve had an open invitation to accompany him for some months now. The other day I finally said yes.
When I first got here in Lome, the pull of the crashing waves a mere two blocks away was too much to resist. Day after day I would walk onto the wide sandy beach and watch spellbound as the fifty or so net fishers would pull the nets into shore. Nets that had methodically been towed to sea very early in the morning by the larger dugouts. These huge nets formed a great crescent with the two points attached to ropes which in turn were hauled in by two teams of chanting kibitzing, laughing, shouting men. The catch was a silver ball of frantic tiny fish, which the women sorted for selling and drying.
The morning I met Toky, he and two friends were attempting to push one of the smaller dugouts, or pirogues into the crashing surf. About sixteen feet long and four feet wide, the craft was literally a hollowed out length of tree. I couldnít imagine how they were going to manage the surf, so I got out my camera for the "ass over teakettle" I expected. Toky caught sight of me out of the corner of his eye and ran over with his hand out saying in English, "give me something" . I was happy to do so. People will often try to get you to pay for taking their picture. Five hundred cfaís later (a little less than a dollar) and he was back gripping the boat and staring intently at the waves. He suddenly gave a yell and they were off, pushing the heavy craft as in slow motion over the sand and then, assisted by a high wave they were borne on the surges. All three men clambered deftly into the boat and began furiously paddling and chanting. Seconds later they were all in the water with swirls of white water washing the hull of the overturned boat. Small boys delighted in rescuing the paddles. All the other gear was stowed and tied securely under the seats of the capsized boat. The manner in which the men worked to turn, dump, and right the boat made it apparent that this was a common occurrence. The boat flipped one more time before it finally reached a place beyond the breakers where they could fix the sail and be off. The memory of this experience was one of the reasons I took so long to say Iíd go.
Two days later Toky and I recognized each other on the street in front of our house. He lives with his family just across the road in a walled compound. There are about twelve families there in small one and two room houses built wall to wall with a narrow, common courtyard, and communal well. These "compounds" run down both sides of the street in all the blocks of our district. Over the next several months Toky and I would sit on our porch and talk fish. Like all Togolese, he had learned French in school, so I would sit with my French- English dictionary and we would communicate by drawing pictures, looking up words and pantomime. His wife, Cho Cho, came from English speaking Ghana when she was twelve, so he had picked up some Anglo words from her. Sometimes David the man who helps at our house would interpret , but usually it didnít take long before David and Toky were telling stories in Ewe laughing and going on and on with me listening, grinning , with no comprehension. David speaks several local dialects and can read and write English and French. Heís thrilled to have a job cleaning our house. Itís a strange world.
"OK, letís go." I finally worked up the nerve for a one day trip. I asked the director of the school, "Iíd like to be Ďsickí one day this week so I can go fishing." She was fine with that. So on Tuesday morning, after a night of little sleep and a lot of anticipation, I put my camera in three ziplock bags, rigged up my spinning reel with electricians tape to a short, teakwood pole, loaded sunscreen, and water into a day pack. I fully expected to get wet . I met Toky at the beach, he was coiling the anchor line. The "anchors" were two rusty crankcases from old cars. He looked at my bag and strange fishing pole. "You have chop?" he asked. "No, itís OK, I wonít be hungry, I just ate something" I said, thinking of the Dramamine and bananas Iíd just wolfed down. He looked at me. "Maybe you bring chop". I went back and made a sandwich, grabbed a few bananas, gave Deb a, "just in case I drown" hug , and headed back to the beach. Toky and his two fishing partners were tying down the last of the gear. My backpack was stuffed into a large net drawn together with a strong rope and tied under one of the seats.
The heavy little craft was forced towards the waves . They raised the stern to minimize the drag on the sand and slowly pushed the bow into the sea. Komi, the youngest looked at me and said, "Donít worry" . Something that for some reason hadnít occurred to meí 'til then. There was in reality a good deal to worry about. Komi had me sit in the seat in front of Tokyís spot while the three fishermen gripped the boat and at Tokyís command, lunged into the surf. They leaped into their places and began their furious paddling to Tokyís encouraging chant. A couple of guys from shore were yelling some unheeded advise. The paddling was totally in synch and very fast, suddenly with no apparent signal they all slowed the stroke to a less exhausting pace, and within a short time we were rolling in the trough and Koffi, the bow man was setting up the sail, while Komi and Toki kept the boat out of the white water that surged towards the beach. There was a rectangular hole in one of the forward seats. Koffi slid the main mast out from under the seats. To the top of the mast was tied a corner of the square sail (a plastic tarp I would cover my woodpile with ) the other end was thrust into the rectangular hole along with a light but strong bamboo pole which was also tied to the mast, but on the top edge about four feet from the main mastís corner. The two poles were kept tight by a wedge driven between them with the butt of Koffiís paddle. A longer third pole, also bamboo, held the other top corner of the square sail away from the main mast. The lower corner of the sail was secured by a light rope that was Komiís responsibility to maneuver, keeping the entire floating "installation" full of air. The skill and speed in which this is done is quite remarkable. Once the sail is up and the boat is making out to sea, Toky stands in the narrow stern with the tiller, a slightly longer paddle secured by a loop of rope. Itís all I can do to stay in my seat and heís standing up. There is also a side board which is dropped over the side and is nothing more than a flat board secured by a loop of rope in the middle of the boat. Itís function is to keep the round hull from sliding sideways too much. Once we were under way , it was very fine indeed. The sun was beginning to burn through the heavy haze on the horizon. The little craft felt sound as it quietly cut the waves with the fat sail laying us over to one side.
Toky often buys frozen bait somewhere, especially if he is fishing for more than one day, but this morning we were headed for the Ghanian fleet to buy our sardines fresh off the boats. Six miles off shore we were in their midst. The scene was beautiful, surreal. The blur of the hazy sun cast the sky as a bright gold backdrop to the much larger Ghanian boat . Silhouetted on deck were about fifteen men working to pull their net from the sea. As we approached, I heard the remarkable "unrythm" of the West African drum beats, but this time it was metallic, and from a distance, tinkly, like a wind chime. the sound rose and fell as we approached. It seemed to be a cadence for the net pullers. As regular and irregular a rhythm as the wind and waves. Koffi quickly struck the sail and stowed the poles. The three men began paddling towards the net boat. The boats from Ghana, like their trucks and taxis are painted with bright colors and designs with sayings such as, "Pray for your God", or "What is it?", or "We are all lost and found" . The boats also have all manner of colorful flags flying. We maneuvered around the floats on the net they were hauling and made our way to the sunny side of their much larger boat. By then the silhouette had burst into color and the source of the "music" was revealed. A group of small boys were tapping a tin cylinder with sticks, possibly the shipís water vessel. One guy held up a small tuna, a few words were exchanged and we headed for the next boat. "No sardines" Toky explained.
The next boat was a bit smaller, a bit shabbier but with no less people aboard including the kids. Toky stood and held the rail keeping the two boats close enough to do business. A woven basket was filled with sardines and passed back to us. Toky decided to fill our bailing container with the bait as well. The kids were smiling and showing off as I clicked pictures. Some money went to the Ghana boat and after a brief paddle to be clear of the larger boat, Koffi once again set our sail and we quietly headed further from the coast. Iím glad it was hazy, full sun would have been brutal. The ocean water was just slightly cooler than the air to the touch. Our total time to the fishing grounds was a little over two hours. I figured we were about twelve miles from shore. I have not seen a life jacket since Iíve been in Africa.
When Toky and crew decided we had arrived, I had no idea what on earth or sea could determine the spot. I will assume it is a fairly large area. The place we fished was only about sixty feet deep, so relatively shallow considering our distance from shore. Again the sail came down and the lads began paddling and chanting and working hard to gain against a strong current . We were heading sort of north west parallel to the coast and pointed towards Ghana. At Tokyís signal , Koffi tossed the first of the heavy crankcases overboard. The rope came up and over quickly and cleanly from itís coil on the floor. As soon as it went slack, the other engine part was tossed over. They were tied to the same line. The current was like being in a deep river. The anchor rope was let out a long way, Ďtil it seemed like it was just a slight downward angle from the stern. We were ready to fish.
Seven stainless steel hooks tied to monofiliment about three feet apart, baited by running a half dozen two inch sardines through the eye sockets. Stitch, stitch, stitch, Ďtil each hook looks like a small squid with sardine tails for tentacles. The three fishermen worked very fast. This was business. The twenty feet or so of line with the hooks is fastened to a two foot length of rebar, the end flattened with hammers and heat , a hole drilled through for the line. It takes this kind of weight to get the bait to the bottom in this current. The line from the business end to the boat is about one hundred lb. test braided nylon. As soon as a fish hits a hook, the line is jerked to set the hook and quickly hauled in hand over hand. The fish, similar to a snapper is removed from the hook and dropped to the floor of the dugout. Hooks are rebaited as necessary and tossed in an orderly manner into the sea where they float momentarily until the rebar follows, and forces the hooks to stream to the bottom, where they drift in the current , tantalizing the fish below. Soon other hand line boats showed up. Two neighborhood friends of Toky dropped anchor within talking distance. And talk they did. Laughing and yelling in the bubbly Ewe tongue. At one point Koffi who was our sail man in the bow said something to the effect of, "Oh great , I have to go to the bathroom and thereís a yobo in the boat with a camera". There were great howls of laughter as poor Koffi made his way to the stern. With a sheepish grin and a determination instilled by the call of nature, he made his way past Komi, past me and then where the craft narrows, through Tokyís legs to perch with his butt hanging over the stern on that pitching boat, yelling rebuttals to the wise cracks, laughing, embarrassed, while the guys in the other boats are howling PHOTO! PHOTO! I smiled too, but I didnít oblige. Kind of a "do unto others" thing I guess. Hell, I had to pee, but after that , I was pretty sure I could hold off a day and a half.
One of the brothers on the closest boat held up a fish he just pulled up. It was neatly chopped in half. Toky immediately tied his line on his big toe and with his free hands hooked a full sized fish he had just caught onto a bigger hook with a wire leader and a heavier line and tossed it over to float near the surface where the barracuda struck.
One of Toky's most interesting stories is about the way they catch the barracuda. I was hoping to see for myself. He told me several times how it is done. Once they hook this powerful predator, the trick is to not fight with him. You will lose, Toky assured me. They can cut the tempered wire leader they make out of brake cable. The technique is to pull him very slowly and gently to the boat. If he gets frightened and runs, let him go. When he slows back down, gently pull him back to the boat. It takes about half an hour to get a big barracuda to the side of the boat. OK, now, hereís the kicker, Toky tells me the next move is to slowly put your arm around the fish, from the outside and scoop him quietly into the boat. Iíve asked him to tell me this story again and again. It doesnít change. I say," Doesnít he go crazy when heís in the boat?" Toky just smiles a "yes of course". With my sandaled feet in the "fish hold", I wasnít so sure I was ready. No fear, the barracuda was gone.
It was fun to see how very skilled these guys were with their fishing. they hauled in fish after fish. When I first attempted to try my buzz bomb on my make shift pole, they politely signaled me to "put whatever that was away". I felt their pain, a yobo with a metal sardine creating a huge tangle of lines. I waited. Finally after several hours and many fish, there happened to be a coincidence whereby all three men were baiting up at once. I grabbed my pole and shot the lure about thirty feet. This was cause for a lot of local dialect in all three boats within earshot. I reeled in with the pull and drop technique described on the back of the buzz bomb packaging. It looked pretty cool in the water as it came to the boat , sans fish. They were all politely waiting. I threw it out again. That was it, this was not a charter boat, these guys had to make a living, at least I got my line wet. Then, close to the boat, "wham" the line tore off the reel. I kept the tension so it could take the line and I could reel him in at the same time. The guys in the other boats were yelling, and hooting and laughing. I brought it along side and grasping the lure, flipped it aboard. A two foot mackerel. Score: Africa fifty, Canada one. I happily stowed my pole.
These happy guys talked and joked with each other, and the guys in the other boats, baited hooks, repaired lines, caught fish, ate spicy rice and noodles with their hands, stood up and whizzed without falling overboard, bailed out the water that splashed in, allowed me to take their pictures, took my picture, chopped the poison tail off a stingray, caught what some people call a dragon fish, with huge "wings" all red, white and blue and croaking an audible little unheeded bark, loosely translated ,"throw me back", caught another fish they called meru rouge , an incredibly beautiful cadmium red with sky blue spots, I swear it would sell for hundreds of dollars, alive to western aquarium enthusiasts. I try to explain that in my broken French and they politely humor me with serious nods and sidelong glances.
It may have been a fear that their passenger was getting delusional, or the fact that the wind kicked up, but most likely it was the diminished bait supply, that prompted Toky to scrape the remaining bait into the sea, while Komi began stowing away the gear. Hand lines and iron weights were carefully wrapped in cloth, placed in the small cargo net and tied under the seat . The fish were stowed in the second net bag. Koffi expertly rigged the sail, Toky stood in the stern, one hand on the steering oar, Komi grabbed the bailing bucket, a gallon jug with the top cut off. He looked at me, pointed to the windward edge of the boat that my plank seat was nailed to and said, "Sit there. No move." I got into "no move" mode immediately as the sail smacked open and we started home. We were going at least twice as fast with the greater part of a much stronger wind blowing from the stern and angling to port enough to have us laid over so that great gallons of water sloshed aboard. Toky steered us up and over the rolling hills of blue green water while Komi with one hand on a rope tied to the corner of our sail, skillfully caught the wind. Every time a wave came in the boat, Komi would wait Ďtil we were sliding down the backside of a roller and with amazing speed he would bail the gallons back to the sea, one hand still on the sail rope.
I tried not to think too much about what would happen if I went over the side. For one thing it would be disobeying the "no move" rule, something I was hugely reluctant to do. These guys were so relaxed, still talking and joking. Toky was standing up for Godís sake! The bamboo poles made a loud cracking noise under the strain. No one seemed to notice. I was pretending to be relaxed, but I was hanging on for dear life. Komi, Koffi and I were all counterbalance, sitting on the rail on the high side of the boat. This thing was really clipping along for a hollow log. I began to enjoy the ride. The skill and confidence of the fishermen soothed my concerns. We were in waves so high we would momentarily lose sight of land , then weíd climb another moving hill and slide back down again, Toky steering, Komi bailing. Koffi was talking, relaxing, his job was coming up. It seemed like about forty five minutes later we were preparing to go back through the rollers to the beach. We were a hundred yards off shore, Toky kept the boat in the trough, and Komi bailed, while Koffi struck the sail and quickly stowed it under a seat forward. The main pole and one bamboo pole were slid beneath our seats. The third , and longest pole, Koffi launched overboard towards the beach. The three men grabbed their paddles and Komi nodded to the middle of my seat as my new place to no move. The waves were cresting and crashing onto the beach. Iíve seen Toky and crew pitched overboard coming ashore many times. when they manage to ride the wave in, itís a true thing of beauty. I glanced at Toky and said, "Weíre going to get wet arenít we?" "No, no, no worry," he said.
All three men were keeping the boat behind the breakers and looking out to sea for a lull, a space to make a run for the beach. As an appropriate wave approached The boat was angled to take advantage of the Ďdown hillí the wave would present as it lifted us up. With a rapid chant that sounded like, "hope, hope, hope" the men paddled furiously. We were pushed, then shot down the leading edge of the wave. The men fought to keep us pointed towards shore as the wave slid beneath us. We all glanced over our shoulder to see the next one. Everyone was paddling hard. I decided my job was to yell YAHOOOOO! to keep from crapping my pants. The wave shot us like a rocket , then came over the stern. As tight as I was hanging on, meant nothing, when the boat hit the sand it stopped dead and I crashed into Komi. I couldnít believe we didnít capsize. We all jumped out and held the boat while more people came to help. My pack was safe in the cargo net, drenched but the ziplocks did their job, camera and film were dry. I started taking pictures of the guys hauling the boat up. A kid about twelve retrieved the bamboo pole Koffi had thrown overboard. We gathered quite a crowd. not your usual tourist pastime I guess.
Toky and these men he calls his brothers do this two or three times a week all year long. Mine was a leisurely eight hour trip. They often go for two or three days at a time. load an old ice box with ice, take a small charcoal stove and a bag of rice, and sleep on board. If it rains, and it does, they cover themselves with the sail. They make an above average wage, enough to keep their families fed and the kids in school. They are very brave and very skilled.
Note" I was reluctant to take my digital camera aboard, so chose instead a 35 mm. The photos accompanying this story were taken at different times. Some of Tokyís very next trip.
Top of a wave
Coming to help