When we first arrived in Lomé, we were greeted by the hot, moist tropical dry season air and the striking rays of the late afternoon sun. I felt encouraged by the thought that it was early June – the final month of the dry season. I knew the hot days wouldn’t last much longer. Over the next three days in Lomé, we experienced the buzz of Togolese city life – merchants and businesses hustling and bustling, streets congested with traffic and pedestrians, the signature honking of drivers on motorbikes and cars in a fashion that seemed to be a form of greeting extended to their fellow road users, especially those they knew. The highlight of my time in Lomé, however, was the cuisine; particularly the poisson braisé we had one night at some food bar (I can’t remember the name of the bar). That fish was just GREAT! On Friday morning, after three days in Lomé, we embarked on a 7 hour drive down to the village. I was excited. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect.
Arriving in the village, the differing nature of the village from that of the city was clear. This time, getting out of the car, we were greeted by a cool breeze sweeping through the atmosphere; a fresh air free of smoke, dust and other air pollutants; the chirping of birds in the trees. It was an amazing feeling compared to three days before. Then we made the long hike up to the village of Koukoudé to be formally greeted by the locals. The joy and excitement of receiving us was echoed by kids shouting “Ankara, Ankara” and teens running towards us to help carry our bags to the homesteads. The elders approached us in excitement as well, babbling words in Kabyé vernacular, to which we mostly responded to with smiley faces, giggles and head nods, until we heard the words “alafiya-weh” which by now we had learned to answer to by saying in return “alafiya” (Alafiya-weh in kabyé means how are you and replying “alafiya” means I am doing well!). The elders conducted a short welcoming ceremony, thanking us for coming and blessing our time in the village. We were officially welcomed to “pays Kabyé”.
The next morning, those of us who were to live in the village of Farende descended the Koukoudé Mountain into the plains. We were introduced to our host families and settled into our new homes for the next two months.
We are now a few weeks in. So far, I have enjoyed my time here. It is truly amazing how nice everyone is. It feels like a steroid infused version of the American “southern hospitality”. Everyone acknowledges people as they walk by. It seems to be in the same culture of the drivers honking at each other in Lomé – except here without the cars and tarred roads. I find myself repeating “alafiya” multiple times a day due to several “alafiya-weh” inquiries after my well being. People I barely know would invite me to join them in sharing a drink of the local sorghum beer whenever they see me passing by. There is a contagious spirit of kindness, which differs greatly from the world I am accustomed to.
One case in particular really stood out to me. I bought a “panne” – dashiki cloth – and wanted to make a shirt out of it. I took the material to a tailor in Farende. On arriving at her shop, she told me that she could do it, but it wouldn’t be as good because she specialized in making clothes for women. I was impressed by her honesty. I asked her if she knew someone who made clothes for men; she said she did, but it was a little far off. Then I asked if she could direct me to the place. Instead of just verbally directing me as I asked, – or maybe giving vague descriptions and telling me to ask other people for directions as I walked – she left her shop and walked me right to the other tailor. I was astonished at this act of kindness she showed. It was truly unusual to me. Here such is the norm.
My project at the cybère is just getting started as well. I devoted my first weeks being here to really getting to know the students who attended the classes. I have learned so much about them and from them. Perhaps one of my biggest lessons is that knowing something is entirely different from actually teaching it, and that forming relationships is just as important as any other virtue in achieving our goals.