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“Doucement, doucement”: “softly, softly,” “gently, gently,” “slowly, slowly,” “take your time.” One of those, I hope, has got to be a half-decent translation of this quintessential Kabyé phrase. I’ve heard it just about everywhere in this village: tripping in my homestead; hustling down the mountain to beat the rain; even before the big, once-every-five-year kpantcha-sow race. “Doucement, doucement!” I have literally had nightmares involving this phrase. And honestly, coming as I am from Duke’s high-intensity, mile-a-minute lifestyle, I’ve often found it about as difficult to understand as it is to translate.
At Duke—along with, I think, most other places in the great US of A—it can hard to imagine anything worthwhile in taking the time to move “doucement.” Sure, some things obviously involve more time than others, and sure, sometimes if you move too fast, you’re going to make mistakes. But in the States, slowness tends to feel like a concession—something you put up with when moving fast isn’t an option. And in Farendé, that simply isn’t the case.

It is, of course, true that the typical Kabyé is more likely to run into tasks that require “douce” movement than is the average American. You move too fast with a tub of water, you’re liable to get soaked; you move to fast heading down the mountain, you’re liable to hurt yourself. There’s a Kaybé saying about working in the fields that goes something like, “He who works fast in the morning returns home in the dark.”

From what I’ve seen, though, I think the idea of living “doucement” runs deeper than mere practical advice. People aren’t afraid of silences, here. It’s OK if you don’t always have something to say around other people, if you just want to sit and enjoy their presence or how nice it feels outside. It’s OK to look around as you walk from place to place. It’s OK to just be someplace—to feel good without having any real reason why.

To be clear, I love my life at Duke. I love its crazy pace, I love working hard and getting things done. But I also think there’s a lot to be learned from the way time works in Togo. There’s something to be said for the art of slowness—for taking your time, not because you have to, but because you can. When our conversations have all petered out, when our cell phones are all dead, when there’s nothing left to do—what’s left of us? Who are we, when the things we think define us have all slipped away?

And a voice whispers in Farendé: “Doucement, doucement.”