Two Years

Togo, West Africa, is a 335-mile-long, 70-mile-wide chip of country wedged between Ghana and Benin. Hugging the prime meridian at 8 degrees above the equator, Togo operates under Greenwich Mean Time. There’s no springing forward to standard time or falling back to daylight-saving time, or Mountain time, or changing to this time or that time. In Togo there is just time, unchanging, as you change. Life in Togo is mostly lived outdoors, and it’s easy there to get by without a watch. When the sun blues the horizon, it’s 6 a.m. When the sun’s a yellow eye glaring straight down from above, it’s noon. When the sun flattens itself against the trees, turning the green horizon red, it’s 6 p.m. When it gets dark, people go to the bistros and dance to tinkling highlife that melts into Bob Marley that melts into Bony M that melts into Michael Jackson that melts into Sunny Adé and into highlife again, and eventually melts into you and your Peace Corps friends. At your table you spread hot mustard on torn sections of baguette and wash it down with liter bottles of Bière Benin. You dance, you drink. You marvel at the straight-backed, full-breasted, firm-bottomed, ebony women, swaying hips wrapped in blazing-bright pagnes that wrap around your imagination. They marvel at you, at your white skin now clothed in African fabrics, familiar yet strange-looking because you’re a stranger to this country no matter how you try to disguise that fact, dressed as you are in your sweaty African bou-bou cut open and deep at the sides to let in as much air around your chest and under your armpits as possible—your sweaty bou-bou made from some blinding Dutch-wax print of, say, brown seagull silhouettes set against an orange background with purple explosions outlined in yellow for good measure; you, standing or sitting there in your well-broken-in leather sandals—the first purchase you made during your first hesitant trip outside the safe haven of your hotel or the Peace Corps office in the capital city of Lomé, away from the group (but not too far away; you went with two or three other new volunteers, certainly someone who could speak a little French)—you in your sandals purchased for more than full price because you didn’t know how to bargain, sandals so well molded to your feet you wonder why you ever wore shoes. Music. Bière. Sweat. Heat. And after a while, you and your restaurant French get up the courage to walk over and ask one of those lovely women to dance. She laughs at your carefully rehearsed sentence with its words lining up like ducks in a row, smiles no, and as you walk away, pretending it doesn’t matter, she pulls your hand from behind and leads you onto the dance floor. And after a while, time is the last thing on your mind.

But old habits die hard, and you’ve never seen anything quite like it, so after the new African shirts and sandals, the watch becomes the next purchase for the well-heeled Peace Corps volunteer, circa 1982. Somewhere and somehow within this new family of yours, this family of new volunteers you met at pre-staging in a Philadelphia Marriott, your new family arc-welded together through a collective throwing of caution to the wind, soldered by risk; somewhere someone coined the term and it stuck: “Stevie” watches, and you had to have one because—because they were—well, funny. An artifact. A souvenir of your experience, of your time here in Togo. You go to party headquarters in the capital city, party headquarters of the one party allowed to exist here, led by Gnassingbe Eyadema, dictator in 1982 and now, 18 years later in 2000, as you think back in wonder at what you did and didn’t do and know and didn’t know and didn’t choose to know. Stevie watch? The dictator’s first name in French is Etienne, Stephen in English. Togo, your new home for two years, was first a German protectorate, then a French territory before it declared its independence in 1960. The first president, Sylvanus Olympio, by most accounts a good man from the southern Ewe tribe, most populous of the 21 ethnic groups that reside in this country, lasted two years before he was killed. In 1967 Eyadema, a lieutenant colonel from the northern Kabye tribe, led the coup that overthrew the next government. Uneducated yet cunning, the new president promotes his fellow Kabyes to positions of power and consolidates his rule over the small country. He studies his friend Sese Seko Mobutu of Zaire, a dictator ever clad in a leopard-skin cloak to remind people that’s what he turns into if ever threatened, so don’t. Eyadema learns the power of mystique, and the watch is all part of it. The watch is gold with a dark green face and a red-, yellow- and green-striped plastic band. The watch itself is a simple affair: the only digits the 12, 3, 6 and 9, with hatch marks in between. What makes it a Stevie watch is a head-and-shoulder photo of the stern Eyadema in full military regalia peering out from behind the hands, glaring out at you, the wearer. The sweep hand sits on the edge of an optic disk that makes the face appear and disappear every 20 seconds. The message: Stevie is watching, all the time, whether you see him or not. To you the watch seems funny, a keepsake of your two years doing “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” During in-country cross-culture training you were told not to talk politics in Togo; you never know who might be listening, and you might get someone in trouble. So you wear your watch with glib abandon; to your unpracticed eyes, the country, by African standards, seems robust and healthy. Your Togolese friends tolerate your naiveté when they spot the watch, manage a hesitant smile, click their tongues and go “Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.” You are their guest. You are there to help. You are from America.

So you buy the watch but not the comic book. Somehow— somehow the comic book goes too far, this comic book hawked by Lomé children while you eat your lunch of rice with peanut sauce in an open-air café. Children without sandals, in dusty shorts and thin, sweaty, seam-popping, Chinese-made T-shirts approach your table with a small stack of Gnassingbe Eyadema comic books drawn in muscular, Spiderman-like animation. French text balloons with lots of exclamation marks float above a soldier with clear, purposeful eyes and bulging forearms destined for an iron grip. You don’t buy one, but through the grapevine you know which page to flip to as you feign interest to the eager Togolese child: It shows in fiery color the plane crash of 1974 in the village of Sarakawa. A monument featuring the wreckage has been built at the crash site. An entire spread is devoted to the “Miracle of Sarakawa”: The now-president walks away from the broken fuselage that was flying him up country to his tribal home in the North. The dazed, bleeding but tremendously muscular Kabye leader in military garb staggers from the smoking wreckage. Cradling an injured arm, he gazes straight at the reader and says, “Je vieENCORE!” (I live…STILL!). Through your blissful 25-year-old eyes—eyes that out of habit check the time on your Stevie watch, sometimes just to watch his visage appear fully for 20 seconds and then slowly disappear, sometimes just to laugh because it’s so silly, so Third World—life in Togo seems all right. Sure, people are poor, but they’re making it. Your middle-class Togolese teacher friends seem pretty comfortable. Just don’t talk politics. Just don’t talk politics. You’ll get them in trouble if you do. So you don’t. Because you really don’t want to know, anyway.

The family that lives closest to you, the Adades, has an assignment: Take care of the American. He is the guest of the village, and someone must be able to get to him quickly in case of trouble: a snake or scorpion in the house or on the porch, or if he falls ill to any number of the maladies that seem to strike these Americans without warning. Any family in the village would be proud to fulfill this role, but because of simple geography, and because Monsieur Adade is an important and respected farmer, the village elders have bestowed upon him and his family this honor. Every new Peace Corps volunteer has an immediate assignment as well: From the many young Africans who come to help you unpack, choose the one who will clean your house and do your laundry during your stay. In Peace Corps parlance, this lucky teen-ager becomes your “kid.” It is a coveted job because of what it is: a job, working for an American. And as everybody knows, Americans have money. “But once you hire a kid, it’s awfully hard to change your mind,” you are advised in training. “Choose carefully. Take your time.” Because you are male, teen-age boys come to ask for the job: clear-eyed, earnest boys, all with good references. Whom to choose? You dither away another weekend, thinking. Then Monday, after teaching, you motor home on your mo-ped and the decision has been made for you: Akossiwa, Papa Adade’s 15-year-old daughter, has already swept your porch and is waiting patiently to be let inside with her bucket, broom and rags. Smart girl. A strong-looking girl with a shy smile. Not too pretty. Something tells you that this is a good thing. She offers to come twice a week during sieste to clean, do the dishes, wash the floors, take home laundry and leave you with the African sound bite you will forever associate with this time, this place: the swoosh of her hand broom whisking the packed dirt in front of your house into overlapping seashell shapes as she leaves. The sound tugs you gently out of sieste and becomes the centerpiece of your post-nap ritual: raiding your kerosene-powered frigo for the never-too-empty carafe of sun tea, slipping out onto your porch and easing back to reality with a sugary, cool glass of Lipton’s. You sit still in the creaky wicker chair, gazing down at the pretty seashells on seashells on seashells, sculpted by a tired but giggly girl who just thought dirt would look nice that way. And every time you’re ready to leave, to return to school or shop for supplies, you pause on the porch before stepping down and ruining such temporal perfection. Yes, Akossiwa was a good choice.

And at night, if you are late and your little house sits there dark, the Adade family wonders where you are and worries. In the blackness Papa Adade will walk over with his lantern in one hand and something else in his other. On your porch he will place a little oil lamp made from cut and soldered tomato and sardine cans, light the rag wick, set the flickering yellow beacon at the spot most visible from afar, and leave.

There are no good snakes in Togo. It is halfway through the school day, the school day that begins at 6:45 with the raising of the flag in the dusty courtyard, the courtyard graced at the beginning of the school year with lovely shade trees, now stubby amputees, branches hacked back mercilessly by students with machetes in defense against snakes. The low, cement, barracks-like classrooms seem all window frame: huge, square, glassless cavities that pray for wind. The flag, wide green-and-yellow stripes, red square in the corner, one white star inside the red square. The singing of the national anthem in French. All students neat and crisp in their uniforms, boys in khaki trousers and shirts, girls in knee-length khaki skirts and white blouses. All students stand at attention in their classes and sing softly, words slurring together from the boredom of repetition, soft and familiar, like the gentle green morning, a warm but comfortable 80 degrees that’s already climbing. School will end at noon when the temperature closes in on 100. From noon to 3 the country sleeps in a communal sieste. After 3, many kids return for an hour or two of work, maintaining the school garden or clearing more ground in defense against snakes. But now it is 9:45, between periods three and four, break time, time to eat, and the women from the village have arrived and set up their food stands: Big, wide, red, white, yellow and blue enamel bowls from China sit atop squat wooden tables, the biggest bowls for rice, the smaller bowls for tomato sauce with sardines, strips of fried dough rolled in sugar, half-ears of roasted corn served on torn pieces of brown sack paper, oily noodle and couscous concoctions, noodles and rice served on split baguettes, fried turkey tails. A bowl to keep the loose change in. The paper money disappears quickly somewhere in the folds of their bright pagnes. The women sit in what shade the courtyard trees provide; the students cluster under what other shade is offered by the roof and sides of the classroom buildings. There is a laughing, murmuring; there is the heat of the midmorning sun. The teachers visit under the best shade tree, reserved just for them, the village’s upper-middle class. Ten minutes to go until fourth period. A girl points and screams.


Bowls fall. Bodies rush. Dust rises. A circle forms. Stones, sticks, books, a brick, bowls, bigger stones, more stones, stones stones stones rain down on the twisting black thing that looks even more lethal as it coils and flips, its underside soft gray and obscene in the daylight. A teacher runs to the office and returns with a machete. With a sure stroke he decapitates the viper, then works the blade under the middle of the headless now-non-danger, balances the limp body curled in the shape of an N, and marches it off to toss into the brush. Everyone filters back to their places in the shade. The student-body president rings the school bell. The market women pack up and walk home together, raising the dust on the path as they go. The courtyard empties. Fourth period begins. You wouldn’t want to be a snake in Togo.

But you may want to be a crazy person. At first it’s a curiosity, then a suspicion, then a certainty. Your friend Tom, math teacher from Michigan in the next village down the road, notices it one day out of the blue: In every village there’s a crazy person, sometimes two. They show up on market day, at the taxi stop, at your front doorstep if it happens to be your village. They seem to materialize everywhere you want to be. Crazy people dressed in tatters with a second, third, fourth skin of dust and grime, some not dressed at all; crazy people with missing teeth and the glaring, faraway look in their eyes, the look that makes them crazy people. But there’s the other thing: They never lack for food or drink. They’re never angry Just crazy. Nice crazy, if there is such a thing. The market women leave them what remains at day’s end; the villagers leave an old sheet outside their huts. The villagers don’t seem to care if a crazy person sleeps under their awning at night or inside the mud-and-thatch tool shed. They don’t care if a crazy person is the first thing they see when they step outside in the morning.

“The village takes care of them,” your African friend the histo-geo teacher says at the taxi stop after school. You’re both heading into Atakpame on Friday night. He is dressed in a crisply pressed aquamarine complèt peppered with orange lightbulbs inside of which leap purple sailfish. He looks great. You wonder why these clothes never look half as good on you. That evening your paths might cross in town as you bistro-hop and highlife dance through the thick night air. A crazy man dressed in a yellow-and-green Bob Marley T-shirt and nothing else capers around the taxi gare, tries to help the driver lash the luggage down on top of his pickup; the driver shoos him away. The crazy’s dusty penis flops this way and that. The women climb on board, laughing and tittering in Ewe.

“In America we put them somewhere,” you say, climbing up and settling into the seat across from the histo-geo teacher. “In these places just for them.”

He shrugs. “We have one of those places, too. In Aného. But there are so many—” Together you watch how the villagers acknowledge the crazy man, make room for him. “Do you think they are happy in those places?” he asks.

You shrug.

All which prompts Tom, after the fourth or fifth bière at 2 a.m. inside the swirl, sway and sweat of that bistro night, to say something silly and drunken and a little profound: “Yeah. When I’ve had it with America, with Reagan, with everything—” (and we all know just what he means, because having had it with America helped push us here) “when I’ve had it with everything, I’ll buy me a one-way ticket back. And when I get here I’ll throw off all my clothes and become a fou in Togo. That’s what I’ll do.” And we all get back up and dance like fools.

This here, this here heat is mirage heat. This here heat is a mother, a user, using you like a lightning rod to reach the earth, then cooking its way back up through your feet, your calves, thighs, crotch, belly, chest, armpits, neck, face and back out the top of your head and through the hat that seems to make no difference. This heat, you are this heat, a human ripple rising through the trunks, leaves and vines of this rain-forest country, country fried by sun into your retinas, an impossible electric green green that out-neons neon. Heat. Heat like the buzz of mosquitoes that never stops, the buzz and bite you keep out with your mosquito net like a winding sheet that makes it even hotter inside on your damp bed, lying naked there with your lover, still, separate, arms limp, palms up, legs spread-eagled, the two of you a feast for the one mosquito that always makes it in to remind that you can run, you can hide, but you can never get away from this heat.

Until it rains. Cat-fur-gray mountains of mist drift over the peaks of Ghana, gathering, gathering, gathering gobs of gray greatness: slate gray, ocean gray, gauzy gray, purgatory gray, waiting gray, charcoal gray, black! The clouds pile one atop the other atop another to overwhelm the sun, to turn midday into dusk, to snuff out the heat like a lantern run out of fuel. The first falling drops silver the forest green to blue, raising dust-cloud explosions from the packed earth. Drop, drop-drop, drop-drop-drop; the drops clack and thunk against the corrugated steel roof of your little house. But only for a second. Then Africa’s tiger god tears through the clouds with a mighty claw, and water falls, water weeps. It is more than rain that pours down from on high; it is the definition of rain that slams down from above, slaps down on the corrugated steel roof over your head and snaps the heat in two. Thunderous, wondrous the sound, the sound of the heavens raining down on the steel roof, forming rushing parallel rivers that fall and pound the ground with spatter. You and your African lover lie awake under the net, inside and within the cool roar; she slaps at the mosquito that’s landed on your belly, gets it. A smear of blood, the glow of waiting skin in the gray room, white-white, black-black, white-black, skin is skin is desire under the pelting rain and cool mercy and you’re at it, rocking together as the rain rocks the roof, the house, rocks your world louder than your love that furrows and sweats these dank sheets. You scream, she screams, you scream your hearts out. Who can hear? Scream as loud as you like; you cannot out-passion this rain.

After 20 minutes it is over. Like a beaten bully back with reinforcements the sun slogs through the breaking, spent clouds, steaming the ground, and already there are dry spots surfacing in this in-between gray-green-and-brown-dripping world. A moment: a still moment, and you and your lover venture outside, pull together two wicker porch chairs and open a bottle of bière to share as you wait for the next moment, which comes…wait…which comes…wait…there’s one; there’s another…which comes…Now! Suddenly the air is aflicker-flutter with amber wings, thousands of lacy wings, twittering, tapping, throbbing the air like a pulse: tremble. Termites! Hatched by the rain, up through the soil, dried by the air: termites. Wings by the thousands, lace wings blurring your vision, up, down inways-sideways-out, then falling, filtering gentle down to earth, little brown bodies with Tinkerbell wings, gliding back to earth. Enter…toads! Toads big as your hand spread wide, toads emerging with a swagger from the slick, dripping forest. Toads with tongues long, quick and obscene, tongues that lap, lap, lap up eight or nine scurrying termites at a swoop. The ground glitters with shiny termite bodies, scattering, fast. Three toads sit and spit out their tongues, flop, flop, flop, feasting. You’ve heard that the Togolese eat the termites too, fry them up in a pan, salt them, toss them back like popcorn. You turn to your Togolese lover to ask if this is true, but she is sipping your shared bière, laughing with you at nature’s spectacle, looking beautiful and whole. You turn back, ashamed of some of the things you find yourself thinking about these people, some of the things you laugh about when you’re alone with your Peace Corps friends, the Peace Corps urban legends you buy into. And what if it is true? You got a better use for termites? Brightness: The sun has broken all the way through, tanning the drying earth; fewer termites and toads, fewer, and soon it will be as dusty, hot and still as before.

There’s no escaping it because the children are everywhere: tagging along behind on the street, on the way at the marché, even calling through the open windows of the bistros. The yovo song: “Yovo, yovo, bonsoir. Ça va bien? Merci!” When asked, the adults shake their heads and tell you yovo, in Ewe, translates as “one who is free because of his intelligence.” They deny the Peace Corps rumor that what it really means is yellow dog, which is how it feels after the 20th time kids aim it at you on any given day. You will never belong here. You may think your skin is black because black skin is mostly what you see. You forget what color you are. But the children are fine-tuned to other-ness, alien-ness, to the French you work so hard to speak better that’s never good enough. “Yovo, yovo, bonsoir. Ça va bien? Merci! In groups, alone, you swear you even heard it through the open window of your house while drowsing through sieste. Some kid singing it to himself as he walked down the path by your house. Story: One time a Peace Corps volunteer was walking along the main drag in Atakpame, you know, the busy street that curls like a bow around the grand marché building? Bunch of Togolese kids was trailing him, yovo-ing him. It was noon. It was hot. You know how hot I mean: headache hot. He snaps, whirls around to tell them to fuck off. The kids scatter, one into the road, right in front of a taxi that almost runs him over. Could have killed him. How’d you like to carry that around with you the rest of your life? Just ignore ‘em. Keep walking. What else can you do? “Yovo, yovo, bonsoir. Ça va bien? Merci!”

The school year begins with 60 students per class. They sit on benches, two to a desk. When you walk in, the class major claps his desktop and everyone stands at attention until you tell them—or wave your hand—that it is all right to sit down while you take attendance. Nice, such respect. This isn’t America, you think. No, it’s not, which is why most students here flunk and flunk and flunk again until they eventually drop out. The class is the equivalent of ninth grade. Ages range from 13 to l8. Only the best pass the final examinations that eventually promote them to lycée, where many of the rest flunk out. What use has a country like Togo for a well-educated population, a population that can’t find jobs? No use. Negative use; what dictator wants an educated class of people who read too much, a class of people who ask too many questions that have no good answers? No use.

But the American is nice, and silly in a way we have not seen. Without warning, in the middle of class, he starts to jump up and down. “I am jumping,” he says. And he pulls up a student or two from their desks, makes everyone get up and jump about the room. “We are jumping,” he says. We jump, bump into one another, bump into him, laugh. And he points to me: “And what is Manavi doing? She is —she is—” and he looks around at us until Kudjo gets it: “Manavi laughs. Manavi is laughing,” he grins.

“Yes!” teacher says. “We laugh when we learn English,” and then we sit when he waves us back down. “We jumped” he says, to teach past tense. “And what will we do tomorrow?” He grins.

“We will jump. We shall jump!” we answer. But even though we pass this class and Monsieur Kuevi’s science class and Madame Ekoue’s French class, the test will come from the capital, and we will go only so far. We miss too much school. We have work in the fields. I must help my mother in the market. This first, that second, then school. And by mid-year our number has dropped to 45, then 40. And the school year will end and the jumping Peace Corps man will leave, and next year we will be here again, maybe next level, maybe not; and again, until we finally flunk the test many times and we don’t bother to come anymore.

Buzzards perched on the awning of the Badou meat market, eight black question marks, then six; two of the 20-pound birds break rank, descend and fight on the ground, their red, bald heads connected by a piece of gristle stretched to the breaking point. A tug of war. They flap 3-foot black wings at each other and twirl in the dust, a whirligig, yellow sun glinting off their backs, dust rising. For some reason God has seen fit to sear this image into your memory. You’ve seen buzzards before, in other marchés, other meat markets. But, watching, you know that this scene, this moment in the Badou marché—you glance at the position of the sun, the slant of shadows on the ground; it’s about 3 in the afternoon—this moment on this Saturday, pausing here in the shade while your friend Brian buys soap and sardines from the mother of one of his students, this non-moment, devoid of any importance; Brian, who teaches math/science, whom you’ve traveled four long hours in the back of a Toyota pickup to visit on this Saturday in the middle of your two years because the Chloroquine-induced dreams you’ve been having grow more and more bizarre: In the last one the green jungle crept up and over your house at night while you slept, and in the morning you were not there, your house was not there; just jungle that swallowed you up; all very vivid, like the tribal-language babble of the market; the slam of a tailgate at the neighboring taxi station, the cry of a baby girl clinging to her mother’s leg, the heat streaming down to bake it all in your memory, the vectors of vision meeting at the gaggle of buzzards lining the top of the Badou meat market: This moment will remember you. The blood-red cleavers chopping the bloodier red meat below; the bloody red fingers of the butchers tossing a scrap into the dust now and then and the buzzards falling. It’s not a good memory; it’s not a bad memory. It just is. Brian zips up his backpack and tugs your sleeve. “C’mon. Let’s get a bière,”and the trance is broken, but the memory is branded and will remain.

Everything grows here. Lily-like amaryllis, trumpety blooms open and loud in scarlet, pink and white. Flamboyants in searing orange and yellow, tendrilly stamens curled like inviting fingers. Bougainvillea spreading up the white-washed sides of an old German two-story, a crimson supernova! Caladium, leaves large as elephant ears, veiny rosy-red stitched around the edges laced with slips of white-speckled green. Nerine blooms, pink, huge and spidery! Hibiscus in creamy butterscotch and orange, crinkly, papery; bushy lantana, thousands of red-yellow-orange blooms the size of diamonds. Oleander, shrubby, waxy, pink, white, red! Ribbony red-yellow Rothschild lilies, pasted like Christmas bows against palm tree trunks. Jasmine, honeysuckle, birds of paradise. Yes, birds of paradise all in this jack-and-the-beanstalk world.

Perhaps every place on earth has its own God. That is to say, when one place stops being that place and starts being another place, the god in charge changes, changes to suit the new place. That would mean there were many gods on which to conjecture. But no one would doubt or conjecture as to the god in charge of Togo, West Africa: She is a woman, a naked woman bedecked in flowers, with green eyes.

It is late afternoon and starting to cool. The first squadrons of fruit bats fly overhead, southbound: black, silent bombers peppering the blue-pink sky.

The road runs north-south, splitting the country into neat east-west halves. Two lanes, paved but crumbling on the edges, it sometimes drops off on each side by as much as 8 inches. The road begins where the land does, in Lomé—the maritime region—then runs due north across the flatlands through Tsevie and Notse, then Atakpame, farther still through miles of drier and drier savannah through Blitta, Sotoboua, then Sokode, where men in Muslim white start to rival those in brilliant African clothes; still north the road courses through the dictator’s tribal territory, Lama Kara and Pya, where he’s built a second party headquarters but really a stronghold for him to escape to in case in case; next comes Niamtougou, Kanté, Mango and finally, after Dapaong, the border crossing into Burkina Faso, where stunted, lonely trees speckle the brown-paper flatness, providing far too little shade. Think back to Sokode, dry Sokode: There the paved road makes a T, the western arm stretching off to Bassar near the Ghanaian border, the eastern arm snaking off to Tchamba, cozy close to Benin. Lower down, in Atakpame, the paved road branches west in a long, lazy loop, taking in the large town of Kpalime before returning home to Lome. The eroding two-lane is called the Route Internationale. In America it would be represented by a thin blue line on the map, a county road.

Soon you know the country inside out, up-down and side-to-side, by the villages where your friends are posted. “You know the country better than we do,” your Togolese friends laugh as they settle in beside you in the back of a baché: converted Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi pickups that endlessly travel the Route Internationale, crisscrossing the land, their truck beds lined with a bench on each side, covered with wooden canopies, overloaded with suitcases, boxes, baskets, pails, chickens and perhaps a goat strapped down up top, and African men, women with babies, boys, girls, and you below, inside, sitting thigh to thigh, sweating. The drivers all know each other by the wooden plaques mounted and centered above the cabs: “Not Yet” says one in red letters outlined in gold, the head of Jesus peering over the words from behind; “Which Way?” poses another in blue and orange, with one finger pointing up, another pointing down; “Why Not?” asks an old Datsun still running on one leg, a lone candle standing mysteriously between the two words. Heather, the English teacher from Malibu, lives in Wahala, the village plagued by guinea worm; Bret, from Syracuse, in Co-ops, works at the tractor place in Hiheatro; William, in Animal Traction, from Tucson, lives in Bafilo now and goes by the name of Bafilo Bill; math/science teacher Jim, from El Paso, with the Stetson hat, lives way north in Mango, where he needs it; Kristen, the health volunteer from San Diego, the one you had the crush on in training, loves out-of-the-way Kpagouda and still isn’t interested in you; Abby and Lauren are neighbors up north in Kante, digging wells. You even know the whereabouts of the volunteers you don’t like: Lyle, in pretty Elavagnon near the game park, who talks so much about leaving, you wish he’d just go; weird Wayne, the butterfly collector in Akaba; Frank in Guerinkouka, who only came over here to study for his GMATs; Dalton, the walker—where does he live again? Apeyeme?—doesn’t matter; he’s never there, always out walking. Good volunteers, bad volunteers, lonely volunteers all, trekking around this sliver of Africa in the back of pickups, on foot, astride Yamaha Enduros or Motobecane mo-peds, searching out someone like you to reconnect with, to talk it over and make it real.

“Yovo, yovo, bonsoir. Ça va bien? Merci!”

When there is nothing to do, a walk through the village will do. It is Saturday or Sunday. You’re tired of reading, of writing letters home so you can get letters back (that most exciting moment of the day: to check the tiny window of your post-office box for those slanting lines of envelope edge). No one comes to visit; your papers are graded; the gardening is done, shopping, too. It is 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The village lies still under the spell of sun. You strike off at a diagonal, through the meandering, curling paths and squares between the clusters of mud huts with thatch roofs and little cement houses. Look sharp for all the sharp edges there are to confront a tall American: slanting awnings and roofs of corrugated steel that end 6 feet above the ground, right at eye level. Don’t take any corner too quickly. A little boy starts to follow and is soon joined by one of his fellows. You don’t hear “yovo” much in your own village anymore; mothers have scolded their children into silence. Still, the little ones like to follow. A naked baby girl, eyes squinted shut, stands soaped head to toe on a flat stone. Her mother pours a pail of water over her head. Faces peer through glassless windows; forms darken open doors as the village guest passes. Smiles mostly, bemusement, curiosity, nods of simple assent. And always a frown or two: Go ahead and look your fill. You get to leave anytime you want. We live here. You turn a corner into a private courtyard, a U made by the connecting walls of three huts. A clothesline sags between the farthest points. A teen-age girl, bare breasted, hangs wrung-wrinkled laundry. She is halfway between the pile on the ground and the line with a crimson pagne when your eyes lock. A very pretty girl. Seventeen. Eighteen, maybe. Your student. “Bonjour, Monsieur,”she smiles, and tosses the garment over the line, turning back so you can get a good look. Take me with you, say her eyes.

In December the winds increase in the drier North African nations of Algeria, Chad and Libya, picking up the top of the Sahara and blowing it southwest. For six weeks a country of airborne sand filters through the atmosphere between the sun and the Earth, painting gauzy, orange-muted sunrises and sunsets, separated by hours of twilight-looking days. Sand. Sand in the teeth of the comb. Sand under the fingernails. Sand up the nose, turning snot black. Sand in the ears. Sand like powdered snow on the louvers of window shutters. Sand that falls from the folds of clothing. Sand on the concrete floor no amount of sweeping can eliminate. The Africans, wrapped in layers, shiver in the 70-degree weather, but finally—save for the sand— finally, the American is comfortable.

In April the ending begins. Two years. Or has it been 20? Or two months? So slowly it went as you lived it; so quickly it goes as you remember it.

They come to your porch alone, with brothers and sisters, in small groups: students, friends, neighbors, teachers, clapping their hands outside your door and waiting for you to come so they can say goodbye.

Au revoir.


Goodbye: “Will you take our picture and send it to us?”

Au revoir. “Will you give me your backpack? Okay, then. May I buy it?”

Farewell: “Your gas stove and table; my wife, she—well, is it for sale? How much?”

Goodbye: “Can we be pen friends? May I have your address? Can you give my name to an American teen-ager?”

Au revoir. “Is the mo-ped yours, or does it belong to the Corps de la Paix? Oh.”

Farewell: “You come, you stay as our guest, you teach our children, and once we start to care for you, you leave. Why? Why?”

Goodbye: Shy Akossiwa asks for nothing. She promises to clean one last time after you’ve gone, then realizes what this will be like and falls silent. To her you give a most sought-after item: your short-wave radio/cassette player, because every teen-age girl should have a radio to fall asleep to at night.

Au revoir. School is out for summer. The classrooms are vacant, the flagpole naked.

Farewell: Two years ago on this day you set foot in the country for the first time.


Au revoir.

And the one who brought Africa into your bed at night, under the stars and rain, how do you say farewell to her?

About the Author

Russell Tomlin

Russell Tomlin earned his MFA at Mills College in Oakland. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1981 to 1983 in Togo, West Africa, where he taught English as a foreign language.

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