Friday, March 28, 2014


What's better than presents?! Cadeaux (or gifts, presents) are a part of life here in Togo. Cadeaux are the expected extra sugar, tomatoes, onions or limes that thrown in the bag on top of the ones you said you wanted to buy. Cadeaux come from neighbors when they have too much, or sometimes just enough, to share. I was taking my usual walk, on a road lined with pineapple, manioc and palm fields, when I came along people harvesting some pineapples for the market. I know a lot of the people with fields there as I walk to road so often, but I didn't even remember or really know the people I saw there. In a mishmash of my HORRIBLE Ewe and their limited French I complimented the pile of pineapples, which quickly led to a machete being found, and a fresh pineapple cut up for me to bring on my walk. No reason, just because they had a lot and they were proud and wanted to share.

Another week, one of the women I know said something to me about rice in Ewe. “Aww crap.” I thought to myself. “She's been such an amazingly nice person, and now she's asking me to buy her rice.” Nope, I was mistaken. She brought me over to the rice and beans stand and proceeded to buy me some rice and beans to take home to eat. Her and her family are some of the nicest people I've met in Togo. Her kids always call me “Davi Anna” which is kind of like saying “Miss Anna” and is super adorable. Later in that week, I saw her kids eating boiled manioc. They invited me to come eat with them, which is a traditional politesse. I told them thank you and to go ahead and eat, but they weren't taking no for an answer. The little boy came over and forced some manioc in my hand and ran away so I couldn't refuse. Like I said, they are adorable.

However, now I was in a bit of a predicament, as I had no desire for boiled manioc. So I just walked about 50 meters away and passed it along to some kid I saw on the street. As cadeaux often come when you have a surplus of something, this can pose a problem for me as I am just one person. Near the beginning of my service, my host mom gave me 4 stalks of sugar cane. My teeth are already a cavity filled, so I figured that chewing on sugar probably wouldn't help the situation. So off I went on a walk to see Paul's family, and hopefully give them the sugar cane. En route, I ran into some other old neighbors of Akouvi (the previous volunteer) and I gave the kids the sugar cane. Appreciating my gift, they cadeau-ed me 5 huge maniocs. Well, crap, as much as I like manioc I never bother preparing it for myself. So now my efforts to cadeau away the sugar cane had shifted focus to the manioc. Luckily the chain didn't continue much further, so I was able to head home with my load lightened.

Micheal comes buy from time to time to ask for English help. I have no problem with that, and nothing else to do besides a Grey's Anatomy marathon on my computer so I help him out with his class work. Lo and behold a few days later when he came by with a plastic bag full of oranges from a tree at his house, at least 20 oranges. Besides a bunch of orange juice that week, I cadeau'd some to my host family.

4 pineapples and 4 avocados a student dropped off last week
Cadeau-ing can give me some anxiety- who is it exactly who brought over this gift (especially if they send kids or relatives to drop stuff off), what should I give them in return, do I have to give something back? Most often cadeaux are fruits from trees, or something harvested in the field. As I have neither fruit trees nor fields it can be a bit difficult to think of something to give. For my host family (remember, I kind of have 3 moms) I'll often make banana bread or a cake and give a portion to each group. Other teachers at school have brought me pineapples and locally made treats, so I brought in a lemon pound cake to share with everyone. I give away newspaper and magazine articles my mom has sent me in the mail. I buy rice and beans for some of the little kids who I'm friends with. I share treats from Lome with my host family (like saucisson sec, I think Marie's life changed when she tried that for the first time). But as “yovo” things can be expensive, it can be a difficult standard to keep up. As a guest in the community, some of it is just being neighborly, same as bringing over some cookies to the people who move in next door. Sometimes I buy rice and beans or cookies for the kids, which everyone seems to like. Overall, the practice of cadeau-ing is nice, especially as a newcomer to an area. 

But Togo doesn't hold the entire market on cadeaux! Go meet a neighbor and bring them a gift, let me be able to tell the Togolese that Americans are just as hospitable as Togolese!

Friday, March 21, 2014

White Girl Braids

Well, the trainees hairdressers that my host mom works with having been asking to braid my hair since before Christmas. 
I finally gave in and let them go at it, extensions and all. My students wear so excited that I did it, so it was worth it just for their reactions though my bike helmet doesn't really fit anymore and I have a head ache from the tightness of the braids. 

But it makes people smile, so why not?!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Yovo, Yovo, Bonsoir

It's near impossible as a white person to pass more than 4 hours in Togo without hearing the song, or at least the title of “Yovo.” Most often, “yovo” means white or light skinned. Togolese with lighter coloring are called yovo, and it is simply a descriptor as in “fair skinned.” However yovo also means new, nice, special or good. Any products that are not produced in Togo, or West Africa are largely regarded as yovo. Rice that comes in packaged plastic bags from Thailand could be called yovo rice, illustrating the difference between it and rice with little pebbles and sticks hidden in it that's sold by the bowl at the weekly market. Coconut oil, though sold out of large jugs by a lady are the market is “yovomi” or “white oil” because it is a lighter color than vegetable or peanut oil.

But those aren't the contexts in which we volunteers are most likely to hear the word. Most likely it is shouted at us by small children on the side of the road. “Yovo, Yovo, Bonsoir, ca va bien? Mer-ciiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” This little ditty is engrained into children, that they can barely help themselves, that upon seeing a white person they start shouting it. The song doesn't really make sense, “White Person, White Person, Good Afternoon, How are you? Thank you!” The song plagues volunteers. Usually in our villages people have become used to us and have been scolded by us enough times that it peters out. Leaving village is another story. I purposely avoid going to my post office, only 4km away, during the elementary school break as trying to pass 200 kids shouting “YO-VO!!!!!!” leaves my ears ringing and my blood boiling.

Some Togolese people will tell us that it's just a cultural difference and we have to deal with it. I've heard the word “yovo” enough times to understand the intention behind it. Sometimes it's softly whispered in awe of seeing so different “oooh, a yovo,” sometimes it's excitement “Holy crap! There's a white person here!” the same way I get excited when I see puppies and babies. Sometimes it's to kindly get your attention “Ma'am, you dropped something.” More often it's not so kindly attention “Hey you! Come buy this! You have money, you're white!” And far, far too often it's just harassing; from children, it's hoarse, a voice tired from shouting the word so load for so long; from men, it's really just saying “come spend the night at my house.”

I help out at one of the next town's middle school with an English review class for those in the equivalent of eight grade, and also exam year. It's about 4km away so I bike over with my host brother. After just one bike ride, the majority of the route is the same as the one to my post office, my host brother said he finally understood why volunteers hated “yovo” so much. I didn't even think that day was particularly bad!

Volunteers facing the issue react in different ways. Enough kids around here know my name that I simply don't respond at all unless they say my name instead. Some volunteers, depending on the day, might let out a hearty “F--- you!” Some kindly stop and explain that they don't like being called yovo and could you please not say that? Some stop in their tracks, mock great surprise and say “WHERE?!?” to person, hoping to get a look at the mysterious beast called the Yovo as well. Some stay at home, or behind compound walls, avoiding it all together. We all develop our own tactics and muddle through in our own ways. During the two years of service, tactics change, evolve and even regress.

Of course, some Togoloese people do understand why hearing “yovo” all day is obnoxious. My whole host family is my greatest shield against “yovo.” Not only do they never use the word, but correct other people who call me “yovo” because it's really tiring always saying it yourself. I'm lucky enough to be a replacement site, so in my village I'm just as likely to be called by the names of former volunteers, “Abigail” or “Akouvi” as “Anna.” My best little buddy, Adele, all of six years old, with no language in common with me, corrects all the little kids she hears calling me “yovo.” Paul, the counterpart of previous volunteers, stops anyone in their tracks who uses the word. The marché mamas selling food on Saturday shout at the newcomers and annoying taxi drivers to back off and my name is Anna, dang it!

Because the majority of PC volunteers in Togo (around the world?) are white, it's sometimes hard to explain that black people, as well as people of all colors, live in America and they are American, just like me. “Yovo” comes to represent any Western idea. Never mind that when you call all Americans and Europeans “yovo” you are ignoring about 50 % of the US population. When I asked my school about corporal punishment, a classroom and behavior management technique still alive and well all through Togo, though technically against the law, I was told that the law was “Something Yovos made us sign.”

There is too much self deprecation attached to “yovo.” One volunteer had suggested his host brother could learn to assemble airplanes and make that his job one day and was told “Yovos make airplanes, not Africans.” Despite all this, most volunteers, of any color, use it. While at the PC workstation, it's common to hear “I'm going to the Yovo store- anyone want to come?” A yovo store being a store that sells yovo things; pringles, snickers, cheese and mustard.

So yovo is a crappy word. It sucks to be called it and it's a poor descriptor for Western ideas or things. “Yovo” is unlikely to leave Togo anytime soon. I think we're more likely to eradicate malaria before “yovo.” So until then, I'm about getting over myself, figuring out how to deal with it, finding allies and getting to know people well enough so they realize, I'm not just “yovo,” but Anna.