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.