Mountains and Valleys

6 07 2011

By Kathleen Ridgeway

(I intended to publish this post approximately three weeks ago – many apologies for the delay caused by the loss of electricity at the internet café as well as the fact that the WordPress site takes no less than one hour to load in Togo)

What a wild couple of days it has been. After spending the weekend up in Kuwdé with the Duke in Ghana students and the other two girls who will be there for the entirety of the summer, I ventured down the mountain path in near-darkness on Sunday night to spend my first night with my host family. The few days following have certainly been the most exciting, challenging, rewarding, and frustrating that I have ever experienced.

As I have begun to settle into life here in Farendé, I have realized that the hardest things to acclimate to haven’t been the pit toilets ( or no toilets!) or the bucket showers, or the lack of electricity or internet or spoken English here. It’s not the fact that the houses are made of mud bricks, or that I sleep under an insecticide-treated bed net for fear of contracting malaria, or that I continually keep a wary eye on the horizon for fear of being caught in the violently torrential rainstorms that com in a minute and can last for hours. No, it isn’t these big discrepancies between life at home and life in Togo, these differences that are most clearly apparent, that present the biggest challenge’s for my daily life. It’s the little things – the fact that I find myself in a super-social culture that values clever banter, play-on-words, and jokes and teasing that leaves me, with my floundering French, far behind. (Perhaps I may at least find consolation in the fact that I have brought renewed laughter to the community in my fast becoming the butt of many clever Kabiyé jokes). It’s he fact that hours of walking under the West African sun with Jesper, local healer and my willing guide for the summer, leave me exhausted and less than eager to spend my lunchtime hours with my host mother’s kind and well-intentioned but rambunctious social group. Or the fact that despite being a very non-picky (albeit vegetarian) eater, I can never quite quell my host mother’s worries that I am not eating nearly enough of the delicious but absolutely enormous portions she serves me. I wish I could convince her that it’s the size of my stomach, rather than the quality of her cooking, that is preventing me from finishing my plate.

But every day, despite these moments of feeling hopeless, useless, or frustrated (or all three at once), there are high points of my day too: getting up at 5 AM to go running, when the sky is still white-blue and the air is still cool; walking through the local market-grounds in the heat of the day and having  a passel of local women take me under their wing, teaching me greetings in Kabiyé and introducing me to their gorgeous, wide-eyed babies; and finally mastering these same greetings as I conduct my first interview with an important local leader and traditional healer, and see his wide smile as I thank him in Kabiyé. It’s the little things, too, that bring me so much joy, that take me from mountain to valley and back again.

I spent much of my first few days here in Kuwdé, the small village perched on mountain ridges amongst craggy rocks and fields of sorghum, maize, and yams. There, it is exquisitely beautiful, and the quiet rhythms of a life deeply steeped in tradition make it easy to idealize and sugar-coat the realities of life in this resource-poor agrarian community. Farendé, which sits in the valley and in the shadow of Kuwdé and the Kabiyé mountains, holds less of the romantic appeal of its high-elevation neighbor. Farther away from the epicenter of Kabiyé culture and tradition, the struggle of everyday life is more clearly apparent. It’s a much larger village, too – and that means that the label of being the White American girl is harder to shake by making personal acquaintances. I started my efforts by choosing a Kabiyé nickname, Teubelu, to replace the generic call of “Anasara” (which dates back to the Colonial era) that follows me wherever I go. Teubelu means “Rain Girl,” which may sound strange but was deemed appropriate for me, since the night of my arrival in Farendé coincided providentially with a much-needed break in a ten-day drought. I like the nickname because it reminds me of my hometown Seattle, the Rainy City. I have already had several elderly ladies implore me (half-joking, half-serious) to marry into their families and stay here indefinitely, since I am sure to bring rain and prosperity to the region.

I have come to realize that the landscape of my experience here in Togo will be innately shaped by  these mountains and valleys, these successes and challenges, that pepper my days and leave me at once exhilarated and exhausted, frustrated and grateful. The challenge of spending my summer here is not just the challenge of conducting my research project, but rather in intermeshing my life and habits with those of my host family and the surrounding community as best I can, accepting the struggles with good grace and reveling in each small success along the way. Whenever I am feeling particularly exhausted or overwhelmed, I remember what my mom told me right before I left to calm my pre-departure nerves – surely I will have daily ups and downs, struggles along the way, but the overall experience from beginning to end is sure to be nothing short of extraordinary. I am sure that, despite rocks in my path, my road here leads uphill. Just like in the Kabiyé language – when you say you are leaving home to start a new adventure, you start your phrase with the term ‘Makbaa,’ which means, ‘I am going up.’

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One response

6 07 2011
Lysa Mackeen

Beautifully written – I’m looking forward to hearing more!

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