Finding a Gray Area
By now, the living room with blue velvet couches really does feel like home. My Togolese family members who welcome me when I walk in the house are happy to see me. They call me ta-ta, then we slap hands with a finger-snap at the end (the Togolese really love that snap – I wonder who did it first, us or them?). The adorable 1-year old, Leona, runs up with her nose crinkled in a big smile, no longer wide-eyed in fear as she was when she first saw this bizarre-looking stranger. Then I drop off my bag in my room and they either come and visit me or I go hang out with them in the kitchen.
By now, I’m used to the food, I’m used to the heat, I’m used to the dusty streets and the backs of motorcycles, to cars breaking down, and police with white gloves directing masses of lawless traffic. I’m used to children staring and waving, I’m used to the loud R Kelly music blasted all over the place, to beautiful sunsets, endless summer, and the sound of palm trees blowing outside my window. I’m also used to people asking me to buy things at stoplights; I’m used to asking people to repeat every single thing they say, I’m used to the smell of urine and rotting something-or-other. Life in Togo is no longer a huge chaotic spectacle for me – it has become the quotidian reality, it has become what is normal.
(Well, relatively normal. The other day a huge crowd was gathered around a lake because someone had been murdered and thrown in the water to give the murderers good fortune in the New Year. No matter how long I live in Africa, that will not be normal.)
One of the hardest things for me to get used to was having white friends here. For the first two weeks, I was “alone.” I saw only Togolese people, ate only Togolese food, spoke only French. Then, one Sunday, I met up with some friends that the last Kiva Fellow put me in touch with. My driver dropped me off at their house, and suddenly I was with three white people, speaking English. One good thing is that you make fast friends when you’re in a place like Togo, because there are an extremely limited number of white people. We’re all essentially automatic friends (whether we like it or not…it’s a very small little world here).
So, off we went in a junky jeep to the beach. We walked into a resort kind of place – nothing fancy by normal standards, but just to see more than 2 white people in one place was literally shocking to me. We got a little cabana with lounge chairs and sat down with some beers. I was very conflicted. I was so relieved to be comfortable in that way again, but I also felt like a traitor to the reality of Togo, pampering myself in this elite beach spot full of people who probably each have more money than like fifty average Togolese people combined. We ate lobster and swam, and it felt wonderful, but also like cheating.
I’ve had many days and nights like that since then – house parties, poolside wine afternoons, nights dancing and drinking like we’re in New York. It’s hard to explain how it makes me feel, but I’ll try. I think humans can cope with a lot of things that are very difficult – being in wars, climbing mountains, raising children as a single parent, whatever the challenge may be. I do think it’s important to take breaks when doing these things, but sometimes taking a break makes the challenge more difficult. You’re climbing up the mountain, eyes on the goal, in the zone, coping with what comes, and all of a sudden someone offers you an ice cream cone and a nap in the shade. After your treat, you wake up and remember where you are – in the middle of climbing a mountain. Crap. Gotta finish climbing this mountain.
Make sense? That was what it was like every single time I came back from hanging out with white people and was plunged back into the French-speaking, yam-paste-eating Togolese world. And it was equally difficult to adjust when I was plunged into the white person world. For example, one night I went out with four Togolese coworkers to a bar after work. We had a hilarious time – sat outside and drank big beers, ate big plates of spaghetti, told big jokes in French and had big laughs. They went home, dropping me off at a wine and cheese bar with white friends. As I walked inside the quiet, expensive wine and cheese bar, I thought, with a little spike of anger, “Why the hell are we pretending we aren’t in Togo? Why are we pretending this wine and cheese and soft music crap is real life??” My friends started making fun of the stupid things that uneducated Togolese people believe. These friends love Togolese people, but they’ve been here long enough to get jaded. So anyway, I was annoyed, but kept my mouth shut and drank wine, and gradually slipped into white-people-mentality, and then I was completely fine.
Thankfully, I think I’ve found my rhythm here, and come to love both the white people and the Togolese people that I am so lucky to have around me. When I leave the house to see my ex-pat friends, I’m excited to see them. When I get home, I am proud to live with such a wonderful Togolese family and to feel so comfortable with them. It is incredible how much this house and the people in it feel like home.
I got to bring some of my Togolese friends to a party at an American friend’s house last weekend. They had an awesome time, and as we danced and drank and laughed, the black and white merged to form a big, happy, multi-colored, multi-cultural party, and I felt like a wall within me had been painlessly dissolved.
Both sides of my life here in Togo – the black side and the white side – bring out different aspects of me, present different challenges and different opportunities to learn and grow. I think there is at least one time every single day here that I am struck by how incredibly blessed I am – to be here, to be this happy, to have food, clothing, comfort, and to be surrounded by so many wonderful people, both white and black. When this feeling comes, I often look to the clear, blue, palm tree-lined sky and think about the big earth that it surrounds, the places I’ve been and the people I love, and the miracle of everything.
What a wonderful world!