Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Un peu de choc culturel


My apologies; I know this is the post that friends and family of PCVs least like reading, the inevitable “I’m on vacation and have so much free time and good internet how could I not update my blog, even though I know most of you only read my blog because its different." (Side note: typing on a Spanish version of Open Office, took me a while to figure out that whatever the word for italics is in Spanish does not start with an "I", but rather a "K" for "Cursive"- Ctrl C must already be taken). And its coming after an unforgivable blog hiatus of 3 or so months. Unforgivable, but justifiable. My mom made the mistake of telling me that her friends, ("some of who [or is it whom?] are English teachers, ya know") said that I was a good writer.

"Right, mom. You're just saying that so I'll update it." Living in a household with 4 stubborn and, lets be honest, reluctant (unwilling, lazy) men has given her an armory of subtle tactics of beguilitude which we've all caught on to by now (for the worse). She got defensive.

"No! They could have just as easily have said that it was 'interesting' but they actually said it was really well written, and that you should write a book or something". This of course brought on a bout of stage fright, which, coupled with laziness, basically equates to writers block. And someone once said (was it Vonnegut? Help me out English teachers) that writing without anything to say, simply for writing's sake, is about as base as talking to hear your own voice. Which, according to my dad as i continually interrupted him during Vikings games is the most obnoxious thing ever. But, like I said, ce genre de chose is inevitable for PCVs so bare with me. I'll try to keep it short and relevant. Seeing Mexico, the first "developing country" I’ve been to outside of Africa, has given me some shareable insights.

The first is that there are actually two Mexicos. There's the real Mexico, which is basically friendly and happy and cheap and is quickly developing itself and only speaks un poco de Anglais, and then there's Senor Frogs' Mexico. This one speaks English with a charming, barely perceptible Mexican accent and hires Metallica cover bands to entertain you (do sound checks) while you drink gigantic (watery) margaritas and eat food that will (probably) not make you sick. It puts up great big windows facing the manicured beachfront and thick walls covered in signed photos of Jimmy Buffet facing the real Mexico on the other 3 sides. The taxi drivers that take you between bastions of "Senor Frogs' Mexico", allowing you to bypass the 3-second stops in the real Mexico necessitated by the otherwise awesome buses have phat wads of American dollars and Canadian funny money in their pockets which they were kind enough to exchange for you, "And I'll give you a real deal too. Ocho, no nueve pesos on the dollar cuz joure mis amigos ahora ¡Que bueno eh!"

But there is only one Africa. Monsieur Frogs just doesn't have the same ring to it - in fact would probably offend the French tourists - and there's no way the shrimp wouldn't give you a wicked case of intestinal parasites. They have not yet learned how to censor the bad parts because they don’t know they’re bad, since they probably don't have a cousin in Miami or Nuevo Jork who sends them postcards and money every two months. Or they just don't care. In Mexico you are greeted at the airport with smiles and at least a façade of contented prosperity. In Africa you are greeted with demands by armed policeman for a gift. They don’t care if you enjoy your stay. They know you won’t be coming back either way because visiting Africa only appears once on your bucket list.

Since I didn’t vacation in the states I didn’t have to experience the same kind of culture shock that most volunteers go through in miniature on their sabbaticals to the States, other than a wide-eyed 2 hour layover at JFK. The culture shock I did get to experience in Mexico took on 3 forms: anonymity, indulgence, and for lack of a better expression, child rearing. We’ll start with the last one, because it was an underlying theme of my vacation, for better or worse.

I got to know the newest member of my family, little Lucy. Forgive me, adult Lucy, as you look back on your crazy tio Alex's blog and see the anecdotes I shamelessly share (shameless for me at least) – I know I run the risk of turning this into one of those embarrassing stories Gramma will love reminding you of when you introduce her to your boyfriends (which you wont have until you are 35 and an M.D). One afternoon Lulu was facing me, held by my brother Matt as we talked in the kitchen, when she got a perplexing look of consternation and extreme effort, and then unbridled joy. She had painted my brother and a large spot on the floor with orange applesauce poo. Matt turned to my dad and while laughing, said “look grandpa, my baby exploded”. I grabbed my sunglasses and a few beers from the fridge quicker than I had moved up to that point the whole vacation and B-lined it for the pool. This scene would have never happened in Togo because of the following reasons: Lulu would have been laying in the dirt, not held by her dad over a surface that would actually show signs of having been pooed on; even were she being held for some reason, it would not have been by her father but by her 4 year old sister who would have dropped her immediately and gone for a bucket shower; and the poo would not have been of a healthy applesauce color but of a sickly, brownish green. (Take that you laudatory English teachers).

Africa has a lot of kids. Most poor places do. In fact, if you took two maps illustrated with runny water colors, one of which showing the Human Development Index (HDI) - a composite statistic that takes into account everything from GDP to "happiness" - in shades of blue (celeste, indicating a low HDI, to ultramarine, indicating Scandinavia) and  the other showing the birth rates around the world from high to low in shades of yellow - lets say mellow yellow to goldenrod - and you smeared the two maps together, the whole world would come out an even shade of shamrock green. Cela veut dire que the two are quite close to being inversely related. Which for the purpose of this post means that Africans are very good at, or at least very experienced at, raising kids. The two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. (Mom's art teacher friends, please don't take this paragraph literally.)

After a maternal leave of, oh, 20 minutes, the women go back to life as it was before baby: farming, spending hours over a hot smoky stove, cooking for 10+ dependents, all with baby strapped snugly on their back with a simple sheet of pagne fabric. Diaper changes? Just get out a clean pagne. Mealtime entails a little readjustment of baby’s position and mommy’s breast. If she’s a really "experienced" mother the second readjustment will suffice. You kind of forget that baby exists until it’s old enough to be taken care of by the next oldest daughter, aged 3 and ½ years, who better keep it quiet or we’re gonna have to wake daddy up from his mid-morning moonshine nap and you know how much of a temper that gives him. Older children do not have time between taking care of infants and constructing brooms to sell for lunch money to have their own temper tantrums. They have to bottle them up until they have their own 7 kids and an alcohol problem.

Jump to the same scene in the "Global North" (This is what the politically correct development sect is calling rich countries nowaways). Just raising one child is a full time job for both parents. I’m not condoning one method or the other, just pointing out the vast discrepancies among 1st and 3rd worlds which are different enough to induce culture shock. My brother and sister-in-law are perhaps the best parents I've ever seen, and have already raised two 4-year-olds to a point where they would pass Togo's college entry exams. Seriously (No. Hyperbole). These girls are the definition of sharp. I watched them phonetically recopy my mom's shopping list and add a few items at my request ("ponee, bentlee, teebownstayks") all in their second language. But this care in child rearing sometimes comes at a cost: mommy and daddy's free time/social life/(hair/love life/marriage/sanity?) Wherase raising a bakers dozen in Africa is dirt off ya shoulda.

I digress. What was next on my list of culture shocks. Ah yes, anonymity. Sweet, unassuming obscurity and unimportance fitting of my age, economic and social status, and contributions to the world. No more immediate, unmerited (and unwanted!) celebrity-hood thanks exclusively to my melanin deficiency. Peace Corps volunteers are probably overly sensitive to being identified by a physical characteristic as cosmetic as skin color, which is natural given the effort of our educators to ensure we understood that beauty is only skin deep, and that staring is rude, and that we never, ever bring attention to something strange about someones appearance.  Africa missed the memo on that one. If you're a little heavyset, "the fat one" will trump your name for what people call you. If you are really tall, you are forevermore "the giant". And if you are white, no matter how hard you try to establish a distinct identity, you are "the white one". Even to those people who respect you enough not to call you yovo, you are yovo. And in Africa, skin color goes much deeper than the thickness of your skin, through your physical body and beyond into incomprehensible metaphysical qualities that influence the value of a person in the eye's of God. Whereas a fat black person might eventually just be ignored while walking through the market, a yovo never escapes his curse-blessing, and is never allowed to blend in or forget that he doesn't belong. Although the money from his money tree orchard can stay.

Which is why i felt a tangible weight lifted from me as I walked into the enormously diverse JFK International Airport. The removed weight amounted to much more than the sum of the apparent weight of photons emitted as white light by my skin and absorbed by the surprised and unaccustomed eyes of Africa. When i wasn't stared at, or even looked at really, once in my entire trip through airport customs I got the urge to make sure i hadn't disappeared. So i did the most unorthodox thing i could think of doing  that wouldn't get me arrested, and I was relieved (and a little embarrassed), when the young Latino-looking couple next to me took a few steps back. But then they went right on as if it was only the 3rd or 4th  strangest thing they had yet seen that morning. Don't ever take for granted being able to do jumping jacks on an airport tram without someone accusing you of making a "scene".

In my entire vacation - and here for reference I will point out that I am also including just-caught garlic roasted shrimp, spicy machaca a la Mexicana,  fresh squeezed orange juice and homemade yogurt smoothies in the running for this honor - the most delectable thing I tasted again for the first time in 18 months was the bliss of anonymity,  prepared with care by the cooks of acceptance and nonjudgmentality ¡Delicioso!

The last of my "culture shock big 3", indulgence, probably doesn't need a lot of explaining. I ate. A lot. Of everything. I'd lost about 18 lbs since arriving in Togo in September of 2011 and so set for myself the lofty and noble goal of gaining half of it back in 3 weeks. Mission accomplished.

Its not that indulgence is unheard of in Africa. But except for an elite class of rich men who are constantly overindulging themselves, indulgence is primarily reserved for a few days of the year. And then it just entails eating massive quantities of the same stuff people always eat, maybe a bit more meat and macaroni and a lot more SoDatBe. In order to indulge you  either have to make sacrifices or you have to have abundance. "Abundance" is just not an idea that really carries any meaning in Africa, so indulgence comes at a cost and is used sparingly. I haven't yet decided if I think its a good thing or not.

Anyway, those are the big ones. But I'll leave you with A few Other Things I Forgot Existed and Was Pleasantly Reminded of On My Vacation: customer service,  "bite-sized" 12 oz beers, cheese that has to be refrigerated,  refrigeration, an abundance of petit monnai, mid-afternoon exercise, (actually, physical exertion in general between 10-3), diversified economies, middle class citizens, universally understood language, enchiladas (never again will I take you for granted), wolf sized dogs, rat sized dogs, infrastructure, leisure activities, public spaces, civic pride, environmental stewardship, (relative) gender equality, and ice-cubes.

I would love comments. Please, for the sake of encouragement, just say something like "Wow, Alex! That was really... interesting. Don't quit your day job".

"Hah!" I will retort, "I don't even have one!" And I will submit a new entry post haste.

-Alex

p.s. I wanted to tell you this but it didn't really fit anywhere in this post (accept maybe in that last paragraph under "environmental stewardship" and i didn't want to ruin the aesthetic of the list with a lengthy, irrelevant parenthetical side note. I tend to avoid those at all cost) and that is that I am really excited about the next chapter in my Peace Corps service: the organizing of a national environmental youth camp in Togo. In order to begin addressing the incredible but essential developmental hurdle of instilling a sense of intrinsic value for the environment, PC Togo will be putting on its second annual Camp ECO-Action to teach kids about nature and give them the tools to protect it and ensure a sustainable environment, economy, and future for their hungry little country. We have to raise about $7,000 for it to happen - the community will contribute close to $3,000 in kind - so please consider helping. It costs $119 to send one child to camp for a week, including room and board, transport, and all fees associated with running a national camp. If you aren't convinced yet, remember your donation is tax-deductible. Learn more about the camp and donate!

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

Hilly historic district of Mazatlan

Seemingly endless beach


I asked myself this same question...

The culprit

Mi hermano y su hija Lucia

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Femmes et Fut


This is a soccer field. Don’t see it? That’s probably because you associate a soccer field with nets, orthogonal lines, flags, probably a few bleachers, and at the very least, grass. And that is because you have a Eurocentric view of soccer. It’s OK. It’s not your fault. You come by it honestly. Ask someone with an Afrocentric viewpoint the same question and you’ll get a very different response (“A ball.”) But here you go again, picturing a spherical black and white object made of synthetic hexagonal patchwork inscribed with an Adidas logo. It’s very narrow-minded of you.
More often than not, a “soccer ball” is several plastic bags squished into another plastic bag that’s had its opening soldered shut in burning trash. These rain down on my yard from the “soccer field” behind my house, if they don’t get caught in my gutter, and are always followed by shouts of “Pardon Monsieur Komlan! La ballon a tombé dedans!” This typically happens during the hottest part of the day, when I’m paralyzed from doing anything other than panting with my dog in a hammock. So I ignore them with hopes that they’ll find something else to do. Next they clap outside my door. This I also ignore. Then they get bold and start knocking. I hope against hope that they’ll give up, but at this point it has become a game. All the neighborhood three year olds with as many words in their French vocabulary start mimicking the older village boys in unison, “Misssureklomlan lablon a tombay daDANS. PARDOAN.” Something else to do? What else is there? So I lumber into the sunlight and pitch the bundle of trash back into their field to shouts of “Merci!” and then stumble back into the shade only to repeat the process in 10 minutes.

Soccer has always been a part of my life, so when I arrived at post and heard there was a nascent, coachless girls’ team I jumped at the opportunity. A generous family friend in the States donated the requisites and on a Friday afternoon a few months ago the village Yovo started playing fut with a ragtag bunch of timid girls. I like the challenge, and frankly this is probably the only thing I am actually qualified to do here, but golly does progress seem slow.
I often get distracted during our team scrimmages by the game that abuts it. Eight to 18 year old boys bolting across the dusty pitch, changing direction with a rapidity that would lay me on my back even in cleats and controlling the ball like it was an extension of their dilapidated third generation Converse All Stars. Wall passes and chip shots my high school coach only fantasized about. The goals they use are 2 broken cinder blocks (2 in total, not per side – you actually have to hit the brick to score). “Out-of-bounds” is a relative term that is a function of how old the boys are who are battling for the ball and whether or not it’s a good fight. And if it does go way out of bounds there are 20 plus boys too young to play bustling for a chance to retrieve it and get a few meager touches. Goal celebrations typically involve some sort of handspring or flip, and something else extravagant borrowed from their idol, the most famous Togolese ever, Emmanuel Adebayor (watch Adebayor and team Togo battle for a spot in the quarterfinals of the African Cup of Nations tonight – Jan 30th)
The other day at practice I found myself wondering how the multimillion dollar industry of Youth Soccer in America can’t produce such athletes. You’d think 5 structured practices a week starting at age 5, real parental support, qualified coaching, and abundant equipment would give Americans the advantage. Or at least partially offset the difference in national importance placed behind the game and wide disparities in physical fitness. The real difference between here and there? Soccer is the single greatest thing in life for an African. No video games, no Chuck-E-Cheese birthday parties, (hell, no birthday parties at all), no vacations to Disney World, pool days, McDonalds, or blockbuster movies. Just soccer. Of course they’re incredible at it.
I get distracted from the girls not because they are significantly worse than the boys (although they are, and I expected that) but because the girls don’t take it seriously. Gender roles here are rigid and playing soccer, along with getting an education and making decisions is almost exclusively a man’s thing. So when these girls put shorts on and kick a ball around they take it as seriously as a man pounding yams in a dress with a baby strapped to his back. And they make light of it to lessen the gravity of what they’re doing and to show the boys they’re not embarrassed. So I spend most of practice telling them to stop laughing and breaking up dog piles over the ball.
Unfortunately many girls here take education and decision making with as much seriousness as they do soccer practice. And I’m pretty sure “the Man” wants it like that. Given the look on his face when I asked the principal for a time slot on the field, you would have thought I asked if we could borrow one of the classrooms for pole dancing practice. But, due to international pressure - Hillary Clinton, for example, visited last January and congratulated President Faure on his efforts at democracy  - the State is appearing to encourage such shifts in perceived gender equity, so the principal condescendingly acquiesced. Although he later usurped the jerseys my friend and I procured for their use via some bureaucratic muscle flexing and perplexing.

At practice a few weeks ago the boy’s team coach (a paid position) came over during warm ups and ridiculed the girls for their poor form in heading the ball. “How can you have any power when your arms are just dangling at your sides?” he asked, feebly swinging his head back and forth in mockery.
“How do you expect them to know how to head a ball when they’ve never been encouraged to practice before?” I responded, trying not to embarrass him too much in front of the crowd of grinning boys that backed him up like a school yard bully’s entourage.
“I don’t expect them to know how to head a ball. I expect them to cook and clean and have babies.” He laughed with the rest of the boys and before walking away hit me on the arm as if to say either ‘I’m just giving you a hard time’ or, more likely, ‘am I right or am I right?’ Sickening. To make things worse the girls submissively started using their arms even though the drill we were doing required that they keep them at their sides. They were so embarrassed they started falling over each other laughing. I think I was the only person present who saw through the act.
“He’s not your coach” I said to them when we were alone again, trying to make them feel better. “He’s just one more man trying to tell you that you can’t do something. But it’s because he’s afraid of you.” They all looked at their feet and blushed at the boldness of my assertion, thinking he wasn’t far enough away for me to be saying things like that. “He sees that things are changing. Female vice principals and ministers in the government. One day soon men like him will have to compete with harder working, more intelligent people for the jobs that they are simply handed today.” I knew the message wasn’t getting through and inciting a feminist revolution like I dreamed it would when I rehearsed these speeches before practice. So I let it go and went back to the drill. I hope they at least felt the slightest impetus of empowerment.

Speaking of empowerment, Peace Corps Togo puts on an incredible event every year called the Women’s Wellness and Empowerment Conference (WWEC). I had received a packet with instructions on how to nominate participants the day before this practice, and was inspired to go out that evening and discover the perfect candidate from my little village. Seeing as “literate” and “fluent in French” were numbered among the requisites, it was not a difficult search; I knew of only one who fit the bill.
Madame Afi Danvide is more than a rarity in rural Togo, having less than four children and having the confidence to encourage other women to follow her lead. I selected her for the conference as much out of what I knew she would contribute as what she could gain.  In a culture where women are perpetually on the periphery of everything from politics to sports to business, Afi Danvide and her scarce contemporaries are Rosa Parks.
We started working through the application together. Although Afi is literate, she insisted that I transcribe her responses – responses which she then proceeded to criticize me teasingly for poor spelling and illegibility. She shamelessly answered questions about her knowledge of birth control, personal finances, even what she and her family eat on a day to day basis. Every time she answered she looked at me for signs of support, which I never exactly gave or withheld except to the extent that I encouraged her continuing openness. Although I know she caught me smile approvingly when she said something especially radical, like “women have a right to make decisions about how a household spends money.” Rebels like Afi apparently find encouragement in kindred spirits so she started to really open up throughout the interview, and by the end her responses were downright sassy.
“What is the number one improvement you want to see in this community?” I asked at the end of the visit.
“Men have held exclusive decision making rights for long enough. Look where that’s gotten us. I want the women to break their silence.” She has my vote.

                A few weeks after our incident with the chauvinistic coach the depute, or parliamentary delegate, of our prefecture came to town for the first time since, I assume, his last campaign for re-election. Upon hearing of a girls soccer team he contacted the founder, a close Muslim friend of mine named Tohiru, to see if the girls would put on an exhibition match against the faculty after his speech. I’m not sure if it was for the entertainment or to win votes by countering the movement sweeping several developing countries that seeks to use the withholding of sex by women to influence elections (Seriously). I suppose I could take a less cynical viewpoint and propose that he is supporting a new standpoint in his party that gender equality is tantamount to development. But the first two options are more realistic and cynicism, I’ve found, is an effective defense mechanism against premature hope. The girls, either because they were opposed to the purpose of the match or because they were simply overcome by stage fright put forth a very flippant effort which the depute nonetheless rewarded with a gift of 40,000 fCFA (US $80). This will buy the team jerseys, or what’s more likely, after seeping down through the tangled hierarchy of illegal yet inevitable purloinery, a whistle. And, of course, a few votes.

It’s painfully hot today and garbage balls are raining on my yard again. I think maybe I’ll try to fight fire with fire and humor the kids with some Americentric soccer skills (or lack thereof). Wish me luck.

A la prochaine.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Kids say the darnedest things


The views expressed in this thing are mine, and have nothing to do with the U.S. government or the Peace Corps. Furthermore, it’s mostly made up.
Those of you who know me know I have a problem keeping in touch. It isn’t that I don’t like you as friends, family, colleagues. One day they – I mean the medical community – will diagnose it as a disorder linked to A.D.D. and early onset Alzheimer’s and I will no longer have to justify my behavior with desultory excuses. Until then: the internet’s problematic, as is the electricity; minutes are expensive and the service erratic; etc., etc. Sorry. Fortunately the apple falls far from the tree and my mom, in addition to preaddressing and stamping envelopes (termites ate them) was generous enough to to transcribe our weekly phone conversations for the first year. Although take them with a grain of salt. Mothers often hear what they want to hear (no offense mom) and I haven’t fact checked all (any) of the entries. But I resolve to turn over a new leaf for my second and final year of service, scouts honor. You shall have it from the horse’s mouth without further ado.
First, a bit of ado. I have a pretty serious problem saying “No” (pardon me, “Non”) to anyone who approaches me with a work idea. The result, coupled with loosely defined “job” requirements, is an astoundingly long list of activities which constitute my “job” here: managing a demonstration garden; cultivating mushrooms, moringa, and mucuna; coaching an environmental, English, theater, and girls soccer club; teaching a group of seamstresses to read, a group of moms to save money, a dog to shake. (Curiously, none of these have anything to do with my Masters International project, although my dog shows promise) Don’t mistake my construction of this list for boastfulness - I’m not exactly proud of the "1st goal" features of my service; a mysterious work related guilt spleens most volunteers and prevents anything like pride from forming in this realm. Never mind that, or the rest of my work here. I could fill a hundred thousand blogs without ever talking about a single project. For the sake of time and your generous condescension in reading (I mean that in the complimentary Jane Austen sense of the expression), I will start with one.
I’m teaching two of my friends how to maneuver an ordinateur. (Here I go, reneging on my pledge not to talk about work and we’re only on Post 1, but bear with me. It’s relevant only as a preface to an irrelevant side note.) They’re both poor farmers in their 30s and really have no practical reason for the exercise seeing as there are no computers other than mine within a 300 fCFA moto ride (60 cents, or, a typical day’s wage). But we’ve already discussed my inability to say no so I won’t dwell here. To facilitate the practice, I got a French keyboard to plug into the USB port on my netbook. Imagine! The dismay they’d experience if upon arriving in a cyber café they learned that the familiar QWERTY had been morphed into the alien AZERTY. Anyway the crux of my extraneous side note is that I had to change some internal settings on my computer to recognize the foreign apparatus and forever muffed up the possibility of using the original keyboard, thus dooming myself to continually write sentences like “teqching sea; stresses to reqd”, and my favorite word “maize” which comes out like “;qiwe”. It gives me a headache trying to untangle what I’ve hastily written, as I’m sure it also does for you even after I’ve “untangled” it. Thank goodness for the blog, a medium which has done for aspiring writers what play dough has for sculptors. (Nothing)

My friend Fanyon came over yesterday as promised, one of the 2 punctual people I’ve met in Africa (the other is not actually people, although sometimes he thinks he is). He knocked apprehensively on my courtyard door as he always does, never wanting to disturb whatever important and complicated work I must be doing, typically solitaire or a crossword puzzle. It was hot out, although only 9am, so I was reading shirtless in the diminishing shade of my guest house cum garage cum moringa drying chamber. I grabbed a half dry shirt off the line, one with sleeves to cover up my new voodoo tattoo (breathe, mom) which would spur a dialogue I didn’t want to get into with someone as superstitious as him. I unlocked the door clumsily and opened it to Fanyon’s diminutive frame and contagious smile which is made all the more charming by his efforts to hide it whenever he sees me.
Fanyon is an interesting man. He is one of many unfortunate cripples who, due to his inability to farm like every healthy African does, bought into a poorly thought out government underwritten business model: the Cabine. In the approximately 15 seconds between the completion of the national telephone line and the ubiquitous proliferation of cell phones, over 5 million of these glorified phone booths went up around the country like imperata cylindrica in a freshly burned corn field. Today these derelict little shops litter the dying truck stop towns that litter the highway (the as in, the only). Typically too large to be easily torn down or scrapped and too small to be converted to a shop or home, these are a few of the many stretch marks that mar the ass of Africa; signs of untimely and unchecked growth in the most inappropriate sectors. Even in their fleeting heyday they were quite a wretched thing; imagine a demographic whose unfortunate lot in life destines them do a job that in the west has long since been outsourced to a quarter sized vertical slot.
Now that every single man woman and child has access to a cell phone (that’s hyperbole), he works another doleful scheme along the same vein as the last one: the lottery. Don’t get me started there. Anyway yesterday he was off duty either by choice or due to a lack of business. He sat on the concrete stoop instead of the lawn chair I presented in deference for my imaginary precedence, as always, and politely refused the water I offered. Within minutes the business of salutations was done and we sat back, watching the swaying of the Gboduti tree that tries to shade me from afternoon sun.
“Do you have any gum?” he asked, miming the chewing motion and pointing at his mouth.
“My mom just sent me a package with some American stuff, want to try that?”
“Yes, that’s good” he said, smiling and revealing his two lengthy upper teeth. I came back from the house with a single piece of Wrigley’s winter fresh gum and handed it to him. He unwrapped it slowly and deliberately with his left hand, his right being inoperable, and then turned the sky blue stick around for several moments marveling at the craftsmanship of Americans.
“How much is this sold for?” he asked suspiciously, wondering if I wasn’t giving something valuable away on a whim to an undeserving wretch like himself.
“Only the equivalent of about 25 cefa” I told him. He relaxed, satisfied in thinking that I could afford to part with such a gift, and popped half the stick in his mouth.
“American stuff is always so good” he said. Although he didn’t say it, he was of course alluding to the fact that our gum didn’t lose its flavor after 27 seconds like the Nigerian stuff that floods boutiques and market stands across west Africa. (27 seconds, incidentally, is not hyperbole. I timed it while watching a stalemated soccer game the other day.) Chewing thoughtfully for a few minutes, he remarked astutely that there are 2 distinct flavors in a stick of American gum: the flavor itself which you smell more than you actually taste – mint in this case – and then the spicy feeling that’s not actually hot or really even a flavor but which is reminiscent of muscle ointment lathered on his tongue. I didn’t ask how he knew this. I’m guessing it was a supposition a la “this tastes like crap”.
“I think that’s the part that makes your breath better. People chew gum to get the taste of things like onions out of their mouths” I said. I didn’t say it to patronize him, although the same statement would have been patronizing to an American over the age of 6. Here the obvious is often stated for the purpose of conversation and because it’s pleasant to agree on things in the morning.
“Young men do the same thing here” he said, with a knowing grin on his face, “especially around young women, although they have to eat a lot of it.” He stopped grinning. The subject of women often had a grin-ending effect on him if we let it mull an instant too long, especially around men who he idolized for their ability to not repulse the opposite sex. Being one of them, I quickly changed the subject to the uncomfortable heat, something we could agree on. But he wasn’t into it. After a long pause (I almost said “a long uncomfortable pause”, but that would be an untruth because silence has its place in conversation in Africa), he looked at me sidelong and brought up the subject of breath again.
“Do you know what it’s called when you have bad breath all the time, as if you just woke up from a nap after not having eaten anything all day, so bad that you close your own mouth when you’re breathing hard just to avoid the smell?” Halitosis came to mind, and I offered a french-fried version of the condition. “Yeah, that’s it” he said, nodding and refocusing his attention towards twisting the gum wrapper. Although he had never heard the word before, he was sure I had it right. The medical dispensary in town is generally quite ignorant of any ailment that isn’t one of the 17 things they attribute to paludism, malaria. Being normally far less judgmental of superficial imperfections than Americans, Africans don’t put much stock into treating acne, balding, or minor obesity, although many in the more fortunate social echelons waste a heck of lot of money on skin whitening cream. An absurdity I’ll have to leave for another entry.
 “I have that” he sighed forlornly. “Well, I had that. I think it’s going away now. But it was terrible.” He shook his head and tisked the way he does at everything he disapproves of and many of the things he doesn’t.  “I had to constantly check my breath secretly when no one was looking” he demonstrated by furtively breathing into his hand, “and if it was bad I would look away when I talked to people. Otherwise they backed up and made me feel self-conscious. Sometimes I just wouldn’t go out if it was too bad.” He was visibly disturbed at the memory of this apparently debilitating illness. Which is ironic, because he has never once thought it relevant to tell me the story of how he came to be a handicap with 8 teeth, a right hand of feeble skin and bones, an emaciated skull resting in the neckless enlarged pocket formed by his misshaped collarbone, and limbs all desperately mismatched in length and size and capacity to the point that he limps twice in each stride, once for the uneven weighting of his swinging arms and once for the pole vaulting like stutter step required by his uneven legs. The day before he had told me that he had a type of malaria which made his red blood cell count low, made him tired and lethargic and susceptible to other illnesses. Even then he didn’t have the desolate look on his face he had when he told me about his breath.
“How did you get rid of it?” I asked for the sake of keeping the conversation alive,
as I could tell we were really getting someplace with this one.
“I don’t really know.” He looked at me bewilderedly. “I almost went broke buying all that terrible gum and lost my teeth eating it.” I hesitated to tell him that he could have probably salvaged his teeth and his meager paycheck by brushing his tongue once in a while. Maybe pleading ignorance would save him the remorse.
“Well it’s a common condition in the States as well ” I said, trying to cheer him up a bit “I went to college with a guy who had it so bad I took to holding my breath in conversation. Luckily we have lots of stuff to cover up the smell.” He smiled again, apparently not fazed by regret, looking away and showing me another angle of those rare teeth.
“You Americans. So strong. People would buy stuff like that here. In the market, if you sold it you could really make a lot of money.” Another brilliant scheme being born. He chewed the gum thoughtfully and looked back up at the leaves, barely swaying now in the mid-morning heat. I could almost visualize his thoughts, turning his cabine into a makeshift pharmacy and selling tic tacs to the serial smokers and drinkers that bought his lottery tickets and loitered along the highway all day. He swallowed the gum, cleared his throat and stood up. Satisfied with his visit he walked towards the door and bid me farewell as he put the second half of the piece of gum in his mouth and extended his nominal hand in my direction.
“Always a pleasure, Alex.”
“The pleasure’s mine, come back soon.”

Despite the lack of big media’s war on self-image here, there is a vanity reminiscent of High School Musical. It doesn’t manifest itself in consumerism, as that would require an economy, but every time a young man bursting with testosterone combs forward his 0.05mm coiffure or a girl wets her eyebrow straight with her pinky in the reflection of her teacher’s shiny Kowasoki (sic), I am reminded that some things are universal. Maybe the community health and AIDS prevention volunteers should revise their program objectives to improve mental health through a makeover of self-image. That or Wrigley’s should open a branch in West Africa to capitalize on the bad breath market like Nokia has on the downfall of landlines.

Kids (baby goats) say the darnedest things

“BAAAAA”(while chewing): as in “BAAAAA This morning’s cud is particularly tasty. What was it that I ate yesterday Bridgette? Ah yes, it was the blue plastic bags the chiefs wife threw out. Mmm.”

“Hicuh” (not to be confused with “hiccup”, the human sound for hiccupping. This is actually what goats say when they are sneezing): as in “Hicuh. Hicuh. Hicuh. Huh, I must be allergic to this plant. I’ll have to find a bottle of Claritin to chew on.”

Eeeeeeee! (always accompanied by bulging eyes and flailing tongue a la Jabba the Hut being strangled by Leia): as in “I really don’t know what business I have on the back of this motorcycle with my legs tied to my ears with chicken wire. It’s really not comfortable. I hope they don’t plan on eating me, as I believe I ate something toxic yesterday.”