Friday, November 22, 2013

Le Vent

I was working in the garden of my friend Monsieur Innocent last week down by the river when the subject of 'le vent' ('the wind' in French) came up. M. Innocent uses a moto-pump, basically a generator attached to a hose, to water his garden. As he was teaching me to water up and down the wide beds, I learned that I could water further across the bed in the direction the wind was blowing than in the opposite direction. When I brought this up with M. Innocent, it led to several jokes and an animated philosophical discussion about how the villagers in Anfoin are often led by external social, economic, and political forces to move in a certain direction regardless of where they would actually like to go.

The path our lives take is the result of a melange of external forces and internal decisions. Many times we want ourselves or the world to move in one direction, but external forces push in another. After my conversation with M. Innocent, I began to reflect on this metaphor in the context of my third year as a Peace Corps volunteer. A number of internal feelings made me decide to stay on in Togo. To start with, this is the most fulfilling work I have ever done. I wanted to take it to another level and I was involved with several unfinished projects I wanted to see through. At the same time, there were external factors that pushed me in this direction. The current difficulty of finding gainful employment in the United States discouraged me from going back, and the chance to gain further administrative experience encouraged me to stay here.

Like many of the young men and women of my generation, I have had difficulty deciding exactly what I want to do with my life. Before heading for the North Carolina School of Science and Math junior year of high school, I thought I wanted to be a writer. I took mostly humanities classes but by the end all I really wanted to do was go out and longboard. In the summer between high school and freshman year of college, I decided on one of many hikes in the Appalachians that I would spend more time outdoors. I majored in Environmental Science at UNC and took off regularly to do fun cool environmental things in the San Juan Islands, Seattle, and western Montana. At the beginning of junior year, I decided I wanted to learn another language before graduating and left for Italy my senior year. I spent 11 months in Italia learning the language, eating like a king, and travelling. I made the decision to do Peace Corps and applied from Italy.

Here at the end of my service I'm planning to go into yet another field. I have become interested these past few months in using micro-loans as a development tool to initiate income-generating activities. In my experience, the conventional way of doing development work in West Africa is through grants. These past two years I have struggled to find an effective way to communicate my critical viewpoint towards how many grants are approved and how the development projects they fund are managed. Grants are like a wind blowing in one direction, the conventional development paradigm in place for the past half-century.

On the other hand, West Africa's potential for investment and business is increasing. I am currently working with the cooperative which did the bush rat project to plan for a micro-credit loan. This loan will help them to buy equipment and raw materials for their production of tapioca and cassava flour. Over the next 2 years, they will repay the loan and at the end the equipment will stay in their hands. There is much debate over whether micro-loans are an effective tool to improve the economy at the micro- and macro-economic levels. Despite this, from my experience they do much more to build capacity in helping villagers to begin income-generating activities than grants do. I hope in the near future to either work with micro-loans or return to school to study the factors that contribute to their success.

I would rather spend my time fighting for something I do believe in rather than against something I don't believe in.

I have less than a month left in country and am not sure exactly how to spend it. Since September I have been taking care of the administrative and logistical tasks necessary for my departure, and all my work in village is pretty much wrapped up. Every day I will start a small project or make plans with a counterpart and then realize that I will not be around to continue or finish it. Last weekend I went on a 3-day bike trip to visit volunteers. I biked on dirt roads through the heart of the Maritime region which I've been wanting to see since my first year in Togo. Several sections of the dirt road stretched out in a long, straight dip across the land. The slight downhill followed by a slight uphill made it so that I could see 2 or 3 kilometers of empty road stretch out before me. Endless as these stretches seemed, I began pedaling and, much like my service, they were over before I realized it.

The Retuned Peace Corps Volunteer Career Resource Manual discusses several career myths. The first among them is 'To succeed in a career, you should have a good picture now of what you want to do.' The majority of people are not positive about where they want to be a decade or two from now. But as the manual continues, 'You need to determine today the best direction to move, and take that first step.'

Whether that step is pointed into the wind or away from it, you need to take it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Coffee on the Mountain

Coffee beans

Monsieur Kodzo grows coffee on the side of a mountain 20k northwest of Kpalime in Togo. Up where the air is cool, the landscape rolls into the distance, and the views make you want to hike in every direction. The place is beautiful, and so is the coffee. His business is called Café Kuma.

Last weekend I took a moto up to Kodzo's village Kuma-Dunyo. The paved road leading onto the plateau is bordered by enormous trees. After gliding through this tunnel of shade, the moto took a right up a steep dirt road and after heading dans la ferme for 20 minutes we were there.

Kodzo's kids, embarrassed to take a picture

I spent 3 days with Kodzo and his family learning how they grow and process coffee. In the States I spend a lot of time in coffee shops drinking organic, shade grown, locally processed coffee and feeling like I'm saving the planet one cup at a time. But my time with Kodzo put all of these adjectives in perspective. He does everything the hard way so that in the end the coffee is the best you'll ever have.

Coffee chez Kodzo

Step 1: Grow the coffee

Kodzo does not own a coffee farm - he has a coffee forest. Arabusta and robusta coffee trees grow on a hillside next to bananas and mangoes and nitrogen-fixing trees. In the middle of the forest he raises bees in boxes. They pollinate the trees and make honey that tastes like the nectar of coffee and banana and mango tree flowers.

A stream runs through the valley on the downhill border of the forest. In the mornings women come down from the hilltop to fill up basins of water and walk home up the slick path in flip flops balancing the weight on their heads. Several Peace Corps volunteers have worked with Kodzo and lived in a house that overlooks his coffee forest. This is where I stayed for my 2 nights in Kuma-Dunyo, sleeping on a stiff bed beside the empty binders and yellowing photos of old volunteers.

Kodzo at the stream

2: Harvest the coffee

Coffee is harvested at the end of the year following the rainy season. The cherries are picked when they begin turning red, and the ripest ones are a deep red.

Before picking the cherries, Kodzo first checks the tree for green mambas. Then he pulls one branch to the ground and holds it in place over a basket. While he picks the cherries and they fall easily into the basket, ants crawl out of the cherry clumps and bite his hands. This is the price paid for not using any chemical pesticides. The biting ants aren't mentioned on the Café Kuma website or in the brochures, but they are one of the toughest parts of making good coffee. They prevent Kodzo from harvesting cherries with half-baskets strapped around the neck like is done on coffee farms elsewhere. While the ants help to keep other insects and diseases away, Kodzo is looking for a way not to get bit by them. His plan at the moment is to try using oil made from leaves of the neem tree as a natural insecticide and to plant neem trees in his coffee forest. I had the thought that he might wash his hands with water mixed with ground up neem leaves before he harvests to deter the ants.

When he finishes harvesting the ripe cherries off of one tree, he moves to another part of the grove to harvest and leaves the rest of the trees in the area be.

3. Soak and dry the cherries

Kodzo recently learned from some Germans that if he soaks the cherries for 1-2 days after picking and then leaves them in a sack for 1-2 days before drying it improves the flavor. He was just testing this out when I came to work with him.

Dried coffee cherries

Cherries are dried in the sun on plastic sheets weighted on the edges with pieces of wood or on raised platforms made from palm branches. To see if the cherries are dry enough for shelling, you shake them. If the beans rattle around inside, it is time to shell.  Drying is easiest at the beginning of the dry season, right around harvest time.

4. Shell beans

Dried cherries are shelled using a fancy type of moulin, a machine used to grind corn, manioc, and dried vegetables. Cherries are poured in the top and beans come out of the bottom. The dried cherry skins are blown outside through a pipe and are collected after as natural fertilizer.

Aubertine putting dried cherries in the top of the moulin

Beans falling out the bottom of the moulin

Cherry shells blown outside

When I helped Kodzo to grind the coffee, his 'best friend' also came by to shell some of his beans. This friend lives in a different part of the canton of Kuma and grows coffee at a different altitude. Many climate and location factors affect the taste of coffee: rain, temperature, seasons, altitude, slope of the land and angle to the sun. Even the coffee at the top and bottom of Kodzo's forest or the trees closer to or further from the bee boxes would taste different.

5. Dry and roast beans

After shelling, beans are dried further until they turn light brown. Kodzo and his family then sort through the beans and pick out the bad ones. It is best to let the sun do as much of the drying work as possible.

Beans ready to roast

Next, the beans are roasted in a rounded metal pot with a rebar stirrer installed in the lid. Wood is used to make a fire in a 3 rock stove under the pot and the roaster must sit by the fire and stir constantly for at least half an hour before the beans are done. I roasted a couple batches. The smell of wood smoke is gradually replaced by the stronger and irresistible smell of roasted coffee. To have a darker roast, you leave the beans over the fire longer. Kodzo can tell when to stop the beans by the color and smell of the smoke coming off. And by the sound of the beans moving inside the pot.

Coffee stirrer for the lid of the pot

Me roasting some coffee beans

The finished product

6. Package

Coffee can be prepared in several different ways before packaging. Beans are the best for conservation and can be eaten directly. They can be ground roughly and packaged, which is good for preparing with a French press. They can also be finely ground, which is best for drip coffee or a percolator.

Kodzo puts the ground coffee in a space-age container that seems incredibly out of place with where the coffee comes from. It has this little nozzle that does something with the air exchange and helps to keep the coffee fresh. If unopened while in this modern marvel, the coffee keeps for 2 years. The coffee I helped him to package will be good until December 2015.

Another, more villageois way to package the coffee is done using small clear plastic bags. I helped Kodzo to fit one bag inside another and then to slide informational labels facing out on the front and back sides between the plastic bags. Coffee is then put inside.

Sell the coffee

In Kuma, they pronounce the word coffee as a combination of different languages. The first syllable is said like 'ca' in the French word 'café.' The next syllable is pronounced like the 'ee' at the end of the English 'coffee.' This pronunciation symbolizes how coffee is grown high on these cool, gorgeous mountains but is best suited for another place.

No one in Kuma drinks coffee. If they do, they drink instant NesCafé packaged in tiny foiled packets which Kodzo will not touch. Even nationally there are not many Togolese who will buy Café Kuma. It is not sold in supermarkets in Kpalime or Lome. The market is international, so Kodzo has trouble finding clients. From a business perspective, this way of generating income is not very sustainable. Agoutis are the opposite. There is a local and national market for selling agoutis for raising or for meat, but I could never imagine Americans or Europeans eating bush rat like I could seeing them drink Kuma coffee. It seems like it would be easier to make a product that you could start out selling locally locally and build up until capturing both national and international markets.

Kodzo is well off by village standards. He owns a moulin, his wife sells goods from a boutique, and their house is made of cement. This means either he has found enough means to enable him to expand and improve his coffee production. Next thing on the list is an electric roaster, which should be interesting because the village does not yet have electricity. I can understand not wanting to sit over a hot fire with smoke in your face stirring a pot for half an hour, and my impression is that he has the means and resources to take this step on his own. After he approached the subject with me I suggested looking into getting a loan from a microfinance, microcredit, or village savings and loan group. We'll see where he takes it, and when Kodzo can pay expenses and expand on his own we can add 'sustainable' to the list of coffee-describing adjectives.

Scattered around the old volunteer's house are cement bricks which Kodzo plans to use to make an eco-auberge. He is interested in getting into eco-tourism, so our last day together I travelled to Kpalime and arranged for a group of 7 NYU students on vacation to check out Café Kuma. We went up the mountain, ate beans and rice, took a tour of Kuma and the coffee forest, and they bought a mountain of coffee.

I am hoping to own a coffee shop in the future and would like to serve coffee as awesome as what I tasted last weekend. It tastes like all of the work and quality control put into the beans, from agroforestry to selecting the best beans to packaging. Every morning now I pick up my percolator which I hadn't touched in ages and make myself coffee just like I did in Italy. In January I am flying to Hawaii where I hope to learn more about how to grow organic, shade grown, locally processed, sustainable coffee.

Sign for Café Kuma

Café Kuma website:

***Please see my Facebook page for more pictures***

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Fishing Village

The port in Akwoeda

You can always hear the waves crashing in Akwoeda. Wherever you go in this fishing village on the western coast of Ghana, this roar is a constant reminder of the presence and strength of the ocean.

Day 1

I arrived at the lodge near Akwoeda in the early afternoon. It was just about what I expected : a tourist lodge on a remote beach in the low season with a bar made from an old boat (aptly named 'Why Not ?') and a scattering of buildings. Dorms were the cheapest option, so I put down my bag on the second floor of a deserted bed house meant for 16 and stepped out to look at the beach.

Signs at the lodge warning of riptides

My first impression was bummer. I passed a sign warning of rip tides and watched as the waves exploded in the surf and dispelled my notions of a paradisical surfing trip to a deserted beach in a remote part of the world. Looking up the beach, I saw a child digging a hole in the sand and then squatting down to poop. Further up I saw a beautiful fishing village sprawling out on the beach leading up to a small forested island jutting into the ocean. It was at this point that I realized I had two options. I could either spend my vacation at the lodge, drinking and writing and looking out at the water. Or I could walk to the village, suffer the usual attention and harassment reserved for foreigners, maybe make some friends, and explore. If I chose the first, I knew that it would turn into a bittersweet experience that has repeated itself many times in my service where we volunteers try our best to recreate a situation that made us happy back home but don't quite make it. I would, for example, be reading outstretched on a chair by the beach while villagers walked past in front of me with basins on head and hoes in hand slogging home to Akwoeda from the field. On the other hand, I could do the Peace Corps thing and join the villagers. I could make a fool of myself learning the language, maybe find some fun to do. That's what I did.

The beach near Akwoeda

I walked up the beach to the village and cautiously approached the first group of buildings. A man, drawn by the children crying 'My friend !' at me, emerged from a pink cinder block building facing the beach and introduced himself as Jimmy. The building was his 'spot' or bar. Jimmy was a tour guide from the community who showed tourists the sights at a price lower than they would pay the lodge to go on outings. He showed me his card and I decided he was legit, so I paid him 4 cedis (about 1,000 CFA, or $2) to show me the village.

Jimmy's spot

Akwoeda is divided into Old Town and New Town. Old Town is what I saw from the lodge, stretching out on a peninsula between the ocean and a river that empties out just behind the island. A bridge over the river leads into New Town. A steep hill rises up behind the river mouth with a clinic and school at the top. Old Town is a maze of houses, shops, and payotes built on a crowded wedge of land. New Town is spread out over and behind the hill and has more cinderblock houses. It stretches into the mainland and has a more modern feel with power poles and electric pilings promising the arrival of electricity in the next few years.

Akwoeda's power station

The village market and center is just beside the bridge on the Old Town side. This is where the fishing boats slide under the bridge into the ocean in the morning and return to rest in the sand at night. As I approached this market for the first time, I began to realize why Jimmy seemed to repond 'Yeaaah' to all my questions. 'I-yeah' or 'Eh-yeah' was the response to good morning ('ahiooo'), good afternoon ('mwa-ha'), and good evening ('mwa-dwoe') in the local language, a melange of Ahinta and Tree. I tested these greetings out with the women selling 'baonku' (a paste blend of corn and cassava flour cooked in a leaf) and 'bantchi' (a rice or cous cous made from cassava) next to the boats. They laughed at me when I greeted them. Then they talked about me in local language with the women nearby and proceeded to ask me for money and gifts and to marry them.
 Jimmy with women at the market

We had arrived at the village center at perhaps the liveliest time of the day. Fishermen were bringing their boats back in under the bridge in the high tide, and while they unloaded there were children playing in the water and on the sand nearby. Music blared out from a shop in Old Town, turned up to drown out the sound of the generator powering it, and the air babbled with a thousand different conversations punctuated by laughter and shouting.

 Speaker blaring over the sound of the generator powering it

This first day, Jimmy and I took a walk around the ocean side of the hill so I could see a bay that was the local surf spot. I insisted that we take the long way back on the road. The skins and seeds of mangoes littered the road, and we were given some to eat by a quiet group of kids heading the other way on the road. Along the road were giant piles of palm nut clusters, and Jimmy informed me that they were sold to a factory in Takoradi that makes palm oil and sends a truck along the road to collect them. Posts were set beside the piles so that a scale could be mounted and the nuts weighed before being taken away. Characteristic of many other roads I've seen in West Africa, I witnessed the bulldozer that had been used to make the road rusting on the side with a woman selling mangoes off the treads. The workers and local people often do not have the tools to fix these machines when they break, so if the government does not come and fetch it after the road is done they rest where they were put.

 Palm nuts piled beside the road

That first night I bought three fresh tuna fish in the village which Jimmy and his son cooked for us along with a pile of 'baonku.' I got owned at checkers three times over by the group of kids playing behind Jimmy's spot, then sat back to alternate between watching pieces move on the checkers board, the sunset, and the waves. Before we dug in, we each had a shot of 'apateshi' (the local palm liquor, known in my village as 'sodabi') and I had a mini-shot from a glass twice as big as a thimble of 'apateshi' that had been soaked in roots. We ate well, and the fish was likely the freshest I'd ever had in my life. In my village, 10k from the coast on the Benin side of Togo, people get most of their protein from dried fish. There are only a handful added to the sauce with each meal. In stark contrast, the villagers of Akwoeda seemed to down one good size fish per person per day. It was the most delicious fish I'd eaten in a while. Jimmy walked me back along the beach to the lodge, and after hanging out with some med students from the UK I took a shower and collapsed on a bed under the mosquito net.

Looking east along the beach from Jimmy's spot towards the lodge
Day 2

Early the next morning, I walked inland to the road and took it to the village. Many people were headed away from Akwoeda to the fields. I greeted them all, and many responded with 'Akwaaba !' (meaning welcome) to which I responded 'Madase.' (thank you) with phonetically flawed diction. I had decided to play tourist again today and have Jimmy show me the 'primry and secondry forest' further out the way we had come the day before. Really I just wanted someone to walk with out to see the brush. We had a lengthy discussion of the price, which had gone up to 10 cedis from the day before because we were to see the community's forest and the proceeds would go to the group managing the forest and not Jimmy's pocket.

Power poles on the road leading west out of New Town

I finally gave in and we walked across Old and New Town. I greeted every person we passed and stopped to chat with several fishermen along the way. We passed the electric poles, got on the dirt road, then took a right on a path headed uphill away from the sea. On the way to the forest we passed by forests of palm trees, most of which were much larger than those growing in the corn and cassava fields of Togo's Maritime region. The forest was basically what I expected : the cassava fields ended abruptly at a line of enormous trees that seemed to devour the light. We walked through and back. Giant mahogany and other trees towered over the path and butterflies fluttered out at us from the 'secondry' forest trees. Jimmy informed me that I would need to come through very early to see the animals because women scared them away walking to their fields on the other side of the forest in the morning.

Where the cassava fields end and the forest begins
On the way back I began to note the differences in agriculture between Akwoeda and Anfoin. In Anfoin, the soil is all clay and sand and the land is flat. Near Akwoeda, the full of small rocks and the land is hilly. The hoes they use are narrower and working the field is more like wacking than scraping. After emerging from the forest, an old woman working with her grandchildren showed me how to make the mounds to grow cassava. She first reached out to the far side of the mound and dug out a hole to pull towards her, whereas in Anfoin we would go near to far since the hoe cuts easily into the soil. On the walk back, Jimmy informed me that they use chemical fertilizer with the corn just like in Anfoin. They also use fertilizer on the palm trees, pouring it into a trough dug around the base of the tree.

Cassava being grown in rocky soil

As we crossed over the bridge on the way back, I stopped to check out a group of fishermen all seated on the ground repairing one of the massive nets sent out with the big boats. I had seen a lot of people sitting with nets while passing through the village but not really thought too much about what they were doing. Up close I realized that, piece by piece, they were repairing all of the holes the length of the net by hand. The process was like crocheting : they would find a hole, tie one end of a string at the start, then use a specially designed needle to stitch up the hole loop by loop. One of them tried to teach me how to do it, but we quickly realized that I was not a net-repairing savant and it would take hours to learn. He then invited me to return the next morning to go out with them on the boat. This last day ended up being the best day.

Fishermen repairing nets by the bridge

I headed back to the lodge, ate a lodge restaurant dinner with dessert, and wrote some by the light of the petrol lamp before folding up under the mosquito net.

Day 3

I got out of bed at 4 and walked into Akwoeda along the rocky road by flash light as the first light began creeping over the cloudy horizon. My perception of the village had changed markedly since the first day. Today I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do – I wanted to be on a boat.

I walked through Old Town ('Ahioooo', 'I-yeaaaah') and went straight to where the fishermen were getting ready to head out with the tide. After standing awkwardly and smiling for a while, one of the fishermen from the day before came up and greeted me in English. I found later that his French was actually better than his English because he came from Ivory Coast, where like in Togo French is the national language. He motioned toward the boat and I nodded. Three men were seated on the ground, still repairing the same net as the day before. I ate some bread with peanut butter and waded out into the river to help push the boat into deeper water.

The outlet to the ocean

I had a magical moment standing up on the cross planks of the boat as we ducked under the bridge and motored towards the breakers off the bay out to sea. I thought 'This is amazing' as I stared at the island and the bridge and the hill and the people. And then the boat lurched and I thought 'Oh s##t !' as I went down and grabbed on to the side. All the other fishermen laughed at me. They had made standing and moving up and down the boat look so easy. Much to my dismay, stepping barefoot between cross planks when they are slippery with sea water and the boat is being rocked by ocean swells is not as easy as the local fishermen make it look. I practiced standing up straight as we headed away from land and then west along the coast. The oldest fishermen walked past me down the boat, muttering a prayer and sprinkling some kind of liquid on the boards. Ahead of me, a young man about my age named Elijah stood solidly with his arms crossed, his legs automatically making the slight adjustments allowing him to balance while I struggled and occasionally thrust out my arms to stay standing.

Elijah spoke English the best of the 10 other members of the crew, and he became my teacher for the day. He taught me that 'elenae' means boat in Ahinta while Akwoeda vanished back in the distance. He taught me that 'epu' means sea while the light house on Cape Three Points came up on our right. And through the rest of the day, he taught me how to fish.

These men fished in a similar fashion to the fishermen on the lake I wrote about in a previous blog post. Instead of using bait to lure the fish, they make noise to scare the fish toward the net. This is how it went :
  1. Much of the time at sea was spent standing on the boards and staring out at the water, watching for fish and then shouting directions at the man steering the motor as we approached them. On their own, the fishermen would not have been able to find the fish. They watched for birds that live on the coast to dive and would head towards where they were eating. These birds were the lifeline of the fishermen – they depended on them to tell where to cast their nets.
  1. If they spotted fish, there would be a crazy change in mindset on the boat as the men went from staring majestically to shouting and motioning excited as we approached the fish. The boat always sped counterclockwise around the school. At the right moment, the youngest boy on the boat would grab the net and jump off the back of the boat as it began circling around. He would take the rope used to reel in the first side of the net and begin to make a racket in the water to get the fish moving.
  1. At the same time, the net would be flying out of the back of the boat as we circled around the fish. Elijah would stand at the front of the boat, still shouting and motioning. I handed him stones which he launched into the water ahead of the boat. I sat down while he danced on the front boards as the boat sped and bobbed. If there was another boat across from us, they would turn on their motor and circle so that the noise would help drive the fish toward our net.
  1. When the net was all out, we would complete the circle back to the boy in the water. He jumped in with his hand still on the first rope, and the fishermen looped this rope and one attached to the other side of the net around a post at the middle of the boat on the left side (opposite the motor).
  1. Floaters kept the top of the net at the surface while sinkers kept the bottom down. To reel in the net, half the crew would man a rope at one side of the boat and half on the other. They pulled for all they were worth while two people (the oldest and youngest members of the crew) tightened the ropes around posts at the head and foot of the boat. The ropes had many large metal rings attached to them to weigh down the line. As these came into view the motor man would chant :

To which we would respond :


  1. Next came the net. After tying the rings to the middle post we would begin pulling in the bottom of the net, essentially forming a giant bowl under the school of fish we were trying to catch. We pulled the sinkers until they all came up, then began pulling in fishing line. All this time the floaters would be drawing closer and everyone would be looking expectantly at the water.
  1. If all went well the final strech of net would be flopping with fish. The crew at the foot of the boat would empty this into a cache below the cross boards.
  1. Then would come the resetting the net for the next cast. Three guys would stand at the back of the boat in between two of the cross boards and wildly pull the net in and pile it such that it could easily fly out again. All along the boat the boards had no sharp edges, so the net could easily slide across and back into position. Finally, someone would bale water out of the bottom of the boat and I would pull the rope back through the metal rings before we began looking again for fish.

We cast five or six times the day I was out. Sometimes we scored big with the fish, but a couple times we came up with nothing. A couple times the net got tangled up and the crew expertly used the drifting of the boat and the steering oar to untangle it.

Around noon we motored further offshore and the fishermen let the boat drift while they took a siesta. I helped the young guys to cook some of the fish we had caught. The men had thought of everything necessary and brought it, right down to a charcoal stove and a pot to cook the fish. One of the boys cleaned out the pot with a handful of net and picked out a fish for each man. I watched as he sat on the deck and cut the fish into three pieces. He slipped a thin line of innards out of the body and tail while a second boy reached his fingers deep into the gills in the head and pulled out whichever part was not edible up there. We cooked the fish in the pot – one boy holding the pot steady with the rock of the waves and tapping on the lid to keep from burning his fingers while I fanned the fire. The fish was tuna and it was beyond delicious.

Salt water cleans everything off. They cut the fish on a cross board that had been washed with salt water. We ate off a cross board that had been washed with salt water after using it to wash our hands. All the dishes were washed in the sea, and the men would dip over the side of the boat and clean off mangoes in the water before biting off the tops and sucking out the juice.

Rain began to sprinkle on and off during our last casts, and finally we headed back east towards home. I sat with Elijah and another boy at the front of the boat responding to the usual questions (Are you married ? Why not ? Do people eat this in America ? How is Obama?), joking and smiling and being content. Another man with a natural grin and squint to his face sat ahead of us. All of the crew were related to each other in some way – the motor man was Elijah's wife's uncle.

Even after layering on sunblock and wearing a hat, my day at sea left me burned to a crisp. My hands were raw and in pain from pulling on the rope and the net. But as we pulled into the harbor and the music and laughter came drifting over the water, I felt pretty good. I saw a boat named 'Respect' and I was like 'word.'

The crew divided up the fish between themselves. I came out with a sackful of fish. I took some back for the other tourists at the lodge and that night I came back into town that night to eat with Elijah. We had caught one fish that was long and pointy and might have been barracuda. His wife cooked it up and buried it in ground hot pepper and palm oil. After the tuna, this fish was like going up another sky higher in Dante's Paradiso : incomparably more awesome. I ate for half an hour straight, hand to mouth, before Elijah walked me back along the beach to the lodge.

The men could every day except Tuesday, when for some reason it was strictly forbidden to the point of taboo. The guys I went out with were all ripped. Maybe its the diet – they eat a ton more fish than your average West African. And even though the work was hard, they had smiles on their faces up til when we rolled back under the bridge.

I got up before the sun the next day and travelled all day, crossing the border at dark back into Togo. I've come to realize this experience that my time in Africa has had an effect on me like the inescapable sound of the waves crashing on the shore in Akwoeda. Like trying to recreate a situation that made me happy in the United States but quickly becomes bittersweet because I am reminded of reality by my surroundings. Whatever I do these days, wherever I go, I find the past two and half years speaks from the background.

Standing on the bridge from Old Town to New