Monday, December 19, 2011

Where I Come From (18 Dec. 2011)

                My dad recently got himself a new toy, a digital camera. With the camera he has begun taking photos around my house and town in the mountains of North Carolina. He recently put some of these photos up on Facebook (my dad is much more tech-savvy than I thought) and asked me if I would show the photos to the Togolese. I agreed and, as a special activity for the last English Club meeting of the year at the lycee (high-school), I brought my laptop and showed the photos to a group of Togolese students. I went through and explained each photo, and the discussion that followed gave some perspective on the cultures of our very different countries. Here are some of the photos, with notes on how they compare to Togo and the reactions of the students.

The view from the back porch of my parent’s house

                While there are mountains in Togo, many of the students have never left the Maritime region so have never seen them. I explained that the mountains where I live are covered in forest and that, in the fall, the leaves all change colors and the mountainside transforms into a beautiful collage. The idea of having spring, summer, fall, and winter was pretty foreign to kids used to dry and wet seasons. They asked me what kind of animals live in the forest, and I tried to explain what a deer is: ‘Like a mouton (sheep), but more energetic and with horns.’ They were pretty lost on the idea.

A heron chilling out by the Tucaseegee River

                I explained that the heron is a kind of bird. Saying the word in French for bird in Togo, oiseau, implies that the animal can be eaten, so I explained that it is not allowed to kill this bird. I pointed out the neck and explained how herons wait for fish to pass by then propel their heads forward like javelins to eat the fish. When I told them that herons live by the river, I had to go into a long explanation about the mountains and how rivers and streams are located at the base of and in between the mountains. 

My mom sewing a quilt

                In Togo, students often break off their studies in middle school to become apprentices. This means that they work for a patron and learn a trade during 3 years time. They then become certified to practice that trade. Normal apprenticeships for girls include couturier (making clothes) and coiffuse (hair-dressing, often involves making elaborate styles using braids and added fake strands of fabric). Apprenticeships for boys are carpenter, mason, coiffure (cutting guys hair, and since they all wear it short this basically means shaving all the hair off), and tailor. In this picture they were surprised that my mom was using a sewing machine, and I explained that while all the machines the couturiers and tailors use in Anfoin are foot-powered the one in the picture is electric. Apart from this, I also pointed out the stuff in the picture common to most American houses. Almost no villagers own a refrigerator, and I only see them in the buvettes (bars), nice boutiques, and the houses of rich people in my village. As a result, all the food that an average Togolese family eats does not have to be kept cold in the fridge, while much of the food I eat at home does. The picture also has a great view of our coffee maker. I explained to the students that many Americans can not wake up in the morning without coffee, and that the coffee we drink is made from real ground up coffee beans. Most of the coffee consumed in Togo at the moment comes in the form of instant coffee, which definitely ain’t the same.

The trailer park we pass by on the way into town

                In Togo, the common view is that all Americans, Europeans, and white people live in big houses and are very wealthy. I explained to the students that this is not always the case, showing them this photo of what is thought of as a poorer community in the United States: a trailer park. The trailers in the photo are the same size as the crates carried through Anfoin on the backs of semis coming from the Lome port. However, it was hard to get past the fact that, even in the poorest parts of the U.S., there is still electricity and running water. While electricity is becoming more common in Anfoin, the vast majority is left in the dark. In the photo the students also observed that the people own cars. In the smallest villages in Togo, it is unlikely that even one person owns a car. On the other hand, most Togolese families own at least one moto (motorcycle, can also be a scooter) in varying conditions, which makes sense because paved roads are so rare and motos can easily go on the dirt paths and en brousse (in the brush).

Goats grazing in a field near my parent’s house

                Having a lot of animals means that a Togolese family is wealthy, so when the students saw this picture they said that whoever owns all these goats must be very rich.

Ladybugs on a flower in the garden

                Some of the insects that are very common in Togo are also found in the United States. For example, Togo is covered with flies that try to land on food and poop and get people sick. We also have flies in the U.S., but they are a less common nuisance. Also there are mosquitos. When I was doing fieldwork in Montana and Washington, there were always mosquitos beside the rivers and streams. They were an annoyance in the States, but in Togo they can carry the malaria parasite. Togo also has a wide variety of spiders, many of which are big and hairy and scary but are not found in the U.S. There is usually at least one giant spider hanging out on my wall, but I usually leave it because spiders eat other insects. Ladybugs are not found at all in Togo, and the students said that there should be a type of pagne (colorful African fabric) made in the same pattern as the ladybug’s back.

My mom beside her garden

                My mom is wearing overalls in the picture, a type of clothing never seen in Togo. I explained to the students that Americans often wear overalls for working outside or doing manual labor. Also, they were surprised and happy that someone in the U.S. digs in the dirt and grows food. While in the U.S. less than 2 % of the population is involved in agriculture and we use tractors, fertilizers, and giant silos to grow corn, in Togo something like 70 % of the Togolese have a champ, or field, where they usually grow corn, cassava, or yams using hoes and their own hands. Since the remaining 30% mostly live in Lome, that means basically every villager farms. I pointed out that my mom grows lots of tomatoes. I also explained that she grows basil which she uses to make pesto that she sells at the farmer’s market. The student were thrilled that my mom sells stuff at the market, just like a marché momma (volunteer slang for the sometimes very large women who sit at the village market selling peppers, onions, etc. from thatch mats). Unfortunately, they also noted our two family Subarus in the background. I think my family has a pretty small house compared to the national average, but we still have two cars.
                Our road, as the students noted, is still pretty marked with potholes.

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