Thursday, May 3, 2012

Building Walls… and Breaking Them Down

When I do physical labor I become the village television. People just stop whatever they are doing to come over and see the show. Oh look, there’s Kossi working in the field. Let’s stare at him. There he is pulling up water. Let’s watch. Hey, there he is sweating and biking up the hill. How interesting.

Straining yourself and being the object of everyone else’s attention at the same time can be difficult, but eventually you get used to it. Today as it was getting hot I returned to my house, put on some dirty clothes, and went to help a friend build an enclosure for pigs. Villagers in Anfoin raise many types of animals. Most roam free: goats, chickens, dogs. But some, like pigs, they keep in pens. They build these pens the same way they build walls for their houses: mixing red clayish dirt with water and building it into a wall to to dry in the sun. Today we worked on the first part, rounding up a bunch of clay and mixing it with water to prepare to build walls for the pen.

As we used the hoes to scrape clay and a girl carried basin after basin of water over on her head to add to the mixture, passers-by just sat and watched. This job was not easy: the wet earth was heavy to get at with the hoe and to mix it we sloshed our feet up and down like going through a long swamp. My friend described the work as ‘decourageant,’ discouraging. However, I found that I was learning a lot: the consistency of mixture that was good for building a wall, how to get clay ready before the girl came to pour it on, etc.

I also noticed the amazement of some of the villagers that I was actually doing work. Unlike some Peace Corps Volunteers’ villages, most of the Togolese in Anfoin have seen foreigners before. But they have only seen them taking pictures at the market, driving quickly through town in nice white air-conditioned NGO vehicles, or together with other foreigners at a missionary compound. They have not seen them working.

Last weekend, I was helping Francis, a wood carver in a nearby village, build another pig pen but in a different way. Instead of building a clay wall for the enclosure, he was constructing a living fence using bamboo and a local tree called ‘Izopt’ with the occasional Moringa cutting. ‘Izopt’ cuttings will sprout when planted, like Moringa, and can be planted very close together to form a thick fence. When I went to visit Francis last Saturday, he was building this and I had nothing else to do so I helped him. Francis’ left arm got mangled in an accident, so he can only use his right for everything. He decided we were finished for the day, and his son chopped up coconuts for us to eat and I biked home.

I came back the next day to help Francis continue. By this time, my hands (which had gotten soft from preparing presentations for trainings, articles for magazines, etc.) had some nice cuts and blisters going on. We worked for a while and then put down the work to go over and watch an old man cut the throat of a goat and a chicken and douse the local fettish in blood to honor ancestors. Then we worked for a while more, and when it got too hot I took a shower and got ready to bike home.

Before I could take off, Francis invited me to go somewhere. It could have been a funeral or giant gathering or tiny meeting, but I had nothing on the program so I agreed. We biked to a local ‘villageois’ buvette where there was a beer poster hanging outside and a dangling cord bringing electricity to the fridge from the main line. It was here that Francis told me how honored he was that I had returned to help even with all of the cuts on my hands. Francis is dirt poor, but he bought us lunch and tried to buy us both beers (an incredible luxury that the poorest villagers may taste once a year) before I said I would be getting those (I let him get the third one to share).

The walls and fences I help to build are made of clay and branches. But I like to think that at the same time I’m helping my neighbors become more open-minded, breaking down that idea that foreigners just don’t do this kind of thing. I get tired a lot faster than them, but I will still pick up a hoe and give it a shot.

My friend Francis chillin' on a mat

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