Why Harry Potter wouldn’t work here.
The other day, I was reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and as all of you know, I love Harry Potter books. I was sitting under the mango tree while Madame was cooking gari (cassava flour) over open flame, the kids were helping sift the flour to cook, and Bea no (Bea’s mom) was playing with her new baby, Mawusi. I was loving rereading the 2nd book and was daydreaming of somehow getting my hands on the books in French and handing them out at the middle school, awakening the love of reading and French in all my environmental club kids, and they would spread the love and once I left, they would wistfully recall when the white lady introduced them to the wonderful world of escapism through reading when Paul walked up. He inquired after my book, and I enthusiastically recounted the plot, and this is how it went in my French which is missing it’s magical vocabulary, and the culture barrier where a closet under the stairs is a strange concept: There is this little orphan boy and he lives with his aunt and uncle and they are very mean to him. They make him live in a tiny box room and never feed him enough, while their son is fat and a mean bully. The boy sometimes does strange things when he is angry and no one understands it, but the family punishes him anyways. Then, one day, he found out he’s a sorcerer! His aunt and uncle told him his parents died in a car accident, but really they died by the hand of an evil sorcerer, and they were sorcerers themselves. Then, the boy, as a baby, defeated the evil sorcerer and is a celebrity in the magic world. So, he goes to a magic school with all sorts of other sorcerer children and the evil sorcerer tries to kill him every year for 7 years.
Paul was really confused by how excited I was by this book about sorcerers. His questions were along the lines of “Wait… aren’t the parents of the children worried about giving them books about sorcerers? Aren’t people in America aware of the power of sorcerers?” Then I realized...there are sorcerers here, also called charlatans, people who use voodoo and animist beliefs to perform magic. Harry Potter was so popular in the Western world because we know that magic isn’t real (and if it is real….is there a Hogwarts for adults?) and that wizards/sorcerers don’t exist. It’s fantasy, where here, it’s a true belief. Sorcerers are feared here because they can awaken strong powers that be that can destroy your life. Many people go to them when they are very sick or seeking revenge, so sorcery and magic have negative connotations and everyone lives in fear that their bad luck is actually a curse laid on them by a jealous friend. The conversation with Paul was a difficult one, as I had to be really delicate to be sure to not say “Americans know that magic isn’t real”, because I’m not too sure...but I think that even though Paul doesn’t identify himself as animist or voodoo, he still believes that stuff is real. I mean...Africa is a magical place.
Ah! What’s going on with my language skills?
I recently got my GRE scores and am just a little bit disappointed. My verbal score was just one point higher than my math score, and math is not my forte; I seriously considered getting tutored at the middle school since my practice sets were so bad. I’m definitely going to take it again, but until then, I must wonder… what is happening to my language skills?
I have loved reading all my life, and living in a village has given me the opportunity to consume books like never before. I am always reading a new book and have probably read around 80 or more books since I’ve been here. But my verbal score was still low, I have difficulty writing (I have to proof read my blogs multiple times), and I lose English words and phrases all the time. This has happened with a lot of volunteers and when you’re around 2nd year vols, we’ll spend a quarter of our time trying to figure out what word we’re looking for.
This is probably due to the fact that we are surrounded with local languages that we don’t really understand, and speak French with those who are educated well enough to speak it, and then read and write in English. Three languages are jumbled into my everyday life. After PST, my French level was Advanced Low/Advanced Mid, and I remember thinking that I would spend my service perfecting my French so that I could put professionally proficient on my resumé. Instead of improving my French, living in a village has brought it to the most basic level: passé composé, présent, and futur proche. I have to remind myself to use the futur and imparfait and conditionelle when around very educated people. I have to adapt to the dialect here - bastardized words that make no sense to me here (caquettes means peanuts in France, but oatmeal in Togo/ doigts de pied means toes in France, but orteilles is the word in Togo) and the basic grammatical structures. There’s this nice bread sold in my area (read: not empty sugar bread, but still white bread), which is called sacumi in local language, but bonpainchaud in the weird French (goodhotbread). Women sell it from baskets on their heads and yell “BOOOOONpain CHAuuuUUUUD!!!” and men sell it from boxes on the backs of their bicycles and honk an obnoxious horn. I once stopped and asked if the bon pain was really chaud (is the good bread actually hot??) and the man looked at me like I was crazy! I put my hand over his basket of bread and said, no it’s not hot, why do you call it bon pain chaud? And he was just baffled… it’s just called bonpainchaud and that’s that! Another time, I was taking pictures of fishermen in a bay and they kept on yelling “Pas de fumer!!” (No smoking!) and I was like well, duh, I don’t smoke, until a woman came up to me and said that they were asking me to not take anymore pictures of them. They were trying to say “pas de filmer”, which isn’t even the proper French for taking pictures/photographing (“prendre un photo”) or for filming something (“tourner un filme”). Instead of having my French corrected all the time, I’m having to use my mediocre French to correct everyone else. Of course, I do this in my head and don’t really discuss it with other people...it’s well known in Togo that it was hard for me to let go of my French accent and have been outwardly annoyed with the level that everyone seems to function on here.
Oh my GOD it’s so HOT!
This hot season is killing me. I can’t recall what it was like last year, but I do remember that any time I tried to do anything outside, I would practically faint. The same goes for this year and more… I am sweating 24/7, have incurable heat rash on my butt, and am out of service for almost all hours of the day when the sun is shining. There is something different about this hot season though, I have electricity this time. Not only do I have electricity, but I bought unlimited internet this month. This means many things:
- I live in front of my fan, on my rock hard bed.
- I can get on the internet and entertain myself (when it’s working).
- I’ve realized how weird I’ve gotten.
- I’ve realized how weird America has gotten. (What does ombre mean? When did those little # things transition to Facebook? Why do you want the entire internet world to know your exact location, Google maps and everything?)
An Ode to Breakfast
If anyone who reads this knows me well, you know that I love breakfast food. I’ve been trying to perfect my pancake since elementary school and have loved scrambled eggs since forever. My love affair with bacon began in high school and picked up speed as it became the popular foodie item a few years ago, and try to convince everyone here that they don’t know bacon like I do… I’ve had Benton’s bacon. Of course, they have no idea what I’m talking about. I have distinct memories of trying to convince my parents to take me to IHOP every chance I got. Every Christmas, we make a breakfast strata (is that how you spell it?), basically an awesome breakfast casserole with bread, eggs, cheese, sausage, and sundried tomatoes, and it is by far my favorite breakfast. And yet, as much as I love breakfast food, I wasn’t one to really eat much of a breakfast until I got to Togo. Sure, I dabbled in it at the dining hall in college, but I was normally running late to class with no time left to run through and get some grub. Here, in Togo, I get hangry if I don’t get breakfast by at least 8 am, and it always sets the mood for my day.
Normally, I wake up around 6:30 and go for a run, do some yoga, or make a bunch of excuses and lay in bed and read. Around 7, I’ll get up, crawl out from under my mosquito net, and take a cold bucket shower, and then begins the hunt for breakfast. There are many options available, but first I have to decide: do I want to cook my own breakfast or go get “street food” breakfast?
Making my own breakfast options are much more variant than street food options. Oatmeal is a popular choice amongst volunteers, and you can find it in fancy boutiques in towns. There are a zillion ways to spice up oatmeal and I love putting peanut butter, bananas, and cinnamon in. If I have flour, eggs, and powdered milk, I can make the beloved pancakes (although I try to save that for special breakfasts, like when I’ve run 5 miles and have done a tough workout video….so that means not that often :), or muffins, or biscuits, or what have you. I can toast bread and use peanut butter and well, you get the picture! Unfortunately, having no fridge and being lactose intolerant, I can’t bring soy milk from Lomé, nor can I keep yogurt, which makes me sad all day.
Now, getting breakfast from a street food vendor can be chancy, and that’s why a lot of people build a serious relationship with whomever they buy from. In Zafi, there is the ominpresent (until you’re actually looking for it) rice, beans, and “maca”, oily spaghetti, which is also served as a lunch and dinner option. More often than not, the sauce is a ground fish sauce swimming in palm oil and is added to the mixture. In my quartier, 2 women sell the same rice, beans, and maca right across from each other, which I find a little strange. Someone else down the way sells only rice and sauce (talk about getting protein in…). I personally find ayi-molu (rice and beans) to be a little too salty for me, and honestly, I’m so sick of rice and beans I could go the rest of my service without eating it. Another option is beans and gari, a cassava flour that is really popular. Togolese love love love gari, and the crunchy flour has a higher ratio to beans in the morning bowl, and of course, there is the palm oil to make it all stick together. Sometimes, but definitely not in my village, will people sell hardboiled eggs with their rice/beans/gari/maca mixture, and that’s always a saving grace when hungry for protein. There are also egg sandwiches that Muslims tend to favor, and volunteers flock to in groups. I don’t normally eat an egg sammie unless I’m with other volunteers, but it is pretty filling. This egg sandwich isn’t like the ones you find at home, but rather and egg, tomato, and onion mixture fried and oily on a white bread baguette, slathered in mayonnaise. Often, sweetened condensed milk with a splash of Nescafé is offered and many Togolese order just that with mayo on bread (a mayo sandwich, if you will). In every regional capitol, volunteers have scouted out the “best egg sammie guy” and we always regroup there after our rare nights out together. Finally, my favorite is bouille, a sort of porridge that you drink from a bowl, and there are many different types of bouille (bwee) (or, in local language: zogba). There is millet bouille, which is red and spicy and I like to have it sometimes for variety, there is tapioca bouille, which I normally can only find sugared and I don’t like very much, and then there is fermented corn bouille, which my neighbor makes every morning. For some odd reason, Togolese people love love love candy and sugary liquids, but hate sugary food, so when it comes to bouille, which is drinkable, a lot of women sell it with the pound of sugar already added in. This stuff is ridiculously sweet and leaves me feeling weird and unsatisfied, which is why it’s good that I have developed a close rapport with my neighbor, who makes fermented corn bouille at her house. She knows not to add sugar into my cup and always gives me a little bit extra. I take it home, add peanuts and sometimes banana, and violà! Breakfast of champions. There’s also something else that is normally served with bouille: bread or beignets. The bread is normally rolls that are this white sugar bread (read: no nutritional value) and the beignets are basically fried dough. Many Togolese feel that sugared bouille and two beignets is a balanced breakfast (tell me, where is the fruit? Where is the protein?).
I’ve been so hooked on bouille that I have practically retired my “Good Morning Oats”, and I search for it even when I’m not in my village. It is hot, yes, but so are all the other breakfast options, and I’ve already started my day long sweating from my morning work out. I even wrote a haiku about bouille:
Bouille...how I love thee.
Pas de sucre, add some peanuts
What a good breakfast!
Not very creative, but ya get the gist. I want to bring bouille back to America, but I don’t really know how to ferment corn, or even have a mill to make the corn flour I’d need. There are some packets of the flour for sale in Lomé, and I may stock up on them so that I can continue to have my 3 square meals of corn (corn porridge for breakfast, corn mush for lunch and dinner).
When I get back home I propose a day of breakfast food, or a week of extravagant breakfasts. I miss bacon and sausage and blueberries and raspberries and yogurt and smoothies and omelet stations. Maybe I’ll make some bouille or an egg sandwich to share the Togolese tradition. But what I really want is bagels and donuts and good coffee and lox on a bagel and toad in a hole (is that what it’s called?). Eggs benedict and french toast and maple syrup……….