Thursday, 30 September 2010

Togo - the Village of Waiting

The first book I've read about life in Togo is ex-Peace Corps volunteer George Packer's The Village of Waiting.

A frank, vivid account of contemporary African life

During my time in Central Asia, I became friends with several Peace Corps volunteers and have, since then, really admired the fortitude of the volunteers and their determination to learn something about this amazing world of ours, rather than live in the bubble of 'the West'.  I'm sure lots of Peace Corps volunteers have written books about their eye-opening experiences, living in countries, like Togo, that are otherwise forgotten about and misunderstood by the rest of the world.  I really enjoyed reading Packer's book and it was, as the subtitle says, an incredibly frank and vivid account of life in Africa, as he experienced it.

What I liked about Packer's book is that he didn't romanticise his experience in Africa, nor did he shy away from being brutally honest about his experiences in the Togolese village of Lavié.  He also didn't get bogged down in more 'challenging' aspects of his life in Togo, nor was the book a list of grievances about the inadequacies of the Togolese government or the society around him. 

Customs and traditions
As can be expected, Packer mentions some of the customs and traditions of the Ewé tribespeople and I found these very interesting, for example:

- the fact that it's customary in Ewé tribes to keep the chief's death a secret for one year.  Even if everyone knows that he is dead, they go on talking about him, as though he is still alive.
- He also mentions a pretty horrible tradition that, when a newborn baby dies, one of its hands is cut off before it's buried, to prevent it from crawling back into its mother's womb and starting the life/death cycle all over again.

Packer writes about animism and the villagers' fear of the forest, about the evil spirit Sakpaté and how it's taboo to say his name aloud at night.  Packer comes to the conclusion that the villagers belief in animism is a logical by-product of the lack of electricity in Lavié.  In the dark night of the forest, one can fantasise about the vulnerability of humans in a world ruled by supernatural forces.  It reminds me of something I read somewhere that pointed out how ghost stories died in England with the invention of the electric bulb.  Shadowy corners and creaky floorboards seem less threatening in the glare of artificial light. 

An African Bildung

Like a lot of Peace Corps volunteers, Packer ends up in the village school teaching English.  He makes some important points about the history of European-style education in Togo, starting with the German missionaries and their desire to educate the Togolese well enough, so they could read the Bible, but not well enough to think for themselves or became anything other than labourers in their Müsterkolonie.  The French took over with their model of education, establishing a bureaucratic system of formation that continues to hinder the development of Togo, well into the 20th century. 

I've never been to Africa and can't claim any expertise on the subject, but I can see the logic in Packer's argument that a European educational system is one steeped in failure for African students.  The entire system served to make the European colonisers feel superior and helped them impose their culture on their African 'subjects'.  Rather than breaking with an unnatural, European education system on gaining independence from France, Togo, like many other African nations, continued to use this system as a tool to control and contain the various different tribes making up their country.  It makes as little sense now, as it ever did and, from Packer's experiences, it's obvious that an African child, especially a girl, has the odds stacked against her.  Even if he/she does get an education, it will prove useless in a country that toes the line, idealogically and intellectually.

Le petit nordiste and Authenticity

Like far too many countries that I've blogged about, Togo lived for many years under the shadow of one man, Gnassingbé Eyadéma.  Elevated to the status of demi-God, after surviving a plane crash in Sarakawa, Eyadéma maintained a stranglehold on Togolese politics that lasted 38 years and is continued today, in many ways, by the current Togolese leader, also Eyadéma's son, Faure Gnassingbé.  Eyadéma was very much an opportunist, having fought for the French in Algeria in the 1960's, he was one of the many disgruntled soldiers from the northern Kabye tribe, dubbed les petits nordistes by Togo's first president Sylvanus Olympio.  In the first coup d'etat of the newly independent African nations, Eyadéma dramatically deposed (and apparantly murdered) Olympio, eventually replacing him as President of Togo.

Eyadéma believed his aircrash to have been a ploy by the French to get rid of him and he emerged from the ashes of the crash with a renewed determination to legitimise his authority and suppress any opposition to his regime.  He introduced a period of Africanisation, called Authenticity, banning the use of (French) Christian names amongst other things.  Interestingly, despite his criticisms of the Togolese regime, Packer does mention the fact that Eyadéma didn't really have the resources, as President of such a small country, to engage in excessive repression as was so common elsewhere in Africa, like Idi Amin's regime in Uganda, or the Apartheid regime in South Africa.  He points out that the Togolese regime, although inwardly oppressive, didn't really engage in the wider politics of West Africa and was only ever vaguely supportive of the leftist politics of its neighbours, Benin, Ghana and Burkina Faso (Upper Volta). 

Reverse Culture Shock

Something I could really relate to in Packer's story was the intense reverse culture shock he felt coming back to the West.  I imagine most of us don't really realise what we're taking on when we decide to live in another country, especially one with extreme poverty and daily hardship.  Nor do we expect the infectious joy of life lived in a way that doesn't revolve around greed and money-making.  It's obvious that Packer really came to feel part of the community that he lived with, so much so that, when he went to Barcelona for a Christmas break, he felt displaced and could relate more to the Africans he met there, than the European culture so similar to his own.  It was also interesting when he went to visit the north of Togo, a region that is very culturally and ethnically different than Lavie, he also felt a kind of 'culture shock' and the unfamiliarity of a different people than the ones he was living with.

I experienced something similar, returning to Uzbekistan after a week in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, everything in Uzbekistan suddenly felt so familiar and it really felt as though I was coming home. 

The Cicada's Life

An overarching theme of Packer's book is the wasted lives of some of the people he met in Togo.  He writes three really touching portraits towards the end of the book, about three different men he had become friends with and how they had each failed to acheive their full potential, in a country that, despite being their country of birth, was holding them back in so many ways.  It's the travesty of an intellectual mind, in a regime that cared little for independent thinking.  The concept of the Cicada's life for an intellectual in an oppressive regime is based on the premise that if you want to live happily, you need to live hidden. 

The significance of the title of Packer's book was not lost on me.  Amongst the joy and horror of life in the village, he also explores the monotony of life for the villagers, which is a constant round of toil and hardship, interrupted by occasional funerals which, far from being mournful, acted as a good excuse for a knees-up. 

The Ewe word for tomorrow is etso, which is the same as the word for yesterday or any day which is not today.  Other words I learned from Packer's book were: yovo, kazoo, baché, prestidigitation, kapok, iroko.

Image credits:

The image of the book cover was taken by me.

The photos of Togo were taken in 1984, around the same time that George Packer was living there, and have been provided copyright free by flickuser Paul-W - thanks Paul for sharing these images using the Creative Commons License. 

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