Friday, August 8, 2014


        I want to remember the reality of my service. The moment where a gorgeous sunset was only obscured by a Togolese friend’s smile. When an afternoon bike ride or stroll became an opportunity to connect and exchange ideas with locals several villages away. Lost in the deep present of Africa, a million miles from my American past and future, feeling no worse for the distance. But, that’s not the whole picture. Really I cried more than I ever expected in want of affection or validation. Really I wanted to leave more days than I can count, more times than was healthy. But, I’ve still finished and am feeling whatever this experience was. I know that thousands of Americans give up before even beginning what I’ve already done; each never tasting how incredibly beautiful and challenging the Peace Corps can be. I’ve made friends here that I hope to have in my life until its end, such is their incredible warmth and kindness, just as I’ve concurrently experienced heretofore unfelt emotional lows. A friend suggested that those despondent periods were a valuable catalyst for personal growth; one can’t change unless they mark the shadows each positive experience casts. Perhaps my Togo time’s darkest shade was created by how incredibly bright other aspects of it shone? Like the local development problems PCVs mull over ad infinitum, there’s no definitive answer or idea that reconciles every aspect of an undertaking as enormous as one’s service is. The best course seems to be mindfully acknowledging and accepting every truth, while moving forward, pragmatic but lighthearted.

        I didn’t know where Togo was before my Peace Corps invitation came. Now, I can’t see the world and not consider it. Its dense North-South orientation, its chaotic stability, its incomprehensibly functional mélange of so many attitudes and cultures. Togo’s left an indelible mark on who I am and, I earnestly hope, maybe some difference I’ve made here will linger after I’ve left. That change and that hope, two realities I’ll always feel.

Monday, July 14, 2014


        He operates on great intentions and learns that their worth varies. Those designs, to protect the environment and create sustainable change, traded best on the circle seated collegiate green scene. His classes informed his perspective on modern society, from its consumerist excesses to its entrenched anthropocentrism, only to leave their information’s end ambiguous. Should he go off the grid and or become a hermit in the woods? Should he assimilate into the system, furthering the problems therein, in the hopes of changing it from within? Looking at his final transcript, the only finality he found was his learned concepts problematic nebulousness. Looking at his adult life, he sometimes feels as though he has fallen into a crack on the American dream’s sidewalk.

       From colleagues to friends and family, no one seems to notice his eco-concern's depth. Instead, everyone’s blissfully walking above his stuck fixation on change and near paralyzing fear of forgetting to care. Some say he’s out of touch and puts too much stress on his shoulders; surviving your twenties, that’s hard enough without fretting over the atmosphere. He thinks that he feels the world acutely, “Much like a nineteenth century transcendentalist,” he tells himself, fist clenched. He thinks Muir may have related and been similarly conflicted. Then, fist holstered, he decides to ruminate on global issues after biking home.

        As he glides downtown, a spring breeze carries the sweet scent of lilacs through a park. The skyline was obscuring sunset before and, from a new angle, the buildings glow brilliantly against the fading azure and orange above. A nascent smile forms as he crosses a suspension bridge; each pedal push sending another trouble into the rushing water below. Checking his bike into the station, he notices the neighborhood’s tidy charm. The budding walk home absorbs him and, at the front door, he’s grinning ear to ear: his invitation came. His opportunity to make a difference, change, somewhere it might matter, Africa. His life has lovely trappings here, but he feels like his purpose rests across the Atlantic.

        Two years later, he wonders where his service went. Where are the differences he was supposed to have made hiding? He’s lived and sweat and tried in another culture. He’s become a stronger, more introspective individual, but what was it all worth? On the darker days, all he sees are the local problems still present. The piles of garbage, the thoughtless littering, the deforestation, the brush fires. In lighter times, he notices, hears, and appreciates all of his Togo life’s beautiful aspects. Everyone’s approachability, the street’s messy rhythm, connections, the joie de vivre. The times where a funeral party and its drums, dancing, and drink never seem to end. Maybe there was a balance, at times unsteady, between what he’s invested and what’s been done? As he prepares to return, he sets aside the search for answers to his service’s questions. He’ll check it like luggage at the airport and mindfully fly to another life.

        More and more during adulthood, his education and experiences seem like resources to mine whenever possible but, also, challenges to mind in life’s journey.  The blend of his past and future courses remains murky in its present form: hermithood, conflict, and assimilation are still equally undesirable. But then, opacity may always be born from such grandiose aspirations. Sometimes, he reasons or bargains with himself, sunset bike rides or an African fête are all one needs to feel like things will be alright. He remains thankful that environmental idealism dies hard, even as ephemeral bliss and recycled stress threaten it so often. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Composite Afternoon

Tomorrow matters more than yesterday. Nothing new matches a lost horizon’s unfulfilled allure. Be present, be mindful. Reconnect with everything from who you were, recent self irrelevant. Forward. He tells himself to stop. Back and forth, here and there, now and then.  The passed present imperfect: another moment drowning in yesterday’s shadow sea. On his back, on the cold concrete floor of his living room, light shafts peer through the curtains and stop just before his face. Anyone else in the house might think something was wrong; anyone else hasn’t been here in weeks. He exhales and convinces himself to move, meditating feels like nowhere and he can always walk away. Reconcile yourself with yourself and leave, be better than those moments made it seem.

Relations passed away, and you couldn’t make time for the funerals. Your life had gone in a far, different direction. Attempting sincerity then would have meant more to everyone, including you, now.

Another conversation with family members, another fight over things beyond your control. You don’t call for months and relish how serene your life can be. A pervasive fear of disconnection settles over your time together since.

You told the person you loved never to contact you again. Snowy downtown streets couldn’t keep you from running away, and time hasn’t kept you from turning around. Hurt keeps longer than anger though, and belated apologies are easily ignored.

He won’t let another day disappear prostrate with passed emotions. Healing begins when you step outside, commit yourself to change, and walk towards the renewed you. He recites encouraging mantras but, in that outside, the hot season sun is raging. Drenched in sweat and melancholy on his discolored metal couch, he takes solace in how, despite it all, he’s nearly made it. How he attempted something enormous, and how he will fulfill the commitment he made nearly two years ago. His older emotional baggage hasn't disappeared in that time, if anything it’s been joined by a few onerous new pieces, but he feels so much more adept at carrying it all now. The sun is setting on one of his last days in Africa, and he’s more excited about where his life is going than hung up on where it’s been. So long as he’s mindful of himself and keeps developing, he'll become the better man he dreams of being. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Learning the Words

         The Oxford New American Dictionary defines an escarpment as, “a long, steep slope, esp. one at the edge of a plateau or separating areas of land at different heights”. I only learned that word recently, though I’ve been searching for it since my service’s start. Living in Tandjouare, which literally means “pile of rocks” in Moba, I was near several rock formations’ exciting edges. For all the climbing and hiking I did of them, however, I never knew what they were called: asking locals was fruitless and searching the dictionary for cliff, mesa, butte, plateau, and ridge left me without a match. They were the highlight of my wanderings, a sanctuary I ran to when stressed, and, since moving, the roadside reminder that my first post wasn’t all bad. I recently learned escarpment while visiting friends in Northern Ghana, who said we’d pass some en route to their village. As the surrounding savanna began rolling into hills, I began feeling nostalgic. As those hills came to sharp edges, I felt at home. My friend’s map revealed that their Gambarga escarpments actually end around Tandjouare in Togo; they’re a natural series losing their name but no majesty between borders. It took me leaving Togo to learn the word for something I loved about being there. I hope that my service’s oncoming end illuminates other truths about the jagged, lovely place that’s become my second home.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


            The smell came first, like Mexican food several days old or stale smoke after a concert. Then, the image: gray blobs from a furry, black body and red, viscous goo, blood mixed with placenta mixed with the dirt in its path, creeping across the pale cement floor at my feet. I’d wondered if she was pregnant and she was: though apparently not able to carry it to full term. The kittens came out, moved for a few seconds, and died. Disturbed, I wondered what to do and watched her to divine nature’s wellspring of instinct. She cleans the fetal kittens while bleeding and, when their lack of life is apparently certain, she devours them. Ripping the meat and crunching the bones, a reunion of bodies, their nutritive resources spent, lost, and eaten. Horrified, I wait for her to finish before locking her outside. Kitty just ate her stillborn babies. The smell and mess are spreading across the living room. Kitty is clawing at the door. A guest just saw everything that happened minus any affection for the animal. Kitty is mournfully crying on the porch. I want to immediately transcend the situation but need more time than bohemian posturing allows. Kitty may be psycho, but she’s the best Togolese friend I have.

         When Mango’s previous volunteer asked if I wanted to take her cat, Tchembe, I accepted for practical reasons. Because my new house was large and cracked, a cat seemed necessary to control pests.  Over time she’s become more companion than exterminator, and I christened her Kitty as a pet name. For every mouse and lizard Kitty kills, there are many moments we connect. Times when we fall asleep curled up on the couch at midday, or sit together for a movie. We’re kindred spirits in our apprehension about the Togo outside our door, as she often runs in for the day growling and irritated, just as I do after too much time away. Her self interests, food and security, are obvious in our relationship, but mine, pest control and affection, are likely no less so to her. Cats – human relationships are said to mirror human – human relationships more than those with other pets: cats can be aloof, need time to build trust, are temperamental, and prefer to spend some time alone. That domesticated cats are barely removed from their wild cousins means that they, like another person, could leave the relationship at any time to be independent. Kitty and I have our fights, from her finding and eating my food to her overly aggressive playing, but they never matter as much as the good times. I can’t imagine being in Mango without her, and I hope her staying means she feels likewise.

        After a few weeks, we got over the kitten incident. Togolese people shared that, when cats miscarry, her behavior was normal. I still joke that she’s my “lil baby eater” as I put food in her dish. My host family has heard me talking to Kitty and is perplexed by my fixation with her: cats in Togo are typically kept exclusively for pest control. No fondness, no bonding, you often don’t even feed them; after all, their job involves feeding themselves. One day, a visiting host brother saw me petting her on the porch and asked how I liked Mango. I said it’s fine, that I enjoy the city and love the cat. He just shook his head and quizzically stared at Kitty, saying, “Wow, the past volunteer was the same way. There’s just something about you guys and that cat.” I couldn’t agree more. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Barren Becoming Fallow

        When I look through my bedroom window, I see a house’s concrete skeleton, adults and children ambling in the heat, and brown – yellow dirt expanses pockmarked by trash. By the time I moved to Mango last November, the rains had left and the fields were finished around my quarter. I’ve never known this space any way but how it exists today. Recently, however, unseasonably early storms have invited small green patches to break up the monotonous paysage. With grasses and weeds sporadically growing again, the farmers will follow with crops in a few weeks. This land, that’s seemed so arid and dead, is alive again. Perma-barren was fallow all along: fertility accumulating underground, waiting for the weather to change. Bettering itself as life comes closer by the day, a fecund renewal for the community and everyone in it. My own potential energy, recently building as I reconnect with work and hobbies, is feeling more kinetic. I’m moving more, laughing more, meditating more, and feeling more like myself than I have in ages. My final chaleur is coming to pass, and one last rainy season is about to begin. And then, return, autumn in America. Hopefully thriving in the harvest of whatever my service has sown. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Outsider on Repeat

At the Post Office

“Excuse me, the bus is over three hours late at this point, can we change our tickets or get a refund?”

“Can’t you just wait? It’s close and will be here very soon.”

“That’s what you said hours ago, we don’t want to travel at night.”

“Well, I have to get the director on the phone.” Dials the phone, obviously irritated 
“Director? I have two white people here who are having problems.”

The Mt. Agou Elderly Woman

“May I take your photo?”

“Of course.” frame the image and take a wonderful profile shot

“Thank you so much, look how well that turned out.” show the image, she nods

“What are you going to give me now?”


“100 franc, candy, something. Where’s my gift?”

“I don’t have anything for you…”

“That’s no good, in Africa you give something for photos.”

“Next time?”

She looks away, obviously irritated.

In the Market with a Friend

“Excuse me Madame, how much is this frying pan?”

“That pan, it’s 6,000.”

“Really? That’s too expensive, please reduce the price.”

“I can’t, that’s THE price.”

He looks at the pan more closely, flipping it over
“The price written on the bottom of your pan is 3,700.”

Embarrassed laughter, then straight face  “So, I can sell it to you for 4,000.”

At a Tchakpa Stand

“Hey, white man, can I get your address?”

“Sure, I live near the primary school by the kapokie tree if you’d ever like to meet.”

“No, no, no. I want your address chez vous. In your country.”

“But I live here now, you won’t be able to contact me in the US.”

“I don’t want to talk to you now. I want to contact you when you go home.”


“How about your computer address then?”


An Acquaintance on my Porch

“Who does your cooking and cleaning here?”

“I do, they’re nice ways to pass the time.”

“That’s not good, you need to get a woman to do those things. I will find you one.”

“No, I’m fine really. I like cooking and cleaning.”

“What about your pleasure? You need a woman for pleasure.”

“I’m happy on my own, REALLY.”

“You’re bizarre.”

Looking at T – Shirts

“Hey, white man, how are you?”

“I’m good, you?”

“Good. And your woman?”

“…she’s fine.”

“That’s not true. You don’t have a woman!”

Nervously laughing “Of course I do, she’s just back in the US right now.”

“No you don’t.”


“If you had a woman, you wouldn’t be good because she’d be at this market spending all your money!” Laughing and smiling

Crisis averted, smiling politely “Yes, she would be shopping. Women love to shop.” 
My inner feminist isn't pleased.