It’s ungodly early and I’m up to pee. Harmattan is in full effect; grasses are rustling in the Sahara winds outside and the floor is covered in a reddish-brown layer of dust. Given the season’s drift through the continent, the particles clinging to my cracked skin could have originated far away. Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco. Places I’d like to see someday. Places I’d rather be, I think (though only for a moment this time). I finish my business and walk to the sink; ants race across the dusty porcelain basin from the wall to the drain and back again. I start crushing their tiny bodies beneath my fingertips, like an errant God, and realize how similar we are niche wise. Organisms selfishly racing around, productively trying to serve their own ends and always consuming (in another man’s paradise). I turn on the faucet and wash their tiny corpses, and my meditation on them, down. The cool water on my hands feels colder in the night’s dark, lively air; I step into my room feeling chilled and alone. I think of the snow and how frigid it must be at home, how I’ve missed the winter for so long and may not know what to do with it anymore. As if the scarves and socks and jackets I’ve stowed away could never keep me warm again. Fantasy scenes that have kept me afloat on darker days, biking bright Seattle streets, meeting a lover at an independent theatre, reading in Central Park, return real and melancholy: rain floods the pavement, money’s too tight for tickets, lovers and free time are gone. I move my dusty green mosquito net and climb into bed, life’s relentless gravity, whether here or abroad, pressing me into peace symbol sheets. Not quite crushed, like an insect as enormous forces bear down. And then, I’m asleep, my running thoughts escaping into memory.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
I’ve been searching for autumn since last year, when I missed my first in Togo. There are local seasons, largely variations on a hot / dry theme, but the difference temperature wise is typically negligible. As a result, our shifts in color and life are predicated on rainfall: green and lush when it’s plentiful, brown and dead while its gone. That my region’s rain patterns end when summer begets autumn at home has proved some comfort, with certain trees shedding their leaves just as the leaf peeper’s New England images light up the Internet. No local trees seem to don any vibrant reds or oranges before disrobing, there might be one shade of yellow then gone, but having the falling foliage blow past me feels right. That an autumnal crunching sometimes sounds my footfalls, gives walking an aural pleasure I've sincerely missed. Like an arranged marriage over the years, I’m learning to love our local autumn and see home in its sunlit fields and sandy markets. There are always leaves drifting around recently though, reminding me of another life I’ll see again someday.
I'm on a motorcycle cruising home, as I often am when the weekend ends and four dollars is a small price to avoid a cramped bush taxi. Passing through Bomboaka, where colonial era Kapokie trees line the dusty national route, I get lost. Instead of Africa, I’m on campus during a gorgeous Montana spring, riding my bike across cobblestones to the day’s first period. Next, I’m cruising around Lake Harriet on a rented, fluorescent green bike, hoping to catch the Minneapolis summer before it slips away. Finally, and most lucidly, I’m on a similar moto in Thailand, cruising through Chiang Mai’s busy streets with a gentleman I met the night prior. I’m holding onto his waste and resting my head against his shoulder, hoping that we never make it to the theater and spoil the perfect journey. The Kapokie’s shade ends and I’m back in Africa, enshrouded in dust under a cloudless sky, surprised at how completely the memories took me over. I’m leaning forward such that, whenever we hit a bump or turn, my chest grazes his back. Moments of us connecting on a silent, sun-baked ride.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
This weekend I’ll be moving from Tandjouare to Mango, a Muslim city about an hour South on the national road. The move has been about two months in the making and at least eight months in the necessary. Tandjouare’s lovely, with tall swaying grasses and fields nestled against large rocks, but it hasn't been an easy place to work or live. As the prefectoral capital, it sits awkwardly between town and village, offering but a few of the former’s resources (electricity, NGOs) and none of the latter’s know-everyone-everything charm. People are constantly moving around here and the surrounding area for business and work, and the result is a populace not warm or welcoming to those who want to integrate into the community itself. I think they’re too used to people using their space as an infrequent bedroom or brief step towards better things to let anyone, regardless of their nationality, get close. And now, their attitude coupled with personal weaknesses, has changed my first Togolese community from a home into a rest stop and myself from an earnest Volunteer into someone who may just be marking time.
I’m not a perfect person, and I haven’t been a perfect Volunteer. When things got rough in Tandjouare, as they often did, I often left for the comforts of our workstation and other Volunteers. I sought refuge in their company, the Internet, and national projects that would take me anywhere but my assigned home. I wasn’t communicative enough with my Peace Corps Associate Director and staff, and problems built up rather than resolved. Now, I feel leagues behind my colleagues in work, integration, and even happiness. After serving for more than a year, I’m still unsure of why I’m here and the changes I’ve noticed in myself haven’t always been good.
The combination of personal troubles and life in Togo’s general difficulties has been corrosive to my mood and attitude. I find myself frequently irritable and snapping at others for issues that used to roll off so simply. I trend towards skepticism and mistrust when I meet someone new or encounter a local project. I’ve stopped seeking anything relationship-wise from the Togolese and have tried to avoid them sometimes. I’ve noticed these changes in reflecting on my actions and thoughts, hindsight illuminating what’s sadly become instinct. By recognizing these faults then, I hope to change course and meditate towards a new me in Togo. The past has passed, but the present and future are, at least uncertainly, in my hands.
It’s become apparent through numerous goodbye conversations around Tandjouare that no one will miss me. They’ll miss the idea of a PCV being here, an exotic American to observe and harass around the market and his concrete cage, but not me personally. The community’s problems are theirs though, and I’ll be moving away from those. Because I know little about my new home, there could be any number of issues there as well. These factors are beyond my control. My problems, however, can easily be carried as onerous emotional baggage to Mango or, with some effort, left behind. I can’t reset my service and get back the time I’ve lost, but I can give Mango an honest try. If I really work at change in this new city and things still don’t work out, if I’m still unhappy and torn all the time, then I can return stateside knowing I gave it my all. There won’t be any shame in that. Is my service broken or breaking open? The answer lies in the next few months, Mango, and me.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
I spent the first six months of my service exposed. The tattered thatch fence surrounding my compound collapsed early on, leaving my every outdoor movement visible from a popular path nearby. Whether washing my laundry, doing the dishes, or passing time on my porch, I could count on stares, snickers, and shouts from passersby. I felt like an exotic zoo animal kept for the village’s enjoyment, an isolated creature. Most days brought prying eyes, and I gripped my composure like the edge of a cliff, desperate not to let go. The occasional highlight of openness, massive cows passing within feet of my house and a less obstructed sunset over the horizon, seemed little consolation. Then, after so much time trying, my landlord commissioned a mason to build mud walls. Their completion felt like a milestone in my Tandjouare life.
The hot season sun and private liberation behind new walls are inseparable in my mind: the latter finally rose in the former’s unforgiving light. Suddenly, I was free to exist, at home, unobserved. Chores on my porch. Bike maintenance. Yoga. My day’s pieces added up to so much more when critical eyes were subtracted. The solitude emboldened my resolve to spend more time in village, though the balance of that time shifted towards the home front. My walls freed me from outside intrusion but, in productivity’s absence, I retreated into the future. The present became confined to my compound and I daydreamt more than I pursued actual enrichment. Tandjouare was home to my body, but not the mind, spirit, or hopes inside. One wall, freedom and imprisonment combined; I recognized the problem but, when coupled with other issues in village, I felt hopeless to change.
Togo has broken through my defenses. Rains and the resulting reinvigorated plant life have demolished half of the wall, with those grasses and weeds racing to claim my compound. The remaining stretches, blocking the front of the house, look worn: vines and weeds are already emerging from rain made cracks, their roots carving ever bigger slices for the future. The aesthetic effect is interesting, my front wall looks like a rainforest relic just under-ripe for excavation and the side’s crumbling remains add to the effect. As pieces of my house itself have also started to fall apart, I feel like my life is breaking open. Like the depression and joy and anxiety and hope inside and out are, again, exposed. Things can change this time though, and I still believe in my Togo life. That it can be better than fluctuations between intrusion and isolation, better than an existence marked by moments and marred by the time in between.
Friday, May 17, 2013
In Togo, when exchanging greetings, it’s customary to ask a series of questions about your respective lives. A typical example would be, “How are you?” or “How’d you sleep?” chased by at least two of the following: “And your health?”, “And the work?”, “How’s the family?”, etc. Unless it’s someone you know well, you always say everything’s fine. To speak candidly with acquaintances can lead to awkward moments; I once described my health as terrible during an exchange and several locals erupted in laughter believing it was a joke. For the past few months however, another question has entered salutations to which I cannot lie: “And the heat?” or “Et le chaleur?” in French. From late February to May the cooling rains and wind stop in Northern Togo, leading to a season of pronounced dry heat. Most plants die. Life seeks shade to recover from even short times in the sun. Water can become scarce. And, like a bothersome uncle paying an annual visit, le chaleur becomes part of most personal exchanges. Tandjoare quickly learned my feelings regarding it as well, with my sweat - soaked disdain spilling over the asker each time.
By chaleur’s second week, life had noticeably changed: my sweat glands, overactive in even the mildest Montana summers, began an unceasing deluge. Morning to night, inside or out, resting or moving, nothing mattered as far as the soaring temperature and my skin were concerned. Simple activities I’d enjoyed before, such as writing, reading, or yoga, became as much chores as washing my laundry. When you’re perpetually sticky and smell like a gym, simply being awake is unappealing. That fact is especially problematic considering how difficult it is to sleep: after a week of waking up at two or three in the morning on saturated sheets, I moved outside to catch our miniscule breezes. I now attribute this move with my continued sanity, as the local work situation offered little comfort.
During most of the year, people in rural Togo are busy with what’s necessary to survive. From managing their farms and households to keeping active in the community, they've an overabundance of work. As such, it can be difficult to hold meetings, encourage behavior change, and demonstrate new practices. Chaleur seems to offer a golden opportunity then, a time when people are at least free of the farm and its requisite tasks. Unfortunately, with the heat, everyone’s energy and motivation withers. My ambition was no different soon into the season. When my farming group’s attendance first plummeted, I was disappointed and hoped to reenergize the members. After several attempts and sweltering rides to our meeting spot, I’ve put our sessions on indefinite hiatus. It's hard to fault people with such full schedules for wanting to rest when they can, especially when their freest times are spent in an oven. I’ve yet to meet any local whom, after hearing my feelings about the heat, didn't agree.
Walking through the village, our land is barren, broken, yellow - brown. The dried remnants of brush crunch with each footstep, as foraging livestock scratch and scour the dirt for anything edible. Insects, so omnipresent before, are largely dead or gone, a rare blessing. People move slower and less intently, nowhere to go save the markets and alcohol stands with other idle farmers. Standing on a rocky hillside, my view is of a dead land, once fecund, awaiting its revival. Clouds are on the horizon, carrying a nascent hope. Chaleur is only a season after all, and each does give way to another.
Sunday, February 24, 2013
I love yoga’s tree pose. From the clear mind it requires to its hip stretching potential, holding tree connects me to my practice more deeply. It involves: choosing a non moving focal point and concentrating your gaze there, placing the sole of one foot on the thigh of the other leg so that you’re balancing with the grounded foot, and pressing the knee of the elevated leg back such that your hip opens without your torso turning. Also, you should be able to lift the toes of both feet from their respective positions to prevent yourself from gripping instead of balancing. That last bit is what still throws me off sometimes, turning my graceful tree into a timber pile. It seems so much easier to grab hold than to trust clarity to come, to exert energy versus letting go. I’m learning more and more though, that when one relaxes, opens their mind, and becomes fully present, balance comes.
For my first few months in Tandjouare, I clung to what I perceived as my identity like a scared child would to their security blanket. If I relented, and changed who I was to fit in, I thought I'd be sacrificing some essential part of who I am. As though the man I’d become could be erased and replaced with someone I no longer knew. I introduced myself as Matthew to everyone I met and treated the local name I’d chosen, Kombat, as a joke. I refused to wear pagne, the brightly colored and patterned local fabric popular among Togolese, and rocked my American clothing at local functions. I preferred speaking in broken French for all interactions, despite it being their colonial language and one I barely felt comfortable in, instead of even attempting Moba. It felt as though I was still the same American me, albeit a much less satisfied version. The work required to copy and paste Minneapolis Matt onto Togo was taking its toil and I was often unhappy, grasping at every chance for a taste of my America. Misery made me grip memories so hard, they began to lose their meaning. And then, I let go.
If everything in the present is constantly compared with the past, especially that which has passed under very different circumstances, it may never measure up. If you live in the moment however, relax and let the new introduce you to unexpected people and places, I think you’ll find joy in what comes your way. It took me four months to realize that my Togolese life will never equal my American existence by the standards I carried over, but that, when taken on its own with an open perspective, it offers as much or more fulfillment than anything else I’ve experienced. By waking up every day and truly trying to integrate, be it through language, clothes, or deed, I haven’t lost anything about who I was. Instead, I’ve become someone better: more adaptable, more empathetic, more pragmatic, stronger. As I’ve opened up, the world’s reacted in turn. My first few outreach projects have been successful, and more work opportunities are presenting themselves. I’ve become closer friends with other volunteers and people in my community, so I’m never without someone local to share experiences with. The days are passing much faster, and I often recall a favorite saying of my first grade teacher, "Little by little the days go by, short if you sing through them, long if you sigh." I’m delighted to be here, and excited to see what the next year and a half will bring.
Focus straight ahead, through the window and on the cement courtyard outside. Left leg lifted and pressing into right thigh, hip open without a torso shift. Morning sunlight bathing the room and sweat, glistening, drops from body to floor. Finally, no toes touching Earth, hands at heart center, and balance on the ball of the right. There’s no wind today and my tree could stand for ages if allowed. It’s growing, enriched by each African day’s unknown potential.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
Under trucks parked on the highway. Sprawled across benches lining city streets. Face first in merch bowls and boxes. Regardless of the location, many Togolese enjoy taking an afternoon nap. The practice forms an inescapable part of life in their West African nation: many businesses incorporate an afternoon closure into their operations, students receive several hours to return home in between morning and afternoon classes, and farmers come in from the fields to eat, drink, and doze. Commonly called siesta in much of the world, after Spain’s traditional daytime sleep, the practice of napping around midday is prominent in many tropical countries like Togo. Culturally, it offers a chance to relax, reconnect with family over a meal, and avoid the sun’s hottest peak. Physically, research has shown that napping is an innate response to internal pressure and has health benefits. As mainstream American culture begins to adopt its own version of the siesta, Togo may be a dream example of repose done right.
Morning’s well underway, but you’re still lying in bed wearing last night’s clothes. There’s obviously been little reason to move and you’ve no intentions of letting another sunny metropolitan day rush past. Your best friend walks in the room, gives you a push, and announces that more productive people need to get moving. Breakfast is ready before you are. You yell at him to save some eggs, and he takes off mocking you as you throw a pillow and leap up in pursuit. It’s the beginning of a youthful day in the city, with no plans, but brimming with the energy of the streets you hear outside.
A person’s sleep timing is governed by two biological factors: homeostatic sleep propensity and the circadian rhythms. The former is the need for sleep as dictated by the time passed since one’s last rest, and its pressure begins to build after waking. The latter determines the best time for restorative rest based on an individual’s average sleep schedule, thereby creating an awakening drive to negate homeostatic pressure. In most adults, the circadian system sends out wakefulness signals from the late afternoon to a few hours before their typical evening bedtime. Because there’s a gap with pent up pressure prior to the circadian override arriving, the body’s response is to sleep the strain away. That early afternoon imbalance, coupled with the fluctuating levels of glucose brought on by lunch, helps to explain how effortless it can be to nod off in the middle of a busy day. And the intelligence of establishing the early afternoon hours as a cultural repose, a la Togo.
It’s pouring rain and all you can think is, “why on Earth did I decide to go for a drive?” The streets of your college town are familiar but, in this deluge, they become an alien blur behind the smeared windshield. Whatever day was breaking through the clouds has since waned; the world surrounding you is deep blue, black, and grey. You advance through a stoplight sitting close to the wheel, as though proximity will help the situation. Suddenly, your world and the water slow to a crawl: the wiper’s stroke brings brief clarity and the image of a bulldozer parked dead ahead. It’s too late to brake completely and buildings block a swerve, all you can do is move back in the seat, cross your arms over your face, and begin to mouth a scream that never quite escapes.
Faced with natural pressure and modern stress, many Americans are discovering afternoon sleep’s value. Their common version, termed the “power nap” by Cornell social psychologist James Maas, typically lasts between five and thirty minutes and is aimed at maximizing sleep’s benefits when time is scarce. Because starting a full sleep cycle and leaving it incomplete can cause disorientation and further fatigue, the power nap ends before the average person would enter deeper rest. This approach’s advantages include improved vigor, focus, and learning ability after the nap, all without the initial grogginess a longer siesta can encourage. Though, studies show, napping for one to two hours often creates more long lasting improvements following the initial confusion. In the end, whether one is able to power nap the American way or leisurely repose like the Togolese, naps, both short and long, can be revitalizing. With scientists from NASA to Harvard publishing on daytime sleep’s benefits, there’s little reason not to curl up midday and drift away.
You’re lying in bed with your first love, their arm wrapped around your body as a warm light envelopes the room. You both look older than when you were last together, time never lets either ex – lover go, but the flush colors of a freshman summer seem rekindled on your faces. Their embrace firms and a whisper dances across your heart, “All those days apart, I never stopped needing you.” You reply that those days, our days as they were then, are still the best you’ve ever known. Tearing up, blissfully, your eyes and theirs close, in sync.
A loud alarm and you’re awake: alone in bed, wrapped in sheets and sweating through. You shut your eyes and longingly reach for the unreal. For that time, in that bed, with them. Animal sounds outside the window cement you in the now. There’s only this moment, with its sticky heat and pigs rooting through dry fields. You stumble out of bed and open the door: afternoon light rushes in to fill the emptiness. Neighbors amble past on the trail outside, likely in the same half awake state. It’s dusty and relentlessly hot; another Togo day is half done and calling its Americans. You’re increasingly put together, undeniably restored post – repose, but you can’t help feeling wistful for what you never had. You look forward to tomorrow, when you’ll steal time after lunch to slip into subconsciousness. There’s no map to where dreams may lead then.