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.