Monday, August 23, 2010

The Art and Science of Gifting

To gift or not to gift. People here, like people everywhere, love gifts. They love to receive them, and when they give them it is a very serious gesture not to be taken lightly. Take the following interaction about gift giving:

1) Each day it is inevitable that someone (or ten someones) will say the word cadeau to me. Cadeau means gift in French. The conversation can include ‘hellos’ and ‘how are you’s before the word is said, but many times it is simply “Yovo, cadeau.” I would need to be a billionaire (in francs) to be able to afford to give gifts to everyone that asked. You may be thinking, “No no, maybe being a millionaire would be enough.” I thought the same thing until I tested the theory.

I bought some gum, meaning 50 pieces or so. Within a minute or so a child saw me carrying something and said, “Cadeau.” Note there is no question mark there. It is never really a question; it is more of an instruction. I replied, “Bien sur!” meaning of course. I gave the child a piece of gum. Within 10 seconds there were 7 other children and 3 adults wanting the same thing, and by the time I had given them all a piece of gum, many of them had switched hands for another, and the children even went as far to say that they had not gotten one yet. By this time there were an additional 10 people who had walked upon the scene or came to get whatever was being given when they saw the crowd. It is worthwhile to mention that this crowd was completely age and gender independent. Tiny children and elderly men and women were all interested in having a piece of gum. Needless to say, my bag of gum did not get anywhere near my house.

Before going on to the next example I would like to also mention that I currently cannot walk down that street without people asking for gum.

Here in Togo it is important to always say the right things. Sometimes the words themselves are more important than the meaning behind them or the intention before them. Take the following interaction about gift receiving:

2) It was lunchtime so I made myself a big plate of pasta with some bread. I was just finishing when a friend came by. I suggested we go for a walk and away we went. It wasn’t long before we came across a birthday party. It was twelve or so people dressed well and enjoying lunch together. One of the people I was familiar with and he beckoned me over. He had me introduce myself to the people there, and then I was invited to toast to the gentleman having the birthday. I am not a wine drinker by nature, but there is no harm in toasting to someone’s good health on their birthday.

By the time the toasting was complete chairs had been brought for me and my companion. We sat and enjoyed the conversation for a few minutes when we were presented with plates to take part in the food. The food consisted of a very spicy rice dish and a cold salad. I will not tell you what I did just yet, but think carefully about what you would do. I had just eaten a heavy lunch minutes before, I am not partial to spicy foods and I cannot have cold salads here because the water used to wash the food is not good for me to drink. Would you explain that you cannot eat the food? Would you explain that you had just eaten? Regardless, here is the correct answer, which I will admit I did not use because it simply did not occur to me: Accept the food. Accept all of it. Look it over, poke at it, mention that it is delicious and you are lucky to have it, and then proceed to explain that you are full and satisfied and don’t eat it. Yes, waste the food is the right answer in a country where there it not enough food to eat. I told you, the Togolese are serious about their gift-giving.

I do not yet have the knack of Togo, but I am learning!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

One week down...103 to go!

Hello again and welcome back! I have been living at my beach post for a whole week, and let me tell you that life is a little bit different than it used to be.

The wall of children welcome you, too

To get my laptop more acclimated to the environment, I dropped it face down in the sand. The keyboard is just like a Togolese Cyber Cafe keyboard now, meaning it is no longer working as expected.

I am now in a good routine in the mornings. I wake up and immediately pull water from the well for a shower, the kitchen and my toilet. This makes sure that my day can zoom right along uninterrupted. I tend to spill my well water, so I like to get all that out of the way right off the bat. I then shower, sweep my house and do laundry or dishes if need be. I then check my email (cloud cover permitting...cellular Internet is a bit finicky sometimes) and write responses, then finish my previous day's journal entry.

By this time I need a nap, but I push forward with the drive and ambition of a Peace Corps Volunteer and begin to make something to eat. It still amazes me how long simple tasks take here. Back in the USA I would have all this slapped out in an hour, but here it takes me three or more.

The afternoon always has a bike ride along the beach and tasks with my counterpart. I try to talk to people whereever I go so they will get used to me being around. As night falls I have dinner in town at a little restaurant and buy my bread and fruit for the next day. Eating out is an interesting experience. Generally you can get a plentiful pasta or rice dish with a big drink (be it beer or soda) for $2. That's affordable!

I generally go to bed at a very reasonable hour. Not having a TV, radio or refrigerator really changes your routines, but I have no complaints. The people are generally very nice, the food is good, I have the things I need and life is continuing on.

A quick shout-out to all the Volunteers who left this month. Congrats on your service completion and enjoy the crazy variety of things available back home. Don't forget us back here in Togo. You wanted packages, so do we. : )

A note about packages: Please see the updated request list to the right.