I arrived in Togo in June 2002 with 20 other Peace Corps trainees. Some of us, like myself, were assigned to work in the area of natural resource management and agriculture, and others would be small busi-ness development Volunteers. The Peace Corps took the small business Volunteers to their training site, Kpalime, the main regional market city and a paradise of Togolese movers and shakers. Our training group went directly to live with our host families and received an immersion into Togo village life. Suddenly we had no electricity and the only running water was the water your host sister carried from the river and you poured from a cup over your head. Over the next 11 weeks, we at-tended information sessions on feeding chickens to feeding ourselves; vegetable gardening to garnering understanding of HIV/AIDS; map-ping village resources to managing local customs.
After training, I was assigned to Kuma-Dunyo, a highland village of 300 farmers. It was early September, the end of the rainy season, when I arrived. The village awoke before dawn. When I arose at seven, all the compounds were empty, foyers (mud stoves) left smoking; it was almost like the villagers had abandoned their camp and moved on. Everyone had already gone to farm during the few good hours of the lifting fog before the sky darkened and the rains began. Armed with my French dictionnaire de poche (pocket dictionary), I followed, leaping over rivers of ants on their perpetual search for somewhere higher to hide from getting washed away.
Once at the fields, it became apparent right away that I knew nothing about traditional agriculture. I hand gestured and grunted my way into the ranks of farmers, plunging countless node-covered, red-colored sticks into ridges of red-colored earth. The old man cutting up the branches for us to plant corrected me as I went. My nodes were usually pointed in the wrong direction and the angle I stuck my sticks too steep. In front of my gang of planters were the diggers, overturning the rich top layer of soil by hand with crooked, arm-length hoes. They worked in what seemed like the most awkward body position possible, bent over, shoveling between their legs, like swinging a maul while playing Twister. This was all part of the manioc (yam) growing ritual, a means of starch production that sustained the village.
These field visits went on for weeks, every day a revelation of crops, trail systems, and work songs; women, the foundation of all village life, balancing loads of leaves, tubers, and firewood on their heads. They were doing the hardest work with the most stamina I have seen. But, unless measured by blisters and insect bites, my daily tromps didn’t seem to be getting me any closer to being an effective Volunteer. Over fogged-in morning silence and the numbing static of evening rain on my aluminum roof, I dreamt of integrated conservation and development projects. I fantasized about calling meetings with the elders, defining the village’s needs, facilitating brainstorming sessions, and drawing multicolored flipcharts to match the color of fields. I fanta-sized about flipcharts; I needed something to do.
My house was in the southwest corner of the village, by the moulin (mill) and avocado forest, in one of the village’s five clans. I heard stories that elders of each clan and the chief make up a village development committee. I visited the committee members several times a week asking them when their next meeting would be. The response was always the same: “This week we’ll be meeting for sure.” But the meetings never came, and gradually I stopped going to the fields. It was November and the dry season’s harmattan winds had thrown sand in the sky. During communal labor one morning, when the debris was swept off the public sitting space into the road and burned, the haze blew in a smoky screen. In a few days, the haze seemed like it was always there and would never go away.
At this time, I was grasping the languages and studying the six-inch stack of handouts we were given during training. It took a month to wade through the case studies from past Volunteer projects. It was like someone had run through a library and torn a page out of every book; yet, over time, I organized the papers into chapters. That’s how badly I needed to organize something. One chapter was on food preservation and transformation techniques.
Men had pulled my leg enough times with the old “village development meeting” joke while their wives sweated over the cooking fire, that I decided this chapter could be of use. I swept the village; hit all 62 kitchens, telling everyone to meet in the sitting place on Mercredi (Wednesday) to learn how to use soja (soy). On Tuesday, I rode my bike to town, 30 minutes screaming down the mountains, three hours slugging back up. We didn’t have soy in our village market, so I bought the equivalent of $2 worth of dried soybeans, which was a backpack full.
After soaking the beans overnight, I gathered my cooking gear and began making trips to the meeting place to get ready. On my first trip, a few ladies were sitting on the half log benches socializing. They were wrapped in colorful, mismatching pagne (printed cloth) costumes like they were going to church or the market. It was obvious something was astir. By the time we started heating the first giant marmite (pot) of water, at least 40 women were present. Although I hadn’t invited them, there were at least as many men there, too, standing in a circle outside the women as if supervising, but not there to learn. Were villagers that interested in free food?
I quickly recognized that soy had little to do with this meeting. This was about me, my fantasy village meeting, and wild potential scenarios. How would I get everyone to participate? What would the village priorities be? Would there be an elaborate decision-making ceremony between the elders? Was I ready? I had spent the last three days reading all my notes about soy, wondering if using my blue cloth as a filter would make blueberry soymilk, and why in the world I was giving open-fire cooking lessons to village mamas who could reach their bare hands into a boiling pot of water with a smile. I scanned the crowd of eyes looking back at me. They all seemed to be asking the same question, the same question I was asking myself: What is this American doing here? And my response was…soybeans?
As I scribbled my first flipchart notes and the cooking fire battled the smoky, harmattan winds to keep the soy boiling, I began to feel like I was drawing a treasure map for a crew of pirates. But the pirates knew the map all along. The village had not been waiting for me; not looking for someone to organize village meetings or facilitate its development. The people didn’t need me to figure out what was wrong.
I was answering Ama’s questions about my age and why I wasn’t married. I was questioning Madame Comfort’s cooking critique, that one must never change their stirring direction. I was trying to explain to Yawa why more sugar doesn’t always taste better. At the same time, I was doling out samples of soy couscous to bashful members of the crowd and spouting the values of soy from nutritional, environmental, and economic standpoints. Somehow the people were listening, asking questions, and having a great time.
My role seemed to solidify as the soy milk curdled into cheese. I wasn’t starring in the film, Bringing Soy to the Village; I was part of an experiment. There wasn’t going to be a Volunteer project like digging a well or building a school. As time went by, I learned what was impor-tant to people and where they wanted me to intervene. I formed friend-ships with them that allowed us to discuss realities of problems, not myths about what I should be doing and what they should be wanting. That day, we filtered our soy and ourselves out of the smokescreen and ate our efforts—efforts we tasted over the next two years of experiment-ing with assumptions and learning as things constantly changed, leaving an aftertaste that lingers on my tongue to this day.
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