Go and come

By Liz Ferguson
April 23, 2018

"The chant of 'go and come' is as common as the rows of corn planted in each farm."

A “runaway” seven-year-old, with skinned knees from falling off his bicycle too many times and a backpack two sizes too big, walks tentatively into my host family’s compound. Immediately I think back to the time when I was around the same age. I slammed the glass kitchen door, yelling back into the house that I was running away. I packed with me only my Barbie doll and my favorite old Scooby-Doo t-shirt; I camped outside for two hours on my old wooden deck before becoming too hungry to wait outside anymore. Had I grown up here, in Togo, maybe I really would have run away to a different house, a different family that I considered family-enough to settle with. Alimou, this seven-year-old who now considers me his sister, would never have thought about just waiting on his porch, as I did, with nowhere else to go. To him, everyone in the village is his family, and everyone would be willing to look after him.

Alimou and his gap-toothed smile began to teach me that all I thought I knew about the definition of family falls short of a deeper definition understood so easily by my Togolese community. Timidly, yet never expecting rejection, Alimou approaches my host father, Michael, and after the usual salutations, he asks to move in with my family, explaining that he no longer wanted to live with his aging grandma on the other side of the village. He had packed up his things: three shirts, his school uniform, his single pair of sandals, and some old cans he plays with in the sand. Michael, not seeming very surprised, laughs and tells him to take off his backpack-he is at home, he is welcome, he is family.

After four months of attempting to untangle the relationships between the members of my host family, I’ve come to accept that I may never understand who is actually related to who among the fifteen Togolese who call my compound “home.” Life between the blue-painted cement walls (built more than fifty years ago by my host dad himself) has proven to be more about the roots of the family tree than the tangled branches of relationships. The “roots” of my host family, and seemingly the “roots” of each Togolese community, can be summed up in the simple phrase, “Ichoda.” In the Tchamba language it translates to, “go and come.” Each local language has an equivalent, and the Togolese well-versed in French often will use the French translation of the same verse. Spend only five minutes with any given member of the village community, and odds are, the conversation will end in the same way-go and come.

Wherever you go, and however much time you spend there, come back home afterwards. It’s a parting message freeing you to travel and to work, to visit other people and to accomplish whatever it is you have set out that morning to accomplish. But, it is also a reminder that when the day is done and the necessities of work are finished, you should come back, you must come back, for even you, as a foreigner, as a stranger in this land, as a newcomer, are welcome here. I could walk to the next house to buy bread and tomatoes, take a moto to Tchamba or Sokode, decide to take a few vacation days in Lome; I could travel home to the States to visit my family and, still, my host family will, without a doubt say- Ichoda- go and come. It’s one of the first words I learned in Tchamba and it's the one I hear the most often.

It’s seemingly simple meaning extends deeper than expected, revealing much about the Togolese culture and the way this small West-African country defines family. The ethnic, religious, and language differences between groups of Togolese people can seem to create such distinct and separate communities interspersed throughout the small country. Some Togolese worship Gods of thunder and lightning, and some dutifully line up in rows at mosque five times a day. Some spend their days carrying water, pounding yams, and washing clothes, while others are at their farm to plant, to harvest, and to weed. Some drive taxis, weave baskets, sell tomatoes, study at university, teach in classrooms, and vaccinate children at hospitals. Some live in crowded apartments in the hustle of Lome and some reside in remote, tranquil huts in the mountains of Dapaong, yet all send their loved ones off with the same parting message: Go and come. All chant in their own language the same quintessentially Togolese phrase. Arguments can be made about other things that make Togo, “Togo,” yet this newfound sense of home, a home in which you can leave and return to at any time, a home unchanged, this is a Togolese home.

"Go and come." It will be the last thing my village will say to me as I pack my bags at the end of my service on the way to the airport. They will tell me to "go": to go home, to go to my family, to go explore the world, and to go towards the direction of my wildest hopes. But they will also tell me to "come': to come back home, to come to Togo again, to come back to the place I know I will always have, to come return to your sisters and brothers, to come carrying just bread and memories.

Coming Home RPCV
Coming home
Liz Ferguson