Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lessons from a Marine Ball

Last night we were excited to attend our first-ever Marine Ball! It was a beautiful event, held outside in downtown Lome, with streamers and lights covering the entire venue. Along with great food, good wine and fantastic company, the night was an appropriate time and setting to learn a few new lessons.

1. No matter how pretty you are when you leave the house, or how fancy the event is, when you arrive you will still be outside in Africa. The second you step from the safety and comfort of your air-conditioned car, the sweating starts, the buzzing begins and the bat guano starts falling from the trees. Mosquitoes, bats and humidity are apparently oblivious to glorious radiance, perfect hair, beautifully applied make-up and modesty.

2. The Marines actually cut the cake with a sword! And contrary to some widely-held beliefs, it's not an appropriate time to laugh. Or offer to lick the frosting off. Or turn to Mr. Kate, hold up your butter knife and challenge him to a duel. "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

3. The table with the single place setting, sitting off by itself is not simply a table set for one.  It is the table to commemorate MIA soldiers-- and therefore NOT an appropriate place to set down your wine glass and camera for just a moment while you run to the restroom to apply more bug spray. Can we hang a sign or something next year?

4. Everyone knows how to do the Gangham Style Dance. EVERYONE. Except me.

So, now that I've discovered all the Marine Ball faux-pas (and potentially ruined Mr. Kate's career... again), I'm aware of certain behaviors I can work on for next year. I'll obviously start by locking myself in the house and finding a way to stream MTV so I can brush up on my mad dancing skills for the next time someone wants to dance to a mash-up of the Harlem Shake and Gangham Style.

Happy Birthday, Marines. Thank you for a great evening!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Akateza Festival

A few weeks ago we were lucky enough to attend another local festival. This festival, Fete d'Akateza, began 10 years prior as an excuse for all the villages in the area to come together and celebrate their successes and rejoice in their brotherhood. During the festival there were speeches and performances, but what stood out in comparison to most other festivals we had attended was the recognition of the top students (both male and female) in all the villages.

It was nice to see a new tradition in the works-- one that encouraged brotherhood, community and education!

Here are a few pictures from the event:

A group of hunters from a local village chant over a water filled vase that has been filled by a priest.
The vase and water represent the solidarity between their communities.
"Nous sommes ensemble"

Another hunter, surveying the crowd.

A group of women, adorned in paints and flowers, dance for the crowd.

An enthusiastic onlooker.

Babies dancing. It never stops being cute.

This kid took over the entire village performance.

So many beads.
Waiting to dance.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Cockroach Karma

Last month I was looking through my large desk calendar, counting down the days until Christmas, making lists of things my siblings should buy me and wondering how I could get Satan* to leave me the Christmas Tree dishes in her will, when I had a rare moment of clarity. Next month is Halloween. Amazon is going to have all sorts of awesomely gross stuff!! 

My joyous, unclouded moment was quickly followed by a fugue state and a lost afternoon that ultimately resulted in multiple packages showing up in the mail room full of face paints, mohawk headbands, doggy costumes, zombie-arm candle holders, and of course, a package of plastic cockroaches... the perfect revenge for my cockroach-hating, mask-scaring husband.
For weeks I carried the package of plastic cockroaches around in my purse, waiting for exactly the right moment to scare Mr. Kate in front of everyone. Several times, I had a cockroach in hand, ready to strike when I would realize-- No, now is not the time. Soon, it will come.

Last night we went to a new restaurant in town. Surrounded by about 15 of our friends, I knew-- this was the moment I had been waiting for. Halfway through dinner a friend called down the table to Mr. Kate. "Bla bla bla, something about work," he said. I didn't really care. All I knew was that in this moment, I had my chance.

I pulled the cockroach out of my back pocket, slipped it over his arm and under the rim of his plate, with just the antennae sticking out.

He saw me leaning over. "What are you doing?" he asked me.

"Just stealing a bite of your food!" I quickly responded as I jumped back, looking away quickly so he wouldn't see the gleeful, evil laugh forming in my throat.

Mr. Kate never noticed the cockroach that hid under his plate during dinner.

After dinner, as soon as his plate was lifted and the cockroach reared it's ugly head, both Mr. Kate and the server jumped and let out small gasps. It was so subtle, no one noticed.

I was devastated.

Worse, the server was mortified. He looked like he was about to cry and quickly scooped up the cockroach. "No!" I called out. "It's just a toy!" I quickly grabbed the cockroach back from him, held it up to my mouth, bit down on it and pretended to gnaw on it's head, to prove my point. "Look!" I exclaimed as I pulled the unharmed plastic cockroach out of my mouth and presented it to him."C'est plastique!"

I realize that while I was trying to assure the staff that the bug was actually a safe, fun non-disease carrying toy, all they saw was a foreigner with a potentially incomprehensible accent ("what is she trying to say?"), eating a cockroach and trying to convince everyone it was delicious.

In retrospect, it might not have been the best way to get my point across. The server turned and ran away, almost taking out one of our friends in the process. He never came back.


That night, as we were sleeping, I was awakened by Mr. Kate. "No. NO. NONONO!" he screamed.

I immediately woke up and panicked. "WHAT!?" I yelled.

"Right there! Get it! Right next to your head!!" He kept yelling over and over again and motioning to the headboard on my side of the bed.

Since it was dark in the room, I clearly thought one of the guards I had victimized by wearing the mask and jumping in front of the peep-holes had finally snapped, or that my neighbor had finally found out who was terrorizing his turkeys by chasing them up and down the street gobbling. I started screaming. "I'M SO SORRY!"

Mr. Kate jumped out of bed, ran to the door, flipped on the lights and then ran back to the bed, pulling all the sheets and covers off the bed, searching frantically for something. "Get it! It was right here, next to you!"

I sat in the middle of the bed, screaming and crying, covers piled around me, still searching the room for my assassin, when Mr. Kate found what he was looking for-- my iPhone. He proceeded to frantically bat at it, sending it flying. Next he chased and, finally, trapped my phone.

As the fluorescent lights in our room became brighter and Mr. Kate became more coherent, I was able to piece together the dream he was currently having-- one in which I had been hiding a giant West African scorpion behind my pillow that I was going to drop on him in the middle of the night.

Sweet dreams are made of these.
Moments later, Mr. Kate was back asleep and I lay awake, wondering if I had won this round of scare-war since I had so obviously gotten into his head with my prank. But as the night drew on and I couldn't sleep for fear of giant insects and retributive neighbors, I began to doubt it. 

*I've assured my mother not to worry and that I'm actually pronouncing it Sah-Tahn. It's a cute nickname that has nothing to do with the fact that she makes babies cry for fun.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

West African Beauty Tips

As a way to keep our spirits up given the uncertainty of our jobs (and paychecks), the men in our embassy have banded together and decided not to shave until the budget has passed. I've affectionately termed the effort "Beards for Budget."

A few times I've joked that I, too, will contribute to the facial hair morale booster, by not waxing my mustache. In response, I received mostly half-hearted laughs and a quick change of subject. After my third offer, when the recipient of the joke squinted his eyes and zoomed in on my upper lip, I realized why people weren't laughing. You can't laugh if it's true.

Living in Africa isn't great for beauty maintenance and let's be honest--it's not like I put much effort into it even before moving to Togo, back when it was easy to go over and see my friend Joni who would wax anything and everything. My God. There's hair there?

After my encounter with a nail salon in Guinea, I decided that while in Africa, it would be better to stick to simple things I was capable of doing, like cutting my toenails and shaving my legs. Everything else could wait until I made it back to the US.

A Guinean Pedicure.
However, after my realization that people were actually considering buying me a mustache grooming kit and a membership to The Handlebar Club for Christmas, I came to the conclusion that maybe I should make an effort. Just this once.

I gathered nail files, nail polish and wax strips. I was ready to have a day full of manicures, pedicures and hair removal. I started with my nails. I cut them down, did the cuticle thing (ouch!) and then rubbed the square-sponge-file thing on them, not because it does anything, but because I've seen them do it before. What is that thing, really?

Next, I went for the wax strips. I warmed one up, shmeared it on my upper lip and asked Mr. Kate to pull it off as fast as possible. After I realized the gross excess of pleasure he derived from ripping hair off my face I decided that even though it would be incredibly difficult and painful, I would bear through the pain and do it my self next time, for my own best interest. I would basically be like that guy who had to cut his arm off to get out from under the rock, except I'd be a chick with a mustache.

Then, since I was at it, I moved on to my eyebrows. I cut the strips so they would fit under my eyebrows. I looked up and used both eyes as I was pasting them on my face to be sure I was doing it correctly-- if you think I'm bad at beauty maintenance, you should see me with make-up. There is no chance at me surviving in a world where I need to draw on eyebrows.

After I was sure the strips were on correctly, I looked in the mirror and braced myself. Ready, set, RIP! I looked down at the wax strip. Wow. I had a lot of straggler hairs floating around under my eyebrows! Where did those come from? My eyebrows don't look that different! I stared at my eyebrows for a moment, trying to understand.

Suddenly, I felt a throbbing on my eye. I shifted my focus downward. Most of the eyelashes on  my right eye were gone. A lone, hairless eyelid remained.

So, here I am, two days later, hoping that eyelashes grow back quickly and that nobody notices my perpetual downward stare, which I hope makes my bald eyelid stand out less.

My West African beauty tips you ask? Simple. Embrace hairiness. Stay away from wax-your-own-anything kits. IT'S NOT WORTH THE RISK.

That Handlebar Club membership is actually starting to sound like a great Christmas present...

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Camp Espoir

Last month we were honored to be invited to Camp Espoir, a yearly camp offered by Peace Corps Togo for HIV-infected or -affected youth. All of the children are HIV-positive, orphans due to HIV/AIDS or somehow significantly affected by the virus.

The organizers, a group of awesome Peace Corps Volunteers, modeled the camp after a their real-life experiences at camp as children, while tying in important lessons for this specific group of kids. During the week they were there, the kids took classes and workshops but perhaps most importantly, these children interacted with peers who were just like them-- kids who had lost their parents or were struggling in one way or another due to repercussions of the virus. This interaction was a rare and priceless experience for them.

Stretching and singing!
   Each morning the kids woke up, had a
   delicious, healthy breakfast and went to play.  
   After a short amount of playtime to get their 
   adrenaline pumping, they gathered in the 
   meeting area where they talked for a few 
   minutes, sang a few songs, introduced guests, 
   announced the morning schedule and then led 
   the children out to the soccer field.

London Bridge -ou- Le Pont de Londres

Once at the soccer field, the games began.  When they originally arrived at camp the kids were divided into groups (and "dorms") based on age and gender. These kids became immediately connected, sharing rooms, stories and ideas. Now on the soccer field they happily played. Each team danced, moving with enthusiasm and celebrating the week, they cheered each other on as they played Simon Says, Flash Freeze (as well as many other camp games that I hadn't thought of in years-- good job guys!), and they embraced each other, coming together for a team cheer to start the day.

Team Dance-off!

London Bridge fell down!
After the games the kids went with their groups to different classes. These classes included life skills, leadership, nutrition and reproductive health, among others. During certain, less imperative, classes kids who needed to talk to counselors were given the opportunity--one that is rarely afforded for children in rural villages.

Several students who had participated in the camp in prior years were paired with a famous Togolese puppet master, Mr. Danaye, who volunteered his time to help the students make puppets and create an informative, uplifting puppet show for their peers. They were incredible!

The puppeteers!

Making Toffee
On second to last day of the camp, the kids had a "market" in which each group sold their "speciality." All week the kids worked hard on a project to sell and were rewarded with "coins" for good, thoughtful and responsible behaviors, with which they would barter, sell and buy other items. The goods included toffees, lemonade, peanut brittle, brooms, neem lotion and popcorn. The market was a good way to teach kids how to make little things that might be useful to contribute to their families economic success and to teach them the importance of saving and budgeting their "money."

On our last morning the kids played a few games with us and sent us off with a sweet song. It was a touching, informative experience and we hope to be a part of it again next year. We are happy and reassured knowing these kids learned some new, helpful things and will be followed by regional NGOs for the next year, providing them with follow-up information and resources, but perhaps, most importantly, these kids had a week-long experience away from community stigma, family stress and the effects of economic hardship, where they could just be what they are: kids.

 If you are interested in more information or ways to help fund this project or others like this, please contact Friends of Togo, a group of current and returned Peace Corps volunteers from Togo.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Shopping in Togo

Last week we went on a shopping adventure around Lomé. When I offhandedly mentioned to one of my girlfriends that I had found a couple cute things, she was thoroughly confused. "What is there to buy over there?" she demanded to know (probably because she's snoopy and wants to know what her Christmas present is).

So, here they are, a few cool things you can buy in Togo:

 You can buy beautiful and overpriced necklaces that you think you might wear a few times but you'll never actually be ballsy enough to wear. Starting materials include beef bones and horns, traditional beads, thread, probably some puppy and leather.

Beautiful Bronze statues are easily found in many sizes. Depending on the store, some are "made" by the person sitting behind the counter and others are selling "ancient tribal statues from hundreds of years ago."

Handmade purses and shoes made from local fabric are fun and colorful.

Handmade pottery, whether it be a pot you see spun on the wheel right in front of you and the guy will give you a really, really good price if only you'll agree to be his third wife, or a scary-faced, phallic fisherman talisman, is always a good gift idea!
Gourmet Sodabe is all the rage right now.
This is particularly hilarious if you've ever tried Sodabe, the local, home-brewed,
reminiscent-of-rubbing-alcohol beverage of choice here in Togo.

 If you have a good friend who you'd really like to treat, go to the traditional pharmacy and get some herbs to help them out. You can find pictures of ailments painted on the wall. For a quick diagnosis, point to your picture and they will supply you with the neccesary herbal remedy.

For example:
You: "Help! There is a snake with an angry man head following me!"
Traditional Pharmacy Guy: "Probably because he is a hipster snake and extremely jealous of your sweet, salmon-colored pants. Make some obscure tea that he hasn't heard of out of this (hands over package of leaves) and you'll feel better."


You: "Help! A brigade of giant, big-bottomed, topless women is attacking my disproportionately over-sized man toy while I do the naked Macarena!"
Traditional Pharmacy Guy: "Get out."

PS. All of my friends are getting traditional pharmacy paintings for Christmas. I just went to the other stores to show my normal friends where to get stuff.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Sacred Stone Festival

Last week we were invited to the annual Sacred Stone Festival, a ceremony that takes place in the heart of Togo's voodoo region. The highlight comes when the high priests of the voodoo religion interpret the stone's message to forecast the next year's events. My nanny forbade me from talking to anyone while I was there, lest they curse me.

A quick description of the event:
Every year in the village of Glidji, 30 miles from Togo's capital city, members of the Guen tribe gather together for the Epe Ekpe festival--a lively community celebration dripping with West African song, style, and color. A celebration of the Guen new year, the festival draws families from around the region to gather together in anticipation of the highlight: the presentation of the sacred stone. High priests collect the stone from a sacred forest and present it to the community as a harbinger of the coming year's fortunes. Although it is for the high priests to interpret and communicate the details of the message, for the sacred stone, color tells all:
  • Blue: abundant harvests and rain
  • Red: impending conflict and war
  • Black: famine, disease, and devastating rain
  • White: peace, good luck, and abundance
Traditional voodoo beads.
Body painting with mud, clay and plants.
The festival is marked by a dancing kaleidoscope of colors and a cacophony of chants and songs. The voodoo priestesses are bare-breasted, dressed in white skirts, and ordained with natural dyes, beads and embellishments.

Among all of the sights and sounds, certain images emerged as truly unforgettable:

At the beginning of the spectacle, the priestesses stood on the margins of the arena while waiting for the priests to summon them. They chanted and swayed with focused gazes, creating a beautiful, yet sometimes eerie, scene.

After a few rounds of dancing, the speeches began. Elders and priests delivered a warm welcome, evoking the traditions of their forefathers and building the crowd's anticipation for the presentation of the stone. At the height of their soliloquies, one official interrupted with an urgent announcement: "The sacred stone has left the forest!"

It was heading our way.

Since the journey from the forest would still take some time, we were treated to several more rounds of dancing, singing and speeches. As the anticipation mounted, the man on the microphone screamed louder, the crowd elevated the volume of their cheers and chants, and the women danced with such vigor that several of them danced themselves into a trance and had to be escorted out of the arena, big-eyed and wailing.

All covered women who attained the "trance stage" were relieved of their beads and tops, baring their breasts as the music climbed to a fever pitch.

After the priestesses came out of their trances, they returned to the arena topless, but wearing their beads, and looking just as focused as they did during the height of their trance.

Finally, the announcement was made. "The stone is entering the arena!" The crowd erupted into cheers as we waited for the stone to enter. Then, just as suddenly as the cheering began, it stopped. A handful of priests reverently carried the stone into the arena. The crowd fell silent. Everyone wanted to see it. The gendarmes, dressed in riot gear, accompanied and protected the voodoo priests who carried the stone in, since everyone was pushing and pulling to catch a glimpse.

While they walked around the arena, showing everyone the stone, they chanted and sang, thanking the voodoo gods for blessing the community with a white stone, which ensured a year of peace, good fortune, and bountiful harvest.

The showing of the sacred stone.

The sacred stone.

The priests.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Game

When we first got to Togo, Mr. Kate had one goal*, he wanted to play soccer. In between moving, A-100 and moving again, he hadn't played soccer in nearly 6 months, which was basically his worst nightmare.

Eventually he joined forces with a few friends and formed an embassy soccer team. The first few weeks were hard-- it was difficult finding places to practice and times that would work for everyone, but eventually they fell into a rhythm and started playing.

Word of the US Embassy team got out around town and was quickly followed by an invitation from the Minister of Foreign Affairs to have a "match amical."

Early one Saturday morning, we all headed out to the national field, where some of us played and others stayed in the stands, drinking mimosas, waving flags and loudly cheering our awesome team on!

The best cheerleaders EVER! 

Warming up. 

The Ambassador and Mr. Kate, ready for the kick-off!

Me and my nanny, bein' awesome. 

Fofo, rockin it! 

It was a great game and we had a ton of fun, but in the end, the embassy lost. The teams shook hands, planned another fun game for next year and then we found some breakfast. We were all content with the day's events until suddenly, a few days later, one of our colleagues found this in the paper:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs dominates the American Embassy!
And now we know, next year, we have to win! We will dominate!  Maybe I should take up soccer?

*He also wanted to learn how to knit, scrapbook, make cake-pops and properly braise a pork chop, but this was also important.