Africa's lessons slowly sink in

An American photographer visits Togo to build a community center - and discovers community instead

Everytime I travel, which is often, unforeseen knowledge and adventures await me. I'm often reminded of my first trip overseas, to West Africa, and the life lessons I encountered there.

I went with a group of college friends to Bombuaka, Togo, in 1979. I'd never heard of Togo. A graduate from our school was a Peace Corps volunteer there. She was teaching English to tribal children in this French-speaking nation. We planned to visit her and donate our time and energy to help her village in some way.

Raised in America's prosperity, I was eager to see the wide world and its diverse cultures.

Togo overwhelmed me with color and sound, from the riotous fabrics draping the women, to the odd yellow headlights of the cars, and the cacophony of the open-air markets. Women carried huge, heavy loads balanced on their heads: food, piles of cloth, tree branches, water. They turned this way and that, chatting with friends, but never spilling their cargoes.

From the humid coastal capital, we headed far inland to Bombuaka (my mouth enjoyed learning to pronounce the name). As we traveled, the land became brown and dry; the desert was fighting to take over as the population fought back. Dust storms often filled the sky, blocking the sun. We passed villagers burning their land to clear it for crops - and perhaps to chase off the poisonous black mamba snake.

I had arrived in that exotic place from my imaginings.

Nothing goes to waste here

Bombuaka was set between two modest brown mountain ranges. It had no electricity. The rutted main dirt road, the thoroughfare to the capital, was the source of clouds of fine orange dust that rose from it every time a vehicle passed.

Villagers' homes were complexes of thatched round mud rooms set around open courtyards. Inside, perhaps a few magazine clippings adorned the walls. On the floor, maybe a single wooden stool, earthen bowls, mats on which to sleep. There was no trash - not a tin can or a piece of paper. Everything was used and reused.

Our white skin and relative wealth stood out. When we went to the market to buy food, we found there wasn't much to buy: sardines, fabric, scrawny (live!) chickens. Our trash pit was regularly emptied by children taking things they could use; the roaming pigs and donkeys ate any organic refuse.

Restive with inactivity

It was agreed we could participate in building the foundation for a community center. Yet, after several weeks, no work had begun. We weren't used to inactivity. The village didn't have any ready-made entertainment, so we were forced to settle into the rhythm of village life, which moved ever so slowly, on foot.

The egg man, decked in a humble smile and a tattered raincoat, often made house calls to sell his wares. The Peace Corps house was on his rounds, and we were good customers: We bought out his stock every time. I looked forward to his visits, for he was such a gentle man, filled with a quiet joy that was contagious.

One day an old woman walking by nearly doubled over with laughter when she spied me. I was posing for a picture wearing the traditional baggy pants and tentlike top the male elders wear, complete with pointed straw hat and spear. I think most everything we Americans did was of interest, but a woman wearing men's clothing was over the top, to her.

Still no progress on the community center; we were getting fretful. The tribal leaders could not agree on when, where, and how it would be built. Here we were, a virtual army of volunteers, ready to assist - with nothing to do. We didn't realize that Africa's lessons were sinking in, slowly, slowly, into our fast-paced minds.

Songs beneath the stars

I had brought along my guitar. Although I'm not really a musician myself, I could strum along with friends playing bluegrass music. My simple chords were the backdrop for their complex fingerings on banjo and fiddle.

At dusk we assembled outside our house around the circle of light from a single kerosene lantern. We played under the stars - multiplied a hundredfold in their brilliance, since no other artificial light dimmed them.

Just beyond the fall of lantern light, another circle of listeners formed, not making a sound: the villagers. We hardly knew they were there, but their eyes shone. We were joined in music under the listening stars.

One night, our group was invited to a party at a Swiss artist's home. He was in Togo to teach farm skills. His white-washed room became our bicultural dance floor.

Sandy, the best dancer in our group, went first, teaching disco moves (it was 1979, remember) to the beat of the Bee Gees. Next, the artist had us energetically polkaing around the floor to an oompah band.

At last, elegant Vivienne danced to African drums - her subtle, spare movements just enough to cast a spell of grace and dignity. We tried to emulate her, but our movements were too big, too much. We laughed at our awkwardness, our inability to copy simplicity.

The legacy of our visit

Finally, on the last two days of our five-week stay in the village, we helped move some rocks from one side of the main road to the other: It was the beginning of the community center, or so we were told. We left without leaving much to show for it.

Traveling from the richest country in the world to one of the poorest, I thought we'd leave something tangible behind, some work completed or at least a solid beginning. In our impatience to help, we expected to move at a Western pace in an African land.

My frustration was fleeting, though. I realized that what I most value are moments of communion with others, and I'd found those moments in abundance. They far overshadow the experience of boredom or inactivity.

Sharing the same space with people whose lives and goals were so utterly different from mine - connecting with them at some levels and recognizing our innumerable commonalities - was accomplishment enough.

And what did we leave behind? I hope we left good memories for the villagers (bluegrass concerts under the stars?) because they gave us so many.

Sometimes lessons wait in still, spare places. It just takes quiet and patience to find them.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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