Last week was the first week of school here in Togo. Lucky for me I live right across from the large public elementary and middle schools in town, so I get a nice early wake up call of thousands of screaming children every morning right outside my door. Now I don’t really mind all of the kids, or even all of the noise they make on their way to and from school. Actually, I think I’ve mentioned a few times before that most of the time I’d rather hang out with them than other adults because it’s much easier to communicate with them. I’ve realized that I can make best friends with a group of little kids in my village in like 5 minutes. A smile, some high fives, teach ‘em how to fist pump, poorly attempt to play soccer with them, before I know it I’ve got an entourage of little kids running behind me chanting my name and I’ve only said like 5 words. I wish that were the case for my work here. Walk into a micro-finance office, toss around a few high fives, fist pump the secretary, pick the director up from his desk chair and spin him around a few times till he gets dizzy, make a couple stupid faces and the clients, and bam, I’m done for the day.
I think I’ve also mentioned before how the little kids like to chant the ‘Yovo’ song when they first see me. It gets annoying sometimes, but most of the kids in my neighborhood know my name by now so instead of Yovo they chant James (it’s much easier for the people here to pronounce and remember than Connor), although the kids pronounce it JA-ME-SA, and chant it in the same melody as the Yovo song. I’m pretty proud of myself for this, it probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, but you’ve got to take any little victory you can get. Now, throw in about a thousand new kids, who’ve never seen me before, and I get fiercely yanked right back to square one. Times 50.
I’m serious, I don’t even dare to leave my house when they’re out there. My house conveniently sits right smack in between the school yards and about eighty percent of the population, which means that 4 times a day (they go home at about noon for a little siesta), every weekday, theres a flood of children stampeding past my house. I walk out my door and its like Jeter just stepped up to bat in game 7 at Fenway. I feel like someone put my face up on the big screen, signaling the entire crowd to start chanting. Just instead of ‘Jeter Sucks!’ it’s ‘Yovo Yovo!’. One of them sees me and starts it and it just spreads like wildfire.
It’s not that these little kids are trying to be mean at all, its just most of them have probably seen a grand total of 5 white people in their entire life. And it’s that whole group mentality thing, individually they’re very nice and respectful, but when you get 50 of them together walking past a big red bearded yovo, its open season. I can understand it, I mean they’re just kids, but it’s still takes a fair amount of courage to get up and face that gauntlet 6 to 12 year olds eager to enthusiastically point out the fact that yes, I am in fact the one and only white person in the entire village.
Luckily my counterpart is the director of the middle school, so yesterday we decided that it would be a good idea to introduce me to the students and let them know that I would probably be sitting in on a few classes and maybe even starting an English club after school. Which would be a great opportunity to put a dent in the whole yovo thing. Another volunteer who has already been here for a year, was visiting me that day as well to see what I’ve been working on so far and give me some advice about things and answer any questions I might have, so she came with me to the school that morning. Having another American around to be able to speak English with and relate to is always nice, the fact that she speaks fluent French made it all the better.
So we get to the school just before they’re about to start for the day. Similar to saying the Pledge of Allegiance in front of the flag before school in The States, they all gather round the flag pole in the middle of the school yard and sing the national anthem as one of the older students raises the flag. All of them are in somewhat matching kaki uniforms lined up in neat even rows by year and class, standing in a large circle around the flagpole, being attentive and quiet (as quiet as you could expect any group of a thousand excited kids to be at 7 in the morning).
After the national anthem is finished, my counterpart gives a little talk about the day’s schedule makes a few announcements and then proceeds to the introduction of myself and the other volunteer Tamara. Now, if you’ve read the post about the welcoming ceremony for when I first got to village, you already know that my counterpart likes to give me quite grandiose introductions. He really out did himself this time though. Heres a little recap of the introduction and events that followed:
“Today we have 2 very special guests with us from The United States of America.”
Seems to be getting off to a fairly normal start.
“This is Monsieur James, and Madame Moselle Tamara”
Just James works for me usually but okay, I like it.
“Who knows who the president of the United States of America is?”
A handful of kids raise their hands. The rest are clearly being shy because Obama is absolutely everywhere here. T-shirts, backpacks, underwear(yes I did buy a pair), painted onto bush taxis, giant sacs of rice, there’s even a store in my village called ‘Obama Shop’(the guy sells african soccer jerseys, don’t ask me what that has to do with Obama). Theres no way any of them don’t know who the president of the US is.
After a particularly bold young boy responded quite proudly, my counterpart continued his introductions.
“Well they are like Obama’s brother and sister.”
Ummm….Okay. Not reealy. I’m not quite sure where you’re going with this one now, but okay.
“They are like the president of the United States of America.”
Whoa man. Talk about excessive expectations. Shit dude, You’re really building us up here huh? You’re out doing yourself this time aren’t ya?
“Monsieur James is going to teach an English club so that you can learn English and then go to America one day.”
We’ve talked maybe twice before this about the possibility of me maybe having an English club a few days after school. But by all means man, bring on the high expectations. He continued on in a similar fashion for about ten more minutes. I couldn’t quite pick up everything he said but based on the expressions on Tamara’s face at certain points in the little speech, it wasn’t difficult to get the idea that he wasn’t quite getting any more modest with his projected expectations.
Remembering how he threw me out in front of the highly esteemed crowd of important community members, chiefs, and the prefet, to give an impromptu ‘speech’ upon my arrival at post, I figured he’d have me say at least a few words to the kids here at the school. Anticipating this I threw together a few quick sentences in my head while he was giving his introduction. Nothing special, just ‘Good morning, how are you, thanks for having me, I’m excited to be able to work with you in the future.’ Simple stuff that at this point, after a few months in village, I’m fairly confident in saying in French. I’m not too worried about it, it’s little kids, their french isn’t that great anyway so I figure I can get away with a few grammatical mistakes and make it out alive.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. I get through the first two lines, a few little whispers between the kids, maybe a giggle or two. Okay, don’t worry about it, they’re kids, what do you expect? Just keep going. I get halfway through saying thank you for having me here, and the whispers grow to low voices, giggles turn to a few scattered laughs. I raise my voice to continue further. “I’m looking forward to…” Remember when I mentioned wildfire before? Yeah, well picture a christmas tree that hasn’t been watered for about a month and has been sitting in a warm cozy living room next to the fireplace getting nice and dry. Now put a spark from a bad extension cord right under it. Like in one of those fire safety videos where they show how a christmas tree can be completely engulfed in flames in like 2.4 seconds. Yeah. It was like that.
Those little whispers and that giggle turned into full blown yelling and roaring laughter faster than i could even realize what was happening. There were literally kids covering their ears with both hands at the sound of my attempt at speaking French. If I thought leaving my house before was like walking into a gauntlet, this was a fucking gladiatorial colosseum filled with the roaring cheers of bloodthirsty crowds watching me get mauled by hungry lions.
After about a minute of the teachers yelling and blowing whistles for them to be quiet, the crowd once again returned to a few scattered whispers and giggles. I looked over at my counterpart and smiled.
“You can continue now if you’d like” he says to me. The edges of his lips slightly curled up, while trying to hold back a smile.
“Nope, I think that’ll just about do it for me” I said with a grin on my face. “I think Tamara can take it from here”
Now don’t get me wrong, I was fucking mortified at first. I felt like I was in that dream where you’re in grade school and you look down and realize you somehow forget to put cloths on that morning on and the entire school is staring and laughing and pointing at you in the middle of the cafeteria.
The feeling only lasted a few seconds though. I realized that I’m constantly saying how you’ve got to find the humor in some of the more ridiculous and difficult parts of life here. And I think this definitely qualified as one of those times. I’m standing there in front of a group of probably a thousand antsy, energetic little kids, who’ve just been told that I’m like President Barak Obama, and that I might be one of their teachers soon. On top of that, the only white people that they ever see are French, and therefore have impeccable grammar and accents. And all of their teachers have fairly good french accents as well. So when I open my mouth and they hear this strange terrible accent scattered with grammatical mistakes, coming from someone who they’ve just been given such high expectations of, they think it’s hysterical. And I can’t blame them, I agree, the entire situation is pretty damned ridiculous.
If you cant laugh at yourself sometimes, I think you’re going to have a pretty tough time no matter where you are.
As I said before, these kids aren’t trying to be mean, they’re not being malicious or trying to make fun of me. They just get a kick out of it. And let me tell you something, I’ve never had kids in village show me so much respect than after that whole fiasco. I try to time my trips to the market now for when the kids are walking to and from school. Everywhere I go now the kids give me a little bow or curtsey (its a sign of respect here to slightly bow to someone, especially your elders, when you greet them), and call me Monsieur or Monsieur James. They might have thought that my accent was funny and strange, but in the end they certainly got the point of the whole introduction and the director’s speech, and despite my initial concerns, the little mishap did not completely kill my chances of being taken seriously by them(Although I’m sure not too seriously). So as shitty as situations here can sometimes seem, you just have to find a way to laugh and look at the bright side of it all.
On a side note, As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve reformatted the whole blog page and added pictures and whatnot. Theres some links on the right side to some other Togo Volunteers’ blogs if you want to get some different perspectives. Theres also little “Sign me up!” button, if you want to get a little email notification anytime I put up a new post. I hope you’re enjoying the posts so far, and feel free to leave comments, It’s always nice to get some feedback and hear what people think back home.