Cultural Exchange

As a Peace Corps volunteer, my job requirements are broken down into three parts. First of all, is to provide technical assistance in the area of business development to individuals and communities who have requested aid from the Peace Corps. The other two thirds are dedicated to cultural exchange; one third being to share the American culture and customs with the people of Togo, and the other third being to learn the customs and traditions of the people of Togo, and share them with friends, family, and whomever else I can get to listen back in America. So technically, as I sit here in my boxers on my couch, trying to escape the sweltering heat of the midday African sun, writing what will most likely be a somewhat sarcastic, hopefully slightly entertaining blog post about my fumbling attempts to integrate into the local culture, I’m actually not only working, but completing a whole third of my job requirements. 

Goal 1, the first third of my job, is, as you can imagine, the more difficult of the three, the one that seems the most like actual work. Because every time I make a phone call, send a message on Facebook, write a letter, or post on my blog, I’m completing Goal #2 (sharing Togolese culture with Americans), I can hardly complain about that third of my job, it pretty much does itself. But Goal 3, sharing the American culture with the people of Togo, personally, is by far my favorite part of the job. 

Now, explaining completely foreign concepts, take for example snowboarding, to an individual who has lived in a mud hut with a thatched roof in Sub-Saharan Africa for the entirety of their life, rarely, if ever, having traveled more than 50 miles from their village, is not quite the easiest thing in the world to do, but if nothing else its pretty damn entertaining. For one, neither of you are speaking in your first language. It’s like a terrible version of that game Telephone. My translation in my head, from English into my fairly limited French, their interpretation of my French (bad accent being taken into consideration), then its translation in their heads into whatever their local language might be, and in many instances, their further translation into another local language to communicate it to the other people in the group who speak no French at all.

Stop reading for just a second and try to form a description in your head, in english, of what you would say to explain snowboarding to someone who has never heard of it before. “So its this kind of sport, right? You strap this big plastic board to your feet and slide down a huge mountain covered in snow and ice, and you have try not to hit the other people who are also sliding down the mountain with boards strapped to their feet. No, you do the whole thing standing up. Yeah, you’re going really fast. Oh yeah, and theres lots of big trees on the mountain too, so you have to try not to hit those either. Well once you get to the bottom you sit down on this bench that’s attached to this big cable and it pulls you back up to the top of the mountain so you can do the whole thing again. No really, I swear, its so much fun.”

Kind of a difficult concept to explain in the first place right? Definitely not impossible though. But now imagine that this person you’re talking to has never seen or even heard of the concept of snow. Thats when it gets really interesting. I’ve mentioned a few times before that the daily routine here in Togo can get pretty boring sometimes, so in an attempt to combat this boredom and lack of activity I’ve begun trying to think of the most seemingly random and sometimes asinine concepts and activities in America, and then trying to describe them to people here in my village. I’m pretty sure that most of the time the people I’m talking to either have no Idea what I’m talking about, or just think I’m nuts. If nothing else though, it keeps me bust and entertained and certainly helps me to practice my French.

Quite frequently, these conversations take place while drinking tchuk at one of the many local ‘watering holes’ in my village. These consist of a poyote, (pretty much the same thing as a tiki hut I guess) with a woman sitting in the middle (your local micro-brewer, if you will), serving her freshly brewed tchuk out of a giant plastic barrel, to groups of thirsty villagers sitting on the benches circling the inside of the small poyote. Now there are bars in Togo, where you can buy bottles of beer(surprisingly quite good beer actually), and order snacks and food, somewhat like a bar in the States, but the beer is relatively expensive and therefore can’t quite support your average Togolese’s drinking habits. 

The tchuk stands are where you find the real action. Its the perfect atmosphere for ‘cultural exchange’.  The physical set up of the little round tiki hut certainly invites conversation. There are no tables, no bar, just a circle of benches crammed with people all looking to get a little relief from the heat and have a few drinks. And after a few 10 cent bowls of the tasty local millet beer, the conversations pretty much start themselves. Not to mention when there happens to be a big, red bearded, white man in the mix. A sight thats clearly not a common occurrence in my village, and definitely seems to catch the interest of everyone in the poyote. I’m not generally a shy person in the first place but having a bowl or two of tchuk certainly doesn’t make me more self conscious about my French speaking abilities.

I’ve quickly come to realize that the most interesting concepts to explain are not always things like snowboarding, or Wallmart (which when people actually believe me, does seem to blow their minds), but much more simple facts that you (or at least I), usually take for granted as being universally known. 

Take for example, probably the most frequently asked question I get: “Do you have people like me in America? With black skin?” Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would have to convince people here that there are indeed Africans in America. I mean for one, it seems like everywhere you look theres a something with Obama’s face or name printed on it. Kids backpacks, shirts, stickers on cars, names of stores that have nothing to do with Obama or America. Every tenth teenage girl you walk past is wearing a shirt that just says OBAMA in big block letters across the front. But still, every time I tell people that there are black people in America, they seem to be astonished by the idea. “Do they eat Fufu?”(a local staple food in Togo), “Do they all speak French?”, people ask me with curiously mystified looks on their faces.

Another mind boggling topic I never would have thought of, is dogs. In Togo, there is only one breed of dog. Medium sized, pointy ears, pointy snout, very skinny, and usually a quite angry temperament. The skinny part could probably be attributed to the fact that they’re slightly starved, which come to think of it, is probably at least somewhat responsible for their angry temperament as well. That and the fact that someone probably just ate their father. Yeah, people eat dog here. Which is usually how the conversation comes up in the first place. Someone will ask me if I’ve ever eaten dog, or if people in America eat dog. I usually get a few good laughs and chuckles out of the crowd when I say that in America,  dogs are considered our friends, or even family. And that we would never even think of eating them. “But why? They taste so good” they tell me, “One day, you will come eat dog with us”. Tempting sir, but I think I’ll leave the Fido feast to you guys. 

Once we’re on the subject of dogs though, its pretty entertaining to see people’s reaction when I tell them about how many different types of dogs there are in America. Again, to us, it’s such a normal part of our lives, it seems strange that someone would be surprised to hear about it, but imagine for a second that someone came up to you and said that in their native land, they had 80 different types of horses. Ones with really long shaggy hair that reached the floor, ones with normal sized bodies but whose legs were only 18 inches long, ones with way too much skin and ears that drooped down over their eyes that waddled instead of galloping, ones that were the size of house cats, and others the size of small elephants. You’d look at that person like they had 8 heads. Horses are horses and thats it. Theres the occasional little one thats kind of funny to look at, and they come in a few different colors, but thats it. Horses are horses, and in Togo, dogs are dogs(And apparently they’re very tasty). Needless to say, it leads to an interesting discussion. 

By the end of these discussions I’m pretty sure people either think that I’m some sort of voodoo sorcerer(we’ll get into that subject in another post), talking about these strange beasts and crazy customs from a foreign land, or just think that I’m a compulsive lier. Either way though, after an hour or so of talking and a few bowls of tchuk, I think it counts as a fair amount of ‘cultural exchange’, and in my opinion, a job well done.

 

Sorry it’s been so long since my last post, but I hope you guys are still enjoying them. Thanks for the comments on the other ones, it’s always great to hear what you think, and get some ideas for new ones. Keep the messages and comments coming. Thanks for reading.

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