Just Another Day in the Village
A man from Nigeria said to me, "My wife knows of a women's farming co-op in the next village. I'd like you to come talk to them." Those words sounded so simple. I guess I didn't ask enough questions. That seems to be an ongoing theme in my life... not asking enough questions. I remember I didn't ask enough questions when I heard "We'd like you to move to Salt Lake City for the financial analyst position" and again when I heard "We'd like you to move back to Toledo to be the team leader for the newly formed Pricing and Bill & Collect team." I must remember to ask more questions for heaven's sake!!!
The appointed hour was 10am. We left in a taxi at 10 :45am. The taxi stopped on the main dirt road where a smaller dirt road turned off. The cab driver explained that someone further up the main road needed a ride to the hospital, so do we mind walking the rest of the way to the village? " It's not far..." he said.
Just over two miles later the three of us (the Nigerian man, his wife, and me) arrive in the village. It's really a picturesque African village - mud brick houses with unattached mud brick kitchens, cleanly swept dirt yards, kids running around, and beautiful fruit trees. I recognized a grapefruit tree, laden with ripe grapefruits. There was another kind of tree too - one I had never seen before. Its fruit was green, smooth, and larger than a bowling ball. It looked big enough to pull the branches off the trees! I still have no idea what fruit that is.
We are ushered to a table set up in the shade. This is the first day it's been clear in a week, and my fair skin was out in it all day! Perhaps 50 people gathered around to welcome me. Welcomes and thank you's are exchanged in French and Baoule, the local language. As is tradition, everyone lines up to walk past and shake my hand. Someone comes with cool water in a pretty pitcher with four matching glasses. I've been here long enough to know I'm being treated like visiting royalty. They are pulling out all the stops for me.
A second round of welcomes and thank yous follows. Of course, this goes against my Western sense of efficiency and the need to get down to business immediately, but I'm learning. I'm told it's tradition to welcome a stranger twice in this village. The women ask how we got to the village. When I tell them we walked from the main road, the group applauds. My strength and fortitude is discussed and the group agrees I'm strong. They like me.
I explain the Peace Corps briefly and tell them why I'm in Cote d'Ivoire. The village presents me with a rooster (live) which is a sign of peace. Now, I'm not quite sure what the protocol is when one is handed a rooster, but I don't want to go wrong here. I thank them profusely and hold the rooster up for all to see. They love it. I had no idea a rooster's legs were so warm. Gross. I'm smiling on the outside and praying that I don't puke on the inside.
Now that we've been received by the group and they've decided they like me, we can move up into the village, near the village chief's house. I feel like I've passed some sort of initiation or test. All 50 of us walk into the village, everyone carrying chairs and the table. Thankfully, someone takes the rooster from me. He ties his feet together so I can more easily carry him home. I'm just glad I don't have to butcher him in front of the village.
We sit in the second spot, and the community starts to outline their needs. In addition to hearing about the women's farming co-op, it turns out I'm going to hear all about the village itself too. Of course, as everyone thinks, I have come with both influence and money to fix all problems. Ha! Little do they know I have neither! But I listen. The road to their village is terrible, and that prevents them from easily getting their products to market. Since I have just walked the road, I am inclined to agree. Last year's rains have left several spots with erosion damage. And then, the village doesn't have a car or truck. Hold on, I tell them - there aren't any organizations who just give away trucks. Perhaps I can find someone to grade the road, but I know I can't find anyone to give them a truck. They explain that this is not only a market issue but a safety issue. If someone gets sick in the middle of the night, someone has to ride a bike 17km to Taabo and wake a taxi driver. I'm sympathetic, but I assure them I cannot find someone to give them a truck.
Unfortunately, for 40 years since West Africa's independence, the world has been here GIVING aid without training or education. That's created a terrible expectation that Westerners are here to give give give, and that Africans don't have to be creative in solving their own problems. I explain that the Peace Corps is not a money tree and that I will help them only with information, training, and fresh ideas. They seem to agree, but I can tell they still want me to come back with a truck.
The meeting goes on for several hours, with them explaining their village needs and me asking questions to make sure I understand it all. It's a slow pace, characteristic of not only Africa, but of all the translation taking place. My French is expanded on by another French speaker to make sure he understood. Then someone translates to Baoule. But enough people there speak both languages that there is often discussion about the translation itself. I love this part of Africa! This is a community meeting with the community explaining its needs and goals. This is what I came for! I have a chance to directly impact these people and future generations by introducing new ideas.
We discuss the problems of the village, and finally the problems of the women's farming co-op at length. Most of the problems center around the road. Much of their product rots on the trees because they can't get it to market. To sell their produce, the women pile as much as they can on their heads, strap a baby onto their back, and walk the 17km to Taabo for market days - Wed, Fri, and Sunday. That's over 10 miles each way! Again, I am amazed at the strength of African women. I tease the men that not one of them is strong enough to make that journey. They agree, and remind me that I couldn't do it either.
At one point I hear the translator say "Since you are the president of the women's farming co-op, they look to you for advice..." Whoa -- I'm the president? When did that happen? Was it translated to me and I missed it? I explain as nicely as possible that the co-op already has a president, and while perhaps I am the sister of the co-op, I am certainly not the president!
Finally, it is agreed that I will see what help is available and will return in two weeks (on bicycle, with sunscreen on). Everyone is ecstatic, even though I have warned them that there are no easy answers and no free trucks. The women depart to make lunch. It is 3pm, and I am hungry!
While I'm sitting with the men, one announces that he's going to marry me. I look up to see which is my new husband. He's the one wearing the sweatshirt that says "I'd rather be watching General Hospital." I explain the rules I have for my husband (he will do the cooking, cleaning, gardening, and child bearing) but he is undeterred. No problem. He's going to build me a mud brick mansion over the next three years and when it's done I can move to the village and be his wife. Oh great. I can hardly wait.
We eat a nice lunch - all products that the women grow - oranges, peanuts, rice, and sauce gombo (seems to be made from the leaf of the gombo plant). It's all very lovely. As is African tradition, only the three of us eat. It's very polite to serve your guests and let them eat in peace.
It's during lunch that I notice a man who seems to be a cross dresser. He's wearing a ruffled black tank top and a polka dot skirt. It's not an African wrap around cloth acting as a skirt - that's commonly seen on men. No, this is a Western style skirt complete with elastic waistband. No one seems to bat an eye at this man, who reminds me of Klinger on MASH. I saw him get on his bike later. It was decorated with orange fringe. Interesting. The village seems to accept him as is.
Lunch ends around 4pm. I certainly hadn't planned on staying that long, but I'm at the mercy of my Nigerian friends. I don't like to be out after dark because of all the mosquitos (malaria); it gets dark at 6:15pm. We need to get going. The Nigerian man has wandered off (later I fond out he went to NAP!), and his wife can't locate him. It can't hurt me to sit a little longer, right?
I had noticed a new baby in the crowd - only two months old. I coo at her and talk to her in French about how smart she is (might as well start early on the education thing!). They hand me the baby and I coo a bit more... until she pees on my lap! (You don't think they use diapers here, do you?) I say "Oh look, you've given me a present!" This does not seem to phase anyone. Hmmm...where can I hand this baby off and wipe off my nicest dress, which I have worn for this special occasion? Someone takes her from me, but the general consensus is that I'm being a bit of a wimp! The woman who takes her has no problem with the warm pee drying on her lap! I have a bit of growing to do...
At 5pm I tell the wife I'm going to walk back to Taabo. I'm dreading the three hour walk, but I can't think of another choice. The wife joins me, and as we head toward the front of the village we bump into the man, now done with his nap.
As is African tradition, our hosts will accompany us 1/2 way home. Fortunately, that means there will be someone else to carry the rooster! We depart, perhaps 15 of us together, and in small groups when they are tired of walking, they thank me profusely, remind me of my return in two weeks, and tell me not to forget them. I assure them I'll be back. Finally we arrive at the intersection of the main road where we will sit and hope for a cab. Two boys on bike have been sent ahead to find a cab in Taabo to come out and pick us up. Three men have walked the 2+ miles with us to the main road. They head back to the village, leaving me with the Nigerian couple and the rooster, plus some blisters and severe sunburn.
We sit by the side of the road for 45 minutes until the cab arrives. I'm exhausted and sunburned. It's just turning dark out... twilight is very short here at the equator. The driver throws my rooster into the trunk and by some miracle, agrees to take me all the way to my house, instead of to the central bus station where they normally stop. The cab driver even carries to rooster to my neighbors, who are worried about where I am. They didn't expect me to be in the village that long either. In fact, they were 10 minutes away from taking a cab out to find me. My neighbors take the rooster, murmur sympathy about my long day, and shove me into my house assuring me I'll feel better after a shower, which, I do.
As I reflect on my day, it is filled with highs and lows, firsts, confusion, and many other things African. I am glad to be here. Now, where the heck am I going to find a truck for these people? =)