T here’s something calming about the rain. I sat on my porch and watched it fall, little droplets pounding rhythms on my tin roof. A year of living in this tiny village in Togo, West Africa under my belt, far from the comforts and familiarity of the place I once called home, far from anyone else who even spoke my language or understood my culture. I looked out into the darkness of the village at night, and contemplated the ups and downs of being the constant outsider, wondering if all the Peace Corps volunteers that had come before me felt the exact same way I did right now. Alone, misunderstood, alive.
Two idealistic girls, so determined to change this little corner of the world, momentarily defeated by forces beyond our control. Two girls, so stubborn in our desires to make a difference. We burst out laughing as people stared.
The coconut trees swayed in the breeze. My nose filled with the smell of wet dirt mingled with the heavy air. The rain slid down the grooves of my tin roof onto the mud, a curtain of water framing this magical scene. Suddenly I was transported to another time and place. Back to being twelve, sitting in my mother’s car and marveling at the raindrops that fell on the windshield. Contemplating the world. Comfortable and dry, yet witnessing the wonders of the elements.
“Remember how you feel at this moment,” said Jill between chattering teeth, “because once hot season comes, you’re going to miss it.”
We were both soaking wet, standing under the shelter of an open hangar with all the other spectators, shivering in the cold air. Jill had invited me to watch a girls’ soccer tournament that she had helped organize in her village. She had spent a lot of time and effort getting the event set up, buying soccer balls, reserving the field, contacting all the schools in neighboring villages to make sure that they would be able to make it. This was her pride and joy, her raison d’être. The girls had practiced so hard all season, to prove to their village and to themselves that girls could play soccer too. This was their moment of truth. But nature, it seemed, had other plans.
The rain fell down in torrents, drenching the soccer field and turning it into a mush of mud and grass. Just ten minutes before, we were out there on the sidelines, as rain fell on us, determined to watch the game to the bitter end. The girls had continued playing, amidst strong gusts of wind, but eventually, even they had to surrender to the increasing to storm.
“I’m sorry it had to rain,” Jill said, “it kind of put a damper on the game.”
“No,” I said, “it’s okay. I’m actually having fun.”
We looked at each other, wet hair plastered to our faces. Mud was splattered all over my pants, and the dye on Jill’s pagne was bleeding onto her legs. Every article of clothing was soaked through. What a sight for sore eyes. Two girls with something to prove. Two idealistic girls, so determined to change this little corner of the world, momentarily defeated by forces beyond our control. Two girls, so stubborn in our desires to make a difference. We burst out laughing as people stared. Two white girls, taking shelter from the rain.
The rain fell down hard on the tin roof. It drowned out the ever present chirping of the crickets. I glanced around the room that I was staying in for my training. So this is where I’m going to be for the next three months, I thought, it’s not so bad. The room was small, but quite cozy. A single bed, a night table, and a desk. Simple, minimal. A perfect example of daily African life. The walls were painted a light shade of blue. Lace curtains hung in front of the door frame and windows. The mosquito net draped lazily over my bed, my own private cocoon. Outside, the wind howled and the rain continued to pour.
I finally had a moment to reflect on the events of the past few days. It was still so surreal. I’m actually here, I thought, I’m in Togo, I’m in Africa! This is it! The past few days had seemed like a blur – my teary goodbye at the airport, sitting in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Philadelphia with some thirty odd strangers wondering what I was getting myself into, riding in the Peace Corps van through the dark and menacing streets of Lomé, the capital of Togo, the arrival in the small village of Govié to men and women and children dancing and drumming our welcome. I lay in bed and tried to imagine what the next two years would be like. The raindrops on the roof drummed a lullaby.
And it seemed like no matter how hard we worked in our respective villages, nothing we did would ever really have an impact on the large scale development of the country. We looked at each other and gave a sigh as we walked back out into the rain.
The rain splashed on the windshield of the 15-passenger van as we made our way through the pothole and mud ridden road to Accra, Ghana. Every once in awhile, the driver would roll down his window and wipe the windshield with a piece of cloth to keep the windows from fogging too much. Inside the van, the passengers sat in their seats. Some dozed while others stared out the window at the passing scenery. Anika sat next to me, asleep. I looked out the window and watched the villages pass by. Even this close to the border, you could still see a big difference between Ghana and its neighboring Togo.
The van continued. We were on the outskirts of Accra now, the sprawling capital city of Ghana. Anika had woken up and we were both staring wide-eyed at the city as it unfolded in front of us. We couldn’t believe this was still Africa. Overpasses, skyscrapers, cars, buses, even trash cans. So different from the dirt roads, the unfinished buildings, the masses of women carrying boxes and basins of goods to be sold on their heads, the daily craziness of Togolese life that we were so used to. Ghana was clean, organized, efficient. Like two country bumpkins, we excitedly pointed out to each other all the “marvels” of the city.
Rain followed us all weekend. We had made plans to do some sightseeing, but as it was Sunday, and raining, no less, almost everything was closed. We chatted with the clerk at the front desk of our hostel.
“So, what do people do here on Sundays?” I asked.
He looked confused.
“You know,” Anika explained, “to pass the time. For fun.”
“Oh,” he said, “well, people usually go to church on Sundays.”
Anika and I looked at each other. Ghana, like Togo, and almost every other West African country, was a state populated by deeply religious people. Religion permeated every aspect of daily life. And those who didn’t prescribe to any kind of organized religion still had their lives governed by animist and indigenous beliefs. Church was a full day event of worship and praise, all in local language, and all done with fervent devoutness. Neither of us wanted to sit through three or more hours of a service in a language we didn’t understand.
“Okay,” I said, trying to look for other options, “what do people do on Sundays besides going to church?”
“Well, there are movies,” he offered, “they usually play them at the convention center.”
Anika and I asked him for directions to the convention center. We were determined not to let the rain spoil our day of exploring. Besides, we reasoned, it might be fun to just get out and watch a movie. Something you would do in the states, but in a different context.
When we arrived at the convention center, the place was empty.
“We don’t start showing movies until 11:00 a.m.” explained the guard.
It was 8:30.
“Well, can we at least just look around?” I asked.
He let us in. Once again, Anika and I were in awe. It was as if we were suddenly brought back to the states – cushioned theater seats, carpeted floors, bathrooms with stalls and sinks and paper towel dispensers. The lobby had booths displaying movies and CDs for sale. So different from the places we were so used to in Togo, where plastic lawn chairs would be considered the seat of honor and bathrooms were little cement stalls outside next to the building.
Looking at these symbols of development, we were suddenly struck with a sense of despair. Why couldn’t Togo be like this? The two countries were right next to each other, how can one be so far ahead of the other? We tried to imagine a place like this in Lomé, but it seemed like to much of a stretch. There were too many factors keeping Togo from ever getting to this point. And it seemed like no matter how hard we worked in our respective villages, nothing we did would ever really have an impact on the large scale development of the country. We looked at each other and gave a sigh as we walked back out into the rain.
This heat is unbearable, I thought. I tossed and turned on my couch cushions, trying to find a comfortable position. I had given up trying to sleep under my mosquito net, it was just too hot. Instead, I had set up cushions on the floor of my two room cement block house, and was trying hard to get some sleep while simultaneously fanning myself with my hand fan. Having no electricity had its drawbacks, and this was certainly a prime example.
Was it this bad last year? I wondered. Somehow I had made it through all of hot season last year sleeping under my mosquito net. This year, I spent a lot of nights sleeping outside. But even on my porch, there wasn’t always a breeze. The air was heavy and stuffy, and lay like a wool blanket covering your body and scratching your skin. It was uncomfortable to breathe, uncomfortable to move, and uncomfortable to even try and relax. This is ridiculous, I thought, why don’t you rain already! Sweat was percolating in various spots on my body.
Suddenly, I heard a familiar sound – little droplets of rain on my tin roof. It had been months since I’d heard the melody. I was ecstatic. A gust of wind blew through the house, sending in a cool breeze. The air smelled moist, and damp, and alive. I listened as the rain increased, gradually becoming a downpour. I ran outside and felt the drops descending on my face and arms, cool water meeting warm skin. It felt good to be standing in the rain.
Another hot season coming to an end, another rainy season waiting just around the corner, the cycles marking the passage of my time here. Soon it would be time for me to leave. Was I ready for that step, ready for the next phase? A year earlier, I had been struggling to find reasons to stay, and now I was struggling to find reasons to go. Togo had become a part of me. The daily sounds of children laughing, women pounding fufu, goats bleating and guinea fowl honking had all become a part of my everyday life. The endless fields of yams and corn that I would pass on my bike had become my reality. The bustle of a market and the hustle of people trying to sell you something were all a part of my day to day. I wondered how I would be able to fit back into my old life, having had all these experiences. Would life fit neatly back into place, or would there be so much dissonance that I would have trouble adjusting?
The rain continued to fall. I went back inside and dried off. Unable to sleep, I sat and watched the rain fall in the darkness. One day I would leave here, it was inevitable, but for the moment, I was content with just enjoying the rain.