We crossed the equator sometime in the middle of the night two nights ago. We are heading south, and the next land I set foot on will be in Durban, South Africa (assuming my visa waiver is all set).
I started making mental notes int he last few weeks in Togo. I tried to capture the cultural nuances and pieces of West Africa that I love so dearly and tuck them away somewhere inside of me so I can revisit anytime I grow homesick for the area of the world I have considered home for almost one and a half years.
One explanation I have been using while trying to explain to people, in hopes of getting them to understand why I will miss my beloved West Africa, is related to the culture. When you walk through the streets, dust being stirred beneath each step you take, you can feel it. You breath in the smells, feel the heat of the African sun surrounding you and enveloping you as if you've just laid in a warm bath. The culture of West Africa is beautiful, exceptional, and quite honestly, baffling at times.
I will miss it, the pain of the loss will certainly come with me to my next assignment. More importantly, the joy of the experience will never be far from my conscious mind, and that is what I am so happy for.
Oh Africa, you are good for the soul.
Where else in the world can you...
Pay a stranger on a motorcycle 40 cents to go 15 minutes out of his way to bring you in the right direction when you find yourself lost.
Take a baby from its mothers arms and cuddle it as long as you see fit while at the market/gas station/hospital/street corner/restaraunt/church.
Watch a family of 6 hop on one motorcycle and ride away, all looking seemingly comfortable and without a second thought to whether or not their actions are 'normal'
Drink fresh squeezed pineapple juice on a deserted beach lined with palm trees. Every weekend if you wanted.
Find a market where you can buy all of the following:
Chickens (alive or dead)
Snails the size of your head (who don't look like they are alive, but then shock you by moving when you get closer. Not like I'm speaking from experience or anything)
"Street Meat"-enough said
Fake gold jewelry by the case
"Authentic" all star converse sneakers for 6 bucks
Wooden sticks to chew on as an alternative to tooth brushes
Some clothes you gave away to salvation army years ago.
2 dollar DVD's such as "Leo vs. Matt" containing upwards of 20-30 movies, staring either, and sometimes both, actors. Chinese subtitles included. Quality questionable. Definitely illegal.
Watches, belts, purses, shoes, kitchen appliances, brightly colored fabric, toy cars and bugs made from soda cans, you name it, its there my friends.
There is always a cold treat to be found in the form of a walking Fan Ice vending machine. The vendors may even be savvy enough to own a horn, which you would think they would stop squeezing once you've stopped them to buy a 20 cent bag of frozen ice cream, but you would be wrong.
Craving a coke while you shop? They have the really cool 'vintage' bottles, you just have to stand with the vendor while you drink it because you buy the soda inside, not the bottle. This in turn makes you a sitting target for the others selling the watches, belts, purses, shoes, kitchen appliances, brightly colored fabric, toy cars and bugs made from soda cans, and other wonderful crafts. Consider yourself warned.
I love that people exclaim 'ah!' when you say something they think is just plain crazy. I like that few of the local dialects have a word for 'yes' but rather use the same 'ah'(with a different tone, of course), or a more easliy interpreted 'ah-huh'. I smile when I hear a West African clicking his or her tongue in the back of their throat while nodding their head in disagreement.
The other day we were looking (unsuccessfully) for an electronics shop that sold voltage transformers. Michiel flagged down two guys on a motorcycle and got the driver to agree to help us find the shop. His reason for asking these two men in particular? One was holding a drill, of course.
Turns out his logic was spot on, our trusty friend was an electrician and proceeded to spend the next 3 hours with us shopping for the items on our list. His friend and the bike disappeared after our first stop so he hitched a ride with us, perfectly natural here.
Each different salesman who didn't have what we were looking for walked us to the next place, some even crossing the street to retrieve something that may be close to what we were looking for.
Our last Sunday in Togo we went to a local church with two of the day workers from this field service. My favorite part of the morning was our visit to the different Sunday school rooms. The littlest children sang a song for us. It was about how is Jesus was there with them, they would put Him on their backs.
Here in West Africa, the mama's put their babies on their backs to carry them. Their bodies are next to each other nearly all day. The song is saying that a baby is put on its mama's back because it is precious. Ergo, if Jesus was there, who is precious to them, they would put Him on their backs.
When you greet someone here, you snap each others fingers as you pull away from the handshake. It takes practice.
Taxi's are filled to the max, 7 adults and a child in 1 was my record. The car was car built for 4 passengers.
Everything is loud. Everything.
Directions are different depending on the person you ask, prices are never fixed, and the people will almost always return your smile with an even bigger one.
Watching people worship at church leaves me wondering if there is anything we, or I, get that excited about. Does anything make us jump, sing, shout, or dance anymore? Is anything really worth that much to us? To these people, its simply God. They allow themselves to be moved by the spirit and don't think twice about being the first one to stand up. They aren't shy when they jump into the conga line heading straight for the front of the church. They don't look around to see if anyone is watching when they shake their hips past the pastor.
The babies nod off after being bounced on those shaking hips of their mama's and are placed on the floor, (we wouldn't want babies falling of church pews now) a thin piece of brightly covered fabric put down under them.
I could go on, and maybe I'll revisit these precious memories and write more down again for you as I think of them.
This is Africa as I see it. I love it in a way that is indescribable, and feel sad knowing I can never fully capture all of it and bring it home to you. There is no way to neatly wrap up and present a culture so rich and so stunning. I close my eyes and can feel the jewelry between my fingers, carved out by hand from a single piece of wood. I can feel the goosebumps, a reaction to the extreme heat of the afternoon sun. I can smell the dirt, and see the red clouds of it painted against the green bush of the country as we speed past. I can hear them calling out, "My sister, come here, just looking. Come look at my store. Looking for free!"
I try desperately to hold on to the memory of warm babies who drool and giggle, entertained for hours by a small piece of cloth.
I feel good now, like I've had a strong dose of medicine whose effects have washed over me. I want West Africa to remain real to not only myself, but somehow for you reading this too. Its strange not knowing when, and if I will ever return to that home. I can't imagine my life thinking I won't ever go back, yet years ago I would have told you I couldn't imagine my life bringing me there either.
The next stories will be beautiful too, I'm sure. I'm not afraid that this new place will be any less amazing. For now though, for now when I lay out on the top deck of the ship, sleepily looking at the stars and listening to the engines working to bring us closer to my next home, I'll remember West Africa and all of her beauty.