Arrival in Togo
I left the University in May with a Master's degree and came home to South Jersey without any guarantee that I would get into the Peace Corps. They were still asking for "dentals" and a repeat of a urine test as late as May 26 even though I was supposed to start training in June! Said the letter from Washington, "In the meantime you should not report for staging or training until a final medical decision is reached. You will be notified of our Decision."
When all the paperwork was finally done, I was invited across the river to Philadelphia with about 40 other potential volunteers for a 3-day "staging." The swirling confusion at the interface between First World and Third World was tempered by pep talks in Philadelphia. Ex Peace Corps Volunteers from Togo shared some of their experiences with us. Seeing that other trainees had brought musical instruments, I went home and picked up my Harmony acoustic guitar, and reassured my family that I was doing the right thing.
Then we were off to West Africa on the red-eye to Abidjan. I tried to sleep as I imagined what I was getting into. This was not a vacation to an exotic land. This was a long trip to a strange place, away in space and time from everyone and everything I knew. And I had an impossible task ahead of me: teach science in French after about two months of training.
On Friday morning, June 18, 1982, our plane landed in Ivory Coast, a short hop from Togo. There was no elevated accordion walkway to connect us to the terminal. A stairway rolled up to the plane and we stepped out under an overcast sky into the hot, humid African air. Tropical vegetation edged the Tarmac: coconut palms and banana trees. The air was like South Jersey's air in the summer, but I knew I was in Africa. We walked across the asphalt to the terminal building and I looked at Africa for a long time through the big windows. At dusk, we got on the plane for Togo.
The flight was very short. We landed at the Lomé airport where we were greeted by the Peace Corps director. He rushed our bags through customs and we boarded a van for the hotel, Le Prince. We rode on roads crowded with people carrying things on their heads. It was early evening but it was already dark.
We had dinner at the hotel, then some of us went out on the roof of the hotel. We looked over the dimly lit streets of the city. Out onto the dusty streets of Lomé, some of us were invited to a nearby residence; not a house, but a compound. A family was gathered for a celebration. There were drummers and dancers, moving to pentatonic melodies and polyrhythms. One of trainees was a drummer and was invited to play along. We all danced or tried to. Clearly I was no longer in South Jersey.
The next morning as we waited to go to the Peace Corps office for shots and orientation, some children approached, said, "Yovo, bonjour. Ca va? Donne moi dix francs." I could only nod my head and shake their outstretched hands. How was I going to teach science in this language?
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