Our last morning in Lomé, I awoke with a start on my brother Sean’s rainbow cot in the living room of his apartment. Like most residents in Lomé, Sean does not have air conditioning, so I started sweating at 6 a.m. and didn’t stop until we reached Kpalimé on the Ghanaian border.
When Sean first arrived in Togo, he and his fellow volunteers spent three months in Kpalimé (Pah-Lee-MAY) learning about day-to-day life in village. Sean lived with a host family and practiced buying food at the market, washing his clothes by hand and communicating in West African French. These lessons might sound extremely basic but a Peace Corps Volunteer is required to integrate into a new culture and live like their neighbors do, so Sean had to relearn basic interactions. As a result, his time in Kpalimé was a gradual introduction to life in Togo: no longer a U.S. resident and not yet a Peace Corps Volunteer. He had only been back to Kpalimé once since those first few months and I think Sean was excited to see his old stomping grounds.
The day we drove up to Kpalimé was humid just like every one before it and the scenery out the car windows glowed in the moisture. As we hurtled along the beach road, palm trees were engulfed and then replaced with thick gray smoke billowing out of factories. The dusty streets and light pink buildings eventually fell away and the tropical vegetation grew thicker. Along the way, people stood in the long grasses on the side of the road, holding up bread, fruits, dead animals and jugs of brown liquid to purchase. There were fewer vehicles on the road to Kpalimé than in Lomé but our driver, Jean, still had to jerk his way around a constant flow of motos. We were stopped at multiple checkpoints by soldiers in blue and gray camouflage fatigues but their quick conversations with Jean were hard to follow and it was never clear to me why we were stopped and why we were free to go.
Kpalimé turned out to be more of a large village than a city. There were a few short blocks of clustered businesses including a bank, a gas station and a bustling market swirling with merchants and patrons, but the downtown area cut off abruptly. The wooden structures became more spread out and were replaced again with lush vegetation as Jean drove us to the outskirts of town and stopped next to a nondescript wall. We hesitated a moment, then stepped through the doors of Parc Residence and entered another world. Tiled sidewalks led us through a hallway of lush greenery to a sparkling neon blue pool surrounded by palm trees and bright flowers. The hidden oasis was jarring after dusty Lomé.
Our first night in Kpalimé, Sean took us to his favorite restaurant in Togo: Le Bon Vivant. Eager to walk after a long car ride, we started down the dirt road, single file, brushing up against the long grasses and flinching slightly as cars whipped by inches away from our arms. I started to feel a twinge of apprehension when the wind picked up and the grasses bent further into our path as we stumbled by. I tilted my head up and watched the sun fade behind thick clouds, leaving a dark sky off in the distance. It was an ominous sign but Sean insisted that it would not rain because it was the dry season — a proclamation that became less convincing by the minute. Just as we started to wonder whether we should turn back, a familiar car zoomed past us and then screeched to a stop a few yards down the road. It was Jean and he offered to drive us the rest of the way into town, making it an easy decision. The wind was roaring by this point and the sky was completely dark, but we had committed to our journey. From our blurry windows I watched women hurrying home, clutching baskets to their head, bowed against the increasingly violent winds. Everyone was latching down their stores and disappearing inside ramshackle buildings. And still we pushed forward.
Once in town, Sean had Jean turn off the pavement and onto a dirt road that had been carved by many rivers of rain. Jean’s car rolled and pitched wildly on the fractured road, and he had to try a couple different routes before we finally stopped in front of an empty concrete patio with plastic chairs and a lopsided corrugated tin roof. I realized then that even though we were off the street, this structure would not protect us from a wild storm. Mom and I shared a skeptical glance as one of the owners, a friendly Togolese woman, ushered us to a table in the dark. We sat at the table uncertainly and watched as rain beat down on the sand in front of us. The woman lit up a dim string of lightbulbs to illuminate our table as thunder cracked overhead.
All of a sudden, a balding, pot-bellied man — Jan, a Belgian ex-pat and the owner of the place — came running out with a moto helmet. He shouted over his shoulder something indecipherable about needing to fix a damaged roof and then he threw himself onto his motorbike and raced out into the increasingly heavy rain. Our eyes collectively widened but Sean chatted away amiably as if this were completely normal. As the lashing rain began to slant and pelt us sideways, I looked up and saw the rafters beginning to bend and the flimsy walls shaking under the onslaught. The dirt road transformed into a river, and the pool of water started edging onto the concrete slab floor as Jan’s children desperately tried to brush back the flood. A huge gust of wind ripped a chalkboard off the wall and threw it into our table, crashing inches away from my mom’s head. In response, she snapped her hands tightly into her lap and held perfectly still, only allowing her eyes to dart back and forth in the dark.
Meanwhile Sean settled back in his plastic chair and described the many times he was stranded at that very bar during the wet season more than two years ago. He looked at his watch and said within half an hour the rain would be over. Doubting Sean’s confidence, I looked at the walls of rain on three sides of us and realized we were stranded until Jean returned for us in two hours. There was nothing to do but grab a nice Belgian beer from the glass cooler, order some lentil burgers and start up a distracting conversation with Jan about politics, music and his opinion on the state of American society.
By the time our driver did return the rain had all but subsided without us even noticing. Sean had been right about two things: in the span of thirty minutes the rain had gone from monsoon to nothing, and Le Bon Vivant makes the best lentil burgers around.
Our last morning in Kpalimé we hired a local guide, Guillaume, to explore the nearby mountains. Soon we were switchbacking at a breakneck pace over potholed cement roads until Guillaume finally pulled into a village, parked the car under a tree and got out. The villagers were slowly walking down the sandy streets and barely looked over at us as we followed Guillaume down the main road. He shook hands and greeted everyone we met on the road, and it slowly dawned on me that he was showing us his own village. I suspect Guillaume knew more English than he let on, but he relied on Sean to translate as he brought us to the local clinic, cemetery and latrines. The clinic was a dark, cool building with cartoon posters displaying medical issues. The rooms were empty and Guillaume told us that they rarely have medical issues so they send most of their medication to other villages.
After we walked around the buildings, Guillaume took us down into the agriculture fields to see where they grow coffee, cacao, pineapples, bananas and countless herbs and dyes. The staple of their diet is yams which are mashed to create a paste called fufu, however Guillaume told us that yams are not actually native to West Africa. In fact, many of the tropical fruits we now see all over Togo are originally from South America and were brought over by the Germans when they colonized Togo at the end of the 19th Century. France gained control over Togo after World War I, which is why French is the official language. Togo gained independence in 1960.
We learned many other informative tidbits along the way and Guillaume had many creative ways to demonstrate his people’s way of life. He crushed different types of leaves to create beautiful dyes and painted a butterfly tattoo on my mom’s arm. We also tried black pepper and a cola nut that gives you a jolt of caffeine. While we were walking through the thick greenery, Guillaume had me stop and reach out my arm, palm up. He then placed a fern on my forearm and gently slapped it, leaving a chalky, white imprint.
As we climbed out of the jungle again and reached a busy road, we turned into a neighboring village. Guillaume had us wait there while he rode back on a moto to pick up his car. As we sat down underneath the central tree, villagers began to stream out of church in bright clothing and beautiful hairdos, laughing and conversing in their local language. It was the closest glimpse we got of what life must have been like for Sean during his two years in a village. Of course, the three of us will never truly understand what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I am grateful for the small window into the past three years of my brother’s life.
We headed back to Lomé the next day and then walked across the Ghanaian border for the second half of our brief stint in West Africa. Stay ‘tuned for sweaty immigration rooms and karaoke at an Irish-Ghanaian pub.