At the moment I am in Lome Togo, the capital city of a small French speaking country in West Africa. I found a great place to stay called Veronica Guest House at $55/night and am enjoying the culture here. Yesterday I walked by the U.S. Ambassador's residence and paused ever so briefly to study the plaque on the wall surrounding the yard. Two Togo soldiers immediately approached me inquiring in French and English what I wanted. I pulled out my passport and mumbled something about being an American and walked on.
I hadn't gone more than ten meters before one of the guards shouted in a commanding voice for me to stop. I usually ignore people who shout at me, but these uniformed guys had guns and I stopped. My passport cover didn't satisfy them. The guy with poor English grabbed it and inspected every page of the now thick book, pausing occasionally to ask me inane questions like "What kind of beer do you like?" The two played "good cop... bad cop" while they convinced themselves they had stopped no one more sinister than a curious American tourist.
Later that same day I tracked down the American Embassy located adjacent to the bustling people's market. Learning I had chosen Columbus Day to drop by with the consulate closed, I questioned the sentries on issues related to my personal safety. At first they were helpful and polite, but as our conversation drug on an officer materialized and put an end to this frivolous distraction. It is clear that security people here are taking the worldwide threat to American interests very seriously. Today I again visited the embassy and learned most of West Africa has seen none of the protests and threats against American interests being reported in other parts of the world. I met the ambassador briefly while there; young guy, very personable.
Other people here, including several Muslims have confirmed there are no significant anti-American sentiments being expressed in this part of West Africa. The tiny minority of Muslims quietly practice their faith openly on the streets five times each day. As a prayer time approaches, groups of 10 to 20 unfold cardboard pieces and cover a designated place on the sidewalk for their public devotion. Bottles of water serve the proscribed curbside ritual washing of hands, feet and faces in preparation for prayers. I am told there is at least one mosque here, though I haven't yet found it. An equal number of Catholics live here, but the majority of people still practice Animism. So, most people fear the ire of ancestors more than the wrath of gods.
Judging by the number of letters I've received in the last week or so, I am afraid some of you have the impression that I've been hanging out with radical Islamic fundamentalists... waving a large American flag in the middle of anti-American riots. Put it out of your mind. Quite the contrary is true.
Whenever I find myself obviously in the midst of Muslims I switch to high alert status. However, the only Muslims I've seen have been ordinary devout people who wouldn't hurt a fly. Each encounter makes me realize how effective the threat of personal harm can be in molding the behavior of people. It is not all that different from the pervasive fear of street crime I've seen in other African countries. The reality is that immediate threats to my personal safety have been no greater than in most large crowded cities elsewhere in the world... especially in violent cities like Los Angeles or New York. My perception of danger however has varied wildly with the various warnings of eminent dangers offered by "helpful, concerned" people I encountere.
I've been thinking a lot about the terrible events of 11 September and now the military actions against those thought to be responsible. Sometimes I think I understand the reasons for what is happening, but usually the complexity of the matter leaves me feeling overwhelmed and helpless. What could be so important that people would willingly sacrifice their lives to send a message to their enemy, us?
One of my friends pointed out that we need look no further than the targets chosen for the 11 September attacks to understand their motivations. While "The medium is the message." not everyone will hear the message over the roar of self-serving calls for retaliation and revenge. In the past, organizations with known grievances and agendas have claimed responsibility for their actions, thus immediately and unambiguously focusing media attention on the specific grievances themselves. That didn't happen this time, though I now see many investigative TV reporters digging into the matter.
I have noticed with relief that our government so far has moved slowly and carefully with military action... thank god-Allah. It is attempting to convince the world that the enemy is "terrorism" and not the religious fundamentalism that drives it. Of course, terrorism like motherhood is something on which nearly everyone in the civilized world can agree while religious fundamentalism is often seen as but one of many legitimate expressions of faith. However, by focusing attention exclusively on terrorism we run the risk of loosing sight of the fact that wars are fought over issues and these are being obscured by all the rhetoric.
Terrorism is after all only a weapon, the only weapon available to many of the economically oppressed (envious) people of the world. That it specifically targets "innocent civilians" makes it no worse than other weapons of war like land mines (which have produced many times more "innocent" victims than all the acts of terrorism put together).
It is time for us to shift our attention from action to a consideration of causes. Among these are unwelcome economic exploitation (much exploitation here in Africa is welcome!) and collusion with third world corruption (something everyone here in Africa acknowledges is rampant and widespread). We (the business backed American government) seem more than willing to work with the devil to improve the bottom line. Such selfishness is reprehensible... our rejection of the Kyoto Accords is a naked example that comes immediately to mind. It is time for first world consumers to think like statesmen: What is best for the world and all of its inhabitants, what is best for the human family as a whole? Any system based exclusively on greed and selfishness is savage and speaks poorly of the human spirit in my mind.
Equally important is the global tolerance of angry bigotry and coercive fundamentalism. This truly is a scourge of the earth and threatens every sensible effort to improve the lot of deprived people. Clearly and sadly, the masses of ordinary people need leading, but none need intellectual imprisonment! All of these "prisons" must be closed and dismantled. Those who choose to remain prisoners will do so of course, but they must be prevented by whatever means necessary from forcing others to join them there, or from preventing anyone who wishes to escape from doing so. While the Taliban currently is one of the best examples of "religious prisons" in the world today, there are others. American Christians with extremist views have bombed family planning clinics and assassinated doctors in an attempt to force others to accept their inflexible religious views. Jewish extremists have used violence to send messages to Muslims on numerous occasions as well.
Because religious coercion takes so many different forms, often subtle or covert, guaranteeing true religious freedom will require an unprecedented level of political will and new ways of looking at the meaning of religious freedom. With our current problems, moderate Muslims must be convinced that it is in the best interests of the Islamic faithful to curtail the violent expressions of the most extreme elements within their ranks. My moderate Muslim friends in Turkey have told me they do not disagree, but that the extremists are too politically powerful to control... even in secular Turkey. A sustained international effort is needed.
I applaud statements made by former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher who called for more public condemnation of Islamic extremists by Muslim leaders in Britain. Moderate religious leaders of every faith must stand up and shout their convictions that gentle persuasion is the only acceptable way to bring others to their faiths, that coercion has no legitimate place in promoting or sustaining their religions.
In the present conflict, no progress is going to be made without focusing long overdue attention on the Jewish extremists, those individuals in Israel who flaunt their fundamentalist religious convictions and insist on shoving them in the faces of Palestinian Muslims as well as irritating a majority of religiously moderate Jewish citizens of Israel.
During my exploration of Israel and Palestine in March 1998 I found no rational justification for continuing to force Palestinians to accept the presence of Jewish "settlements with their military protection" in otherwise exclusively Muslim neighborhoods in what has been agreed is to be the state of Palestine. My first person description of what I discovered during my visit to Hebron in 1998 is linked here. Those observations are as relevant today as they were three years ago.
Faith, by its very nature is not rational. I concluded a long time ago that evolution must have selected for irrational religious belief, that those early members of the human race who possessed a lot of it had a better chance of surviving. This conclusion is now supported by recent research findings. I finally understand that faith is absolutely essential for human well being... the object of faith is immaterial... the more preposterous, the better in my view. Convincing others holding different views that yours is not preposterous is a futile and destructive enterprise, particularly if it challenges the quality of their own "preposterous" faith.
The great minds of the world must discover ways of tempering the actions of those driven by religious zeal to forcefully evangelize or make their temples prisons. Religious freedom does not give anyone the right to limit the religious freedom of others. I hope civilization eventually reaches the point where this will become obvious to everyone.
I spent 8 nights in the capital city of Lome, the first three in a $60 high rise down town, the Palm Beach Hotel. As soon as I discovered the charming and economical $55 Veronica Guest House with its large modern rooms and French attention to details, I moved over to it. Be sure to check out my pictures this time. The Veronica chef cooked delicious meals that made me want to eat too much; his mixed greens salad with small banana slices is something I want to try at home.
During one of my walks I paused to talk with the only white guy I'd seen all day. He turned out to be Jeff Brown, a 28-year-old U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in his second year of service. He described the village of about 30 people where he lives and the hut with dirt floor in which he sleeps. His assigned health education duties are ridiculed so he spends most of his time digging toilet pits and clearing clogged drainage ditches. Water for everything is hauled from the river a hundred meters away, boiled and used sparingly. Weekly, he rides his bicycle 20km into the nearest town of Dapoang for groceries. The U.S. government pays him about $150 per month. "Loves it," he says.
The operator of this cyber cafe took pity on me and reminded me I could change the keyboard in Windows; dumb me; I knew that! Anyway, I touch type so the key labels with the French layout are no longer a problem.
I am working on my big backlog of pictures and postcards and hope to get a few out before I leave Togo. We will see. For now,
Lome Togo: this is Sylvie and Jeff, two
American Peace Corps volunteers on their way back to their assigned
small villages. I hired a car to take us as far as Sokode (So-ko-day)
and covered the cost as my contribution to the Peace Corp in Togo :-)
15 October 2001
Hello from Togo (again),
Eventually I moved on, this time north toward Burkina Faso. The morning drive to Sokode took four hours. All along the highway could be seen various kinds of produce and grains spread out on the asphalt shoulder to dry. Disabled vehicles use bushes and tree branches as "hazard lights." There are railroad tracks up this way, but they haven't been used for years.
The Central Hotel in Sokode offered air conditioning of sorts and lots of bugs, but little else... about what one might expect at a room rate of $13. With the hotel about 2km out of town, I used "Taxi-moto" transportation a lot. These are guys with motorbikes who will take you on the back of their bikes anywhere in or near town for about 15 cents. Little stands line the streets around town selling whiskey bottles of gasoline fuel to motor-bikers. I saw only small dogs, none of which bark and no cats on the streets at all. A blind beggar being led by a small boy with a cane sang a repetitive song, which I assume, chronicled his plight.
During one of my explorations of the roads around the hotel in this rural area, I stopped at a small bar-hotel complex for a much needed Coca-Cola. Only one other customer and the proprietor were present in the shade provided by the thatch covered, dirt floor patio. The proprietor cleared off a cane chair and motioned for me to take a load off my feet while I enjoyed my 600ml forty-cent Coke. The old man sipping his tall Flag beer took keen interest in my presence.
Neither spoke much English, but between us all we had enough common
words for a rudimentary conversation. "Where madam?" asked the
The old guy had been a schoolteacher there in Sokode where he had spent his entire life. I think he lived in the hotel connected to the bar as he insisted I take a look at the "very good" rooms. I did and they were worth every penny of the $1.43 per night room rate. The rooms even had showers and a drain that the girl informed me could be used for peeing at night. No air conditioning, of course, but all guests had use of the common toilet and sink across the hall.
My last postcard from Lome Togo reflected my preoccupation with recent world events. I still think about our troubles with the world's religious extremists. In this part of the world there is not much choice as the only English language TV I can get is CNN. I am, however trying to stay tuned into the here and now as well.
White skin remains a rarity and a signal that I must be offered belts, carvings, tissue, shaved oranges, boiled chicken claws, baked goods, strange unrecognizable stuff, sundries, cigarettes, etc. by every street hawker I pass. I've learned not to pay obvious attention to anybody's goods. Doing so is a clear invitation to heavy hassling... won't take "no" for an answer, in-your-face selling. Sometimes it seems there are more sellers than buyers walking on the streets... there are no sidewalks! I try to be pleasant to most people who approach me on the street, but occasionally the exasperation just boils over. I've also noticed that an awful lot of walking people, especial young people seem to set a collision course in my vicinity, presumably to make sure I do not fail to see them, even when they aren't selling anything. I'm not sure what that's all about.
Like me, people in this part of the world are unusually fond of bright colors, especially orange and purple. Sometimes I wonder if I might not have some African genes hidden among my European collection. Even in the cities I see a lot of obviously poor people dressed in grimy torn clothes, barefoot. Many toddlers wear only tee shirts. A couple days ago I saw a skinny topless woman with no breasts at all; she must have been 90.
Sokode Togo: this is the bus station
in Sokode Togo where I waited for the van to attract a full load of
passengers before starting the trip north to Dapaong.
Greetings from Dapoang
One night in Sokode proved to be enough for me and the next morning early I walked to "la station" and found another bush-taxi north. About a half hour into the four-hour ride the van lost its clutch and the passengers scrambled to grab one of the other occasional passing vehicles. I "lucked out" and waited only about an hour before snagging a seat in another nearly full bush-taxi. While not the most comfortable three hours I've spent during these months in Africa, I survived and quickly found the "famous" Campment Hotel on the outskirts of Dapoang. By now I should know better than to expect anything or to rely on out of date published reports. At $20 per night the room was over priced, though it had air conditioning after a fashion, and all the ugly bugs I cared to eat, including one strange looking spider in a web under the bedside table.
During my walk around town I found the only Internet cafe here and to my surprise discovered Jeff, the Peace Corps guy I'd met in Lome busy at a terminal. He reported very slow access today and decided to quit and accept my invitation for a drink in the adjacent cafe. Several people were eating meals and I noticed most used the fingers of their right hands to move the food from plate to mouth. One lady had what at first looked like a cigar dangling from her mouth. I watched with sidelong glances until I recognized she was sucking on a short stick people typically use as a toothbrush. Some sticks seem to be better than others for this purpose as bundles of specially prepared "toothbrush" sticks are commonly sold by vendors on the street.
A half dozen Peace Corps people assigned to villages around Dapoang had collectively rented a small house they all used as a crash pad when they came to town for shopping or brief contact with civilization. Jeff had his bicycle, complete with bulky saddlebags stuffed full of groceries.
Dapaong is a typical tiny West African town and one afternoon of exploring satisfied my curiosity. The next morning I chased one false lead after another until finally finding a bush-taxi heading to the border an hour away. There are no speed limits on most of the roads in this part of the world. That's O.K. because the speedometer on our van didn't work anyway.
I'm working on the backlog of pictures and "postcard" stories. I'll catch up eventually... patience. (cont.)
Dapaong Togo: this is one of many typical villages along the route taken by our bush-taxi to Dapaong.