Having just returned to Kuwdé from our departing feast in Farendé with the “Chef du Canton” (the Canton Chief), I’d say it was a decent summary my last few weeks of DukeEngage and my departing thoughts and reflections. This “réunion” took place at the “Centre Sociale” (the Community Center) which sits sort of in the center of town and really is the “social center” of Farendé society. This meeting was meant to celebrate the work we’ve done for our host communities during the past two months, so, true to any good Kabré party, they served us sulum (sorghum beer), kakarase (bean fritters/“beignets d’haricot”) or as we like to call them “beangnets”, and hearty pieces of chicken (meat is usually reserved for special occasions). Once fed and hydrated, the village chiefs, the Chef du Canton, Jesper, and Charlie all gave speeches thanking each other and us, and thanking us again, and sometimes thanking themselves, and then arguing a lot. Finally, once the speeches were done, it was necessary that the meal finish with ten minutes of “joking” about which Kabré men the Duke girls were going to marry before they left and which Kabré women the Duke men would bring back to America. To someone who doesn’t share these experiences, this might not be telling, but to me, this about reflects everything interesting, weird, and great about this culture and my experience here this summer: The tastes of the beer and beangnets, the warm Kabré laughter intertwined with ever present public arguments, the boundless generosity, the grave pride in culture, the overwhelmingly friendly vibe wherever you may find yourself.
Now beginning to look back, there are so many fascinating, extraordinary experiences I hope to hold on to:
There were the many mornings spent at the Case de Santé conducting interviews with insured Kuwdé folks who endlessly gave thanks for our health insurance work, explaining how gravely health insurance has helped their families. The many afternoons spent sitting under shade trees in Farendé or on cool boulders in Kuwdé, listening to new tales about how a clever hare won a race or when an evil monkey disguised itself as a Kabré wife. And the many evenings with Charlie, Kouwénam, Jackie, and Grant at hadjas (post communal work group drinking sessions) where we heard the given day’s village conversation, often speculations for lack of rain and then ensuing counter-arguments (i.e the chopping down of a rain spirit tree, a drunk man at the market slapping a woman from the rain-spirit associated homestead).
Still, there were the almost daily hikes through the plain, the occasional weekend treks to the top of Kuwdé for gorgeous views of the northern Togolese landscape, and there were the Saturday-afternoon markets spent people-watching in crowded, bustling beer huts. And maybe most fondly, there were the many nights of relaxing with my host-family in the courtyard, playing fierce rounds of UNO or “Cinq-Cinq” or just lightly conversing while peeling locust beans together under the stars.
As far as the end to my work, both projects went smoothly. I’m proud of the Health Insurance System work that Jackie and I accomplished and am very glad I was able to assist her with this project this summer. I believe we were about as thorough as possible, that we pushed the previous limits of work done here, that we did nearly everything possible and productive for the continued maintenance of this great project. It was profoundly cool for me to see how simple policies and even simpler changes to them, in practice, make all the difference in peoples’ lives. I’m very content with how this project played out for us this summer.
Concerning this Kabré oral tradition project, I’d also say that I’m satisfied with how that project wrapped up for me. I learned a great deal from this about the content itself, but also so many valuable lessons about the nature of doing this sort of research. There is much work to be done with this project if and as it continues, but I believe I accomplished about what was feasible given the short duration of my time here and the nature of the project (the work does indeed, as they say, “allez doucement” (go slowly)). Despite frustrations that I encountered with this project, I really had a lot of fun doing it, and look forward to continuing, sharing, and playing forward my work. At the very least, I believe I’m the only DukeEngage student this year who, when asked what they learned on DukeEngage, can respond that what I learned from DukeEngage was why we give dogs bones and why monkeys don’t have hair on their butts.
It’s no secret that, I suppose unfortunately, DE students gain so much more from these programs than do our host communities. I wish so much that I had had more to give, more time to do so, and that I could make a bigger impact myself. I very much hope to return to Kuwde and Farende in the future (hopefully for Waa 2020) to continue to repay my debts to my profoundly generous new friends and family up in Northern Togo.
With that said, I’m grateful for everything that my DE experience in Togo was, and I continue to ramble on in this blog because hopefully prospective DE Togo students might read this and understand the great value of DukeEngage: This summer I learned about and experienced a fascinating, very lovely culture, and I did enjoyable and productive work that relates to my studies at Duke. I made local friends and gained a new family in a mountain village in northern Togo, bonded with six other great Duke students (who I might never have otherwise crossed paths with at Duke), and lived side by side with the world’s most expert anthropologist on this culture (that’s no hyperbole) who every day translated to us the complexities of life and culture here. I did without a doubt, experience frustration with many things from mice in my bed, to one very infected finger, to people I worked with, and with other things still. But, most importantly of all I really learned more than I could have ever anticipated and I had a phenomenal time on DukeEngage here in Togo.