I have officially received the best compliment of my life. I was told today by an elderly Togolese friend that «tu travail commen un garçon» (you work like a boy). It definitely hasn’t been the first time. No, on many occasions have villagers qualified my work tendencies. In the past, the feminist inside me would seize the moment to talk about my thoughts and reactions on the phrase with undoubtedly some third-wave feminist theories thrown in there, but my time in Datcha has changed me.
Perhaps some of the most rewarding work here in Datcha thus far has been with an association of young men. The creation of the «Association des Jeunes du Canton de Datcha» (AJCD) corresponded with my arrival here in Datcha. The goals of the association are as follows:
- General sanitation awareness-raising events.
- To instruct and inform the village of Datcha on such issues as Malaria, AIDS/VIH, dysentery, tuberculoses, etc.
- To motivate the youth of Datcha to ameliorate their village.
Every Wednesday morning at 6am any where from 20-30 twenty-thirty-something young Togolese men arrive at the pre-designated location to clean up the village. Recently, due to the excessive amounts of rain, the work has been focused on clearing pathways for correct water flow to avoid standing water (which is the breeding place for many bad things including malaria). Since my arrival, with the exception of when I was out of village, I have worked with the association faithfully. The work with the association and the work in my field, I am discovering, are the major underlying reasons why I have been able to integrate so well with so much of the village.
Here in Togo, undoubtedly due to colonization, Europeans/Westerners are viewed as utterly incapable of serious manual labor. It’s a favorite joke with the village “Oh look! There goes Laura again with her hoe!” If their reaction is not seriously disbelief, it is serious concern. “You will get sick!” “You must rest” “You cannot do that work without serious physical repercussions” “Your white skin will break; it is not strong like ours” (The last of course in reference to growing calluses or developing blisters). Nevertheless, no matter how frustrated I get with some of the mistaken beliefs, I am starting to understand where these comments originate from and just how complex they can be. Never have they seen a white person in Togo work or need to work like them. They are in their offices, or their government official SUVs, even on their Trek mountain bikes (oh wait…that’s me). When I asked a close friend why so many thought like that, he said, “…well isn’t that why the U.S brought us Africans over for slavery? They did the work that you couldn’t handle”…If it were only that easy. But what else could make a country that is so magnificent, powerful, and ideal act in such a cruel way if it wasn’t for the pure exploitation of manual labor?
Because I have taken such a lively part in their everyday lives, or rather livelihood, I feel like I have a little insight into what the work that makes up their lives is like (this more applies to the work in the fields than anything). It’s not just me with the epiphany either. I’ve had many people tell me how my they appreciate me. They realize I understanding their day-to-day lives a little more than the other “Yovos” strolling through Togo, as shown by my participation in less than glorious work. Not only that, my equal contribution shows that I do not in any way think that I am above the work that makes up their lives and community. The cultural exchanges don’t stop there. Volunteerism, the work I do with the association, here has a whole other meaning than in the states. In the states being an avid volunteer can mean a number of things (the majority of which being positive). We often praise volunteers, do NBC dateline specials on what they’ve accomplished, and even have government officials encouraging volunteerism. Here, in Togo, I’ve been told, to be a volunteer means you are not making money, which means you cannot do real work, which means you have no money, which in turn means you are on a road to nowhere. Faulty logic or not, in poverty-stricken Togo everyone is trying to get ahead, no one wants to be left behind or seen doing something that suggests the same thing. Regardless of its origins and negative connotations, things American are idolized and seen as the model for what things should be, thus my active role in the village clean-up and in the fields has a good impact on ideas on volunteerism while also diminishing the ideas about Westerners being incapable of manual labor. So no, Laura doesn’t look like us, she sometimes doesn’t dress like us, but heck, she sure likes to work like us!
There is another side to the coin that complicates my above conclusion. Questions like, “Why would you chose to suffer like us?” or “Do you need to work in the field?” make me reflect on the reasons why people think the way they do about Westerners. The truth of the matter is that I did chose to farm the land not out of necessity. Yes, it is true that I am trying to show the use of mucuna (the cover crop I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts) to interested farmers, but in no way is my livelihood based on the success of my field. Further, going to my field is a form of recreation and stress relief for me here. The truth is the majority of people here have worked harder (physically) than the majority of people I know back home. And I don’t mean to downplay the summer construction jobs that many people often occupy, but I am talking about day-in-day-out grueling manual labor that everyone takes part in from the 5 year-old who carries basins of water on his/her head, to the 14 year-old girl hand-weeding with her mother’s newborn on her back, to the 80 year-old grandma walking the 6 kilometers just to get to the fields before starting the work.
As for me Laura, a white female from Nebraska is in Togo doing community volunteer work that most Togolese wouldn’t be seen doing, and doing work in the fields that everyone is required to do, renders me of «bon character» (good character). So, come one come all, grandmas, chiefs, elders, medicine men, market women, and school children tell me I work like I boy because, for all that it can potentially mean, that’s pretty awesome.
 My answer, because I can’t leave the question as is, and for which my answer is surely over-simplified and tangential and biased is- Greed, capitalism, the struggle for imperialism, and not to mention serious issues with racism.