By Julie Strupp
A kaleidoscope of sounds, scents, colors, and heat accosted me as I trundled into the chaotic capital of tiny Togo, West Africa. Gasoline and dried fish fumes hung heavy in the humid air, punctuated by bleating goats, honking motorcycles, and singsong saleswomen balancing baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads. We Peace Corps Volunteers were whisked away to be plied with anti-malarial pills, poked with syringes, and to learn the practical cultural information needed to survive.
Fast forward three months later: I’ve arrived in my assigned village, a much calmer place. My host dad greets me, a gentle giant in stained trousers with an easy smile that flashes startlingly white against his deep skin. Like nearly everyone here, he’s a farmer. Our French, our only common language, isn’t so good and he isn’t sure what to say to this odd exuberant little American. To put him at ease I ask how the crops are doing—a small-town instinct. He brightens and tells me about the corn. (He even uses American seed!) We discuss the rainfall and harvest prospects. He shows me his chickens and gives me my own field to plant things in. It’s a promising beginning.
I grew up in rural Wisconsin village of less than 400 people—significantly smaller than the Togolese one that’s adopted me. Many of my fellow volunteers who hail from cities chafe against the obligatory greetings and nosy neighbors. I’m coming from two years in the transient, perpetually stressed Washington, DC—personally I’m relieved to once again know my neighbors and to stop and chat with people on the way to work. The village chief brews incredible palm wine moonshine, and aggressive roosters and squeaky infant goats awaken me every morning. I’m a happy prodigal daughter, come home on the other side of the world.
My assignment here is to bolster education and gender equity. Girls in Togo still tend to drop out early and have to battle stereotypes that they’re less intelligent, bad at math and science, and not as serious and hardworking as boys. The school I’m working in is large: almost 2,000 middle- and high school students. There are only 26 teachers—three of whom are female, including me. The girls aren’t the only ones who experience sexism. One day I’m biking over rough terrain and slip, scraping my knee. The next day a male teacher points to the small wound and asks me if I cried. Another takes me to get my machete sharpened and warns me that women aren’t really adept at using them. Yet another tells me women lack courage and physical strength. Despite my best efforts, I have trouble getting my male coworkers to take me seriously.
But then the yams changed things.
African yams are not what Americans typically envision. These yams are the size of large butternut squash, starchy white on the inside with a hairy bark-like peal on the outside. Here they’re a staple food, boiled and pounded down into a paste that reminds me of sticky mashed potatoes, before being doused in a spicy sauce. Yams grow firmly embedded in the rocky soil they prefer, and removing them takes a lot of careful work. Come harvest time, all the teachers went to help each other out in the field—and invited me with a laugh. I showed up with my hoe and machete and dug out more yams than they did. My hands bled a bit but they stopped laughing. I noticed they paid closer attention next time I gave a workshop, and I never got any more “women are less competent” comments. We even started an agricultural business club and gardening co-op with the students.
After two years, I concluded that small towns are the same everywhere. The landscape and languages might be different, but every town has the guy that drinks too much, the gossip, the dreamer, the entrepreneur, the drama queen, and the matron behind the scenes who keeps everything running. We all worry about crop and fertilizer prices, erosion, hungry insects, and rainfall.
When a kid in my neighborhood left a cooking pot on the fire and the family’s house burned down, neighbors were out collecting funds to rebuild before it stopped smoldering. When a local man died in a car crash, friends and people from across the village stopped by to offer the grieving family food and sympathy and money to help with the funeral. When the town alcoholic was down and out, he could always rely on some kind soul rolling their eyes and giving him a steaming plate of food and a small lecture. Students brought me fat mangoes and teachers dropped by with bags of steamed corn. Everyone knew whom each parked motorcycle belonged to.
Back in Wisconsin it was the same. I still remember when my grandfather died and neighbors came streaming over bearing condolences and casseroles. You couldn’t pass someone on the road without a wave. We gave away tomatoes when our garden produced too much and got heaps of zucchini in return. We all knew whose pickup truck was whose. These small-town, country, community, whatever-name-you-want-to-give-them values run deep, no matter where in the world you are.
Country people can go anywhere—we’re family.