In Togo, a slice of a country just smaller than West Virginia on the West African coast, nobody says goodbye. Aller et retourner, go and come back, they say instead. Whether walking the quarter-mile length of a village to buy eggs from the boutique or chaining your dog to a stump so it doesn’t chase the vehicle while you evacuate the country due to a global virus, the expectation is to return. The tone is sincere, tender, and binding. They wish you would stay put but understand that life often presents a series of complexities to navigate. If too much time passes, the plea becomes urgent: Il faut revenir, you must come back.
When I left Togo in March 2020, all I wanted was to go back. I was a Peace Corps volunteer, and I signed up for 27 months of English teaching in a French-speaking country. Almost every other volunteer in my 40-some person cohort, at some point, expressed doubts. Seven people returned to the United States within the first seven months. One was one of my best friends. The day before she left her village, I travelled several hours northeast, cramped in a five-passenger bush taxi with at least eight adults inside, then on the back of a motorbike to her house. She collapsed into my arms, wet with tears and sweat. I accompanied her on her final round of farewells to the people who had helped her integrate, worked with her, and fed her copious amounts of food. The experience was devastating, but I was steadfast knowing I would never have to leave my own village on such terms.
Two months later, I did. As February crept into March and Covid-19 spread, the Peace Corps began issuing travel restrictions. First, it was most of Asia, then Italy. I had a plane ticket for the end of March to see my French boyfriend — who I met months before in Togo while he was working as a volunteer pharmacist — that stopped through Milan. Upon clarification that even a layover was restricted, I scrambled to obtain a different plane ticket through a different route. Using the pocket of cell service stationed by the doorway in my two-room house — and with my parents’ generosity — I secured my new route to France. I would leave Togo for the first time since I had arrived the previous June and mend the growing distance between me and my boyfriend. It was a hope and anxiety I held onto while also holding my breath each time a message from our country director or news about the virus spreading materialized on my phone.
On 12th March, the Peace Corps restricted all international travel. On 13th March, my boyfriend broke up with me, unable to envision a future together. On 15th March, the Peace Corps director made the decision, for the first time ever, to evacuate all volunteers worldwide. On 18th March, I left my village with empty promises to return, a dearth of emotion from entering crisis mode, and two and a half suitcases full of the belongings I had intended to last me 17 more months. On 21st March, I landed back in Eugene, Oregon and moved into an Airstream parked outside my parents’ house for a two-week quarantine.
Ten months prior, arriving in Lomé, Togo in the middle of the day, I felt immediately that I was exactly where I was meant to be. I had never felt such a thing before and had perhaps been waiting to feel it my whole life. Standing on the roof of our hotel that first night, watching the pastel sunset, unprepared for and unaware of what was to come, I was more grounded than I thought possible. That feeling did not leave me until I left the country.
I entered Imoussa, my village, for the first time through the misty mountain air mid-morning on a Saturday. We all travelled to our future homes for a ten-day visit in July, a small taste of our emerging assignments. After dropping my bags in a dark room down a patchy path from the main paved road, Komla, a tall, lanky man who served as my “Community Integration Facilitator,” led me to the house of the village chief. We ducked into the room, where velvet couches and armchairs built by local carpenters surrounded a wooden table. First Komla, then I, greeted the chief in Ikposso, the local language. The greeting, which I had practiced the week before, is a series of repeated phrases toggled back and forth between the two parties, often rushed through as if by compulsion. Once done with the chief, we turned to the rest of the men in the room and repeated the greeting, though this time they responded in unison. We sat and one of the men retrieved a plastic shopping bag from beneath the table with two 22-ounce Pils in it.
By then, I was all too familiar with Pils, one of a handful of local beers that cost a dollar and symbolized a recurring escape from our gruelling ten-hour, six day a week training. On Saturdays, when my English teaching cohort left class in the afternoon, we trekked through the day’s heat on the training village’s dusty roads to the bar closest to the heaviest drinkers’ homestays and drowned our stressors until a seven-p.m. curfew urged us back to our host families. A group of ten twenty-somethings, one thirty-something, and one much older man, we hailed from all over the United States and, for the most part, had limited teaching experience. At Bar Godwin, we sat in plastic chairs around a table coated with buzzing flies. Some gossiped, some played cards, some shared stories about boys left behind, some intimidated the kids who crept closer to us, and some entertained them. Once we all tested the various available beers, Pils was the preferred choice.
In my village, beside the chief, Komla and I each downed our Pils from cups in seconds. We were late, it seemed, to the parade, so once the drinks emptied, we proceeded outside to a band of trumpets, drums, and singers leading a march toward the road. We fell into step with the crowd and paraded the length of the village, turning around at the mosque that marked the transition into Oudje, the next village over. Then we all migrated to an overhang next to a boutique-cum-bar owned by Komla’s brother. Seated under shelter from the mist, I first watched beaming women dance in circles, then joined upon their beckoning. One woman appeared with a bottle full of clear liquid and began pouring shots for attendees. Komla took one first, then I followed his lead, swallowing the burning sodabi — long-fermented palm wine — in what felt like an initiation. Sodabi, he would later tell me, is their “coffee.” They grow coffee beans in the Plateaux region, but nobody drinks the product.
When the dancing and singing abruptly transformed to a parade again, they led me back to the dark room, where I would be staying for the ten days, in the same compound as my eventual home — once Emma, the volunteer before me, left. The group ushered me inside, then Abla, the woman who served as my temporary host mother, but eventually and more solidly as a neighbour, brought me spaghetti with bits of fish in the sauce. I was vegetarian, but I picked around it.
On my last days in Imoussa, Abla brought me several bowls of food, none with fish in them, and set them on my table unceremoniously. Komla visited a few times and sat inside my yellow room shaking his head. Five months before, in October, the day after my dog back in the United States had died, Komla brought a friend over to help him paint my two rooms — the bedroom a turquoise blue and the front room a sunshine yellow. They worked all day while I first hurriedly baked a banana birthday cake for Abla’s oldest child, Israel, on the Dutch oven I fashioned from a marmite pot atop a two-burner gas stove, then sat outside in sunglasses hiding my rolling, endless tears. Once the paint dried, my pictures and Joni Mithcell lyrics and world map back up on the walls, the house finally felt like mine, like a true home. My neighbours all admired the colours and stared more at my pictures, which they examined each time they entered the room. C’est qui? Who is this? they would ask, pointing at a picture of me with long hair. I had shaved my head in July, so they sometimes did not recognize me.
The month before, Paix, the dog I had inherited from Emma, birthed four puppies. I gave the best and brightest girl to Komla, who had always treated Paix so kindly, the smaller girl to a student who had requested one during Paix’s pregnancy, the boy to a fellow volunteer many miles down the road and kept the runt for me. By the time I left, all but Komla’s had died.
The same weekend my dog in the States passed, I spent the night with my soon-to-be boyfriend for the first time. He lived in Atakpamé, the capital city 45 minutes from Imoussa by motorbike, and I spent the next month and a half trying to see him as much as possible before he left, going to the city and coming back to the village. Nobody in Imoussa questioned my weekend absences — Atakpamé had things I might want, like vegetables, other volunteers, American items — but they were always delighted to see me return home, usually with a cabbage or apples in hand to share.
When I returned from a weeklong training in November, I was ecstatic rounding the corner to the first view of Imoussa again, the school where I taught standing mightily atop a hill in the distance. Every fiber in me buzzed with home home home. Despite the heat, the all-night funerals that kept me awake with their blasting music, the walk to my latrine and the routine of pumping water, then carrying it on my head back to my house every two to three days, I never once wished I was anywhere else. Imoussa, I was convinced, had been chosen specifically for me by some greater force, and to deserve it I just had to stay healthy and alive for two years.
When my boyfriend left in December, I was sad but relieved to have more time to spend in my village. His communications turned distant when he travelled solo to Southeast Asia in late January, so my anxiety built, but Imoussa remained constant. I saw shooting stars each night alone, rather than with him, and spent my free mornings reading books and my free evenings watching movies I had copied onto my thumb drive from other volunteers. I taught English at Imoussa’s middle school four days a week, and at Ounabe’s — the village a few miles east —middle school three times a week and grew attached to my students in spite or because of their mischief.
But it was never that much about the teaching for me. Sure, that was my main work, what I had been invited to do as a volunteer, but what truly interested me was simply living with and among the people of Imoussa. Sitting with the neighbour ladies while they cracked palm nuts; drinking tchouk, a local beer made from fermented millet, from calabashes with Komla and other men; accepting random invitations from Kokou, an inherited friend from the neighbouring village Bena Plateaux, to ride on his motorbike and see his garden or meet his family or tour an abandoned cow slaughterhouse or greet the military personnel guarding a vacant house on a hill owned by Germans.
I had wanted to join the Peace Corps since I learned about it in seventh grade, not because I believed teaching English was the most noble and worthwhile use of my skill set, but because I wanted to experience a tiny pocket of the world in a unique way at a time in my life when the only future I could imagine featured world travel. And I did, but for only one third of the time. Months after being evacuated from Togo, I could not travel anywhere. I was left with the persistent reminder that I should be somewhere else; I should be sitting in my orange chair in my yellow room, lesson planning or reading or entertaining Blessing, Abla’s five-year-old daughter. I should be making her a birthday cake, because she was turning six. Togolese acquaintances, mostly those who spent more time in Lomé than Imoussa, still asked me via Whatsapp, when are you coming back? Il faut revenir. I had no answer. As time passed, I did not know if I could go back, if I would want to, or if anything would ever even slightly resemble what it was before.
So, then and now, I remember. I remember the beautiful handmade pagne dresses gifted by my original host family, or those commissioned by a local seamstress I was led to when I complimented one woman’s dress at the water pump, or those already left in my armoire from Emma.
I remember waking at 4:30 to run either up a hill to Ounabe and back or down farming trails or into and past Bena Plateaux for a Saturday long run, how no one would be out when I left but they would all wave upon my arrival back. I remember being bit by a dog on one of those runs, then spending four unexpected days in Lomé for rabies shots; and I remember submerging into the ocean for the first time alongside another volunteer with whom I would have never spent time otherwise.
I remember gathering my favourite women on my last night — Abla and Mama Odette and the neighbour girl Adjo — and my favourite men — Komla and the other English teachers and Kokou — and sharing drinks and sadness together.
I remember when Abla’s husband killed a black snake in my latrine, and when my temporary French tutor days later killed a green mamba with a rock as it slithered up the side of the elementary school.
I remember wondering how to tell all the neighbouring children that I did not want them in my house in my first week, then inviting Abla’s three in to dance with me on my birthday in February.
I remember scheduled Whatsapp calls with my family and friends back in the States, when I would hike to my school for the best reception and more often than not stay to watch the sunset and the emerging stars.
I remember falling in love on a roof in Atakpamé, laying side by side in the middle of the road in Imoussa to see the Milky Way, and riding the back of his motorbike to hike to a secluded waterfall, the pictures I have from both of us that day.
But also wanting and trying and failing to drink less, the slow realization that I could not remember all the details of some nights, and the general fear that I was not doing enough. I remember pricking my finger to test for malaria when what ailed me was a combination of fatigue, dehydration, and a hangover, then waking every few hours to puke into my chamber pot.
At New Years, I remember dancing with Komla and my best friend, who was visiting my village from the north. Running away from Gifty, Abla’s youngest, when she chased me with a stick. Buying soja — fried tofu — from a number of ladies in the village who sat frying it in bubbling oil on the roadside. Sitting through hours-long teachers’ meetings and holding back tears when I witnessed corporal punishment at school. Watching the seasons creep in and out. Collecting bits of local language on my phone and learning to think in French. Calling Richard, my moto guy, for a ride to Atakpamé, and feeling that most particular and cherished form of freedom that only arrives when I am atop a motorbike but not driving it myself. How surreal it felt to get on that plane in Lomé, knowing that every promise I had made to first stay for two years, and then to come back, might end up broken after all. And I will remember that feeling of being where I was meant to be, and how I missed it even then, knowing it would one day be gone.
Monica Anderson is a Guest Contributor for Panorama.