The Village of Waiting

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Overview

Now restored to print with a new Foreword by Philip Gourevitch and an Afterword by the author, this book is a frank, moving, and vivid account of contemporary life in West Africa. Stationed as a Peace Corps instructor in the village of Lavi? (the name means "wait a little more") in tiny and underdeveloped Togo, Packer reveals his own schooling at the hands of an unforgettable array of townspeople?peasants, chiefs, charlatans, children, market women, cripples, crazies, and those who, having lost or given up much ...

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Overview

Now restored to print with a new Foreword by Philip Gourevitch and an Afterword by the author, this book is a frank, moving, and vivid account of contemporary life in West Africa. Stationed as a Peace Corps instructor in the village of Lavié (the name means "wait a little more") in tiny and underdeveloped Togo, Packer reveals his own schooling at the hands of an unforgettable array of townspeople—peasants, chiefs, charlatans, children, market women, cripples, crazies, and those who, having lost or given up much of their traditional identity and fastened their hopes on "development," find themselves trapped between the familiar repetitions of rural life and the chafing monotony of waiting for change.

An account of life in a Togolese village that conveys a culture caught betwen the erosion of tribal traditions and an ever elusive "development."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Lovely in its feeling for the people and realistic in its assessment of the African situations, this is a first-rate piece of social reportage." —Irving Howe

"[A] fond and angry account. . . . An impressively unself-righteous and questioning work of intimate introduction, in which each dislocation of hope and breakdown of sense matters. Truthful throughout." —The New Yorker

"Glowing. . . . A masterful book." —New York Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1982-83, Packer worked for the Peace Corps as an English teacher in the village of Lavie in Togo, West Africa, and here recounts his occasionally comic, more often poignant, and frequently tragic experiences in sharp, descriptive prose. He does not romanticize Africa or Africans, but writes with an honest sense of realism and the perspective of an outsider who nevertheless cares very deeply for his subject: ``The struggle to stay afloat took on endless variations in Togo. And the white foreigner who'd come on an enlightened mission, and once there managed to keep his eyes open, quickly lost his bearings in the face of it.'' A great deal of his passion and frustration is directed at an educational system that is impoverished, archaic and based in equal parts on rote and beatings. For Packer, Togo's educational system is a symbol of its present condition, the enduring product of a colonial legacy that has fostered both a chronic national economic crisis and a deep sense of personal inferiority among many of the Africans whom he met. The author presents a full view of Togolese customs and society, exploring such topics as work, medical care, marriage and sex, politics, drought and tourists. He is at his best when he writes about people, including himself, because he treats them not as simple characters or types, but as complex personalities, revealing their histories and psychologies with great sympathy and care. (August)
Library Journal
Peace Corps volunteer Packer evokes both sympathy and amusement, while pointing out the dilemmas of contemporary African society in this tale of his experiences as an English teacher in a southern Togolese village in the early 1980s. He observes the political charades, the stalled development, and the resigned indifference of villagers, and also stands back for a wry look at himself in situations he could hardly have imagined as an undergraduate at Yale. He draws portraits of a few Togolese who are poignantly caught in a cultural and economic limbo, and in the end finds himself in a kind of psychic limbo. Recommended. Janet Stanley, Smithsonian Inst. Lib., Washington, D.C.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374527808
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 8/1/2001
  • Edition description: 1ST FARRAR
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 559,348
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

George Packer

George Packer's journalism and essays have appeared in Harper's; The New York Times; the 1997 Pushcart Prize anthology, The Art of the Essay; and elsewhere. His latest book is Blood of the Liberals. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


Lost in Lomé


I ARRIVED IN LAVIÉ ALREADY SICK OF TOGO, SICK OF Africa, wanting out.

When Peace Corps notified me at Yale in the spring of 1982 that I would be leaving for Togo in three months, I had to go to the library to consult an atlas. The country was still labeled with its colonial name, Togoland—a sliver squeezed into the West African coast among a crazy patchwork of borders. Over the following months, amid the distractions of getting my degree and saying good-byes, a sense of the place formed in my mind—startlingly clear, hopelessly abstract. The dozen species of venomous snakes Togo was famous for; the bit of wire I would hook to my shortwave antenna for better reception; the Camusian ex-colonials I'd find hanging around waterfront bars, muttering into their whiskeys about freedom and death. And farther out still, I imagined a young country that would be more vital than the money- and success-worshiping one I'd grown up in, struggling with life-and-death issues, forging a new literature that might put to shame our breakfast-table realism.

    And then I pictured the tropical cliché Endless miles of low green bush, with me somewhere in the middle of it, on a cot in a room where light and heat poured in, swatting at mosquitoes and drinking from a canteen. I had grown up in one university, then spent four years in another. I had done well; the future seemed secure enough. But I wanted to leave the path for a while. My reasons for going were not more idealistic or more defined than these. In fact, a few days before leaving I discovered Ihad no real reasons at all, and, briefly, I panicked.


It turned out there were no French existentialists hanging on in Lomé just officials of the cotton company and their tight-lipped wives and stylish children who attended the Ecole Française up the street from the Peace Corps office. A few lime-green vipers flashed across my path. I saw no evidence of political or literary ferment at all. Politics, in the first weeks, seemed to consist of the banners stretched across Lomé's intersections, in Togolese red, yellow, and green, saluting the peace and unity of the rule of His Excellency President Gnassingbé Eyadema. Literature was the twelve-page government daily tabloid, saluting the same thing.

    I spent my first three months in training at the junction town of Atakpamé, 120 kilometers north of the capital and 80 kilometers up the road from Lavié. It was a hilly, overcrowded place teeming with battered Renault taxis and women elbowing through the market—boisterous lighter-skinned southern women, remote Moslems from the north in makeup and scarves. We spent most of our time hidden away, first in a mud-hut suburb called Hiheatro down the road, at a cheap two-story hotel with bats in the ceilings, and then in a Catholic girls' school on a hill overlooking Atakpamé. There were about thirty of us: eleven new arrivals, five veteran volunteers to train us, a half dozen Togolese French teachers, and an assortment of young and old men who did our wash, cooked, and cleaned. The school-age workers latched on to volunteers in hopes of being given a permanent job and a place to live once we were dispersed to start teaching.

     The idea of training was essentially futile. College graduates without a word of French or a day's teaching experience had ten weeks to learn French, something of Ewé or another local language, and English instruction within the French West African educational system before being packed off alone to teach in a village school. This while suffering from heat and dysentery, pining for letters from home, and wondering if we hadn't been flown to the wrong planet.

    Throughout these early months Togo existed only for "cross-cultural" purposes. We learned to eat with the right hand (the left was set aside for the other end of digestion), and to give the proper greetings. On Saturdays we made group forays to the Atakpamé market. These were occasions of terror—the women pushing their way between stalls of tomatoes and imported soaps, with loads on their heads piled three feet high; the babble of Ewé, which sounded angry and directed at us; the heat of the indoor market, its stench of meat going bad and human sweat and its clouds of flies; my pathetic attempts, with my training-manual Ewé, to buy handfuls of peanuts or tins of Chinese mosquito balm from a girl who, along with her friends, burst into giggles. We were like a herd of prisoners being brought out in a cage for public inspection, looking through bars at the world around us and unable to make any sense of it, or to get away from its sounds and smells. A hundred black eyes stared back in.

    One evening, when we were still in the village down the road from Atakpamé, our trainers arranged a meeting with the local village elders as a cross-cultural lesson. They arrived an hour ahead of schedule (our first lesson), a dozen aging men parading into the courtyard of the hotel. Hurriedly we arranged chairs in two rows, Africans facing Americans. Most of them had put on their ceremonial robes for the occasion. One ancient man wore a crown that might have been stolen from the props room of a high school theater, cardboard lined with green velvet and pasted with plastic gems; pinned to his robe was a small gold badge with a picture of President Eyadema. He was asleep before we could say "Woezo" ("Welcome") for the third time. The chief-regent had come, and the chief's secretary, the chief of the sister village, a couple of farmers in ragged trousers and shirts, a carpenter, and a stooped, lame old man with a cane, crooked teeth, and alert smiling eyes: the gong-gongeur, who beat the official cowbell that called village meetings.

    The village chief himself had recently died. Our Togolese teachers had instructed us not to ask about him. It was customary to keep a chief's death secret for at least a year, and though all the villagers knew the truth, they went on pretending he was still alive.

    We asked questions for an hour. The cider who spoke for the group was a muscular man of about fifty, in a black-and-white-checkered robe that left one shoulder bare, no shirt, sunglasses—Ray Charles as a Roman senator. Our questions had to be translated into Ewé by one of our Togolese English teachers, and from Ewé into the local language, Akposso, by one of our French teachers who came from this region. The cider's replies made the trip in reverse. He explained how a chief was enthroned and, if he was a bad one, destooled—which he would be if, for example, he took advantage of a woman with a marital problem who came to him and had to stay the night because the problem was too difficult to resolve in a day. He ticked off the central taboos of their society, each having to do with attracting evil spirits after dark: don't whistle between 6:00 P.M. and 6:00 A.M., don't pound manioc or yams after dark, don't drag a rope through the dirt at night.

    Our questions inevitably came around to polygamy. "Of course the chief must have more than one wife," he said. "Powerful men are bound to have many wives, since women are like chickens."

    Before our murmurs of protest could resolve themselves into a response, he was shooting questions back. Why weren't we polygamous? Why did the daughter's family pay the dowry? Why did some couples have no children at all?

    It wasn't clear who our spokesman would be; we lacked the Africans' unanimity. Finally a woman spoke up. "We have only one wife because we think love is something that can't be divided up among other people," she said. "Love is a precious thing between two people. Sometimes those people don't want children because their love for each other is enough."

    We all waited while this answer made its way from English into Ewé and then into Akposso. The old men sat forward and listened intently. When the translation was finished, they roared with laughter.


* * *


Training went by in a blur of sudden afternoon rainstorms, practice classes, pygmy goats and potbellied babies in the dirt roads, the thwap-thwap of women with baseball-bat pestles pounding yams in their great wooden mortars, endless games of Scrabble, a plague of winged termites, rushes to the toilet, humid nights under mosquito netting, bats squealing and rustling in the ceilings. In the first days here, with the heat, the food, intestinal troubles, and the sense of having been pulled up by the roots, I seemed to lose about 20 percent of my energy and never quite recovered it again. Some of the men shed twenty pounds in training. And toward the end, the rigid schedule and the long confinement with others rattled our nerves. The Togolese teachers, forced to spend every waking hour with Americans, grew irritated at our casual attitude toward work. One night after dinner a female teacher announced that we were going to sing a round of French songs we'd been learning in our classes. I must have curled my lip at the thought. Later a volunteer told me that this gesture said to an African what an American understood by a raised middle finger. There was an uproar among the Togolese, cool complaints to our director, explanations, apologies, mutual vows of goodwill, a week of tension. I imagined that preparation for war was a little like this: make soldiers wait long enough in conditions bad enough, and eventually they will crave combat. I craved a village of my own.

    In Togo and throughout West Africa aphorisms were written on just about any surface available—the backs of buses, walls, schoolbooks. Most of them were religious and slightly fatalistic: "God's Writing Has No Eraser," "God Alone Is Enough," "Who Knows the Future?" Others were more enigmatic: "He Who Betrays Me Wastes His Time," "Sea Never Dry." Some were simply nicknames, like "Lagos Boy." Over the rough-framed doorway of a building in Hiheatro, where a seamstress sewed clothes at a foot-pedal machine, someone had painted two English words that I had to pass by every day and that summed up the frustration of our summer-long limbo: "Do Something."

    The chance came abruptly at the end of August. Training ended, we were shuffled down to Lomé for a swearing-in ceremony at the ambassador's residence and told to get ready for the trip to the villages that the Togolese government had selected as our teaching posts.

    Lomé was a shantytown of a quarter-million inhabitants, sprawling neighborhoods of concrete-and-corrugated-iron shacks with a patch of paved roads and ministries and shops downtown, near the beach. Even in the commercial center, among the African airline offices, Lebanese houseware shops, and French business offices, you couldn't escape the smell of Lomé, my first and most enduring impression of the city: the burnt, heavy, acrid odor mixed with sea brine, of the cooking oil in which thousands of women on streets all over town were frying food to sell. The smell disappeared in only one place, on a stretch of beach between the four-star Hôtel de la Paix and Hollando's department store. Here the sand was used as an unofficial public toilet. Men came to face the sea and open their flies, women hoisted up their skirts and squatted, a pipe emptied the green slime of city sewage into the ocean.

    I ended up waiting in Lomé for six weeks.

    An obscure cabinet member who was an in-law of the president refused to sign the leases that allowed new volunteers to take up lodging. Togo had always paid for Peace Corps housing, but the economy was in a shambles, the word crise on everyone's lips. Now the directeur du service de matériel claimed that Peace Corps houses were too opulent (which was generally true) and dredged up instances of abuse by volunteers. From now on, he insisted, the U.S. would pay the rent. The nuisance dragged out into a stalemate. Peace Corps administrators talked of ending what was touted as a model program; the directeur wouldn't budge. If he had been anything other than a relation of the president, a bit of subtle blackmail would have won him over soon enough. Instead, aware of his power, he eventually stopped receiving the Togolese and American Peace Corps officials who made humble daily trips to his office.

    We couldn't leave the city, since the bureaucrat might give in at any moment. I waited from day to day. Peace Corps had been good enough to lodge me with a few others at the house of our director. It wasn't far from the office, and a hundred feet from the Gulf of Guinea, in a wealthy diplomatic neighborhood full of Mediterranean-style villas with metal gates and generous palm trees. The household itself was an unreal and slightly disturbing memory of the old life: quilted bedspreads and frozen slabs of ground beef, air conditioning, cupboards full of cupcake wrappers and Oreos that came in by diplomatic pouch. The director's young daughters lay around watching the VCR, and whining; his wife mourned for the better days when they were in the Ivory Coast, fussed at Yao the housekeeper, and whined. As far as she was concerned, they had been in Africa at least one year too long: the broken freezer was leaking, the meat was going bad, the maid was unreliable, the humidity was unbearable. Like other wives in the foreign community she had no role here, and at times her complaints at the breakfast table seemed about to rise to a pitch of frantic despair.

    The director—a short, fat academic whose hair ends were always damp with sweat—spoke perfect French and Swahili, wore the local functionary leisure suit in robin's-egg blue, and never whined. Every morning he was chauffeured the quarter mile through cratered sandy roads to the office, where he worked like a demon all day. He kept a controlling hand on every aspect of Peace Corps/Togo, coddling some volunteers, blackballing others, and was determined that the program maintain its model reputation back in Washington. At breakfast he smiled and chewed and explained how he was going to bring the directeur du service de matériel around. His wife demanded to know how he could be in such a good mood.

    I learned to stay out of the house when the family was home. Unfortunately this was between twelve and three, when nothing was open and the heat was at its worst. As soon as I stepped out the door into the scratchy wet air—the road puddled with recent rain, the half-naked children staring and calling names—Africa replaced the unreality of the director's house with its own. I drifted between the two, waiting for some word, less and less sure of what I was doing here. The American Cultural Center, located past the Grand Marché in the city center, opposite the U.S. embassy, was a refuge of air conditioning and the latest American magazines, but it, too, closed at twelve; and anyway, it seemed the easy way out. So I wandered around Lomé in the sun and noticed that my tongue was turning hot and prickly. My feet, in leather sandals, were filthy from the streets.

    Sometimes I sat with a Coke or beer under an umbrella at the Benin Beach Club. Where the beach hadn't become a toilet, a few Europeans lay burning in the sun—women mostly, pink topless wives of businessmen or diplomats—but they didn't swim because of the surf's dangerous undertow. Nearby gangs of fishermen hauled in their nets in a tug-of-war with the gulf, and market women foraged with sacks for pebbles to sell to the concrete mixers in town. On these stretches of sand the sunbathers looked misplaced and slightly comical, like sunbathers on a rooftop in a slum. Lomé was too small and obscure to have developed a resort culture. Africans came to the beach to scratch up a living.

    Downtown Lomé in these hours was deserted, except for the black-market money changers from Nigeria who played cards on the road by the Grand Marché, the cripples who opened office doors for a few francs or dragged themselves through the streets with rubber pads under their hands, and the small-time vendors. These last flocked to any white they saw, brandishing fistfuls of bracelets and garish imitation masks. When they hissed to get my attention, I hissed back. Taxi drivers tried to run pedestrians off the road, and I took to yelling obscenities in English, knowing they couldn't understand—until a Ghanaian driver heard me and returned the greeting.

    Nothing was more unnerving than the children. About the first thing you noticed in Togo, after the cooking oil, was that everyone seemed to be under the age of ten; and immediately after, if you were white, that they were all yelling "Yovo!" at you. Sometimes it came in a kind of child's verse, chanted the way American kids chant "nanny nanny nanny goat": "Yovo, yovo, bonsoir! Ça va bien? Merci!"—five, ten, twenty times, until you were out of their sight. Other times it was a half-joking request for money: "Yovo? Donnemoi dix francs!" Or else posed as a question that could sound almost ontological: "Yovo?" Or simply repeated at will: "Yovo yovo yovo yovo!" Yovo, of course, meant "white." It was a child's version of yevu, of which I had various translations: "white," "stranger," even "peeled orange." Togolese friends insisted that the word—used all over Togo and by all ages—had no malicious overtones. It meant something good. An enormous papaya was a yovo papaya, the paved road was the yovomo, the yovo road. I would nod, unconvinced. Long after I'd left Togo, as I was browsing in the drafty, sober stacks of a library at Harvard, I found an article in an obscure African language journal about the various West African names for whites. There was the old word, yovo, from yevu; and yevu, it went on, came from aye avu, which meant "cunning dog."

    The children were just curious, I learned, dazzled by yovos and eager to make friends. No doubt they were; I gave out my address the way basketball players give out autographs. The vendors near the Grand Marché were probably not malicious either, nor the taxi drivers, nor even the money changers who offered whites low rates and then shortchanged them by a third. At most they were pulling my leg, making a little fun, redistributing the wealth in the right direction. But yovo got into my brain and became an evil word, the single most evil word I heard in Africa, with a dozen nuances: derision, hostility, inanity, a mocking reminder of wealth, an unwillingness to learn my name, to see past my skin color. It was an introduction to being a privileged minority.

    Yovos typically like to get things done and to master their situation. They don't always respond well to an environment of too much freedom and not enough to do. And the idle days in Lomé seemed to be dementing me slightly. I came to associate the city, and especially the hot midday hours—functionaries going home on mopeds, and the empty streets when downtown closed; soldiers eating bananas in their sentry boxes outside the deserted presidential palace on the beachfront, African pop blasting from bars, the heaps of fish drying on sidewalks, the scant shade, the briny smell, the deep sand—with an African void. This sense lay quiet for months at a time after I left Lomé, but I was never completely rid of it again. Spawned in idleness, it stayed with me even after I'd begun working, as if in the weeks of dangling I'd encountered something real and permanent about Africa, or me, or the combination of the two. It lingered, a memory and a possibility, like malaria in the blood: the feeling of being trapped, vulnerable, in a place where nothing had any meaning and I had none to provide. Toward the end of the wait, as my nerves wore thin, it became intense.

    On the western side of the city there was a neighborhood called Kodjoviakopé—the swanky villas of diplomats, the German embassy, the Peace Corps office, and then, farther west, a collection of cheap bars and eateries with names like Don't Mind Your Wife Chop Bar, where more English was spoken than French. The border with Ghana was a hundred yards away. I took to wandering through Kodjoviakopé and drinking in the border bars filled with Ghanaians and a few Togolese and Nigerians. I liked to hear African English, I liked the international air; but something else appealed to me too. The Ghanaian men and women in these places worked in Lomé, but they spent the night across the border. Every evening at a quarter to six the bars, swollen at the end of the workday, were suddenly evacuated in the rush to make customs before the border closed at six. There were migrant workers, bargirls, houseboys, and a half-criminal element of smugglers and prostitutes. None of them had any legal right to work in Togo and they could be expelled at any time. Like me—though far less privileged and more at ease—they were marginal here, they didn't belong.

    One afternoon a rainstorm caught me in a bar within sight of the border, with its chain link fence and the Black Star over the sign Welcome to Ghana. Two men at my table, print shirts unbuttoned to the navel, were speaking in an angry Ewé spliced with English phrases. "Bad job" and "quenched" kept surfacing. I caught enough to know they were talking about money somebody owed one of them. For a few minutes I was intrigued and tried to follow their conversation. The bar began to fill with people coming in out of the wet, soaked newspapers on their heads. The rain didn't let up. The conversation began to elude me and meander. The two men seemed listless now, and suddenly I no longer had the slightest interest in what they were saying. The chatter in the bar became loud, and indistinct and foolish as foreign languages always sound. What I really wanted was to be out of there, but that was impossible because of the rain. So I waited; and as the rain kept up I had an urge to run along the shelves behind the bar and smash every bottle in the place.

    The Africans around me were talking and cracking jokes, in their vast patience. What thoughts, what emotions distracted and gripped them were opaque to me. Of course, my private sense of purposelessness was their daily routine; still, their equanimity in the face of it awed me.

    One of the two men turned and caught my eye. He gave a friendly smile.

    "Yovo."

    "Ameyibo," I said. "Nkonye menye yovo o." I'd learned the word for "black man," as well as a way to say I had a name and it wasn't yovo.

    "Eh!" He turned to his friend, and both of them laughed and repeated what I'd said. I could see they were surprised and impressed. Perhaps if he'd then asked me what my name was it could have been an entry to a conversation, even an acquaintanceship. But he didn't; and now it seemed we were not much more than curiosities to each other.

    There was a great commotion. As if on cue everyone was getting up and hurrying toward the bead-string door, including the two men. Damp newspapers were lifted over heads, people disappeared into the rain. My watch said quarter to six: the border was about to close on them.

    In mid-October the directeur du service de matériel changed his mind, signed the papers, and released me. It was done hurriedly, without explanation, the way a taxi waited hours in the station without moving and then for no apparent reason started up and roared off. I had two days to buy a gas stove, frying pans, and a bottle of Jim Beam, enjoy a last yovo meal at the Italian restaurant, and pack my bags for the trip to the interior.

    It was finally going to begin.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Foreword xi
Introduction xv
1 Lost in Lomé 3
2 Manioc 22
3 Khaki and Goatskin 47
4 Yovos and Other Fous 78
5 Authenticity 101
6 Footprints 122
7 You Get Up, You Work, You Sleep 141
8 Three Africas 166
Ouagadougou 166
A Boulangerie in Lagos 173
On Safari 187
9 Hypochondria 198
10 The Kiss Is European 222
11 Wait a Little More 243
12 The New Chief 261
13 Cicada Philosophy 283
14 Barcelona 304
Afterword 317
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2003

    Incredible

    One of my dreams is to be in the Peace Corps after I graduate college. This book added life and excitement to life with the Peace Corps in Togo. The author takes the reader through an intimate experience of life in a small village, and introduces them to characters of incredible description. Although the first half of this book was incredible and drew me in to the point of exhaustive marathons of reading, the second half was a bit too slow and tedious for my taste. However, this is by far the best book I have read in my 17 years of life, and has helped me conclude the planning for two years of my life after college (hopefully).

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    Posted January 28, 2009

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