I received my first marriage proposal at 18. It arrived in the mail from over 6,000 miles away and came with a suggested dowry. This was after I returned from a three and half week trip to Togo, Africa. My girlfriend Aja, who is part Togolese and part American, proposed the trip nine months earlier. When I approached my parents about the opportunity they were reluctant. Especially my father who read several newspaper articles about the political unrest happening in West Africa and the violent crimes against women. West Africa was the farthest place in my father’s mind he wanted his daughter to go, especially with a convoy of all women. I had my own trepidations, I had never been the only white person in a room before and as a woman I was always allowed to speak my mind openly and freely. Despite the fear, I held my ground and after several arguments and many discussions I received their blessing.
Aja’s mom, Aja, Monte and I traveled together and stayed in Aja’s uncle’s compound three hours north of Lome. They had no running water or electricity. Uncle’s four wives and kids all stayed within the compound which was a long single story clay structure with many rooms inside it. Each family got one small room. These rooms were large enough to sleep in but not large enough to entertain in. Instead people gathered outside in the middle of the compound. Uncle welcomed us into his private quarters and allowed us to sleep in his bedroom during our visit. We were even allowed to eat with the men at meal times. This was a rare privilege and honor. At night we slept under mosquito nets. My favorite part was hearing the rain pelt against the tin roof.
Daily life was timed not to the ticking of an arbitrary clock but rather to the movement of the sun. When it was blaring hot in the middle of the afternoon work and school stopped, people gathered under patches of shade to wait out the heat. I spent whole afternoons watching lizards crawl on buildings and occasionally pause to do pushups. Lizards were as common place as our squirrels. I watched young school children sit under trees and eat mangoes they way I eat apples. The first time a child gave me a mango to taste vibrant, orange juice squirted all over my face, into the child’s eye and on our clothes. It was worth the mess and shared laughter. The people I met in Togo laughed with utter self-abandonment and their joy reverberated through my ears with a deep genuineness. I don’t often hear that type of laughter in America.
When it was time to do our wash we joined the women who walked with baskets on their heads to a river a mile away. At times it felt very much like time travel, like going back to a different century. Songs were sung in a call and response type fashion as our clothes were dipped in the river, rubbed along a washing board and rung to dry. Everything seemed to have a rhythm, even the washing. Before this experience I had never been to a house that didn’t have indoor plumbing, a washing machine or TV. There was a certain desirable purity and innocence to this type of existence, a community strengthened by their co-dependence on each other and nature. Joy stemmed from a genuine appreciation of life’s little pleasures, pleasures often taken for granted in America.
A Warrior Princess