Children in Togo, 1973. Photo courtesy of the author, Janet Goldner

Janet Goldner shared with us, in “Finding Home: West Africa,” that the year she spent in West Africa was pivotal—one of the more life-changing periods of her life. It was 1973 and she was embarking on her twenties. She is currently in Zimbabwe as a Fulbright Senior Specialist; she writes us that she will have more stories to tell. But for now, in this installation of  “Finding Home,” she reflects on her adventurous  21st birthday, spent in Togo. 

I was in Ghana for three months. The Experiment in International Living provided an excellent introduction to looking beyond my American cultural assumptions and entering another culture where most of what I had been raised to take for granted didn’t apply and was replaced with a new set of operating assumptions. In each system, some things seemed useful and others didn’t.

I stayed in Accra, getting my bearings and collecting visas for the journey ahead. Finally I got up my nerve and my visas and left Ghana for Lome, the capital of Togo.  I traveled slowly north through Togo, meeting Togolese people from many different social strata, as well as French people. I bounced back and forth between European and African culture, eating fabulous French meals and then simple African meals of rice and sauce, staying in the homes of  Europeans and then renting a room in the back of a Togolese bar.  I traveled by getting rides or by taxis or trucks. Often my rides led to being invited to stay in someone’s home. I wandered around markets looking for new kinds of cloth and baskets and food that I had never seen before.

Each encounter brought me into a different social context, switching back and forth from colonial Europe to 1970s West Africa.  I would start out in a little slice of France or Switzerland and turn the corner and end up in Togo.  It was confusing to be immersed into so many different lifestyles and to be presented with so many different assumptions of who I might be.

I was surprised at the amount of French I understood. Had I imagined I would ever use this language, I would have paid more attention in my high school French classes.  But what I’d learned served me well doing this year of travel.

When I got the Atakpamé in Togo, the taxi took me to the hotel where the Europeans mostly stayed.  I walked down the street and asked a market woman where there was a less expensive place to stay. I was overheard  by a young man who sold lottery tickets (pictured left).  The two of us walked all over town as I accompanied him on his route. It was quite hilly. We had a wonderful lunch of fufu with meat and palm soup in the cleanest stand I had ever seen.  I watched part of a football (soccer) practice and then some boys playing a game with sticks in the earth. Later that night, I slept in my sleeping bag on the floor of a room adjacent to the lottery seller’s.

I spent my twenty-first birthday traveling from Northern Togo to Tenkodogo in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), a distance of 60 miles. The trip took 13  hours!  I began at  7:30 a.m., when  I found a ride in the cab of a big truck headed for Niamey.  The men on the truck were great company. When we arrived at the border, we waited a long time for the trucks to be inspected. Hours later, when we were ready to leave, there was an amazing rainstorm. The trucks decided to wait until the next day to leave.  By now it was evening and I found a passenger van going to Tenkodogo.  After much stopping, many deep puddles, the battery nearly exploding and sparks coming from the motor, I arrived in Tenkodogo at 8:30 p.m.

Once I got to Tenkodogo, one of the travelers I had met told me to ask for Caroline, a Peace Corps volunteer. I was taken to the place where she worked—a center for children crippled by polio. Instead of Caroline, I encountered the woman who ran the center. Ivy had been in Tenkodogo for the past nine years and had started the center from scratch because she saw a need.  Her paying job was to teach English at the local mission college.  She welcomed me and fed me oatmeal and cream crackers and cocoa.  She kept apologizing because she had nothing else and I kept apologizing for having waked her.  I didn’t tell her it was my twenty-first birthday.

All photos courtesy of the author, Janet Goldner.