Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Motorcycle Diaries

Because Chantal has so much work to do in finishing up all of the Germans' and Emily’s orders before they leave on Monday, we decided to give Chantal the day off from us and went exploring Togo's plateau region on the back of a motorcycle.  My mother would die.  I hope she’s not reading this because here comes my next confession: I really really want one.  I absolutely love the feeling of being on the back of a motorcycle, the wind blowing my hair, driving on long stretches of roads surrounded by far-off mountains, palm trees, interspersed villages, and colorful waving pedestrians.  This sounds so cliché and so lame but on the back of a motorcycle racing through Togo I feel alive. Albeit fleeting, these glimpses of scenery and everyday existence provide incredible insight into Togolese life-- and I’m just happy to be able to experience it.

Ruben's plan was to take us to see another waterfall in the mountains of Kpime.  But first we had to stop in the village to meet his friend who would be our guide.  I didn’t really understand the details but we were early and he wasn’t ready, so we were to wait at his house until he came back.  No one was home except for one very pregnant woman making soup and 4 kids scrambling about.  Emily, Ruben and I sat in chairs against the wall feeling fairly awkward and intrusive, waiting who knew how long for this guide to come back.  I’ve already mentioned my inability to sit still, so after about I don’t know, a minute, I got up and approached the kids who were playing together in the courtyard.  As they hadn’t started learning French yet and my Ewe is a joke, we didn’t really have any method of communication between us.  So I did what any normal adult would do, I sprinted towards them and tagged one.  It wasn’t hard to catch on, and pretty soon I was playing tag with about 10 kids from the village.  Unsurprisingly they all conspired against me and I was the one who was perpetually “it”, which was fine because I think they got way more of a kick out of me chasing them than they did out of being chased by each other.  Soon Emily joined in as well and the two of us were sprinting through the village chasing cackling children, causing quite the commotion.  I noticed a couple of annoyed glances from some of their mothers because we were riling up their kids and getting in the way of their housework so I made the kids follow me back to the house and got out my camera.  
Togolese kids LOVE cameras.  They went nuts.  They started organizing a group photo shoot and ordered me around to take pictures of them in various poses. When I would show them their smiling faces on the display screen they would erupt with squeals of laughter and delight.  It was contagious.  But alas dad (our guide) came home, party was over, and all our new friends saw us off as we made our way to the waterfall, screaming our names and waving until we were out of sight.  

The “waterfall” was carved into the faraway mountain and it was about an hour walk to get to.  The walk and accompanying scenery were breathtaking we were on a tiny, winding dirt path with Togo’s signature greenery towering above and beyond us.  I have yet to get over how beautiful it is here. The waterfall was so peaceful, so cool, and even though the water flow was minimal because the electric company had blocked it to use for electricity purposes, it was still such a biophiliac experience.  

 I wish Togo could realize its potential for tourism. I think that westerners have the tendency to perceive the African continent in a series of lacks and failures, whereby travel here is limited to purposes of service and/or development.  I think most people in the west tend to see Africa in the obdurate and narrow terms of what we can offer them, rather than recognizing all that they can offer us.  I could be wrong and intensely naive, obviously I can’t speak for everyone in the western world but that was my general impression of my peers and community before coming here for myself.  
I have no intention, nor am I ready, to get into my own thoughts on development, that goes beyond the scope of this post, and I still need a lot more time to reflect, experience and gather my thoughts about this motherload of a topic.  But I think that the interplay between the artistic community and the tourism industry must be noted. Both the tourism sector and the craft sector enable developing economies to leverage their geography, culture and natural resources to support economic growth.  Specifically here in Kpalimé, the artistic community plays a large role in the commercial development of the town. That is why Nest’s work is so important here. By improving the efficiency and effectiveness of Chantal’s business while simultaneously expanding its impact and outreach to other disadvantaged youth in the community, Chantal can transform her batiking business into a full-fledged social and sustainable enterprise.  She can then directly contribute to the local economy by creating jobs, educating her apprentices with both financial and skill set training, and through generating interest in her traditional artistic craft by exporting to western markets, she can bring in more tourists.  While tourists currently have the opportunity to make their own batik with Aklala, in the future with a completed workshop Chantal would be able to offer organized, short-term classes to learn the crafts of the region, allowing for more cross-cultural experiences and collaboration, while also bringing in revenue for Aklala and for Kpalimé.  

I still have a lot more to say on the role that women artisans play in development but that can wait for later. Right now Elom is going to teach me how to drive his motorcycle.  Because I’m obsessed. I already know this isn’t going to end well, one time I flipped an ATV while in Mexico—who even knew that was possible. But as the great Harley Davidson once said, “Live to Ride. Ride to Live.”


  1. Julia - I have to tell you that I am absolutely loving your blog. I love the fact that it's not just a day to day chronicling of your experience, but an analysis of the overall lessons you're taking away from your time in Togo. Thank you for sharing your writing with us!
    - Amy

  2. I've been reading every post, awesome stuff julia.