Some people say that once you have visited Africa, it stays in your blood forever. I say that Africa is more like a baobab tree, starting small as a seed and slowly growing tall until its knotty, curvy branches overtake your heart. I know—there are plenty of baobab trees in Togo.
If you squint, you might be able to actually see Togo on a map of Africa, sandwiched between Ghana and Benin in the west. I went to Togo as a young woman to mentor women in their Christian faith, teaching them from the Bible. While there, I rediscovered the beauty of a simple relationship with God, and I fell in love with Africa and its people. It was in Togo that I became an American-African—without even realizing it.
My white skin automatically excluded me from completely belonging to the Togolese culture, but I became more and more African as I struggled through daily life. I labored at learning the rising and falling tones of the Ewe language. I greeted people passing by with a friendly, “Woezon!” and asked my friends how they and their family members slept. I used my right hand for greeting and eating while saving my left hand for dirty jobs. I ate fufu and cornmeal mush, their sauces brimming with palm oil and smoked minnows whose eyes glared up at me. I bartered for brightly colored fabrics in the market and hired seamstresses to make them into wraps and dresses for me. I practiced patience while waiting for women to show up an hour after our scheduled meeting time. I changed my lesson styles to teach women who were illiterate. I spent whole mornings under the palm trees grinding cassava with the ladies of Ahonkpe. A few times I even rubbed blisters on my hands while working in the field with my friend Ablavi.
As I neared the end of my two years in Togo, I began to look forward to the familiarity of my own culture in the States. However, when I returned, life here did not feel as familiar as before. America had not changed all that much, although two years of missed movies, popular songs, and professional sports did make my conversations awkward. No, I was the one who had changed.
The part of me that had become African was in culture shock, experiencing life as an outsider, while the American part of me was relieved to be “home.” Conflict and confusion bubbled inside me as I struggled to make sense of who I had become. My American self was overjoyed to worship God in English again, but pristine and formal church services made the African part of me long for the joyful conga-style dancing around the communion table. The American inside eagerly accepted invitations to eat out at restaurants I could only dream of while overseas, but the African part of me felt guilty that the $10 I had spent on my meal could have provided a feast for twenty of my friends in Togo. While it was refreshing to walk down the street anonymously, without people pointing or calling out to me because of my skin color, the African inside longed for the face-to-face interactions that cell phones, privacy fences, and paying at the gas pump had crowded out of American culture.
Almost ten years have passed since I returned from Togo. I am a wife and a mother now, and I have changed through those experiences, too. I no longer grieve for my African life; God has built a new life for me in America, and I am happy here. Still, while I feel more and more comfortable with my American-ness, I will always be part African in my heart. I will always crave real pounded fufu, not the instant-mashed-potatoes-like version I can buy at the international grocery store. I will always struggle with my wealth, knowing that my kitchen alone is the size of Ablavi’s hut. My conversation will always be peppered with references to Togo, and when I am surrounded by a crowd of internationals, I will always strain to listen for phrases that sound remotely like Ewe.
I am American, and I am thankful to be American. Nevertheless, I am also thankful to be part African—to have loved, to have experienced life, to have become who I am in a tiny West African country that you can barely see on the map.