by Mark Wentling (Honduras 1967-69 & Togo 1970-73)
This holiday season has me reminiscing again about my first Christmas in Africa. As I stare blankly out the window I am transported back to 1970 and my humble room in the Adjakpo family compound in the village of Agu-Gadzapé, Togo. After three months of living there as a Peace Corps Volunteer and learning how to fit in where I would never really fit, the Christmas season was upon us and I began raising questions about what to do for Christmas. Everybody in our congested compound, which was always vibrantly alive with people doing their daily chores and what they had to do to survive the poverty that engulfed them so profoundly, liked the idea of doing something to celebrate Christmas. But, they all said they had no money to do anything. They did, however, tell me how nice it would be if I held a party.
I immediately began analyzing my meager resources to see what kind of party I could pull off. I sat down with the young men who were almost always sitting under my back window playing a board game called Ludo and they helped me put together a holiday event that was modest by almost any standard but would end up being the best Christmas these people had ever known. I scraped together some money to pay for a 20-liter bottle of cheap Algerian wine at Chez Henri’s general store and some yams and chickens at the open market for the preparation of fufu. I saw right away that the key thing was (as with any party in the world) ample food and drink for the 30 or more people living in the compound and a few other guests that would be invited. Also essential would be some music.
I brushed off the old battery-powered Philips record player that I had bought very much used and bought the eight, size D batteries required for its operation. As the sound was not too loud, some people in the compound showed me how to amplify the sound by placing the two speakers on top off huge calabashes (giant gourds that grow on trees). As the party had to be at night, there was the problem of adequate lighting. I was encouraged to splurge and buy from the Yoruba-Anago stall in the market place an Aladdin lamp that could, if properly handled, make my sitting room as light as day.
The big day finally arrived and all the women prepared a feast. The pounding of fufu could be heard for hours and when the music began the pounding was in tune with the music. The village was scoured for the favorite dance tunes of the time. This included James Brown, Jimmy Cliff and the colossus from the Congo, Franco, and his OK jazz band. People ate and drank as much as they could hold and when wine was quickly finished a local brew, palm wine (aha) and its stronger distilled relative, sodobi, appeared out of nowhere. Like magic the compound filled with people, some known and some not, and all began to dance, two steps to the right then two steps to the left, again and again.
It was as if the entire compound began to levitate and move back and forth with the steps of the crowd that was moving in a mesmerizing unison of movement. For a few hours, it was as if the entire world was swaying with the sounds coming out of the little Phillips portable record player, which sounded impossibly loud. I was carried away to a mysterious neverland only to wake up the next morning wondering what had happened. I was not alone in this feeling, and in the days ahead the compound was abuzz with rumors of how the spirits from the mountain had invaded our party and transported us to a state of ecstasy that alcohol alone could not have achieved.
My stature in the village was much elevated as people were not only thankful for such a wonderful party but were also impressed by their belief that the spirits looked favorably upon me. The local fetish priests began to look at me differently and the talk was that I had certain powers with regards to the animistic spirits they worshiped and respected. All began to say that I was a special “Komla” (Tuesday’s child). My reply was that the old Phillips record player must have been blessed by the gods. But, as I was to learn many times later, there is no telling what kind of magic can happen after midnight under a full moon in Africa.
Mark Wentling was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras (1967-1969) and in Togo (1970-73). He was also a Peace Corps staff member in Togo, Gabon and Niger. In 1977, he joined USAID and retired in 1996 from the Senior Foreign Service after serving as USAID’s principal officer in six African countries. He has also worked with Non-Governmental Organizations and as a contract employee with USAID in a number of African countries. His decades in Africa have afforded him the opportunity to have known all 54 African countries. He has published six books, including his three-volume Africa Memoir that was published in December 2020. This multi-volume book covers his experiences in, and offers his views on, each of Africa’s 54 countries over the 1970 – 2020 period.