Tales of Togo: A Young Woman’s Search for Home in West Africa
Meredith Pike-Baky (Togo, 1971-73)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
Reviewed by Bill Preston (Thailand 1977–80)
In the Preface to this candid and heartfelt memoir, Meredith Pike-Baky writes, “The tales in this collection are like the beads of a necklace, les perles d’un collier, whole in themselves, and at the same time integral parts of a longer story when threaded on a string.” A spot-on metaphor (or simile, to be precise) which, together with the many-colored beaded necklace cover image, illustrates the twists and turns, the ups and downs and sometimes sideways arc of her time living and teaching English in Togo.
Former Peace Corps volunteers will easily identify with many aspects of these tales — including, (in no special order), the challenge of learning new language(s), the heightened self-consciousness of feeling constantly on display as foreigner, learning to cope with almost total lack of privacy, adjusting to norms of a very different culture, undergoing bone-rattling travel in breakdown-prone vehicles on unforgiving roads, doing without conveniences (like potable water, reliable electricity), and taken for granted in the U.S. More broadly, anyone who has ever wondered what it might be like to serve in the Peace Corps — or otherwise navigate living and working in a country and culture very different from one’s own — will be well-served by Meredith’s personal journey, as related in these tales, well told.
The reader follows Meredith through various stages and aspects of her Peace Corps experience, beginning with her motivation for joining, her initial expectations, experiencing culture shock upon arrival in Togo, learning to adjust to life and work, making friends, and forming relationships with people in her village compound, and the teachers and students at her school. All the while, she tests herself and her personal limits to strike a balance between the norms and values of the new culture and her own.
Like many volunteers — particularly those, like Meredith (and this reviewer), who came of age in the socially and politically charged 1960s and ’70s — a time when the echo of John F. Kennedy’s call to service rang loudly — idealism played a significant part in her wish to serve, as did her social activism as a student at UC Berkeley. She writes, “I was idealistic about how young activists could improve not just international relations, but generational discord . . .” She goes on to say, “People across continents, countries, ethnic groups, economic classes and political loyalties had to come together to see each other’s perspectives and opt, always, for compromise and mutual respect. Going to college in Berkeley in the ’70s strengthened this conviction.” There were other attractions to becoming a volunteer: “. . . many of us believed that international travel supplemented school learning and relationships with people from other cultures would fill the gaps of a traditional education.” Moreover, “Peace Corps was a vehicle to relevant learning, cultural exchange and meaningful work . . .. I could travel, get professional training, meet people from far away and escape the disappointing relationships at home.”
Learning she has been assigned to serve in Togo at the end of her initial training in Quebec, Meredith reflects, “I learned I was going to Togo, a sliver of a country. I knew it was small, with fewer westerners than Ivory Coast or Senegal. That was my preference.” Shortly after, arriving in Togo, she adds, “I arrived in Togo eager to escape the disarray of family relationships and the political turmoil at home, to learn to teach and to travel. For Togo, too, it was in the beginning stages of delayed independence, having declared an end to French rule a decade earlier. Now, happily, both Togo and I were on the threshold of a new era, a heady, hopeful time for both of us: newly independent African nation and volunteer-visitor-emerging new adult.” Written with the optimism and confidence of youth. But, of course. Without a certain aplomb and conviction, along with a measure of chutzpah and naivety, who would dare to join the Peace Corps?
One of the many strengths of this memoir is Meredith’s fearlessness and honesty, her willingness to reveal her own presumptions, foibles, and blind spots, particularly in her early days in Togo but throughout the book as well. For example, during the in-country phase of her training in the capital Lomé, she carries a bit of a chip on her shoulder, feeling annoyed by and alienated from her fellow volunteers, and eager to get away from Americans and to “become African in Africa.” As she relates,
My rebellious spirit, my politics, my desire not to be lumped in a group of young naïve Americans found me irritable. My country’s youth had just emerged from a turbulent Civil Rights Movement and we’d been emboldened by having successfully demanded an end to the war in Vietnam. I wanted to stay loyal to those historic struggles and disassociate myself from mainstream America. I was convinced I could do this even working for a government agency as a Peace Corps Volunteer. But just to be sure, I requested a post far from the capital and planned to spend time only with Africans. I’d get so good at French and the local languages that people wouldn’t know I was American.
I suspect that in most Peace Corps training groups there is at least one (or more) gung-ho volunteers, perhaps with a penchant for taking themselves a little too seriously.
She also notes her frustration with her two assigned roommates, lamenting that “I couldn’t have landed with two roommates more different from myself.” One roommate is overly concerned with germs, dirt, and obsessive about her health; and, thus, is frequently ill.
About her other roommate, Meredith opines,
(She) was always a bit too perky . . . a quick learner and an effective teacher. I was suspicious of her politics from the beginning. She probably hadn’t been opposed to the Vietnam War. She must be a Republican, I concluded. I didn’t dare ask because I didn’t want my hunch confirmed. . .. How could I be friends with anyone so square? So conservative? She was too much of a goody-goody to be my friend, but she sure could sing and play the guitar. Secretly, I envied her musical ability and her fast thinking.
As it turns out, she and this roommate later become close friends. The irony and humor are not lost on Meredith. As she later reflects, “I made close friends with people I had previously judged to be square, straight, dull.” This anecdote demonstrates another important aspect and benefit of Peace Corps: it throws us together with people from many different walks of life, with whom we learn to work and play — people who we would otherwise never likely meet or get to know.
Meredith gradually modifies many of her initial impressions as she learns more about the Togolese and their customs, as well as the constraints of her own position as teacher and foreigner. Her initial wish to become African in Africa is tested and tempered, as she confronts many cultural differences, a few of which she never comes to understand or accept. A common quandary for volunteers, who may struggle with what level of local culture to embrace, vis-vis-their own values. And, as Meredith comes to realize, one can never completely adopt another culture as one’s own, certainly not in the short space of two years. To strike a healthy work-life balance, she strives to adapt to Togolese culture, while working to be as effective and professional a teacher as possible.
In another of several ironies, Meredith is assigned to teach at Collège Adèle, a Catholic secondary school for girls in the village of Lama-Kara, in the north of Togo. The school is run in strict authoritarian fashion by a cohort of European nuns. She is initially disappointed to be placed at an elite private school with privileged students, instead of at a public school with Togolese colleagues as she had expected. However, the situation proves to be something of a blessing in disguise. With smaller classes, strictly enforced rules, and highly motivated, if boisterous, students, Meredith finds she can focus on developing her teaching, without the potential obstacles and distractions of dealing with larger, more unruly classes typical of government public schools. She enriches the curriculum with songs, games, visual aids, projects and field trips, encouraging her students to learn English, not as some form of cruel and unusual punishment, but as a subject they can have fun with and enjoy.
As a former teacher of English as a foreign language, I appreciate the inclusion of samples of her work with teachers and students: the illustrated cover of her “Song and Rhyme Book for ESL Teachers,” and particularly a page from her class English Newspaper, “Bright Smiles from Adèle,” written by the students of Collège Adèle, Lama-Kara. These materials reflect Meredith’s ability to share ideas from her own experience to make English come alive, and be more fun and personal.
Further, in giving students a vehicle to share their writing, she was asking them to write for a purpose and a real audience: each other. This is good pedagogy, encouraging students to write about people and things they care about, that are personally meaningful. And it worked. To quote several students from the Newspaper:
One day in the morning, Miss Pike, our English teacher said to us that we are going to begin an English Newspaper. We are proud to do it and we present it to you for the first time. You will be pleased with our newspaper. This newspaper will speak to you about our thinking. You will be glad after reading this.
And so we are.
As a further bonus, Meredith includes photos throughout the book: of Peace Corps staff, fellow volunteers, her Togolese family, friends, teachers and students. These photos personalize her experiences, adding context — visual beads, if you will — to the written tales. One photo shows the exterior of a common latrine, the outhouse for the compound where she lived, affectionately known by all as The Throne. A picture may well be worth a thousand words, but Meredith’s description is funny and telling, and will not be unfamiliar to many volunteers:
The metal box was humid and clammy most of the year, full of creeping, crawling, flying insects and home to a blend of unpleasant odors. In spite of its detractions, the latrine was distinctive because of its height and location. Everyone I ran into knew about it. They called it The Throne.
“You live in the compound with The Throne,” people asked with both envy and compassion.
“My latrine? You know about it?” I replied curiously, wondering how people from other towns had learned this.
Though not much fun at the time, such adversity — when recalled later, in tranquility of time and distance — leaves indelible memories, and contributes to the unique quality of volunteer experience.
Another nice touch: her use of epigraphs. Meredith explains,
Each [tale] is introduced by a nod to another writer of Africa, emulating the widespread practice of having friends gather and honoring ancestors by tipping cups of local brew onto the ground. Symbolically or literally, the gesture signals gratitude, obligation, continuity. I have attempted the same practice in the epigraphs for each chapter.
So well put and illustrates her sensitivity to and deep appreciation of the culture. Her selected epigraphs for chapter openers are particularly insightful, offering additional reflections and context.
There is a common belief among returned Peace Corps Volunteers that we learn far more than we ever teach, we take away much more than we ever give. Whatever our personal motives for becoming volunteers, we come away transformed in ways we could never have imagined.
As Meredith’s Togo tales attest, we gain a profound knowledge of ourselves: our strengths and weaknesses and personal limitations. She writes,
My experiences had stretched my curiosity rather than quelled it. I felt I had learned something big, something profound about the world and the people in it. I had learned to accept even respect what I’d renounced earlier. I’d seen the universe in my small West African community. Differences were not obstacles to respect and affection.
At the same time, and humbled by our expanded self-knowledge and awareness, we come to appreciate the relatively smaller, less significant place we — and our home country — occupy in the world writ large, in the greater scheme of things.
Not surprisingly, Meredith does not find “home” within the confines of Togo, or elsewhere for that matter. Rather, in writing her memoir she comes to realize . . .
. . . that home wasn’t a place, a certain kind of family, a fixed professional role, or an established and protective ring of friends. It had to be a gentle urgency and quiet confidence in my seeking — trusting that each choice, despite the inevitable waves of distress, anxiety and exclusion, would carry me forward to a sense, no matter how fleeting, of home.
In Four Quartets, near the end of Little Gidding, T. S. Eliot writes:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Meredith offers the following takeaway, as a summing up — of her time in Togo, and as the raison d’être for writing her tales:
My Togolese friends taught me the magic of storytelling in order to teach, to learn, to share.
Through writing Tales of Togo, Meredith revisits the country that profoundly transformed her once upon a time; in so doing, I suggest, she also discovers the place, and its people, for the first time. By sharing her tales with us, in true Peace Corps fashion, she brings the world back home. Such is the magic of storytelling.
Prior to Peace Corps, reviewer Bill Preston worked as a community organizer in a VISTA project in Yonkers, New York. In the Peace Corps, he taught English and trained Thai secondary teachers of English in several provinces. Extending for a third year, he helped train Thai teachers in intensive English language seminars at the British Council in Bangkok. After receiving an MA in English as a Second Language from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, he returned to Southeast Asia to work as an ESL supervisor, training teachers in a refugee camp in Galang, Indonesia. From 1986 until February 2013, he was an editor of ELT (English Language Teaching) books and materials for various publishers.
His poetry collection Strange Beauty of the World was published in August 2019 by Peace Corps Writers.
He lives in Tenafly, New Jersey.