The day before we left for Togo, I severely sprained my ankle. I’d jumped a fence and landed on an unseen rock. The turn tore all the ligaments between my calf and foot.
The Texan doctor told me he could not sign off on my travel and that I would have to bail out of Peace Corps. I explained that I had already waited to get into the program for the six months after my original Tonga offer. Then I had to leave Afghanistan only five months in. And I had finished this latest three month training program only the day before. Not only was the training difficult, it was the second training program I had finished in that same year. So I wasn’t about to call it quits.
Being a tough Texan, he understood. He signed off on my departure and I made the long trip over with my ankle raised and supported by the seat back tray. Some of the worst days came early in training when I found myself feverish with malaria. It comes with hallucinations, epic headaches, and terrible shits. I remember hobbling down to the pit latrine, only a hole in a cement slab. I had to raise my bum foot while I shat because it wouldn’t take my weight. So I was trying to hit a little hole, while feverish, balanced on one foot.
A couple of weeks into training, they arranged for us to go to rural villages to stay with host families for a few days. My family stay remains vivid to this day. I arrived at my host’s small, mud-walled compound with only a blue jerry can of clean water, a change of clothes and a toothbrush. A group of children immediately mobbed me and asked after the contents of the can. “White man’s water,” I replied. They were two of the perhaps twenty words I knew in the local dialect. It was the only common unit of communications we shared.
The kids mimicked getting a closer look at the water can. As soon as I handed it to them, they took off. I noticed an old women sitting on a stone, stirring a large steaming kettle. She was staring at me, showing a toothless grin. Her left leg was grotesquely distorted by huge folds of flesh. Though I’d never seen it before, I knew it as the sign of late-stage elephantiasis. As I looked on, she reached into the pot and lifted out the head of a full grown dog. Starting there, she proceeded to peel the boiled coat from the entire body.
The children returned about then and handed me my jerry can. It was empty. It meant I’d be without clean water for the rest of my stay.
They were a lovely family, if National Geographic primitive, living a Stone Age existence within 30 miles of the regional capital, Lama Kara. The eldest boy was a student at the Catholic high school we were staying in during our training. When he got home from school, he acted as a bridge across our language divide. He was also able to bridge the past and future. He had his weekday foot in Lama Kara. The other was planted in his family’s remote rural compound. He got home from school dressed in the formal outfit of a western-oriented student at a French lycée. Within an hour, he’d stripped down to traditional dress. He sported nothing more than a leather thong over a blue Speedo. In fairness he also had a couple of strands of beaded bracelets he wore above his elbows and knees. It was Lute season, he informed me, a wrestling rite of passage for all Kabyé boys his age.
When evening came, the family gathered in my small circular mud room. It took me a moment to realize that this was actually the head of the family’s room. He’d vacated to give me the comfort of their best space. This was the only room with a table. Chairs and stools began to materialize as other family member arrived.
A thin six-foot high circular wall framed the compound. Built into it were a half dozen or so round, straw topped rooms. The rooms each had a single door pointed towards the central courtyard. Several also had a single window, about one foot square, pointing to the world outside.
The household head came in and delivered words which the boy translated as a warm greeting. He went on to say that I had arrived at an auspicious moment. They were celebrating his son’s wrestling ceremony, and my arrival seemed like a good omen. Then he spoke about the special treat we had in store for us tonight in the form of the delectable ceremonial food.
We would share their boiled dog to ensure his son’s strength through the week of wrestling. The food was a kind of talisman lending magical strength over the coming days. At this point, one of his wives entered carrying the dog I’d seen, now chopped up on a plate. As the father lifted a huge shank and moved it towards my plate, I felt my bile rise. I smiled as best I could and held my hands up. “No, really, thanks – I couldn’t. I’m not really hungry.”
He looked at me baffled for a moment and then shook his head. A smile crossed his lips and as he spoke and his son translated. “He says you have to have something – if only a small taste. He is offering you the finest bit.” I watched as he jabbed the dog’s testicles onto his fork. Then he dropped them on my plate.
“I, I couldn’t,” I stammered. Then, seeing the expectancy in all the faces, I severed the ball sack into two. I offered half of the delicacies back. “I couldn’t take all the best pieces,” I demurred, popping the remaining testicle into my mouth.
The gag reflect was overpowering. Knowing the ball was coming back out, I thought fast. I snapped my fingers and made a face of great surprise, pretending I saw someone unexpected at the door. While everyone looked to see who was coming, I spat the ball into my hand and lobbed it out the little square window. The only problem was, no one was looking at the door. Not a single head had turned. They were all starring at the strangest sight they’d ever seen. Me, a crazy white guy, snapping his fingers and pointing wildly at the door. Oh, and spitting a gonad into my hand and throwing their ceremonial dinner out the window.