My time in Togo reminds me of something an old Canadian guy said. He picked me up on Prince Edward Island, where I was hitch hiking while still in high school. Looking out at the flat brown ground against the flat gray sky, I asked him what there was to do in PEI. “Well,” he answered rubbing his chin, “In the summer, we fish and we fuck. And in the winter we can’t fish anymore.”
So it seemed to me it was in Togo. The days were long and repetitive. But without exception there was always one thing a day that stuck out. One day it was a fire jumping from one grass roof to another so quickly that within minutes every roof in town was ablaze. Another it was a rabid dog chased down and killed by fearless men who knew they needed to rid themselves of the menace in their midst. Once it was the ‘flying snake’ of Togolese legend they told me had flown into the village the previous night. Westerners knew these didn’t really exist – until I found it forty feet up, where they pointed it out in the tree. Endless Nothing, then One Thing. Then lots of nothing again. And in the winter, we can’t fish.
So it was that the gorilla stories came about. Being West Africa, there were few non-domesticated animals left around. Everything was food. So how was it that the baboon population seemed to thrive? My cooperative in Sola was in the high hill country, where farmers worked only in woven reed penis caps. Here was ancient Africa, and the old traditions thrived.
The Sola still practiced mass male circumcision. All boys between twelve and seventeen stand in a public line to have their foreskins removed. They did this without the benefit of pain relief and if they so much as flinched they were driven from the tribe. The year I was there, one boy shrieked and ran as he was cut. The villagers later found him hanging from a tree. The general belief was that it was his family’s response to shame.
One day after working the morning in the fields, my farmers invited me to share the noon day meal. Noticing more excitement then was generally the case, I asked what it was all about. They told me we were going to have a special treat. The previous day, a village woman was out collecting firewood on a nearby hill. A baboon came upon her. It attacked and raped her. The entire village immediately gave chase. Once they trapped and killed it, they decided it was lunch.
But before they could serve the meal, an argument broke out over tribal taboos and rules. The group that wanted to eat the meat said they could eat any animals that were covered in body hair (they themselves having hairless flesh). Those who didn’t eat baboon said it was taboo to eat anything with human genitalia. When asked about my views, I quickly said I agreed with the genitalia clause. Then I pulled my shirt off to show that my whole body is covered in body hair. I added that I hoped their appetites for hairy quasi-humans ended with baboons.
The last ape story happened just weeks before I left for good. I was training the new volunteers in the high village of Defale. The town was suffering from a prolonged drought and the farmers were getting desperate. The village headman decided to call in a witch doctor. The sorcerer told them that the only way to end the drought was to sacrifice a baboon. The trainees and I watched as the local men suited up to go bring in a sacrificial ape.
About twenty men left the village carrying bows and arrows along with a variety of clubs. They returned two hours later bellowing and banging on pots. They were chasing a full grown male baboon. The ape darted into a nearby stand of woods while the men encircled the little patch, keeping up their din. The frantic baboon, seeing no alternative, decided it had to charge the line. We watched as over a hundred pounds of biting teeth and solid muscle went straight at a single man. The brave villager stood his ground and the others joined as quickly as they could. They managed to subdue the powerful creature. And, though I was there, I still can’t imagine how.
Once they had it subdued, the villagers tied it to a tree. They then beat it to tatters using everything they had. Once dead and mutilated, they shoved an old army helmet on its head and pushed a pipe into what had been its mouth. Then the whole village joined in dancing around it for an hour. There are twenty American volunteers who witnessed this. I swear what happened next was that it began to rain.