January 2007 News
Amber Kenny: Two Cultures Clash in Togo
(The following is taken from an email letter Amber Kenny wrote to friends in
2006, shortly before the end of her two-year Peace Corps service in Togo.)
I feel as if I am always surrounded by interesting clashes/collisions of American and
Togolese cultures; and Iíd like to share three of them involving People magazine, an American
intern in Togo for three months and Disney movies.
My favorite person in village is three-year-old Antoinette -- I love her like a daughter.
She comes over to hang out when she is 1) looking for candy, 2) hungry or 3) needs a nap.
Usually all three. She also "helps" me cook and loves me unconditionally, or at least until
the candy supply runs out.
Peace Corps Volunteer Amber Kenny cooks Togolese style with her favorite helper, three-year-old
Antoinette. (Photo © 2006 Amber Kenny)
The other day I gave her kool-aid, which, she declared in her language, Ewe, was "candy
water"; and she drank a whole liter of it. Then when we were looking at People magazine, she
pointed to a picture of a frighteningly thin Kate Bosworth, (an actress, I think) and said
the Ewe word for "starving person" Thatís right, Antoinette! When a Togolese child who only
eats empty carbs twice a day calls someone, a famous someone, in Western (or better yet,
Hollywood) culture starving you know it is indicative of something flawed, if not wrong, in
Antoinette has fun cooking with Peace Corps Volunteer Amber Kenny during one
of Antoinette's frequent visits to Amber's village home in Togo. (Photo © 2006 Amber Kenny)
Speaking of certain American ideas/ideals as flawed, I had an interesting run-in with an
American intern who lived in Togo for 3 months. I must admit that I was biased against her
from the moment we met because she was bragging about how she waxes her arms and has done so
in seven developing countries. This annoyed me. We are mammals: we have hair. I feel if one
goes that far to deny that humans are animals -- well, I have no use for them. (And yes,
maybe I am a hypocrite for sometimes shaving my legs when I am out of village, but waxing
arms goes too far). I also must admit that certain PCVs were not very open to her presence
(PCVs are strange, herd-like creatures that stick to their own and donít like strangers who
donít speak local language. It's wrong, but it's true.) and gave her the nickname
(perhaps due to her lack of body hair and Kate Bosworth-esque thinness). She went on a rant
about how she hates Americans and what they stand for and how she wishes she weren't from
While she ranted, a nearby Togolese person who must have understood English was looking at
her as if she were the biggest Jerk in the whole world. People are entitled to their own
opinions, but I feel it is insensitive and almost like flaunting to be lucky enough to enjoy
all the privileges of being American and then denounce them in front of people who would
gladly and desperately give their first born, their right arm and their eye teeth to trade
places with this self-hating American. And thatís my opinion.
The next day we splurged and went to the expensive expatriate beach -- slightly less
polluted than other beaches in Lomť (no syringes, etc.). Upon arriving, we saw Alien.
Imagine this: blue ocean, white sand, thatch umbrella -- under which is a white linen table
with a solitary glass of wine and a sun tanning, bodyhair-less American playing European
development worker w/o the white land cruiser. We decided to walk
over to say a great big American "HI!"
As we approached, she lowered her sunglasses and said, "Are you f***ing serious? Peace Corps
is invading ME?!" I wasnít sure how to reply to this welcome at first. Finally, I decided to
hold my ground, looked her in the eye and said, "Yeah, we are f***ing serious" and sat next
to her. She promptly moved. I guess some people just donít want to be friends.
After I had moved out of village to live in a city with good friend and fellow PCV, Katie,
my 21-year-old host sister, Akpene, came to visit for a week before school started. Katie
has a portable DVD player. A novel thing for both Akpene and me. After carefully perusing
Katieís movie collection, I decide it would be best for Akpene (who had never seen a movie)
and me to watch The Lion King and Shrek, as opposed to Crash, etc. While watching
The Lion King, Akpene kept on asking what the animals were. I thought this was
a little sad, because although most of the animals are from East Africa there are a few in
the movie that used to be here in Togo -- like elephants and lions (according to government
officials there are still three lions left in Togo, but no one has ever seen them).
After the movie Akpene said, "So its true then that certain animals can talk."
Amber Kenny and her 21-year-old host sister, Akpene, pound cassava to make fufu
in the village. Later Akpene visited Amber in the city. (Photo © 2005 Amber
I asked her to clarify, and she said since the movie was from chez moi, than it must be true
-- some animals can talk. I explained to her that it was a make believe story, someone
imagined it and to my knowledge animals cannot talk. On that premise we then watched
Shrek, which I thought was a cute kid story for us to watch. Instead it ended up troubling and
slightly offending Akpene. First she said she didnít believe in voodoo. She then said that
devils (meaning Shrek) and people who turn into devils after sundown
(Princess Fiona) shouldnít be able to get married because it was wrong. I felt bad that I
unknowingly caused Akpene angst. She translated the fairytale magic in Shrek into the magic
of Togo, voodoo. Because of voodoo, magic, devils and witches (the things she saw in
Shrek) her baby sister had died, her family had been obliged to change houses, her sisters had left
village and she was sick all the time. I then felt like the insensitive alien American I was
complaining about in the above paragraphs.
Last week I left village. It was sad and hard to do. The chief and the CVD (the villageís
Development Committee) arranged a huge going away party for me. Funerals here are usually
the best and biggest parties around. They last three days and include non-stop dancing and
celebrating. So I asked if we could make the party like the funeral of Lily (my middle name,
easier to pronounce in Togo) -- slightly macabre, but a guaranteed good party. The elders
decided it would be better to call it the traditional fÍte of Lily instead of funeral; but
it set the stage for a banging party with drumming, dancing, food, speeches and gifts. Other
volunteers came as well as my three favorite new PC trainees. The local beverages of Sodabi
and palm wine were free flowing. Everyone (volunteers, elders, children, my homologue)
stayed up late into the night dancing to drums played by tireless middle school students.
Dancing is an important part of the Togolese culture Amber Kenny experienced
during her Peace Corps service. Here the dancers are celebrating New Year's. (Photo ©
2006 Amber Kenny)
Two days later I actually left village, but this time it really felt like the funeral of
Lily. As I left, everyone gathered around the market car I had rented, waving good-bye and crying. I felt as if I had died. It was serious. I donít
For the next two and a half months I will be finishing up a few projects and
research, which require things like electricity, access to phones, etc. My replacement is
already at post. Sheís amazing, and I am sure will help carry on my projects and implement
many successful projects of her own. I am so happy to have such a great person continue to
work in the village in which I have invested two years of my life.
Hope you are all well and see you stateside in a couple of months!
Editor's Notes: Read about more of Amber's Peace Corps adventures in Togo and see more photos on the MTU Master's International in Forestry Web
Love, Amber Lily
This is one of a series of articles about the work of Michigan Tech's Master's International Peace Corps students. See the March 30, 2006,
Keweenaw Now article, "MTU's Engineers Without Borders helps Bolivian school" and the April 27, 2006, Viewpoints article by Brandon
Braithwaite, "Organizing MTU-EWB's Bolivia project."
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