Friday, November 9, 2012

Wasn’t I Supposed to Gift You?

In a culture where gifts are hardly if ever given on birthdays, rarely on Christmas, and few have even heard of Valentine’s Day, you might question when do people give and receive gifts?

In French, gift translates to cadeau. In Togo, this word is more often than not a thorn in any PCVs side. The term is most definitely applied too loosely. Everything is a gift. Tipping a taxi-moto driver an extra 50FCFA, cadeau; paying for another round of tchakpa for your Togolese friends, cadeau; or buying a bowl of tomatoes and the vendor throws in a few extra, cadeau. In Togolese society, it’s ill mannered, even offensive to refuse a gift—and even more so if you’re a foreigner. I’ve often heard PCVs politely pass on gifts even though deep down they are fully aware it’s a battle they can’t win. Besides, gift refusal makes it hard to integrate, right? 

Most PCVs do their best to return the kindness either by bringing a loaf of bread home to their host families in village after a business trip or by printing photos in America for Togolese counterparts and friends so they may savor the memories of working together.

In Dapaong, I have no host family. I live in a compound with four other tenants. One family I know well (a married couple with a baby girl) and the three other tenants I rarely see. For this reason, I rarely return from a trip with a bag full of bread. Yet I still gift the family I know. I’ll oftentimes make Moringa juice and offer a bottle, or I’ll cook an American dish and propose a taste. Does the family reciprocate? Oh yes.

Before the mother left with the baby to return to the University of Kara, we were quite close. The father and I don’t often cross paths because our work schedules are considerably different. And once, after I hadn’t see him in over a month, we talked in front of my house for a while and then out of the blue he asked me if I liked beer—he works at a brasserie. My first thought, “Uh not the beer from here.” But I said, “Yes of course!” He asked me which kind of beer I prefer and I said Castel. Little did I know his intension was to gift me seven beers. Not buy seven beers from a local bar, but bring me seven beers to drink alone. Seven beers…just because. Does he think I’m an alcoholic? Nope, just a nice gesture.

Roughly one week ago he gifted me again with an entire watermelon—yep it’s watermelon season. Since there isn’t a chance I could eat an entire watermelon alone I shared it with my site mate Katy Todd. Although it was a very sweet gift, literally, I couldn’t help but wonder: When do I gift him? And with what?!

Well, two days ago, I got my answer: a chicken. I was finishing up with a carpenter who I’d been working with over the last three weeks on remodeling the Dapaong workstation. And as a gesture of our friendship, he gifted me a live chicken. Again, since I live alone there’s no way I could eat an entire chicken. And more importantly, I didn’t have the first clue as to how I’d kill and cook the damn thing. So, I decided to “re-gift” it and give it to my neighbor. Genius.

After I biked home from the Dapaong workstation with the live chicken in a bag attached to my bike, I walked over to my neighbor’s house, clapped, said “Excusez!” and presented the gift. Even though I told him it was a gift, I also suggested we dine together. To my surprise he proposed to eat the chicken that very night. Why not? Saves me from sweating in my kitchen one night. Eh voila, the plan was set.

For most of the day I thought about the relief of not cooking and eating a delicious chicken with pâte. Again…little did I know I was in for a real treat.

Around 6:30 that evening, he knocked on my door with hands full of black bags. Of course he brought the chicken, but he also brought two bottles of wine and guinea fowl, a northern specialty. You’ve got to be kidding me?! I was supposed to gift you. Come on man!!!

The lime-green price tags on the wine bottles immediately caught my attention. Four mille five hundred franc CFA each! Twenty bucks easily!!! I don’t even spend that much on wine in this country. He told me one bottle was for us to share and the other was for me. I said I couldn’t accept it, but that didn’t go over very well. Stubborn man. So we ate a little, we drank a little, and he excused himself and left me with three-quarters of a chicken, some guinea fowl and one-and-a-half bottles of wine. Bullshit. But I grinned from ear to ear and thanked him several times as he walked out of my house.

The next day, he called and thanked me for a wonderful evening.

This country.

Until next time…J

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