Immersive experiences are the best way to understand a culture when you’re traveling. Here’s a story of how I came to connected with the culture of Togo during my time there as a Peace Corps volunteer.
A soft wind blew through the afternoon air as I sat on my porch watching the palm trees swaying in the breeze. I had just come back from Sokode, where I had gone to pick up my mail and spend time at the internet cafe.
As a Peace Corps volunteer living in a remote village in the central region of Togo and immersing myself in the culture of Togo, a visit to the internet cafe was a well-needed break from the usual ascetic lifestyle of no electricity and no running water.
I was still dusty from the taxi ride into my village. But I wanted to take a few minutes to rest on my porch. I was looking forward to listening to my shortwave radio and reading some magazines I had picked up at the volunteer transit house in Sokode.
Suddenly, I heard the sound of drumming in the distance.
I wonder what that is, I thought to myself, maybe they’re still doing celebrations for Tabaski.
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Experiencing the culture of Togo by celebrating Tabaski
Two days earlier, in my predominantly Muslim village in Togo, there had been a large village-wide Tabaski prayer at the village mosque. For the people in my village, Tabaski, known as Eid Al-Adha in the rest of the Muslim world, was the second most important holiday of the year.
In Muslim tradition, Eid Al-Adha commemorates the moment when Abraham offers his son Ishmael to be sacrificed at the alter. It represents Abraham’s ultimate show of submission to God. The minute before this sacrifice is to be done, God replaces Ishmael with a ram, satisfied with Abraham’s dedication and devotion.
Eid Al-Adha also coincides with the end of the pilgrimage. Known as the hajj, the pilgrimage is one of the five obligations of a Muslim. During this time, Muslims are encouraged to share what they have with others. They give a third of their food to their family or friends and a third to the poor. The remaining third they keep for themselves.
Multiple religions in the culture of Togo
For the majority of Togolese, Christianity plays a big role in the culture of Togo. But in some parts of the country, Islam is the predominant religion. Having been raised a Muslim, I was eager to see how the Togolese Muslims practiced Islam. But at the same time, I was somewhat embarrassed to let people know that I was a Muslim.
My upbringing was fairly liberal. And compared to the Muslim women in Togo, I didn’t cover my head or pray five times a day. I was afraid the village would not think of me as a real Muslim because my practices were different from theirs.
Participating in the village prayer
So the morning of the prayer, I decided to head down to the village mosque to observe. I had no intention to participate. I simply wanted to see what it was like, to witness Togolese culture in person. But just in case, I grabbed a scarf before I walked out the door of my house and stuffed it in my purse.
The road to the mosque was full of people walking to the prayer. Men wore long flowing robes, while the women were dressed in their fancy dresses. Little children ran alongside me with small scarves tied around their heads.
The mood was festive. As I walked, people greeted me with “Isso mu“, a greeting meaning God bless you in the local language of Kotokoli. This was the dominant ethnic group in that particular area of Togo.
When I arrived at the gathering of people congregated in front of the village mosque, something came over me. I wanted to be a part of them. I wanted to participate in this communal event instead of being just a watcher, an outsider. Most of all, I wanted to feel like a part of the village.
Becoming part of the community
Though I had not intended to participate, I took out my scarf, and put it over my head. I let go of all the anxieties I had of what people would think of me.
As is customary during the prayers, the men and women sat in their separate sections. Among the sea of women in the back section of the group, it was difficult for me to find a spot near someone I knew. So I asked a girl beside me if I could share her mat. I put down my purse, took off my sandals, and took my place next to her.
It felt good. Standing there among other women and girls, and the rest of the village, I felt as if I was part of a spiritual community. Having grown up most of my life in a Christian environment, my religious beliefs had always been a private matter for me. However, this time, for the first time in my life, I was among people who believed the same as I did. It felt refreshing to experience this culture of Togo.
Participating in the village prayer was such an inspiring and uplifting experience. I thought about it as I sat on my porch listening to the drumming in the distance. Something about the sound intrigued me.
It was coming from somewhere down the road from my house. I realized that like the prayer, I had a choice of either sitting back and being the observer, or taking a step and actively participating in the moment. I decided to follow the music and see what was going on.
A drum circle like no other
As I approached the area where the drumming was coming from, I saw women and children dressed in their fancy clothes. “Aïcha!” They greeted me and motioned me to come over and sit with them.
They were congregated under a tree. Benches surrounded a group of drummers. Their instruments were weathered and worn, but they were still able to carry a beat. They sounded loud and strong. The women and children were dressed up in their best and most colorful pagnes, the cloth fabrics that were popular in West Africa.
It was a sea of colors — royal blue, lime green, magenta, golden rod, violet, maroon, sky blue. All the fabrics were fashioned into various styles of dresses. Tight, loose, long sleeved, short sleeved, one-piece, two-piece. In my t-shirt and jeans that I had worn on the dusty taxi ride into the village, I was feeling a little under-dressed.
The women were singing. At first led by two little girls in the front of the group, later by two of the women. The drums carved out a beat, and the women sang along. They sang a call and response, repeating the songs over and over, changing songs when it moved them. I sat in the midst of these singing women, listening to the rise and fall of their voices. The sound of the chorus was strong and high, yet still distinctly feminine.
A sea of dancing women
As the women sang, several of them danced under the tree. As they danced, they held plates that people placed candy on. People bought pieces of candy and gave them to the dancers. It was a little gift for their efforts. .
Dancing in Togo is a natural talent. Women, men, children, they moved to the beat with ease and grace. They didn’t care how they looked. Dancing is just dancing, a form of celebration.
Some of the young teenage girls took their turn in the spotlight to show off their skills, hips and back shaking, uninhibited. But I also saw some of the older women getting just as into the music as the younger ones. They took turns dancing in the middle of the circle.
After a lot of coaxing, I was finally convinced to join in the dancing. The women were delighted, even though I knew I was no match for these African women and men. But the act of dance, the beat of the drums, took over. For an instant, I let go of my inhibitions and enjoyed it.
The singing and dancing lasted for most of the night. There was a small break for the prayer. But after the sun had set, I went home, hungry for some dinner and in need of some rest. After dinner I sat on my porch and read, content with the events of the day. I fell asleep to the sounds of the drums. Visions of dancing women and girls lingered in my mind.
A different view of Islam
Travel is amazing in that way. I often think about how Islam is portrayed in the media. It’s seen as radical, militant, and oppressive, which is a far cry from the Islam that I grew up with and that I experienced in Togo.
To me, Islam has always been a religion centered around community. Every celebration is an opportunity for families and friends to gather and spend time with one another. That was exactly what I experienced in that small village in Togo.
There was no radicalism, only acceptance for who I was and how I chose to practice my faith. There was no militancy, only a welcoming smile as I was invited time after time to share meals with families who had so much less than what I grew up with. And there was no oppression, only an overwhelming sense of community as I stood shoulder to shoulder with the other women in prayer.
In this era, where Twitter and Facebook feeds are inundated with the latest news about beheadings and suicide bombings, it’s easy to forget that reality is not often portrayed accurately in the news. To me, this just reiterates the importance of travel as a means to truly experience the world.
Sharing the culture of Togo with the world
As a traveler and a writer, I feel it is my duty to share my experience of the world with others. At the very least, I hope that it helps breed more tolerance and understanding, rather than perpetuate stereotypes and assumptions.
I’ve found that while there are basic level things you can learn from guidebooks and travelogues, like George Packer’s “The Village of Waiting” (a recounting of his time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo), some things are better to be experienced in person. Letting go of my inhibitions and joining my village in celebrating Tabaski helped me to understand the culture of Togo a lot better. It also afforded me many great memories and stories.
Had I stayed on that porch, I would never have experienced the sense of community. I never would have witnessed the joyous celebrations. In travel, as in life, it’s better to actively participate rather than passively watch. This, after all, is where the best stories are made.
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