Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Outside Looking In: Letters From Togo

Susan Blake's essays — her “Letters from Togo” — are based on the letters she wrote to her friends from Lomé, the West African capital where she spent a Fulbright year teaching American literature from 1983 to 1984, with return trips in 1990 and 1991. As Blake begins the process of making sense out of a vibrant, seeming anarchy, we are pulled along with her into the heart of Togo—a tiny dry strip of a country sandwiched between Ghana and Benin.

In the course of her letters Blake introduces us to Mahouna, her housekeeper, who runs a cold drink business from his refrigerator in a country where electricity is unreliable; to American Lee Ann and her Togolese family, who works at the American school to earn the fees for a private education for her children; and to the suave René, with whom a relationship briefly flourishes and who teeters on the edge of the Togolese and expatriate worlds.

Since Lomé is both an overgrown village and a cosmopolitan city, Blake's often humorous experiences range from buying a car to attending a traditional tom-tom funeral, from visiting people who hunt with bows and arrows to enduring faculty meetings, from negotiating the politics of buying produce to lecturing on Afro-American literature at the English Club. Together, her letters trace the pattern of adjusting to a foreign environment and probe the connections between Africa and this curious, energetic American. Not "out of Africa" but within it, they take advantage of time and perspective to penetrate the universal experience of being a stranger in a strange land...

All in all an engaging memoir of an engaging country, but one which – as Blake herself acknowledges – is written very much from an outsiders perspective.

From Togo I leapfrog neighbouring Benin (where I have already visited) and head to Nigeria.

Passenger trains into Nigeria being virtually non-existent I am forced to part with the best part of £350 for a flight ticket. I make my way to the nearby Lomé-Tokoin airport and catch a flight on Togolese airline Asky, leaving at 13.30 and arriving an hour later in Lagos’ Murtala Muhammad airport at 15.30 (allowing for the time difference).

There is a rather inconvenient fifteen hour stopover (compared to just two hours flight time in total between destinations!) so I spend a night in a nearby hotel, the Deskyline Hotel. It is just a couple of minutes around the corner from the airport, and there is a restaurant where I am able to grab a beer and a meal of local fare. However, my room (which sets me back $100) is basic to say the least, still it is a bed for the night...

The next morning I catch the onward Arik Air International flight at 7.20. Again, this flight lasts just one hour before I am landing at my next destination – Enugu in Nigeria and the novel "Purple Hisbiscus" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

No comments:

Post a Comment