Unlike the American “nuclear” family group—mom, dad, daughter and son—the Togolese family includes so many branches of family members that it is nearly incomprehensible to me. Whenever I meet a family for the first time and politely ask, “who is that? How is he/she related to you?” the response is always, “oh that’s my cousin.” Or maybe it’s their niece or nephew. How could it be possible that everyone is related so closely? Unless I demand for a drawing of the family tree, I have no idea.
I recently asked a few of my friends to explain their family ties a bit more specifically, in honor of Thanksgiving. One of my best friends in village, Honorene, the birth attendant at the health clinic, lives in her house alone with an adolescent boy, who she introduces as her son. Of course I assumed they were mother and son.
Until Honorene’s “real” daughter came to visit with both grandchildren as well. I was really confused; so this is your daughter who you gave birth to, and these are your grand kids, and this other boy… well who is he? Oh, he’s her “cousin’s” son of course, a woman who came to visit after the boy was in a not-too-serious bike accident on his way home from school.
I felt extremely awkward. Every time I come over I ask this kid, “how’s your mom?” And he replied, even though he’s completely aware Honorene is not at all his mother. It’s the same situation at the pharmacy tech’s house, where she houses two “children” who are in fact her sibling’s children that they are unable to care for.
Now that I’ve become aware of this, it seems like everyone in town is lodging other relatives’ children. When city living is too expensive, just send your kids off to the country to experience a village education and what it’s like to be without electricity or water access. Maybe the kids were getting into trouble, got someone pregnant, or are an orphan. All of these are explanations for the expansive Togolese idea of a family unit.
In Togo, you can’t refuse a family member’s request, no matter how far removed (physically or otherwise) that family member is. Live in Dapaong? Sure, send your kid to Lome to stay with cousin Koffi! I can’t really imagine such a thing occurring in the U.S.
Furthermore, children sent to live with other family members don’t seem to have the sense of loss that an American child would have if taken away from Mom and Dad. In some cases, they may not know they are living with an auntie. However, many kids do know, “this is not my mom,” and they still call out to her as “mama.” They may see their birth mother as little as once or twice a year, and hear from her over the phone only a few times more than that.
This Thanksgiving I won’t be with my family, but I will be with my friends in Togo all the way in the far North: Dapaong. Togo is a small country, but thanks to amazingly bad roads, the trip from Lome to Dapaong can take 12 hours. Apparently a volunteer’s parents visiting from L.A. once arrived in Lome before a volunteer who left by bush taxi from Dapaong at the same time that their flight took off. I’ve always been planning on making the trip up, and this Thanksgiving is the perfect opportunity. Delicious food at the fancy hotel in town, awesome company with fellow Peace Corps volunteers… Sounds like a good holiday to me!