The United States Peace Corps has always been the center of my family. It was the reason my parents met forty plus years ago in a small village in Gabon, Central Africa and the reason why I am who I am. I am the offspring of an interracial and cross-cultural love affair between two young headstrong, committed, fierce, and forward-thinking individuals who refused to let cultural norms, language barriers, and racial identity keep them apart. Therefore, it was only fitting that I would follow in my father’s footsteps and join the Peace Corps. As the oldest child, I was determined to continue the tradition my parents had set for us- explore the unknown, make friends out of strangers, learn a new culture, speak the language of the people, and more importantly, be of service to others.
In December of 1999, I admired myself in the hazy semi cracked long length mirror in my new home preparing myself to head to the Kabou market. I couldn’t help but be proud of the “traditional” attire I was wearing. You see, I knew that although I was in Africa, that didn’t mean all African women dressed the same way my mother did when she wanted to let Americans know she was not only an African woman but proud to be Gabonese citizen. The African continent is the 3rd largest and the 1st in diversity, therefore today, I couldn’t help but be proud of my outfit. Today, I was dressed like a Kabou, Togolese woman, head wrap, white blouse, and nice colorful wrapped pagne around my waist. I smiled at my own reflection, breathed a deep sigh of relief, brushed off the dust off my white Nike sneakers, and confidently walked out onto the neatly traced dirt road to the world beyond my new family compound.
As I made my way to the market, I couldn’t help but notice the friendly greetings accompanied by a slight shake of the head I received from the women who passed me or watched me from their compound as they strung their wet clean clothes on the line to dry. Assured that their smiles and waves meant approval of how I looked I continued my walk with my head held up high with a fixed smile, showing off my pearly whites. I too knew the magic of the chewing stick. Once I found myself at the entrance of Kabou’s busy market, I stopped, took a deep breath, took the sight of colorful merchandise laid out on makeshift tables, plastic mats and hangers, voices of customers and salesmen and women bargaining, and the smell of fresh meat hung upside down on a pole. This was it. I had finally made it to the best market in the Bassar region, known for its abundance of both local and foreign merchandise, fare deals, and marriage prospects.
Before I could reach into my purse and pull out my grocery list, out of nowhere my waist was attacked by the fastest and strongest hands I had ever felt leaving me frozen and in utter shock. These hands tore my pagne completely off my waist, flipped it in the air to relieve it from the red dust, shifted my waist from left to right, wrapped the pagne back on my waist in a fashion unknown to me, patted the front and back of my white blouse with force, slapped off the red dust off my sneakers with a rag, all in 10 seconds flat! Then a woman rose up, stepped back, and with a sigh said two words “D’accord et Voila” (Okay and there). At that moment, all I could do was stutter “merci beaucoup!” and wished to God, I had not worn my favorite for special occasions bright red Victoria Secret lace underwear. Before my heart and brain could register what I had just experienced, the same hands gently grabbed my right hand and walked me inside the market into her stall and instructed me to sit down on the mat.
I complied with her orders, my eyes fixated on this woman’s beauty. Her multicolored headscarf was beautifully tied around her thick braids, blue Muslim silk veil loosely suspended on her head, charcoal mascara radiantly outlined her oval eyes, multi-colored pagne laid perfectly pressed against her dark ebony legs, and wooden chewing stick slightly propped in the right side of her mouth. Her beauty is not what I saw when I looked in the mirror. THIS beauty, style, and confidence I saw different from my own, was created and belonged to Kabou.
“Tu n’est pas d’ici! Tu parles le francais?” (You’re not from here! Do you speak French?) She asked as she carefully rearranged her colorful and well laid out merchandise on the mat.
“Oui!” I responded, happy to impress her with the fact that although, I wasn’t from Kabou, or Togo for that matter, and unlike other foreigners who she may have undressed in plain sight, I could communicate in French. She shook her head up and down, turned her head, looked me over, smiled, and then provided me with the wisdom I have always kept.
“My girl, you’re not married. I can tell. So you can’t come to the market or anywhere for that matter wearing your pagne like that. Since your mother is not here with you. I’m going to have to show you how to properly wear your pagne and walk like a woman. You walk like a man. Too strong and aggressive. Don’t wear those shoes. What you have on are for men who work in the fields. You’re a young woman. Then – she pointed to the crowd of men and women seemingly minding their own business- won’t see you or wish you well. You’ll always be a black Yovo (term used for foreigners). That’s not good. What’s your name?”
“My name is Hermence Matsotsa. I am from the United States with the Peace Corps!” I stated in almost apologetic tone for having embarrassed someone I never met.
“Oh, my girl I can’t say your name! Has the Chief given you a name yet?”
Shocked by the question and a little bit offended, I told her, no and he didn’t need to. My parents had already given me a name I was happy with and planned to keep. She laughed in my face and then with her chewing stick quickly finding its place back in the corner of her mouth, she said,
“Oh, yes he does. Just wait. In the meantime, watch, listen, pay attention and learn. You’re in Kabou now!”
From that moment forward, my friend and mentor’s words appeared to linger in the air like a floating banner everywhere I went. It was a constant reminder that if I accepted the correction and outreached hand of a stranger, was willing to allow him or her to teach me his or her ways, and learned the language and culture of the land, wherever, I chose to go in life, I would become one with the people!