Saturday, January 18, 2014

Elder Hawkins, A Mission Novel: Revisited

ONE YEAR IN AFRICA! Me and Elder Kiputa, a year ago...

Wow... crazy to think I'm actually finally here in Togo... let me just say, it's pretty different from the U.S of A! 

That was me, one year ago... little Elder Hawkins, stepping into the Wild, Wild West (Africa). I didn't really make a big deal out of my one year mark on my mission for a reason... why? Because the MTC wasn't the start of my time out on the field... however, this past 16th January, that year mark finally came. I honestly cannot believe that it has been a year since I got off of that Brussels Airlines flight and took my first steps on the "Dark Continent" (which was fitting because it was nighttime when I got off of the plane!). I have the impression that it was only yesterday that I stepped off that plane, met with President, went with the Assistants to Togo, and then met my trainer.

In honor of this grand year mark, I thought it would be fun to visit the very first email I sent from Africa... or rather, the NOVEL of an email that I sent my very first week in Africa. My objective is to see how things have changed in this short year, maybe try to explain some of the weird things I didn't understand when I first got here, and, well, just laugh at how shell-shocked I was back then. I'm not going to copy the whole email, but just a few snippets that I like.

Everything that's in italics is from the original letter. Anything in bold or in blue font is my commentary. So, without further ado, here we go! 

The Weather

IT IS SO HOT! Think about how PA feels right after a big rain storm in the summer... now multiply that by every day of every hour and add a few more degrees and you have Togo! I didn't think it was possible, but my back has turned into Niagra Falls and it basically never stops. Really, there wasn't a smell like most people said there would be when I first got off the plane... instead, there was just this blast of humidity. I have to tell you what happened at the airport too... I'll write about that later.

Well, that hasn't changed. It's still freaking hot as ever here. My back is still Niagara falls when I go out and teach. All those people who said my body would get used to the heat when I first got here? LIES. Instead, I'm just used to sweating all the time! 

Just so you know, every night when I go to sleep, my temperature gauge on my clock reads at about 90 every night, without fail. Thankfully I have a fan for myself (and apparently it's like that throughout the mission (duh because we would die if we didn't have fans)). But yeah... those handkercheifs are saving me because I just sweat all the time. And honestly, it really doesn't cool down at all (a little in the morning, but every morning I wake up drenched in sweat and feel pretty gross). BUT! The cold showers do make me feel nice and awesome in the morning... you really don't need hot water here.

I have actually learned to cope with the heat at night and don't sweat as much as I used to. I can tell that I have definitely gotten used to the heat here because now I think the mornings feel nice and cool. I can tell that my definition of "cool" has changed from 50-60 degrees to 70-80 degrees! And I have gotten used to cold showers... but that doesn't mean that hot showers aren't awesome and still necessary! 

People like...
  1. To burn trash. Yup... still true but I still much less of it here in Benin because I'm in the middle of the city and most people do pay for trash pickup. However, I think it's still bad in the more rural parts of the city.
  2. To speak their own language. Again, this is still true but in Benin I don't see it as much as I did in Togo. Little kids actually speak French here, whereas in Togo they never would speak a lick of French. I think the reason for the lack of hearing much Fon is because there are a lot more foreigners here and they speak French/English most of the time. 
  3. COIFFURES!!! Oh my goodness... if you could guess what the most common shop/place/thing would be in Togo, what would it be? WRONG! It's a hair stylist (coiffures in French). African women love, love, love, love, love to get there hair done. With so little money, who would have thought?! Honestly, every street has these little shacks (literally, no joke. They are these tiny huts, probably the size of the bathroom downstairs in the basement) where people go and get their hair done. We're actually teaching a coiffeuse right now... super sweet lady named Elaine but we were talking to her one day while she was cutting hair with this crazy old razor blade! It was all rusty and it sounded like it was hurting the client's head as she cut hair! And they are all named in some way or another about God. "The Hands of God" "Divine Coiffure" "Coiffure of God" to name a few. It is really funny how many of them there are. I have determined that the Togolaise love three things: coiffures, motos, and blasting big speakers. Pretty crazy.The only thing I can add to that is that Togolais also love patte, and I would put that first. As for Beninois? Their first loves are still coiffures, motos, and blasting big speakers. The only difference would be Voodoo... way more voodoo here and I hear a lot more traditional Beninois music than I did hear traditional Togolais music in Togo. 
  4. Obama... just because he's black... seriously the only reason. They have tons of stuff about Obama. Every day I walk past a shop called Obama's Cafe or something, with a giant painting of his head and the slogan "Yes We Can." Saw a kid running around in Obama underwear yesterday too. Just some weird stuff...  
    You know... that has actually really cooled down since I've gotten here. I don't see as much Obama stuff as I used to and almost nobody ever talks about him whereas when I first got here, people would always bring that up when they found out I was American. 
My Companion
Super cool... his name is Elder Kiputa and he's from Congo. (...) He's been on his mission for about 17 months now and I think I'm his 2nd or 3rd trainee. He speaks English a bit, but not with me! He only speaks French to me which is really hard but super useful at the same time. He's pretty nice and understanding of my American ways. He always knows what to do and he takes over on a lot of the lessons. I'm gonna have to start speaking up more, but it's been pretty nice to let him take the reins. He is also a New Testament master... I'm pretty sure he knows every random reference there is in the Bible because he can reference it like nobody else. Also, he likes to take long awkward silences... sometimes we'll just be at somebody's "house" (they're kinda houses... I can't really explain it) and we'll just sit there and people will just be doing stuff like we're not even there. Kinda weird... but I guess that's why they say there's no such thing as awkward here because there isn't a word for it in French.

So, about the awkward silence thing... turns out that I think he was actually trying to get me to speak but I wasn't picking up his signals because I was always just thinking out in lalaland. However, Elder Kiputa was a great trainer, even though I was only with him for 3 weeks of my mission. Still, he was super patient with somebody who almost never talked in lessons, pretty much never had any idea what was going on, and helped me figure out the pricing of stuff here. It has been almost 5 months since he's gone home! Jeez... that's crazy to think in only 3 months I'll be at the same point he was at when he was training me!

My Apartment
Pretty junky... 
Yup... 'nuff said. Tokoin apartment was junky and there's a reason why they moved out of it too. Every apartment I have been in since has been much nicer and has been at a much better standard. The toilets are nowhere near as scary, the kitchens don't have any cockroaches, the rooms are always at least 10 degrees cooler than they were in Tokoin (even though it was on the second floor, it was basically a cement oven), and the apartments now are just plain nicer than Tokoin ever was. However, I'm so glad that I started there and that apartment has given me a much greater appreciation for all of the new apartments that I move into. 

Oh, I have to tell you about the noise here. Togo is probably the most noisy country in the world... who would have thought for one of the poorest countries in the world?! But anyway, on the right of us we have the family from l'enfer... they fight ALL THE TIME!!!! The parents and the kids! It's just ever constant. Then behind us, we have a school so every morning it gets really loud because they surround the apartment on two sides. Then, behind the school there's a giant Mosque! Boy, I sure do love those 5 AM prayers now! And the other 4-5 prayers they do throughout the day, especially on their Sabbath days (think it's saturday or something). Then, on the same block as us, there's this weird Christian church that I have never heard of. They meet in this warehouse type thing but they are super loud! They also blast their speakers and it sounds like they're mad all the time! Makes for Sunday morning prep very interesting and very loud. Yeah... Togo as a whole is just loud though. You also here their claxons going off (horns) because that's how they try and get you too look up and see if you need a ride. In Togo, you don't need a license to be a taxi moto, so anyone can do it... probably why they are banned by the mission! 

Still true to an extent... again, I've gotten used to the noise but the noise that goes on during lessons (like from the woodshop next door, the main road traffic, the bar blasting it's speakers) still really bothers me and chases away the spirit big time. Sometimes, I prefer not even teaching lessons with noise like that because it really just is a waist of my time and their time if they're not feeling the Spirit. 

Other than that... it's still noisy. Our neighbors here blast the worst Beninois music of all time, almost all the time. I'm pretty sure they're Voodoo people. Neighbors still yell often too.

However, none of that can even compare to the amount of noise of the Tokoin apartment. I forgot to mention in that letter the noise from planes that would take off. I remember I would wake up at 3 AM because of a plane taking off, 4 AM because the mosque would go off, and then 5 AM because the neighbors' rooster would go off... ugh that was the worst and noisiest apartment by far! 

Tell you what though, the food here is pretty good! (what, are you kidding me? The food is good here? What was I even thinking?!?!) The fruit here is probably the best I've tasted any where (okay, that's still true). The pineapple here is really, really, really good. It's not as tart as Hawaiian pineapple, but it's just a sweet... it's also whiter than yellow. Still, all the fruit here is delicious and you can buy it anywhere. Also had my first Mangez-vous this week. Two actually. My first, we had this spicy spaghetti which was really good and had pineapple for dessert. (oh, okay that's probably why I thought the food was good because my first mangez-vous was a top-of-the-line mangez-vous that's pretty rare). The other, we had the infamous pate... it's pretty messy stuff. The one we ate the the Branch President's house was really spicy stuff and really messy. It was good though... but his wife gave me this weird chicken wing that I thought was a tongue at first. Thankfully, I figured out it was a chicken wing and I ate it... probably the chewiest chicken I've ever eaten. Elder Kabango made Congo pate which is a bit tougher but tastes much better in my opinion. Hopefully, future mangez-vous will have cool things. Btw... most of the food is super spicy here! Yes!!!!!

So, I think I quickly realized a few months after writing this email what good food and bad food are. How do I know that? That whole last part about the patte and the Congolais patte are a lie. At first, I did like Congolais patte, but then I would eat it every day for about 6 weeks... which is why I now detest it. And I will admit that there are good pattes and there are good sauces, but my very first experience with patte was with a Gumbo sauce which is grrrrrrooooosssss so slimy and gooey and messy. Oh young Elder Hawkins... such a naive little yovo.

Yovo, yovo, bon soir, ca va bien?, merci. 
Apparently it gets pretty annoying after a few months but I think it's funny right now. Yovo is the West African way of saying white person (kinda like gringo). 

Apparently? I think it only took me until the next week to get annoyed with that song and get so irritated by it! Gosh that was irritating! Still is! Can't believe I even thought it was funny at first! 

The French has been tough. When I first got here, I could not understand what they were saying because they do speak fast, quietly, and it's not perfect French either. Now, however, I'm starting to follow the lessons and what's going on... it just takes a lot of focus and a lot of attention on my part. However, that being said, people love my French-ish accent. I don't have the American-French accent that most missionaries come with so people compliment my French on being very clear and precise, albeit rather European. I always have to explain that I lived in France for about 8 years and the people seem to like me here. I had to bear my testimony in French yesterday in Sacrament meeting which was scary. Especially since I am the ONLY white person in the branch of like 40-50 people... though I've gotten used to being the only white person since getting here. But yeah, the French is coming. I can feel the progression little by little everyday. It's hard to believe that I'll ever be fluent, but everyone says I'm going to be a translator soon since I already have a pretty good level of comprehension here. So, at least I'm already ahead of the game. 

That, my dear readers, might be the greatest miracle that had ever happened since I have gotten here: the gift of tongues. What an incredible, incredible gift that has been from Heavenly Father. That was probably my biggest source of stress when I first got on my mission. However, I received a wise piece of advice from my good friend, Elder Gunderson, that the language wall would fall... and it did. It wasn't all at once... and there's still a bit of the wall left... but wow... how far I've come since I first got here. I will be the very first to admit that there's still a long way to go until my French ever gets to the level that my English is at, but the amount of stress that has been taken off of my shoulders now that I can speak and get around in French has been great. I try to thank the Lord every night for being able to communicate in the French language every day of my mission. 

Though, let it be noted that my French is well... Togolais/Beninois French! 


There's a lot more to my letter, but those are the highlights from it. I can't believe that I have been on this crazy continent of Africa for more than a year now. It doesn't feel like it has been a year, but well... it has. It's weird to think that many things have changed for me in this past year, but I think the biggest change has come from me! I think most of that change came from this point in my mission one year ago... and when I say change, I really mean to say "humbling." I often say that the three first weeks of my mission were the longest three weeks of my life and as I read my journal, I can often see why... everything around me changed. The food. The people. The smells. The work. The heat. The list can go on and on and on. 

There were points, one year ago, where I honestly didn't think I was going to make it. To me going home was never an option... however, that doesn't mean that I wasn't thinking about home every single waking moment of those first few weeks. I remember lying in my bed in that small Tokoin oven apartment, staring into the dark, thinking to myself, "Is this really going to be my life for the next two years? Is this really what I signed up for?" Sometimes I would even think that where I was couldn't be real, that it was just too strange and too different. Honestly, the change was sometimes to the point that I would just cry. I would just cry and say to myself, "what the heck is going on? Why am I doing this?" 

And yet, all of those changes have now become a part of me. My skin a little darker, my nose a little more habituated to the smells, my eyes a little more used to the sun, my ears a little more apt at understanding French. No longer do I question is this place real... now I consider it my home away from home! No longer do I wonder about there being no other white people, but now I wonder why there are other white people when I see them! No longer do I discourage myself in thinking of all the time that I had to do on my mission, but now I worry that I don't have a lot of time left! 

The changes that I dealt with and the changes that have happened within me are nothing short of incredible.

However, the one part of my life that never changed nor ever came into question was the support I received from my Heavenly Father. No matter where I was, no matter how tough the moment was, and no matter what was going on around me, He was always there. He was the one who comforted me at night and gave me hope that I would, as I thought, survive. I have felt that I truly have built upon the rock of my redeemer, as Helaman 5:12 says. At the beginning of my mission, it sure did feel like "the devil (sent) forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm (had beaten) upon (me)." I also did feel like I was in a "gulf of misery and endless wo." And yet, "because of the rock upon which (I am) built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall" the adversary "(has had) no power over (me) to drag (me) down to the gulf of misery and endless wo." 

I could not be here if it wasn't from the comfort and aid I received from Heavenly Father and Christ. I can testify, with all of my heart, that I have seen the Lord work miracles in so many lives, not the least of which my own. I know that Christ lives, that he cares for me and each and every one of us, and that we are not doomed for failure! He loves us! He cares for us! He heals us! 

Thank you everybody for the help you have given to me over this past year in Africa... from the endless amounts of emails, packages, letters, thoughts, and prayers, I just really couldn't have done this year without you guys too! 


Elder Hawkins

P.S. Happy Birthday Dad! How cool is that you get to share your birthday with MLK day! Make sure you go out somewhere special! 

Cool picture of the setting African sun. 
This is the stupid traffic I have to deal with in Cotonou. Almost every intersections has stoplights... but, do they work? Uh, no. So we get huge car traffic jams in the middle of downtown. It's kinda like that board game "Rush Hour" where you have to try and get the red car out off the board through all the traffic! 

Erevan... aka "Heaven in Benin"

Elder Lala cutting our "Galette des Rois" which was shared with President and Sister Weed, my comps, and Elder Semken, who turned out to be the king! 

Note from the Fro: What a year! Cannot believe that it was just over a year ago that I was tracking that long flight to Africa!  Very proud of the lessons he's learned and the ability to keep on keeping on. 


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