Finding the Woman In a Girl

Write a personal narrative about an event that changed you.

I watched in admiration as the gentleman in front of me hoisted my fifty-three pound backpack onto his head and began nonchalantly hiking over jagged rock, leading me through the village of Dogbadzi, Togo, where I would live for the next two weeks. The rest of my group had already been given their home assignments, and I now saw only their bright white skin ahead against the red sand of the mountain. Told to wear a long skirt, I had to divert my attention to my feet in order to avoid tripping over the dragging cloth. When at last I glanced upward, I was surrounded by several hundred Togolese who scrutinized my every move. I turned my gaze upward, searching for the base of my mustard backpack. Startled, I immediately felt the strong grip of a man’s arms around my waist, an elderly, emaciated fellow with a silver beard falling to the middle of his chest, who was apparently intoxicated. He mumbled several words in Ewe, the local vernacular, which I could hardly comprehend. Attempting to be polite and urbane, I grinned and responded “Oui, Oui,” concealing my trepidation. I was at once inundated with widened eyes and Ohs and Ahs coming out of the throng as each native patted my shoulder. I later found out that I had, in fact, agreed to marry the gentleman. Finally, the gentleman carrying my knapsack deposited it in front of a red mud hut indistinguishable from its neighbors. He approached me, interlocking his fingers with mine as a sign of camaraderie. He pointed to the doorway. Its occupant obscured my view. The new figure was slightly taller than I, the hue of his magenta shirt radiating against his dark skin in the searing sun. He drew me inside and gestured for me to sit on a lone bench, the only object in the room. With a promising “I’ll be back,” he quickly left. The crowd had dispersed, its remnants only two teenage boys who now stood propped against the wall beside me. Snickering, one boy leaned over slightly to peer down my top. In an attempt to conceal myself, I leaned over backwards, but a third boy had situated his head in the window behind me and now beamed as he successfully glanced over my shoulder. Too terrified and flustered to engage in conversation, I muttered any phrases that I was able to concoct and could plausibly communicate in broken French. I was totally and utterly unprepared. I sat for what seemed like hours inside the hut. Eventually, my home-stay brother appeared. I stood up, ducking under the fence of limbs that had imprisoned me. The boys immediately left the hut. Torn between fear of the unfamiliar and exhilaration of being immersed in a new culture, I watched as my home-stay brother, Akotsu Komba, set two bowls for supper. After dinner, we sat together as he flipped through my collection of CDs. Although a musician, he had never seen a CD and was dumbfounded at the array of musical styles available to an American. Still unable to decipher his unique French-African patois, I asked Akotsu where he slept. With an informative nod, he smiled, “Here.” I posed a second question: “Where will I sleep?” Again, he said, “Here.” At that instant I was stunned. After several moments, I sat overwhelmed by anxiety. I tried to maintain an open mind. For the first time, I felt alone and trapped; I was petrified. I cannot deny the consternation with which I slept that night alongside Akotsu. Essentially, I had two choices: remain with Akotsu, or seek out a more emotionally comfortable situation. Although fearing the awkwardness of the situation, I decided to stay. I committed myself to becoming a part of the Dogbadzi people. Excited and thirsty for Togolese culture, my initial anxiety faded. I harvested corn, helped cook, washed clothing and taught mothers to braid long hair. I wanted only to saturate myself with Dogbadzi customs. In our spare time, Akotsu and I exchanged stories. I introduced him to cameras, flashlights, snow, skyscrapers, and powdered lemonade mix, and he to me a community where every member of the village was either a brother or sister in spirit. When night fell on Mount Agou, I would crawl into my sleep sack as Akotsu retired to the other side of the bed. Fatigued after a long day, I looked forward to a deep sleep beneath the heavy rain on the tin roof. My sixth night in Dogbadzi, I noticed a newly knit white blanket spread neatly across the mattress. A blanket for Akotsu, I presumed; he slept nude. When Akotsu crossed the threshold of the bedroom, he pointed it out to me as if I had not noticed. I complimented its beauty and intricate weaving. Raising his voice slightly, he muttered an interrogative “Oui?” Puzzled, I responded, “I do not understand.” Akotsu then explained that a white blanket was placed on the bed of a woman as a symbol of her last evening as a virgin. My heart stopped. His tone was neither callous nor insidious but conveyed a sense of hope. Thunderstruck, I could not believe that such a situation had occurred. I quickly attempted to fabricate an inoffensive response through which Akotsu could understand my reason for rejecting him. I asserted that, generally, Americans do not commit to marriage until in their twenties, and I was only fifteen. That night, for the first time, Akotsu did not sleep in his own house. When I awoke the following morning, he waited outside the doorway so that we could tend to the crops as we had done each preceding dawn. Even today, people to whom I tell this story often say that I made the wrong decision and should have left Akotsu’s that first evening. Although faced with a complex decision, I know that I chose correctly. The choice I made grew out of respect for, and desire to, plunge into Togolese society. I cannot deny that a part of me wanted to take the easier alternative and leave, but what would I have gained? I decided that nothing would be learnt nor lived unless I tasted it all; and that is what I did.

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