I would like to preface this post by telling you that every detail in the following story is 100% true. If I were you, I wouldn’t believe what I’m about to say either! But that’s the great thing about Peace Corps: life is so beautifully and wonderfully bizarre here that sometimes you can’t tell if you are in the throes of a malaria medication-induced dream, or if a woman really did hand you a newborn baby and walk away.
Something I’ve learned about the Togolese people is that they love celebrations of any kind. Weddings, funerals, a good harvest, a promotion, anything can be a sufficient reason to have a fête! But some fêtes are bigger than others. Enter Hogbezan!
Hogbezan (as you are all probably aware) is the celebration of the Yoto prefecture’s freedom from slavery. As our host moms were really surprisingly keen on pointing out, this was not the same slavery as the Triangle Trade. They were very intent on our understanding this fact.
So how does one celebrate Hogbezan, you ask? You may be surprised to find out that festivals here aren’t too different than big festivals back at home!
First, every good festival needs a security force to make sure that nothing gets out of hand. For instance, Pittsburgh Arts Fest, my favorite festival in the States, (that’s what I call America now!) usually has a small police presence which keeps the event running smoothly! In Ahépé, this security force is usually a group of Boy Scouts with wooden sticks. It should go without saying that you DO NOT cross these kids.
Also, every good festival needs an MC, of course! Hogbezan was led by none other than DJ Mix Show, one of the up-and-coming DJ’s of Ahépé. (Disclaimer: I think DJ Mix Show may have been a few people, or an event. It was never really explained to us.)
I’ve been to a few Togolese celebrations so far, (if you haven’t read the blog post about my first Togolese wedding, READ IT! Why would you just pick and choose random posts!?) so I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. I was wrong. I never would have predicted that there would be a bread-eating contest.
The winner’s technique was similar to Joey Chestnut’s: use the provided water to your advantage. Some things are universal.
I’ve tried my best to stay on the sidelines while I learn about Togo and its really deep and significant history. But I couldn’t pass up a chance to enter the dance competition.
Cheered on by my friends Sarah and Kyree, I took on five Togolese dancing fiends. My strategy was to go all-out and hope that my being most likely the first American to ever compete in the Hogbezan dance competition would propel me to victory. It worked. The crowd EXPLODED when I did the cabbage patch or the running man.
Aided by my superb dancing skills, I made it to the final round! Unfortunately, the last song was a slow song and my moves were woefully over-energized. In the end, I was chosen to be the second place winner. BUT I WON A HAT! A HAT!
Just a fun n.b. on how Togolese voting works for Hogbezan and other dance competitions: the MC (not always DJ Mix Show) will stand next to you and ask the audience if you should win. The audience will either loudly cheer or loudly boo. The only problem is that the loudest crowd reaction wins. In other words, I was William Hung’d into second place.
There was also a children’s musical chairs competition that ended with two elementary school students fighting until the actual CHIEF of the village broke them up. Naturally, there was an adult competiton as well. My fellow Peace Corps Trainee Kyree won a respectable second place after jumping on a chair to celebrate making it through the first round.
The last event of the day was the Potato Sack Race. With two silver medals under our belt, our friend Sarah was ready to bring home a gold for Team USA.
In the nail-biting finish of the year, Sarah won the race! After hundreds of years of Togolese dominance in the Togolese potato sack race, it’s nice to finally bring home the gold.
Before leaving, we got a picture on the Hogbezan Red Carpet. Togolese people absolutely LOVE formal photos, and even we couldn’t pass up a backdrop like this!
The celebration ended with a dinner reception for notable people in the prefecture. We were invited as well! It will never cease to amaze me how incredibly welcoming the Togolese are to us. And I will never stop being grateful.
I can’t believe that what I’m telling you is 100% true. I can’t believe that this is my life. I can’t believe that TOMORROW I take the oath and become a Peace Corps Volunteer. I can’t believe that I’m truly the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. Until next year, Hogbezan 🇹🇬❤️