Rebekah Brown “Brownie” Lee talks and reflects on cultural and economic difference, race, colonialism, and the Peace Corps at her home in Ouidah, Benin, February 22, 2012. I am revisiting the interview now in honor of Brownie’s recent passing. As the Francophone African saying goes, “Que la terre lui soit légère.” Friend and mentor, you are missed.
Lee cites materialism and the extended family as two major cultural differences between West Africa and the US. She speaks of her own experience taking in children in the various countries in which she lived and worked, and shares her concern about the practice of psychoanalysis (“I came home from Peace Corps, and people were going to counselors like we used to go the the dentist.”). She concludes the interview with her favorite proverb: “The snake cannot give birth to anything short and fat.”
Brownie Lee joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in 1962; she was part of the first group to serve in Togo, West Africa. She then served as a volunteer in Guinea (1964-1966) and had a long teaching career that spanned Eastern and Western Africa, the U.S. and Jamaica, before returning to work in varlous supervisory roles and program directorships for the Peace Corps in the 1980s and 90s, and finally serving as Peace Corps Country Director in Togo and Benin (starting in 2007 and 2009, respectively).
Interviewer Carla Seidl served in the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan from 2006 to 2008 and in Peace Corps’ Girls Education and Empowerment program (which Brownie was influential in starting) in Togo from 2009 to 2011. At the time of this interview, she was serving as a Peace Corps Response volunteer at the International Center for Art and Music of Ouidah (CIAMO), Benin.
Background noise during the interview is Lee’s adopted teenage girls doing housework and meal preparation.
Oh, it’s a suffering world; oh, it’s a suffering song…but if you sing along, you won’t be suffering for long.
Original song from Who Are My People? (2013). Written while in the Peace Corps in Togo, 2010, where I alleviated my own “suffering” from lack of material comforts with music (performing with a local group and leading a middle school chorus).
Fufu is a starch staple food pounded with a big mortar and pestle and made from large tubers called ignams . While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Northern Togo in 2010, producer Carla Seidl talked with Madame Helim, a pâte and fufu seller, about the process of making fufu.
In the small West African nation of Togo, a typical meal consists of one of two staple foods: pâte (pronounced like “pot”), made from corn flour and water, or fufu, made from pounded yams. For those in the North of the country, where yams are too expensive to be eaten year-round, fufu season comes as a welcome change.
“When I first tried fufu , I was less than impressed. While the flavor was mild and harmless, the texture was so gluey and unfamiliar that I found it difficult to swallow. Now, though, after over a year in Togo, I’ve grown fond of the food, and will go out of my way to order it if I’m out and about. It goes especially well with what is known as wagash , a cheese made from the milk that the local herding Pulaar people sell.
Locals eat fufu , like pâte and other foods, with their right hand, taking a piece of the fufu and using it to scoop up some sauce before putting it in their mouths. The yams used to make fufu are huge tubers with a skin that flakes off like thick paper. During yam season, you can often see a mound of seven or eight of them stacked and tied onto the back of a bicycle, the rider straining at the slightest incline, despite his physical fitness – that pile of yams must weigh a hundred pounds!”
A medley of Azerbaijani and South and North American songs, arranged and performed live by Carla Seidl (vocal, guitar), Sevindik muallim (tar) and Sarvan muallim (vocal) in Khanlar, Azerbaijan, spring 2008. Pictures are from Carla’s Peace Corps service in Azerbaijan, during which she lived in a small village in Oguz for one year and in the region center of Khanlar for another year serving as an English teacher in the local schools.