Becoming Abla

June 19, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks  </span>
    Felix Njoku with his three young sons in the farmer group's chicken coop during the summer of 1995. Photo: Roger Burks
  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks  </span>
    The poultry house — with chicken coop, storage shed and quarantine area — constructed from local materials by Felix Njoku's farmer group in Amegnran, Togo. Photo: Roger Burks

A man does what he must to provide for his family. But in the small West African nation of Togo, it goes much deeper than that: each man is assigned a name based on the things he does, and is constantly judged by it.

When I began my service as Peace Corps Volunteer in the village of Amegnran more than 15 years ago, I quickly learned that the predominant ethnic group in the area — the Ouatchi — classified every man by his character, work ethic and worth to his neighbors. According to the Ouatchi, there are three kinds of men: Awoussi, Adjo and Abla.

Awoussi is least of the three, reserved for cowards, drunkards and layabouts. Adjo is a mostly-neutral title, given to those who work as they should and are valuable to their families, but do little to help or advance the community as a whole — almost all men in the village fall into this category including, when I first arrived, me.

And then there's Abla, the name of highest distinction and honor. Abla means leadership, ingenuity, great intellect or outstanding service to the community. It's rare to meet one of them — but, when you do, everyone makes it a point to address him by this title rather than his given name.

During my service, I met a man who started an Awoussi through no fault of his own. His name was Felix Njoku.

By his own admission, Felix was a “stranger” to the area: an ethnic Igbo, he’d fled his native Nigeria during the brutal Biafran War of the late 1960s. Since then, he’d wandered myriad villages in neighboring country of Benin, trying to find work and a place to call home. While in Benin, he married a local woman and fathered three boys. He came to Togo in the early 1990s, in the heyday of the country’s modest economic boom.

The prosperity didn’t last. By the mid 1990s, political woes and economic crisis gripped Togo. But Felix had to provide for his family. Coming from Nigeria, an English-speaking country, he did his best to speak French but didn’t sound as natural as his neighbors. He eked out a living as a sharecropper on small local farms and lived with his family in the most modest of huts. This, combined with his small stature and unfamiliarity with village customs, unfortunately earned him the title of Awoussi.

One morning in late spring 1994, not too long after I arrived in the village, I awoke to find Felix standing on my front porch. I will never forget the first thing he said to me: “Hello, Roger. We are both strangers here, so we have to help each other.”

And so our friendship began. Felix helped me meet many of the village's poorest and most marginalized families, many of whom I ended up working with. He showed me the markets where I could buy food and supplies more cheaply, and gave me tips on how to negotiate. I soon found Felix to be one of the most intelligent and engaging individuals I’ve ever known: after I’d finished the Newsweek magazines I received each week in the mail, he’d take them and read them cover to cover, then sit down with me for long discussions about current events and social issues.

Felix also had ideas about how to raise his family from poverty: he’d noticed that there were no chicken eggs in the local market, and found out that the closest poultry farm was more than 20 miles away. So he decided to start one. He did research into feed and veterinary costs, priced materials for the chicken house and, most impressively of all, held regular classes with local farmers using agricultural textbooks I borrowed from the Peace Corps office in the capital.

Felix was persistent: nearly every day, he’d wait for me on the front porch. By the one-year anniversary of my arrival in Amegnran, the farmer's group had done an impressive amount of training, as well as lined up everything they needed to bring their vision to fruition: commitments of building materials and labor, a veterinarian, a local agriculture extension officer and discounts on feed ingredients and milling services. I helped them apply for a U.S. Embassy grant to give them that last little bit they needed to make it happen.

Just a few weeks after that, I found myself riding in the front seat of a rented truck between the driver and Felix, headed back to Amegnran from a nearby town where we’d purchased 200 chicks. The driver turned on the radio, and Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” came on.

“Don’t worry about a thing… ‘ cause every little thing gonna be all right…”

“This song appeals to me too much,” laughed Felix.

And so a poultry farm came to Amegnran in the summer of 1995. Sometime soon afterward, Felix and I were summoned to chief’s house — a rare honor, since the chief was not only the namesake of the village but also the scion of a kingdom that stretched back at least ten generations. As an American in Togo, I made it a point to visit him regularly to inform him of my work, but I’d never received a direct request to come and see him.

Felix and I were shown into the chief’s living room, and bowed as we entered. The chief grinned, walked over to us and extended his hand. He looked me in the eyes as he gave me a strong handshake.

“Abla,” he said.

And then he turned to Felix.

“Abla,” he said again, with an even bigger smile, to the much smaller man from Nigeria — a stranger no more.

A man does what he must to provide for his family — and sometimes, along the way, those men become heroes.

Happy Father’s Day to all men, whether Awoussi, Adjo or Abla.