Thursday, July 29, 2010
It’s school vacation time here in Togo! As an education volunteer, that means my days are even less structured than they are during the school year. Like in America, school vacation time in Togo gives students a break from the rigors of academia for about two and a half months. Final grades are distributed, the schools are closed, and the teachers check out of town. However, unlike America (or at least the America of the twenty-first century), school vacation does not mean freedom. Most of the students in Wassarabo spend their school vacation out in the field, planting and harvesting the rice, millet, yams, and corn crops for next year.
School vacation time for me means helping plan Camp UNITE and trying to keep myself occupied with random projects around village. As boring as the days can be, I love these vacation months. Working with the school in Wassarabo can be mind-numbingly frustrating and it’s nice to have a break. I’ve restarted my moringa nursery and enriched flour project, and have been doing follow-up visits with the participants from my women’s health training.
I’ve also started a little microfinance project with four of my students in Wassarabo. “Microfinance” is very in vogue in the international development community right now, but it’s basically a flashy term for a very simple concept. The idea is to provide small-scale loans to individuals in developing countries, who can then use the initial capital to start small profit-making enterprises, like selling street food or making fabric.
There are countless microfinance projects around the world right now, most of them working with women in third-world countries. Because the money is a loan, not a straight-up donation, development economists love the idea of microfinance. There are those in the international development realm who herald microfinance as the savior of the developing world; these supporters believe that by creating new credit opportunities in poor communities, microfinance can jump-start economic development. Skeptics believe that microfinance is simply too small-scale to have a genuine impact. Sure, microfinance can help individuals, but it can’t really do anything for the global economy. For skeptics, saying microfinance can create economic development is the equivalent of saying a lemonade stand can pull the US economy out of a recession.
(Despite the controversy, microfinance loans have provided life-altering economic opportunities for people, especially women, around the world. If you’re interested in learning more about ways to support women’s economic empowerment through microfinance, check out www.kiva.org. A very worthwhile cause!)
My project is too simple to be controversial: liquid soap for school fees. I picked four of my most responsible girl students to be trained in the art of making liquid soap. I fronted the capital to make 42 liters of liquid soap and the girls will sell the soap and keep the profit to pay for their school fees. Depending on how long it takes the girls to sell the initial 42 liters, they can also re-invest their profit and keep on making soap (as long as their school fees are already covered). The only rule is that the girls need to repay me on my initial investment (the equivalent of about $5 a girl, which I’ll probably use to buy them school supplies).
Making the liquid soap itself is probably the easiest part of the whole process. Remarkably enough, I can buy every ingredient at an agricultural supply store in Sokode. To actually make the soap involves little more than mixing together acid, water, salt, and a kilogram of thick, concentrated gel. Pour in a little perfume and dye and Voila! Liquid soap.
The girls mixing the soap on my front porch
This is what 42 liters of liquid soap looks like!
(Liquid soap is far easier than making hard soap, which I learned the hard way earlier this month. My experiment making hard soap was a complete disaster—I ended up with nasty caustic-soda burns on my hand, a ruined plastic bucket, and soap that won’t lather).
So far, the microfinance aspect of the project is going only ok. The girls need to sell the soap at a certain price in order to make any type of meaningful profit, but disposable income is tight in Wassarabo. The liquid soap is much higher quality than a bar of soap, but it’s more expensive. Only one of my girls so far has sold her entire inventory. There are still almost 6 weeks left until school starts, so the girls still have time and I have faith in them. We’ll see. I might end up giving liquid soap as Christmas presents this year!
Monday, June 7, 2010
So, I got to admit: laziness has been a factor. But there’s another reason for my lack of blogging, a reason potentially more important (or at least more excusable) than laziness: Life here has become normal.
During my first six months in Togo, every interaction and experience I had was an opportunity for a blog entry. Every time I got in a bushtaxi, or traveled to a new village, or ate a meal, or visited a government office, or taught a class, I would find a new source of fascination or frustration or curiosity. Granted, I was never the world’s most avid blogger (that’s where the laziness comes in), but, during my first year, I felt like everywhere I turned there was potential for awesome blog entries. I was always an American observer, looking in from the outside, trying to figure out where I belonged, what was going on, and what in the world I was supposed to be doing.
And now? Well, after over 20 months in Togo, life has settled into life. I’m still the American observer, but things that struck me as strange or illogical during my first year are now bizarrely normal.
It hit me a few weeks back, when I was talking with a group of fellow volunteers about the relative merits of cisterns versus wells. A few lucky volunteers here in Togo have running water, but most of us rely on wells, cisterns, or rivers for our drinking and bathing water. I get my water from a well (then filter, bleach, or boil to make it potable), but have been toying lately with the idea of building a cistern. Rainy season is coming on fast, and it makes sense to have some type of sanitary way to catch rainwater.
We were tossing ideas around about design plans for cisterns, when for some reason, I realized: This is a weird conversation. Weird by American standards, that is. I mean, there are still some cisterns left in America, but wells are pretty much a thing of the past, and I’m not sure there’s anyone who physically goes to a river to get their drinking water anymore (other than backpackers and that’s mostly by choice). In fact, before coming to Togo, I’m not sure if I ever seriously thought about where my drinking water came from, or how lucky I was to be able to drink water directly from a tap.
And now it’s strange to think that when I go home I won’t have to think about filtering or bleaching water anymore. Normalcy is relative, I’ve come to realize. Strange how easily we can adapt! Things like eating unidentifiable meat, taking cold bucket baths under the stars, spending ten minutes negotiating for the price of a five minute motorcycle ride, having a child carry my bag for me, or jamming eight people into a car built for five have now become, well, just life.
P.S. I had a great picture of a monkey sleeping on a basket outside of my house that I wanted to post with this entry but the internet is too slow to upload photos. Oh well. A la prochain!
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Finally, internet fast enough in Sokode to do a blog posting! No pictures, though....That will have to be another time.....
Am finally back home after a long, busy summer! Except for 3 weeks in July, I’ve been out of village a lot these past few months. I was starting to feel like a nomad, going from 3 hectic weeks of Camp UNITE during June to a week of computer camp for high school students in Sokode in July to a fourth of July party in Tchamba (Drew’s village) and then back to the south for the last 3 weeks of Camp UNITE in early August. It’s good to be back home and have a chance to breathe again.
So Camp UNITE is officially over for 2009. Thanks so much to all of you who helped donate to the cause. Camp was a huge success this year—180 kids from all over
Being an organizer for Camp UNITE was an exhilarating, exhausting experience. As much as my
It’s unclear what evidence there was that the Fulani killed the woman in Pagala, but almost immediately after the woman’s funeral, her family group launched a retaliation campaign against the Fulani, killing all the cows they could find. Unfortunately, they killed the wrong cows, and ended up dragging another ethnic group—the Leso, the rightful owners of the killed cows—into the conflict. The chief tried to mediate, and ended up being blockaded in his house by an angry, violent mob. The situation spiraled to the point where Togolese police were called in, barging through the town with tear gas, sirens, and batons.
It was a tense week for us at Camp UNITE. What was happening in Pagala didn’t directly involve us, but it was hard to ignore to the war cries, screaming, and sirens that we were hearing all day. We were in constant communication with the Peace Corps office in
Luckily, whatever was happening in Pagala calmed down by the end of the week. I’m not sure exactly what deal was struck, but by the next week, life was back to normal. That first week was probably the most dramatic of all the problems the organizing team faced, but, like camp in the
And now I’m back to Wassarabo, settling back into my quiet village life. I’m doing my best to finish up the budget reporting for UNITE, but the going is slow, especially without electricity. Rainy season is officially upon us and everyday is full of rain, or so it seems. My roof is flooding and my latrine is leaking, but it’s nice not to have to worry about the well drying up, for once.
Even with the rain, everyone in Wassarabo heads out each day to the fields, leaving our little village with a ghost-town like feel. There’s not a whole lot for me to do in Wassarabo until farming season ends and school gets back in session at the end of September, and it’s nice, after such a busy summer, to have some quiet time. I’ve been doing a lot of work with Moringa, dubbed “the Miracle Tree” by some NGO for it’s amazing resiliency and unbelievable nutrient content, and have found the people of Wassarabo to be fairly receptive to planting and growing the tree (Moringa is actually really interesting -- check out this website if you want to learn more about it http://www.treesforlife.org/our-work/our-initiatives/moringa). I’ve also been doing some nutritional work at the clinic, trying my hand at agroforestry, and have generally just been enjoying hanging out at home.
Ramadan started this past week, so life in my Muslim village is now even quieter than before. Unlike some of the Sahalian countries,
The exception to this rule in Wassarabo are the government employees—the teachers and the one village nurse and their families—and, of course, me. None of the teachers in Wassarabo chose to live there, but were rather sent to work by the Togolese government.
The fonctionnaires, as the government bureaucrats are known, and their families are somewhat set apart from the rest of the Wassarabo population, partially because of language and religion, and partially because they tend to be more educated and slightly wealthier than the villagers. The relationship between the mostly Christian fonctionnaires and the people of Wassarabo is for the most part fairly harmonious. The fonctionnaires and their families are respectful of the villagers and the villagers, for their part, don’t seem to mind that the village nurse (a Catholic woman who lives by herself in Wassarabo during the week and commutes back to her family in Sokode for the weekends) or any of the teacher’s wives don’t cover her head.
I think it’s partially because of the precedent set by the fonctionnaires that allow me to get away with not covering my head on a daily basis or fasting for Ramadan. I’ll cover my head when I go to any event that’s formal or religious, and I occasionally will go to prayer at the Mosque on Friday afternoons, but I’ve found that Wassarabo is a remarkably tolerant place when it comes to religion, particularly the religion of outsiders. I know a lot of Peace Corps volunteers that live in wealthier, more urban Christian communities who find the churches in their communities to be stifling in their proselytizing. In Wassarabo—my tiny, conservative Muslim village--I’ve never once felt pressured to become Muslim, or pray on a daily basis, yet I’m always welcome at any religious gathering.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure that I entirely understand the Islam that’s practiced in Wassarabo. I’m well aware that the way Islam is practiced in Wassarabo is closely linked to the culture of the Kotokoli (the ethnic group in Wassarabo), but I know nothing about the history of Islam in
Thanks to everyone for your support! It’s still wonderful to get emails and letters from all of you and to hear how life is treating everyone back home. Keep the news coming!
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
I spent all of April and most of May in Wassarabo, finally feeling like I was getting the hang of things. The slow, slow pace of rural life is still wearing , but sometime in early April, I stopped fighting it and just let myself roll with the way life works here. I still get annoyed and bored in Wassarabo, but I’m less frustrated and far more patient, which is something to be proud of, I guess. I wouldn’t exactly say that my calendar was booked or anything, but sometime around April, my village life started to feel pleasantly full.
April began with a huge fete in Wassarabo, with people pouring into our tiny village from all corners of West Africa. It was a huge party, with people decked out in their finest clothes, selling food that I had never seen outside of Lome (avocado and bean sandwiches on crusty bread! So delicious), dancing, singing, and straight-up partying (Muslim style, of course) for three full days.
Wassarabo felt like a whole new place. All of the village girls had new complets made with matching fabric, and I, of course, jumped on the bandwagon and got a new fancy outfit made out of the same cloth. It took me a few days to figure out exactly what we were celebrating (straight answers here are frustratingly hard to come by), but I finally determined that this huge party was basically a family reunion. Every member of the Sando clan—the dominant family group in my village—was there to party, celebrate, and check in on each other’s lives.
It took awhile for the village to return to normalcy after the chaos of the party, but once life got back to normal, my own life fell back into a nice routine. My work and life in village revolves mostly around the school, and I spent April and May teaching daily (English and life skills), helping kids prepare for their end of the year exams, and holding meetings for my peer educator group.
My little group of peer educators has been one of my most successful projects in Wassarabo. The group is made of 15 of the smartest and most motivated kids at the school, and while I would love for it to eventually evolve into a community service group, it’s basically more of a club right now. We meet every week to play games, put together sketches, do life skills style activities (anything ranging from good communication skills to nutrition to HIV/AIDS) and talk about being a teenager in Wassarabo.
There are some pretty cool kids in the group, and I hope things will pick up once school restarts in September. Our last meeting for the year was at the end of May, and I haven’t been able to get them all together as a group since then. The official last day of school in Togo is not actually until July 17; In Wassarabo, however, school unofficially ends as soon as the end of the year exams are over in early June. Wassarabo, after all, is an agricultural community; it’s a tiny isolated little village surrounded by miles and miles of corn, wheat, peanut, and yam fields. In late April and early May—when the rains are just starting to fall—a struggle emerges between the school teachers and the community. School is not over and there is still much ground to cover in the curriculum, but the parents need the labor on the farms. By early June, though, the teachers just gave up.
I, however, actually missed the unofficial last day of school. I left Wassarabo at the end of May, having wrapped up as much of my work as possible at the school, for an unprecedented month-long trip away. From the end of May to now, my life has been a whirlwind of travel and movement.
I left Wassarabao and headed south to Lome, stopping along the way to visit a few fellow volunteers and to celebrate all the PCV May birthdays (there were a few of us) at a regional party in Sotouboua, a little city along the Togolese national road. It is so interesting to visit fellow volunteers and see how different our lives are even in this small little country! My life in a small rural Muslim village is so strikingly different from that of a PCV living in a southern Christian city. Tiny Togo is so culturally and ethnically diverse, and traveling really hits home how arbitrary the borders of this country really are.
I finally made it down to Lome, where I embarked on another grand adventure: Leaving Togo. My Dad and stepmom had planned a family trip to Amsterdam for Memorial Day weekend and, believe me, no one in the family was more excited than me about this trip. My first time since I started my service leaving Africa, seeing my family, taking a hot shower, eating good food, and wearing pants and make-up! I was almost in shock boarding the plane in Lome.
The trip was a short and lovely one—only 5 days and packed full of family, friends, food, and sight-seeing. It was so wonderful to see my family, hug my little sister, and catch up on life with everyone. What made the trip complete was seeing three of my best college friends—Emily, Emma, and Maura—who are all living in various corners of Europe and who make the weekend trek to Amsterdam to see me.
Amsterdam itself was a cool little city, and I would love to return to explore it sometime when I’m not incredible over-whelmed and culture-shocked. To be honest, all I really remember about the city itself is that it was very quiet, very clean, and had great food. I spent most of the time staring in awe at the neat little streets and beautiful building, and finding it impossible to believe that this orderly, clean city could exist in the same world as Sokde, my loud, jumbled, dusty regional capital in Togo. I honestly felt like I had entered into some weird time warp.
As interesting as Amsterdam was, the best part of the trip was seeing my friends and family (and, of course, the food and hot showers!). I though that coming back to Togo was going to be impossibly difficult after getting such a tease of what my old life was like. And I’ll be honest—the day before I left I had fantasies that my flight from Amsterdam to Paris would be delayed and that I’d miss my connecting flight to Lome (through no fault of my own!) and be forced to stick around Paris for a full three days on Air France’s dime until the next Paris-Lome flight was scheduled to leave. No such luck, however. My return trip to Lome was a smooth as could be.
Luckily, I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself when I got back to Togo. My huge national summer camp project—Camp UNITE—began a week after I got back from vacation and I spent that time running around Lome in a frenzy, buying supplies, organizing and photocopying documents, finalizing schedules, and negotiating countless other logistical details. Rose—a fellow UNITE organizer—and I put in long, hard days in Lome and were flat-out exhausted by the time we loaded up all the boxes and began the 5 hour journey north to the Peace Corps Training Center in Pagala, where camp was going to be held.
But as exhausting and stressful as Camp UNITE was to plan, it was so worth it! Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone of you who helped make camp possible this year! It was far and away the coolest and most rewarding project I’ve worked on in Togo. I could write pages and pages just on what an amazing experience Camp was, but I’m going to save it all up and write a big camp UNITE blog entry at the end of August. Let’s just say that it was everything I could’ve wanted—tons of singing, dancing, playing games, being silly, and just having fun. Of course, this being Togo, things didn’t go entirely according to plan—we had to deal with a pretty disruptive (and scary) political riot in the community during the first week of camp, but that’s a whole other story in and of itself.
Luckily, camp isn’t over for the year quite yet! Because of scheduling at the Peace Corps Center, we were forced to split up camp this year, holding half the camp (for apprentices) in early June) and the student camp in early August. All of us organizers have a nice break for the month of July before the final push in early August. As much as I appreciate this down time, I can’t wait to head back to Pagala and get student camp underway. UNITE is such a wonderful program and I’ve already started thinking about next year, and how to make camp even better.
And that brings me to now, enjoying this month long break in between the 2 UNITE programs. I’ve been back to Wassarabo, where planting season is well underway, and everyone heads out to the fields from dawn to dusk. I’ve caught up with my students, inquired about their exams, and extracted promise from them to help me with projects once school starts, but I’m not planning anything too ambitious here during the summer months. Everyone is too busy planting. The village feels deserted during the day, except for the handful of women who stick around to prepare food and watch after young children. It’s been fascinating to see how the dry and dusty land has been transformed by the summer rains—everything is so green and alive, and it looks nothing like the village that I arrived in last November.
I’ve found a few other projects to keep my busy during the month of July, including helping a fellow PCV with a computer camp for high school students in Sokode. But August will be here before I know it. So, despite the many frustrations of life here, things are going well. I still love hearing from all of you, although I know that many letters have been getting lost in the mail. I’ve been managing to check my email once every 2 weeks or so (which is about the turn around for mail), so emailing may become the way to go. At any rate, please keep me up to do date on life! I miss you all,
Sunday, March 29, 2009
I’ve heard so many amazing stories from past participants about what an amazing and transformative experience Camp UNITE is for kids. Camp is completely FREE for Togolese kids, but we need donations from people like you back in the US in order to make camp run! It costs about $80 to send one Togolese child to camp, so even the littlest bit helps. The US Embassy and other Togolese NGO’s have already agreed to help fund a large portion of camp, but we need about $9000 to help make up the difference. So, please, please, please consider making a tax deductible donation to Camp UNITE through the Peace Corps website. Our project only went up online last week and we’ve already raised over $2000!
The link to make an online contribution to Camp UNITE PCP is (the project is in the name of Jillian Gleason, another volunteer organizers): PEACE CORP Partnership
The link for the Camp UNITE website (created by RPCV's) is : www.unitefoundation.org
Thanks for all your help and support!
As for what else has been going on in my life here in Togo: I've been traveling out of village a lot for the past few weeks, which has been a nice change of pace. I was in Lome for awhile doing work, and I had a great vacation in Ghana and a wonderful visit from Kerrie, an old camp friend, this past week. It was so much fun to see Kerrie and show Wassarabo off to her and her girlfriend. It was also so interesting for me to see how they perceived Wassarabo and Togo from an outsider's perspective. I've had a few fellow volunteers stay with me in Wassarabo, but Kerrie and Hazel were my first "non-volunteer" visitors! Wassarabo welcomed them with open arms, and I think Hazel and Kerrie were truly impressed with how warm and welcoming the village was.
They also got a great taste of "how to travel Togolese-style," on our trip down to Lome from up north this past Friday. We allowed ourselves two days to get from Wassarabo to Lome, which is more than enough time (from Wassarabo to Lome should never take more than 7 hours), and had a relatively pleasant experience on the first day. On our second day, though, what should've been an easy 2 1/2 hour car ride turned into a crazy 5 hour trip. We were jammed into a small, five person car (we actually had the back of the car all to ourselves, which is a luxury here in Togo--normally they force 4 people into the back and at least 3 people in the front), and stopped so many times for so many absurd reasons that I lost count. At one time we had to drive almost 20 minutes out of the way, to a random market in the middle of nowhere, to drop off this girl who was selling palm oil. We also had to switch cars because our original driver didn't have the right papers to get through a military check point and then ended up having to drive all around Lome before finally making it to the Peace Corps office. But the best part of the trip was definitely when our driver stopped to load up 4 loud, bleeting goats into the back of the car. The goats were tied together and were NOT happy about it, and spent most of the trip crying and trying to kick themselves free. Oh, Togo.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
- Started to learn how to speak Kotokoli, the local language in my village. French is Togo’s official language, but it’s very few people’s first language. In small, rural communities (like mine), French is pretty much never spoken outside of the school. So, I’m trying to learn Kotokoli.
- Gotten awesome at riding on the back of a motorcycle—the only way in and out of my village.
- Started teaching at the village school. I teach English to the older students, and teach “Life Skills” to all the levels. “Life Skills” is a Peacecorps curriculum that’s supposed to teach kids stuff like HIV/AIDS info, decision-making, health info, communication skills, etc….Imagine a middle-school health class curriculum.
- Learned how to carry a baby on my back. (This was not my idea. One of my students thought it would be funny.).
- Organized a Girls Soccer Club in my village. This, again, was not my idea, because, let’s be honest, I don’t really know how to play soccer. But the middle school girls were so excited about it and I had an extra soccer ball, so, you know, my village has a girls soccer team now. I’m the “Coach.” Ha.
- Planned an International Women’s Day Fete in my village on March 8. We did a big town meeting in the morning, complete with speakers and kids doing sketches, and in the afternoon, I organized a big match for the girls soccer team and a few neighboring villages. My team lost. Badly. Probably because I was their coach.
Anyway, I posted a bunch of pics on facebook, but thought I'd post some pictures of my house here, just so you could see a little bit more of what my life looks like. The below 3 pictures are of my main room in my house, which is huge and awesome. I have pictures of my bedroom and the outside of my house on facebook, so you can get a composite visual of what my house looks like. Seriously, my house here is great. No electricity or running water, but it's really well maintained and way bigger than anything I could afford back in the US...
All in all, things are going really well. Keep the letters and packages coming! Miss you all back in the US (or wherever in the world you may be)
Friday, December 5, 2008
yes, that is a togolese newspaper article featuring a totally random picture of me and some other peace corps volunteer at our official swearing-in ceremony yesterday. i'm wearing an african outfit completely designed and selected by my host mother. It was really cute, actually: my host mother and father had outfits made with the same fabric and we all matched for the ceremony.
i'm heading off to my village tomorrow morning to officially begin my life as a peace corps volunteer! My internet and cell phone access will be pretty limited from here on out. I'm about six hours north of lome, which is the only place i've been to so far in togo with high speed internet. sokode (the city closest to my village) has decent-ish internet, so i'll try to keep up with internet and blogging as much as i can. don't forget the power of snail mail!