Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Houston Celebrity

And it all comes round full circle...

Home for Christmas, from the other side of the World

See you all stateside this Thursday!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Au Revoir Togo!

Goodbyes in Togo are always complimented by fêtes. My last month in Togo was full of bittersweet moments with friends, colleagues and respected elders to celebrate the end of my service in Togo, say last words of wisdom and face the reality that Togo is really far away from home. Here are just a few of the many ceremonies and celebrations:

The last session with my seamstress apprentices that I'd worked with for the last two years. I taught them how to make popcorn and we ate and laughed. The hardest part was at the end when the director the center told me that I needed to lecture them about prostitution because he had driven by the center at night and seen the girls on the road.

The chief of Sotouboua thanked me for my service to his town. He bought a bucket full of tchouk (local beer) for us to drink together. He then performed a ceremony where he poured water on the ground to symbolically open up the path for me as I went on to my future endeavors.

A friend that I worked with at the mayor's office, Naka (middle), invited me to dinner of fufu (pounded yams) which she prepared with her mom and grandma.

The last night with my host family my host sisters showed me how to prepare pâte (corn mush) with fish and okra sauce for the last time. The littlest daughter dressed me up in chic African clothes like I was a mannequin and took pictures of me.

In Jonathan's village, his fish-farming group caught a bunch of tilapia that Jonathan helped them raise so that we could taste the delicacy one last time in a surprise party the morning of his depart. The party was orchestrated by Ahonsu (left), Jonathan's counterpart who is the sweetest and most dedicated man I met in Togo.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Habits I will have to unlearn

Imagine this:
I wake up late on a Monday for my normal American 9-5 job because I failed to be jolted awake at five a.m. from a mill grinding soybeans outside my window. I throw on some clothes I wore yesterday and don’t worry about taking a shower or even looking in the mirror. I run out to my bus stop and wait for the bus to arrive, and I wave it down. I ask the driver the price to get to my destination.
“$1.50 ma’am” he replies.
“What? That’s too much!” I insist. “Pardon!” I say clapping the backs of my hands together in the style of a beggar. “I want the real price, not the ‘white person price’”, I argue.
He stays firm with his original price, not willing to bargain, and I relent and get on the bus. I announce “good morning” to all of the passengers on the bus. I sit uncomfortably close to the person next to me and nod off, falling asleep on her shoulder. I jolt awake and see a bagel shop I’d like to stop at before I go to work.
“Driver, I’m getting off here,” I yell to the front of the bus. He ignores me, so I get off at the next stop. Before getting off the bus, I wish all the passengers a good journey. When I arrive at the bagel shop I walk up the counter to give my order. But before ordering my poppy seed bagel with plain cream cheese and a tall boy to boot, I ask the lady at the counter a few nice questions-
“How did you sleep?”
“How is your family?”
“How is your work?”
“How is your health?”
I am surprised by her abrupt answers and eagerness to get my order and move on to the next customer. I go to the next counter to pay. There’s a basket of bananas by the checkout counter. I pick one up and ask the cashier, “Present?” thinking that after spending so much money at his establishment I deserved a little something extra.
I go to sit down and eat, but before I bite into my bagel I announce to the room full of strangers, just to be nice, “Let’s eat!” offering everyone the opportunity to join in to eat my breakfast with me. I spot a toddler in the table next to me with his mom and I pick him up and put him in my lap and start playing with him. I give him a piece of candy from my bag and then give him back to his mom.
“Good Morning, I like your earrings”, I say. “You must give them to me.”
When I’m done eating, I leave the bagel shop and I spot a co-worker across the street. I hiss loudly at her, to get her attention and call her over. She comes to meet me and we start walking towards work together. She reveals a bottle of moonshine she had made over the weekend and suggests we go to the park and sit under a tree and drink a bit. I agree and we have a few shots- for the health. The conversation varies between talking about how fat each other has gotten to how much we paid for everything we’re wearing. I tell her I want to go to her house tonight for her to make me dinner. Then it starts to rain. We certainly couldn’t walk to work in the rain, so we stay under the tree a little longer, drinking a bit more, till it lets up.
Finally, when the rain stops we decide to head to work. I arrive to a very disgruntled boss and five people waiting for me to start a meeting we had scheduled the week before.
“Why are you late?” he asks.
I look at the clock on the wall; my cell was broken so I didn’t know the time. I realize it’s an hour and a half past the time I was supposed to arrive at work. I just shrug at my boss and pull out my million-dollar excuse, which works like a charm.
“C’est temps Africain”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Togo in Three Hikes

Spending time and exercising in the disorderly wilderness keeps me sane, and I’ve always sought out ways to escape civilization and de-stress in nature. My life in Togo is no exception and I’ve spent many hours exploring what’s left of the wilderness here. Recent estimates say that only about 13% of the coastal rainforest in West Africa remains, and most of that is on protected lands outside of Togo. This devastation is apparent as one hikes through what used to be rainforest and is now farmland, dotted with several 500 year-old trees awaiting their death sentence, to be made into a couch or bed and several bird species vying for survival. Yet some of the beauty and certainly my sense of adventure remain and what I’ve discovered through my recent rambling is priceless.

Summitting Mt. Agou
There’s no better position to be in Togo than on top of it all, that is, on top of Mt. Agou at 986m. It’s higher than the highest point in Ghana or Benin. Although the base of Mt. Agou is one of the most touristy areas in Togo, that is one of the only places Westerners care to venture outside of Lomé, there is no infrastructure set up to climb the mountain. It’s only a day hike, but guides are necessary because the trail leads many directions, through people’s houses, church yards, avocado groves and rocky terraces. We went to a bar where the owner found us two unemployed men to guide us up the mountain. They seemed nice enough, until half-way up the mountain they told us we’d have to pay them more than most Togolese made in one month for the 3 hour hike. Like any seasoned Peace Corps volunteer would, we told them that must be a joke, and they proceeded to lead us up the mountain like we were in boot camp. We didn’t let this ruin the spectacular views. From the ridges, you could see the topography of most of the Western Plateau region of Togo. We passed through two small villages with electricity (!) where fifty year old ladies ran up and down the trails with hundred pound avocado sacks on their heads. The houses were terraced into the mountains, and unlike most modest dwellings in Togo, were landscaped with an array of flowers from lilies to hibiscus. About a mile up the trail a large cement church was being built for all the mountain dwellers. When we were about spent we reached a paved road that had a small market on it and a lady sold us ice-cold bissap (hibiscus juice), which gave us the rush needed to get to the summit. When we reached the summit, a policeman who requested either a ticket from the local authorities or a bribe that he could pocket on the spot stopped us at a gate. Past the gate were a few satellites and a cement marker by the French, which declared the highest point in Togo and then at a more elevated point, a cement marker by the Germans declaring the highest point in Togo. We kept our money and skipped the colonial monuments in exchange for more time with views from the treetops.

Mermaid Hunt
A friend invited me to her village in the mountains the border Ghana in the southwestern Centrale Region of Togo with the goal of uncovering a mermaid in a wading pool nearby. I have always been fascinated with mermaids, having spent countless hours daydreaming and staring at the ocean as a beach lifeguard in Galveston, Texas. I’ve always joked (or secretly wished) that I’d like to become a mermaid one day, so the prospect of seeing one was an offer I couldn’t pass by. We were lead down a forested stream by our Togolese friends serving as our guides who explained to us that the French had come here many years ago and captured the merman who used to live with his wife, the mermaid in the wading pool. They brought the merman back to France to put him on display at a museum, and now the mermaid remains alone in Togo. Leave it to the French to steal the merman, mind you, this is one of the nicer things I’ve heard people accuse the French of. We continued along the winding stream, balancing across logs to pass from one side to the next on our quest to discover the siren. Through the verdant green foliage we walked until we finally reached a clearing where the stream diverged into many directions, disrupted by a grand outcropping. Just below, the mermaid lives. We bushwhacked down a hill to her tranquil wading pool and watched the water in silent anticipation. After several minutes, our Togolese friend asked if we really were expecting to see the mermaid? Of course, why would we have come to her pool? He seemed exasperated that we didn’t understand that seeing the mermaid involves a 48-hour ceremony initiated by the village spiritual leader to coax her from her warm waters. Of course. After the French debacle, foreigners don’t have such a good track record around here therefore the Togolese mermaid will probably ever remain legend to us.

The MAP Walk
One of Peace Corps/Togo’s main programs is called “Men as Partners” (MAP), which promotes healthy living and healthy relationships for men and their families with the goal of bringing about gender equity and better family relations. With this objective in mind, we set out, four idealistic Peace Corps volunteers and one enthusiastic MAP trained Togolese homologue to spread the good word of MAP to small villages in mountains of the western Plateaux region of Togo. Peace Corps rarely puts volunteers in places that cars can’t access and cell phones don’t work so our audience would be villages who rarely, if ever, see Westerners. As we hiked about 5k up the steep plateau to a village inaccessible by anything with wheels we ran into several isolated homes in the middle of the woods. We were barraged by gifts, consisting of bananas, avocadoes and manioc, by the mountain people who were honored that we chose to walk a path that ran next to their homes. We were offered palm wine, distilled palm wine (sodabi), tchouk (local millet beer) and boxed wine. We ate and ate and drank and drank. Those with the least to give are the most generous, though there is no shortage of fruit and palm trees in those mountains. At our destination village, our audience consisted of a schoolroom filled with men and women of various ages including the village chief who had set up the event. We challenged our audience to examine their ideas and attitudes about gender. “Should the woman cook all the meals and clean the house or should the husband share the work?” we asked. We were a force to reckon with, a Togolese man championing men caring for their daughters, an tall, an American male volunteer dressed like a Togolese chief, and three female girl’s empowerment and education volunteers passionate about leading girls to a brighter future and armed with French vocabulary to describe anything from the reproductive system to women’s rights. Women in the room stood up and shamelessly expressed themselves in front of men, perhaps for the first time. Some men seemed to get the picture, while others seemed too drunk to know where they were. They would have had us stay all day but we were kicked out of the classroom when the children returned for school after their lunch break. The villagers were starving for knowledge and asked us to come back to talk more about health. They seemed so far away from the modern world up on that mountain. We staggered down the mountain and called it a day well spent.

“You pass through places and places pass through you but you carry them with you on the soles of your travelin’ shoes”
- Be Good Tanyas

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Dead Animals

Did you know that if you grind a horse’s skull into a powder and eat it with honey you’ll be better at sports? Neither did I, until I visited the Fetish Market in the capitol of Togo, Lome, where voodoo priests set up shop to lure tourists and those disenchanted with Western medicine to buy dead animals.
I’ve had to examine my own beliefs towards animals since joining Peace Corps, namely- which animals are worthy to die, worthy to eat and worthy to live? When I came back to Togo from my sejour in America, many insects and spiders took up residence in my home. I get an uncanny amount of pleasure out of watching a hornet writhe after I spray it with insecticide. I almost rented a room in a hotel for the night after finding a giant scorpion lurking behind my bookshelf and one in my laundry basket. And while I’ve been lucky enough not to have mice in my house, I’ve spent many a night in other volunteers houses kept awake by the antics of the nocturnal rodents. One time, I grabbed a stirring spoon out of a cabinet of another volunteer’s house, and found that my fingers were enveloped in something furry- a rotting mouse corpse.
But what disturbs me most is the eating of intelligent animals that many consider family members. In the past week, I’ve been offered to eat a sauce which included a meat which the server themselves couldn’t, or wouldn’t, identify. It was just some animal they killed when walking around in the bush. It was possible to politely avoid eating to the meat, but it would have been very disrespectful for me to turn down eating the sauce. I diverted my eyes as my friend gnawed at the ribs.
At the Fetish Market in Lome, the guide swears that all the dried up animals- ranging from monkeys to chameleons- were killed by natural causes and brought in by innocent farmers looking to make a little extra money. Fat chance. The love for eating exotic animals is universal, not a barbaric practice only found in certain corners of the world. When given the opportunity to try dog meat, many of my volunteer friends accept. My rule is, if it’s endangered or once had a name, don’t eat it. I will admit I once tasted a bite of giant bush rat, agoutille, but at night I lock my dog, Tchouk, in the house for fear that my neighbors might get the hunger.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lavez les Mains!

On November 5-7, I did a USAID-funded project to improve the hygiene in five primary schools in Sotouboua. There are many primary schools in Sotouboua, so I chose the schools based on the presence of latrines at the schools and the commitment of the directors of the schools to enforce new hygiene practices. I worked with an NGO, Education, Sante et Developpement (ESD) and their partners including a state nurse, hygiene inspector, school directors and other health experts who served as trainers. The first day, we trained four teachers from each school on how to improve hygiene and establish Health Clubs in their schools. The second day, we worked with the students on good and bad hygiene practices through science experiments and tours of the school's facilities. The third day, the students and teachers met at their home schools with one trainer to make a map of their campus and create a plan of action to improve the cleanliness of facilities and hygiene practices in their schools. I purchased "laves-mains", handwashing stations, for four of the schools. In the fifth school, I hired a mason and plumber to fix the laves-mains that had been built by a different NGO and since broken. I've already started following up with the schools to see their progress and I've been impressed by the energy and the commitment of the staff and students in each school.

I did a demonstration using "charbon", or coal, to show how germs spread
This is the lave-mains that I had repaired
Kids testing out the new lave-main
The kids recieved bandanas at the end of the training to identify them as health peer educators in their schools
Welcome to the Project to Improve the Health of Children in Schools!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Dance Off...to America

Last night, I organized a World Aids Day Dance-Off with the other volunteer in my town and a few Togolese colleagues.  Four groups of kids competed in traditional dance and also in modern dance- which for most of them was break dance.  A girl's club that I've been working with for about a year now put on two plays, one about the discrimination towards people infected with HIV/AIDs and one about practicing fidelity.  We also had a a condom race, where volunteers from the audience formed two teams to see which team could put on and take off a condom from a wooden penis first.  There were prizes for the participants- tshirts and pens with catchy messages about wearing condoms (like a condom-man giving a thumbs up).  I hope that through fun, humor and interactive games the audience took away at least one new piece of knowledge.  

It felt like a perfect last celebration before my departure to the United States in in two days... I hope to catch up with all my friends in family over the phone or in person so be expecting a call from me : )