Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Vote for CNN Heros

Hello, all -

Ok, I apologize for writing again so soon after that painfully long update yesterday, but here I am anyway. I just got the following email Liz McCartney, my former supervisor at the St. Bernard Project in Louisiana, where I volunteered for about six months before Peace Corps. Here's her email:

"I am writing to ask you a strange favor. I was selected as one of
CNN's Top 10 Heroes of the Year. This came with a $25,000 award that I
donated to SBP. I am now in the running for the $100,000 prize which
will determined through online voting. And there is no limit to the
number of times you can vote. So, I am writing to ask if you will go
to and vote for me. (Louisiana style -- early and
often!) If you could spread the word and encourage your family and
friends to do the same, I would really appreciate it. As you can
imagine, SBP could really use the $100,000 prize!

Things at SBP are going well. We celebrated the completion of house
151 last week. We are moments away from opening a mental health
clinic, developing affordable rental housing for seniors and, most
likely, opening operations in New Orleans..."

So you can see they have come a LONG way from eight volunteers a week and operating out of two rooms in an old appliances repair shop (although they might still be there, I'm not sure). Please take the two minutes it will take your speedy internet to get you to the website and vote. And then tell your friends!


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Worst Week Ever/Longest Update Ever

After a great weekend of work and play in Dapaong, I joined six other volunteers and six Togolese counterparts on Savanes’ AIDS Ride 2008. We biked out of Dapaong on Monday morning at 7:30 a.m., and thus began the worst week I’ve had in Togo.

I’m afraid this update may come off as nothing but complaints and whining, but at least some of it is legitimate. Bear with me.

The first day went fine, with the exception of an hour-long lunch delay. The AIDS talks went well all week, although we had to cancel a few due to logistics. We stopped for the night at a school in Namoundjoga, somewhere south-east of Dapaong, showered, ate dinner, then relaxed while the counterparts met with our coordinators (two volunteers).

This is where things began racing downhill. The counterparts expected per diem, which was not in the budget. The coordinators promised to try to make arrangements. I learned about this later, as we weren’t invited to the meeting and I was busy falling into a Benadryl-induced sleep. I had nearly crossed over into unconsciousness when I heard what sounded like bikes falling. It took a few minutes, but I eventually convinced myself that I should get up and try to help with whatever was happening.

What happened did involve bikes and falling: one of our coordinators passed out while moving a bike, then had some kind of a seizure. The chase car driver drove the other coordinator and I out until we found cell phone coverage and could call Lomé. Our medical officers decided our friend should go back to Dapaong that night, then down to Lomé the next morning, accompanied by another volunteer. So in one night we lost two volunteers, and our second coordinator was left to deal with budget issues, food arrangements, village chiefs, volunteers and difficult counterparts – with only my weak attempts at assistance as comfort (Coordinator #1 is now in the States for medical examination, and we sincerely hope she’ll be rejoining us soon).

So, terrible start to the week there. The next day was OK, but of course, Coordinator #2 was stressed all week, and I was stressed for her. Wednesday was the worst for me. I woke up tired, then thought I was going to faint or vomit before the first presentation. I did neither. Instead, after one of our skits, I turned to exit the “stage” and slammed my head into a beam with such force that I ended up on the floor. Everyone panicked. A counterpart nearly pushed a desk on me trying to help. Very, very embarrassing – I shed tears for my dignity, but I wish I had a video tape of this so I could watch it and laugh.

Lunch was disappointingly disgusting that day – even the Togolese didn’t like it (and oh, how they complained about it in our final meeting). Then, on the bike to Mango, our sleep-over spot, I decided to drive through the middle of a puddle. It was a very deep puddle that soaked my shoes and half my bike bag. Granted, this and the following incident are due to my own stupidity (who drives through the middle of the puddle?!).

Certain people will remember an accident in 2005 involving a new digital point-and-shoot and sledding outside Geneva. It appears I do not learn from my dumb mistakes. I recently purchased (finally) a lovely digital SLR Nikon camera that I had to take on AIDS ride (I did lose my little camera’s charger, and we had to have photos for the sponsor, so I did actually have to bring it). I was very careful all week – very careful, that is, until Wednesday night in Mango when I walked away and the bike fell on the cement. And the camera was on the top… and the lens broke (not the glass). It still works well enough so that I can take pictures, but it’s certainly broken. I am still berating myself for being an idiot and now have to figure out how to repair this from West Africa.

So, in addition to my friend seizing, I gave myself another reason to be blue. Then, on Thursday morning, a counterpart flipped his bike and split his large toenail in half. That evening, a volunteer crashed and lost a camera. Amazingly, two villagers found and returned it the next day.

After dinner Thursday, the counterparts tricked Coordinator #2 and I into a meeting. We wanted to play with numbers that night and meet the next morning to give them their money. That afternoon, I’d given the driver money to buy watermelon, so we thought we’d eat ours with them. Instead of a fun chat, we had a serious complaint session.

It started out with someone, representing the group, reminding the coordinator that they were still very concerned about per diem (as if she’d forgotten and hadn’t stressed every day over how to get them something) and that they couldn’t go back to village empty-handed. This is a valid point – they could all have been doing something else that week, and Peace Corps events usually include per diem. Still, certain counterparts had been told that there would be no money, that this was volunteer work, that if they had other things to do, they should do those activities. But they came anyway and acted surprised when they heard there was no money.

They complained about the food, how it was often late in arriving and how it was terrible on Wednesday.

“We only tried it because we didn’t want to hurt your feelings. It gave us diarrhea. That’s not ok.”

“Do you think I wanted to eat that?” I replied. “Will and I ate more than anyone, and we don’t have diarrhea.” What I thought was, “Do you think I enjoy leaving pizza for doughy food with gluey sauce that gives me diarrhea for TWO YEARS? Many things could have caused the diarrhea.”

After many more complaints (pain, fatigue, heat, lack of “encouragement,” which means money), our coordinator spoke. She explained that it was very hard losing a close friend and co-worker to a seizure at the beginning of the week. She hadn’t been in charge of money, so now she was trying to figure that out, as well as everything else. She mentioned that it was discouraging to run around doing everything and never hear a “thank you”. Finally, she said that for Americans, volunteer work means free, and we didn’t realize that it’s not the same here, even if you tell someone there’s no money.

The responses to her show of feelings were, “Volunteer work is for rich people,” and “God will thank you.” This is where I left to cry out of frustration and rage.

Volunteer work is easier the more comfortable you are – if you work three jobs, it’s difficult to find time to work for free. I also think that any time I’ve volunteered, I’ve gotten something more than warm feelings out of it – credit hours, resume padders, experience. In Togo, it’s money. So I shouldn’t judge. But I did, and all I’m left with is, “Why am I wasting two years here, when I could be doing other work that interests me somewhere more comfortable?”

Anyway, we gave them about $8.00 each, plus their travel costs, mostly out of the coordinator’s wallet. The majority of them were still displeased and grumbly and almost refused to sign a shirt the volunteers gave to the coordinator as a “thank you”. After our morning presentations, I came back to find Coordinator #2 lying on a mat, finally knocked out from severe dehydration. She recovered enough to oversee the final presentation, which is grand, as I didn’t know exactly what to do.

So, that was my discouraging week. It’s unfair to let this effect my feelings toward my village, but I can’t help thinking that anyone who’s worked with me has been disgruntled because I didn’t give them any money. I have never wanted to go home as much as this week, but I’m sticking it out in Togo. Just maybe not in my village…

In September, I applied for a position with the organization Population Services International (PSI) in Lomé. They hire a volunteer or two each year to help with their various programs (you can check them out at So I would still be a Peace Corps volunteer but with a 9-5 job. I applied to work in their the HIV/AIDS education program, especially with youth and women. There is a chance I’d get to do photo and design work. I had my interview today and I think it went well. Before the interview, I was unsure about taking the job – I feel guilty about leaving village. But I think I can get over it. I’ve always wanted to work with an organization in the HIV/AIDS sector, and I think this would be great experience. I do, however, welcome any advice.

Until next time, and happy elections to all!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Week of AIDS activities

18 October 2008

I’m in Dapaong again, and it’s all for work.

On Thursday, my program director, Tchao, visited me in village. After quizzing me about my activities, eating watermelon (they’re back!) and visiting Saibou at the clinic, we went to Dapaong in a Peace Corps car. Life in Togo must be so different if you have a private, air-conditioned car.

Today we had our first “AIDS club” meeting, and I think it went really well. A little refresher: the club consists of eight volunteers who will meet once a month with between 50 and 100 kids from a Dapaong AIDS association, Vivre dans l’esperance. The kids are all “infected or affected by AIDS” and some are as young as seven, others as old as 20. The plan is to play games and have fun but also teach them useful information like income-generating activities, reproductive health practices, budgeting and so on. The seven-year-olds may just get games and songs.

Our first meeting consisted of ice breakers and group work. In the small groups, the kids were meant to brainstorm activities they’d like to do in the club. We got everything from playing soccer, dancing and singing to learning computer skills and teaching children to read. Then we had them think of potential names for the club and held an election. “Children’s Club” won, but since there are some very old children, we might combine it with “Leaders of Tomorrow”. Children and Leaders’ Club.

I think one thing I could have improved was the introduction of the club. The kids were a little unclear about why they were there, and I just launched into volunteer introductions without explaining Peace Corps or our vision for the club. Hopefully they’ll forgive me and come back next month.

AIDS Ride starts on Monday from Dapaong. This is the bike tour that volunteers do throughout Togo’s regions. We bike through villages and stop to do AIDS presentations, spending the nights in schools. Last year I got dehydrated and spent a whole day in the chase car and sleeping on a school bench. This year, I plan to avoid that by drinking ORS (oral rehydration salts, pretty disgusting) every day.

This will be my only bike tour this year. I decided to pass on Tour de Togo – biking the whole country once is enough, I think. However, it will take place again this November, and if anyone would like to donate a second time for girls’ education, we’re collecting. Let me know.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Another vacation!

9 October 9 2008
Remember when I said I would write more frequent updates? I’ve done really well so far on that promise, no?

I’ve just finished another vacation (I plan to return to village soon). My parents arrived in Ghana on September 25th and leave from Accra tomorrow. During their time here, I ran the marathon, then we went to the beach for five days, and then we spent a few brief days in Togo.

The marathon was basically what one would expect in West Africa. I spent the night with the three other Togo PCVs running the full marathon. Garth and Maureen, a couple who work in Ghana, both former PCVs, opened their house to us, which was super generous and very helpful. We woke up at 3 a.m. for our supposed 5:30 start in Pram-Pram. A van full of other PCVs picked us up on the side of the road around 3:30 and drove us to the village. Except we weren’t starting in the village, but at the Ghana Man Center. We eventually found that and at 4:30 were the first people there. No race officials. No one else.

Eventually more people showed up, but by 6 we started walking back in the direction we came. A bus pulled up, and a man leaned out and yelled, “You have gone too far! Did you see the white line? The starting line?”

We turned around and walked back, to find the white line that the guy drew about 10 minutes after asking us about it (the starting point had been marked by a pile of leaves and rocks). Once everyone else arrived by bus and van, we started – at seven, an hour and a half late.

Things went well for the first 10 miles or so. I stuck to my very slow pace and took advantage of the infrequent water stops. Fortunately, my parents and another couple, the Iwans, drove the course and gave everyone water when there were no stations. Without their help and cheering, those 26.2 miles would have been a lot more difficult and lonely. Except for that part where we ran through a market, along a traffic-clogged, two lane road. That wasn’t lonely, just extra challenging, especially since by then, everything hurt and I wanted to cry.

Anyway, we all finished and then ate lots of food that evening. I had a falafel, and about an hour later, when everyone else arrived, I had my margarita and nachos. And a brownie with ice cream. There were also chocolate bars in there somewhere.

The next morning, my parents and I drove five hours west to the Green Turtle Lodge, an eco-friendly paradise, basically. IT WAS SO NICE! They operate on solar-energy, have self-composting toilets (glorified latrines), hire local people in all kinds of capacities, and lead canoe trips, hikes and tours around the area. We went on the mangrove swamp tour, and I saw a monkey and a very large reptile (mom and dad were looking in the wrong direction both times). I went swimming every day, ate excellent food, wrote letters and read. I’m going back for Christmas.

We only spent a few days in Togo – went up on the “Lomé Limo” on Monday, spent a day in village, then came back to Lomé yesterday. My parents really liked my village, and a guy I work with treated them to guinea fowl and beers (I got beer, but no guinea fowl – even though it looked delicious. Still a strictly seafood “vegetarian”). The middle school president gave them a school tour, which means they visited all five classrooms and saw all 500 or so students. I think one day in Sagbiebou was exactly enough time.

Yesterday, a driver from Lomé picked us up to drive us back. Not 50 kilometers from my village, he hit a pothole and got two flat tires. I don’t think he knew how to change his tires – he didn’t know where to find any of the tire-changing tools in the car – because Dad and a guy on a bike did most of the work. Then Francis the Driver disappeared for an hour looking for a second tire, or getting it fixed, I don’t know. We made it to Lomé around 5 p.m., so it all worked out. Mom and Dad left for Accra around noon, and it’s back to normal life in Togo for me. So write me a letter, cause you know I get lonely.

Pictures from marathon are at and pictures from Green Turtle are at I hope those work for you.