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 psi.org). 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!