Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Goodbye Post

I’m writing this post from the Swiss Alps, which are not like Togo. Due to a baggage mishap, I arrived in Switzerland two days early. Morocco will have to wait until I have more time and maybe more money.

I can’t remember if I promised photos or not, but here they are anyway, some photos from all my Togo goodbyes, as well as a list I started about nine months before I could seriously begin thinking about leaving.

Things I Will Miss About Togo:

Entering Sagbiebou ("Gando Carrefour") from the south

1. My village - visiting and staying in my house after eight months of Lomé living brought out the nostalgia. I had to remind myself of heat rash, waiting for hours for meetings to start and sweaty hot season nights. Still, I had a good cement house (compared to some volunteers' village homes, it was big), a decent landlord, friendly neighbors and a beautiful night sky under which to take bucket baths.

Maimouna and Abdou-Razak in my compound yard.

Alima, Djibou, Izaifot and Hanatou

2. Friends - both in village and among the volunteer community. Maimouna and Zaratou randomly befriended me, and besides my neighbor, they are the women I loved most in Sagbiebou. When Maimouna was pregnant, she told me when she went into labor, she was going to make me come to the hospital with her. Then I moved away and could only get a phone call after from Zaratou's husband. But here is Abdou-Razak, and he is just a cute little monster. Also, my neighbors, Alima, Djibou and the girls, Izaifot and Hanatou, shared the strangeness of a Togolese village with me (they’re from Niger), took me to prayer on feast days and provided intelligent conversation about current events. But they cannot pronounce “Kentucky.”

Zaratou cutting up fresh wagash (cheese made by the nomadic Fulani people from cow's milk)

Zaratou and Maimouna with the fried wagash I was supposed to take to America for my family but ate in the car to Lomé instead

3. Street food - I will not miss the day-long trips up and down Togo, but I will miss the smorgasbord of random food pushed into the car window at stops along the highway. Boiled egg with hot pepper? Why, yes, I believe I will. Fried plantain chips? I’ll take two bags.

4. Cheap, fresh fruit - I know we get fresh fruit in the US. But where can I get a pineapple for 50 cents? And if this place exists, will the pineapple lady cut it up for me there and put it in a black plastic bag, “to go”? What about 50 cent mangoes the size of my head (ok, not my head, it’s bigger than average. The size of someone else’s head)? And cheap, huge avocadoes?

George, my host brother, Fridoline and Christine (neighbors) in Agou Nyogbo

5. Kids waving as you pass on your bike - make that kids in general, but especially the reaction of a group of children as you wave from your bike - all nine or however many hands shoot up and wave back. I'll also miss little neighborhood children running up and throwing themselves at my legs, shouting, "Liiinda! Liiinda!" or "Madame Awa!"

6. Ice cold soda on a hot savannah day - Beer's good too, but if I was having a freezing drink, I'd probably have biked to Mango, and there is nothing like a cold, cold Sprite after a 27 kilometer bike ride. And while we're on it, I'm going to miss my bike, and especially biking in the savannah.

7. Beach bar - Open-air bars line the first kilometer of road from the Ghanaian border leading to Lomé. A beer at a beach bar is a great way to re-enter Togo from Ghana or to spend a Sunday afternoon. Granted, vendors of all sorts of crap from sunglasses to stuffed animals will try to sell you said junk, but with the vendors comes the buffet of street food. And trash-filled though it may be, I will miss looking at the ocean over my beer.

Maimouna and Abdou Razak again, just because they're cute

So. There's my final, sentimental post for your enjoyment. I think it's better to leave the list of things I won't miss. When and if I get a new internet space, I'll send out that address, but at the risk of forever posting here things that will become totally unrelated to Togo, I'll try my best to make this my last post. Thanks to everyone who wrote me letters and emails, and thanks for reading.

Friday, August 14, 2009

All These Things I've Done (and didn't tell)

Now that I'm safely in Switzerland and out of Africa, I feel like I can share some of these close calls without jinxing myself or causing my parents sleepless nights. So here are four fun things that happened that I decided not to share until after leaving Togo:

1. Once in village, I fainted on my front porch. My neighbors had to lead me to the latrine and in my severely dehydrated state, I was convinced I had malaria and was going to die. But, I was just really dehydrated.

2. Shortly before I left village, I was walking around my house barefoot at dusk, about to leave for the market. As I stepped toward the door, I felt something under my foot and recoiled, thinking it was a very big cockroach. Instead, my flash light revealed a scorpion, which, after much hesitation and pep-talking, I killed with a running shoe.

3. My second night in Lomé, which was the first night I spent in the house after Christmas in Ghana, JT and two friends got held up at gunpoint at our gate at 3 a.m. No one was hurt, but they lost phones, an iPod and a camera. After that, we replaced the light above the door and had no more problems.

4. I got hit by a motorcycle biking home from work in February. He side-swiped me as I crossed into the left lane and I lost my balance and fell into the bushes planted on the median. I had one tiny scratch to show for it, unlike JT, who got hit by a car a few days later and had some nasty bruises.

And after all that and so many bush taxi rides up and down the country, I still made it. Whew.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Last post from Togo

Aaaand…. I thought about updating during the last two weeks, but I procrastinated and now it’s my last day in Togo as a Peace Corps volunteer. Actually, I’m not a volunteer anymore. I finished my close of service procedures and now I’m just an unemployed former volunteer (officially, a “returned Peace Corps volunteer”, or RPCV, but I haven’t returned yet).

Had I updated regularly, I would have given you better accounts of my farewell trips to Sagbiebou and Agou Nygobo, but now I’ll just say I went to both and said goodbye to my friends in village and my host family in Agou. I finished work at PSI on July 31st so that I could have ten days to travel and run around Lomé. I finished the traveling Wednesday night and have to finish the running around today.

This Saturday, we had a small goodbye party at the house. I decided to make samosas for the first time ever. They turned out really well, but they take a long time to prepare, so I spent half the party in the kitchen. A volunteer friend offered to roll sushi for me when I mentioned that I was going to serve sushi (veggie). He did sushi prep in a restaurant for a year, so the rolls were beautiful and much more professional than anything I would have served.

I feel like my last update in Togo should be more reflective than what I’m going to post today, but I’m exhausted from stress, dancing and my emotional roller coaster ride (from “Yay! I’m leaving! Cheese! And margaritas! Friends and family! No more ‘yovo, yovo’” to “I can’t believe I’m leaving. No more plantains and peanut sauce and street food. No more ‘yovo, yovo.’”). I’d like to write a few more updates, and there’s one I’ve been thinking of for a while that I can’t write until I leave. For now, fingers crossed for a safe flight. I’m spending three days in Morocco, then two weeks in Switzerland and then, finally, back to the States.

In my blogging (yeah, yeah, I know I don’t update enough to call myself a blogger) absence, here are some links to distract you from your work: a site for the Dapaong weavers that I created (in French only for the moment – please don’t click Google translate, it’s so bad. Just look at the pretty pictures).
Also, I posted the first Obama post at This Is Diversity. Someone from their site asked me to share my experiences in Togo there, but I only got around to contributing one article. Anyway, check it out, they have all kinds of interesting tid-bits there.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Obama Village: Not a Village

This Saturday, I biked about 30k north of Lomé to a sign I'd noticed pointing off the national highway to Obama Village. I've been wanting to go since March, to add to my photo collection of Obama things. I figured I'd find the village chief, ask him why they changed the name, what was the village called before, maybe have some local brew, and then head out again. I even bought bread, a standard gift, to present to him.

I arrived around 7:30 and pushed my bike down the path in the direction indicated, after taking the obligatory photo.

The first man I met couldn't tell me anything. The second one said there was no village, just farms. I asked if one was called Obama Village and he said something about one big farm, well, not that big, but...

The path to Obama Village.

Now, rather than imagining an interview with the village chief, I imagined talking to a farmer who'd named his farm Obama Village (and put the sign on the roadside). I followed the path past smaller turn-offs and one or two shuttered mud buildings. When the path ended in a cornfield, I turned around and followed the sound of voices. I found a hut, where I greeted a young woman and asked about Obama Village.

"It's that way," she said, pointing, "hold on."

She led me, still pushing my bike, down a path, two younger girls following us. They chattered behind us in Ewe*, and their conversation went something like this:

"Ewe ewe ewe ewe Obama Village. Ewe ewe ewe Obama Village ewe."

We passed a cluster of huts and picked up a man of about 20. I was disappointed that this hut cluster was not Obama Village. We continued, passing a woman in a field ("Obama Village!") and another attacking a young teak tree with her machete ("Ewe ewe Obama Village!"). We turned left and then right off the path, at which point I started wondering where they were leading me.

Fifty meters off the path, we came to a palm frond shelter where the young man, Yao, suggested I leave my bike, since the path was nonexistent. I did, and we continued another fifty meters to Obama Village.

That's it.

I asked who built it.

"The owner of this land."

"Does he live here?"

"No. He is in America."

"And the mason?"


We walked back, and when we arrived at my guide's home, I gave her the bread I'd bought for the chief of Obama Village.

"Thank you very much, Afi. You are the chief of Obama Village."

Yawa, Afi, my guide, Amelevie and Yao

I found out later from a Peace Corps employee that people are buying cheap land right now with the idea of building on it later. So in 10 years, maybe there will be an actual village to visit.

*Ewe is a local language spoken in southern Togo, Ghana and Benin. It's also an ethnicity. It's pronounced "eh-vay" and not like a female sheep.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Vacation photos

All the vacation photos can now be seen on Facebook, right here.

I also updated the last post on Obama after visiting an Obama barbershop in my neighborhood yesterday.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Obama in Ghana (and everywhere else)

President Obama arrives in Accra today, so it seems like an appropriate time to post my Obama photo collection. Since his election, I've noticed various businesses have adopted the name "Obama", so I started taking pictures. Here's what I have so far...

A building in Kodjoviakope, Lomé - I'm not sure if it's a hotel or just apartments. They completed construction since I've been here. In case you can't see the "Obama" here's a close up:

Cafeteria Obama in Dapaong

Obama hairdresser, also in Dapaong

A taxi driver in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso loves Obama, but forgot to spell check.

A sign in the Kokomlemle neighborhood of Accra, Ghana, advertises the Obama Inn, bar and restaurant.

Elom the barber and his barbershop in the Tokoin-Gbonvie neighborhood of Lomé.

Mr. Elom said he changed his barbershop's name eight or nine months ago. Before "Obama", he said he just wrote his own name. Why did he change it?

"Because I love him! I love him too much!"

A sign off the national highway points to Obama village, which is not a village.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Two More Cents on MJ

Because I can only assume that the American media isn't bombarding you with nothing but news on Michael Jackson's death, I just have to add more news from Togo. Actually, I only have this photo* I took of a business in Kodjoviakope, a neighborhood in Lomé

and this link to an article about Faure Gnassingbe's (Togo's president) statement about Michael Jackson's death. For the non-francophones, he's basically saying that MJ was an exceptional singer and dancer who "dug a canal" (my poor, literal translation) between black and white music.

"I've always been one of his fans. What was extraordinary about him was his ability to create bridges between black music, soul, funk and disco, and white music like pop and rock."

Thanks, Faure. And thanks to Melissa for the link.

*The store was closed because it was Sunday, not for mourning.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Back to Work

Vacation is over, Monday was my first day back at work and I have five weeks of work left and about six of Togo - not that I'm counting. Actually I'm really trying not to count, because then I have to think about paperwork and other things I'd rather ignore.

The parking lot at the Burkina-Niger border, where Amanda and I slept on Night One of vacation. See those guys sitting on a rock by the telephone pole? That's about where we put down our mat.

Male giraffes fighting in Koure, outside Niamey. Love that head-butt move.

Our trip was... well, until we arrived at Green Turtle, our last stop, it wasn't very relaxing. We were in a bus almost every day after leaving Niamey, and the one day we didn't have to catch a bus, I was sick and stayed in bed. This was the day we spend in Mole (pronounced Molay) National Park in northern Ghana. We spent the night before in the Peace Corps sub-office in Tamale, and when we left for the bus station to go to Mole, I realized I felt rotten. The ticket vendors told us to arrive at 1:30 for a 3 o'clock departure. We left around 4:30 and spent those three pre-departure hours waiting at the bus station, which doubled as a market. The ride to Mole included two hours on a paved road and then three special hours bumping along on a dirt road, with the latter part of the ride through the dark, African night. This while running a fever and having to pee. I advise travelers to Ghana to take the less frequent, more expensive STC busses when possible. MMT, the bus line we took to Mole and then Kumasi, is basically just a big bush taxi.

Peter and Amanda P. waiting in the Tamale bus station... hour three.

So I didn't go on a guided walking tour the next morning, but I saw elephants, wart hogs and water buck anyway. The lodge in Mole sits on a plateau that overlooks the park, and I saw two elephants at the watering hole. The water buck came out at dusk. The wart hogs like to hang around the lodge, and one elephant wandered up to say hi around lunch time. The roundtrip bus ride to the park was not worth my time in bed there, but the day off got me back in shape for more bus riding. If you're healthy and have more than a day (or a private vehicle), I would recommend Mole. Breakfast is included with the price of the room. That's always exciting, unless the breakfast is no good (my eggs, toast and tea were delicious, especially since I'd eaten next to nothing the day before).

After Mole, we trekked south to Kumasi, home of the largest market in West Africa. Half of our group wanted to spend a full day there, but Amanda and I woke up at 2:20 the next morning to catch the 4 a.m. bus to Takoradi so we could spend more time on the beach. This bus, an STC, was nicer than Greyhounds I've ridden in the States and was so air conditioned I had to thaw out when we arrived in Takoradi. From Takordi, we took tro-tros (Ghanaian bush taxis) to Green Turtle, where we properly relaxed by doing nothing for four days. The ocean was rougher than any other time I've been there, and after my first swim, I decided not to venture out beyond the breakers again (mainly because once I got out there, the only way to get back in was to let the waves do the work, and they treated me like a rag doll). From then on, "swimming" meant standing in the water, getting knocked over by the waves and then getting back up.

A mid-morning walk on the beach with Peter, Amanda P. and Amanda H.

The intrepid bus riders after dinner at Green Turtle.

From Green Turtle, I went to Accra to meet my friend John. Every time I visit Ghana's capital, I'm amazed by how it surpasses Togo. There's a mall! With a movie theater! And a food court! They have fast food establishments and internet businesses - not cafés, Busy Internet on Ring Road is too big to be a mere café - with internet that loads web pages before you age a year. There's also bumper-to-bumper traffic, pot-holed roads and shanty town poverty - it just comes with middle-class entertainment.

We got back to Togo on Thursday, and it's been raining almost non-stop since. That's good for temperatures and farmers but bad for tourism and malaria (and eventually it's bad for the farmers). When I say tourism, I mean it's difficult to show your visitor around town when the roads are full of lakes and mud. And when I say malaria, I mean more rain equals more mosquitoes equals more malaria. I leave you with this Togo Travel Tip: when visiting sub-Saharan Africa, always bring your malaria prophylaxis, especially if you don't plan on staying in air-conditioning all the time (even then). Yovos.

PS - I've been instructed to update more regularly, which I will try to do in my last howevermany weeks. If all the updates start annoying you, send me an email and I'll un-enroll (or whatever) you from the auto-update list. Also, there will be more photos.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Trip Awesome

So it turns out that traveling from Cinkassé (on the border of Togo and Burkina) to Niamey (the capital of Niger) is not really possible in one day - at least not if you take a bush taxi, which we thought would be a good idea.

Amanda and I took a bus to Koupela, which is half way between Cinkassé and Ouagaudougou. We got out here to take a bush taxi to Niamey. Had the taxi gone straight there, we could have arrived around 8 p.m. Instead, the first car dropped us off aboout two hours later in a place called Fada N'Guorma (maybe). Then we had to wait about two hours for the next car to leave. This car's driver was a wonderful man, who thought nothing of cramming about 25 people in his 15-seat car. Amanda and I were on the bench closest to the front, and I was pushed against the door. I spent a good part of the ride hanging out the window, because that was comfortable. Then, at one of our unexplained stops (where the driver picked up MORE people to shove in), the door fell off.

Because we stopped about three times along the way, we didn't even make it to the last town before the Niger border. There, the driver left us to sit while he unloaded all the yams we'd had underfoot before picking us up to take us to the station. I was hoping we could just spend the night in a cheap hostel or something, which another passenger assured me was possible. We got to the station, where someone told us we were going to continue (we had all already paid the full fare to Niamey). We got in another car - also overcrowded - and chugged along in the dark, all the way to the border. The guards collected our passports and identity cards, we pooled money so that they would let us go through with all the baggage on top of the car... and then the border closed. And Amanda and I spent the night at the border. In the parking lot. On a mat that someone lent us. I slept well until 2 or 3 a.m. when a semi pulled through and I decided it must be time to wake up. But no... it was not close to dawn and there were still several hours of tossing and turning and hugging my camera bag to my body left.

So! Lessons learned: if you don't want to go to Ouaga from Cinkassé to travel to Niamey, the Koupela bus leaves on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 8 a.m. To get this bus, you'd have to spend the night in Koupela, because I don't think the Burkina border opens before six. Bush taxis are a really rotten idea and bush taxi drivers are the same, it seems, in all francophone West African countries (in Ghana, everyone gets their own seat in the bush taxis). Finally, there is no where to sleep at the border of Burkina and Niger except the ground.

But when we finally arrived, we had showers, some beers, lunch, naps and then more beers at a bar overlooking the Niger River. Today we paid about $80 to drive out to see the last herd of giraffes in West Africa - very touristy, but very cool AND there was a baby AND two of them were fighting. Then we went to a mosque whose building was funded by the Libyan government and next we're going on canoe rides on the river.

We leave for Ouaga tomorrow morning on a bus. No more bush taxis for this trip.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Candles and Trees

Last weekend, I attended two large events, one for PSI and one for Peace Corps.

On Friday, PSI held its annual Candlelight Memorial ceremony, honoring those who have died of HIV/AIDS. Candlelight is an international event that has apparently been happening since 1983, on the third Sunday of May (visit the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial page for more information). We were a little late, with ours happening the last Friday of May at the Congressional Palace. PSI invited the organizations we work with to invite people to the event, which started with a march that I missed, because my duty was handing out condoms inside the venue.

As we've learned from previous events, freebies draw crowds (all invited participants received tshirts) and mobs. Condom distribution went fine until everyone arrived at once, pushed through the two entrances and decided they really wanted to get to their seats but also really wanted condoms. Security decided they should help me distribute from the middle of the stairs rather than at the bottom of the stairs, where I was getting smushed. Then a PSI employee started yelling at them, which started a shouting match with me still trying to hand out condoms between the two shouting parties. I hope this is the last time I ever get mobbed for free stuff in Togo.

I'd never been to an event like this in Togo (except for maybe that cryfest at camp last year), but as an American, "Candlelight Mermorial for Victims of HIV/AIDS" led me to expect a somber evening, despite the two musical guests. But people talked and cheered throughout the speeches and the moment of silence, and I felt it was all kind of a joke. Co-workers said it was an improvement from last year and generally thought it went well, though, so I guess I can only blame my Western expectations.

On Saturday, I went to Notsé, a town in the Plateaux region, to attend Moringa Fest. Two volunteers from my training group, Ashley and Danielle (remember Danielle from the last post, when she got married?) have worked with the moringa tree for most of their service. Moringa Fest was the culminating event of two years' of moringa-educating and promoting. Volunteers and Togolese counterparts ran stations that explained different benefits of the moringa tree: nutritional information, how to plant and care for the tree, how to dry the leaves and make powder, how to cook with the leaves, and how to use the seeds to purify water and make oil. There was a rowdy kids' section where volunteers (including roommate JT) tried to corral 50 children and keep them out of the adults' way. Throughout the day, on the main stage, volunteers presented their stations' lessons, and during breaks, people could visit the stations and get more information. There were also games like musical chairs and a moringa-themed song and poem competition to keep the mood festive. The moringa tree is called the "miracle tree" for all its uses and its leaves' high nutritional value. If Ashley and Danielle could just reproduce their event all over Togo, malnutrition might drop immensely.

Next Wednesday, I start my West Africa tour: Niger, Burkina Faso (we're really just crossing it) and Ghana. It's impossible to just get the Niger visa in Togo and you can't buy it at the Burkina-Niger border, so I bought the Visa Entente. This gets you a one-time entry visa for Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo and Côte d'Ivoire, which is valid for two months. Obviously, I don't need Togo, I already have a five-year Burkina visa, I don't really plan on going to Benin and U.S. citizens don't need a visa for Côte d'Ivoire. So I spent $50 for Niger, mainly because I want to see giraffes. But if anyone ever plans to travel to those countries, keep the Visa Entente in mind.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Finishing up, Peace Corps Style

So, approximately three months before our official Close of Service date (August 22nd, calculated by Peace Corps from our swearing-in date), we have a Close of Service (COS) conference. This involves going to a hotel by the beach and learning about all the medical and administrative things we have to do before we can get on the plane.

When I heard about COS conference two years ago from the volunteers that were leaving around the time I arrived, my reaction was, "Hotel by the beach? Food? Pool? I'm totally staying for that!" I realize that's not really great motivation for two years' service, and had I been utterly miserable in Togo, the idea of Hotel Novella Star certainly wouldn't have kept me here. But, I made it. And so did all these people:

That's 14 less people than we started with (we lost 15 from the original group and gained one transfer from Kenya):

For more comparisons, here's the original group of health (CHAP) volunteers at our swearing-in:

And now:

I had a great time hanging out with everyone one last time. We ended the week by celebrating a fellow CHAP volunteer's wedding. Danielle and Jorge met in Bolivia about seven years ago and have been carrying on long-distance since then. He joined her here in Togo in January, they got officially married in Ghana, and we had a ceremony on the beach in Togo (the first of many ceremonies? I think they're planning more in the States and Bolivia). Anyway, I took most of the wedding photos and you can see them in all their un-Photoshopped glory on Facebook, here, here, and here. Yes, there are three albums, and about a hundred variations of the following photo (that I obviously didn't take).

And that's about all that's new. I have some West African travels planned for June and a ticket out of here for August 11th. So... see you soon.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

What Happened in April

I know, I know - another month has passed with only one blog update. Here's a summary of April:

Easter weekend, I went to Agou Nyogbo for two volunteers' "fake wedding." They celebrated Togolese style, with heavy American influences (bridesmaids and groomsmen, shoving cake in each others' faces, etc.) Now they are recognized as married in the eyes of Agou Nyogbo, but nowhere else. You can see photos on Facebook .

That week, Togo made it into the international news (BBC) when Kpatcha Gnassingbe, the president's brother, became the victim of an assassination attempt. Actually, he was plotting a coup, and two days later, he ran to the US embassy, seeking refuge to avoid arrest. They got him anyway (read about it at the BBC ) and THEN found a bunch of weapons at his house ( article ). You would think this would all be very exciting or scary, but everyone carried on like nothing had happened. Just another day in Togo.

I finally, finally put out the second (and my last) issue of Perspectives. Here in Togo, we have many volunteer-published newsletters: Farm to Market for the Natural Resource Management and small business volunteers, the CHAP Newsletter for health volunteers, the the Griot an Onion-style satirical newsletter, and then, Perspectives. Perspectives prints volunteers' essays, poems, recipes - basically, whatever they want to submit. I became editor of the gender and development newsletter last March, and the Perspectives editor and I decided to combine our publications because neither ever had many contributions. We put out one issue in July, then procrastinated, and then she got medically separated right around the time we planned to work on the next issue (late October). Then it took me another four months to put the newsletter together, but it's finally out and it looks quite nice. If you'd like to see a copy, I'd love to send it to you, but I've had no success emailing it, because the file's too big. I'll take suggestions on what to do about that.

This week is our COS conference (Close of Service). It's from Tuesday afternoon to Friday at the Hotel Novella Star, which is outside of Lomé towards Benin. For three days, Peace Corps will tell us all about the things we have to do so we can leave Togo. This is the last time that everyone who's left from my training group will be together in one place. I think we're all having some issues realizing that our two years are almost over. I'll try to be better blogger and at least send some pictures out next week.

Finally, news from Sagbiebou: Zaratou's husband (I don't know husbands' names - my male neighbor is STILL "Alima's husband") called me on Friday to tell me that my friend Maïmouna had her baby. It's a boy, and since I've had no news since Friday, I guess everyone's still healthy.

I apologize for the lack of news and will try to do better in my last three months. I have an official COS date - August 10th. Now I just need a plane ticket.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Morning around Nano

A few weeks ago in Dapaong, I was finally able to check something off my To Do in Togo list. Near Nano, a village southwest of Dapaong, there are cliffs that shelter caves. The Moba, the dominant ethnic majority in northern Togo, hid in these caves during tribal warfare. Today, it is one of the few tourist sites that I'm aware of in the Savannah region.

Normally, getting to the caves involves a hike, but I got very lucky. A group of Rotary Club International/Public Health International members from Oregon were in Dapaong that week, doing lots of good work in Nano. I caught a ride with them and Will, the Nano volunteer, right up to the caves' gates.

I don't know what I was expecting, but I was surprised to see this elaborate ladder leading down to the caves.

Tom the Rotarian about to descend the ladder.

Our $4 guide led us to the cave and showed us where camp fires blackened the ceilings. We saw the food storage containers, and at Will's suggestion, I crawled through the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel used for sleeping. Turns out, I'm not claustrophobic, but I'm glad I'm not a Moba during tribal wars.

With Will at the caves.

After the caves, the Rotary folks visited a church and Will gave me a tour of Nano's market. He bought me some bean beignets and got himself pig's blood sausage. Ew.

He also shared all the excellent contents of his mom's packages with me. Thanks, Mrs. Vu! I think this is only the volunteer treatment, so don't expect candy on your tour. There are semi-cold drinks available in Nano, though. And blood sausage.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Here are some photos from the trip.

I made a kid cry at the clinic.

This is Alex, the birth assistant's nephew. I used to make him cry, but we're friends now.

From (l-r): Zaratou's husband, Maliki and some guy I don't know.

Zaratou lounging in the family courtyard.

Zaratou's courtyard with sheep.

With Maïmouna.

Maïmouna said, "This is Aziz's (her son's) future wife. Take her photo."

It's funny when the kids ride donkeys, except for when they beat them.

Izaïfot and Hanatou on their way to get their hair done.

Standing outside Dapaong feels like being in the middle of nowhere.

Quiktrip to Savanes

Isn’t it funny that when my access to technology increased, my updates decreased?

Last weekend, I went back to Savanes – two days of traveling, two of visiting. Actually, there was traveling involved every day. On Saturday, I took the Lomé Limo, a 15-place van hired by Peace Corps to go round-trip from Lomé to Dapaong twice a month. I got off in Mango, spent the night, then went to Sagbiebou for a short Sunday visit.

When I walked into my compound, Hanatou, the younger of the neighbor girls, ran up to me, completely naked as usual, and hugged me. I almost started to cry, it was so cute. I didn’t even care that she had food on her, as usual. People all seemed happy to see me again, although I guess I did a poor job of explaining where I went. A third of the people I talked to thought I’d gone on vacation to the States and others thought I’d left for good.

On the trip up, I’d bought bananas and bread to give to people, because when you travel, you’re supposed to bring something back – bread is very popular. But in Mango, Laura’s cat attacked my bread bag, and even after we put it in the pantry, it managed to crack open the door and remove a noticeable chunk from one of the loaves. So I had one less bread to give.

I toured the village, distributing my bread – my house, the clinic and finally, Maïmouna’s house. Together, we went to Zaratou’s, where we stayed for about an hour, chatting in the courtyard and eating soy. I met Maïmouna and Zaratou by the roadside where they sell yams, watermelons and mangos (seasonally, not usually all at once). Maïmouna is the one who hennaed my feet in September 2007 and Zaratou paid for it. They were my favorite women in village.

While sitting around at Zaratou’s house, a woman I know from the market came over, shouting about something. She ranted for a long time and eventually sat down on the porch with us. Zaratou’s husband explained that their sheep had wandered over to her house, where she was drying millet. The sheep, spying a tasty snack, ate the millet. Zaratou gave her a bucket of millet to replace what the sheep ate, but the whole scenario was so typical – why leave your millet out when you know that animals roam the village and will eat anything?

Maïmouna and I went to the market around 11, where I bought small, sad, pre-mango season mangos. Then we went to my house, which was all locked up, and took naps on my landlord’s porch. She passed out – she’s about seven months pregnant – but I couldn’t sleep in that heat. The whole day, I kept thinking, “HOW did I do this last year? It’s so hot!” My water bottle was empty by noon, and all I could think of while trying to sleep was cold water, swimming pools, juice and glass bottles of icy Sprite. I got a tan from walking around for a few hours in Sagbiebou.

Eventually, I gave up and went to the market to buy juice. The women make lime juice and juice from hibiscus, which they sell in bags. I bought some to share, went back to the house and sat with the neighbors until Maïmouna woke up. Then I went to Dapaong.

I had no real purpose in going to Dapaong, beyond seeing my volunteer friends and picking up the last thing I’d ordered from the tailor there. I wanted to be back in Lomé by Tuesday night, so I decided to leave Monday, go to Kara, and take the Kara-Lomé bus on Tuesday, which is more reliable than bush taxis. Forgetting what a trial it is to get from Dapaong to Kara, I only left around 4 p.m.

I’m not sure if I’ve described enough in my updates just how frustrating bush taxi travel is. The drivers stuff passengers in the cars – there are ALWAYS more people than seats – and then they let you sit there until they’re ready to go. They make frequent stops for no clear reason and leave you steaming and squashed in the car. If you get out and dilly-dally, they yell at you. Taxi drivers are some of my least favorite people in Togo.

This Dapaong-Kara ride was no different. I waited for maybe half an hour outside Dapaong (I like to wait by a technical school outside the city so I don’t have to deal with the men at the taxi station). Finally, a decrepit nine-placer heading to Kara rolled up, and I climbed in, sharing the back seat with two women and a baby. We drove four kilometers out of Dapaong, where the driver left us on the side of the road while he went back to Dapaong. He returned about 20 minutes later with more junk and more passengers in the car. I almost refused to go, thinking I’d just put myself through a Dapaong-Lomé ride the next day, but I really wanted to catch that bus. So I squeezed in, this time on the front bench, with the mom and baby and two guys. I got the pleasure of riding on the edge of the bench, perched right on the exposed metal hinge of the seat and seat back. For three hours, from Dapaong to Kanté, I sat with this metal bar tattooing my tailbone. I even got out my towel and used it as padding, but it still hurt. In Kanté, the woman got out, and I switched to her window seat next to a pane-less window (ok, that was not meant to be a pun. The window had no glass! But it was also less painful than the metal bar).

I spent the night in Kara and got up early to pay for my bus ticket. While waiting to check my bag, Fortune smiled on me and the head of PSI’s military outreach program sidled up to me.

“Hi! I have to stay in Kara today, but the PSI car is going to Lomé. Do you want a ride?”

And that’s how I got a free, air-conditioned ride back to Lomé.

I have some interesting work coming up in the next few weeks, both in Lomé and back in Savanes, if all goes as planned. I expect that will give me something to write about; I’ll aim for more than a monthly update.

Finally, and this is very late, but for all those who helped Liz McCartney of the St. Bernard Project win CNN Heroes 2008, here is a Thank You letter from Liz.

Happy St. Patty’s – we don’t celebrate that here, but I fully expect any able bodies to have a beer in my name, or at least catch a cabbage.

Monday, February 16, 2009

a fruitless quest

15 February 2009

A month and ten days after starting at PSI, work is still painfully slow. Before I started, I was sent a letter that outlined the work I would be doing. Last week, I finally took the list around to the people responsible for the different tasks.

First I talked to Charifat, who is in charge of the program for sex workers. My list says I’m supposed to “help with presentations during film projections for sex workers”. I went to one session with Charifat, and while it was interesting, it was all in Ewe. I asked her how I could help, despite the language, and she said she didn’t know. She didn’t express any other needs for the program, so I moved on to Valentin, one of the guys who runs the youth program.

For the youth, my work list says I’m supposed to help with supervision, especially with the supervision of the girls’ program. The youth program, 100% Jeune, consists of PSI-trained peer educators in schools across the country, who are required to do a certain amount of presentations a month. I’ve attended two supervisions with Valentin, showing up at the school unannounced when the P.E.s had a talk scheduled. Valentin gave tips at the end of the talk; I watched.

When I asked how I could help, Valentin asked if I would be interested in going on supervision trips in the “interior” (what Lomé people call the rest of the country) with him and the co-coordinator. I said I would love to, but what would I do? Because if I’m just going to watch, sending me would be a waste of PSI’s money. Then he said I might be able to organize an International Women’s Day event at one of the schools, if they decide to do it. I have a feeling this won’t happen (which is ok, because I’m supposed to go on vacation that week). On to the next task.

Ephraim, who edits the youth magazine, which I’m supposed to help with, gave me a list of the topics for the next issue, which will focus on promoting the HIV/AIDS test. When I suggested we include a testimonial from someone who’s taken the test on the page where a “specialist” will explain the test’s importance and how it works, my idea was rejected. Ephraim said the information had to come from a specialist. Later, I decided he misunderstood my suggestion and wrote him a note. I’m waiting for a response.

Finally, I reported to John, the head of communications, and told him about my unsuccessful quest for work. I suggested he give me the publicity materials to develop or revise (first task on the list) so I could start on that. He told me I wouldn’t really be able to do that until after everyone in communications (except JT and I, we weren’t invited) got back from this training they went to on Thursday and Friday. K, thanks, John! And back to trawling the internet for future job and graduate school possibilities.

Most of my work has been coming from Peace Corps. Last week, I went to the training for new CHAP volunteers in Pagala to talk about PSI’s family planning program. I got a ride Wednesday afternoon with the PC country director, thinking my presentation was on Thursday evening. Oops, no – no one bothered to call to tell me it had been moved to Friday morning. So I stayed in Pagala for three nights to give a 20-minute presentation. It’s ok, though – I saw friends and got free meals.

On Wednesday afternoons, I’m working at the PC office, helping with Friends of Togo (FoT) requests. FoT is exactly that – ex-volunteers, their friends and families, raising money for small Peace Corps projects in Togo (if you’d like to become a member, more information is available here, I think). My new job is to keep track of how much money we have, send volunteers the application, answer questions, call them if their projects are approved and keep a database of current, pending and completed projects. It also seems that if I don’t have any FoT work, I’ll be doing other busy work, like updating bulletin boards. We’ll see about that – I agreed to help with FoT, not busy work.

So that’s work. Yesterday, JT and I did photo and video for a PSI presentation for women at a factory. It was the usual HIV/AIDS prevention presentation – test promotion, male and female condom presentations. There was also a quick word from HIV-positive woman. I took photos, and with any luck, I’ll be able to do the same at Monday’s event at the port.

Last night, I went to another work-related event. PSI has different target groups – youth, sex workers, religious groups, truck drivers, the workplace and Men who have Sex with Men (MSM). Worldwide, PSI uses marketing and sales to tackle health problems. They sell products, from condoms and lube to multi-vitamins and mosquito nets. Peer educators for each target group educate the population on health issues and promote these products. The idea behind selling products is that if people buy them, rather than receive them for free, they are more likely to use them instead of resell them. Ok, that was a very long tangent.

Anyway, so I went to an MSM event, a Valentine’s Day party at a night club near my house (unfortunately, globalization has brought Valentine’s Day to Togo, to a certain extent. I’m sure it has yet to reach small villages). When you go out at night here, you don’t go out until about 11. We left for the club around 10, and because it rained, out of nowhere (it’s dry season), JT’s friend came and picked us up in his car. The rain delayed the start of the party, but by midnight or so, the club was very full. It was fun to see all the boys, a few girls, and a few boys-as-girls, all decked out in red and white (as a straight, white woman wearing purple and brown, I was the epitome of out-of-place). But by 2:30, I was all danced out and was falling asleep. Rather than risk getting mugged on the eight-minute walk home, I climbed into the back seat of the car and slept until 5:30, when the party ended and it was safe to go home on foot. I’m embarrassed that at 25, I can’t even make it through a whole night without dozing in the corner.

I have goals to strive for before I leave – one all-night party and finding some work.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

photos of my new home

Here are the photos I meant to post with the last entry. I hate the way this thing does photos and can't figure out how to make it look better. From now on, I'll be posting in Facebook and providing the link.

JT makes pizza and rarely wears a shirt; and our awesome porch.

(from top to bottom) My bedroom, the guest room and the living room.