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.

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