Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Another Goodbye

The other day, I was reading through old blog posts and I came across the goodbye post I’d written 2 years ago right before departing for Peace Corps. I was sad to say goodbye to people, nervous and apprehensive about the future, but overall excited and ready for the next step. 2 years later, with about a week left in Togo, it’s time to write about another goodbye, but this time to Peace Corps and to Togo which, for better or for worse, has been my home for the past 2 years. In many ways, I feel similar to how I felt leaving American in 2010; I’m sad to leave people behind, nervous and anxious about the big changes ahead, but overall really ready and excited to be leaving.

Of course, being at the end of an important experience like Peace Corps, I’ve been thinking back on my service and reflecting on all the ups and downs, the accomplishments and disappointments. I remember attending an event for future and returned PCVs in Ithaca my senior year. One RPCV, who had served 30 years prior, said something that has stuck with me. After introducing himself, he stated, “Peace Corps was 2 of the best…,” then he paused and chuckled to himself before continuing and saying, “okay, so not 2 of the best years, but 2 of the most important years of my life.” This statement is so true. Peace Corps hasn’t been the best years of my life. In many ways, they were the most challenging, frustrating, lonely, and physically and mentally uncomfortable years of my life. However, throughout it all, I’ve known I was learning so much and gaining so many valuable experiences that would impact me for the rest of my life. So, despite many days of homesickness, feelings of futility, and non-stop sweating and dehydration, I am so glad I joined Peace Corps and I would tell anyone interested to go for it.

Overall, I do feel very accomplished with my service. While cleaning out my house, I found a workbook that Peace Corps had given us during staging in Philadelphia. Inside, they had us write what we wanted out of Peace Corps to feel accomplished. I had written:

1.       Complete at least one successful project and make some positive contribution to my community

2.       Feel comfortable and integrated in my host community.

At the end of 2 years, I feel like I’ve accomplished these two things. I have completed several projects that I’m really happy with. My work with girl’s camps and girl’s scholarship programs and my big village well project were very satisfying and I definitely think had a positive impact on people’s lives. Recently, I finished a granary construction project. This project was supposed to be completed in July but almost didn’t happen. I had worked with some women’s farming groups to obtain funding for the construction of a new granary for the groups to store their grain. I received the funding, but the 3 women’s groups disagreed over the placement of the granary and didn’t pay their contribution fee until late August. Eventually, everyone did pay the equivalent of five dollars and, with the help of some respected members of the community; we figured out a location that all the women could agree upon. In my last week, the granary is finally finished and after the upcoming harvest, the women’s groups will begin to utilize the building. The project faced a lot of setbacks, but it’s finally been successful and it feels nice to leave with this final accomplishment rather than the failure it could’ve been.

Additionally, I do feel very comfortable in Magna. I still get stared at and yelled at when I walk around, but these are things that will never go away. As a white foreigner, I will always be the biggest form of entertainment to the kids in my village. However, just because I’m still gawked at by children, it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel comfortable in Magna. I love my host family, I have certain village friends, and I have created a home and a routine. So, I feel that I’m about as comfortable as possible given the fact that 2 years ago I was just dropped off in a tiny village in a foreign country and told to make it my home.

So, overall, I’m very happy with my service. It’s hard to really wrap my head around the fact that I’m leaving Magna and Togo for good, not just for a vacation. Right now, this is just my life, but I know that in a month or so, it will all seem very surreal and dreamlike. I’ve been told by other RPCVs that Peace Corps seems like a dream once you’re home. For the past 2 years, my American life has felt like a dream. I’ve had moments where I couldn’t believe I used to take hot showers daily, drive a car, get my food out of a big refrigerator, have constant electricity, and speak English 24/7. However, this will all be my reality again and the bucket baths, moto rides, open air markets, nights by candlelight, and Togolese French of my Peace Corps life will seem like the dream. I’m excited to go back to America, but, in many ways, I don’t want to fully readjust. If I could appreciate fast internet, hot showers, grocery stores, paved roads, punctuality, and being with family as much as I appreciate it right, that would be a really amazing way to live. But, of course, I will get used to things. I just hope I will always remain more appreciative of what I have, because I think one of the greatest gifts of doing Peace Corps is the new perspective and appreciation it gives you for your own life.

It’s hard to believe, but on Oct 15th, I will leave Magna for the last time and on Oct 19th, I will cross the border into Ghana as an RPCV. From there, a few PCV friends and I are taking a ten day trip to Portugal and Spain before I arrive back in Boston on October 31st!! In those first weeks and months back, I can’t wait to spend time with friends and family and rediscover America and American life. Coming home will have its own ups and downs, but, as people say here, “ça va aller.” The phrase “ça va aller” translates to “it will go” but it’s used often in Togo to mean everything will be alright/everything will work out. I hear this phrase all the time here and in many ways it has become the theme of my Peace Corps service. Throughout all the craziness of being a PCV, I’ve known that “ça va aller” and it would all work out and be fine. So, as I move forward and back to America for the next phase of my life, I know that, in the end, “ça va aller.”

So, that’s all folks! I’ve enjoyed writing this blog and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it. To everyone who has called, visited, written, and/or sent letters and packages; thank you so much, you have no idea how much it has meant to me and helped me! See you all when I’m back stateside!!!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Reflections at One Month Out

Two years ago, I was boarding a plane bound for Togo. One month from now, I’ll be boarding a different plane that will take me out of West Africa and will mark the end of my Peace Corps experience. Being so close to the end is very surreal. In any given day, when I think about leaving Togo and heading home, I feel giddy, anxious, relieved, sad, excited, happy, and nervous. COSing (the verb we’ve created for Close of Service and finishing Peace Corps) is constantly on my mind, and the minds of my fellow COSing PCVs, and our dreams seem to all be related to it. My friend dreamt that she went home and everyone was frustrated with her because she couldn’t figure out how to use an iphone, I dreamt that at home people weren’t interested in looking at all the pictures I’d taken or hearing all the stories I had to tell, and I’ve had repeated dreams where I’m back home and realize that I didn’t say goodbye or forgot to do something here in Togo. I’m so ready to move back to the States, but leaving naturally comes with some sadness and anxiety. Overall, I just want to say the right goodbyes and be able to sum up how I feel about Togo and my experience here.

So, for this blog I thought I would write a summary of what I’ve learned about culture while here in Togo. Being in Togo has often been confusing and it’s been hard to think clearly or really understand what’s going on around me. My friends and I like to compare ourselves to Alice and Togo to Wonderland. Our lives sometimes feel like Alice in Wonderland; we never quite understand fully what’s going on around us and everything seems to happen in strange, different, and upside down ways. However, after 2 years, although I still don’t completely understand Togolese culture, I have obtained some clarity about both Togolese and American culture and the good and bad similarities and differences which exist.

Let’s start with the “universal truths” I’ve learned in Togo. This is what we expect from joining Peace Corps. We want to go somewhere totally different and find the commonalities that bind us together as humans. In some ways, I’ve found this in Togo. In Togo, like in America, family, friendships, and interpersonal relationships are what drive life and bring people the most happiness. In Togo, just like in America, weddings and births are a cause for celebration and a coming together of family just as death is a cause for mourning and another coming together of family. At the end of the day, people in Togo want what people in America want; to be healthy, financially secure, and able to support their family.

One thing in particular that has allowed me to relate to certain people better than others in Togo is education. Most women in my village didn’t go to school (although this is changing now and almost all young girls in Magna at least start school) and therefore they don’t speak French and have no real knowledge of the world beyond Magna and the Mango market 4km away. It is therefore really hard for us to have a real friendship or mutual understanding. However, the amount of connection and possibility for friendship I have with women increases exponentially with the amount of education they have. Not only can we speak in French, but we can reflect on our lives with some perspective and the knowledge that we have choices and that our lives could go in more than one direction. I have several university student friends who were born and raised in villages, like Magna, around Mango. They always are impressed that I’m able to live in a village because they can’t spend more than a few days in their natal villages without getting bored since they say they can’t really connect or relate with people there anymore. I guess this story is similar to the common American story of someone from a rural, small town going away to school in a city and becoming bored with and disconnected from the town in which they were born. However, it just shows again the importance and impact of having an education. Having a similar level of education is what really let’s people cross cultural barriers and find the commonalities between them.

So, yes, I have found some common threads which cross cultures here in Togo. However, I haven’t come out of this experience with the song “it’s a small world after all” playing in the background. Rather, I feel like it’s a really big world with very different cultures and where culture has an enormous impact on forming how you feel towards, act in, and see the world. Living here has shown me how “American” I really am and how difficult it really is to shake the instincts and viewpoints that come from growing up in a specific culture. There are things about the Togolese lifestyle and culture which I really appreciate, find very positive, and would like to take with me and there are other aspects which have remained difficult for me throughout my service and have made me feel very happy and fortunate to be an American.

Let’s start with the positive:

Low waste:

 A common criticism of American culture is our high levels of consumerism and waste. Although we’re taking strides to be more “eco-friendly”, there is just no way around it; we waste A LOT. In Togo, there is little waste. This may be more a product of poverty and a lack of disposable income than culture, but nonetheless, it is a positive aspect of life here. The ironic thing is that you see a lot more trash here than in America, like plastic bags, wrappers, batteries, etc., but that’s just because there is no really disposal system while in America all our waste is nicely collected and hidden from view. However, if our trash in America was just left around like trash is in Togo, the situation would be thousands of times more disgusting than it is here.

 In Togo, anything that can be re-used will be re-used. Empty plastic water bottles are a hot ticket item since they can be used to store things like kerosene and oil. Kids are incredibly inventive and often make toys out of empty tin cans. Plastic containers are used as food bowls. Clothes aren’t thrown away; they are worn until they practically fall off the owner’s body. Food is always eaten and no part of a butchered animal is ever wasted. In America, we like our meat all deboned, cut up, and neatly packaged. Here, kids get used to seeing animals slaughtered and no one is squeamish about eating organs, skin, or bones. I always find it funny watching my 5 and 8 year old host sisters as they watch my host dad butcher a goat. They sit intently right in front of the raw carcass as it is hacked apart, something I still can’t even watch, with the same look in their eyes as an American kid watching, with anticipation, a turkey cooking in the oven. Kids would never imagine throwing away “gross” pieces of meat the way we do so liberally in the States. Every piece of meat is to be treasured and all parts of the animal are edible.


People in Togo are incredibly hospitable and friendly. “The people were so friendly” is the clichéd expression you often hear from people who’ve come back from a vacation in Africa, but in Togo, it’s definitely true. In Togo, most people are really friendly and hospitality is a really important part of Togolese culture. At times, friendliness and hospitality here have driven me crazy. There were many days when I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want to eat food with anyone, I didn’t want to say hi to every person I passed on the street, and I didn’t understand why the old, toothless man I passed everyday still had to squeal and laugh with glee each time I greeted him in Anoufo. I longed for those walks in Boston when I didn’t even have to make eye contact with the people passing me on the street. However, looking back, Togolese friendliness and hospitality have really helped me to live here. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been to move into a community where no one greeted me, tried to take care of me, or smiled excitedly when I tried speaking Anoufo. My host family’s hospitality has been amazing and they have really taken care of me and made me feel safe here. A Togolese person moving into a random community in America would not be taken care of the way I was here and the hospitality I have received in Magna is something I’m very grateful for.    

Family Driven:

Family is incredibly important in Togo and a big emphasis is placed on taking care of ones’ family. In the States, we distinguish between siblings, cousins, second cousins, parents, uncles, aunts, etc. In Togo, a brother, cousin, second cousin, nephew, etc. will all be called just a “brother.” If you want to know if an individual is someone’s brother my our American definition, you must ask “même mère, même père ?” (same mom, same dad?) to clarify. In the States, the responsibility we feel towards family members tends to diminish as they become less “closely related” to us. In Togo, family responsibility casts a wider net. When I ask the relations of people who live in family compounds, it is usually the immediate family plus a cousin’s son from Ghana or a pregnant aunt from Burkina Faso or an elderly great aunt whose husband died who have moved in and are being helped out, looked after, or taken care of by the compound family. One interesting impression I heard came from a Togolese women who works with PCVs and got a chance to travel to America. She was shocked at how many homeless people she saw in America and kept asking where their families were and why they couldn’t just go find their family. The idea of not knowing where your family is or not being able to or wanting to turn to your extended family for help was difficult for her to understand. There are of course some homeless people in Togo, generally they are mentally disabled- something that is not well understood in Togo, but it was shocking for this woman to see so many family-less, homeless people in American cities. Family is definitely at the center of life in Togo and the closeness and support that extended family’s give each other is definitely a positive thing about Togolese culture.

Now, the more difficult:

The pet thing:

In Togo, dogs and cats are viewed in the same light as donkeys, cows, goats, chickens, and other livestock. They are there to serve a purpose: to kill mice, guard the house, scare away wild animals in the fields, and, sometimes be eaten. The idea of keeping an animal as a pet for pure companionship like we do in the States doesn’t really exist here. The ways Americans treat, interact with, and care for dogs and cats seems insane to Togolese people. Even though I understand the cultural differences, I still can’t stand seeing a dog hit with a stick, being sold for food, or being left uncared for. It’s a part of my personality and my American culture to love dogs. However, dealing with the different treatment and view of dogs has been difficult throughout my service. Luckily, I live in a Muslim village where dog meat isn’t consumed. Many of my friends live in communities where dogs are eaten as regularly as goats.

Of course, with so many puppies and kittens around, many PCVs, myself included, get pets. Having a dog here has been amazing. Jeeves is my constant companion and has helped me get through the lonely stretches and hard days. The ways I play with him, talk to him, bathe him, and cuddle him have brought me many strange looks and laughs in my village. The only time my host family has ever seen me cry was when, after Jeeves was neutered, he started bleeding uncontrollably and I thought he might die. I called the vet in a panic and when he arrived, he looked at me visibly upset about my dog and laughed, telling me that it wasn’t actually that much blood and that he’d be fine. To this day, whenever I see the vet, he laughs and says, “remember that day when you called and were so worried about your dog!!” like it was the most entertaining thing he’s seen for years. Several PCVs have had their dog die and then had multiple people ask to take it and eat it. Our sadness and tears over a hurt, sick, lost, or dying dog are just incomprehensible to most Togolese people.

Despite this huge cultural difference, it’s been nice to see Togolese people in my community begin to treat Jeeves differently. Everyone knows him and no one chases him away when he comes up to them. My host family has developed some genuine affection for Jeeves and my host dad and sisters now actually pet him. My host dad even took Jeeves to the vet when I was on vacation and Jeeves had a bone stuck in his gum and he also now gives him baths when I’m away. People have come to accept my weird obsession with my dog and treat him more kindly than most dogs. So, even though my different, American view on dogs/pets has caused plenty of difficult moments, it’s been nice to see how people have started to accept, and even adopt, some of my dog-loving ways. After two years here, I also realize how bizarre and irrational things like Petco really are (an entire store dedicated to pets with aisles and aisles of different pet toys!). After being surrounded by dogs as they exist naturally, and in their most original form, without selective breeding, dog breeds look funny to me and I grasp how strange it really is that we breed dogs to have unhealthy traits (like the pushed in face of a pug). However, I’m still a dog-loving American and, even though I realize it can cause us to act a bit crazy, I still want dogs to be a part of my family throughout my life.

Being a woman:

Being a female volunteer in Togo definitely comes with unique challenges. Togo is a very male-dominated society with strictly defined gender roles. Women are assumed to do the cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing and men manage the family money and decision-making. Polygamy is also legal and common in Togo, which contributes to the subordinate position of women. Women and men occupy separate spheres and friendship between genders doesn’t really happen. When a non-related women and man spend time together, it’s assumed that it’s a romantic relationship.

As female volunteers in Togo, we are constantly pushing the boundaries of these gender norms and stereotypes. We are young, single women living and working on our own, something that few Togolese women (though an increasing number) do. All female volunteers deal with certain levels of harassment from men during their service. We all deal with marriage proposals, constant propositions, and continual commentary that we shouldn’t be on our own and that we need a man or husband. Most of us lie and say we’re married, but that does little to dissuade men since our “husbands” aren’t present in Togo. Since men are generally more educated and speak more French than women, we end up working with men often. However, many times what we perceive as work or friendly relationships are misconstrued as romantic interest, leading to many uncomfortable conversations and encounters.

Some of my best weeks in Togo were during girl’s camps, girl’s scholarship conferences, and the women’s conference. At these camps and conferences, we created an all-female environment with girl participants and female counselors and trainers. Togolese women always impress me. They take care of all household tasks and childrearing and then they also help out in the fields, collect wood, and transport water. Women, like our counselors and trainers, who’ve managed to complete their education, have a family, and have a successful career have had to surmount enormous obstacles. Spending camp weeks with these amazing women were some of the highlights of my service. By themselves, Togolese women are opinionated, gregarious, and outgoing. However, often when men are also in the room or at the meetings, they dominate the conversation and women barely contribute. Therefore, having these women-only weeks was so great because everyone could just feel comfortable, talk, and share.

Overall, living in a country where women are expected to be subordinate has been incredibly difficult for me. I’ve had so many frustrating conversations about women’s rights and capacities. I’ve seen male teachers get away with sleeping with female students and where the student was blamed for “being flirtatious and tempting the teacher.” I’m constantly suspicious and often dismissive of the men I meet because so often any friendliness has been taken as romantic interest. However, as always, there have been exceptions and I’ve managed to have a few really great relationships with men who genuinely respect me. The first is with my host dad who truly does view me and treat me as his daughter. The second is with my main village counterpart, Ganiou, who I’ve worked with throughout my service and who is genuinely a partner to his wife and has always treated me as an equal. The third is a student, Alexis, who I’ve worked with and who looks to me as a mentor. Additionally, even though Togo still has a way to go before women have equal status to men, things are improving, which is encouraging to hear about and see.   

The authority attitude:

Something that is generally hard for us, as Americans, to get used to in Togo is the different attitude towards authority. In America, government officials and authorities like to give the impression that they’re “just an average joe.” In Togo, the president must always be introduced as “his excellence.” When authorities come to my village to talk of projects or campaign, they often talk down to the villagers and comport themselves with an air of superiority. I’ve never been to an event where the highest authority invited either didn’t show or wasn’t at least an hour late and only once was there an acknowledgement or apology for the tardiness. In any government office, the hierarchy of roles and positions is rigidly followed. For example, for a female police officer to tell us if she could talk at our camp for an hour, we had to write a written request to her immediate supervisor in Mango, who sent a request to the regional supervisor in Dapaong, who sent a request to the national office in Lome. It took weeks to get approval and the officer wouldn’t even give us a tentative yes until she got the official approval from the highest authority figure. Generally, people are incredibly intimidated by and nervous around their superiors. They’re afraid to challenge them, ask too many questions, or do anything that doesn’t follow the protocol. All of this drives me crazy!

I never really realized how American I am in my feelings towards authority figures until I came to Togo. As Americans we’re raised to question authority and we are incredibly sensitive to people acting “better than us” or “entitled”. I’ve always laughed at the American desire for a “common man” president and the extents to which clearly privileged candidates will go to show they are self-made and of modest tastes and attitudes. However, I now realize that, I’ve really internalized the American ideal and value of authority figures being approachable and humble. It’s something about American culture that I never appreciated until now.  

So, those are a few of the things I’ve learned about culture while here in Togo. There is one more aspect of Togolese culture which I find simultaneously frustrating and enjoyable. That is the more laid-back, less time-sensitive, “repos” (rest) based way of life. Every PCV complains about the difficulty of organizing meetings and projects. People hardly ever show up on time and deadlines aren’t clearly understood or followed. However, at the same time, most of us come to enjoy the more laid-back nature of life in Togo. Personally, I’ve never conducted a meeting where everyone showed up on time and seldom have I attended meetings where everyone who was supposed to come actually came. When I’m trying to get photocopies or pick up my mail, I get really frustrated that most services close for “repos” between noon and 2:30pm. However, at the same time, I love that I can take guilt-free naps in the afternoon. In America, I would always be embarrassed if someone found me napping in the middle of the day. Here, my entire compound sleeps and rests after lunch. Often when I go to a cafeteria, bar, cyber café, or store in the middle of the day, I have to wake up the vendor, bartender, or cook so that they can provide their service.  Food always takes a while to come, but I hardly ever have anywhere better or more important to be so my friends and I can take hours in the afternoon just sitting around and talking as we wait for our food. Coming straight out of the busy schedule of college, it was quite a shock to have life slow down so much. However, after 2 years, I’ve become accustomed to my naps, my afternoons reading, and the fact that I hardly ever feel busy or stressed by deadlines or having too much to do. When I hear about my friend’s schedules at home or I think about how busy I was before Togo, I feel exhausted! I know I’ll readjust to the fast pace, but right now, it seems intimidating!

So, there is a summary of how I feel about my life here. There is so much more to say and it is so hard to condense two years into a manageable amount to share. I’ve both enjoyed and been frustrated by aspects of Togolese culture, I’ve had moments where cultural boundaries have been crossed, and I’ve definitely realized more about my own American-ness. I have another month here and will try to post at least one more blog at the end. Until then, enjoy fall in America!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Etoiles du Nord 2012

Camp Etoiles du Nord 2012 was a big hit! Below are some photos from the week of camp:
The girls singing at the camp's opening ceremony

Participants on a visit to a hospital

Participants visiting the radio
Camp counselors- PCVs and university students from the area

The whole group in front of the radio

Cultural dance night where the girls all shared dances from their villages and ethnic groups

Playing an icebreaker!

The girls learning about reproductive health from a local midwife
A model women panel (this panel had a female accountant and secretary)

More icebreakers

The participant from my village talking on the radio

Trying for computers for the first time!

Monday, August 6, 2012


In the introduction of the Togo section of Lonely Planet’s West Africa guidebook it says that travelling in Togo “takes the patience of a saint and the determination of a fighter.” While not the most inspiring or positive comment to be written in a country’s introduction, it is completely true. Unfortunately, I am neither a saint nor a fighter, so travelling here has been one of the biggest causes of stress, frustration, and anger in my life here. In short, travelling is awful and I don’t know a single volunteer who doesn’t dread it or find it the cause of a fit or breakdown at some point during their service. Because of its impact on my life here, and the life of every Togolese person, it’s time for a transportation blog. 

About 2 weeks ago, I found myself in another absurd travel situation. I was trying to return to my village after a stay in Dapaong, the regional capital north of me. Travelling from Mango to Dapaong should take 1.5 hours, but with a horrible stretch of road that is more pothole than pavement and overloaded, overused cars that have been reduced to essentially a car shell before the extras like cushions and speedometers have been installed, it’s always a lucky day when the trip takes the amount of time it “should.” This time, I felt lucky when the car I boarded quickly seemed to be leaving the station and heading out south on the national road towards Mango. However, we quickly turned off the road for what I was assured would be a “short stop.” We pulled in front of someone’s house and when I looked out the side window, I saw that furniture was being brought outside. Immediately, my heart sank as I put two and two together and realized that we had pulled off the road to put someone’s furniture on top of the car. Our bush taxi was the size of a minivan and the pile of furniture was quickly growing to the quantity that would fill a small U-Haul in America. There was a bed, mattress, couch, fridge, table, chairs, and more. It was completely crazy and illogical that the driver would attempt to fit all that furniture on top of our dilapidated bush taxi, but I knew that was the plan since I’ve learned in Togo that when it comes to transportation, if it seems crazy and illogical, it probably is the plan.

The amount of stuff that people fit onto cars and motorcycles is always absurd, and, in its own way, impressive. Almost all my own furniture (tables, bed, mattress, cupboard, coach, etc) was brought to my house on motorcycles and livestock (baskets of chickens, goats, and even occasionally a small cow) are most often transported on the backs of motorcycles. So, even though the quantity of furniture appeared beyond the carrying capacity of our bush taxi, I knew that somehow, even if it took hours, delayed our departure, and greatly increased our chances of a breakdown on the road, the furniture would make it on the car. So, I was forced to wait for 3 hours and watch as the driver and his apprentices packed furniture into a 6 foot high mound on top of our bush taxi before we could depart.

Although I’ve learned by this point that voicing frustrations, questions, or concerns to a bush taxi driver does nothing to help or change the situation, I still always feel the need to put up a fuss and voice my opinion just to try and create the illusion for myself that I still have some control over my circumstances. One of the most frustrating things about travelling is the lack of information given by drivers and the feeling that you are constantly being lied to and tricked. Basically, you show up at a station and immediately are descended on by drivers yelling at you to follow them and grabbing at your bags. Everyone will say that their car is about to leave, but you know that only a full car is about to leave, so you have to hold onto your bags and look around for the car that looks almost full and that’s the one you go to. Once you’ve accepted being taken to a car that seems likely to leave, it’s almost impossible to switch cars. Drivers get really possessive and won’t give you back your bags if you try to switch because you see another car about to leave or because your car is broken down. I have a friend who got so frustrated when the driver of a broken down car was trying to make her wait until he fixed the car that she climbed on top of the bush taxi herself to grab her bags while the driver was yelling at her from the ground.  

So, while waiting, I allowed myself a few confrontations with the bush taxi driver when I expressed that this was ridiculous, that I should’ve been informed at the station that we would be pulling off to load furniture rather than just taken along for the ride, that a taxi loading so much furniture should be rented out, that the car should’ve been loaded before taking passengers so we wouldn’t have to wait, and that the amount of furniture on the car made it hazardous on the road. As usual, my comments were met with laughter and the vague response that “on va aller” (we will go). In response to my concerns about the danger of an overloaded car on a bad road, the driver and apprentices once again laughed in my face and said, “ca ne fait rien” and “ca, c’est zero” (it does nothing and this, it’s zero). It’s moments like these where I feel like I’m living in the twilight zone or some alternate reality where the laws of physics don’t exist. I seem to be the only one who worries that an overloaded car is more likely to break down, tip over, lose control, etc. It would be one thing if cars didn’t crash or tip, but evidence is all around. On my last 10 hour trip south I saw 16 overturned trucks and several crashed cars.

The way people drive and pack cars here still boggles my mind, but without enforced regulations and with a lack of options, people have no choice but to be packed into cars like cattle (in a typical bush taxi there will be approximately twice as many passengers as seats). Drivers want to make money, so they take more passengers than they should and drive cars until they literally fall apart. I’ve been in cars where the door has comes off, the windshield wipers don’t work, the lights barely work, the windshield is completely cracked, and water is leaking through the ceiling, but repairs aren’t made until the car physically can’t move anymore. Additionally, people here aren’t raised with the kind of safety consciousness that we are at home. I was raised and taught to drive with an emphasis on safety and things like seatbelts, car seats, proper road etiquette, correct use of high beams, car inspections, oil changes, speed limits, speed bumps, etc. So when I see a 3 year old, without a helmet, precariously sitting behind the handle bars of a motorcycle that is weaving through cars on a cement road, I think; that is really dangerous. However, to everyone else, it’s as normal as a kid sitting in a car seat is to us back home.

 Of course, the roads themselves don’t help the situation. Most roads in Togo aren’t paved and are generally only trafficked by motorcycles and the occasional market day car. Togo’s main paved road is its national highway, called the “route nationale” or just “la route”, which bisects the country from Lomé in the south to the Burkina Faso border in the north. The “highway” is a two lane road and is in pretty horrible condition, full of potholes and dirt stretches. Because of Togo’s deep water port in Lomé, Togo is a main gateway for trade to the landlocked West African countries of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. This means that the national road is heavily trafficked by giant, overloaded, 18 wheelers travelling to and from the port. The trucks almost take up the entire road and they are constantly swerving to avoid potholes. They tip over often, sometimes blocking the length of the highway. Considering all the trade coming through Lomé and travelling up the route, it’s ridiculous that more money isn’t invested to keep it in better shape. There is certainly lots of money made from the port and the only reason anyone has ever given me for why the route isn’t kept in better condition is corruption; the port money is going somewhere, but clearly not to the maintenance of the national road.

So, travelling in Togo is pretty awful. However, you learn to expect problems and try to just go with the flow (something that, even after 2 years here, I still struggle with!). Often times, you find yourself in such a ridiculous situation that all you can do is laugh. After all the furniture made it on the car in Dapaong, we did leave and it ended up being a pretty quick ride once we were on the road. Squished in a middle seat, I almost immediately fell asleep, occasionally woken when my head bumped on the shoulder of the woman next to me. Living here, I have developed an amazing ability to fall asleep in the most uncomfortable situations. On the 10 hour trip from Lome to Mango, I’m usually conked out for at least 5-6. I somehow manage to totally relax my neck and fall asleep without a headrest.  I’m always slightly bruised and sore on my forehead and upper arm from bouncing off the window in my sleep, but I’m glad I’m able to sleep through most of the trip.

There are things from my time in Togo that I’m sure I will miss, but travelling is not one of them. I am more than happy to leave behind Togolese bush taxis, drivers, and roads. Riding around on motorcycles was fun for a little while, but now I’ve had my fill. I’m excited for seatbelts, functioning speedometers, my own seat, traffic lights, clearly delineated lanes, speed limits and speed limit signs, speed bumps, required car inspections, roads with more than 2 lanes, road crews that shut down a lane as they repair the road, and state troopers who hide along the highway and pull you over if you’re driving too fast and/or recklessly.

While in a little over 2 months all that will be mine again, Togolese people will still be stuck with their transportation system. Improved infrastructure and road safety is a major component of development. One of the first things I noticed when crossing the border into Ghana and travelling to Accra was how much better the transportation was. There were enforced rules that every passenger had to have their own seat and Ghanaian bush taxis weren’t allowed to pile luggage on top of the cars. The roads were better maintained and there were speed limit signs and speed bumps. Of course, Ghanaian transportation still leaves much to be desired, but it was definitely better than in Togo and was just another sign of the increasing development gap between Ghana and its neighbor Togo. Hopefully, Togo’s infrastructure will improve. There are already infrastructure projects underway which are run by the Chinese like so many infrastructure projects in Africa these days. I’ll be curious to see how Togo changes in the coming years, but for now, I’m glad to be going home and, if I come back, hopefully I will have a job that allows me to be one of the many expats driven around in white 4WD Toyotas!!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A rainstorm coming up the national road


Rainy season is now in full swing in Togo and rainstorms provide a welcome relief from the oppressive heat that I’m usually living in. Generally, I’m pretty physically uncomfortable here and being sweaty and hot is a constant part of my life. As a result, I’ve spent many moments over the past 22 months fantasizing about the different physical sensations associated with different seasons at home. I sit dripping in my little house trying to remember how the air feels on a crisp fall day, how my skin feels walking around outside in a snowstorm, or what it feels like to be pleasantly warmed by direct sunlight on an early spring day. However, there is one sensation associated with Togolese weather that I will look back on fondly; the way it feels when a rainstorm comes.

During rainy season it often won’t rain for days on end. The temperature will slowly rise after the last rainstorm and you are soon baking and watching the skies hoping to see rain clouds on the horizon. Rain is the constant topic of conversation and everyone craves it. With rain fed agriculture the quantity and timing of rain determines the success of crops and subsequently the annual income of everyone in my village. Additionally, rain means cooler weather and a good night of sleep. So, I crave rain like I used to crave that first warm, sunny spring day at the end of a long winter. When I hear the wind pick up and see the sky darken, as long as I’m not trying to travel or stuck in town, I am filled with elation as the temperature immediately plummets. I rush to close my windows as my host family runs around trying to get everything inside before the rain starts. Once the rain comes, it’s comfortable enough to put on a sweater, pleasantly drink tea, and actually curl up with a book rather than lie splayed out reading. Jeeves comes inside and curls into a little ball next to me and my house actually becomes a comfortable place to relax. Although it feels incredibly cool to me, I once checked the temperature after a rainstorm and it was 80 degrees, so it’s clear that my body has adjusted to Togo’s climate.

Back in America, I was never happy about rain. Rain often meant uncomfortably cool weather and required me to get wet as I made my way to class. Rain ruined nights out and various outdoor events. In the States, when you wake up on a rainy morning, all you want to do is stay in bed until it stops. In Togo, I can do just that. When it rains, you can assume all meetings are cancelled. It’s the only time my host family sleeps in and no one goes to the fields or comes by to socialize. I can blissfully just nap and hang out inside without feeling lazy or guilty because no one expects anything else of me. This culture of not working when it rains makes sense in farming communities, but it carries over into towns and cities where people work indoors. I heard a story once of someone going to the Togolese embassy in Ghana to get a visa and the embassy workers hadn’t come in because there had been a rainstorm.

                Although generally rainstorms are wonderful, they can also be pretty terrifying. The terrain is flat and open with scattered trees so winds whip through. My house has a tin roof and no drop ceiling (meaning there is only a sheet of tin separating me from the sky) and when the wind comes I hear my roof creaking and can actually see the tin being pulled upwards. Under a tin roof, all sounds are amplified and when it rains it is deafening. During my first nighttime rainstorm last year, I was so convinced my roof was going to blow off that I hid in the doorway between my two rooms clutching Jeeves. After several terrifying rain and windstorms I told my host dad I wanted to reinforce my roof with more nails because I was worried it would blow off. My host dad just laughed and said the standard Togolese response to any concerns, “Ca ne fait rien” (that doesn’t do anything) which basically means don’t worry about it. I’ve gotten this response when I’ve told people they’d get sick from not washing their hands before eating, told drivers that rain was dripping through the car roof, or expressed concern when a moto driver’s lights weren’t working properly at night. So, it’s a phrase that fails to make me feel better and more at ease. My host dad also informed me that everyone’s roof seems like it’s going to blow off during a storm so I shouldn’t worry. However, this didn’t quell my fears since after every big storm at least one house in Magna loses a roof (although they’re usually the ones made of straw). So, I was persistent and got more nails put in my roof which has made me feel a little better.

So, rain plays a major part of my and everyone’s life here in Togo. As I enter my last few months of service, while it’s easy to think of all the things I’m excited to get away from, I’m trying to think of the things I’ll miss from Togo. I’m sure some cold rainy day in Boston next year when I have to get up and go to a job, I’ll think back on rainy days in Togo and miss being able to enjoy rain, sleep in, drink tea, and read books curled up with Jeeves without any obligations to worry about.


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Changing Behaviors

Last month, I was outside my compound in the middle of my bi-weekly trash burning routine when two Togolese NGO workers from Mango pulled up on a moto. They asked me where the president of the village development committee lived, I told them, and, as they pulled away, they scolded me for hurting the environment by burning my trash. Now, yes, of course I know it’s not good to burn plastic waste, but without an organized system of waste collection, it’s what most people do in Togo and it’s the habit that myself, and most volunteers fall into. So, when scolded for this action, my first response was to quickly retort with a somewhat sassy Togolese phrase, “et je vais faire quoi?” (and, what will I do?) as I turned my two palms upward and placed  my right hand over my left in the universal Togolese body language for: sorry, I don’t know, please, and I’m annoyed/upset. The NGO workers laughed at me, told me to dig a hole and bury the trash, and drove off on their motorcycle back to town. Immediately after this happened, I felt indignant; who do these guys think they are criticizing me? Don’t they realize how everyone burns their trash and how there aren’t other options? And really, is this the biggest problem in my village…? Then, I took a moment and realized that I was experiencing the other side of my own attempts to change people’s behavior. I’m constantly telling people to boil their water, poop in a latrine, wash their hands with soap, use a mosquito net, get tested for malaria before medicating, etc. Most people in Magna already know that you should do all these things to be healthier, but often the positive outcomes aren’t obvious and people get lazy, they follow what everyone else is doing, or time and money prevent them, and they just don’t do the healthy thing just like I knew burning my trash was “bad” but I did it anyway cause it’s easy, everyone does it, and there is no formal trash collection and disposal system. Honestly, it was probably one of the moments I was the most “integrated” in my village. There I was, standing in a mumu outside my compound, poking at a smoldering pile of trash with a stick, being told by outsiders that I need to change what I’m doing, and feeling resentful as they drove away.

We talk a lot about behavior change in Peace Corps. Basically, that is what our job is. We’re constantly trying to make people change their behavior whether its men helping their wives more, parent’s letting their daughters stay in school, mother’s boiling water before their children drink it, everyone sleeping under a mosquito net, farmers not burning all their fields after harvest, or men buying a couple less calabashes of the local brew tchakpa in order to save money for their family. I’ve heard a variety of different responses when I ask people why they don’t do behaviors that they know are healthier. One of my favorite is that older people don’t want to use latrines because they’re not used to them, don’t trust them, and are worried that the floor will collapse and they’ll fall in. However, it’s hard to blame people in my village for wanting to use the great outdoors instead of a latrine. I have my own, personal latrine and it’s still pretty gross in there but most people have shared family latrines that smell horrible and are bug-infested, so why would they want to go in there when they grew up going behind a tree in the fresh air.

At the same time that we’re trying to change our community’s behavior and act as healthy models, we have to change some of our own behavior to be less healthy or we wouldn’t be able to live here. My trash burning is a good example of this. I know it’s not healthy, but there are sooo many battles to choose from in my village and the burning of trash just hasn’t been my priority. Some volunteers have done trash collection and disposal projects but most of them are in larger towns where trash build up is a bigger problem than in rural, spread out Magna. So, out of convenience, I burn my trash and I don’t criticize others who burn theirs. I’ve fought for hand washing, clean water, and girl’s education, but addressing the trash situation is not a battle I chose to fight. There are many examples of this where we, as volunteers, end up accepting or adopting less healthy behavior. I eat food that flies land on, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to eat most of the food served to me. I cram myself along with 7 other people and a chicken into a 5 seat car where putting on a seatbelt seems as foreign as the concept of actually feeling cold. I bike by a kid pooping in the street in Mango and don’t stop and tell them not to do that because 1. A 10 second conversation will only lead to blank stares and confusion and 2. It’s hot, I want to get home, and if I stopped every time I saw a kid defecating I’d be on the road longer. When I see a women barreling down the road in my village on a moto with a newborn baby strapped to her back with fabric and a 2 year old perched precariously on her lap, I don’t call her an irresponsible mother, because that’s the only way to get around and I’m just glad she’s going to her check-up at the local hospital.

So, point being, that at the same time we, as volunteers, are trying to get the people in our villages to adopt new behaviors that are supposed to lead to a happier, healthier life, we must adopt less healthy behaviors and become numb to some of the unhealthy or negative things we see every day. My little incident with the trash burning caused me to start to reflect both on how insulting it might feel to be told by an outsider to change how you live, even if it’s in your best interest, and how I, myself, have adapted to ignore things or live in ways that would have appalled me before when I was back in the States.

Anyways, there’s my most recent reflection. I hope everything is going well at home!