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!