Sunday, December 5, 2010

Is it really ours???.....Forever?!?

I’ve been working with L’ecole No. 5 in Tchekpo.  It’s a poor primary school on the outskirts of the village.  The first week I was in Tcheckpo.  Dovai and Kaisai came to me in the market and asked me to go for a walk with them to see their school.  They are both teachers at the school.  I had met Dovai before.  He is very involved in the community of Tchekpo, and I might say a very shrewd man.  By shrewd I mean that he not only knows that I might be able to help this school, but he also slowly and systematically gets me involved.  He went to the Men as Partners Conference with me, and he is also helping me with the Womens’ Marche Groupement.  Dovai is a good man, whose only ulterior motive is to help his community.  He’s  thin, a small framed man with delicate features.  He used to be a Muslim.  I don’t know why he is no longer Muslim. He looks a little bit like E.T.  He has two wives.  One wife works in the marche, one works at home.   I hadn’t met Kaisai until that first day we walked to the school.  I have met with him many times since.  Kaisai seems very sweet, and shy.  He never looks me in the eye.  He is always looking down at the ground.   Sometimes I bend over and look up, so that he has to look at me, and he does, but it’s very fleeting.  What’s interesting about Kaisai is that I saw him in his classroom teaching.  In the classroom Kaisai is a different person.  He is strong and commanding and animated with his students.   In our meetings however, he always lets Dovai do the talking.  They seem inseparable; Dovai and Kaisai.  I always see them together.  Brothers, for sure. They are very connected.  Sunday they brought photos to show me, and they left a photo of themselves with me.  “A cadeu (a gift),” they said.

The kids watching a video of themselves

Dovai and Kaisai took me to their school.  There is one building, and three paillots (huts with thatched roofs).  The school holds over 200 children, has four teachers and the principal, Mr. Hunon.  I didn’t meet Mr. Hunon until later.  Dovai proceeded to explain to me, as Kaisai looked at the ground, that they need a new school building.  That was at the top of the list of a long list of needs/wants.  They need help.  The teachers all volunteer their services.  None of them are paid.  He showed me the logs the children sit on for benches, and told me they have no books for the teachers or the students.  Could I help them?  I told  Dovai and Kaisai the Chief had asked me to help with the Lycee (high school.)  They scoffed. “ It starts here,” they said.  “This is where the greatest impact can be made.”   I agree.  This first meeting was a short meeting.  A rather strategic meeting on their part (or on Dovai’s part, and one of many to come that would compel me to do whatever I can to help.)

a path on the way to L'ecole No. 5
Dovai had asked me to come during the school day the next time, so I could see the children, and meet the principal Mr. Hunon.  I went on a Wednesday morning, and walked the three miles, proud of myself that I made it there on back winding roads, through unstructured neighborhoods, without getting lost.  As I approached the school, throngs of children in khaki colored uniforms were running, playing and laughing.  It was their mid-morning break.   Mr. Hunon, the principal was sitting on a small wooden chair, at an even smaller wooden desk, under a tree that offered shade in the middle of the school yard.   There were two wooden benches to the side of him.  He had some paperwork on his desk and was talking with one of the parents.  He acknowledged me and without smiling he motioned for me to sit down on one of the benches.  Then he went back to speaking to the parent who was sitting next to his son .  The son had a, I don’t know maybe guilty look on his face, as Mr.  Hunon and his father talked…undoubtedly they were having a serious conversation about the son.  When the discussion was over, Mr. Hunon stood up, and without smiling, shook the hand of the father, and the son, and sent them on their way.  After Mr. Hunon finished his conversation with the parent, he spoke to a couple children, and then, finally turned to me.  Dovai introduced me to him.  The first thing out of Mr. Hunon's mouth was,  “how can you help us?  What can you do for us?  People are suffering badly.  The teachers are suffering, the children are suffering.”   I was a little taken aback that he asked me these things so brusquely, and so quickly.  Mr. Hunon is a tall, handsome man.  He looks like he always has something on his mind, and even though he is stern with the children, you can see how much he cares, how he wants things to be different.  He doesn’t smile a lot, and he doesn’t laugh much.  I would guess it’s because of the harsh reality that surrounds him.   He ends every meeting with, “Please help us, I beg you, I BEG YOU, please.  The children are suffering.  The teachers don’t get paid.  I’m the only person who gets paid.  There are no books.  Look at this!  He makes a wide circular sweep of his arm towards the school and the children.  “I beg you, I beg you,” he says.   The thing that strikes me, is that he’s not at all the type of man who would easily choose those words.

I told him that this is not what I’m in Tchekpo for.  I went on to say, “the primary reason I’m here is to help small businesses, but that I would think very hard about their problems, and see if there is anything I can do.”  I asked him to put together a list of things that he needs and wants with costs.  David my tutor, and a teacher at the high school wanted to help and get involved when I spoke to him about it.  He suggested we form a committee to make our mission official, so we did.  David, myself, the four teachers, Mr. Hunon and a parent are the officers on the committee to help L’ecole No. 5.  I’m hoping to find a group or association or church to help us raise funds.  They need close to $10,000 to buy all the books they need for the children and teachers, and to pay the four teachers salaries for one year.  This would also pay for the wood to build more desks and benches.  They dream of building an additional school room. 

The week I met with Mr. Hunon, I happened to receive an email from my thirteen year old niece, Hannah in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She said that she and her class would like to do a service project with one of the schools…did I think that was possible?  Hannah also suggested that it would be fun if we could possibly do a video skype later in the year, so that the kids in each school could see and ask questions of each other.  I thought it was a great idea, but didn’t see how it would be possible since Tchekpo doesn’t have electricity or internet, but Solomon lives right down the road in Taglibow, and he is an I.T. specialist for the Peace Corps.  He thinks we can do it with his internet phone.  We’re checking it out.  It would be a great cultural exchange, a wonderful learning experience for the kids here in Africa and in Ann Arbor Michigan.  We have this tentatively planned for February.  I applaud Hannah for her initiative, and her good humanitarian ideas.

I go to visit the kids classrooms at Lecole No. 5,  a couple times a week, and will continue to do so.  It’s a delight every time.  The children love it when I visit.  I video-taped each class, and the following week I returned and showed them the video’s on my big screen computer.  They were just awed with seeing themselves on video.  Now, when they see me coming down the road, they run to the openings of their classrooms and start chanting my name.  How fun is that! 

Karen, the mother of my sons partner,  has been sending me packages with unique and interesting things for kids.  Karen has a huge heart and is a former teacher.  The things she chooses to send always create a lot of interest and excitement with the kids.  I tell them when I have a new shipment "from Karen."  And they start showing up at my door.  Little stuffed animals, puzzles, inflatable globes.  Karen seems to be enjoying it.   I try to dole it out to just the right school or child.  It’s amazing…..amazing, how excited they get over these things.  Adults and children alike.  I gave the inflatable globes to three different primary schools, and I gave one to David for the high school, David keeps the globe at his home and takes it with him to school every day.  Karen also sent a life-size puzzle of the human body.  I’m giving it to the Biology Department at the high school, after I use it for my Adult English Class, and after David uses it in his high school English Class.  It’s a fun way to learn the words for different parts of the body in English.  When I showed the Biology Teacher, he couldn’t believe it.  He’s so excited.

These schools only have blackboards and a few books, but the teachers are first rate and prepared.  The class structure is quite organized and advanced.  The kids in the high school do have paper and pens, but the kids in L’ecole #5 each have a little slate and chalk.  These kids are smart, they love school, they love learning.  In spite of the limited resources in these schools, I believe, from what I’ve seen that they could compete on the same level maybe higher, with kids of the same age in schools in America, in math, science, history; certainly languages.  The high school teaches German and English.  David, a Togolese, and my tutor has a Masters in English.  The kids speak and understand English very well.  He is a gifted teacher, and in the classes I monitored, they did not want the class to end when it was time, and kept asking questions, or asked to sing a couple songs to prolong the class.  They kept asking for more.  When I told David I thought he was a gifted teacher, he beamed.  It made him happy.  He loves teaching.

I am looking for ideas to help raise funds for L’ecole #5.  If you have any ideas, please let me know.  Don’t send any money, maybe we can somehow form a group in the U.S. to help.  I don’t know.  I have several projects like this that I’ll be blogging about.  $10,000 is a LOT of money.  It’s mind boggling what that money will buy.  Help educate over 200 kids for one thing, and pay the teachers who are now working for nothing.  If you met Mr. Hunon and these teachers and these kids……you would want to help with the little they are asking for, knowing what a difference it will make in their lives.  I just keep thinking of Mr. Hunons words.  I’m begging you.  I beg you.  People are suffering.  Look how crowded our classrooms are, look what the children have to sit on.  We need help. 

The most recent gifts Karen sent were two fabulous soccer balls and an air pump.  One is bright red, and the other is bright blue.  Last week when I went to Lecole No. 5, I put the red soccer ball in a sack and took it with me.  Mr. Hunon saw me coming and walked out into the school yard to greet me.  I could see the kids watching us through the openings.  I handed the sack to Mr. Hunon, and he pulled the red ball out.  His eyes lit up, and he had a big, genuine smile.  All of a sudden you could hear the kids clapping and chanting and roaring, and I mean roaring…. with laughter and happiness….. They could see the soccer ball.  Mr. Hunon, said, “you’ve made the children very happy.”  He said, “is this really ours…….forever?”  He meant it.  I shook my head yes, it’s your schools…forever.  I told him that the gift was from a woman named Karen who lived in Kansas, and that she had been a teacher in the United States.  He asked me to please thank her.  I have these moments here.  The gift of the red soccer ball was one of them.  Just a moment of delightful surprise, happiness and contentment.   

I wish Karen and Hannah could have been there that day.  More to come on Lecole No. 5………


Probably an average of three village people drop by my house every day.  Some are friends, and some are new people just wanting to introduce themselves.  They often have a look of hopeful expectation, I think just hoping that I’ll give them a little gift or a bite of American food.  Some come for help and advice.  Hunon-Koffi was the latter.

Hunou-Koffi is about seventeen.  He attends the highschool.  He has come over to my house a couple times just briefly to introduce himself, and I saw him at the market and then again at the high school.  Honestly, he has the face of an angel.  He has been telling me, preparing me that he wanted to talk to me about some “things,.”  He asked me a couple times when it might be convenient for him to come to my house.   H.K. (as he will be known going forward) speaks fairly good English, and is President of the English club at the high school. H.K.’s legs are crippled.  He gets around on rusty old crutches.  Never saw anyone look so dignified.

I don’t know what caused his legs to stop working.  I don't know if he had polio, or what exactly is wrong.  He pretty much drags his legs behind him.  His legs and feet are small, just from lack of use I think.  The last time he came over (walked, drug himself...probably 2 miles) it was mid day, the hottest part of the day.  He was soaked with sweat.  I got him a drink of water, and he downed it in 10 seconds.  But he's always smiling, the sweetest smile, and I've not heard him complain once.  He just tells me what his life is like in a very matter of fact voice, as if he is talking about someone else.  He stays very technical about it.  I think he does not want pity or to be felt sorry for.  Recently he once again drug himself to my house, which I'm sure is just par for his day, but to me, his ability to get from one place to another looks dauntingly difficult.  

Honu-Koffi's crutches
He told me he'd like help with three things.  First, his school fees were due the next day and the school administrators told students who didn't bring their money, not to come.  H.K.’s family is poor.  His father is a farmer.  H.K. is the oldest of seven children.  Second he showed me his crutches, and how rusty they were.  He said he didn't want a three wheeled bike.  It’s like a big tricycle. (I see several of those in almost all villages for crippled people.)  They pedal them with their hands.  He doesn't want a bike, because he wants to keep as many muscles as he can.  He just wants better crutches.  There's a lot more to all of this...I asked a lot of questions about his diagnosis, family etc.  Believe it or not this is the short version.  His third request was, he just wants so badly to continue his education, and of course come to America.  If there was anyone in this whole wide world who deserved and needed help, it's this boy.  Never once is there any tone of pity in his voice, not even slightly, even as he showed me his legs and how they work.  But there is a desperation.  I see how he looks deep into my eyes, wondering if I will be able to help him. I think he’s wondering if he should have a glimmer of hope, and what that must feel like to him.  

I explained to H.K. we'd take one thing at a time.  First his school fees.  I told him I would talk to the school.  He should go to school, but not stand up when the other kids who haven’t paid leave.  He seemed relieved.  I did talk to David, my tutor.  I called him after H.K.  left.  It was a 30 second conversation.  I said “David, Hunou Koffi came by, and he doesn't have the money to bring tomorrow, is there anything we can do about this.”  David said “yes.”  I told David H.K. would go to school tomorrow, and David said, “yes, good.  We'll figure something out.”  So....yayyyyyyyyyyyy #1 - done.  The high school wants me to teach several hours a day, three days a week.  I won't do it, unless they let this boy finish without any more fees.  I don't know how to help him with the rest of it, though I've started investigating.  I think there are some NGO's in Tesvie that could help with the crutches, and as a matter of fact, I just got an email from a friend whose daughter works for a Medical Supply company.  She told me they would donate some crutches  #2 - done.....but I wonder if he could be helped so much more.  I feel compelled to find a group that will sponsor this remarkable boy. 

H.K. stopped by the morning I left for a week long Peace Corps Conference in Pagala.  It was about eight in the morning.  He wanted to show me that one of his rusty crutches had indeed broken, and he needed to get it soddered.  He has found a man in the village who will sodder it for him, but he didn’t have any money.  I didn’t have any money either…just enough to get to my conference in Pagala.  I told H.K. to take the crutch to the man and to tell him I would pay for it when I returned in a week.  It’s only a matter of time though, before the other one breaks from the rust, and then the one we just fixed.  I think H.K. has been soddering the ends back on for quite a while, and I think the crutches become a bit shorter each time.

So...I couldn't stop thinking about him, and how someone smiles through all this, and what his life must be like, and how stupid Lindsay Lohan is.  haha.  I don't know.  Anyway, on my way to Tesvie the day after I met with H.K. I couldn’t stop my tears.  I can’t decipher my emotions.  I think mostly just awe that every time he takes a painful step he smiles, real smiles and doesn’t complain.  How does that work?

I think Hunou-Koffi will help me understand the wonderment of the human spirit.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I'm Not Fussy

I said before that there is always a story, every time you ride in a bush taxi, and there is…always.  I could write a story for almost every time I’ve been in one.   Like the time I was leaving Tesvie to come home to Tchekpo.  I’d been at the Bush Taxi station waiting for quite a while.  There’s always a man there ready to hail one down for me.  Most of them know me by now.  They call me Tchekpo, because they know by now that’s where I’m heading.  On this day, I saw a bush taxi a few yards away, and the man called me over, excited that he had found one so fast.  I was happy too.  However he did have a hesitant look on his face, like perhaps he knew what was inside.  He opened the sliding side door, and to my surprise, two goats were standing there, staring me in the eye.  There was a Togolese woman sitting in the front seat, and she said…”oh no yovo(white person)….no, no, no….you can’t ride with the goats," and she cackled.   First, I looked at him incredulously, and then I said, “no…I’m not gonna ride with the goats, I will wait for the next bush taxi.”  I was even a little insulted that this man thought that I would ride with goats.  I thought, do I look like someone who would be ok with riding in the same compartment as the goats?  (It had been a long, very hot day, so I let that thought pass.) I’m sure he would have received a nice little commission from the bush taxi driver for getting a passenger to ride with the goats.  But it would have to be the next sucker.

Or there was the time, the bush taxi runner was entertaining the rest of the passengers with his banter.  He was facing them.  The taxi was full.  I was riding in the front seat…in the middle with my legs straddling the gear shift.  He was speaking in broken French.  I knew he was talking about me, because I picked up a word here and there, and I heard the word American several times.  I turned around and looked at him.  He looked at me, and said, “Est-ce-que vous comprendre moi,” (Do you understand me?)  I said,”yes I do”…though I didn’t.  He said, “you do?, you understand what I’m saying”?  I said, “yes,” and laughed.  He laughed too but looked a little embarrassed, and then he said “I was just telling them that you aren’t fussy.  I see you riding in the bush taxis many times, and most Americans are fussy, but you aren’t.  You are ok.”  Ha…… I’m not at all sure that’s what he was saying, otherwise why would he have been embarrassed that I understood him, but I decided to take him at his word, and was pleased that #1 they were getting to know me, and that #2 that I had earned a reputation for not being a fussy American.  It pleased me.  I agree, I’m not fussy.  It doesn’t do any good to be fussy or to complain, and the people riding with you do seem to acknowledge and appreciate the fact that you don’t expect any extra considerations just because you are white.  I do pull the white card out occasionally when a bush taxi stops and I see there is a place in the front seat.  There might also be plenty of room in the back seats, but I will motion to the front seat with a pleading look.  The front seat is a coveted position.  You only have to share it with two other people (though I have seen them pack four in the front seat on occasion.)  The front seat can kind of be a double-edged sword though……It guarantees a ride with more comfort, but you know in the back of your mind you will be the first to die if the taxi crashes.  To me….it’s worth the risk.

BIRDS EYE VIEW of a partially filled bush taxi. 
When the woman in the middle saw this picture she said
Tres Jolie!!!  Very Pretty!
Just recently I rode from Tesvie to Tchekpo in a taxi full of people, about fifteen.  The back was stuffed full of big bags of fertilizer.  I smelled it as soon as they opened the door, and thought about waiting for the next one….but not wanting to be “fussy,” I crawled in.  I was in the back seat.  The fertilizer was right behind me.  The bags poking me in the head.  The smell was SO bad.  Never smelled anything like it, really.  I had purchased two loaves of bread before I left Tesvie, and I kept putting my nose in the bag with the bread to survive.  Some of the passengers laughed when they saw my method of coping.  There were flies (big ones) flying around all of us, all the way home.  When I got home the smell had permeated my clothing, and even my bra and hat.  I immediately took my clothes off and bathed.  I threw my clothes in a pile in my bedroom to be washed, and that night while laying in bed, I could smell it, as if I were still in the van.  The smell was in my nose for days.  Gawd!

So….keep in mind, I go to great lengths to not be “fussy” in the bush taxis.  Usually I greet the other passengers when I enter.  Occasionally I’ll strike up a conversation with someone, but on most days I put my earphones in my ears, and listen to music on my ipod until I reach my destination.   I simply go into a kind of comatose state of mind, try not to think of my cramped surroundings, the bumpy road, or the smell of the bush taxi.  I think everyone has their limits though, and I reached mine the last time I left Lome.

Swearing in party!! 
There were four of us leaving the Peace Corps Headquarters on this particular Sunday.  It was 2pm.  We were all going to Tesvie, though that was not our final destination.  In Tesvie we would get out of the bush taxi from Lome, and maybe wait a while for another one, or if we lucked out, there would be one just ready to depart that would take us to our individual villages.  When you leave Lome, you have to take a regular taxi to the bush taxi stand.  Because it’s cheaper when several people ride in the taxi, we had all decided to depart at the same time, and share the cost of the taxi.  We had been in Lome for the swearing in of a new group of volunteers.  Having partied the night before we were all tired and cranky.  It was an especially hot and humid day.  So hot, you could see the vapors and the steam rising from the sandy roads we walked on.  You could feel the heat of the sun burning the flesh on the back of your neck.  Hot.  We were all carrying our backpacks and heavy gear.  We hailed three different taxis before we got the price we knew we should get.  There is always, always a lot of disquitering (bartering) when you ride in the small taxis in town.  I personally don’t like to disquiter, so when I’m by myself I usually take at least the second counter offer, but these taxi drivers saw three tired young women and one tired old woman (that would be me) carrying a lot of baggage.  They thought we were probably desperate enough that they could persuade us to pay twice as much as we should.  The young women didn’t give an inch.  I was saving my energy, and let them do the work.  Finally on the fourth taxi we agreed on a price. 

Wading through the marche in a bush taxi
We got in the taxi, and were on our way to the bush taxi stand, and then to Tesvie.   Or so we thought.  I remember texting my friend from the taxi, telling him we had just taken off, and that I was hot and tired, and hoped for the front seat.   Well you get what you pay for…right?  So yes we got a good price for the taxi, but he didn’t take us to the bush taxi stand.  Instead he drove down some back alleys, and stopped in one of them where there were three men standing outside of a bush taxi, putting various items (cargo) in the van.  Various items being a car engine and large sacks of something.  Obviously the taxi driver was going to get a monetary kick-back for bringing customers to this bush taxi.  The men looked and acted nice enough.  They were smiling, and appeared very happy at their good fortune to have their bush taxi already partly filled before they even departed.   All the bush taxi’s are pretty horrible inside.  Hard seats, dirty, windows that don’t open.  This one was worse than most.  You just take what you get here, so we piled into the bush taxi.  I wondered what adventure awaited us.  I didn’t get the front seat.  I was in the back seat, in the back corner.  The window by me didn’t open.  Once we started I immediately noticed the lack of shock absorbers.  I just prayed for a quick trip.  My computer was in my backpack.  I held my heavy backpack on my hot lap, so that the computer would not be subjected to the bumpy ride.  There’s always a bright side.  Ok, so I’m in the back seat.  The advantage of the back seat is, it gets filled up first.  At least you don’t have to get in and out of the taxi while they readjust who is riding where every time they stop.  Getting in and out of the bush taxi with your backpack, and usually a bevy of other items, crouched down, and crawling over people is not easy.  I know within the first fifteen minutes what my ride is going to be like.  I know if I’m going to be sitting with chickens, or drunks, or preachers, some nice Togolese woman who offers me a bite of her bread, or a sick child.  I know, and I can prepare myself.  On this day, my consolation, even though I was in the back seat. was that I knew at least I would be riding in the same seat as three of the four women I had left with.  There would be no chickens, or drunks or in and out of the taxi to deal with.  I also had the added comfort of knowing I probably wouldn’t be the first to die, and might even survive a crash.  Who needs the front seat with those benefits!   Off we went. 

We had all taken this same trip often enough to be able to discern if we are at the very least, headed in the right direction….and we were not.  We talked and complained amongst ourselves, wondering where we were going, and how long the detour would take.  The Togolese men were chattering, and pleasantly laughing with each other, probably discussing the errands and the trip they were about to embark on.   We did ask them right away, where they were going.  “This isn’t the road to Tesvie,” we said.  They told us they needed to drop off the engine that was in the back of the van.  Well first they tried to tell us that the other roads were bad and they were taking a shortcut, but that didn’t fly, because this road was worse than any other we might have been on, so they fessed up and said they had a few errands to do.  First stop was the Togolese version of a machine shop.  The men got out of the van, then pulled the heavy engine out of the back.  They then acted like they were going to wait for it to be repaired.  We were there at least fifteen minutes, sweltering until the four of us started complaining rather loudly.    The men begrudgingly got back into the van and left the engine behind.  I think at this point they determined, we were going to be a handful.  We thought we were finally on our way.  Soon, we realized they were still going in the wrong direction.  They were headed towards the marche(city market) One big, chaotic mess, that I only go to if I have to.  The four of us again started complaining loudly.  “Where are you going?  This is not the way to Tesvie.”  They said they had to pick something up in the market, which was pretty much where we initially started the trip in the little taxi.  We were all complaining, and the men good-naturedly tried to ignore us, which wasn’t easy.   We were now in a very, very congested part of the marche.  Honking horns, people dodging cars, motos and bicycles, Street vendors selling their wares.  Women carrying things on their heads, people everywhere.   There is really no delineating line between the space for pedestrians to walk and cars to drive in the Marche.  They all meld together.   Total chaos.  It was an area of the marche I didn’t recognize.  The car traffic was going at a snails pace, if it was even going at all.  All of a sudden I reached my limit. There was no one thing that occurred.  It was simply a combination of everything.  Like a dam bursting,  I snapped.  I broke.  You might say I got real fussy.  I said, “Let me out of this van!”  I obviously was not thinking rationally.  All I knew is that I had to get out of that van.  The men tried to talk me out of it, but the women I was with instinctively knew that I would not be dissuaded.   They probably had each hit this wall themselves at one time or another in Togo.  Tamara, one of the women, told the drivers to stop, and let me out.  They did, but very reluctantly.  I heard later that after I got out, the PCV’s I was with wondered if they’d ever see me again, and they talked about how really nice it was knowing me.  You might think they should have tried harder to stop me, but really everyone is on their own in Togo.  They knew I had to do, what I had to do. 

So….I’m out of the van, but I feel no relief.  I’m still angry, and very hot, and thirsty, and when the van pulled away, I remembered I didn't have much money.  I had no idea where I was.  Stupid, I know, but as I said I was not thinking rationally.  At that point, I couldn’t even find my phone, and thought for sure I had lost it, when I was getting out of the van.  I started walking, or I should say maneuvering through the throngs of people, cars and bicycles, and watched the van slowly drive off.  The women also told me that a few minutes after I got out, the men were talking to each other in a very animated way, and stopped the van.  They seemed very concerned about me getting out, and didn’t know what to do, but they could really only go in one direction at that point.  There was no turning back, for me or for them.  It took me a few minutes to compose myself, (I was kind of throwing things around, left and right, mumbling under my breath, ignoring any onlookers.  You who know me well might recognize this scenario)  I decided to find another small taxi to take me to where I was supposed to be the first time.  I only had so much money, so I knew I would have to disquiter, which as I said I’m not good at.  I talked to three taxi drivers (best I could, with my French) and tried to get them to take me to the taxi stand.  After bartering for several minutes with each of them, they pretty much said…”no way….I’m not taking you” and turned their back on me…just went back to what they were doing.  I do believe that I might have had the attitude (or one might say fussiness) I described above.  My “attitude” did not inspire good will.  I determined if I was going to get help, I was going to have compose myself.  I did, and so-doing finally found a taxi driver who took pity on me.  He wasn’t going to drive me anywhere, but he listened to my sad story, and said I could just walk a few more blocks and catch a bush taxi.  He even got out of his taxi, and started to lead the way.  We walked a few blocks, and turned the corner.  He said, “See that white bush taxi way up there stuck in traffic?”  That taxi is going to Tesvie.  He walked with me all the way to the white bush taxi he was referencing.  By now, it had been an hour since I exited the first bush taxi.  As we approached the white bush taxi I noticed something curious.  I noticed the back of the head of a white woman in the rear window.  I squinted.  I thought to myself, NO, IT COUDN’T  BE!  But it was.  It was the exact same bush taxi I had gotten out of an hour earlier.  Still stuck in traffic, still carrying my friends.  I went to the front door of the taxi, and because life in Togo is so insane, everyone including me, and including the Togolese men  just started laughing hysterically.  Everyone in an instant could comprehend the insanity of the situation.  Tamara, one of the PCV’s….I think she laughed all the way home.  They did let me sit in the front seat this time.  After sitting in stalled traffic for about another half hour, we were finally on our way to Tesvie.  The bush taxi driver kept looking over at me and smiling and shaking his head.  The man in the middle said, “Togo is bad.”  I said, “No, no, Togo isn’t bad…today was bad, but Togo’s not bad.”  He seemed surprised, and smiled.

To all of you,  who after reading this, might be worried about my welfare, or my sanity.  I just want you to know that I will never, ever demand to get out of a bush taxi again, by myself, in some unknown swarming city or even on a country road.   In fact, wherever I am, and I start to reach my limit, or feel “fussy.”  I will remember this day, and I will go through my meditations, of praying to God, Allah, Buddha, Ron R. Hubbard, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and all my dead relatives, and ask them for patience.  Then I’ll make the sign of the cross.  I’ll put my in my earphones, close my eyes and not be fussy.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pies for Eyes Update

Pat Kaufman, Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas, and friends have collected over 300 pairs of eye-glasses to be sent to Tchekpo in a few weeks.  Shawnee Mission East baked pies and sold them to pay for the shipping.  Thus...Pies For Eyes!

While we are waiting for the glasses to arrive, we have teachers in the primary schools, and high school identifying kids who need glasses.  We are also going to the library and churches to identify adults.  In addition we are going to have an optomotrist travel to Tchekpo from Lome, to help us determine a way to most accurately fit the right glasses to the right person.

I will be posting pictures and information about how this gift will help the people of Tchekpo when we start distributing the glasses.

This is an amazing response!  Many people in Tchekpo know that we are doing this, and they frequently ask me about it.

My sincere thanks to Pat Kaufman, Shawnee Mission East High School and to the many friends and acquaintances who took the time and trouble from their busy schedules to respond to this need.

And...thanks again for helping the People of Tchekpo see the world and Americans more clearly.


It’s funny how things work out, how things seem to fall in place, how solutions to difficult questions and issues often present themselves almost effortlessly if you don’t panic or stress or perhaps you just know(because you’ve lived longer than anyone who surrounds you) from experience the solution will eventually be evident.

At any rate..there’s not much I sweat about. I know if I keep working towards a goal, all the barriers will eventually be busted through in one way or another. Things will work out.

And so it has with my biggest challenge…..speaking French.

Language has been my biggest challenge in the Peace Corps. It’s possible learning French has been my biggest challenge, ever. Well certainly it has been the biggest challenge for my brain since long division and percentages. Not just French, but the local language, Ewe, as well.

There were times during my nine weeks of training that I firmly believed my French was better before training than after training. This is not a slight to the excellent formitures (teachers) we had, because they were excellent in every way…knowledge, teaching skills, patience, assessing a persons needs. And, as tit for tat would have it, I believe that I might have been one of their biggest challenges ever. Near the end I think that I was the subject of many discussions.... “what do we do with her?”

PCV’s from my group of 29 came to Togo with a wide variety of language proficiency. Some came having grown up in a bi-lingual family and could go toe to toe with President Sarkozy if necessary. Some came with 4 years of College French, a few had Spanish and no French (they say knowing Spanish makes learning French much easier). I came to Togo with one 5 hour semester of French that I took at the local community college. I finished the class two weeks before I came to Togo, and to my surprise I got a B for the class, which I repeatedly told my dis-believing teachers in Togo. Oh, I deserved the B, for effort alone, but I don’t think I could speak a B’s worth of French. God how I struggled with that class. My version of index cards were large poster boards set all over my house with conjugated verbs, articles, and etra written all over them. My son, Eric, who is a whiz with languages counseled me often. First, bless his heart, he kept saying…you can do it mom. You can do this! He kept telling me to put everything I know about language out of my mind, and just pretend I was learning a language for the first time…like a baby. Uhhhhh. Who can do that? A baby, maybe. I understood the concept he was trying to get across, and some people may have thought emptying my particular mind might not have been that much of a struggle, but I could not empty it, not in that way.

As it turned out the French Class was a great foundation for me to learn the language. At least I had a fairly, fairly good vocabulary. I understood the theory of etra and avoir and the articles, and how they all worked, but I still have a lot of problems with structuring my sentences, conjugating verbs, and pronouncing lias
Da-veed and his future wife, Emily

ons in a way that would be understandable to a French speaking person. I’ve gotten quite used to people laughing (with) me at my attempts, and also in seeing very confused looks on their faces when I say something; which brings me to the subject of Da-veed.

The Peace Corps pays for ongoing language tutoring for PCV’s once they get to village. I have heard that even the best French speakers have a lot of trouble when they get to village, because the French is so different. That gave me a little consolation. It took me six weeks to find just the right tutor in Tchekpo. My next door neighbor, Fidel, is a German teacher at the highschool. He introduced me to Da-veed. I knew as soon as I talked with him that he would be an excellent teacher. I told him I wasn’t a very good student, and he said, “then I will ask God for patience.” Ha!

Da-veed is not only a great tutor for me, he’s a fine young man, and he has become a good friend. He now partners with me on several projects. He is a gifted teacher. He is helping me teach my English Class for adults, and brings a lot of fun, and good teaching techniques into the class. He is having me help teach English to his highschool students, and he’s going to help me form a committee to get aid for one of the primary schools that is badly in need of a building, books and supplies. He tutors me for an hour, twice a week, but he always mixes it with other things, so I don’t feel like I’m in school, and yet, he gives me homework, grades it, and even writes very good (in red) on my papers, only when they are very good. He’s very religious, but not obtrusively so. He says God bless you when he arrives, and when he leaves, and when he says it, I feel like I’ve been blessed. One Sunday he dropped by with his French Bible, and he had me read a parable, Then we discussed it in French. Somehow, he doesn’t make it seem like such a struggle. It just finally clicked!

Several people have said that my French is improving, and I feel that it is. It’s workin out!

By George…..I think she’s GOT IT!!! (My Fair Lady). Almost.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Sunday morning has become my favorite part of the week in Tchekpo.  Sunday has always been my favorite day.  Back home I had a routine of waking early, going to Starbucks for a white chocolate mocha, read the newspaper, watching Meet the Press, and I usually had a weekly telephone chat with Pat and Leanne.  It was my Sunday ritual.

Children I pass on my way to church.
 There is a ritual evolving in Tchekpo.  I still wake early, but now I have a cup of instant coffee with powdered milk, eat oatmeal, get dressed up in my very best African Complait and set out for the mile walk to the St. Stephens Catholic Church.  The walk is beautiful and serene, through narrow winding dirt roads lined with African flowers and foliage.  I pass huts with thatched roofs, children playing and neighbors visiting with each other.  I also pass a couple other churches along my way, some with services already in progress.  I hear singing and occasionally what sounds like an evangelical preacher warning his tiny flock of the perils of sin.  The churches I pass are small one room  
Not my church, but a church along the way.
buildings with only wooden benches, but they are so picturesque, in their secluded African setting.  Before I get to the Catholic Church I veer off of the path and walk through a wide open field.   The field is bright green.  Wildflowers and butterflies are sprinkled all about.

Finally I reach the open doors of what I now call my church in Tchekpo.  The church sits down in a valley, with many huge trees. I’m never quite sure when church will start.  It’s different every Sunday.  The priest from the neighboring village of Ahepe, comes to Tchekpo to say mass.  He then returns to Ahepe to say Mass. My neighbor or Moses, or both stop by my house on Saturday night and tell me what time church will be on Sunday.  By the time I arrive, there are already people gathered in a myriad of clusters outside of the church.  Some clusters are praying, some are obviously in a meeting of sorts. Many are just little groups of villagers visiting with each other.  At the entrance of the valley that leads to the church there is always food being prepared by a group of women.  The women are cooking rice or porridge over a wood fire in big caldrons, and there is fresh fruit; bananas, pineapple, oranges, mangoes.  In another area, to the side of the church, the choir is practicing their songs for the days service.  The most beautiful music I’ve ever heard sets the mood to celebrate.  Just for a few hours this African village experiences hope and sense of community.  They are so poor in all material ways, but their Sunday Church is rich with color and music and laughter and faith in God.   Everyone is happy on this day.  The sun is shining, kids are laughing and playing, mothers are carrying their sleeping babies in papooses on their backs and there is a large circle of teenagers dancing and singing.  As poor as they are, they are all dressed in stunning, crisp, clean, colorful African complaits, the women wearing coordinating head dresses.  I’m filled with happiness and contentment when I experience this scene.  I savor it.   It’s also the time that I contemplate the fact that often….people seem more joyous here than at home, and then for a fleeting moment (because that’s all I make time for) I question the meaning of life, and I think the world is topsy-turvy, and I think about them all yearning to come to the United States.  I wish that they knew that they are as happy, maybe happier than the people I see in the States.   They are not content though. There are too many of them who are hungry, and sick and dying.

St. Stephens Catholic Church

The church is modest, the roof peaks out in the front.  Inside the church is filled with wooden benches, and has a concrete floor.  There are no windows per se.  In place of windows there is a graphically pleasing pattern of openings along the walls in the shape of crosses that let the breeze flow in.  Africans must have discovered a form of airflow dynamics out of necessity.  In the few buildings they have, instead of large windows, they are built with small openings, strategically positioned.  It’s as if the breeze pushes its way through these openings and creates a natural wind path.  It’s an unexpected reprise from the African heat.  A cool breeze inside, when there seems to be no air moving outside.  The openings also allow for natural light to filter in.  Rays of lights going this way and that way.  Upon entering the church you see the altar at the front.  There is a stature of Mary on the right side of the altar, and a rough lecturn on the left.  The room is painted in pretty, bright colors.  The colors of the church and rays of light mixed with the colors of all the African fabric people are wearing is a sensory delight.

On this Sunday, when I entered the church I saw a group of ten to twelve women.  They had moved the benches to form a circle.  It was early; about an hour before mass was to begin.  There were a few people sprinkled about sitting on benches in quiet contemplation or prayer.  The women who had formed the circle had a table in the center with a white cloth over it.  A Statue of Mary, flowers and two candles were on the table.  One woman would speak in a rhythmic cadence and the other women responded in unison as if it were a response to a prayer, and then there was silence.  Their heads were bowed and their eyes were closed.  Outside the choir was still practicing in melodic  African harmony.  Their singing needed no instruments.  It is that beautiful.  Suddenly there was a loud bell.  I caught a glimpse through the window openings of a women walking through the church yard with a cymbal and a metal stick.  A loud, echoing, clanging of the cymbal signaling to the whole village that it was time for church.  All the people who had been lingering outside now began to spill into the church.  The women in the circle ended their prayer group, dismantled the altar, and moved the benches back to their original positions.

At 8:15 I could see a procession of people lining up outside of the church.  There were three tom-tom drums and drummers.  Moses is one of the drummers.  There is also a small, tinney sounding, silver instrument  about the size of the palm of your hand, shaped like a canoe.   It’s like a tiny cymbal, but is hollow.  It has a very African sound that compliments the drums.  The choir outside began singing,  and moving into the church.  Llittle by little everyone inside was singing  the same song.  African voices and musical instruments filled the church in harmony.  As the choir processions in, they are swaying and moving to the music, and so is the rest of the congregation.  Swaying, and kind of dancing, and clapping their hands to the beat.  First the altar boys enter, carrying a cross, then the choir; next, a teenage girl balancing a bowl of smoking incense on her head, and finally the priest.

I am intrigued with and enjoy watching the children who are in this church.  The small, under seven years of age children.  They are always so well behaved, not squirming around.   They appear confident, and secure.  I’m not sure why that is my impression.  What makes them seem different than children I see in American churches.  I guess it’s the way they carry themselves.  They are not shy, they stand up very straight, they sway with the music, and they look me right in the eye.  They don’t appear to be confined to a pew.  Sometimes they just get up and walk around, and look at everyone and everything.  They are as cute as they can be, all dressed up.   Very, very rarely do you hear a  baby cry…anywhere, not just in church.  The phenomena of the quiet, sleeping babies will be explored in another blog.

After the choir has taken the front row seats, and the music stops, mass begins.  The mass has the same structure and formalities as a catholic mass in the States.  The music is different, and the Offertory and Offering of Peace are different.  During the Offertory there is yet another procession, people walk, dance and sing up the aisle with large bowls of a variety of food on their heads.  Kassaba’s, fruit, rice.  After church this food is distributed to people who don’t have enough food.  The offering of Peace is lovely, and lengthy.  While the choir is singing; men, women and children get out of their pews, and make their way around the church, bowing to each other  and warmly taking  each others hand, wishing them well.

The priest is lovely.  He gives the sermon in Ewe, so I unfortunately can’t understand what he’s saying, but he comes down from the altar and walks the aisles while he is preaching.  He interacts with the congregation, asking them questions.  They often laugh at something he’s said.   I’ve been impressed that he seems to wear a perpetual smile.  He looks happy to be doing what he’s doing.  He radiates.

On my second visit to the church I was introduced to the congregation by the priest and asked to say a few words.  I gave an Ewe (local language) greeting, which they all appreciated, and said 'unconn-nya Adoowah'…which means my name is Adoowah in Ewe.  That name was given to me by the people in Tchekpo because I was born on a Monday.  I was not prepared to speak to the congregation, and didn’t really know what to say.  Moses was by my side and translated.  I told them that I was raised a Catholic, and that my uncle was a priest. I told them I was very happy to be here, and that they have a lovely church.  Moses whispered in my ear that I needed to give them some advice.  I looked at him astonished.  Advice??!!??  He said yes, “they want advice.”  I was speechless for what seemed like a long time, and then I said, “I don’t really have any advice for you right now.  I think I will learn more from you, than you will learn from me, but maybe with the help of God we can do things together to help the community.”  They seemed happy and surprised that I could learn more from them, than they could learn from me.   I believe this to be true.

I have felt welcomed in such a warm, genuine way throughout Tchekpo, but never so much as I do on Sundays, when I go to St. Stephens Catholic Church.  My faith is renewed.  Father Dougherty would be pleased.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Voodoo Sacrifice

As I was walking home one day last week, I came to the fork in my road about a blocks distance from my house.  There in the center, where the road splits, was a stake in the ground.  The stake was bent from the weight of whatever was hanging from the stake.  As I got closer, I noticed a foul odor and then I could see that there was a large dead crow hanging from the stake.  My first thought, was that this had some Voodoo significance, and my second thought was….hope it doesn’t have anything to do with me!

I asked Alougba about it later in the day.  She told me in a very matter of fact way that the crow had been a “fetish” sacrifice.  With a worried look she said a lot of babies had been dying.  She said there had been a Voodoo ceremony.  They sacrificed the crow to stop the babies from dying.  I asked her if it worked, and she said, “oh yes!”  I think there was much more to the ceremony, because the night before I had heard Voodoo drums and chanting all night long.

The stake and the crow are still there…
three days later.

The Marche

There will be much more about the Marche through the upcoming months.  One of my primary projects will be to help these women and their businesses become more profitable.  During training we learned how to do a needs assessment with village businesses.

We also learned how to teach them how to budget.  Not just how to budget, but what a budget is.  One facet of our work is to show them the value of keeping records and bookkeeping.  In training we learned how to demonstrate these things to them visually.  For example if I am teaching them what a budget is, I will make a chart, and on one side, have a list of all possible expenses for one week.  I will begin to ask them what they need to sell their product.  I'll have cutout pictures of those things, and begin to place them on the expense side of the chart.  How much time does it take?...and how much money do they have to spend?...using pictures.  On the other side of the chart, I will ask them how much they sell in one week and what they sell it for.  By the time we’ve finished the chart, hopefully the value of tracking this information will be obvious, the light will dawn and they will begin to make some changes, and make more of a profit….awwww capitalism.  There is a not so small part of me, that enjoys the way they do it now, but in the end, I know that it will be helpful for them to understand these concepts.  It will enable them to better provide for their families.  It will help put food in their Cauldrons, so to speak.   At this point in time, they have no concept of expenses vs. sales, and very, very often are making less money than they are spending.  They just make or grow the product, and receive money.  They are just happy to go home with money in their pockets.

 Groupement Head Honchos
Tough Cookies
There are over seventy-five women who belong to the ‘Femme Groupement Association.'  None of them speak French, only a few words of greeting.  All speak Ewe.  I have work to do to earn their trust and respect.  Right now, I'm just a novelty.  They really don’t have much use for me since I don’t speak their language, so little by little I’m getting to know them and getting to know about their businesses.  This is going to take time and patience.

The Maker of Kings

Preparing a meal

On one of our “promenades” through the village, Alougba and I stopped at this family's compound.  The woman was, as is the norm, busy preparing a meal.  When I entered their compound I said my Ewe greeting, "Jo-bee-doe," and then as they often do, they started talking full-out Ewe.  I've been told that when I don't understand what they are saying, just say, "annnnnhhhhh," which I do, a lot.  The woman called her husband out from behind a walled off portion of the compound.  He was so welcoming and happy to see us.  “Whiz-unnnn-lowwwwwww,” he said, which is welcome to my home in Ewe, to which I replied, “yo-o-o-o-o-o.” The appropriate reply, which translates to, “thank you very much for welcoming me.”

An artist poses
He had seen my camera, and that I was taking photos.  He immediately motioned me back to his workshop.  His wife and a few other people who were there followed us.  They were eager to see what would happen next. He was very proud to show me that he was the maker of the Chief’s many crowns.  He showed them to me, and laughed, and he made it clear that he wanted me to take his picture, but first he wanted to set the scene.  He first went over to his workbench and pretended to be working; he was posing, and waited for me to snap his picture.  Then he laid several of his works of art (crowns) out on a bench, and asked me to take a photo of them.  Finally, without prompting he put one of the crowns on and wanted one last picture.  Each time I took a picture, I would show him the results on the little screen of my camera.  Oh…. how delighted he was!
A group admires a crown
They were such a fun couple.  The thought occurred to me while I was watching this man and his wife, how loving, sweet, and playful they were with each other.  The wife obviously was proud of her husband and of his work, and she took joy in watching him show me his works of art.

I liked them a lot, and will return.  I loved his face…don’t you?

The King Maker

Friday, October 1, 2010

My First Dinner Party in Tchekpo

I had promised to invite Toussaint (I’ve been spelling his name TwoSain since we met, and recently discovered it was spelled Toussaint, so I will start using the correct spelling.) and his family over for a meal.  They live just up the road from me about two city blocks distance.  Toussaint has helped me with so many things since I arrived in Tchekpo.  I wanted to repay his kindness.  Toussaint loves his family; that is evident.  I admire how hard he works, and how much he does in the community.  He teaches primary Catholic school in a neighboring village, thirty miles away, and rides his bike to and from work every day.  His moto broke down, and he can’t afford to fix it right now. When I asked him to bring his family for lunch, he was very happy.  He double and triple checked the time and date with me for the week prior to the lunch.  We had settled on Sunday at 1pm.  Sunday after church seemed like a nice time to have them over.

Toussaint is very involved in the Catholic Church in Tchekpo.  He took me to his church when I first arrived in Tchekpo, introduced me to everyone, and made sure that I had a front row seat.  He works with the church youth groups, sings in the choir, and he reads some of the prayers during the mass.  He also has quite the cute dance moves, when they all get up and have a procession through the church during the offertory.

I fretted over what to cook for them.  Not knowing what they might and might not like, and also not knowing if what I cooked would turn out well.  Aloughba and Toussaint had been to my house for impromptu dinners, but this was different.  I wanted this to be special.  I decided to prepare Spanish rice.  It seemed like something I could do, something they might like, and also maybe slightly different than their daily fare, yet not too different.  Togolese eat a lot of rice and tomato sauce concoctions; this just had a little different twist to it.  On Saturday I walked to the marche, and picked up all the ingredients I didn’t already have.

Toussaint, Celestine, Philomene and Desire
I went to church on Sunday, and got home about 11, which gave me about two hours to prepare the meal.  I made Spanish rice, a tomato and cucumber salad with oil and vinaigrette dressing.  I also made garlic toast, and tapioca pudding for desert.  I put a tablecloth and flowers on the table.   Toussaint is somewhat overly eager about everything, so I wasn’t surprised that he and his family showed up at noon instead of one.  I was pretty much ready for that.  (I really wanted a whiskey sour about now, but settled for grape Crystal Lite.) Toussaint’s wife’s name is Celestine; his daughter is Philomene; and his son, Desiree.  They are a beautiful family, inside and out.  Celestine, is quite beautiful, and  has a radiant smile, which both Philomene and Desiree have inherited.   I had met Celestine a few times in the marche and also very briefly at their house.  Celestine sells ponja (African fabric) and flip-flops at the Tchekpo marche.   Celestine and I had greeted each other at church, but she was always very quiet and reserved.  I had wondered if maybe she didn’t like me.  Maybe I had taken up too much of Toussaint’s time.  But at the dinner she was very friendly.  She seemed very glad to be here for lunch.   During lunch I discovered she only speaks Ewe, which explained why she hadn’t talked much to me previously.  She didn’t say much during lunch but Toussaint would translate everything that was said…..and Tousssaint doesn’t really know much English, so again, communication was a mish mash of words, hand waving, laughing and pointing.  The kids Philomene and Desiree were taking it all in.  Every time I would look at Philomene and Desiree, they would flash this delightful shy smile.

Dinner was nice.  Toussaint said a prayer before we started eating.   To my pleasant surprise, they seemed to really like the Spanish rice and all of the food, as they each had two or three helpings of everything.  There were no leftovers.  Celestine helped me with the dishes, and then they went on their way home.

Philomene and Desiree showed up at my door about an hour later.  I wasn’t sure why, but then I saw that they wanted to get into my basket of art supplies.  They stayed and colored and played with stickers for about an hour.

Toussaint told me that Celestine wants to have me over for dinner.

It was really, a very nice way to spend the Sunday afternoon.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Yin and Yang of Lome

PCV Lounge in Lome
I think being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa helps me understand the concept of yin and yang; that almost everything you experience comes with the good and the bad.  Every day in Togo, and as Peace Corps Volunteer there are highs and lows.  It seems every day I have moments of bliss, and moments of despair.  Every trip I take in a bush taxi or moto has humor and horror, and when I go to Lome I experience energy and exhaustion, light and darkness.  Yin (the good) and yang (the bad).

I recently returned from two days and one night in Lome.  I will be going to Lome at least once a month.  My monthly stipend is deposited into a bank in Lome, so I have a reason to go there at least once a month.

Peace Corps Headquarters - Lome
Yin of Lome:  I look forward to going to Lome because I get to visit the Peace Corps Headquarters, where I meet and socialize with other PCV’s who have come to Lome for a variety of reasons.   There is a lounge at the PC Headquarters where Peace Corps Volunteers gather.  The lounge includes a library where PCV’s exchange books.  The lounge is air-conditioned…woohoooooo!  There are comfortable couches and chairs, and a wireless connection for computers with a much better speed than anywhere else in Togo.  It’s the only place I can open photos that have been emailed to me, or even look at photos on Facebook.  The lounge also has two desktop computers and a printer.  I’ve been there several times now, and I always meet at least one or two PCV’s I haven’t met before.  There is an instant rapport between PCV’s, and usually you end up going to lunch or shopping or sharing a bush taxi home with one of them, and then you have another new friend.  It’s always interesting to hear the stories about their particular experience; why they joined, where their village is, how their French and local language is going, how long they’ve been here, and what they plan on doing when their service is over.

Yang of Lome: I don’t like Lome because it is a dirty, huge, chaotic city, with too many people and lots of ugly crime, like child prostitution and hard drugs, and it’s filled with unsavory characters.  It’s also a couple hours of bush taxi rides to get there and back.

Yin of Rachel:  My ride to Lome in the bush taxi was unrepentantly easy on this weekend.  I got to sit in the front seat, and for the first time, the bush taxi was not packed full.  I also met a lovely woman, Racheal, who lives in Tchekpo.  She spoke good English.  She was accompanying her father and mother to the hospital in Lome.  Her father used a cane, and looked as though he might have suffered a stroke at some time.  When I inquired about him, Rachel said he was having trouble with his eyes.  When she talked about him, there was worry in her voice.  Racheal and I had an hour and half to get to know each other.  She is a nurse.  It was not hard to tell that she is a very good, compassionate nurse.  My daughter Andrea is a very good, compassionate nurse.  It’s easy to spot the good ones.  They speak about their work with passion and compassion.  Racheal and Andrea are the kind of nurse you would want taking care of you if you were sick.  By the time we reached Lome Racheal and I were fast friends.  I told Racheal about Andrea and Andrea’s work as a hospice nurse.  Racheal told me she had been working a long time for very little money, then one day her Director came to her and told her that he thought she did a very good job.  He offered her a big raise and permanent employment.  She was amazed at her good fortune about this.

I in turn explained to her about the Peace Corps and about what I was doing in Tchekpo.  Because she spoke good English and seemed so compassionate and interested, I asked her if she could help me with something.  I wrote in an earlier blog about my translator, Moses.  Moses is a good boy, and he will continue to assist me when he can, but he’s not available enough, especially now that school has started.  What I really need is an adult who wants to get involved in the community, and who also speaks English.  All Togolese think  #1 all Americans have a lot of money, and #2 that you might somehow be able to help them get to America.  Initially that is the reason 98% of them want to assist you with anything they can.  I explained to Racheal for me to be useful to the community, I must find a “partner” who speaks English and French, and can translate Ewe (the local language.)  I explained that I did not have a lot of money, and I couldn’t help anyone get to America.  A partner would need to want to partner with me for one reason and one reason only, and that would be to help the community.  I could see that Racheal completely understood, we exchanged telephone numbers and she promised to find someone to help.  The ironic part of this story was that when I shared this information with Moses, Moses told me that Rachel was his senior sister.  I had not given Rachel the name of the boy who was helping me.  Small World.  I felt even better that Moses sister was also going to help, and Moses liked the idea too.

Yin of Ashley and Cat:  When I arrived in Lome, I went directly to the Peace Corps Headquarters.  I had arranged to meet Ashley and Cat there.  I hadn’t seen Ashley since our swearing in, though we had texted each other a couple times a week.  Cat has been here about nine months, and she is a spirited, lively young woman.  I met her at the swearing in party.  Ashley and Cat live in a different region than I do, but they have been brainstorming some women’s programs they want to start, and they want me to partner with them.  I like both of them a lot and am excited and pleased they want to work with me even though I’m in a different region of the country.  I spent most of Friday in the PC lounge with Ashley and Cat, visiting and laughing and catching up on everything.  They had been in Lome since Thursday, and were going home on that Friday afternoon, so I only had that day with them, but we packed a lot in; a little shopping in the marche, lunch, internet and visiting with other PCV’s who came in and out of the lounge…OH, also we had all received care packages, so we were sharing luxurious items such as bite size snickers, and M&M’s!  It was my intention to just spend Friday in Lome and go home late afternoon the same day, but because I spent so much time visiting with Ashley and Cat, I still had a lot to do.  I decided to spend the night in Lome.  I stayed in the same hotel that Ashley and Cat had stayed in the night before, and the same hotel that I stayed in during the swearing in ceremony.   The Gallion Hotel is within walking distance of the Peace Corps Headquarters.

Friday night jazz at the Gallion
Yin of the Gallion:  The Gallion is a typical third world hotel for travelers who are on a budget.  The rooms are similar to a really bad hotel in the States, maybe worse, but the food and service is good, and it’s fairly clean.   Fairly clean might be a relative statement.  Ashely woke up with a nasty spider bite after her stay there, and several of the PCV’s woke up with welts (from bed bugs) during swearing in.   The great thing about this hotel is that it has free wireless availability.  My room was on the second floor.  I shared a balcony with other rooms, however I was the only person who used the balcony that night.  The balcony overlooked the courtyard and this was a Friday night.  I had no idea that Friday night is jazz night at this hotel.  They had a fabulous four-piece band playin exceptionally good music all night.  So…Friday night I sat on my balcony, overlooking the courtyard, eating snickers, and listening to great live music.  Pay Dirt!!!  The real topper was that I was able to video Skype with Andrea, Emily and Kittie on Friday night and then Eric, E.J. and Dorothy on Saturday morning.  Again…Pay Dirt!!  I got to chat on Facebook with my goddaughter Jessica, and my friend Pam.  I had just received a care package from Pam and her husband Richard that very day, so it was really fun to be able to chat with her.  It was a great night, and I thought life was especially good!  That was the Yin.
My room at the Gallion.

Yang of Gallion:  I finally ended my Skype marathon at about 2am and I went to sleep curled up in a little ball in the middle of the bed, hoping that I would not wake up with a spider bite or welts from bed bugs.  At the time it seemed like a reasonable tactic.  It worked!  No bed bug bites, and no spider bites.   So maybe that was a yin/yang.

Yin of the morning:  The next morning I went down to the courtyard, set my computer up again, had the most delicious espresso, and egg omelet while leisurely working on my blog and waiting for the time that had been pre-set to video Skype with Eric, E.J. and Dorothy.  It made me so happy to see Eric and E.J. and my beautiful granddaughter Dorothy.  I had not laid eyes on any of them for almost four months.  We had a great visit, and it was almost, almost like being in the same room with them, though I longed to hug Dorothy.

Yang of the morning: OK…I might have taken notice at this point that Yin and Yang were seriously out of balance.  The Yin was greatly overshadowing the Yang.  I didn’t notice until I saw the ominous clouds forming (symbolically and in reality) just as I was getting ready to leave Lome.

Yin of the trip home:  After my too wonderful for words video Skype conversation with Eric, E.J. and Dorothy, I walked back to the Peace Corps Headquarters to spend a few hours.  I had met Becca, a PCV the day before.  She had to travel through Tesvie to get back home.  We decided to share a cab to the Bush Taxi stand and then share a bush taxi to Tesvie.  It would save money, and we could get to know each other.  She had been in and out of the PC lounge on Saturday, but we hadn’t had time to talk.  She had told me her village is in the Kara region, which is where my friend Dillon lives.  Becca has been a PCV for about a year, and she had met Dillon and loved him like we all do.  Becca was great.  We had fun traveling to Tesvie together - much better than going it alone.  Because I had received a couple care packages from home and went grocery shopping at the Yo-vo store while in Lome, I had a lot to carry back.  Becca helped me…as far as Tesvie anyway.  On the trip home I told Becca I was really feeling my age.  I’d only had a few hours sleep for the previous two nights, and I had all this stuff to carry, including my backpack with my heavy computer.  The trip from Lome to Tchekpo is arduous all by itself, without these added elements.   When we got to Tesvie, Becca and I parted.  I promised to come up to the Kara region soon to see her and Dillon, and to see the most northern part of Togo they both talk so fondly about.   We both got in different bush taxis at that point, and both had another hour or so to go.

Big yang of the trip home: The clouds were now impossible to ignore; it looked like rain.  When it rains here, it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.  The bush taxi I was in was bursting at the seams with people, cargo, babies and animals.  It was humid.  The taxi stunk.  It got very dark outside, and it started to rain about half way to Tchekpo.

Big, big, yang of the trip home:  I wondered and worried about how I was going to get to my home from the main road in Tchekpo and hoped the rain would be manageable for just another half hour.    It started pouring buckets, monsoon like rain as we drove into Tcheckpo.  The bush taxi stopped at the entrance to my little road and let me out. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I was carryin over fifty pounds.

The Big Yang: As I stepped out of the bush taxi into the pouring rain, some neighbors who live on the main road waved me over.  They wanted me to take shelter on their covered porch until the rain stopped.  At that point I didn’t care how treacherous or hard it was going to be, I just wanted to get home, so I hoped they saw me wave through the downpour and I went on my way.   I don’t think I can accurately describe my walk home that day, but I’ll try.

One of the many garbage piles
along the road
I started to walk the road to my house.  It goes slightly uphill all the way, and it is a red, clay dirt rutted road.  On either side of the road there are piles of trash, some piles have been burned, and many times it’s just piles of trash, garbage, lots of discarded black plastic bags.  On a normal day I regularly see remnants of shoes/flip flops, pieces of torn clothing, cans, corncobs etc.  The chickens, goats and baby chicks feed off of this garbage daily.  The rain was so hard, that the middle of the road, which has many gullies, was flooded and the water was flowing very, very fast.  I was never in danger of being swept away as you are in a flash flood.  I don’t know why, but I knew that drowning was not going to be my demise.  I had about a half mile to trudge, and trudge I did.  There was no one else on the road because of course they knew better.  They also knew that the rain would soon stop and that the roads would dry up as quickly as they had flooded.  I, however, thought I needed to get home now…while I still could, lest I be stranded in some villagers hut for the rest of the night.  I thought it might rain forever.

So with my heavy backpack filled with my heavy computer and electronics, and my arms full of cumbersome sacks, I pushed through the fast flowing current and swirling, rapid, dark red water.  I could see shoes and clothing and unidentifiable items swirling on top of the water.  I cringed at the thought of what I was walking through, which was water filled with garbage and trash mixed with human and animal waste.  I could only concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, not the diseases I was surely exposing myself too.  When my feet sunk through the squishy consistence, I wondered if it was mud, or something else!   I happened to have on my favorite pair of Banana Republic short khakis.  I could see that the red clay was splattering all over them.   I had experience with wet red clay on my clothes before.  I had a passing thought that my slacks would be ruined forever. (Well I’m only human…come on, they were Banana Republic khakis!) Because I couldn’t see through the red dark water, I also couldn’t see where the ruts were.  I stepped in many of them.  Sometimes the ruts I stepped in made the water go up as high as my thighs.  Dense, red water, swirling with garbage and shit (to put it bluntly) up to my thighs, but I was almost home, I could see the yellow tint of my house in the distance, just maybe a block away, and then the rain started to slow down.  I saw three young boys walking towards me.  Now I was just dealing with mud.   My shoes became heavy from the mud that was accumulating.   I could now at least see my feet, but the sacks I carried were still painfully heavy.  My arms ached; my back ached.

If I’d had time, I would have cried, but I didn’t have time for that.  When I met up with the boys who were walking towards me, I shoved the two sacks into one boy’s arms.  I asked him if he would help me the rest of the way home.  "S’il vous plait," I said, "to the jeune maison!"  He took the sacks, but started jabbering something to me.  I thought he was asking me how much I would pay him.  I really don’t know what he said, but that’s what I thought, and I was in no mood for someone to be asking me for money, so I grabbed the sacks back from him and trudged the rest of the way by myself.  The boys stood there, and watched me, all the way home.  I could hear them jabbering, but it was unintelligible.  Who knows what they were saying?!   Maybe they were just trying to figure out what I wanted?  They were probably saying, “you stupid YoVo!  What the hell are you doing?”   I don’t’ know.

I made it to my house and immediately took my favorite khakis off, filled up a pail of water and soaked them.  I scrubbed and soaked and washed, and scrubbed and soaked and washed for what seemed like an hour.  I then filled another pail, boiled some water and took a warm shower, scrubbing my feet and my legs until they were raw.

Home at last!
Yin of home and a friend: I’m so glad this exhausting day ended with a Yin!  I had just literally collapsed in a chair when the telephone rang.  It was my friend, of over forty years, Pat.  There was never a better moment to get a phone call from home.  It was so good to hear her voice.  The previous two hours melted away as we caught up with each others Yin and Yang; on what had been happening in both of our lives since the last time we talked.  Pat was recuperating from hip replacement surgery the week prior, and the death of two beloved family members just months before.  She was doing well, despite all of her pain and loss. Talking to her put everything in perspective, and while listening to her my day became a distant memory, a minor annoyance, well maybe (smile).

Yin and Yang.