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.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Men As Partners (M.A.P.)

Aloughba, Toussaint and Douve on the way to the M.A.P. conference
 Last week I and three of my village partners, (Alougba, Two-Sain and Douve) participated in a three day conference called M.A.P. (Men As Partners.) The conference was held in Zafi, a little village about ten miles from Tcheckpo. Every morning the four of us would catch a bush taxi to Ahepe, and then moto to Zafi, and every evening we would go home the same way. Participants came to this conference from six surrounding villages. There were about twenty-five participants, and five trainers. This is a very new program that was initiated in Togo by the Peace Corps. Basically it teaches men how to be more involved in their families lives, it shows them a better or different view of what their wives and women have to deal with on a daily basis, and it teaches women a better understanding of their men’s issues, fears, and the day to day internal conflict they experience as a man in Togo.

The conference kick-off was a fun, inter-active group exercise that illustrated the fact that we need to respect each other’s opinions, and the fact people naturally will have very opposing beliefs about issues.

The conference was amazing, professional, effective and well organized. The facilitators, Sekou, a one year PCV, and Rose, the Area Director for this Peace Corps Program were dynamic facilitators and speakers. They captured the entire groups attention. Everything was well planned out, with a doable agenda for all three days. I wondered how the concept would be perceived and how my village participants would react. It was a lot to ask, to have them spend three days away from however it is they make a living, travel to Zafi and attend this conference.

We broke up into groups and thoroughly examined several difficult issues they all experience, such as sexual harassment towards women, all different kinds of violence towards men, and how they deal with it. Excessive use of alcohol. The discussions were animated and pertinent. At the end of the second day, six groups of four people each put on a
sketch about a particular issue that had been discussed, debated and rehearsed. The sketches were performed in front of villagers from Zafi. At least sixty people from the little village of Zafi came to see the sketches. (This is one of the many things you have to appreciate about an event like this…that the Peace Corps Volunteers, not only put on a great and relevant conference, but they also got the whole village of Zafi involved in the conversation.) At the end of the sketches we had a question and answer session from the audience. The audience was engaged and asked insightful questions.

PCV Abby presenting me with my certificate

The last day of the conference was all about what were we now going to do with this information and insight. How/when/where are we going to bring this back to our individual villages. My three guests already have a calendar of future events for M.A.P. We will meet together soon, and decide how we will get the word out about the upcoming programs. They would like to put on one program a month for the next six months.  The facilitators and the participants each received a certificate for completing the program.

Toussaint - Proud New Trainer for M.A.P.
 In the wrap-up session, we went around the room and asked people for final comments about the conference. Toussaint said, “I want to take the information back and share it with my community, but first I see that I need to make changes in myself."

Zafi M.A.P. Class of 2010

M.A.P. (Men as Partners) A Peace Corps Success Story



One Swallow Does Not a Summer Make!

Moses and I were sitting on a bench in Alougbas compound. We were waiting for her to finish making gari. I filled the time by explaining to Moses that I needed to find more people who wanted to be involved in the community. Alougba and Tou-sain and Moses are great, but I need input from more people. Moses in all of his infinite sixteen years of wisdom looked at me and said “One swallow does not a summer make.” “Huh?” I said, thinking I had lost him in translation. He repeated the sentence, and then proceeded to tell me that this was an African proverb and it meant one persons advice is not enough. One needs to get advice from many people. I just stared at him speechless at his insight. He smiled and said, “We will find more people!” “D’accord,” I said. Ok!

The Dichotomy of Moses

He is sixteen, the youngest of eight brothers and two sisters. His father died two years ago, which forced his mother to move from Ghana to Tcheckpo so that she could live closer to and have help from relatives. So Moses left his friends and the only home he had ever known at the tender and sensitive age of 14. Culturally the difference between Ghana and Tchekpo is stark. It would be like moving from inner city, New York City to rural Kansas.

Moses is a leader in his Catholic Church Youth Group, “for orphans,” he explained to me. By orphans he meant that these children have lost one or both parents. By my count, there were at least twenty kids. When the group gets together on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons, they have variety of projects. They sing and dance, and play the African drums, and put on sketches. They invited me to attend their group last Sunday. It was a lot of fun, and it was fascinating to see how Moses leads the group, and assures that everyone is involved and happy. The children’s ages range from three to twenty.

Moses likes to come to my house. He likes to listen to my iPod and drink my crystal lite and eat my snacks. Occasionally while I’m working at my desk he asks if he can stay and listen to my iPod while I’m working. He’ll sit in a chair, closes his eyes, and remains perfectly still for as long as I will allow. At times I will hear him humming a little or swaying a little to the music, but for the most part he is perfectly still until I tell him it’s time for him to go.

Good friends from home have sent me a variety of materials for art projects with the children. I keep everything in a big basket in my living room. Word has spread among the children in my neighborhood about the basket of wonderful things they’ve never seen before. They filter in and shyly go through the basket asking what this is, and what that is. I have stickers, and Crayolas, construction paper, magic markers, glue sticks, stencils, etc.

Moses found my basket one day. He brought each item out and asked me to explain. He was interested in the stencils and magic markers. I showed him how the stencils worked. He asked me if he could sit and work with the stencils for a while. He sat and colored the stencils meticulously for at least two hours. This brilliant boy, who speaks three languages fluently, sat coloring and was completely content and happy. He wanted to give the piece of art he made to me as a gift, but I told him to give it to his mother. He told me later that she loved it, and that it made her happy.


Voodoo has omnipresence in Tchekpo and in Africa. You hear, feel or see little signs of it everywhere. You get so used to the voodoo drums beating in the background at all hours of the day and night that the sound becomes almost part of the landscape.

The beat of the voodoo drums provides my African day or night with a musical score. Just as in a film that is well produced and edited, you rarely notice the musical score in the background. In a film musical score you shouldn’t notice when the music stops or starts. The music sets the tone, prepares you for what might happen next, builds tension, or fear or enhances humor and sorrow. I think the voodoo drums work in the same way.

I’m intrigued with the Voodooese (Moses said that’s what their ethnic group is called). They are everywhere, yet you feel rather than see their presence. One day as I was walking to Alougba’s house I ran into a Voodoo parade/celebration. It was around 4pm on a Sunday. I heard the drums first; they seemed louder and closer than usual. Then I saw a procession of maybe fifty people. Most of the people in the procession had streaks of white painted on their faces, arms and legs. The drums were loud and constant. The procession appeared to be surrounding five or six people who were wearing masks and bright colored clothes. These five or six people were also wearing brightly colored hats with brims all the way around, with strings hanging from the brims, down around their faces. All of the people in the procession were moving to their own beat of the drums. Villagers came out of their compounds and lined the road, watching respectfully and as curiously as I, as the Voodoo procession marched by.

I saw Moses later in the day, and asked him about the procession. He explained that he thought it was similar to a coming of age celebration for the five or six central figures. That made sense. Neither Moses nor anyone else who is not Voodooese understands more than the very basics of Voodoo. From what I’ve seen there is a tolerance, respect and maybe a certain amount of awe of the Voodoo ways and customs. There is certainly a reverent acceptance.

The Doll

I’ve noticed a few times little children carrying around very strange looking little dolls. They are carved out of wood, with painted hair, and they have bright colored clothes on. These are the only dolls I’ve seen, and really one of the few “toys” I’ve seen, so I always noticed them. The dolls bodies look a little like totem poles, by that I mean the bodies are somewhat distorted - short, and wide. They are wearing colorful African ponjas. The children who are carrying them look as if this doll is their most prized possession, and several have walked up to show me. One little girl, Adele, who has become a particular favorite of mine, has one of these dolls. She’s three or four with huge eyes and dimples, and a fearless, playful really happy personality. I've never seen Adele without her doll.

Alougba noticed my curiosity about the dolls. She explained that when twins are born, and one of them dies, which apparently happens often, the Voodooese make a doll for the surviving twin to keep with them forever to remind them of their sister or brother.

Tres interresant!

Pies for Eyes

My sister Jody gave me a thoughtful gift before I left for Africa. Twelve pairs of reader glasses! Everyone who wears reader glasses knows how easily they are broken and how often they are lost. In the states I had a pair stashed everywhere. In the car, in the kitchen, in my purse, and still there were many times that I was rummaging around for a pair. I’d hate to be stuck in Africa without them, because without them I can’t read.

To date, I have given away three pairs of those twelve pairs of glasses. The first pair I gave to Alougba. She was sitting in my house, and as often happens we were trying to communicate by looking a word up in the French/English dictionary. I saw Alougba straining to see the small print of the dictionary. She finally got annoyed, threw the book aside, and let me know she just couldn’t see it. I pulled out a pair of my glasses and told her to put them on. She did. She put them on upside down, and looked again at the dictionary in front of her. The look on her face was funny. She threw her head back, and had a big smile on her face. She then wanted to look up many more words, and we spent that afternoon doing just that. Alougba repeatedly put my glasses on upside down. I finally decided not to correct her. Apparently she liked the way they fit better when they were upside down. I told Alougba she could keep the glasses. I could sense that she couldn’t believe that she would receive such a gift. She carries a yellow plastic bag around everywhere we go, that I have assumed carries most of the things that she values. She has a little notebook, and a pen, the box of crayolas I gave her, and now her glasses are in the bag.

I had a similar experience with Moses (my sixteen year old translator) and believe it or not the Village Chief. Each time we were looking up words in the dictionary. I could see Moses struggling as well, so I handed him a pair of glasses. Moses said, “ohhhhh wowwwwww.” I told him he could keep the glasses. He was very appreciative, very excited. He asked me if they would also help him see the blackboard in school. I told him, no, unfortunately these glasses will only help with his reading.

Tchekpo has 10,000 to 15,000 people. Obviously the now eight pairs of glasses I have left (I lost a pair), aren’t going to help much. It’s not that the people here haven’t seen eye glasses. I’m sure most have them have seen them, but eye glasses are definitely not a part of their world. I started thinking about how much more difficult it must be not to be able to read or see distances….how hard school must be for Moses because he can’t see the blackboard, how difficult it must be for Alougba to help the community if she can’t read about all resources. Then I thought of my friend Pat…back home in Prairie Village, Kansas. Pat Kaufman is the Director of SHARE; the volunteer organization at Shawnee Mission East High School. As Director of SHARE she works with high school students, helping them understand the importance of volunteering, and community involvement, and matching students with volunteer opportunities. When I left for Africa, Pat told me that if there was a project I thought she and SHARE might be able to help with to let her know. I sent Pat an email and told her about the fact that no one had glasses in Tchekpo, and they didn’t have access to eye exams or glasses. I wondered if there was some way that her group might collect eyeglasses and send them to us. Pat wrote back within twenty-four hours, and had already put the wheels in motion.

The high school students at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas have organized a drive to collect eyeglasses to be distributed to the people of Tchekpo, this little village in Africa. The collection of glasses will run until the end of October. To pay for the cost of shipment, SHARE has started a project called Pies for Eyes. The youth volunteers will be baking pies and selling them at school.

When the glasses arrive in Tchekpo we plan on forming a group here to help distribute them as effectively as possible. We will work with the Dispensare (clinic) to divide the glasses up according to strength, and if they are for far-sighted or near sighted, then we will do the best we can with an eye chart to determine which glasses might be helpful. I spoke with my friend Racheal; a nurse here in Tcheckpo, and she thought she might be able to get an optometrist from Lome to come and assist us. We will do some community outreach for this starting with the primary schools, asking teachers if they know of children who have trouble seeing, then the highschool and finally we will go to the churches and get the word out to adults. It obviously won’t be perfect fits, but I think that a significant number of people in tchekpo will be able to see better.

If you, your workplace, your church, or an organization you belong to would like to help donate glasses, please send me an email, and I will pass the information on to Pat, so that her group can contact you, and tell you where to send the glasses you’ve collected. Remember! She plans on shipping the glasses by the end of October.

I’ve told a few people in Tchekpo that these glasses are coming, and that a highschool in Kansas is collecting them. Their grateful response has been more than I anticipated. It’s these looks on their faces when they feel any sense of hope in a place where there’s not much hope that is gratifying. I will be posting pictures of the eye clinic on this blog, and pictures of that look of hope on the faces of the people in Tchekpo when they can see the world a little more clearly for the first time.

Many thanks to Pat Kaufman, the SHARE Program, and the high school students at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village Kansas for their generous spirits. This will make a difference!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Nothin is Easy in Togo!

My Generator
Since I don’t have electricity in Tchekpo, I bought a generator to charge my electronics. I have a solar charger, but the solar charger will not charge my computer. It will charge my phone and my camera and ipod. There is no cyber café (internet) in Tchekpo. The closest internet is a bush taxi and 35 very stressful minutes away. My director suggested I buy a generator. My plan is to go to Tesvie or Tagebow once a week to use the internet café. At that time I’ll cut and paste my emails to a word document (long ones anyway) read them and respond to them from home, and then cut and paste my response the following week. Sheeeesh! My neighbor Two-Sain helped me get my generator started, and he’s going to buy a 5 liter bottle of gasoline in Tagebow to keep it running for awhile. The generator is very, very loud! The sound of the generator drowns out the sounds of Africa that I like and have become accustomed to.

I’m wondering how well this will all work. Nothin is easy in Togo! I’m constantly getting used to the fact that nothing is easy. It’s doable…just not easy. You kind of always have to figure out a way to make things work the best way you can. But that’s life, right? That’s what you do every day too. For example, I decided it would be beneficial to work on my computer while it was charging. It’s charging right now. The generator is sitting outside the back door, and I have the door closed to keep the noise level down a bit. My cord stretches to my living room chair. Using my computer while it’s in the process of charging will give me an extra hour of computer time. Once my computer battery is charged I can use my computer without the generator for about two more hours, and then have to charge it again. However, it’s 5pm and I’m hungry. It gets dark at 6. I try to cook, do the dishes and bucket shower before it gets dark. I have a petrol lantern and flashlights, but I really hate cooking and showering in the dark. When I do these things in the dark, I can’t see the giant spiders that lurk in every corner. I will work on a schedule that will be as efficient as it can be. I won’t be charging my battery at this time of day anymore…probably in the early afternoon, and then use the two extra hours of my charged computer in the evening, in the quiet, without the generator, or perhaps listening to a little classical music on my ipod while I write. That sounds luxurious! I am happy that I will have better access to my computer, even if I don’t have internet access. I’m attached to my computer, and being able to use it is important to me. I try to hold onto little bits of my life before Africa). My computer is one such connection. Wearing my western clothes and listening to my music whenever I can is another.

I told myself that I would not admonish, scold or pontificate to my friends and family about all the conveniences they enjoy that they don’t think about or appreciate….so I won’t. I didn’t appreciate it. However, I imagine going home in two years, and how unbelieveably wonderful it will be to turn on a water faucet, flush a toilet, turn a light on with the flick of switch (or just have all the light I want at night), or connect to the internet, all in a flash. It might be a little early in the process for me to be dreaming of those things. I should mention the television also. I was such a TV addict in the states. I remember Kittie asking me what I was going to do without my television. Oddly, it’s the thing I miss the least. I never, ever think about it. Usually in the evening, I sit on my porch and listen to the BBC on my shortwave radio for about an hour. I get the gist of what’s happening around the world, and that suffices.

Life Without Conveniences
It took four hours today to do mainentance on my water filter. Twice a month I have to clean the “candles” two cone shaped elements inside the water filter that protect me from getting parasites and worms. I empty the water filter, take the filter apart, remove the candles, scrub the candles with a toothbrush and then fill it back up with water that has boiled and cooled. Today was the monthly water filter maintenance. I did all of the above, in addition I needed to boil the candles for twenty minutes.

I’m having a table made for my kitchen, so that I don’t have to sit on a little stool to do my dishes in the pails that line the floor. To do the dishes, I first boil the water and wash them in one pail, and then boil water and rinse them in another pail. I never leave dirty dishes overnight or even for more than an hour. I’m trying to do all that I can to keep rodents and roaches at bay. I’ve only seen two roaches in my house…but they were the biggest damn roaches I’ve ever seen. I’ve not seen any mice or rats yet. Let’s hope it stays that way! The Togolese don’t take any precautions concerning the water. They just scoop a cup of water out of their pail from the well and drink. They do use soap to wash their dishes, and they rinse them, but they don’t boil any of their water. They also are, for the most part completely unaware of personal hygiene, as far as washing their hands. The way I understand it, is they have built up immunities to these parasites, and we don’t. Knock on wood…I have not been sick one day since I’ve been here. I am diligent about following the advice and precautions that will keep me healthy.

I have been eating very well, very healthily. I don’t eat any meat or fish here. They gave us a Togo Peace Corps Cookbook. A very comprehensive cookbook. The name of it is, Where There is No Whopper. I’ve already made several recipes from it. One of the village men I visited with Alougba gave me a sack of Tapioca as a welcome gift. It was a big sack of tapioca. I’ve made tapioca pudding four or five times. The recipe was in the cookbook. It’s easy to make and I have all the ingredients on hand. Tapioca, egg, milk(powdered), sugar and vanilla. That’s it. The following are some things I eat or cook on a regular basis:
•Egg drop soup
•meatless goolash
•French toast with honey
•I buy fresh bread daily. The bread is very good. I often grill the bread in olive oil and garlic to have with my meals, or just grill it in regular vegetable oil or margarine to have as toast in the mornings or for sandwiches.
•tomato sandwiches
•fried potatoes and egg omelet often
•I’ve replaced my daily White Chocolate Mocha from Starbucks with a cup of instant coffee with powdered milk. I don’t know how, but it tastes really good every morning.
•Mint tea with honey (Togolese honey is especially delicious)
•Lots of fruit and vegetables; pineapple, bananas, mango, tomatoes, onions, a variety of beans, cucumbers and potatoes
•Maybe once a week if I’m lucky I have a salad. I can only buy lettuce in Tesvie, and it only stays fresh for about 24 hours.
All of the vegetables have to be peeled or treated before eating or cooking. The villagers often use human or animal waste for fertilizer, and they do not wash their hands before handling the produce. I soak the vegetables for thirty minutes in cooled water that had been boiled and add bleach, then I rinse it and pat it dry.

There’s been many an evening that I’ve opened a packet of Knorr Spanish Rice or Chicken and Broccoli, or a box of Kraft Macaroni and cheese or a packet of tuna salad that have been sent to me from home. I’m often exhausted by dinner time and it’s so nice to be able to make a meal in a few minutes. Kittie sends a lot of little packets from restaurants: mustard, jelly, mayonnaise, honey, etc. These are a treasure trove, because I can’t store jars of those things. My tomato sandwiches are SO good when I get to spread some mayo on them, and toast and jelly….well it’s a real treat. (This was a shameless, what they call in the advertizing biz; product placement advertisement)

In Tchekpo, visitors expect to be fed when they come over, or at the very least they would like to be fed. I think it would be perfectly ok to not offer anything. I’ve noticed that Alougba and Two Sain both often show up around dinner time, as they did tonight. They’re not too obvious or anything. They are curious about my American Food. I wasn’t going to have dinner tonight because I had a late lunch. I asked them if they were hungry, and they said yes. I made a packet of Knorr chicken and broccoli and some garlic toast. We ate dinner by candle light while trying our best to have a conversation in a mix of three different languages. We talked about the upcoming conference in Zafi which they will both be attending with me, and they are excited about it. I’ve gone over the details with them at least five times. I’ve discovered that in many situations you can transcend the language barriers. You can hear joy, excitement, fear, worry or frustration without the words that define those emotions. We have some hearty laughs with our very animated conversations. Eating this late meant I would be doing the dishes and taking a shower in the dark, but the enjoyment of the evening made it worthwhile.

Our Peace Corps trainers told us to just take the first three months to settle in, get to know the people and the culture. Pay attention and be respectful of the differences between my way of life and theirs. Just “be,” one wise veteran PCV advised. They said, don’t worry about immediately starting programs, or getting immersed in your work. I see why now. It will take time to assimilate and acclimate to this new way of living. The work and our projects will evolve and become evident over time. I can’t just step abruptly out of the security of my own familiar experience. I need this bridge of time to cross from my own experience to a new way. I will learn to work within their system. That’s my job for the next three months. Assimilate and Acclimate.

What I Miss and Don’t Miss
Nothing is easy in Togo! But I never thought anything seemed easy in the States? Just a different experience. I do miss convenience, and technology and machines that do things for you. I miss my family and friends beyond measure. I don’t miss jumping into a car to drive to the store a few blocks away, or airplanes and helicopters flying over my house. I don’t miss gas stations or my car, or car maintenance. I don’t miss shopping malls. I don’t miss television nor do I miss the constant onslaught of bad news in newspapers and on TV.

What I’ve Learned to Appreciate
Although nothing is easy in Togo, I’ve grown to appreciate the voodoo drums that have become a consistent background noise, the neighbor singing a beautiful African Song as she washes her clothes in the courtyard, the sounds and the laughter from the children all around. I appreciate the amused and astounded look on their faces when I speak their local language. I appreciate the beauty of the African night sky, which mesmerizes me, and yes I’m even starting to appreciate waking up to the sounds of the roosters. I am also beginning to appreciate this culture, these people; how hard they work daily to survive, and inspite of the harshness of their world, how they live, how they laugh, how they love and how well they take care of their families, I appreciate how generous and protective they are of me. All of these things and more make it a little bit easier in Togo, where nothing is easy.