Monday, February 20, 2012

Champignons and Champions!

Mushrooms (champignons-fr)
Sky, Honou and Raoul
If you’ve followed my blog you’ve heard me talk quite a bit about Honou Koffi.  He is the seventeen year old handicapped boy I work with on a variety of projects.  Honou likes to share.  He brings a lot of people by to meet me, friends, neighbors, fellow students…people he thinks I oughta meet, or might be able to help in some way.  He wears me out sometimes…and I have to hold my breath when I see him bringing yet another person to meet with me.  Many months ago he brought his cousin Raoul by.  Raoul is about twenty-five.  Tall, slim, handsome and soft-spoken young man.  They took a seat on my porch.  Raoul had a manila envelope resting on his lap.  After greetings, and a little small talk, Honou said that Raoul needed to speak with me about something.  At that point he opened the envelope and pulled out some papers.  He explained to me that he suffers from debilitating headaches; so bad that he cannot work, and it’s difficult for him to be in the sunlight.  Those two things greatly limit his ability to make a living.   He was attending the University of Lome several years ago and the headaches came on suddenly and unrelentingly.  They have never stopped.  It is constant.  You can see it in his face and eyes, and the way he carries himself slowly and carefully while walking.  I think it’s also why he speaks so softly; because it hurts. 

Raoul is exceptionally smart.  He has to be smart to have graduated from the Lycee (high school) and passed the rigorous tests to gain entry to the University of Lome.  I know that Raoul thought there must be some way I could help.  I did try.  I talked to my daughter Emily about Raoul.  She works for a large hospital in Kansas City, and she has a huge heart!  She also met Raoul when she was here visiting me. Emily is not  a nurse.  She works in Administration, but she knows all the doctors.  She asked around to see if anyone had suggestions.  I promised to scan all his medical records and email them to her, which I did.  Emily did get the name of a doctor who does a lot of work here in Africa, and she wrote to him.  He replied, but the only advice he had was that Raoul needed to find a good doctor.  I’m sure that doctor must make the difficult choice of who he can help, and who he cannot.   Raoul begged for help.  He wrote a letter to both Emily and Eric when they returned, pleading for help and saying that he was at the end of his rope, that life was not worth living anymore.  Still; we had no idea how to help with this. 

Raoul has an x-ray of his head, and he has a long, long list of medications that a doctor in Lome has prescribed, including anti-depressants.  I’m very, very leery of all this medicine he is taking.  I don’t have much confidence in the doctors prescribing the right course of action.  I’ve personally experienced with Mahsoblee….a real neglect in prescribing and explaining medicine.  I’m sure determining the source a of headache is difficult to diagnose in the states…probably almost impossible here.  Raoul said that the doctor told him he needed a special “scan.” But that would cost $160 plus a trip to Ghana.  Raoul is one of many, many people in Tchekpo who need medical assistance.  I also have to make difficult choices.  I don’t have the resources to help Raoul with his headaches right now, so I tried to find another way to help him.  A possible solution that is more in line with what I’m here for; which is to assist people to start and grow businesses that might help them, help themselves.  I’m not satisfied that this was my only solution for Raoul, but for now, it’s all I have.  Raoul had also told me that his parents don’t have any money, and that he cannot ask them for anymore help.  His illness thus far has depleted all of their savings.  He feels bad and guilty about this.

During the time that Raoul waited for word that we could help his headaches, he and Honou visited me often.  They told me of their dreams to build a business.  Raoul has told me many times that he loves animals.  When he says it, you can feel his gentle nature.  Ultimately, his dream is to have an elevage farm.  Elevage is the practice of breeding animals for the purpose of making and selling fertilizer.   But that takes money to start.  And neither he nor Honou have any money to start that business.  As I talked with them, I realized how bright they both are, and how motivated.  They also want to grow moringa.  Moringa is a wonder-plant here in Africa.  It grows fast, and just about anywhere, and it used for many, many things, including as a nutrient in foods.  In addition they would like to start a pineapple farm.  Oy-veh……such ambition.

Everyone’s first inclination when they come to me for assistance is that I have money to give them.  I have to repeat often that I do not have money to give them, but that I’ll try to think of a way to help them help themselves. 

We had a Peace Corps Volunteer conference last summer.  During the conference, one of the Agriculture volunteers, Skyler(Sky),  gave a demonstration on how to grow mushrooms in black plastic bags.  In Togo these bags are called sachets.  They are used for everything, and pollute their villages, so it's an added benefit to make some use of them.  His demonstration captured my attention because it looked easy, and it seemed like you could do this rather cheaply.  I asked Sky if he would come to my village to give a presentation.  He agreed.   I have to say this is one of the many things that is so wonderful about the Peace Corps Volunteers.  How they all so readily share their knowledge, often traveling to far-away villages in uncomfortable bush taxis; as was the case with Sky.  Sky’s willingness to do this dramatically changed Honou and Raoul's life forever. Raoul and Honou are both handicapped.  They are limited to what they can do because of Raoul's headaches, and Honou lives his life on crutches.  This was definitely something they could both do.

The teacher and his students
Sky came to Tchekpo and stayed with me for three days.  Starting a mushroom farm is a three day process.  Sky had given me instructions on what to buy and have on hand for this first round of instructions.  I traveled to Tesvie and footed the bill for three sacks of mushroom spores, and a variety of other items that will help make the soil rich.  I met with an awesome woman (Ackbennie)  who has been successful growing and selling mushrooms in sachets.  She was generous with the information she shared and with her time.  She spent an entire morning with me.  She proudly showed me her mushroom growing shed.  She took me to the various places for supplies, and even rode with me in a bush taxi to a non-profit organization that will sell mushroom spores cheaply.  I went back to Tchekpo armed with everything we needed.  I was excited to show Raoul and Honou.

Mushrooom Shed
They were a little confused when I first introduced this subject.  They had never considered growing mushrooms.  For me, it was the cheapest, quickest way to get them started.  Yes, I paid the bill for the supplies and the spores for their first harvest, but it didn’t cost much and was much cheaper than any of the other things they wanted to do.  I explained to them that I understood their ambitions, and what they really wanted to do, but first they needed to earn money to do those things.  I also explained that this would teach them everything they needed to know to expand their business and to be profitable.  They looked dubious, but they went along with me.  We started meeting several times a week.  I gave them books and instructions on bookkeeping and explained that unless they understand the concept of good bookkeeping they might as well not ever start a business.  To us, Americans, it seems like keeping track of expenses and income would be just a logical step, but to the people in my village it is a foreign concept,  they never have thought about it.  Expenses exceed income for many if not most vendors here, and they don’t realize it.  As long as they go home with some money in their pocket after a day of selling at the marche, they are satisfied.  It’s a sad fact, but true.  After a few meetings, Raoul and Honou understood very well,  why I was so insistent about this.  I often had to tell them, that I knew what they wanted to do, but first they had to earn some money to be able to move into elevage, and moringa and pineapple.

Sky patiently and kindly showed them the three day process of growing mushrooms.  It was doable.  For Sky’s training we used one of the three bags of spores that I had purchased.  In a few weeks, Raoul and Honou would plant the rest of them by themselves.  They became fast friends with Sky.  We walked to Raoul's house so that they could show him their big plans.  They had land nearby where they could grow moringa, and pineapple, and Raoul had already started building crates for elevage.  I told them they needed a name for their business.  They named it ‘Young Men’s Business’.  Not too dramatic, but they were pleased with it, and to them it seemed significant. 

L-R Raoul, Honou, Ackbennie
Ackbennie and her students
During the time we were waiting to plant the other two bags of spores, I took them to Tesvie to meet with Ackbennie (the woman who had helped me buy the supplies,) so that she could show them her shed, and talk to them about the benefits and pitfalls of growing mushrooms.  They loved Ackbennie.  She was a wealth of information for them.  They now had a full circle of information, from Sky who taught them the basics of growing mushrooms to me teaching them bookkeeping and Ackbennie teaching them how to sell them, how much to sell them for, and what they might expect.  After seeing Ackbennie’s shed, Raoul went  home and built his own shed. 

The following weekend they planted the rest of the spores. They have had their first harvest.   They sold every one of them in a few days without hardly even trying.  Seems the people of Tchekpo know about mushrooms, but no one has grown or sold them here before.  They have a waiting list for the next harvest.  Each bag of spores (they have 3) produces about three harvests…So they have enough to see enough profit to be able to invest in their next step.  Step 2 - Moringa!

Sky came back again last week.  He was so impressed with what they had accomplished, and I think was wowed by the shed Raoul had built.  They showed him their bookkeeping ledger from their first harvest, which shows a profit!! He spent a lot of time with them.  They listened intently to everything he had to say.  Sky also brought a sack of moringa seed for them to plant.  Ben,  another volunteer who has a specialty in growing moringa is coming in a few weeks to meet with them.

Raoul and Honou are going to be successful.  They are going to be able to make a living for themselves, and expand their business.  I think Raoul will soon be able to have enough money to go to Ghana and find a doctor who might be able to help him with his headaches.   It was exciting for me, and for Sky.  So many things we attempt, don’t have this good of an outcome for a variety of reasons.  Sky and I both talked about how motivated they were and how gratifying it was to help them.

I’ve told Raoul and Honou often, “ The student becomes the teacher”.  When they move on from mushrooms, they need to share what they've learned and teach others here, how to grow them.  I also want them to teach bookkeeping to the Women’s Groupement Association (75 women who sell their farm products at the local marche)  and at the Lycee (high school.)  They say they will.  I believe they can do anything.  I’m so proud of them.

Raoul, Sky, Raouls father, mother and sister, and Honou
SideNote:  Sky is a really nice looking young man, with thick, brown, long, curly hair.  When we went to Raoul’s house; Raouls mother started laughing and shouting…Jesu Christo…Jesu Christo….for a second she thought that Jesus Christ had come to visit.  We all had a good laugh.  I think there was a little part of them that believed maybe he had.  At any rate I know they felt like their prayers had been answered.


  1. Terry, I read your posts with wonder and amazement at the resources(Or lack of)and how well you work them for good. God bless you sweetheart.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to send that note David. It meant a lot to me. You are my hero! God bless you too.