Sunday, July 4, 2010

Italy to Togo

While here in Italy, I have been accepted to the U.S. Peace Corps and will be leaving a short time after returning from Italy. I will be flying out of Bologna on July 19 to join my best friend Martin in Paris for one last trip around Europe. We will spend five days 'dans les rue de Paris', then head to Amsterdam to bike along canals under trees swaying in the breeze, and finally take a plane back across the Atlantic to the States, which at the moment feels like a foreign country to me. I will arrive on August 1 and be in NC for six weeks. In that time I will graduate from college, fill out all kinds of forms, get equipped in preparation for service, and say goodbye to friends and family before going to serve in Africa for 27 months. This is the biggest and most important decision I have made in my entire life, and while here in Italy I have thought considerably about why I want to go, what I want to accomplish with this experience, and where it might take me in the future.

I am 22 years old. I have up to this point been very, very fortunate in all the opportunities that life has given to me, starting from when I had food to eat as a baby to the chance to spend an amazing year in Italy. I have not gone a day without eating in my life and have always had medical care for me when I was sick or injured. In all this I am very, very lucky. I am going to Togo to help teach farmers and associations implement sustainable agriculture practices and help develop a natural resource management plan for my assigned community. In Togo, the people have been cutting down the forest so that they can cook food so that they can eat it. Here in Italy I easily turn on my stove with a lighter to make my moka in the morning. I want to take part in addressing these problems with deforestation so that the future generation of Togo will be better off. In short, I will be going to a very far away place to help with a cause I believe in, and I am ready to go.

Togo is located on the West coast of Africa. It is bordered by Ghana to the west, Benin to the east, and Burkina Faso to the north. The coastal region on the southern end of the country is quite humid, but the land gets drier as one goes north towards the Sahara Desert. The biggest city is called Lome', and that is where I will fly into in the middle of September for a three month pre-service training. From talking with previous volunteers, I know that Lome' is quite developed and almost cosmopolitan, but farther afield things start to change.

For most of my time in Togo, I will be living in a hut with no running water or electricity. I will have to learn a local language in addition to the French I am studying now in order to successfully communicate with the people in my village. I will have to get myself to the nearest large town to buy supplies, and I will have internet access less than once a week.

Italy is different, Togo is REALLY different. I may be the only white person in my village, and at the start my lack of abilities with the local language will make communication difficult. Things are going to proceed a lot slower than anything has in Italy or North Carolina, and many of the various agroforestry, sustainable agriculture, or environmental education projects I take part in will go at a snail's pace. Many will fail. Here in Italy, I feel like I stand out like a sore thumb when Italians ask me where I am from and why I came to their country. In Togo this gut feeling will be a hundred times worse.

But I know that all of these things take time. It is not possible to run into these country towns with a million suggestions and expect immediate change inside or out. I hope in the Peace Corps I will be able to develop the patience that it takes to work in a developing country so that when I pursue a career in water sanitation and purification in the future I will be able to successfully conduct research in the parts of the world where I feel it can help the most.

Ironically, food tends to occupy my thoughts these days. Nearing the end of my stay here in Italy, I realize how delicious the food has been not only here but also for all of my life growing up in the United States. When I take off for Togo as a Peace Corps volunteer on September 17 there will be a million other things on my mind, but for now, but right now visions of different plates and drinks I have tried in the last year are parading past my eyes.

I came to Italy over ten months ago, and since then I have made a tour not only of the country but of the cuisine. Lasagna, gnocchi, passatelli, pasta, wine, cheese, bread, coffee, it just does not stop. There seems to be such an endless supply of ingredients in the country that at times it can be hard to imagine that there are people that don't have a super market near them, that don't have an enormous supply of vegetables or a panetteria right outside the front door. Over my stove there is an army of spices like curry, oregano, and garlic that I use to make the food taste even more delicious

In Togo, the typical meal is called 'pate.' It is basically a corn paste, and often a hot spicy sauce is poured over it. Another common dish is rice and beans. Vegetables and fruits are seasonal and can be bought at local markets, but are likely more difficult to get than in Bologna. I am truly going to miss the wine and cheese I have had here in Bologna. It is hard to realize how much something means to you until it is gone.

The Peace Corps gives me a monthly stipend that will be enough to live safely and with proper sanitation in the town where I will be sent after the three-month pre-service training. It will give me a mountain bike so that I can get to and from the community where I will be, and there are going to be many other volunteers in the country for support. Peace Corps has been working with the Togolese people since the 1960's, so it really isn't as if I'm headed out into a wilderness with no path or guidance.

I've talked with previous volunteers and now have a wealth of information about what life might be like for me in Togo. Many of the inhabitants are poorer, and I will have to watch my back whenever I am traveling or working to not get my stuff stolen. Transportation across the country is often by bush taxi or bus, and while many of the main roads are navigable the smaller roads are riddled with potholes and insane during the rainy season. In my community I hope to live with a host family to help me learn the language and better adjust to the culture, and I am going to have a garden to begin growing plants and to help me connect with the people around me.

Last week I finished my last exam here in Bologna of my entire college career, (French) and I am hanging out for two weeks and thinking about my future before taking a final jaunt across Europe. While from the writing above it may seem like I have a wealth of knowledge about what I am getting myself into, I have not seen anything yet. It is one thing to write about it and quite another thing to do it. For my whole life I have been writing in application and scholarship essays about how I want to go to help developing countries using my education and experience in environmental science, and I believe going to Togo is the first step towards doing that.

1 comment:

  1. What program will you be working in? I'm waiting for my invitation and I'm pretty sure it'll be for Togo. I hope I get to meet you in September! Enjoy the rest of your time in Europe. :-)