Monday, December 19, 2011

Where I Come From (18 Dec. 2011)

                My dad recently got himself a new toy, a digital camera. With the camera he has begun taking photos around my house and town in the mountains of North Carolina. He recently put some of these photos up on Facebook (my dad is much more tech-savvy than I thought) and asked me if I would show the photos to the Togolese. I agreed and, as a special activity for the last English Club meeting of the year at the lycee (high-school), I brought my laptop and showed the photos to a group of Togolese students. I went through and explained each photo, and the discussion that followed gave some perspective on the cultures of our very different countries. Here are some of the photos, with notes on how they compare to Togo and the reactions of the students.

The view from the back porch of my parent’s house

                While there are mountains in Togo, many of the students have never left the Maritime region so have never seen them. I explained that the mountains where I live are covered in forest and that, in the fall, the leaves all change colors and the mountainside transforms into a beautiful collage. The idea of having spring, summer, fall, and winter was pretty foreign to kids used to dry and wet seasons. They asked me what kind of animals live in the forest, and I tried to explain what a deer is: ‘Like a mouton (sheep), but more energetic and with horns.’ They were pretty lost on the idea.

A heron chilling out by the Tucaseegee River

                I explained that the heron is a kind of bird. Saying the word in French for bird in Togo, oiseau, implies that the animal can be eaten, so I explained that it is not allowed to kill this bird. I pointed out the neck and explained how herons wait for fish to pass by then propel their heads forward like javelins to eat the fish. When I told them that herons live by the river, I had to go into a long explanation about the mountains and how rivers and streams are located at the base of and in between the mountains. 

My mom sewing a quilt

                In Togo, students often break off their studies in middle school to become apprentices. This means that they work for a patron and learn a trade during 3 years time. They then become certified to practice that trade. Normal apprenticeships for girls include couturier (making clothes) and coiffuse (hair-dressing, often involves making elaborate styles using braids and added fake strands of fabric). Apprenticeships for boys are carpenter, mason, coiffure (cutting guys hair, and since they all wear it short this basically means shaving all the hair off), and tailor. In this picture they were surprised that my mom was using a sewing machine, and I explained that while all the machines the couturiers and tailors use in Anfoin are foot-powered the one in the picture is electric. Apart from this, I also pointed out the stuff in the picture common to most American houses. Almost no villagers own a refrigerator, and I only see them in the buvettes (bars), nice boutiques, and the houses of rich people in my village. As a result, all the food that an average Togolese family eats does not have to be kept cold in the fridge, while much of the food I eat at home does. The picture also has a great view of our coffee maker. I explained to the students that many Americans can not wake up in the morning without coffee, and that the coffee we drink is made from real ground up coffee beans. Most of the coffee consumed in Togo at the moment comes in the form of instant coffee, which definitely ain’t the same.

The trailer park we pass by on the way into town

                In Togo, the common view is that all Americans, Europeans, and white people live in big houses and are very wealthy. I explained to the students that this is not always the case, showing them this photo of what is thought of as a poorer community in the United States: a trailer park. The trailers in the photo are the same size as the crates carried through Anfoin on the backs of semis coming from the Lome port. However, it was hard to get past the fact that, even in the poorest parts of the U.S., there is still electricity and running water. While electricity is becoming more common in Anfoin, the vast majority is left in the dark. In the photo the students also observed that the people own cars. In the smallest villages in Togo, it is unlikely that even one person owns a car. On the other hand, most Togolese families own at least one moto (motorcycle, can also be a scooter) in varying conditions, which makes sense because paved roads are so rare and motos can easily go on the dirt paths and en brousse (in the brush).

Goats grazing in a field near my parent’s house

                Having a lot of animals means that a Togolese family is wealthy, so when the students saw this picture they said that whoever owns all these goats must be very rich.

Ladybugs on a flower in the garden

                Some of the insects that are very common in Togo are also found in the United States. For example, Togo is covered with flies that try to land on food and poop and get people sick. We also have flies in the U.S., but they are a less common nuisance. Also there are mosquitos. When I was doing fieldwork in Montana and Washington, there were always mosquitos beside the rivers and streams. They were an annoyance in the States, but in Togo they can carry the malaria parasite. Togo also has a wide variety of spiders, many of which are big and hairy and scary but are not found in the U.S. There is usually at least one giant spider hanging out on my wall, but I usually leave it because spiders eat other insects. Ladybugs are not found at all in Togo, and the students said that there should be a type of pagne (colorful African fabric) made in the same pattern as the ladybug’s back.

My mom beside her garden

                My mom is wearing overalls in the picture, a type of clothing never seen in Togo. I explained to the students that Americans often wear overalls for working outside or doing manual labor. Also, they were surprised and happy that someone in the U.S. digs in the dirt and grows food. While in the U.S. less than 2 % of the population is involved in agriculture and we use tractors, fertilizers, and giant silos to grow corn, in Togo something like 70 % of the Togolese have a champ, or field, where they usually grow corn, cassava, or yams using hoes and their own hands. Since the remaining 30% mostly live in Lome, that means basically every villager farms. I pointed out that my mom grows lots of tomatoes. I also explained that she grows basil which she uses to make pesto that she sells at the farmer’s market. The student were thrilled that my mom sells stuff at the market, just like a marché momma (volunteer slang for the sometimes very large women who sit at the village market selling peppers, onions, etc. from thatch mats). Unfortunately, they also noted our two family Subarus in the background. I think my family has a pretty small house compared to the national average, but we still have two cars.
                Our road, as the students noted, is still pretty marked with potholes.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


I have this joke I make to bush taxi drivers. At the point during every ride when passengers crowded into the front seat are complaining about the dire state of the road, I say ‘au Togo, les rues en bitumee sont en train de deviner des rues en terres,’ (in Togo, the paved roads are gradually becoming dirt roads) and everyone laughs. Most of the minor roads in this country are made of dirt, and the major roads that are paved are marked by potholes of various sizes and shapes. On top of this, 5 passenger cars are often loaded with 8 people (think creatively to figure out how) and 12 passenger vans are packed with more than 20 (again, think more creatively), forcing many travelers to adjust their comfort zone to fit the transport options. And this doesn’t even account for the baskets and sacks, the goats and chickens that are piled on top. Bad roads combine with overcrowded transport to define travel in this country.
In addition to numerous vehicles in a later state of decay on the road, motorcycles, which the Togolese call ‘motos,’ are much more common in Togo than in the United States. This makes sense because of the paths ‘en brousse’ (in the brush) and that motos tend to use less gas per person. Motos vary in size from go-go scooters (I’ve seen a few nice Italian vespas here) to giant motorcycles with enormous shocks that cause the handlebars to sit high above the front wheel. They are, for the most part, in a rather poor state of repair and often need to get looked at by the road side mechanics in roadside shacks with their hodge podge of tools. Driving in the capital Lomé, every time cars stop at the occasional red light the motos fill the sweaty air with a high pitched drone as they swerve around and in between the semis and vans to get closer to the front of the line. And when, for the most part, there is no stop light and the word ‘intersection’ takes on a very literal meaning, the motos and cars gradually inch out into the oncoming traffic until they are a hairsbreadth away from having their front ends ripped off before the other people let them cross.

All of the directors of NGOs near my village, the big wigs in the development business, drive the hugest, shiniest motos in town. This sends the message to poor people like the groupement I work with: development projects can make you rich. International aid organizations mean money if you can play the application game. On the flip side, whenever I see a woman on a big moto go through the road in my town I get all the women around me to look. Yep, that’s right, women can be rich and awesome too, so send your daughters to school.

The other day I decided to bike to Agbodrafo on the coast along what I think of as the ‘old beach road.’ Along the coast of Togo runs the paved artery that connects all the countries in West Africa from Ivory Coast to Nigeria. Much of this beach road that lies in Togo has recently been reworked by the Chinese, making it so that after almost a year of astounding deviations along sand-laden roads into quartiers of Lome I never knew existed, drivers can now set up at a comfortable, break-neck passing speed of 90 km / hr on the nice new pavement. This new road sometimes runs close to the beach and sometimes is quite far inland. However, the road I biked on was right on the shoreline, and much of it no longer existed. In addition to strong currents preventing vacationers from swimming for fear of being swept out to sea by rip tides, there is also heavy erosion that is inch by inch making the land slip into the ocean. The beach road I biked along was not the first. Or the second. As I found out talking to a guy in a rare motel along the beach (much of that expanse was deserted: who wants to build anything nice when it will get swept out to sea?) when I stopped to drink water, there were at least another 3 beach roads sitting off the shoreline covered by the water. The Togolese just kept building more. When one got eaten by time, they built another one parallel to it but further inland. The guy said that within his lifetime he had seen 2 beach roads go this way. He was around 40, so I’m guessing it happens about every 20 years. The road I was biking on had been riden into the ground. Biking on the parts that still resembled a road were like riding on a wave. Up down up down over the bumps. And there were still tire tracks on it, like the mark of forgotten memories or unlearned lessons. It was one giant pothole.

                                     Voila a truck with too much stuff on it
One fragment of an old beach road has been used by a resort near Lome, called Coco Beach, as a wave break so that patrons can swim safely in the ocean while the ocean wastes its energy on the piece of pavement that sticks up further out. I went to this beach earlier this year and was surprised to find that while vacationers enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and chilling in the sun they can also gaze upon the gray, smoggy, dirty port of Lome stretching across the far end of the horizon. Vacationers playing in the water watch the occasional black plastic bag or other piece of trash float by. One major reason that all the paved roads in this country get torn up so quick are the semis that truckers overload and then try to drive along already ripped-up roads. All day and night these huge 10 and 12 wheel trucks in incredibly bad condition bounce along the road near my family compound, many laden down with ciment from the factory in Tabligbo and bound for the port in Lome. The speed with which they go down the hill to the intersection with the Aneho-Vogan road makes me wonder when one of them is going to have its breaks fail and will take out my favorite egg sandwhich place on the other side. The other day I was on my way toward Tabligbo when it began to rain. When its dry, there is dust flying in the face of the moto driver or coating the windshield of the bush taxi. When its wet or raining, the water makes the clay earth soft and causes all kinds of unforeseen problems. On this particular day, two semis had gotten stuck in the mud trying to go by each other and traffic was beginning to back up. How to get them unstuck? Lots of people pushing. I decided to skip the party: I walked around and took a moto the rest of the way.

As in the U.S., cars and motos here run on gas. There are occasionally gas stations along the major paved roads and in larger towns, but for the most part vendors buy an entire 40 gallon drum at a reduced price, set up next to the road with a bunch of bottles and some big glass jugs that look like they came out of Alice in Wonderland, and sell the gas. They cover a funnel with a rag and pour the gas through the rag on into the tank. Not too much concern for safety, just an understandable concern for making more CFA. Other people, sometimes children, make money by filling up the potholes in the paved road with dirt to make the ride smoother. They then string a rope with colored bits of plastic tied to it across the road and wave it up and down when cars approach to beg for money. I am friends with a guy in my town that does this every day for a living. Sometimes I feel like we are on the same page, fighting dirt with dirt.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Italy Remembered

            I am getting geared up to be a trainer for a new set of agriculture volunteers. I am going to do my best to impart my knowledge about life and work in this country to these fresh new faces. While I am looking forward to the opportunity to take part in building a new Peace Corps generation, seeing new arrivals makes me feel old. It makes me think about where I was and what I was doing about a year ago: taking trains through rustic countryside, eating salami sandwiches with pesto and grape tomatoes, staring up at the frescoes in cathedrals. In Italy.
            When I think of Italy, my mind still wanders immediately to food. I remember making pizza, pasta sauce, and gnocchi in my house while eating dishes in restaurants that were delicious beyond words with names to match. Here in Togo, my favorite dish to cook is called ‘fettuchini alfredo en brousse.’ As terrifying as it sounds, I have been able to use local products to make a pretty decent pasta sauce that, like fettuchini alfredo, is white. First, as with all dishes, I sauté onions, garlic, and piment peppers (from my village marche, nothing has taste for me anymore unless it has hot pepper in it) in olive oil (expensive but a vital ingredient to my life, could not live without it, found only in Lome). I also put macaroni on to cook with just enough salt water to cover it. After the garlic/onion stuff looks decent, I pour it in with the macaroni and add powdered milk and margarine (available in village) with spices (oregano, pepper) and sometimes fresh basil from my garden. When I can I also throw in carrots or green peas. I stir for about 5 minutes till the sauce isn’t runny, add a few cooked eggs, and BAM, I have made food to keep me sane. I try to imagine that the sounds of babies crying outside or my host mother humming an African folk hymn are drifting up to my balcony from the courtyard of my apartment on via Vizzani.
            The river that runs through my village reminds me of another part of Italy: Venice. My friend who owns a hotel on the marshy river and a buvette closer to town near the bridge is thinking about joining the two with a canal. I thought he was joking until I saw a bunch of brawny Togolese guys in the river the other day hauling up big globs of mud. Maybe in the future I will have a tailor make me a Gondalier outfit and I will take upper class Togolese on rides through the marshland as a fundraiser. Le Venice du Togo, ca va arriver. I have a new neighboring volunteer who lives on Lake Togo, and soon we will be riding a boat across to visit the town Togoville. Maybe we will even see a mermaid (which I’ve been told exist but will only come if I throw whole eggs in the water, which seems a waste of eggs).
            Last Friday I went to visit another neighbor in Vogan and together we made lasagna using a dutch oven. It was sooo delicious. She made ricotta cheese by boiling powdered milk and curdling it with lime bought at the marche. I spearheaded the tomato sauce, and we also had salad and garlic bread. The most essential element that was missing was the wine. Oh, there was wine, it just came out of a box. The reputation of Italian boxed wine is improving. Here we are lucky to have wine at all. I wanted to get a nice bottle at one of the stores, but when we live on 8 dollars a day there was an unspoken agreement that the box would win over the bottle. It did the trick.
            Occasionally I go off on nostaligic speeches about the beauty of Italy, talking at length like a guidebook and staring into the distance. On my birthday after getting decently soused I sprawled across two friends and went on a long monologue about frescoes, piazzas, and porticoes. I do miss Italy, but there are great things about Togo too. This past week work has really begun picking up for me. I’m beginning to talk to a lot more people about the benefits of eating Moringa tree leaves, and I might do just that until I finish my service. If I did nothing with my two years here but tell the entire village of Anfoin that eating Moringa can improve health, I would feel accomplished. This last week I did a Moringa training kids infected or affected by HIV in Aneho, and today I did a training at the lycee and we planted 5 trees. I’m also hoping to do a Moringa mural in local language at the dispensary so that when mothers come on Fridays to get their babies weighed and vaccinated I will be able to tell them in Ewe about the benefits of the tree, how to grow it, and how to make Moringa leaf powder. Doing work and being busy makes me happy. I feel fulfilled, in heart if not in stomach.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Rocking out at RAVEs

            Lately in village I have been going to lots of improtu RAVEs (Random Activities in the Village Environment) in Anfoin. Just yesterday I was walking home and got caught up in a RAVE…. carrying a bucket of piment sauce along the road home for a nearby marche momma. A couple weeks ago after soccer at the lycee, I was running home and ran into a RAVE… ended up stacking load after load of corn into a giant pile. And, most insane, the other day I had nothing to do and walked out of my house to find a RAVE happening in the field next to my house: I bobbed my head repetitively in a trance for over 3 hours… using a hoe to whack at weeds in the field. I’m telling you, village life is mad crazy.

            Tuesday late morning I went and checked out this RAVE I’d been awaiting for a long time. One of the families who I helped teach about Moringa invited me to their house to eat pate and Moringa leaf sauce for lunch. I headed over around noon and learned how to do a lot of culinary tasks I should have known long before: how to grind up hot peppers on a grinding block to put in the sauce, how to make and stir pate (corn paste) till it’s ready to eat, and how to say ‘I make fire’ in local language: Ma do zo. It was fun helping the mom get the table ready to eat and epically failing at most things I tried (except pulling water up the well, pretty good at that now). The sauce was delicious, and I joked with her husband, a mechanic, about cars and tried to encourage him to stop making comments about ‘les blancs’ (the term for all white people). Afterwards I got a long lesson in Mina while we hung out under a mango tree and the sun topped its arch in the sky. Hanging out with neighbors and walking home with the marche momma have taught me more local language than I’ve learned since arriving in Anfoin, and hopefully if I keep studying I’ll be able to have a real conversation.

            A couple of weeks ago I was walking home from a physiotherapy training given by a nearby Spanish volunteer when, suddenly there in front of me, a Voodoo RAVE popped up. A lot of my village friends from my quarter were participating, and all these Togolese were gathered in a big circle under a giant tree. Dancing around the tree in the middle of the circle were separate groups of old and middle aged women, the fettisheuses, in front of adolescent and younger girls, the apprentice fettishers. They all were painted red and had big necklaces made of cowry shells draped across their bodies. A group of men was heartily pounding on tam tam drums and shaking baskets of palm nuts, and whenever the women came around to face them they broke it down with some mad chicken-dancing and then continued in a groovy dance back around the circle. At one point they made hats out of live chickens and made a tour of the village humming a Mina tribal hymn.

            I found a few of my friends in a dark, shady hut next to the circle and we had a lunch of bean paste with coconut oil, my first time I’d ever tasted that. I agreed to come back the next day and help keep the RAVE going by bringing along a bottle of sodabi (African gin). I spent the following morning greeting people (traditionally done with the right hand, but at the ceremony was done with the left), dancing, and sleeping on a mat in the kitchen while women cooked food, flies floated lazily through the sunlight, and drums drifted in through the broken shuttered window. It was a good day.

            To celebrate my birthday on 4 October, I went to the field with a man who speaks no French or English. We worked for a few hours in the early morning and then went back to his hut to eat pate and wait for it to get less hot hanging out under some coconut trees. We went back to the field, worked for a couple more hours, then sat down and tried to joke about gambling with the local Lotosport while another neighbor interpreted for me. I was pretty happy with the way it went.

            As crazy as these times sound, sometimes life in village slows way down. I’ve been spending most of my free time lately talking about Moringa trees to anyone who will listen and studying local language. I’m hoping to start a project to promote Moringa in various parts of the community (churches, schools, rural huts, etc) that I would like to do as much as possible in local language. Been planting quite a few of these trees, and hopefully they won’t all get eaten by animals or get sick and die. I’m gearing up to be a trainer for the new Peace Corps agriculture volunteers that have just arrived, which makes me feel old. I’ve been planning out how I can help them discover what qualities help an agricultural project in a developing country to be sustainable and effective. And help the poorest farmers who need help the most. Trying to integrate those qualities as much as possible into my Moringa project; we’ll see how that goes.

            I celebrated my birthday drinking Corona with other volunteers while hanging out under the new river payote at my friend’s buvette. I got the Corona when I was in Accra doing a demi-marathon at the end of September, and it was delicious. All in all, the experience was not quite RAVE material, but it made me happy.

Friday, September 2, 2011


Dust illuminated rays of tired sunlight cutting through the savannah trees. We were approaching the end of a long, bumpy road into the wilderness, and the train of thoughts that went through my head with all those hours to stare out the window was disappearing into the distance as our destination drew nearer. Crawling along the banks of streams in North Carolina, plunging into a freezing lake in Montana, smiling in a coffee shop in Seattle, staring up at a frescoed ceiling in Bologna, the wind passing through my hair on the back of a bike in Amsterdam, images began to disappear as the future rushed up to greet me in the calm of the African evening.

Sun going down over the African Savannah

I have just finished an exhausting trip of Northern Ghana. Starting from Lome, I took a bus with two friends up to the Kara city of Togo. We then went west to Tamale in Ghana and further west to spend three days at Mole National Park. Afterwards we headed to the western border with Burkina to check out the Wechiau hippo sanctuary, making a needed pit stop in Wa along the way. We finished up with two days full of travelling to get back to Daopang and land on solid ground. It was truly worth it, worth all the cramped bush taxis and endless roads and long waits to take off. What made all that worth it?

My homies, bandannad to keep dust off our faces... and rock

We took off together from Lome as the sun was coming up on the Poste bus. Taking the Route Nationale all the way to Kara looked daunting but doable, and I downed some rice and beans from the earliest vendor of the day before the bus took off. I had wanted to read during the ride, but the swerving to avoid potholes made that impossible. Whenever we stopped to pick up passengers, women with food and drinks balanced on their heads swarmed around the bus and we got to reach way down out the window to grab water sachets and beignets. The trip was relatively uneventful until we had to make an ascent through a gap in the mountains going up to the Kara region. At this point the Route takes on a slightly terrifying quality. Semi trucks that seem inches from breaking down or having all of their parts suddenly explode to look like an assembly diagram crawl up a steep, winding hill while motos swerve around them and more semis come downhill the other direction seeing how much pressure their brakes can stand. We passed the other daily Poste bus travelling south on the way up. A very exciting time was had by all when we reached the top and celebrated our survival by taking pictures of the scenery.

Crazy hill on the route

We spent the night in Kara before getting a car west at dawn to head towards Tamale. The driver opened the door and we tumbled out to change cars in a town before the border. My friends joked with some Belgians while I wandered around and tried to figure out what in the culture and architecture was changing. Not much: they still sold the same imported Chinese soap, women sat all around selling the same onions, tomatoes, and peppers I find everywhere, and the countryside was scattered with concrete block shells that would surround family compounds if the families had decided not to go elsewhere. On the other hand, the dramatic shift from my Catholic dominated community in Anfoin to a mostly Muslim population in Kara had some stunning effects. Ramadan was in full force, with loud music and chanting issuing day and night from speakers mounted on the top of village mosque minarets. This also meant that street food was difficult to find during daylight hours throughout our trip because of fasting. After crossing the border with Ghana and being assaulted by money changers (instead of zimmy john moto men like in Togo) as we stepped out of the car, we caught a bus one the way to a village… on the way to Tamale. I was angry because I had to scarf down all my late lunch as the bus began bouncing down the road, but I understood when we halted to let the drivers and passengers pray at the next stop.

Muslim community coming from afternoon prayers on the road to Tamale
Throughout the trip I was constantly confused about Ghanaian currency and how to change African Francs (CFA) to cedis, the Ghanaian dollar. The currency was changed very recently and the old money is still used when discussing prices in the north of the country. When I bought my first bus ticket I paid 45,000, which translates into 450 peswas (like cents), or 4.5 cedis, or 1,500 CFA, or $3. Since I think totally in terms of CFA, this was pretty exhausting. Another habit that was difficult for me to get used to was set prices. Throughout Togo, bargaining is the norm. I haggle for everything when I go to the market or travel, but when I tried this in Ghana I failed. Paying a set price for products seems so strange…
After spending a night in Tamale we set off for the hotel at Mole National Park and paradise. Along the way we chatted with a group of European tourists from all the different countries of the EU. They were planning on getting up at 6:30 AM the next day to go on a safari. While we were very eager to see the animals, my friends and I decided to use a different strategy: let the safari come to us. When we saw our air conditioned, refrigerator equipped, shower and bed present hotel room we knew getting up at an early hour was not going to be an option. Fortunately, when we awoke the next morning and stepped outside the door there was an elephant standing there to greet us.

Aaaaaand... Elephant! Off our hotel room porch

Brandon surprised at stepping outside after a morning shower
and seeing a giagantic elephant tromping through the bushes.

Other people taking pictures of the elephant, nicknamed 'people lover'

Unfortunately it did not trumpet to express its joy for us, but since trumpeting tends to indicate rage I was grateful for that. Elephants are the largest land animals weighing in at 5000 – 6000 kg. They have two tusks: one for eating and grazing, the other for engaging in combat with other elephants. Despite occasionally violent clashes between males, elephants are very social creatures and could easily be seen happily playing and galumphing (the very technical word I created for describing the elephant walk) from the viewing platform of the park hotel.

Elephants at the watering hole as seen from the park hotel viewing platform
The entire day we saw an incredible amount of wildlife while barely leaving the hotel. Monkeys, antelope, and warthogs seemed oblivious to humans as they grazed beside the porch railings, and when I rode a moto into town to stock up on provisions and explore cheaper lodging options baboons were lining the road.

Warthog eating some grass

Monkey scrambling across the entrance to the park

Me with elephant


Me with elephant skull (different elephant from previous photo)
Baboon sniffing out some snackies from a trash can

This hotel was the ideal spot for my first vacation. While it was quite difficult to get to and quite expensive for someone as poor as this guy, there was a pool with a nice bar/restaurant overlooking an enormous watering hole where all kinds of animals flock to drink and hang out. We had thought at the beginning that we would need to go deep into the leafy wilderness to see even a hint of animals, but after the first day we settled on a walking safari and spent most of our time at the hotel pool. The safari was spent walking mostly around the aforementioned watering hole with close up views of elephants awkwardly plunging into the water. We also saw several different species of antelope, a crocodiles, lots of monkey, and birds like the Northern Red Bishop. During the evenings we took advantage of the hotel bar (they have a beer called Castle in Ghana that is lightyears better than anything I’ve tasted in Togo) and I attempted to communicate with the other foreigners in their various languages. We spent the last night of our at a cheap hostel in the nearby town of Larabanga where I slept on the roof, listening to evening prayers and pondering the stars.

Sign at the visitor's center

Our next stop on the trip was the Wechiau hippo, but to get there we had to go through the city of Wa, whose local dialect is called Wa-Wa. While there we stayed with several Peace Corps Ghana volunteers who gave us much useful advice on travelling through their country. I thought at first that it would be much easier travelling around an English speaking country and not having to speak another language, but I had a lot of trouble understanding locals while we were travelling. Just as the French spoken in Togo is much different than the French spoken in France, Ghanaian English is very different from that of U.S. citizens such as myself. Volunteers living in Northern Ghana have adapted their manner of speaking to better communicate, a skill which I sorely lacked. Thus, I left ordering food and asking for directions to those better suited to the task.

The Wechiau hippo sanctuary, our next stop on le voyage, is an AWESOME community-based ecotourism site. This means that community members do all the managing of the park, such as trail and building maintenance, budget organization, and tours. Ninety percent of the money that is made giving tours of the hippo sanctuary, lodging people, and other services is used to benefit the villages within the sanctuary. For example, every village now has a water pump and many have received funds to build schools. The chiefs of three of the villages and other elected community members sit on the board for the sanctuary. Basically, this place is an example of tourism positively impacting an impoverished region.

The Wechiau sanctuary is located on the western border of Ghana with Burkina Faso, which are separated at this point by the Black Volta River. We stayed at the lodge in the sanctuary, which unlike the hotel had no electricity or running water but is super cheap as was everything else. Our guide was amazing: he gave us a canoe safari identifying birds and trees along the way, gave us a lot of information about the park, and cooked us a dinner of spaghetti with sauce. During the safari he had told us there are electric fish in the river that shock people like eels do, so on the way back we bought one that had been smoked and put it in the sauce. It was delicious.

My friends in the back of the canoe

Smoked electric fish
Unfortunately we did not get to see any hippos, the second largest land animal after the elephant. We went during the height of the rainy season when the river is at almost its peak level. This means there was no dust clogging our nostrils during taxi rides, but also there are much more places on the river where the hippos can hang out. Thus, we saw no hippos, and I had to be content with reading the extensive info on them in the guide book. What I did see were lots of birds: Northern Red Bishop, Laughing Dove, Bruce’s Green-Pigeon, and best of all the Hornbill (which swooped over my head as I was diving into the forest for an evening walk). Also we got to see a family of vervet monkeys swooping through the trees on the riverbank.

Following our day at Wechiau, we spent two long days just travelling to get back to Togo. From Wechiau we went back to Wa and then spent a night in Temu before passing through Bolgatanga and finally making it to Daopang in Togo. Although the northernmost region of Togo, Savanes, is renowned for its dry climate, we arrived at the peak of the short wet season. Grasses were popping up everywhere, and some land was covered with great plains obstructed occasionally by the rare Baobab. Others were a kaleidoscope of rice paddies, corn and bean fields, and circular huts arranged in circular family compounds.

While in Daopang I borrowed a bike and visited a friend in a nearby village. He helped me to explore the local brew called Tchakpa, which tastes like a light delicious millet beer. We biked to different stands and sampled the taste. After finishing our tour in a tiny nearby marche, I downed some bean beignets and biked happily back to Daopang.

Drinking Tchakpa with the locals and John, my tchakpa hopping companion
The next day I went to visit the caves close to Nano in Savanes where slaves used to hide from traders back in the 16 and 1700’s. The landscape was amazing: hills topped by giant cliffs spilling onto a vast open plain. I could see for miles.

View from atop the cliffs near the caves

Some of the caves under the cliffs

Soaking under a tropical waterfall

Today I am tired and happy to be heading back to post, to my village and the people I work with. Time to go home.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


After a couple weeks of struggling to teach english at the lycee, I decided that working with children during my service was not for me. That was until last week, when I went to Camp ESPOIR and had one of the best times of my life singing, dancing, and playing with a bunch of kiddos. Espoir in French means 'hope', and the goal of the camp was to give kids living with or affected by AIDS an awesome week to jump, run around, and basically have a really good time. And maybe learn something...

The kids from my building, Les Montagnes!!!

Camp ESPOIR is a collaboration between Peace Corps Volunteers and Togolese NGOs. The week's activities include a bonfire (strange when people here cook with fires, but hey its fun), carnival (simple low tech games with prizes), info sessions (sex ed, self confidence, activity generating activities, stuff like that), and more. It takes place at our training center where kids are grouped by age and put into different buildings themed with different environments (Arctic, Caves, Praries). I went with the younger boys, ages 12-13, and we were the mountains. In French 'LES MONTAGNES'. The entire week wherever we paraded to on the grounds I would constantly cry 'les montagnes!' and all the kiddos would yell 'OHHHHHH.'

Firing up some popcorn.

Eating said popcorn.

We also made some caramel popcorn after talking about feasibility studies and Income Generating Activities, accompanied by a camp 'marche' market where the kids packaged and sold what they had made, in our case popcorn. The 2 hour marche was full of kids screaming and chanting their product and creatively parading it around on their heads to sell to others. Many sellers in West Africa carry their product, whether it be soja or soap or shoes, around on their heads while screaming the name, so this was pretty typical.

 I presented a session on children's rights (droits de l'enfant). Some of the sessions were dull and I could see the kids looking around, so I tried to make mine as exciting as possible by having sketches where every camper was involved, using very few words and posters, and putting each right (education, vie, alimentation) into song form so the kids would remember them. I discovered that I am very good at being enthusiastic but very bad at generating discussion, so hopefully that will improve next year.

My kiddos trying to lift me to the sky!

The entire week was a truly amazing experience. I got to know the 8 boys in my dorm so well. We would walk to dinner or to the different activities all holding hands and singing, and they always sat around me at all the meetings. I didn't know the exact story of the lives of each kiddo outside of camp, but I knew that this might be the best week of their lives, so I did my best to make that happen.

Some campers on the ride back to Aneho.

The ride back was sad and fun at the same time. Kids are such great teachers, and heading back from Lome to Aneho I was in a taxi with a group of girls and a Togolese staff. The girls laughed and taught be songs in Ewe and I taught them Italian. I found out that they had learned Italian at camp the year before. It was so awesome seeing these kids smiling and having a good time! It's experiences like this that just make me love my service and make me feel like I'm doing something useful to help the world. It reminds me of that age old saying, 'People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.'