Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Success? What’s that?

Check out pics from my first months at post at:


Gardens are a central part of the Peace Corps experience. When I think of a volunteer in the depths of a foreign country working hard in the process of development, I imagine them with a straw hat on bending down and working in the field, demonstrating sustainable agriculture techniques to the population.

Well, I do have a hat. It isn’t made of straw and it has ‘Friday Harbor’ written on it. The hat is pretty dirty now from getting dropped on the ground or concrete floor too many times, but it does the job. As for the garden, well, let’s just say it’s coming along. After almost three months at post I don’t even have a solid fence yet. I tried starting a nursery for tomatoes, peppers, and basil (oh man I would totally make pesto), but the chickens tended to devastate it every day because there was no fence. I’ve refused to plant anything until the fence for the garden is finished.

Thing is, I could easily go into town and find the materials and finish the fence myself. I could get branches chop them up with a machete, dig post holes, and have it all done in one day. But the garden is not going to be my garden: it is my groupement’s garden. It will be a model garden to demonstrate biointensive sustainable agriculture techniques to the community, and it is a good idea and has been approved by the groupement members (or those that come to the meetings at least). Problem is, if I did everything myself it would not be the groupement’s garden. It would be my garden. Our ultimate goal is for the members of the groupement to have small family gardens at their houses (or huts) in order to improve nutrition and health and save money for the families, which they can use to send their kids to school.

I like to think about what I can do. Here in the dry season, and generally in Africa, people like to think about what they can’t do. The general opinion with my prescence here is: we don’t have the money to do this project, so give us money and we will do it. And I say, no, I’m not giving you money, I already am giving two years of my life, left my home in the United States, and spent a lot of time learning French before coming here to help you.

So what can I do?

I can begin to get seeds. When I eat oranges or peppers these days, I save the seeds and dry them out so I can use them in a nursery in the future. The other day I visited a Catholic infirmary in the nearby town of Afiata. Other than speaking Italian with the nuns there (oh the language of Dante, their words flowed over me like a waterfall, so beautiful) I told them about our garden. Then I helped them in their garden and they gave me a ton of seeds my groupement can use and told me I could have a sac of dirt with ‘enzymes’ which will help naturally fertilize the garden the next time I came to visit.

I can talk to people. The hometown of one of my friends in agriculture is close to Anfoin, so I invited him to come meet with my groupement and give us some advice. Apart from considering that he arrived 3 hours late that Sunday (his family sent his sick sister to a voodoo doctor instead of a real doctor in Aneho, so he had to clear that up), he gave some valuable advice about getting the fence done and preparing the garden for planting. After talking with my friend Ezekiel, I’ve decided to start a garden that will be my own personal garden in his family compound (where all the chickens have been turned into sauce) so that I can test out some of these gardening techniques before trying to teach them to people in our model garden.

Every time a person sees my garden or sees me trying to water the pitiful live fencing that will become a strong fence… in 5 years… they talk to me. We talk about the compost (or rather, the 3 current piles, each an improvement on the last but still lacking in compostable vigor), we talk about the nursery or lack there-of, we curse the chickens and their small but hungry chicks. And we talk about the dry season, the harmattan, how it is especially strong this year, and what the garden might look like a month from now (still the same? More weeds?). These conversations are the real reason I have the garden, not to actually grow anything or make a compost myself, but to have people think or reconsider the way agriculture is done in this region, to consider the importance of having a garden close to the house, for the family.

Several groupement members have already begun gardens at their houses (or huts). Not all of them have a well or steady supply of water, but the ones who do are trying. I feel like as an American, I’m pretty used to getting things done and being proactive. With applications and assignments in college, I never waited till the last minute to get started and couldn’t stop thinking about them till they were done. Learning patience for me is hard, not just with projects but with people and with the new life I lead.

I think about the garden because it is strategically located right outside my family compound, so I see it every time I step outside our sandy courtyard. But there are a ton of other good things that have gone on in the past few months apart from the miniscule progress made with this plot o’ land. For starters, I’ve built a lot of relationships and gotten to know a lot of people. From the Catholique nuns in Afiata to my next door neighbors, from random people in bush taxis to teachers at the local elementary school, I’ve talked with a lot of people. And while I still constantly stick out as a foreigner and white person, I’ve realized I can use that to my advantage to tell people why I’m here and explain what my groupement is doing. Being called names and taunted every time I go the marche still hurts, but I’ve gotten good at ignoring the people I don’t care about, responding in a loud obnoxious voice when people saluer me in loud obnoxious voices, and recognizing who are my friends and being nice to them.

I’ve made a general rule for myself that whenever I take off my moto helmet, whenever I start a new conversation, whenever I meet someone for the first time, I smile. Sometimes it is real hard, and most times the smile is fake, but it makes the situations so much better. If I get angry and show I’m angry, I’ve lost, but if I can be composed instead and smile nicely and nod when people try to ruffle my feathers, life is a lot better.

Every day here I am going to see my garden (now in my mind what my dad would call a ‘learning experience’). Every day I will get called ‘Yovo’ and be taunted for being here and trying to help. But I will also see the smiling, patient faces of my groupement members who try to talk with me in Ewe. I will see my homologue who has made it his goal to make sure I am happy and who wakes up every morning to work as a volunteer teacher in the school he started. I will look at the pictures of my friends and family on my wall and be inspired to keep on keepin’ on.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


With the dry seasonal winds of harmattan beginning to flow south over Togo from the Sahara desert, the pictures that I taped to a board above my desk are beginning to dry out and curl back. There are photos of my trip to the island of Stromboli where I saw a volcano shoot fire into the night air, of my kitchen table loaded with empty plates and wine bottles after an epic dinner on my fourth floor apartment in Bologna, of my arms outstretched gliding on a boat under a bridge in Seattle. If I had less time to think, I might not see any meaning in the glimpses into my past losing their grip and floating down to the floor, but as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the first stages of service I have more than enough time to think, and what I think is this: one chapter in my life’s book is folding shut like the photos while another is beginning.

Togo is beginning to feel more like home. I’ve made it halfway through my first 3 months now and things are starting to feel pretty good. I still miss my family and friends (that means you!) back home, but I am beginning to find some new family and friends here. For example, my friend Ezekiel is 24 and in the ‘premier’ grade at the local lycee, or high school. Last month I went to visit his village and got fed fufu (severely beaten manioc, pretty mushy stuff), visited his chef, and met his family (which is basically the entire village). Before eating the fufu I saw them pick up a chicken from the hard dirt floor of their courtyard and carry it behind the house. Later, I was informed that the chicken we were eating in the sauce was the chicken I had seen previously turned ex-chicken. The Ben that I was at the beginning of my stay here would have been a tad uneasy, but now I have become comfortable with the way animals are raised and consumed as well as other facts of life in this country.

I am still very excited about the work I will be doing over the next two years. I have been assigned to work with a groupement, or group of community members with a common interest, called ‘Union Fait la Force’. The name comes from the fact that apart it is more difficult for people to solve their problems, but together with their forces combined they can do things that were not possible before. When I see the women and men at our meetings on Wednesdays, I look at their determined faces and am inspired by their motivation and determination to work on our projects.

Last month I did an activity with the groupement to find out what our projects are and which are most important. I used the results of the activity to create a website (which is all in French but there are pictures, you can find it at sites.google.com/site/gapu2f) and to figure out how to present our groupement and explain it in the future. The goal of the groupement is to improve the lives of its members, which more concretely means 5 things: we want the women (several of whom go to Lome now to look for work and money) to be able to stay at the house with their kids, we want the members and their families to be able to eat well 3 meals a day with fruits and veggies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we want the members to be able to pay for sicknesses, send their children to school until they graduate high school, and build houses out of concrete rather than clay. The common work of the women in the groupement is the transformation of manioc, or cassava, into manioc flour, called ‘gari’. The most important project of the groupement which will help us achieve the goals mentioned above involves taking out a microfinance loan to get a collective moulin (grinds manioc into powder) for the groupement. Much of my service will devoted to creating a center for the production of gari where we will house the moulin and other related tools. Other projects that I am starting with my groupement include a model farm and a model garden, which I am working to plan during the dry season and start when the rains bless us again.

That’s work. Outside of work, I am improving my skills at drinking the local strong drink offered to me every time I visit someone, called ‘sodabi.’ I am gradually turning my two concrete rooms into a home by adding things like spices to cook food, posters on the wall (much harder to mount with the crappy paint they use here) and more rows of books. While I am still at a loss when anyone tries to speak the local language, I am studying it every night and taking lessons twice a week so that maybe in the future I won’t imagine a lot of question marks coming out of someone’s mouth whenever they speak it. And this Saturday, if all goes well, I will even have electricity so I can do stuff on my computer for our groupement and play the loads of music I brought on my external hard drive!

Its getting better all the time. When I first got to Togo I freaked out about transportation, and the first time I took a bush taxi from Anfoin back to training in Gbatope I thought all my money was going to get stolen and I was going to end up a burning wreck on the side of the road. But now it is normal for me to shove into a five-seater car (if you can call it a car, more like a scarred chunk of metal that was left over after they got done filming combat scenes in the first Terminator) with six other people. I even have nice conversations if they speak French, all while the rusted car with a cracked windshield bangs it’s way over the potholes. As for food, I am gradually adding stuff to my kitchen, and tonight I am planning to cook humus with home made tortilla chips. Ambitious, right? We’ll see how it turns out… So far I’ve been able to make pancakes on my tiny gas stove and even pasta with sauce (I have olive oil now, don’t you know it, and olives, oh my goodness they are soo good) that resembles what I ate in Italy. I still eat a lot of pate and fufu, or corn and manioc paste respectively, but even those are beginning to taste delicious if not nutritious.

Last weekend I went to visit another volunteer in a village near Tabligbo as part of our Natural Resources Management ‘shadowing’ (ohhhh scary) to see what she has started in the year since she arrived. She took me to a sodabi party WAAAAY out in the brush, like many many miles from a paved road, and under a straw thatched roof I drank honey and ginger sodabi while talking with the guy who makes it and his several apprentices. Afterwards we took a walk through this diverse forest full of huge trees, very hard to find one of those in Togo, and the sodabi manufacturer explained that the forest is under 10 feet of water during the rainy season. It was crazy to walk through a place with so much organic material and diversity when all I see most of the time are corn and manioc in straight lines. Being slightly tipsy, we decided it would be a good idea to start climbing trees. I stopped after getting about 15 meters in the air, wanting to not get fatally wounded and end up ending my service that way and all, but one of the apprentices climbed to the top of the tree, walked along a branch like it was nothing, jumped to another tree and clambered down! I keep on trying to get a grip on people’s value of life here, but I don’t seem to be getting any closer.

Harmattan also means lots of dust, dust which tried to clog my nose as I biked to Aneho today. My knee seems to be doing better; perhaps the absence of cold all the time is good for it. In Aneho I spoke with some workers for a government agency that deals in agriculture called ICAT and found out that there are some other groupements who have already got collective moulins. Then I went to the bank and managed to take out money in small bills that I can actually use in village rather than large bills that people just kind of look at me funny when I show and wonder why I ever came to market. I checked out the main strip in Aneho, looked inside a hotel on the beach called L’Oasis, and then biked back with the Harmattan winds howling in my ear. I had beans and sauce with gari on the side of the road when I got back to Anfoin, bought some bananas a woman was carrying on her head, and headed home. The Corps gave me this sweet bike, but it is getting pretty choked with dust and I need to clean it soon. While I was in Aneho I found out where villagers can get tested for AIDS for free, and tomorrow I am helping a woman whose husband helped the president of my groupement start a school go to Aneho to get tested. Her husband died last year, she doesn’t know why, and she has 6 kids.

One conversation I have continuously here goes like this: Are you married? No? Do you want to get married? No?!? Why? You have to! How many kids will you have? No kids?!? But you have to have kids, at least four of them! What if something happens to them? After the Togolese and I go through this, I usually ask people how many brothers and sisters they have and how many died. Many of them say 7 or 8 brothers and sisters (per wife, polygamy is a reality here) and that none of them died. Children are like insurance for the parents and help in the house and fields, but you can’t feed and clothe 6 kids well when you barely have the means to do it for 2! I feel like having lots of kids made sense back in the days when infant mortality was high, and that family is a very very important part of African culture, but it seems like kids could go a lot further along the path if they didn’t have so many siblings. Then again, I have only been here 5 months while Africans were born and raised here, so my opinion and experience are both incredibly limited.

There seem to be a lot of questions that I get all the time: Do you like Obama? Are you French? You eat pate?!? I also still get yelled at, jeered at, whenever I go into town. Yesterday I went to a neighboring village to help build a house. As I was sticking my hands in the pile of clay to plop another glob to build up the wall of the house along with the rest of the community, an adult in nice looking pagne, his hands clean and sunglasses shiny, stood taking a picture of me with his cell phone without asking, without anything, like I was just here to amuse him. Stuff like this happens continually. Some people here just give me no respect no matter what I do. But the good stuff makes up for the bad, and life continues.

Hope all is well in the States. I don’t understand the French accent on the BBC, which comes in staticky anyway, and my most recent magazine is Newsweek from before my plane landed in Lome. Needless to say, I’m a tad out of touch with what’s happening in my home country, but I hope you all are doing well. You are missed across the ocean. Happy New Year, Bonne Annee!