Monday, April 11, 2011

The Next Big Thing

5 April 2011

I geared up for about 2 months for the garden training I hosted in Anfoin last weekend. In preparation, I created a program with exact times when activities were supposed to start and end, invited community members, groupements, and students to participate, and made arrangements to lodge other Peace Corps volunteers in my family compound.

My program was very nicely laid out and detailed on paper: the training would take place over a weekend while students were on break so they would have time to come. On Friday other volunteers would arrive, we would organize lodging arrangements, and I would cook dinner. Saturday early morning groupement/community members would arrive to practice sustainable agriculture techniques in our model garden and when it got hot the volunteers gave presentations about gardening under our frantically constructed apatam (made from wood beams and palm branches, to create a shady place). In the afternoon, the students would arrive and we would do the same deal.

Apatam built for the training

When I invited people to come, I wrote down information about who they were, what they did, where they lived. Most came from my quarter of Anfoin, which was great because if they wanted help after starting the garden I could go and assist them. I stopped by to talk to them the week before to remind them about the training.

As for lodging arrangements, I thought that my homologue would be cleaning out several rooms in the compound to put volunteers in, find mats/mosquito nets, and clean the rooms very well.

As can be expected, nothing went according to plan, but it was great fun. I had a good time cooking for the 5 volunteers who I hosted in my two tiny concrete rooms and sleeping on mats on my concrete terrace (very glad it didn’t rain). We didn’t really organize presentations, which didn’t really matter since the next day the first participants arrived about two and a half hours after the training ‘began’. Not that I was on time with breakfast either: I began to make honey/brown sugar/cinnamon buttered toast around start time for the training. By this time my house looked like a danger zone: I had filled up water jugs for my guests to sit on since I haven’t yet gotten furniture, we put a lot of random stuff on the floor after finding no space on the countertop, and we spent lots of time huddled in a semi circle around my fan as it slowly rotated and a slight breeze (strength varying with the electrical current) flowed from it.

Volunteers HAPPILY cooking breakfast

I had been planning to work in the garden during the early morning when it was cool and then hang out under the apatam when it got hot. However, we began in the garden around 9:30 when the sun was beginning to really bare down. My friend Ezekiel and one of my neighbors sweated profusely while doing most of the work digging two beds. I did my best to look useful waving a shovel around; the others observed from the shade. After double digging in the hard soil (I thought it would have rained by this time making this part easier, but ironically it rained the day AFTER the training), another volunteer did an excellent job explaining companion planting and bed mapping, and we planted green bean and pepper seeds together. I had asked one of our groupement members to bring baby tomato, gumbo, and pepper plants from his plant nursery beside the river (talked to him 3 times in the month preceding the training) but he alas did not show.

Afterwards we moved to benches under the apatam, but at that point I just felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t be around other people, couldn’t try and stand up and give a presentation, couldn’t keep trying to act like I had a positive attitude about the training when inside I wasn’t feelin it. So I slowly went to my room, slowly pulled some water up the well, filled up a bucket and took a long luxurious bucket shower. I’ve come to realize that when I need time for myself, I just need to go ahead and take it. As a volunteer, if I need to reset or get away from whatever is happening these days I just do it and don’t worry. So I left my homologue to talk about agoutis while I took a half hour to shower off and get my mind back on track. Don’t get me wrong, I can get real enthusiastic about gardening and talk for hours about building a live fence or companion planting, but when I need space, when I feel myself slipping, I’ve learned to just get away and take a break instead of fighting it. So that’s what I did, and when I came back to the training, walked slowly across the mud floored compound strewn with broken concrete blocks, palm fronds, chicken poop, rotting mangos, and water basins, I felt much much better.

The rest of the training went. For lunch I walked the volunteers down to my bean lady; she was thrilled to see so many foreigners coming to lunch. We got some drinks under the mango trees at the Auberge Californie and then walked back in the heat of the day to meet up with another volunteer and take a long repos under the apatam. In the afternoon, the first and only student that came to the training showed up about an hour late, so we all decided to skip the training and go to see our groupement member by the river who has a lot of fish ponds. The one student that did come is an incredibly motivated person in his last year at the lycee, and as I walked with him and the other volunteers into town we talked about plans for starting gardens and building improved cook stoves in the longer ‘summer’ break.

The volunteers were pretty impressed with the fish ponds, and afterwards we walked to the opposite bank of the river where my friend has an auberge and mini-zoo with crocodiles. The place is pretty schwanky, and we took pictures and tried to get the crocodiles to make some motion before motoing back to my place. The night was spent merry making on the terrace accompanied by a dinner of pancakes and carrots with local peanut butter.

Looking back on it, I can’t really say how I thought the garden training would go. I’m just glad it went. This was the first big thing that I have tried to do with my service, and it was a great learning experience. I feel like if I had a budget for the next one, if I was able to rent fancy plastic chairs, make nice invitations and photocopy garden materials, create a nicely laid out notebook to mark down participants in, buy each person a pen and notebook for notes, install a big water tank and pump to easily water the garden, more people would come. But with this training I found out that the most motivated people came, and I made it obvious that if they want to work with me in the future I will be available for them.

In other news, the tree nursery in our groupement garden is growing, and since it rained like crazy the night before last (making a deafening sound, the huge droplets falling on my tiled roof) I believe we will be planting the trees soon in one of our groupement member’s fields. I also have some mahogany plants I’ve been raising and am hoping to have kids at the college plant them in conjunction with a lesson on the importance of trees for the soil.

I’ve begun teaching English at the lycee, and I led my first class yesterday. Only about 50 students showed up because of the rain, but normally I’ll be teaching closer to 70 or 80. For the first lesson I wanted to help the students figure out why they wanted to learn English and how they could better learn the language. For me, when I was studying Italian, it was real important for me to keep in mind that eventually I would be able to read Dante’s Commedia in his own language. Responses from the students were pretty predictable: they wanted to learn English to make more money in the future, to travel to an English-speaking country and find a good job there, to communicate with an international language, etc. But with the activity I tried to help them realize why I would like to teach them English: using their ability to speak and write this language they will be better enabled to help their communities in the future. They will be able to bring resources and work with people in the future that before would not have been possible. I felt like I made a good fight against the dominant escapist mentality, and the class seemed helpful for all involved. I encouraged them for the next time to think of more specific tasks they wanted to use English for in the future like reading a certain book, writing a scientific paper on a certain subject, or talking with a famous person.

Talking in front of so many kids at first was difficult. It was hard for me to get out of bed, my feet felt like lead walking over to the lycee, and I felt real edgy waiting for the class to begin. But next time it will be better. I have to speak very loud to maintain attention and reach all the students, and an hour of that made my voice hoarse. After I teach I feel useful, and when it seems like these days there is no set schedule for anything I do teaching gives me a more solid base to be here. Maybe it will help me to connect more with the lycee students and start more environmental projects there in the future.

Next month I’m going to be helping with a national WHO vaccination campaign against polio for kiddos. Here in village there are many disabled people who get around on hand-powered tricycles. One English professor at the lycee can not get around without crutches. Despite this, I feel like a lot of Togolese seem incredibly fit and healthy. They seem to have either gotten really good at tolerating injuries or have learned to avoid dangerous situations. When I walk through a crowded market place or see my friends doing back breaking work in the field, I am always surprised at their ability to make it through seemingly unscathed.

Just recently got an amazing package full of specialty Italian food from a good friend in the States along with lots of other letters. I read the letters and the food descriptions and looked up the places the pasta, sauces, and biscotti came from on the map. Thank you all for all that. I’ll put up another blog post when another big thing comes along.