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.'

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On getting older…

Time moves differently in my village. There are still seconds, minutes, and hours, but along with the expected changes in climate, culture, and living conditions I have noticed that the days have begun to disappear. I’ll wake up to my homologue’s wife singing while she prepares fried bon bons over the wood fire in the early morning, and when I’ve turned around night has fallen and my eyes are already closing in front of a book in the flickering fluorescent light. What happened in between opening and shutting my eyes seems to swirl up and disappear like dust on a dry dirt road.
We, the volunteers of Peace Corps Togo, are getting ready to welcome some bright new faces to our midst. While I was initially isolated in my village tucked into the southeast corner of the country, I will be getting two new neighbors, one within biking distance in a nearby village and another right on the coast in a beach town, strategically positioned so that I can easily stop by and grab a beer beside the lapping waves on future trips to Lome. Three weeks ago the other Maritime volunteers and I welcomed the newbies into our midst in proper form: by killing and roasting 3 chickens, teaching them to use a coupe coupe, and introducing them to the fabulous local beverage sodabi at the end of their post visit week. Today these current trainees will become true volunteers, a process I went through 8 months ago.

The bright shining faces of my new neighboring volunteers
 having lunch chez  moi

My new neighbors are going to be working with community health and small enterprise development. I’m hoping that our respective talent sets can merge in order to teach the importance of Moringa to the whole of our villages. A couple days ago I did a training in the market so the women who sell me tomatoes, onions, and fish could learn the health benefits of this tree for them and their children, and I was happy to have a woman who owns a store in town partner up with me to teach them in local language. She had been at the training I did at the Catholic Church, and I let her take the pedestal and do all the talking while I just waved moringa branches around. Watching her give the down low instead of me made me feel like I was doing something right going about teaching this. If I can teach about Moringa its no big deal, but if I can teach others to teach others and keep that process going I just might change the minds of everyone in my village. We shall see. I feel at the same time that I have been doing this moringa project for forever, but at the same time progress is made with every passing day.

Several companies have been moving into my village to encourage stores to sell their products and post their names all over the place. The best example is MOOV, a west African cell phone company. They have hired a guy dressed all in MOOV brand gear who drives around on a very nice MOOV branded moto to get people to sell credit and sell phones for the company. Seems like his whole being, existence, and identity at the moment lies with their products. When I arrived, there were hardly any posters outside stores advertising MOOV credit or special offers or credit. But now they are everywhere, and people seem to go about with this attitude of this is how it has always been. The same thing is happening with cigarettes: the FINE cigarette brand has begun an extensive promotion campaign, with several employees driving around in a shiny brand new ford pickup with the FINE logo on the side getting everyone from up scale boutique owners to marche mammas to sell death sticks. To go along with this, I have noticed more of my neighbors beginning to light up recently. I’m not so shocked about the health (there seems to be plenty of bugs and diseases in this country more harmful to health than cigarettes), but I am amazed that some Africans would pay out of their poor pockets to buy these things. Every time I go into Lome I pass by an enormous new bank built by the giant EcoBank company, and this along with the appearance of new products gives me strange vibes about development in sub-Saharan Africa. Some people further up the socio economic ladder will be able to buy these products and sport them around village, others at the bottom will only be able to watch on as they walk to and from their fields, witnessing development passing them by.

Chillaxin with nearby French and Togolese volunteers

Along with the arrival of new Peace Corps volunteers, I have friends from both Peace Corps and other European organizations who will be leaving soon. Today I am getting lunch with a German volunteer who arrived the same month I did and is going back to his home country next week. Several French volunteers in a village near Anfoin are getting ready to finish up their work on a community library and head back north (not to Savanes, but to France). Seems like the majority of volunteers are here for shorter term projects while few are willing to spend a ‘long’ two years of their lives working on development on this continent. I’ve noticed that volunteers who are here for shorter spans of time tend to be more positive, more outgoing and spontaneous when hanging out with other Africans, where as I tend to be more patient and more withdrawn as I have the same conversation I’ve had a million times before. Also, other volunteers are not ‘alone’ in their villages: they have other volunteers beside them to share the experience with. But Peace Corps volunteers are often the only foreigners in their communities and it can be difficult to relate.

Speaking of the passage of time, I shaved for the first time in 2 months last night and was amazed at how much my hair had grown without me even registering. At post I have a small mirror that I rarely look into, but even with this small reflection I could tell that my face was starting to get kind of raggedy. The hair on top of my head continues to grow and resembles more and more an out of control brush fire. At the start of my service I decided to shave my head and let my hair grow the whole two years as a symbol of my service, but in the Bogardus family our hair tends to not cooperate and attempts all means possible to take off in random directions, so that may be getting cut soon too. It is long, loooong, longer than I remember it ever being.

I’m looking forward to this month. My schedule is packed with stuff: a camp called ESPOIR for children with aids, a vacation tour to northern Ghana, a Take our Daughters to Work training in Tsevie. Things are picking up and moving along, hopefully for the better. A rolling stone gathers no moss, but my hair is growing all the time.