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.