Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Long Run - Staying a Third Year

A child’s health card

Many Fridays I go help fill out health cards at the local hospital for children brought by their mothers to get weighed and vaccinated. The inside panel of these cards has a graph for tracking the weight of a child to make sure they are growing properly. Under the graph are pictures depicting the child’s state of growth: during the first year a child begins to sit up and crawl, at 2 years the child is walking, and at 3 they are talking.


My baby sister trying to use the grinding block

Here she is trying to wash laundry

By the time I finish my time in Togo the children who were born when I arrived will be speaking Ewe, probably better than me. I have chosen to stay on for a third year as a volunteer in this country. While there are many personal and professional reasons for this decision, the main reason is that the work I am doing and the people I am working with make me happy.

An empty church in Bologna

A bustling piazza in Milan

My last year of university I travelled throughout Italy and Europe – Liguria, Germany, Florence, Bressanone, Sicily, Barcelona and the list goes on. A friend came to visit me for a last final journey across the continent. We spent a week in Paris then took a train to Amsterdam. During the trip he noted how important it was for me to see the sights – cathedrals, museums, cafes. For him it was the relationships that were most important – who we met and the experiences we shared together. Now I have come around to his point of view to value people over places. Here in Anfoin I have found happiness in the villagers I live with and in the many moment we have passed and will pass together.

I have changed a lot since I came over:

0 months - At a medical session my first day in Togo. I spent the first 3-4 months getting used to the food and battling a wide array of stomach problems

4 months - My first time in Atakpame on a hill overlooking the city. The metal roofs are all rusted and from a distance the place could be a town nestled in the Appenine mountains. I am wearing my favorite pants made from pagne (African fabric) which have since died from being ripped and sewn up too many times.

7 months - Hanging out with elephants at Mole National Park during a trip through northern Ghana

 8 months - Under a waterfall next to the caves in Nano near Dapaong in Togo’s Savannah Region

9 months - Coming back from a Moringa training

13 months – Working as a volunteer trainer

15 months – Hanging out with a friend in village

18 months – Out on Lake Zowla with fishermen from the nearby village of Boko

21 months – At the recent swearing-in ceremony for the 2nd group of new volunteers I’ve seen come in.

In photos, people often notice how over time my hair has become longer and more disorderly. I recently cut it, much to the relief of everyone who works with me in a professional capacity. My body has also changed since I arrived – I’m about 10 pounds lighter, I have a few more scars (lesson learned – do not slide tackle playing soccer on a rocky field), and wearing flip flops every day in the sun has given me enticing tan lines on my feet. I also like to think I’ve changed inside – become more patient, developed the ability to face difficult situations with a positive attitude, etc. But these changes have been so gradual and the times have changed the places and people around me too, so it’s hard to say.

The spot I reserve on my shelf for things that make me happy.

At times a year feels like an eternity, at others it feels like a drop in the bucket that is the long run of my life. The year I have ahead of me at times feels like a hallway of opportunity. Other times I see it as I saw the first two years while I was reading by candlelight in a house devoid of furniture those first few months in village – a looming black cloud. Visions of the ‘accomplishments’ I’ve had a part in making over the past two years seem to be offering themselves up more and more often for nostalgic contemplation:

The nearby town of Ganabe when I visited in October 2010. The village had a Peace Corps volunteer who left 6 months before I arrived in Anfoin. A flood had destroyed all the mud structures on lower ground when I visited my first week au village.

Ganabe at the end of my first dry season after all the water dried up. A few months ago the previous volunteer came back to visit and all that was left standing of his old house was the latrine.


Standing in my garden a month after arriving in Anfoin. I did the double-dig and made a real attempt to water my pitiful plants through the dry season before someone stole my tomatoes. Thankfully the basil grew like mad and I figured out how to best do a garden – grow veggies that other people won’t recognize. Finally I just did a tree nursery for a cooperative I was working with of which most of the trees got left in place. One of them has grown to as big around as my head and has begun giving seeds.

Members of the same cooperative staring on confusedly as I explain the process for making compost. The farmers in my community already recycle every scrap of organic material they have, and in my eager Togo budding volunteer youthfulness I had not yet realized that. I might have done better if I had instead explained the difference between inorganic material like plastic bags and organic stuff like a banana peel. Here people just throw it all into the field.

Two months later, teaching the same cooperative how to make an improved cook stove. In my opinion, villagers in Anfoin wouldn’t use improved cook stoves because (1) they take up more space than other cookstoves, (2) the family uses the light given off by the stove to do other work, and (3) significant air movement is necessary to get oxygen to the fire, and if that doesn’t happen the stove doesn’t cook fast enough. A chicken later laid eggs in the stove pictured, and as of yet it’s offspring are doing swell.

My friend Ezekiel and I after I organized a garden training involving the same cooperative. The members don’t garden because the water level in the well is 20 meters below the surface. Pulling water up that well then dragging it over to the garden is hard work.


Helping some distant neighbors build my friend’s mother a new clay house 2 months into my service.

Helping some closer neighbors build a clay house for a friend a few months ago. I never did get any better at doing it, but my mistakes all made the guys doing real work much happier.


Kids in the car last year on the way back from Camp Espoir 2011, a week long summer camp for children infected or affected by HIV. I worked as a counselor

Kids and Togolese counselors from my dorm this year. For Camp Espoir 2012 I began work several months beforehand as a regional counselor, and I have the dream of moving Camp Espoir to the Maritime region next year and taking steps to make the camp more sustainable.


The chief of Ganabe walking through a field planted with agroforestry trees. The volunteer in Ganabe before I arrived worked often in this garden.

The road leading north from my house towards Tabligbo as seen from the top of the village telephone antenna. The landscape in the region changes every year as the population goes up along with the area of land under cultivation.


Planting a Moringa tree after doing a training on Moringa for a children’s club at an AIDS NGO last year.

Cutting the same Moringa tree to harvest the leaves during a Moringa training for a group of adults at the NGO this year.


Participants from a rural community Moringa training I did with a Community Health Agent my first year of service. They are proudly demonstrating the tree nurseries done with the 10 seeds I gave each person.

The same villagers carrying branches after cutting the Moringa trees for the second time back in February.


With the two professors at the local high school I worked with to start a Healthy Life Skills club. This is at the beginning of the school year.

Together with all the students who participated in the club during the last week of school. We will be continuing the club this upcoming school year.


The remnants of traditional enclosures for agoutis that my homologue / host  father used to use.

The walls of the enclosures scattered to make the foundation for a future terrace.

After we finished the foundation to build modern enclosures for the agoutis. My homologue contributed the land and surrounding wall to the community for the project.

The completed enclosures. My official counterpart contributed the land and surrounding wall for the project.


A participant of our first training on how to raise agoutis in a photo taken right after we sent in the application. This middle school student began building his enclosures immediately when he found out about the project. Unfortunately it was another year before we received approval and were actually ready to begin the trainings / animal bank.

The same kid standing last month standing next to his completed enclosures. He has now completed the training and the other requirements, and I predict that within the week he will be loaned agoutis through our animal bank. Go him!

The people I work with have also changed and grown since the start of my service. Take my friend Monsieur Francis:

This is Francis when I first met him. He is a wood carver in the nearby village of Adokowoe whose principal source of income is making custom fettish statues. An accident in Lagos took away the use of his left arm, but he still seems to get twice as much accomplished as a lot of other villagers.

Francis working with his daughter to make Moringa leaf powder. At the start of this year he worked with me to do a Moringa training split into several meetings for the women in his rural community. I helped him last month to find Moringa cuttings which he planted all around a new payote he built, and he used leaves from the cut branches to make powder which his daughter sold out.

Francis working with another participant during the ‘pratique’ portion of the first agouti training, of which he is also a participant. He has almost completed enclosures and will be receiving agoutis soon.

By throwing himself into my two primary projects in village, moringa and agoutis, Francis has shown his motivation and determination to improve the quality of life for him and his family. Every time I go to his house, he insists on giving me oranges, coconuts, etc. Living on a shoe string is not easy, and adopting this attitude at the same time is awesome.

Hanging out with friends at a park in Bologna.

So there is this new sea change in my conscious away from a concentration on places and towards a focus on people. There are new relationships I’ve built along with knowledge and beliefs. And there is above all the ‘experience,’ this day-to-day living and interaction that has caused the above.

Two of my best friends in Togo, also volunteers, in one of their houses soon after we first arrived at post. My friend’s house, like mine, was almost devoid of furniture and anything to make it feel like a home. These two friends have since finished their service and returned to the U.S., while I rest here.

This next year for me will mean more sweaty trips up and down the hill leading into village. It will mean eating more corn paste with slimy ademe fish sauce. It will mean being laughed at in the face for the millionth time after trying to greet someone in local language. It will mean living through another dry and another rainy season, dealing with the heat and the harmattan and the monsoon rains. It will mean being shoved into more crammed bush taxis crashing along bumpy roads. It will mean more days full of free time that I need to figure out how to fill with work.

The desk where I spend most of the evening working.

But it will also mean seeing Francis finish his enclosures and start raising his own agoutis. It will mean seeing the Moringa trees get bigger and the villagers harvest more and more leaves. It will mean going more places, building more houses, working more in the field, going to more funerals / parties, and more exciting bike rides.

The view out my window at my host family’s house during pre-service training.

The view out my back door in Anfoin. You can see the sky through the filament and metal grillage and the palm thatching.

I still go to work at the local hospital most Fridays – filling out health cards, saluering all the new mothers in local language, saying ‘sronyo ofoa?’ (my wife, how are you?) to baby girls while the women laugh and try to seem interested when I talk about Moringa. Their babies are getting older, and so am I.

The view off my terrace I get to look at for another year. One of the great things about Africa – the sunset is always beautiful.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

House Building

House building in village is an art. Each poor villager is an artist, their creativity hidden by an education based on rote memorization and their talent clouded by the social drive towards consensus. When my neighbors come together to build a new house, they are sculptors, engineers, and architects working within the strict limits and with the secret benefits of nature.

Yawovi and friends
A few weeks ago I accepted my friend Monsieur Yawovi’s invitation to help his neighbor build a new house. Waking up before the sun to a cloudy monsoon sky, I made my way over to chez him.
The poorer villagers in Anfoin build their houses and compound walls out of what they call ‘clay.’ However, the material used is not really clay but a natural mixture of sand, clay, and other elements found below the top layer of soil. This mixture becomes almost rock solid when it dries, and walls are built by mixing the clay with water until a certain consistency is achieved and adding to them level by level. While it may seem primitive, well-built walls can withstand the stresses of the rainy and dry seasons for a decade or more in decent condition. Houses are built during the monsoon because the moisture in the air and cloudy conditions help keep the pile of building clay moist and because villagers have more free time while beans are growing (which require relatively little weeding).

Following my arrival chez Yawovi, we began by throwing palm branches shading a mound of clay to the side and scooping out a portion of the mound over the ground with hoes. Our workspace had been wet previous to my arrival to keep the clay from sticking to the hard-packed earth underneath. After splashing more water onto this clay, I helped to mix the water with the clay using a stair-master dance: pushing one foot into the clay (at an angle to make it go deeper and mix better), then doing the same with the other while pulling the first foot from the muck. Eventually the mixture reached was at the right level of muckiness to use on the house.

Rolling out clay balls…

… to be carried on over
Yawovi’s neighbors gradually came out of their clay houses to help. They usually began by watching me - commenting on my strength (‘Il est fort!’) and the difficulty of the work (‘Le travail, c’est dur!’). Afterwards we moved to the next step – crafting balls of the mixture and carrying them over to the house. Rolling these balls is not an easy task. It requires a feeling for where to apply pressure and how to use one’s bodyweight and the weight of the ball to help with sculpting. The key is a solid center – by driving their fingers straight into the muck, kneading a smaller solid ball, and then smacking more clay on the sides the workers shaped the mud into manageable volleyball-sized hunks. My arms were exhausted after trying to do one, and it fell apart in my hands while the men working beside me churned out ball after ball no problem.

Thus, the majority of my time was spent doing the easier task of carrying balls over to the house to be added to the wall. This did required skill in how to position my hands to maximize the area of my grip and minimize the point pressure exerted on the clay ball. One of my good friends, a fat jolly guy who speaks no French, delighted in making giant balls and then hefting them into my arms to watch me struggle. A mound containing the proper mixture of mud and water had also been placed in the center of each room of the house to roll balls. This allowed more neighbors to work at one time and sped up the building process.

Balancing on the wall

A neighbor throws a clay ball up to Yawovi

Yawovi adds a hunk of clay to the house

After being carried over, balls were hoisted or thrown up to men standing on the walls and added to the new level. I handed up the balls at first, but began to go with the flow and throw them up as I got the hang of things. Watching my friends climb up a sketchy ladder made from tree branches and balance on a wall while hefting heavy balls of mud made me feel sketchy. But they smiled and laughed and sang as the wall slowly grew. This part of the building reminded me of my ceramics class in high school. The men standing on the wall would pat down new clay with the pads of their fingers then run their hands up the side grabbing at irregularities and setting them straight. This is meant to minimize the air bubbles trapped in the clay, which can cause giant cracks when the wall dries in the sun (just as when clay dries in a kiln).

Smoothing off the edges

The new level was finally completed smoothed over using a machete. This smooting made the new level straight and true to guide and support the building of the next one. Unfortunately, the guy assigned this task was the last one to sit down and eat the pate and ademe sauce provided to the workers by the wife of the new home’s family. I preceded this breakfast with several shots of that great source of village spirits we call ‘sodabi’ (distilled palm liquor), and I ate a mountain of pate before laying back on a mat in complete satisfaction.

But the work was not yet over. For each house, four or five layers about half a meter in height are necessary. The first is a wider base, wide because it will support the rest of the layers and because rain splashing down from the roof gradually erodes the clay close to the ground. Each consecutive layer is different – space must be left for doors and windows, and each higher layer requires more hefting to put in place. The house I helped to build had three rooms in a straight line: the first on the left would become a cooking space and a ‘douche’ would be put up where the inhabitants could take that infamous bucket shower, the second would be a front room with doors opening to the front and to the other two rooms, and the last room would become a bedroom. Windows for each room were placed on the side facing away from the main path. The windows and doors were later covered with several branches upon which was stacked more mud to create the frames. After each new level, the mud must be left several days to dry. Wood stakes are shoved into the top and the new level is covered with palm branches to keep rain from washing the work away.

In front of the house

A ceiling and a roof are the final steps. As I walked by the house on a later day, some of my friends were shaping giant logs cut lengthwise from coconut trees into ceiling supports. They showed me how the wood from the base of the tree is stronger than that at the top because it has to support more weight. With that idea in mind, this part of the tree is used to create supports which run lengthwise along a house, while the weaker wood from the top of the coconut tree is used for cross supports resting on the stronger beams. More mud is piled on these supports to create a drop ceiling which helps keep the house cool through the hot season. A frame is then created, often using bamboo, on which the villagers pile straw in an overlapping manner to make rain water slide off the sides. A poorly built roof will last a couple years, but a well-built one can stand for up to five.

Time to eat pate

The changes taking place in house building mirror the changes taking place in Togolese society. As villagers in Anfoin move up in the world, they are beginning to build houses out of cinder block and cover them with metal sheeting. A mason, specialized in the creation of blocks and application of cement, must be hired to do the work that was once taken on by the entire community. This does away with the moments shared while working, the songs sung, and the pate shared by workers afterwards. Cement and metal sheeting come from outside the village (cement from a giant factory in Tabligbo, sheet metal from I don’t know where). And the kicker: these modern houses often lack the cooling effect of the thick clay walls, drop ceiling, and straw roofs found in mud houses, making them unbearable when the November hot season rolls around. This society is marked by a greater push towards individualism and a greater reliance on foreign materials. While much of my efforts are directed at ‘developing’ this country, I am coming to realize how the value of existing local knowledge.