Monday, February 27, 2012


Community trash pile in Aneho.

As a faithful hippee, I have always tried to avoid using plastic bags at the supermarket. I bring my backpack to carry food, and upon returning to the house I reuse the bags I was given. Since coming to Togo I have accumulated many more plastic bags. Here they are referred to as ‘sachets,’ and they come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. When I’m at the market vendors seem to automatically put everything I buy into a sachet before they sell it to me. Along with sachets, a whole heap of trash gets thrown out in the path, road, or field every day. Family and community trash piles continue to grow, causing health and sanitation problems and thwarting efforts at village beautification. The answer seems to be teaching villagers the consequences of littering and using incentives to encourage good behavior, but this may be a while in coming.

Further back in Togo’s history, everything used was biodegradable. Banana peels, palm branches, straw, and calabashes all came from the earth and would return if cast away. Then in the 20th century this changed. Industry began to make goods out of inorganic plastic, metal, and glass, and globalization brought many packaged foreign products in through the port in Lome to be sold in villages. Before throwing trash in a pit or to the side of the road was no problem, but now much of what is thrown out sits there or is ripped by time into smaller and smaller pieces. And it doesn’t go away.

So what do people throw out? Baterries, bottles, broken household goods, metal tomato paste and soft drink cans, and the ever popular sachets. Packaged ice cream made by the company Fanmilk is sold by villagers carting a cooler around on the back of a bike, and the colorful wrapping adds a bit of joy when cast into the eyesore that is a trash heap. Sachets seem to make up the bulk of the problem. They are given out with fruits, vegetables, and anything else bought at the market. Villagers also put beans and rice in black sachets, porridge in smaller, clear sachets, and other foods like a ‘to go’ order. After the food is eaten the sachet is dirty and gets thrown away. Women selling bread, dried banana chips, cooked eggs, and other treats reach in through the windows of bush taxis to sell to travelers, and the plastic sachets the food is wrapped with get cast along the side of the road. Even water, called Pure Water, is sold in sturdy clear sachets that villagers drink by biting a corner and sucking it out.

 The banana pit where my host family throws its trash.

Many families have a pit beside the house where they plant banana trees. Into this pit the family throws all the household’s garbage, and while the organic refuse fertilizes the soil and encourage bananas to grow the rest just sits there. Fields used for growing corn and cassava, especially those closer to urban areas, have more trash sitting on the surface or worked into the soil every day. I am not sure what effect this trash has on the bananas, corn, or cassava, or what long-term health difficulties await the Togolese due to ingestion of heavy metals and manufactured chemicals through their food, but I’m guessing not good.

Plastic sachets sold to vendors at the market in Anfoin.

Trash problems are highlighted in areas with high population pressure. Larger villages like Anfoin have a market which once a week is crowded with women selling food and men selling animals, and there are often vast trash piles which line the boundaries. Streams hold a particular place in my heart do to all my years doing field work for river research in North Carolina. I thought I had worked in some pretty gross streams, streams with low water quality or degraded geomorphology due to urbanization of the watershed. Here the urban streams are choked with trash, and I have seen meter-deep gutters in Lome filled to the brim. If I had an instrument to measure water quality, I’m not sure the readings would even be on the scale. There is a detour right after Aneho along the beach road that I take to get to Lome. It follows the beach, and all along the way people have used the shoreline as a dump for garbage. There is one big walled area on which it is written to jeter les ordures ici (throw trash here). It filled up a long time ago.

So what might be the solution to this rubbish problem? Projects have been conducted in the past to create trash collection programs in the larger cities with varying success, and two of the candidates for mayor in Anfoin have discussed creating such a program with me. My opinion is that this will address a cause and not the problem itself. To resolve this issue, we need to look at the source of the problem: the use of sachets. The Togolese need to decrease the amount of trash created before dealing with the trash that is already there. This starts with finding incentives for vendors to not give out sachets and for buyers to not take sachets. Vendors have to pay for sachets they give and surrounding trash can greatly hurt the presentation of whatever they are trying to sell. They might give an incentive for buyers to bring their own sacks, or they might wrap vegetables in giant teak tree leaves as has been done in the past. Some women selling sweet rolls and fried goods on the street give out smaller purchases on brown wrapping paper, and they could set an example for others. Villagers should be taught the difference between inorganic and organic materials and then begin separating them before throwing the organic stuff on their fields. A behavior change project, encouraging this with a few villagers and then following up to make sure the practice is continued, could help with the solution. Since many of the products that come from outside Togo come in packaging, villagers could buy local to avoid adding to the heap.

 Trash blows across a soccer field in Vogan.

In terms of getting rid of existing trash, burning is currently the popular choice. I have often walked through clouds of smoke where people are burning piles of plastic sachets, and this isn’t good for the lungs or for our already stressed atmosphere. One of the candidates for mayor has proposed a business-friendly solution: turn the trash into building blocks. He has read of a company in Nigeria that pays for plastic sachets, grinds them into powder, then mixes them with cement and water to make road bricks. Pure Water sachets are also great for doing tree nurseries (Natural Resource Management woot!). But in the end, much of the trash will probably need to be carted far away, dumped, and buried.

I’m still doing not much but talk about Moringa, but I may help plan and organize projects in the future to begin breaking down this wall of rubbish. By starting at the sources and encouraging behavior change, I have hope that we can fight the trash monster.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Voodoo Part One

Peace Corps volunteers aim to better facilitate development work by integrating into the culture of their host countries. While spending Christmas in the States, I realized that despite being able to answer the many questions my friends and family had for me I still had yet to fully understand one very important part of the local culture: voodoo. This religion influences social interactions and work life, and knowing more about it may lead to understanding why villagers adopt or do not adopt certain behaviors. Also, voodoo is very interesting to me because it is completely different from any other belief system I’ve seen before coming to Togo. So, I’ve began to ask questions.

Tenants to voodoo believe that there exist many other-world beings, among them spirits, ancestors, and gods. Spirits are global and can be found everywhere. There are good spirits, and there are bad spirits. Ancestors are more localized to a village and include great-grand parents who have died but whose spirits continue to exert an influence on daily events. Lastly, there are gods for many natural elements such as water and air as well as for animals like scorpions.

Each villager who practices voodoo has their own personal legba. A legba is a small mud statue with oval mouth and eye holes. Occasionally cowry shells, which were used as currency in Togo in the times before money, are used for the eyes. The statue has a small indentation in the top which is filled with earth. Adherents use this indentation to make offering to their legba, such as sodabi, animal blood, or corn flour mixed with water, which is absorbed into the indentation and strengthens the protective powers of the legba. Chicken and goat blood can be given to the legba, but not pig blood (which is reserved for voodoo sorcerers). These statues are often found in a line outside family houses and compounds, with a larger legba for the father and smaller ones for the mother and each of the children. They always face outward and they stop evil spirits or kill people invaded by them before the spirits can enter the home.

Monsieur Yawovi standing beside the Appelli that guards his house

Compounds and groups of houses are also protected by appelli, which sit within the walls of the compound and face the house. Their structure is similar to the legba, but they are bigger and have an iron ‘pivot’ planted in the ground in front that helps them protect a family. There are at least 8 other types of statues which serve various purposes in my community, and statues probably vary from village to village along with changes in local beliefs.

Various types of fetishes sold at the market in Vogan: skulls of local reptiles and canines, horsehair brooms that are waved about during dances, and the preserved remains of (hopefully not too endangered) birds.

These legba and appelli statues are different from fetishes, which are objects enabling spirits to help the owner of the fetish. Fetishes include a variety of objects, from goat horns and dead birds to objects piled into bottles and snake skins stretched out on boards. Small wooden statues are used to represent the ancestors in ceremonies, and villagers will make offerings to the fetishes and ancestors just as with the legba. Occasionally they may even put a cigarette in the ancestor’s mouth to smoke! The wooden statues are meant to symbolize the continued presence of an ancestor in the world, and women who have lost a child after having twins will have a statue made to replace it and protect the remaining child.

Wood carver in the nearby village of Adokowoe beside ancestor statues

Each cluster of houses has its own shrine where villagers perform ceremonies and hold fetes. The shrines vary widely in structure, but they are usually the size of a small room with a door in the middle of one side. On each side of the door is a cement ledge for seating. There are two rectangular holes on each side of the door. Next to these holes, offerings are hung to please the gods: the bones and meat of animals, crops such as corn, cassava, peanuts, and beans from the recent harvest, etc. The front of shrines is always painted white.

Shrines can be covered by a tree planted in their centers or by metal / palm thatch roofing. Within the interior, there is a second cement ledge holding back a mound of earth. Cola nuts from previous ceremonies cover the ledge, and various iron tools are planted in the ground in front of it. Cola nuts are considered the food of the devil, and villagers eat them throughout the fetes. The devil leaves the tools behind after he visits. I got very confused trying to find out whether the devil was a good or evil deity. I was told that these tools protect a villager and that when a mean person tries to attack them these tools will make the attacker fall to the ground so they can’t get up and the villager can escape. There also exists an overseeing ‘God,’ different from those designated for natural elements and animals, and I’m not sure whether he is considered good or bad either.

A small voodoo shrine next to the local azeto’s house

Villagers who have sickness in the family can come pray to deities at the shrine to make them better. There are also certain days of the week when people are not allowed to enter the shrine. While visiting a friend in a nearby village, he enthusiastically showed me the local shrine and then, eyes downcast, told me to come back the next day because entrance isn’t permitted on Mondays.

Voodoo fetes go all night, driven by the energizing power of cola nuts and sodabi. People dance, sing, and drink, sometimes for days on end. These ceremonies are often held at the end of the harvest in October and November, before the start of the dry season when villagers are most wealthy. At one that I attended last year, half the village gathered under a Neem tree near the center of town. They formed a circle around a group of priestesses dancing in a line around the tree, and men sat grouped on benches to one side fervently playing drums. The priestesses formed a double line, with the oldest coming first and the youngest, the children, in the back. When each pair arrived in front of the drums, they would do our local ‘chicken’ dance and then continue circling around. Each woman was painted with red powder and they had long cowry shell necklaces hanging across their bodies. Every once in a while, these priestesses would walk off followed by other villagers playing instruments to do a tour of the village. This fete went on for three days, nonstop.

Each fete is presided over by an azeto, aze meaning ‘magic’ and to meaning ‘one who.’ He is a sorcerer who has magical powers, among them the power to change people into animals. The azeto also presides over funerals, sells fetishes, and gives horoscope readings. For my next blog post I am going to interview the local voodoo sorcerer to delve deeper into this very important aspect of Ewe culture.