Friday, November 22, 2013

Le Vent

I was working in the garden of my friend Monsieur Innocent last week down by the river when the subject of 'le vent' ('the wind' in French) came up. M. Innocent uses a moto-pump, basically a generator attached to a hose, to water his garden. As he was teaching me to water up and down the wide beds, I learned that I could water further across the bed in the direction the wind was blowing than in the opposite direction. When I brought this up with M. Innocent, it led to several jokes and an animated philosophical discussion about how the villagers in Anfoin are often led by external social, economic, and political forces to move in a certain direction regardless of where they would actually like to go.

The path our lives take is the result of a melange of external forces and internal decisions. Many times we want ourselves or the world to move in one direction, but external forces push in another. After my conversation with M. Innocent, I began to reflect on this metaphor in the context of my third year as a Peace Corps volunteer. A number of internal feelings made me decide to stay on in Togo. To start with, this is the most fulfilling work I have ever done. I wanted to take it to another level and I was involved with several unfinished projects I wanted to see through. At the same time, there were external factors that pushed me in this direction. The current difficulty of finding gainful employment in the United States discouraged me from going back, and the chance to gain further administrative experience encouraged me to stay here.

Like many of the young men and women of my generation, I have had difficulty deciding exactly what I want to do with my life. Before heading for the North Carolina School of Science and Math junior year of high school, I thought I wanted to be a writer. I took mostly humanities classes but by the end all I really wanted to do was go out and longboard. In the summer between high school and freshman year of college, I decided on one of many hikes in the Appalachians that I would spend more time outdoors. I majored in Environmental Science at UNC and took off regularly to do fun cool environmental things in the San Juan Islands, Seattle, and western Montana. At the beginning of junior year, I decided I wanted to learn another language before graduating and left for Italy my senior year. I spent 11 months in Italia learning the language, eating like a king, and travelling. I made the decision to do Peace Corps and applied from Italy.

Here at the end of my service I'm planning to go into yet another field. I have become interested these past few months in using micro-loans as a development tool to initiate income-generating activities. In my experience, the conventional way of doing development work in West Africa is through grants. These past two years I have struggled to find an effective way to communicate my critical viewpoint towards how many grants are approved and how the development projects they fund are managed. Grants are like a wind blowing in one direction, the conventional development paradigm in place for the past half-century.

On the other hand, West Africa's potential for investment and business is increasing. I am currently working with the cooperative which did the bush rat project to plan for a micro-credit loan. This loan will help them to buy equipment and raw materials for their production of tapioca and cassava flour. Over the next 2 years, they will repay the loan and at the end the equipment will stay in their hands. There is much debate over whether micro-loans are an effective tool to improve the economy at the micro- and macro-economic levels. Despite this, from my experience they do much more to build capacity in helping villagers to begin income-generating activities than grants do. I hope in the near future to either work with micro-loans or return to school to study the factors that contribute to their success.

I would rather spend my time fighting for something I do believe in rather than against something I don't believe in.

I have less than a month left in country and am not sure exactly how to spend it. Since September I have been taking care of the administrative and logistical tasks necessary for my departure, and all my work in village is pretty much wrapped up. Every day I will start a small project or make plans with a counterpart and then realize that I will not be around to continue or finish it. Last weekend I went on a 3-day bike trip to visit volunteers. I biked on dirt roads through the heart of the Maritime region which I've been wanting to see since my first year in Togo. Several sections of the dirt road stretched out in a long, straight dip across the land. The slight downhill followed by a slight uphill made it so that I could see 2 or 3 kilometers of empty road stretch out before me. Endless as these stretches seemed, I began pedaling and, much like my service, they were over before I realized it.

The Retuned Peace Corps Volunteer Career Resource Manual discusses several career myths. The first among them is 'To succeed in a career, you should have a good picture now of what you want to do.' The majority of people are not positive about where they want to be a decade or two from now. But as the manual continues, 'You need to determine today the best direction to move, and take that first step.'

Whether that step is pointed into the wind or away from it, you need to take it.