Wednesday, September 8, 2010

100 Days in Togo

Here at the end of my first 100 days in country I have assembled a few thoughts concerning Togo, the people, and the work at hand.

A photo taken in a taxi: No Money, No Friends

Togo is a country that was dealt a good hand, but quickly had its hand taken, reshuffled, and re-dealt with a lot of the deck missing. If you are not completely familiar with the history of Togo I will highlight the pieces that illustrate my point.

Togo has the only deep water port in West Africa, and previously had the greatest tourist trade (as well as slave trade, but that is for another time) and abundant natural resources as well. With these cards to play it was obvious that Togo would quickly become developed and powerful in the region. All of that changed, then changed again as time went on.

Colonized by the Germans, then re-colonized by the British and French after the war, the boundaries of Togo were redrawn leaving the great majority of its natural resources in what is now Ghana. Declaring independence soon after, Togo’s democracy was overthrown almost immediately in a military coup that after many years left Togo with humanitarian issues that all but ended tourism here. Left with almost no resources and lacking an influx of capital from outside the country Togo found itself undeveloped with little hope of change.

The people here have never stopped living. Even though the outlook of the country has taken turns for the worse, the people here are still industrious and always looking for a way to make ends meet. A lesser people would have given up, but it has made the Togolese strong and resilient.

The core of The Peace Corps mission here is to help people improve their position at a grassroots level placing them in a sustainable and developed state. This is achieved through skills training and education about health and management. The people here are eager to learn, and often believe that with this effort they can change their lives. By helping individuals here, the country itself grows as well. There is no robust solution available at a high level. Infrastructure must be put into place before sweeping changes can be made, so by working with the people themselves Togo becomes prepared for the changes when they happen.

“Life happens every day in Africa.” I say it often and it always holds true. Each day the people here face life-threatening challenges with optimism and strength. Car accidents, Malaria, HIV, and many water-borne diseases are always looming, but the people here continue to live each day without fear. Each community is rocked by changes on a weekly basis, but the people continue pressing forward. I had heard that Togo is the sixth poorest nation on Earth. I have no idea if that is true, but I do know that if you judge a nation by the ethic of its people instead of its GDP, Togo is nowhere near the bottom.

100 Days away from The United States, easily the greatest country on Earth in every sense of the word, and I have learned a lot about how other people live. I have seen that in the absence of riches, the character of the people and the communities they create become the riches in great abundance. The only thing lacking in the US is this pervasive strength of character that can be found in every corner of Togo. I believe this character is not missing from the US, but simply hiding in a haze of consumerism and cheap distractions. My hope that it becomes prevalent again the way it has been in the past, and with that strength we can once again enhance not only our lives as US citizens, but the lives of those around us in places like tiny Togo.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Art and Science of Gifting

To gift or not to gift. People here, like people everywhere, love gifts. They love to receive them, and when they give them it is a very serious gesture not to be taken lightly. Take the following interaction about gift giving:

1) Each day it is inevitable that someone (or ten someones) will say the word cadeau to me. Cadeau means gift in French. The conversation can include ‘hellos’ and ‘how are you’s before the word is said, but many times it is simply “Yovo, cadeau.” I would need to be a billionaire (in francs) to be able to afford to give gifts to everyone that asked. You may be thinking, “No no, maybe being a millionaire would be enough.” I thought the same thing until I tested the theory.

I bought some gum, meaning 50 pieces or so. Within a minute or so a child saw me carrying something and said, “Cadeau.” Note there is no question mark there. It is never really a question; it is more of an instruction. I replied, “Bien sur!” meaning of course. I gave the child a piece of gum. Within 10 seconds there were 7 other children and 3 adults wanting the same thing, and by the time I had given them all a piece of gum, many of them had switched hands for another, and the children even went as far to say that they had not gotten one yet. By this time there were an additional 10 people who had walked upon the scene or came to get whatever was being given when they saw the crowd. It is worthwhile to mention that this crowd was completely age and gender independent. Tiny children and elderly men and women were all interested in having a piece of gum. Needless to say, my bag of gum did not get anywhere near my house.

Before going on to the next example I would like to also mention that I currently cannot walk down that street without people asking for gum.

Here in Togo it is important to always say the right things. Sometimes the words themselves are more important than the meaning behind them or the intention before them. Take the following interaction about gift receiving:

2) It was lunchtime so I made myself a big plate of pasta with some bread. I was just finishing when a friend came by. I suggested we go for a walk and away we went. It wasn’t long before we came across a birthday party. It was twelve or so people dressed well and enjoying lunch together. One of the people I was familiar with and he beckoned me over. He had me introduce myself to the people there, and then I was invited to toast to the gentleman having the birthday. I am not a wine drinker by nature, but there is no harm in toasting to someone’s good health on their birthday.

By the time the toasting was complete chairs had been brought for me and my companion. We sat and enjoyed the conversation for a few minutes when we were presented with plates to take part in the food. The food consisted of a very spicy rice dish and a cold salad. I will not tell you what I did just yet, but think carefully about what you would do. I had just eaten a heavy lunch minutes before, I am not partial to spicy foods and I cannot have cold salads here because the water used to wash the food is not good for me to drink. Would you explain that you cannot eat the food? Would you explain that you had just eaten? Regardless, here is the correct answer, which I will admit I did not use because it simply did not occur to me: Accept the food. Accept all of it. Look it over, poke at it, mention that it is delicious and you are lucky to have it, and then proceed to explain that you are full and satisfied and don’t eat it. Yes, waste the food is the right answer in a country where there it not enough food to eat. I told you, the Togolese are serious about their gift-giving.

I do not yet have the knack of Togo, but I am learning!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

One week down...103 to go!

Hello again and welcome back! I have been living at my beach post for a whole week, and let me tell you that life is a little bit different than it used to be.

The wall of children welcome you, too

To get my laptop more acclimated to the environment, I dropped it face down in the sand. The keyboard is just like a Togolese Cyber Cafe keyboard now, meaning it is no longer working as expected.

I am now in a good routine in the mornings. I wake up and immediately pull water from the well for a shower, the kitchen and my toilet. This makes sure that my day can zoom right along uninterrupted. I tend to spill my well water, so I like to get all that out of the way right off the bat. I then shower, sweep my house and do laundry or dishes if need be. I then check my email (cloud cover permitting...cellular Internet is a bit finicky sometimes) and write responses, then finish my previous day's journal entry.

By this time I need a nap, but I push forward with the drive and ambition of a Peace Corps Volunteer and begin to make something to eat. It still amazes me how long simple tasks take here. Back in the USA I would have all this slapped out in an hour, but here it takes me three or more.

The afternoon always has a bike ride along the beach and tasks with my counterpart. I try to talk to people whereever I go so they will get used to me being around. As night falls I have dinner in town at a little restaurant and buy my bread and fruit for the next day. Eating out is an interesting experience. Generally you can get a plentiful pasta or rice dish with a big drink (be it beer or soda) for $2. That's affordable!

I generally go to bed at a very reasonable hour. Not having a TV, radio or refrigerator really changes your routines, but I have no complaints. The people are generally very nice, the food is good, I have the things I need and life is continuing on.

A quick shout-out to all the Volunteers who left this month. Congrats on your service completion and enjoy the crazy variety of things available back home. Don't forget us back here in Togo. You wanted packages, so do we. : )

A note about packages: Please see the updated request list to the right.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bad Support System, BAD!

There are only a few days left in Stage (training). Wednesday we leave for Lomé and Thursday we will all officially be Volunteers. The two-year adventure is about to begin in earnest, and I am very excited about it. Just me, myself and I on the beach of Agbodrafo offering computer assistance to people without computers...or something like that.

That being said, I went ALL of Stage without a single letter or care package. I am disappointed in you all, and don't try to use the old "but I emailed you" excuse. Technology is no good reason to abandon those of us that moved our lives to Africa.

Get on the ball! Go buy a pen, and some paper, too. I want to see some snail mail! Oh, and um, sorry that sending me mail is wildly expensive. I cannot really control that. I still recommend sending the cheapest air mail padded envelope possible for sending stuff. I think that might be as cheap as ten bucks. Some families are sending Priority Mail Flat Rate boxes and the prices are $30-$50. That is just out of hand. By the time it gets here you will have sent the most expensive beef jerky (or whatever was in the box) ever!

A reminder that a letter in a normal envelope is only a dollar or so. Later, gators!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Shiny Food

When I lived in Vegas there was a little diner that the people I worked with liked to eat breakfast at once in awhile. I think it was called Skinny Dugans. I didn't eat there a lot because they served shiny food.

Shiny Food - noun - food that is shiny. Okay, a bit more defining may be needed. Some restaurants serve many dishes, and every single one of them is shiny. Denny's has perfected this. Shiny eggs, shiny bread, shiny hanburgers, very very very shiny French Fries, and so forth. When people tell me they ate at a 'greasy spoon' I automatically think shiny food.

Here in Togo shiny food is king. Last night I had a plate of shiny spaghetti, with a shiny tomato sauce that was enough oil that it started to separate, with shiny yam fries on top. (A note on yam fries - if you like french fries, you would REALLY like yam fries, Superior in every way.) I am growing more accumstomed to shiny food, but the next time I am in Vegas, I will not be going to Skinny Dugans.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How well do you wash clothes?

I can tell you this: there is a country here in Africa filled with children ages 7-17 that can wash a circle around you, wash you in the circle, then wash everything else approximately three times better than you did. Now I am not saying that to discourage you, I am just saying that if you come to I did...and you think you are going to wash your clothes, be prepared to get schooled.

Everything Americans do here is funny. I mean everything. I can walk out my door and saunter over to some kids, teenagers or adults and then proceed to do or say anything, and I can expect laughter in response. I can get a laugh climbing onto my bike or peeling a banana. I can get a laugh trying to greet someone or when I get frustrated with the red sand that is constantly staining my shoes.

Now imagine how many laughs I generated when I was hand-washing clothes in front of the hands-down World Champions of Clothes Washing. Yeah, even more than that. But I did learn how you can get out any stain or dirt with a bucket, some water and a bar of soap, and how my clothes are more resilient than I ever thought possible.

Needless to say I am happy to pay a local teen to wash my clothes. They are simply the right person for the right job. Well, that and if they see me doing it myself they are just going to come over and re-do everything I did whilst shaking their head in disbelief for no pay at all. If I pay them I can sleep at night and I don't get nearly as depressed with my dramatic lack of skills.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Beach House

Well, I've spent a week at my new post and I have to tell you it is definitely a change in the norm. You can hear the ocean all the time, the beach is under a minute away and the people were very nice. Just sitting watching the waves has not yet lost interest for me, and I did it a lot. For someone who has lived near the mountains his whole life this is a whole different altitude. I would mention it is also humid, but I think it goes without saying. It will be hard to go back to training for the next three weeks knowing what I am missing, but I am sure it will all pass quickly and I will be back before I know it.

Ziploc bags. That is the answer. I asked everyone and their brother what they were most happy they brought before I shipped out and didn't get many definitely answers. Here is mine. Ziploc bags come in handy all the time. I brought bunches, and thank goodness I did. If you are reading this and wondering what to get the picture. Oh, also bring dish towels. Very very useful in so many situations. In fact, bring all the towels you can. It just makes you feel good. Maybe this is why the towel was so important in Hitchhikers Guide...

Another Stagiare went home, but this time by choice. I really do feel that this experience is not for everyone, and when you get to your post by yourself the rubber really hits the road. I wish her the best and will miss her. On the bright side tomorrow a Stagiare returns, bring our total back up to 27.

Soccer is very big in Africa...and every of the part of the world that is not the United States. This year's World Cup was extra huge because Africa was hosting. The people of my quartier of the village gathered in the street and watched the final game together on a big projected screen. I was seated with a few notables and my counterparts in the center of it all and had a great time. On a soccer note, what a game! Wow.

My sense of direction here is still a mess, but I think I am catching on. Having the ocean by South all the time will help, too.