Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Last Togo Post!

As we sit here in the Peace Corps office here in Lome with only a couple of hours before we head off to the airport for home, we thought we'd post one last blog to share our final thoughts on our service, leaving, and life in general. BUT.....

Then we decided that we'd rather tell you all about it in person instead. So, enjoy a couple of last pictures of us in Togo. What we have here are Joe and our groupement president (the grand charlatan who made our cat's voodoo collar) doing the local dance (yup, Joe dances); the waterfalls in Badou that Joe visited with our clustermate, Sierra; a goodbye fete with some guys we worked with in a nearby village (we gave them a couple bottles of liquor, and they gave us the lovely outfits you see here); our last goodbye to our dog, Awooyo (who will be inherited by the volunteer who's replacing us); and us with Sierra at our last goodbye lunch that took place in Lome just a few hours ago.

The next time you see us will be back home! Looking forward to seeing you all soon!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Two Last Pictures for Today

Here, for a comparative study, is a picture of our entire stage right before leaving for Togo during our training in Philadelphia. Don't we look clean and slightly clueless? The other is the ones who remained at our Close of Service conference we had at the beginning of May. Do we look the same to you?

Water Tower Pics Part 2

Here are pictures from on top of the tower. Here are Joe and Matt, me and Sierra, and then me, Joe, and Matt together.

Water Tower Adventure Part 1

Here are the first three pictures of our climbing excursion. First is our view of Joe and company from the ground; second, Joe's view of us from above; and third, a view of Tabligbo.

Two Months To Go, And Counting!

So, we’re down to our last two months here in Togo! First, a report on final projects…

Our health clinic has been running since about mid-February now. Our first baby was delivered in March (it was a girl!)and another was delivered just a couple of weeks ago. Last month, we accepted applications and chose four recent high school graduates from the surrounding villages to do apprenticeships to learn how to be health agents by working at the clinic for two years. Also, we recently ordered and restocked a huge shipment of medicine from Lomé to replenish what we’ve used since we’ve opened, so the clinic is getting steady clients and is making enough money to cover costs so far. It’s been gratifying to see the villagers coming in to receive services they didn’t have access to before, but it’s been even better to watch the COGES (management committee) take their job seriously and work responsibly with the staff there to manage the project without me. I can only hope they’ll continue to do so after we leave. Thanks to everyone who helped get this project up and running!

The chicken farm project is also complete. The buildings are finished, and windows, doors, and the roof are all installed. Work on the farm has begun, and the owner of the farm is in the process of legalizing a groupement (like a cooperative) to help him with running the farm and everyday tasks. Joe has also been working with him on advertising and business networking so he can sell his chickens and turkeys to large grocery chains in the capital. He’s planning to start taking orders soon for Thanksgiving turkeys and is expecting good sales this year. Thanks to everyone who helped bring this project to fruition also!

For small projects, liquid soap is apparently the cool new thing to make and sell around Tabligbo and the small neighboring villages, so we’ve been teaching large groups and even individual families how to make it and bring in a little profit. At the end of April, I even visited another health volunteer in a small village on the other side of Togo to share our valuable soap-making knowledge with the population there. (I also got to try ginger-infused sodabi [Togolese moonshine] for the first time there, but that’s another story!)

Finally, we’ve started working with our friend Daniel (the above-mentioned poultry farmer) on a conservation and reforestation project. In collaboration with Daniel and his farm, we’ve purchased one hectare (2.5 acres) of land that has been soil depleted due to over-farming and land mismanagement about 5km outside of Tabligbo with the intention of restoring and reforesting the land with teak and baobab trees. The land currently has some trees already, such as palm, mangoes, and acacia trees. We’re also partnering with several local artisans and have begun constructing a web site for the project as well. There is an artisan expo scheduled in the capital at the end of June, and Joe and Daniel will be heading down there to pitch the preliminary project and see what people think of our idea there. More information will be available on this project soon, so stay tuned!

On to non-work-related things…

For the Togolese version of Labor Day, we recently attended a big party which was attended by all of the local unions in Tabligbo: tailors, mechanics, hairdressers, you name it. Included here are a couple of pictures from that fête: one of Joe doing the chicken dance with our neighbor, Lydia, and one of me with our neighbor, her daughters, and a fellow volunteer, Sierra, in our lovely matching pagne (fabric). I would have posted a picture of me chicken dancing, too, but that one (thankfully!) came out blurry.

This past weekend, we convinced the head guy at the local water company to allow us to climb inside the Tabligbo water tower to sit on top and take some aerial photos of Tabligbo. So, Joe, me, Sierra, and our friend Matt were joined by some water company staff, our friend Daniel, and our neighbor Dominique, as we ascended about 150 feet (maybe five stories?) up the interior metal ladder to a final platform and central ladder that led to the hole in the top of the tower. After a brief intermission to deal with some bees that had built honeycombs all around the door to the top (they were dispersed with some bug spray that seemed to have a mostly soporific effect, which was sufficient to get us past them without getting stung), we were able to climb out the trapdoor and sit, for all intensive purposes, on top of Tabligbo. Included in the next couple of posts are some pictures from our exciting ascension of the water tower, probably the highest point for miles around in our mostly flat region.

In mid-June, Joe will finally be heading off to visit the waterfalls on the western side of Togo, and has promised to come back with some good pictures. The rainy season is just about upon us, so we’re waiting for the nearby river to reach a sufficient level to allow us to go fishing and see where those alleged bird-catching spiders live as well. Hopefully, we’ll have some pictures to prove their existence!

And so, final thoughts for today…

We recently had what is called our Close of Service Conference here in Peace Corps, where we learned things like how to talk to our friends and family and potential employers about our Peace Corps service without causing yawns and glazed looks. We also got some surprisingly helpful information about how to translate Peace Corps work into statements that make sense on résumés and about how to readjust to life in the States. It was good to see our entire stage together again, too, as we haven’t all been in the same place since we swore in as Peace Corps volunteers way back in August of 2008. Of the original 31 people in our group, there are 21 remaining who will COS over the next couple of months (the other ten left early or were sent home for medical or administrative reasons). Of the volunteers we’ve met during our service here, we’ve made a surprising number of really good friends we hope to keep in touch with after we all return to the land of bacon and mint chocolate chip ice cream. I wasn’t really prepared to make AMERICAN friends when we got selected for service in West Africa, and it’s been interesting to meet a variety of people who are doing the same thing we’re doing for a myriad of different reasons and share this experience with them.

As we finish up our last couple of months here in Togo, we’re really starting to look forward to our return back home. Family, friends, and food are obviously foremost on our list of things we miss, but the other day, I realized we’re soon going to be experiencing some things we’ve kind of forgotten about. A funny story to illustrate: I had to call our credit card company the other day, and worried that my small task was going to take a lot of time and effort to accomplish (because I’ve become what we call here habitué to things taking much longer than anyone predicts them to take), I stocked up on phone credit for the call. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and efficiently the representative handled my request, and I hung up the phone smiling. You know what was so great about that call? Customer service! Yup, the fact that someone helped me without trying to get something from me (like money, my phone number, a visa to America, or my hand in marriage) was quite refreshing. So thanks, Bank of America guy, for giving me yet another reason (not that I really need more than the promise of being clean and eating steak to get me excited about America!) to look forward to coming home. Just a couple of months left now!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Two More Obama Village Pics

What a lovely place!

Reflections on Obama Village

There is an Obama Craze in West Africa, and it has been going strong for two years now. As an American living in West Africa I was subjected to the Obama craze well before there was an Obama Presidency. During presidential campaigning, I was politely but firmly told by more than a dozen Togolese that I HAD to vote for Obama. During the inaugural address, which I was privileged to watch on a Dutch NGO television run on a generator in one small village, I was greeted with many handshakes and treated as a small hero for voting for our first African American president. But in recent months the infatuation with the president has morphed from idolization into industry in West Africa. There are Obama T-shirts, bumper stickers, and baseball hats coming out of Nigeria and yards and yards of cloth with the president’s likeness emblazoned on them being sold in Ghana. There are buildings with the president’s face painted on the side; local businesses are named after him (Obama Café in one village, and my favorite Obama Hairstylist in another); and one of the most popular baby names in the area where I live is Obama. There is even a village in Togo which is pushed back in the bush, four miles from the nearest road, which has changed its name from Agbassou-Kopé (translated from the Ewé language, it means “male goat village”) to Obama Village and erected a life-size statue of the American President, complete with big ears and great shoes.

But despite all the idolization and the influence the American President has had on African pop culture, the people I have spoken to have little or no knowledge of Obama’s personal or professional life or his administration’s stances on many issues. When I talked with a group of people sitting in a bar in the Togolese capital city of Lomé about what the Obama administration was doing in America, no one could give me an answer. And when I pressed them to answer questions concerning the administration’s policies toward things like health care, terrorism, torture, and unemployment all I received for a response was silence. But when asked about Obama’s African policy, the answer I received was a chorus of: “Obama is African and he is going to help Africa.” In fact, little is known about the popular American President beyond the fact that his father was Kenyan. Most people don’t even know that Obama’s party affiliation is with the Democrats or who Joe Biden is. Over the past year Obama has become a brand name in Africa, and sadly enough, the icon has become more important than the essence. It has become a way to sell products and services, make money and, in the case of Obama Village, attract the attention of NGOs, which are handing out grant money to organizers of development projects in Africa. What Africans are lacking in knowledge of Obama’s history, they are making up in their knowledge of marketing strategies and American-style capitalism: Obama sells - and Africa knows it.

During my time in Africa, the Obama craze has been a double-edged machete. On the one hand, President Obama has managed to rehabilitate the American image in Africa. He has done this partly with his moderate style of governing and his willingness to create a dialogue between himself and other countries, but mostly by having family ties to Kenya and by being black. Whether good or bad, this has made being an American in West Africa great. Here I’m a hero just because I’m an American. Besides having the random family scream “OBAMA!!,” at me I have received more cadeaux of chicken eggs, papayas, and what passes for moonshine from poor Africans than I and my wife can consume, thus making us bigger heroes when we re-gift the local hooch and fruit to our neighbors.

Remember, the machete does cut both ways. Because President Obama has African ties, many Africans believe he will “help” Africa. This I’ve come to realize is just a polite way to say that Africans expect Obama to send over boat loads of USD to the African continent and that obviously I must have been sent to Africa to be the distributor of this money. The people I have met in West Africa have become emboldened by the belief that Obama is sending “help,” for me this translates into daily requests for money and a constant badgering for “gifts.” Imagine a world where you are Britney Spears and the rest of the world is paparazzi watching your every move: that’s what it’s like being an American in West Africa.