“What are you going to leave behind?” is a question I’ve been asked my
entire service. I usually respond with a simple “we’ll see,” but now that my
time is dwindling down people are looking for a better answer.
Togo's sign for "give me"
I like to think I’ll leave behind great memories, trained individuals,
and an empowered community; but that’s not what they’re asking. They want to
know what concrete thing will commemorate my two years of service—a building,
new wells, give-aways, etc. In an attempt to stroke my ego they’ll sometimes
add “if you do this project the community will talk about you for years.”
I prefer not. I want people to implement the things I taught them so well
that they forget how they learned them. Then I want that person to teach
someone else who teaches another until the idea becomes a community mainstay.
Despite that I’ve focused on these ‘non-concrete’ parts of my job, this
week I initiated something to leave behind. It’s not a building, nor anything
else made of concrete, but it should last a few good years on a concrete
wall—it’s a malaria mural.
If you’re unfamiliar with this parasitic infection, like I was before
coming to Togo, here are the facts: malaria is the number one cause of death
in Togoand the number one killer of children under the age of 5 in Africa. It is transmitted through mosquito bites and the best way these can be
prevented is by sleeping under a mosquito net. Statistics have shown that when
80% of the people in a community sleep under their mosquito nets, almost 100%
of the becomes covered.
Supervising the beginning stages of the mural
Therefore, malaria is a major target of Peace Corps work throughout the
continent. A recent initiative to eradicate the disease by 2015has also inspired PCVs to tackle the problem
in creative, new ways, like illustrating its transmission on the sides of
buildings. I was able to piggy back on the project of one such PCV, who gave me
all the materials to paint a mural with my community.
Though I personally never handled the money, I was apprehensive about doing
a funded project—even if it was less than $50.
There’s a mixed understanding of funding in Togo (many regard it as free money
rather than a means to an end) and I didn’t want to cloud that.
Nevertheless, I went for it, and only ended up doing a minimal amount of
work. I just contributed the materials and made sure the kids in line (with
both their paining and attitudes). Now there’s a beautiful malaria mural on the
side of their middle school building. It might not last until the kids that
painted it move on to high school, but for the record—I’ve left something
Sometimes the difference between projects running smoothly and failure is
minute. That tiny, overlooked detail can wreck havoc, or last minute
cancellations mess up the entire plan. It’s impossible to know what will happen
next, but in Togo you can be sure that ça
va aller—that’s going to go—translation: it’s going to be alright.
I’ve personally been the lead for two conferences and taken part in
enough camps, trainings, and other events to know ça va aller is the truth. But at the most recent event I attended,
the third annual Women’s Wellness and Empowerment Conference (WWEC), we weren’t
so sure this would be the case.
For the first few days our only problem was breakfast, when the kitchen
staff was exactly one person preparing for a group of 50. Ça va aller –Peace Corps Volunteers can help chop vegetables and
A few participants working on their presentations
It was on the last day of the conference when our paramount event started to fall apart. The organizers planned the day to coincide with
International Women’s Day (March 8) so the participants could celebrate with
the locals. In groups, they were to present one thing they learned to an
audience of community members. All the women were excited to do it, and wanted
to make sure the celebration perfect. They meticulously prepared skits, fact
checked information, and set up a seating area for the guests.
The only problem was that the community members weren’t showing up. We
assumed the event would be subject to the l’heure
Africane, and thus announced the celebration time earlier than it was
actually scheduled. Yet even thirty minutes after the scheduled time, our
perfectly arranged seats were still waiting to be filled. Ça va aller…right?
While the women waited, the PCV team started brainstorming. In less than
ten minutes we had an alternate plan and signs
to go along with it. We would lure community members to the event by leading a
parade around the neighborhood.
When we shared our plan to the women, they were completely on board. They
weren’t allowed to leave the center since the conference started, so they were
excited to finally see the city; even if it meant marching at one the hottest
points of the day (approaching 11 a.m.).
Our Women's Day parade
That parade turned out to be one of the most successful parts of the
conference. It brought in almost 100 community members, and filled nearly all
the seats. The participants’ presentations didn’t disappoint either—each one
was perfect. It made the entire PCV team proud to see how well the women
mastered the information and how much they changed in only a few days.
The event was so inspiring, the organizers want to include parades in future conferences. So in the end, everything did turn out
alright. I guess we knew all along that ça va aller, just not how much our plans would have to fail first.
The past few months, I've been working almost exclusively with youth. The
truth is they are often more motivated than my adult work partners. They are
also quite helpful in my personal life. They answer my questions, solve my
problems, and take me places I wouldn’t otherwise know existed.
Cashew fruits with nuts attached
A fifteen year old girl from my science club taught me how to make tamarind juice. A thirteen year old I
cook with each week translated for me during my visit to the Fulani. Another
thirteen year old introduced me to one of the few people in my town with a soursop
fruit tree (one of my new favorite fruits).
Most recently, I was curious about cashews—the fruit and nut. Since attending the cashew conference back in November,
I tried meeting with the cashew group in my community to initiate a few
activities. However, each time we planned to meet, I was the only one who
showed. Eventually I was approached by the groups’ officers, but it was instead
to see if I could find them funding for a $140
My experience with kids is quite different. I taught one girl how to make
cashew fruit juice, and she brought her own fruit and invited several of her
friends to learn as well. Later, I was approached by three more kids who heard
about it and wanted to learn. After demonstrating the process at my house, the
kids wanted me to come home with them to make sure they could do it correctly themselves.
There, more than twenty other kids came to watch and even a few adults stopped
Removing the nuts' acid
During a different visit to my house, I learned something from the kids
too—how to crack open the cashew shell. I’d been gifted a pile of shelled nuts,
but couldn’t figure out how to get to the cashew inside. You see, opening
cashews is more dangerous than typical tree nuts. When cracked, a strong acid excretes
from the interior of the shell. Contact with skin causes irritation and
The kids were more than willing to help. They explained and showed me the two ways of getting
rid of the acid: placing them in a holed can over an open fire, or cooking them
in hot oil. Then, once the nuts cooled down, we individually cracked them
between large rocks. From the pile of shelled nuts I had, we retained about two
cups of deliciously fresh cashews.
Cashew nut cracked open
At the beginning of my service, I limited my work with kids, thinking
that starting with their parents would cause some sort of trickle down effect.
But working with youth really isn’t much work at all. They keep things fun, and
are often more motivated to learn from me than the adults. Plus, they’re just
as willing to teach.
Food making has
become one of my favorite pastimes in Togo. I don’t mind spending hours in the
kitchen working on a meal, or taking time out of each day to find fresh
ingredients. Without the pre-packaged readymade snacks of America, nor the
modern conveniences of a microwave, oven, refrigerator/freezer, I sometimes feel
like that’s my only option. Yet, the amount of time I spend on a meal is
nothing compared to a Togolese woman.
Separating debris from the corn kernels
Her work starts
before dawn, almost immediately after she wakes up. Around 5 a.m. she starts gathering charcoal and
lights a fire for breakfast. Local favorites are a gooey millet porridge, a
bean and rice mix called watché (generally
accompanied with spaghetti noodles, sauces, and local cheese), or fried bean dough.
Then, once the
husband heads off to work or the farm and the of-age kids leave for school, she’ll
start on the next meal. Depending on the season, she might shuck sacks of corn
kernels or remove thousands of beans from their pods.
She can take a
break to let them dry in the sun for a few hours, before taking transporting
them (on her head) to the local grinder. There the corn, beans millet, rice, or
dried yams will be turned into flour.
By lunch time,
she will have gathered a few extra food items—tomatoes, local greens, or dried
fish—to make a sauce. Then she’ll work on peeling, shelling, or crushing the
ingredients with a flat rock and a stone slab.
I'm making pâte
The main course she
chooses to make might be the country’s favorite—pâte. If her children are home for the lunch break, she can recruit
a daughter or two to help. Making pâte
requires quite a lot of aerobic activity by heating corn flour in water and
constantly pounding the mix until it becomes elastic.
For dinner she
might reheat leftovers from lunch or work on something new like slow-cooked
rice in a tomato sauce. She might also add some fruit for dessert like oranges
by cutting or razoring off the outermost skin layer (the zest, not the white
layer). Then the kids can enjoy them as a quick sugary drink.
fills her entire day turning food into a meal. Sometimes this seems terribly
inefficient, but I’m always baffled to discover how inferior some of my own
techniques are. During my visit to the Fulani’s I learned how simple cheese
making was, but eating oranges in Togo is even simpler.
My acquired food
habits, and not mention tastes are gradually unbecoming here in Togo.
Razoring the skin off an orange
Ready to drink
By the way, my
latest photo album is all about food and can be found here.
I finally took my first vacation, though I didn’t go too far. I merely crossed
a border to Benin, marking my second visit to the country. My first trip was
for a work-related cashew conference, but now I was back for pleasure (or
torture, depending on who you ask). This time I came for a ten day silent
Coming back felt like visiting an old friend… or maybe an acquaintance. I
recognized many places on the road, but lacked any real context or meaning to
associate them with. At the end of my trip this relationship with Benin remained
virtually the same. I parted with no real attachment or sadness to be leaving
What I did leave with was much more valuable. As to be expected, the zero
communication rule of the course (no talking, no gestures, no reading, no
writing, and no eye contact with others) forced me to do a lot inner study and self-reflection.
Yet, I learned quite a bit outside the meditation hall too. One of the most
memorable moments I had during the course happened when I just stopped to
observe the world around me.
Meditation hall during the course
Another item on the long list of prohibitions during the course was exercise. Fortunately
walking was an exception to this rule, so I took advantage of it between most
meditation times. Aside from being my only exercise source, I walked to stretch
my legs from all the sitting. Routinely I took strolls up and down the
designated paths, and on the second day of the course I spotted something odd—a
baby snake lying 0n the path.
I assumed it was dead and felt comfortable approaching it. Then, as I
came closer I noticed the skin on the end of its tail was peeling. This made me
think the snake could actually be alive, and probably just shedding. Seeking
not to interfere with nature, I continued my stroll.
On my way back I was surprised to find the snake still there. I stopped again
to inspect it, this time realizing it could be a black mamba—one of the
quickest, longest and deadliest snakes in the world. Why was it still lying there?
Then it made its first move. The thin snake jerked its metallic-grey body
from the tail upward. It jerked a second time and even harder on the third. Then
its predicament became clear—it was stuck.
The part of its tail I thought had been shedding seemed to be the source.
Shedding no longer seemed to be the snakes’ problem. Instead, it looked more
like the snake was recently hatched, but couldn’t fit its entire body out of
the hole where its egg was laid. It was trying to free itself with every jerk.
I began searching for a solution or something I could do to help. I could
try to break the ground around the snake to widen the hole. But what if I did
help it escape, and the first thing the snake did after escaping was to attack
me? Or what if there were more eggs
and thus more baby mambas in the hole?
As I contemplated what would be best solution, the snake methodically
continued its lapses of jerk-jerk-jerk-rest. We both knew time was ticking, but
I didn’t know what to do but watch.
The rescue mission
Eventually a few black ants caught my eye. They were shuffling around the
hole the snake was stuck in. I watched as the ants lifted rocks—double their size
or more—from around the snakes’ tail. In between rock lifts, they pushed and
pulled at the snakes’ tail, trying to get it out of the hole. I must have only
missed them because of their size before; just a few centimeters larger and I
would have seen all their brisk movements before noticing the snake.
But why were they helping the snake? Maybe it was blocking an important
entrance/exit to their home, or maybe they just wanted to help a fellow member
of the animal kingdom in need. Either way, I was impressed.
Unfortunately, this is where the story ends. I could only stay and watch
a few minutes longer before the next meditation session. I wasn’t free again
until after dark, and didn’t have the courage to check on the snake during a
pitch-black African night.
I waited until the next morning but by then the snake was gone. I can
only imagine how the story actually ended. I’ve replayed it over and over during
the course and even now, a few weeks later. One of the most dangerous snakes
on the planet was being helped by four tiny ants.
Such an odd situation seemed compounded by silence. Not to mention, I had
to keep it to myself for seven more days, and still didn’t retell it with any
justice the one time I tried. Even now, I struggle to describe my appreciation
to have witnessed this otherwise insignificant occurrence of nature.
About once a month my PCV neighbor and I plan an outing or fun activity
together. We’ve gone hiking, made natural beauty products, and often cook fun
meals from scratch (which includes doing most of our own food processing).
One time pizza was on our menu. Though we could make the tomato sauce and
bread from scratch with no problem, the cheese proved to be a real challenge. Even
when we followed the most basic recipes on Google the cheese we produced was
mediocre at best.
The problem was that most of the recipes just weren’t applicable to our
living context. To make cheese, the popular sites read: “use rennet tablets”, “put
it in the microwave” or “measure temperatures with a candy thermometer.” All
great ideas for cheese making in The Developed world.
Fulani boys walking us to the road
But cheese exists here too. It’s made by one of the world’s largest (some
say the largest) nomadic people
called the Fulani. They walk throughout West Africa, and while they keep their
baggage light, they bring hundreds of cows along with them. Consequently, the
towns they pass through get fresh milk and cheese access.
To make cheese here, we knew the Fulani had to use basic, easy to find
ingredients. To find out their secrets, we scheduled an outing to where they
live. However, because they have so many cows, their camps are in the farthest,
most remote locations. To get there, we took a15-20 kilometer motorcycle ride outside the city limits on an extremely bumpy
road. Then we walked another 2-3 kilometers so far en brousse, in the bush, that we assumed
we were lost.
But we weren’t lost. This is where the Fulani lived.
There were about 50 people at the site, a simple camp area. The
space wasn’t cleared—we were still in the middle of nowhere. Yet, it was a
great place to be. Aside from being secluded, it was well shaded and quite
The first thing we noticed were their tents. They can be more accurately
described as thick black plastics covering a bed. Their bed being a mat
elevated by a few logs. That was it. And each person kept their possessions
few, with nothing larger than what could fit in their roughly 5’ by 3’ tent.
One of the Fulani tents
This was just my first, quick observation but within minutes I was
presented with another. The other PCV and I were approached by the beautiful faces
of Fulani men first, then the older children. Their characteristics contrasted
many of those in the Togolese. They walked toward us in their slender bodies
with pointed features, facial tattoos, and brightly colored clothes and
We stayed with the men for a few minutes, but quickly ventured off to see
the women. There, we found the youngest kids of the group. Again, I was stunned
by the beauty of this people. They often wear eyeliner (even the kids), keep
their hair braided in some funky styles, (though always natural, never adding
extensions), and wore brightly colored beaded jewelry. A common feature of all
of the people—men, women and children was their set of big, glistening eyes. They
shone with what seemed to be deep curiosity and happiness.
A Fulani woman at my local market
This was the Africa and the Peace Corps I was expecting to come to. Being
secluded in lands quite literally off the beaten path, and surrounded by such
an exotic culture and language I didn’t understand. Being with the Fulani felt
like I stepped into an entirely different world.
In this world, living off the land and raising animals was all that
concerned them. Yes, they sold cows for upwards of $1400 USD, and even sold one for $700 USD
during our visit, but it didn’t seem like any of that really mattered to them.
What seemed more important was just living life and being around family. Simply
to occupy their free time you might find them milking cows, or making cheese.
Yet, this brings me of one of the battles we fight as PCVs; our push for
education. During this trip it dawned on me that not a single one of these
people had been to school. Many of the adults and most of the young children
have never been exposed to technology outside of a cell phone (they were amazed
with our cameras). One young girl was even astonished to see me drink from a
plastic sachet of water I brought with me.
When my young translator explained “she’s never seen it before” I stopped
to inspect the area. In towns, the plastic water satchets are one of the most
common pieces of litter. But here, not a single piece of trash could be found
on the ground.
After all, what non-compostable piece of trash would they have? The only
thing littering the area were cow patties, something the Fulani seemed to
simply disregard. During a conversation I tried to have with some of the kids,
they listened to my French (a language they don’t speak) while kneeling over
cow patties and didn’t seem fazed by it at all.
This Eden blew my mind. These people seemed to defy all the rules in life
and yet they had it all. While not formal, they have a quite rich education. It
focuses on the practical, useful everyday necessities of their life. Preferring
what plants do what things rather than keeping up with the latest technological
trends. They also know how to survive with little food or water, and have this
innate ability of knowing the right direction after coming to a place just one
Plus, they had 100% freedom and more money than they could ever need. They
just pick up and go for months, or years at a time. The only things they
discover in their paths are willing cow, milk and cheese buyers.
Even at the end of my trip, I never figured out what they do with their money.
They make enough from one cow to purchase a motorcycle or cheap used car (and
they have herds of 200 cows or more). However, they choose to keep
their wants and needs few. After all, who would want to carry any extra stuff
for such long treks?
I pondered this throughout our visit, but most as we were find our way
out. How many more of these places exist in the tiny Togo. But, before too long, we arrived at that bumpy
road we motoed. Then, the midday heat struck me as if to say “welcome back to
the real world.”At least I exited with some
proof it exists—a new cheese making skill.
In September my calendar was
filled with projects and activities. Not to mention, they were scattered all
over the place—up and down the country, and even across the border to Benin. I
was definitely ready to be back “home” after these trips, but my time away from
site was extremely valuable. I came back with new work ideas, collaborated with
other PCVs, and got a bit of time away to just decompress.
First, I visited the
capital city, Lomé, for a meeting with one of the committees I serve on (Gender
and Development). This coincided with the
swearing-in ceremony, when 39 new Volunteers took their oath of service.
It was a particularly special occasion, because 2012
marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps in Togo.
My training host brother, mom, PCV relatives.
The event was held at an
event much larger venue than the previous two swear-in’s I’ve been in Togo for
(one being my own), and included new spectacles like traditional dancers, videos,
and a small trade show. This created a great memory for the last swear-in I’ll
attend in Togo, unless I end up extending, which I don’t foresee.
Next, I visited a
neighboring country, Benin, for a cashew conference. The conference was
organized by the African Cashew Alliance (ACA) and is considered the largest
cashew gathering in the world. Three other Togo PCVs were invited to attend,
but I was the only one who accepted the invitation. Luckily, among the more
than 500 other participants, I was joined by
three PCV’s from Ghana.
Grafting cashew trees.
We were given free
admission to the otherwise $800 event, in exchange for a bit of work. Sometimes
this was taking photos or videos; sometimes it was taking notes on sessions,
and other times it meant printing name tags or copying files to 500 USB keys.
What I enjoyed most from
the conference was attending informational sessions. Experts from different
sectors of the cashew industry shared the current information about the economy
of the industry, climate change, farming techniques, and health benefits of the
nut and cashew apple. I also really enjoyed talking with the other PCVs about
their work with cashews in Ghana.
I didn’t have much time
during the conference, but I tied to capitalize on every spare moment I had to see Benin. The day before the conference, I went with the Ghana PCVs to a python temple in a nearby city. Early in the morning on the last day, I went to the beach.
At the python temple.
Immediately after the
cashew conference, I went back up country for an event with the U.S. Embassy. Since
March, they have been working with a group of female university students who serve
as mentors in high school girls clubs. To provide 20 of these mentors a platform to share
best practices with one another and learn new ideas for their clubs, the
Embassy decided to organize a three-day workshop.
However, the Embassy
offices are located in the southern-most region of the country, and the mentors
reside about seven hours up country. My site is just 20 minutes away from the mentors, so I was
asked to help coordinate the event logistics. Basically, this meant keeping
both the Embassy and mentors on the same page when decisions were made from
An activity during the workshop.
Both organizing and
participating in this event was a great experience for me. I met 20 young, educated Togolese women, which is
a rarity at my site. Most of them were my age or close, and are what I consider
the best Togolese friends I never had. I definitely have friends in village, but
I don’t feel as if I can relate to them as much as I did with these girls.
I also really enjoyed
meeting and working with the representatives from the Embassy. Aside from the
American government agency connection, it usually seems like we have little
else in common. The Embassy is based in and mainly does work in the capital,
which to PCVs is just “that even more foreign place of Togo with things like pizza
and ice cream.” Foreign Service officers also have actual salaries and thus
higher living standards and their work often includes more funded
projects/activities. Conversely, PCVs work in small cities or villages
throughout the country, have no individual office space, live on about $200 per
month, and generally do small-scale non-funded activities.
While these differences
remain, doing the workshop together made me realize the power of cross collaboration
between us. It was great to connect our experiences, especially combined with the
opinions and ideas of the Togolese mentors. Every decision that was made reflected
a wonderful trisect of ideas from the Embassy, PCVs, and the Togolese mentors.
I only spent a few days at
site before heading to my next activity, editing articles one of the Volunteer
created Peace Corps publications. However, September has been what I consider
the greatest period of my service to date. I felt productive, learned new
things for myself and my community, and made lots of great connections. I hope
things only go up from here!
At the top of a mountain we hiked on the last day--success!