What I Have Been Up To...

Things at post have been busy, and I haven't been taking the time to write as much as I should. It was only when I finally started working on this blog post that I realized how much there is to recollect. However, the biggest portions of my time have been spent among three things: a soccer tournament, a club of students, and meeting potential work/project partners.

Twice a week—or three if a game gets canceled because of rain—I head to the soccer field for a match. The teams playing in the tournament come from the different sectors of the Chambre de Metiers. Comparable, though not the same thing as a Chamber of Commerce in the States, this serves as an organized body among common trades here

This means one game could be motorcycle drivers vs. masons and the next weavers vs. carpenters. Some other common trades in Togo that you'll find in the Chambre de Metiers include: tailors, hairdressers, and iron-workers. Though I think there are women in the Chambre de Metiers, this is an all-male tournament.

The tournament was already planned and organized before I arrived, so I've been mainly helping with logistical organization and fine-tuning small details. I also help with the accounting of each game. I was never the biggest sport fan in the States, but I enjoy going to the games because I get to meet a lot of people from the community at the same time.

In between games, I've been meeting with a club of students at least once a week. The club was started with the help of one NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) which works to broadly to protect the rights of children. Though I'm more of just a helpful bystander right now, I meet with the students and help develop their ideas or plan activities with them alongside the NGO.

This NGO has also started working on a campaign to reduce litter and promote respecting public property. One of the first things you'll notice scattered along the landscapes of cities here are plastic bags and other remnants of trash. Some people take this a step farther and will use public or private spaces, like the beach, as public restrooms. 

Without public trash cans/receptacles, nor public restrooms, combined with virtually no education against littering, people simply aren't motivated to take their trash home and burn it themselves. However, all the people I've talked to seem to understand that it's not aesthetically pleasing and creates health problems. So, in addition to working with the students, I plan to help working with the NGO for this campaign as well.

Outside of this NGO, I've been meeting with a few others in my city, as well as businesses, entrepreneurs, and any other groups or individuals that I can potentially help. Some are more formal than others, with an office or business space that I can visit. Other times, these meetings are held at their house or mine.

At each meeting, I try to get an idea of how they operate and what they do by asking questions, but I also try to see their work in progress. Sometimes though, people come to me with specific requests of ways I can help. It's great when these ideas are fully thought out, but a couple times this has boiled down to requests for funding. Though funding is not what I came here to do, it is possible. The funding I could apply for though is very limited with restrictions such as; detailed proposals explaining the project sustainability and a requirement of community contributions to the project as well.

Surprisingly though, I've found that the two things I've been ask to fund were some of these least thought through ideas. One was to teach school children about AIDS/HIV and to prevent early pregnancy—not at all a bad idea. However, for an idea that could be executed at little or no cost, I was presented with a budget of almost $2,000 and not at all sustainable.

The second proposal I received is a common request volunteers receive here in Togo—for a meeting room. Though I understand this could be helpful, I'm learning that a lot of people view new buildings like this as cure-all. For this project, I was presented with a budget over $12,000, or almost 7,000,000 fCFA, in local currency. In my opinion, if that much money were available for the community to use for something, I'd think they'd start with more pressing problems. I've attended several meetings just fine under the shade of trees. If, however, an enclosed space is absolutely necessary, there is already a formal meeting building available in my city. In addition, there are more modest options like school rooms, the market area, a small library, or an outdoor space normally used for dancing which groups can also use. 

Ultimately, those project ideas will just have to remain ideas for the time being. I'm too early in my service to even be considered for funding a project. Instead of immediately getting to work, our first three months at post are to get to know our communities. These three months will then be followed by a week-long technical training. The idea is that we need to understand and fully asses the needs of our communities so we can create effective, long-term improvements. There are so many examples in Togo of “failed aid” from foreign organizations. Usually, this involves constructing things, or working on projects that can't be maintained once the organization leaves, or simply weren't what the community needed from the beginning.

To help us get to know our sites and eventually our work, we have been assigned some homework for our first three months at post. In addition to writing a report, we will also be presenting our findings during our technical training session.

First, to help us get an idea of volunteer life in Togo, we are required to shadow another volunteer. After spending two nights with them, they spend two nights with us.I did my post visit shadow with a volunteer in my region, and it was great to see the similarities as well as the differences between our posts. So much of the nature and language at her post was close enough to seem teasingly familiar, just before I'd encounter something different. I was also glad to visit her site because she had been classified as a new post (there had been PCV's there, but several years ago). Being a replacement post myself, I was able to learn from her and see first hand some of the ups and downs of each. During my visit at her post, I also got to visit another volunteer nearby. This volunteers mom had come to visit from the States, so the village threw a big party to celebrate.

Another assignment we have for our first three months is to teach something to a group of people in our community. We can choose something fun, like to share a piece of American culture, but there are of course more advanced options as well. Depending on our group and its needs, we can choose to teach income generating activities (IGAs). Some recipes we've been given for IGA's in Togo range from making soaps and pomades, natural insecticides, to popcorn, jams, and the list goes on. So far, I've taught UNO and a few other card games to groups of children, but I've also set up meetings with a woman’s group to teach IGA's.

By far, the biggest and most detailed thing we have to do during these first three months is to gather some basic, yet comprehensive information about our community. We've been given about 100 questions with the topics of: general information; transportation and communication; markets, supplies and food; health and health facilities; small enterprise development; organizations and associations; and education, schools and apprenticeships. Though some questions require gathering facts or statistical information, others are more broad and ask for things like stories and narratives in the community. This is a new tool, so once we complete this information, in two years our replacement volunteers will only have to add/modify things.

Finally, one more thing we are supposed to do is a way to help us learn how the community sees itself. This way, we can work on projects which encourage participatory community action rather than working alone. Some of our options are to create a seasonal calendar, community map, daily activity schedule, or compile a needs assessment. We do this by facilitating an activity with a target group and discuss the findings with them. Fortunately, we've been given step-by-step instructions and ideas, so it shouldn't be too bad. I personally haven't started working on this yet, because I'm still in the process of thinking about which target groups I'd like to meet with to get the best information.

Aside from those activities, I've recently been informed about the PC Togo trade fair which will take place in November. It's organized by volunteers to showcase the products of artisans they work with. This will only be the second year for the event, but the weavers in my city participated in the first one last year. I've submitted an application for them to exhibit again, and if they are accepted, I'll start working with them on their booth, promotional information and product development. They currently make traditional clothing, hand bags, duffel bags, laptop cases, hats, and basically anything else by request. The volunteer before me worked with them a lot to expand their selection of products and also created a site for them: www.essovale.blogspot.com.

All in all, things have been going great here, despite the busy-ness lately. At the beginning, three months seemed so far away, and now I'm thinking it's coming too soon. I am looking forward to our training conference though, and seeing all of my fellow stage-mates. However, since we've Sworn-In, four people have already gone back to the States. Normally, there are a few people who ET (Early Termination) during stage, but our group make it through 100%, so I was also hoping we'd beat the odds and all make it the whole two years together.

Anyway, I've got no plans of leaving anytime soon, so I'll keep you updated with things here at least once a month! In the in between time, feel free to write me letters! They should only take between two to three weeks to get to me. I'd like to give a big thank you to Tiffany Henry, who sent me my first, and a very awesome care package. I now think I can last the two years without anything else and still be happy, but I'd love to hear from you via snail mail too!