The most American way I celebrated Christmas was by attending church in the morning. The 7 a.m. service followed the l'huere Africane by starting closer to 7:45. I had been informed that this would be Mass but not being Catholic, having this information did not actually give me insight on what to expect.

I sat on the back of the women and children's side of the almost fully gender segregated church. While I did not agree with this separation, I was not too disturbed there. It was a nice change to be surrounded by women rather than men during my usual working days. 

When the service began I was hardly reminded of my place and instead found myself quite entertained. I always heard Catholic churches in the States were very formal but this was hardly the case here. The choir was my favorite part. They put the African touch to all of the songs. Some I did not know, but my favorite was one I did, Gloria. It reminded me of cross-over classical music I listened to before. The tune was carried without a piano, nor hymnals; just their voices, drums, and a tambourine. 

The moments in between songs were not always as interesting and things sometimes got boring to be honest. Between the extensive local language translations, and odd (but maybe normal) rituals, I found myself sometimes rather tired and confused. Even by 10 a.m., the service still seemed to be in full swing, so I decided to leave in order to start getting ready for my next encounter with Papa Noël.

We met at an outdoor space next to the market called the Cultural Center. The open space has a built in concrete stage but everything else is a bring-it-yourself type of deal. The radio station brought over all their equipment which includes large, heavy speakers and about fifty rented plastic patio chairs. These chairs are called for during special events in my city, though really fancy events might have wooden ones too.

Once the children trickled in, accompanied by their mothers (no fathers present), the event started. As to be expected, the event time was scheduled for 3:30 p.m., which really meant 4:30 p.m. 

I tried to keep my Christmas spirit up, and found it was not hard to do with so many cute children. Throughout the event, they were called upon to play musical chairs, a racing game which involved filling a water bottle, and recited poems to the audience. After about two hours, Papa Noël distributed his gifts of stuffed animals to them, and the night was finished. I then went home to prepare myself a yummy, but very un-Christmasy meal of Minestrone soup and meatless stuffing. 
 
Following Christmas day, I got back to work with an anti-AIDS club. The high school students plan to educate their peers about HIV/AIDS, and we recently learned that a request I sent in for 2,000 condoms had gotten approved. Before I thought the members were ready to go out and inform their peers, I organized a training of trainers with them. 

Not being a health PCV, I was putting myself into some unknown territory. On top of that, I just barely brushed myself up on HIV/AIDS by looking at a PC manual that included information about trainings like this, along with a health volunteers' toolkit. 

To my surprise, when I arrived about ten minutes early a few students had already started showing up. After them, the rest took their time until about 8 a.m., which is when we got things started. 

During our last meeting, the group decided they wanted to cover: HIV/AIDS prevention with a condom demonstration, modes of transmission, and discrimination/stigmatization. Then, they would separate into groups according to these topics. I gave each group a few pages of information to read and be ready to present about their topic. 

When I started with the HIV/AIDS prevention group, it was clear that they had not read over their information and were a bit too shy to present. I took this as a hint that we needed to do a bit of an ice-breaker. On the spot, I wrote down and handed each person a fact or myth about HIV/AIDS. Then, I had them pick whether they though it was true or false, and explain why.

A few times during the game, I had to stop the group from discussing what was the correct answer, but things went better than I expected. Most of the students got the questions right, and I think that prepared their confidence for their group presentations. 

After the game, each group got up to present their topics. I corrected or made as few additions as possible but once or twice had to intervene to help or better explain some of the sessions. I tried to make sure everyone understood all the material before moving on to other things as well. 

Once they were comfortable, I got to watch them give the presentations. Some of them were very enthusiastic and even offered personal examples. The audience of their peers also did a great job of keeping attention when it was not their turn, and asked some great questions. I personally learned a lot from them about the culture here and got to know the students more.

At the end of the session, I had each person write down either something they learned or ask a question. To my surprise, the majority asked questions, many of which I will have to do some research on. 

I would say that overall the training was a success. There are still some things I have to improve upon and there is definitely more planning ahead, but this has been one of the most interesting and inspirational things I have done so far. 

I definitely look forward to seeing what type of work 2012 brings!
Without snow, Christmas carols, or decorated street lights, I was a bit shocked when Christmas day arrived. Luckily, my local radio station had been getting into the festive spirit (minus Christmas music) and decided to organize a Santa outing event.

What exactly is a Santa outing you ask? Mr. Claus, or Papa Noël as he goes by locally, distributes candies to children in public places. This might rile up suspicion back in the States but was completely normal; even welcomed here. 

Papa Noël made his rounds to different vendors in the market dressed for the holiday from head to toe. He wore a typical triangle shaped Christmas hat with a round ball on top, a plastic Santa face mask with rosy red cheeks, a thin and stringy white beard, a Santa jacket stuffed with a small but round belly, and slightly off-red colored women's pants.

He might be seen as an emaciated Santa impostor by US standards, but the kids and adults alike loved him here. He often had to slyly creep away from the flocks of people that came with outstretched palms wanting a candy to be placed inside them. Within about thirty minutes, Papa Noël handed out all his candy and finished the tour for the day. Of course, he would be back the following day for the real Christmas celebrations plus a gift give away.

After that interesting adventure, I headed off for the next. A nearby village holds a cross-dressing event to celebrate the holiday, which is something I did not want to miss. I was not entirely sure of what to expect (can you ever?), but because I'd received a typed and time-specific invitation a few days before, I knew it must be serious business. 

The invitation indicated that the events would begin in the morning and continue until night fall. I was most interested in the dancing parts, which were scheduled to start by 2:30 p.m., so I planned to look for a car at 2 p.m., take the twenty minute trip and arrive before 3:00 p.m. Even with some of the most planned events, things usually still happen on the l'huere Africane (African time), which means a delay of an hour or more. 

As luck would have it, the event made finding a car to the village easy, and within just a few minutes we were ready to go. Just as we were ready to leave in the full the car by American standards (five people inside), the driver added two more to the front, one to the back, and packed someone in the trunk for a total of nine people inside. 

While this type of packing does exist and is normal in some areas, I never experienced it before in my city. If I am in the right mood, I protest when the car is loaded with a modest seven people (three in the front, four in the back). I was in the mood this time and gave the driver a piece of mind. How dare he try to charge the normal price of 75 cents for that?!

Thinking another car would be easy to find because of the event, I started walking in the direction of the village where it would be held. I could get directly there from the route nationale, (one of the only paved roads and sole international one in Togo), which always has heavier traffic. 

I could not be more wrong that day. A few cars passed but all were almost or just as full as the one I refused to ride in. I decided to try my luck at walking the five mile uphill distance, even though I was wearing simple sandals. On my way, two children joined me who were going to the event too. We made some small talk but were silent for most of the way. Though even without much talking, it was nice just to have some company.

A few times people from my city on motorcycles stopped to offer me a ride. There would only be space enough for me and maybe one other child if we overloaded, but I repeatedly chose to continue the walk with my new found friends. As we got farther and farther I became more committed to the walk, and was looking forward to the finish....but alas, when an air conditioned, clean, compact SUV with a free back seat offered to give us a ride, we accepted. 

I met the driver once at the radio and though I remember the day, I barely remember meeting him. Jumping into a car with a barely-known acquaintance is also a weird nuance of the States that is ignored here. Hitchhiking is just typical Togo transportation.

Before the event, I anticipated a few hundred people or so coming. After all, it was held in a village of only 500. As we pulled into the event space though, the normally empty land was packed with thousands of people. Later counts totaled the number of attendees around 5,000. 

As promised, men were dressed in skimpy women's clothing and women in men's. The most interesting was of course the men, who are some of the most buff, and masculine on another other day, now wearing high heels, tights, short skirts, fake breasts, wigs, and makeup. Many also carefully crafted their new do to leave space for beards and chest hair to poke through.

To my surprise, the event gathered what seemed to be almost full participation. Virtually every man present was wearing what would be considered American drag clothing. Women participated as well but to a smaller scale. Their clothing was usually limited to traditional shirts and pants with painted mustaches or beards. 

The cross-dressing groups were split into smaller huddles surrounding a giant circle in the middle. I decided to circulate the small huddles first and caught a few glimpses of the dances. They were all basically the same, and the giant circle ended up being where all the groups combined to form a giant rendition of the dance. 

Between waiting for a second car and mostly walking to the event, I made it there around 3:30 or 4 p.m., when things began dwindling down. I was surprised to run into a few Asians and Europeans at the event, and met up with one of my volunteer neighbors. We talked and walked around for a bit before I went back home and called it a night.