Past the 525,600th Minute Mark

More than one year ago, I got off a plane in a country called Togo—a place I only knew existed because I was being sent there. For such a small, little known country, the tiny Togo has already taught me immensely more than its size implies.

To recap on reflect on my time here so far, I compiled five lists: 1) what I am grateful for, 2) what I appreciate more now, 3) what I have learned, 4) what I have done, and 5) what I still hope to do. 

What I am grateful for
1. Friends, family and all the people supporting me
This experience has deepened my relationships with so many of you and helped me realize the people who matter most in my life. I can not say thank you enough. Your thoughts, words of encouragement and great care packages (letters included) mean so much.
2. American Freedoms
Until now, I think I was much too critical of the United States. Before coming to Togo, I could easily list dozens of things wrong with our country, always in comparison with others. I now have a better grasp of the relativity of our world, and understand all the freedoms I was been granted just because of where I was born. Sure, there are always things that can be improved, but there are many more positives than I saw before.
3. Technology
Being able to stay connected from, quite literally, half way around the world is amazing. Even in a developing country, I have access to the internet, electricity, cell phone service, and all the things that come with those. While the quality may not be as high or reliable, they are truly life changing.

What I appreciate more now
1. Nature and the beauty of my surroundings
I routinely just stop and stare at the sky. It seems so close here, which makes me feel smaller yet more included in the world. Maybe I was just cooped up in buildings too much before, but now I feel more aware of the sights, sounds and smells around me. I just love being in awe with the world.
2. Time
As an American, I was raised to monitor and account for time. While the concept does exist here too, it is not nearly as rigid. I now view things in terms of “morning” and “afternoon”.  As the saying by Lao Tzu goes, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” In that way, I have become more flexible with my view of time and more aware of how fleeting it is. Not knowing each exact hour of the day makes them seem to disappear.
3. Advanced Processing/Devices
One of the things I used to always shun about the American lifestyle is our reliance on processing, especially for food products. However, I know understand how hard it can be to make things as simple as soy milk, peanut butter and soap. I am glad to have made these things myself but it would have been much better, cheaper and efficient to advanced equipment rather than just two hands.

What I have learned
1. How to be alone and patient with myself
A Peace Corps Volunteer living situation is generally pretty isolated. Though not always in terms of physical distance, we are constantly the “only” something. Most often, I am the only American, the only woman, or the only person doing an activity; like keeping my trash in my pocket to be thrown away at home. This is compounded with living in a culture I just barely understand with my main forms of communication being languages in which I can not fully express myself (due to lack of vocabulary or otherwise). However, in being the “only” I am discovering how to deal with just being me—and figuring out exactly who that person is to begin with.
2. How to Cook
I should have really cooked more in the States. Even as a vegetarian, I somehow always managed to find something to eat at restaurants, or worse—fast food places. I learned here just how easy it is to make some of the things I wasted so much money on before. Plus, now that I do have the time, I sometimes spend hours working on a meal.
3. Modern Accommodations are not [entirely] necessary
While I am fortunate enough to have "modern accommodations" at my site, they are not as reliable, nor nearly as efficient as in the States. For example, the temperature of my running water is determined by the temperature of the day. That means hot showers on hot days and cold showers on cold days. I will also remind you that there were several months when my water gauge broke, leaving me with only an outdoor pump as my water source. With that, I had to fill up buckets to take showers and flush the toilet (which by the way, wastes lots of drinkable water in the States). As for electricity, I learned how to better conserve and use batteries. This is especially important for my computer. Not knowing the next time I will be able to charge it keeps me focused when I turn it on and off.

What I have done
1. International Art Exchange
This project was not really a project at all but was a genuinely fun and rewarding activity. Basically, I collected artwork from around 200 students, sent them to a NGO in America, then waited to receive more artwork in return. Most of the time involved was just the legwork of going from school to school (I chose seven), and selecting the best pieces of art to send. Check out some of the submissions I received on the photo album page.
2. Camps
Like good old summer camps in America, over the years Peace Corps Volunteers have started camps here in Togo. There are currently five with different youth focuses and goals. I participated as a counselor in one camp to promote/develop young leaders and another for children infected/affected by HIV or AIDS. Basically this means facilitating a couple sessions and hanging out with the kids for a week. While it is great to be on the PCV side of camp, it is also really rewarding to see local kids benefit from them. I sent four kids to various camps this year so far, and they all come back changed and inspired. It is great to see that transformation happen.
3. Village Savings and Loan Groups - VSLs
VSL groups function as little banks between community members. Basically, a group of 20-40 people meets weekly or bi-weekly and saves money together. The members also have the opportunity to take out loans, and the cycle continues for at least one year. In working with my local counterpart, I have helped formed six different groups totaling around 200 members. This is one of the most sustainable projects I may ever do, because after the first meeting the group functions on its own. They really understand the concepts, so now I just come to the meetings for moral support.

What I hope to do
1. More work with local artisans
Several of the weavers at my site have the potential to do some great things. I hope to teach them new products, internal organization and management techniques throughout my service. Eventually, it would be great for them to even sell their products to new and bigger markets—maybe even internationally.
2. Men as partners - MAP
MAP is one of the great resources we have as Peace Corps Volunteers. It is basically a toolkit with hundreds of ways to train/teach both men and women. However, the goal is to increase the status of women by working with men. Often they are the decision gatekeepers for their families, and working with women exclusively does not always get far at home. I would eventually like to hold a few community-wide MAP trainings with teachers and other high placed authorities. My hope is for this MAP line of thinking to have a trickle down effect at my site.
3. Gardening/food transformation
One of the great gifts of this climate is that so many things can grow here. However, most people focus on staple, easy-to-grow crops like corn, tomatoes and soy. Once they are grown, these foods are available in abundance. Especially in the case of fruits like mangoes and bananas; once their season arrives, they flood the market. Yet, just as quickly the season ends and people again have nothing. For these reasons, I would like to teach some diversification gardening techniques as well as new food transformations. I dry food, make fruit leathers, pickles and flours and would like to introduce these skills to my community as well.


I hope you now understand what I have been up to this past year and how this Peace Corps experience has already changed my life. I could not possibly cover all 525,600 minutes in one post but if you have any questions or comments, please post them!

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