How to Change A Life

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, lots of people (PCVs included) like to think we are in the business of changing lives—a hefty task to say the least. But how long does that really take and how does it happen? 
I first came to my site with long lists of goals/work ideas I wanted to accomplish. After being here a year many remain. Not of lack of trying though! Many of my initial thoughts were simply too grandiose or lacked a full comprehension of the problems I set to tackle.

I have since simplified my goal to “make a difference in the lives of individuals.” Outside those quotation marks, I will add: without giving them money but rather by helping people help themselves.

Recently though, I have been spending lots of time away from my site to help with national projects/activities. It is an amazing learning experience to work on new and different things and collaborate with other PCVs. Yet, through this time away, I also grew a stronger appreciation for my site.

Some of the national projects I work on are: organizing a conference for girls awarded lifetime scholarships, editing articles and compiling one of the PC-Togo publications, and serving as a counselor for a couple ‘summer’ camps. For now, I will focus on the camps but in subsequent posts I will write more about the other activities.

The two camps I help with are quite different. Actually, each of the five camps organizing by PCVs vary drastically—from focuses in advancing girls in the sciences, teaching kids about the environment, giving handicap students a chance to feel normal, developing young leaders, and just letting kids infected/affected by HIV/AIDS have fun.

First, I attended the young leaders camp, called UNITE or Unification pour la nation -initiative, travail et education (Unification for the nation - initiative, work and education). The week-long schedule was rigid, with session after session on topics reflecting the four PCV work sectors in Togo—health, the environment, girls education and empowerment and of course, business skills.

As a counselor, my role was threefold. I had to 1) bring the energy, 2) co-manage a building of campers and 3) co-facilitate a couple sessions. Little did I know, one of my sessions would be the first and very capstone of camp—self confidence. Sometimes this concept can be difficult to teach but fortunately the girls at camp really understood it, even through my thickly English-accented French. Just the word confidence sounds different with an accent.  “Conf E ance” I would say, and hear “conf eh ance” repeated back.

Group activity during a session

Through my communication issues and sometimes leaving things lost in translation, the girls remained very attentive and excited throughout the week. However, just as the camp organizers warned, the energy levels of counselors and campers have an inverse relationship. We started the week ready for anything, but as we dwindled the campers took over the sentiment.

For me, this was worsened by the missing repos time I grew accustomed to at my site. Most famously noted as siesta in Mexico, a couple of hours are the day are set aside for sleep/to do nothing. In Togo, repos lasts from noon to 2:30 p.m. However, at camp UNITE we entered back into the American world. Repos was slivered down to just 30 minutes after lunch.

A fun race as a teaching tool
Camp Espoir (hope) was more generous than UNITE in using a more Togo-based time scheme. Because the main objective is to let kids infected/affected by HIV or AIDS have fun, the atmosphere was significantly more laid back. The kids only had two informational sessions per day of camp, with games and fun activities filling in the rest of the time slots—including repos.

Despite the differing paces of each camp, the underlying goal—to change lives—was accomplished each time. Both camps lasted just three full days (excluding the arrival and departure days), but at their ends, participants were loaded  into cars with tears rolling down their faces.

During my travel back up country with UNITE participants, the sobs increased each time we had to leave a participant at home and continue on our path. However, the ride was also a huge celebration. The girls sang camp songs the whole way and got louder each time we had to leave someone behind.

Last day of Camp UNITE
Though that seems like such a sad moment it is really where the life changing begins. I sent six kids from my site to participate in camps, and each time they return beaming. They are overjoyed that they were selected to have participate and are convicted to share the things they learned at camp with the rest of the community. 

I can relate from my experiences as a counselor. I come back refreshed and recommitted to my work at site each time. It only helps that I gained six new sidekicks to help me.

Then there is the neighborhood welcome when I come back from traveling. Kids on my block scream “Assibi” like I am some kind of celebrity. They walk with me to the door of my house and help carry my bags. Then, as I circulate in town in the following days people from the community who noticed my absence welcome me back and ask about the trip.

While I still can not give you a definite point in time if/when life changing happens, I can confidently say at least one life will be changed at the end of my service—mine.

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