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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Time flies when you're having fun.

It has been 6 months since I last updated this blog. An entire half-year has gone by and it feels like only a few weeks. Since roughly September 2012 when I got home after a long and eventful summer, I threw myself into work at my post and around the country. In addition to the many projects I was coordinating at my post, I was also working with other Peace Corps volunteers to support national projects and various committees and publications. These last six months were what I imagined when I envisioned life in the Peace Corps. Days being spent with Togolese (and sometimes Americans), planning projects together, spending quality time bonding over shared interests and cuisines, and learning to simply be – in every sense of the word. Among some of the highlights of the past six months were two successful large scale trainings in my community, a 10-day silent meditation retreat, the second holiday season in Togo and my birthday, weekly activities in my community, publishing two of the four quarterly health publications "et la santé?," and seeing the elephants in Ghana. All that sounds like a lot to blog about, doesn't it? Well, yes and no. I really struggled with my lack of motivation to blog (ie perceived laziness) for many weeks, and it wasn't until I spoke to an old friend, a former Togo PCV, that I realized that I was having this unique experience and that I shouldn't feel pressured to report on it, rather, I should experience it organically without an objective analysis of what I did or how I felt about it. While I do see the value in creating a chronology for something as special as this, I also came her for me, and to have this experience for myself was important as well. That being said, let's jump right into updates.

In September, I started the fall season by welcoming the oh-so-wonderful haramattan, aka the dry season. During the harmattan, the air is full of dust from the Sahara and the wind that blows from the north brings a cool and dry climate from September/October to January/February. Where I live in the middle of the country, it is always mild and dry, which makes living here quite comfortable. One of my biggest goals for my second year of service was to teach a weekly health class at a local middle school. I'd had the opportunity to practice my public speaking skills during a summer full of camp and similar activities and so it seemed like a natural continuation. I also wanted to continue the previous volunteers village savings and loan association which is basically just a group of 20-ish women that week every meet and save money to form a credit association where people can also take out loans for small income generating projects. It's an endavour in financial literacy and anyone who knows me can say that I probably need just as much help saving money as these women. Alas, if it wasn't for my stellar counterpart and rockstar site mate, these associations would be much more cumbersome. (Fast forward to January 2013, the first cycle of the associaton finished, and it lasted roughly 52 weeks, and in total the 16 women saved almost 500 dollars! We had a grand 'ol party and I danced with a bunch of African mommas who are pretty hilarious when you get a drum beat going. Remember when I talked about having the experience that I envisioned, well, this was pretty close to it.) At the end of September I took a mini-vacation to Ghana, or as we like to call it in Togo, the promise land of sandwiches and ice cream, to support a few friends running the half-marathon. I considered running myself but my extreme anxiety related to public exercise stopped me from the arguably poor decision of running in the African sun. My friends rocked it and I couldn't have been more proud to be the water boy. After the marathon, another friend and I went to visit the slave castles in a nearby costal town, which turned at to be a very enjoyable trip! Though slightly touristy, having lived in West Africa for about a year at that point I felt no anxiety towards sampling any street food and striking up conversations with Ghanains. I was slightly homesick (for Togo, if you can believe it) and tried to work Togo into any and every conversation I had with a Ghanaian. I imagine it was annoying for them. Other highlights of the trip included seeing a movie in a real theater (first in over a year at that point), eating a club sandwich and sushi (two separate meals, mind you…), and walking through the slave dungeons and through the "point of no return."

When I got back from Ghana in October, I jumped right into work at post. During the first week of school (yes, the first week of school in Togo wasn't until the beginning of October, it's ridiculous, I agree) I went to the school almost every day, and since it took the director a week to put together a proper schedule I just walked into a class everyday and started teaching. I figured I was getting my face out there and really, what else was I supposed to do? I've learned here that half the time if you hold your head up high and speak with confidence, people are likely to cooperate with you (could this be life lesson #239? THANKS Togo?!) The month of October carried on generally in the same manner, and after I was given a permanent time slot at the school, I didn't need to go every day (in case you're interested, I teach sex-ed every Thursday during 3rd period. Yes, the kids cheer every time I come to class, I'm that good.) I had laid out a plan for the rest of the year into February 2013, and a lot of what I wanted to do required some advance planning. Anything that requires funding has to be organized on my end at least 3 months out, with the Togolese organizational stuff coming around 3 days before (It's a very interesting paradigm I've learned to function in, to be perfectly honest) and so for some of the larger scale training projects I had in mind for December and February, I had to start planning them myself in October/ November. For the time being, I was just meeting with counterparts and writing grants, but that in itself takes up a lot of time. Also in October (and November and December) I was conducting follow-up interviews for my Men As Partners trainings I held in April 2012. I had promised all my 40 participants that I would visit them after the summer was over and the time had come to make good on my promise. Luckily I'd worked with some fantastic counterparts and everyone was motivated to help me get around town in order to facilitate what ended up being 35 home visits (in case you're wondering why the math doesn't add up, two men moved, two men weren't able to meet with me due to extenuating circumstances, and one died. Yeah, I know, it was sad but fairly normal. Side note: whenever any of my Togolese colleagues or friends get sick here I am terrified that it's the end. Such is the state of affairs in Togo.) But back to the updates, when I finally finished all the interviews in December, I had collected data from over 38 participants who had been speaking to other individuals in their communities as instructed to at the end of our training, and when I finally added all the numbers up, I learned that over 10,000 (over half of them men) people in the community had heard a message related to the Men As Partners philosophy (which mainly touches on gender equality, sexual health, violence, and HIV/AIDS prevention.) Given that the accepted population of Sokodé is 100K, roughly 10% was affected by my very first training project! I think in terms of development work, that is a grand success. Buoyed by the success of my first project, I was planning two other trainings for December and February, but more on those in a minute.

As the weeks went on, I had also set up various weekly activities for myself. Aside from my village savings and loans group, which meets on Sunday afternoon, I formed a group of peer educators with a group of 15 high school students that I met through one of my friends who is coincidentally a high school student. Him and a few of his friends had started a club with no real aim other than to meet every weekend and hang out, but they desperately wanted to do something other than play cards, which I saw as a golden opportunity. So for a few weeks I trained them on HIV/AIDS information with the hopes that they would share the information with other people in their community. Their best idea of how to accomplish this was to film a short feature about a girl who leaves her village to move to the big city but then falls prey to some rather shady characters until she is saved by the good-hearted village boy whom she truly loves and then demonstrates this love by getting tested with him. I know it sounds rather convoluted and like a lame after school special, but it ended up being a really fun project. The video is in post production at the moment (my computer crashing kinda through a wrench in the project during it's initial stages) and will hopefully be uploaded to youtube soon! At the end of the fall semester, this group and I put together and performed a sketch during a school assembly we organized. The most notable part of this was when during a break between sketches during the set up, the emcee needed to vamp some material for the tumultuous and extremely 'too cool for school' crowd. Enter the dancing foreign boy and throw in some Togolese pop music and you have a recipe for a hugely entertaining 5 minutes. All in all, it was a success and the kids were proud so that's all I really wanted. Oh, and I demonstrated how to properly put a condom on a wooden penis at a catholic high school in front of 450+ Togolese students, awkward doesn't even begin to describe it, but if you will remember, I teach sex ed so it was really just another day at the office…

Other notable events in November included a 4 day Men As Partners training with the volunteers of the National Togolese Volunteer Corps (think Americorps, just in Togo) in celebration of International Men's Day. The goal was to engage more men in the conversation of gender equality and access to healthcare and education for girls AND boys. This event also marked my debut on Togolese television, the first of 3 televised appearances I've made in the past 6 months, all of which have been equally anxiety inducing for me. I have learned to deal with my new-found fame and I am certain that it will translate well into my life upon return to the US (ie I will have gotten my fill of fame and notoriety to last me a lifetime, so there probably won't be any reality TV auditions in my future. Except for maybe the Amazing Race. I would SO dominate the amazing race.) After I co-conducted the training in Togo, I was off to Benin for a 10 day silent meditation retreat where I learned about the Vipassana meditation technique (more information can be found at and practiced it for a full 9 days of silence (we were able to talk on the last day.) It's hard for me to summarize what I did during this retreat and I would highly recommend the website to anyone who is interested in learning more about Vipassana. It's basically a tool that allows one to find inner balance and calm, and I mean really, who couldn't use a little bit more balance and calm. I felt awesome after the retreat and was much more mentally prepared to take on the last leg of my service. This brings us to Christmas, New Years Eve, and my birthday. Christmas was spent with some other awesome volunteers in a group that was not to big, yet not too small. We cooked an awesome dinner (I made chicken pot pie and chocolate chip cookies) and we had dinner on the roof of my friend's house. For new years I tagged along with some fellow PCVs as we crashed some ex-pat's (RPCV turned Foreign Service officers) NYE party. I realized how truly socially awkward I have become after I nearly had a panic attack when walking into a room full of strangers (ie other non-peace corps ex-patriates (sp?)) and making a subsequent bee-line for the alcohol. I proceeded to eat all the cheese that was laid out at the party meanwhile loudly commenting on how uncouthly I was eating said cheese. Luckily the party was hosted by some lovely RPCVs and so they understood and sympathized with our collective behavioral issues. The party ended as quickly as it began (I think we got there around 30 minutes before midnight, yes, we were that tacky) but it was in good company nevertheless. My actual birthday on January 9th started off at the Peace Corps office in the bureau where I was running around from meeting to appointment the ENTIRE morning, which wasn't the funniest thing in the world, but the day ended with friends at the beach and a nice dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in Lome (for the record I had fish and chips with chocolate ice cream, I'm not sure if anyone cares but I remember these things now for some reason.) Later that week, I celebrated my birthday again with another group of fantastic PCVs that live in my region. Everyone came over for dinner at my house, which is a monthly routine for us that coincides with our monthly Club Espoir meetings, and we had Mexican food with cake and ice cream! The plan was also to go horseback riding but of cooooourse the guy who does it was out of town that weekend, oh Togo, how you tease me. The strangest thing about celebrating the holidays this year was the realization that it would be my last one in Togo, that is to say, that I would be coming back to the states this year, after two years away. While this was somewhat sobering in terms of what I still want to accomplish before I leave, it was a good reminder to focus on what is really important which are my relationships and work opportunities in Sokodé. In the days before I celebrated the Christmas holiday after I returned from the meditation retreat, I implemented my women's reproductive health and wellness conference or "lauro dè Alaffia" in Kotokoli. I worked with two of my most favorite counterparts and two friends who are university students from Sokodé to organize this 4 day reproductive health training for market women and young student mothers. The theme was "talking to our daughters about sex" and we wanted to bring together these two groups specifically because we felt they were marginalized and overlooked in Togolese society. Without going into too much detail (I'm always open to more specific questions via e-mail, about anything!) I can say that I was very happy with how the project went. The highlight for me was during the last evening, when one of the university students spoke out about how her unplanned pregnancy played a role in her path towards obtaining an education, I think for many of the female students at the conference, it was the first time someone had so openly and frankly discussed the reality of what it means to be a teen mom and the impact it has on one's life. Perhaps for the first time in their entire lives, some girls spoke openly about how they got pregnant, the confusion and blame they felt towards themselves and their partners, and in some cases how they tried to abort their own child… I think development work comes in many different skins, and creating a safe space, or a forum for a different kind of dialogue where ideas and thoughts can be freely exchanged, is just as, if not more valuable than what we would normally consider to be "sustainable" change. I truly believe this to be true, and it was why I feel that this project had value.

January and February were a whirlwind of conducting my weekly activities, spending time at site, and planning another large-scale training for the beginning of February on a development model focused on teaching development workers about how to promote "behavior change" in a population. Working with a fellow PCV from my training group, my official counterpart from the Red Cross, and a team of 3 different Togolese NGOs, we designed an original training to implement with 9 partner NGOs that work in the health domain. Again, long story short, we expanded a tool that we were taught to use only a year ago, but it was an opportunity for these local development agents to consider a slightly different approach to solving problems on the ground.  I'll hopefully be conducting follow-up visits in April (aka now…) March wasn't a very productive month because I had a visit from my mom who was in Togo for a total of 3 weeks. We spent most of the time at my site in Sokodé, having friends over and showing her all of the stuff I'm doing in Togo. It was a really great trip and I think it was great for our relationship too. She really enjoyed getting to see the Togolese that I work with on a daily basis and all the people I live with. She also got to meet my boss and some of the other people that work in the administrative office. We also did some touristy things like go to the beach and visit a town called Kpalimé which has waterfalls and other tourist attractions. During our stay there, we visited a Peace Corps counterpart who worked with volunteers in the late 90s to start a coffee plantation. It was amazing to see how his process has been shaped by input from volunteers and he himself is a model of what can happen when you pair a motivated and dynamic individual with a volunteer. And the coffee that we had that morning was hands down the best coffee ever – I guess it helps when the raw beans are roasted and ground that morning.

Other things on the agenda are this year's Camp Espoir, an HIV/AIDS summer camp for youth, which I'm helping to organize. I've got a great team of fellow volunteers and I'm very excited about this project which will happen in August, the last thing I will be a part of before I leave Togo, you can like us on facebook too!! Speaking of leaving, I received my "close of service" packet in the mail, which basically outlines all of the steps (and there are a lot) that a volunteer has to take in order to officially close their service. It's honestly a bit strange to think about leaving Togo – 2 years goes by a lot faster than you would think, but more than anything I think I'm ready, or at least, I will be by August. I go through moments of reflection where I can't think about anything but leaving Togo and getting back to life in America, but then other days I think about how much I'm going to miss it here. The daily exchanges with people on the street, my hard working counterparts and friends, speaking French, and living on my own and enjoying solitude. Of course, there are many other things that I'll miss and certainly other things that I will NOT miss at all (burning my trash, lack of anonymity, undesirable transport options and limited food options) but overall, I've decided that I'm happy with the decision I made almost 2 years ago to come here. While I don't really have any concrete plans for when I come back to the states, if I've learned anything in Togo it is that everything will be fine – it always is.

I'm really hoping that this will not be my last blog post before I leave Togo, but given my track record with writing these, it very well might be. Either way, thank you for reading and sharing parts of this experience with me. Writing about my service has never been something that I was good at, but as I'm reaching the end I'm realizing more the importance of self reflection in many mediums, and I think that in order to remember the most important parts of this experience, I'm going to have to start writing them down. So if you by any chance see me when I'm back in the states (and I hope you do, I miss you) ask me specifically what Togo taught me and I will try and have an answer by then. Consider it an alternative to the incredibly menial question "how was Africa" because all I can really say to that is "it's complicated…."