Friday, April 5, 2013

Just a few more updates…

In these last few months at post, I will be working with the VSLAs to prepare them to troubleshoot any future difficulties they might have. I have high hopes for both groups, I believe they are motivated and committed enough to keep this idea going and hopefully to spread the word to other groups in Badou. The hardest part is getting things going, but once they're in motion you should feel free to walk away - become a passive observer.

Along with these two groups, we are also closing the pilot info tech class this month. Over the past three months, I've worked with HOUMEY Adodo and TETELESTAI (local NGO based in Badou) on an information and communication technology class. We taught ten high-school students the workings of that great machine, the computer and introduced them to the interweb!! They created emails and FB accounts in order to connect with that vast world that it is the web. I’m actually hoping to find PENPALS for my kids, so if you're interested contact me here, my email, or FB. We've been lucky with the group of kids that we chose - incredibly self-motivated smart kids, with the potential to be pretty great grown-ups one day :) We'll be working on Office EXCEL these next two weeks and then they will face the daunting tasks that are the BAC exams. We have four students that will be taking their BACII ( last year of high school) in order to graduate lycee and into University. Students here will spend months getting ready for this test (as in they've probably already started and the exam isn't until July); the SATs are child’s play compared to these. Anyways, I'm sure they cause just as many breakdowns, but Togolese kids handle it with much more grace than their American counterparts.

Check out my counterpart's blog, TETELESTAI. It is a locally based organisation with plenty of great initiatives concerning ICT promotion in rural areas, youth and gender development. They welcome feedback, technical advice, and project ideas.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Journee International de la Femme a Badou!!

This year I did not attend WWEC, Women’s Wellness and Empowerment Conference. It fell around the same time as International Women’s Day, for which some of the ladies I work with and I wanted to do something special here in Badou. We began talking about what we wanted to do back in January. We wanted to prepare sketches, hold a parade, and maybe a small picnic amongst a few. Simply, March 8 would be to celebrate what women do for their community, their family and how that community should, in turn, show their appreciation. Leading up to it, a few of us distributed ‘envelopes’ to authorities, local NGOs, and businesses. More than just inviting them to our event, of course, it was our local fundraising effort. And they came through. I partnered with Madame Chang (SuperStar #1). We spent two very hot mornings walking across Badou, first to distribute and then collect. It made me very comforted to see (at least at this superficial level) that some of the ‘grands hommes’ in town were respectful and supportive of our intentions.

Now on to what we did. I’m not going to get into the village politics behind why it ended up on Mar 20 and not the 8th; just know that the whole event was (sort of) taken out of the hands it started in and controlled by the Affaires Sociales and the state library (CLAC) director. I will assume some responsibility for this. I wasn’t sufficiently assertive about what we wanted to do, as in keep the scale manageable and the attention on the information/message the women wanted to give. We prepared the sketches on the importance of empathetic communication between mothers and daughters. We placed emphasis on how mothers can be the primary source of support for their girls, in their education and at home. I left Badou right before the event for 1) a SED close-out meeting in Kpalime and 2) for the migraine-inducing responsibility of collecting our t-shirts. Upon return, I learned that one of the national political parties was to say a ‘few’ words during our presentation…and that they would pay for the center and the chairs and the media coverage (still waiting on the last). I was piqued. I felt the blood pulsating in my temples, as I do when I feel a frustration I can do nothing about. Our parade, however, livelied up my soul. We were a raucous mass of girls and women parading through town – singing songs, dancing, simply feeling good about being female.

When we arrived at the center, my heart plummeted as I saw the party had hung their slogan up on stage. They, essentially, were using our presentation, the collection of these women, for other purposes to dole out their political messages. Someone had pulled a fast one on us.

Erin and I sat outside, waiting for the political representatives to leave the center. I felt no desire to greet or acknowledge them in any way as I walked past them into the center.

Our sketches were AWESOME. All the women got into it, sporting ‘costumes’ as young girls, gendarms, seedy zedmen, mean moms and nice moms. It made me really proud of them all. They performed their parts well, confidently, no nervous-laughter or faint voices from anyone.  It was enough to quell the irritation I felt about the political usurpation that morning. From the laughter and sounds coming from the audience I gathered that they were into it too. I have videos of their performances, which malheureusement, Togo internet is not strong enough for me to upload. But enjoy the images!!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

January 7, 2013
There’s no mozzarella but there IS VQR (consolation? To some of us yes).
I’m back and sort of rejuvenated a cause de my America vacation. My mom’s hands still make the best turkey, pastelon de platanos (baked plantains, cheese, and sautĂ©ed things) and morro (beans and yellow rice) I’ve ever had. Loved the margherita pizza with fresh mozz and bangin’ tomato sauce; the Belgian fudge cheesecake was bomb (the Cheesecake Factory might be a machine, but that doesn’t mean it can’t occasionally give one culinary bliss); and the Christmas feast was killer (no shame - the food was and is central to this story). The family was spectacular – my mom started to cook at some morning hour that seemed far too early for an evening meal; my dad was petulantly checking on the pork (our favorite Noche Buena past-time is to pick at the food, mollifying the eagerness for the actual feast). My nephew was fantastic – the energy a baby gives to those around him goes unmatched. His best moments were either when he put a sauce pan on his head and a strainer on mine and we danced to MJ OR running into walls and adult feet on his battery powered Tonka car and laughing uncontrollably.

I left on an unfortunate date (Dec 31st) at an incredibly senseless hour (9pm) which meant that I was somewhere between time zones when the clock struck midnight (Eastern Time, I guess). I left Detroit at 9pm (Paris and Lome had already welcomed the New Year) but left the eastern time zone before it was actually midnight. Anyways, nothing really exciting happened – no Champaign popping on the plane and barely any recognition from my fellow fliers. The best thing about the plane ride was the authentically Italian couple I was sitting next to. The man was as animated and grumpy as Frank in that sitcom, ‘Everybody loves Raymond,’ (not to say that Frank Barone is an ‘aunthentic’ representation of an Italian-American father, but you get the picture) with an unbelievable accent and Don Corleone hand expressions to boot. It was 1am and he was recounting his work in Cameroon as a construction advisor (or something of the sort) while I was desperately hoping he noticed how sleepy I was. When he got up to go to the bathroom his wife leaned across his seat and said “he talks too much, just tell him you want to,“ she put her head on her shoulder and waved her hand as though this would do the trick. They both spent the better part of the night complaining about how cramped coach seating is and impatiently gesturing for the attendants.  I took advantage of the AirFrance hospitality, got myself two bottles of red wine, and then found myself gagging into an airplane toilet bowl (combination of empty stomach, turbulence, and nerves(?)). The whole affair got a lot better upon exit of the Lome Airport – where Veronica and Ryan came to pick me up.

 I felt something of a sinking feeling when I was standing in the chaos of the Lome Airport – craving the anonymity in La Guardia; the self-checkout counters; the (more) professional customs guys; more than three security lines to attend to a flight of over 100 people; the clean and shiny surfaces. The feeling left as I spent the evening in good company – I DID enjoy the bar on the sand and the cool Awooyo. I was back and nothing, not the absurd moto driving; the hazardous sidewalks; the return to perpetual foreigner-status seemed all that daunting. I took a few days in Datcha with Alex, to soak in the comfort of partnership – (cheesiness warning) sharing the solitude of this life with a kindred spirit makes everything feel that much lighter. Making food for two is SO much better than the blah lonely rice you’ll make for yourself at post. I never make pancakes, or goat cheese crepes (yes, please!), or tacos for myself. Alex also hosted a few of the wonderful people of Egbedrovi to a dinner of fried chicken, to experience one of the vrai inspirations of American cuisine. I think it was resolved as a type of beignet fried around a chicken wing. If it weren’t for the unavailability (price?) of meat, I would say we’d start seeing fried chicken stands in Datcha. These days also served to reconcile with a return to Togolese routine, getting back into the swing of things as it were. Still, I couldn’t shake nervousness, a hesitation and uneasiness in returning to Badou. It’s one of those things people say – it’s the anticipation in waiting that makes fear and not the thing itself, ou bien? I had a healthy amount of separation anxiety on the moto driving away from Alex –a silent AHH! sounding off in my head. However, the bush taxi ride back soothed my nerves – not because it was physically comfortable (ahemm) but because I was with a good humored crowd who chuckled sarcastically every time our driver stopped to talk to one of his girlfriends.

Yesterday was my first full day back and it was RELIEVING. Madame Bide gave me the tenderest of hugs – maybe not as unconditional as my mother’s but with an absolute amount of feeling. And this wasn’t the last. I felt so, what’s the word…appreciated. I came back ready to face down that word that incites anxiety in all a good Peace Corps volunteer --- work. I have this determination (not something innate to me) to focus in on a few things I really want to do and I know I can do well. One of which is to paint a mural on the library wall representing the creativity of lycee students. This should be something totally plausible, fun, and won’t take a whole lot of coordination among officials (not something easily doable for Togolese officials). The reason I said “sort of rejunvenated” at the beginning of this post is because now, as I begin my last stretch in Togo, I have a restlessness to get back into things, set things in motion, and leave this service feeling utile, happy, and (at least relatively) ready and wanting for whatever comes next. Bon arrivĂ© 2013.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


September 21, 2012 - UNITE and Espoir

The boat challenge and a Pagi interruption. This was during UNITE , the girls needed to get their boat, i.e. two planks of wood, across a line about 8 feet away. Pagi is the camp 'spirit' who tries to discourage them by teasing them - in super weird costume. He wears a stuffed Spongebob as a mask and tutus on his feet. What's funny is that some of them were genuinely frightened by him - grigri is no joke here.
To educate a girl is to educate a nation. Get 'er done.

It’s been almost four months since I’ve written to you. I placed much of my routine on hold over the school vacation. Let’s start from the end of June and work our way to present. I had a beautiful 24th birthday in country thanks to a few good friends. This was followed by our Mid Service Conference – the SED and CHAP group had made it past their year mark in country. The only thing I remember about MSC was the Talent Show where lots of us attempted (and succeeded) to dance, sing, compose, recite poetry etc. Upon return to Atakpame, a few of us spent three dollars for tickets to a TooFan concert. If not thrilled for the music, we were definitely all curious to see the performance. Of course, the first two or three hours we watched dance troops stepping to Coole Catche – which does not involve a whole lot of acrobatics. But the young hip Togolese crowd loved it. There had to be a few hundred people packed into le Centre Culturale d'Atakpame.  Then the stars of the night showed up and continued in much the same vain – lip-sinking and unremarkable dancing. What’s funny is that the back-up dancers putting on an athletic display were much more entertaining than the performers. The two guys that make up TooFan were pacing back and forth across the stage and miming into their microphone. Needless to say, not impressive – a week’s worth of lunch money for something I grew up watching my older cousins do in front of their mirrors.
In the bar around the corner, Atakpame, before the 2fan concert 

July was remarkable for the beginning of camp season – Espoir and UNITE. Espoir is dedicated to children infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. UNITE promotes leadership among Togolese youth – students and apprentices alike. Both camps were redeeming – for a week you felt the potential influence positive energy can have on a kid, her family, and community. At UNITE I witnessed how witty and resourceful adolescent Togolese girls can really be - how a week of camp can begin to inspire youth. We watched these videos from one of our donors about food security and the protection of the environment. They depicted stories of agricultural communities from around the world; and this was great because so many of the girls were surprised to see that places outside of Africa experience many of the same struggles as do poor families in Togo. Rather, that the color of your skin does not determine the lifestyle you lead. I felt very touched during the candle ceremony when Chimen told us that the week of camp had motivated her to continue her education. I never had much of an inclination to learn any of Togo’s ‘boncs’ (i.e. icebreakers) - and now I have at least 48 hours’ worth of camp songs inscribed into the folds of my mind. Espoir was an awesomely humbling experience – you could not have guessed that these girls had a history with HIV/AIDS in observing how high-spirited they were. Honestly, they were just like any other teenage girls sometimes – flirting with the young guys on the kitchen staff, seeming uninterested in anything and yet getting into our sessions just as much as their younger friends.  A teenage girl like Samira – patient, sincere, empathetic, whose mother passed away when she was 8 years old – put my life into perspective. I had a lot of fun with my cabin; these hormone-ridden girls gave me a lot of sass, but it was illuminating to observe how ubiquitous adolescent anxieties can be - despite differences in geography and culture. After camp season ended we celebrated the entry of a new class of volunteers and said our final farewells to the volunteers that had welcomed us a year ago. It's strange to think that we could give advise to others. I feel just as silly most of the time, as I did when I first arrived. 
My Espoir cabin - Australia. I had to knock for a whole minute on their doors so they'd get to their sessions on time. They would then drag their feet all the way to the center for our sessions.

Alex and I having pizza in Lome before Swear-in of the newbs

December 2012
Time is enigmatic – you blink and you find yourself in the middle of the holiday season again. But this time around, I’m sitting at my kitchen table in Danbury. I’M HOME! For Christmas. I met my nephew – he is a beautiful, mischievous, charismatic little boy. This is really all I want to do - dance to Thriller with him in my living room. He had the most curious expression on his face as I was trying out my moonwalk. I'm in love :)  Hopefully, we spend enough time together these next few weeks that he won’t forget me during the next 8 months that I won’t be around. Now I settle into the home stretch. 
Titi and Tata

Friday, June 8, 2012

A whole lot of nothings

Lately, I’ve noticed how much I’ve grown attached to Badou. Last week Taylor visited me. It’s cool to share your post with a good friend – makes it feel more like home. We went to the falls; had dinner with a really special family, who made us fufu with a mushroom and goat stew (freakin amazing – I wish more Togolese would collect mushrooms); and watched some TV avec au-village sundaes (involving Fan Choco, bananas, peanuts, and Parle-G crackers) and popcorn. I love that girl’s company.

Fufu, the meal of choice for a Togolese and by association PCVs.  First, one boils ignames, nothing like American yams, (in addition to yuca, platanos, or taro). After boiling the ignames, women place them in a large wooden mortar to be pounded into a paste-like consistency. Two people with large wooden pestles consecutively pound into the yams for about 10 minutes - you have to work up the appetite needed to injest about a pound worth of straight starch. The pestles are continuously dipped into untreated water, and I like to believe that since I’ve been here for a year the use of this water no longer has an immediate (operative word) effect on me. There’s nothing that fills the belly like a bowl of fufu.

Chimen and Penobe –  some of my favorites. They change between surprisingly, too-mature-for-their-age, independent young women to silly annoying school girls. They both prepare most of the meals for the family; help sell food stuffs in the market; and rent a room for themselves in Badou during the school week. And they don’t realize how independent and capable they are.  Penobe, 18, has been ‘proposed’ to by a teacher in her school. The man is married with children. The freedoms that teachers take in this country with students are one of the most exhausting things we have to see. If you want more details, email me. All I can do is to remind her of how young she is; how many other options she has; and how capable and uncommitted she is right now.

 For me, it’s kind of like having the younger sisters I wanted when I was growing up. They live about 15 minutes outside of Badou, on a small farm. They climb these hills with simple flip flops, carrying all sorts of things on their heads – from fire wood to fruit to large silver basins of water; while I fall on my ass with a good pair of Teva sandals, reminds me of how coddled we are chez nous. Chimen prepared a meal of pate and sauce arachide for me. I’m swept away by her generosity and a little embarrassed at my dull reciprocity. I don’t like to cook so I give her American snacks I get in packages; yet I feel the missing element of care that is so endearing when I am invited to eat with them. I watched a storm roll in while I was at their farm, big clouds and creeping fog over the green mountains – breathtaking. If you get the chance, pay me a visit.

And lastly, my house and puppy. There it is folks. Three bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, and living room. More space than I know what to do with. Seriously, in one room I hang my underwear to dry and in another I put boxes I need to burn.  My puppy’s name is Kau and he’s going on 6 months. He’s a cutie-patutie who likes his bellied rubbed; dry fish with pate; with the most heart wrenching big ears this new puppy mom has ever seen.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Independence and the fete


I returned to a Badou that was preparing for a couple of national celebrations: le Jour d’Independence et Le Premiere Mai (or Labor Day as it’s known to us across the sea).

I spent that week loitering around town – mostly shooting the non-existent breeze with Bide and Ourkoabe at the former’s boutique. I shared in on some Tupperware gossip – who, what, when, with whom. We were also getting ready to host Kat’s mom who would be paying us a visit in a few days. The ladies were really sweet and anxious about preparing an appropriate welcoming for her.

But before this meal arrived Independence Day on April 27th and Badou went balls to the wall. The schools, social groups, citizen clubs (political parties, farming groups, karate club, and all other sorts) filed out to march in front of their local and regional political leaders and an anticipatory Badou crowd. The schools had been practicing for a week. I was pumped, naturally; I had enjoyed the exhilaration of parades in my day – proudly donning my D.A.R.E. t-shirt in 5th grade for Danbury’s Memorial Day Parade. And so I was ready to see a raucous mass of people drifting from the Mayor’s office to the Lycee across the market to the Catholic Church. At this time, I was talking to my friend about how much it might suck to march in the noon sun, a comment that seemed lost on him. ‘We’re only walking across that patch of route in front of the lycee so that the Prefet can see us.’ Ah bon? The morning arrived and I sat with Kat and her mom behind the village chiefs, the Prefet, the mayor, and some other honored guests. For the Independence celebration, we received some friends from across the border. The Ghanaian Prefet and his accompaniments were celebrating with us – so we looked xxtra chic.   The groups were beautiful and the event allowed me to pull out my dormant camera. The most memorable moments include: a women who was carrying a basket full of Badou produce – bananas, avocadoes, mangoes –on her head that she deposited at the Prefet’s feet; the breakdancers and karate club that put on two-minute full-out demonstrations for us, including head tilts and 360 kicks on uneven pavement; the girl scouts that were carrying the flag and the twin boys that were leading the boy scouts with the most serious facial expressions I’ve seen on a pair of 8-year-olds; and, always the show stoppers, the Zedmen (moto drivers), who poured out from the four corners of Badou to show off their pink and yellow Aviators, fur trimmed windbreakers, and their ability to drive sidesaddle on their bikes. Here’s to you.

That afternoon, we joined the Kabiye party. The Kabiye are an immigrant, but large, ethnic group in Badou originally from Kara, a northern region. Bide’s husband is the Kabiye chief and an invitation was extended to their fave estrangers in town, wink-a-dink. The traditional dance is called ‘Kamu’ and depending on whom you ask this either happens only once a year during a very special occasion or whenever the hell you want to have a good time. According to an unknown informant, it’s a celebration of the earth, which might explain why everyone – from grandmammas to 4-year-olds – wave branches around and some are draped in animal skins. Every Kudjo, Koffi, and Adjo was under the deeeep influence of Tchouk; covered in Talcum powder; and getting us to dance. There was a crowd of kids hovering around our chairs in hopes of being captured in a picture. One man asked that I give him my watch as a cadeau. I gave him my quizzical-eye-brow-raised face and asked when-EVER did he wonder what time it was?? and then I returned to my calabash. The two less inhibited souls – Kat and her mom – joined the dancing. Are you surprised? I didn’t dance? I know, I love to shake like a child spazzing out but I am still incredibly self-conscience at these parties. Mais, ca va aller. Give me a little more time and pass me the tchouk calabash more frequently – I’ll be covered in Talcum, with branches in my hair like the best of them. Plus, I reeeeallllyy need to show this town that I can, in fact, shake, cumbia, merengue, Poulet, etc. etc. like it is nobody’s business.  And with the sounds of these drums and stamping feet ended le Jour d’Independence. Happy Birthday to you Togo J

That weekend, a number of women from our VSLA prepared a meal of sauce arachide(peanut), rice, and fish for Kat, her mom, and I. It was wonderful – we ate well, drank well, and relaxed in the honest-to-goodness best sort of company. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Sabe Repos.

A sabe repos.

Bom tarde indeed! I am just returning from my first vacation and a week later find that part of my brain is rather doubtful that I ever left Badou. When I was in Cape Verde I imagined that resettling in to Togo would be mighty cumbersome but here I am, phased more by how natural my Togolese routine seems (and how dreamlike my last two weeks feel) rather than how foreign this all still remains. But first let me relate how sabe my petit repos was.

I visited Richard on the island of Fogo and was enchanted by the place and its people. Witnessing how great he’s doing made my soul smile :)  I felt really comfortable in Cova Figuera. Island life just calls to me and so most of the time I was nostalgic for the summers I'd spent in the Dominican Republic. Everyone still loves Tia Rosa who sends American apparel and iphones from America to her sobrinos on the island. Sporting my African pagne, I felt more ‘from-the-motherland’ than most of the young girls there who more often than not swanked around with skinny jeans and hoodies. The faces of the girls, boys, aunts, and grandmas reminded me of someone I'd known. The light green eyes, caramel complexion, nappy hair are all so happily familiar to me. By the end of the two weeks, I was gleefully mumbling bits of Criolou to Richard's neighbors. 

Cabo Verde is beautiful.  My friend Laura used the term ‘other-wordly’ to describe an image -appropriate to the scenes of the volcano and the sea of black rock at its base. The town of Cha sits here, a moment of a quaint developing world. When I was atop the volcano, I chatted with another friend-of a-volunteer that was visiting. I was telling her about how I never could have imagined where I was at that instant, on a volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic. Sweetness is in the unexpected. I found myself thinking of my parents, too, often throughout the trip. When I was little, I feared being out of sight of my parents. I always clung on to them; as we say in Spanish “de bajo de la falda de mami” – literally “underneath momma’s skirt.” And so my parents never expected me to leave Danbury. The course of my life hasn't taken me to that many places just yet. It started in Boston then to Niger, Florida, now Togo, and my plans are to go, go wherever it is life wants to go next. For me, seeing things as awesome  as the scene from the volcano made me think about home, about my parents and what they’ve seen and I felt so grateful for who I am and for what life has brought so far. La vie, it’s a beautiful thing.

A view from the top onto the valley of Cha
Katchupa after a VERY LONG NIGHT

Cova Figuera

Enjoying creamy popsticks in Villa

The beach in Mosteiros

So, yes, I was treated very kindly in Cabo Verde. Buried my legs in a black sand beach, hiked a pine forested trail up to Cha, climbed a volcano, slept outside on a stoop, floated in blue-green tide pools…pure honey. The in-betweens are just as noteworthy, involving several scrumptious fried corn breakfasts, goat cheese, fresh bread, a block-wedding-party, listening in on band practice, and all the other nooks and crannies of la pura vida.