Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Post for Betty Jo

So it’s been awhile since my last post. Sorry about that. I could offer excuses of broken computers, lacking electricity, and general busy-ness, but electricity and internet really are in limited supply, so we’ll just assume I’ve done that and move forward. Right now, I’ll just share a story that I think sums up what, another time, will be a considerably lengthier response to your question, “So how’s Togo?” This post is especially for Betty Jo, who has been kind enough to keep sending cards and notes despite my rather impolite disappearance from the blogosphere and who has requested, on numerous occasions, an update.

One of the most difficult aspects of life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo is what I can only describe as the general roughness of people. Life here is hard. It’s hard for me (how, after all, am I supposed to get by without cold Diet Cokes and an iPhone???), but that’s nothing to what it is for the average resident of Namon. Malnutrition affects as many as one third of our children, malaria is rampant, most of the women I know can’t read or write; sometimes there is no rain, and then there is not much food to go around. Other times, when the rain finally comes, it does so with such force and fury that families are left homeless, their mud huts obliterated by the torrential downpours and destructive winds. With all of this hardship comes a harshness on the part of the people. The boon companions of poverty and little education, domestic violence and alcoholism often leave their mark on our community. Men mistreat and fail to appreciate their wives, children are abused and often seem undervalued by their parents, and it sometimes feels as if anyone in a position of authority needlessly asserts it over those they see as less important than themselves. It is particularly difficult to see this behavior and not think to oneself how self-destructive it really is, not to want to tell them how much easier things could be if they would simply try being a little gentler with one another. With so many difficulties just facts of life, it seems silly to add all the strife that comes with this kind of social stratification. I don’t know how much of it can be blamed on colonization and how much is inherent to human nature, but it colors my experiences here.

In Namon, Thursday is market day, the busiest day of the week for just about everyone. Most of the women and girls sell some sort of good in the bustling center of town, and from the early morning, you can see them about their preparations. From fresh vegetables, various cheaply made plastic containers, dried fish, and handmade soap to fried yams, spicy tofu, and local beer, everyone seems to have something on offer. Those who don’t sell don their finest and come into town to peruse the wares of others. It is the social event of the week, with not only local participants but vendors from nearby larger cities, who come in with jewelry, bicycle parts, “dead yovo” clothing (the local term for those Hammer pants, stonewashed jeans, plaid flannel jackets, and other Goodwill rejects you’ve been donating all these years, so named because people assume that the only reason to part with perfectly good clothing is that the owner has died without any family to lay claim to all that loot), and all kinds of merchandise not normally available in a small village. Nobody misses it. During the rainy season, a lot of folks still have to work in their fields in the morning, but by early afternoon, they, too, have made their way over.

Generally speaking, most of the real shopping gets done in the first several hours of the market (which really gets going between ten and eleven in the morning), and by three o’clock, the local sellers are out of their fresh produce, and the first of the big city merchants have begun to pack up shop for the day. The vast majority of market frequenters, however, purchase little or nothing from these vendors, anyway. They don’t have much money, and once they have bought a bowl of spicy peppers for that week’s dinners, they stick around to socialize, which for most people is the real point of the market. They sit under open grass huts and chatter the afternoon away over calabashes of warm millet beer called tchouk. For most people, the market is a rare opportunity to relax a little bit among friends. Children, for the most part, don’t have lessons in the afternoon and are left, more or less, to their own devices, which they seem to like just fine.

Market day can also, however, be pretty stressful, especially if you’re the lone white, American woman in a small village. While I rarely face any kind of harassment from the residents of Namon, market day brings with it visitors from many other villages who consider me something of an entertaining oddity. When faced with a single proposal of marriage, I find I have gotten good at deflecting with humor and what I hope is a little grace (as many of you know, not always my strong point), but as the afternoon rolls on and the tchouk continues to flow, these encounters become both more frequent and more obnoxious. For this reason, I tend to avoid the market once mid-afternoon has passed, knowing that a large number there will have been “over-served,” if you will. Nonetheless, because my house is not far, I can hear the goings on well into the night.

Namon is generally pretty quiet after eight in the evening, but on market day, everything is different. Loud music and louder conversations can be heard from quite a distance. Most of these sounds are genial, but it’s not terribly uncommon to hear, also, the sounds of an angry dispute or even an all out fight erupt from the vat of liquid courage that is the night market. By ten thirty or eleven, even these sounds tend to have died down, and our sleepy village is sleepy again.

It was with some surprise and a little distress, then, that a few Thursdays ago just before midnight, I heard the distinct sound of a child screaming. Shortly thereafter, I heard several people run outside my bedroom window, speaking frantically to one another. By the time I found my shoes and walked to the back of the house, no one was there, but within a few minutes, they seemed to have returned with more screaming and more hushed arguing. On a few occasions in my village life, I have witnessed truly disturbing scenes of violence toward children, once even driven from my bed by the screams of a child being beaten by his older brother. In these instances, I did what I could to intervene but was met mostly with amusement, a response more infuriating to me even than the defensive anger I had anticipated. Though in one or two cases, I succeeded in putting an end to the episode, I do not delude myself that I inspired any lasting behavior change. Recalling, then, these incidents, I was immediately frightened for the child screaming somewhere not far from my window. It was, after all, market day, which meant the odds of an alcohol-induced episode of domestic violence were (at least in my mind) significantly higher.

I went into my back yard and waited, still hearing an occasional scream followed by shouting a little way off. This time, when the voices came close, I could see that it was a group of boys and that they were running away from someone carrying a flashlight. I grabbed one of them and demanded he tell me what they were doing, why the other child was screaming. At first, he looked away from me and told me he really needed to run, but when I refused to let him go, he finally explained to me what was going on. They were, he said, in the middle of an important hunt, in which the children hid themselves in the dark and tried not to be seen by other kids running around with lights. The screams I heard were of children who had been discovered. They were, in short, playing flashlight tag. I laughed out loud at the information and quickly let the kids go to find good hiding places. Then I went inside and back to bed.

As I laid in bed smiling to myself about the children, I realized that life in Namon is not really all that different than life anywhere else in the world. That is to say, difficult things happen and we handle them badly; we take out our anger, fear, and frustration on those we love; and we do what we can to feel a little better about ourselves, even at the expense of those around us. Life here may never be as gentle as I’d like it to be, and there a lot of problems Namon will continue to face, but for the most part, people are doing their best just like people everywhere else. Children here seem almost a dime a dozen sometimes, and they don’t receive the kind of attention here we’re used to giving at home (I have yet to see a single Kindermusik or Tiny Tots’ Tumbling class), but that means, too, that they have a kind of freedom children in the US haven’t known for generations. I’m not saying this is all for the best, and I will continue to object to people’s mistreatment of each other, but there is a level of security and of community here that one rarely finds at home. Either way, it’s my community, and I think I don’t mind being woken to find excited neighborhood kids hiding in my yard.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

There Won’t be Snow in Africa this Christmas (Except at my house)

That’s right, the holidays are upon us. And I think I have shared with some of you that I have been pleasantly surprised by the lack of homesickness accompanying this season. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the lack of Christmassiness. Or at least a lack of the American kind. It’s not cold, there is not a Jackson Five Christmas album in sight, not a single person has reminded me how many shopping days are left, I’ve seen no one dressed as Santa, and no one’s sung about parts to a Mustang GT. Additionally, I do not feel stressed out about gifts or travel plans or gaining weight, and I missed out on the annual treat that is Advent Lessons and Carols. Luckily, I have fantastic friends and family who won’t let me forget Christmas altogether, and my sister Jenny, in addition to sending me a completely vegetarian, air mail friendly Thanksgiving dinner also included wrapped gifts, ornaments, and icicles, which I think fit perfectly in my 95 degree winter wonderland. Combined with the moringa tree I planted a few weeks ago, I feel like a regular Better Homes and Gardens article.

Despite all my powers of homey d├ęcor, I think this Christmas will be unlike any other I’ve known thus far. At Thanksgiving, I kind of lucked out. About twenty volunteers got together, and by combining our culinary prowess and preservative filled goodies from loved ones in the land of Stove Top and Sara Lee, we were able to pull together a really lovely dinner complete with a locally grown turkey prepared by a very talented Togolaise chef. Other menu items included macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, bread and butter, stuffed tomatoes, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and malaria prophylaxis. It was a really great time and had for about eight American dollars per person. Not a bad deal. However, since I did spend Thanksgiving away, I have plans to do all my Christmassing in Namon. So far the festivities will include two church services, a pig, several kilos of fufu, a barrel of tchouk, and lots of dancing. It’s not exactly like home, but I think it will be a good time nonetheless. If I can’t be at home with all of you, this isn’t a bad second choice. Certainly, it should be at least as interesting.

In my last post before Christmas, this seems as good a time as any to say thanks to all of you who have been so wonderful at keeping in touch and making things easier for me here. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve already been gone more than six months. As for all the important days I’ve missed in the two months since my last post, you once again have my apologies. I hope they were all happy.

Happy Birthdays to Bryon T, who is older than his hair suggests; Thomas C, who is younger than his hair suggests; Rachel J, who, I hope, got her first fancy wifey birthday card this year; Kate L, who seems to have celebrated thirty by moving to Brazil; Varina and Zachary, the birthday twins who both have great bottoms; Taylor T., who still likes Avril Lavine regardless of what she tells you; and to Connor L., whose party, I hope was even greater than Potterfest ‘08!

In the near future, Happy Birthdays to Erica, who will never get over having to share with Jesus; and Johnny, who doesn’t care who he shares his birthday with as long as he can do it in Atlantic city. Also, very soon, a happy 19th anniversary to my parents.


A Day in the Life

Okay, one of the questions I get the most from all of you at home goes something like this, “Wow, Emily, Togo sounds really interesting and cool. I especially like hearing about all the ways you’ve humiliated yourself, but…what do you…you know, do there?” When I first got to post, this was a somewhat difficult question to answer. Well, if not difficult, it was a sort of embarrassing question to answer. It takes time to get things started in this part of the world, so the truth would have been something like, “I have two or three ‘meetings’ a week, I sit around the clinic, I make French language flashcards, and I do crossword puzzles in astonishing volume.” You can see why I wasn’t eager to broadcast my busy schedule. Now that I’ve finally figured out how to start doing actual work, I thought I would share a little of that with all of you.

In a normal week, I spend three or four mornings a week at the clinic helping with various initiatives. On Mondays, we have a program for malnourished children at which we give out enriched flour and nutrition lessons and track the growth of all the babies to make sure everyone is making progress. On Wednesdays, we do more general growth/health sessions for healthy babies. These times also serve as an opportunity to identify those children who could use extra help on Mondays, and on Thursdays, we do vaccinations. I obviously cannot give the injections, but I help prepare them, and I give the oral Polio vaccination and vitamin A capsules to the babies or nursing mothers. Each of these sessions starts out with a brief health lesson, and preparing and presenting these lessons to the mothers is a big part of my work. Right now, a lot of my time is dedicated to bring a little organization to the way we run these sessions. Those of you who used to appreciate my nanny text messages reading, “I just got peed on,” or “I have poo on my shirt,” or “The clerk at the grocery just pointed out to me that there is vomit in my hair,” will be happy to know that all of those things are still happening. Babies here don’t wear real diapers but usually just a piece of folded cloth with the absorbency of a dinner napkin. In the course of weighing thirty or forty babies, there’s almost always at least one accident. While I can’t afford to send mass overseas text messages, you can just giggle to yourselves virtually any Monday or Wednesday morning a know that I have been dampened by some small person’s urine. The difference is that now I get to do the laundry by hand. Fun.

I have also started teaching classes at my local middle school, and one of the great cross cultural lessons I’m learning is that middle schoolers are a challenge in any culture, but things are going relatively well in this department as well. I teach there Monday and Wednesday afternoons and Tuesday mornings, and I have a lot of freedom about what I teach. When I started, there seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm in my community about HIV/AIDS, so I began there, and I feel like we are making some progress on it. The hard part has been trying to remember that there isn’t a lot of knowledge I can take for granted. A couple of weeks ago, I spent several hours getting together a lesson about STIs. It covered all the major infections facing Togo, and I even included a review game at the end, which is always a hit. So I gave the whole lesson, and they seemed as attentive as one can ever expect seventh graders to be, but when the game started, they were supposed to race to match the symptoms with the diseases that cause them. I said go, and everyone just stood there. Then they asked me what a symptom is. We had to start over from the beginning.

Another thing I do is go to meetings with my ASCs (stands for Community Health Agent in French). This is usually pretty fun, as I am lucky to have a lot of dedicated people in my community, but it also requires some adjustments from me. For example, a couple of Fridays ago, we had a meeting at 8am. I had some notes I wanted to go over with the employees at the clinic, so I got there around 7:30 just to iron out exctly what was on the agenda. Of course, I was running a few minutes late, and I was worried there wouldn’t be enough time before the meeting started to get everything done. No such worries.. The first person didn’t show up until about nine, and by ten, we had nearly half of our attendees. Now, most of you know that I am not one to throw stones about punctuality, but this seemed ridiculous even to me. Finally I asked where everyone else was, and it turned out they were all in the market having a morning calabash of tchouk. Excellent. Once everyone was successfully rounded up, the meeting went really well, but I’m definitely going to have to adjust my expectations on this front. Yes, I hear all of you laughing. And you’re right, karma is a drag.

Bean Cakes for Breakfast

Once again, it’s been some time since I’ve been able to update this blog, so I ask your forgiveness. In the past few weeks, we have welcomed some new volunteers to our region and said farewell to some others who finished their service. I have begun some new work which is both challenging and rewarding, and I have survived my first illnesses as a Peace Corps Volunteer (super fun!). Also, I have begun to be efficient at killing the mice who are trying to take over my life. In short, a lot has been going on. As I get busier in my village, I find my time there more and more enjoyable. I’ve said before that virtually everyone I meet is friendly and helpful, and as I get to know these friends and neighbors better, I genuinely enjoy their company. Namon is beginning to feel like home for me.

Despite all that, I still look forward to visiting other volunteers from time to time. Because there is no electricity or cell phone coverage in my village, I usually make my way to a nearby volunteer’s house once a week or so to make phone calls and recharge both my electronics and my personal energy. These are great times to relax a little bit, hear about other people’s work and ask for help with my own, and speak English! For the moment, my closest two volunteers are 27km and 39km away (in opposite directions), which is longer than it sounds like given the condition of the roads, so more often than not, I spend the night when I make these visits. The idea is to take advantage of the electricity, hang out with some people, and head back to work the next morning.

In my village, I find myself going to bed pretty early because there’s only so much you can find to do after the sun sets at six o’clock. When I visit other people, however, the electricity is so miraculous to me that I find myself staying up as late as midnight working on my computer and making phone calls (crazy night life, I know). Many of you will also remember that I am not at my personal best early in the morning, so it’s also a nice chance to reclaim my old life by sleeping in a bit. This is great except for two things: the call to prayer and bean cakes.

The part of Togo where I am is largely Muslim, and I am enjoying learning about a religion and culture I didn’t understand well when I came. People are very open to explaining their beliefs and customs to me, and I am learning a lot. One of the thing I learned is that there is a call to prayer several times a day, and I like that I’m beginning to understand how that is structured. What I do not like is that the first one is at 4:30am. In my village, someone just stands outside the mosque and cries out that the prayer is about to begin, but I can’t hear it from my house. In cities with electricity, however, there are loudspeakers. I am beginning to hate loudspeakers. There is a cry loud enough to wake the dead and more importantly, me. Three times for several minutes each between 4:30 and 5:00am. This does no wonders for my beauty rest, and I am beginning to see the benefits of an electricity free lifestyle.

After the call to prayer stops, since I don’t have work in these villages, it’s usually possible to go back to sleep for an hour or two, which is blissful. Except at my friend M’s house. At his house, the call to prayer is followed by his neighbor screaming at the top of her voice. At first I thought something might be wrong, but M explained that she is screaming at the top of her lungs in local language, “I HAVE BEAN CAKES!” I asked why she does this, assuming that it was more than her joy over her breakfast selection. As it turns out, she sells the bean cakes to people who are on their way to work, school, the market, or their fields, which is fairly standard, but rather than selling them on the road where people will see her, she just cooks them at her house and periodically screams out that the bean cakes are there for the desirous. Somehow, this seems to work.

Which leads me to my new idea. I think when I get back to the US, I’m going to open an advertising firm. We won’t use any radio spots or television commercials. There will be no ads in magazines, no promotional offers, no posters, billboards, slogans, or signs. I’m simply going to hire people to walk around screaming about my clients’ products. Something along the lines of, “GEICO HAS CAR INSURANCE!” or “BUDWEISER MAKES BEER!” Given my experience here, I can see no way in which this business plan could fail. Plus, I know how much people will appreciate it. I think nothing will endear our products to the general public as much as someone screaming about them at sunrise. I’m going to make a killing. Interested investors can send cash any time.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Du Courage

Friends, I am sorry to say that I have failed to bring the right key to the internet today, so my blog posts remain in Namon. I promise to post real updates next week.

For today, I will just send my warmest wishes (and they are very warm--it is near 100 degrees today) to my dear friend Gail. I know she will remember that with her pearls and winning smile, she cannot fail. There is nothing the Ladies' Auxiliary can't pull off when we, as our charter prescribes, "get some girls on this."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Notes of Importance

A belated happy birthday to Marie H. whose age I will not disclose. I’m sure the party was smaller this year but just as much fun and hopefully didn’t involve anyone’s car breaking down on Lakeshore Drive.

My friend Margaret turned nine a couple of weeks ago. A blossoming artist, author, and storyteller, I think she will begin her memoirs soon. Happy birthday, M.

My cousins Kate and Will both had birthdays. I hope you celebrated by sneaking Will into the Backer for a Dobs.

My baby brother Mark turned 20. Every birthday I think about how I cried the night he was born (I was really hoping for a sister), but since then, I’ve mostly gotten used to him. Hope it was great, bro.

My sister Jenny turned THIRTY just a couple of days ago, and I hear it was a wild time. Festivities lasted until nearly 9pm.

Finally, my dad will be 53 next week. Remember, Padre, all you ever need for a great party is a Growler and the Hat Game.

Several people have asked about my new address, so I’ll share that with you here. Anything sent to the address in Lome will still arrive, but we opened a PO Box a little closer to my post, which is supposed to be more reliable. Letters in regular envelopes don’t seem to have a fantastic success rate, but if you spring for a padded envelope, it gets her just about every time. Theft can be a problem, so whatever you do, write something terribly boring on the customs form.

PCV Emily Pike
BP 12
Togo, West Africa

I have been hoping for awhile to be able to post some pictures on this blog, but so far, the internet hasn’t really been fast enough. If I had been able to, you would see that my house is shaping up quite nicely but is sadly lacking in decoration. Consider this my official plea for artwork to all my youngest friends in South Bend, Mishawaka, New Castle, Bardstown, Bloomington, London, Amsterdam, and yes, even the one left in Mitchell. Special thanks go out to TC and Flounder whose works already grace my walls.

I Am Very Impressive

There is a little something that’s been bothering me for awhile now. It’s one of those things that started out as not a big deal but the more I think about it, the more it gets to me. I’d like to take this moment to get if off my chest.

It all started a few weeks ago when I was at our clinic’s weekly foyer for malnourished children. We were particularly swamped, so I found myself doing some tasks on my own which I hadn’t really done before. It was nothing too terrible, things like mixing the flour, sugar, and oil in the correct proportions and making sure that each person (we give the flour to the elderly as well, but the mix is different) got the appropriate nutritional boost. Most of the mother’s get two kilos of a corn/soy blend flour mixed with sugar and oil. Because of language difficulties, most of my communication with the women at these sessions is conducted through pointing at their babies and smiling. Anyway, there was one woman who, after having received her two kilos, remained standing in front of me with her sack out. It’s not entirely uncommon for a woman to try and sneak extra flour, but we pretty well have to stick to the rules to make sure everyone gets some, so I gestured her away and gently pushed her bag aside. She began speaking to me quickly and insistently in Konkomba. I tried to make it clear that I didn’t understand as she was becoming more and more wrapped up in whatever she was trying to tell me. Finally, someone explained to me that the woman had twins and was therefore entitled to four kilos of flour. Happy to have the miscommunication cleared up and eager to make friends with the woman, I quickly picked up her sack and pointing to it, repeated loudly some of the words I realized she had been saying. “Uba, bilee,” I began, indicating the sack, and adding two more kilos, I continued, “bitaa, binaa!” Everyone in the area stopped what they were doing and broke into loud applause. My homologue, the birth attendant, rushed over and actually held my arms in the air as if I had kicked the winning goal in the World Cup. “My girl is magnificent!” she shouted in French, “Again, again!” With more confidence this time, I shouted, “Uba, bilee, bitaa, binaa!” The crowd went wild. I had, of course, counted to four, and this was very impressive.

The second event occurred just a couple of days later. The wife of the chief had asked me to help her sell tchouk (a sort of local beer made from millet) at the market. This was a big event for the people in Namon, and many stopped by to buy her goods from the new white woman in town. (I tend to be something of a side show.) Before we started, there was a brief tutorial on the pricing and etiquette. You server tchouk in a calabash from a plastic trash can with a small plastic bowl. There are two sizes of plastic bowls, the smaller of which costs 25 CFA and the larger 50. It was simple enough. All you have to do is ask the person how much they want and serve it to them. You also need to add a little at the end as a cadeau. This is expected with most things you buy. After a practice run with the matron, I was let to serve folks all on my own. The first guy was simple. He wanted 50 CFA worth of tchouk, and he paid with exact change. Nevertheless, this earned a murmur of approval from the audience. The next guy also wanted 50 CFA, but he paid with a 100 CFA coin. My fans held their breath. I successfully handed him the 50 CFA coin I had received from the previous customer. Again, there was approval, but my audience now wanted to test my abilities a bit. There came cries of, “Can you make change for this 2,000 CFA bill?” I did. Someone ordered 100 CFA of tchouk to try my skills with the small plastic bowls. Someone wanted 75 CFA of boisson and then paid with 150 CFA just to throw me off. With every challenge, I rose to the occasion. That’s right, my friends, I can perform simple arithmetic in another currency. I had taken the market by storm, and the applause was immense.

Those are just two examples, but I could go on and on. People are pleased and impressed when I successfully greet them in the morning. They’re even pleased when I just try hard. They’re pleased when I tell them I can make my own tea and peel an orange and differentiate between corn and soy beans.

All this brings me to my real point which is that I am, in fact, very impressive, and I’m not sure that those of you back in the States realize this. I can’t remember the last time one of you applauded when I counted to four, and I’m sure none of you has ever praised my orange peeling ability. I want you all to know that I forgive you for these oversights, but in the future, I would appreciate it if I could get a little recognition when I make change for a dollar, that’s all.