Tuesday, 28 September 2010

the beginning of the end

So I haven’t updated this in a while. There are two reasons for this. One is that I was genuinely busy and the other is that I just didn’t feel like it. Honestly, I don’t even really feel like it right now, so this post isn’t going to be the most well-written you’ve ever read. The three biggest things that have been keeping me busy were Camp Informatique, building latrines, and Camp UNITE.

Camp Informatique was awesome. I want to thank everyone who donated money. The kids had a great time and they learned a lot. A few of them went back to villages with volunteers posted there, and the volunteers told me that they were all pumped up about computers. But I think the best part of this project was the organizers. They did most of the organizing themselves and I have a lot of confidence for next year. If they can find a source of funding, I whole-heartedly believe that they could organize the camp totally on their own, and wouldn’t need a volunteer what-so-ever.

And the latrine project. With the help of some very motivated young guys, we built 10 latrines in the section of town called Watuwa. I took a big leap of faith and just deposited 2,500,000 cfa ($5000) and said “ok, show me receipts for everything you buy” and they did an excellent job. They built all ten latrines in only a few weeks and the receipts they gave me added up exactly to the amount of money I gave them. In addition to the actual construction they taught each family who received a latrine how to properly clean it, what can and cannot be put down it, and proper hygiene practices such as washing your hands with soap every time.

Camp UNITE was as awesome as ever. We had a great time learning Life Skills and doing the challenges and winning our planks back from Paggi. It was pretty much the same as last year, so just go ahead and check out that post. I’m sure I wrote about it.

And so this is the beginning of the end. As of today, I only have 43 days of Peace Corps service left. Emily left just over a week ago, although it feels like a lot longer, and now I’m really anxious to get back. The last month in village is going to be weird. I’m not gonna do a bunch of “work” but I do have to fill out a bunch of final reports and get my house ready for my replacement, and figure out what I’m taking with me and what I’m leaving.

So, if you really want to send me something, now is your chance. If you wait too much longer, you risk it getting here after I leave. If I were you, I wouldn’t send any packages; I won’t even have enough time to eat/use whatever is in it. But I’ll tell you what I can do. If I get a letter from you before I leave, I’ll let you buy me a beer when I get back. Deal?

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Im fine. Im just in Ghana.

I'll be here for... well, i havent decided how long yet, but maybe until the first. you can reach me at (+233) 548039036 and if that doesnt work, I'm back in Togo. I lost my phone but I'll try to get the same number back as soon as i can. the number is (+228) 986 1792. until i get that one back, i dont know what number i'll have, maybe Emily's: (+228) 938 5229. I'm fine though. Don't worry about anything.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Anasara, il faut me donner vingt-cinq

You’re on the internet; obviously, you know how to use a computer. Why not help a kid in Togo learn how to do the same?

Katy, the volunteer in Sokode, and I have organized a camp for high school students called Camp Informatique. It’s a weeklong formation for the #1 ranked student in their junior year of higschool from private and public schools located all over the Centrale Region of Togo. Because we’ve selected the top-ranking student from each school, they have the best chance of going to university in the years to come. Unfortunately, many of these students have never used a computer before. Writing a term paper would be slightly more difficult if you don’t even know what Microsoft Word is, let alone how to use it.

We are funding this project by means of a Peace Corps Partnership. This program provides a means through which friends and family in America (or anywhere, really) can donate money. One rule of this program states that, to show motivation, the community has to contribute at least 25% of the cost. In our case, the community is donating well over the required percentage. After all of the money has been donated, only then will Katy and I receive the funds. The camp is scheduled for the second week of June, so if you are interested in helping out, it would be much better to do so sooner, rather than later.

This will be the third year this camp has taken place, and every year the organizers from Sokode are one step closer to being fully self-sufficient. Obtaining the funds is the most difficult part. But this should be the last year a Peace Corps Partnership will be necessary.

The students who attend this camp are wonderful. There are a thousand reasons why a Togolese student won’t make it to high school. Not only have our students made it there, they are the #1 student in their class. These kids are brilliant and really motivated, but one of the biggest factors holding them back from a successful completion of university is a sheer lack of computer skills.

If you’d like to donate some money, you would really be giving these kids an opportunity that they otherwise won’t have. Please, check out our proposal, and instead of going to the movies this weekend, put the 10 bucks toward our project. Of you know, if you have a few hundred lying around, we’ll gladly accept. Thanks.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Life is full of ups and downs, arrivals and departures, sines and cosines. Even fire (dry season), rain (rainy), and sunny days that you swear to god will never ever end (any time of year, really). Since I’ve experienced- nay, endured one rainy and two dry seasons, I decided to make a “pros & cons” list for both. If you ever want to visit West Africa, feel free to use this list as a guide when choosing which personality of the region you’d like to “experience” (ou bein, endure). But keep in mind that the best current feature of West Africa (me) won’t be around for too much longer.
(Note: This was formatted in a nice little chart before I had to edit it because Blogger screwed it up)

Rainy Season

· Built-in excuse not to have to be anywhere
· Can wear a hoodie, drink tea, and watch the rain on the front porch
· Everything is green and alive Much better selection of produce au marché

· Rivers are now where the roads used to be. Good luck getting around.
· Laundry takes two days to dry; clothes grow mold if you go too long without wearing them
· Instead of evaporating, sweat likes to stick around and keep you company
· Tons of mosquitoes! (and bugs in general) Mud everywhere (on feet, pant cuffs, splattered up back of pant legs, in house, etc)

Dry Season

· Cool enough at night to sleep
· Roads aren’t laced with canyons and riverbeds (still though, good luck getting around)
· Don’t have to bring rain jacket absolutely everywhere
· Can put off doing laundry till last possible minute cause clothes dry in about 30 seconds (read: can wear last pair of underwear while washing all of the others)


· Everything is dry, brown, and dead
· Nose constantly feels like it would be clogged or runny if it could only muster enough moisture to produce some snot
· Lips crackle like Rice Crispies
· Feet are constantly dirty from walking through dust all day
· Have to dust and sweep the whole house daily

Although it’s nice to be able to see kilometer after kilometer unobstructed by plant life during dry season, I personally prefer rainy season. The ubiquitous millet and tall grasses that tower overhead make me feel more like I’m “in” someplace and less like I’m “on” someplace. This opinion may have roots in the streets Philly or the Pine Barrens of South Jersey, but I prefer jungle (concrete or otherwise) to desert.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Ca fait longtemps, non?

Yeah, I know it's been a while since the last post. I'm not going to apologize. I don't know, the internet just means less and less to me anymore. Sometimes I go a month or two without ever thinking "Hey, I wonder what's waiting for me in my email?" If I'm going to sit down and write something, I'd rather write a letter to someone than a blog post. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know. I'll let you decide.

So some things work out and some things don't. The science club was definitely my most successful project last semester. The World AIDS Day thing worked out, but not as well as I had hoped. And the Camp UNITE kids hardly even got off the ground.

-Science Club-

The physics professor I was working with (Djeri) is a rockstar. That's one of the big reasons the science club worked out so well. The kids were all really motivated and genuinely interested in the activities we were doing. We kicked the year off by building an electrolyzer and then using it to do things like separate water into hydrogen and oxygen and make bleach. We also did an activity where we measured the volume and mass of different materials to figure out their density. But then toward the end of the semester, we started to run out of activities to do. We did math and logic puzzles one day, and the kids seemed to like that. But the biggest problem with this club is just a sheer lack of resources. It's not like Djeri can go home and look up activities on the internet. Even when I get a chance to use the internet, it's hard for me to find things to do. So Sekou, a volunteer in the Maritime Region, has a book full of science activities. The only problem is that it's in English. So he said that one day he's gonna come up to Tchamba, sit down with Djeri and explain the experiments to him. Then we can re-write the activities in French, and make a document to send to volunteers and high school teachers all over the country. And that's the best part about Djeri- he's brilliant. If I explain the general concept of an activity I read about on the internet, he'll understand and can stand up in front of the class room and just rock the session like he'd been doing it for years. So this semester, we're going to keep the club going but I think we might just meet every other week instead of every week.

-World AIDS Day-

The idea was great in theory. In practice, it didn't really work out the way we had expected. Heather and I organized a group of middle-school kids to have an event for World AIDS Day on December first. In theory, it was supposed to work like this: The latter half of September and all of October was to be spent on teaching our kids all about AIDS. All the stuff they normally don't get to learn about. How the immune system works, what a virus is and how they work, the life-cycle of the AIDS virus, and what makes AIDS different from other viruses. And the kids loved it. They don't usually get a chance to ask a lot of questions (the school system here isn't the most interactive of media through which to learn), and with us they got to, and Heather and I were really responsive, which I think the kids really appreciated.

Then every Wednesday in November, it was their turn. They had four weeks to organize an event for December first. We reviewed all the information they learned and we showed them games they could play and skits to help them illustrate the different concepts pertaining to how AIDS affects the immune system, etc. They broke themselves into groups and assigned themselves to different subjects. Then each group practiced teaching the stuff they learned to the rest of the groups to prepare for World AIDS Day (which we moved to December second for logistic reasons).

December second was the beginning of the end. First of all, we were going to have teachers from the middle school policing the kids to help keep them in order. Heather and I knew we didn't have enough authority to keep a crowd of middle school kids under control. But then the morning of the event, we were informed that there was a big school board meeting that all of the teachers had to attend, and that they wouldn't be available to come to our event. Great. And we got a DJ to come so we'd have a microphone to help us organize and music to play during the games and stuff. Then there were no plugs close enough to where we were to plug anything in. It took us a while to find an extension cord to run all the way across the school grounds so we could start the event.

We had been working with our friend Moctar, who had helpfully written a proposal to PSI to give us some stuff to give out. We got T-shirts, condoms, pamphlets, and stuff like that in addition to a huge box full of toys that my third grade teach, Mrs. Schilling and her class had donated (Thank you Cathy!). Little did we know that this would be our downfall.

The kids did a great job leading their classrooms. They taught their classmates all of the stuff that we had taught them the month before. They asked questions and wrote stuff on the blackboard. Each group of our kids had their own classroom, each dedicated to a different subject (immune system, prevention, stigmatization, etc). Heather and I devised a system to verify which kids had visited which (and how many) of the four rooms. We gave stickers to our student-teachers to put next to the subject they were teaching on a piece of paper given to each participant. But what ended up happening was that the kids went berserk about the stickers and didn't even really care about what they were being taught, they just wanted a sticker next to every subject.

Then after the formations were over, our goal was to ask the kids questions about the information that they learned, and to give out prizes if they got the answers right. This is about the time that the earth split open to release all of the deamons from hell. Their animal instintinct kicked in and they went clinically insane for the rest of the afternoon. Nobody cared about the questions we were asking, they just wanted a football or a box of condoms or whatever was on the table to be given away. We got swarmed and lost control pretty quickly. This was one of the reasons we wanted the teachers present. I felt like I was in a cartoon, like I had just crawled out of a dust-cloud with tattered clothing and two black eyes only to be grabbed by the ankle and dragged back in.

After the event, Heather, Emily (who came to help out), Moctar, and I went to the bar to have a beer or three and to reflect. It wasn't a lost cause. I'm sure some of the participants learned some useful information and I know that our student-teachers got a lot out of it. Not only did they learn a bunch of stuff about AIDS, they also got to experience what it's like to run a classroom. Maybe now they'll have a little more empathy for their teachers.

-The UNITE Kids-

The wings fell off of this one before it even got the runway. We got a good number of Camp UNITE participants from the area together for one meeting at the begining of the year. We talked about some possible projects we could do and they wanted to do a sensibilization in a nearby village on the subject of gender equity. We got as far as actually going out to the village (Alibi I) to talk to the director about when we could do it, and that's about when the kids stopped showing up for meetings. The only time during the week they had free was Wednesday afternoons, and neither Heather nor I could come because that's when our World AIDS Day class was. I don't blame the kids for not coming, I mean, I'd rather play football with my friends than organize a sensibilization too. And I can't really blame myself, cause it's not like I wasn't doing anything- I was busy at the middle school every wednesday. So, I don't feel too bad about losing that one. I think the lesson here is that if you're going to organize kids as peer-educators, you need to give them a ton of structure and just have them fill in the gaps.

That's what I spent most of my time doing last semester. I'm sure I did a lot of other stuff that classified as "work" as far as Peace Corps is concerned (like building a school in a little village 40 kilometers away), but none of them are big, long-term(ish) projects like the aforementioned.
I had my 12-year-old host-brother from training come live with me for a good two weeks. It was tough. I felt like he was bored the whole time, but I'm sure he had a good time. He had keys to the house, I let him come and go as he pleased. We had a good time cooking together and listening to music. But I think the most important thing he got out of the trip was experience. He's never traveled more than a few kilometers from his village, so there were a lot of things up here that he'd never seen before. He speaks Ewe in an Ewe-speaking village, so for him to hear people speaking Tchamba and Kotokoli was something completely new. He asked me "Why do you keep saying 'aieeyo'?". "That's how you say 'no' in Tchamba". And it gets cold up here at night- well, reletively cold. I shiver if I don't wear a hoodie after the sun goes down (not until after my grandmom sent me a thermometer did I realize that it only goes down to 72 at the absolute coldest). So that was new for him too. And he asked a lot of questions about Islam: the writing, the calls to prair, the washing, etc. He wasn't entertained every minute of every day, but I'm sure when he got back to Agou, he wouldn't shut up about all the stuff we did and how different every thing is.

And that's about it. After a fun-filled (yet tiring) break between semesters, I'm winding back up for the second half of the school year. I just got back from teaching some women how to make liquid soap and tomorrow I'm going to start making phonecalls about Camp Informatique. Emily and I are taking a trip up to Ouagadougou in the begining of February and then were on stand-fast (we're not allowed to leave post) for a couple of weeks in March for the election. That's about all I have on the agenda. Keep sending letters, I appreciate every one that I get. You'll hear from me the next time I feel like typing up a post.

Some random things that have happened that I don't feel like writing out:
My cat died mysteriously and I bought a new one.
Spent a week in the Med-unit.
Organized a girls' soccer tournament in Wassarabo.
Published an issue of The Griot.
Took a trip to Ghana with Emily.
Had a phone pick-pocketed, then a really nice woman named Paulina gave me hers.
Biked a good 10 or 15 kilometers at night with no flashlight.
Biked to Sokode and back in the same day (70 kilometers).

Thursday, 19 November 2009

48 hours

I want to go home. Not that I want to ET or anything, I just really miss America and I need a break. I played a game with myself the other day, and I called it "48 hours in America". So the premise is that if I were to be instantly teleported home at 12:01am Saturday morning to be instantly teleported back at 12:01am Monday morning, what would I do with my 48 hours in America? It's tricky cause I would want to do things like sleep in a comfortable bed, but I don't know if that time would be better spent doing something more fun. Also, there are about 5 thousand different things I would want to eat, but how much can one really eat in only 48 hours? Oh, and everything but by body would be disintegrated in the teleportation process, so I'd come out naked on the other end -Terminator stye- thus preventing me from bringing anything home or back. So, this is the list I came up with.
  • Have a donut (or five) and a coffee at Dunkin Donuts
  • Go to the movies
  • Go to a bar and have a delicious beer on tap and maybe flirt with some girls (in English, obviously)
  • Eat at a diner
  • Go to a Reggae show
  • Take the subway somewhere (speedline counts)
  • Eat a cheesesteak
  • Drive a car
  • Play around on the internet (but just for a bit, I could easily get carried away)
  • Eat a Philly soft pretzel
  • Take as many hot showers as I can
  • Eat Chinese food

...And then I would undoubtedly fill the remaining time with whatever came up. Oh, and here's the thing, everyone is invited to do all of this stuff with me, but I'm not going out of my way to see anyone; you're going to have to come to me. I mean, come on, I only have 48 hours. I may be teleported at any moment, so if I show up at your door at midnight some Saturday in the future, have a pile of clothes waiting for me and 100 bucks in cash, and be ready to have an awesome weekend.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Vacance (pt.2)

-science formation-

I spent a solid two weeks at the Peace Corps training camp in Pagala. The first few days were for a formation on how to promote math and science to girls in highschool. There were two volunteers from each region and each volunteer brought a homologue with him or her. I brought the physics teacher from the public highschool in Tchamba.

The formation was cool. It was basically like a very mini PST. Rose (the APCD for the GEE program) talked about why girls' education is important and how girls get the short end of the education stick here in Togo and why it is important to promote math and science. We also learned how to do some simple experiments in village that don't need a lot of technical equipment. And we talked about possible project ideas we could get started in village such as science clubs, camps, or fairs. We also did fun stuff like exchange brain-teasers (ok, you have a 5 liter jug and a 3 liter jug, you need 1 liter of water. go.) And at the end of the formation, we broke up into teams and played a quiz game. We got asked science/math questions but also cultural stuff so that the Togolese formateurs and the volunteers had a little exchange. I remember one of the answers was "Harriet Beacher Stowe", but another one was "Albert Camus".

It was fun to hang out with a bunch of people who get excited about science and math. I was happy to have a long discussion with Katrina about Avogadro's number and carbon-12. The hardest part was (still) the language aspect. Although my French has improved considerably since I've arrived, I'm really used to conversing in a non-formal style (maybe over some tchouck). So when it came down to a technical discussion, I was lacking a lot of vocabulary. Like what are the French words for "radius" or "nucleus" or "square root"? (The answers are rayon, noyau, and racine carre, respectively). It was hard to kind of re-learn a bunch of science material in another language, just to have a discussion about why you think a specific experiment could/couldn't work in your village. I kind of felt like the Togolese science teachers thought I didn't know what I was talking about, but I think I held my own during the quiz-game.

-Camp UNITE-

Camp UNITE was AWESOME! It was a total of four weeks long, broken up into one week for boy apprentices, one for girl apprentices, and one each for boy/girl students from villages all over the country. I was a camp councilor for the week of boy students. The camp kind of has a little plot to it. The first day, the kids learn about the "bridge model" which is a go-to lesson-plan if you ever have to keep a group of kids busy for an hour. The basic idea is that we are on the shore of a river; we are students, brothers, sons, friends, football players, etc. We want to get to the other shore; we want to be doctors, journalists, fathers, husbands, etc. The water represents all of the "traps" in life; we don't want to get pregnant, or sick with AIDS, or drop out of school. So we need to build a healthy lifestyle bridge across the water; we want to manage our time well, have good communication skills, etc. Ok, so after learning this, the kids come out to see the bridge consisting of planks (each one representing an attribute of a positive lifestyle) that stretch across "water", to a pavilion on the other side (that represents a successful life). But after talking about it for a few minutes we're interrupted by Paggi, the antagonist. Paggi was a participant last year, who disguises himself in a ridiculous costume. Paggi comes and steals all of the planks.
To get the planks back, every day the participants have to complete a series of challenges and with every challenge, they win back one board. The challenges encourage working as a team and good communication skills such that every challenge is impossible to complete on your own, forcing you to work with the other members of your group. And to make things harder, the participants are not allowed to talk during the challenge, therefore they have to decide on a plan
of action before starting, and stick to it throughout.

Throughout the week, we teach the kids the benefits of gender equity, family planning, time management skills, etc. All of the participants leave camp at the end of the week ready to change the world. They are all so motivated to go back to their respective villages and teach what they've learned; it's extremely inspiring. The problem is that, since the camps are 4 different weeks, and camp happens every year, that none of the participants know each other (e.g. the boy apprentices don't know the boy students or any of the girl participants). So when they get back to village, every participant is left to change the world on his or her own.

So, since I've been back, I've asked Emily for a list of the participants' names and have done my best to find them all around town (Tchamba is a big place, it's hard to find some of these kids). We've had one meeting for them to get to know each other. We exchanged phone numbers and stuff like that. Now, if any one of these kids has a brilliant idea to change something that they see as a problem in Tchamba, they have a network of friends to lean on if they need or want help. Right now they're in the middle of planning a sensibilization at a village 7km en brousse called Alibi 1. Why they don't just organize something here in Tchamba, I have no idea. But it's great to see a group of motivated kids who care about their future and the future of their friends and family. These kids are special, and they're all going to do some awesome things.


In mid-August, Nicole got on a plane in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, and when she got off, she was in the Land of... well... over-crowded bush-taxis and the Home of... food that doesn't quite sit right in your stomach. Regardless, we had a great time. Well, I had a great time with her, you'll have to ask her how great of a time she had. Although it was a bit overwhelming, every moment was something new and I doubt she'll forget any of it anytime soon.

After the long (oh so long) journey from Accra to Tchamba, we spent a week in village. We walked around, I introduced to her to all of the crazy characters in my life these days, and we had more calabashes of tchouck than Nicole could handle. We saw naked children getting scrubbed down by a family member while balancing on a rock just wider than their feet on the side of the road, bush-taxis that look as if there is enough cargo teetering atop that the slightest breeze could send them tumbling down the side of a mountain, and vans with an entire football team AND all of its fans sitting in, standing on, and dangling from the roof-rack, and you know, other stuff that happens here every day. Obviously, we couldn't meet everyone and do everything in only one week, but I'm satisfied with the amount of ground we covered. A lot of people I wanted Nicole to meet were in Nigeria or Lome for the summer vacation or otherwise just not around, but we hit the basics: drinking tchouck, pounding fufu, and rolling up our pants to cross a stream in the woods.

After a week in village, we spent a week traveling around Togo. We went as far north as Kante and made our way back to Lome and then Accra staying at various volunteer's houses, transit houses, and cheap hotels. We saw some Tatas which are two-story mud huts that people live in and used to serve defensive purposes, and climbed up the inside of a huge baobab tree. And we hit the capital of every region with the exception of Dapaong (cause lord knows, that it's a freakin drive and a half to get all the way up there) just for lack of time. I got a nice little case of the worst diarrhea I've ever experienced due to some bacterial dysentery, and got severely dehydrated. So, to say the least, I wasn't bringing my A-game throughout the duration of our Tour-du-Togo, and I feel bad, that I didn't have the energy to really take Nicole all around the different cities we visited. But such is life in the Land of food that doesn't quite sit right in your stomach (or is it Home of...). Anyway, I'm all better now (thanks for asking) and Nicole has returned to the Purple Mountains Majesty and the Amber Waves of Grain. All-in-all it was a great trip, and I'm super thankful that she spent all of the time and money and endured all of the frustrations to come out and visit. It was great to see her again and I felt a level of comfort that I haven't felt in a year. And I did things with her that I probably wouldn't have if she hadn't come to visit.

-back to school-

And now I'm back in village. After a long-ass summer, I am so grateful to be able to just BE here in Tchamba. It's nice to get back into somewhat of a routine, see the same people every day, and to put my laundry back on a shelf instead of back into a backpack. The kids are back to school, and things have definitely settled down. I'm ready to start whatever work awaits me. As I've said, the UNITE kids are organized, and the physics teacher I brought to the science formation is back in town. Heather and I have also taken the first few steps in organizing a group of students to plan an event for World AIDS Day on December first. So, I'll let you know how the next couple of months turns out, what projects make it, which ones (inevitably) fall through, and if I start any new ones.

Oh, and hey, I've officially been in Togo for over a year. YAY!

Also check this out (translated from German). Scroll down to the September 25th entry. Heather and I went to Kaboli with her homologue, and some swiss from the Red Cross came too. They also have an entry about Wasarabo, Emily's village, but she went into Sokodé for the day, so she missed meeting them.