19 May 2013

Au Revoir

The time has come for me to say goodbye to Togo and all my friends and co-workers; after two years, it is time for me to head home. For two years I haven’t stepped onto American soil (unless you want to get technical and say I have been to the American embassy) and it feels good to be finally going home. There are many things about America and my family that I appreciate more since I have had this experience in Togo, but I am glad I am saying “au revoir” and not the English “good bye” to Togo.

I do not know when I will be able to return to West Africa and Togo, but I really hope I get to. For that reason it feels much better to be saying “until we meet again” (the more literal translation of the French goodbye: au revoir) than the ever so final “goodbye.” It may be ten years, or it may be two, before I get to return, but after meeting so many wonderful people and seeing how the country has changed in just the two years that I was there, I want to keep in touch and visit again.

My time in the Peace Corps has changed my outlook on many things and has expanded my worldview beyond my little bubble and for that I am extremely grateful. I never want to lose touch with these experiences, so for now, au revoir Togo, it was amazing and you shared with me so much.

But man, does it feel good to be home!

01 May 2013

Engaging the 52%

Let’s be honest, I am a feminist. I believe that men and women are equals and should have equal political, social, and economic rights. You will not be hearing me calling for “womyn’s” rights, but be sure that I wholly believe that any differences that are perceived between the sexes should not impeded the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness of any gender.

While our achievements stand on the strong shoulders of the feminist women that came before us, among recent generations of women the term feminist has developed somewhat of a stigma. Resulting from the perceived extremism of some feminists that have been attached to the word, being called a feminist has been at times thought synonymous with crazy man haters. Feminism seems so last generation; it belongs to our bra burning mothers and grandmothers, not us. But while great strides have been made in creating a world of equal rights for men and women, feminism is still something our generation needs. Spending the last two years living in Togo has taught me what it means to live in a patriarchal society, the courage it takes to stand up for the rights of a marginalized population, and has demonstrated just how much of an impact women’s rights has on a community.

In what will be a project that bookends my service, I had the opportunity to meet one of the preeminent women’s rights advocates here in Togo. I got chills listening to her speak the powerful truths that are so rarely heard here in Togo; women matter and as 52% of the population it is about time that women receive equal rights as men. Seeing the audience of women become so impassioned by her words reinforced in me the deep sense of how important human rights are and how much they are worth fighting for.

Civic engagement is relatively low in Togo, particularly among women. While universal suffrage exists, few take advantage of the right. Near the beginning of my service I helped the women’s rights NGO I work with write a grant to launch a project to work to increase civic participation among women in our prefecture. This past Monday, in partnership with African Women’s Development Fund based in Ghana, we opened our project with a training of female leaders from each canton in Vo. Leading up to the May elections we endeavor for female community leaders to learn about civil rights, the electoral process, and voting. These trained leaders have been tasked with spreading this information to the members of their community and to assist community members in registering to vote. The project will continue through the elections, encouraging people to vote, and with further educational sessions including those about avoiding violence during and after elections.

We represent only one prefecture out of thirty that exist in Togo. The project is only a small step in the effort to increase peaceful civic engagement in a country and region where often little confidence exists in the electoral process, but maybe getting women more involved will help move things in the right direction. After all, not including women, who represent more than half of the population, is like working with only half your brain. Only when we engage everyone will we be able to finally achieve the results we want to see in our communities.

22 April 2013

The People You’ll Meet

Listening to the news it’s easy to be afraid of the world outside your own small community. There seems to be no end to the violence, misery, and people filled with hatred. Whether it’s religion, culture, or the language we speak, there are many things in life that we let divide us. It’s easy to make assumptions about other people, to fear what we don’t know, and keep ourselves isolated in our own groups, but if my experiences in another culture have shown me anything it’s that when you move beyond the differences, you can find the most amazing people and form enduring bonds.

Travel isn't just about seeing historical sights and eating exotic foods; meeting the people that truly make that place what is can be a far more powerful experience. Visiting other countries has allowed me to see places for what they are beyond their news worthy headlines. Interacting with people who have a different background than I do has helped me appreciate that—while we might have some different views—wherever you go you will find good people and a friend.  

I haven’t always been the best at branching out here in Togo, language barriers and a mild fear of expectations of me have kept me from being as social I might usually be, but despite this I have never had difficulty finding someone to share a laugh or lend a hand. Plenty of strangers have helped me when I was in need; I have had people not only give me directions, but walk with me to my destination. Except for a few high market prices, no one has ever tried to take advantage of me. I have become good friends with my colleagues and neighbors. The people here don’t live up to the hype of protests and violence perpetrated by the few in the larger cities that dominates all the news focusing on Togo.

Having the chance to go abroad has not only allowed me change my preconceived notions about what a country is by meeting the locals, but has also let me meet wonderful people from my own country—some of whom have resided in the same city as I did, but if we hadn't come to Africa we never would have met.

There are so many amazing people in the world it is an injustice to never let yourself see that. It’s true that not everything you see will be beautiful—there are horrors in the world and bad people definitely exist—but without venturing out and seeing beyond the fears spread in the news, you will never get to know that there are good and decent people out there, that—while things aren't perfect and never will be—even in the worst of places you will find reason to hope in the people you meet.

10 March 2013

What’s More American?

We Americans love our baked goods. We have our birthday cakes, holiday pies, bake sales, and milk and cookies.  I mean, after all, we are a nation that measures American-ness by a baked good.

A fake pumpkin pie I baked for Thanksgiving with papayas.
Like many of my peers, I baked occasionally when I was living in the U.S., but since living in Togo, with a bit more time to myself, my baking habit has increased quite a bit. When I’m bored I bake, there definitely are worse habits to have, but it sure hasn't been the best for my waistline! In an attempt to moderate my baked good intake I occasionally bring what I bake into work with me.

I've brought in a number of things from peanut butter cookies, to brownies and carrot cake into the office to share with my colleagues. Each one has proven to be quite a novelty; baked goods hardly exist in Togo. You can find packaged cookies in some of the boutiques, pastries in Lomé and some of the biggest cities, and bread that is made in some of the larger towns, but your average citizen never really bakes. You can find wheat flour based treats, but they are almost always fried.

My colleagues frequently ask how make the cake and cookies I bring in and finally on Friday my friends Felicité and Delphine came over to learn how to bake. After lunch we made some brownies. I taught them how to set up a Dutch oven to bake on the stove and showed them all the little baking techniques I've watched my mom use from since I was a child. Of course some of our implements were a little different; with no measuring cups we used tomato paste cans and our baking chocolate was a chocolate drink mix. In the end, though, we sat around the pan and dug into the warm gooey brownies by the spoonful.

I translated a few other recipes for them into French and the tomato can measures. They both excitedly said they were going to go home and bake this week-end so, maybe tomorrow I’ll get to hear about their experiments with cakes and cookies. My second goal here with the Peace Corps is to share American culture and what’s more American than apple pie, er… brownies?

01 March 2013


Being a foreigner, it can be difficult to really feel as though you belong in your community, especially in a larger town where you cannot get to know everyone. This is even truer on market days when people from all over the region convene in Vogan and I run into people I don’t even get to casually see around town. Being seen as the foreigner can be disheartening after living in a community for nearly two years, and occasionally events occur that make you feel conflicting emotions. Today I had just that occur, making today quite possibly both the best and worst day I have had in Vogan, as far as dealing with my sense of belonging here.

While running my typical errands to the market, I was harassed by a couple men I had never seen before. As I was chatting with one of the women from whom I frequently buy my vegetables, a man grabbed my arm and a second reached out to stroke me cheek. When I told them not to touch me and moved away from them, they began verbally abusing me, shouting at both me and those around me that I was a number of bad words for daring to tell them to leave me alone. For more than ten minutes the man yelled at anyone nearby about how I didn’t belong there, that I offended them, and that I was scared of a little stroke on the cheek. I chose to ignore them and continued buy my eggs, vegetables, and spices, greeting each vendor as though there wasn’t a man yelling about me just five feet away.

While I may have been working on pretending they didn’t exist, I was worried. I have had people try to touch me and shout at me, but never with such vehemence. But while I was frightened, at the same time I felt the most overpowering sense of love and belonging that it almost brought me to tears. Each of the women that work the stands told me to ignore them and let me know that they were there for me. They protected me, telling the men to leave their sister alone and to get away from their part of the market.

I couldn’t help feeling a little jumpy as I completed my shopping, but as I passed vendors shouting my name saying hello, friends shaking my hand, and a few extra sticks of soja as a gift, I knew I had nothing to worry about; these men and women were my community and they would be there for me. I always tell people that I am Vogantↄ (one from Vogan), but today I didn’t need to say anything, because by standing with me, they were the ones who told me that I really am Vogantↄ.

02 February 2013

There She Blows

For two years Harmattan has been a mystery to me. My friends up north speak about dry winds, cool nights, and a constant haze of dust blowing in from the north, but down here, just a few dozen kilometers from the ocean, this “Harmattan” has remained a myth to me—until yesterday.

The night before I flicked on my fan, hoping to dispel some of the sweat that is ever present on my back in the typical 80% humidity that never lets me get fully dry, and went to sleep. I woke up the next morning a little chilly with my fan blowing on me, but sometimes that happens when the temperature drops down to 80 degrees overnight.  I ran my comb through my hair to hear the
zip zap crackling of static rushing through my hair—this was bizarre, I hadn't experienced static since Europe—I ran my hands over my skin, smoothness—no damp stickiness—one more stroke, textural bliss, and I knew I couldn’t possibly have woken up in the same place I fell asleep. but alas, I had. From 80% the night before, the humidity had dropped to 20%. In my time here it has never ever ever been anywhere close to this dry.  Harmattan had finally made its way south.

Harmattan is a trade wind that blows in from the Sahara that lasts during what we’d call the winter months, November to March. With it, it brings very low humidity and lots of dust. Volunteers further north in Savannes and Kara battle dry cracking skin, respiratory problems, and dirt that invades everywhere. Down here in Maritime, though, the weather hardly changes, we have little rain but that is it—that is our Harmattan.

Increasing severity of the trade wind, which can limit visibility similar to a dense fog for days making driving and air travel near impossible, has been attributed do deforestation allowing for more particulate matter to be picked up and leading to stronger winds that have little barrier to pushing further south. A friend told me that in the past Harmattan barely touched Kara, it affected Savannes, but was more often thought of as something in Burkina Faso. Today, Harmattan is brutal in Burkina, strong in Kara, and now even touching Maritime.

The drop in humidity has been a blessing for me. These past two days I have been more productive than I have been in a while. Not being sticky made me finally feel comfortable and exerting myself didn't leave me with a puddle of sweat on the floor. While I am concerned for the ecological implications of increasing Harmattan strength, if I can feel like a human for a little while longer, let the winds blow!

27 January 2013

In Togo Taxi Hails You

For a while now I have been meaning to talk about the transportation here.  It is an issue that really affects my life, but I kept telling myself that I wanted some major event to occur so that I could relate my story about how crazy transportation is.  But the other day, as I bounced along though the motocross course that is the road to my neighbor’s house, I realized that I have been in Togo so long that I have stopped noticing the fact that basically every time I travel it is an absurd event.

Unlike some other West African countries, like Ghana, in Togo the main form of transportation is the motorcycle or “moto.” There are a handful of cars, but unless you are traveling on very major routes you will most likely be taking a zimijan (moto-taxi). For this reason we Togo PCVs are some of the few with moto privileges. Out of our neighboring West African Peace Corps countries, Benin is the only other one where volunteers are allowed to hop on the back of a zimijan. Helmet required of course!

In New York, unless you hail it, a taxi won’t stop for you and even then sometimes they seem to fly right by, but here is doesn’t matter even if you don’t want one, the zimijan will hail you. From across the street you’ll hear it “Tssst! Tsst!” maybe a hand gesture and an “on y va?” (Let’s go?) They may be zipping down the road in the opposite direction but they’ll slam on their brakes and turn around just to hiss at you in the hope you might actually want to hop on. Walk down the street and you’ll have twenty zimijans hiss at you, no matter how determinedly you walk or if they just saw you turn down another moto, it is always “on y va?”  It helps having them make themselves known from the private motos, but when you are walking down the street talking to a friend and every moto that passes you hisses, shouts, and gestures to see if you want a ride it can get pretty ridiculous. I need a light up taxi sign for myself, except the light will go on when I want a taxi rather than when I want passengers. Sadly I don’t have the wiring necessary, all I can do is sigh and shake my head, “No, no I don’t want a ride, I have feet, I am walking.”

The driving skill of the drivers can vary a lot too. If I’m planning a trip I have one driver who I trust and I call him ahead of time, but not every trip is planned in advance. On one trip to Aneho, where normally we weave around the potholes, my driver decided to drive straight through each and every one. He graciously shouted “doucement!” (be careful!) after each bump, but his message of caution had no impact whatsoever on his driving style, next pot hole “doucement!”

With the road conditions as they are it can sometimes be difficult to not hit a bump or two every now and then, and even with one passenger the roads can be perilous, but just one passenger isn’t how things work here. While technically it is illegal, you often see whole families piled onto a moto--that is saying sometimes upwards of three adults and children. Live animals, construction equipment, and containers piled high—everything you think might not even fit into the trunk of your car is carried on the back of a moto. It hardly has to be said that navigating our roads with overly full motos is dangerous, and thousands of people die every year from motor vehicles accidents.

In many villages there isn’t a single car available, the moto is the only mode of transport, so really all there is to ask is, “Tsst! On y va?”