Wednesday, August 22, 2007

We have reached the end of our African road.

After two years in Togo we’re ready to return home — filled with mixed emotions about leaving. We are full of Anticipation for our return home to family and friends, yet we are feeling Emptiness at leaving the friends and life we have made here. More than anything, our hearts are Full. Full of witnessing the strength of the human spirit in the face of extreme poverty.

We understand Africa a little better. But we still don’t understand why such a great disparity remains between the rich and the poor. The West’s development efforts of the last 50 years have made little progress to overcome the myriad of issues that keeps Africa in the poverty trap. But that is another conversation.

For now, we hope what we have shared with you has created a better understanding of the remarkable people, culture and life in Togo.

God’s blessings to you all.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Togo Top Ten

As we are getting ready to leave Togo in about a month, our thoughts are drawn to reflecting on what we have done in the last two years. So not to blow our own horn, but just to give you a better idea of where your tax dollars are going, we will list, in David Letterman style, our Togo Top Ten: (not counting experiences like eating fu-fu, doing the chicken dance, tolerating the heat, risking our lives on public transport and bonding with lots of great PC volunteers):

10. Stayed relatively healthy (in spite of living amongst malaria-carrying mosquitoes, rampant amoebas and 2 outbreaks of cholera in our town).

9. Served as Good Will Ambassadors for the USA and got to see some of Africa up close while learning there is no good recipe for Development.

8. Aided in publicizing and supporting a local Stilt Dancing Festival to help preserve traditional culture.

7. Served on the organizing committee of an annual 5-day Theater Festival for sensitizing the public on AIDS prevention and treatment, reaching 20,000 persons.

6. Facilitated courses in business and computer skills to small entrepreneurs. Created websites for four NGOs.

5. Learned enough French to communicate most of what we needed to say to survive for two years.

4. Authored grant proposals and oversaw funding sustaining two NGOs that work with people living with AIDS, including opening 2 Internet Cafes on their sites

3. Launched two “Village Savings and Loan” associations, enabling 50 entrepreneurial “market women” to save money, earn interest and make loans to themselves to improve their small businesses.

2. Shared with you the life and culture of Togo as we experienced it via our blog website and email and hosted six family member visitors.

1. Became endeared with the Togolese people, learned from them and their culture, and shared with them the life of two crazy old Americans.

We hope and assume we have made other small differences in ways we’ll never know. Perhaps they will end up being more significant than any of the above.

In the end we know that we will be taking back more than we have given. It has been a life-enhancing adventure and unforgettable journey and we have no regrets! We feel blessed to have had this opportunity with Peace Corps.

We’ll have one more email before we leave. Thanks for staying with us and having interest in our West African experience. We’ll soon be home!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

School's Out

School is out in Togo and we will miss seeing the students energetically walking to school in the mornings in their clean uniforms. Attached are a few student/school photos and a very brief description of the educational system here in Togo.

The system was organized by the French colonialists and is memory-based with rote skills mandated in contrast to the American system which focuses more on critical thinking and problem solving. Discipline is strong and students are respectful. Exams are taken every year to pass to the next level. Since not everyone passes, it is not uncommon to repeat a year which makes for a wide range of ages in the high schools. Normal graduation age is 19, but there are many high school students in their early 20’s. Vocational/technical schools are available and teach accounting, etc., in lieu of academics.

In the past, school was not as important for girls as for boys because education was not required for traditional women’s tasks. Today’s Togolese recognize the need for girls’ education and more girls are staying in school longer, although many still do not finish high school and instead go on to take apprenticeships in hair styling or tailoring.

Public schools cost the equivalent of $7.00 per year for primary grades and $15 to $20 for secondary grades. Private schools are about 5 times as expensive but classes are proportionally smaller (20 vs. 100 students) and books are more plentiful. Education is very significant to the Togolese and many impoverished parents sacrifice much to pay the school fees. These may seem low to us, but they are high when the average income is $30/month.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Using your Head

Everyday life in Togo.
Off to market with mangoes

Sometimes two heads are better than one

Kids bring water to school . Cate wants to learn how.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Water for Life

Imagine no running water in your home, and the necessity of finding water EACH and EVERY day for the basic needs of life: preparing food, washing utensils, bathing yourself and your children, laundry and cleaning the home. Not to mention finding safe, potable drinking water to help prevent maladies such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis and diarrhea from amoebas and giardia. This is reality for most throughout Africa. (On the other hand contaminated surface water enables a host of other diseases like guinea worm, yellow fever, malaria, river blindness, etc.)

It is typically the women and children who have the responsibility of “harvesting” enough water to meet their family’s needs. If they are lucky, they have access to a nearby community water pump. Unfortunately, pumps in general have a chronic break-down rate with repairs hard to come by due to unavailability of parts and/or knowledge of repair. Many villages have a well which can be a social gathering place too, but in dry season (5-8 months per year), they are often dry or murky and can become easily contaminated. Hillside springs are another source of water. The water trickles, but those who are patient can hopefully collect good clean drinking water as the spring slowly bubbles up. (Photo attached was taken this morning at a nearby spring. All of the attached photos were taken a short distance from our home.) And lastly there is surface water from stream and lakes, the least likely to be safe and clean.

In the dry season, when the wells and springs dry up, women need to find other sources. Typically they have to walk farther (in the heat), oftentimes for several kilometers, with the heavy load on their head. EVERY day. In rainy season, it becomes a little easier. Everyone puts their basins outside their home when the rain begins, and those with cisterns have gutters that feed them. Trapping water works especially well if you or your neighbor happen to have a rain spout.

Only a small fraction of Togo’s population has piped running water in their home. (We are one of those lucky few, although we still boil and filter it due to a questionable delivery system). Piped water is available (but not always affordable) in the larger towns and regional capitals, but almost non-existent in the rural areas. Our town of 35,000, Atakpamé, has many privately owned street faucets connected to the city water system spread throughout the town. Providers charge 25 CFA for a big basin, about 5 cents, which is comparable to the cost of a bowl of cooked rice purchased on the street. The charge provides a small profit after they pay the city for their metered water. In town, women probably don’t need to walk more than a ½ kilometer. But to gain a little appreciation for the task, you try walking on rocky roads and steep slippery slopes with an open 50 lb. basin of water on your head. Everyday.

Atakpamé also has a wonderful fountain from a natural spring source in the center of town with a park, whose modernization was funded by Rotary International in Northfield, MN. It is heavily used at all hours of the day and provides free, clean water. Way to go, Rotary - providing good water to hundreds of families in Atakpamé .

I remember, before coming to Africa, reading about the women who have to walk miles to get their water. This is a reality—not some “hard pitch” to get you to donate money to an organization. Water availability is a huge issue throughout Africa. Not just water availability, but access to SAFE water which can help prevent the diseases which are so rampant here. And as Jeffrey Sachs states in The End of Poverty, the water issue will grow in importance with climate change, as population densities and climate change interact to produce more water stress. Sub-Saharan Africa will be one of the hardest hit regions in the world.

One of the things we will bring back with us to the states is a greater appreciation for plain ol’ tap water!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

One Husband: Four Grieving Widows

Not long ago, we attended the funeral of the grandfather of a Togolese friend of ours. Funerals in West Africa are a much bigger event than weddings or other celebrations and the family goes to great expense in both grieving and celebrating the life of the deceased and preparing for the burial. Sometimes the funeral itself is delayed up to a year while the family gathers money for the expenses involved.

As with most funerals here, it started at midnight with singing and dancing all night, in the form of a wake. Chairs and a huge tarp were rented and put up in the street outside the home, along with sound system, lights and music. Fortunately we were not obliged to attend this part of the celebration, arriving instead at the house at 7:00 a.m. to walk with the family and friends behind the coffin which headed through town to the church for the Catholic service. The deceased, a man named ALOUPHA, was 77 years old, a retired master blacksmith, and not surprising for the culture and his age, had four wives. The four wives, all living in different towns, were clustered in a room together and did not participate at all in the funeral, except for when people came to their room to give their condolences. We’ve been told they will stay there together for one month to mourn. (See photo “4 Grieving Widows”—I was asked to take this photo by our friend, a granddaughter, who is related to widow #2, sitting second from the left).

Photo #2 captures the “Animist” participants of what was otherwise a Catholic service (you can see the hearse/pick-up truck in the background). Most Togolese have not abandoned their roots in the African animist religion which worships different deities. This man worshipped, alongside his Catholic faith, the god of iron (he was, after all, a blacksmith). But other clan members of the god of iron, not having anything to do with the profession, are wearing white headscarves and/or shirts to show their affiliation in addition to the single facial scare on the left check which is given in infancy. The animists attended the Catholic service, but also held their own more secretive traditional service which we were not invited to attend.

Photo #3 shows the women at work preparing for the feast to follow the burial. The “kitchen crew” was having a grand time in their colorful dress. The food was some of the tastiest we’ve had in Togo (servings of lamb, beef, guinea hen).

The last photo is of the cemetery, the newest and nicest in the region.

Last note: For you Francophiles, here are 2 verses that were given out and attached to the photo of the deceased with a list of family members and people who helped contribute to the funeral. (It is customary to give gifts of money to help with expenses):
“Notre secours est dans le nom de l’Eternel. Qui a fait les cieux et la terre.” Ps. 124:8
“Que la grâce de notre Seigneur Jésus Christ soit avec vous.” 2 Thess. 1:28

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Last Call for Visitors

We have recently completed the third and last of our family’s visits to Togo. This one was a solo visit by our daughter Claire for 10 days. She came into Accra, Ghana where we spent the first night. The next day it was off to Lomé, where crossing the Togo border is always an experience as hordes of vendors, money changers and taxi drivers descend upon you. It could be a pleasant experience, as it is right on the beach and the waves are breaking less than 100 meters away, but we don’t really notice as it is more important to be concerned about pick-pockets. The city of Lomé is an experience too, with the congested open market and “rip-off row” alley of tourist vendors selling wood carvings, jewelry, clothing and all manner of tourist trinkets.

Our night in Lomé was also our 30th wedding anniversary so we pampered ourselves, spending the night in air conditioned comfort at the nicest hotel in town, lounging all afternoon by their Olympic sized swimming pool, and the next morning enjoying a huge breakfast buffet. We headed to our humble place in Atakpamé the following day, another 3 hour taxi ride. That night Claire surprised us with 30+ anniversary cards from many of you along with decorations to celebrate the anniversary, as well as lots of goodies we asked her to bring-- things not available here. Claire’s time in Atakpamé included participating in our market women’s Savings and Loan meeting as well as meeting the people we work with at the 2 AIDS NGOs. While here, she was able to help out and use her computer skills in developing 3 different websites for organizations we work with. We made time for shopping, of course, and visiting with our friends the landlord and his wife, pounding Fufu, buying bread at the bakery just across the street, as well as a walk out of town one morning to experience a more village setting. And a visit to a family compound found the kids rubbing Claire’s skin to see if the white would rub off.
We also headed west to Badou one day with 3 other PC volunteers so Claire got to experience the “real deal” traveling in Togo: seven people in a small 5 place car, dirt roads and potholes and goats running out of the way to avoid the fast moving taxi. Our destination was the Akloa falls just beyond Badou. It was about a 45 minute hike up hill in the heat of the day (including quite a few stairs) to reach the falls. But once we got there it was, as one of the web sites described it, a scene out of a hair shampoo commercial with cascading waterfalls beneath which we could “frolic.” So it was worth it and the cool water felt great.

Claire’s final experience in West Africa was her trip back to Accra. And it was a WAWA experience; West Africa Wins Again. We decided to take a new route for a change of scenery through Kpalimé (our first mistake). We went with 2 other volunteers and got to experience the county police stopping us for too may people in the car and fining us $10. Really it was too many white people in the car. (They never stop the locals with even more people crammed in). So what was normally about a 7 hour trip through Lomé took us 13 hours through Kpalimé as we had to wait for 3 hours for the 30 seat bus to fill. Unfortunately, even though it was a Mercedes bus from Ghana, it never went over 35 miles an hour and we stopped numerous times to do border checks, police checks and customs checks, emptying the bus every time. However the seats were not typical Mercedes comfort, as we sat cramped 5 across, so we were tired cranky campers upon arriving in Accra, only to find our room was given to someone else even though we had confirmed it with 3 phone calls in the last 2 days. We trekked off to the hotel annex looking forward to a shower, only to find the room so heavily sprayed with bug spray that we couldn’t breathe in it, and later found out the water wasn’t running anyway for the shower we had so looked forward to. So we opened up the windows and went to dinner – only to find our favorite Italian restaurant closed. We settled for pizza at the only semi-Western fast food joint – still a treat for us Togo PCVs.

That’s the travelogue for Claire’s visit. We loved having her here and sharing West Africa and our PC experience. We are so grateful for all our visitors who have helped make our stay here go by more quickly by bringing a sense of family and home to us. Now we look forward to coming back and visiting them (and you?)---in just 23 weeks.