Friday, September 09, 2005

Atakpamé, Now Our Home

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Where to begin? Well first of all this is Wayne writing so there will be far too many details below to suit Cate. But I have her permission to post this anyway.

We are now official volunteers (as opposed to trainees) and moved into our house in Atakpamé, pop = ~40,000, about 4 hours north of the capital, Lomé. The 21 of us, wearing custom, locally made clothes, were sworn in as volunteers on August 26th at the Peace Corps Director’s house in Lomé in an official ceremony held outside in his garden courtyard. Many host families attended in addition to dignitaries from Togo and the U.S. Embassy. We met some nice embassy staff folks our age (who offered us dinner next time we are in town) and the American school staff of 3, where one of the teachers is from Seattle. The volunteers traditionally party pretty hard after swear-in but we only lasted to the second club and called it a night at midnight.

Then we spent the weekend in Lomé going to the bank to get paid and spending some of our move-in allowance at “yovo” stores (which carry imported goods) on stuff like pickle relish, tuna fish, pepper and balsamic vinegar. There was a problem with our auto-deposit from the Peace Corps to the bank on Friday. So Peace Corps arranged for us to get 80,000 CFA (about $160) as an advance in order to do some shopping. We each went into the bank manager’s office one at a time and got a hand written sticky note to take to a cashier. Then she gave us the advance. Does that give a picture of how banking works in Togo? (By the way each volunteer gets paid $260 per month plus rent reimbursement which is about 10 times the Togolese national average of $25 per month. So although we only make a pittance by US standards, we do live well above the level of the average Togolese. Our rent is $80 a month, the maximum Peace Corps will pay.)

Sunday most stores are closed so we headed for a hotel pool for the day. We went to the nicest one in Lomé, the Hotel Sarakawa, with an Olympic size pool on the beach surrounded with palm trees and lawns where we paid $3 for a huge pool towel and $2 for a beer served pool side (triple the normal beer price). It was a great break from the intense training schedule – almost like Maui except for the lizards who share the grounds with the guests.

Then we headed back to the training center in Adeta for another week of French while most of the PCVs went off to “post”. (3 of us who started with very little French went back for the extra week.) We spent 6 hours a day studying French so Monday morning we were beyond ready to go, sad to leave our host family but exuberant to get out of the guest status.

After about a 2 hour trip in the rain we arrived at our house in Atakpamé with our propane gas stove, water filter, bicycles and bags on top of a rented van. The other volunteer went on North almost to the Burkina-Faso border to a village of a few hundred people called Sanpatoute. The rain stopped just as we arrived and we were quickly unloaded into our house with the help of the driver, his helper and the neighborhood kids. I tried to help too but they did not allow me to do anything. Guess I’m too old and too white.

Our house is at the top of the hill where the street ends. There are a couple houses on the hill above us that are reached only by some winding stairs. But don’t let the house picture mislead you. Our house is not a big as it looks. It is the two story building to the left of me in the photo with the black door to the courtyard. We have a living room, 2 bedrooms, a small covered terrace, a small kitchen and bathroom. Our house is made entirely of cement and the floors are all tiled. Two of the living room walls are covered in attractive stone, a standard building technique used on both the outside and inside of nice cement homes. Our landlord lives next door in the house directly behind me in the photo. He is a retired anesthesiologist and built our house and another adjoining one just like it under what was to be a clinic. So we have an unfinished clinic above us with the round window which we will use for outdoor eating when we feel like hauling a meal or snack up the stairs and cleaning the floor of this unused space.

Having electricity and running water we feel quite spoiled compared to many other volunteers. About half of our group work in villages and have neither. We even have a small refrigerator that gets down to 50 degrees or so. (We were without either during most of training as the wiring from the paved road to the house needed replacement and it is hard to purchase in quantity. Each homeowner strings their own 240v wires on top of bamboo poles to their house.) Living in the village of Adeta where most folks do not have running water, I came to realize how much water we use in daily living and how much time it takes to transport it one bucket at a time. Running water, besides being convenient, really saves a lot of time for other tasks.

But back to Atakpamé; we have spent the first two days unpacking and settling in. The first night we had a no cook curry sauce with couscous and a $2 bottle of Spanish red wine. It was like heaven after 12 weeks of standard Togolese fare for lunch and dinner consisting of a starch with a tomato ginger meat sauce (with plenty of palm oil) and fresh tropical fruit for dessert. (It tasted good to begin with but we were so ready for a change.) That same night we got our first guest. A Togolese colleague of the PCV who we are replacing dropped by after our landlord let him know we had arrived. We have hung curtains we had made in Adeta and batiks that we have picked up here and there. Cate has been going through the copious amount of paper and books we received during training and organizing them. We met with George, the librarian in Atakpamé, who we met through Kelly, the PCV here before us. He has arranged a French tutor so we are set to start classes on Tuesday and Friday afternoons for 2 hours each.

Our snail mail will come once a week now on Fridays to the “maison de passage” (travel house) that Peace Corps provides for volunteers visiting the city from the bush. It’s about a 10 minute walk from our place. Hopefully we will have much easier access to the internet now. It is open every day (except when the connection is down) and is about a mile away on rocky streets (one of Atakpamé’s characteristics) that are not conducive to bicycles, so it’s about a 25 minute walk. I was struck by a stark contrast yesterday when I went to read email. While I was typing at the internet the loudest sound coming from outside was the clanking in the nearby blacksmith shop that still uses manual powered bellows and tandem pairs of blacksmiths to shape metal into shovels.

PS - The photo of me & my bike is just to give you a feel for what the country side looks like in the Togo plateau region where we are living - tropical, lush and green.