Tuesday, February 14, 2006

What are we doing here, anyway?


This is a question we often ask ourselves. And because many of you have asked about our work (maybe it sounds like we are having too much fun?) here is an attempt to explain what we’re doing (besides reading, studying French, drawing, traveling, sweating, sleeping, watching DVDs, and socializing).

Peace Corps goals are three-fold:

  1. To help the peoples of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people.

These first 8 months, we feel like we’ve made good headway on goals # 2 and 3. Indeed, we think we’ve integrated into our community quite well. The Togolese are getting to know us (in Atakpamé, we are known as “the couple” – pronounced “la coop-la” in French--and we are greeted everywhere we go). You, our reader, have also helped us (goal #3) by reading our emails, being interested in our life and work here, and we think probably raising awareness in your own circle of friends…the ripple effect. Thank-you. We are amazed how many “hits” our blog (for folks not on our email list) is getting, and when we tried to pare down our mass email list, it only grew. So thanks to you we’re not feeling so isolated in Togo. And that works for us.

Goal #1 is the hardest goal to determine just how successful we are/can be. Our work thus far is really intangible. Our French is now at a survival -- but working -- level. (We continue our tutoring 8 hours a week if we don’t have too many other meetings). However it’s one thing to struggle to make conversation in a new language and its another to stand in front of a group and teach. But at this point we just ask them to indulge our poor French and dive in. We have listened to many proposals from locals who would like to work with us, and we have sifted through the proposals to make decisions on who to work with: what projects are verifiable and/or sustainable; who is “serious” (as in goal-oriented, honest and focused); is the organization transparent, i.e. can we track the money to see that it is being used for what it was intended. Would we like working with the person?

Many, and maybe most, volunteers still feel a lack of direction at this point in their service. Although we had an idea when we came what we might be doing, the reality is quite different. For example, the internet cafés Wayne thought he would be helping are already pretty well developed in our community, yet the NGOs Cate is working with are sorely in need of technical support. Thus, we have ended up working together in the same organizations, offering our own strengths: Wayne, computer wizard and Cate with organizational skills. We attend a lot of meetings that have the common denominator of not starting on time.

Integration into the community is considered part of our work, so just hanging out with the locals, getting to know them and gaining their confidence is “work.” Sometimes that means sitting down and having a beer with them. Pretty hard to feel accomplishments in that respect…but our PC literature tells us that a chief source of frustration may be the sense that our efforts seem to yield few tangible accomplishments. The impact of what we do may not be felt for years, so they tell us to maintain a sense of perspective with our goals, accomplishments and relationships. Our personal focus is to develop people, not things; empower people to create new opportunities and take charge of their own future. Sometimes we feel jealous of the volunteers who have well (as in water) projects for their village, as they seem so badly needed and a well is such a tangible thing. But our role in small business in a medium size town does not fit with village well projects.

All of that being said, listed below is a range of issues, organizations and activities that we are either already working on or looking into:

  1. HIV/AIDS. We inherited a project from our predecessor volunteer and have been meeting with 2 NGOs (non-profit organizations) since our arrival. Our role consists of controlling the international project funds and advising the two NGOs, one medical and one psycho-social. Between the two, they give free HIV tests, psycho-social counseling, medical treatment, group support, home visits, nutritional support, community sensitivity and AIDS orphans outreach. We offer organizational aid, computer knowledge, approval of bank withdrawals, reporting of funding requirements, moral support, and sometimes act as facilitators at stormy meetings with the 2 organizations who really don’t like each other much but are required to work together due to funding sources. With their help we have plans to do some presentations to high school classes on AIDS awareness and prevention. Emphasis is on 1.) Condoms (we’ll do a demonstration on how to use them with a wooden penis that PC provides), 2.) Abstinence and 3.) Fidelity. Sexual talk is open and frank and not embarrassing to the Togolese.
  2. SMALL BUSINESS SKILLS. We have recently started teaching a class in business skills to small business owners such as tailors, hair dressers (the 2 predominant small businesses in Togo), and other small business entrepreneurs. We’re popular! The first class doubled in size after the organizational meeting. We make up our own curriculum & first taught “What is Cash Flow and How to Track It.” Next class: “Selling and Buying on Credit” (not credit cards…they are nonexistent here…but small informal loans which are made often without keeping records). Interesting cultural differences complicate these simple concepts.
    • Participation in organized traditional dance and drum demonstrations. Good for locals to see we are interested. Americans have rhythm, too. Well, sort of.
    • Theater Festival organization. World AIDS Day community street skits on AIDS awareness and prevention. (street skits create a good awareness level in Africa)
    • Organizing committee (Treasurers) for 2nd annual Stilt Dancing Festival – an almost lost art once famous in Togo. Email and photos to follow after Feb. 24.
    • Sharing of culture: purchasing local jewelry and art, wearing of beautiful local fabrics (support your local tailor). Cate is having fun with this one, and the locals seem to really enjoy seeing their culture being valued and enjoyed by our culture. (How’s that for justification for buying stuff?)
  4. OPENING AND MARKETING OF NEW ENGLISH LANGUAGE INSTITUTE. We are helping with the grand opening (which means interviewing and hiring a teacher, finding adult students, marketing the classes) of an Adult English Language Institute. Our predecessor PCV helped get the building funded.
  5. CHILD TRAFFICKING. Unfortunately, this is a real problem in Togo. “For the price of a bike”…a child is sold into slavery. We have been asked to help in this arena and are just beginning to get involved with help in finding funding support for a local NGO (non-profit).
  6. COMPUTER TRAINING in business software for non-profit organizations. Wayne has just started teaching a class on Saturday mornings to the staff of a local non-profit.

We will be writing more on these subjects if you are interested, and as our work progresses and we learn more. Thanks for helping us feel a tangible result when you respond to our emails. Hint, hint.

So, not quite in a nutshell, that’s what we’re doing here.

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