I’m Alive!!

I know it may be hard to believe after 9 months of radio silence, but Africa has not killed me. Not just yet anyway.

On the 16th of September I celebrated the anniversary of my arrival in Togo. I seriously cannot believe a) I’ve been living here for a year and b) that I’m halfway through my Peace Corps service. I’m sorry that I have been a miserable blogger and correspondent, but trust that it has been quite an amazing and busy year. So, for anyone who’s wondering, here are some of the things I’ve been up to since touching down last September:

Local Projects

Clubs: An easy way to get your feet wet as a Peace Corps Volunteer is to start informal clubs in your site. In my first few months in Sotouboua, I began working with 4 girls’ clubs, 2 women’s groups, 1 English club and 1 AIDS/HIV kids’ club. Each group met at different intervals, from weekly to monthly meetings, where I would present on a variety of topics ranging from good nutrition to self-confidence. I love all of the women, apprentices, and students I’ve met through these groups, but I found it very challenging to balance so many different groups. Additionally, presenting (in French) on topics that aren’t necessarily that familiar to me was stressful. But all that being said, these projects helped me learn a lot about my community, make connections with women and girls, and helped me build some important skills (and confidence) as a volunteer.

                           

English Festival: The English teachers in the Sotouboua and Blitta prefectures came together to organize an English Festival where English clubs from around the region came to Sotouboua to present skits, songs, poems, and dances. One of my main work counterparts, a high school English teacher, was an organizer for this event and asked me to help out. Seventeen different schools were represented at the festival, and students presented on topics ranging from the importance of girls’ education, HIV/AIDS, and child trafficking/labor issues. I gave the opening address at the event, and talked about the importance of English today and how club activities help students develop their speaking skills.

Take Our Daughters to Work Week: This summer I organized a week-long conference that invited girls from villages around the Centrale region to visit Sotouboua, a larger town and prefectural capital, to meet female role models and begin thinking about their futures. The main objective of the conference is to encourage girls to continue their studies through university level by introducing them to a variety of professional career options available for women in Togo.

Schools in Togo don’t always offer girls the information they need to start working towards a successful life and career.  Our conference exposed them to new ideas and amazing professional women, and also gave them the opportunity to discuss topics including the importance of girls’ education, family planning, sexual harassment and reproductive health.  Learning about these issues helps these girls build the skills they need to avoid early pregnancy, unhealthy relationships, or other illnesses that cause them to abandon school.

We also took the girls to visit three different work sites: a microfinance, a hospital, and a computer training center. They got to learn about the different types of work at each place,and met women in leadership positions.  We asked the girls to write down their career aspirations at the beginning and end of the conference. Several girls who didn’t have an answer to this question at the start of the conference left with new dreams and a clearer picture of what they needed to do to reach them. Other girls changed what they wanted to become after learning more about certain careers during our visits and chats with female role models.

         

The week was an amazing success, not just with the girls, but also getting the Peace Corps’ name out in my community. As we were walking to our site visits with our Take Our Daughters to Work t-shirts, I heard people talking about the Peace Corps and our conference.

National Projects

Women’s Wellness and Empowerment Conference: In March, I participated in the Centrale region’s Women’s Conference (one of three conferences nation-wide). The conference aimed to give motivated women the opportunity to meet others like them, to learn new skills to help improve their own lives, and to bring new information back to their villages.  Women were exposed to information on a variety of topics ranging from family planning to financial literacy. At the end of the conference, each of the 18 women created an action plan for her return to village.

My favorite thing about this conference was the amazing environment and camaraderie that was shared among the participants and volunteers. Over our four days together, it truly felt as though we became a family. We woke up each morning at 5:30 a.m. to start the day off with yoga, shared meals and discussed our experiences as women, learned together, and stayed up late enjoying beauty night and dance parties. At our closing ceremony, one of the participants expressed awe at how people from such diverse backgrounds – village and city women, Americans and Togolese – could come together in this way.

         

This was my first big project, and I gained a lot from it both personally and professionally. I remember standing in front of the women at the end of my self-confidence session thinking, ‘Six months ago I couldn’t string together a complete sentence in French, and I just facilitated a 90-minute activity.’ It was an incredible and rewarding feeling to realize in that moment how far I had come.

P.S. To donate to the 2013 Women’s Wellness and Empowerment Conference through the Peace Corps Partnership Program click here. (It’s tax deductable folks!) 

Camp UNITE: UNITE  (Unification National: Initiative, Travail, Education) is a summer camp that trains students and apprentices to become peer educators. I was a counselor for the apprentis filles (apprentice girls) week, and got to celebrate my 25th birthday with 40 amazing girls. The premise of the camp is building a bridge to a healthy future. Each plank represents a skill necessary to avoid pitfalls facing Togolese youth, from early pregnancy to drug or alcohol abuse.

         

The major themes included self-confidence, responsibility, resisting peer pressure, decision making, independence, and becoming a role model. To address these themes, participants attended sessions on topics ranging from sexual health to income generating activities, and built leadership skills through the completion of a series of team-based challenges.

                             

The week culminated in a parade and sensibilitasion (community presentation) in a small village close to our camp site. The girls presented skits on child trafficking and the importance of girls’ education and organized traditional dance demonstrations. The girls who left at the end of the week were stronger, more confident, more self-aware, and more determined than ever to help themselves and their peers obtain a healthy and happy future. To see them blossom over the span of just a few days was inspiring and energizing, and came at a time when I desperately needed to be encouraged by the work I was doing here. It was a great way to kick off the summer!

          

  • Camp ESPOIR

The second summer camp I participated in was Camp ESPOIR– a camp for kids whose lives are impacted by HIV/AIDS. Espoir means hope in French, and while UNITE was focused on training the participants to become peer educators, Camp ESPOIR was more about having fun and building a community/support system of people with similar experiences.

The theme for the week was the Olympics, so each bunk was assigned a country to represent in ESPOIR’s version of the Olympic Games. We kicked everything off with a parade and torch lighting ceremony our first night. We played games and sang songs around the camp fire – I felt like I was really at a camp in America. We even got to roast marshmallows! (One of the highlights of my summer!!)

Each morning we covered two educational sessions, discussing topics like hygiene, children’s rights, and nutrition.

         

Then we spent the afternoons playing games or completing team challenges.  Campers even got the chance to learn how to make products that they could sell at local markets to earn money for themselves and their families. Then we hosted the ESPOIR market (using bottle caps as money), where they practiced selling their items and got to purchase the products that the other groups prepared.

The week culminated in our Olympic Games, which consisted of four events: water balloon toss, three-legged race, soccer, and the long jump.

          

While the main focus of the week was to let these kids, who have gone through some really heavy stuff, to just enjoy being kids for a few days, we also had some time dedicated to sharing their experiences – the good and bad. Participants were encouraged to share their thoughts and secrets via our Post Secret board (for those of you who are unfamiliar, the idea was inspired by the website www.postsecret.com). Then, the second-to-last night of the camp, participants met by bunk for a small candle light ceremony to share whatever they wanted to with the group. It took a solid 30 minutes for the girls in my bunk to start opening up, much of that spent in absolute silence, but by the end of the evening we were all crying. Some of my campers told stories of how they lost their parents or other loved ones.  The next morning, one of the girls in my bunk pulled me aside and said ‘Now that it’s day, I can’t say what I said last night again.’ I’m not going to lie, these girls had been driving me crazy all week – I was tired, annoyed, and feeling burnt out – but then hearing their stories put some perspective on why we were all there.

Pathways Togo: Pathways is an NGO in the US that was started by some Togo RPCVs. It provides scholarships to girls here who are exceptional students, but who may not have the means to pay for their school fees. Once a girl is accepted into the scholarship program (there’s an extensive application process), she’s guaranteed the scholarship through the completion of university, as long as she continues to meet the program demands. Additionally, the girls are paired with local mentors to help provide support and encourage their studies.

The NGO partners with PCVs and a Togolese organization to execute the administration of the scholarship program on the ground. I am one of the national coordinators, and work closely with our Togolese partner to manage communications with scholars and their mentors. I also oversee scholar renewal, and will coordinate the application and selection process this year as we look to expand the program.

The Pathways Togo volunteer team.

Pathways also hosts a conference for the scholars each summer. The middle and high school students met up at the end of August to prepare for the start of the new school year. Girls attended sessions on goal setting, leadership, improving study habits, and sexual harassment, among others. From a PCV standpoint, facilitating sessions had never been as easy as it was at this conference. The girls were so bright, dynamic, and confident that they were practically jumping out of their seats to participate. It’s rare to find girls who behave like this in Togo, so to be in the presence of 24 of them all at the same time was incredible.

One scholar, Delali, absolutely floored me all week long. Delali is handicapped – she lost her leg when she was hit by a car as a young girl – but she doesn’t let that stop her from living a normal life. She walks to school just like her able-bodied peers, she does chores around the house, she never uses her handicap as an excuse, and she always wears a huge smile on her face. During our session on the importance of exercise, the facilitator told Delali that she could sit out of the obstacle course competition, and that they could go over some special exercises afterwards. Delali took one look at the course and said, ‘No, I can do that. I want to do that.’ She insisted on participating, and successfully completed all of the exercises in the course.  This is just one example of how strong these girls are. They impressed me over and over again throughout the week, and I left the conference feeling honored to be a part of such an amazing program.

For more information about the Pathways Togo program, you can visit their website at www.pathwaystogo.org.

Personal

Taylor and I sleepily getting ready at 4 a.m. on race day!

 

In other news, in the last 9 months I:

  • Survived my first hot season
  • Got a puppy, Gulliver, to keep me company
  • Ran a half marathon in Accra, Ghana (and took a mini-vacation there)
  • Learned how to make delicious meals using Togo’s limited resources (i.e. mostly tomatoes and onions)

 

 

 

The Future

The school year starts on October 8th and I’m looking forward to kicking off more local activities. One of the things I learned from my experiences doing clubs last year is that I should aim for quality, not quantity. With that in mind, I’m looking forward to narrowing my focus in Sotouboua this year and hoping for an even more productive and efficient year. In addition to after-school activities, I’m currently planning a gender equity training for school officials and teachers in my town this fall.

I’m also REALLY EXCITED for Mom’s visit in October.  I just spent an afternoon making our itinerary for the trip, which includes 12 days traveling around Ghana going to beaches, hiking, visiting waterfalls, and going on a boat ride on Lake Volta. Then we’ll spend a week in Sotouboua so that she can meet all of my friends and colleagues and see what my life is like on a daily basis in Togo.

Looking back on my first year in Togo, I can’t believe how far I’ve come and what I’ve accomplished. I can’t wait to tackle year two! Thank you for all of your support and love. It helps me get through the not-so-awesome moments here.

Lots o’ love from Togoland.

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BONNE ANNEE!

It’s nearly 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night in Sotouboua and I’m covered in sweat, dirt… and baby powder?! I’m completely exhausted, even more so than usual. Why? Because it is January and the party hasn’t stopped since the 1st.

If there’s one thing the Togolese do right, it’s bringing in the New Year (Bonne Annee). I haven’t stopped drinking, eating, or dancing and it’s already the 24th – the month is almost over. After staying up until midnight on the 31st of December, American-style, I received a call from my homologue, Genevieve (my main work partner/Togolese friend who has been a true savior in these first few months), at 8 a.m. the morning of the 1st. “The foufou is ready, why aren’t you at my house yet?” I threw on some clothes, ran out the door, and hailed a moto. I am not exaggerating when I say I have never eaten, or been forced to eat, so much in one sitting before. She served me at least 4 times the portion of foufou that I normally eat. For those of who don’t know, foufou is one of the staples of the Togolese diet. It is made from yams that are boiled and then pounded using a large mortar and pestle. The best description I’ve heard is that it’s kind of like mashed potatoes, but more gelatinous. We eat with our hands here, so think of mashed potatoes that are firm/solid enough to hold their form when you pinch off a bit with your fingers. I digress… so after eating about 5 pounds of foufou, I couldn’t think about anything other than how much I wanted (needed?) to take off the belt I was wearing. I thought my stomach might actually explode. I was relieved when Genevieve let me go home for my mid-day nap before returning to town that afternoon for the big fete. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Togo did not disappoint.

The centerpiece of the Bonne Annee festivities is a local dance called Camoux. Key elements of Camoux include: dressing up as the opposite sex or in other crazy outfits, covering everyone with baby powder, making as much noise as possible (bells, finger cymbals, noisemakers, yelling bonne annee over and over again), and dancing your butt off. I don’t really know how to explain the dance itself – the closest thing I can related it to is an Irish jig, but you move around in a big circle while doing the jig-like dance. That makes it sound terribly lame (and my version of Camoux was pretty lame), but trust me, it was quite impressive when done correctly. Honestly, I have never been to a crazier dance party in my life.

         

All of Sotouboua essentially shut down for the first 4 days of the new year. Each day, different neighborhoods hosted Camoux dances. I made my rounds, and got a lot of street cred for participating. Now random people always come up to me and say ‘Oh, it’s you! The white girl who danced with us. Do you remember me?’ While I’m sure I’m butchering their dance, they are at least excited and appreciative that I try. (Or maybe they just have a good laugh watching. Haha)

Things calmed down after the 5th, but dances still cropped up at least once a week. Today’s fete was in Martin’s neighborhood, so I got to party with him and his host family. His host mom is awesome/hilarious, and of course was already drunk by the time I got there. She proceeded to douse my in baby powder (ignoring my protests) and then handed me a chipmunk hide to carry around/dance with to protect me from the bad spirits. We joined the dance, and almost immediately this really drunk old man appeared and kept trying to touch/grab me. The neighborhood chief saw the man harassing me and proceeded to raise his cane in the air and chase him away. It was pretty awesome. The dance concluded as the sun set, and we transitioned to the chief’s house to drink some tchouk. As Martin and I tried to leave the party, his host mom saw us again and told us that we should go with her to say hi to some friends. We ended up going door-to-door dancing camoux for another hour or so – it was kind of like Halloween for adults. We’d arrive at someone’s house and just start dancing around and causing a general ruckus. People gave us alcohol, and sometimes even money, and then we moved onto the next house. I’m a little apprehensive about going back to that side of town tomorrow, as I’m pretty sure we just acted a fool. I don’t know enough to gauge whether our behavior was normal or over the top. Oh well, I suppose all that matters is that a good time was had by all. (Except maybe the family who’s nice, quiet dinner got interrupted when 6 people barged into their compound.) I seriously can’t wait for Bonne Annee 2013. Anyone want to come join the party?! I’m already planning my costume… It’s going to be epic. I promise.

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Thanksgiving Togo-Style

If you’re going to slaughter a turkey, there are a few essentials you should think about beforehand. Firstly, and probably most importantly, bring a knife sharp enough to slit its throat. Secondly, make sure you know how to clean out the guts. These are things that my friends and I seemed to overlook before gathering in Sokode, the regional capitol in Centrale, on Thanksgiving morning. We started planning our first Thanksgiving in Togo during stage, so we’d had plenty of time to craft a solid plan. I mean, I had the forethought to buy marshmallows in Lome for the sweet potato casserole, but a good knife? Nope. Instead we found ourselves scrounging around for a sharp blade as the clock approached noon.  We settled on Jenny’s pocket knife, the one her dad told her she could use to shank someone if necessary (Oh dads, they’re so funny). While the blade was pretty sharp, it was a small knife. Dave had been selected at our official turkey killer, Rebekah was going to hold the turkey still, and Jenny and I made up the film and photography crew. Our cameras ready, Dave went to work, trying to use the small blade to slit Sunshine’s throat (yes, we named the turkey – it seemed more humane that way). With some trouble he was eventually able to break through the skin, but Sunshine was still very much alive as the blood started coming out. We decided we needed to make a deeper cut to put Sunshine out of his misery after watching this for several minutes. Taking the knife from Dave, Jenny stepped in and, um, did what was necessary. Shockingly, Sunshine was really still and calm until the very end. I, however, was not. I watched between my fingers as all this went down, but I did get it all on video if any wants to see. I’m pretty sure my commentary was hilarious. I was somewhere between wanting to cry and wanting to vomit. The whole process took maybe 15 minutes.

After slaughtering (murdering?) the turkey, we dipped his body in hot water and started trying to clean the feathers off. I sucked at this, but luckily Jenny was a natural! It took forever, though, and I was convinced that our Thanksgiving dinner was going to happen around midnight. Once we got all of the feathers off, that’s when we realized that none of us knew how to gut the turkey. Oops. I realized halfway through that we were doing it backwards – instead of going in from the butt, we had attacked the chest area first. In the end, it didn’t matter because the dutch oven wasn’t big enough to cook the turkey whole anyway. We sliced the turkey apart (also would have been helpful to have a good knife for this part) and stacked the pieces in a pan. We saved the guts, feet, and neck/head to give as a cadeaux for Rebekah’s homologue, who had helped her purchase the turkey. They don’t waste anything here! By 1:00 p.m. we had the turkey in the oven, and Jenny and Rebekah started prepping for our other dishes while Dave and I ran to the marche with our shopping list. When we returned 2 hours later, we all worked feverishly to prepare and cook our side dishes. It was a pretty magical feat considering we were operating with only a 2-burner gas stovetop. It may have been a little haphazard (we had to use an eye dropper to baste the turkey), but we sat down for our dinner by 6:00 p.m. that night. And we even took a break to have delicious Fan Milk and fresh fruit smoothies in the afternoon!

                           

So if you’re wondering what a Thanksgiving meal prepared in Togo looks like, here’s our menu:

Ridiculously fresh turkey

Garlic mashed potatoes

Stuffing

Gravy

Green bean casserole

Cranberry sauce

Pumpkin pie

Lemon meringue pie

It all turned out delicious! We filled our plates for round one, but halfway through we all had to take a break because we’re not used to eating those foods anymore. Having that much protein in one sitting is pretty much unheard of here. But as with Thanksgiving back home, you just push through and then when you think you can’t eat another bite, you go back for seconds. :)

It was my first time preparing a whole Thanksgiving meal without my family, so it was a bit of a bittersweet moment, but I was really proud of what we were able to do. And as hard as it was to watch as my dinner was killed, it felt really good to know exactly where my food came from. So this Thanksgiving, I had a lot to be thankful for – surviving training, all of the support and love from my family and friends back home, the amazing people I’ve met here, and most of all, I made sure to thank Sunshine for making Thanksgiving in Togo possible.

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Home Sweet Home

November 19, 2011

So this is it – I’m officially a volunteer now! Yesterday we arrived at our posts, and while we had a week-long site visit during stage, returning felt much more intimidating. There’s a sense of finality this time around. Now this is my home – I won’t be returning to our little American haven in Tsevie, I won’t be hanging out with 20 Americans in my free time, and I have to figure things out all on my own from here on out. So far it has been a bit of a shock to my system. I keep giving myself little pep talks to build up the courage to get out and do even the simplest tasks. But as they say here, ca va aller – it will come.

As I’m sure you’re probably curious where I’ll be living for the next two years and what I’ll be up to, I wanted to dedicate this post to describing my new home. I’m posted in Sotouboua, located in Togo’s Centrale region. It’s pretty much in the middle of the country (north/south) and is right on the Route National – the one and only ‘highway’ in Togo. (It’s really only two lanes and is in terrible condition, so I’m using the term highway very loosely.) Sotouboua is a relatively large and developed city by Togolese standards, with about 50-60,000 people, and lots of schools, NGOs, businesses, a good-sized marche and even a hospital. Because of its size, there’s actually another volunteer posted here as well. I’m pretty lucky because I can get anything I need (except internet) right here in Sotouboua. I’m also excited because there is a mountain just outside of town. I’ve already made it one of my personal goals to climb it in my first 3 months here. The climate here is also much, much nicer than the humid south. It’s still really hot here, but it’s a much drier heat. I can actually walk around and explore here without dying. It’s nice to finally have the sweat evaporate off of me! We’re quickly approaching the Togolese version of winter, called Harmatan, when the winds blow in from the north making the nights get cool, and the days dusty and dry. I’m looking forward to feeling cold for once!

My house here is pretty sweet, too. The former volunteer called it her ‘Barbie Dream Home’ and my friends call it ‘The Pink Palace.’ It’s probably one of the most unique PCV houses in Togo because, one, it’s the second floor of a two story house (and most houses here are just one floor), and two, it is painted bubble gum pink. It reminds me of an 80s resort gone wrong or something. I also have some really tacky/awesome swan decorations on my balcony. #Winning! I love my balcony, though. I think it’s my favorite part of the house. It’s so relaxing to sit out there at night, check out the stars, and enjoy some boxed wine. The house itself has two bedrooms, an open living/dining room, a teeny tiny kitchen, and a bathroom with running water. And I have electricity! I pretty much hit the jackpot, which is funny because I was totally prepared to live out in the bush without any of the amenities that I have now. My quartier (neighborhood) is outside of ‘downtown’ Sotouboua, so it’s quiet and has a small town/village feel. I kind of get the best of both worlds, although I do have to walk 30 minutes to town every day. It’s a small price to pay for the peace and sense of community here.

I’m excited to finally get out and start working. The first few months will be slow – we’re mostly supposed to observe and talk to people about our program. I’ll be going to schools a few times a week to observe classes and get to know the students and staff. Eventually I will start teaching life skills classes or create girls clubs at some of the schools. Additionally, one of my main projects will be working with an NGO just south of Sotouboua that offers artisan training (essentially apprenticeships to become a seamstress, carpenter, etc.) to at-risk youth. It will be really cool because I’ll have an opportunity to work directly with the girls there, as well as advise the NGO on the administrative/management side of things. And just for fun, I’ll be hosting an American radio show with the other volunteers in my cluster (i.e. the volunteers who live close to me). Each week we pick a theme and talk about what it means for us as Americans and how it translates to our lives in Togo. Then we play American music that fits in with our theme. (For example, during post visit week they did a show on Halloween and played songs with ghost, candy, scary, etc. in the title.) That’s a lame explanation, but it’s essentially just an excuse for us to get together, play some American music, and have fun. It’s hilarious that they actually play it on one of the main radio stations here…

So that’s my life. I keep pinching myself because it’s hard to believe that I made it to PCV-dom. After thinking/talking about the Peace Corps for more than a year and then surviving 9 weeks of intensive training, all the waiting and anticipation is over. I’m finally settling into my new home and life in Sotouboua. It’s just crazy. In a good way. :)

A la prochaine fois! Peace and love.

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Stage Survival 101

November 16, 2011

I’m back in Lome for a few days preparing for the transition from trainee (PCT) to volunteer (PCV). Our formal swear-in ceremony is Thursday evening, and I can’t believe how quickly time has passed. Since I wasn’t able to post much over the last 9 weeks, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some of the things that helped me get through the shock, chaos, and stress that is stage. Here’s a top 10 list, Letterman style:

10. Letters/Packages from home. Oh wait, ya’ll suck. (Except Mom & Dad, love you!) Seriously, I’d love to hear what you are up to, even if it seems mundane to you. And by ‘love to hear’ I mean need to hear for sanity’s sake. Things here feel so removed from my ‘former’ life, and I miss you all every day.

9. Suiting up Togolese style. Pagne is my long lost love. Bright African fabrics that can be made into ANY outfit (although if you’re going hard-core Togolese, you are required to get a complet(sp??) – photos and explanation to come in later post) pretty much rock my world. I spent almost all of my money having outfits made the last week of stage, just because. Barney would be proud – I definitely represent in style.

8.  Afternoon repos time.  Who doesn’t love a good nap? And seriously, who can function in the hottest hours of the day? This is one Togolese custom that I’m going to advocate for when I return to the States.

7. Hotel Melissa. Great name, if I do say so myself. This was our American haven in Tsevie, our training site. We spent almost every weekend there, drinking and relaxing poolside. And because they charge to use the pool, we almost always had it to ourselves. It was such a relief to escape the heat, humidity, and our overloaded training schedule.

6. Pepto Bismol. Pretty sure no explanation is needed here.

5. Brochettes. Probably the reason that #6 made my list, but mmmmMMMM good.  Brochettes are essentially just meat on a stick. They use this delicious spicy pimont (hot pepper) rub, and cook the meat up on a grill right on the side of the street. Then you just buy bread from the stand on the other side of the street and boom, they make a nice sandwich for you at the brochette stand. For 400 CFA, less than a dollar (the flies are free! Haha), it’s just about the yummiest stomach ache you’ll ever have.

 4. Showers. Lots and lots of showers. It’s culturally acceptable/encouraged to take multiple showers every day. For someone who hates sweating, this works out well. There’s nothing like dumping cold water over your head, washing off all of the sweat and dirt from your morning activities, and then heading off to take your midday nap all refreshed and cool. Rinse and repeat before bed.

3. Dance parties and sing-alongs. When you miss America the most, the remedy is almost always to dance and/or sing it out to some of your favorite American music.  Dancing is always on the table here – whether it’s a party, a long car ride, or a Saturday morning doing laundry with your host family – just grab your ipod and go. There was also the time we randomly ended up in a Togolese club at 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon… an interesting cultural exchange involving some MJ and a lot of moonwalking. Anyway, music was an important way to relieve stress on a personal level, and also a way to connect to and interact with my Togolese friends, family and neighbors. Akon is (sadly?) ridiculously popular here, so if anyone wants to send me some of his music, it would make me the most popular girl in town.

 2. The Paillote. A solid 70% of my time in stage was spent under the paillote (big outdoor structure with a straw roof) at our training center. We had all of our training sessions there, and it was so much cooler there than anywhere else in Tsevie that I spent much of my free time there as well.  Naps there were so peaceful and relaxing. Because the paillote is open, there was normally a nice breeze moving through, or at least some sort of air circulation, which made it feel 1,000 times more comfortable than my hot-box bedroom. There was nothing better than getting out of the sun and stretching out on one of the comfy couches there.

1. Fan Milk. It’s frozen, it’s sweet, and it’s available anywhere they have electricity. The vendors drive around on bicycles with coolers, and they have special horns to let you know they’re coming. It’s pretty much the Togolese equivalent of an ice cream truck. By the end of stage, I could hear them coming from a mile away. Oh how I loved the sound of their horn. I had a Pavlovian response and couldn’t focus on anything other than preparing my 150 CFA ready so I could run out to get myself a FanChoco. Everyone would always laugh at me because I immediately perked up upon hearing the fan milk horn.

Honorable mention: Ear plugs. Between the roosters crowing before sunrise, the sound of my sisters sweeping the compound at 4:30 a.m., or the ridiculously loud church services and funerals that sometimes went all through the night, I would have died if I couldn’t tune it all out.

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It’s Gettin’ Hot in Herre

September 30, 2011

Sorry St. Louis – you’ve got nothing on Togo in terms of heat and humidity. I’ve been here for just over two weeks, and I’m surprised I haven’t melted away. If I’m not moving at all, the heat is just barely tolerable. The minute I have to do something, anything, sweat is pouring out of every pore on my body. My Togolese host family insists that I shower (and by shower, I mean dump water over my head in a stall outside) three times a day because I’m always so sweaty. I would seriously consider sacrificing my first born for some A.C. right about now…

 

Other than the weather, Togo has been wonderful so far. The people, for the most part, are extremely friendly and helpful. When I got lost on my second day here, a stranger walked me to my host family’s house. The children are adorable, but can be really annoying sometimes. They feel the need to call after any foreign person they see, yelling ‘Yovo’ (white person) 5-10 times or singing the Yovo song as you walk down the street. When I heard about this back in the States I thought it would be quite amusing, but it gets old quickly. I taught a few groups of kids my name instead.  Now they get really excited to greet me every day on my way to and from training.

 

Since arriving in Togo, I feel like I’ve been in a time warp or something. Our training schedule is so packed that it feels like we’ve already been in country for months! I’m now well settled into Tsevie, my training site for the first 9 weeks here. After flying into the capital, Lome, on September 16, we stayed there for 3.5 days to settle some administrative stuff, get our first round of shots, learn about all sorts of maladies we may experience here (including a 2 hour session on diarrhea), and wrap our heads around what to expect during pre-service training (i.e. stage). Then it was off to our respective training sites – Tsevie for the 11 Girls’ Education trainees, and Batope for the 11 Environmental Action trainees.

 

Stage is like being back in school. Lessons run from 7:30-5:30 with a two and a half hour break for lunch and nap time (yesss!). We have free time on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday, but we’re encouraged to spend a lot of that time with our host families. It’s really tiring! I find myself going to bed at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. most nights. Between our classes, French tutoring, homework and the ongoing cultural exchange that happens at home, I need every minute of sleep that I can get. From what I hear from current volunteers, the pace slows down dramatically once we finish training and get to our posts. I know that moving to post brings a whole new set of challenges, but I’m looking forward to having a little less structure and a lot more independence.  (Side note: This week we find out where we will be posted for the next two years. We heard about each of the sites last week, and they all sound great. I’m excited to report back with more information on where I’ll be living and what types of projects I’ll be doing in my next blog post!)

 

As I mentioned above, I’m currently living with a Togolese host family to help with my French and to learn about Togolese culture. The first few days were pretty rough considering I could not form a complete thought or sentence in French. On my first night we somehow ended up talking about Obama (they totally dig him here because of his African roots) and my host parents made me wave this little American flag and chant ‘Obama, Obama, Obama’.  I’m not really sure what that was about, but it definitely broke the ice as we all sat in the living room laughing. In addition to my host parents, I have two little sisters. They don’t speak great French, but they are super helpful (and put most American children to shame). They walked me to and from the Peace Corps training center on my first day of class, taught me how to wash my clothes by hand, and continually help me fetch water from our well. They also laugh at me (with me?) a lot because I’m so bad at doing everything by Togolese standards. Apparently even the way I chop vegetables is hilarious. I love Sunday mornings because my host parents go to church and it’s just me and my sisters. They get so goofy when their parents aren’t around – it always makes for a good time. This weekend I brought out my iPod and speakers and introduced them to some wonderfully trashy American music. We also watched this bizarre Togolese dance DVD. For some reason, it featured two white people who could not dance at all. I wish I could send everyone I know a copy of the DVD because words cannot capture how ridiculous their dance moves were. Imagine a group of Togolese people doing a traditional African dance, and then throw the two worst dancers you know into the mix. Needless to say, it was a great cultural exchange. :)

 

There’s so much to tell you all, I really don’t know where to start or end. Each day here has its own set of challenges and triumphs. With a little pepto bismol and a lot of laughter, or more likely a lot of both, I think I should get through it all just fine. Remember to send love, letters, and yummy American stuff to me! My address is:

 

Melissa Bernard, PCT

Corps de la Paix

B.P. 3194

Lome, Togo

West Africa

Love and miss you all. XOXO

 

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And I’m Off…

The time has finally come! Today I left home for Philadelphia to attend a two-day Peace Corps orientation before we depart for Togo on Thursday. It all feels so surreal. I can’t believe it’s September and that I’m really leaving you all to go live in Africa!

For those of you who have spoken with me recently, you know that I’ve spent the last two months obsessing over my packing list. I’m a compulsive overpacker by nature, so the concept of packing for the next two years seemed impossible. I was determined to bring everything on the five-page list the Peace Corps provided and then some. I told myself that I had to be prepared for any situation. Well, after a whole summer of stress and planning, it only took about 15 minutes wandering around the Philadelphia airport with more than 100 lbs. of luggage to erase all concern I had about being prepared. I was ready to throw my luggage in the next trash can I saw (too bad it wouldn’t even fit) and head off to Togo with the clothes on my back and nothing else. I stared enviously at all of the business people with their small, convenient carry-on luggage, gliding effortlessly by their sides as they swept by me. I, on the other hand, hobbled along, stopping every few minutes to readjust, and leaning against the wall for a quick break now and then. I’m sure it was quite the sight to see. It was a relief to finally get to the hotel, put my bags down, and know that I don’t have to carry them around for a few more days at least. In the meantime, I’ll be contemplating what non-essentials I can leave behind to help lighten the load.

The next 48 hours are going to be crazy. On top of meeting all of my fellow volunteers (yay awkward ice breakers), we have paperwork to finish, crash courses on health, safety, and what to expect to attend, and of course there are lots ‘o immunizations to be had for all. Then we’re off (literally right after we get our shots) to JFK to catch our flight to Lomé, Togo via Brussels.

I don’t know what to expect in terms of internet service once I leave the U.S., but rest assured I’ll be in touch as soon as I get the chance! I’m sure I’ll have stories abound – I can’t wait to share this adventure (or perhaps at times, misadventure) with you.

Miss and love you all!

xoxo

P.S. I had to Google how to start a blog. I am officially old and out of touch!!

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