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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.