Sunday, December 15, 2013

se manquer

se manquer (suh mahnkay) - French verb for "to miss"

Studying abroad helped me fall in love with French. When I arrived, everything I had learned in my 11 years of French study just flew from my head and I started over. I learned so much that semester, collecting new words and phrases, learning to savor them as they cooed out of my mouth.
One day, my friend Justin explained "se manquer" to me...I had been using it incorrectly. He described that while in English one misses something, in French, that thing is missing from you. As if you are a sum of parts and there's a missing piece. He also noted that when he learned that phrase, he too fell in love with the language.
So, in French, "se manquer" is the infinitive form of "to miss". Since it's reflexive, it makes "I miss you" into "you are missing from me"... tu me manques. When I left France that May, la France me manquait, France was missing from me.
But now that I'm back from Togo, there are a lot of things that are missing from me:
Mes amis me manquent. - My friends are missing from me. I felt so compatible and accepted by my PCV peers. Of course, we didn't always like each other or get along, but I made some wonderful friendships that will last forever. Now, we're scattered across the country and some are still in Togo. It's hard to feel this part of me missing, and it often feels like a phantom limb. Phantom friends.
Le soleil me manque. - The sun is missing from me. One of my favorite things about French in Togo is that people would be translating from their local language into French. It was like a little peek into the ever elusive Ewe and the culture. A phrase from my area was le soliel te mange, non? - "the sun eats you, no?".  What a great way to describe the sun, whose rays I could just eel creating skin cancer on my arms. But this grey and gloomy Appalachian weather is a hard adjustment.
Ma famille me manque. - My family is missing from me. When Africans refer to each other they always say frere or soeur or papa or mama. By the last 6 months in Zafi, my family was really 5+ different families. I miss playing with baby Rebecca and doing puzzles with Emile and Kekeli. I miss women asking me "deviwode?" and knowing which children they're referring to. I miss practicing Ewe with my women friends on market days. I miss going to Paul's house to show Madame something, anything, and she'd always say one of the few phrases she knew in French: c'est jolie, hein!!!
Ma raison d'etre me manque. - My purpose is missing from me. I guess this is the weirdest feeling of all the things missing from me. I have goals of grad school and a job, but they seem so far away. When I was in Togo, I felt like I had some sort of obscure goal and purpose, as vague as they were. True, I did have days where I would wake up and think "oh no, not another day", but life there was so completely different than America, that it was easy to look around and be grateful for the experience.

I went to see a traditional bluegrass/folk band a few days ago and it brought up a lot of thoughts that I hadn't really had since I've been back. I had seen the band before in the same venue, but this time I felt more of a belonging. The band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, talked about leaving home only to identify more with your Southern-ness. After my semester in France, I could definitely relate to that feelings. After my years in Togo, I can't connect as well to my Southern identity, but I felt ties to those who have traveled and returned, those who appreciate history and culture.

I just ate 2 pieces of chocolate pie for lunch. I shall end this so I can go tend to my ailing stomach. (Tough life huh? I seriously eat cookies and cakes and pies and chocolate all day everyday! Glory glory America!)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Running for Sport

Before I joined Peace Corps, I tried running for a couple months as a New Year's Resolution. I didn't keep up with it. I lead a lifestyle of pint nights, fried food, brownies and frozen pizzas. So, when I was packing for Togo, I put my barely used yoga mat and my treadmill only running shoes into my suitcase. I remember my mom saying "Are you really going to use those?" and I removed my yoga mat, kept the shoes. I had the goal of becoming a runner in Togo, and started really small with 10-15 minute runs and ended with HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions 3x/week, yoga, pilates, and running for an hour like it aint no thang. Exercising intensely for an hour a day was a norm and it was so fantastic. Also older volunteers left their yoga mats, so I was able to profiter. :)
This is a two part post: one part is an entry from my journal while in Togo, and another is musings on my current American life. It's about running. In French, the phrase for working out is "faire du sport" - to do sport. I've grown fond of saying "sport" instead of "working out" because I find that it highlights the fun part of doing a physical activity rather than dreading feeling that comes with "working out". So, here goes!

June 14th 2013
The runs I go on in Africa are always different - what happens on the run, what path I take, how my body feels, what I'm thinking about, the temperature, position on the sun, etc.
My run in Zafi is the road to Kouve, what once was a small champ (field) road and was enlarged to allow cars for market days. The red clay is quickly deteriorating with each heavy rain. When I leave my house, I greet Paul's family and the other neighboring families under the mango tree: Je vais faire du sport. They always nod and smile. The crazy Yovo going out to run for no reason. I always do a little warm up jog up until the Zafi sign, which is hidden by palms and tall grasses in the rainy season, and do a quick stretch before kicking off my morning run. I quickly reach the straight and slight incline, then the curves start - first left then right and so on. There are twin trees on the left that I call Gemini and use as a landmark on my way back. Another tree marks my 1 + 1/2 mile spot and beyond that is becoming much more familiar territory. I know I'm approaching Kouve when I see the tops of the baobab trees. Once I approach them, I always turn around - Kouve doesn't know me as well as Zafi and I risk being harassed. On my way back, I always spot Gemini and know I'm on the final leg of my run - once I reach a certain pothole, I take a small break, as well as when I reach the curve to the straight length. At the bottom of that incline, with the Zafi sign 1/8 mile away, I start increasing my speed with these certain markers: rotting log, end of the tree line of teak grove, start of tall grasses that hide the sign. By the end of the run, I'm full on sprinting, praying that I won't throw up and once I reach the white Zafi sign, I stop and breathe deeply, starting my cool down. I walk home, pass the graveyard and the unfinished house turned cornfield and turn into my little corner of the village. Dripping sweat, I check in with my neighbors: C'est le retour. If I've been gone for a while, Madame asks: Kouvea? Did you go to Kouve? Breathing heavily, I'll reply: Eeeeeee. Yes.
Many memories are held in the Kouve road - my beginnings with running when I would run just up the straight section and back down again, that time a guy followed me on his bike and I got one of my first marriage proposals, when the village fou popped out from behind the teak grove and chased me all the way home (where I actually got the idea to finish runs with that small interval). There was one time an 18 wheeler toppled form taking one of the curves too quickly and the lumber load was too heavy to move - many men were around trying to figure out how to clean it all up. Another time I was angry with Togo and went for a run at noon - bad idea. A zed man (motorcycle taxi) stopped me and tried to take me home and I refused, yelling at him in English, French, and Ewe. Clearly he was worried about my bright red face and the fact that I was running at noon in hot season. Jafar had come with me on the run and kept on sprinting from shaded area to shaded area -- even the dog didn't want to be out in the sun! That road has seen me on my best and worst runs - the starts and stops of my cyclical workout habit.
On market days in Zafi, people stop and ask me if I'm the Yovo who does sport on the road to Kouve. Running that road has introduced me to so many people, and has been testament to my integration into the community. At the beginning, people would make me stop to greet them. It would either be a pleasant experience or an aggravating one, but continuing on the run afterwords always made the interaction even better. I got to know the women who worked in the champs on that road, and they got to know me and that my dog Jafar, and sometimes Flash and Maggie, were my enfants. Now, when I'm running, people love to greet me and encourage me, but do not stop me. We always exchange the double handed wave and they shout typical Togolese phrases like: "Du courage!". It is rare to be alone on the red mud trail.
Another road I know well is the Lome beach road, where I run on the sidewalk amongst some others - be it volunteers, Togolese, or other Yovos. I always run to the EcoBank sign in the Grande Marche, knowing that past that sign, there is potential for crime. Running in Lome is always strange. There are many men running, sometimes wearing flipflops or barefoot. There's always one huge guy who runs with an older white dude and I see them almost every time I go out. On Sunday mornings, it's a city wide sport day. Running groups, complete with handheld pacing drums and songs, fill the streets and people flood the beach for some calisthenics. A few friends and I once ran with a running group on a Sunday and it was strange as men still made comments to us. "Hey, Yovo, whitey, how did you learn to run? Will you marry me? Do you need an African boyfriend? Come make dinner for me tonight. Do they do this chez vous?" When we broke free of the group and people began to return home from their morning of sport, youngsters filled the sidewalk and would grab and me and mock me whenever I would stop for a breather. Nothing like feeling comradery for sport only to be told you're different again.
I also run often in Pagala, and there are many paths to take, which is awesome. I think Pagala is my favorite place to run. I'm in the mountains and hills and the runs are challenging and beautiful. I can take the paved road, which includes a big hill, or I can run a dirt road through Gassi Gassi which has lots of little hills. The people of Pagala are very nice and are used to volunteers running around. My favorite way to go includes crossing a stream, running through fields and backyards.
Running helps me get in tune with my body. I love feeling strong and having a good paced run -- that's what I work towards. Whenever I've gained weight from a week long binge with other volunteers, I can feel it when I run. I jiggle all over and feel heavy and sluggish. When I'm thin and weak from parasites, my runs make me realize how frail and weak I've become.
I came to Togo with the intent of becoming a runner. My questionable packing choice of running shoes have gone from pristine and embarrassingly white to orange from the red earth, things are peeling off, they smell horrible, and the laces are rotting. I can't say that I've run every day of my service, but it has been a huge constant.

Nov 1st 2013
I swear, I live in a ghost town. When I wander the streets, I am alone. If I run into someone, they don't call over to me for salutations; they offer a wan smile and go on in their ghost form, continuing with their task. Do people have these houses just to sleep in? It seems that way.
When I run the paved streets, I feel my bones smashing together. I run up the hill disguised mountain, I run down the hill. I run up like a gasping smoker, I stagger down the steep descent because I'm scared of tumbling down. My runs are unsatisfying.
My first 24 hours in Knoxville, I bought running shoes. I had to abandon my old ones in a hotel in Lome; they had given me plantar fasciitis and knee pain and it was time for some new ones. I meant to run during my 3 week vacation, but never found an opportunity to get new shoes and I didn't really want to spend the pricey euros on a new pair. I got back to Knoxville and was so ready to get back into the groove. And it was really hard. I went 5 1/2 weeks without running and I was emotionally down. The longer I went without running, the more anxiety I had about it. Not that I wouldn't run well, but rather what other people would think of me. Bizarre.
I try to run the crazy hills in my neighborhood and find it unsatisfying. My knees and shins hurt, but I don't feel like I've done sport at all. I want my dirt road with slight inclines rather than the steepness that even cars struggle up. I can't fathom the idea of driving somewhere to go for a run, but it may come to that.
While in Togo, I begged with the powers that be for me to be anonymous and accepted in my community. I wanted just one day where someone wouldn't jump out and pet my skin and tell me they wanted to marry a white person. I often pined for a run where I would be alone with my thoughts and wouldn't sweat my body weight during. I got to the point where I forgot what it was like to not sweat everyday, to not drink 3L of water on a less dehydrated day. I got what I wanted: a paved, vacant, steep neighborhood in the cool autumn weather with leaves transforming into colors I only dreamed about for 2 years.
But I do have one of the greatest things in the world here, that make running in America so much better than running in Togo: a community of exercisers. I see people biking on the Greenway, I see people running in pedestrian friendly areas of Knoxville. Support in sport was one of my saving graces in Peace Corps: there was a huge group of us who were dedicated to, nay obsessed with, sport. It's always mentioned in health/exercise articles that group support is key in succeeding. I used to push it by the wayside in my American "I am self made" mentality. Boy was I wrong. Now I'm looking for that niche here in Knoxville, and people are actively doing sport and enjoying themselves. I've signed up for a couple races (my first!) and am running with friends. It's motivating and exciting!
Now, to find a good path to get in nourishing runs.

Shout out to people who have inspired and supported me in sport: PCV friends (Manda, Melissa, Vero, Ness, Lydia, Justin) and Beardsley ladies (Cara, Khann, and Lauren). And my Aunt Sue because she's a lifelong runner and made it know all my lifelong that it is possible! Honorable mention to my mom for being a white woman who does yoga twice a week. :)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Reintegration Step 1: Morocco

I left Togo about a month ago, but it still feels like I'm going home to Zafi any day now. I've been to Morocco, France, and NYC and everything has been that exciting blur that comes with travel. That is until I got back to Knoxville, where some things have changed and others seem to have stood still in time. Many expats have shared horror stories with us PCVs about to return to America: crying in the grocery store, panic attacks at buffets, being unable to greet people appropriately. Since I hadn't traveled to the Western world at all during my service, I was experiencing a lot of anxiety waiting for my turn to come. I have had panic attacks and many moments of overwhelming choices, but it's a little bit easier than trying to integrate into my village in Togo. I say it's a little bit easier because I have my mom here who is practicing a lot of patience with me and my weirdness while showing me the grocery store and mall and how to drive again. Other than that, my old feelings of isolation and questioning if the other part of the world really does exist have returned. Hence, my hermiting and only seeing family for the past week that I've been in Knoxville.
It's odd to think that it was only a few weeks ago that my friend Julie was telling me to throw all of my clothes away and just start anew. Later that day, I was robbed at the Ghanaian border (we aren't going into details), had a panic attack in the Accra Mall grocery store, and Peace Corps came to emotional rescue to take me to the airport in the morning. Can I just note that it's just as obnoxious when people don't understand your English in an "English-speaking" country as it is with French in a "French-speaking" country? I found it harder to be mean in English, though.
My first meals out of West Africa were ones I meticulously recorded in my journal. Here goes:
This potbellied man just plopped down at the end of my row (I was previously alone) right before the meal came out. When he received his plate, he dug in and just shoveled everything into his mouth so quickly that he was done by the time I had assessed my meal and had taken three bites. Throughout the rest of my meal, I could feel his eyes greedily surveying what I wasn't eating...like my own personal Dudley Dursley. This breakfast was by far one of the best I've had in years...
  • 2 egg omelet with tomato sauce, served with real sausage (not hotdog) and a slice of potato
  • a scone-looking roll that I expected to be sweet but turned out to be sundried tomato bread!! Saved for later, and immediately thought it would taste so good with some VQR cheese, then I corrected myself... I don't have to eat that ever again!!!
  • cinnamon roll that was the size of my palm -- dry, but the filling was totally made with pecans, so I picked that part out.
  • strawberry yogurt!!!! tasted like Pepto. Gross.
  • REAL BUTTER!!!
In the Madrid airport, everything available was bland sandwiches and fast food. Yuck. So, I went to Starbucks. I defaulted to French and everyone replied in English. Ego shot down. Starbucks food was mega-disappointing... my chai tea latte was mainly soy milk, my blueberry turkey sandwich was boring and not worth it, and the exchange rate at the airport was so horrible that the teller just smirked when I handed her American bills. There were 2 vending machines that sold electronics, Mary Liz warned me about them about a year ago, still crazy to see.
On the plane to Casablanca, we were given: cheese sandwich, yogurt, and a Mars Bar. My lactose intolerant digestive system was grateful for this meal. Not.

I met my mom in Morocco, where she greeted me in tears: her luggage was missing and feared stolen. Turns out someone accidentally picked it up and returned it the next day, prolonging our travel time an extra day since we had to retrack our steps to the airport. We took a train to Fes and that's when my next emotional wave began and lasted till morning when I cried at breakfast. We were meeting strangers left and right and I didn't trust a single one of them. Did this come from the fact that if a stranger ever wants to meet you in Togo, they really just want something from you, be it marriage or a ticket into the States or money or a car or just your phone number so that they can beep you a thousand times a night (only after 8pm)? Who knows, but I still feel this way: I don't want to meet new people in large groups, but rather a few at a time in a trusted environment via trusted friends or family.
Fes was beautiful and amazing, even if meeting strangers was making me feel more uncomfortable than ever in my life. Mom was disgusted by the amount of trash she saw; I marveled at how clean the city was. She was surprised at the carb-based diet; I was shoveling everything down my throat in sheer joy that it wasn't corn mush and dried fish. My favorite was lemon preserves, which I am going to make at home always. Every time we passed a group of kids in the maze of the medina, I tensed up in anticipation of the children yelling "YOVO!!" at us and running up to touch and pull on us, all the while saying "Il faut me donner..." (You must give me...). To my surprise, the only sort of harassment I received was a few old beggar women, young men/boys saying "I love you", and this one creepy guy near the riad (Moroccan style B&B) who would whisper dirty somethings at us every time we passed.
Since I asked Mom to plan our trip in Morocco, she had booked quite a few things through a tour agency called Plan-It Fes, and everything was well done and worth it. We had a guided tour through the ancient medieval medina and saw all sorts of cool things (tanneries, weavers, holy spots, mosaics, etc). We went to Volubilis, an ancient Roman olive oil production town, where we saw more beautiful mosaics. We had lunch at the Scorpion House in Moulay Idriss, the most holy city in all of Morocco, and the lunch was to die for. We drove around Meknes, another imperial city that is lesser known than Fes, Rabat, and Marrakech. We had a cooking class at Clock Kitchen, which is a must do!! We had an artisanal tour, guided by a British (or Scottish?) woman who has lived in Morocco for many years, and saw some of the oldest crafts still in practice. I slept a lot.
After our too short week in Fes, we returned to Casablanca so we could fly out to Southern France early in the morning. We didn't really feel like trying to figure out a place to eat, so we decided to try out the restaurant in the hotel. I ordered chicken and received a massive plate of already cut up chicken, boneless, with a lot of white rice. I couldn't finish it. And so began my breakdown over meat. It was so much meat. I wouldn't be able to take it with me because we were flying out early in the morning. Would the staff eat it? Could I take it outside and find a dog to give it to? It was so much meat. Like as much meat as Paul's family would share with neighbor families at a holiday meal. All my thoughts were along the lines of: how can a place like this exist, with this kind of food, which is obviously geared towards what their clientele want, when no one in Zafi will ever experience that much meat in one meal to themselves. I felt such extreme guilt for living the luxury that was my trip to Morocco, for not spending my time in a village, for not eating with my hands. I was crying because the inequality, the stark difference between my life in Togo and what I was doing in Morocco was so extreme that my mind couldn't grasp it.
So, I sucked it up, went to bed, and the next day headed out to my favorite place in the world: Provence, France.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Voodoo

When I was researching Peace Corps (ie reading every blog I could find online), I thought I was going to be placed in either Senegal or Benin. In reading one blog of a Benin volunteer, I learned about this small country that had been mentioned in one of my college classes, Togo. The PCV had been placed on the border and secretly biked over to Togo to check out a huge voodoo ceremony only to find chicken sacrifices and dogs speared through posts and large fires. I remember saying to myself: Wow… and there’s Peace Corps in Togo? They must send the most hardcore people there. How interesting it would be to be placed in Togo and encounter voodoo ceremonies like that…
Fast-forward to now… finishing up my Peace Corps service in Southern Togo and always asking to learn about the practice of voodoo. Finally, finally, after two years of nagging my counterparts, I was able to go to visit some sorcerers in my village. Voodoo is the ceremony to conjure up spirits, and in most situations, devils. Animism is the practice of worshiping your ancestors. You have to practice some voodoo to worship your ancestors. It’s kind of like you’re Catholic and you worship by going to mass. You’re animist, so you worship by practicing voodoo. Sorcerers are the people who are mediums for the charlatan, the spirit. Fetishes are the items they use to conjure the spirits and perform ceremonies, and you can buy them in the weekly market.  There are things like animal skulls and skins, weird dried looking date things, puka shells, rocks, and just so many other items. I’ll definitely take pictures of the spread before I leave.  There are many different types of voodoo, and 4 present in my village. Some sacrifice chickens, some require payments, all conjure spirits, and when asking about your future, they refer to your horoscope. In the different voodoo groups, there are some girls that are “sacrificed” by their families to live in a commune of women. They normally have identical scarification, wear puka shell bracelets and anklets, beaded necklaces, have white paint somewhere on them, and wear plain cloth wraps. They live there and learn the practice of voodoo. So! Onto the story of meeting 2 different sorcerers today:
My counterpart Joseph took my replacement Anna and me to see a male and female sorcerer today. They practice different types of voodoo and their ceremonies couldn’t be more different. 
The first one we went to was called afakaka or something similar, and was lead by a man. This type of voodoo is the “natural” voodoo and encompasses all the sky and trees and ground. The spirits do not speak through him, but rather to him. To become a sorcerer for this sect of animism, one is born with the gift and then it is recognized by a fellow sorcerer who will teach said child. The sorcerer required that I sleep with a 500 cfa ($1) coin wrapped in a piece of paper underneath my pillow. I also had to whisper into the coin what I wanted to know/ what I wanted the ceremony to reveal. When we arrived at the man’s house, we sat inside as he set up his area: a mat, a pile of random items like bottle caps, stones, shells, even an old bird skull that was similar to a toucan (I see them flying around often but I don’t know what kind of bird they are? Black with a large curved yellow beak. The birds are small. I digress….), essentially all the stuff I see in the market every week (we asked him where he got all of it and he said they were found magical items….). He also put a massive really nasty looking black bull horn at the head of the mat, and then asked me to hand him my paper with the coin in it. He let the coin slip out of the paper and onto the ground without touching it with his hands. He pulled out some interesting chains made with metal and what resembled large pits/stones from a fruit and started the ceremony. He later told us that these chains are specific to his ancestors and family: his grandfather was able to induce the labor of his great grandmother with them. Next, the sorcerer chanted in local language, did a lot of mixing up of the pile of small objects, whipped the chains around a lot and after a bit, he was done. Joseph translated for me and the charlatan basically gave the sorcerer my future, which is apparently based off of my horoscope (which he didn’t ask). Basically, I’m going to be successful in my future, I shouldn’t share my secrets with anyone, people are going to try to stop me from succeeding, I am the rock for my family, and my star shines bright in the sky with marriage, work, travel, management, etc. Anna and I asked him a lot of questions about voodoo and he was very patient and nice. Then I asked about my travels… Anna leaned over and asked me if I really wanted to know if my plane was going to crash in the ocean but by then it was too late. He had me hold onto a stone placed inside of a shell and whisper my question into it, and then hold my hands behind my back. Then, I was to place the two objects on the mat and he would read the fortune from there. He found that my travels would be fine, but when I arrive at my destination, there will be a problem. He even cited a proverb I don’t understand: An animal cannot survive on three legs. For a small fee, we can perform a ceremony to right that….
The second sorcerer we went to was actually a sorceress and a bit weirder. She was wearing all the normal voodoo woman garb, with all the different puka shells and necklaces. She had all three of us wrap ourselves in pagnes to be able to enter her ceremony room, so as to please the spirits. It was a dark room and she had a lot of puka shells in a hole in the ground, an animal skin on the ground, and a basket full of the weird twigs and the like that are also sold in the market. Even if it was late morning, the room was dark and cool. She asked if we were ready to start, and I expected that she would sit down and do the ceremony right there, but she disappeared behind two straw mats nailed over a doorway to a hidden room. All of the sudden this high pitched baby voice came from the room, accompanied by a noisemaker common in Togo (kind of like a maraca) and Joseph translated, “she has conjured the devil”. Anna and I felt somewhat prepared because it reminded us of True Blood, and Anna was fighting back giggles because the baby voice was so obviously the sorceress. A few days before coming to this woman, Paul and I decided that we would test her by asking her to talk to my dead grandfather to see if she could speak English. When I asked her to contact my grandfather, she/the devil said that to go to different countries, it would cost extra. How much for America? 20,000 cfa ($40). So, we settled for a telling of my horoscope again, just to see what she would say and because it’s cheaper. The sorceress “sent” the devil spirit to check out my house here in Zafi, and when he came back, she gave my fortune: all will be well, but I won’t be able to keep a man to marry. My star comes from the water, and I need to return to the source, so I must do a ceremony where I sacrifice 2 ducks and wear a perfume and bathe in the water from 5 different sources. Upon further questioning, we found that if I found someone of the same powers, they could perform the ceremony, so I’m all clear to do the sacrifice with an appropriate medium once I get home ;) She has seen this type of bad luck on a girl in the past, and she had 9 fiancés disappear on her. Once she did the ceremony, she became happily married. 
Joseph was totally convinced. Or at least he seemed that way. Between the two ceremonies, I was trying to get a feel on how much he believed, because I didn’t want to end up not doing the supplementary ceremonies only to be living with a curse. He told Anna and I this crazy story about consulting the charlatan and finding out that someone was going to try to kill him. Lo and behold, the military tried to assassinate him in 1994 for being politically active in an opposition party. He even sought political asylum at the American Embassy for 3 weeks. Of course, all this happened even after he spent the extra money doing another ceremony to stop it from happening. According to his story, those military hit men killed 3 other people that week. He also says that it is because his first wife’s only boy died (as voodoo told him was a necessary sacrifice (not that Joseph killed his kid, but rather there was no ceremony to make sure the kid would live)) and could give no more boys, he is now polygamist. Needless to say, Joseph is hell-bent on doing this extra ceremony to make sure my trip home goes well. 

Anna and I were kinda skeptical, kinda thinking Well...Africa is a mysterious place…. There were some things that were weird, like that one sorcerer said my star comes from air, the other said from water, when in reality, I’m a Taurus (according to horoscope), which is an earth symbol. The whole "don't tell people your secrets" is interesting, because, if you have read my interview with my host family, you'll note that it is a cultural thing to keep all secrets/information to yourself because a neighbor might put a curse on you for succeeding. Also, what was the point of me sleeping on the coin and whispering my intention into it if the sorcerer didn’t even touch on the subject? He literally made no reference to what I sent to the coin. And, the travel thing….I’m going on a trip and visiting many countries, and it seems that the sorcerer assumed that I was going to one destination: home. I just wonder how much of this NEED to do extra ceremonies is just searching for more money?? I debriefed Paul on all of this and he just laughed and shook his head: “They were just tricking you. I’ll take you to a real sorcerer in a village that doesn’t know us and we’ll see what he’ll say. Also, we had an inside into the government and were warned by a friend that someone was coming to assassinate us, I don’t know anything about a charlatan when that all happened. And Joseph is polygamist because that’s just him...we all know it’s his sperm that made all those babies female”. Ha! Well, when I see this next sorcerer, I may do a good-luck ceremony for job hunting? :)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

I blogged about a year ago about how I see myself as a volunteer, what my job really is -- helping people change their behavior/identity as to see themselves as capable, strong, perseverant community members that can change their situation. I’ve done a bit of work in Zafi and nationally that has helped individuals take the steps towards this self-empowerment, but there are two cases that I’d like to highlight. These two people have been in contact with Peace Corps for quite a while, and have directly and indirectly benefited from Peace Corps related trainings and events. It’s incredible to see their changes and their motivations grow, and maybe more awe-some to see how confident they are as compared to others in Zafi. 
Before I get into how these two people have changed, I’m going to give a little explanation of a sort of dynamic that exists in most villages. There are the villagers, the farmers, the community members --- that’s one entity that includes everyone who is born and raised in Zafi, or whose primary source of income is farming, and this is the majority of the population. And then there are the fonctionnaires and these are people who have been educated at least through high school, if not some sort of trade school or post-BAC training, and receive a salary. Fonctionnaires have an “actual” job, as in they go to work in the morning at a certain time and come back from work at a certain time. Most come from outside of Zafi and are affiliated with the government - teachers, nurses, etc. - but others are actually from Zafi and have risen to this service job level. It is also important to note that most fonctionnaires have traveled, having grown up elsewhere, having lived in Lomé for school, and some have even lived in Ghana for school (which is a country that is leaps and bounds more developed than Togo, especially this little corner that is ignored by the government because of it’s opposition affiliation). There is a tension between these two groups in the village; the fonctionnaires feel isolated and outside of the community (ethnicity and hometown are very important to Togolese identity) but they also feel that they are above the villagers and farmers. With the combination of a more “cultured” life, a higher income and education level, the fonctionnaires are the easiest to talk to about problems in village, to brainstorm ideas of how to accomplish some change, and to work with because of their education level; but they are also quick to point out that the farmers are lazy, uneducated, practically savage. A stereotypical image of a fonctionnaire is a couple of men at a bar, all with their own cell phones, own motorcycles, drinking a petit Guiness, and complaining about really anything. Fonctionnaires separate themselves from the villagers, and the villagers don’t trust them at all. Since a lot of teachers are appointed by the government (although the rate of volunteer teachers from the community is rising as the government continues to cut the pay and number of government-trained teachers) and a lot of them engage in sexual relationships with their female students, parents are very wary of them. The general sentiment amongst the community is that the fonctionnaires aren’t really attached to the community, that they are greedy and grabby with money, and that they are pretentious. 
I didn’t realize the real division between the the fonctionnaires and the community until the May 1st celebration; I was invited to the celebration and to sit with all the chiefs at the reception a the end of the parade, which I turned down, and was in turn invited to march in the parade with all the teachers, which I turned down likewise, since I felt a stronger tie with the children and community members and wanted to march with them. The director of the middle school was baffled and just chuckled at me and dropped it. Later on, I talked to Paul and asked if he was going to participate in the parade as well and he said that he didn’t really have anyone to march with, since I’d be with the fonctionnaires. I was so confused because all the work I’ve done has been with Paul and the fonctionnaires; I finally put the pieces together that Paul may work on the same level as all these people, but he’s still seen as a farmer because he doesn’t have the credentials to be a fonctionnaire. The parade ended up getting rained out, but that strange feeling that Paul wasn’t seen as an equal despite his impeccable French, drive, openminded-ness and persistence really got to me. And so I came to the opinion that training fonctionnaires in certain things that can be passed through information sharing was fine, but anything that built the capacity of a person’s ability to implement change should be focused on the villagers.
The first person I want to highlight is Paul, my homologue extraordinaire who I blog about often. Paul is my best friend in Zafi and was a father figure for a long time. He has lived next door to Peace Corps volunteers for the past 6 years, and is humble of what he has learned from the volunteers. As I mentioned above, he is an incredibly motivated man who speaks perfect French and is dynamic and really a gem. And to reiterate what I just described in my fonctionnaire-village split, Paul was basically hitting a wall in his social standing (and therefore influence) in Zafi because of his farmer label. Well, finally, with the capacity building of Peace Corps volunteers and his desire to continue to grow and change, Paul has landed his first service job and could technically be considered a fonctionnaire! This is big news and a life-changing opportunity for him. He works with ATBEF, a family planning NGO that is funded by the UN and is a huge national presence. He has participated some trainings with them in the past and a few months ago, they contacted him to do a trial month long job of going out into small villages in the bush to train ASCs (agents de la santé communautaire - community health agents) in how to animate small information sessions. Paul did very well and was invited to a training with ATBEF to prepare him for a job with a 9 month contract, which he is in the process of fulfilling. He trains ASCs in organization skills, monitoring and evaluation, bookkeeping, animation tactics, and family planning practices. Then, these ASCs go out into the community to pass along the information to others. This is so great, because Paul is able to put skills he has learned through Peace Corps into practice, he’s able to contribute to the health and development of his community and region, and he’s gaining confidence and experience that will only take him further. He’s earning the trust and respect of people in higher positions in ATBEF and I can see him continuing to climb the ladder towards grander successes. The only downside is that he is super busy and is gone every day, and on his days off he is exhausted, so we don’t spend as much time together. I can tell he misses me and really wants to finish up our work together, so we’ll see how my final months go. 
The second person I want to highlight is my friend Mary, who I talked about in my post about the gender equality in Zafi. After attending the MAP (Men As Partners) training, she was very motivated to keep the ball rolling on gender equality in Zafi, so when Camp UNITE was short a Togolese counselor, I went straight to her. Mary is actually from near Vogan, further South than Zafi, and moved to Zafi when she got married. She cut her education short because she got pregnant, so she only got part of the way through middle school. Of her 5 children, 2 or 3 have been participants in Camp UNITE and she was a major supporter of the camp and how it changed her daughters for the better (they are now in college and have used the skills from camp to set themselves up for success). 
I guess I should (finally) explain Camp UNITE. Bringing the american tradition of camp to Togo, Camp UNITE (Unification de la Nation: Initiative, Travail, Education -- Unification of the Nation: Initiative, Work, Education) started in 2001 as a Life Skills camp for girl students. The camp has grown a lot in the past 12 years: there are 4 camps a year for apprentices and students of both genders. I am on the executive organizing team of 3 PCVs and 3 Togolese and we have worked for a year to prepare, plan, and execute camp. There is one week for a training of trainers in order to prepare all of the PCV and Togolese counselors on topics they will present and the general feel of camp. Then, the camp rolls out and the kids stay for a week at a Peace Corps training center in Pagala, where they eat, sleep, learn, sing, dance, play, etc. Each day there are sessions on important subjects that kids miss in their curriculum in school or in apprenticeship: self confidence, gender equality/ equal opportunities, income-generating activities, time and money management, sexuality and sexual health, adolescence and puberty, leadership, food security, sexual harassment, etc. The kids are then encouraged to bring all that they have learned back to their villages and teach their family, friends, peers, and community about these important life skills/knowledge. All participants and Togolese counselors are nominated by PCVs, our Togolese organizing team, and our affiliated NGO, ADIFF, a women’s health organization. Currently, the camp is funded and supported by the UNITE Foundation, which was set up by past UNITE organizers who have returned to the States, Population Action International, an American NGO, and the American Embassy in Lomé. My role is internal and external affairs and I work with a fellow Togolese organizer to secure the funding with the American Embassy, to set up media opportunities, to facilitate communication between local authorities of Pagala and the camp, and to search for local funders and support so as to further place Camp UNITE into the hands of the Togolese (the actual fundraising is on his plate, since I technically can’t do it). 
So, I sent Mary as a counselor for the girls apprentices camp, since she is a hairdresser and has a few apprentices herself. Although the majority of the counselors that come to camp are those who fall into the fonctionnaire category, Mary really flourished in the training and in the role as counselor. Her French level may have been less than everyone else’s and she never had any experience animating sessions, but her capacity was built enormously. She learned how to plan a session, how to research information, how to animate a session, and how to ask follow up questions. Since returning from camp, an APCD (Associate Peace Corps Director) came to Zafi to check out the house for the new volunteer, which happens to be in the same compound as Mary’s house and salon; apparently Mary was singing songs from camp and was overflowing with joy of her experience at Camp UNITE. I was still at camp (as organizer, I’m there for all 6 weeks, which are in 3 week chunks) and when the APCD stopped by to meet with us, she told me all about her encounter with Mary and cited it as a sign of a successful camp. Now, Mary and I will be working on key sessions that she can present to girls at her church and to her apprentices, as well as a schedule of different activities to continue past my depart. She saw how her daughters were changed by camp, received support from her husband who’s a past UNITE counselor, and is now capable, informed, and experienced enough to make her own waves in the community.
Something that I really like about these two examples of Paul and Mary is that they both would do this work without being paid. They would do this work because they feel passionately about what they have to teach and they have a desire to change their environments. One of the main road blocks I encounter when working with fonctionnaires is that they want to be paid, that their motivation to do anything is money, which is very frustrating. They point out that I’m paid for what I’m doing and that no one will do anything without being paid. Unfortunately, by stating that mentality as a truth, it become a self-fulfilling prophecy and it becomes increasingly more difficult to find people who will want to work with me on a small project without asking for money. I’m sure if I offered money to any and all who I wanted to work with on say, house visits of those with moringa trees in their yard, then the plan would have already happened, as opposed to my constant search for someone who will actually take it seriously and show up at all. Yes, Paul is being paid for his work with ATBEF, but this is after many years of doing things out of the goodness of his heart and with no money in hand. Yes, Mary was paid a sum for being a counselor at UNITE, but now she is doing these information sharing sessions without thought of being paid. Togo needs more of these people. 

________________________________________________________________________


Still on the changes note: I am closing out my service in 6 weeks (!!!) and will be replaced by a volunteer in the English and Gender Education sector. Talk about crazy talk. My brain is a whirlwind when I think about how her service is starting in Zafi and mine is ending. When she came to visit, many people told her that they were going to cry when I left and that she had big shoes to fill, and no one called her Yovo. I had to go discreetly cry tears of pride for my village/ sadness for leaving it all. I will be spending my last 6 weeks working on building Camp UNITE’s media presence, visiting a few places I haven’t been to, hanging out in Zafi, and saying bye to friends. I’m going to have a huge party in village before I leave and everyone’s invited! 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Let's Go to the Mall? (or insert any Clueless quote here)


When I moved to Knoxville, TN from Houston, TX at age 15, there were 3 things I hated about the town: there was only one Starbucks (in Houston, we had the infamous 2 Starbucks across the street from each other), there wasn’t an Urban Outfitters (where I exclusively bought all my clothes), and the mall was only one story (Houston’s Galleria has like 4 levels, a Neimann Marcus, a Saks 5th Avenue, etc). As I went through my high school years, I spent a lot of time at West Town Mall in Knoxville - hanging out, going to the movies, working at Marble Slab, etc. I still thought it was dinky and small, and as time wore on, I started to hate the mall. I would try to go on off days (Tuesdays) and sneak in certain entrances so that I wouldn’t have to go by the loud obnoxious stores or the stall people trying to sell me fancy sea salt hand scrubs. Even if Sephora did open in West Town, the mall became this fluorescent-lit time warp that left my mind fuzzy for the rest of the day. 
Fast-forward to my time in Togo, where the high-end shopping is located in the grande marché in Lomé and consists of 2 pricey pagne stores: they only sell the fabric, and a handful of pre-made things. In marchés across all of Togo, pagnes are sold, which you take to a seamstress to have an outfit made. You can buy the Goodwill rejects in marchés too, but that’s about it on the prêt-a-porter horizon. Buying produce is difficult and requires a lot of pre-planning - I normally go to 2 different weekly marchés a week to find produce, and my success much depends on the season. Right now, it’s the beginning of rainy season, so all that’s available are onions, avocados, and mangos. I’ve tried to explain shopping in America to many Togolese in my village,  but no one has really grasped it. They see it as such a luxury that I can get produce any day, any time, and that we all have cars to drive to shop. They’re also confused as to why we don’t all have our own farms in America. Obviously, I’ve been spending the past 19 months away from the world of junk food marketing and numbers on clothing sizes dictating my self esteem. I haven’t seen very much mass-produced stuff, and if there is some, it’s in a small quantity and obviously all that the store has ordered. I haven’t even seen just plain old stuff - stuff that people buy and don’t really need - in very many stores.
Being that I’ve been living in a totally different world in the realm of economics (who are we kidding, totally different world in all aspects), you can imagine my culture shock when I went to the mall in Accra. That’s right. In Accra, Ghana, there is a mall. Rumor has it that the president of Togo built it for one of his many wives (although the word for wife and woman in French is the same, so I could has misinterpreted). My friends and I were on vacation and decided that we would do the things that would sound silly to our friends across the pond and glorious to those in the country over: we ate at KFC and went to the mall to see a movie. Going on vacation in Ghana was still West Africa, so it wasn’t as relaxing as I had dreamt, but we’ll get to that later. KFC was strange and very clean and fake feeling. The chicken left me with massive heartburn and we all wondered: where did they get this chicken? We’ve never seen this much meat on a bone in Togo, even in the restaurants that use imported frozen chicken. Then, we found the glory that is public transportation in Accra to get to the mall. Since we were still in West Africa, we inevitably ran into the people trying to overcharge us for rides, or trying to convince us that we certainly can’t walk to the mall when we arrived less than half a kilometer away. In the final leg of our journey to the mall, we were in a tro-tro (the vans that are the public transportation) with a group of young Ghanaian adults who were all speaking proper English and didn’t harass us like we were their personal play-things. Everyone had a fancy touch screen phone and was well dressed. It was the most comfortable I’ve felt in West Africa in my entire time here: I understood what people were saying, no one was trying to harass me or was even interested in talking to me, and everyone smelled nice. I felt equal, accepted, and actually a little villageois as I stared out the window in awe at all the multi-lane paved roads and trash cans, dressed in very dirty clothes. 
Finally, we arrived at the mall, and I had to remove my brain to be able to handle the enormity of the place. It was about the same size as West Town Mall in Knoxville, and I was blown away. There was store upon store upon store selling all sorts of different things that I couldn’t ever imagine needing. We made a bee-line for the Apple retailer (not technically an Apple store) and saw our very first iPad mini and CD-ROM-less computers. I marveled at all the accessories you can buy for your zillion dollar iPhone and the different types of earphones available. After that, we decided to wander the mall and see it all, as we had a lot of time left before the movie. We found a Puma store, a place like Sharper Image, and a store very similar to Wal-Mart. I was in search of resistance bands, so we went into the mock Wal-Mart...and I really had to keep my brain turned off to be able to handle that place. Aisle upon aisle of stuff and things and even a lawn mower! There’s hardly any grass in West Africa. Finally, we found the fitness section and although my search was futile, we found a wall of protein powder for ridiculous prices (I don’t really know the price for it in America, but I bet it’s not like $50 for a tub, right??). We then wandered into the toy section and there were so many things and so many options and so much stuff that I could just see destroyed and buried in my garden by my neighbor kids. Barbies were around $20+. There were 3-D puzzles. It was too much to handle, and eventually, we got out of that store. Next stop, I wanted to go to this Forever 21-like store called Mr. Price or something like that. All the ads in the windows were skinny white girls and tan white boys. I was giddy and kept on saying “I forgot how much I love shopping!” but now when I look back on it, I get anxiety. There were so many clothes and so many different colors of pants and so many different sizes. None of us knew what size we wore in these weird numbers, let alone in America, so no one tried anything on. There was even a wall of just shoes. We left without buying anything and went to the food court. That’s right. The food court! And found soft serve ice-cream! Not a week goes by where I fantasize about getting frozen yogurt with berries, so this was as close as I could get to it. West Africa intervened again as a young man practically pushed us aside as we were ordering so that he could place his order - no lines or “waiting your turn” exist here. The girl who worked there was quintessential West Africa - bored, apathetic, and kind of abrasive. Customer service is lacking over here. We all sat down in the outdoor area, where there were clean tables that were not made out of plastic, there were hardly any flies, and we were next to an inflatable playground. As our sensory overload started to wear off, we noticed something: almost everyone in the mall was Ghanaian. In Togo, the rich are sometimes seen, are noted for their fancy pagne and shoes, but most of the time they separate themselves from the poorer classes. The rich are such a small minority here, that I rarely encounter or spend time with them. So, in seeing all the Ghanaians in the mall was a strange thing, and made me realize that there much be so many more jobs and money-making opportunities in Ghana, or at least in Accra. We also noticed a lot of people were drinking Smirnoff Ices (srsly??) and beers, I guess getting drunk at the mall is the thing to do. Another thing we noticed was that the women at the table next to us left a half eaten hamburger amongst other parts of their meal on the table. Like, they threw away food. I have not seen that happen in so long and my friends and I all leaned in to discuss it. Isn’t there a child around that would eat it? As we looked around, we noticed that all the kids were playing with toys and electronics, not just dirt and old tin cans. There was even a table full of middle school kids playing spin the bottle! Finally, we went to our movie, which was horrible, but at least I got to go to the movies, something I’ve been craving for a long time.
Apart from the Accra Mall experience, my vacation in Ghana was fun, and still West Africa. We went to the beach, to slave castles, to a hotel on a pond, to a rainforest, and still got all the same old harassment: people asking us for money, people overcharging us/tricking us to get more money out of us (one taxi driver drove us down the street, turned around, and brought us to the original spot….he wanted money rather than to tell us that our destination was just across the street), people taking pictures of us with their cellphones (not because we’re pretty, but rather because we’re white) (one man even asked if he could take a picture with us in the background and we were in the process of saying no when his friend snapped the pic), people telling us that our lives are so much easier than theirs, people asking us to get them into America, people sweeping at 4:30 am, and goats and babies and chickens everywhere. But when I got back to the ouatchi area of Togo, I realized what was nice to not have in Ghana: the young women in the bush taxi yelling “Yovo!” at me and the one who started touching my neck, shoulders, pulling hair out of my face, rubbing my face and generally being in my personal space. Didn’t even engage with her once. C’est normale, hein?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Gender Issues


Now, just like every American is their own unique snowflake, every person’s Peace Corps experience is different. It can depend on who you are, your background, your sector, your country, your region, your village, the ethnicity you live amongst, your own ethnicity, your language level, the community’s collective education level, the possibilities are endless. Here, in Togo, there is an on going one-up-manship between the northern volunteers and the southern volunteers about who has it worst (north is hot as hell, south has abrasive culture), but we can all agree: male and female volunteers have incredibly different experiences as Peace Corps Volunteers in Togo. One male volunteer even argues that us female PCVs are a third gender. This comes from the reality that genders are not equal here and that women are objectified and seen as lower than men.
In an area of the world where gender inequality is rampant, there are many social rules that change experiences for everyone in the area. I thought I’d outline them for y’all, so you’d see how different the world is for girls and women here, and even for me, as a female PCV. I want to disclose that this is what I observe and have learned from my community, in Southern Togo, and from conversations with volunteers across the country so this may not be what other experience or observe. Also, some of what I see is not virtually true for all families in my community; my host family’s children do all domestic tasks equally and my host dad includes my host mom in all financial and familial decisions.


Togolese Girl
Togolese Boy
Wakes up around 4 am everyday to help mother with: cooking, cleaning, laundry, starting the fire, getting water for the family for the day etc. Goes to bed around 10 pm or later everyday after helping with cooking, cleaning, farm tasks (planting, harvest, drying, preparation).
Wakes up around 5 or 6 everyday to shower, does help with farm tasks (planting, harvest, field preparation). Goes to bed when tired, around 9 pm.
In charge of caring for children once they are past the beginning stages of infancy. Read: bathing, cleaning, feeding (unless still breast feeding), carrying on back. I often see babies (toddlers) carrying babies (infants)!
No child rearing responsibilities.
Girls in school is becoming more common, although there are still many who don’t attend for a myriad of reasons. During lunch break from school, prepares midday meal for everyone. After the school day is done, comes home quickly to be able to pump water for the whole family.
Going to school, often has a bike to facilitate travel to school and to fields. Plays soccer during midday break and comes home to already prepared meal. After school, plays soccer, gets tutored, and hangs out with friends.
Subject to sexual advances from teachers, older family members, older men in community starting at age 13.
Can impregnate girls and deny paternity. Can be betrothed to girls during middle school and dictate their lives. (I once heard of a boy pulling his fiancée out of math because his father said that girls shouldn’t learn math.)
Around age 15, often expected to fend for herself, often turning to prostitution or search for secure marriage. May help mother sell food in the weekly market.
Can live with family well into late 20’s, until married when wife will do the cooking, cleaning, etc for him.
Constantly berated by men (and sometimes even women) in community for being the lesser sex. Timidity is the norm and interpreted as being stupid, lazy, ungrateful.
Outspoken, expected to be ‘tough’ and strong. Participate the most in class.
Drop out rates of Togolese girls is very high. Maybe 20% complete middle school.
Those who do succeed in school are mainly boys, although most are in their 20s before they graduate high school (if they make it that far).






Togolese Woman
Togolese Man
Wake up at 4 am to start fire, delegate tasks to female children, sweep the courtyard, prepare for the day to begin. Spends day cooking, cleaning, laundry, domestic animal care (ie feeding chickens and goats), child care, farming tasks (planting, harvest, preparation, drying). Bed around 10 or 11 pm.
Wakes up around 5 or 6 to shower and eat. Goes to work, if he holds a service job, if not, hangs out at home, goes to hang out with friends. Spends a lot of time sitting and listening to the radio. Does spend a considerable amount of time doing farm work during the rainy season.
Education level is around 4th grade level, if she even went to school (majority have not).
Amongst villagers, education level varies but is as high as 8th or 9th grade. Amongst service professionals (teachers, clinicians, etc) around high school diploma or associates degree. 
University educated are predominately men and they are found in larger towns and cities.
Purchase/appropriation of all goods for the household: corn, vegetables, soap, pots, firewood, water, clothes. All with baby strapped on back, or while pregnant, or both, often with a toddler at hand. Due to deforestation, firewood is normally found many kilometers away, and mothers and children walk long distances daily to meet this need.

In charge of earning money for the family by selling goods from farms or projects she has started: corn, beans, cassava, yams, pineapples, oranges, soap, candies, etc.
In charge of all money for the household. Believe that wife will steal from him, so encouragement of illiteracy amongst women is common to ‘protect’ his family and financial status. Often spends a lot of money on alcohol throughout the week. 
In charge of all childcare: going to clinic when child is sick, making sure child has clothes, feeding the child, etc.
Because of the desire to maintain an image of being “strong”, will wait until extremely sick to go to clinic, therefore spending more money on treatment and risking the life of the ever powerful patriarch.
Constantly berated for being the lesser sex - laughed at, mocked, etc. Often illiterate, so unable to participate in discussions with NGOs and the like. 
Respected and listened to. Any slights on character are waved off. 


So what do I do with this? How to I tackle this totem pole thought, where women are below and subservient to men? How can a community develop and build when the genders aren’t equal? My heart has ached for girls and women here since I had learned a lot of unsettling information about a year ago: how men treat them, how prostitution is the norm (not even really seen as prostitution but rather “well, he gave me money, so now I have to...”) in my village, and a multitude of other things. It’s been the hardest thing to swallow… I had heard about things like this when I was in school, but it is quite another thing to live it, to know people who are subject to these horrible offspring of inequality. Back when this was all unveiled to me (about a year ago), I was so upset about it that I realized I either needed to quit Peace Corps or to take action. Obviously, I stayed and created a plan to introduce more gender equality into my village. I started with a girls camp to focus on supporting and empowering the girls of Zafi. It went alright… even if the girls thought that I was going to pay them (top down development messing with the grassroots!! Grr!). Then, I wanted to focus on the adults, which would be difficult. How could I introduce this concept to women who are illiterate? How could I find men who were open minded enough to listen? Well, I continued what the previous volunteer started: Men as Partner (MAP) trainings. The previous volunteer held a MAP training for all the chiefs and notables of the canton, which introduced the concept to the big wigs of Zafi. This time, I had a different vision. My counterparts Paul, Joseph, Yao, and I held this gender equality training for teachers, principals, health care workers, and religious leaders/representatives over the course of 4 Saturdays. MAP is pushed by Peace Corps in Togo; it uses men as advocates for gender equality and women’s rights so that women are supported and understood as they start to make changes. Although MAP is meant for men, our group included many women. We invited mixed genders and people who deal with children often so that we would not only be working with people who could spread this information to the younger generations, but also people who were open minded and wanted to improve the lives of the children around them. 
We talked about a lot of things that really reminded me of ideas drilled in my head during elementary school (like stranger danger, drugs are bad, if someone touches you tell an adult, no means no, Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water, not just Jill, boys can play Pretty Pretty Princess too, girls can play football). We started off with simple definitions, like the difference between sex and gender, what gender equality really means and built off of each session. We went over health statistics, HIV/AIDS, appropriate sexual/platonic relationships, sexual harassment, sharing of domestic tasks, etc and while there were some people who were tough to convince, the majority of the participants were very open minded and motivated to start spreading what they have learned. One guy wanted to know what my views as a Western woman were regarding gender equality/about my sex life and was very adamant about it. Paul and I decided to skirt this request because it’s already radical enough that I’m 24, unmarried, childless, and living away from home. I truly expected some resistance from the teachers when we brought up age differences in sexual partners, as a lot of teachers sleep with their female students (everyone calls it “sex grades”) (and by sleep with I mean practically enslave: the girls cook, clean, play house with the teacher, all the while she still has school and homework to worry about! And the teachers swear that it’s the girls seducing them; “they just can’t control themselves”...c’mon, man!). Instead of a boycott for my radical proposition of not sleeping with your students, one principal declared that he would like the session leader information about age differences, prostitution, and sexual harassment to share with his colleagues and everyone else chimed in, asking for the same xeroxes. Some men in the group were all talk and very pompous (“well, I sweep my compound every morning because my wife is too lazy to get up and do it herself”) only to not participate if they were randomly in a female only group for an activity. Some others stopped showing up because they felt they weren’t paid enough (that’s right, I had to pay people and feed them to come to this training). There was a core group of 23 people, out of the 35 invited, that came every day and took everything we taught to heart.
My favorite participant was my friend Mary, one of Joseph’s three wives (another one was at the training, too), who was representing the Methodist church. She’s a hairdresser and sells cold water sachets and juices and I spend a lot of time with her, just hanging out. On the first day of the training, she stood up and gave a huge speech in local language. Oh how I wish I could have understood what she really said! Paul briefly told me that she had said that men complain and complain all the time, but women know solutions, women have valuable things to say, valuable things to offer, and that the time has come for men to include women in the running of the household and the running of the community. Since the training, I can tell Mary has changed: she is more outspoken, she is more open, and she is unbelievably motivated. She told me that she was proud of me for introducing gender equality to the people I did (namely women), and that she was proud to be chosen as a participant. She has high hopes for her apprentices and has already started passing along the information to them, trying to coax the girls into realizing their value.  
Thinking about Mary and about the principal, Babowa, and their openness and motivation to share their new knowledge warms my heart. It’s crazy to think that just now I’m trusted enough to share my passions with these wonderful people and we have bridged the culture gap to become friends, and now, after so long feeling lonely and isolated, I have begun counting down my last 6 months in Togo.  
I know that my MAP training and my Christmas time camp aren’t going to produce a sweeping change in gender issues in my community, but I do know that the more information is spread and the more I get people talking about it, I have made a change. It’s a tough thing to accept as a Peace Corps volunteer. When I get on Facebook, people ask me about my time in Togo, how many schools have I built, how many babies have I saved from the throes of malnutrition, etc. I may not have done big physical projects, but I have spread a lot of knowledge.