Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Three...two...one...

THREE years since I left for Togo.
TWO years since I reached my half-way mark in Peace Corps.
ONE year since I returned to America.

This is most likely the closing of this blog. Although I have infrequently updated it this past year, I wanted to have some documentation of my return to America...other Peace Corps bloggers close out with their service. I was curious about re-acclimation before I joined, 3 years ago, and I thought I'd contribute to the mystery of returning to America after 2 years in an African village.

I have a lot of half-baked reflections on my year back. Sometimes I find my experience being reduced down to "Africa" and an understanding that no one really gets what it's like living in a village. Other times, much more often now that I live near a bunch of RPCVs, I re-live my experience and get to talk about the things that annoyed us and that we loved and that we kind of actually miss, even though we were sick of it in-country. I still can't eat rice and beans, though. Blergh.

Starting graduate school has been a great way to help me rediscover some sort of purpose in my life. I was working day-in and day-out, serving tables, refilling sweet teas, and guffawing (behind the scenes) at parents who order Diet Coke for their chubby 10 year old. Now, I am in Denver, in a city where I can wander on foot or take public transit, and watch beautiful couples exercise together. But in all reality, graduate school is a nice change of scenery. There are many people interested in development, and not just the "let's save the poor African children" type. When I do class readings about Sub Saharan Africa, I scour for Togo's name. I have yet to see it, the poor small country that it is.

There is a community of RPCVs at this graduate school. A handful of us served in Africa, and about 3 of us served in West Africa. It turns out, we are the more "bad ass" of the group. My roommate, who served in China, was curious to learn about how we bathed in Togo. Sometimes people ask me about the infrastructure, my job, and the food we ate.  One guy had running water, hot water at that, a shower, WiFi, and an oven while serving in Armenia. They all find my experience exotic and wild.

We found out that Peace Corps is allowing people to choose where they serve based on location and job postings....which we all chuckled at. Those of us in West Africa had "jobs", which I have posted about in this blog. I must say, if I had not been randomly assigned to live in a village in one of the poorest countries in the world, I wouldn't have done it. If I had known I had an option of where to go, I would have gone with a place more in my comfort zone. Getting out of that comfort zone, having zero expectations about the world of Zafi, and letting life take me on a long strange trip is what made my Peace Corps experience the life changing 2 years that it was. Now, I'm not saying it's a bad idea to let people pick...it would probably allow for less early terminations or something. I'm just saying that not having that control made things easier and more freeing.

Would I do Peace Corps again? Yesssmaybe. I am so happy to have "found" myself during those 2 years of isolation, loneliness, outsiderness, etc, but that was one of the hardest parts of the whole thing. If I did Peace Corps again, it would be under the same premise as this past time (for the experience, not with the disillusion of changing the world), but I would want to do it with a partner. I often found myself wishing for a companion to share my experience with, someone to look over too during a crazy market day or a bonding moment with village children and nod knowingly.

Will I return to Togo? I don't know. I certainly won't return to live, but maybe for a visit. In all honesty, I was ready to leave when I wrapped up my two years. More than ready. But I also think that America is like a break, while Togo was the long, treacherous marathon. It would have been much easier to extend my service if I had yearly breaks. And less parasites. And less sexual harassment.

George Packer wrote a book about his experience as a PCV in Togo in the 80s, The Village of Waiting. Although I don't have the book with me, nor have I read it in a while, I always think about one part where he states that he hasn't felt more alive than he did when he lived in Togo. Or maybe it was that he felt the most alive while in Togo. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly agree with the idea. Every day I felt alive, be it an alive in the sense of freedom or suffering or awe or bitterness.

Here's to my life path reconvening with a place and/or job that fosters that sense of aliveness. And here's to whomever reads this... that your life is full of risk, challenge, optimism, and experience.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

So American?

 I haven’t written in a long time. This is mainly due to the many obligations that come along with living and working in America, but also because I was getting lost and down in the gloom of winter in East Tennessee. I would drive to work as the sun would rise, I would come home around the time it set, and everything was grey and cold and just plain old ugly. I think that’s when I hate Knoxville the most, when it’s winter. Everything blends into the questionably insane amount of concrete, my eyelids are heavy without sunshine, and I have to creatively wear the same cardigan over and over.

Now, spring is here, and I actually thought on my drive across town to class, “Wow, it’s beautiful out today”. My allergies are acting up, I get a sun burn whenever I go outside for more than 30 minutes, and I can’t stop talking about dogwood flowers.

Re-acclimating to America/the South/etc has been really difficult. Yes, Togo was “the hardest job I ever loved” (to quote Peace Corps), but America is a whole new thing. I changed considerably throughout my time in Togo, and every day I see a way in which I am different from those around me. What’s hard to grasp about this is that, while in Togo, I knew I was the strange weirdo living in Zafi, but I identified as an American, and when I was around my fellow Americans, I felt understood, loved, and wholly part of the American community. It was freeing to be zany and bizarre in Togo, because I was so different from everyone. In America, it’s not the same feeling. I often feel isolated and deeply miss my friends from my America/Togo community. I’m not on Facebook anymore because I just feel so removed from everything on there. Peace Corps did warn us about this, and did tell us to take the first 3 to 6 months to observe and learn, just as we did in our villages.  
So, here is what I’ve learned about America:
·         FOOD IS SO GOOD
·         Never enough time, never enough money
·         Social media presence/ popularity almost (almost) trumps real life relationships
·         Deep appreciation for good food and good beer
·         Dedication to craft/arts, at least in my generation
·         Trader Joe’s is actually just as cheap at Kroger
·         Some people dress up to go to the grocery store, some people wear shirt dresses and flip flops to the office
·         SENSORY OVERLOAD!!!!!
·         Judgmental

And here is what I’ve learned about myself in America:
·         No tolerance for negativity/self-pitying/complaining without a solution
·         Humor is unmatched except with select few people
·         Picky about who I want to spend time with
·         Still love babies and small children, they just don’t love me that much/ parents don’t want to pass off their infants to the strange woman making faces
·         Hyper-aware of gender roles and dynamics, some of which may be intensified by living in the South


I was so terrified that the longer I’m away from Togo and the more acclimated I am to America, the further Togo will be from my heart. The further I’ll be from my experience. The further I’ll be from Paul, Madame, Herve, Emile, Akpenavi, and all my lovely neighbors and baby friends. In reality, it is all still so with me, that I tear up every time I think about them, I talk about it constantly (although people don’t really want to hear it), and I dream about visiting almost every night. It is still really painful to call, to look at photos, or to read people’s blogs, because it unleashes a flood of se manquer that often results in tears.

But, petit a petit, l’oiseau fait son nid, and I have things going on in my life. I am working full time at “the best restaurant in Knoxville”, where I have actually met two other RPCVs, from Ghana and Senegal, and have found that I can make friends with people who weren’t in Peace Corps. And finally, in bigger news, I will be moving to Denver in the fall to attend the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. In addition to some PC/Togo friends in the city, a friend of mine from Peace Corps and I will be living together, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Hope you all enjoyed this update. I am planning some upcoming posts on gender and American culture, so keep checking back!

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. 

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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!