Being the third volunteer in Zafi, in the same house, with the same host family and homologue, j’ai de la chance. My homologue, Paul, and his family (Madame, Hervé (17), Émile (11), and Agbenavi (7)), as well as other neighbors, are my best friends in village. I have integrated into the families and look forward to seeing them daily. They are patient, giving, nurturing, and supportive. So, I decided to interview my host family to learn more about them than what I already know from our ever increasing time together. Spanning from anecdotes about older volunteers to learning that I have some willing and able work partners amongst the women to American myth-busting, this interview brought forth a lot of eye opening information.
Caitlin: When did you start working with Peace Corps?
Paul: In 2008 with Nick. He was in Natural Resource Management (now changed to Environmental Action and Food Security), and we did a plantation of fertilizing trees at the CEG, started a little environmental club, and with the help of another volunteer, David, we made tree nurseries. The community didn’t really get what Peace Corps was, so it took some time to figure out what to do and how to utilize the presence of a volunteer
C: What did you think of Americans before you met Nick?
P: I appreciated their way of life, their dedication to democracy. I admired that they like respecting the law. They aren’t egotistical like the French.
Madame: I have always appreciated the acts of westerners, since they come here to help us. I had heard that the Americans are the strongest [power] in the world.
Hervé: Americans are developed, and [they] think daily about how to improve their country.
Emile: They like to play with kids! Yay!
Clément: [he moved next door while Abby was a volunteer] I learned that Americans are really smart and they can create machines and they have built machines for all the work that they do.
C: What is the weirdest thing about Americans?
P: They adapt themselves really quickly to Togo, especially after learning about how different America is. They are really good at technology - there isn’t anyone who doesn’t know how to use a computer! What is education like over there that they all know how to use it? They always seek solutions to all the problems they come across; they communicate quickly what’s going on and how to fix it. When Abby was here, there was one night that the cat jumped on her roof and it made a lot of noise. She thought that it was thieves coming to steal from her and instead of calling me, she called her boyfriend, Matthew, in Bassar. She quickly told him what was happening and they figured out how to fix the problem. Americans have a lot of confidence and trust in their peers.
M: Americans do mysterious things. Nick’s girlfriend told us that when she first tried to come visit him in Togo, she had a dream that something bad was going to happen, so she cancelled her flight and rescheduled. When the original flight left, it crashed and everyone died. She was able to interpret her dreams and tell the future. Also, Americans can predict how things are going to unfold, even if it isn’t the same day, but further in the future. Americans don’t hide the truth from their work partners.
C:Why is that weird?
M: It’s weird here because here, people keep things secret from even their closest friends. They are scared that maybe those who they confide in will be jealous and think bad things so that bad things will happen to them. Americans tell everything to each other! We appreciate that though!
H: Americans/volunteers have a lot of information about the problems in the environment, but how do they come across that information? How could they determine that that’s how things are happening?
E: It’s weird that Americans can make machines like a tractor or a car.
Agbenavi: The garden is really weird. Why put it next to your house?
Atchou: (Paul’s nephew, former environmental club president, 19, in 2nd) Americans, they are the most...they study a lot. And they have a very developed intelligence. Amongst their women, girls, men, boys, they develop quickly, intellectually and physically.
C: What does the community say about your relationship with Americans?
P: They were a little surprised, when the first volunteer came, how I got to “get” the first volunteer. They thought that he came for me only. After explaining everything about the volunteer, they wish what the volunteer would stay with us at all times. They thought that I was paid. They thought that the volunteer gave our family something. But now that they know what the volunteer’s work is, they say that I have a lot of courage for working with volunteers for free. They appreciate me because they wouldn’t be able to sacrifice the time or work, they say that it’s hard work and its a work of sacrifice. They want me to give one of my children to each volunteer that comes so that they can go to school in america!
M: There are some people who ask how it’s possible for me to interact with Americans when I didn’t go to school. I explain to them that they learn some local language and we have small conversations. When they don’t understand, the kids interpret for us. They also ask me if Americans can eat our food. I explain to them that of course they can eat our food, but they like some things and dislike others.
H: Some people ask me what your work is here, concretely in the village. Then I explain it to them. There are also some kids who ask if you will accept new people into Environmental Club.
E: My friends ask me what you do here, what your work is in the community.
A: My friends ask me what your role is in the community. I tell them that you are here to help everyone!
C: What makes you proud of Zafi?
P: The community is not very violent and there isn’t much crime. And also, they are...they work a lot and look for work to make money. There aren’t a lot of people who take drugs. And also, the majority of the community gives the volunteers respect.
M: The community likes to welcome strangers, they have lots of hospitality.
H: The community likes to have friendly relationships. They help their friends out.
E: The people of Zafi make themselves work a lot. They like to work a lot.
A: I like the way that I can sing loudly with my friends.
C:There’s possibly going to be a new volunteer in Zafi in August, but not in the same house as mine. How are you going to welcome them, even if they may live further away?
P: I’m definitely going to welcome them and make sure that they are comfortable here. I know that they are here to work for the community and I am open to working with them. Since they are here for the betterment of the community, I can help teach people to treat them with the respect that they need and I can help them with projects in the community.
C: Do you have any advice for Americans who come to Togo? (I have a feeling that my question was a little misunderstood)
P: First, in the realm of security, I advise them to not go out past 21h. Second, also, to avoid night visits by those they do not know very well. Third, for respect, don’t drink too much in the bars. Don’t frequent the places that serve sodabi. If they want the local drink, ask their counterpart so that they can buy it in bottle and take it elsewhere. Fourth, I advise a volunteer to start at least one concrete project so that the following volunteer can build on it. Don’t limit yourself to your mandate, do sustainable projects so that the next volunteer can pick it up. That way the community will be able to work longterm and show the new volunteer where to pick up. Fifth, I would like that the volunteers who are in the same region/prefecture create a network of work. It’s to say that they should collaborate in their work. There are three different sectors in Yoto [our prefecture] and they can bolster the work of each volunteer in each village, since all the sectors are tied into each other. And finally, I wish that this network of volunteers in the region would also create a network between the counterparts as well, to facilitate work, even after they leave.
M: I would like if the next volunteer would be able to help the women in our community. The majority of the women have not gone to school and cannot go to trainings. It’d be nice to have a camp for all the women so that we can learn what they have to offer. I’m not sure if the Americans are scared to tell us the truth, but if the don’t like something I make, I would like it if they would teach me how to make meals from chez eux so I can make it for them. [I think they know I feed the pate they give me to the dogs...eek]
C: I came here with the mentality that I wanted to learn from Togo and from the community. But, now I want to know what you want to learn from me, or Americans in general.
P: For me, personally?
C: What you have learned and what you would like to learn?
P: What I have learned is gender equality. When I try to practice it, there is a great advantage in it. I’ve empowered my wife and she has started to help me with/ teach me a lot of things. I’ve also learned to treat my children equally and they all have domestic work. The work isn’t just for girls or just for boys, it’s for all the kids. I’ve also learned how to manage my time. Before the volunteers, I wasted a lot of time, and lacked profit. Now, when I practice time management, I find a lot of advantage and I’ve acquired a lot. Also, about the chemical pesticides...when I learned that they give sickness and that kills the soil, I stopped using them. I’ve noticed that now that I use natural pesticides, my sicknesses have gone away. In that way, I’ve been able to advise others to use these pesticides and quit chemical pesticides. With agriculture, with the documents that I’ve read from Peace Corps, I’ve appreciated the association of field work with animal husbandry. With time, that will evolve and will give me a lot. It will earn me a lot of money! I think that, with the trainings at Camp UNITE and Camp Eco Action, I learned a lot and it reinforced my knowledge about the environment. I have started to share that information and I think that I can help the community change their behaviors to benefit our children and grandchildren. For what I want to learn...well, the base education in Africa, it weighs down on our evolution. It’s difficult to change a behavior that we had learned many years ago. I would like to continue to learn. I prefer, even better, that there will be a time there won’t be a volunteer in Zafi, but there will still be contact with us and Peace Corps so that we can continue to go to trainings and learn and continue to help the community and change behaviors. I know that there are times that volunteers aren’t replaced, and we, the counterparts, are to replace the role of the volunteer in the community. We have learned a lot from Peace Corps and we are supposed to be the example in the community. If we have support from Peace Corps in Lomé, we can continue to learn and evolve and have the boost to continue volunteer work in our communities.
M: By the grace of volunteers, I have learned how to make liquid soap and that helps me a lot. If the volunteers have more income-generating activities, I can learn how do it and that’ll please me a lot. I would like to learn the art with strings that you do. [I make friendship bracelets when I’m really bored].
C: I have a friend who’s parents came to visit him in his village in Togo. After they left, there was a rumor that, because he was American, he could build an airplane and that he had built one to bring his parents to visit. Are there weird rumors about Americans that you heard, even in your childhood?
P: When I was little, we thought that the Americans had gone to the moon, built houses, and put up an American flag and claimed the moon as their own land. So, we don’t know if this is true or false, and you are American, so is it true?
C: Hahaha! Well, it’s true that Americans went to the moon. They were the first people to land on the moon and they put up a flag. But there isn’t any air in space, so people can’t build houses or live on the surface of the moon. I think it’s free land for anyone.
P: Wait, but there is still the American flag there? Well, then it’s still land for the Americans. [He then tells his friends that the rumor has been confirmed.]
M: I don’t know any.
P: I heard that there is an American man who was pregnant and gave babies. I saw his photo at my friends house. How is that possible?
I explained the pregnant man….
P: Uh! La medicine!
M: I heard that in America, there was a woman who gave a child with 4 heads and 8 feet!
P (interpreting for his friends who are over to watch Africa Cup of Nations): My friends want to know...are there really pregnant western women? Every woman we’ve seen that is white they have never been pregnant.
H: If an American woman has a baby, do they do it like they do here? At the clinic or at home, traditionally? Is there a machine that takes out the baby?