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!