Monday, May 24, 2010
Last week I was heading to the village market, when I was called over to a small mud hut. The caller's face was familiar, but I had never had a conservation with him beyond the typical Togolese salutations. He is old. His accounts of the change from German-French Togolese rule (1916- I think) puts him at least 90. His position as village "sage," elder, and clairvoyant are well known. Trying to decided wether or not he had been drinking, I approached, bowed slightly and, per Togoless customs, awaited his response to my opening salutations.
He told me in a low wispered voice:
"Ma fille, ton projet va reussir. Tiens dur, ne perds pas d'espoir, et continue toujours."
(My daughter, your project will success. Hold on, don't lose hope, and continue always.)
Some might say it was coincidence, as I was having a particularly hard day. I was also tinkering with the thought that my project would not get fully funded, my bike had just gotten a flat tire, and I was sunburned. However, I'd like to think of it more as my "second" wind.
If you have not had the opportunity to send out an email on my behalf, think of this as a friendly pleading. If you already have, a friendly pleading of your own might be useful. If you have exhausted all communicative efforts- prayer, meditation, or whatever spiritual means you find effective are more than welcome!
Thanks to all of you who have started fundraising on my behalf. It really means more than I can express in an email. Thanks especially to those of you who were able to contribute financially.
This is no longer a far-fetched, idealistic, or rather unrealistic project. It's written in the Africa skies. Be a part of it.
In peace and Love,
Friday, April 23, 2010
I have become a firm believer that education is the base for sustainable development. Without education we are left without the necessary mental capacities to improve our lives and our communities. For example, farmers who went to school or attended agricultural trainings are often better farmers because of the skills they learned (like how to calculate land superficies and crop output, or how to implement advanced agriculture techniques, etc). Nonetheless, to receive an education some type of educational infrastructure must exist. In Datcha there is insufficient educational infrastructure. Datcha and surrounding villages have a population of about 17,000. Currently serving this population is six elementary schools and one middle school. This means that for a student to continue their studies at high school they have to reside in an outside village (the closest is 12km from Datcha and its high school is over capacity). This discourages High School enrollment and drains Datcha of its educated and motivated youth. It also adversely affects young girls as boys are the first to be sent to school if the means are lacking.
Within Peace Corps there is an opportunity for all volunteers to apply for a grant with a Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP). A volunteer is selected based on their community’s need and initiative and the volunteer’s application. Once selected, it is upon the volunteer to solicit tax-deductible donations through the Peace Corps’ website. I have completed the application process and designed an action plan for the construction of a second middle school in Datcha which will, in accordance with Togolese regulations, ultimately transition to a High School. The community is furnishing the sand, gravel, and the manual labor for the project, adding up to about 30% of the proposed budget. In addition to the construction, the project includes a series of trainings held on the following subjects: the importance of girls’ education, the fight against sexual harassment in schools, how to manage a project budget, the importance of financial transparency in funded projects, and how to mobilize local resources to achieve community goals.
The total budget is $36,075,06 with the community contribution adding up to $8,351.38 leaving the PCPP request at $27,723.68. Unfortunately as I understand, the US economy is down, most of my friends are modestly employed or continuing their studies and with the catastrophe is Haiti peoples’ bank accounts are not over-flowing. But I also know the passion that I share with those close to me and I truly believe the project can be realized with your help. Please start thinking of church groups, associations, clubs, friends, family, teachers, and colleagues that you could contact to help me raise the amount needed. I have chosen 30 key individuals/couples/families that I have full confidence will help me in raising the money, you are one of those people. If each contact agrees to try to raise $1000, the project will be funded quickly and without much hassle. Because of poor internet and phone connections my networking abilities are severely limited so I count on you to help this project become reality.
My wise mother once told her children that no one can take away their education. What she meant was that an education is unlike material possessions in that it lasts forever and is invaluable. In Togo, where people are living on around a dollar a day, an education can mean a chance at a life out of poverty. I’ve always been given the opportunity and encouragement to receive a good education, and it is that education that has instilled in me a sense of service for those less fortunate. I too tell my Togolese friends no one can take away their education- the question now is how they will receive it if there is no school.
Here is the website for donations:
Also here is the website for photos of my work and village and of the construction site:
If you would like a copy of the full application and budget, let me know and I will email it to you.
Also let me know if you have any questions/concerns/comments.
In peace and hope,
Monday, September 28, 2009
Like most new experiences things were first terrifying. After gaining some time away from the sweltering bus rides and frantic dashes to the nearest toilets the trip takes on a softer, funnier tone. I’m going to tell you about my trip just as I wrote it down in my obnoxious little moleskin notebook. This entry is sporadic and unconnected just as my thoughts were as I wrote them down.
I could tell you that when we landed in Ghana the air smelled like flavored tobacco the muggy night we landed in Accra but that sounds like a voice-over for a travel channel.
Each day began when a chorus of bedraggled cocks started to sing. Throughout the village you can hear each one auditioning, puffing to flap blissfully dirty feathers in their fifteen minutes of fame.
Along with my siblings I consider myself a seasoned traveler. Nights curled up on a Venetian train platform and cancelled flights don't faze me. But, I found navigating what little I saw of Ghana and Togo terrifying. At times I was truly scared which made Laura's streetwise French all the more impressive.
In Ghana we walked through the throngs of vendors, each approaching with a smile and beckoning us to their makeshift wood stands. They eagerly shook our hands and tried to steer us towards their goods. One especially forward man came up with the slogan "sista' sista' feed your eyes for thirty seconds", displaying his selection of hand-carved elephants. "Our eyes are not hungry," Laura replied as she led me away.
I often felt guilty. Felt as though I ought to avoid eye contact with the ladies dressed in vibrant prints walking through the stalled traffic selling salted fish and fried plantains. The plantain chips were delicious and starchy like sweet potatoes fries.
The family traveled to the gold coast; ironically the church at this slave trading port was located above the male dungeon where male slaves were kept before being shipped off. And also viewed the Dubois center and both locations left me with a sad sinking feeling. Precious documents and photographs are set behind normal frames yellowing beyond the cheap class. Books written by Dubois in his personal library decay away in musty rooms. In ten years many of these historical artifacts that ought to be preserved will be gone because there is no funding for such centers.
Religious sayings appeared on the sides of makeshift shops, vans, and rusting cabs. My favorite written on side of a tailor shop read “except God”.
We visited Kakum national park where we walked a trail in the upper canopy. Afterwards, we were stuck in traffic for five and a half hours on the way back. I trusted our driver but the car sped around in rural areas with little children and goats clambering on the edge of the pot-holed road. Laura bemoaned her earache, I was on my period, mom felt like she was having a heart attack and Jim focused on not losing his cool.
The hotel we stayed in Ghana was beautiful but “a gated community” seems appropriate. Beyond the walls of the hotel were signs of poverty- children running naked in the muddy red streets with fishermen pushing their peeling boats into the trash littered waters. Pigs and goats between the standing huts made from debris.
Actually seeing where Laura lived and the community that now thinks of her as their own really helped me. I got to see her take a place of honor when talking with the elders about her newest project. Laura’s success and passion for the project can be gauged through the constant flow of visiting in her house. I watched her counsel young girls with words of encouragement about their studies and discuss new agriculture techniques with local farmers all with the same graceful ease.
Laura told of how she accidentally killed off several of her neighbor’s chicken when she tried to take care of her rodent problem. She placed illeligible Chinese rat poison she purchased at the market around her yard only to discover a deceased chicken on her porch in the morning. Hoping that this was merely coincidence she took the freshly departed poultry to her neighbors. When she found yet another lifeless bird on her front steps she thought she better let the family know what was going on. Laura of course offered to pay the family for the loss and then tried to dissuade her neighbors from consuming the poisoned flock.
Many villagers explained to Laura the belief that if an animal hears you talking about eating them they run away. To the shock of her visitors, Laura lifted her runt of a cat in the air and announced that she planned to eat it the following day. Rather than disprove this belief as Laura intended, the cat actually went missing for two days.
Laura's lining in her lungs is inflamed. Every breath she takes in is accompanied by a jab of pain. If there were ever a time that she deserved sympathy now would be it.
I'm amazed by how much local women carry on their heads. Balancing loads that would send my tumbling to my knees. Avoiding clichés I can’t help but describe their beauty as regal. Their proud, straight posture and easy steps left me in awe.
Mom had to chase Laura’s errant chickens out of the kitchen.
Young girls laughed as I helped haul baskets of gravel atop my head as they do during chores. A woman discovered the coincidence of sharing my name and continued to beam at me as we passed each other, each carrying our own load. Her head wrap distracting as I precariously tilted the basket of gravel with each jilted step.
We crowded eighteen passengers, a chicken, and two babies into a 12 passenger van en route to Lome.
We had dinner with several of Laura’s friends who teach at the local school. They have all opened up their homes and plates to Laura but one in particular stood out. He at first sight resembled a patient Shepard, heading children towards knowledge. His kind smile and teeming patience struck me as soon as we met. I’m glad that he and many other families have come to think of Laura as their own daughter.
One teacher had an Obama poster on his wall. It spelled his running mate as “Piden”.
“Yovo” means white person. “Akpe-lo means thanks you.
“Akpe ka ka”- means thank you very much. To the amusement of many I kept trying to learn these few phrases but could not get the inflections right.
Laura explained that to truly see results of successful projects, it takes about ten years. It would take several years for the villagers to see the progress that can be made if they change their farming techniques. The insight that Laura gave in offhanded conversation has already become useful in many of the public policy discussions I’ve engaged in at my master’s programs. Laura said something that struck a chord with me that I wrote it down verbatim. “They don’t own their own land so it is hard to think about the future. They can’t make long-term plans for farming or selling their goods when their main concern is what they will eat tomorrow.” Lola unknowingly brought up a number of important sociological issues in our conversations but this statement continues to stand out in my mind,
I won’t talk about the generosity and lifestyle of the individuals we met. For although they offered what little they had in such benevolence that it was truly stunning; I don’t want to talk about the kindness of Lola’s community and how they welcomed us into their huts and benches with open arms. Relishing their good acts draws attention away from the gross atrocities of the destitution. Walking along I saw children playing in the street barefoot, their swollen bellies and orange hair a blaring sign of the poverty they live in. Looking into their big brown eyes I dare anyone to argue against the fact that the grain we Americans chose to feed cattle could be used to feed the world.
I feel I have no right to think that the skinny goats grazing on the roadside as quaint. I have no right to summarize a culture I cannot grasp as a visitor.
I loved seeing Togo. I loved visiting Laura but more importantly, I saw firsthand how meaningful the work she does is. Laura, I know there are days when you’re exhausted and feel like so little has been accomplished but I find hope for our generation in looking at what you’re passionate about and the life lessons you are learning.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Most of us have had the experience of people knowing our name, calling to us from the road, a bar stool (Cheers), or in a crowded room when we are recognized by an old friend. Our names signify that we have a relationship, that we are connected, that our community is a place where we belong and are accepted. In Datcha, “Everyone knows her name.” Anne became Laura’s “jamel”, Jim was Laura’s adoptive papa; I was Laura’s mama. Acquaintances introduced themselves as Laura’s friend, as Laura’s co-worker at the CEG middle school, as Laura’s soccer teammate, as Laura’s soccer team player, as Laura’s adviser for farming, as Laura’s helper with her fields, as Laura’s English club member, and as Laura’s adoptive family (of which I counted five!). I am so grateful for the Yovo’s, the Komi’s, the Darama’s, and the Kwami’s. When I think of the hospitality they extended, I realize that Laura is ‘tres chere’ to their families and feels at home in Datcha
This is love, when a village reaches out with hospitality, with appreciation, naming their beloved as their own. Her American family already knew that Laura is a "gifted, zany, fun one who gives so much of herself with an unusual flair and enthusiasm”. What we did not realize until our visit, was the impact she is making in the village. Her hands have planted crops: corn and rice, added a ground cover to replenish nitrogen and retard weed growth. The fields have irrigation furrows, a good stand of crop, and are a definite demonstration to what this double-cropping can mean to revitalize soil. She has started a tree nursery to supply tress for school, the health clinic, and church grounds. The trees are beautiful and provide shade, but also have concomitant benefits: the moringa tree with its miracle properties, and the mahogany with its value to reforest and be a cash crop. Apparently, the trees have been more valued than Laura anticipated; several were stolen from their appointed planting spots.
Parts of our stay were such eye-openers for spoiled Americans. We had fine accommodations at Laura’s home, which is two rooms and an attached kitchen. The difference from her African place and ours was that her yard is constantly a visitor’s stopping place. Teachers come to sit, English club came to borrow books, neighbors come to share food, soccer team members come to borrow shin guards, shoes, and almost anything else that isn’t in use or being worn sat that instant. The sense of community brings to mind the root of the word, communal. Laura has always been particularly good about sharing, and in return she reaps benefits of being part of the Datcha family.
Jim and Laura spearheaded a project with a community group of volunteers in their 20’s and 30’s that is committed to do community service on a regular basis. This new project was ‘the compostable latrine’, and became well-known throughout the village. The Datcha Community Development Group’s (AJCD) weekly project involved cleaning out the village gutters, a task not usually performed by residents with higher standing in the community. We were impressed with the level of commitment, involvement, engagement, and brain power the team brought to the village market latrine project. We fell in love with several of the brave hearts that came from this group. George, Socrate, and Tohir in particular were favorites. George has an especially gentle nature with a keen intelligence and commitment to purpose; he is Laura’s best friend in the village. He reminded me of my brother Christopher. He was on the job site first, and the last to leave, never drew attention to himself and was quick to laugh and quicker to make sure we were comfortable and safe. He is one I want to adopt and send to college. Can you imagine a whole generation whose opportunities for higher education are thwarted by the inability to pay for school? Where does one start? Perhaps a better question is where does one stop?
Laura has become a philanthropist for her little compound, providing tuition for two girls to attend school. And out of this gesture to educate promising young girls now comes the expectation that she is the “Fanny Mae” of Datcha. This has become a menace, with her being seen as the financier of many projects. I realize that the Peace Corps does not want volunteers to fund projects on their own, because of the very real problems with having too little to spread around, even for the volunteer’s own needs. What requires blinders is that there are so many needs. We are so proud of Laura’s work and her ability to keep all of the balls in the air at once. She has so little time for herself. Visitors of all ages arrive the minute she arrives home, announcing their visit by pounding on the corrugated metal door and calling for Laura. They come for English Club, to organize soccer matches, to report passing scores on exams, to taste delights from the States, and to debate the relative merit of projects for the AJCD. Of all the things Laura gives, the greatest is herself and her abilities to lead.
When all is said and done, probably the most important notion is whether our name will be recognized as one credited with making a difference. We can create friendships across our world, starting with naming those we have learned to love. Jim, Anne and I witnessed Laura’s impact in West Africa and are glad she names us as family.
Martha Hoffman Goedert
Thursday, August 27, 2009
But it’s not over there…I’m not sure if you are ready for this, I certainly wasn’t. The birth-order is opposite here. That means, hold your horses it’s coming- Anne is actually the elder twin. For those of you who know Anne and I well, this might be hysterical for you (do to my natural inclinations toward leadership). According to Togolese culture, however, because Anne is the oldest, she is expected to be domineering, highly-respected, and not-talked back to, all the things, that for so many years I have been (not really). Oh crap…
Back to the Togolese notion of twins- it’s actually a cute story nothing anyone could seriously consider though…right? Wrong. It is said that the eldest twin is the twin that comes out second. How can that be I often ask myself? I came out first THUS I have lived longer, experienced, more, etc. However, if you are unsure about someplace, something, or someone human nature often drives us to ask about the unknown, do research before embarking. I know I spent many hours on the internet, reading books, and blogs about Peace Corps experiences before coming here. So, as the story goes, the “eldest” twin sends the “first-born” (I refuse to say youngest) out to check out the scene. How are things on the outside? If they are good the “first-born” (still refusing) sends in the message that “ya, things are pretty good out here, come on out.” In other words, I was the tester of waters, the guard, or as I like to think of it the pioneer of the new world.
Despite my desperate attempts to hold my position of authority, my grips have been slipping away for a while now and my Togo revelations are not helping (especially since Anne has been here too). Something about Anne’s Depauw sorority, rugby education has instilled a rebel in her and I’ve often found myself having to reassert my authority. So Anne, you’ve won one but I’m still revered here, and as for back home, I’ll comfortably try to return to my role as the “dominate” twin like before we went to college, and if not, pioneers (remember the game Oregon Trail?) are still pretty freakin’ sweet.
Anne and I actually have quite an egalitarian relationship with Anne and I love my little sister more than anything in the world!
Above: The shrine to twins.
Below: Two real twins on the left (the younger) Anne on her visit to me (the eldest). We are in Ghana.
Perhaps some of the most rewarding work here in Datcha thus far has been with an association of young men. The creation of the «Association des Jeunes du Canton de Datcha» (AJCD) corresponded with my arrival here in Datcha. The goals of the association are as follows:
- General sanitation awareness-raising events.
- To instruct and inform the village of Datcha on such issues as Malaria, AIDS/VIH, dysentery, tuberculoses, etc.
- To motivate the youth of Datcha to ameliorate their village.
Every Wednesday morning at 6am any where from 20-30 twenty-thirty-something young Togolese men arrive at the pre-designated location to clean up the village. Recently, due to the excessive amounts of rain, the work has been focused on clearing pathways for correct water flow to avoid standing water (which is the breeding place for many bad things including malaria). Since my arrival, with the exception of when I was out of village, I have worked with the association faithfully. The work with the association and the work in my field, I am discovering, are the major underlying reasons why I have been able to integrate so well with so much of the village.
Here in Togo, undoubtedly due to colonization, Europeans/Westerners are viewed as utterly incapable of serious manual labor. It’s a favorite joke with the village “Oh look! There goes Laura again with her hoe!” If their reaction is not seriously disbelief, it is serious concern. “You will get sick!” “You must rest” “You cannot do that work without serious physical repercussions” “Your white skin will break; it is not strong like ours” (The last of course in reference to growing calluses or developing blisters). Nevertheless, no matter how frustrated I get with some of the mistaken beliefs, I am starting to understand where these comments originate from and just how complex they can be. Never have they seen a white person in Togo work or need to work like them. They are in their offices, or their government official SUVs, even on their Trek mountain bikes (oh wait…that’s me). When I asked a close friend why so many thought like that, he said, “…well isn’t that why the U.S brought us Africans over for slavery? They did the work that you couldn’t handle”…If it were only that easy. But what else could make a country that is so magnificent, powerful, and ideal act in such a cruel way if it wasn’t for the pure exploitation of manual labor?
Because I have taken such a lively part in their everyday lives, or rather livelihood, I feel like I have a little insight into what the work that makes up their lives is like (this more applies to the work in the fields than anything). It’s not just me with the epiphany either. I’ve had many people tell me how my they appreciate me. They realize I understanding their day-to-day lives a little more than the other “Yovos” strolling through Togo, as shown by my participation in less than glorious work. Not only that, my equal contribution shows that I do not in any way think that I am above the work that makes up their lives and community. The cultural exchanges don’t stop there. Volunteerism, the work I do with the association, here has a whole other meaning than in the states. In the states being an avid volunteer can mean a number of things (the majority of which being positive). We often praise volunteers, do NBC dateline specials on what they’ve accomplished, and even have government officials encouraging volunteerism. Here, in Togo, I’ve been told, to be a volunteer means you are not making money, which means you cannot do real work, which means you have no money, which in turn means you are on a road to nowhere. Faulty logic or not, in poverty-stricken Togo everyone is trying to get ahead, no one wants to be left behind or seen doing something that suggests the same thing. Regardless of its origins and negative connotations, things American are idolized and seen as the model for what things should be, thus my active role in the village clean-up and in the fields has a good impact on ideas on volunteerism while also diminishing the ideas about Westerners being incapable of manual labor. So no, Laura doesn’t look like us, she sometimes doesn’t dress like us, but heck, she sure likes to work like us!
There is another side to the coin that complicates my above conclusion. Questions like, “Why would you chose to suffer like us?” or “Do you need to work in the field?” make me reflect on the reasons why people think the way they do about Westerners. The truth of the matter is that I did chose to farm the land not out of necessity. Yes, it is true that I am trying to show the use of mucuna (the cover crop I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts) to interested farmers, but in no way is my livelihood based on the success of my field. Further, going to my field is a form of recreation and stress relief for me here. The truth is the majority of people here have worked harder (physically) than the majority of people I know back home. And I don’t mean to downplay the summer construction jobs that many people often occupy, but I am talking about day-in-day-out grueling manual labor that everyone takes part in from the 5 year-old who carries basins of water on his/her head, to the 14 year-old girl hand-weeding with her mother’s newborn on her back, to the 80 year-old grandma walking the 6 kilometers just to get to the fields before starting the work.
As for me Laura, a white female from Nebraska is in Togo doing community volunteer work that most Togolese wouldn’t be seen doing, and doing work in the fields that everyone is required to do, renders me of «bon character» (good character). So, come one come all, grandmas, chiefs, elders, medicine men, market women, and school children tell me I work like I boy because, for all that it can potentially mean, that’s pretty awesome.
 My answer, because I can’t leave the question as is, and for which my answer is surely over-simplified and tangential and biased is- Greed, capitalism, the struggle for imperialism, and not to mention serious issues with racism.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
"With the knowledge and training acquired at St. Olaf College, these Peace Corps Volunteers are making a positive contribution to the lives of people ... around the globe," says Peace Corps Director Ron Tschetter. Since 1961, 463 St. Olaf alumni have served in the Peace Corps.
The nearly 8,000 Peace Corps volunteers currently serving in 76 countries represent more than 3,000 institutions of higher learning.
(Taken from www.stolaf.edu)