Friday, January 16, 2009

Le travail commence...the work starts

Here goes another attempt to share a little more of my life here...Thanks for your patience as I sort through my thoughts, feelings, and emotions on this public internet domain (perhaps not the most appropriate place).

Things have been moving faster and in different ways than I’ve ever imagined and I’m thankful for all your support recently. I am optimistic about my new life in Datcha and very eager to start certain projects. I attribute this change in attitude to many things but largely to the fact that I have received furniture from another Close of Service (COS) volunteer. Now, when I return back to my compound, I feel more and more like I am returning home rather than to a strange, empty quarters. In a place where everything can seem foreign, it is nice- at the end of the day- to return to something familiar (I promise pictures of my new home are soon to come). Another commodity that I graciously inherited and has equally added to my quality of life is a gas stove. It has enabled me to begin preparing meals for myself with a somewhat familiar device (as opposed to the wood/charcoal cook stove that everyone else uses). Those of you who knew my culinary skills (or lack thereof) before, would be proud of some of my Togolese culinary creations. With limited “western” ingredients, my palate has expanded to include many of the Togolese staple foods and spices including, but not limited to: millet, maïs, dried fish, and piement (hot pepper).

I’ve also managed to start some work that I have found very satisfying. I’ve been working a lot in the CEG (the Togolese equivalent to a Middle School) and have made fast friends with many of the students and professors. It started with me sitting in on classes and then gradually gaining courage to help with the English lessons and then, seeing the students passion and excitement for the English language/American culture, starting an English club. My primary goal is to dispel many of the stereotypes of Americans and U.S.A-centric ideas of the English speaking world in general. I have officially had two meetings both of which, in my opinion, were very successful. I had over 100 students at both and was moved and frightened by how easily they accepted exactly what I teach. The first week we talked about Barack Obama, how yes he is the U.S.’s first black president, and yes how his grandmother is Kenyan, and how yes, in spite of how we view those things here in Togo, he is through and through 100% American. The class ended with a grand round of 100 plus Togolese students chanting «Oui, nous pouvons» “Yes We Can!” in French. Perhaps the students left a little more empowered than when they came.

You may be asking why and English club when I am here for Natural Resource management? Well, it is the one thing I feel comfortable and confident teaching…I’m proud to say now, though, through my contacts with the English club, I have been able to lay the foundation for a community garden (all that remains is the rainy season to come, a successful compost cycle, and reliable seeds). I’ve also launched the beginning of what I hope becomes a Moringa tree nursery (for info. on Moringa see previous post’s link). The community members are very excited about the tree’s potential and so, trying to stay true the community’s interests, I have made a trip to the chief’s house to make arrangements. Lastly, and perhaps most ambitiously, I am very interested in beginning a project for public toilets in Datcha. I have talked with health officials from the area who have informed me that is perhaps one of the most pressing public health, environmental, and quality-of-life concerns in the village. Hopefully after careful consideration, community consultation, and Peace Corps support I can begin that work as well.

As the work begins other, less welcoming, things remain. I am in a constant struggle with my stomach here. No matter how much care I take in treating my water and watching what I am eating, at least once a week for a few days I have serious disagreements with my G.I. tract. On a quick culture note: when you are sick everyone knows and will come and visit- for better or worse. They will bring you food, fetch water from the well, and offer any help they think might hasten your recovery. It is a cultural practice that has been comforting. Like many things, I am becoming accustomed to my health problems while at the same time finding creative ways to make myself feel better. One day this past week when I had a fairly high fever and a stomach ache, I was feeling particularly sorry for myself I pulled out my viola and started playing “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen” (melodramatic, I know). A few neighbors came to visit and started humming along (thinking that is what their sick Peace Corps Volunteer/friend wanted). I took it as far to teach them the lyrics as well (the CEG students are always eager to learn new English songs). It was therapeutic and I felt almost instantly better after a few choruses…I was hesitant to translate the song, however. In all honesty I have truly not seen nor experienced the troubles of Togo, poverty, etc. like all of my new friends and community members have seen and experienced. Nothing like an old American folk song to put things into perspective.

It is time for me to leave you once again. Since I am still new I hate feeling like I’m wasting opportunities to go see, learn, and talk with/from new people and places. I’ve discovered that you never can predict when you will discover, meet, or observe important things here that will help in your adjustment and work (case in point- my American folk song experience). With that said, I am so happy and eager to hear from all of you and what is going on in your busy lives. In fact, sometimes I prefer to hear about you all rather than to attempt to share all that is going on here. Perhaps, if find any enjoyment at all from these musings, you too will send me news (email or snail mail) of your lives in the U.S. which I miss and think of often.

In closing I would like to leave you with a quote that I have thought a lot about that I ran across when I was excessively analyzing the politics of the church here in Togo. It comes from an essay by Gandhi on service to others. It has become meaningful to me and I hope you will appreciate it too:

It is through service of humanity that I am endeavoring to see God. For it is not in heaven nor below that God lives, but in everyone.


Gregory said...

Please do as much as you can to dispel those hurtful, misguided American stereotypes. I try to tell almost everyone I encounter abroad that I have not one Hummer, but three, which I drive simultaneously all with the gas tanks punctured. And please inform them that McDonald's isn't just something I "eat" everyday, but also means for bathing - whole bathfuls of Big Macs at a time.

martha/ma said...

Laura, What a beautifully written blog. I thought Alice Walker's letter to President Obama echoed so much of what you talked about with the importance of our global care, not might. The Washington Mall was full today from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial. People were there to chant in all the languages of our country ---"Yes we can". I hope you feel the warmth spreading all the way to Togo. Love you and your enduring strength and stamina! martha/ma

1/20/2009, letter to President Obama from Alice Walker

Dear Brother Obama,

You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. You think you know, because you are thoughtful, and you have studied our history. But seeing you deliver the torch so many others before you carried, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, only to be struck down before igniting the flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear. And yet, this observation is not intended to burden you, for you are of a different time, and, indeed, because of all the relay runners before you, North America is a different place. It is really only to say: Well done. We knew, through all the generations, that you were with us, in us, the best of the spirit of Africa and of the Americas. Knowing this, that you would actually appear, someday, was part of our strength. Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is a balm
for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about.

I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. To make a schedule that permits sufficient time of rest and play with your gorgeous wife and lovely daughters. And so on. One gathers that your family is large. We are used to seeing men in the White House soon become juiceless and as white-haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate. One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is all that so many people in the world really want. They may buy endless cars and houses and furs and gobble up all the attention and space they can manage, or barely manage, but this is because it is not yet clear to them that success is truly an inside job. That it is within the reach of almost everyone.

I would further advise you not to take on other people's enemies. Most damage that others do to us is out of fear, humiliation and pain. Those feelings occur in all of us, not just in those of us who profess a certain religious or racial devotion. We must learn actually not to have enemies, but only confused adversaries who are ourselves in disguise. It is understood by all that you are commander in chief of the United States and are sworn to protect our beloved country; this we understand, completely. However, as my mother used to say, quoting a Bible with which I often fought, "hate the sin, but love the sinner." There must be no more crushing of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanizing as a means of ruling a people's spirit. This has already happened to people of color, poor people, women, children. We see where this leads, where it has led.

A good model of how to "work with the enemy" internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies. And your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the world.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

In Peace and Joy,
Alice Walker

Videgla said...

For everyone else, I was born and raised in Togo. Reading Laura's stories, analysis and thoughts remind me my own experience somewhat backward. Distances may be large between both continents, but experiences are very similar. Every mile away from home brought me closer to God and faith in People...

Rock on, Laura!

Tom Niemisto said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Niemisto said...

That is so inspiring Laura! It's amazing to see you're already making a difference there. Keep up the good work and keep in touch!