Jim, Anne and I have returned from an adventure with Laura in Ghana and Togo. From the name Laura gave her blog, you might think her first 18 months of Peace Corps have been “en miniature”. I think it is more accurate to name her blog Afrique en Maximum, which more accurately describes how immense her Datcha work has become. I ponder the extensive influence of Laura’s Peace Corps work through the connections she has made in Datcha. Laura’s village is home for about 6,000 Togolese, a long ‘trou trou’ ride from Lome, a half hour from Atakatme, to the north. We arrived in Ghana, spent a few days creating some spots of relaxation, repair, and rest for Laura, and then headed by public transport from the border crossing to ‘village’. “Have courage”, our new friends shouted as we boarded the ‘trou trous’ and taxis throughout our time in Togo. We’ll let you discover on your own why you are urged to have courage for your ride. It’s a bit like combining a ride at Witch Mountain, with a prayer meeting, and breastfeeding clinic. We just can’t wait to get on the road again or at least in a vehicle with a floor board which hides the ‘road’.
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