Saturday, November 19, 2011

Hot Seasons

What can I say about my first year in Africa that won’t make me come off as a holier-than-thou jerk and won’t be easily misinterpreted? It is very hot here. I can say that with confidence. Direct sunlight, no matter if it’s seven in the morning or four o’clock in the afternoon, will make you uncomfortable. Hot season is the worst. It is also misleadingly named, because it suggests the existence of a cold season. It begins in March and relents when the rains begin for real in July. For a month or two it was 95 degrees Fahrenheit inside my house, 100 in the shade, and 110 in the sun. During the hottest hours of the day, approximately eleven to three, no one accomplished anything. During the afternoons, when the heat peaked, I’d get angry at my thermometer. There was no one else to blame. I slept outside on a bed made of woven string every night. My house was a sauna, without the formidable cold of Finnish winter to complement it. The climate was miserable. I’d get teary eyed thinking about cold Coca-Cola. About cold anything.

But then it started to rain. It rained a little in April, maybe once a week. Technically, this marks the beginning of the rainy season, but I think that’s a bunch of bullshit. It was just as hot as before, with an occasional downpour to get your hopes up. Every morning I’d go outside and look to the northeast for any clouds, wisps, or mists that might possibly maybe be coming my way. It was torture. And it was definitely still hot.

Only when the rain started coming regularly in July, every other day or so, did things cool down. There were clouds in the sky, a cool breeze in the air, and green things sprouting. The fine layer of dust coating everyone and everything was washed off and tamped down. Entire days passed without the sun penetrating the dreary, grey clouds of the overcast sky. It was heavenly. Lightening was on display nightly. Occasionally a tremendous thunder storm would roll through, keeping everyone locked quietly in their houses for a few blissful hours, during which I could relax on my porch and enjoy the show, knowing that no one expected anything of me and that it was all worth it. Storms here don’t begin gradually. They begin in a matter of seconds. Sometimes, I’d hear a communal scream rise from the neighborhood to the northeast, followed by the increasingly loud sound of torrential rain beating on corrugated iron roofs as the storm rushed up to engulf me. Little rivulets running in eroded channels became raging rivers for fifteen minute bursts. Twice the air was so charged with water and electricity that I was mildly shocked by lightening striking over a kilometer away. I loved rainy season.

But now it’s over, and the sun has returned, unkind as ever. Even worse, it now shines in on my porch, breaching my fortress of shade, heating a few inches of my string bed to an uncomfortable temperature. This is the forgotten, unfortunate stretch of time between the end of the rain and the beginning of the harmattan, when a cool, dusty wind from the Sahara chills the bones of Africans with sub-70 degree mornings. I’m guilty of intolerance to any cold at all now, too. A while back, after a morning rainstorm, it was 64 degrees. I had on shoes, socks, jeans, a long-sleeve shirt, a cashmere sweater, and a windbreaker. I was comfortable.

I’m sad that the rain is gone, sadder than I thought I’d be. Everything green has turned brown, and just yesterday someone began to set the mountainside aflame. Pretty soon the air will be filled with choking dust and falling ash. Seattle’s ten months of mostly unbroken overcast sky have never looked better. The sun isn’t friendly here like it was in California. It doesn’t caress you softly; it slams you in the face and sends you scrambling for the nearest mango tree. But while I bemoan the lack of air-conditioning and refrigeration, one of my favorite things about living here has been living outside. I have had my windows open all day every day, have learned to read the clouds, and have noticed my surroundings like never before. I’ve felt the unadulterated effects of this country’s climate, and I’ve learned to deal with them. It hasn’t always been pleasant, but it has been enlightening.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Togo Packing List Highlights

Here’s a little list of things I brought to Togo that have really pulled their weight. The list that Peace Corps gives Invitees is pretty good, though it says they give you Gatorade powder here which is NOT true. Bring your own powdered drinks with you.

Headlamp: Even if you “have” electricity, it’s imported from Ghana or Cote d’Ivoire, and may be off more than it is on. You can get flashlights here, but not great ones, and certainly not headlamps. Bring good batteries too. The batteries here are worthless.

Key-chain pocket knife: I brought a leatherman, too, but my little knife, file, scissors, and tweezers Swiss Army Knife has been way more useful. It takes up no space and comes in handy all the time.

Key-chain compass: When you’re kind of lost in the bush, having a compass is a good idea. If you’re going north when you should be going south, it’s a good thing to know it. You can definitely get turned around walking or riding on trails in your big Togolese backyard.

Chaco Flip-Flops: These flip-flops have been awesome. If you’re like me, the extra few seconds it takes to strap into the classic chacos is just too much. The chaco flip-flops give you arch support and a thick sole that’ll protect you from rocks, and are super convenient and comfy once you break them in.

Sony SRS-TP1 Stereo System Speakers: These speakers have decent volume for listening to music in your house, and don’t need batteries. They run off your iPod’s power, but don’t drain it noticeably.

Ex Officio underwear: I love this underwear. They’ve shown no wear and tear after 11 months, their texture makes them easy to hand wash, and they’re really nicely ventilated, which is big in Togo.

Cassette adapter for iPod: A lot of bush taxis here have tape decks, so you can do a little cross-cultural DJ’ing and make your trip a lot more bearable if you have one of these.

Shortwave radio: I have a shortwave radio that is crank-powered and solar-powered from Kaito that is pretty awesome. I listen to BBC News most nights, and keep pretty well informed. I did miss out on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s scandal though, so it’s not perfect.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

V to Z

Written August 5, 2011

Hey everyone, things are going really well at Camp Scientifille, a science camp organized by Peace Corps volunteers and their counterparts. 11 villages sent 2 or 3 middle school students, a middle school science teacher, and a Peace Corps volunteer to attend the camp. Several more volunteers and counterparts organized the sessions. We’ve looked at bacteria under microscopes (which the participants get to take home with them), taken a tour through a giant maze-like re-creation of the female reproductive system, and talked with a panel of Togolese women who work in science related careers. I helped out with a session on geology, though the girls were already really well versed in it. Camp has been great for the enthusiasm of all the participants. It’s been fun and informative, and should serve as a great launching pad for more projects back in village. That’s what I’ve been up to lately; I hope you’re all doing well and would love to hear from you.

And now, the final installment of Togo A to Z:

V: Vers
“Vers” is the French word for “worms.” Togolese and volunteers alike are stricken by a variety of intestinal parasites here in Togo. Swollen bellies are a possible indicator of an intestinal parasite, and are seen all the time on little kids here. When everyone poops in the grass, works or plays in the dirt, drinks untreated water, and eats without washing their hands, you end up with a lot of water-borne illnesses. We volunteers do our best to poop in our latrines, treat our water, and wash our hands, but sometimes Togo just gets the better of you. Volunteers have been known to have as many as four parasites at once. I’ve been fortunate to avoid any major issues of this sort. (Knock on wood.) I tried to promote earthworm composting here, and always had to explain that it’s not stomach worms I’m interested in. One guy told me he had what I wanted in his stomach, and that if I could get them out, I could use them. I politely declined the offer.

W: Wives
Yes, plural. Having multiple wives is fairly common here in Togo. The main criterion for joining the two wife club is having the money to support an enormous family. Affection-based marriages, aka, where people marry each other because they’re in love, aren’t the norm here. As far as I can tell, they’re barely even on the radar. That’s not to say that mutual affection doesn’t exist between married couples here. But once a man has the money to support a wife, he, or his family, can find him one in fairly short order. The lack of a long courtship, a healthy relationship, and mutual affection before marriage has been one of the most mind-blowing things about life here. I’d heard about arranged marriages, and things like that, but didn’t realize quite how contrary to my beliefs they could be, and how alien my beliefs could be to my neighbors here. There are, of course, many people here who share my belief in fidelity and equality in a relationship. But there are also men who would like to have five wives, and see nothing wrong with sleeping around. The leniency towards sleeping around does not, as a rule, apply to their wives. I guess the ubiquity of the affection-based relationship is a relatively new phenomenon in the world, and there are indeed places it has yet to become the norm.

X: X (A mark)
I’m using X as a stand in for illiteracy. Every now and then you’ll need a signature for something, and the signer will somewhat sheepishly draw an X, or a swirl, or some other mark in place of their name. At village meetings where attendance is taken, thumb printing is the preferred method of verification. The point is that illiteracy is very common here, and even those who can read can’t necessarily read well. As one member of an NGO put it to me, “I can read the words, but I don’t know how to use the book.” There just aren’t many books around for kids to read, especially in little villages. Bigger cities have public libraries, but they aren’t used like ours are in the States. Computers, newspapers, and magazines aren’t used by many. Instead, radio is the preferred medium.

I, on the other hand, have read a ton since I got here. I’m reading about a book a week, including Moby Dick, Cultural Amnesia, and Infinite Jest, each of which took over my life for too long. I’ve read a bunch of basketball books, too. Best fiction award goes to Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Best nonfiction goes to The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam, though I’ve read that before, so I’ll give an honorable mention to Pacific Rims by Rafe Bartholomew. Best short-story goes to After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned by Dave Eggers, from the collection Speaking With the Angel by Nick Hornsby. But, there’s still a lot of time, and a lot of books to read, so these may not retain their winner’s status forever.

Y: Yovo Song
The Yovo Song is a song sung by Togolese children, and occasionally by very childish Togolese adults to people who are obviously foreigners. It goes something like this:

Yovo, yovo, bon soir.
Yovo, yovo, ca va?
Yovo, yovo, merci !

Up north, we’ve also got the name “Anasarra,” too. I occasionally hear a song in Kotokoli that’s just beyond my skill to transcribe. But I think the gist of it is:

Anasarra, yovo, yovo!
(Give me money!)
(I’ll buy bread!) OR (I’ll buy candy!)

These songs can get pretty annoying, especially when you’ve lived in Togo for a while and don’t feel like the moniker of Yovo or Anasarra is deserved. My reaction depends on my mood. If I’m feeling happy I’ll just laugh it off. If I’m feeling enterprising I’ll tell the kids that my name is Akim (my name in village).. If I’m pissed off I might yell that my name is Akim. But it’s just kids being kids, so I try not to get too bent out of shape about the singing. With adults it’s a little touchier. It feels a little more hostile, so I’ll either shake my head and walk away, or ask them why they’re singing it, and if they’re a child. That usually gets the message across. Walking around village, or biking back into village, nothing feels better than hearing a friendly chorus of “Akimou!”

Z: Zamboni
The zamboni is a machine used to smooth ice rinks. It is a machine whose purpose is utterly incomprehensible to the people of Togo.

I hope you all enjoyed the A to Z’s of Togo. Next up, I’m going to write up a packing list of all the best things that I brought with me. My cashmere sweater will not be on that list.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Q to U

Hey everyone, things are going well here. Summer is flying by. My village’s middle school science teacher and I are taking three students to a girls’ science camp (Camp ScientiFILLE) in early August. Our goals are to have fun, learn a ton, and make plans to promote science and girls’ education back in village. In other news, I got a kitten. His name is Mogli. He wakes me up really early by repeatedly pouncing on my face, but I love him all the same. I’ve been following the news of the world via BBC radio, but I would love to hear news from all of YOU via emails, letters, or phone calls, though my cell service in village is near non-existent.

And now, back to the A-Z’s.

Q: Questions about America

People here have many, many questions about America. The most common are the unserious “Will you take me to America?” and the very serious “Will you give me the address of a correspondent in America?” If any of you are looking to bone up on your French tell me and I’ll send some correspondence your way. People often ask if there are poor people in America, and are always shocked when I tell them that there are. I’ve also been asked, “Does the government pay everyone who doesn’t have a job in America?” That was a tough one; it led to a rather unsuccessful explanation of unemployment benefits, which even I don’t understand. Another classic: “How is Obama?” He’s doing great. Then there’s the puzzling (especially in light of the last question), “Are there black people in America?” The direct answer is an emphatic, “Oui,” but the question segues into discussions about diversity and American history nicely.

People usually know the names of a few cities: New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago. When a told one man that I went to college in Los Angeles he responded that “There are too many bandits there.” (Les bandits probably translates to something closer to “troublemaker” here, but I like it as is.) Calling the United States of America, “America” is also problematic, as I’ll get the occasional question about Brazil or Lionel Messi. Though not as many as I get about Europe, to my eternal chagrin. At any rate, people here seem to like Americans a lot, especially Obama, who’s face is all over T-shirts, bags, key-chain bottle-openers, and every other item you can think of. They definitely prefer us to the French, I can tell you that.

R: Rainy Season

Right now it’s the rainy season chez moi, and it could not have arrived sooner. The hot(test) season directly precedes it, and I was looking at the sky hopefully every morning, praying that the few little clouds burning off in the sun would coalesce and give us a good deluge. Now that it’s raining, village is pretty quiet most days, with the majority of people off in the fields making rows, sowing seeds, protecting the seeds from birds, weeding, or doing any number of other farm-related tasks. Being here and seeing how big of an effect the rain’s debut, frequency, consistency, and volume have on people’s actions makes it clear that climate change could really cause some serious havoc in places like Togo where people are struggling as it is to get by on what they produce. It abruptly got sunny, and hadn’t rained for four or five days this past week, and people were getting pretty worried about the young plants. Mercifully, the rains came back today, and they arrived in style. I heard a slowly increasing rumble, but could see no rain, and no wind. What was it? It was a torrential downpour blowing into village with absolutely no preceding sprinkle; from dry to soaked in the blink of an eye. It was pretty awesome, though I may have felt differently had I not been under a roof when it happened.

S: Saluer

Saluer means “to salute” or “to greet.” The Kotokolis, who I live with, are famous for the length and variety of their greetings. If I were to walk around the village without saying hi to anyone, it would take me ten minutes. When I stop and saluer everyone I see it takes an hour or two. I do the vast majority of my saluer-ing in Kotokoli. People still get a huge kick out of it, even after six months. I try to say hi to everyone I see on the road, and everyone responds back happily. Going back to the cold-shouldered anonymity of American sidewalks is going to be interesting. Kotokoli takes some time to learn, and I still can’t saluer exactly like the locals do it. It has a certain rhythm to it, and accompanying gestures as well. Below is my best try at approximating a normal exchange that I would have with someone on the street:

Villager: Nyavini kazao. (Did you sleep well?)
Me: Yaaa, timereh nyngaze ni? (Yeah, how’s the work and the fatigue?)
V: Alafia. Suru ni? (Fine. How’s your patience?)
Me: Alafia. Biya ni? (Fine. And the kids?)
V: Alafia. Konkar ni? (Fine. And your effort?)
Me: Mum mum mum. (It’s all good.)
V: Toh. (Okay.)
Me: Eh!
V: Eh!
Me: Eh!
V: Eh!
Me: Eh!

The final sequence of affirmative grunts (complete with accompanying squats) is the most fun part for sure. Speaking Kotokoli is probably my favorite thing about my time in Togo, so far.

T: Togocell

Togocell is my cell phone provider, and its service in my village sucks. Not only do I have reception that only works in a few (constantly moving) spots, but I also have false reception that makes it incredibly difficult to find those spots. My phone always has bars in village, but almost never works. I look for people making calls or for phone cards lying on the ground in order to find spots that work. I have to walk a little ways up the side of the mountain behind my village to get service at all, though I occasionally receive as many as five backlogged messages at once, at three in the morning. There’s a nice big flat rock with a commanding view of the village and the plains stretching away from it that has consistent service, so I usually go there to make my calls. It’s about a ten minute walk from my house. The mountain passes always work, but they take twenty minutes or so to reach. It’s not terribly annoying making calls from these places, but it is annoying that no one can call me, and that I might not get a response from a text message before heading back down into the dead zone. I hope the service will be fixed before I leave, but who knows. Until then, send me letters!

U: Uriner

In Togo, the world is your urinal. Kids will look you in the eye and saluer you warmly you as they pee outside your house. Old women will pop a squat two feet from the entrance to a bush taxi they just exited. Showers double as urinals, as an unwelcome odor has occasioy reminded me, chez moi.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Hey guys, everything is well in Togo. Here's a little one-letter blog post to keep the pate boiling and let the rest of the 26-letter alphabet come in nice little 5 letter bundles, just like before.

P: La Pate

Pate is the white bread of Togo. It translates to “the paste” in English, which gives you a pretty good idea of what we’re dealing with here. It consists of corn flour, boiled and whipped until it forms a big semi-solid ball. Pieces of pate are torn off with the hands and rolled into smaller balls, which are dipped in sauces, usually made with okra, oil, or leaves like baobab. Pate is eaten almost every day by most people here. It’s cheap, filling, and can give a semblance of variety when paired with different sauces. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer much in the way of nutrition. Eating a dish that’s pretty much straight carbs with little protein, and few vitamins or minerals, contributes to the malnutrition one sees throughout Togo. I find it strange that corn has taken such a huge role in nutrition here. Corn isn’t from Africa, it’s from America, and none of the traditional processing and pairing that makes it an effective staple in Mexico, for instance, is done here. In order to make hominy, grits, or dough for tortillas, corn is first cooked with an alkaline substance, like wood ash, to change its chemical structure, make more nutrients available, and improve its flavor. The process is called nixtamalization. Nixtamalized corn, combined with beans, gives you a complete protein, and a reasonably balanced diet to build around. Populations that eat large amounts of unprocessed corn are at risk for deficiency diseases, most specifically pellagra, which is a lack of niacin, a nutrient made available in corn only by processing in this way. Pellegra’s symptoms include diarrhea, skin problems, mental problems from irritability to dementia, and edema. One sees these problems all the time in Togo. There was an epidemic of pellagra in the US American South in the early 1900’s, but we figured out that if we want to eat nothing but corn, which apparently, we do, we need to process it and add necessary vitamins and minerals to it. I don’t know for sure that eating tons of la pate is causing pellagra in Togo. There are way too many way too complicated problems related to nutrition here for me to know that for sure. But I’m pretty sure la pate isn’t helping things, and given how easy it is, traditional nixtamalization seems like kind of a no-brainer here.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

K to O

K: Kids

People have way too many kids in Togo. Here’s a quote from a teacher that sort of sums up the situation: “Here, people might have fifteen kids. It’d be good if they would only have five.” When five is an improvement, there’s a long way to go.

L: Latrine/Lome

Latrine: A muggy, mosquito-infested poophole where volunteers do their business.

Lome: The capitol of Togo. A muggy, mosquito-infested poophole where volunteers do their business.

M: Malaria

Malaria is a big problem here. It’s difficult to get people to believe that mosquitoes give them malaria, because they might not speak French, and may have no conception of how a disease works. Their understanding of diseases is mostly symptomatic, and because malaria has the same symptoms as basically every other run of the mill disease, there are all sorts of things that are believed to give you malaria here. Take for instance, eating too many mangoes, being in the sun, or working too hard in the field. All these things can make you feel shitty in much the same way that malaria can, and consequently, are often viewed as the causes of malaria here.

N: Neem Tree

The Neem Tree is an awesome tree that contains a powerful insecticide in its leaves and seeds. It can be used as a pesticide on crops, a preservative on stored grain, and in mosquito repellants. It grows incredibly well here in Togo. Unfortunately, it was brought here from India by German colonialists, and no one here knows any of this. It goes unused despite it’s status in India as a “miracle tree.”

O: Ou bien?

Ou bien is a phrase that means “Or what?” It’s used to signify that you’re asking a question, it’s a sort of verbal tick here like saying “like” over and over again, and it also can be used to ask something like, “Am I right, or am I right?”

Monday, April 4, 2011

F to J

F: Fufu / Fan Milk

The twin delicacies of Togolese cuisine. Fufu, which has probably been described in far too much detail here already, is a dish made from boiled yams (or in the south, cassava) that are pounded until they form a gelatinous ball. You break off little balls of it with your hands and dip it in the accompanying sauce. The first time I ate this, I was a little skeptical, but after the first bite I was in. It was yam fufu with peanut sauce and chicken, and more than anything else, it tasted like turkey, gravy, and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving Day. Sure, the aftermath of that first digestion wasn’t fun, but it doesn’t take long to get used to fufu. If there’s any food from here I’ll be craving two years from now, this is it. Fan Milk is the only ice cream widely available in Togo. You can find it in large cities, being peddled, literally, by the Togolese equivalents of the Ice Cream Truck, guys on blue bikes, wearing blue vests and blue hats, carrying a cooler of delicious Fan Milk. Legend has it that one volunteer paid a Fan Milk guy about ten US dollars (if my memory serves me) to rent his bike, vest, and hat for a night, and buy out all his ice cream. It was, in the estimation of the volunteers I heard this from, the greatest Halloween costume of all time. Fan Milk comes in litte sealed plastic bags about the size of a pop-tart bag. You cut the corner off it and squeeze the ice cream out. The flavors are Fan Lait (vanilla), Fan Choco (duh), Fan Cocktail (fruit mix), Fan Yogo (yogurt), Fan Ice (vanilla, but the consistency of ice cream, unlike fan lait, which is icy. Don’t ask me who named them like that.), and Tampico (not ice cream, just cold Sunny Delight basically.) They cost between 100 and 150 CFA, or 20 to 30 cents. It’s a good deal, because it is hot as hell here, and there is nothing cold if you’re in a village that doesn’t have electricity.

G: Ghana

Ghana is a mystical land to the west where people speak incredibly slow, proper English (I’ve been called “gentleman”, “matster”, and “chairman” by Ghanaians) and every person has their own seat in a car. There’s a mall in the capital city of Accra, and that in that mall, you can see American movies. Peace Corps volunteers regularly break into tears and/or suffer panic attacks upon entering the mall. Ghana also has overpasses, which frequently blow the minds of volunteers. Hell, seeing a stop light in Togo is enough to make me jump out of my seat in surprise.

H: Hakeem

Hakeem, or as it’s more commonly pronounced, “Akeeeeeeemu!”, is my name in village. I got this name in my first village, after discussing my options with a few University students from the area in town to conduct Togo’s first census in like thirty years. I could’ve gone with Rasheed, or Kareem, but the pull of Hakeem was just too great. For those of you wondering, these names were in fact inspired by Hakeem Olajuwan, Rasheed Wallace, and Kareem Abdul-Jabar. The name gets a laugh the every time I introduce myself to new people. They ask me if I go to the mosque, to which I always reply, “Cheray wouro.” The day after tomorrow. Big laughs all around. Village names are awesome, and they’re different all over the country, because every different ethnicity, and even different towns of the same ethnicity, have different traditional names.

I: Islam

But my name is not so much a traditional Kotokoli name as it is a Muslim name. The Kotokolis are predominantly Muslim these days, though as I alluded to in the last post, they still have plenty of traditions of their own. Living here makes it all the more obvious how insane the fears and stereotypes about Muslims throughout the world are. Sure, the call to prayer at 5 am can be startling, but it’s pretty sweet at the same time. I’ll never forget how at peace I felt in my first village before the move, hanging in my hammock, looking at the stars, and listening to the Imam and his students recite prayers on the other side of my compound’s courtyard. But, to my village’s eternal feigned chagrin, I still refuse to convert. The day after tomorrow, I promise.

J: Job Anxiety

By job anxiety, I don’t mean stress from having too much work, I mean the stress of not having anything near a clear description of a day to day job, yet trying to do the best job you can, regardless. I have no office, no real boss, and no explicit goals to fulfill. My projects are either of my design, or the design of someone in village, and they’re constantly appearing, being reevaluated, or disappearing. Trying to define a “productive” day here is an easy trap for a volunteer to fall into here, especially early on, when your job is basically to get to know people. Even after four months of this, and six in Togo, there’s a (very American) part of my brain that just refuses to accept that sitting under a tree talking to a few guys about why people have fewer kids in the States is work. It can be discouraging to feel like you’re getting so little done, but at the same time, that understanding of your community’s life will be the foundation from which all the projects to come are built. It’s a better way of doing things than coming into town, spending who-knows-how-much on an enormous generator, stringing up lights throughout the whole town, and then heading home, leaving the village with a gas generator they can’t afford to run. I think that generator has been on four times since I’ve been here, and while appreciate being able to charge my computer and write blog posts for a few hours, that money could’ve been spent way better than it was.