Posted by: jodentz | November 12, 2011

Rogue Sorcerers On The Loose In The Moyen-Mono

Today, while I did not do very much for reasons which I will soon divulge, I did learn a lot of interesting things. Interesting fact number one: You can get a yeast infection in your stomach. How do I know this you may ask yourselves? Well, as it happens I am the one on the unhappy end of that discovery and while I’m not sure what is technically considered an infection, I’m sure that “Levures bourgeonantes” or budding yeast particles are not the type of thing that I want working themselves through my digestive track. Needless to say, this has negatively affected the quality of my day, but so it goes in Africa.

Fun fact number two: there are two women in a village nearby, one who claims an age of 183 and still going strong and her daughter of 164 years, both in perfectly good health. I questioned my friend about this as it would seem the likelihood of one person living almost two centuries seems quite impossible nevermind a mother-daughter couple pulling off it together. Good genetics I mused? “No,” he said, “someone cast a spell on the family. They look for death but cannot find him.” Someone call Dr. Kavorkian? I pointed out that it would seem odd that people have been searching since the dawn of humankind for such a way to extend life for a century and yet these two women do not enjoy it? This is especially interesting considering that the average life span in Africa is 57 and the women are both still in good health. I said that this sorcerer should market this curse of his and that as a small enterprise development consultant I would be more than happy to lend my services towards his cause. Of course I was joking and there is a more logical explanation for the two womens’ advanced age. In the past, and even up to present times, birth certificates have not been issued as regularly as one would expect and therefore age is often calculated (or miscalculated?) based on events or a rough timeline. Actually, I just found out this week as well that because of this, people had trouble determining when to send their children to school. Officially the age is six but as people didn’t keep track of birthdays they developed a test. When the child could reach over their head with one arm and touch their opposite ear then they were old enough to start school. I found a few people who recalled the procedure for me with a few good laughs.

Interesting pieces of gossip numbers three: The gossip running around my prefecture is that there is a sorcerer on the loose (who knows, maybe it’s the same one who cursed the two previous women-there are some similarities in the case). The story is that this past week a mother and daughter were walking to their field together. The daughter calls back to the mother that something bit her on the ankle. Though the mother is behind the daughter she didn’t see anything and asked what it was that bit her. Then she herself gets bit by something that is never seen. Both women ended up passing away. Due to the mysterious nature of the bites everyone is attributing this happening to voodoo, as is normal in my region.

Fact four: The nice dreadlocked fou (a fou is someone considered mentally not all there-not dangerous in any way) who everyone refers to as Rasta Man apparently was not always a fou. Though he now wanders around village mumbling and with voodoo items sticking out of his coat (I guess no one has yet thought to implicate him in the voodoo fountain-of-youth scheme), he apparently used to have a family, and quite a large family for that matter including four different wives and a number of children. I myself was quite surprised to hear this.

Fact wise that is about it as of late. On the work front, we held our third village cleaning/development day. We got about 250 people this time around bringing the total to slightly less than 1500 people that will have participated over the course of the month and a half. We scheduled another for the coming week as well. So overall I’d say the project is going well. During this past day we even killed a huge snake which is pictured above. By huge I mean that they measured it and it was roughly 2 meters long (over 6ft). And this was not a python, it was a highly poisonous viper that popped out of some hole and tried to bite more than one person before a group of able-bodied, shovel wielding men came and put an end to the drama. Surely the snake was taken off somewhere and prepared as someone’s dinner. I know more than a few people, myself included, who would have bought the snake for just such a purpose. Otherwise, it’s just a few routine things that have been occupying my time. It is crazy to think that I have little more than half a year left of my Peace Corps service-December will be my 19th month in country. Once the New Year hits it’s just a countdown till the end, especially considering my plans to be in Morocco for three weeks. But until then, I will continue to enjoy this simple life where often the biggest local scandal involves voodoo and my biggest daily concern is determining what to cook and how much to buy so that it will not go bad due to lack of refridgeration. And with regards to that impending decision about my future, well, a wise fellow once said that when you come to a fork in the road you should take it. Well, I plan on taking it, I’m just not yet sure where to. That being said, I do hope everyone at home is well. I heard about the storm that hit the northeast a bit back and that some people were without electricity for a week. Du courage. Now we can share stories of what it’s like to live without electricity :-) Anyways, take care all.

Oh and of course, it’s been a while since I’ve stated it so I will say again that the stories, opinions, and everything else in this blog is mine and does not represent the views of Peace Corps Togo or Peace Corps as a whole.

Posted by: jodentz | October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

This past week has been a culinary treat. I was in my regional capital to get money and some work done, but this week was also the new trainees post visit week so I was able to meet many of the soon-to-be volunteers from my region as well as the savannes region. While it was nice to see many of the new volunteers, it was sad in the sense that many of my friends who are finishing up their 2 years now are leaving-the cycle of Peace Corps life in a manner of speaking. What this meant is that we were often cooking great meals together and spending some time saying goodbye. One night we made sweet and sour duck which was super delicious. Me and another volunteer spent a good part of the day searching for a duck, killing it, cleaning it, and soaking it in brine and marinade- as fresh as you get. Yesterday, another friend and I spent six hours preparing homemade calzones which took so long because we made homemade ricotta, tomato sauce from scratch, and the dough from scratch. The only thing that we didn’t make was the pepperoni which was sent from the states and absolutely amazing. Overall, the week was a much needed mental health break from village, especially since I had not left village in the four weeks preceeding this past trip and will be staying in village for another four weeks or so before leaving again.

Before leaving from village we had another village cleaning day. I would argue that it went better than the first in the sense that we were much more organized this time and made more progress despite the fact that we had about ½ to 3/5 the total amount of people. But, since we organized the work by neighborhood (cartier in french), which we didn’t do last time, we were able to easily count and get an exact number of the people, which we couldn’t possibly do the first time. The end total was 108 men and 311 women for a grand total of 419 people helping. Considering that the turnout was far less than the first day, I would say that we origionally got 600-800 people to come for the first cleaning which is absolutely amazing. The fact that we have been able to mobilize 1000-1200+ people for this project is very encouraging and exciting. They again set another cleaning date for this upcoming Friday and I have already had people coming up to me excitedly asking what time they should show up. While I was in my regional capital I had a Togolese friend tell me that the regional radio station had actually been talking about the project and that they even mentioned me. Crazy! We hadn’t even contacted the radio station about it but I guess the word is spreading. I do hope the next cleaning is as successful as the first two have been. It was interesting to see the difference in progress between the two cleanings. The second one, since we divided it up by neighborhood, yeilded much better results because each neighborhood wanted to outdo the others. It was sort of like the idea of adopting a stretch of highway in the sense that they had pride of ownership in the section of road that they were assigned to repair and clean. There were clearly some neighborhoods who shined and others who did not do a great job. But in general everyone was extremely motivated and worked very hard. Above I have posted a picture of the road from the day before we started the village cleaning project and a picture of the road after the last village cleaning. Quite an improvement if I do say so myself.

I’ve also just entered the books into an excel sheet for the insecticide entrepreneur I’ve been working with. It was a bit tricky trying to decipher his handwriting but overall he seemed to be getting the hang of it. If we can offload the rest of our inventory we stand to achieve profit margins of roughly 76%. I was able to break down all the costs into a pie chart to show him where his money is being spent as well as where he was earning the most money therefore aiding in deciding where he should focus his future sales efforts.

I don’t know if it is because work is going so well or it’s just that point in my Peace Corps service, but I am really starting to enjoy my village. The simplicity of life here is nice and pretty relaxing. I really do believe that people are happier here than in the US. I know that may sound strange to say considering that many people live on extremely little but it is true. People here do not have to worry about credit card debt, car payments, mortgage payments, going to work everyday at the same time and place for chunks of their life. While farming is hard, especially considering that they are farming by hand and without the use of machines, they set their own hours, and actually don’t work that many hours of the day. People spend a lot of time with their friends and family conversing, playing games, eating, and drinking at various times throughout the day. In the USA a lot of this is lost and not only because we live on set schedules. The proliferation of technology has gotten to the point that even before I left I saw a table of people in the restaurant I worked at texting to each other instead of talking. I wish I could say that is an exaggeration but it sadly isnt. I am happy that I have had the chance to live in a place in which a simple, unconnected life can be lead.

 Anyways, happy Halloween everybody! Hope everyone is well!

Posted by: jodentz | October 9, 2011

Best Week In Village Yet

            I have to say that this has probably been the best week I’ve had in my village yet. Despite the normal stomache troubles which have been plaguing me for the past few days, this week has been both fun and extremely productive. Monday, school finally started so I all of my teacher friends are back in town which has been fun. Soon I have to make my way over to the high school and discuss with the principal whether or not I will teach again this year. I have also been working daily with the community development president and the Chief to write up the proposal for my overhang project. We will be trying to get the money from a local NGO and the paperwork is fairly lengthy. Among other things that must be done, I have to actually get the development committee registered and legalized in Togo before I can proceed- a minor set back.

            Village cleaning wise, we had a meeting with a group of about 30 men on Wednesday to motivate them for the cleaning on Friday. Friday came along and we were able to get over 400 people from throughout the entire village to come clean and help repair the road. It was truly amazing to see everyone there and in such great spirits. The committee of women I’ve been working with did a great job spreading the word around and mobilizing the community. And the chief has been extremely helpful and supportive as well which has made my job infinitely easier. The cleaning went so well that they decided that they want to do it again in two weeks! It’s things like that that make me happy to be doing development work and want to continue it into the future. Never had I seen the community come together like that; it was inspirational. Apparently, it was also the first time ever that anything like it in the community had ever been tried. Days like that make all the frustrating experiences, setbacks, and failed project ideas worthwhile. The next day I celebrated women’s day with the club des meres (mother’s club) which helped promote the women in the community and show appreciation for all that they do (which is a lot).

            Throughout the week I have also been spending time with my various friends who have been coming back to village. I’ve been eating Fufu and drinking tchouk with my friends from up north (as that is what they do) and even eating some dog from time to time. I’ve recently had a realization that almost all of the people I’m good friends with in village were not actually born in my village. It would seem that all the Togolese that were not from this area initially i.e. the border patrol, the school teachers and directors, engineers, etc tend to band together. It is with this group of “foreigners” if you will that I tend to fit in best which I find funny. I found out this week that one of these friends even named his child after me! You know it’s been a good week when a child is named in your honor.

            Well that’s about all there is to report at the moment. Just had to share how awesome my week has been. Hope everyone at home is doing well! A la prochaine….

Posted by: jodentz | September 29, 2011

The Tallest Mountain in Togo

So for the past week or so I’ve been out of village traveling around for various reasons. I went down to Lome to book my New Year’s vacation to Morocco which will be for three weeks and I am looking forward to. After that I met with the person redesigning the SED program that I am appart of. We talked about my work, opportunities to change the project framework, and ways in general to improve training. It was interesting to see it take form. From there 4 of my friends and I went over and hiked Mt. Agou which is the tallest mountain in Togo. The hike itself is about 13km and offers up some pretty stunning views of the surroundings. It was a really nice hike despite the fact that we forgot to pack food and all ran out of water. Nonetheless, it was fun and we rewarded ourselves by going to this Belgium restaurant in Kpalime. It was probably the best meal I’ve had in over a year. We each got two hamburgers and this pork plate that was made with this mustard sauce and melted in your mouth. On top of that, they had imported Belgium beers and the owner, an eccentric guy in his own right, gave me a cigar. If it weren’t for the fact that we ended up switching rooms at 2:30am because the first room was situated directly above a night club that played music strong enough to rattle the entire room, then the trip would have been perfect.

On the work front, I was able to copy a bunch of booklets for my groupement so they can start their new cycle of saving. I also was able to meet with AGAIB which is a local NGO which I’m hoping to get fund my overhang project in the market. Not only would it provide the benefit of getting the community to be active participants in their development and assume some responsibility but it also lowers the community contribution from 25% for a Peace Corps project to 5%. This is good considering we already have a bunch of money saved. Furthermore, because the NGO usually funds projects for schools, banks, etc and my project is a market project, we have a higher likelyhood of getting it approved due to its diversity. Time will tell what happens though. With my village cleaning project, we’ve been holding weekly meetings and the number of woman attending each meeting continues to grow. We started with 23 then had 45 then 62. It’s enouraging to see. Last meeting we elected a bureau to run the operation and today will be our first official meeting of the elected members. Having the community run the project has been much more successful than what I was trying to do before, which was running the meetings myself.

Anyways, it’s back off to village for the next month or so. Hope everyone at home is doing well!

Posted by: jodentz | September 13, 2011

After Mid-Service Conference

Well, I’ve been back in village for about a week now. At the end of August we had our midservice conference which was fun. It consisted of all the volunteers in country who entered service in 2010 (about 50 of us) and was about 3 days long. In addition to various classes that focused on continued learning, we each gave mini-presentations (kinda like at a science fair) detailing some of the work we each are doing in our villages. This helped give us all better ideas of what our peers were doing while also helping make contacts for future projects. On the last night, the Gender and Development committee held a large auction amongst the volunteers and raised over $700 which will go towards helping fund in-country projects for the future. I volunteered baking someone a cheesecake (bought for $15), while others volunteered photography lessons, massages, help setting up gardens, manual labor, etc. There was also a talent show which was absolutely hilarious and I have to admit one of the best times in country. There were skits, songs, belly dancing, and a mustache pageant to name a few of the acts.

Back in village I’ve been keeping fairly busy with various projects. Sunday one of my village savings and loans groups finished their cycle and divided up their savings and interest. It was quite amazing actually. Between interest and savings there was over $2,500 in the account and people earned a 32% profit on every share they bought during the course of the year. So for every 500F CFA saved, they earned 160F CFA which is great. One lady earned over 23,000F CFA ($50) like this. Everyone was thrilled to get their money and we had a huge party were there was more rice, meat, and drinks than anyone could finish. They also gifted me two pagna cloths which was super sweet of them. Within a couple of months we will probably start back up the cycle again. One of my other counterparts has been doing guinea pig elevage at his house which is going extraordinarily well. He started with three and is up to 14. The goal is just to improve the diet of his family, so there is no commercial incentive for him. Regardless, it is great to see him doing well and he has expressed interest in learning how to dehydrate fruit so that he can store it for when its in short supply. He is one of the few people that really seems to grasp the issues facing his family and is actively planning ways to improve the quality of life for him and his family in the future. I was also asked by the editors of an in-country publication called Farm To Market to submit an article on the distribution contracts and system that I have implemented with the local insecticide entrepreneur that I’ve been working with. Im happy to say that I just finished that as well and sent it off to be published or used however they see fit.

Otherwise, I have been recovering from what I suspect to be a case of food poisoning which I ended up getting from eating a questionable, though not yet expired, piece of VQR which is a kind of cheese substitute. It has knocked me out of commission for the past few days but I’m feeling better now dieu merci. Tomorrow I have a meeting regarding my village cleaning project and I’ve been invited to a friends for dinner this evening- my favorite dish of fufu (pounded yams) and peanut sauce! Hope everyone at home is well. Keep in touch!

Posted by: jodentz | August 12, 2011

The Kpekpleme Puppetteer Cometh

Yesterday upon returning from a walk with my dog I came across an odd sight to see here in Togo: a puppeteer. The man himself was at least 6’4 –very large for a Togolese man in my area, the usual height probably being around me at 5’7- and sported aviator sunglasses that were too small for his face, despite the fact that it was almost dark, and a bowler hat. He was surrounded on all sides by a mob of children. Of course being white is just as odd a sight as the puppeteer I just described and I therefore caught the man’s attention and he called to me from a distance to come over and watch. The children parted their circle to allow me and my dog to come watch the show. He proceeded to start singing traditional Adja (the local ethinicity) music which involves a lot of rhythmic repititions that to someone hearing it for the first time would assume a record was skipping. The doll itself was a quite scary looking child’s doll with the type of eyes that open and close depending on what angle you hold it at. They are quite common in the states to impart a human like quality to the doll. However, this doll had one eye that only opened up half way; the other by contrast oddly alert and disconcerning. The dolls hair was dirt brown and only present in patches. The clothes were raggedy to say the least. Strings decended from two sticks to various points on the doll and when the singing started the puppeteer directed this frightening Chucky-esqe doll to dance the local traditional dance, which I call the chicken dance as it seems to mimic a chicken flapping its wings. It was actually very well done and quite amusing. The kids and other adults who had gathered around began cheering and going crazy. Apparently this guy lives in my village so I will one day hopefully get to capture it on video.

            This leads nicely into my explanation of what I have been keeping busy with in village. Two-thirds of the Peace Corps mission is dedicated to cross cultural exchange. Namely, sharing American culture and ideas with the Togolese and then bringing back Togolese culture and sharing that with Americans through various means such as Blogs, pictures, visits, etc. Having spoken with one of my friends who just finished up 4 years in Peace Corps in two different countries, I have come to understand that the personal impact and relationships are the things that will have the greatest lasting impact on the people of my village when I leave. People will never forget the crazy American who walked his dog, on a leash mind you, and had weird ideas like gender equality. Furthermore, since it is rainy season, everyone and their mothers (literally) have been off in the fields planting, weeding and harvesting while they can. Even my insecticide entrepreneur is too busy selling all over the place to have a meeting. My counterpart is laid up in bed with an old fracture that is bothering him due to the “cold” weather of late- a chilly 85 degrees during the day. Therefore, work during rainy season is quite impossible to get done. So I have shifted focus, if only for a few months, to the cultural exchange portion of my mission. This is also a welcome break, having come off three months of constant travel, technical presentations, and dealing with lots of youth.

            This has of course led me into a few interesting encounters. A few days ago it found me sitting between two priests and explaining the idea of cultural lenses and cultural relavitism and its relation to religion in Togo and the world. It was a three hour discussion that shifted from religion (even Mormonism) to how we all view the world differently as a result of our cultures to even nudism (they brought it up, not me). Other days have found me learning Togolese card and board games with school directors and local officials and exchanging ideas about gender relations, family planning and other health related issues. It also gives me the opportunity to get unsolicited information and news about my community that I would have otherwise missed out on. One pharmicist was reading a book that I asked to look at. It was on the topic of sexual health and was written by a doctor-so it must be true he said. Well, just skimming through this book I took away that it was heavily associated with religion while simultaneously written from an authoritative medical perspective. Homosexuality is listed by the book as a deviancy to be shunned and ‘fixed’, masturbation a sin against god, and fun fact for those of you back in the US: Did you know that 90% of women in the USA are victims of incest? I sure didn’t know that. The book was not old (published within the last 6 or 7 years) and yet was filled with startling innaccuracies. I did my best to clear up what I could but the fact of the matter was that it was a widely distributed book and quite long. I couldn’t possibly address all the innacuracies by briefly skimming it, such as the incest myth which caught me off guard. More startling still is that the person reading it is a very educated pharmicist in town and quite a nice guy and that he took all of the material quite literally. Also debunked this week: America could never have been founded without the Jews (my family is Jewish and I don’t think this is accurate) and that toilet seats can give you HIV. In all, I consider my adventure into cultural exchange quite interesting and rewarding at the same time.

            In other news, my house has now been set up with the extra two rooms. I call it my guest house. Over the next few months I will hopefully be adding a bed (in addition to the cot that is there now) and some more counter space in my kitchen. My newest neighbor has also arrived. She is 6-7 km down the road from me and came over last market day. I must admit it is quite annoying walking around town with her due to the fact that everybody assumes she is my wife and then proceeds to nag me about it. While this happens everytime a girl comes and visits the area, I expect this to be worse, compounded by the fact that she will be in my village every 4 days which must therefore mean, by the village gossip standard, that she must be my wife. Of course this is not her fault at all but merely stereotypes that circulate. C’est la vie. Until next time.

Posted by: jodentz | July 24, 2011

Camp and more camp

Finally, I am back home in Kpekpleme once again. It’s really nice to be able to sit down and know where things are and not feel like I am intruding on someone else’s space or work. Stage training went well. I gave a session on One-on-One consulting skills and had my counterpart come and give a speech on the work we’ve done. If what he said is correct, he just received two orders for his natural insecticide amounting to $40,000 which is kind of astounding if you ask me. I hope for his sake that I heard him correctly. We also made another contact across the country for another distribution point. I’d say things with him are going quite well. I also taught the newbies how to kill chickens for one of the girls birthday. It was funny to watch them actually go at it. We made a great stir fry dinner afterwards.

            Camp Espoir went phenomonally well in my opinion. We had 40 kids in total, all of whom have at been affected or infected by HIV/AIDs at one point in their lives. Indeed there were little 8 year old kids who had been infected and many who had lost parents or siblings to the disease. We held a candle lighting ceremony where they were able to share their stories if they wanted a safe place to share. It was quite heartbreaking to hear some of them speak. But in general moods were high. I gave a session on feasibility studies that went well and helped my kids (I was assigned the older boys) do an income generating activity. We had a fake market set up and the kids were all given a little play money to go around and buy the goods from each building. There was lots of singing and dancing and games and challenges, even a big scavenger hunt at the end that reinforced the lessons that were taught during camp. The week culminated in a dance where all the kids let loose and went crazy dancing. It was a blast. In addition to being fun, I believe it successfully accomplished its goals of bringing together those affected and providing a safe place to share with those who come from similar backgrounds while reinforcing basic ways to improve your life ie through hygeine, nutrition, etc.

            Camp Unité also went very well though its focus was very different, a heavy emphasis on learning. In comparison with the one session I taught at Espoir, I facilitated 4 sessions at Unite. Mainly focusing on sexual harrassment and Income generating activities, both theory and practice. The program was packed with classes-a total of 4 per day- with very little down time. It was really great to see the kids learn things that they had never thought of before even though they are so basic ideas. The idea of gender equality was mindblowing to those who just assumed it was a woman’s job to do everything around the house. Few had known anything about time management or sexual harrassment. We had a person who had been trafficked when he was a boy to Nigeria for 5 years come in and give his story and advice on how to avoid this horrendous fate. It was quite horrific actually hearing his story. People killed by farming equipment because of poor conditions, being run over by cars during transport, getting paid once a year. The owner would withhold meat for most of the year and then towards the end would bring in a goat. The workers starved for meat who jump on it but without realizing that they had to pay a huge sum for the animal. Essentially, they were trapped for another year of work just to pay off the goat they had decided to eat. I think it did a good job scaring the kids straight and getting them to understand that trafficking is a very real reality in this part of the world and that they should not fall victim. Often times the kids voluntairily go with the promise of coming back rich, it is not just the snatching of children off the street as we often imagine back home. But anywho, I think the kids all learned a lot during the week. We had a lot of discussions and challenges to reinforce the ideas that were covered. We also had a talent show where each building showed off local dances and a parade in a nearby village. The kids performed sketches and dances in front of the community to teach them about a few select topics they leared about during the week. It was nice to see the kids go out there and have fun. Many of the Togolese counselors also had never seen many of these teaching techniques so it was good for them as well to learn and be able to facilitate session back in their respective villages.

            Overall camp was both inspirational and exhausting. As a counselor you are constantly responsible for the kids and for camp espoir I had to constantly make sure there was no comingling of the boys and girls. Sessions were about 1.5 hours each in French and had to be coordinated with a counterpart which took lots of time. The songs and dances, while fun and great for the kids, were similarly tiring. I would definitely be willing to help out at one of the camps next year but I think doing two is a bit much energy and time wise (it requires being out of village at least 2 weeks per camp). The relationships formed with the kids and Togolese counterparts though are definitely worth the energy. It was very rewarding on the whole.

            In other news, I think my dog is pregnant, though I can’t be sure at least at the moment. I’m adding on two rooms to my house-they are currently hammering away next door and installig a drop ceiling for me- and so I will have more room if she does indeed give birth to a litter of puppies though I cant say I’m horribly excited by the prospect of having no space and up to 6 dogs run around. And giving them away to anyone other than a volunteer would possibly mean it being eaten. Also, the new kids had their post visit aka their first week in their village before headed back to training. I think my new neighbor survived well enough though the word of the week seemed to be overwhelming. Hard to believe it’s been a year since I was dropped off in the middle of nowhere. We celebrated their surviving the week in the regional capital where my neighbor cooked a huge feast and we rented out the local soccer stadium and played kickball. It was a lot of fun. That’s about it for now. Hope everyone at home is doing well!! I’m off to go sleep off the past month.

Posted by: jodentz | June 20, 2011

Zig-zagging Across Togo

It has again been awhile since I posted last, but this is because ive been super busy traveling around the country for various projects. The conference that my friend set up in the northernmost region of the country went super well. We were placed in host families and I ended up spending 3 nights staying at the house of the grand Imam who is head of the Muslim community for the entire canton (Togo is divided up by region, followed by prefecture, then by canton). It was an interesting experience to be living with a host family again. Being fed until bursting, being forced to shower twice a day, and living by another family’s rules can be trying at times but it was a great experience. We had a lot of great talks and debates about religion, life, and cultural differences. The conference itself was a hit as well. I believe members from over 8 different villages were brought in where they were able to interact with volunteers who had set up booths (think science fair style) and also with sit down presentations. The first day I had a booth demonstrating simple latrines and their importance- a surprisingly tiring thing presenting the same thing over and over again for 4 hours in French- and the second day I gave an hour long presentation on the same subject. It was interesting as I had two translators to translate what I was saying into two different local languages.

Following the conference, my friend M and I went and visited another friend at his site and went hiking to these Moba caves. The caves were built over 100 yrs ago by the Mobas to escape prosecution. What makes them a amazing experience is that the caves are built directly into a cliff and you have to climb up above them and then decend downwards. They overlook the entire village below and you can see for miles. It was absolutely beautiful. In general, the entire trip up north was a pleasure. The atmosphere is completely different. Much more laid back than the South. Much of the day is spent sitting around drinking Tchakpa which is a locally brewed beer-like substance that tastes a little like apple cider and I believe is made with Sorghum. Down south we have Tchouk which I believe is made with millet. Slightly different.

After the North I traveled the entire length of the country (600km+ I believe) down to Lomé to welcome the new trainees. Two friends and I got to go the airport to see them fresh off the plane and welcome them personally to Togo. They seem like a good group and it was interesting to put perspective on what I was like when I arrived in country a year ago. This also marked my year mark in country and was an achievement in itself. However, I must admit that being an official welcome volunteer was quite tiring. Dealing with the barage of questions, making sure everyone is where they need to be, as well as sitting in on 8 hours of sessions a day takes its toll. To cap off the week, I was also invited by our country director to a ministry event to promote volunteerism in Togo. Got to listen to an hour of speeches, see a declaration signed and be interviewed by Togolese media.

I was finally able to make it back to village for a week after about 6 weeks of not being here. This proved to be a marathon in itself as I had to make sure to put in face time with EVERYONE in village so there were many very long days of just spending time with people and checking the progress of my work. Alas, a fou, or local crazy person, ate my elevage project. As there are no facilities for the mentally disadvantaged, they tend to wander around village, usually without much incidence. But this time, knowing that there were rabbits were in a room, he broke through the door of where they were being stored and ate all but one (this was no where near my house btw and it turned out to be the brother of the guy who is doing the elevage). So we will hopefully be trying again. It is just a bit frustrating. Togo Togo…

This past week I made my way up to the centrale region for the training of trainers for camp Espoir which is with the children infected and/or affected by HIV/AIDs. We planned out all of our sessions, made all the camp preparations, and sang and danced until ready to drop. Camp starts the 4th of July. It will be exhausting but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless. I’ve been also trying to plan this Income Generating Activity (AGR’s in french) Day for our work station which seems to be getting larger and larger by the minute. As it stands now, there will be all 26 trainees, their trainers, at least 14 volunteers, a girls club, 2 different field trips, 3 different AGRs prepared twice each, in french, which means we need to translate for the new trainees who don’t speak French, and organizing lunch, materials, and transport to and from the city. It’s become quite complicated, but I hope it turns out well. I’ve enlisted the help of other volunteers for helping out. That is this weekend so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Well, that’s about it for now. Off to train the new stage again next week then up to camp for 3 weeks. I’ve decided that I really enjoy travelig and helping others with their projects. I get to travel which is what I love, see friends, the country, and still do a lot of good work. It’s been very rewarding. I’ve heard that there was a tornado right by where I live in Western Mass. I hope everyone back home is safe and sound. Take care all!

Posted by: jodentz | May 23, 2011

Camerooned

So it’s been quite a while since my last post but it has been due to my being on vacation. Cameroon was absolutely amazing in every aspect. We started our trip by arriving to the airport at 930pm on the 31st for our 1am flight. When we got to the airport we were informed that no flight actually existed that evening and that the next flight to cameroon was at 1130. This forced us to find a hotel room for the night in the interim. The next day we show up to the airport and sit down with the airline which was now open and tell them that they should pay for our hotel room the previous night as compensation and also to make sure that we were on the morning flight. Well, as it turns out no flight existed that morning either and not until 11:30 the next day. It had apparently been changed months ago and we were never contacted. Why? Because this is Togo. Well, we went and talked with the manager at the airlines with a fair amount of yelling (especially since our return flight didn’t exist as well effecitvely shifting our entire vacation) and to sort this out. While we were yelling at him he told us we needed to all just “cool down” and then turned on the airconditioner. We all couldn’t help but laugh. In the end, we ended with comp’d hotel rooms, meals, a driver, a longer vacation (it ended up extending it for 2 more days to a total of 13), and my favorite part was that we were invited to party with the airline staff in celebration of Labor Day, a huge deal here.

            We were picked up at our hotel, brought to the airport, walked through security without any checks into the restricted area of the airport and eventually ended up in the employee lounge. Apparently our airline (ASky) is run by Ethiopian airlines so there were lots of Ethiopians there. It was an amazing time. We met the whole staff, had a 3 course meal, there was whisky, champagne, and dancing. Ethiopians are super friendly. They invited us to visit them in Togo and when they go back home, it was a great experience. After the party we were given staff T-shirts and the next day were greeted by the entire staff as we worked our way to our flight. One of them found us, pulled up chairs in the duty free shop and bought us a beer before we boarded the plane. In all, the flight mix up worked out well.

            In cameroon, we spent the first morning at the botanical gardens and monkey sanctuary then headed to the beach in the afternoon. We had the entire black sand beach to ourselves the whole afternoon; it was perfect and felt like we were in the carribean. That night we went to the fish market in the bay and had possibly the best fish of my life on the beach then were invited out to watch soccer by a local. The next morning we decided to rent a boat and head out to the island that could be seen from the beach. We paid a fisherman about $40 to take us out in his long wooden and fairly unstable boat that leaked and had to be bailed out a few times. Again, it was gorgeous and a great decision. We were told about the history of the island and got to walk around part of it. The views of the mainland were spectacular with Mt Cameroon rising up in the background. After getting back in the boat and seeing the west side of the island we headed back and grabbed ice cream on the beach and spent the rest of the day loafing around.

            Fast forward 2 days and we are ready to climb Mt. Cameroon. It is the tallest mountain in West (and I believe Central) Africa at 4090 meters (roughly 12300ft) and the largest active volcano in all of Africa. We had met a friend of the person who runs the climbing company and so he included all of our food and equipment (tents, sleeping bags, cooking stuff, etc) for free which cut the cost. Day 1 was a 7km hike which took 6 hours due to the 50 degree slope (we camped at hut 2 which was at 2880m). Day 2 was 18km of hiking including summiting and then decending through lava fields which took a total of 9 hours. The three of us could hardly walk after this day. The guides and porters got a kick out of that. Day 3 was 13km through dense rainforest and took 7.5 hours due to our general fatigue and fact we could barely walk. Overall, the hike was an amazing experience. It offered the chance to experience a number of different ecosystems from rainforests to plains, to the inhospitable summit in one trip. We didn’t see a single other person on the mountain, there were great views of the coast from the top, and we got to sit on the lip of an active volcano. However, it was significantly harder than any of us had expected. Apparently some people need to be carried down (yes they actually carry them on their back for the entire trip down) so we were glad not to be those kind of people. After the mountain experience, one of the porters invited us out to a local village where we watched an intervillage wrestling match and then went to eat fufu and antelope meat.

            The following morning we left for Kumba which has the largest market in all of Cameroon. We spent the day recovering as we could still hardly walk and watching music videos. The second day in Kumba we walked around the market and went to lake Barombi Mbi which is, according to the gaurdian of the lake, the deepest lake in Africa. It felt like a tropical resort. It was breath-takingly pristine and we got to swim around for as long as we wanted.

            A day later and coincidentally my birthday we took a 6 hr bush taxi ride up to a town on the border of Cameroon and Nigeria. We celebrated my birthday at the bar with a bunch of Cameroonians who insisted on buying us drinks and armadillo meat. We woke up bright and early the next morning and arranged for a guide to head into Korup National Park which is recognized as one of the oldest rainforests in all of Africa. We crossed an indiana jones style suspension bridge and headed to a waterfall. The path however was in the process of being reclaimed by the forest so we were often forced to take detours and fight our way through the bush. At one point, we came to another suspension bridge but this one had large sections of planks missing. The guide turned to us “well I didn’t want to discourage you before but if we continue there is risk. The bridge is in poor condition.” We agree that if he goes first we have no problem following. He takes one step onto the bridge and a plank falls off on the other side, further widening the gap. He turns around “as I said, lots of risk. We should find a way around.” This involved us tight-roping a tree over the fast moving river with lots of biting ants then shimmying up a slippery fallen tree. It was a blast. We had lunch by the waterfalls then headed back. Saw tracks of forests elephants but alas not the creatures themselves. We did see a yellow mamba and a chameleon though. This day ended up being 12km and a 7hr hike. We were filthy and exhausted after it.

            That’s about it from the trip. I would like to say that Cameroonians are genuinely the nicest people I have met. They are well educated and were always happy to see us. Almost daily were we invited to drinks just for the sake of talking to us. Afterwards they would often say thank you for making my day. They didn’t ask us to bring them to the US, didn’t call us Yovo, and were very interested in our ideas. It was really great to see that development can occur in Africa and yet it highlighted all the problems in Togo and was depressing at the same time. The education system here seems to be the biggest difference. Teachers in cameroon are paid 68,000-200,000F per month. In Togo they are paid 10,000 and this is reflected in the quality of education that is received. So overall, I would recommend the trip to anyone. It was cheap and we were able to do a huge variety of things, the food was good and the people were nice.

            Back in Togo I have attended training of trainers for the new group of trainees coming in on june 4th. I was selected to one of the people in the capital to greet them fresh off the plane which will be nice. I was also selected for camp Espoir which deals with children who have or have been affected by HIV/AIDS. On top of this, I will be headed up to the northernmost part of the country to present simple latrines at a convention being put on by a volunteer for her community then I have to come back to my regional capital to arranging a programming activity for the workstation here where we will be teaching income generating activities. Between this, the 2 camps, and being a trainer for the new stage I am super busy for the entire summer which is nice. Back to work I suppose…

Posted by: jodentz | April 18, 2011

It’s A Chicken-Eat-Chicken World…

Yesterday I was walking down the street and I saw a chicken pecking at something odd: a dead chicken. This is the first time in almost a year that I have ever seen a chicken canibalize one of its own. The next day I saw a different chicken eating half a dead mouse. I don’t know what this world is coming to but the chickens here seem to be taking on larger and larger prey…next thing you know, gangs of chickens will be bringing down goats.

Anyways, I have just retured from a week in Atakpame. Though it was a nice break from village after staying here from a month (people were complaining that they never see me now that I have internet at post and that my mail was overflowing in the box), I was super busy. I finished my VRF which is our reporting form on all the activities that I have done since being in country- this alone took about 6 hours to complete. Then I had to prepare my presentation for the NGO workshop on flip chart paper (because there sure isnt a projector and PowerPoint here). The workshop itself was 2 days long with presentations going from 8am-5pm and we had a good showing of 38 people from 19 different NGOs. I presented on the first day and it actually went super well. My subject was attracting and retaining individual donors and apparently was scoffed at last year when it was presented as most people believed that their fellow . So I changed tact a bit and presented Togolese case studies and showed that it can be done here in Togo. People participated in activities and actually gave some of their success stories (all in french of course). So I was pumped that things went well. In all I facilitated 1 session and assisted in 2 others (computer training). At the end, my neighbor and I threw together a nice dinner making this great curry rice and a lemon pound cake with Bisap (taste a bit like rasberry) glaze. It is frankly a relief to be done with it all.

Also, I got accepted to be a camp counselor at Camp Unite! This is a camp that instructs and encourages Togolese youth (I was selected for the boy students camp in particular though there are also camps for girl students and boy and girl apprentices) and teach them valuable life skills that they can bring back to their community. The participants are nominated by volunteers and come from all 5 regions of Togo. I’m super pumped to have been picked as a few volunteers apparently were turned down due to lack of space. I think it will be a great time and way to spend July.

Now im back in village and just counting down the days till vacation. I am trying to get this simple latrine project going at the school before I leave so I’ve arranged for a small formation on the subject Thursday with a presenter from a village 30km away. Also trying to get this budget worked out but organizing problems (people in village pass away and therefore meetings get cancelled) keep interfering. Other than that a teaching in the school on Wednesday and a few random groupment meetings, I am in the clear. This weekend I will be heading to Atakpame again for a Workstation committee meeting to discuss the state of things and then have a fundraising Passover dinner. After that Cameroon here I come. Now I just need to get rid of these ameobas and I’ll be golden.

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