Thursday, July 29, 2010

Saying Goodbye

After having lived somewhere for 2 full years, saying goodbye is not something that can be accomplished in a single day. My goodbyes started as early as May with my belongings. It was decided that I would not be replaced this year, meaning all of my household possessions needed to leave the house. Peace Corps reclaims most everything it lends its volunteers for their service, meaning that the volunteers are responsible for bringing everything back down to the capital on their own. In my village, where cars are not readily available, this meant I had to take everything out via moto. This took careful planning months in advance - planning what I'd take with me, little by little, every time I left my village between May and July. Other items, such as household furniture, I sold to people in my village who wanted them. And I ultimately gave a lot of things away for free as well.

Next came saying goodbye to volunteers. During my service, I'd only see some volunteers who lived up-country once every several months. While many of my closest friends made an effort to meet me right before I actually left, I had to start saying goodbye to others who lived further away months before my actual COS (Close of Service) date.

While my last month was filled with goodbyes, the last week was the most intense. It was very important that I personally say goodbye to all of my contacts in village for the sake of not offending anyone - which meant a lot of walking around those last few days. I was touched by how many people from other villages went out of their way to call or come and say goodbye to me too. The nurse, midwife, and pharmacist with whom I'd worked organized a goodbye lunch for me and gave me a thank you gift, teachers with whom I'd worked took me out for drinks out of thanks, and people were constantly flowing in and out of my house over the course of the week to thank me, wish me well, and spend as much time as they could spare visiting with me for the last time. I was moved by everyone's words of appreciation the most; I was grateful for their recognition and appreciation of my work, and touched that so many people were begging me to stay a third year. On the morning I was going to leave, one of my neighbors came by with a live chicken for me as a final thank you gift. Thank goodness for host moms; mine killed it, cooked it, and prepared it as a meal for the trip (it was delicious). Even though she'd already said goodbye twice the day before, my water girl came by one last time that morning with her younger sisters to spend some time with me. (We colored). My host mom was the hardest person for me to say goodbye to. I'd made it through all the other goodbyes without shedding a tear, but as soon as my host mom started crying, I couldn't help but tear up as well. She's one of the people I'll miss the most.

The day I left village happened to be the same day that the older volunteers threw a welcome party for the new volunteer trainees, who had just finished their first one-week visit at post. The party was held at one of the transit houses, where I was stopping through on my way down to Lome. A lot of people were there and it was a fun night of good homemade food, dancing, and good company. A number of my friends stayed up until 4 AM to wave me off when the taxi came to take me down to the capital.

The last few days in Lome were spent primarily in the Peace Corps Bureau. I had a whole checklist of things to get done before I could earn the status of an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer). Luckily it wasn't too overwhelming as I had done a lot of the paperwork months beforehand. When I finally finished everything I felt so libearated! My last night in Togo, I went out to dinner downtown at one of my favorite Lebanese restaurants with some of my good friends who happened to be in Lome as well. The owner of the restaurant, who knows me well since I frequent his place so often, filled our table with amazingly delicious Lebanese food for only a fraction of the cost as a goodbye gift. I was so touched by his generosity and we waddled out of there with full bellies.

In heading back to the States, I flew out of Accra, Ghana since the ticket was cheaper and saved me money. I crossed the border with Jorge, the husband of one of my closest volunteer friends (he was heading home ahead of his wife), and with one of my best volunteer friends in country, who came just to spend a little more time together before having to say goodbye. I couldn't have asked for better travel buddies. Since Jorge's and my flights weren't until around 11PM, we spent most of the day roaming around the Accra mall. We checked our luggage into the parcels' department at the mall's grocery store and then ate food and watched 2 movies in a row at the upstairs theater until we had to go.

My layover was in Rome, and the flight between Italy and the States was 10 hours long, but luckily I had a great seat-mate (don't you love it when that happens?) who asked such genuine questions about my experience and patiently listened as I pondered the inevitable challenges of my impending transition back to life in America. While I'd been excited to go home for months as I neared the end of my service, it was on that last flight that I began having mixed feelings. I think it finally sunk in that I'd just left my home of 2 years along with my job and my friends - all to go to a place where I'd have nothing besides family for the moment; I was leaving a place with which I'd become completely comfortable to go somewhere else where I was homeless, jobless, and essentially a fish out of water, due to my most recent experience. It was a sobering and somewhat melancholy realization.

But it was so good to see my family at the airport gates. And we all had a nice celebration that evening. Unfortunately I only had one week left with my Dad before he left for his sabbatical year in Japan, so most of my first week home was spent packing up the house to prepare it for the renters who would move in at the end of this week. As for me, I've just recently found an apartment and am now looking for a job. Little by little I will adjust to this life again... until I pack up for my next adventure :-)

Thank you to all who followed my blog throughout these 27 months. I so appreciated your support and encouraging comments. Goodbye for now... A la prochaine! (Until next time!)


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Camp Espoir 2010

Having been a summer camp counselor for four years for first graders back in the States, I was amused to discover that there are a lot of similarities between camp in America and Camp Espoir, where I volunteered as a counselor for 8 year-olds this year. For example, it is not unusual for beads to fall out of a counselor’s hair when undoing one’s ponytail at the end of the day. The processes of getting the kids to brush their teeth, get dressed, shower, and go to the bathroom (especially with #2) take at least 10 times as long as they would for the average (older) individual. And for both American and Togolese campers alike, balloons can be an available saving grace when it comes to distracting them from fighting with each other, and a curse when it comes to trying to get them to pay attention.

[ bathroom break (no bathroom available)]

But there are certainly cultural differences as well. For example, the girls would sit on the toilets (which many of them had never seen before) with their rear ends half buried in the bowl and their legs dangling off because they’d always put the seat up as well. With more food available than they’d ever eaten before, my eight year-olds would eat up to four plates piled with food per meal – and then we’d all have to book it back to our cabin so they could do #2 (little Ruth would always say, “I need to poop – my stomach’s too big” and then eye my own stomach, pat it and say, “You should too”). In more than one case, Taylor (my co-PCV counselor) and I had to address how, after meals indoors in the cafeteria, the remaining food scraps CANNOT just be dumped on the floor, and hands should be washed after dinner using the outdoor sink instead of by pouring remaining drinking water over one’s hand onto the plate. In taking bucket baths, the girls would always start by washing their underwear (culturally, underwear is washed in private and not along with the rest of one’s laundry), so little panties always adorned the windowsills in our cabin, where they’d be hung to dry.

The one other big difference is that these kids are sick.

Of the almost 100,000 HIV/AIDS orphan and vulnerable children (OVCs) living in Togo, fewer than 10% receive any type of external support. Within the definition of OVCs there are three sub-groups: 1) Children who have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS, 2) Children who have an infected parent, 3) Children infected with HIV/AIDS. Camp Espoir’s primary goal is to provide a fun, comforting, and educational environment for these kids, who are faced with the most difficult of circumstances. Because of stigma and discrimination, kids are unlikely to open up to anyone about their daily struggles with HIV/AIDs. Camp Espoir is often the first time the children have left their homes and been surrounded by other children facing similar challenges. Camp provides the perfect opportunity for AIDS care association staff to reach out to the campers and really explain what living with HIV/AIDS means. The campers leave having made friends and confidants from their home association with whom they can discuss problems they may be facing. Each camp is staffed by a combination of Peace Corps volunteers, AIDS care association employees (including nurses and psycho-social counselors) , and youth leaders, all of whom contribute to making Pagala camp ground a great place for the children (ranging from age 8 – 17) to forget about their problems for the first time in their lives.

The way camp is set up, it’s easy to treat the kids like the kids they really are and not like sick kids – which is our main goal as counselors. Apart from the educational sessions, there is lots of time for sports, art, and lots and lots of songs. This year’s camp’s theme was the World Cup, so all of the different age groups (divided into different cabins) represented different countries (my cabin was Japan). There is a mock market day where kids from the different age groups sell products they’ve learned how to make (including juice, bracelets, popcorn, and peanut brittle). There is also a carnival day which the kids obviously love, and a dance night as well.

(above: skit on self-confidence)

Sometimes though, it was hard to completely forget that these kids struggle with an incurable disease. All but one of the little girls in my cabin was actually infected. While I often just tried not to think about it, it was hard to ignore when our girls would knock on Taylor’s and my door early morning to ask for drinking water to take their ARV medication. Another one of our girls fell sick for the first couple days of camp and had no appetite or energy to participate in activities, which broke my heart to see. We had to constantly keep an eye on a gaping wound one of our girls had from falling to ensure that it was always covered and protected. Yet another one of our girls struggled from major psychological issues (having lost both her parents and being sick herself) and would experience extremely dramatic mood swings. We also found out late in the week that she’d been skipping her medication on purpose. In the past, other counselors have recounted stories of having difficulties encouraging their campers to take their medication because their campers dread it, saying that they've seen their parents die after having taken the medication in the same way. And at the end of camp, saying goodbye was something else… Because the sad truth is that many of these kids won’t ever make it through their adolescent years. What’s hard about it all with these kids is encompassed in how Taylor, who works a great deal with AIDS in her village, phrased it: “It’s just not their fault…”

But for the day by day fun we had, it was a fantastic time. Yet another great experience I’ve had during my Peace Corps service. And, without a doubt, it was obvious that the kids had a blast as well – and that’s what’s most important.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

World Map Project (and more)

During my last months in village, I decided to do a World Map Project for which members of the community get together and paint a world map on a wall. The idea for the World Map Project got started back in 1988 by a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic who came with the idea as a means of getting students interested in world geography. The idea caught on with other Peace Corps volunteers as it's a fun project which instills pride and accomplishment in the participants, encourages cooperative problem solving, and builds community. I thought it'd be a great way to bond with my community members and leave a sort of memory of my presence before I go.

The goal is to create an accurate hand-drawn map of the world. To do so, you first draw a big grid on your background surface. Then you transfer information block-by-block from map section sheets onto this proportionately larger grid. One of the hardest parts was making the grid (which was approximately 5x3 meters) straight and even considering we only had a meter stick to create the entire thing. In the early days of making the grid, I stopped by a local carpenter's workshop one day in the hopes of finding a longer ruler or measuring tape. There was an older man, who I often see sitting outside the shop with the apprentices, sitting there who greeted me by name. I assumed he was the head carpenter. I asked him if he had a long ruler, but he didn't seem to understand what I was asking for, so I broke out the World Map Project manual and showed him the mini picture of the map on the grid, explaining that we were going to recreate it on the elementary school wall. He looked at me with wide eyes and said "That is way too small to draw on the wall!" After I clarified that I was going to enlarge it, I tried asking again for a large ruler to use to do so, but he still didn't seem to understand what I was asking for. So I said, "OK - say for example I come to you today and ask for the measurements of this wall [pointing to the wall next to us]. How would you go about measuring this wall?" He looked pensively at the wall, stroked his chin and hmmmed, saying "Ah yes - I understand now". After a couple nods he turned to me and said "Ok - and when would you need those measurements by?" After 15 minutes of a conversation that went nowhere, I found out that the man wasn't even a carpenter. In the end, I ended up making do with the yellow meter stick I already had.

Although it requires a lot of steps, schoolkids from all over the world succeed in drawing the map themselves. To select the kids who would help me, I went around to classes in the local middle school and invited those students who were interested in the idea of the project to participate in a preliminary "training" of this process of recreating images using the grid method. I was initially worried that the students would find the project too time-consuming and tedious, but I was pleasantly surprised by how intrinsically motivated they were. Overall, about 10 kids helped consistently, showing up on time and, at the end of every day, anxiously asking what time we'd start working again the next day. It was so heartwarming to see how excited they were to create this map! I was careful to check their work and often had to make some corrections, but overall the kids did a great job. I could tell they were encouraged by any positive praise I gave them. One day when we were painting, I was working on the right side of the map with some kids and another kid was standing on a bench on the left side, painting the countries that were green. I heard a noise and saw that he had slipped on the bench and had caught himself, but he was gawking at the wall. A little suspicious, I got off my ladder and went to go see what the problem was. When I got over there, I realized that when he'd slipped, he'd spilled his paint, and an enormous blotch of green was covering the Pacific Ocean. He was looking at his toes and I could tell he felt bad about it, so I made as little a deal as possible out of it, even though I was sighing in my head. Good thing I had extra blue.

I spent a total of approximately 80 hours over the course of May working on the map. I'd work in the mornings starting at dawn, sweating like crazy under the sun which blazed on the eastward-facing wall. In the evenings, I'd work more productively in the shade with the kids who'd help after they got out of their classes. Kids and adults alike would love to gather and sit on the grass to watch us as we worked. One day, as I was working on the Northwestern Territories, I noticed the director of the school walk into the building with a man who was carrying a big tube attached to a plastic gallon bottle of liquid. Minutes later he came out and said that they were going to be spraying to get rid of the pests who were making noise in the roof and suggested that I might want to stop working for a while. Not wanting to lose any time, I said that I'd continue working and if it bothered me, I'd stop. Not long afterwards, I started smelling a raunchy stench emanating from the holes in the roof and then heard a high pitch screeching accompanied by clattering coming from the inside. The kids who were sitting on the grass were getting all worked up and excited, and they started standing up and looking for sticks in anticipation of whatever was going to be escaping from the roof. Thinking twice, I scrambled down the ladder and in the nick of time too because just then HUNDREDS of little bats started streaming out from the small holes between the wall and roof and filling the sky. I felt like I was in a Hitchcock film. I fled for cover but the kids screamed with delight and whipped and flailed their sticks in the sky trying to knock down as many bats as possible. Once I was at a safe distance and didn't feel I was at risk for getting knocked in the head by a diving bat, I found the whole scene absolutely hysterical. Too bad I didn't have my camera that day.

Many Peace Corps volunteers often look for external funding to produce the World Map, but due to time constraints (since I was to be leaving in less than 3 months at the time of planning this), I decided to go ahead and fund the project out of my own pocket. My PCV neighbor, Michelle, graciously contributed as well - both financially and manually, biking down from her village for a couple days to help out with the drawing and painting. It was fun to have this to do as a collaborative project with her before leaving as well. In total, the map cost us about 60 USD to produce. Reasonable, we thought, since it should now ideally last a few years and should contribute greatly to the global education of the young students in my village.

Even before the map was finished, I already started seeing the ways in which the map is challenging my villagers' views of the world. When I originally started the project, people had trouble with the concept that it was a map of the world instead of just Africa. As hard as it is to believe, many people in my village did not understand that there are other continents in the world besides Africa! You have to remember - there are few, if any, books available for students who live in the remote villages like my own. Most students in my village had never seen a map of the world drawn all on one page. The school wall on which I painted the map was right next to a path that many farmers follow in going to and from fields, so at dusk I often attracted a fairly large crowd of farmers who would stop and stare and ask questions with their hoes propped over their shoulders. The biggest attraction was little Togo, which "is so small!", they'd exclaim. But they loved jumping up and pointing to it; the little yellow-painted country was already covered in fingerprints before the map was even finished. However, the villagers were even more blown away when I'd point out little islands and explain that they too were countries. "Someone lives THERE?" they'd say. In painting other African countries, I took advantage of the focus on the countries to explain historical events such as the Rwandan genocide and the civil wars in Sudan. My villagers were astounded that such big countries could still have such serious problems. "So Togo is actually doing well!" they'd exclaim in understanding. "Bigger isn't always better after all" they'd reassure themselves. I'd always smile to myself too when I'd be working and I'd overhear schoolkids rehearsing the historical facts they knew about the countries in the world, now using the map as a visual reference. Many adults would come up to me and thank me, saying how grateful they were for this huge service that I was providing in improving the knowledge of the kids and adults in the community. The map was truly an appreciated project.

The day we finished, I could see the kids who had helped practically bursting with pride as we wrote their names on the wall as I'd promised them. A big crowd gathered to admire the map and lingered even after I'd gone home. It's such a good feeling to finish a project that you know is appreciated by your village and will benefit them in some way. The craziest thing to me was that during the entire month, I had prayed that the rain would hold off and not erase or delay my work before I'd finished it. There were a couple close calls, but no huge rainstorms ever actually came during the time I was working on it. I was so relieved. The day that the rain finally came was the night I finished. What luck!

And that was my last big project in village! I am done with my work and am preparing to leave soon!

Enjoy the pictures below~

Making the Grid:

Drawing the countries:

(Finished the drawing!)


Writing in the country names:



(above and below) Me doing a sensibilization on how to make lotion that contains insect repellant made from Neem tree leaves.

Mango season! How schoolkids use sticks to bring the mangoes down to their level

Dancing during Cultural Week at school

(above and below) Culinary contest during cultural week; the director and I were the judges
me with the current and old middle school directors

Planting Moringa with middle school students

Model Teacher Conference I organized, led by one of my former Peace Corps Trainers, Ismael

(Below) My Homologue's daughter's graduation ceremony from hairdressing school

Distributing the Moring we planted

Baby Weighing