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Interests: Love photography, sports, Seinfeld, good conversation, Kahlua, the outdoors, and people who appreciate/live life for what it is.
Expertise: Masters degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology
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First of all, I would like to say a big thank you to all of those who helped make my time back in the US such a good time. I must give them total credit for putting up with me as I struggled mightily to adapt to a culture I have known my entire life. It really was hard. So thanks to all of those who took me out to dinner, were patient with me when the number of items on the menu completely blew my mind, and then listened to me talk about Togo for what seemed like my entire trip.
During my trip, I kept a notebook handy and jotted down some of the things that I found most striking, as I seem to like to do these days. Here are a few of the things I observed/felt about my time.
First of all, I am now terrified of traffic. During my stay in Arlington, I headed out on the town for a stroll, while also looking for a payphone. Let it be known that payphones are apparently a thing of the past. I walked for approximately 2 hours and didn’t see a single one. To my chagrin, the following day I found one a single block away from where I was staying, but I digress. So out among the sights and sounds of Arlington, VA I headed. Little did I know the perils I was about to face. To avoid further embarrassment, I am just going to go ahead and say it, I couldn’t cross streets. The amount of traffic and the speed of these out-of-control vehicles bewildered me. I found myself standing at intersection after intersection, full of hesitation while everyone else in the world whizzed past me. I truly wished someone would just take my hand and walk me across. And you can bet the bank that I did not disrespect those flashing hand signals. In fact, I think I actually stopped in my tracks in the middle of the road when it went from the walk signal to flashing hand, and then scampered back to the side where I came from. I can only imagine what the people around me were thinking.
This leads me to another thing I noted. Life in the United States is ridiculously hurried and planned. I am certain I would never have said this two years ago. But now after two years in Togo, I was frustrated/stressed/exhausted/disgusted/saddened by what I saw going on around me. Granted, life in Togo does crawl on at a snail’s pace, most likely very much aided by the fact that so little seems to ever chance here anyway, but I really didn’t remember life in the US to be like that. I don’t really know where I am going with this point so I will move on.
Perhaps as a result of the previous point, I had a lot of trouble relaxing. Seeing so many people do so many things so very quickly made me feel like I too should be doing at least something more than sitting on the couch. I think that a part of this may have been my specific situation. I was staying in Arlington with one of my friends from the PhD program. Had I not left to go to the Peace Corps, I would have been ready to enter my 5th and final year of grad school, the same as many of the friends I was hanging out with. I had a lot of trouble adjusting to being in a place where I used to have a life, very similar to the lives of those I was with, and now I had absolutely nothing there. Meanwhile, the lives of all my friends were continuing on at rocket speed. They were busy with jobs, school, and personal lives while I was . . . I guess that is one of the most difficult parts of adjustment. Since we as volunteers are so far out of contact with any life we have ever known, it is very easy to think that everything will simply be as it was when you return. Kind of a kick to the stomach when it isn’t.
Frankly, I couldn’t figure out why no one was staring at me in the United States. Though I consciously knew that it wouldn’t happen in the US, I really was caught off guard by this turn of events. As I was walking down the street, I couldn’t understand why all the people passing by in cars and bikes weren’t turning to stare at me. Apparently, even with my new headband hairstyle, I just wasn’t all that interesting to them. It definitely took some getting used to.
I, on the other hand, kept doing double takes when I saw white people. For example, I saw a girl biking across an intersection and stared after her wondering what she was doing here. At this point I realized I was an idiot and that almost everyone else around me was white and yet this occurred over and over again during my trip.
Who knew it could be light at 8 pm??? Well apparently I didn’t get that memo because time after time, I was in disbelief it was not 6 o’clock when the sun was setting. I guess that is what 2 years living next to the equator will do to you.
Sadly, in my time wandering around when I had no one to hang out with because everyone was busying having lives (I know I keep coming back to this, but it was so unsettling), I found America to be very impersonal. And I know that it is not the case all the time, but as all these people kept whizzing past me in their cars with the windows shut tight against the "heat," I couldn’t help but feel like they were living in a shell. Again, I am sure this is a relativity thing after living in a village where most everyone knows if I left for as much as one day. But I missed the chatting with people as I go into town and the sense of community that I have here.
So that was the there, and this is the here. I am back in my village and have been here for about a week. My observations on returning were this.
It felt great to be home. And as strange as it feels to write or say, that is what this place has become to me now. I am comfortable here, more comfortable than I was walking around the streets of Arlington. Riding around town and seeing the huge smiles on the faces of people when they see that I have made it back just makes my day or week or maybe year. One thing I have noticed is that I genuinely like some of these people. I know I have talked many times about the lack of friendships on deeper levels, but I realized on returning just how much I care about some people here. It was great to see them and will be hard to leave them in such a short amount of time.
Other things I found noteworthy were:
- Remembering to wipe all the dust off my feet before getting into bed. I had gotten out of that habit.
- Returning to the moon cycle. It is odd but makes quite a bit of sense that while here I constantly know where the moon is in its cycle. When that fact lets you know if you need to hurry home before darkness falls completely and whether you will need to candle to shower by, you pay attention.
- I gained 15 pounds in my 2 ½ weeks in the US and every single person in my village wants to be the first to tell me. To them, to be fat is a status symbol and it represents how much money you have to eat that much. To them, it just proves how amazing and rich and good the United States are. I fight this notion. Why, I don’t know. I guess I don’t want to be from the place that has everything; I don’t want to be so privileged while they are so not. But the weight is melting away as I knew it would. I would guess I have already lost 10 pounds.
- Washer and dryers are amazing. Most of you probably don’t realize just how good clothes smell when they come out of these modern marvels. I wore a freshly laundered shirt out one evening while at home and just kept sniffing myself. It smelling sooo good. I didn’t think it probable, but I was ready for people to begin coming up to me to tell me how nice I smelled. Who needs cologne when you have Tide? On a side note, no one mentioned how swell I smelled.
Let me begin to finish by saying I LOVE the experience I am having here. I know I may not paint the prettiest picture of it sometimes, but I would not trade it for anything. Following my travels, I think I understand one of the things I appreciate the most – the freedom. I don’t know how to explain this without it coming out wrong. But I do what I want to do. I make my schedule. I work on projects of my choosing. I answer to me. And perhaps some of you are thinking how easy it would be to abuse this system and you are right, and it does happen is cases. But when it works, it is a beautiful thing. I wish I could explain it better but perhaps it is something one just has to experience.
|My flight is tonight. Tomorrow I will be in the United States of America. My mind is fatigued by all that this entails. But for now I am just going to focus on the fact that they are going to show me relatively new movies on the plane - yippee. And then after 20 short hours, I will be touching down on american soil. I am sitting here staring at the computer and realizing that words just aren't going to do justice to all that is going on in my head. See you all soon.|
The countdown is on; only 22 days until I will be in the United States. The fun part of this is that I have now actually started to look forward to the trip. To clarify, it is not that I was dreading the trip before, but more that it hadn’t really hit me that I was actually going. A large part of that is the timing of the trip. Directly beforehand is my Close of Service conference in Lome. All of the remaining members of our group that arrived together in June 2004 (16 out of 21) will reunite and spend 3 days together in a nice hotel. The conference is run by Peace Corps and during it we will give feedback on our service, discuss possible improvements to Peace Corps Togo, and have sessions on how to prepare for life after Peace Corps. Because this will be the three days leading up to my trip home, most of my excitement had been focused on this conference. However, after receiving numerous emails from friends and family I will see on my trip, I am starting to get really excited about coming back. I think the thing that is most stuck in my mind right now is baseball. I recently discovered that it is baseball season back in the US. My slow-moving mind eventually used this discovery to deduce that I can go to a baseball game while I am home. All kidding aside, I am like an 8-year-old again. I am so giddy at the thought of sitting in the bleachers for a day game, having some nachos, and hearing the crack of the bat that I nearly wet myself every time I think about it. So between a ton of time with friends and family, my brother’s wedding, and a little American culture (that I didn’t even know I missed), US here I come!
But for the moment, I am here in Togo and the work continues. And by continuing, I mean flying at the speed of light! The HOSPITAL PROJECT, to which many of you amazing people so generously donated, is moving along spectacularly. I almost feel like it is too good and that at some point this house of cards that could not possibly be identified as Togolese work is going to come crashing down. But knock on wood and the progress continues. As I write this, the roofing should be finishing up with only the masonry left to complete before the entire first segment of the project is done. The most exciting part of this is that we beat the rain. We have had a few storms on the horizon in the last couple weeks but thankfully they have blown over and we now have a fully functional roof. The community seems to be very impressed with the work and the people at the hospital have been such a pleasure to work with. I think my favorite part is that the contract is working. The foreman has been all over his workers and even me to make sure all materials are on site so that they can finish the project before their deadline. We have not seen a single incident of stealing and people actually seem to be going out of their way to be accountable for every little thing. At this pace, the construction team is going to earn their bonus with more than a week to spare. We are also currently under budget, which will leave us more money to spend for the second stage of the project – fixing up the interior. In fact, the planning for the second stage will be one of the most important things I need to get done before leaving on my trip. The hospital staff has earning my confidence and the project should be able to continue under their guidance while I am away.
I think we are planning on having a small ceremony in the next couple weeks too. This is a very Togolese thing to do, as people love to get dressed up for anything that can necessitate pomp and circumstance and long-winded speeches. Most of the time I find these ceremonies to be a lot of hot air and too often, a waste of funds. However, this time I am actually going to push to have the ceremony. My main reason is that I want to make an example of how this project has been run and publicly thank those people in the community that have gone out of their way to help the community without looking to personally benefit. I witness this trait too rarely and I want to shout these peoples’ names from the rooftop. A second major objective is to show the community just what they are capable of doing. They have raised a lot of money for this project and I want them to realize that up until this point, they have paid for nearly 50% of everything done. Essentially, with a little more effort, they could have roofed this building without outside aide. For a community that feels they are too poor to do anything for themselves, I hope that this can be a wakeup call to show them they have the power to act on their own. Finally, I want to make a point of how a well-managed project benefits everyone in the end. As I said before, we are under budget and no one has stolen from the project. The result of this is that we now have a larger portion of the money left over to work on the second stage of the project and we will be able to do some extra things we had not projected. If only a few people in the crowd understand these things, it will be worth it to me.
I finally found a situation in which I appreciate my poor French vocabulary: talking about death. I have never been comfortable talking about death, not so much in that the subject makes me uncomfortable, but that I just don’t know what to say to make the other person feel better or what is appropriate. I would guess that many of you have similar feelings. However, when you can only say so many things, your choices become much more limited. And I guess because I can only say those certain things like I’m sorry and offering my condolences, I don’t feel as tongue-tied and inept as I do in English. All of this is probably aided by the fact that death is treated in a much more matter-of-fact manner here. The death of my neighbor’s wife’s father got me thinking about this. She told me he had died the night before, I said I was sorry and then she continued on with asking about what work I was doing that day. Just like that.
Animals. I feel I may have lost my sentimentality toward them being in this country. Don’t get me wrong, I still love them and plan to have many pets in the future but in a country like this you begin to see them in a more utilitarian light. Dogs are used to guard the house, cats catch mice and if they die then you get a new one. They are also food in a place where protein is very scarce. I will never support how brutally they treat their animals here but sometimes I wonder if the American culture has gone a little overboard with pets. For example, when I think of how much money we spend on our pets in the US and then realize what that money could do here, it kind of makes me sick. Author’s note: it should be noted that I have eaten dog, and have plans to try cat while still having one of each as pets.
Looking back on this weblogue, I noticed I never talked about the points of interest I found in Morocco. I will give an abbreviated version since it has been 4 months since I traveled there. However, some of them will again be relevant in my upcoming trip to the states. My first major point was how much I loved my anonymity. Perhaps I did touch on this point, but it is well worth hitting on again as I am going to truly enjoy it in the United States as well. Here in Togo, you never have that feeling. You are always at the very least a yovo, or white person. That never leaves you and no matter how well your community knows you, it is still there. The children still yell out every time you pass. One can never avoid the extra attention here. Without always realizing, it drains you. I felt so free in Morocco. Even though I was still marked as a tourist, for the most part I was able to do as I pleased without eyes constantly following me. Amongst volunteers, we joke that we know what it is like to be a celebrity. Though I am sure there are nuances, it really is like living in that celebrity fish bowl. Though I will miss some of the benefits accorded to me because of being the star of the show, it will be beautiful to be just another fish in the sea.
Perhaps one reason things were so free for me in Morocco was because everyone thought I was Moroccan. At the very least, they insisted that I must have at least one Arab parent. I finally just invented a story about what village my father was from. In my opinion, I still look the same but at least in this part of the world, I look Arab.
We were in Morocco for 18 days. We went to McDonalds 7 times. Sick-I know. For me it was the McFlurrys that kept me coming back. I just love ice cream and haven’t had it in so long. For Alicia, my traveling companion, it was the cheeseburgers. I think that makes her sicker than me, right???
We spent our New Year’s Eve in a resort town called Agadir, located on the coast in southern Morocco. Overlooking the water in an English pub in Morocco, it was a very unique New Year’s experience. However, Alicia and I both agreed that at that moment we really missed being with Americans. The pub was fun and packed with people from all over the globe, but people pretty much stayed to themselves. At that moment, I wanted the American everybody-hug-everybody-and-party-together atmosphere. Sometimes I miss home for the strangest reasons.
To close for today, I will relate my most recent trip in to Kara on Wednesday evening. I had planned on coming into my regional capital on Thursday morning, as there is only transport out of village every morning. But with luck on my side, it turned out the ambulance was going that afternoon. By luck, I mean that a 13-year-old girl has appendicitis and her family had come up with enough money to pay the ambulance to take her to Kara, the only place she could have the surgery to save her life. I guess if they didn’t come up the money she would have died in Guerin-Kouka. The other strange part of this story is that Guerin-Kouka has a working ambulance. In fact, it is a brand new Hyundai ambulance, sirens, lights and all. The story goes that about a year ago, a family member of someone important got sick in Kouka and there was no ambulance to take him to Kara. Shortly thereafter the Ministry of Health gave the hospital this brand new ambulance. This is the same ministry that has not been able to put a roof on a horribly leaking hospital for the past decade. I love politics. So as I said, luck was on my side and I was off to Kara with the driver, who is a friend of mine, and the moaning girl in the back. The driver is a really fun guy so I decided to share some of my music with him to see what he thought of it. He was really excited at the prospect and had the radio turned all the way up. With the radio all the way up, you couldn’t even hear the moaning girl in the back. (jeez, it is amazing how desensitized you get to suffering in this country) But anyway, in the end, I wish the trip had been longer just to hear more of his observations. My mp3 player was on random and a Fatboy Slim song came on. Zackary, the driver, was absolutely convinced it was James Brown. He said it was good for the kids with all the noises in it. An Elvis song came on and he decided that it was good music for the discotheque. My favorite observation was given to both a Blessed Union of Souls and John Mayer song. He said that it was really good music if you were two, followed by a wink and a nudge in the ribs. We had a good laugh but when I started to change it to the next song he demanded I let the song finish. I protested that we weren’t two, but rather 10 in the ambulance. He agreed but decided it was good music for a trip nonetheless. Zackary has also challenged me to a dancing contest that will be held on May 1st. Should be a blast. Until next time, think about why exactly you like the United States. Then make it a point to enjoy it.
So here is the latest of my life here in Togo:
Thanks again to all of you that contributed or spread the word about this project. I am elated to report that the construction began on Monday the 3rd of April and is projected to be completed by the 4th of May. I have been very pleased with all of the Togolese counterparts with whom I have been working. So far, everyone has been living up to their ends of the bargain and the work is going at a rapid pace. As expected here, we have had to make some alterations as we go but things have come out without a wrinkle. I am trying to photograph each stage of the work and hope to share those with you in the future.
Aside from the hospital, my other sectors of work have also picked up a lot recently. In brief, I am now working with 5 groups of women, training them in things such as basic accounting and feasibility studies for their group investments (buying grains and stocking them to sell at a later date.) I have taken on a project in which we are attempting to rearrange the entire market area – a task far too large for the time I have left here but hoping I can get a good start and then pass it on to the volunteer that will replace me. I am continuing to work with the basketball team and I hope to have our first match in the next few months. We have a neat opportunity to enter a league based in Kara that should start in June or July. Our trainings have been stepped up a bit in hopes that we can be ready by that time. The library is still going strong. We recently set up a volleyball court there in a continued effort to make it a community center of sorts. Also, the community garden should be getting started back up in the next month, this time headed by the librarian instead of me. I am still looking to install a couple of computers there to do basic skills training before leaving. It looks like this will get started in June or July.
So upon writing this, I find that I am not all that interested in talking about work today. So I will more on to some of my observations from the past month.
To begin with, I guess I should note that I will be back in the US in just over a month. My brother is getting married on the 21st of May in Roanoke, VA and I am the best man in the wedding. Therefore, I will be flying back into DC on the 14th of May. Crazy to think about being back in the US after almost 2 full years. But anyway, if anyone reading this is interested in getting together for breakfast, lunch, dinner (plan on doing a ton of good eating while at home) or other fun activities, please send me an email. Would love to see as many people as possible. Also am up for any speaking/presentations about what I am doing here in Togo if anyone is interested. I don’t really have any sort of plan for my time yet. I am guessing I will stay around the DC area for a couple of days after arriving and then will head down to Roanoke around the 18th. Guessing I will head back to the DC area around the 23rd and then will be free up until the 31st when I fly back out to Togo. I look forward to your emails.
The even crazier part of all this is that just 2 or 3 months after arriving back in Togo, I will finish my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This has really had me thinking a lot. At multiple points in the last couple months, I have considering taking the option of extending my service as one is allowed to do. I think a part of that is a result of how comfortable life has become here. Not comfortable in a boring sense. Perhaps it is more achievement related – as in, I finally feel like I belong here. I understand how things work and I know how to work within that system. One of my closer Togolese friends always talks about how it is just when a volunteer truly understands Togo and can get some serious work done that their 2 years is finished and they leave. I am beginning to understand that more and more now. But on the other side of the coin, a recent day in village reminded me why I will be ready to leave come August. Though I am the busiest I have ever been in my service and I had had a very productive morning, I was alone sitting around my house for a couple of hours, as is normally the case – our version of a siesta – and I was just tired of that. I found myself thinking that while I have really enjoyed this experience, I will be ready for my next adventure when August comes.
I think part of this stems from my lack of significant personal relationships with the Togolese. In talking with another volunteer the other day, I realized that my estimation of a volunteers work here in based on two large categories – their work and the relationships they have developed with their community. In judging myself, I am very content with my work but feel like I am lacking in the relationship section. I am very well known and liked in my village but on my end I feel like these relationships have never reached the level for which I strive. I’m not sure I can pinpoint the cause either. Is it my level of French that still gets in way? Is it me holding back a bit, knowing how frustrating and painful it will be to me personally to know the realities of these people’s lives? Or is it something cultural? Do we lack so many commonalities that it would be next to impossible to achieve the level of relationship that I value so very much? My guess is that it is some mix of those and other factors that I am not even considering at this point. I do know however, that there are other volunteers who seem to have done a much better job at pushing past these things. Are they stronger at these skills? Or do they have a higher tolerance than I? Or is it that what we are looking for is not the same thing? Again, hard to say. But to bring this all back to square one, I think that this lack of relationships is a factor in why I will be ready to leave in August.
Another reason, which I discussed with my mother the other day, is the fatigue of this work. I have found myself fatigued recently, not because of the conditions, but because it is exhausting to be fighting for the future of people when many times they can’t be bothered to help. Obviously there are many exceptions to this, but there are instances when I just want to refuse to continue because I am just not sure that the people we are working for really want the change. It just wears you out.
My prediction – corruption will not end soon. I know, I really stepped out on a limb with that one. But to site a recent example: my prefet, the most powerful person in my area, one of my favorite people here and a gem in Guerin-Kouka because of his worldliness and forward-thinking, told me the other day when discussing the hospital project that I would at certain times just have close my eyes, turn my head, and allow a bit of stealing from the project. His explanation is that it is just how things are done here. And though he is right, this thinking will never ever result in a change of mentality. So of course, being the hideously stubborn person that I am, I responded with very Americanized work written work contract, laden with clauses about stealing, bonuses for good work and penalties for late work – all of which is never seen here, where most deals are done by mouth and not respected much at all. The prefet just chuckled at me, but at the same time he knows better than to think I am not going to follow the contract to a T.
I had a couple of copies of Sports Illustrated with me the other day in village. Remarkably, what the people were most concerned with, rather than the amazing photos, ads, etc, was whether they could possibly find any addresses to which they could write. You would not believe how many times we are asked for our addresses here, normally by complete strangers, when we are traveling. And though I would like to believe it is simply that they want a correspondent like they claim, it seems more likely that this is just another one of their pipe dreams where someone they write to will send them tons of money or invite them to come live in Europe or the United States. It is sad but it also sickens me a bit. It just seems to be another part of the suffocating learned-helplessness that is holding back progress here.
An incident of child trafficking was reported to me the other day from another volunteer in my cluster. She asked me to go to the police in town because the children had just been taken from the parents by someone they could identify and possibly stop before she got too far away and the kids wound up working for free in Nigeria for the next couple of years. So I hightailed my way to their bureau with the news. They seemed very concerned and started making some phone calls. In the end, the responsibility was passed on to another police station because where the kids had been taken at that point was no longer in their jurisdiction. The point that got me was talking to the head guy afterwards. He told me that this was a serious problem and that he wanted to do something about it. It was just that they had no means to do so. Initially, he looked to me, as to see if I might pay him to go look for these trafficked kids. When he didn’t get a positive response he continued, explaining that the only way they could go to this village to look for the kids would be to rent a vehicle in town since they have none of their own. In summary, he told me that if we could guarantee the location of the children and the women that was trafficking them, then they would go. But without a guarantee, they couldn’t go because if they didn’t capture someone, then who would pay for the cost of renting the car. It was really sad – in so many ways.
To end on a lighter note, here in one of my biggest worries about coming back to the US. I am very afraid that I am going to say highly inappropriate things in public and here’s why. In Togo, almost no one understands English and a lot of the volunteers, myself included, have developed the habit of just saying whatever we want out loud, sometimes talking between ourselves or sometimes just out loud out of frustration. For example, some guy is being an idiot in a taxi and you just go ahead and say what you think about him, knowing full well that he won’t understand a word of it. It is like the things you would normally say inside your head about things that you don’t like now just pop right out of your mouth without a second thought. The examples could go on forever because this is something that occurs every day if not every hour. The problem is, the people in the United States speak English. I have a feeling this is going to make for some very awkward moments.
In closing, I am happy. I am happy to be having this amazing experience. And now as my service draws to a close, I am so excited about all the possibilities for my next adventure. I really feel like the whole world is open to me and it is a great feeling. Any guesses on what the next adventure will be???
Huge thanks to everyone!
We have obtained enough donations to complete the hospital rehabilitation project. We will begin construction in approximately 2 weeks and if things go according to plan, we should be able to beat the rainy season. I will keep you posted on the progress. Also, I would like to apoligize for my lack of recent entries on here. I have been hesitant to post anything because I wanted to hospital information to be on the top of the site. However, now that we are done with the fundraising, I will try to get a big update on here in the next week or so. Lots of things happening here, especially since my time here is winding down - only just over 4 months left. Crazy to think about it. Anyway, thanks again to all of you for your efforts. I encourage you to continue thinking of projects like these. Being on the ground here, I can attest to the huge difference a few dollars can make. Gotta run for the moment. Happy St Patty's day a day late.