Jul 3, 2008

Weeks 51-56

Week 51
We visited our host mother in the training village of Agou Akoumawou on Thursday and Friday to celebrate her birthday.  We made a pad thai and two birthday cakes for dinner on Thursday night.  Then we made chinese salad and pate rouge for lunch on Friday.  Good stuff (except the pate rouge yuck).  Fidelle, our host mom will be hosting another Peace Corps trainee when the new SED (Small Enterprise Development) trainees arrive in a few weeks.  I'm really glad we've stayed in touch with her.  She's a fantastic lady and a good friend.
Saturday, we had a combined birthday bash for me and two other volunteers.  We had cake, pie, and all kinds of goodies.  Yum!  Can you tell that satisfaction with PCV service is measured in food?
Week 52
We started our French tutoring again.  I really like our tutor.  He's very good at explaining concepts and has a fantastic sense of pacing when it comes to introducing new material.  He's also good about not over-covering material we already know.
We went to Lomé on Tuesday to try to help a business finish registering for their business license.  Only very successful businesses register for business licenses in Togo, and they usually only do so when forced.  The registration fees are extremely expensive, and government taxes are insanely high.  It's a problem in all developing countries...  No one pays taxes because they are too high, but because no one pays, the government has to charge more to those who do pay.  Anyway, we found out that in addition to registration fees, current taxes, and possible back taxes, this business needs to pay several hundred thousand FCFA to get a form notarized.  In total, the cost is about equal to the organization's annual income.  How is anyone supposed to pay that?  Again, though, it's a self-perpetuating problem, so what can you do?  Sigh...  Unfortunately, lacking a business prevents a business from legitimately exporting and bringing foreign money into the local economy.
Friday we said goodbye to an American volunteer who has been in Kpalimé for a few months working with Kiva, a US-based online business that provides loans to microfinance organizations around the globe.  She threw a small party with her associates from the microfinance organization she worked with here in town.
Week 53
We were supposed to restart the Excel class on Monday, but no one showed up.  Not a single person...
We biked up to Kuma Dunyo on Tuesday, and ate some amazing fufu with peanut sauce.  The group surprised me with some flowers and sang Happy Birthday to me.  We got a lot done and had a great time.
Wednesday, I turned the big 3-0.  I celebrated by playing about five hours of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and Xmen Legends 2.  A day of gaming in West Africa is not a bad way to transition into my third decade of existence.  Life has certainly never been dull since I met Nadia.  We continued the celebration on Thursday with a missionary friend who made some fantastic pizza.
We headed down to Lomé for the weekend to run some errands.  We went dancing at a latin club with a live band  Saturday night, which was pretty cool.  The new SED (Small Enterprise Development) and CHAP (Community Health and AIDS Prevention) Peace Corps trainees arrived Saturday night, too, and we got to meet a few of them.  They seem like a good, motivated group.
Week 54
Only four people showed up this week to the Excel class, so we had a short review and practiced using the mouse.  It's hard to move forward with this class when so many students are having trouble with the basics.
Somehow I think my system of counting weeks in Togo is off because June 10 marked our 1st year anniversary in country!
I went with two other PCV's to a presentation for AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) at the US Embassy.  It was pretty cool because the Togolese ministers of Commerce and Agriculture and a few other bigwigs were there out of about 40 people in total.  AGOA is a piece of legislation that allows the US to waive import taxes on goods produced in certain African nations.  Togo was just recently added to the eligible list.  Unfortunately, though, it looks to only be of use when exporting large quantities of manufactured products, and Togo really doesn't have much in the way of factories.  I guess that's sort of the point.  This law allows investors to fund development of the (currently nonexistent) manufacturing industry, which will lead to overall economic growth.  It makes sense, but it really doesn't affect my work as a grassroots development worker.  It requires work and funding at a much larger scale.
Week 55
I finally got the Excel class back up and running.  We started talking about formulas on Monday.  This is the entire reason I started teaching the class.  Everyone in the class works at a microfinance institution, so they work with numbers all day long.  I see them doing long lists of calculations by hand or with a 10 key calculator all the time, and I want to show them how to do the same work in less time with fewer mistakes.  They seemed to really enjoy the lesson.  I guess the subject matter was more applicable than changing font size and cell format.
We had a nice dinner with the missionaries at the blind center in Kpalimé on Friday.  We had stromboli and played a rousing game of Apples to Apples.  I loves me some board games!  Then Saturday we went down to Lomé for a Spanish Club dinner at the Brazilian ambassador's house.  I always feel uncomfortable at these things since I don't really speak spanish and I feel guilty speaking English with the other Americans.  Nadia's spanish is beautiful enough for the both of us, so I tried to stand next to her for the entire evening.  It was a great time, though.  I met more folks from various embassies and I got to talk with one of the head honchos from Air France.
We did, unfortunately have a bit of a run in with the taxi syndicate on the way out of Kpalimé that may affect future travel, but I suppose we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.  I freaking hate the syndicate.  It's run like almost like a mafia with a protection racket.  Ah well, when Togo can afford to feed its citizens in a few years maybe it can worry more about business regulations.
Week 56
Nadia spent a couple of days with another volunteer up in Amou Ablo this week, so I flew solo with my Excel class.  We went over statistical formulas and how it relates to their day to day work.  They seemed to get the gist of it, so I was happy.
Rainy season is coming in full force.  We tried our weekly bike ride up the mountain to Kuma Dunyo on Tuesday, but we were washed out and gave up about halfway along.  It was good exercise at least.  I went again by taxi on Friday to show a few friends around Kuma Konda.  We paid a guide for a nice organized hike and he didn't disappoint (even if he did charge way too much).  Then the PC trainees came and visited ICEC, the microfinance institution Nadia and I are working with.  We told them a little bit about what they do and how we as PCV's can help with training and transfer of accounting/computer skills.

May 19, 2008

Weeks 44-50

Week 44

Culture shock has worn off. Not much to report. Nadia's grandmother was in pretty bad shape when we first arrived, but she's improved a bit. Now she can have coherent conversations and recognizes Nadia. I spent some time this week helping to fix the fence at my in-laws' house and doing other various home repairs. I'm also starting to read The Eye of the World, the first book in the Wheel of Time series. It's pretty good so far.

Week 45

I decided to go visit my family in Louisiana this week. Nadia stayed with her folks in south Texas so she could help take care of her grandmother. I took a bus up to San Antonio and flew to Shreveport from there. The San Antonio airport cracks me up. It's decorated in a very Texan style, reprite with rocking chairs and staff with cowboy hats and large belt buckles. Parts of it almost feel more like a Cracker Barrel than an airport.

I got to visit my brother at his new job at Louisiana State University in Shreveport. Actually, I randomly ran into him at the Dallas airport during a layover on my way to Shreveport. He saw me sitting at my gate and just plopped down next to me. Caught me by surprise. I also got to visit my sister who is a student at NSU in Natchitoches, LA.

Week 46

My mom and I drove down to Houston and then over to Kerrville, TX to visit my grandmother. That was a nice change of scenery. Also, this trip back to the US allowed me to attend my cousin's wedding in Baton Rouge. Her husband works for the State Department in Turkey, so the family will have a few more folks living abroad. We're just spreading out all over the place.

Week 48

I headed back down to south Texas again to regroup with Nadia. We did some last minute shopping to bring some American stuff like canned tuna back to Togo. I'm really excited about a washboard we found. We looked all over town, and finally found one at a small five-and-dime-type hardware store. No one uses washboards to wash clothes in Togo. Everyone just uses their hands or uses big rocks. I'm not sure why washboards never caught on there. Anyhoo, we're set to head back to Togo this weekend. I'm a little nervous about going back, but I'm glad to be getting back to the projects we left behind.

Week 49

Sadly, Nadia's grandmother passed away a few hours after we left Edinburg on our way back to Togo. We were boarding our plane from JFK airport to West Africa when I was called back to the terminal for an emergency phone call about the news. In the ten minutes before the plane left the runway, we talked about going back to attend the funeral. One flight attendant was particularly nice and lent Nadia her cell phone to call her mom. We decided to go ahead and go back to Togo. Nadia had already said her goodbyes and knew that she wouldn't see her grandmother again. I wish things had been timed a little differently, but it's all in God's hands.

The flight was decent enough. We had an absolutely miserable time getting from the airport back to Kpalime. We sat at one car station for four or five hours and got into a fight with one taxi driver who ended up getting violent and hitting other passengers. When we finally got to the house in Kpalime, though, all our fears and worries just melted away. It was good to get back home. This really is home...

Week 50

My homologue left for a vacation a few days after we got back to Kpalime, so we won't be starting up any new projects for a few weeks. I'm not really sure what we'd work on, anyway. I'm going to focus most of my efforts on Cafe Kuma and the microfinance institution ICEC. I'm actually kind of taking a step back on my computerization project at the microfinance institution. I was building an Access database system with some really nice front end forms for rapid data entry and access to fancy reports. Unfortunately, it's too complicated for the staff to maintain on their own. I'm torn. I'm doing training to try to bring the staff up to speed on a lot of computer technology, but they really won't be able to maintain anything more complicated than a series of spreadsheets. Spreadsheets really can't handle all the financial transaction information that the organization tracks, though. I keep having to back off and simplify this information system solution. It's tricky trying to implement a sustainable system that meets their technical needs.

The staff at ICEC are fantastic, though. They are very motivated about the work their doing with Nadia and about my computerization project. They are also setting up some new business and computer classes for us to teach, so that should keep us busy for a few months.

Apr 9, 2008

Weeks 42-43: Homecoming

Week 42

Over the weekend, we heard that Nadia's grandmother is in the hospital and is not doing well at all. Her leg was hurting too much for her to walk. The family took her to the hospital, and apparently she has a blood clot in her leg, and it's causing serious blood circulation issues. The doctors talked about amputating the leg or doing some kind of surgery, but she's 92 and has pre-existing heart problems, so she really can't handle any sort of surgery. She's at home with Nadia's uncle now, and relatives in Mexico have come up to see her and pay their respects. Now the family is just trying to make her as comfortable as they can for as long as they can. Nadia lost two uncles in October and one aunt in November while we were in Togo, and we decided that it was time to go back to see Nadia's grandmother while we still can. We talked with the Country Director and with the Assistant Peace Corps Director for business volunteers, and they gave us their approvals to go back to the US for a month.

If Nadia's grandmother does pass away in the next couple of weeks (which is very likely), we will be traveling down to Monterey, Mexico for her funeral. We'll just play it by ear and see how things go. My cousin is getting married at the end of April, just before we leave. If possible, we're going to try to attend, especially since my cousin will be moving to Turkey next month with her fiancée. The family's just spreading out in all sorts of directions. :)

Anyhoo, my homologue doesn't seem too perturbed about our trip back. In fact, he was a huge help with getting some FCFA switched to US Dollars. The banks were charging ridiculous fees for the money exchange, and they wouldn't exchange the entire sum I wanted. Also, most of the banks close for half a day on Friday, and the others couldn't do the money exchange because their computer systems were down… a classic Togo situation. As with most problems with organized affairs in Togo, I looked to the thriving informal business sector (read: black market). My homologue helped me locate a guy that gave me a great rate on the exchange. I had to be super careful with counting the money and making sure I wasn't getting counterfeit bills, but it was actually a very painless and pleasant transaction.

Nadia's homologues are a little more worried about the trip. The guys at the microfinance organization asked over and over again if we're coming back. They ladies at the microfinance institution were really sad that we're taking a month-long break from the Excel class. Nadia's homologue at Café Kuma is particularly nervous. When he heard that Nadia's grandmother was sick, he had the group pray that she'd get better so we wouldn't go back to the US and be tempted not to return to Togo. When we told him that we were leaving for a month, he immediately asked if he could seal up the rest of the coffee they have in storage (there is no electricity in their village, so they use an electric bag sealer at our house). Then the group took all the leftover bags and labels along with the sealer with them. All of that stuff has stayed at the volunteer's house since the previous volunteer moved in two years ago. They are really worried that we're not coming back. Obviously they don't realize how cheap we are. If we paid for our return tickets to Togo, we're darned-well going to use them.

Week 43

We made the trip back to the US safe and sound. The trip to the airport was uneventful, although there was a guy on a bus who showed off his traditional medicine by putting live scorpions all over his arms. Crazy folks... Anyway, the flight left for the US on time. We missed a connecting flight on the way to Texas and had to spend the night in Atlanta, but we got a free hotel room for the night. We got to San Antonio on Wednesday and drove from there to Edinburg. Since then, we've just been spending time with the family.

I really didn't expect much of a culture shock after only being in Togo for ten months. I have to admit, though, that my first walk through a Wal-Mart was a little freaky. I was cheap before leaving for Togo, but I think my time abroad has taken my frugality to a whole new level. I actually got into a fight with Nadia on the trip back because I wouldn't let her buy a sweater at the airport. Sure, it was freaking cold in the airport and we only had summer wear clothes, but I didn't pack that spare pagne (thin strip of cloth you can use for a towel) for nothing! I expected it to be upper 80's to low 90's in Texas, but it is actually pretty chilly. Anyway, I find myself freaking out about the money we brought and making sure that it will last us the full month. I'm trying really hard not to let it get the better of me, but it's tough. It's not like we're destitute or anything. Heck, we've managed to save more from our living allowance in Togo than many salary-paid Americans are able to save in the same amount of time. Granted, we're not bombarded with ads for big screen TV's, Starbucks, fancy body washes, or Playstation 3's. Our usual luxuries in Togo are the occasional soft drink or stick of butter. I'm trying to convince myself to fork over the dough for Valve's new Orange Box with Half Life 2: Episode 2 and Portal, but 21,000 FCFA ($50) is a hard sell...