Aug 5, 2007

Summary of first 8 weeks in Togo (Finally uploaded)

Week 1:

Well, we have been in Togo for five days now. The flight over was
fairly uneventful. My bags and Nadia's bags were well within the 50lb
limit. A few other trainees were a slightly over, but we shared some
bag space to even it out. Our flight was delayed in Washington D.C.,
and we would have missed our connecting flight in Paris if Air France
hadn't held the plane for us. They were very cool about that and they
fed us pretty well. Generally, I'm not a fan of Air France, but they
got an A-OK from me this round.

Our arrival was painless. We were taken from our plane directly to
the VIP lounge at the airport. I believe it's generally reserved for
ambassadors, diplomats, and other very important people, so I felt
pretty darned special. Next, we were taken in Peace Corps vans to the
unofficial Peace Corps hotel in Lome. The Peace Corps Country
Director hosted a welcome reception that night with the rest of the PC
staff and several current volunteers. Afterwards, we walked down the
street to a local bar where a lot of PCV's hang out.

Lome is an interesting city. Most streets look the same, at least in
the neighborhoods near our hotel and the Peace Corps offices. There
were a few paved roads, but most were dirt/dust. Since we're in the
rainy season, I expected continuous torrential downpours, but it only
rained briefly on a couple of days for an hour or two, and the rain
was fairly light. Aside from the goats in the streets, the biggest
difference I noticed in Lome was the fact that there was essentially
no trash. From what I gathered, there is really no trash pickup
service in most of Togo because people produce such little non-organic
garbage. Most garbage is either composted or recycled. Most people
don't deal with large amounts of paper or plastic packaging because
there are not a lot of pre-packaged products. All non-organic,
non-recyclable garbage is burned, with the exception of batteries and
aerosol cans. Hence, there was essentially no trash in the streets of
Lome.

We spent Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday in training sessions dealing with
Peace Corps administrative policies, basic health and survival
techniques, and an introduction to Togolese culture. We met lots of
volunteers and got a lot of different perspectives on Peace Corps
service. I was particularly glad we got to spend a few hours chatting
with male half of one of the currently serving married couples. We
are the only married couple in our "stage" (training), so our trainers
really don't discuss any of the challenges unique to serving with a
spouse. After dealing with the stress of the new environment, the
jetlag, the prophylaxis, the five additional vaccinations, the foreign
food, and the heat, my body finally gave in to diarrhea on Monday. It
was pretty miserable for two days, but thankfully I regained control
of my bowels by Wednesday when we drove out to the village near
Kpalime for our staging/training.

---

Our arrival in our staging village was nothing short of magical. The
entire village, which I believe is several hundred people, met our
vans with cheers of "You are welcome! You are welcome! You are
welcome!" A group of men played strange trumpets carved from animal
horns, and a group of about thirty young women in identical dressed
and body paint performed dances and led us to the town square.
Several elders said a prayer for us and sacrificed prepared water and
vodka to ward away bad spirits. Then we were met by the village
chief, his wife, and several other village elders who read speeches in
Ewe and English. Nearly all the women in our group were overcome with
tears over the overwhelming sights and sounds of the cheering voices
and dancing bodies. It sounds cliché, but I felt like I was in a
movie as a procession of hundreds of people surrounded us on our walk
down the main highway, with children running past our feet yelling
"Yovo, Yovo!"

After the main ceremony, we met our host families at the "Tech House",
where all our classes are held. We all ate together, and then we took
all our luggage in a Peace Corps vehicle to our host family's house.
Our family has a very nice house. We have a large bedroom with a
table and a lockable closet. We also have a direct entrance into our
bathroom with a flush-toilet and working shower. No mosquito-filled
latrines for us! Our house even has a satellite dish. We've watched
the British CNN a few times, but mostly our mom watches some channel
from Cote d'Ivoire.


Week 2:

Our mom is a fantastic chef, and we've been eating pretty darned well.
Mostly it's rice or spaghetti with different sauces, but I think
that's what Peace Corps told the host families to feed us for the few
weeks. We'll start eating pate, fufu, and sauce d'arachide soon
enough. Our family runs a little bar/shop next door, so we bought a
coke and a few cookies this week. It's convenient, and now I'm not
worried about running out of toilet paper or soap, since they are
always in stock.

We took an oral language test in Lome, and now we've been put in
various leveled French classes. My class is directly in the middle,
as far as aptitude. That's sort of encouraging, but we're supposed to
have "intermediate-high" aptitude before we leave for post. I've got
a lot of work to do.

The technical classes are good. We'll spend a few weeks on
microfinance institutions, a few weeks on youth and junior
achievement, and finally a few weeks on individual entrepreneurs. A
lot of people have business, economics, marketing, or accounting
backgrounds, so they've seen bits and pieces of the stuff we're
talking about, but the other ICT trainees and I are a little lost.
It's good, though, since I think I'll need to know a lot of this, and
nothing has been terribly difficult to understand.

We got our bikes this week. We'll be having periodic classes to learn
bike repair. I'm really excited about that, though I doubt I'll need
my bike at post. I'll have a better idea about that next week when we
get a list of the post descriptions.


Week 3:

Everyone is waiting for Thursday, when we get the list of post
descriptions. Peace Corps headquarters told us that married couples
don't get to choose our posts, but that we'll go through the interview
process, anyway. Everyone else gets to list their top 3 post choices,
and the APCD (Assistant Peace Corps Director) will interview them to
find the best match. There will only be four ICT posts, so we should
get at least a hint about where we'll be.

My French is not improving as quickly as I'd like, but I guess it's
only week 3, so I shouldn't be too hard on myself. It's sort of tough
to practice conversations with the local residents since some people
switch back and forth between Ewe and French mid-sentence, but
everyone in our family is pretty good about sticking to French. I'll
be glad to learn our post so I know what local language to learn in
addition to French.

Technical class is going well. We visited a microfinance organization
in Kpalime last week that has worked with five generations of Peace
Corps volunteers. It was pretty interesting. The four ICT stagiares
took a tour of two different cyber cafes in Kpalime, as well. It's
interesting to see all the challenges these businesses face and all
the opportunities they provide for the community. I also learned that
most cyber cafes in the area put about 25 computers on one single
dial-up line. So... don't expect to see any pictures posted anytime
soon.


Week 4:

Well, it's the end of week four. Yesterday Nadia and I found out that
we'll be posted right here in Kpalime! We were sort of pushing for a
post in Sokode, but I think Kpalime is going to be a fantastic post.
We'll have a lot of big-city amenities in town, plus we'll only be
about two hours from Lome and Atakpame. Also, we'll be close to the
staging villages, so we'll be able to hang out with new volunteers
during their "stage". Our APCD said there should be plenty of work to
support both Nadia and me. We know that one of us will be working
with a microfinance institution and a youth organization, but we'll
find out more when we visit our post in week 7.


Week 5:

We're at the end of week five now. On Monday, we put on a big fashion
show for all the host families. All the stagiares dressed in American
clothing, then we changed into some traditional Togolese clothing. We
had different categories for the American clothes like formal, office,
casual, tourist, etc. Nadia and I volunteered for the office-wear
category. I strutted my stuff in high style with slacks and a tie,
and Nadia sported a nice blouse and slacks. For the Togolese outfits,
I wore this really formal body wrap thing that belongs to our host
dad. Most of the guys wore some variation of the same outfit.
Apparently this is what the village chief wears to formal events.
Nadia wore an outfit that our neighbor made for her. It's actually a
really nice dress, and she looks fantastic in it.

We had one or two language and technique classes later in the week,
but on Thursday, we ventured out of Agou Akoumawou for a three-day
long field trip. First, we headed south to visit a volunteer who
works with a local radio station. He arranges various community
enrichment programs like periodic shows on health, education, and
cultural enrichment. He also coaches a youth basketball team and
helps a women's group produce and sell soymilk. Interesting stuff.
We visited the volunteer's house, and he described some of the
triumphs and troubles he'd seen during his service.

Next we continued south to Lome and took a tour of Cafe Informatique,
the largest private internet service provider in Togo. We talked with
the director about the state of technology in Togo, and discussed some
of the challenges technology businesses face in Togo. After Cafe
Informatique, we headed to the Peace Corps office and talked with a
Togolese representative of the World Bank. She described some of the
projects that the World Bank helps sponsor in Togo, but since Togo is
currently in arrears with its debt, it sounds like the World Bank
isn't working on a lot of in-country projects at the moment. I'm glad
I don't work in international lending, because it sounds like an
ethically gray industry. After our visit to the Peace Corps office,
We took a tour through the Lome marche. It is a crazy place, and I
plan to avoid it when possible. We ended with day with a visit to a
Super Marche, which similar to an American grocery store. The prices
were ridiculously high, but they had a lot of really nice imported
products like ketchup, non-stick frying pans, breakfast cereals, and
yovo hygiene products. I bought some ketchup and oatmeal and a few
other small items.

The next morning, we visited another volunteer who works with an egg
farm north of Lome. Eggs are a hot commodity in Togo, and this farm
sells its full stock every day. The farm is run by a Togolese
community group that has done a lot of good work in the area. The
group brought electricity to the village and is now working to improve
the local supply of drinking water. Afterwards, we visited a village
group that produces and sells dyed cloth and uses the proceeds to pay
education and housing fees for local orphans. It was really neat to
see community-founded, community-led organizations at work.

Next, we headed further north to Atakpame, which will serve as my
regional capital while I'm in Kpalime. Atakpame is absolutely
beautiful. It has large rolling hills that remind me of parts of the
Appalachian Mountains. We had pizza for dinner with several
volunteers that end their service next week. Then we stayed for the
night at a Red Cross hospital/hotel with a gorgeous view overlooking
the city.

We started our final day of the field trip with a tour of the two AIDS
organizations with whom two volunteers in Atakpame work. We also made
a quick stop at the "maison", where Peace Corps volunteers can stay
during their visits to the regional capital. This is nice because
many volunteers live in very remote areas, and occasionally need a day
or two to visit a markets, regional banks, internet cafes, etc.

Finally, after a long car ride and quick stop in Kpalime, we arrived
safe and sound back at the training village. The trip was a nice
change of pace, and I learned a lot from visiting the other
volunteers' work sites. I'm really excited about our post visit in a
week, but right now I'm just tired.


Week 6:

We did a business shadowing session Monday. All the ICT volunteers
visited CIFAID, an internet cafe in Kpalime. At the end of our
session, the director mentioned that he'd see us at the homologue
(counterpart) conference. Aha! So now I know who I'll be working
with in Kpalime. Apparently our technical training director asked him
not to spill the beans while we were doing the business shadowing, but
I was going to find out anyway at the homologue conference, where all
the volunteers meet their homologues.

I didn't have much time to think about homologues, though, because we
had a language test on Tuesday morning. My French proficiency has now
Intermediate-Low. We need to have Intermediate-High proficiency to be
sent to post. If I don't meet the required level by the end of
training, I'll still get to swear in, but I'll have to come back to
Agou Akoumawou for intense tutoring. I'm a little nervous, to be
honest. I know I've only been in Togo for six weeks and we've only
had language classes during four of those six weeks, but I don't feel
like I've made much progress. I'm not worried about staying for the
extra tutoring; I'm just worried about being able to communicate with
my colleagues at post. We'll just see, I guess. Nadia and I think
that we're talking too much English when we're together, so maybe
we're not giving our brains a chance to think in French. We'll just
have to study hard and practice as much as we can. At least we're in
a big city where I can get by without speaking a lot of Ewe (the local
language).

We really didn't do much on Wednesday or Thursday. We reviewed some
health issues, discussed the plan for next week's post visit, and
opened our bank accounts. Now we're just waiting around for post
visit to start.


Week 7 (part 1):

It's Sunday in week seven. We are staying with Lydia, the current PCV
in Kpalime. I'm starting to get a better feel for Kpalime. Yesterday
I met the staff at my homologue's business. Then we visited the house
where Nadia and I will stay for the first three months. It's a nice
house. It's in a compound with two other houses, sort of like a
duplex/triplex in the US. It has a living room area, two small
bedrooms, and a bathroom. It has running water and electricity,
neither of which I expected to have here in Togo, so WOOHOO! Today is
Sunday, so we're just going to hang out at the house and cook a few
meals.

week 7 (part 2):

We spent Monday hanging out with my homologue. He had a short staff
meeting to welcome me and made a nice little Bienvenue certificate
that I'm going to put up in the house. On Tuesday, my homologue and
Nadia's homologue introduced us to the mayor, the prefét, the head of
the police, and the head of the gendarmes (sort of like the police).
We spent Wednesday with Nadia's homologue. He introduced us to the
staff at his microfinance organization and we visited his home.
Apparently both our homologues just recently had their first children
within the last few months. Both of the babies are super-cute.

On Thursday, we headed to the Peace Corps "maison du passage" in
Atakpame, our regional capital. The volunteers in the region prepared
a really nice meal on Friday to welcome the stagiares. Then we headed
back to Agou Akoumawou on Saturday.


Week 8:

Everyone is soooo ready to get to post, so it's a little hard to be
excited about training this week. I'm glad to get back to language
classes, though, since I feel myself backsliding a little in my
French. I really don't know how I'm going to get to required
proficiency by the end of stage, but at least I'm able to get around
and buy things.

We are now focusing on how to work with youth in our technical
training. We spent part of Tuesday talking with a group of high
school students about how youth are involved with income-generating
activities. Interesting stuff.

Saturday, our host brother took us to the Enyam Festival in a
neighboring village. It took a long time for the main ceremony to get
started, and after all the chiefs and prefét and other VIPs arrived, a
group of people danced in a circle for an hour or two. We left for a
little while and were ready to leave when we returned to see everyone
still dancing around in the same place, when all of a sudden a group
of men jumped out with big palm leaves. They surrounded a man who I
think was dressed as a leopard. I don't entirely understand what was
going on, but I think the leopard guy was trying to escape the palm
leaf guys as part of the ceremony. They raced up and down the streets
while everyone else watched and cheered from the sides of the road.
Our host brother helped Nadia and me get right up to the action. It
was a blast chasing the crowd up and down the streets. Finally, the
crowd ended up in the main village square, where we danced and sang
while men played these big traditional drums. We had a fantastic
time.

5 comments:

Alex said...

Wow man, it sounds like such an amazing adventure. I'm really impressed. I'm glad yall are doing so well.

Things in Austin are pretty dull in comparison. I quit my job and am starting a new one next week, I'll be at the same company as Jimmy! Should be a good time.

Take care of yourself,
Alex

MaryAnn McInnis (the Mom) said...

Hi, Tristan and Nadia! It is so great to read all you have been doing; it is all very interesting. I am preparing a goody box for ya'll, and I am trying to keep the weight down. I guess it is better for several little packages than one large one? I'll call you tomorrow. I'm proud of both of you. Love, Mom

MaryAnn McInnis (the Mom) said...

Oh, yes, Serval and Ocelot say hi! They want to know if you have seen any LARGE CATS.

Christina said...

Wow, I am glad to see some action on this blog! I have been checking it wonder if things were going well. I am glad to read that hinges seem to be going okay. Learning a Language is hard. I have never done it. It takes years to be proficient. Take your time and emerges yourself as much as you can. Does Nadia have a blog page??? Take care. Oh and thanks for the prayers!
Christina & Mike :)

Tristan McInnis said...

Alex -
Hehe. Congrats! Tell Jimmy I said hey. How's Liz doing?

Mom -
You're the best! I can't wait for the goodies. And happy early birthday.

Christina -
Yeah, hopefully I'll be able to post more often now that I won't be in in training all day every day. I hope you and Mike are well. We're still praying for you. And Nadia's blog is nadiamcinnis.blogspot.com. I should link it.

Take care, all!