Dec 3, 2007

Weeks 14-25

Ok, I've been really slacking on the updates here.  :)  I've been writing the posts, just not uploading them.  Anyhoo, here are the posts for the last three months.
Everything is great here in Togo.  Thanks everyone for your prayers and support!
- Tristan
Week 14

Week three at post was a lot of fun.  On Tuesday, Nadia and I went up to Kuma Dunyo in the mountains to visit Cafe Kuma, the coffee producing cooperative Nadia and Lydia work with.  Lydia's brother was visiting from the US, so the Kuma Dunyo crowd treated us to a fancy manioc/igname mélange fufu.  Several Cafe Kuma guys came down to Kpalime on Friday, too, to bag and seal a fresh batch of coffee bags.  Now I've seen the whole coffee production process, from growing to harvesting to roasting to grinding to bagging.  Cool stuff.

We also learned that the wife of one of Nadia's homologues just died.  We knew she'd been feeling a little sick over the past two weeks, but this was really sudden.  She was only 30 and had just given birth to their first child six months ago.  It's really tragic, and I wonder how Nadia's homologue (in-country counterpart) is going to be affected in the long term.  People seem to be sad about death here, but it seems to happen fairly often.  For example, one of my homologue's employees died from a sudden illness a few weeks ago.  I don't know if people really death happens here more frequently than back home, but it seems to happen a lot more suddenly.

Week 15

Work's going well this week.  Everyone at microfinance organization that Nadia's working with has been shaken up by the death of the director's wife.  We went to Amou Ablo, a large village an hour and a half north of Kpalime, on Saturday to attend the funeral.

Funerals in Togo are a huge community event.  During our training, there was usually at least one funeral every weekend, and nearly everyone in town attended at least some part of the involved activities, including the all-night wake, the funeral ceremony, and the day long feast in the center of town.  The funeral in Amou Ablo followed this same formula.  We rented a couple of taxis and rode with the microfinance organization staff.  The church was already full when we arrived, so we sat in a large group outside the church for the funeral service.  It was mostly in Ewe (the local language), so we didn't follow much that was being said, but the singing was beautiful.  Halfway through the service, someone handed out programs for the service that contained a man's name, picture, and family history.  We were concerned that we were attending the wrong service, but eventually we figured out that this was a joint funeral service.  After the service, we all walked across town to the graveside service, then went to a family member's home, where we shared a large meal of ablo and fufu.

It was a very sad day, but I'm glad that we were able to attend the beautiful send-off.  The family is very strong and seems to be taking it in stride.

Week 16

We've been having ongoing issues getting the rest of the furniture we ordered a few months ago.  We already got our bed, a table for our stove, a sofa, and two chairs.  We'd been checking in on the carpenter to make sure he was progressing with the work, and we've been paying him in stages.  We made the mistake of paying him the rest of the money without actually seeing everything finished, though.  He told us everything was ready to pick up last week, but when we arrived, we saw that he hadn't even started the dining table and chairs we'd ordered.  I think he thought we'd forgotten or something.  After several more visits and a few heated negotiations, we finally got the rest of the order this week.  I don't really like or respect the carpenter anymore, but I do admire his fine work.  It came out beautiful.

Earlier in the week, a barber from down the street asked if I could meet him on Friday.  His apprentice had already asked me for money and a new set of hair clippers, but I figured I'd offer the boss a chance to talk about how to improve his business.  When I arrived on Friday, though, the barber was joined by several friends who explained they were collecting money to pay for orphans' school fees and supplies.  I explained that my role as a Peace Corps volunteer involved capacity building and knowledge-sharing and that I neither had money nor connections to organizations with money for the cause.  I asked if they had any ideas about income-generating activities for their cause, and they talked at length about opening a store that would "sell" food on credit and use interest to pay for local orphans' needs.  This sounded pretty fishy, but I figured it would be a good opportunity to practice doing a feasibility study.  I told the group I'd meet them next Friday to examine the details of their plan.

Week 17

We recently started attending a church here in Kpalime that holds services in both Ewe and French.  We were invited to the church by the uncle of my homologue's wife.  He's a very nice man who works as an accountant for a missionary school for blind children.  He was kind enough to introduce us to several members of the church and also to several American missionaries at the blind school.  Through our new friend's help, we've been able to integrate with the church congregation and attend the services without drawing people's attention away from the worship.  This has been a great blessing, as we've been missing our church family back home.

After church this week, we headed out for our first trip down to the capitol without Peace Corps staff.  It was fun, and I think we're getting to know Lome better and better.  I spent a lot of time on the internet at the Peace Corps office and downloaded a virus scanner update and some handy tools for monitoring network traffic.

Work at CIFAID, my homologue's cyber café, is coming along nicely.  We've gotten the viruses cleaned off of most of the computers, and we've got most of the broken computers back up and running.  I'm amazed at the number of problems they're having with hard drives failing and RAM sticks going bad.

I am trying to get to know people at some other local cyber cafés and technical training centers.  Apparently, a couple of cyber cafés essentially went out of business a year or two ago when the state-owned telecommunications provider changed their internet access pricing scheme.  I talked with the owners of two such businesses this week.  One has now converted his building to a photocopy center.  The other is "open", but I have never seen a single customer or even seen a single computer turned on.  I think they might have a foreign investor who is able to pay the single employee who sits in the building alone all day.  That's just a guess, though.

On Wednesday, I had my first meeting with Data Technology, a local business that repairs cell phones and computer repair shop.  I'm not sure if there's anything I can really do to help them with their work, but I talked about what I do and they talked about what they do.  We're going to meet again in a few weeks to talk about their business goals.

I met with the barber and his friends that were trying to raise money for orphans again.  They keep asking me to take pictures of the kids to send to people in the US and so I can ask for money.  I walked through a long list of feasibility study questions about their idea for opening a small shop.  I asked them to write the questions down and come back in a few weeks when they've thought about the answers.  I get the feeling that these guys just want me to give money, but one or two guys seem interested in what I have to say.

Week 18

Lightning struck the Togotelecom tower in Kpalime over the weekend, so phones, fax, and dialup are down for the city and all surrounding villages.  I visited the local Togotelecom office with Maurice, my homologue, to reactivate CIFAID's old ILLICO account.

ILLICO is a wireless phone and internet service that was introduced a few years ago.  I'm not sure about the technical details, but it uses something similar to cell phone towers to instead of fixed phone lines.  It was fast, affordable, and much more reliable than standard dial-up.  Apparently it was more popular than expected, though, and the pricing scheme from a flat rate to a much less affordable hourly rate to cover the cost of all the network traffic.  Now ILLICO is only rarely used.

Anyway, CIFAID got their account reactivated.  They had to raise the price they're charging customers, but I've been able to notice a sizeable improvement in web surfing response time.  I'm curious if Kpalime customers are willing and able to pay this increased price.

Week 19

This week we had a big birthday bash for Nadia, my wife.  We had a fancy lunch at Chez Fanny, a local hotel & restaurant.  Then we made brownie banana splits with bananas, Reese's Pieces, chocolate cake, and Fan Milk, the local ice cream.  It was FANTASTIC!  We ate ourselves sick and then had a movie marathon over at Lydia's (the other Kpalime volunteer) house.  It was a blast.

We are officially on "stand-fast" security alert here because national legislative elections take place next week.  I've been told that heavy campaigning is only allowed during the two weeks leading up to an election.  That's a very interesting way to regulate campaign costs.  I think political parties use publications and word of mouth to advertise their platform positions ahead of time, but rallies and radio/television promotion are only allowed just before the elections.  Anyway, the result is that no Peace Corps volunteers are allowed to leave their village or city until PC admin gives us the go-ahead.

There was a little trouble in Togo a few years ago with the presidential elections, but no one is really expecting any problems with these legislative elections.  I have to admit that I'm a little nervous, but seeing as how we're only two hours from Lome, 15km from Ghana, and 17km from the training site for the new group of Peace Corps trainees, I think we'll be fine even in a worst-case scenario.

CIB, a national chain of cyber cafés opened their third branch in Kpalime this week.  I don't know how that will affect CIFAID.  They are advertising a very low promotional internet usage rate, and they are saying that they are using HELIM, a new high-speed internet technology similar to ILLICO.  I didn't think HELIM was available outside of Lome yet.  CIFAID is still charging clients an increased rate to use ILLICO because Togotelecom has made no comment about when their fixed line service will be repaired.  CIFAID is still keeping most workstations occupied with clients most of the time, though, so I'm not too worried.

On Friday, I had another meeting with the guys at the barber shop about the shop they were talking about opening.  Only one guy showed up to the meeting, and he brought seven or eight kids to show me who he is raising money for.  I tried to push the conversation back to income-generating activities that they can do themselves, but apparently these guys only want me to do is give them money to buy pens and paper or to ask friends back in the US to "sponsor" them.  I respect their cause, but they don't seem willing to look for local solutions.  I believe that future meetings would be a waste of everyone's time, so I won't be meeting with them again.

Week 20

On Monday, Nadia and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary!  We went out for a nice dinner at the Hotel Royal restaurant on the outskirts of town.  We shared a chicken salad, then I got a steak and Nadia got a mushroom chicken dish.  We finished it off with a dessert of pears and ice cream.  Fan-fricking-tastic.  I have to admit, my time with Nadia just keeps getting better and better.  We have been together for five years, and married for two, and I love her more every single day.  I truly am blessed to have found such a kind, caring, beautiful, strong, intelligent, talented, creative, supportive (did I mention beautiful?) partner.

ICEC, a microfinance organization that Nadia is working with, has expressed interest in computerizing some of their current operations.  They already have four computers (albeit, one is a Pentium 1 running Windows 95), but they are using a mix of random Excel spreadsheets and QuickBooks projects.  Nadia and I are meeting individually with each of the employees to discuss what they do, what data they collect, what reports they generate, and how they think a computer might be able to help them increase their effectiveness.

I'm very interested in this project.  I think we'll end up just networking their existing computers and creating a set of shared Excel spreadsheets with some macros for creating reports, but we're gathering requirements.  I don't want to set up anything that ICEC's staff won't be able to maintain and modify, themselves, in the future, but I want to make sure that the system fits all their needs.  I'm also thinking about how to maintain a concurrent paper system during the frequent power outages.  Nadia and I are documenting everything, and I'll post some the docs when they're finished in case anyone is curious about the project.

On Saturday, our missionary friend Joan invited us to the Baptist hospital in Adeta to help unload a large supply container.  It was interesting meeting a lot of Americans who've lived in Togo for over ten years.  We spent that evening playing cards with a handful of missionaries at a small Fall Fest party in Kpalime.  They carved a pumpkin and everything.  Fun times!

Week 21

When I first got to Kpalime, my homologue and several other individuals expressed interest in learning how to create web sites.  I told them I'd work up some simple web design lesson plans and get back to them after I'd practiced my French a bit more.  Well, this week, I decided I'd talk with Maurice, my homologue, about starting some simple informal lessons with the staff at CIFAID, his cyber café.  We decided to schedule lessons every Monday and Friday with Maurice and another CIFAID employee.

For our first session on Friday, we started with something simple and tangible by creating a blog on BlogSpot.  I'll spend another session showing how to post via email and modify a blog's layout.  Then maybe we'll create a simple website with a web page template using Yahoo Geocities or something similar.  After that, we'll take a step back and start working with basic HTML.  I'm not sure how far we'll go after that.  I'd like to refine these informal lessons into something I could present in a larger classroom setting.  Then we could maybe eventually work up to DHTML and scripting.  First things first, though.

Week 22

Maurice and Didier, a CIFAID employee, really enjoyed the web design lesson last week.  On Saturday, they each created their own blogs and made their own posts.  It was really cool to see them pick up and run with this information on their own.  The cyber café was too busy for lessons on Monday, but we continued on Friday by playing with various blog settings and templates.  I think we need to go ahead move to offline HTML lessons, though, because it's taking way too much time waiting for web pages to load.

Week 23

For our third web design lesson, I gave a brief introduction to HTML.  I showed them how you can create an HTML document in Notepad and open it in Internet Explorer.  Then we experimented with changing the document header and background color and typing text in various fonts.  I think they were a little overwhelmed by all the different tag elements and attributes, but I assured them that we'd cover all of it in detail very slowly.

On Tuesday, we had a site visit from Alex Anani, the Assistant Peace Corps Director (APCD) for the Small Enterprise Development (SED) program in Togo.  We showed Alex some documents we'd drawn up about the computerization of ICEC, the microfinance institution Nadia's helping.  We also talked about the work we're doing with Cafe Kuma and CIFAID, my homologue's cyber cafe.  We also met with our homologues briefly, so Alex could get a feel for how they think our work is coming along.  It was actually a very productive day.  Alex had a lot of good constructive criticism and some helpful suggestions for the direction of our projects.

Cafe Kuma is working on a new arabica/robusta coffee blend, and we're giving out samples and surveys to see which percentage mixes and which roasts are more popular.  We traveled to Lome on Wednesday to give some samples out at the American Embassy.  It was a nice short trip, and we got to hang out with a few Peace Corps volunteers that were just finishing their service and getting ready to head back to the US.

On Friday, We visited the new Natural Resource Management (NRM) trainees in Nyogbo to give out some Cafe Kuma samples.  The trainees seem like a nice bunch... friendly, casual, and excited to be in Togo.

Week 24
Mon Maurice too busy for class
Tue Atakpame with Adeze
Wed Sokode
Thur Thanksgiving
Fri return to Kpalime
- goats, pigs, chickens, and dogs in the taxis
Sat Christmas tree decorating with Joan

This week is Thanksgiving!  On Tuesday, we stayed the night in Atakpame, the Plateau Region's capital city to visit another volunteer.  Nadia really liked what she'd done with her house.  She said it reminded her a lot of Mexico.  Atakpame has a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains, and it does remind me a bit of Monterrey, Mexico.

On Wednesday, we met up with two other volunteers from our training group, and continued north to Sokode.  Sokode is enormous!  I believe it's the second or third largest city after Lome.  Like Lome, it has a definite city feel to it.  The unpaved streets are all sand, and neighborhoods are split into tightly knit grid of concrete compounds.  I was pleasantly surprised to find the market area much more casual and relaxed than any other market I've been to in Togo.  Absent were the dozens of overenthusiastic flashlight and sunglasses vendors.  There were no shouting matches between adjacent vegetable vendors.  Everyone just calmly asked if we were interested in their wares as we passed by.  I get the feeling that there are very few tourists in Sokode, and I wonder if that plays a part in this laid back vibe.

A fellow ICT (Information and Communication Technology) volunteer hosted Thanksgiving at her house in Sokode.  Her house is quite nice and has a beautiful garden out back.  We sampled her homegrown vegetables, homemade jam, and homebrewed wine.  We had somewhere between 15 and 20 volunteers at the Thanksgiving dinner.  We had turkey, dressing, macaroni and cheese, salad, mashed potatoes, several gravies, sweet and sour beets, fruit salad, guacamole, lime cheesecake, apple crumb cake, and pie.  I was impressed that everything but the macaroni and cheese was prepared fresh from local ingredients.  There are some darned good chefs volunteering in Togo.  We ate until we couldn't eat any more, and we still only ate about half the food.  It was amazing!

We headed back to Kpalime on Friday, and on Saturday, we helped Joan, a missionary friend, decorate her Christmas tree.  We spent the day listening to Christmas music, hanging tinsel, and eating cherry pie.  Mmmmm... life is good.

Week 25

We headed out of town, yet again, this week to go to Lome for the 45th anniversary celebration of Peace Corps' presence in Togo.  We attended a ribbon cutting ceremony for some extension buildings for the Peace Corps bureau, and Nadia and I helped man a booth for telling visitors about the Small Enterprise Development program.  We got to meet some people from Peace Corps Washington and a few local dignitary types.  We also attended a fancy party at the country director's house where Nadia's homologue got to speak about his involvement with Peace Corps on stage in front of television cameras.  He did a great job, and we were all very excited for him.  The entire celebration was a blast, but I'm really looking forward to getting back into our regular routine back in Kpalime.

BTW, thank you Mom, Grandmere, Rhonda, Chuck, and Mrs Capuchino for the packages!  We reeeeeeeeally appreciate them!

We had to cancel our web design training last Monday because CIFAID was a little too hectic.  We missed the training last Friday, too b/c Nadia and I were out of town for Thanksgiving.  We misses classes again next Monday because we're going to Lome for the celebration of the 45th anniversary of Peace Corps in Togo.  Then we cancelled this Friday's training b/c Maurice and Didier had other business to attend to.  I hope we aren't losing too much momentum here.


MaryAnn McInnis (the Mom) said...

Hey, sweetie! I am so happy for the update. Whenever we talk, I forget to ask some questions, and you answered them in this latest blog. I think I have a much better understanding of what you and Nadia are actually doing. Still miss you, still get frustrated when the phone calls don't go through, but we are all so proud of you and excited about what you are doing! Love, Mom

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