Saturday, November 27, 2010

A funny thing happened on the way to Tsinigan

A collection of amusing things that have happened in my first 6 months in Togo:

On a recent bush taxi ride, we pulled over to remove the back row of seats and toss in a hog-tied cow. From the stench emanating from the back seat, I can only imagine that the Fulani man taking the cow to Lome was also planning on selling several kilos of manure.

Two days later, my own village upped the ante by balling up two full sized bulls and tossing them into the back of a pick-up truck.

Togo isn’t a big tourist destination. It’s a beautiful country and I am constantly surprised by all the rich traditions here, but they still have trouble getting people to visit. As a result, all of the tourism posters are gross exaggerations and blatant uses of photoshop. In one poster, the same woman is photoshopped in three different places. In another, a man is photoshopped dancing over a fire. This would be ok – I certainly can’t dance on hot coals and would need to be photoshopped – but he is photoshopped over another man who is already dancing on the coals. Finally, Togo’s biggest attraction (and the best poster) is part of a mountain that was cut into to build a road. The result is a giant rock in the median that cars drive around. The tourism poster, however, has superimposed a semi-truck that has been shrunken down to the point where it looks like a hot wheels car in order to make the rock seem larger and more majestic.

On another bush taxi ride, another volunteer, Jane, and I were squashed up in the front seat (standard operating procedure) when the driver either blew through or didn’t see a gendarmes check point (if it was the former it was probably because he didn’t want to pay the bribe). Anyways, I wasn’t about to complain because he gunned it and I was hoping that we would make good time to Atakpame. About ten minutes later, we blow a tire but the driver keeps going. I figured we were trying to get to the next small town and fix it there, but he randomly turns off the main road and takes us down several windy dirt roads before finally stopping. He explains that we were being chased by two gendarmes on motorcycles and that we had to hide from them. The driver and his assistant then took our bags and ran out to the road, jumping in front of traffic to get us into another car. Basically, he was trying to get rid of his Yovo evidence, so now I will be known as Exhibit A and Jane will be Exhibit J.

Public urination is a big part of life here in Togo, not to mention the part of cultural integration that I embraced the easiest. However when visiting a classy city like Lome or Atakpame, there are signs all over the place that say “Defense d’uriner ici” or “Interdit de uriner”. Translation: Don’t urinate here, or It’s prohibited to urinate. But sometimes the message either doesn’t stick or doesn’t get there in time. Example: On n’urine plus ici. Translation: We don’t pee here anymore.

My 75 year old landlord recently had a voodoo priest come to our compound to perform a traditional ceremony that would give the landlord a prosperous and healthy life for the next 10 years. The ceremony started at around 10 pm (super late in village when you wake up at 530 and there’s no electricity and its dark by 6) with lots of singing, drumming and drinking. At various points during the ceremony, the following things happened:

My landlord lit a pile of gunpowder 3 inches from a voodoo priest’s head
One of the voodoo priests left for a minute and came back dancing with a pot on his head.
The voodoo priests jumped up on the paiote (palm frond awning) and ripped down some supports ad branches until finally being restrained by the bouncers (this happened twice)
One voodoo priest came up to me and after my host family explained what I was doing in Togo, he proceeded to beat me with a branch (this was a type of blessing)
As part of the voodoo demonstration, the priests got a hold of knives and started making cutting motions against their skin. As my landlord put it: “they have strong minds and strong bodies, so the knife cannot break the skin.” Twenty minutes (and several shots) later, my landlord said: “we haven’t used that knife in a while, so the knife cannot break the skin.

I ended up going to bed at 430am, but my host family was mad that I went to bed so early. Nevertheless, I was up the next morning at 6 to help slaughter the goat and dance some more.

La vie est toujours comme ça...

Ps: I went on a tour of the Brasserie Benin (Togo’s brewery) while I was down in Lomé. Nothing funny here, just awesomeness. We ended up drinking beers that couldn’t have been more than 30 minutes old – the bottles were still foamy from when they were filled.

Pps: New blog post for the kids at

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Take It Back Now Y'all

The Peace Corps has three goals: 1) Technical support - I teach health things. 2) Teaching Togolese people about Amerika - Football: Its like rugby but totally different. 3) Teaching Americans about Togo - this blog and/or wikipedia.

The third goal is one of the top three most important goals in Peace Corps history(!!!) yet it is usually pushed back as the least important topic as it is hard to realize in country, and once a PCV gets home, fufu and pate take a backseat to cheese coneys and crave cases.

However, thanks to the wonders of the internets (Togo just upgraded their vacuum tubes), contact between volunteers in the middle of nowhere and everyday people like yourself is a possibity.

Part of my goal 3 contribution is the World Wise Schools Correspondence Match - a program that links Peace Corps Volunteers to schools in the States in hopes of a better worldwide understanding of cultures.

My "kids" are Mrs. Shields' 3rd grade class at Hilliard Elementary in Westlake, Ohio (near Cleveland). They seem like a fun bunch and we have a lot in common!!! We all enjoy geography, trick-or-treating and dodgeball!!

Anyways, Mrs. Shields has set up a blog for the kids to ask me questions about life for kids like them in EPP (Ecole Primaire Publique), so if you'd like to know what the kids are up to these days head on over to:

BUT PLEASE!!!!!! - that blog is a forum for third graders to communicate with me in a safe environment, so I want to institute a museum policy there (look but dont touch). Please take a look to see what American kids want to know about Africa, and I will repost any fun stuff here. But in the long run, this blog will remain a (somewhat) unfiltered look at my life in Togo - with all the trials and tribulations involved.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Le dix-huix aout deux mille dix

A Day in the Life of a (quasi) Peace Corps Volunteer

I'm not sure why I decided to do this seeing as I've been a volunteer for less than two weeks, but today seemed like a weird day/a day that a recruiter would tell you about when you were considering applying. So here goes...

2-3 am – I'm not exactly sure when this was because it was the middle of the night, but sometime between 2 and 3 in the morning I was awakened by a woman who was screaming at the top of her lungs just behind my house. Soon after more women came and they began singing in Ewe. At this point I know enough Ewe to greet people (ndi, ndo, woale), welcome them (woezon loo), tell them my name (nkonye enye Andre), tell them where I'm from (metso Ohio le Amerika), say what I do (see previous post), and say goodbye (miagadogo), but I can gather from the wailing and singing that someone has died. I go back to bed and dream that I am the brakeman on the first coed Olympic bobsled team.

Ps – Africa gives you weird dreams
Pps – Our sled won the gold

5 am – Daily rooster alarm clock

6:30 am – Actual alarm clock. Followed by breakfast, shower, and seizing the day.

8 am – Get things together at the Dispensaire (local health clinic) to start the day's work of vaccinating children between 6 and 18 months as well as pregnant women, health workers and local authorities (police, gendarmes, teachers, chiefs, gongoners, etc) against H1N1 flu. I talk to my homologue's younger brother who had been charged with ferrying the vaccines between us and another dispensaire 20 km away because our butane powered refrigerator had broken. He tells me that the death was an 8 year old boy. Chances are that I saw the kid running around the village or saw his mother at a baby weighing or at one of the vaccination sessions over the past two day. I don't go over to pay my respects because I still feel like an outsider, even though most of the village knows my name. No one I ask can tell me the cause of death, but I feel bad that I wasn't able to do anything about it especially being a community health volunteer. During training we were told that the first death in village would be a very sad and somber experience, but apart from the immediate family and a steady stream of people paying their condolences, everyone else in the village went about their business as usual.

I ended up meeting the boy's father the next day at the market and he seemed in surprisingly good spirits, either that or he was just in a state of shock. Either way, he still showed up (along with the rest of the village) to watch me get whupped at soccer.

8:45 am – The nurse and I arrive at the primary school of Alati-Marche after a fun-filled moto ride through the fresh mud (don't worry Mom/PC Bureau – I wore my helmet) and set up shop in one of the classrooms.

9 am – Vaccinations begin. I'm starting to get used to the sound of lots of crying babies after spending a good amount of time at the dispensaire, but I still find it weird when 30 year old pregnant women are wincing at the prospect of a small flu shot. I now that its because they are not as familiar with shots as we are stateside, but it still seems odd to me. As we are doing the vaccinations, I see a small motorcade of about 5 or 6 motorcycles each with three people riding on them headed to Notse for the funeral.

11 am – The intermittent rain showers, as well as the need to tend to the fields, means that not many people have shown up so one of the ASC's (Agent de Sante Communautaire = Community Health Worker) goes off to tell more women to come and get vaccinated with their babies. When he returns, his breath smells like sodabi (a local alcohol made from fermented palm wine). In my region of Togo, “The Sodabi Belt,” most meetings and meals don't start without a shot or two of the “boisson locale”. La vie est toujours comme ça...

12:30 – We finish up the vaccinations in Alati-Marhe and return to Tsinigan, where I return all the vaccines and finish up paperwork.

1 pm – I make lunch. Spaghetti bolognese/togolais, made by sprucing up tomato paste with garlic, onion, fresh tomato and a healthy amount of local spices. I make sure to save enough leftovers for dinner because I hate cooking.

2 pm – Do dishes, straighten up my house, and clean my water filter, followed by an afternoon nap.

4 pm – Go to the dispensaire to fetch some water. On the way there I have to turn around no less than seven times to wave to all the kids who are screaming my name. Maybe its because I'm the first white person they've seen, or maybe its because I'm not named Komi or Kossi, but those kids sure love screaming “Andre!!” over and over. On the way back, several kids offer to help me carry the 55 pound jug back to my house, but I am determined to do it myself. Everyone in village is laughing at me, and rightfully so, I look ridiculous. But even the four grown men riding on one tiny moto laugh at me – I guess it takes one to know one. I make it back with the 55 lbs on my head (I'm a real African now!), but I make a mental note to find someone to fetch me water when the cistern dries up and I have to walk a lot farther to the pump.

4:30 – I was planning on spending the rest of the afternoon at the dispensaire, but they had closed up shop after doing vaccinations all morning, so I decide to do some reading. I started out reading an Anthropology and Public Health textbook, but then I switched to Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes, because, c'mon... pirates!!

6:30 – Reheat the pasta from earlier and actually read about Public Health this time.

8 pm – Start typing this up before going to bed.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Metso Lolonudowola!!!

I swore in as an official Peace Corps Togo Volunteer on August 5th only to be rushed off to my post village early the next morning. The title of this blog post means “I am a volunteer” in Ewe, the local language in most parts of Togo, Ghana and Benin. My post village is the tiny town of Tsinigan in the southern Plateaux region of Togo. If you want to try to find it on a map, don't because its not there. Your best bet would be to try to find Notse, which is my prefectural capital. Notse is about 100 km north of Lome and about 60 km south of Atakpame (the regional capital of Plateaux) along the route national. So do your best to find it, but don't count on because its not even on any of the maps here.

I am based in Tsinigan to work with the local “dispensaire” which consists of a nurse, a midwife and about 20 community health workers from Tsinigan and the surrounding villages. All in all, the Tsinigan health zone has supposedly 9,500 people but that number is suspect as there hasn't been a census in Togo since 1981.

The major health problems in Togo relate mostly to reproductive health and malaria. Reproductive health encompasses HIV prevention and family planning, which also plays a part in nutrition and overall development as less children means more money for food and other expenses to properly raise a family. The Plateaux region, as well as the Maritime region (the southern-most region which includes the capital and the Atlantic shoreline) are the rainiest regions and therefore are more susceptible to mosquitoes and malaria.

Nerd Sidenotes: Malaria is such a large problem in West Africa and Togo for several reasons:

1. There are four species of malaria parasites that infect humans and by far the most deadly is Plasmodium falciparum which is also most common in Togo.
2. Female mosquitoes transmit malaria by injecting saliva as an anticoagulant while taking a blood-meal, and the saliva contains the malaria parasites. The species of mosquito that is present in Togo (Anopheles gambiae) is also the species that is most efficient at transmitting malaria parasites.
3. There are many rumors about the way that malaria is transmitted such as: spending too much time in the sun, working in the fields, and eating too many mangoes. As a result, malaria is over-diagnosed and a lot of my work here will be concerned with proper diagnosis and treatment of malaria.

A final note about Togo:

Togo, like many developing countries is very patriarchal which is understandable as the men are usually the ones that do the manual labor and thus earn all the money. However, the women care for the children which can sometimes be 6-9 people yet they do not have the funds to pay for proper nutrition/health care/family planing/education for all the kids.

So, Peace Corps has come up with a new program called Men As Partners which comes on the heels of several women's empowerment programs that all had shortcomings because they did not include men. So Men As Partners hopes to introduce men to the benefits of seeing things from the woman's point of view.

Because of the general disparity between men and women in the Peace Corps, especially in the health sector, it is encouraged that male volunteers take a very proactive approach especially when it comes to involving local men in women's rights and health issues.

Luckily for me, my Peace Corps volunteer neighbors are ahead of the punch and are already planning a Men As Partners formation (training) in my prefectoral capital so I can hit the ground running and tag along with them.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

You're Luggage

Just like every episode of MTV Cribs features a look inside the fridge, it seems like every Peace Corps blog has to mention a packing list, so here it is:

2 blue
1 brown

I'm not going to pretend to know what I'll need for the next 27 months, but I plan on writing another post or commenting on this one to give future volunteers an idea of what works and what doesn't.

I will however pass along some tips that I got from others with more experience than me.
  • My high school French teacher grew up in Togo and said that cell phone service is good and that everyone has one. He said that drivers and people with electricity are fine with letting you get a quick charge whenever possible.
  • I spoke with a RPCV who was working on the Africa country desk in DC and he recommended getting saddlebags for the bike that the Peace Corps will give me.

That's it for now. Next post will be from Africa!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Allow me to break the ice

Tomorrow I will be leaving the US to join the Peace Corps as a volunteer in the Community Health and AIDS Prevention (CHAP) program in Togo. Whenever I would tell people about my plans I would get a slew of questions like:
Why would you wanna do that?
How will you live without ESPN?
What's a Togo?
This blog will try to answer those questions as well as keep you all posted on my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo. So let's start from the bottom and work our way up.

What's a Togo?

Togo is a small country in Western Africa sandwiched between Ghana and Benin. It's about the size of West Virginia but with a population of about 5 million (WV is about 2 million). The main language is French, but I will be learning a local language as well. The economy is based on agriculture but that industry is having troubles as the population continues to expand and good farmland is deteriorating.

As a volunteer in the CHAP Program, my primary goal will be HIV/AIDS Prevention, and at 3.3%, the Togolese adult prevalence of HIV is the 21st highest in the world. I will also be working on malaria prevention methods, establishing healthy nutrition practices and general community health issues (weighing babies, preventing diarrheal illnesses, maternal health etc)

For more information on Togo, go to:

How will you live without ESPN?

This one could be tricky but hopefully having the World Cup in Africa will help ease the transition.

Why would you wanna do that?

I've always been interested in infectious diseases, especially tropical medicine and parasitology, so I jumped at the opportunity to work for the Environmental Protection Agency filtering fecal samples for intestinal parasites. The work was far from glamorous but I met some really cool people, including two Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), and I eventually got in touch with a professor at Ohio University who was researching Chagas disease in Ecuador. Meanwhile I took some public health classes at college and decided that I wanted to work in public health and tropical medicine, but I wasn't sure if it would be through med school, public health school, or a Ph.D.

I worked in Ecuador in the summer of 2008 and absolutely loved it. I spent the summer hiking around rural Ecuador teaching people about Chagas disease and working in mobile clinics. There were two Peace Corps volunteers that worked with our group and another RPCV who was in med school. From talking to them about their experiences and my time doing hands-on public health work, I started to seriously consider the Peace Corps. So I came home, did some research on the Peace Corps and when I was sure that the thin mountain air hadn't affected my reasoning skills, I applied to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

The next year and a half was a bit of a buzzkill as I had the awesome luck to apply just as the economy took a downturn and the number of applications to the Peace Corps and other service groups went up. The application process is already long as you go from the paper application to an interview to nomination to medical/dental clearance to placement and finally departure, but the time between steps seemed to take forever. It didn't help that I was initially nominated for a position in Eastern Europe (the only non-tropical Peace Corps region), but at least it was in the Health program so I accepted the nomination. I found a job working in a filariasis (a nasty parasite that causes debilitating swelling) lab at the WashU Med School which was a bit of a blessing in disguise because I was able to attend seminars and conferences on tropical diseases in addition to working on public health from the laboratory side. I also got a glimpse of the politics of public health from watching my boss work with collaborators and local governments to get approval and funding for future projects.

So that's my story so far, and hopefully this blog will help me keep track of the next chapter, but no promises as to the frequency of posts as internet and electricity will be scarce.