In Defense of the Peace Corps

In this time of financial meltdowns, budget crunching, and fiscal austerity, seemingly every government, business, man and woman throughout the world, have felt the repercussions of our current economic climate.  The saddest part of our governments current budget tightening, is that most of the casualties through budget cuts are to social programs.  I am not going to pass judgment as to whether or not certain programs deserved cuts or not because I am not knowledgeable enough with most of them.  However, there is one program that has seen substantial cuts that has greatly affected me and many others, that being the Peace Corps.  The following is my pitch to anyone in the U.S., as to why at the Peace Corps should never see cuts and why it is in the best interest of the country to have a strong, well-financed Peace Corps.

I think in the eyes of the American public, the majority of people have a romantic idea of the Peace Corps.  They see it as a chance to explore the world, test personal endurance, become more globally aware, while at the same time helping those less fortunate than themselves.  It is an incredible life changing adventure not only for those who volunteer and serve, but also for those in the countries being served.  It is this romantic and mythic status that has elevated Peace Corps to a sacred place in the American identity, which led to its creation and continued financing.

Not everyone agrees with this romantic idea.  Many of the proponents of Peace Corps see it as a gross waste of money because most of the countries being helped are of little importance to America and there are little results of development being shown.  There is also this stereotype that Peace Corps serves a liberal agenda and all of the volunteers are a bunch of “pot-smoking hippies”.

I would be lying if I said there are not any “hippies” in Peace Corps.  Sure, it has its fair share, but the first and one of the best things about the Peace Corps is how diverse it is.  It is not a homogeneous organization of vegan eating, Marx reading, tie-dye wearing people.  It is comprised of every race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and political ideology.  It has many recent college grads, to individuals with only a GED, to professionals who quit their jobs to get a new lease on life, to seniors who have already had a very full one.  For me, the diversity of Peace Corps has been one of the best and most rewarding unseen benefits of being a volunteer.  I am friends with people from all over the country (I know someone from Alaska now!).  I have been introduced to many new ideas and ways of thinking.  Working and being friends with others very different from me has eliminated stereotypes or prejudices I may have harbored.  The Peace Corps is a microcosm of the diversity that exists in America today and it has been really refreshing to meet and be changed by so many different people.  If at the very least, all Peace Corps did was bring a few Americans closer together, I would say it was worth every penny.

Peace Corps is classified as a development agency, so many people will rate it solely on its perceived success in this category.  Many would say that Peace Corps fails as a development agency because it doesn’t have good “development numbers”.  Most other aid agencies are fueled by these “numbers”—  We built X amount of schools, X amount of hospitals, X amount of latrines, gave electricity to X amount of people…blah, blah, blah.  These numbers supposedly say how well an organization is developing people and ultimately acts as their empirical evidence for continued financing.  This is the problem with international development today.  People think if you just throw money at the situation it is bound to improve, when in actuality, many of the third-world countries have seen very little improvement and in some cases, a degradation in the quality of life since the idea of international aid was created.

Many times, large aid agencies that come in and finance projects create bigger obstacles to development.  They disenfranchise the communities they are trying to help and make them become dependent on aid.  Why would a small village save money to try and build a new school when if they wait, eventually some western aid group will come and build one for them?  Why would people change personal habits to stay healthy, when they know they can get free or reduced healthcare or medication costs?  Why would a community fix a broken pump when a church in the U.S. is going to pay for its repairs?  I experience this “free money” syndrome on a small scale every day, from the person assuming it is my job to buy them lunch, to the kids who think I own a million soccer balls just to give to them.  I helped organize a girls soccer tournament that cost a few hundred dollars to put on that included referees, water to drink on the sidelines, transportation costs for the teams, food for those participating, not to mention fun for the participants, and they were ungrateful and insulted that we did not provide them with parting gifts for their hard work! The seemingly uninhibited flow of money into developing countries with no strings or expectations attached, is impeding development and killing the confidence of people’s self-determination.

That is why Peace Corps is so good and necessary in the realm of international aid.  The model Peace Corps follows is completely grassroots based.  Peace Corps volunteers act as facilitators, empowerers, and as a resource to help the communities they serve decide what they need and how to bring about positive change themselves.  Peace Corps only encourages sustainable development that can succeed and continue even after a volunteer has left.  This type of development is very empowering to the communities because they eventually can see that they have the power to change their situation.  The only problem with this model is that it is hard to chart its effect because many times its development is not tangible and made out of concrete and steel, but is ideology and is in someone’s head.  Another good thing about the Peace Corps Model that helps with development and positive change in communities that have a Peace Corps Volunteer, is that volunteers live at the same level and with the people they are trying to help.  Many NGOs, government organizations, or missionaries live in the towns or cities with all of the amenities one could find and drive out to impoverished communities in their brand new cars to try and “develop” them.  This fails on so many levels, but the Peace Corps method is very effective.

Because volunteers are required to stay in their respective communities for two years, volunteers are able to develop strong relationships, trust, and the respect of the people in their communities that allows them to better change people’s ideology.  Because of this unique relationship they have with their community, they are able to see the problems and issues specific to that community, and possible local ways of fixing them, rather than placing a blanket development strategy on every place.  Living with and near the same economic level of the community also ends the idea in communities that their volunteer is a handout.

It is a common misconception that Peace Corps is solely a development agency, when in actuality, two of its three goals are related to cultural exchange.  The second goal is for Americans to better understand the country served and the third goal is for the people being served to have a better understanding of America and its people.  So, theoretically Peace Corps is not even a development agency, since it is 2/3 dedicated to cultural understanding.  Maybe it would be better to call it a cultural exchange with a focus on development, but we all know that would never be allowed to be financed by the U.S. Government.

It is interesting because I think this cultural interaction is actually the most important, rewarding, and beneficial part of Peace Corps, for volunteers, the people in the countries being served, and the most in some respects for the U.S. Government.

First, for the volunteers, the cultural part of the Peace Corps experience ends up being the best part of serving.  You don’t look back at all of the trainings you did or the school you helped build.  You remember the friends you made, the babies that were named after you, and the funerals you were invited to.  You remember all of the bizarre things you ate, the language/s you learned, and the weird clothing you wore.  You remember the bouts of diarrhea, the people with polio, babies with bloated bellies, and the corruption of the police.  You ultimately remember that you were one of them.  You discover that no matter your situation, where you are from, or where you are going to, people deep down are all the same and this realization will change your view of the world forever.  This awakening helps volunteers compare America to the country they are serving in.  Sometimes they see that America does really well in some respects, such as access to education, or very badly as in my experience, that America is failing poorly in its sense of community.  This cultural experience enlightens the Americans serving, so that when they do eventually go home, they are much more aware and can be better citizens that improve America.

The second beneficiary of this cultural exchange are the host country nationals.  One of the major things they get a kick out of is just talking with someone from a completely new and enchanting place.  They get to share their culture and learn about America, which most of the time is dispelling rumors.  Ultimately they see that Americans are not arrogant or think they are better than anyone else.  They are not all brilliant or warmongers.  They are people too, just like them.  I can attest that this interaction has been one of my proudest achievements as a volunteer.  Because of the repercussions of these interactions, I am proud to say I am an American.  If you travel anywhere in Togo and someone finds out you are in Peace Corps or American, they only have good things to say.  They like us, a lot.  Then you will be told that they do not like the French or German volunteers because they are unwilling to eat at their houses for fear of getting sick or won’t come to a funeral or baptism.  They like us because we respect them and do not treat them differently.  We treat them as equals.  I could live in my community for two years and build hundreds of wells and schools and if I did not partake in the cultural side and eat and drink with community members, they would not like or respect me.  But, if I did zero work and just stayed and lived and experienced the culture, they would have nothing bad to say about me or be disappointed.

That leads me to the benefit of the U.S. Government from these cultural interactions.  Peace Corps is basically the cheapest, most effective, positive PR that any government could dream of.  Each volunteer is like a mini ambassador that makes everyone like America better.  That is really hard to do seeing as many countries see the U.S. as an imperial bully.  I am sure now that Togo is on the U.N. Security Council, the fact that Peace Corps has been in the country helping development for 50 years, is being extremely beneficial in helping to influence their votes.  The benefit of positive global opinion of the U.S. is invaluable and I believe nothing is helping more with average global citizens than the Peace Corps.

My last argument as to why Peace Corps is really worth its funding is its economic impact.  Before coming here I never thought of the infrastructure needed to have volunteers or the impact those volunteers would have by adding money to local economies, but it is substantial.  Peace Corps Togo directly employs around 30 full-time Togolese staff members, probably another 40 part-time or temporary staff, and its indirect impact probably has provided jobs for people in the hundreds.

The greatest economic impact comes from the volunteers themselves.  Each volunteer in Togo makes around $300 USD per month.  There are around 100 volunteers in Togo, so that means about $30,000 USD is being added to the Togolese economy each month.  It might not seem substantial, but the majority of this money is going to the most impoverished communities in the country, adding wealth to many closed economies that have no new sources of revenue to improve their economic conditions.  If you look at it this way, Peace Corps is absolute direct foreign aid.  It is not going into government coffers to enrich the elite of corrupt governments.  There are no politics involved that dictate how the money is to be spent and what kind of benefits the donor is asking for.  It is being given directly to peasant farmers, women with malnourished children, and to individuals who had to drop out of school because their family couldn’t afford it.  This small boost to the economy has greatly ameliorated the quality of living for many people.  One example is of a man in Dapaong who made egg sandwiches in a little stand on the side of the road.  A few volunteers started frequenting his stand and within a couple of years, he made enough money to open a large restaurant that is now the hangout for the wealthy elites in town.  He is so successful that he just opened a boutique that sells food and personal products.  This is just one story out of countless so called rags to riches stories that are occurring everyday from the money that volunteers spend or loan to individuals.  If people actually want to believe they are helping the poor in the world, then they should support the Peace Corps because there is no other government organization, NGO, or charity that is as efficient or direct at getting money to those who need it.

Now, the reason I wrote this article and was so impassioned by the subject was because we are feeling the impact of budget cuts here in Togo.  This fiscal year the Peace Corps Togo budget was slashed by 20% with almost no warning.  All of the staff have had to take pay freezes so that no one would lose their jobs.  Many programs have been affected and they are phasing out one of the sectors that volunteers worked in.  They are sending less and less volunteers to the country to replace old ones.  They are going to stop giving bikes and eliminate the maintenance and parts needed for their upkeep to volunteers.  This is one of the most important items Peace Corps has provided me because it allows me to travel to remote areas and is therapeutic for the often stressful days of Peace Corps service.  The budget cuts are so bad, that two days during the work week in the Peace Corps Office in the capitol, they are not allowed to run air conditioning in a climate that is hotter and more humid than Florida!  There are even quotas to how much one can print because printer cartridges cost so much, and this is supposed to be a full functioning government office!

Now I am not saying that Peace Corps is totally efficient or that it should be excluded from budgetary restructuring.  What I am saying is that it’s a bit ridiculous that Peace Corps is getting such major reductions to its budget.  The entire budget of the Peace Corps is about $200 million, or the same amount of money that the Department of Defense spends on the bands of the armed forces!  That is crazy to think about.  Cutting funding to Peace Corps does nothing to the overall financial problems of the government.  A few million dollars is not going to substantially reduce the deficit or help the economy.  So why cut its measly budget down even more?  It was already underfunded and now it is barely able to function.  I have no problem making budget cuts if they are necessary and make sense, but cutting Peace Corps funding at this time makes no sense.  After all of the major benefits it provides at its cheap cost it seems just plain stupid.  I think the real question we should all be asking is not whether the Peace Corps deserves financing and how much, but why the Army needs so many damn tubas.

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Killing Dinner

My first time slaughter a bird.

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Tchakpa Talk: 15X During Repos

*If you don’t know what tchakpa is, read my earlier post on it.

The tchakpa stand to the Moba people is like a pub to an Irishman.  The tchakpa stand is not only a place for people to become inebriated, but also serves as the local newswire, community center, small claims court, gossip generator, cafeteria, fashion show, wedding chapel, etc.; you can even get things notarized!  (I made that up, but it could happen).  A tchakpa stand is where everything that occurs in day to day life culminates.  It is the pinnacle of life here, and if you need to know something, find someone, buy something, have fun, and get drunk (of course), that is where you go.  Just think of Cheers fused with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, meets tailgating a college football game in the deep south (everyone is someone’s cousin), with a touch of Mexican Soap Opera, dubbed into a mélange of French and Moba (sometimes sounds like Chinese) and you have a tchakpa stand.  Tchakpa stands are everywhere up here in Moba country.  I am 6km from Dapaong and it takes me about 20 min to get into town.  On the way in I pass 10 stands that are right on the road!  The markets in villages have even more!

The reason I go to tchakpa stands, beyond the obvious reason of becoming inebriated, is for the entertainment.  They can sometimes be quite hilarious.  Half the time I sit there and have no idea what is going on, absolutely none.  Most of the time they speak in Moba, so your guess is as good as mine what they are talking about.  I piece together their sporadic uses of French, my small Moba comprehension, facial expressions, body language, and hand movements, to decipher what the heck they are screaming and laughing about.  I actually think at this point I quite accurately follow what is going on, which has made it a lot more fun because there is always something going on or being talked about.

So, I will now debut my new series that I call, Tchakpa Talk: Stories from the Stand.  In this series, I will update you to some of the crazier things that I have heard or seen while hanging out drinking tchakpa.  This is, 15x in the Repos, enjoy:

4:48 PM Nanergou, Togo.  Market.

So, I’ve been in the market for about a half hour.  It is a week day and there is not much traffic.  I am in a  stand with about 6 or 7 ancient, I mean ancient, old men.  Then, a young man comes in, couldn’t have been too much older than me and sits down right next to me.  I have no idea how the conversation got started, but I think it started with the young guy mentioning just how tired he was.

Everyone in the stand tells him to stop his bitching, they were all tired.  One guy’s wife gave birth the night before and he has had to cook and clean all day.  Another, was gardening all day and his back is killing him.  Someone else harvested all his millet.  Basically, everyone else had done just as much, if not more than this young punk who was coming in and complaining.  These old men berate him about how they have done so much more in their lives and he should be happy to have his youth and health (The old, “I walked 6 miles in the snow, barefoot to school, with no i-pod on an empty stomach” routine.  Yes, they even have that here, minus the snow and i-pod).

When the older men finally stopped, the young guy gets smart with them and says,

“I can complain about being tired because I worked harder than ALL of you combined today!”

That did it.  All the old men start going ape wild on this guy, calling him disrespectful, a fool, and just plain stupid.  Then one of the oldies asks him what exactly he did that day, that made him SO tired, and allowed him to be disrespectful to his elders.

Then, hot-shot dropped the bomb, “J’ai fait les relations avec ma femme 15 fois pendant le repos.”  Or in American speak, “I boned my wife 15 times during the siesta.”  (They have a “siesta” everyday from noon to 3pm in Togo, where businesses close and people don’t work).

Whoa, didn’t see that one coming.  I thought maybe he wrestled a steer or built his house or something, but had sex 15 different times in a matter of 3 hours, was something else.  I didn’t know if I should be appalled that him and his wife even tried to do that and succeeded (nymphos anyone) or if I should give him a pat on the back and find him some Gatorade.

There was utter silence after this statement.  It was like time had stopped.  The old men just sat there, looking at him with their mouths open, while the young guy looked at them with a smirk that said “Who’s the man?”  While everyone was silent, I being the only one who was not frozen in time, did the only thing that any respectable gentleman would do in this situation: the mental math.

How many times is that per hour?!  5 (You dog you).  Me, being the diligent student, took the problem even further and found out that they started a new “session” every 12 minutes.  Holy mother of god!  Now I, after doing these VERY important calculations, didn’t believe this guy for one second.  The numbers were simply astronomical and the frequency improbable.  The only things or people that would be able to reproduce this much I concurred, would be a group of rabbits (a colony or nest is more correct), Wilt Chamberlain, a sponge (they are a-sexual), the Terminator, Mr. T, and Ron Jeremy.  I felt that my mental figures, as well as the fact that the list of characters that could possibly do this was whittled down to a mere six, was a pretty convincing case against this guy and that he was a liar.

However, I did have a sneaking suspicion hidden away deep in the back of my mind that it was true.  I mean, I am a guy and I get sometimes guys want to impress others and might embellish here or there.  When a man does embellish, he will do it reasonably: “I had sex seven times today with my girlfriend.”  Translation, “I really probably only had sex 3 times today, at the most, maybe not even once, but I want my friends to think I am cool.”  Seven times in a day is a possible number to believe.  That is why the guy said it, whether it was true or not.  It is on the cusp of impressive, but not too impressive where it is not believable.  But, this young hot-shot, sex machine, is saying not only did he have sex seven times in the day, but was just about doing that PER hour, for 3 HOURS!  That blows logic out of the water.  Why would he come up with those numbers if he actually wanted us to believe him?  It is so absurd it makes it more believable.

Another thing I had not accounted for was that I was thinking about sex strictly in the sense of American sex.  I have no idea what Togolese sex was like, so who was I to say it wasn’t possible?  Maybe they really are sex machines and this is a normal figure.  Or, they have some sort of local Viagra that gets the job done.  I just didn’t know.  Of course I would be lying if I said I didn’t wonder how it goes down here, so I was hoping that this conversation would shed some light on a very interesting subject.  I awaited the old men to come out of their fog, so the debate could begin and I could get some Togolese sex education.

Even after all of my thoughts, conjectures, and calculations, there was still silence.  I almost was going to start the conversation off with the mental math I had come up with as a starting point, when a goat came in and bahhhhed (I don’t know how to spell the sound), and awoke everyone from their slumber.

One mean old beared man simply said in moba, “A fye.” (“You lie.”)  All the others simply nodded and silently agreed with him.  I really couldn’t argue with his opening remarks.  The other old men thought it was over.  They did not believe this kid at all and started to quietly talk amongst themselves about other things.  I was disheartened.  A juicy topic like this only comes around one in a million trips to the stand and that is how it was going to go down?!  I wasn’t going to find out if the Togolese were sex machines? If they were strictly into missionary or dabbled in other positions?  Or, if they use a powerful erection elixir?  I had so many questions and curiosities!

Again, I almost brought up my mental math and was going to take the young guys side just to keep the debate going, when the young-sponge says, “N māād moniε.” (“I speak the truth.”)  This of course was all I could have asked for because the old men went wild again.

They again told him he was disrespectful, a fool, and just plain stupid.  One old man said that if a person does it more than 3 times in a day he will die.  Another said that you would sleep for a week.  The mean old guy with the beard said he had not had sex since 1993 (thanks for the biography and it is a little irrelevant).

The rabbit was still quite adamant about it, and stood firmly behind his statement.  The old mean man with the beard then finally asked, if it was true, then how do you do it?  (Seeing as he hadn’t done it in 18 years he was probably curious).  I again, was quite excited by this question because it was getting down to the details of Togolese sex lives.  Finally, I would know about the foreplay, positions, and erection elixirs.

I waited for the response eagerly.  Ron Jeremy cleared his throat.  COME ON!  Took a deep breath. YESSS!  Started to speak.  GET IT OUT!  “I am not going to tell you my secret.”

With that, he finished his drink and walked out.  Devastating, absolutely devastating.  All of my hopes and dreams of uncovering Togolese sex life just walked out of the stand.  I had so many questions and wanted to know if his story was really true.

To this day, I still know nothing about Togolese sex life, at all.  I do not know if it is possible for a human to have sex 15 times in three hours and if so, did this man actually do it.  I also don’t know if the mean old man with a beard has had sex since this discussion.  All I do know, is that this topic remains to me as elusive as a Yeti.  BOOM, make that 7 things that can have sex 15 times in three hours! I forgot about Yetis.


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John’s Peace Corps Booklist

Living in Togo, one has a lot of down time.  Before coming here, I rarely read a book, maybe a few a year.  Peace Corps has turned me into quite the bookworm.  I have currently finished 40 books while being here totaling 13,280 pages.  Here is my list.  I have put the ones I highly recommend in bold.

Loving Frank, Nancy Horan

Dreams of My Father, Barack Obama

Dispatches From the Edge, Anderson Cooper

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

Angels + Demons, Dan Brown

Narcissus and Goldman, Herman Hesse

The Commitments, Roddy Doyle

The Snapper, Roddy Doyle

The Van, Roddy Doyle

America (The Book), The Daily Show

The Pig That Wants to be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philoshopher, Julian Baggini

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill Mckibben

Decision Points, George W. Bush

A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie

A Star Called Henry, Roddy Doyle

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

The Challenge for Africa, Wangari Maathai

Why? What Happens When People Give Reasons, Charles Tilly

Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, Tom Robbins

Tick Bite Fever, David Bennum

Shit My Dad Says, Justin Halpern

Confessions of an Economic Hitman, John Perkins

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemmingway

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

Villa Incognito, Tom Robbins

Into the Wild, John Krakauer

The 42nd Parallel, John Dos Passos

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

Gods Behaving Badly, Marie Phillips

Moby Dick, Herman Melwille

Born to Run, Christopher McDougall

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Guns, Germs, + Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond

Utterly Monkey, Nick Laird

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

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Land Tenure Through Neem Tree Reforestation

This is an article that I wrote for a quarterly newsletter that is circulated throughout Peace Corps Togo and other Peace Corps countries in West Africa called, Farm to Market:

A major problem that faces Togolese people and the developing world in general, all the time, is land tenure, or better put, land ownership.  Every year, most farmers in Togo experience some sort of issue with the ownership of their land, no matter how big or small.  Sometimes, the problems are as little as minor border disputes with neighboring farms or can become as big as a newly elected chief claiming the rights to ones land because he does not particularly like someone or feels entitled.  The possibilities of a myriad of problems arising from not clearly defined ownership laws to differences in cultural practices, can all lead to possible problems for individuals and families throughout Togo.  This is a problem that is in every community in Togo and needs to be addressed to protect the assets of individuals and families, and to reduce conflicts over a shrinking amount of land for a growing population.

Before we get to a possible solution, let’s first discuss the policies that Togo currently has in regards to land tenure.  Believe it or not, Togo actually has legislation that addresses land tenure policy.  Yeah Togo!  There was an extensive land tenure policy enacted all the way back in 1974, but unfortunately, despite its policies, the government has neglected to implement this legislation.  Boo Togo!  There are also quite a few problems with the policies that make them difficult to implement and are also detrimental to the long term future of Togo.

A major problem with the legislation is when it comes to officially registering ones land with the government.  It says that individuals can be allocated legal ownership if they can prove their customary right to the land.  The only problem is that it does not specify what is considered adequate proof of customary ownership.  This is a major problem because most of Togo’s land has never been “officially” registered and has been passed down through families or governed by traditional systems.  This omission could allow for possible conflicts within communities over people competing for ownership.

Another major problem with the legislation is it states that any land left unproductive for more than 5 years can be expropriated by the state.  In order for a piece of land to be considered “under production”, it must be actively employed for agricultural cultivation.  This legislation was originally enacted to increase agricultural output, which is all well and good, but the law states that land used for the collection of firewood and other products are not considered “productive” lands.  This mandate encourages deforestation because people do not want to lose the rights to their land if they do not cultivate it and leave trees and forests instead.  It also prohibits lands from being fallowed for more than five years, thus contributing to the gross degradation of the soil.

The biggest problem with these tenure laws is that your average villager does not know anything about them, nor has enough education to understand them.  Most people are basically at the whim of what the well-literate few in a community say is true.  These people also hold influence over the police and other government bureaucracy, which makes it difficult for a small farmer to fight for land rights if he is up against one of these functionaries.  These laws also hurt small farmers because a fee is necessary when registering and many cannot afford to pay or it deters them from making an official claim.

So, how can we fix this problem?  There is no way we can completely eliminate this problem, but I have started a project in my village that tries to address these concerns and will hopefully reduce the conflicts that normally arise every year.  The idea is extremely simple: plant trees around the borders of people’s property.  That’s it.  It does not seem like much, but doing this simple thing immediately eliminates border disputes, which is the most common problem, and establishes permanence to the land.

One can plant any type of tree to delineate the border of their farm from another.  I have personally been promoting neem trees with people for many reasons.  First, neem is extremely hardy.  It can grow just about anywhere, with any type of soil, amount of sun, and with very little water.  Neem is also one of the fastest growing trees out there, which is important to establish ownership as soon as possible and it can provide useable wood a lot sooner than many other trees.  It is also great, because it is one of the few trees that do not need to be protected from animals.  Reforestation would be so easy if it wasn’t for those pesky goats eating important seedlings!  Animals prefer not to eat neem because of its extremely bitter leaves, which allows it to grow sans problems.  Neem is also really great because of the high quantity and quality of building and firewood it produces each year.  The tree is also really useful as its leaves and seeds can be used to make natural pesticide and oil can be extracted from its seeds and used for many things.  Neem also eliminates a problem of access to seeds or seedlings, which is often a big problem when planting trees.  It is a fairly common tree all throughout Togo and most everyone can identify it and find a few in their communities.  The last reason why neem is awesome is because it allows people the courtesy of not having to plan ahead!  People do not have to gather seeds and have a tree nursery a few months before planting the trees.  The benefit of neem not being desired by animals allows it to grow uninhibited in natural tree nurseries under large established trees.  I have been instructing people go to trees that dropped seeds previously and remove the seedlings that have spouted underneath them.  They then replant them on the borders of their farms, and presto!  It is that easy!

The spacing of the trees is at the discretion of the one planting them.  I have been encouraging people to plant a tree every 4-5 meters, but spacing might be dependent on the size of the parcel as well as the amount of trees available for one to plant.  Another important thing I have stressed with people is that they should inform the people whose land borders theirs that they are going to be doing this.  That way, if there is any dispute over the borders it can get hashed out.  If it is done in secrecy, then problems will most definitely arise, which defeats the whole purpose of the project.

This all started when I did it with my counterpart on a parcel of his land.  We planted 120 neem trees around his champ.  In a few years, when those trees are established, they will be more than a visual/physical indicator of his ownership of the parcel.  They should provide enough wood for his family to use in a year.  If anything, he might have a surplus, which he could then sell to others as a way of generating income.  The leaves that fall will help put nutrients back into the soil.  The steady stream of firewood will allow him to keep the stalks from crops in the field, instead of having to burn them for cooking fuel.  The decomposition of these high carbon plants will greatly improve soil structure and quality over time.  The trees will help slow wind, which can erode the surface and remove valuable nutrients.  The roots will penetrate deep in the soil helping water absorption into the ground and reduce surface erosion due to rain.

The reason I am telling you about this project is not because it is genius or because it can radically change Togo.  The reason I wanted to bring it to your attention is because of the amazing success I am having with it.  I never intended to turn this into any major project.  Me and my homologue had started a tree nursery and had a bunch of neem trees that we needed to plant before rainy season ended.  We did it and I told a few other people about it, but that was it.  Literally within a couple of days it had spread and a bunch of people were coming up to me asking about it.  I am now at the point where I will be in the market drinking tchakpa and see an individual, I don’t know and who is not from my village, pedaling by with a few hundred neem seedlings strapped to the back of his bike!  When I am in the market, I have had quite a few people come up to me and tell me they have planted neem around their farms.  I never talked to any of them.  I never had a formation discussing it.  I did not do anything.  That is why this project is so great.  The people get it.  They get why you do it and its benefits.  They get it all without having to be told or preached to.  People are taking the initiative.  Let me say that again, “TOGOLESE people are taking the initiative!”  Bet you never heard that before.  I gave one person the idea and it has utterly blew my mind how fast it has taken off.

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My life saving water filter and my "fridge" (evaporative cooling jar).

Water.  Without it we can’t survive.  In the modern world it is so easy to get.  You just go to a faucet, drinking fountain, or shower and it magically appears from some unknown place.  I would say the large majority of people in the States do not know where or how their water gets to them or where it goes when they are done.  It just magically appears and disappears.  It is always available and the supply seemingly endless.

Since coming to Togo I have become one with water.  I am fully aware of where it comes from, my consumption, finding ways to reuse it, and have come to terms with the idea that water is an extremely finite resource.  When I was still in the U.S., I consumed just like anyone else.  I would take a 10 maybe 15 minute shower.  I would run a full load of laundry with only a pair of jeans in the machine.  I didn’t see anything wrong with watering the lawn or getting a car wash.  Water was so easy to attain, cost almost nothing, and didn’t ever appear to run out.  Those were the good old days, when I could consume and not care.  For the past year it has been quite different.

The water I use for everything: showering, drinking, cooking, and laundry doesn’t come from pipes anymore.  It comes from an open well that is a few hundred feet from my house.  I pay my host sister about one dollar to fetch and fill-up a large garbage can that I keep in my kitchen, used to store water for use.  To completely fill the garbage can, it takes her about three trips with a large container that she carries on her head.  We are an unfortunate community and do not have any working pumps, which would make the job much easier.  She goes to the well with a bucket attached with a rope and throws it down the hundred foot well.  She then has to haul up the full bucket many times to fill up the container.  She subsequently has to strain as she walks back the many gallons that are resting precariously on her head.  I usually have to ask her to do this between one and two times a week.

That is just for me.  One person.  Pretty much every family here has to fetch water for themselves everyday.  Luckily this chore is quite easy at the moment because it is the rainy season and water is abundant.  It has been really nice because I have been able to collect rain water for my use the past few months.  But, six months out of the year, the area I live in does not see a drop of rain and has average temperatures of 100+.  That’s when it gets tough.  The well nearest to my house dries up and many others in the village do as well.  Lakes, rivers, and dams dry up or get extremely low.  My host sister during the dry season has to walk about 20 min one way, in the extreme heat, to make one trip with water for me or the rest of her family.  That is the time you really start to get creative with your water.

It is amazing how having a limited supply of water has tuned me into my consumption habits.  I know that one, five gallon bucket full is needed for my shower.  I need to drink anywhere from 3-5 liters of water a day.  Laundry takes 4-5 pitchers full for the wash tub and 4 pitchers full for the rinse bucket.  To mop my entire house it takes one, five gallon bucket, but I only try to mop with rain water and not on a laundry week.

A totally new concept since coming here is the idea of reusing waste water.  When I was still in America, if I had a dirty bucket of water, I would pour it down a drain or just chuck it out into the yard or something.  Now, I try and take water as far as it can go before getting rid of it.  If I do laundry, my rule is if I can still see the bottom of the washtub after washing all my clothes, then I will use that water to do my dishes as well.  If not, then I always take that waste water, to water established plants I have growing around my house (I can’t water baby plants do to the soap content).  My shower water exits my shower area and waters papaya trees that I have growing.  It is incredible all of the uses I can find for what I would consider waste or “dirty” water in America.

While in America I had no idea how much I consumed.  How much water is a ten minute shower?  How many gallons are used flushing a toilet?  How much does watering your lawn for 2 hours use?  Gas station carwashes?  A dishwasher?  Washing machines?  All these things I would use daily, but I have no idea the quantity they were using nor did I need to care.  I did not have to fetch the water to run my washing machine or have to deal with my nearest supply of fresh water drying up.  I didn’t have to make decisions like, should I wait another week on laundry or wear the same clothes for five days straight?  Or, I don’t really need to shower today because I am not THAT dirty.  I make these decisions daily here.  It is exactly like keeping a budget.  I have “bills” that I need to pay such as having drinking water and shower water.  Then any extra “money” I have, I can decide to treat myself by doing laundry, dishes, or mopping my house.

Well near my house

Another interesting thing that I have tuned into here and which I didn’t think about in the states is weather, and in particular rain.  I am always looking at the sky for signs of rain.  Hoping, that I can collect some so that I can wash my clothes, or that it will downpour so that I can shower in it.  In the dry season, you reach a point where you do not believe rain exists or ever will come again.  It is quite frightening and disappointing.  You pray to the rain gods for the day the rains start again.  I have also seen how much rain and water affects the lives of my community.  Everyone in my community is a subsistent farmer and their livelihoods depend on the rain.  If it doesn’t rain enough, they don’t have enough to eat.  If it comes late, or not consistently enough it can reduce yields.  Paying attention to the rains has led me to believe without a doubt, that climate change is real.  The rains here are coming later and later.  They are now more scattered and are not like they used to be everyone says.  When I was home, if I heard there was somewhere in the U.S. that was in a drought, I wouldn’t think anything of it.  The consequences of it did not seem to have any impact on me.  Also, with our large scale uses of irrigation, I thought we could just pump our way out of such a problem.  Of course we could, temporarily, but over time that groundwater dries up and then what happens?

The quality of water that I get here is not very good.  If I collect rain water, that is usually very clear and only has a few things floating in it (debris from the roof).  The well water I get can be as many colors as a mood ring.  Sometimes it is clear-ish.  Sometimes it is tan in color; sometimes brown.  Sometimes it is green and a bit chunky.  One time I even had a dead lizard in it.  There is nothing I can really do about this.  I have to make do with whatever comes out of the ground.  Normally when I get a new batch of water, I add a cap full of bleach to the can to keep down the bacteria content and the resulting smell that can occur from time to time.

To prepare drinking water, Peace Corps has told us that the most recommended way to prepare water is to boil it for one minute and then run it through a ceramic filter that we were provided.  This is a bit ridiculous, and I know next to no volunteers who do this.  First, this method would require you to plan way ahead and make sure you were boiling water a few times a day, which is hard to keep on top of.  Also, no one wants to drink hot water.  The water we have is already warm enough without refrigeration.  I don’t really want to increase the temperature if I don’t have to.  And the last, but probably the biggest deterrent, is the amount of fuel it would require to boil all of your drinking and cooking water.  All volunteers have butane stoves to cook on.  If they had to boil their drinking water they would have to get new tanks of butane almost monthly.  It is sometimes very difficult to refill your tank and it is not uncommon to have to wait a month or more to refill ones tank.  We could also purchase a kerosene stove or use charcoal to heat water, but it takes a lot longer to boil water this way and we are here trying to promote sustainability and environmentalism.  If I used charcoal to heat my water, then how can I tell people they should stop cutting down trees to make charcoal?  It creates a conflict of interest.  So, what I do, and just about every volunteer does, is filter the water for taste purposes and to get out the sediment that is in the water.  Then I pour it into these 1.5 liter reused plastic water bottles and add a few drops of bleach to it.  Is drinking bleached water for two years healthy?  Probably not, but I do not have much choice.  It is the easiest way and best way in my opinion to prepare it and it does not taste too bleachy, just a hint of “pool”.

I could decide to take a risk and not prepare my drinking water.  This probably could work, however I would eventually get sick.  I have already had giardia and amebic dysentery, and that was even with preparing my own water (I probably got these things some other way, but still not preparing my water would greatly increase my odds of getting these again and more).  I know a volunteer here who drank unprepared water and ended up with four different parasites and puked for 24 straight hours, losing about 10 pounds in a day.  It is not real fun.  Pretty much all the bad things I could get in Africa come from water.  I need to constantly be aware of it and take precautions to protect myself.  I have heard of volunteers who drink pump water straight up.  That is probably safer because it comes from much deeper and all the bacteria and other things would be filtered out by the time the water reached the bottom of the well.  Another major thing that I am supposed to watch out for in regards to water is schistosomiasis.  It stinks because you are not supposed to go into lakes or streams, which is all I want to do to cool off.  Schisto is a parasitic worm that is in feces of infected humans and animals.  When it rains it gets taken into bodies of water where it finds and hosts itself in snails that inhabit the water sources.  The parasite infects humans that swim or play in infected water.  It causes chronic sickness and if not treated over a long time ends up killing its host.  I am pretty sure I have it already, but all volunteers get treated for it when we leave service, so no worries.

I think that is about it on the water front.  It is the most important thing in my life here.  It dictates if I get sick, if and when I can wash my clothes, how badly I am going to have to smell for the next few days, and whether or not my family is going to be able to eat.  I realize just how important it is and how lucky we are in the developed world to have a seemingly endless supply of it.  I realize now that we greatly abuse our water supply through our consumption habits and uses.  Living like this has not been easy, however I am glad that I am going through it because I have a better understanding of how important water is and the necessity to use it wisely and protect it.


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My House

Home sweet home.

I know how you all would love to come visit me, but do to money constraints, jobs, school, and family, it is difficult to do so. So, me being the generous person I am, I am going to send you to Togo to visit me at my house for a few minutes absolutely free! No joke. The following is a virtual visit I have set up for you. It is going to be awesome.

We are going to skip that 9 hour flight to Togo and that 12-18 hour bus/car ride from the capitol to Dapaong and pick up somewhere on the national road a little north of Dapaong. You are riding a hired motorcycle…

My “mansion”, as I told you before you left, is in Nanergou, about 20 minutes north of Dapaong, on the major road of Togo. My house itself is about a 15 minute walk from downtown Nanergou, where all the happenings of the town take place (great nightlife). To get to my house I have told you to turn off Togo’s national road onto a secondary road just before the downtown of Nanergou, which goes to Naki West, and eventually to Ghana. A few hundred feet after turning, you hang a left and drive past the primary school, and weave your way onto a rutty dirt path through cornfields. You keep going for a fair distance, trying to avoid goats, children, and cows, before you come to a crucial fork in the path. At this fork, it is imperative that you tell your driver to take it right and stay to the left of the well. BE CAREFUL at the fork. There is a large rut there caused by erosion and if you are going too fast you could easily crash (speaking from experience). Passing the well, you will go by two housing compounds and when you get to the big tree you are at chez moi (that is how house directions go here; no addresses or street names).

As you leave your motorcycle, notice that there is a long, well maintained garden that is fenced with chicken wire; it’s mine (lovely and impressive no?). That is the back of my house, and you will see attached to that is a portal of sorts, through a building that is used for storage. Go through the small building and you will enter out into the central courtyard of my family’s compound.

You are probably wondering what a compound is. Well, here in Togo and also in many parts of Africa, families are very close. So close in fact, that many times a compound consists of many families of the same family. So for example, you could have grandparents, their kids with their spouses and kids, all living in the same compound. Compounds can be as small as one family unit or they can be mega complexes that have many generations and degrees of relations. Usually, the houses and buildings are built along the perimeter of the complex, almost as a wall, and then have an open courtyard in the middle where daily life takes place. Each family has their own few rooms that they live in and the people living within the compound aid each other in daily living such as farming, cooking, laundry, and other domestic duties.

My compound is not quite prototypical. The elder of my compound is my Yaya (grandma). She is in her sixties and she lives in a few rooms with her daughter who is around twenty and a grandchild (all the other kids are grown up and moved out). Interesting note, my Yaya is Dabenkoa’s mother. Then we have some random people occupying the rest of the complex. There are two students that live there so they are closer to school (I am assuming they are related in some way). Then there is a tailor and his wife who have two houses, but they live in Dapaong and I have only seen them a few times. Another is a young couple that just had a baby and I think the husband is a nephew of Yaya. The other inhabitants are of course goats, chickens, rodents, lizards, geckos, the occasional toad, a black cat, and Rufus the dog.

Screen Porch

As you enter the compound you will most likely be greeted by Rufus the dog who will be very happy that you came. Rufus was the dog that the volunteer before me had. When he left, he gave the dog to Yaya. So, theoretically he is their dog and they feed him, but he thinks I am the old volunteer and sleeps in my house and hangs out with me most of the time. After petting Rufus and making him feel special, you will walk under a passion fruit vine that is growing overhead and I would most likely be waiting in the doorway of my screened porch to greet you and take your coat (even though coats are not needed here). I would invite you into my porch and ask you to sit on my woven couch. You would of course do so and then look around at the surroundings. You would notice that the porch area is a bout 20x10ft. There is a two foot concrete wall that runs along the whole perimeter of the space and from the top of the wall to the ceiling is nothing but a layer of metal screen that has chicken wire on the outside of it to protect it. The ceiling is about 7ft high and made of tin. In the space there is of course the couch you are sitting on and to the left of it is a chair woven from branches. In front of you is a wooden table that used to be an old beehive. On the other side of the room, there is a woven bed that is slept in when it is too hot to sleep inside. There is also a solar oven that is a part of a project that is being worked on. Under the far window is a large oil drum connected to a contraption of tubing and an inner tube. It’s a biogas generator that is used to make and trap gas to use in cooking. The last thing you will see there is my mighty Peace Corps issued mountain bike.

Living Room

After you have had sufficient time to rest, I offer you some water and ask you if you would like a tour of the crib. You agree and we walk into my hangout room. In my hangout room you instantly notice the beautiful yellow/mustard color and think how lovely it makes the room feel (I painted that since I have been here). You notice to the left a foam padded couch. There is a woven mat rug with a small solar oven that is being used as a table. There are two woven chairs on the opposite wall with a table of the same sort. Next to that, under the window, is a long narrow desk and chair. On the walls are pictures and posters and there are two shelves with lots of books and other items.

We then enter into the other room on the left and pass through a Togolese flag I have put in the doorway. You instantly notice the blue color and don’t like it as much (probably because the yellow is so beautiful and not newly painted like this room). You also quickly notice that it is my bedroom. There is a woven cot in the corner under a hanging mosquito net. Next to it is a small table with shoes under it. On the wall to the right of you is a mirror hanging on the wall. In the corner closest to the door are two baskets with all of my clothes in it. Hanging in front of the window is a pull-up bar that has my towels hanging on it. The room in general is a little dreary, but I tell you I just sleep there so I don’t really care how it looks or feels.

You then start to feel a rumbling in your stomach. You probably got giardia or parasites from that food you ate before coming to visit and you need to use my bathroom, asap. So you ask me where that is. I tell you to go in the cornfields behind my house, just joking. I take you in through the hangout room and into another room that functions as a kitchen. Here you see a large square table in the back left hand corner. On that is a filter used to clean drinking water, a clay jar that is used to cool my water through evaporation, and a few other things. There is a door in the middle and to the right of that is my garde manger (food keeper). It has my food and dishes and keeps bugs and pests away. On the right side there is a large plastic garbage can that is used to store water for drinking, cooking, and showering. On that same wall are two shelves that hold some food items such as rice, oil, and couscous, and then another that holds spices. Right next to the door you just entered is a high table that is used as a counter and holds my stove, which is basically like a camp stove and runs off of butane or the biogas that I prepare outside. To the left there is a window and to the left of that is a short table with a container that catches water. Above that container hanging on a wall is a plastic container that was converted and has a faucet attached to it that can be filled with water and used to wash hands or dishes.

I quickly usher you to the door at the far side of the room and unlatch it. Behind the door is a 4×4 ft area that is enclosed, but open to the sky. You see soap and shampoo and instantly realize that is my shower area. On the left is a door that appears to open into a small room. I tell you my latrine is in there and I leave you to do your business.

You open the door and walk into a dark little house. There, you spy cobwebs and cockroaches gracing the walls. There are a few things on the floor or hanging on the walls for storage. Rising up in the middle is a concrete seat with a perfectly white toilet seat. You quickly undo your pants because you are about to explode and lift the seat. You peer into the dark hole that appears to go on forever. At the bottom you can kind of see the glimmer of water with FUOs (floating unidentified objects). The water appears to be writhing with maggots and mosquito larvae and you can hear dripping water like it is built into a cave. You try to not think about the gaping hole of emptiness as you hug the toilet and release the pressure. Just as you are finishing up, you feel something touch your butt and you jump up to see a gecko scurry quickly out of the hole of doom and out onto the wall.

You leave the latrine and quickly come inside and decide that you don’t want to stay the night anymore. You call a motorcycle and drive to a hotel. THE END.

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