Well it’s about 6 months from last
time I posted anything here… Quite a bit has happened. I guess I’m an idiot for
having waited this long because now I’m sitting here staring at the computer
and don’t really know where to begin…
There isn’t any easy way to
describe what it was like leaving Togo.
I remember going through different phases in the months leading up to my
departure. I remember the anxiousness, the acceptance, the anger, the regret. I
guess that my departure was the same as my whole time in Togo
in that it was mixed with all different kinds of emotions. There were weeks
when I was already mentally checked out, others when I would just wander around
town and the countryside asking myself aloud how I could possibly ever leave? I
remember speaking about it a lot to my Togolese friends and colleagues, first
of all to make sure everyone was aware I would be leaving and not be surprised
but almost as much to remind myself that it was all soon coming to an end.
I spent a lot of time in Bafilo my
last few months. It’s hard to look back on that period, not because it was so
difficult as I was going through it, but because I miss it so much. I’ve been
surprised by how hard it’s been to leave Togo.
And this isn’t to say that it’s been hard coming home because it hasn’t. How
can I say that coming home to my family and friends, to a land where almost
everything works, to where I understand everything… It’s not. But I see the two
events as two distinctly different occurrences. To get back to my point,
leaving Bafilo and Togo
was extremely difficult. It was so amazing to be living the most defining
moments of my life so far, and be aware of it as it was happening. Maybe that’s
something I miss the most. Just realizing and understanding that every day over
there was something that was forming who I am as a person and shaping my
consciousness into who I am today. I know I’m very lucky to have experienced a
moment like that in my life.
Work-wise I was really pleased at
what I was able to do while out there. While the accomplishments were a little
slow to come by, once I moved to Bafilo they were much easier to find. The work
I did with AED will remain one of the things I’m most proud of for a long time.
What I did over there has really given me a career to strive for and a lesson
in humility and grounding that can’t be matched. There are lots of things I could have done
better, but I feel that with my non-existent experience I feel a lot of things
were able to get done while I was there. I worked on a project that was able to
find the funds to renovate an abandoned building and turn it into Bafilo’s
library. I learned the difficulties of trying to start something in a
developing country. It opened my eyes to a lot of problems that exist in that
society and has given me a new-found appreciation for anything that gets off
the ground in place like Bafilo. The little work I was able to do with the
radio station was rewarding in its own way. I was able to work with some really
interesting guys that I learned a lot from personally.
But without a doubt it’s the people
I miss the most. It’s been very hard for me to think too much about Togo
because it always goes back to my friends there. I tried to analyze my role and
position there a lot while living there. Since I’ve been back I’ve realized
that it wasn’t all that important after all. What really counts are the
relationships I formed there, especially in Bafilo. I am shocked that I was
able to form such close ties to people there considering the differences in our
cultures. I’m really not doing a good job of describing it but I met and got to
know and form bonds with such incredible people there. People who will remain
deep in my heart. And I know they feel the same way about me. There was
something very special to becoming close with people there, maybe it was the
fact that we overcame these cultural differences and got so see inside each
other to what really matters that it was so special. There was so much we
didn’t understand about each other’s customs and I think maybe it was because
of this that we were able to achieve the kind of closeness we did. Maybe
without all our cultural mannerisms known to the other person, a conversation
with this other person becomes much more about what we’re saying than the
context we’re saying it in. In any case,
I gained a family and friends there and that will always be the most incredible
reward and accomplishment that I left Togo with.
All this to say that yeah, leaving
was tough… It’s a good thing I was very happy to come home. I got back to NY a
few days before Christmas and my two brothers, my mom and I got to spend he
holiday together. It was the first time we had all been together since my
father’s funeral. Christmas was a fairly low key affair, just the way we all
The toughest part of coming home
was the obvious finality of everything. It unexpectedly hit me all of a sudden
on my first day home that the life I was living in Togo
was over. It was difficult coming to terms with that since it was so perfect
for me. So many times in Togo
I would tell myself how lucky and happy I was that I was where I wanted to be
doing what I wanted to do. And knowing that I wasn’t going back to that was
very tough to accept.
Before New Years, I headed out West for a trip
where I would meet up with many of my Peace Corps Togo friends. I am so happy I
took this trip. Being around people who had gone through the same experiences I
had and who knew what I was going through coming home was so helpful. That on
top of all the fun I had out there made it a great trip. I flew out to LA where
I met up with Charlie, a good friend of mine from Togo.
We hung out in La for a few days before heading down to Baja with another
friend of ours from Togo,
Thomas. LA was beautiful and a lot of fun. I must say I wasn’t expecting to
like it all that much due to other people’s negative opinions of southern California
but I had a great time there and found it beautiful. I guess being with Charlie
and Thomas who were born and raised there had a lot to do with it. Mexico
was incredible too. The three of us had a very relaxing time down there.
(I’m really glossing over this whole trip, sorry…)
Thomas and I drove out to Denver.
Thomas was moving out there and was driving his car out so I hopped in and went
along for the ride. We stopped in Las Vegas,
at the Grand Canyon, Monument
Valley… I had never really been on
a long road trip out west so I just loved it. Once in Denver
we met up with even more friends from Togo
who all live out there. The highlight of that part of the trip was a weekend
skiing and snowboarding trip with about 12 other people. WE had rented this
apartment right by 3 or 4 different mountains. That was a ton of fun too.
So that’s the very abridged version
of my trip. The important part was that I got to see my old friends again and
it made the transition pretty smooth.
Being away from the people and
place I love so much is difficult when I haven’t had anything to replace that
with. I’ve been doing nothing with myself since I’ve been home and it’s been
tough on my self-esteem and overall well-being knowing that I’ve contributed
absolutely nothing to society. I’ve
known all along that this was just a temporary phase in my life with an end in
sight for a while now, but that hasn’t done much to make my days any easier to
deal with. Thankfully, all this will change in a few days. I’m heading to the Dominican
Republic Sunday morning for a month-long
volunteer gig at an AIDS clinic in La Romana. Through a contact of my mom’s I
was introduced to this association and was accepted to go and spend one month
with them. According to what I’ve read about them they seem to offer the same
kinds of services and have the same philosophy that AED did in Bafilo. I’m
extremely curious to see how the two compare and differ. Hopefully I’ll learn a
lot that I could eventually pass on to my friends in Togo.
Once my month is finished there, my
brothers and I will meet in Cuba
for a 2 week vacation. It’ll be the first time my brothers and I will take a
trip together, just the 3 of us, and we’re all eagerly awaiting it. When my
father passed away we told ourselves that our dad would be very happy if we all
took a vacation together. He, and my mother, instilled a love of travel in all
of us at a very young age through numerous family vacations. I’m convinced it’s
because of these trips that I always have an urge to get out and discover new
places. I see it as a testament to my parent’s love for us. I can’t wait for
As if that wasn’t enough
traveling…. 2 weeks after getting back from Cuba,
I’ll be returning to Africa, as a visitor this time.
I’ll be meeting up with my girlfriend in Bamako,
Mali from where we’ll go
to Guinee (where she used to be a volunteer before coming to Togo)
and then on to Morocco.
All in all, I’ll be gone for about 4 weeks. For obvious reasons, this trip is
greatly anticipated as well.
I’ll be back in NY for about 4 weeks after this trip. Then,
I’ll embark in the next chapter of my life. As of September, 2008, I’ll be a graduate student
at Queen Margaret university in Edinburgh, Scotland.
I’m very pleased with myself that I’ve made this decision and followed through
with it. In my opinion, if I want to pursue a career in public health, a
graduate degree is almost necessary. Although I’ve never been to Edinburgh,
I’ve heard only wonderful things about it and can’t wait to start.
I never really considered staying
in the US after
Peace Corps for grad school, for work, or for any other reason. I don’t think
it has to do with anything in particular or because of distaste for this
country. I do love it here and will always consider it home and a great place
to come back to. However, right now I don’t feel comfortable here in this
environment. Maybe it’s all in my head or maybe it’s a fear of settling down
anywhere too permanently, but I know that I’m much more at ease with myself
living in a foreign country. I guess I enjoy the role of being a stranger in a
strange land. I’m sure a lot of this has to do with my upbringing where I never
felt 100% comfortable in any culture, feeling as if I were a foreigner in France
or in the US. I
could attribute it to the negative attitudes I feel around me while I’m here,
or the lackluster personal relationships I feel are happening around me, but I
guess it really comes down to my need to be in a stimulating environment where
everything is a new discovery and learning something new is around each corner.
And I’m not trying to say that my relationships with my family and friends here
are like that, if anything they’re the only reason why I come back at all, it’s
just that I feel like there’s something missing inside me while I’m here, and
that gets filled up when I’m in a new place. Maybe it all comes down to that I
like myself better when I’m living somewhere else.
So that’s what’s going on these
days. I’m on the cusp of some grand adventures, ready to put these trying last
few months behind me. I’ll be bringing my bag down from the attic and will soon
be deciding how many boxers and t-shirts I’ll need for the next 6 weeks. I
guess (hope!) that big events like these are what I will need to close the last
chapter of my life and move on to the next. To start looking towards the future
instead of reminiscing about the past. I can’t say I’m not ready.
The question I’ve gotten the most since I’ve been in Togo is “So what exactly is your job?” Maybe because it’s kind of complicated and hard to relate to, I don’t feel like I’ve ever been able to give an adequate response. I’m going to try and explain it…
Since moving to Bafilo in February of 2006, I’ve worked almost entirely with AED which stands for Association Espoir pour Demain (literally Association Hope for Tomorrow). AED is an association of people living with HIV/AIDS. This association began as a group of HIV+ people in the Kara region of Togo who would regularly meet with each other to discuss the day-to-day issues they faced and to lend support to one another. A Peace Corps volunteer was assigned to work with them and helped them find enough funding to expand it into what it is today and really get it to the next level. Today AED acts as a social support center, a place where members can receive free medical care including ARVs (anti-retroviral medicine which are drugs that keep the person’s immune system at a level where they can live a healthy life) and medicine to fight opportunistic infections, where they can speak to a psychosocial counselor, where they can receive nutritional ‘kits’ consisting of basic food items, a place where the members’ children can gather once a month with other children in the same situation and spend a few hours being entertained and learning valuable life lessons, etc…
It’s hard to put a title on what I do at AED since it is so varied. I consider myself someone who can offer a different point of view when the association is confronted with problems to solve. AED is funded almost in totality by an NGO in the States called Hope through Health which was begun by a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to work with AED. Although it isn’t set in stone, I act and am treated as a representative of this NGO; meaning that I have a say in how the money that comes in each month is spent. Ultimately it is the members themselves who decide what the money gets spent on, but I do serve a role in advising those decisions. Since I do have this say, and let’s face it, because I’m American, I do have maybe more of a role than I sometimes deserve. In any case, I can comfortably say that I am involved in every aspect, to some degree, of the association and how it operates.
AED is based in Kara, the Regional capital. On March 31, 2006, a month and a half after I got to Bafilo, AED opened its first satellite center in Bafilo. Another Peace Corps volunteer living in the area had been very involved in the association and had routinely brought people to Kara, about 20 miles, to get tested and to become members of AED in Kara. When that number got to be substantial, talk of opening a center in Bafilo began. By the time I got to Bafilo, all the preliminary work was done and I immediately became implicated in the process of opening the satellite center.
My first year in Bafilo was spent working hand in hand with this other volunteer in all the aspects of introducing the association to the population here, educating the public on the disease and what AED could offer in terms of treatment, the logistical demands of opening and furnishing the actual building, training the staff on the services we would offer and what would be expected of them, figuring out the financial budgets and how to manage the money, etc… This work was very demanding and challenging in that we, the other volunteer and I, were accustomed to and expecting an ‘American’ work ethic and results, while we were working within a Togolese framework. It took a long time for all of us, the Togolese staff and we volunteers, to reach an acceptable middle ground for all parties involved. 2006 ended with the association having grown to have almost 100 HIV+ members.
When my colleague left, I was left with the task of doing our work on my own. I don’t want to sound pompous or self-congratulating, but I do believe I’ve succeeded at this challenge. I’d like to explain a little bit more specifically what my duties include, and in order to do this I will explain the services that AED Bafilo offers and my role in each department. I can begin by saying that my responsibilities here can be compared to a managerial position back home, and that every role I play is done alongside a member of our Togolese staff.
In my opinion, the most important service provided are the 3 times weekly free medical consultations offered at the center. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, the medical assistant from Bafilo is at the center, while on Wednesdays we have a rotation of medical personnel from Kara come out to see our members. While I have absolutely no medical training whatsoever, I am still involved in this aspect of our work. My duties range from the menial (making sure the doctors from Kara are in fact coming, ensuring that the staff is ready to greet and manage our members, checking to make sure that all necessary supplies are available) to the more important (helping the pharmacist check that the stock of medicine in the pharmacy is adequate and informing the doctor which products are missing, figuring out the logistics of sending our sicker members who need to be hospitalized to the hospital, spending time trying to convince family members to accompany their relative to the hospital (you can’t go to a hospital here alone, you need someone to feed you, change your clothes, buy your medicine, etc…)) I tend to work a lot with the pharmacist in this domain, ensuring that the pharmacy is equipped to handle our members’ needs and occasionally lending a hand in the pharmacy when we are busy or short handed.
The home visitor program is one aspect of the work that I feel I could have done a better job at; not for lack of effort but because it has posed the biggest challenges. Home visitors are trained community health workers that visit our members in their homes. They are the only staff that actually go into the home of the member and gets a first hand look at the member’s situation there. They are then able to report their findings back to the center and action can be taken on a particular problem or issue if one exists. Unfortunately, this works much better on paper than in reality. A lot of this program’s shortcomings lies with the fact that the work requires an approach that is novel to Togo and requires an extremely motivated individual. I wish I could have done a better job selecting and training the people we have working for us in this program. My responsibilities in this area included elaborating and trying to find ways to improve the quality of the work, training the home visitors in new methods of work, attending and contributing to a monthly meeting, and most importantly trying to find a way to act on the visitor’s observations and making their visits worthwhile.
The psychosocial counseling has perhaps been the most difficult program to install. Difficult because counseling in Togo is something that is done in a more informal setting with close friends or relatives, not at a foreign building with someone you might not know so well. Finding capable people to act as a counselor is very difficult as well. My role in this domain mainly involved working one on one with the counselor and trying to find ways to improve his work. Together we elaborated a list of questions to ask members who came in for a session and worked on how we could use their answers to improve their situation. Again, I was mainly involved in a behind-the-scenes role, not being qualified or trained as a counselor and more importantly not having the language skills to properly communicate with our members, most of who don’t speak French.
For my first year at AED, my colleague and I were organized a monthly kid’s club with our member’s children. This involved planning and running a club where the main goal was to distract and entertain the children of our members. We’d also try to teach the kids some lessons they could use in their day to day life such as communication skills, teamwork exercises and basic knowledge on HIV/AIDS. While this was probably the most fun part of the work at AED, it was time consuming and difficult in that many of the kids didn’t have a level of French where we could communicate with them easily. Eventually we passed this work off to Togolese staff and other volunteers in order for us to concentrate more on the other aspects of work.
The overall management of the association is what takes part most of my time at work. Working with the staff and trying to help them improve their work is something that we work on daily. These activities range from showing them how to properly arrange and organize their offices to working out and demonstrating the hierarchical flow of the association. One day can be spent making sure the main room is swept and orderly while the same afternoon can be spent helping the pharmacist fill out the monthly order. Checking the finances is a big part of the job. I quickly understood that everyone is a little bit nervous and maybe untrustworthy of others when it comes to the money we receive every month so I make it a point to go over all the finances every month to make sure no money is missing but most importantly to reassure the staff of this fact. We have several reports that need to be filled out at the end of each month and handed in to the center in Kara for record keeping. It is my job to make sure the staff understands how to properly fill them out and secondly to make sure they are completed in time. Installing effective record keeping is something else I’ve been able to offer. We were lucky enough to have a laptop computer given to us on one of my trips home. We are now able to enter all the member information we previously had only in notebooks into an effective database. Coming up with easy-to-use forms the information could be entered in was something I was also involved in.
Besides the technical aspects of my work, a lot of my time is also spent trying to mend personal problems between members of the staff. I would not be mentioning it here if this was something that only happened once in a while. I think that the work environment we’re used to back home is so different than what exists here in Togo, that by trying to install that concept here it has led to members of our staff not being sure of their position in the hierarchy which in turn has led to a lot of accusations and riled tempers. Since I am not Togolese (an ‘outsider’) and regarded as a kind of authority figure in the association, it usually falls on me to act as the mediator in these disputes. Although this has proved to be unbelievably frustrating at times I think I’ve done a good job of making sure that these issues have not exploded into something that can’t be handled. Since we’ve begun no staff member has quit or gotten fired which can, in a way, be seen as a success.
I don’t like to dwell on this next topic too much because I find it rather ridiculous for me to complain about the emotional difficulties tied to this job when I was surrounded by people whose lives would never be without the constant struggle that is living with HIV/AIDS. However, it was part of the job, a part that affected all others and without a doubt the most difficult aspect of my time with AED. Talking about this part can sound overly dramatic and I don’t particularly like sounding that way, but it is dramatic, it is sad, and it’s a fact of life. The last thing I want to do is make it sound like I’m writing this to evoke your sympathy or admiration (I think some people try to do that), all I want to do is try and describe what it’s like for someone in my position to work in this field.
First and foremost, a lot of people I knew passed away. Some I knew more than others, some I knew by sight, some just by name. The grief associated with this does not need to be described. While working with AED, I was always reminded that no matter how much we did, the end result would be the same, the people the association helps will die. This is something very difficult to come to terms with. Unfortunately, there was always a desire, more apparent on some days than on others, to throw your hands up in the air and give up. Thankfully there were also incredibly happy moments when you saw real improvements in someone’s health, when you see a family that bands together in order to fight this together, when you see babies and children whose lives are intertwined in this epidemic smile and have fun just like any other kid. It seems that everything balanced itself out most of the time.
It’s incredibly grim to think that a person died prematurely because of a lack of concern on the part of family members, or a lack of education, or lack of money. Unfortunately this happens often. I, but mostly the staff of AED, have numerous times had to spend hours trying to convince family members to bring their relative to the hospital and stay with them. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes we aren’t. Something that sounds so basic to us is much more complicated in reality here. It’s easy at first to be disgraced and furious at these family members who refuse to care for their loved one, but when you start to think of why this despair is so prevalent and try to see the bigger picture, it’s then that the feelings of hopelessness creep up…
Despite, and probably thanks to, the difficult sides to my work here, on the whole it has been so incredibly rewarding. What I’ve learned about this type of work, about life, about human nature, about myself, can never be measured. I’ve said this before, but my time in Togo and especially in Bafilo has been an education that no learning institution could ever come close to duplicating. It’s focused me into knowing what I want to do with my life and given me the personal and professional experience to know that I can do it. There are a lot of things I wish I could have done differently and therefore better, but I feel that I’ve face many challenges here, I’ve overcome them as well as I could, and I feel like my work here has been an accomplishment that I can be proud of.
|Unfortunately all vacations must eventually come to a close and this one's just about wrapped up. After 3 weeks in Germany and France I'm on my way home to Togo tomorrow. This has been a great couple weeks spent with my mom, my older brother and a big chunk of my family here in France. It's truly been wonderful. My mom and I commented this morning that it really could not have been any better. |
I started off by flying to Berlin where I met up with my brother Nat, who's been living there for 7 years now. i had been once before and remembered not being too blown away by the city. This time I left with a completely different impression of the city. Berlin isn't a beautiful city like Paris or Venice or San Francisco, but it may be the city I've visited where I've felt the most comfortable. A large part of this is due to the fact that my brother lives there but I instantly felt that this is a very laid back and easy going place. A lot of the buildings are new and right next to older buildings, the city is very organized and biker friendly, I was really surprised by the amount of trees and public parks, and was happy to see how there were always people out on the street either going somewhere, enjoying the nice weather by taking a walk or just sitting around on a bench or an outdoor cafe. In any case I spent a very relaxing and stress free week in Berlin spending time with my brother and/or his friends, eating at some really nice restaurants or enjoying some delicious german beer.
We flew to Paris together where we spent 2 nights before meeting up with my mom and heading to normandy. I was surprised by how blown away I was by the beauty of France and more specifically Paris this time around. I always knew that it was a visually gorgeous country but it really hit me this time. I was able to see and interact with some breathtakingly beautiful landscapes and cityscapes.
We spent a few days in Ouistreham, a seaside town not far from Caen, with my cousin, her husband and their 3 adorable and energetic kids. Our days were spent together, eating, walking, lying around, swimming, enjoying each other's company. Their kids are beautiful and a lot of fun. We were so well received. We then came to my uncle's house in the country where the eating bonanza continued and we got to see more of the family.
My dad's absence was felt by all I think, making for some sad moments, but I'm sure he would have been so pleased with how our trip turned out and that we were spending time with the family in France. I wish he could have been with us...
So I head back home tomorrow and am so thankful that I get to go back to a place I love and I don't have to be upset that my vacation is over. I'll be in Togo for a few more months and I'm already starting to prepare myself for having to leave there for good.
I'll send you all anoher update as soon as possible. Hope you're all well
here are some pics of my european tour
It’s that time of the year again
when, according to the Peace Corps calendar, another group of volunteers are
preparing their departure. Like in past years, some close friends will be
leaving Togo in
the next few months. Unfortunately, this is something you get used to as a
volunteer. My good friend Charlie will be heading back to LA at the end of the
month and then to DC to start law school. The Kara region won’t be the same
without him. He, Patrick, Jon and I have formed a pretty tight group and we’ve
partaken in some crazy antics together, all will be remembered with a smile.
We’ll try to keep up the tradition and keep the ‘Brasserie de Benin’ brewery in
business. Our good times together will be remembered over many cold Castels.
It’s never fun to say goodbye to
close friends but such is life for me here in Togo.
People come and go all the time and you do get used to it. I seem to have a
tougher time than most leaving… I’m a little less than 3 months away from the 3
year anniversary of when I landed in Togo.
So many things have happened to me since, not all great, but incredible for the
most part. My departure, scheduled for January 2008, is already weighing on my
mind. I’m really not sure how I’ll cope with saying goodbye to everyone who
have been such a huge part of my life while I’ve been here. I’ll be replaced by
a new volunteer here in Bafilo and that will make things a little easier. It’s
good to know that someone will be here to continue work at AED if they so
choose, to live in this house, to keep my dogs, and to act as an intermediary
for me and the people here.
I’m glad to say that I do have some
sort of plan for when I leave. Graduate school is something that I had never
considered before coming here and seems to be my best bet in figuring out a way
for me to come back to Africa and continue in the same
kind of work I’ve been doing here.
On another note, a lot of other volunteers have often
wondered why I decided to extend for a 3rd year. I’ve listed a few
reasons why I decided to stay:
I’ve had the incredible opportunity
to witness first hand life in a country that I barely knew existed before I
received my invitation letter from Peace Corps. I’ve been privileged enough to
meet people here who have taught me so much more than I could have ever
expected before I stepped off that plane in Lome on September 25, 2004. So much
of what I’ve seen and experienced here has been beautiful and inspirational. So
much has been frustrating to a point I could never imagine and heartbreaking.
All of it, I hope, has been observed and recorded accurately in my head; the
bad, as well as the good.
I’ve worked with people who have
knowingly stolen thousands of dollars intended for their fellow countrymen. I
was first posted in Lome to work
with an organization more interested in having a white person around than with
what I could offer. I’ve had the experience of living in an African capitol
city with all it has to offer along with all the difficult moments I
experienced while there.
I was in Lome
and got to see, behind the safety granted to us by Peace Corps, Togolese people
take the streets and demand a fair government, risking their personal safety,
when their president of 38 years passed away. I was able to know what it feels
like to have someone take advantage of that confusion and break into my home. I
was able to witness the empty streets and closed shops of Lome
when general strikes were called upon by the population to protest against the
army’s illegal procedure of placing the ex-president’s son in power. I felt the
tension that prevailed in the city as election day grew nearer. From the safety
of the med unit, I was able to see barricades at every intersection instantly
erected minutes after the results of the elections. I heard gunshots coming
from many directions shortly after that as the army began firing on the people
they were there to protect. I got to hear about how my 5 year old neighbor
Miguel worried about where I was when the military starting shooting off rounds
outside my house. I got to maneuver my way through trenches dug in the street
and around burned cars on my way home after a week at the med unit. I felt the
stares of everyone on me on that walk home, I’m not sure what they were
wondering. Was I somehow to blame because of the color of my skin, was I was
crazy to still be here after thousands of others had fled to Benin
and Ghana? I
wish I could have told them I was just going home, doing what Peace Corps had
been telling me to do for weeks, not knowing or understanding what was
happening around me. I wish I could have told them I was scared.
A few days after, as reports of the
events finally started filtering in, as the phone service was re-established,
as the internet came back on and we were able to re-join the rest of the world,
I got to see the old lady who sold fried plantains across the street bring out
her stool, stove and basins, to continue doing what she needed to do to earn
some money. I heard the yells of women selling water as they walked down the
streets all day. I was able to witness people too tired of the violence and
their government give up their resistance and resume their daily lives. I got
to see life get back to normal, even though approximately 500 people had been
killed in the aftermath of the election. I, along with many people, wondered
what those lives were lost for.
I had the chance to move to Bafilo,
a town almost 100% Muslim, and be accompanied by the soundtrack of the prayer
call 5 times a day. I’ve met, worked alongside of, become close to, received so
much from, given what I hope to be as much as I can to, some of the most
courageous men and women I’ve ever known.
I’ve seen the beauty of people working together in a healthcare system
that is so flawed in order to better the lives of their neighbors. I’ve felt
the unbelievable frustration of trying to get medicine from the state run
pharmacy. I’ve seen a little child, a year old, who could barely sit up on his
own because of a disease that doesn’t care about age, race, or geography. I’ve
felt the joy of seeing this child cry for the first time since he had been too
weak to cry before. I’ve been at the door to greet his mother after she had
walked 6km with him on her back to see a doctor. I now know what it feels like
to hear about his sudden death at one and a half years old.
I’ve been able to become friends
with an old woman who speaks only Kabye while I speak none. I’ve taken naps on
a mat under a mango tree at my friend’s house. I’ve heard a mother and her child
laughing together at night. I’ve seen some of the most beautiful landscapes
I’ve ever had the chance to glance at. I’ve walked along dirt paths where
nothing grows because people have been walking along that same path for
generations. I’ve felt the frustration of living in a place where for a year
the power was cut every night at 6pm.
I’ve realized how lucky I’ve been to live in a house that has electricity. And
running water. I’ve tasted mangos, bananas, passion fruit, pineapples, oranges,
mandarins, watermelons, tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce,
cabbage, carrots, sweet potatoes, and countless other fruits and vegetables the
way they’re supposed to taste. I’ve had the luck to wear shoes only once or
twice a year. I have the ‘tapette’ tan lines on my feet to prove it. I’ve been
able to share a bowl of food with complete strangers and feel a brand new kind
of closeness with that person after the meal. I’ve been laughed at for getting
food all over my face and clothes when learning how to eat with my hand.
I’ve been singled out for the color
of my skin and for being from another world. I’ve felt the shame of this. At
times, I’ve taken advantage of it for selfish reasons. At other times, I’ve
done everything I could to try to minimize its importance. I’ve yelled at
children for singing that annoying song. I’ve laughed with children who try to
sing it but don’t know the words to the song. But generally, I’ve learned to
accept it and not place too much importance on it. I hope the people I’ve
gotten to know can see past the different color and see me underneath it.
I’ve had to struggle with the fact
that I could have spent the last year of my father’s life with him instead of
staying here for my third. I’ve gotten the call from my mom telling me he had
died while standing on the side of the road waiting for a bush taxi to get me
to Lome and a little closer to him.
I’ve felt the sincere sadness in the voice of my friends who were around me
when I got that call. I’ve received condolences from complete strangers upon my
return to Bafilo after his funeral. I’ve gotten strength from seeing how people
here react to and accept death on a daily basis. I’ve felt the warmth from
people who have shared the grief with me even though they had never met him. I
feel that because my father’s death happened while I was here, a part of me
will remain here forever.
I’ve seen the sun set over Africa.
I’ve felt the African dirt under my feet. I feel today, after almost 3 years,
as if I just arrived. I worry every day about the day I have to leave, 6 months
away. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to live anything like this again.
I value the bad as much as the good
here, maybe even more. Each minute here teaches me something new about the
world, about people, about myself. I hope I’ve been able to return the favor in
any way at all. I thank Togo
and the people here for all of this. For the first time in my life I feel like
I really get to live every day. No more coasting through day after day of the
same tedious business. Every day is special and full in its own way.