Monday, January 5, 2015

NRM grad student adapts to life in Togo

University of Alaska Fairbanks Master's International student Lauren Lynch began serving 27 months in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa, June 12. She is in the Centrale region of Togo near the border with Benin.

Lauren Lynch (in green dress) with her training host family at a Peace Corps swearing-in ceremony in August.

Lauren Lynch's report from the field:

My community has been very welcoming and incredibly willing to work. When I arrived, I was preparing myself to need to do a lot of motivating to convince my community to work on projects with me, but in reality people in my community have been convincing me to work with them. When I first arrived, the town environmental group, gardeners' cooperative, high school and women’s cooperative all approached me. Everyone was very welcoming and have had great project ideas.

I’m excited about the potential of my community as well.  We’re lucky to have two rivers going through the town and very good soil. As a result, gardening is huge in Kaboli.

I’ve been working on getting my garden ready for rainy season, clearing a little spot, making a compost and putting up my fence.

My host family is lovely. In Togo people live in compounds. They have a courtyard in the middle usually and then are surrounded by rooms for various family members. There will also be rooms for a kitchen, storage, latrines and showers in some compounds. And then in the middle of the courtyard, a lot of times there’s a tree and sometimes a well. Usually, compounds are made up of extended families. So maybe a husband and his wife or wives, his kids, sometimes some of his adult children’s families, sometimes his or his wife’s parents or siblings. 

My particular compound is actually made up of a lot of people who are renting rooms. There is one permanent family, who is my landlady. She lives there with her daughter, her sister and another little girl. In the next pair of rooms is her grandmother, two granddaughters and one of the granddaughter’s babies. Then, there’s a teacher’s family. He lives in a small village out of town, but he’s moved into town to work for the school year. There’s also three students. The youngest is in the equivalent of sixth grade and the oldest is the equivalent of a high school senior. ( My ville is fairly big, so a lot of kids from surrounding small villages move into town to go to school for the year).
We have a well in the middle of the compound which is great during the rainy season, but is dried up now that the dry season is here. It’s good for showering, but not for drinking or cooking. For drinking water, we use the neighbor’s well, which was done by an NGO and has the water tested every year. And then we have a giant mango tree which is a great spot to sit in the shade and chat or read or do laundry. Mango season is approaching and I am very excited about this.   

My two rooms are great because the volunteer who was here before me planted a passionfruit vine which has grown up over the fence in front of my window and keeps it really nice and cool inside.  The vine also produces a ton of fruit that my neighbors and I have been making juice with. And he also planted some moringa trees for me. Moringa is a really great tree; the leaves are really, really good for nutrition. I put them in my sauces when I cook. 

My host family has been wonderful to me. The grandmother who lives in the rooms next door to me taught me how to peel sesame seeds, and I spend a lot of evenings sitting on mats with her and the kids peeling sesame seeds for her to put in little baggies and sell the next day. And then another girl who lives in my compound has been taking me with her when she goes to sell flip-flops, goes to the market or goes to pick corn. That’s been a really nice way for me to get to know my ville. The kids like to come over and eat lunch with me and color or help me with whatever I’m doing.

Some types of food are really good. The two staples in Togo are fufu and pate. Fufu is really good.  It’s pounded yams. You boil them and then you put them in a big mortar. Two people pound it together with big pestles. Pate is corn flour that’s been cooked in water. You eat both pate and fufu with sauce. In my region, sesame sauce is really common. Okrah sauce, peanut sauce, tomato sauce and boma sauce (a local sort of spinach) are also common in Togo. You eat it with your hands and often share a bowl. I’m still learning to eat gracefully. People laugh at me because I can only swallow a small little ball of it at a time still. But it’s OK because then I remind them what happens when they try to eat spaghetti with a fork. 

I’ve started a few small projects so far. I have an environmental club at the high school which has been really fun. I partner with the biology teacher at the high school to run the club. We started the year out talking about broader concepts like sustainability and natural resources, but I’m more excited for next semester. We’re going to start our own tree nursery the week we get back. After that, groups of students are going to run the club each week. They’ve each chosen a topic that they’re interested in and are going to present on. For example, we have groups who are going to teach the other kids about food transformation and mushroom cultivation. Hopefully we’ll all learn some good stuff. 

A few weeks ago, I attended a conference called “Femmes Contre la Faim” or “women against hunger.” Twelve peace corps volunteers attended, each with a female counterpart. The first part of the conference was about food production and the second part was about utilization and nutrition. The best part was that each team at the end made an action plan for what they were going to do in their community. My counterpart and I are planning on running some trainings on using soy in cooking to improve kids' nutrition for the women’s group in town after the holidays. The conference was a really, really great way for me to start to work with some women in my ville. One of the challenges here is that men usually have a lot more control and autonomy within the community. Also, a lot of women have not had the opportunity to learn French, so it can be difficult to communicate with them. This was a wonderful opportunity and I’m thinking of working with a team of volunteers to organize it again for next year.

One project that I’m hoping to start with my counterpart and the gardeners' cooperative is an aquaculture project. They approached me about wanting a project which would help them in getting water for their gardens and raising fish at the same time. We’re planning to visit a similar project in Benin to learn a little bit more about how to proceed. 

Otherwise, I worked with a regional HIV testing campaign for a couple of weeks, and I’ve done a little bit of work with the girls at the high school. I also am going to be helping to organize an environmental camp called Camp Eco-Action for the summer. 

The language is one of the friendliest-sounding languages in Togo. It’s related to the Yiroba language in Nigeria, but in Togo my ville and a couple of small villages right next to us are pretty much the only places where it’s spoken. I’ve been taking lessons from a lady who lives down the street, but it’s coming slowly.   

1 comment:

Janice Dawe said...

Thanks for providing this great post Lauren. I look forward to hearing more and learning lots from your experiences in Togo. Lucky you to have a passionfruit vine growing outside your window!! Happy New Year and all the best for 2015, Jan