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Phynessa's Peace Corps Site

Most of the questions people ask me have to do with how I live here.
Here is a little information on how I cope with some of the things people worry that I might find difficult. 
Before you read this, be assured that I am VERY happy.  If it sounds like I am complaining, then I have perhaps failed to convey that I am thrilled to live like this for 27 months.


My Clothes

Clothes present a plethora of difficulties here.  We all have to find a way to navigate the double-standards and misunderstandings that arise around the issue of clothing in a way that make us and our host-country nationals (HCNs) comfortable.  I am still working out my thinking on this, but here is my thinking so far:

Before I left for Togo, my idea was to completely integrate into Togolese culture by wearing traditional dress.  I only brought a few clothes with me, which were mainly conservative, modest outfits I could wear until I could have Togolese clothes made.  Since I knew I would be working with poor people, I made an effort not to bring flashy, expensive clothes and vowed not to buy expensive clothes when I got here.  My plan was a failure, however . . .

While I thought it would be a sign of solidarity and respect not to wear flashy clothing, the Togolese don't see it that way.  They think, "So, she doesn't hold us important enough for her to wear her good clothes!"  Just as they suspect I hoard a treasure chest of money, they are certain I have a vast wardrobe of beautiful clothes that I will pull out for occasions with my American friends. 

I have to balance those two misunderstandings: I want to wear clothes that are good enough for the villagers to know I value them no less than Americans, but without buying clothes that would give them the impression that I am richer than I am, or that I would choose to spend it on clothing instead of their needs.  With that in mind, I choose to wear a few nice outfits that I make sure to keep in good repair.  I like to think that I make up for the fact that my clothes are more expensive than theirs by the fact that I only have a few changes of clothes--two I leave in Kara, two I leave in Bafilo, and five or so I wear regularly in village.

Traditional clothes versus Western clothes presents another irony.  On the one hand, traditional clothes give PCVs a sense of integration that is so important to us.  Whereas other volunteers--such as the French and German volunteers--don't mind being outsiders for the duration of their service, the Peace Corps invests a lot of energy into cultural training so that we can work as a part of the community.  We work very hard to establish ourselves as residents (not tourists) here, wearing clothes that cover our knees, learning local language, and never taking photographs in our villages. On the other hand, traditional clothes are more expensive than Dead Yovo clothes, so it sets me apart from the community if I can buy traditional outfits.

For the present, my clothing strategy is to wear a combination of Western and local clothes, just as the village women do.  I typically wear a Western cotton t-shirt or tank top with a pagne skirt.  I noticed very early in training that people treated me differently when I wore a pagne instead of an American dress.  In the market, for example, merchants aren't so persistent in cheating me.   My price-discussing technique is to laugh hysterically when the commerçant tries to sell me an iron for 11,000 CFA ($15.70), look him straight in the eye and say, "Are you kidding me?  I live here (a statement given credence by the fact that I am wearing a pagne skirt)!  I know good and well that an iron is worth 4,000 ($5.70), and if you insist on cheating me, I'll have to go to another vendor!"  I particularly like the pagne skirt as opposed to the pagne simply wrapped around my waist because I can at least prove that I have been in the country for the whole hour or so it took someone to cut up a pagne and make a real skirt out of it! 

Like most PCVs, I am neurotic about covering my knees in public.  Although the Togolese wouldn't dare say that it is offensive not to, the treatment you get if you wear shorts or a short skirt speaks for itself.  They realize that you must not know or respect their culture, and therefore you are a target for increased harrassment: vendors think you are a tourist they can easily convince to pay higher prices, and men think your clothing invites them to hit on you.  The only two exceptions to the covering-your-knees rule are when you are inside your own yard and when you are doing strenuous activity.  In order to highlight the latter as my excuse, when I bike somewhere, I wrap a pagne over my shorts before even taking off my bike helmet.  The "Rule of Phynessa" is that I am either wearing a bike helmet or covering my knees--never one without the other.  Likewise, if I am going to do manual labor or play sports, I put on a pagne until I get to the field.

I am sure all this is an overreaction to the real situation, which I will revisit when my thinking on appropriate clothing is more mature. 

My House

My house has two rooms--a bedroom, then a kitchen/living room.  It is very cute, simple, and quite comfortable.  There is a small yard behind it that holds my latrine and my shower.  The latrine is an all-concrete 3'x3'x6' building that is probably the sturdiest structure in the whole neighborhood.  In the extremely unlikely event of a tornado in Tchalimdé, expect to find me in there.  There is nothing to sit on; it's one of the hover variety like those shower-stall toilets you find in France with just a hole in the floor.  I don't mind that, really.  Sure, aiming is a little more difficult, but given some of the monster insects I have seen crawling out of latrines, I kind of like having something the length of my legs between me and the latrine hole!  For the record, my latrine was brand-spankin'-new when I got there, so there have never been any wild critters in there, which is a reputation I guard religiously with a can of Kilit insecticide and my trusty fly swatter.  The back yard also contains my "shower," an open-air square made from tied-together palm fronds.  There is no door on the shower (one of my major reasons for demanding a fence), but even if there were I would still have to swat at the chickens and baby goats that run under the fronds while I am washing my hair.  It's a riot.

As for my house, it has a tin roof which leaked a little when I got here, but seems to have somehow sealed itself during the wet season.  Under the tin roof is a drop-ceiling made of narrow planks strung together.  The upside is that the drop-ceiling will keep me cooler during the hot season; the downside is that it leaves sizeable attic space for critters to colonize.  That's why I got a cat in the first place!

I now have a fence that encloses 2/3 of my porch.  I was really struggling with the total lack of privacy in my compound before that.  I am very happy now that I can walk out my door, down the porch, and into my backyard without having to announce to the whole village that I am washing my dishes, doing my laundry, taking a shower, or wind-sprinting to the latrine.  It's much more comfortable that way, but I admit that I have worked up a hefty guilt-complex over needing so much more privacy than the Togolese think is normal!

My Cat

For one week during training, all the trainees get to live at their very own house in their very own village.  I spent this week sleeping very lightly because there seemed to be MILLIONS of mice threatening my beloved and precious chocolate bars.  I tried my best to mouse-proof everything, which prompted the mice to spite me by running back and forth across the woven ceiling above the floormat that served as my bed.  It took very little consideration for me, a vengeful person by nature, to settle the score: I got a wonderful cat whose name is Maya.

Luckily, a PCV who had finished her service had a kitten that she needed to find a home for, so everything worked out perfectly.  Originally, Jackie (one of the sweetest people ever) named the two remaining kittens in the litter Hugs and Kisses.  However, when my closest neighbor Becky cat-sat a week before my arrival, she surmised that neither she nor I could write home to our friends that we had a cat with a sugar-sweet name like "Kisses" without all of you deducing that we had lost our minds; she had to change the cat's name.  Despite some obvious misgivings, she trusted that Jackie's Togolese host family knew better than she and Jackie when they insisted that the cat was a girl, and thus chose a female name for the cat.  I didn't even notice until a few days later that the cat is in fact a boy, but by then, the damage had been done--I can't even think of the cat as a male anymore.  You see, as soon as I got the cat, I marked the cat as a pet by tying a ribbon around her neck and went around telling everyone that the cat's name is Maya so they would perhaps be less likely to EAT her!  (Well, actually, the Kotokoli don't eat cat so much, but cat is a delicacy for the neighboring Fulani.  I thought it couldn't hurt to have the villagers know Maya's name just in case they saw the Fulani chasing after her.)  After that, I have just had a hard time calling a cat named Maya "he!"  And there is no way I am going to explain to my villagers that not only did I come up with the nutty idea of naming an animal, I am going to change the name of the animal!  So, Maya it is, and therefore "she" it is.

Besides, I have decided to use my cat's name as a way to alleviate some of the stress of Togo.  It often angers us PCVs that Togolese men think they are flattering us by telling us that we are "honorary men" because we are white.  I like calling Maya "she" because it reminds me that it is an honor to be a female.

And Maya certainly does deserve the honor of being a woman.  She is a tiger.  I have often walked out to the latrine only to find her on the porch munching on a mouse.  Besides one small incident when she woke me up by playing noisily with a beheaded mouse she later left ON MY SHOE, I normally regard her hunting skills as a categorical bonus.  She is great at catching lizards.  Honestly, I didn't mind the lizards so much because they eat insects, but if chasing lizards keeps her from chasing my neighbors' baby chickens, it's fine with me.

Not only does she eat mice and lizards, she eats cockroaches (aka the bane of my existence)!  I was SO excited to find this out.  I mean, my first plan was to lasso a couple of those big suckers, yoke them like oxen, and force them to carry water from the pump for me, but it turns out that cockroaches are pretty stubborn and hard to train.  After figuring this out, I decided it was just as well that when I fly-swatted at a cockroach and missed, she came soaring across the room, bolted halfway up the wall, and devoured the bug.

I've taken full advantage of this skill.  I have so often opened my cupboard, seen a cockroach, squealed like a little British girl at a teaparty, and then THROWN my sleeping cat at the insect that she has begun to get tired of the charade.  As soon as she hears me scream, she nestles down farther into the mat so as to look too comfortable for me to bother her.  When I pick her up anyway, she looks at me like, "Phynessa, you have GOT to be kidding me.  Kill your own friggin' bugs!  I'm resting."  I then plead with her, to which she says, "OK, but just this once.  After this, you have to exterminate for yourself!"  Luckily, the side effects of the malaria-prophylaxis-wonder-drug Mefloquine have rendered me fluent in Cat, so I promise her that I will in fact kill my own cockroaches in the future, then toss her in the general direction of the pest.  She destroys it then returns to her nap.

I love this cat, which is amazing since I didn't consider myself a cat person before now.  I am pretty sure that if she makes it through the whole two years of my service (she's smart enough not to eat my cooking, so there actually is a chance), I will want to take her back to the US with me.  Maybe there I can find a nice feline therapist to dissolve some of the gender-confusion damage I have caused by calling "her" Maya.  We'll see.

Water Pump
This is where I get my water.

No Electricity

My village is about 12 miles away from the Route Nationale, the main highway in Togo.  Only villages and cities right on the RN have electricity, since the cables run along the road.  Living without electricity is not as bad as you may think, though.  It cuts out a lot of distractions and forces a certain amount of tranquility on the place!

For lighting my house, I have a kerosene lamp, some candles, and a few flashlights.  Although the kerosene lamp is brighter, you can actually notice that it raises the temperature of the room.  That is not such a big deal now that it is the rainy (and therefore cool) season, but I will probably favor candles even more when it gets hot!  As for buying kerosene, a woman walks around the village balancing a washbasin containing a plastic jug of kerosene, several glass bottles, and a funnel on her head.  (She also always has a baby strapped to her back with a pagne!)  You can either buy a half-litre of kerosene and put it straight in your lamp, or you can supply your own plastic bottle (I use a 1.5L water bottle--conspicuously labeled so as to avoid dangerous accidents).  The glass bottles are for measuring out kerosene; she usually has one that holds a half-liter and one that holds a liter.  I am pretty sure that a litre costs 225 CFA.

I can buy candles at the boutique in my village.  I am very lucky to have a store within a 2-minute walk where I can buy basic goods like that. 

The boutique also sells batteries, but I am making a real effort to use only the solar-rechargeable batteries I brought from the States.  I figure that, if my program is Natural Resources Management and the main Peace Corps goal is sustainable development, it is a good gesture to limit my use of non-renewable resources.  It is not easy, though, because the batteries take a long time to charge; I usually just make a very concerted effort to use my batteries (like my lamp and candles) as sparingly as possible.

As for cooking, lots of PCVs eat at least one meal per day with a family that lives nearby.  There are always some difficulties as to how much one should pay the family and how to deal with the jealousy of other families in the village, so, for the moment, I cook all my meals myself.  Peace Corps issued us a great gas stove with two burners, which I love.  I actually have two stoves, having bought one from the PCV I replaced.  I aspire to cook a meal some day that actually requires both stoves, but it hasn't happened yet.  I think I will have to invite a lot of people over!

We don't have ovens, so anyone who knows me might suspect that I have already gone into convulsions for lack of brownies.  In order to avoid such tragedy, I made sure that one of the first things I learned when I arrived here was how to rig up a Dutch Oven.  Basically, all you have to do is put your baking dish inside a very large pot on the stove and make sure the bottom of the baking dish doesn't touch the bottom of the pot.  You can use rocks to elevate the small pan off the floor of the bigger one, but things cook more evenly if you use a few small aluminum cans with the tops and bottoms removed to make cylinders.  It works very well!  I have baked brownies, chocolate cake, mango pie, key lime pie, and chocolate chip cookies this way.  The main problem is that you don't have a good temperature gauge, so you have to be very vigilant.  If I learn only three things in Peace Corps, I hope they will be (1) patience, (2) balancing stuff on my head, and (3) baking fantastic cheesecakes in a Dutch Oven.  My first attempt was not a roaring success, but, luckily, Peace Corps Volunteers will eat anything!  I'll keep you posted on future attempts.

One of the more challenging aspects of cheesecake baking is preserving cream cheese (which I can actually buy in one store in Kara) without a refrigerator.  For vegetables and fruits, you pretty much just have to eat them before they spoil.  I am thinking about paying the boutique owner a small fee to let me store some cream cheese and butter in his gas fridge for those really important cheesecake-baking occasions (like my birthday!).  We'll see!

Finally, without electricity, everyone washes laundry by hand.  Part of the reason that Togolese people think the yovos (white people) who donated their clothes to Togo must have died is because the Togolese have such an amazing method of washing clothes--clothes that I would have thought hopeless in the States can become spotless again when the Togolese wash them, so they can't understand why we would have given them up.  Basically, their system is to take a bar of laundry soap, dunk the garment in water a few times, apply soap directly to the dirt, then scrub the material against itself until the dirt comes out.  The idea is to make a washboard (which they don't have) out of your own knuckles, which gives us poor ex-pats some hefty blisters for the first few months of implementing the method.  After grinding out ever little spot, you wring the garment really hard, dunk it the first rinse bucket, wring it really hard a second time, dunk it in a second rinse bucket, wring it out a third time, then hang it on the line to dry.  I can't express how amazed we all were at how clean Togolese women can get clothes.  No matter how much I scrub, I never feel like I do as good a job as they do.  The down-side, however, is that the wringing process really takes its toll: elastic bands get shot fast, and clothes stretch out.  It's an essential step for the removal of detergent, but I am glad that, now that we are in the dry season, I won't have to butcher my clothes so much in order for them to dry before molding.

No Running Water

Besides lacking electricity for American-style laundry practices, my village also lacks running water.  I am very lucky, however, to have several water pumps within a five-minute walk of my house.  Carrying water is seen as women's work to be handed off to children.  Since I am white, it took me 6 weeks to convince them to let me carry my own water, but that would have been even more impossible if I had been a white man.  Men don't carry water, and boys only do if they don't have a sister to do it.

Carrying water is a very impressive task.  Girls take a washbasin to the pump, fill it up, balance it on their heads (thanks to a coiled-up pagne), and walk it back home.  Little kids who can't even talk yet start learning to carry water with a Cool-Whip sized bowl.  As they get older and stronger, the bowl gets bigger and bigger.  My nine-year-old neighbor Amina can carry about 3 gallons of water on her head for five trips from the pump.  Her mother can carry about 8 gallons on her head fairly effortlessly.  As for me, well, I still can't balance anything on my head; I have to hold onto my 4-gallon bucket for dear life.  If I don't mind getting a little more showered than usual, sometimes I like to test myself by letting go with one hand.  Everybody thinks it's hysterical to see a white woman, wet feet sliding in and out of flipflops as she stumbles along the washed-out path, dousing herself with water from a precariously positioned little bucket on her head.  I try only to go to the pump when I am not taking myself too seriously because it is a lot easier to deal with their laughter when I am in a mood to laugh along!

While my training group was staging in Philadelphia, one of our ice-breakers was to tell the craziest items we were bringing to Africa.  I was the only person who brought a sunshower--one of those heavy plastic bags with a nozzle--and everybody was totally jealous.  (On the contrary, everybody made fun of the fact that I brought a fly swatter to Africa, but then they saw their latrines and were jealous once again!)  The householder in my compound placed a beam over the middle of my shower area from which I hang it, but I have got to rig up some sort of pulley system to make that a little less difficult.  My current practice of heaving the bag up to my shoulder, hooking it to the cord, and then yanking down on the cord in a Herculean fashion is really wearing me down.  The good thing, though, is that it constantly reminds me how precious water is: when I first bought my sunshower, I laughed at the advertisement that said, "5 gallons--enough for 3 showers!" thinking, "Yeah, right.  I can get, like, one shower out of that!"  But after figuring out that I have to haul all the water from the pump and hoist it up over my head, I learned to get five showers and several hand-washings out of my five gallons!

Of course, when I decide that I don' t have the energy for the sunshower routine, I can always resort to the Togolese method--the bucket shower.  You just take a plastic mug, dip water out of a bucket and drench yourself, suds up, and rinse off. It works great, but I like my sunshower method better.

No Telephones

Even though there are no phones in individual houses, it has been such a luxury to have (not one but) THREE phones in the village for the past month!  I really feel so much less remote now that I can make a phonecall only five minutes' walk from my house!  The phone cabines work on the French system in that a meter measures impulsions according to the time (business hours or not) and day (business days or weekends) you place a call.  Each impulsion costs 100F (15 cents), but that adds up when I call the States.

The best thing about the cabines is that they are very willing to come get me when I have a call.  If someone calls for Rahamatou, Phynessa, l'Americaine, or even if someone calls who doesn't know any French, the owner will send a kid to my door.  I tell all my friends to call, ask for me, then call back in ten minutes.  That gives me time to jerk a skirt over my knees, pay the messenger 100 francs, and sprint to the cabine.  I can actually make the trip in under five minutes, but I like having some leeway in case I happen to be transporting a tub of water on my head when the kid manages to track me down.

In my last cover letter, I theorized that it would cost a fortune to call from the US, but I will have to check with my parents to know how much.  My dad promises that it's not too expensive (all the while being elusive about the precise cost), but I am not sure he can be trusted: he knows I'd feel guilty if it were terribly expensive, and thus not talk so much, which would make him sad.

In the event that you would like to try out the system, see the Contact Me page for directions!

Although my closest internet connection is technically Bafilo, it is much slower and more expensive there.  It is worth it to me to bike the extra 15 miles to Kara, my regional capital, where internet connection is the fastest, most reliable, and cheapest in the country.  It costs 400 francs per hour, but since I spend so much time on this site, I buy the cheaper 6 hour-packages for 2100 francs ($3) each time.  I have amazed the staff of this small cyber café by parking myself in one of these chairs for nine hours at a time.  They really do begin to wonder whether I am stuck here!