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Phynessa's Peace Corps Site

Travail in Togo

The only consistent thing about the work of PCVs is that there's nothing consistent about it.  In addition to bike maintenance, French language, and First Aid classes, our ten weeks of Pre-Service Training (PST) consisted of learning to make compost piles and mud stoves that require less wood, set up tree nurseries, fence in small livestock, prepare organic pesticides, and store foodstuffs.  After swearing in, thereby becoming a full Volunteer instead of a Trainee, one is dropped off in a village with no particular agenda for the first three months.  It is supposed to be three months until the Project Design Management (PDM) workshop, but ours was two and a half months late.
     My goal for the interval between training and PDM was to have a project in mind and be ready to run with it.  I wanted to get to know my community well so that I could come up with a project that fulfills all of Peace Corps's goals--mobilizing the community's resources (i.e. not relying on outside funding), improving the environment, empowering the underprivileged groups such as women, and combatting the AIDS epidemic in a manner that will be sustainable after Peace Corps departs. 
     As if those goals aren't daunting enough, I have a few goals of my own.  Since Peace Corps is invited by the host country's government, all its personnel are sworn to be politically neutral (perhaps you've noticed the lack of any political commentary on this site), so suffice it to say that I seriously doubt Togo will improve before it gets worse.  In that light, I want my project to cushion the standard of living of the people I work with.  That is the reason I trained as a Natural Resources Management Volunteer intstead of a Small Business Development Volunteer--I felt it better to focus on ameliorating the standard of living in a way that isn't measurable in money.  That is, I thought it more prudent to teach people to garden so they could eat regardless of the political or economic situation.  For my second goal, I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the Poverty Alleviation Class case studies I read in grad school, which concluded that programs aimed to improve the lowest 25% inadvertently further empoverished the lowest 10% of the population.
     Since I'd only visited this village for a week of training, I began my search for a project by planning meetings with all the groupements (cooperatives of 4 to 10 people) in the village.  One of the groups I most wanted to talk with, the women's groupement, stood me up.  Twice.  Here's how the five meetings I did hold unfolded:
     I introduced myself and explained what Peace Corps is.  I asked them questions about their groupement's organization, activities, and plans.  They were thrilled to have a white person interested in their groupement, then asked me for money.  Could I just have someone from the US send them a few tractors?  How about animals to pull plows?  I should build them a dam so they could cultivate during the dry season.  Or maybe I could just give them a loan so they could buy more fertilizers.  For that matter, maybe I could just give them money.
     Besides groupement meetings, I held village meetings to get ideas from the village at large.  Some wondered whether I could give them an animal husbandry center so they could sell off the animals.  Others just wanted to know whether I planned to give out loans to groupements only or to individuals as well.  For that matter, maybe I could just give them money.
     Finally, a few individuals came to meet me.  The most promising was Mr. Bangana, who drove his scooter 40km to see me.  He was very organized, having filled out the 6-page questionnaire I'd given to each of the groupements all on his own.  Greer had told me that Mr. Bangana wanted to visit me because he had land near my village that he wanted to use to raise cattle, sheep, goats, and honeybees.
   I was ecstatic.  Finally someone wanted my advice, which was, as far as I could gather by Peace Corps's not giving money to fund projects, what Peace Corps planted me here to give.  I read his questionnaire and reviewed my animal husbandry training materials before he arrived.
     As soon as the customary salutations were finished, I dove into conversation about his project.  He planned to raise 10 cattle, 10 sheep, and 10 goats (1 male and 9 females of each) and have 10 beehives.  That seemed like a great start to me.  He then said, "well, if there are the means, I could even start the project with 20 of each."
     That's when the red flags started going up.  I figured it was high time I start asking direct questions about money, beginning with the "I am not a lending institution; Peace Corps does not give loans" speech I'd gotten down pat over the course of  8 or so previous meetings.
     His questionnaire said his start-up costs would be 250,000 CFA (right now about $5,000), so I asked him which materials he planned to buy with that sum.  He talked about the 30 animals and 10 hives again, which was a clear indication he hadn't calculated his costs at all.  In fact, despite the fact that he was well-educated (he might have even gone to college), it became obvious that he didn't know how to calculate his costs.  I started with what I know: hives.  How much did a hive cost?  He guessed maybe 12,000  francs, but I knew from working around the 65 hives in my village that they cost between 16,000 and 20,000 francs.  That is, with the cost of the 10 hives, the beesuit, and the smoker, his startup costs would be nearly gone.
     How much did he plan to spend on each cow?  He started explaining the West African system I so often curse: "Prices aren't fixed here, you see.  You have to discuss them.  Sometimes the vendor will want to charge you a lot..."  I was annoyed, so I cut him off short, "But you have to have a walk-away price.  You have to think of the last price you'd be willing to pay for a cow.  If the vendor refuses to meet that price or offer you a lower one, you walk away."
     He fidgeted in his chair as if I were looking over his shoulder at his hand of cards.  Finally he said that he wouldn't pay more than 40,000 for each of the nine cows.  Now, how much would he pay for the bull?
     We went on like this until we arrived at a more realistic startup cost, 977,000 francs!  His eyes went huge at the thought of such a sum.  I then asked him how he planned to get that financing, reminding him that Peace Corps desn't give out loans.  He said that local NGOs and banks aren't loaning anymore.  Once again, I was annoyed.  Even in the strongest economies in the world, a bank will flatly refuse to loan you money if it's obvious you don't know how to manage money.  Let's assume for a moment that he had received 250,000 francs.  What are the chances he would be able to pay it back if that sum represented only a fourth of his startup cost?  Nada!
     I gently explained to him that most lending institutions have stopped lending because they never get paid back.  He looked at me with surprise, so I asked him whether he had estimated how long it would take his investment to turn a profit.  He didn't, so we went through the calculations together.  How long would it take his first round of livestock to mature and raise mature offspring for him to sell?  Probably five years, but even then he wouldn't have recouperated his costs until selling the second round of offspring.  That meant that it would take seven years to earn a profit, which is a long time to let a loan gain interest.
     "Well," he said, "there are other ways to get that kind of money."  I certainly hadn't heard of any, so I said, "Ah, bon?"  He explained that sometimes foreigners come to the area from Europe or America.  They ask their contacts to send a loan, then they send back photos to prove that the farmer has actually bought the animals he said he was going to buy.  I laughed hard, surprised by his audacity.  He said, "no, it happens.  Nobody talks about it, but it does."
     "Really," I questioned, "you know someone who has received funding like that?"  He said, "No, not personally.   I mean, if they talked about it the foreigners would be swamped with people wanting a loan, so it has to be kept very secretive.  But I'm sure it happens."
     Acknowledging the fact that I understood we weren't talking about theoretical scenarios, I looked him in the eye and told him I was certain that does not happen.  "Let's say you failed to repay my contacts in the United States; how would I be able to force you?  The judicial system is corrupt here, so there's practically no way I could guarantee their repayment.  That's why it is illegal for me to act as a middleman for transferring funds from America to Togo."
     As if that fact had no weight at all, he added, "Well, sometimes it's a gift."
     So that was why he came to see me.  Two hours, a handfull of agricultural advice, and a half semester of Accounting 101 lessons later, I found out that he wanted a gift, not a loan, from the US, somewhere on the order of $20,000.
     I was pretty low by the time our first In-Service Training (ISTs are where Peace Corps holds a workshop to teach PCVs and their homologues a new skill, this time beekeeping) rolled around.  I talked with one of my trainers about how I have no idea what I am going to do in this village for two years.  This conglomeration of villages has received donation after donation--a dam from the United Nations, a sheep husbandry project from Christian Children's Fund, a well and demo farm from Peace Corps, and schoolbuildings, wells, and beehives from the Danish NGO Bornefonden.  It is a Togolese mentality that development comes from the outside, and this village has witnessed that phenomenon so many times that it can't imagine any other way for development to take place.  Yet they don't seem to grasp that, despite the thousands of dollars pured into this little place, their lives have not radically improved.  That realization is at the foundation of Peace Corps's new philosophy of locally driven development.  Thus, there is a gap (or canyon, really) between my villagers' expectation of me and the philosophy of the organization that employs me (if you can call $7.50 per day employment!).
     At some point, most PCVs give up on the goals they had upon arriving in village and throw themselves into some project to pass the time between refusing money to different people.  Some work in the schools, and I thought about doing that, too.
     I have never wanted to teach.  More accurately, I've never been able to talk to more than two people at a time without getting the nervous jitters, so the notion of teaching absolutely terrifies me.  PCVs haven't been trained as teachers for 20 years in Togo because Peace Corps wants to avoid taking a job away from a Togolese person, but there is still a need for teachers.  Schools are understaffed, and they could use help. 
     That was not my motivation for wanting to teach, however.  My thoughts were more along the lines of putting myself in a position to be an example in the community.  There is not a single female faculty member in the village's three schools.  For that matter, there is not a single college-educated woman from the village to serve as an example for the handfull of girls who reach 9th grade.  Second, having a white person in the school to remind teachers that it's illegal to beat kids would probably effect an improvement.  Finally, most PCV teachers end up spending a lot of their energy discouraging their teacher colleagues from sleeping with their female students (and we're talking about girls as young as 12) in exchange for passing grades.  Those were the reasons that sent me to talk to the director about teaching in the Middle School (called CEG).
     I was annoyed last spring when my High School newspaper erroniously reported that I had joined the Peace Corps in order to teach English.  Teaching English in a village like mine could be the most pointless endeavor I can imagine.  Most of my adult neighbors have never travelled the 20 miles to Kara, much less to Ghana or any other country that speaks English.  My personal opinion is that English should be stricken from the curriculum until Togo's economy makes even a hint of an upswing, but nobody important ever asked me.  Anyway, I found myself swallowing my pride and walking to the CEG to ask the director if he'd like me to teach English.  He washn't there.  He'd skipped the classes he was supposed to teach in order to attend a meeting out of town.  I returned three more times and the same thing happened.
     In November, I went to the CEG to announce a country-wide screenplay contest.  I showed up at 6:15AM and explained the contest to the entire student body after the raising of the flag.  They were to choose one of the 12 AIDS-related essay topics listed on the poster I duct-taped to the wall and write less than 10 pages on it.  I asked them if they understood, which prompted a resounding "Noooooo!" throughout the entire crowd.  The teacher, who'd understood me perfectly, repeated everything I said, and then they said they understood.
     The deadline for entries was in December, but I began to worry that the students had forgotten the contest since no one had come to ask me questions about it.  I went back to the CEG on Friday and reminded them that the deadline was Monday.  I determined that they had lost the first poster, so I taped up another one, along with a sheet of butcher paper with the topics written in big letters, a couple of flyers, the complete rules in French, my copy of the rules in English (just so they'd have every scrap of information available to me), and a sign with huge letters announcing the deadline: Monday, December 9th, 12:00 noon.
     I showed up at the CEG with tape, paper, envelopes, staplers, pens, and a stack of the coversheet questionnaires--all the materials necessary for sending off submissions and giving  the kids a chance at the 700,000-franc grand prize.  Classes ended, and the kids trailed out, watching me get more and more nervous as they passed by in droves.  After 5 minutes, the schoolyard was practically empty, and no one had turned in an essay.
     I was mildly flipping out, and the teachers standing around said, "Oh, sure, they did the essay.  They just didn't see you here and left with it in their notebooks.  You should have gone into each classroom to announce that you were here."  So, that was it; according to the teachers, it was my fault the kids hadn't turned in their award-winning essays.  They said I should extend the deadline.  On principle, I wouldn't extend the deadline to the next day because December 9 was the deadline for the entire country.  Besides that, I was leaving for Lomé the next day, where I was supposed to deliver the completed essays.  We compromised and sent a kid on a bike in each direction to tell the kids on the road that I would come back from 4:00 to 5:30 to pick up essays.
     Before I left the schoolyard, though, three kids said they had submissions for me.  I was so glad that the teachers' "I told you so's" didn't phase me.  The first kid pulled out a questionnaire completed with his name, age, contact information, and the number of his essay choice.  I was overjoyed.  He stood there smiling at me as I said, "Great!  I see that you've chosen essay topic number 3.  Where is it?"  He looked puzzled all of a sudden.  "Essay?" he asked.  I thought that maybe "essay" wasn't a word he was familiar with, so I tried a different approach.  "Yes, I see that you've chosen to write about the third topic," which I then read to him, "so where is what you wrote?"  "Wrote?" he asked.
     I could have sunk through the bench.  "Yes.  Wrote.  This is a contest.  They can't very well judge that you chose number 3 to be the best topic.  They have to see what you thought about number 3!"
     With that, the other two boys shot glances at each other.  They hadn't chosen a topic either, but had instead written two sentences on each topic.  I could have cried right then and there, but managed to wait until I got home.
     When I returned to the school, nobody came to submit an essay they'd written at any time during the month before lunch on December 9th, which didn't surprise me a bit.  One of the boys who had written short passages on all 12 topics submitted his work, which meant that I had to help him fill out the questionnaire, even to the point of helping him figure out his age.  (He was 19.)  Another kid had written eight lines or so during the last four hours and submitted those.  Finally, my neighbor, feeling sorry for me after the noon debacle, wrote out a hasty one and explained that he'd thought contestants had to be over 20 years old.  I have no idea where he got that, considering the only mention of age was that participants had to be under 25 years old, but I appreciated the gesture anyway.
     That experience was the end of my thoughts about teaching at the CEG.  For one, I can imagine the frustration of working for a director pulled in so many directions that he doesn't have time to teach his scheduled classes.  Second, the teachers were willing to blame everything on me without a moment's investigation.  Third, the students either couldn't understand my French or feigned not understanding my French.  And fourth, not a single student out of the 627 at the school took the initiative to read the directions.  I'm trying to be compassionate here, but, for Pete's sake, they understand French better than I!  All this combines to form what I think is a likely disaster.  Let's say the kids all fail their exams, hoping the white lady will have mercy on them and pass them anyway.  They'd probably whine that they didn't understand me; the other teachers would blame me on their behalf; the director wouldn't be there to arbitrate; and I'd have nothing buy my frustration to show for it all.  I think I'll pass up the opportunity to teach for now.
     So, what do I want to do as work in the village?  Our Project Design Management workshop focused me toward what I think is the most important enterprise in the village: honey production. 
     The village has over sixty operative hives, for which they have just begun to retire their loans by paying Bornefonden honey instead of money.  As far as I can tell, none of the villagers have even thought about what they are going to do with over 600 lbs. of honey during the next harvest when it becomes their own.  When I figured out the system, seeking a market for the honey stood out as an obvious choice for my project, but it wasn't so easy to sell that idea to the villagers.
     Even my homologue, who is intelligent and was present at PDM, listed a warehouse to stock fertilizers as the biggest need in the community.  I was sort of surprised, given that he has a hive himself.  He is right that one could make a lot of money selling chemical fertilizers because they are very expensive.  It is even true that every farmer in our village wants fertilizers because the soil is so depleted.  What he had overlooked, though, is that no one in our village has the money to pay for them.  Every groupement named the lack of money for fertilizers as the reason for their crop failures, so having fertilizers too-expensive-to-buy right there in the village is not any more helpful than having fertilizers too-expensive-to-buy a little farther away in Kara.
     Plus, if one person in the village bought fertilizers from the outside to sell to the other villagers, it would just represent yet another net outflow of money.  People in our village don't have a lot of money--sometimes it is hard to find a tomato vendor with change for 100 francs (20 cents) in our market--so they need to attract some here from the outside. 
     In my opinion, which I hope I don't soon come to regret, selling honey is the way to go.  The people in the surrounding area aren't too interested in buying honey--they don't really have much of a taste for sweets and regard it as a luxury good.  On the other hand, the apiculteurs who led our bee-keeping training last month sell their honey in bulk to hotels in Lomé.  What would be perfect for our area would be to have a fixed client to buy honey twice per year, especially if that client could pay the prices the hotels were giving to our trainees (about $2 per pound).
     My homologue liked the idea pretty much immediately, but lots of the other villagers were not so easily swayed.  They still see development in terms of building things, so their hearts mostly sank when Yarabé explained to them that Peace Corps doesn't do building projects or give out loans.  Most of the thirty people who showed up to my enthusiastically planned meeting (the first of whom had moseyed in a half-hour late) were asleep on their benches not five minutes after he got that point across.  We didn't even get around to the idea of a honey market before the meeting time was up.
     I didn't even know about a meeting of the beekeepers until I happened to walk by with Becky and her friend Meaghan a week later.  I didn't want the same lack of resolution to happen again, so I asked for the floor (whatever happened to afraid-to-speak-in-public Phynessa?) and suggested that I make honey marketing my job for the next two years.  I suggested it gently because I need to feel like the idea is their idea, that I haven't pressed it upon them, but they were enthusiastic about the prospects.  I told them that I would be willing to pay for my transportation and lodging out of my own pocket, so all they would have to do is gather the same for the person they elect to accompany me.  On one hand, they expected me to go it alone, but I refuse to put myself in a position to make decisions for the entire community or handle large sums of money on the village's behalf.  I can't imagine the mess I would land myself in if they weren't happy with my choices or if they thought I was earning a profit from the project.  On the other hand, they expected me to take a person along with me and pay for their fare, which I am not prepared to do either.  It is important that whomever they send not think of an excursion to Lomé as a vacation, but rather as a time-sensitive, serious project for which he is responsible to the community.  I can't imagine that attitude resulting from a trip I offered to pay for.
     The 30 beekeepers at the meeting were happy with that project idea, so I explained that I work for the community at large and not just the beekeepers, so I would be holding beekeeping , compost, and gardening trainings for everyone in the village.  They agreed that it was good to address everyone's needs and not just theirs, so I closed the meeting.  But not before they asked whether I would be providing people with free hives.  Or money.  Sigh!

I'll keep this report updated as the work scene unfolds.