Friday, May 25, 2012

That’s All Folks

2 years: -Countless marriage proposals -1 Regional Camp Directed -2 Houses -2 National Camps Directed -1 Host family -2 World AIDS Day Events -Countless funerals -1 HIV/AIDS NGO -20 Club Espoirs -5 USAID Grants -2 children from Club lost to HIV -4 bouts of malaria -1 good friend lost to malaria -1 boy saved by stomach surgery -1 moto accident -2 cases of amoebas -Countless Togolese parties -1 case of giardia -4 cases of bacterial infection -5 instances of "level 10-ing" -2 visits to the witch doctor -1 Marathon -Countless PCV dance parties -1 trip to Cameroon -1 attempted kidnapping -1 trip to Morocco -1 Family Visit -1 Friend Visit -Countless children held -1 child birth witnessed -2 mountains climbed -2 languages learned -Countless letters written -12 blogs -Countless bush taxi rides -1 cave spelunk-ed -1 Canadian -1 baby incorrectly named after me ( Togo) -Countless friends made -1 snake in the shower -1 rat -Countless lizards -Countless scorpions -1 fountain swam in -1 waterfall swam in -1 lake swam in -1 dose of schistosomiasis medication (water-borne illness) -2 Thanksgivings -2 Birthdays -1 St Pattys Day Party -1 Seder -2 Halloweens -1 visit home -2 dogs -1 dog eaten by neighbors -1 cat -3 litters of kittens -1 cat given away -1 Yam Festival -2 Village Chiefs -1 riot witnessed -3 protests witnessed -Endless harrassment -Countless times being called "Yovo" (white person) -Endless laughter -Countless smiles -Countless gifts -Countless acts of kindness -Countless reasons to be grateful _______________________________________________________ I’ve been back in Oregon for a little over a week now. A whole world away and everything from that life seems to be fading fast. Life in America is awesome, obviously. I’ve unabashedly gained 5lbs on my mother’s cooking, and have already moved on to new adventures (building a cob wall at a certain community garden for instance!). I’ve been readjusting to the US by researching insurance plans, getting a phone, apartment hunting, and trying to ignore that inner nagging I have that I’m not actually home. That this is all actually temporary, and I will return soon enough to the chaos and frustration and adventure that is Togo. I understand now why volunteers who left before me don’t keep in contact. It’s not because they’ve forgotten, but that it is too sad to think back to the way things were. Not to romanticize it. If ever I was to have lingering thoughts about extending my service, I only have to think back on the last two weeks when I was struck with a nasty bout of falciparum malaria, which turned into, according to my sporadic and incompetent Togolese doctor, a “brain infection.” I fought for my life, and thankfully, won. At the time I was happy to get the hell out of there before my life was challenged again. But now, as I sit here in my comfortable house with all the amenities PCV's can only fantasize about, I’m torn between two worlds; neither perfect, but both home in their own way. In my 3-day rush between my hospital stay and leaving, I said good-bye to all my friends and family. Goodbyes are the WORST. My brain keeps wanting to automatically skip over this part and think of the frustrating bush taxi ride up when the door fell off every single time we stopped (approximately every 10 minutes) and took 15 minutes to put back on, or my ride to the airport where the taxi driver (Michel) and I belted “The King of Wishful Thinking” and “Walking on Broken Glass” along with the radio. The heart felt admissions by my friends, the improvised “Talent Show” when the electricity went out during the goodbye party where everyone made up ballads in my honor “Staa-cee you leave us but staying in our heeeeeart,” are too painful to think about. The Peace Corps family I left behind are my best friends. Soon enough they too will make the same painful transition and pretend that the access to food and paved roads is enough to compensate leaving their hearts behind. In all honesty, I was miserable for the majority of my last six months in Togo. I was constantly sick, health problems galore. I had a short temper with taxi drivers trying to rip me off, and the wonderful things of Togo lost their shine. It was far from easy. Every day was inconvenient and a struggle at best. But looking back, it was a small price to pay. There is a spirit and vitality in Togo that I have never experienced elsewhere. There is an outright joy for life that can only come from a lifelong uncertainty of how long it will last. I only wish that I could have appreciated more at the time. I am excited to start the next chapter of my life. I am ready for it. I will be attending grad school for University of Colorado in Denver in the fall for my Master’s in Public Administration. I am ecstatic to be with my family. My parents have been over the top awesome about my transition and are highly empathetic. I have a current project that fell into my lap which thankfully gives me purpose and is a much needed distraction. I have a million and one reasons to be happy and grateful, and I am. But it is an odd feeling to be content and a little heartbroken all at the same time. I miss speaking in French, greeting in Kabye, making hand gestures that are only understood by Togolese, haggling over prices, spending lazy days milling around and playing with hoards of children. I miss the broad sense of community that encompasses everyone, even strangers like myself. I miss the ridiculous moments of unbelief when there is a goat resting between your feet, a stranger’s baby in your lap, it being over 110F out, and being crammed in with 25 people when there is reasonably only room for nine. When there is nothing else to do but give up and enjoy the ride. There was a big part of me that was created and shaped in Togo. A patience, an understanding, and an acceptance of the human condition. I’m afraid that without the right conditions, and constantly being put to the test, I will lose that part of me. I told everyone, friends and family alike, that I would call, I would write. I’ve been home for over a week and have done neither. I know they’ll be worried, and wanting to know I am safe and home. But I can’t bring myself to do it. Pain and jealously prevents me. That they are there and I am here. I thought I was appreciating Togo while I was there, but there was so much time I could have been doing more, soaking more in, and experiencing it all while I had the chance. It is a weird paradox. When I was there, America was the dream. Now I am here, living it, and all I can think about is despite everything, despite Togo itself, it was the dream. Life, though, is moving on regardless. The day-to-day will soon overtake the struggle of wanting to be in two places at once. All I can hope for is that it will be sooner rather than later that I can think of Togo and be happy for the time I had there. Miss the people I know, without the heart-wrenching ache, and just pick up the phone and give them a call.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Volunteer’s Dilemma

I gave a third of my monthly salary to a complete stranger last week.

I’m still not entirely sure why. I might be having a ¾ service crisis, or I might have finally assimilated into Togolese culture. It’s hard to say.

A year ago, when my parents were preparing for a trip around the world, I advised them to create a traveler’s philosophy on giving out money. It is something that they would come across frequently and it’s important to decide how to deal with it. Some people will give out money to beggars, some only donate to organizations, others none at all. There is no real “right” answer, but it’s important to take into consideration the mindset of dependence you create and the standards you are setting for future visitors.

My decision while working abroad has always been that I am giving the people all I consistently have: my hard work and dedication. There will always be people in need of money. Poor people, sick children, hospital bills, empty stomachs. The reality is, one person with a pocket full of money is never going to be able to help the entire world. My work is generally focused on capacity building, program development, and policy, with the hopes that a strengthened organization could do more to help the community than I could on my own. So my personal philosophy is to never give out money. Ever. I think it causes more harm than good in the long run.

So after almost two years of people saying, “Yovo! Cadeau! Il faut me donner quelque chose!” (Or for all you Anglophones out there : “White person! Present! Give me something ! ”) I’ve always responded with « Je suis le cadeau ! Je travaille pour la communauté, pour les gens ici. Je suis une volontaire, je n’ai pas l’argent, je peux te donner seulement mon temps » (“I am the present ! I work for the community and the people here. I’m a volunteer and don’t have money. I can only give you my time”).

But, I’m a rule breaker. “Guidelines are there to be broken” if I may paraphrase my very wise mother (however, this may not be an exact quote, she always says I hear what I want to hear). It’s happened twice (this surgery, and the medical bills for three HIV+ orphans I know). And because it’s viewed as such an unsustainable way to help people, I’ve always been too embarrassed to tell other people.

And for good reason. Don’t think me heartless, but I truly believe it is important to recognize the unintended consequences of good intentions and giving. International aid has left people off far worse than when they started, and for reasons that people write entire books about, it can cause damage to the entire population in the long run. I will readily admit that all of my international experience thus far may, in the long run, be detrimental to those I tried to help. Not solely because of me, but as a cog of the greater international aid wheel. I am not saying that I regret having these experiences, but I am the greatest beneficiary. The work and help given in Russia, Uganda, Ecuador, and Togo all pales in comparison to what I got out of it: personal growth, resume boost, travel, languages learned, adventures, etc. In a very superficial way, the people I’ve met in my travels have been “helped.” But not in a sustainable fashion.

But back to the stranger with all my money. It was a confusing start. My friends Naka and Austin had arrived at my gate, I had gotten off work and was hanging out with my marché mamas down the road. So I walked back to greet them. They had a Togolese woman with them, which is not uncommon, I assumed just another village friend that accompanied them. I ushered them all into my compound and began to regale Naka and Austin with my snake experience. After a few minutes, Naka asked if I was going to talk to my friend. “Friend?” I asked, “I thought she was with you!” I went out onto my porch to see who this women was, and why she’d come.

She explained that she was asking people in the neighborhood for help. Her sister needed money for a stomach surgery and it would be impossible to pay it themselves-especially because they had already paid all the pharmacy bills. She showed me the bill for the imminent surgery - it was 43,800CFA (500CFA is a dollar; the average Togolese person is paid 10-15,000 a month, if thatThere are very few people that make anywhere near what I do (120,000 a month = around $240…I know.. raking in the dough with that college degree). ). I am one of the most affluent people I know. But all the same, between travel, food, bills, etc, I tend to break even every month. So 40,000CFA is a lot of money to me as well.

We talked some more and she told me about her family, and her life in general. I didn’t know what to say, so I told her I would think about it over night and for her to come back in the morning. She appeared the next morning and we chatted again. At this point, I still had not made a decision. But my instinct was that I really liked the woman and found her genuine. I went with my gut and gave her the 40,000CFA (leaving her family to come up with the 3,800).
It seems extravagant. I know it is. But there was a lot to take into consideration.

1.I have been to the hospitals here. They are a terrifying place to be, and outrageously expensive. No wonder everyone goes to the traditional healers.

2.I just got back from America (where I had procedures done for my own stomach issues, the lab work alone was over $100) and a surgery would be in the thousands.

3.I’ve been in a very reflective mood since coming back, with four months of service left, trying to figure out what I’ve actually done; if I’ve actually helped anyone since being here.

4.Whereas it might be inconvenient for me to not have the money for a month, it would be out of the question to even come up with the money, much less pay it off.

The next day, I went to the hospital to visit my new friend Amelie and her family at the hospital. It turns out when she said she needed money for her sister for a surgery, it was for her sister’s ten year old son. This little boy was wrapped in a single pagne on a rickety old hospital bed jammed in a room that was wall to wall with beds filled with patients. His mother assured me without the surgery he would have died. Amelie pulled back her nephews cover to reveal a bandage that went from his sternum to his belly button. He was grimacing in pain but still managed to give me a weak smile and say thank you.

After visiting the hospital, Amelie took me to her house nearby, and I met the seven kids she takes care of. She gave me food and chook and we spent the rest of the day sitting under her papaya tree, talking. She cooked dinner for Liam and I, while we listened to the African Cup game. The following day, Amelie came and cleaned my house for eight hours straight (it’s not THAT dirty, she is just thorough…). She’s planning on taking me to her family’s village in Benin as soon as it’s possible. I never asked or expected anything back from Amelie or the family, but she is absolutely set on doing everything in her power to thank me for helping save her nephew’s life.

Time will tell if what I’ve done has helped or hindered. It might not be the right step in fixing the world’s problems, and it is certainly not sustainable, but I don’t feel bad about going against my own word. The little boy is leaving the hospital tomorrow. Right or wrong, I am happy knowing that there are at least a few people that I can truly say that I helped.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Neighborhood Watch: Snake Edition

There are currently five Togolese men rooting around my house looking for holes. Snake sized holes to be precise. My neighbor, Arcade, showed up early this morning with his crew to oversee the search. Now, to my horror, they are on hands and knees, trying to ignore the grime, dog poop, and all the other gross things I try to ignore on a daily basis in and outside of my house, on a full out snake hunt. How did this all begin, you might ask? When I decided to take a shower last night, would be my answer.

Not to sound like a cliché, but it started out as any normal quiet night at my house. I had been at the office for a bit, gone to the market, made lentils and rice for dinner, and was planning on having an early night by myself. Although it’s fairly cold out at night by African standards, I needed to wash off the dirt and dust from the day. Even if I didn’t leave the house, the layer of dust that coats everything in the house rises up and clings to you every time you move.

I am lucky enough to be one of three volunteers (out of over a hundred) in country with running water and electricity. I am fully appreciative of this fact (especially because my first year of service I had neither). Even though the shower water is icy cold (believe me, because of harmattan – the windy season- this isn’t a pleasant thing) , it still trumps a warm bucket shower any day.

Running through the list of things I needed to get done this week, (final project reports, grad school scholarship applications, etc), I got under the shower head and proceeded to lather with soap from head to foot (note: the order is important). I was completely sudsy and ready to start on the arduous task of cleaning my feet (this can only be understood if you have lived in Africa for any length of time, there are layers of dirt. The dusty top layer, the dirt layer that can be confused with your chako tan lines, and then the layer of grime that has actually somehow been absorbed into your skin – usually around the bottoms of your feet).

As I began to bend over, something caught my eye. I twisted my head towards the corner of the shower stall (which is roughly 3ft by 4ft), and saw a large brown snake slowly swaying back and forth rising out of my shower drain. For an instant, I thought I was delusional and seeing things. But as I continued to question my mental stability, it had already risen a foot out of the drain and less than six inches from where I stood. I decided on the off chance that I wasn’t crazy, I should do something. I literally could not find the air to scream. I dashed out of the shower, suds and all, ran for my room, grabbed a pagne and my cell phone, and dashed outside.

I immediately called Liam, who lives about 15 minutes away in the next village over.

Liam: “What? Hello? Stace? What’s wrong?? I can’t understand you”
Liam: “Still can’t understand you, talk slower”
Liam:“A SNAKE?!”

By this point, I am in my front yard, covered in soap, wrapped in a towel, and the little boy from next door is just staring at me while I’m unintelligibly yelling into the phone. Liam was too far away to be any immediate help. By this time the snake could have left the shower (the water was still running) and slithered into any crevice in my house. This required immediate action by someone much braver than me. I got off the phone and started yelling for my next door neighbor, Arcade. Maggi-Man (he works for Nestle and owns a Maggi-cube truck which he takes me around town in from time to time) go way back. He has helped me out of many a’ pickle, without much choice other than neighborly duty and feeling of obligation to help the cowardly white girl who lives by herself.

He had two friends over, and they all looked for something to bludgeon with as I quickly explained what happened. Armed with a pcb pipe, a table leg, and a large branch pulled from my mango tree, they cautiously entered my house as I waited outside clutching my phone. I could hear them looking around and then scuffling and a lot of beating noises. The re-emerged from my house shortly after with the snake, at least three feet in length, draped twice over the pipe. It. Was. HUGE. And still moving. They had bludgeoned like the best of ‘em, but I could still see it’s tongue flicking. I had the heebie-geebies in the worst way possible. They took it outside the compound and threw it away, and after much discussion on how it could get into my house, they decided I was safe and left.

I entered my house, certain now that under every chair and around every corner a slowly swaying snake was waiting for me. I had just enough time to see the blood splatters that started in the bathroom and continued into the living room before the power went out. I was huddled on my couch in the living room in pitch black dark, wondering how one snake, albeit a very large snake, could hold so much blood. Mazzy was practically sitting on top of me. She had missed all the excitement sleeping on the back porch, but now she was on full alert realizing I was scared witless. So I called home. Thankfully it was a reasonable hour in Oregon, and my parents already awake. I have had enough experience living abroad to wait until I wasn’t at a full panic to call home. Parents tend to think of the worst when you call internationally and are screaming into the phone. Don’t ask me why, their worriers. ;)

Once I had relayed my adventures to my parents, vowed to never shower again, checked every corner of my house, and turned on all the lights in the house, I sequestered myself in my bedroom, barred the door, put a towel against the crack in the door, I tucked my mosquito net around my bed as best I could, and tried to sleep, with the light on.

The rest of the night and next morning passed by uneventfully, until Arcade and his men showed up. The found the hole under my house where the pipe had been dislodged so anything could come in or out. They cut back my mango tree, just in case it had been living in it, and climbed up on the roof to….well I’m still not sure what they did up there, but it sounded anti-snakey.

All-in-all it was a very Togolese experience. And as usual I feel ridiculous but otherwise unharmed. I must be more used to living in Africa than I thought. I am not traumatized like I thought I would be. It has pushed me to the decision to finally get curtains for my kitchen though. I’ll want some privacy when I’m taking a bath in the sink.

Friday, December 2, 2011

World AIDS Day 2011

I have been in Togo for just shy of a year and a half. I have done a lot of projects and have felt extremely rewarded by what I’ve accomplished and proud of what work has been done. But nothing since becoming a volunteer can even come close to how I felt yesterday.

I wasn’t expecting much. I was genuinely worried it might just be me and the Executive Director of AED, Christoph marching down the dusty roads of Kara on our own, with 4000 candles going unused. I was trying not to get my hopes up. After being in the med unit for the last week, I really had no idea how the last minute preparations had gone. I got off the bus after an eight hour ride from Lome, with an hour before the event started. I considered not going. I was tired, still not feeling well, and a little worried there wasn’t going to be an event at all. Liam convinced me we should at least show up and see what was happening.

We arrived a few minutes before six when the event was starting and couldn’t even reach the meeting point at AED because of how many people were blocking the road. The march had already started and all the event workers distributing candles were overwhelmed with mobs of people impatient to join the march. I couldn’t believe it. All the tiredness and weariness from the day left me. This was only a third of the participants. We had set up the march that it would commence in three different locations throughout the city and everyone would meet up in the center of town at the market and then continue to the Palais de Congres (Congressional Palace) for speeches and a celebration. People sang and chanted as we were swept along the route. There were smiling faces, people filled with excitement of being caught up in something so huge, but intermittently in the crowds of people, there were solemn individuals deep in thought, concentrating on honoring those they had lost.

Throughout the entire march, I was speechless and dumbfounded. It completely surpassed all my expectations. People kept joining; endless people streaming into the street. Pretty soon we had taken over the entire road and it was impossible for even motos to get through the masses. I spent half the time in remembrance for those I had known that had lost their lives, and half the time marveling at the amazing amounts of candles lighting up the city.

I was so overwhelmed with gratitude just to be a part of it. There were representatives from all walks of life. Staff and members of 14 different ONGs from the region of Kara, students of all ages, university groups, women’s groups, religious organizations, community leaders, and more all participated. We had well over 5000 people in attendance. We had distributed over 4500 candle and at least a third of who participated marched without candles.

World AIDS Day is celebrated worldwide in all different countries every December 1st. It commemorates those who have lost their lives in the battle against AIDS, as well as raises awareness and fights the discrimination and stigma of those who live with the disease. There are 30 million people worldwide today infected with HIV, and two million lives are lost to AIDS every year. The slogan for World AIDS Day until 2015 is “Objective: Zero.” It is a call and a challenge to stop the needless loss of lives and personal tragedies. The spread of HIV is completely preventable. There is no reason for this disease to prevail. With education and behavior change, the world can defeat the disease that has already claimed nearly 30 million lives since the beginning of the epidemic.

Last night was the best night of my entire Peace Corps experience. It is hard not to say of my entire life. Everything seems to pale in comparison with what occurred. It was so inspiring and motivating to see an entire region of a country come together in unison and stand together in solidarity against AIDS. I’ve never witnessed anything like it.

I cried a lot during and after the event (which is an extreme cultural faux pas – thankfully it was dark out). I cried for happiness and gratitude to the people who made the event possible. Without Christoph (the executive director of AED), and Emmanuel (our office manager), and the rest of the staff of AED and the other NGOS of Platform, it wouldn’t have happened. Peace Corps rewarded a grant to start the mobilization of our vigil, but without the motivation and dedication of these hard working people, it never would have happened.

I also cried for those who have passed. I looked into my flickering candle among the thousands of others and saw the face of the little boy I knew who died two months ago after a long fight against AIDS. I saw the countless of adults who I have seen in their last days, gaunt and unable to lift their own heads, I saw the millions of children orphaned – an entire generation facing the world alone, the millions who are discriminated against every day for a disease that in a many parts of the world still counts as a death sentence. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, friends, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters all lost for no reason.
I cried for the lack of support or empathy from the rest of the world. How is it possible that this epidemic can go on continually ignored by governments and the general population? How can people know this exists and not feel compelled to act? I have decided that I will spend the rest of my life raising awareness and joining others in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but it will not be enough. People need to step out of their comfort zones and realize we are all in this together. It might not be your mother or brother that has lost their life needlessly, but that does not make it any less of a tragedy for those who have.

I will never forget the silence that over took the thousands of people at the Palais de Congres in a moment of prayer and remembrance for those who have gone. It said so much more than any speaker could.

I am proud to have been able to stand as a part of the community of Kara and say no longer we will accept people silently dying alone. No more shame. No excuses for not taking a part of the fight. We will stand together and make it known that HIV can be defeated. We can make it happen, together.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

55 hour work week - GAH!

Hey Everybody!

I thought I would put up a blurb I sent to HTH (AED's partnering NGO in the states). They asked for a report about what exactly I do here (ha), and I figured most of you might be interested as well. The short answer is: a lot. I worked 55 HOURS last week, in the office. I didn't actually know that was possible in Africa, much less the Peace Corps. But I did it, and I feel really really productive because of it! I love love love the work I'm doing doing at AED, even if it means I don't do much else. Enjoy! :)

HTH Report:

Greetings from Togo!

My name is Stacie, and I’m a Peace Corps volunteer embarking on my second year of service. I grew up in St. Helens, OR and am a graduate of the University of Oregon with a degree in Public Policy, Planning, and Management. I started working at AED full time in August (for the first year of my service I was the national director of three camps for Togolese children, which targeted specific groups: Camp Espoir for children with HIV, Camp Joie for those with physical disabilities, and Camp Vie Saine for orphaned girls).

Since joining AED, I have been busy with a variety of projects and different programs. Currently I am:

-Directing/Guiding monthly professional development seminars to increase staff efficiency and effectiveness

-Forming support groups for the "Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PTME)" and "Orphans and Infected Children (OEV)" programs

-Conducting PTME home visits

-Working with PASCI/PSI (International NGOs) to monitor and evaluate our reporting forms/programs

-Gathering data for UNICEF (in order to fund school supplies for primary school students)

-Compiling PTME data (through interviews of women who have completed the program in the last year)

-Overseeing the “Club d’Observance” meetings and the support group meetings (both funded by Fonds Mondial [Global Fund])

-Attending technical meetings

-Participating in Club Espoir – a monthly club for children affected by HIV/AIDS

-Aiding in the distribution of nutritional kits

Most of my work focuses on organizational capacity building, with a strong emphasis on monitoring and evaluation of our programs and processes. The staff has been extremely supportive and helpful in integrating me into their work. I’m very excited to be considered a part of the AED family!

My goal is to match the dedication, energy, and motivation that the staff brings to the clinic every day. The work being done here is truly inspiring.

Thank you for your continuing support!

Pilaba Tasi (See you later – in Kabye)!


Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Marathon Story

Last December, after being heavily persuaded it would be the best idea ever, I agreed to sign up for a full marathon in Accra, Ghana that following September. When I visited Rachel in Morocco in January, we decided it would only be fair if she visited Togo too. My only stipulations were that I would be able to do the work I needed to get done, and that she help me train for the marathon.

We started officially training April 1st. Before this, the longest I had ever run was 4 miles back in high school, and a few 5ks. I had off and on been running 3 miles since coming to Togo, so I was at the baseline of where our training came in. For those of you that don’t live in Togo, April is hot season. It starts in March, but reaches its peak in April. So hot-hot season. Like-110F-115F-with-no-air-conditioning-hot. Do-nothing-all-day-but-lie-on-your-floor-in-a-pool-of-your-own-sweat-hot. Am I painting a good picture? This is how I kicked off training. Getting up at 4AM, it already being 105 degrees outside, and running. Oh the misery. Then I went to Cameroon, hiked Mt Cameroon for some cross training (probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Period), and then it was Camp Season. I spent my summer living at the Pagala training/campground center and spent 12-16 hours a day running two national camps. Not a lot of time to squeeze in training, but I managed somehow. Then I got sick. Really really really sick. Bedridden for 31 days sick. It took literally an entire month to figure out that I was gluten intolerant (no tests for that here, just a process of elimination of every other disease in Togo ever and then food. Hence why it took a month. Ha). But I got better really quick all things considered, kept working camps, and training. Then July came, and with it, Rachel. She finished her program in Morocco and hopped on over to Togo for three months to hold up her end of the bargain.

We settled quickly into a routine of training, work, cooking, eating, and recycling illnesses. But in general having the best time ever. I had two weeks of camp where I left Rachel to her own devices in Kara and returned to Pagala to do more camps. We slowly worked up from 9 miles to 12 miles, to 14 to 16. It was unbelievable. Two of my closest friends in Kara region, Kristine and Mary, our veteran marathon runners (who initially convinced me this is how I should be spending my time) joined us on the long Saturday runs (during the week it was Mon, Wed, Fri – Cross Training, Tues, Thurs – 6 miles, and Saturday varying long runs (6-20 miles) Our longest run was in between Kristine’s village and Kara. We guesstimated that it would be around 20 miles, but when it was all said and done it turned out to be closer to 24. Mary, who was ahead of our pack and had no distance tracker, ran the whole thing. Ha. She accidently ran 24 miles. This is why I love Mary. Kristine and Rachel both have those awesome Nike plus things you stick in your shoes and it tells you how long you run and then someone like Lance Armstrong comes on and tells you how awesome you are. I really want one.

During these runs, every hour we would walk for a couple of minutes, drink some water, eat some sort of snack thing (I wore a fanny pack during training – I was looking SO good) that we got sent from home (thank you SO MUCH for the Cliff shotblocks – Kristyn and Anne!). I got really comfortable running 12/13 miles. It’s a really good distance because you get warmed up, chat, get a good distance in, and finish without feeling like you want to die/have energy for the rest of the day. Not to say that it wasn’t hard. Because it was. But it was doable. Kristine and Mary were/are both all stars and made everything look like it was a walk in the park. Rach went out and worked her ass off, but was a natural. I generally was huffing and puffing in the back just trying to keep up. I’m inherently a slow runner. And it sucks training with people that are faster/slower than you because you are either expending to much energy or cramping up trying to slow down for the other person (sorry Rach :-/). So eventually decided, if I was going to do it, it would just have to be at my own pace and on my own.

September was our winding down period where you are supposed to “taper.” I wasn’t feeling ready to taper. I sincerely felt like I should be tacking on another year before setting out on something like this. I started working at AED, and simultaneously finish up camp finances/final reports/etc. We also had Mid-Service Conference and then the Yam fete in Bassar (West Kara), which was ridiculous. We ate so so many yams, and ended up meeting/partying with the president of Togocell. His name is Yousef and actually really cool. Ha.

Slowly, we arrived at a week before the race and we did our very last run (not normal, but we had to travel and it wasn’t going to be possible after). We had to go down to Lome early so Rach could get her Ghana visa and I could get my mid-service checkup. When we left on Wednesday from Kara, Rachel and Kristine were on deaths door with this awful cold. I nearly pooped my pants on the 12 hour bus ride to Lome (still for unknown reasons – thank god for well placed immodium). We arrive successfully and then, like we’d been doing all summer, Rachel gave me her illness. And with 2 days before the big race, I came down with the nastiest cold. I stayed in bed for the entire two days, and the nurses in Lome even let me stay in the med-unit so I could sleep (directly outside our hotel window was a family compound. They built things and starting hacking up carcasses of things at 5 in the morning. Oh Togo).

The day before the race, Kristine, Mary, Rachel, and I met up with all the other 17 volunteers that were also running the race (mostly the half), and crossed the border. Now I should go back and explain that in May, for motivation, Kristine and I concocted a plan to all be wearing matching pagne (the loud print material they have here) track suits and “TEAM TOGO” tshirts. So, over the summer we enlisted my tailor and a tshirt guy down in lome, and made it happen. We were looking SO GOOD. The pagne was green, yellow, and red material and our tshirts were yellow, with green print and a red star (like Togo’s flag). And we also had a really fun day in the market picking out different red sun glasses to complete our look. Needless to say, we turned a couple heads.

Our team rented a car and drove the 3 hours to Accra, Ghana, where we took over the Salvation Army hostel. It was crazy being with so many volunteers, but it also made it a lot of fun. The morning of the race we got up at 3:30. We were all out in the courtyard of the hostel (all 20 of us) waiting for our transport to arrive, when 4 Irish volunteers (who were also staying there) came staggering in after a night out. It was kind of hilarious the stark contrast. Running is a form of entertainment in Togo from a complete lack of anything else to do. Apparently they have more options in Ghana. ;)
We dropped off the ½ marathoners at their start point and then drove and drove and drove (it seemed like a lot more than 13 miles more) to the middle of no where, on the side of the road. There was no start line, no bathrooms, no nothing. Just a car and some random pockets of people that looked like they were going for a morning jog. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. We got there at 5:30 – when the race was supposed to start. And even if we had started then, everyone was worried because we’d end around 11 – and it would be unbearably hot (hence why during training we got up at the crack of dawn to avoid the heat). They finally organized us around 7:30. The sun was up and it was already over 80 degrees. Not a good way to start.

Someone yelled “full marathoners come to the road!” So we all congregated in the middle of the highway (someone was holding off cars with their hands – because it was not portioned off… and they were probably on their morning commute-just trying to get to work). We had watched the relay teams start and they had explained to them where to go, etc. We thought we’d get the same treatment (because no one had any idea what was going on) but as soon as we were in a group (there was only 20 or so full marathoners) someone shot off a gun, everyone screamed, and then we just started running. Not exactly how I imagined it going, but we can’t always get what we want.

During the race, there was supposed to be water stations every mile or so (they had sent out a list of all of them the week before via email), but there were no mile/kilometer markers, and the first water station was three miles in. It was literally just on the side of the road (no sidewalks), just dodging people and traffic and hoping that you were going the right way (because there were NO signs). The half marathoners had started an hour before we did, and then they let the relay runners go, and the full were the last to go. And other than the guy from India that decided to walk the whole thing, I was the last of the last (I kept up with Kristine and Rach for the first hour and then slowly fell in back). Which is fine and what I expected. What I didn’t expect, is shortly after being on my own, the water stations ran out of water. This was right after mile 6. It was 85F out, no shade, I had already been running for an hour, and I had no money at all to buy my own water (which is what most of the full runners ended up having to do). Rach’s parents had sent her a camel backpack, so on top of the water given to her or bought, she had a liter on reserve. I didn’t have anything like that, so I was basically screwed. So, I did what any optimistic person would do and just kept running. I knew they couldn’t of completely run out of water, it just had to be further ahead. I was really wrong. I ran for nine more miles. Suffering. In the heat, with no prospect of water in sight. By this time there was no one else around (no race officials, no markers, all the water station people left – because there was no water, etc). Around mile 14 I started seeing black spots, and I had the shivers for a while (which I should have found odd because it was so freakin hot out). The next thing I knew, a 70 year old Ghanaian relay runner was crouched over me shaking me awake. I had apparently just passed out on the side of the road and he was the first to find me. Awesome. They used their phone in their relay van and called a race official, who needed to come get me. I was doing really bad. The race official guy showed up and by this time I still had no water, he handed me a bottle which I immediately began to drink. Unfortunately, it was too much too soon and I proceeded to vomit all over him and his good intentions. It wouldn’t have been that bad except I had eaten a red colored shot block earlier in the race so it was all chunky and red. Hahaha. I just have nothing to say about it, except for I’m sure those of you that know me aren’t that surprised. I have a long history of puking at inappropriate times/places. Ah well, la vie est toujours comme ca.
He ended up calling the med unit and AN HOUR LATER it finally came. STILL NO WATER! We had to drive all the way back to the end of the race before they could find any. So ridiculous on so many levels. Regardless, once I got back all the halfers were there hanging out and Togo PCVs took care of me. I got to go through the finish line, they gave me a medal (I technically did over a half), and then hung out with everybody and got to see Kristine, Mary, and Rachel all finish. I was so so so proud of all of them. It is amazing. And really worth it.

Afterwards we treated ourselves to an entire barrage of food: smoothies, fried chicken, French fries, potatoes, kababs, pitchers of margarits, the works. Everyone celebrated surviving. Rach and I continued to the beach the next day with some other volunteers and drank pinocoladas and recovered. It was a perfect way to wind down her trip here and our huge adventure.

I would say I was disappointed for not finishing, but there was so much out of my control and so many things working against me that I am actually okay with it. There is so much before the race even happened that I am proud of. I ran the distance of ½ marathon several times over, and came really close to running the full all on my own. A year ago, I would never have thought that it would be possible. How can I be upset of not running a crazy distance on one bad day, when I’ve already overcome so much? It just means that I am going to have more time to prepare for my next race. It’s going to be glorius. Paved roads, cool weather, mile markers, new shoes (I’ve been running in used shoes I got here at the market), a whole wealth of information and supplies. I am going to appreciate the crap of running in America.

Rachel has already decided we’re doing the Eugene Marathon when I get back. I’ve already started training.

A day in the life...

Okay, because I know you’re dying to know what a day in the life of Stacie is like – here it is:
(But note, all of this is subject to change based on the day, season/weather, which volunteer is crashing at my house, if I’m sick, etc)
I get up at 4:30 in the morning (when the call to prayer at the Mosque across the street starts). During training, this is when we went running/did yoga because it’s still relatively and there aren’t too many people or zeds (motos)/zeds out. Now with Rachel gone, and the marathon over, I usually walk the dogs around the neighborhood and catch up on cleaning. I fill up my Peace Corps issued water filter for the day, feed the dogs the pre-ordered/brought up from Lome dog food. Mazzy has been hit by a moto twice now and I’ve had since my birthday last November, and Goony – who I inherited from a volunteer that left in June – is dumber that a pile of bricks, but I love him anyway . I make breakfast (usually scrambled eggs, but when I run out – like today, I just eat some peanut butter – its ground and sold in the marche by the sweetest old Kabye woman who doesn’t speak a word of French. Even if I don’t want or need PB, I go anyways just to visit. She always reprimands me - in Kaybye – if I stay away too long. Rach and I went specifically to see her on the day before Rach left so she could say goodbye). I choose from the colorful array of loud print pagne dresses I’ve had made by my personal tailor, make Nescafe and powdered milk for coffee, put on my chakos, grab my nalgene, and a container filled with left over rice from the night before. I put it all in my bag (with phone/wallet/epi-pen/planner/notebook/pens/keys/drink mixes/camera/chapstick/sunscreen/handwipes), and go out to the side of the road to find a zed (taxi-moto). Usually I can find one in a few minutes. It’s a 200cfa ride to AED, which is expensive because anywhere in Kara-meme is 100cfa. Most of the guys know me, and we always chat on the 10-15 minute ride there. I always carry around with me/use on zeds my Peace Corps mandated helmet, which I covered prettily in stickers. :) I arrive – pay the guy with hopefully any small change I have (it’s necessary to hoard small change here. You might have all the money in the world, but it will do you no good if you don’t have a 100cfa, 200cfa, or 500cfa coin). If not, I have to ask the benye (local doughnut) vendor to break a 1000cfa bill (which she will do unhappily. Cannot stress the importance of coins enough). I go inside and greet in Kabye the 50 or so women already waiting for the clinic to open (it opens around 8, I usually arrive between 7-7:30). I unlock my office (which also doubles as a work space for all the other volunteers in the Kara region – which I am the manager of).
If I have the forethought to get internet credit, I check my email, go greet my co-workers, check my work schedule posted on my door, check my personal planner, and then my various to-do lists. I sit-in/supervise/participate in meetings throughout the day. Monday and Friday mornings, I meet with Christoph (the executive director) and Emmanuel (the office manager) to go over work/projects/to-do list for the week. The clinic closes between 12-2:30/3pm, but I work through (which is UNHEARD of here – literally nothing is open. You can’t buy anything, you can’t go to the bank, the post, the hospital, some restaurants aren’t even open. NO LIE). When I’m not in meetings, I go out to surrounding villages for home visits, or stay in the office to write reports, proposals, work on finances, type up statistical/client information, or have more meetings. Around 5 or 6, I lock up the office and walk till I find a zed (its harder near Marche Wakada – its kinda in the middle of nowhere). First thing I do when I get home is yoga or run, walk the dogs, pick up things from the marche near my house for dinner, greet everyone around the neighborhood and marche. I usually get a combination of: eggs, a cabbage, a few carrots, bananas, onions, and green beans (if there in season). My friend Monique usually insists on giving me some raw peanuts (that I can boil at home) as a gift and asks me when I can go visit her brother with her (she wants us to get married – I’ve never met him). At the marche, everything has to be individually bought and bargained for. There are loyalities in grand marche and I will go all the way across the marche just to get my garlic from the lady I know. It has taken all year to build these relationships. Once a week I try to go to the grand marche (more variety), and then the post which is just down the hill. I’m SUPER close with my post lady. When my parents came, I took my mom just so she could meet her. I check to see if Peace Corps or other volunteers have sent me something in EMS (the free mail service in country for PCVs – I penpal with several volunteers because phone credit is too expensive – it takes at least a few weeks to get a letter from someone that lives an hour or two away).
By the time I am done running around, its dark and I’m exhausted. I fix something quick for dinner (standard is some type of stir fry over rice usually with soja [tofu] – which you can literally find anywhere on the side of the street, already prepared, super cheap – 100cfa would be a good meal. Meat is too expensive, I only eat it once or twice a month). I either watch an episode or a movie off my external hard drive, or play with the dogs. By then, its 8pm. After a shower (I have running water. My bathroom is badass. I have a flush toilet and everything). I crawl under my mosquito net, turn on my headlamp (the light in my room doesn’t turn on after 5pm – no idea why. Its just Togo). And read one of the hundreds of books that have passed through my hands since arriving here (other volunteers send them through the mail service or leave them at the PCV bureau in Lome or Atakpame). I can’t fall asleep without reading at least a page of something-no matter how tired I am. Within 10-15 minutes, I’m dead to the world. Usually just covered with a sheet and a fan blowing directly on me. And then rinse and repeat for the next year. That is my every day. There is very little variation except since I am in the regional capital, PCVs from surrounding villages (up to 4 or 5 hours away) have to come in at least once a month for banking, internet, food, etc. And since its impossible to go and come in a day, they all usually end up crashing at my house (in the spare bedroom, or if it’s a party- my courch, the three lipicos (cots) I have, or on the floor with the spare set of cushions I have, or the roof – its really nice and cool at night, but the ladder to get up there is a little terrifying). My life has become exceptionally simple. I feel the need to apologize for how boring I’ve become. But its literally all I have time/energy/resources for. Other typical adventures include: hanging out in my old village, drinking chook at a chookstand, Club Espoir at AED (once a month), or cleaning (although, there is a lady that comes once a week to clean and do my laundry for me…so I don’t personally do a lot of that. Ha).
The funny thing is, I am deliriously happy. I’ve reached a point where I am so comfortable in Togo, that I really consider it home (I’m actually worried that I fit in better than I do in the U.S. – when I do completely bizarre things here, no one bats an eye). I absolutely love the work that I am doing (even though I am working 50-60 hours a week. By the way, I didn’t even know that was possible to do in Africa, much less in the Peace Corps, but the amount of work to do here is literally never-ending). The work I am doing is so rewarding/challenging/inspiring, and I love love love the people I work alongside and serve. I hope I can continue this kind of work for the rest of my life.
I might get excited thinking about real paved roads and full ketchup bottles, but I couldn’t be happier with my life, where I am, and what I am doing.