All Settled In
Funfact: this week marks my 6 month anniversary of being in Togo. What !? I have no idea how that’s possibly true, but the calendar tells me it’s so. Time seems to work very strangely in this country and in the context of Peace Corps life in general. In these six months, I have already experienced and lived so much, finding it hard on any given day to absorb, understand, process, and assess everything going on around me, let alone express it or evaluate how my heart and mind are responding to it all. There have been days that felt like they’d never end, then whole weeks that have flown by barely noticed. There have been beautiful moments I’ve simply stood in awe at the life and opportunity I’ve been blessed with, and others in which I have faced challenges and stressors and pressures I could scarcely identify, let alone so readily overcome. All in all, I’m learning exactly why they call this “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
This six month mark also brings to a close a particular portion of my service: the so-called “settling in” phase. Since I was Sworn In as a Volunteer on August 28th, I have been living full-time in my community, with a very specific purpose and responsibility: Integration. For three months my primary (and pretty much only) job has been just that – the intangible, interpersonal, cross-cultural, soft-skills work of getting to know my community, making friends, building trust, establishing credibility, earning respect. And like every Volunteer in every country in each year since Peace Corps was created, I have had to learn and figure out for myself what that means, how to go about it, and what it looks like for me and my community.
To give you a snapshot of my environment, because for many of you, I haven’t shared very much about it:
My village is called Awoute-Kondji, which just means “the village of Awoute,” which is the name of the founding family. The Awoute family is still the largest and most prominent, and as the “grande famille,” the chief is typically an elder male from that family.
It is very traditional: With the exception of a few who have married into families in the village, everyone here is Ewe, the largest ethnic & linguistic group throughout southern Togo (as well as Benin and eastern Ghana – relative to others, it’s actually a huge group). There are Christian families, but for the most part it is a deeply animist community – a traditional religion that draws it’s practices from superstitions and beliefs about the physical environment around them and the importance and power of a family’s ancestors and their spirits. The gender roles here are very traditional and clearly defined, and attitudes and beliefs about those are held strong. Families are large, polygamous, and the most important thing in the lives of my community members – both in terms of expressed values, as well as obvious social, political, and economic respects.
It is definitely out in the bush, but not too isolated: Located in the far eastern part of the Maritime region, I’m just east of a larger town named Tabligbo, quite close to the border of Benin. If you follow the road that goes through my village, you’ll go straight to Benin, crossing the Mono River which serves more or less as the border itself. I actually accidentally crossed it on one of my morning runs before I knew what it was. Oops…
It’s very small: about 500 people live here, though estimates are tough when families are huge and complicated, houses are deceptively small, and migration labor & rural exodus is a way of life here. There are very few resources directly within my community, though we draw from other villages in the area. We have no schools, no healthcare providers, no market, no boutiques (little stores), no restaurants or street food (there was one lady who sold beans & rice, but she called it quits a couple weeks ago, much to my dismay). For everything we lack in physical capacity and resources, though, there is a remarkable level of community organization. There is a well-organized Village Development Committee (basically the Togolese version of local government or town councils). We have a formally structured farmer’s cooperative and Red Cross Mother’s Club. In addition, because of our relative proximity to Lome, the national capital and political & economic epicenter of the country, we also have a Committee of people who grew up in Awoute Kondji, but now live in Lome. So, despite the pattern of rural exodus that moves younger, more well-educated and successful people from the villages to major towns and cities, some of that is funneling back into development here. That’s been a cool thing to learn about and observe.
It is an entirely subsistence farming community, as are the vast majority in Togo. This means that every family in my village owns land which they work each season, year in and year out, to produce food for themselves, then either trade in community or sell at market to earn money for their other needs, like housewares, clothing, or school fees. The major crops in my community are corn, cassava, yams, beans, tomatoes, eggplants, and hot peppers. I have no electricity, nor does the rest of the village. I do have a small tap in my compound for water, but my village as a whole shares two large pumps and an open well in the back of the village. The two pumps, with partially treated water, is the best quality a community outside of a major town can expect to have, so my village is lucky in that sense. (One of the pumps was built by the European Union, partially funded and completely maintained by my community. The second was built by one of the cement factories in the area).
It’s a beautiful place: Like most villages in this lush, green, red-clay earthen, southern stretch of the country, Awoute-Kondji is a tight-knit community, both in morale and physical space. I could circle around the whole village in 20 minutes, weaving through about a few dozen compounds of three or four houses each, built back to back, utilizing space in such a beautiful and creative way. All but three or four of the homes in my village are constructed with traditional materials, rather than cement and metals. Instead, they are built out of the earth upon which they rest: red and brown mud huts with roofs of dried grasses piled thick and high. The boundaries of compounds are marked not with neat fences, but cut tree branches replanted, creating live fencing of little trees around each home. The area around my village is all farming fields, lush & green most of the year, spread across small rolling hills that go on for hectares and hectares until you reach the next cluster of villages. It is beautiful.
So what has my life here, my attempts at integration looked like? Ironically, I think this period of “settling in” has looked a lot like “settling down,” something I never thought I’d feel like I was doing at age 23, let alone in a small West African village. During this period of integration I’ve tried to consider myself first a member of the community, second a development worker & cultural ambassador (the latter being my actual job here). This means that I’ve spent a lot of time out in my community, talking with different people, asking questions, essentially inviting myself into the patterns of their daily lives, doing what they do – working in the fields, helping with the harvest and the planting, joining in the Thursday afternoon dancing & drumming circles, attending the Sunday afternoon football games, going to school and sitting in on classes, visiting health clinics with my friends when their children fall ill, going to local markets, buying and observing the selling, as all the women in my community do several times a week to provide for their families. I’ve made every attempt, to the extent that a stranger from such a different life can, to see their life here holistically and live it closely, as well as to understand their work, pressures, anxieties, and opportunities as subsistence farmers.
The results of all this “work” have been beautiful, slowly forming out of chaos, failures, lessons learned, lots of practice, small victories, and so much laughter:
-I now respond to and even find a portion of my identity in my village name, Akouvi, and all it’s variations: Tata Akouvi, Davi Akouvi, D’Akouvi, D’Akou…
-Petit à petit, vide vide, I now speak a language shared only by those born in this small corner of West Africa – Ewe
-The subtle movement of bowing to anyone older than myself during a greeting is something I now do without thinking
-A single piece of brightly colored and wildly patterned fabric, wrapped around my waist, folded under at my hip is now a wardrobe staple
-I can say with some level of confidence that I have mastered hand-washing my clothing
-I own my own machete and hoe, and I know how to properly use them both
-The weight of a full basin of food, harvested by hand, transported on foot atop one’s head, from field to home is now a familiar one to me
-My horribly weak Irish tastebuds have grown somewhat accustomed to some real strange foods, all slathered in hot peppers that once made me cry
-Walking 10 kilometers round trip to market on the footpath through the forest with my friends fills me with a profound sense of belonging
-There are three or four homes I have a standing invitation to dinner, where I can sit, eat, talk, ask any questions I’d like, and just relax
-My friends Ahoefa, Noelee, and Alyse (in true Togolese manner) could not only tell you my full real name, but also those of my two sisters, my mother, and my father, as well as each of their professions. (They’re very excited my older sister is finally getting married at the ripe old age of 26 next year and although I think they’re concerned for my prospects, they agree with a measure of skepticism that going back to school in America is important too).
-I’m gifted more fruit, beignets, and prepared meals than any human could eat alone
-Our chief offers me a seat next to him and an open platform in every one of our regular village meetings to speak to the community
-I got a lot of people hooked on scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, French Toast, and pancakes after I did a couple American breakfasts in exchange for a little work in my garden
-I have heard more from the women in my village about the hopes and dreams they have for their daughters than my heart can handle, amazed they want to share that with me.
-I still receive the same slight bow and handshake, with the opposite hand crossed over the elbow, when people come to greet me: a sincere sign of respect, especially coming from men who are two or three times my age
Ultimately, I feel safe, connected, respected, and protected by my community. As that’s the first step of accomplishing anything in Peace Corps, despite the handful of days that felt like they would never end, I feel like these six months have been undoubtedly well-spent.