Peace Corps


Bread From the Sky is featured today on Spalding’s Racket, a blog featuring indie authors, and has received two five-star reviews on Smashwords. The second reviewer, Ahmed Choudhary, is from India and unable to post his review on Amazon. Below is an excerpt from his review (and please keep in mind, English is not his first language):

“Even though this is a non-fictional book it is filled with characters some that I hated and some that I loved, it has its fair share of Happiness, Thrill, Sadness, Adventure, and many many funny moments, I really liked the book and that’s why maybe I tried to finish up at the first time I started reading it and I almost read it the whole night, I was so much hooked as the Journey throughout is so much captivating.”

In an email to me, Ahmed — who once told me he didn’t read much — gave me the greatest compliment of all:

“You know maybe the best thing that happened to me (reading this book and apart from all the learnings) is that I shall begin reading books from now on!”

I couldn’t be more proud.

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I’m now working on a fairly regular basis on the transcript of my Togo journals. I had expected, by the time I got around to doing anything serious with them, that I’d only have a handful of memories left.  That was the basis for the blog title and the working title of the manuscript. After having transcribed all the handwritten material, there’s much more than that.

The journals are being transformed into an e-book.  My goal is to have it finished, self published and for sale on Amazon by December 2010.

The last  installment describes The Pagala Training Camp.  A couple of years after I left Togo, the Pagala training camp was abandoned by the Peace Corps.

From 1996 to 1998 I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo, a tiny country barely touching the coast of West Africa. On this site are a handful of memories from my Peace Corps experience and some tales of Togo I can never forget.

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Here are a few of my favorite images from my two years in Togo.

It took about one and a half hours to get to the Langabou junction from Sokodé where Mensah was waiting in the Peace Corps truck to take us to Pagala.  The ride from Langabou to the PC training camp at Pagala took about 15 minutes, and the countryside was beautiful with rolling hills and plenty of trees.  It wasn’t the jungle, but it was pretty and it was still exciting just to be in West Africa.  The training center was pretty, too.  Lucky for us, we were a small group of only 19, so we were each given our own dorm room.  Normally trainee groups were so large that they had to share a room.  I immediately unpacked and felt at home.

All the professors in the training center know my name, even the ones who aren’t my teachers.  My reputation must have preceded me.  Several of them had come to Mamy’s in Lomé to meet us, and I hit it off with a few of them.  I especially liked Rose and the two Koffis.  (In addition to the Koffi whom I had sat next to in the dining room the night of our arrival, there was another Koffi who was the head trainer for the Small Business Program.) The feeling was obviously mutual.  They all had great, loud laughs, and I had been cracking them up in Lomé.

Little by little I began to connect names and faces of the Togolese professors and the staff at Pagala.  I also became well known for amusing the professors at the dinner table.  Everyone had also seen me dance at the little party Damase had for us Tuesday night.  They liked that, too.  I was more than twice the age of most of the stagiares, so I had little in common with them.

Several times I attempted friendly overtures to some of them, but there was never any reciprocation.  At first I didn’t feel as if the age difference had anything to do with it, but maybe it did.  My attitudes towards so many things were so different from most of the others.   I had traveled a bit overseas already. I grew up in the country where there were bugs, so the bugs in Togo didn’t faze me. I had also spent the last five years learning French in undergrad and grad school, so I was fluent and could easily converse in French with the Togolese.  Not only that, but having studied underdeveloped countries and cross-cultural issues as part of my international studies master’s degree, I was more familiar with the problems and issues we were likely to be facing.  In my graduate studies, I had also come across the concept of culture shock, what it was and how to cope with it. Finally, being in my 40s,  I had been independent for a long time.  I never suffered from homesickness or culture shock.  I began spending more and more time with the Togolese professors.

One of the side benefits to spending several days with Volunteers au village was that it gave the stagiares the opportunity not only to learn first hand how to get around on the bush taxi system, but it also gave us an immediate opportunity to use what we learned. Although the Peace Corps had driven us to the live-in posts, the stagiares were expected to get themselves to the training camp at Pagala by themselves, on bush taxis.

On the way to the live-in, we had driven through the junction at Langabou that led to Pagala. The Route Nationale, the main (only) paved north-south road that went from Lomé to Ouagadougou, formed a “T” junction at Langabou, and the only other road connecting to the Route Nationale there was the road to Pagala, so it wouldn’t be at all hard to get there.

We all woke up early. We had been told it was always best to get an early start because with the bush taxis around Bitchabé, you never know what’s going to happen. It rained like hell for about a half hour, then we went out to the taxi stand. Bitchabé is on a dirt road well off the Route Nationale, so it doesn’t have the best access or service. Not many taxis would be coming there that day because the heavy tropical rains turned the dirt road into a muddy soup that the taxis could get stuck in. Pam would accompany us to Bassar and make sure that we got on a taxi there that was bound for Sokodé. To get to Pagala, we would have to get off the bush taxi at Langabou and find a local taxi that made the Langabou-Pagala run. After you do it a few times, it’s no more difficult than changing trains on a subway system, but for the very first time, Sally and I were just a bit nervous.

We finally got a place on a bush taxi. It got a flat on the way to Bassar. They fixed it. Then it couldn’t get up a small hill with the load it was carrying, so we all had to get out and walk up. But finally we made it to Bassar and got a taxi right away for Sokodé, where we were to spend the night at the Peace Corps maison de passage. There was no way to make the trip from Pam’s house to Pagala before nightfall unless you were being driven there in a well-maintained Peace Corp vehicle which didn’t make any stops.

Maison de passage was a rather glamorous name that evoked a gently decaying colonial mansion serving out its final years as a hotel for Peace Corps Volunteers who were passing through. No doubt it was staffed by the Peace Corps and although the place was old, the rooms were clean. This charming fantasy couldn’t have been further from reality.

Peace Corps Disgusting Filthy Flophouse was far more accurate. It wasn’t staffed by anyone, just used frequently by the PCVs in the region and was available as an overnight stopping place for any PCV passing through.

As there was no one to let you in, the method of entry was ingenious. The front gate was secured with a combination padlock. Affixed to the gate was a small sign with clues to the padlock combination which were impossible to decode by anyone but the PCVs. For example, for the first number, the clue was “an American TV show named ____ is Enough.” They don’t get American TV in Togo, and most people don’t even have TV sets, much less electricity, plus very few Togolese speak English, so there’s no way any Togolese would have ever known about that program.

Walking through the gates, you had to watch your step, as the sidewalk was broken and you could easily trip. The maison was on the second story of a dilapidated building. The handrail on the steps wasn’t fully there.

As the maison was not staffed, no one was responsible for cleaning it, either. For payment, you just left $1,000 CFA per night ($2.00) in an envelope in one of the drawers in the hall bureau. From time to time someone from the Peace Corps would come to collect the money.

It was so disgustingly filthy that I couldn’t even stand the thought of taking a shower there. It seemed ridiculous anyway, as I had no clean clothes, there not having been enough time to wash them when we visited Pam.

There were some quaint and charming filthy mattresses on the floor for people to sleep on, with dustballs as big as tumbleweeds floating around everywhere. About the only positive thing I could say about the place was that because there were no wooden bed frames for bedbugs to hide in while they waited for their next tasty meal, I didn’t get any bug bites there. But I never stayed at a Peace Corps maison de passage again.

Bad Attitudes

Went out for a beer that night with some Volunteers who were also staying the night at the co-ed Filthy Flophouse. They had been in Togo a year, and like most Volunteers, the majority were women in their early 20s. A few of them had really crappy attitudes towards the Togolese, especially one woman who was extremely rude to a Togolese man who saw us all sitting there and came to introduce himself out of curiosity. She refused even to try to speak French with him and rudely ran the guy off, saying how sick she was of these obnoxious African men. I told her it seemed to me he was simply being friendly.

The rudeness and nasty attitudes of these Volunteers were embarrassing to me as an American representing my country in a foreign land. I hoped that not all Volunteers became as cynical and bilious as these people were. Once again, I was sorry that I had gone out somewhere in a group.

One of the reasons we were there at the bar was that one of the Volunteers was taking an Early Termination. He had a really bad attitude concerning the Peace Corps work he was doing, despite the fact that the country director had allowed him to change his post and his job responsibilities more than once. But at least he liked Africa and the Africans and spoke French with them. Two Togolese musician friends of his who he jammed with, came by to say goodbye and give him a parting gift.

Practically no Volunteer except the soon to be departing Volunteer spoke to the two Togolese musicians, partly because their French was lousy (the Volunteers’ not the Togolese) but mostly because of extreme lack of interest. After I finished pumping one of the women Volunteers for information on what it was like to be a Volunteer in Togo, I turned my attention to the musicians and had a very nice conversation with them. They were impressed with my French and assured me that any time I’m in Sokodé, I now have friends there. They gave me their phone number.

I don’t like Sokodé. It’s really hot, really dry and nothing about it is interesting, but now I want to return to listen to Inoussa and Esso play guitar.

I then went to dinner with a health Volunteer who was close to my age. We had a nice conversation, but she was not very social and I did not at all get the impression that she was interested in developing a friendship. So much for my support system in Africa.

Couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Sokodé the next morning and get to Pagala, where we would train for the next 12 weeks. I had brought only one change of clothes for the three day live-in at Bitchabé, which normally would have been enough, but not, as I discovered, when it’s humid. Not only was there no time to wash clothes, but they took several days to dry if they were hung up inside. I couldn’t wait to get to Pagala, get cleaned up and be reunited with my suitcases and some clean clothes.

Finding a bush taxi to Pagala was easy. There was a gare, a taxi staging area, a couple of blocks away from the Filthy Flophouse. Anything going south would get us there, so it was just a matter of waiting for the next minivan to come along. I was happy to leave Sokodé, but we would meet again.

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After the two-week introduction to life in the Peace Corps in Lomé and a weekend upcountry with a Volunteer, the stagiares regrouped at the Peace Corps training camp at Pagala. Pagala is situated about halfway between Togo’s northern and southern borders, some 20 miles west of the main north-south highway. It was about a four-hour drive from Lomé.

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stagiare getting water from barrel in front of dortoire

At Pagala we were housed in dortoires, a dozen or so buildings each with four spartan sleeping rooms and a toilet with a shower stall. There was no running water, so camp workers brought water daily to each building and stored it in two barrels. We drew buckets as needed for bathing and flushing the toilets.

We were lulled to sleep at night by the chirping of millions of crickets, the croaking of hundreds of frogs, the echolocation of thousands of bats and the whining of the occasional mosquito which managed to find its way inside our mosquito nets.

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Our classrooms were screened huts with straw roofs. We learned the basics of rural community development, working in groups and local languages.

Occasionally we were sent to the village on field trips. Among the most fun were going to the local marché so that we could get used to bargaining. I imagine the local vendors just loved to see us coming.

Another fun field trip involved mapping the village. We split up into four groups, each of which was responsible for mapping one quarter of the village (NE, NW, SE and SW) and walked everywhere, drawing in roads, major buildings and landmarks. Wherever we went, we were followed by curious children who loved getting their pictures taken.

At night the stagiares often went on field trips of their own design, usually involving Bière de Benin, found in abundance at any of the several local buvettes (bars).

When our time at Pagala was finished, we were sent for a few more weeks of specialized training at Kuma Adamé.

The biggest mystery surrounds What to Bring With You. The Peace Corps will send you some information on what is available in country and what is good to bring, but it’s a little vague. The best advice I got was to bring a good can opener (which I wish I had!) and a Swiss army knife (which I was glad I did).

As for the can opener, the literature you will read assures you that most everything you might not have brought with you can be obtained (1) in Lomé, (2) in regional cities, or (3) au marché. (These are little local traveling farmers’ markets near each village where you can buy matches, soap and used clothes, among other things. But more about that later.) So if everything can be gotten in Lomé, surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find a decent can opener, I reasoned. Wrong. Practically all you can find are cheap, dull, poorly made metal can openers from China which mostly don’t open anything. A good can opener is an excellent thing to bring. Bring a decent hand can opener with you and give it away when you leave. If you don’t bring a can opener, all is not lost. You’ll soon learn how to open a can the Togolese way: with a knife. It takes a bit of brute strength, but it can be done.

Swiss army knives, on the other hand, aren’t available in Togo at all. The ones you can get at Walmart for around $30 are fine. Beer bottle openers are good to bring, but more as gifts for the Togolese friends you’ll make. They, of course, have some pretty nifty ways of opening bottles if they don’t have one, but anything to make it a little easier is always welcome. You won’t need one yourself, as you’ll be set with your all-purpose Swiss Army knife.

Some people recommend bringing jeans. I brought two pairs and never wore them. Why? Togo has two types of weather: hot and hotter. Even during the harmattan, Togo’s winter, the temperature didn’t drop much below 70. Some volunteers wore jeans occasionally, but I was rarely seen in anything other than shorts.

A decent pen is sought after by Togolese and Volunteers alike. What you’ll find in Togo are mostly the French version of Bics which leak horribly. American pens are treasured. Buy a box of the less expensive ones at Office Depot to give as gifts. You’ll soon have lots of Togolese friends, and even a cheap American pen is prized.

Peace Corps will supply you with first aid items like aspirin, ibuprofen and even tampons. Soap for washing yourself and your clothes will be available even in the remotest village marche, but you may have to go to the nearest large city to find a store that carries deodorant. Only foreign NGO workers will be able to afford stuff like that, so wherever they are is where it will be sold.

The second dilemma is how much to bring. Everyone overpacks. A good rule of thumb is, don’t bring any more stuff than you can carry or drag all by yourself for a really long time. Friends and relatives can ship you anything else.