Former Andersonian Found Peace Corps Rewarding Adventure
Published in the Anderson (South Carolina) Independent March 23, 1986<i/>
Even as I hung up the telephone I realized that my life would never be the same again if I accepted the offer I had just received. A Peace Corps recruiter in Atlanta had shattered my peaceful existence in Anderson with an invitation to spend two years in the West African nation of Togo as an agricultural volunteer.
I faced an agonizing decision. On the one hand, the invitation from Peace Corps was the culmination of a dream I had nurtured for seven years. It would allow me to fulfill so many of my personal goals: see how the majority of the worlds people live in the Third World, learn another language (or two), make a meaningful contribution to my fellow man and simply have a great adventure in an exotic locale. On the other hand, I faced the prospect of giving up a perfectly good job on the copy desk of Anderson Independent-Mail, leaving the comforts of my apartment on North Main Street and being separated from the woman I loved. And all this for the joys of living in a mud hut without electricity or running water, sweating my nights away under a mosquito net.
Of course, I accepted. And now, as I look back on that telephone call almost three years ago and the subsequent two years I spent in Togo, I see that I was correct in predicting a dramatic change in my life. Those two years provided the most personally culturally and professionally stimulating (and frustrating) experience I have ever known. And a year ago I married that woman I knew in Anderson and she returned to Togo to share it with me.
Because of my farm background and communications skills developed in five years of newspaper journalism, Peace Corps assigned me to teach agriculture in the Togolese school system. I arrived in Togo with 42 other Americans half who would work in agriculture like me and the other half who would teach math and science. Most in our group were young, just out of college, but others, like me, had been out of college a few years and we even had three people in their 60s and 70s.
After some initial difficulty in locating suitable housing in Baguida, the seaside village to which I had been assigned, I moved into a house quite a bit better than the mud hut I had envisioned. My five-room cement-block house was inside a walled compound that I shared with my landlord and two other Togolese families. Although I lived a lifestyle compatible with my Togolese teaching colleagues a hallmark of Peace Corps policy I lived on a level higher than many of the poorer Togolese and there were many of those. Although I had to draw my water out of a well, I did enjoy electricity which enabled me to operate a small refrigerator, fan and radio/tape recorder. But the possession of mine most envied by the Togolese was the Yamaha 100 motorcycle provided by the Peace Corps.
I felt a little guilty by my relative affluence just the fact that I was American made me wealthy in the Togolese eyes and I tried to downplay my advantages. I tried to explain that in America I was neither rich nor poor, but in the middle class. But I always got the feeling that my disclaimer fell on deaf ears and I had to admit that, by their standards at least, I was wealthy beyond description.
Although my lifestyle was nothing like the one I lived in Anderson, I did not live the primitive existence I had expected (although I later met volunteers who did). I had an electric fan to circulate the muggy, stagnant air that filled my house. I had a mosquito net to guard me from the attacks of ravenous insects at night. And, with the capital city of Lomé only 13 kilometers (8 miles) away, I had access to all the temptations of a large African city fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, canned goods at one of the three modern supermarkets, restaurants serving delicious Lebanese, French and Chinese food, swimming pools and a library and films at the American Cultural Center. For volunteers assigned to the far north of Togo, these luxuries were to be savored every one or two months. But I enjoyed these pleasures every week of my two years in Togo. Some northern volunteers like to imply that my volunteer experience was not as valid as theirs because I didnt suffer enough. But I learned to live with a lack of their kind suffering.
Because of my access to Lomé, I was not doomed to the standard Togolese meal of fufu pounded and cooked cassava (or manioc, a tuber which is to Africa what the potato is to the West and rice to Asia) with a zesty, hot sauce of okra, onions, peppers, tomatoes and either meat or fish. Although many volunteers adapt to African cuisine with alacrity, I found the culinary aspect of my cultural adaption to be the most difficult. Not that I tried very hard. I didnt have to. I simply went to Lomé and bought everything I needed to eat the way I wanted. I ate eggs, yogurt, pancakes, French toast, and fresh fruit for breakfast; salads and egg and tuna salad sandwiches for lunch; and spaghetti, pork chops, shrimp fried rice and fish for dinner. In this manner, I ate much better than the average Peace Corps volunteer in Togo. But I still lost almost 30 pounds.
Although at first I saw little common between my new home in Togo and my last home in South Carolina, I discovered that there was a strong link between the two places the thousands of descendants of slaves brought to the South from West Africa constitute a living African legacy. Starting with the first slaves brought to Jamestown in 1619, a half million Africans were brought to North America. Although these slaves were captured all along the west coast of Africa from Senegal to Angola, so many were brought from Togo that its coastal area came to be called The Slave Coast. In my village I would occasionally hear tangible evidence of that link when the local people would sing familiar songs in their language. These songs which had never left their African homeland had evolved into Negro spirituals in the United States and are now a part of the standard American repertoire. In this way, I heard the song that we know as The Battle Hymn of the Republic sung in my village.
Time passed slowly in my village of about 4,000 people. Since few people had electricity and the ones who did used it carefully, the workday was dictated largely by the movement of the sun. Villagers started their day at sunrise; between 5:30 and 6:30 am (the rising and setting of the sun occurred at pretty much the same time all year because of Togos proximity to the equator). The heat of the midday sun put an end to most work as well as classes at my school: A siesta was observed between noon and 3 p.m. Once the sun had set, Togolese ate their evening meal and socialized. Most were in bed by 9 or 10.
The fact that life is slower in Togo is not to say that people dont work hard. For a woman, especially, life can be very difficult. They are usually the first family members up in the morning, cleaning the compound, cooking the breakfast and hauling loads of water and firewood. They also do most of the work in the fields and markets. They not only prepare the food, they grow it, transport it to market and sell it. And the Togolese propensity for producing large families does nothing to alleviate the burden of the woman: Instead of diverting duties to others, the new mothers more often simply carry a child on their backs while doing their work.
Because of its proximity to the capital city, my village is not as wedded to subsistence farming as other more remote and northern villages. Although Baguida has its share of people working in the fields or fishing in the sea, there was a sizable portion of the population that commuted each day to Lomé, where they worked in less traditional jobs. The regular taxi and train service between Baguida and Lomé made this easy. And there was even a minority who reversed that lifestyle, like my school headmaster who lived in Lomé and commuted to my school in Baguida every day.
But in spite of the non-traditional jobs of some residents, most people in Baguida lead quite traditional lives in their homes. And, to me, one of the most intriguing elements of their traditions is the zeal with which they practice their native religions. Called many names voodoo, animism, fetishism and others these religions exert a strong influence on the Togolese, even those that call themselves Christian.
Since my village was in the heart of the West African coast permeated by these native religions, I too, had to learn to adapt to these practices even if they interferred with my work. During my first spring in Togo we were waiting for the first rainfall of the rainy season to plant corn in the school fields. I was joyful when we received a good dousing one Thursday night. Just as we were distributing kernels of corn the next morning at the school, word came from a powerful local doctor: Agricultural activity on this day would offend the spirits. I was ready to defy the spirits and go ahead with the planting but my school headmaster said we would have to wait. The rains didnt come for another two weeks.
Frequently, the sound of drums throughout the night would signal another fetish ceremony. Once, the drumming and singing lasted night after night in the compound next to mine. When I paid a visit to the source of all the activity, I found a large group of people watching women dancing the traditional Togolese dance around a large clay fetish in the shape of a head.
Some of the dancing women were obviously in trances, moaning and convulsing violently. The local gin, distilled from wine of the palm tree, flowed freely. Suddenly, one of the convulsing women shrieked and fell to the ground, her body erect and the whites of her eyes showing. Several men carried her away and the dancing continues. The chaos continued for days.
Unlike countries further north and east on the African continent, there is no one starving in Togo, to my knowledge, but there are too many sick and malnourished people because of disease and the shortcomings of the standard Togolese diet, which is high in starch and low in protein.
My main function as an agriculture volunteer was to expose my students to improved techniques for raising more and more varied types of food. For example, I encouraged my students to grow beans which are not only very nutritious, but, as nitrogen-fixing plants, improve the fertility of the virtually barren soil of my village. Another example is the small pig farm we started at my school. Almost every family raises animals in Togo but they almost always run free, forced to find their own food and fend for themselves. This exposes the animals to disease and malnourishment. By building our own pig farm, we hoped to teach the students to manage the pig operation in an efficient manner.
I repeatedly deplored the agricultural practices that degrade and rob the soil of its fertility and have caused such devastation in countries like Ethiopia, Niger, and Burkina Faso. For example, the most common land-clearing practice is called slash and burn in which fires are used to clear a field for planting (this destroys the vital humus in the topsoil). Even worse is the relentless deforestation in which the protective cover of trees is removed, exposing soil to water and wind erosion.
My official role as an agricultural education volunteer was teaching agriculture at the secondary school in Baguida. Of the schools 450 students in nine classes, I taught five classes for the first year and seven for the second. I was presented with the challenge of not only doing the first teaching in my life, but doing it in French, the official language of Togo. Since French was my second language as well as my students, communication was always the greatest challenge of my teaching career.
In addition to my classroom duties, I established practical agricultural projects at the school. Although there were existing school fields of corn, cassava and peanuts, they were meant more to raise money for the school than to provide a genuine learning experience for the students. I decided a school garden would be my first goal of the first year in order to provide the students with a practical framework in which to try techniques they had learned in class. So we put up a palm branch fence, built a compost pile, dug garden beds and planted vegetable such as beans, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce, as well as local vegetables such as ademe and gboma (both leafy plants similar to spinach). A group of students was assigned to practice their garden techniques on each bed and was then graded on its effort at the end of the semester.
The second year I was able to raise funds from Catholic Relief Services to build a small pig farm, a long-time dream of the school headmaster. I tried to make my classroom material on pig-raising relevant by coordinating it with the actual work at the pig farm. Catholic Relief Services also donated a considerable amount of dried milk and bulgur to get the farm started since there was no money left to purchase much feed. But as the school develops its own feed sources (corn, cassava, and papaya) and makes money from the sale of the pigs, it should be able to make the farm self-supporting and, eventually, profitable. But even more, the pig farm should provide a valuable learning experience for my Togolese students.
My pet project was the school library I established, the first at our school and a rarity anywhere in Togo. Very few of my students had enough money to buy books and there was no library in the village. Since reading was one of my greatest loves as a child, I felt strongly about sharing that joy with my Togolese students. So with a grant from Friends of Togo, a Durham, N.C.-based organization of former volunteers and others with connections to Togo, our school bought books and furniture for our new library.
Peace Corps encourages its volunteers to work outside their school on secondary projects in the villages so I became involved in several outside activities. I started a garden at my house with my prize student and later helped him start a rabbit-raising project. I worked with several other students in their gardens. And I helped a garden cooperative raise the money for another well and cistern in order to double the size of its garden.
Another of my functions was more psychological than practical. I believe my very presence as an agriculture teacher sends a powerful message to my students about the importance and validity of agriculture. This is important in a culture that relegates agriculture to the lowest rungs of the social ladder. Farming is something one does in Togo if he can do nothing else more worthy, like becoming a government bureaucrat. Some young men grow one of their fingernails extremely long as evidence that they do no manual labor. I made a point of mentioning my farm upbringing in class often and stating that I was proud to grow up on a farm. I believe that the presence of an American expressing such interest in agriculture might have made my African students reconsider their disdain for food production.
In December 1984 I took a break from my second year in Togo to return to the United States to marry Jodie Powers who was living in Anderson. A graduate of the University of Georgia, Jodie worked at the Independent Publishing Company for three years, primarily as editor of Community Publications, including The Hometowner. We were married in January 1985 and she returned with me to Togo for the last five months of my Peace Corps volunteer service. Jodie had come to visit me for six weeks in the preceding summer so she had a good idea of what she was getting into.
Since the idea of hanging around our house in a small village where she couldnt communicate with anyone (she didnt speak French at first) didnt appeal to Jodie, she landed a volunteer position in the Lomé office of Catholic Relief Services, the overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Catholic Conference. She served as the administrative assistant to the CRS director, handing communications between Lomé and New York headquarters. She organized a development conference in Lomé that attracted the attention of the BBC World Service and met Pope John Paul II when he came to Togo on the first leg of last years African tour. When the CRS director took her six weeks of home leave in the summer, Jodie took over supervision of the Togo operation in her absence.
Most Americans refer to Africa almost as if it is one homogenous entity, with a single race, language, and culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. Africa is actually more than three times the size of the United States, the second biggest continent on Earth and perhaps the most diverse. The people of Africa speak more than 800 languages and practice Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and panoply of native African religions. They live every kind of lifestyle imaginable from the Arabs of the north, the nomads of the desert, the dark inhabitants of the rain forest, the black middle classes of such countries as Kenya and Nigeria to the affluent white tribe of South Africa.
The time I spent in Africa taught me much about that part of the world and helped my correct my misconceptions. Since I was quite ignorant about Africa before I went to Togo, it shouldnt irritate me when I hear otherwise well-educated people refer to Africa as backward or uncivilized. Many people dont know that Africa had already been established glittering, sophisticated civilizations (like the one based in Timbuktu in the 15th and 16th centuries) when Europe was just coming out of the Dark Ages and America was unknown to the Western world. And they forget the cruel legacy of colonialism which Africa is still struggling to overcome.
In some ways, Africans are more civilized than we are in the West. For example, they find a more elevated role for the elders in societies. Africans dont relegate the elderly to empty lives or institutions as we often do. Instead, they nurture these older people, respect them and look to them for wisdom and leadership. And the educated and successful do not forget their roots, their families, and the small villages from which they came from. The lucky few who go off into the world and make good are obliged to support their families and villages, both morally and financially.
As Africans struggle to attain basics in health, food production, and education, they are often tempted to ape the ways of the developed world, including our mistakes and materialism. Instead of putting their harvest profits back into their farms, theyd rather buy a radio or other frivolous consumer good.
A major issue every Peace Corps volunteer and development worker must confront is how to improve the lives of people in the developing world without imposing our Western culture on the wholesale how to encourage them to use our best agricultural and health practices, for example, without putting them all in three-piece suits and inciting their lust for cars and television sets.
And now I come back to the United States with the appreciation for these magnificent African cultures and an even greater appreciation for the challenge of helping our African friends attain a higher standard of living without compromising their cultural identity.