Monday, October 5, 2009

Return to Peace Corps village delivers surprises, and a lesson

BAGUIDA, Togo – Falling asleep to African drums and waking up to a torrential rain pounding on the roof, as I did last night, was like going back in time to my 20s, when I lived in this village for two years and my life was more tied to the movements of the sun, than to the movements of the hands of a clock.

I was an agriculture teacher in a secondary school and my job was to make things grow and to teach others to make things grow. At my school, I started a garden, a hog farm and a library. Outside of school, I had my own garden next to my house (and worked with students there) and I helped others start gardens and my prize student, Bada André Kokou, start a rabbit-raising project. The last time I was there, only a year after I had left, everything was working well. But that was 1986 – 23 years ago. Would there be any evidence left of of my two years of work?

Today was the day I was to find out, and I approached it with trepidation and excitement. It proved to be a day of surprises.

I was pretty sure the hog farm and the rabbit-raising project were gone. The school let the hog farm die in 1988, and André had to sell the rabbits when he went into political exile in Nigeria.

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the home of Kofi Mawusi, my former assistant headmaster, and his lovely wife, and had my first surprise. He reminded me that I had brought two grafted mango trees with me from the verdant hills of Kpalimé after I had spent six weeks in training there, and planted one of them in his courtyard and the other at the school.

He had to cut down this tree a few years ago because it had grown so large it was threatening one of their buildings. Madame Mawusi said that the mangos would drop on the roof of the house and make a terrible racket. But it provided their family with delicious fruit for many years. Was the other mango tree I planted at the school still there? They were not sure.

This morning I visited the school. As expected, the hog farm was gone. The school garden was gone. I asked to see the library and the “librarian,” if you can call him that, took me into a room of utter chaos, with books falling off the shelves onto the floor. I suppose some of the books I had ordered and had shipped from the U.S. might have been there but I did not trouble myself to look for them. I was angry that they could not have kept the library going; I considered the librarian a disgrace to the profession. Monsieur Mawusi told me the library was still intact when he retired as headmaster in 1995.

But the mango tree that I had forgotten still lived and was doing well. I was told that the tree provided both mangos for the children to eat and extra income for the school. I had a photo take of myself under my glorious mango tree. I went into one of the classrooms and talked to the schoolchildren. Monsieur Mawusi introduced me to them as the man who had planted the mango tree at the school. One of the male students told me how much he enjoyed eating those mangos.

As we walked around the village, I kept running into my former students and Monsieur Mawusi always reminded them that I was the one who planted the mango tree at the school. They always smiled broadly.

Then I found out that the rabbit-raising project was not dead. When André went into exile, he sold the rabbits to another student of mine. We visited that student’s home and we saw the rabbit project was alive and well, providing good income for his family.

We went to the house where I had lived for two years and where I had started a garden out of sand. Someone was still gardening there commercially. My garden lives on! As I was leaving, I ran into two people (now adults) who used to work with me in that garden when they were children. They told me they had fond memories of those times.

I also found out that a gardening project outside of the village that I had started with the U.S. Ambassador’s Self-Help Fund in 1985 is still going strong, with the same young man – now not-so-young – who had started it. He has become a commercial gardener. Again, I had completely forgotten about this aspect of my work and I was totally thrilled.

What have I learned from all this? I’m still absorbing it but I think it suggests that I was overly optimistic to rely on institutions to make a mark on my village. My institution – my school – let me down. I do not mean to say that institutions should be ignored. Indeed, I believe that one of the major challenges of development is figuring out a way to make institutions efficient and effective and serve the needs of their citizens.

But for me, my school did not make an important contribution to any formal success that I achieved during my Peace Corps service. It came from finding motivated people to work with outside of the school, helping provide resources to realize their dreams and turning them loose.

The exception was that glorious mango tree at my school which the institution managed not to kill. And the handful of 30-somethings who greeted me by name as I walked through the village -- they were my former students, and their beaming faces were my best reward. One of them is the village midwife and delivers all the babies. And for their smiles, I am grateful and blessed.

Here are my photos of my village on Facebook.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Togo capital is not what it was in 1980s

LOMÉ, Togo – I’m back in Togo, almost exactly 24 years after I left. I lived here for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching agriculture in a secondary school in the seaside village of Baguida just a few kilometers east of here.

As I write this, my former student Bada André Kokou is coming to Lomé to meet me and take me to Baguida. But yesterday was spent rediscovering Lomé, the Togolese capital that I knew well in the 1980s, too see if it has any of traces of the considerable charm and allure I remember from that special time.

This time, I entered the country through the Ghanaian border on the west side of Lomé. My Togolese traveling companion’s claim that the Ghanaian officials would hit us up for bribes and the Togolese would not be a problem turned out not to be true: The Ghanaians were polite and professional and the Togolese authorities were stern and unfriendly. But no one hit us up for a bribe on either side of the border and we arrived on Togolese soil after about 45 minutes.

We jumped into a taxi and I immediately noticed that Lomé’s oceanfront road is being completely rebuilt. My friend told me that ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States was paying for the project the entire 50 kilometers from the Ghanaian to the Beninese border. That was pretty much the only sign of progress I saw during my three days in Togo.

The bad news is that the rest of Lomé – or at least the little I saw of it today – is deteriorating and a shadow of its former self. I had planned to spend my first night in the Hotel du Golfe, where I once stayed and have fond memories of it as a charming, colonial place with a lovely pool. When my taxi pulled up to it this afternoon, I immediately knew something was wrong. It didn’t look right outside, or inside. I could not see the pool. And the charm was nowhere to be seen.

I headed over to Hotel Ibis (called Hotel le Bénin in my day). I also have fond memories of it and, unlike the Hotel du Golfe, it still looks pretty much as I remember it. I never stayed here but I used its lovely pool several times, as did many other Peace Corps volunteers of the time, and it all looked vaguely familiar. From my room, I could see the still highest skyscraper in Lomé -- the Hotel 2 Février, once the swankiest hotel in town and now closed and a sad reminder of what Lomé used to be.

I headed for the Grande Marché in search of the Restaurant de l’Amitié, where I used to have a plate of chicken, rice and peanut sauce washed down with a cold bottle of Biere du Bénin most Fridays after finishing at the school. I walked along the coast road and saw that many of the fine old colonial buildings that I remember are being neglected and are falling down.

I saw a man urinating in public, not uncommon in Togo, even in crowded areas. I once had a friend who had lived in Togo and had developed a unique index of development. One of the criteria was degree of public urination and she rated Lomé very high in this regard. Indeed, I think it has increased, if anything, since I left Togo (I later saw full-frontal urination, something I had never seen before).

When I got into the bustling market area, I had the unmistakable sensation that I had gone back in time to the mid-1980s. Everything was exactly the same: The bustle of people buying and selling. The cars and motorcycles weaving their way through impossibly narrow and clogged streets, blaring their horns. The tantalizing smell of Togolese street food. The faint (and sometimes strong) stench of urine. The women calling me “yovo” (white person). Yes, this was all familiar.

But after 30 minutes of trying to find the Restaurant de l’Amitié, I gave up. It was gone. I later found out the Lebanese owner had moved to Mali. I tried to find Le Phenicien, where I learned to love Lebanese food, and its incredibly obese owner Romeo, who always reminded me of a villain in a James Bond movie. I found out later he had died and the restaurant had closed. I came upon a supermarket which I was sure was SGGG, where I used to shop as a volunteer, and went inside. But the Lebanese owner told me that this was not the supermarket I remembered, and that it was in another location and had closed as well.

I also could not find my favorite Lomé restaurant, Relais de la Poste. This was shocking to me as it was a virtual institution, the best place for simple French cooking. I loved their "avocat vinagrette" as an appetizer and their "Lobster Thermidor" and "Steak au poivre" was so good I don't think I ever ate anything else.

I did find one thing I was looking for – great leather sandals. I bought three pair, and was pleased to see that they have survived.

In the evening, I headed over to the eastern side of the Boulevard Circulaire to find Café des Arts, the popular watering hole of the Peace Corps volunteers of my day. I was pretty sure it did not exist anymore and my instincts proved sound: I could not find it but I did find that this part of the Boulevard Circulaire has become a center of Lomé nightlife with dozens of bars, nightclubs and restaurants of all types crowding both sides of the street for a kilometer or more. But none of them could replace the charm and the ambiance of Café des Arts that I remember on a lovely evening in Lomé in the mid-1980s.

See my Lomé photo album on Facebook.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Accra to Lome: 200 kilometers and 24 years

ACCRA, Ghana to LOME, Togo – Today I traveled 200 kilometers and 24 years, from the booming capital of Ghana with its pothole-free roads and growing economy to the decaying capital of Togo, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer from 1983 to 1985, a place and time that holds an affectionate place in my memories.

During the four hours I was on the road, I experienced a jumble of emotions – hope, fear, nostalgia and sadness.

Hope was what I experienced in Ghana, a country whose economy is growing and which recently experienced a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another, despite a close election, something of a rarity in Africa. This is the hope that brought President Obama here in July on his first presidential visit to Africa. We drove out of Accra on a motorway – the likes of which I have seen in Africa only in Abuja, Nigeria and South Africa – and past a blur of gleaming buildings and a new shopping center. It gave me hope that positive change is possible in West Africa.

The fear came from our driver who, like me, had a Biblical name (Isaac) and succeeded in putting the fear of God in me. He tried to keep the speedometer at 140 kilometers per hour (85 mph) as often as possible, including through villages with a posted speed limit of 50 kph. I said a silent prayer for myself, my Togolese companions and any careless pedestrians who wandered into the road.

It was evident that the driver knew the road extremely well as he braked only for speed bumps and police stops (all the police stops had signs sponsored by a bank that warned “It is an offense to bribe a police officer,” something else that gave me hope). And he knew exactly where to brake. As Isaac was slowing in one village, someone along the road yelled at him and Isaac threw a one-cedi note out the window, perhaps repaying an old debt.

I was astounded by the quality of the Ghanaian roads for the first 170 kilometers. I have never seen such excellent roads outside of an African city except in South Africa. It was only because of the quality of these roads that we were able to maintain such high speeds.

But the closer we got to the Togolese border, the worse the roads got and the more the scenery reminded me of the coastal village in Togo where I spent two years. The last few kilometers to Aflao, the last town in Ghana before the border, were terrible, deteriorating from pothole-pocked roads to no pavement at all.

The nostalgia came as the scenery became prettier and prettier, reminding me so much of the Togolese village of Baguida that I will see tomorrow. I also felt gratitude that I had the good fortune to live in such a charming seaside village for two years.

The sadness came when I arrived in Lome and saw that while Ghana has flourished, Togo has deteriorated. More on that in my next post.

Ghanaian AIDS orphans touch our hearts

ACCRA, Ghana — My heart and those of the members of the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial Advisory Board were moved Wednesday when we visited the AIDS orphans and the HIV-positive adults cared for by the Pathfinders Outreach Ministry, a Ghanaian non-governmental organization working and struggling with minimum resources in a poor area on the outskirts of Accra:

As the adorable toddlers scampered into their arms and our laps, we heard Becklyn Ulzen-Christian, Pathfinders executive director, describe the care she and her staff provide for orphans and vulnerable children and HIV-positive adults in the face of limited resources, great stigma against HIV-positive people and other challenges.

Pathfinders looks after 70 children, 13 of whom lives at the facility, and many HIV-positive adults who have been rejected by their families and friends. We talked to Felicia, a middle-aged woman whose hard life is etched on her face, who has been HIV-positive for 17 years. She said she has found a new life in the warmth of Pathfinders and now has a purpose to her life.

Pathfinders gets its support from three major sources – U.S. Agency for International Development for food aid; Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria for behavior change communication and education in HIV, tuberculosis and malaria; and GHC member Academy for International Development (AED), though AED’s support is ending and Mrs. Ulzen-Christian has no idea how they will carry on without it.

The Advisory Board is in Accra for their annual meeting in which they are examining the Candlelight Memorial event from last May and planning for the next one in 2010. The Advisory Board is made up of two regional coordinators from each of the six regions in the world – North America, Latin American and Caribbean, Europe, West and Central Asia, East and South Asia and Africa.