05 July 2008

Prepare for the fight... I’ll be right by your side on into the night

27 June 08

I've started re-reading the 'A Few Minor Adjustments' book the Peace
Corps sent out to me before I left for Togo. It talks about culture
shock and the various adjustments volunteers have to go through. I'm
actually very impressed by the author's ability to talk generally but
pointedly about an experience that will be so different depending on
location and program. It feels really relevant to my own experience,
even though it's not about the specifically 'African' experience.

I'd like to quote a few paragraphs from it that I think are really
interesting, useful/relevant, and funny :) Just to be totally clear,
although I am quoting from a book published by the Peace Corps, the
contents of this blog and the opinions contained within are solely my
own - not the opinions of the Peace Corps or the US government.

"In a sense, culture shock is both a reaction to novelty and a defense
against it."

Sometimes when I'm climbing on my bike to pedal up the hill from the
school to my house, I have to remind myself: "hey self, you're in
Africa. Yup, it's hot. Yup, the kids yell 'yovo' at you. And yup, those
dudes in the middle of the bike lane are just going to stare at you and
not get out of your way. Now get home and speak French and muddle up a
bit of Ewe and then take a nap to give your brain a rest and it'll all
be easier when you wake up."

"It helps to be realistic. You've taken on a lot. It' s only normal to
be thrown, to feel a bit ill at ease, under the weather, out of sorts,
scared, disappointed in yourself, and generally doubtful. Remember:
This isn't just one more new experience; it's a whole new world. And
whole new worlds, as a rule, take some getting used to."

I've been aware from the start that I will have hard times. I'm
prepared with all sorts of coping mechanisms. One of my most important
things is music: my yoga/meditation mix on my new tiny speakers that
run on rechargeable batteries that can be recharged with my solar
panel. I've covered my bases. If I end up in a village somewhere that
has no sun or batteries, I will be upset, but otherwise I think I'm
pretty prepped to give myself some therapeutic alone time when I'm
feeling down.
One thing that will doubtless besiege me at some point is my own
self-confidence. I have a hard enough time maintaining equilibrium when
everything is easy, I imagine that the wants, lacks and language gaps
will increase my self-doubt. I will do my best to be easy on myself.
Take baby steps, but keep moving along the path. Keeping a journal of
language/culture learning is one way I'm going to try to keep myself
aware of progress that won't always be readily visible.

"Have faith: In time, you will get used to the weather, make your peace
with the food, learn your way around the community, get better in the
language, start shedding amenities with reckless abandon, and create
new routines."

Shedding amenities with reckless abandon – I love it.
Bucket baths, triple-processing my water, having to carefully package
my sanitary waste so it can be burned without embarrassing the men who
take care of the burning, using a broom with no handle, etc.

"The other type of PST (Pre-Service Training) is community-based. Here
trainees typically live in clusters in one or more villages or
neighborhoods and come together with others in their cluster for
language, cross-cultural, and some technical training. In this latter
training method, the whole training group – all the clusters combined –
will also gather periodically, usually once a week, for certain

Slightly more boring bit, but it describes the training I'm currently
doing. We all live in houses in the community and take all our meals
with our family. Then we gather once a day for language classes, based
on level – some groups meet at the compounds of various families. We
usually gather 3 times a week for technical talks where current
volunteers come and give talks about the various tasks that they
perform, we have guest speakers from various professions, and current
stagiaires give a presentation on some business skill with which we
already have some experience.
The CHAP (Community Health and AIDS Prevention) volunteers are in the
next village over. We all get together a few times a week to have
health, security, and cross-cultural sessions.

"Most PSTs are tightly scheduled; there's a lot to cover and not much
time. This means spectacularly full days, partially filled evenings,
and preempted Saturday morning. You are told when to eat and where to
be. ... All in all, it's not a bad bargain: you give up handy little
personal freedoms and turn control of your life over to total strangers
and get some very good training to in return. Being adult humans, you
quite understand this state of affairs, you readily accept it, and you
smilingly acquiesce...
...And, if you're at all normal, you resent it."

Yeah, it's frustrating feeling like I'm a child again. I can't even
clear my plate from the table at home without someone telling me to
leave it. I haven't actually had to wrest my plate out of someone's
would-be-helpful-hands yet, like one other stagiaire, but it's come

How to cope:

"If you can identify the two or three things bothering you at a given
stage, then you have a better chance of coping with them.... Just
pinning down what's the matter can be something of a relief; at least
now you know it isn't all those other things it might have been. To
that end, here is a list of some of the things that usually affect

"No mail from home
Tick. No phone calls either. And still no internet availability for me.

"The weather
Tick. It's rainy season. This frustration is further compounded by the
fact that most Togolese refuse to go outside in the rain. My family
tried to stop me going to training when it was raining until I showed
them I was wearing a fabulously waterproof jacket and a hat.
Worse though, is the laundry situation. All laundry is done by hand and
hung up to dry in the sun. Except for underwear. Underwear has to be
done by hand in secret, well, privately anyway. Then it can't be hung
up outside because that would be embarrassing. It has to be hung in the
room. A humid climate in the midst of the rainy season does not do very
well drying laundry hung inside a room with a tiny window and door
(which must be shut tightly whenever it rains or else the rain will
come through the screens and get everywhere.
Basically, I am having a ridiculously difficult time getting my
underwear to dry without a mildew scent. gross. I've developed a system
now where I hang it outside discreetly in my shower cubicle thing when
I'm home for lunch and a nap. That way it can get some sun and if it
starts raining I can bring it inside quickly. It's an improvement, but
it's frustrating enough that I'm starting to look forward to the hot

The Lovemakers – Prepare for the Fight

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