04 October 2010

Rachel's Questions

Rachel’s Questions

1. What is Togo like?

That’s a tough question. Imagine trying to sum up what the United States is like in just a couple sentences. Granted, Togo is only about as big as Delaware, but the huge ethnic diversity – at least 35 distinct local languages! – and the regions with very different climates, the Oceanside Maritime region, lush and mountainous Plateau region, dry Central region that has the largest wild preserve, surprisingly developed Kara region, to the arid and dusty Savannah region. Togo is a developing country, which means that there’s still a lot of work to be done creating the infrastructure that can support and encourage local businesses and non-profits, especially those existing in rural areas, far from the resources of the big cities. The economy is largely based on agriculture, although the biggest export is phosphorous from the mines. Most families have their own small farm where they grow food for themselves; and perhaps enough extra to sell so that they can buy things like powdered milk, sugar or cloth (pagne) with which to make clothes. That’s another cool thing about Togo – a lot of the clothes people wear are tailor-made by local seamstresses.
Because most people work all day in the fields the diet is very starchy. They have to get a lot of energy (calories) from their food without spending a lot of money. The most common food is pâte – basically corn flour mixed with hot water until it forms a thick paste that can be shaped into balls. A sauce based on tomato, hot peppers, and sometimes edible leaves (kind of like spinach) will accompany it. It’s not particularly tasty to my palate, but it is very filling. Togolese people are very generous – especially with their food. If you ever see someone eating, the first thing they will say to you is “hello! Come and eat with me!” Even if they don’t know you, hospitality and welcome are always very warm.

2. When is the best time to join? After high school? College?

The Peace Corps generally requires that applicants have a bachelor’s degree (4-year college degree). The exception is when an applicant has a significant amount of work experience. So your best bet is to graduate from high school and head to a good college, choosing a major that you really like and that possibly has something to do with development work, like pre-med, political science, African studies, social work, communications, French, agriculture, women’s studies, engineering, etc. etc. As you can tell – the specific major you choose doesn’t matter all that much!

3. How long is the application process and what do they look for in someone who wants to volunteer in Africa?

The application process can be really long. Many of us joke that the wait itself helps to weed out applicants who aren’t committed or don’t have the patience to see it through. Patience becomes a very very important virtue once you are in a developing country and trying to work! The application requires a lot of initial information: an essay/motivation statement (why do you want to be in the Peace Corps), your work experience, college transcript, an essay on your experience of diversity or cultural exchange. Plus three recommendations. The ideal for the recommendations is to send in one from an academic supervisor (a college professor who really knows you well), one from a work supervisor (a boss who you did really good work for), and one volunteer work supervisor (someone you volunteered with who can talk about your commitment to service). They really want to see applicants who have already shown commitment to doing volunteer work – particularly in the area in which you want to work in the Peace Corps. For example, if you want to work in community health in Africa, you could get involved as a hospital volunteer or a volunteer at a retirement home. If you want to do youth development, you could volunteer as a youth group leader at your local teen center. If you know you to work in Africa, every single project in Africa has an HIV/AIDS prevention component, so it’s a great idea to already look into the causes and effects of HIV and perhaps volunteer at a relevant center. Also, Peace Corps loves if you already have language ability. For Africa, that could be French, Portuguese, Arabic, or African languages like Swahili.

4. Is it hard to be away from your family for two years? Do you get to visit them while you are still in the program?

Yes, it’s hard to be away from family. I moved away from home when I went to college in 2000 and haven’t lived in California since. So I was used to only seeing my immediate family for short once or twice a year visits. As a PCV, I chose to save up my vacation days (we get 2 vacation days per month) so that I could go to California for June 2009 – it was really important to me to be there to celebrate my brother’s graduation from high school, my sister’s graduation from college, and my sister’s promotion from 8th grade. Some volunteers’ families come over to visit them in country – or they meet at a mid-point in Europe or another “vacation spot” instead of making family come out to tiny African villages without amenities. Peace Corps doesn’t pay for volunteer’s plane tickets to visit home, so you have to save up for that yourself. The exception is for volunteers who extend their service. For example, I did the normal two years of service and then I chose to stay for a third year to take on new responsibilities as a Volunteer Leader. Because I signed up for another full 12 months of service, the Peace Corps requires that I take one month of home leave. They paid for my plane ticket to my ‘home of residence’ – California. It was great to have this break, I feel re-motivated to get back to work!

5. What do you plan to do when you are finished volunteering?

I want to keep working in international human rights, specifically looking at gender and sexuality issues. I’ve been really inspired by my work with young people during my service in the Peace Corps and before (I was a sexual health/mental health youth worker in Scotland before joining the Peace Corps). I am currently looking at going back to graduate school, perhaps for law or public policy, with the goal that I could use the knowledge from these programs to work for the United Nations or the US State Department or a non-profit international organization like Women for Women International or Human Rights Watch.

6. What kind of security do you get? Aren’t you scared of getting AIDS or another disease?

First of all, HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, is not like a cold – I can’t get it by shaking hands with someone or because someone sneezed near me. HIV is entirely preventable, except perhaps for babies born to HIV-positive mothers, but even then the risk of can be minimized through careful pre-natal care provide by doctors who know the woman’s HIV status. In fact, Washington DC has a higher percentage of people infected with HIV than Togo. That said, HIV prevention, is a huge part of the work I do for a very good reason. Practices that have become normal in American society, like sterilizing a razor between customers at a barbers’, getting pre-natal care for pregnant women, and using a condom, are still out of the norm in Togo. So a lot of the work I do is just repetition, encouraging people to do thing I would consider common sense.
The illness that I worry about more is malaria. Untreated, malaria can be fatal – attacks your liver and kidneys and can leave you unable to process toxins out of your body. Malaria is carried by mosquitos. Peace Corps has a fantastic medical service team that is provided for free to volunteers. Part of the service is anti-malaria pills (called malaria prophylaxis). These pills are so important, in fact, that volunteers who don’t take them get kicked out of the Peace Corps and sent home.
The other illnesses I worry about are pretty common for any travel or work in developing countries: digestive troubles. You will have them; it is inevitable. But in order to help minimize them, Peace Corps Medical does several trainings during the initial three months about proper water preparation, malnutrition and cooking. And when you get sick, they provide your prescriptions, and even a bed at the medical unit if it’s serious enough. Some conditions might require specialists – for example dental surgery or a broken bone – for these Peace Corps will pay for you to get to a facility to receive appropriate care – that could be Senegal, South Africa, or even Washington D.C. They take really really good care of us. In fact, I think it’s the best and most holistic health care I will ever get and it’s free!

7. What kind of things do you do? (Are you a teacher/doctor/etc)

Peace Corps is different in every country but I would guess that most volunteers would agree with me when I say that you don’t walk into a job in the Peace Corps, you create one. Most people think Peace Corps volunteer = English teacher. In Togo, we have four programs that volunteers fit into, and none of them are English teaching. The four programs are: Natural Resources Management/Food Security, Community Health and Family Planning, Girls’ Education and Empowerment, and Small Enterprise Development. The program I’m part of is Small Enterprise Development. Specifically, I’m in a sub-program of NGO Development (NGO = non-governmental organization, or non-profit). I’ve been doing a lot of different activities, the first (and most important) being a participatory needs assessment of the village where I lived. What this means is I talked to a lot of people – I gathered groups of women, student, rice farmers, churchgoers, or teachers and asked them about their village and their work, the cycle of planting crops and the rains. We discussed what’s working and what could/should be improved. Once I had a good idea of what already existed in the village, then I was ready to start projects. I always have several things going on at the same time and over time as I gained experience and knowledge in my village and in Togo in general, my projects became more sophisticated.
· I developed a small group of women leaders to present workshops on business skills and health life skills (communication, nutrition and HIV prevention) to apprentice seamstresses. While I was working with seamstresses I got the chance to practice sewing on a foot-pedal powered machine!
· I started a group of health peer educators at the local junior high/high school. We put together skits about HIV/AIDS prevention, the importance of staying in school, facing up to sexual harassment, etc. and then performed the skits for the whole school.
· I supported a small group working to create a mushroom growing cooperative.
· I taught English to 4 classes of 50-60 junior high students. We learned songs and stories and I focused on cultural exchange – introducing American traditions and holidays – as well as adding to the correspondence exchange with junior high girls.
· I created a business club at the junior high 5 km from my house. We worked on the set of skills you have to develop to know whether a business idea could work. We also worked on some small income-generating activities (like making soap and lotion to sell).
· I organized a camp for Togolese young people from all over the country. I was on a team of Peace Corps volunteers and Togolese professionals. We recruited community leaders to be counselors at the camp, arranged transportation and food for everyone and raised 25000 dollars to run the camp in 2009 and 30000 to run the camp in 2010. I’m particularly proud of helping to coordinate the team of organizers to form a more coherent collaboration among the Togolese non-profits so that they could take on more leadership roles in running the camp.
· I administered a scholarship for girls who are chosen based on both need and merit. The system for approving scholars and sending them their scholarship money needed a lot of reworking. I’m really proud of creating and hosting a national conference for the scholarship girls so that we could better ensure the scholars are getting support both academically and emotionally, ‘cause it can be really tough for girls in school in Togo. About 12 of the scholars this year are going to be in university! Amazing.
· I worked with several other volunteers to create a (huge) document for Peace Corps volunteers who want to work with non-profit organizations or associations in Togo. The resources for this type of work are kind of out-of-date and not specific to working in Africa, much less Togo.
· Seeing the need for better management training for local non-profits, my friend and I put together a workshop for small non-profits. This meant not only teaching the lessons, but also putting together a 100-page document in French! about typical management issues. It was a lot of work but so worthwhile that I am planning to replicate the workshop in another city this year.

8. What is your apartment/room/house like? Do you have access to electricity?

When we first arrived, I lived in a single small room in a house with a family. But once I moved to my village, I was in a house by myself. I lucked out and had a pretty cute house – with a living, bedroom, kitchen and an indoor toilet! The house is made out of cement blocks and has a tin roof. The floor is simply concrete as well. I have lots of windows, which helps with air flow. There’s no glass in the windows – just mosquito screen, iron “burglar” bars, and wooden shutters I can close and lock. The house can get really hot and I didn’t have electricity or running water, so no fans or cooling showers. And even though I had a toilet, I still had to “flush” by pouring in a bucket of water. I get my water from a rain-collecting cistern that’s right next to my house. I kept a large (huge) plastic bucket inside my living room so I only had to go out and fetch water from the cistern once or twice a week. There are a couple shops that have generators so I can charge my phone for a few hundred francs CFA. Most of the time, my electricity access is when I got into a larger city nearby where I can find places to charge my batteries and use the internet.
I have recently moved as part of my new role – I’m in a regional capital now and I have a city house – including electricity and running water! It is amazing how quickly I got used to these new amenities.

9. What about the violence/crime?

Safety and security is a primary concern for the Peace Corps. If they judge that a country is too unstable to be safe; the Peace Corps will pull out volunteers (or not send them). Togo is a relatively safe country and there is a designated Safety and Security Officer who does his best to keep us up-to-date with threats to security. It can be difficult because communications are not as fast as they are in the United States with Twitter, Facebook, even news media, but they develop systems early on in training to ensure that volunteers know where to turn if a safety problem happens. My primary concern about crime in Togo is theft. So I take precautions – like locking my house whenever I leave – even though I trust my neighbors because I feel there is no need to give them the temptation to explore what American goods I might have. There were recently some protests that involved some violence because of elections and gas prices, but no volunteers were caught up in them.

10. When did you know that you wanted to join the Peace Corps?

I’ve thought about the Peace Corps since I was in high school, like you. And I met some amazing returned Peace Corps volunteers who were doing Masters’ in Peace Studies at Notre Dame. So I looked into the possibility several times, but I put it off after college because I received a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship to go abroad to do a Masters’ degree. I went to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I loved Scotland and decided to stay for a few years, taking advantage of a work visa program for overseas students who graduate from a Scottish university. Once my two years were nearing the end, though, I started looking at the Peace Corps again. At the same time, I was looking at jobs with international non-profits and almost all of them require a minimum of two years experience working in a developing country. Peace Corps seemed to be a perfect fit: not only would I be pursuing the dream that I’d hoped for since high school, but I’d also be getting career experience that would enable me to work internationally for the rest of my life!

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