06 January 2011

Flitting about the country

I have been running around all over West Africa visiting volunteers and learning and sharing my own experiences. Being a volunteer leader is exhausted and exhilarating at the same time. After two plus years here I really do feel capable of being the ‘wise’ volunteer that can share experiences and enhance a new volunteer’s service.

I went to Senegal for a regional conference of Peace Corps volunteers. Senegal is beautiful, and Dakar is surprisingly well-developed. Dakar is the regional epicenter for all American mission projects. This means that if we need to be medically evacuated for issues that can’t be dealt with in country (anything from broken limbs to root canals) we are often sent to Dakar. It has paved roads! And beautiful expensive restaurants. And, probably most important from the US mission perspective, it has a large airport and excellent medical care facilities.

Luckily for me, I wasn’t there for medical reasons, so I got to explore the fun aspects of the city: taking a ferry out to Goree Island, a heritage site dedicated to remembering the atrocities of the slave trade. An old ‘way station’ where African were kept and breeded before being sent on the perilous journey across the Atlantic, has become a museum.

This picture is of the door on the ocean side of the building, it was known as the ‘point of no return.’ Slaves who crossed this threshold were loaded directly onto boats and either died on the journey or arrived in the New World, never to return to their home.

Many of the locals earn their living from tourism, leading visitors around the island to see the various historical points of interest. Because of its historically sad position, Goree Island was also chosen as a site for a statue that shows the positive moves forward since the days of the slave trade.

The island itself is very beautiful and has become a gathering point for many artisans. One of the artists we encountered made paintings with sand. The sand is not artificially colored – it has all been gathered from various places around West Africa. What a beautiful rainbow of colors!

I found some women artisans making necklaces on the Island and I bought several to send back to you to sell (I kept one for myself too!). The rainbow colors mean peace to the Senegalese. I hope that the students love them as much as I do.

After Dakar, I didn’t have any rest before heading straight up to the northernmost region of Togo. Well, that’s not true. I had an extra day to be in Dakar, due to the political violence and civil unrest in Cote d’Ivoire. We were supposed to have a layover in Cote d’Ivoire, but the elections proved to be very contentious and the former president, who has been in office for 10 years (he put off the election for 5 years) is violently trying to retain control of the presidency even though the United Nations supports the other candidate as having gained the majority of votes. In any case, the violence and instability made it impossible for us to keep our original flight plan, so we were rerouted through Mali and arrived in Togo on Monday.

On Tuesday, I headed up to Dapaong, the regional capital of the Savannah region, the driest and poorest region of Togo. It is currently the season of Harmattan, when the wind blows down from the Sahara, carrying along dust clouds that blot out the sun, making it dry and dusty and surprisingly cold, especially at night.

I was in the Savannah region for a couple different reasons. First, we had our quarterly Gender and Development committee meeting and, as a coordinator for the Karren Waid Scholarship Program, I am a member. I had great new for them: I sold all of the bags and aprons that I brought with me to Senegal and the volunteers there want more! The funds we raise from selling these items not only go to the artisans who make them, but also to fund small community projects that have to do with gender. For example, we helped a group of women buy 8 goats, so that they could raise them and breed them so that they could learn how to raise animals, manage money, and save money so they could send their daughters to school whether or not their husband wanted to. In Togo, many girls do not go to school at all, and many others only go to primary school. Once they reach the junior high level, their parents often want them to stay at home to take care of the babies or else help them in the fields or at the market, selling products. It can take a lot of convincing to get a family to continue to send their girls to school. It helps if we can support the mothers to make enough money to pay the school fees.

School fees are not very expensive in dollars – only 7 dollars per year. (3500 FCFA) but this is enough money to feed a family for a week, so it can make a huge dent in the pocket of a family that earns about a dollar a day.

I picked up some gorgeous napkins and tablecloths made by the weaver’s collective in Dapaong and sent some to California. They are all made by hand by a cooperative group, staffed mostly by women, who have been weaving since they were children.

As well as some necklaces and bracelets from a local artisan shop run by a man who goes around to tiny villages and buys the handicrafts made there and brings them into the big city where the handicrafts can find a better audience.

Another reason I was in the Savannah region was to visit the five new volunteers that have just taken up their posts. They had their ‘swearing-in’ ceremony in mid-November, so they had only been in their posts for a few weeks. I was stopping by to see how their community integration, language learning, etc. were going and answer any questions they had.

In visiting the various volunteers, I drank a lot of tchakpa, the local fermented millet drink. It’s like beer, and is a staple drink for everyone who lives in the Savannah region. I liken it to the pilgrims on the Mayflower, who drank beer because they couldn’t trust the water to be free of parasites. The boiling and fermentation process helps to rid the liquid of bacteria, etc.
We drink it out of calabash halves – like a big gourd. They are commonly used as bowls, cups, even spoons (when broken or cut in half).

In one village, I got a real treat! A local ‘Starbucks’.
By which I mean, a guy who puts sweetened condensed milk and dehydrated coffee (Nescafe) into a cup and adds boiling water. It’s delicious. And only 100CFA (less than 25 cents)

The Savannah region is characterized by flat fields (dry and brown in this dry and cold season) punctuated by huge baobab trees.

It is a gorgeous landscape.

The third reason I was in the region was to take advantage of the local historical tourist site: the caves of Nano. These caves were used by the Moba people in their war with the Tchokossi people. They are located about 20 feet from the top of a cliff, making them excellent places from which to survey the land and, using their bows and arrows, take down opponents trying to scale the cliff and reach their mountain-top settlements.
There is a spring that comes straight out of the rock – what a miracle! Women still use this spring to gather drinking water – it is pure and clean from parasites unlike the river water they would otherwise be gathering.

The best thing about the Savannah region is the people. Even though I couldn’t speak any of their local languages (Moba, Tchokossi, Gamgam) I still felt warmly welcomed.

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