Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Camp Espoir

Last month we were honored to be invited to Camp Espoir, a yearly camp offered by Peace Corps Togo for HIV-infected or -affected youth. All of the children are HIV-positive, orphans due to HIV/AIDS or somehow significantly affected by the virus.

The organizers, a group of awesome Peace Corps Volunteers, modeled the camp after a their real-life experiences at camp as children, while tying in important lessons for this specific group of kids. During the week they were there, the kids took classes and workshops but perhaps most importantly, these children interacted with peers who were just like them-- kids who had lost their parents or were struggling in one way or another due to repercussions of the virus. This interaction was a rare and priceless experience for them.

Stretching and singing!
   Each morning the kids woke up, had a
   delicious, healthy breakfast and went to play.  
   After a short amount of playtime to get their 
   adrenaline pumping, they gathered in the 
   meeting area where they talked for a few 
   minutes, sang a few songs, introduced guests, 
   announced the morning schedule and then led 
   the children out to the soccer field.

London Bridge -ou- Le Pont de Londres

Once at the soccer field, the games began.  When they originally arrived at camp the kids were divided into groups (and "dorms") based on age and gender. These kids became immediately connected, sharing rooms, stories and ideas. Now on the soccer field they happily played. Each team danced, moving with enthusiasm and celebrating the week, they cheered each other on as they played Simon Says, Flash Freeze (as well as many other camp games that I hadn't thought of in years-- good job guys!), and they embraced each other, coming together for a team cheer to start the day.

Team Dance-off!

London Bridge fell down!
After the games the kids went with their groups to different classes. These classes included life skills, leadership, nutrition and reproductive health, among others. During certain, less imperative, classes kids who needed to talk to counselors were given the opportunity--one that is rarely afforded for children in rural villages.

Several students who had participated in the camp in prior years were paired with a famous Togolese puppet master, Mr. Danaye, who volunteered his time to help the students make puppets and create an informative, uplifting puppet show for their peers. They were incredible!

The puppeteers!

Making Toffee
On second to last day of the camp, the kids had a "market" in which each group sold their "speciality." All week the kids worked hard on a project to sell and were rewarded with "coins" for good, thoughtful and responsible behaviors, with which they would barter, sell and buy other items. The goods included toffees, lemonade, peanut brittle, brooms, neem lotion and popcorn. The market was a good way to teach kids how to make little things that might be useful to contribute to their families economic success and to teach them the importance of saving and budgeting their "money."

On our last morning the kids played a few games with us and sent us off with a sweet song. It was a touching, informative experience and we hope to be a part of it again next year. We are happy and reassured knowing these kids learned some new, helpful things and will be followed by regional NGOs for the next year, providing them with follow-up information and resources, but perhaps, most importantly, these kids had a week-long experience away from community stigma, family stress and the effects of economic hardship, where they could just be what they are: kids.

 If you are interested in more information or ways to help fund this project or others like this, please contact Friends of Togo, a group of current and returned Peace Corps volunteers from Togo.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Shopping in Togo

Last week we went on a shopping adventure around Lomé. When I offhandedly mentioned to one of my girlfriends that I had found a couple cute things, she was thoroughly confused. "What is there to buy over there?" she demanded to know (probably because she's snoopy and wants to know what her Christmas present is).

So, here they are, a few cool things you can buy in Togo:

 You can buy beautiful and overpriced necklaces that you think you might wear a few times but you'll never actually be ballsy enough to wear. Starting materials include beef bones and horns, traditional beads, thread, probably some puppy and leather.

Beautiful Bronze statues are easily found in many sizes. Depending on the store, some are "made" by the person sitting behind the counter and others are selling "ancient tribal statues from hundreds of years ago."

Handmade purses and shoes made from local fabric are fun and colorful.

Handmade pottery, whether it be a pot you see spun on the wheel right in front of you and the guy will give you a really, really good price if only you'll agree to be his third wife, or a scary-faced, phallic fisherman talisman, is always a good gift idea!
Gourmet Sodabe is all the rage right now.
This is particularly hilarious if you've ever tried Sodabe, the local, home-brewed,
reminiscent-of-rubbing-alcohol beverage of choice here in Togo.

 If you have a good friend who you'd really like to treat, go to the traditional pharmacy and get some herbs to help them out. You can find pictures of ailments painted on the wall. For a quick diagnosis, point to your picture and they will supply you with the neccesary herbal remedy.

For example:
You: "Help! There is a snake with an angry man head following me!"
Traditional Pharmacy Guy: "Probably because he is a hipster snake and extremely jealous of your sweet, salmon-colored pants. Make some obscure tea that he hasn't heard of out of this (hands over package of leaves) and you'll feel better."


You: "Help! A brigade of giant, big-bottomed, topless women is attacking my disproportionately over-sized man toy while I do the naked Macarena!"
Traditional Pharmacy Guy: "Get out."

PS. All of my friends are getting traditional pharmacy paintings for Christmas. I just went to the other stores to show my normal friends where to get stuff.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Sacred Stone Festival

Last week we were invited to the annual Sacred Stone Festival, a ceremony that takes place in the heart of Togo's voodoo region. The highlight comes when the high priests of the voodoo religion interpret the stone's message to forecast the next year's events. My nanny forbade me from talking to anyone while I was there, lest they curse me.

A quick description of the event:
Every year in the village of Glidji, 30 miles from Togo's capital city, members of the Guen tribe gather together for the Epe Ekpe festival--a lively community celebration dripping with West African song, style, and color. A celebration of the Guen new year, the festival draws families from around the region to gather together in anticipation of the highlight: the presentation of the sacred stone. High priests collect the stone from a sacred forest and present it to the community as a harbinger of the coming year's fortunes. Although it is for the high priests to interpret and communicate the details of the message, for the sacred stone, color tells all:
  • Blue: abundant harvests and rain
  • Red: impending conflict and war
  • Black: famine, disease, and devastating rain
  • White: peace, good luck, and abundance
Traditional voodoo beads.
Body painting with mud, clay and plants.
The festival is marked by a dancing kaleidoscope of colors and a cacophony of chants and songs. The voodoo priestesses are bare-breasted, dressed in white skirts, and ordained with natural dyes, beads and embellishments.

Among all of the sights and sounds, certain images emerged as truly unforgettable:

At the beginning of the spectacle, the priestesses stood on the margins of the arena while waiting for the priests to summon them. They chanted and swayed with focused gazes, creating a beautiful, yet sometimes eerie, scene.

After a few rounds of dancing, the speeches began. Elders and priests delivered a warm welcome, evoking the traditions of their forefathers and building the crowd's anticipation for the presentation of the stone. At the height of their soliloquies, one official interrupted with an urgent announcement: "The sacred stone has left the forest!"

It was heading our way.

Since the journey from the forest would still take some time, we were treated to several more rounds of dancing, singing and speeches. As the anticipation mounted, the man on the microphone screamed louder, the crowd elevated the volume of their cheers and chants, and the women danced with such vigor that several of them danced themselves into a trance and had to be escorted out of the arena, big-eyed and wailing.

All covered women who attained the "trance stage" were relieved of their beads and tops, baring their breasts as the music climbed to a fever pitch.

After the priestesses came out of their trances, they returned to the arena topless, but wearing their beads, and looking just as focused as they did during the height of their trance.

Finally, the announcement was made. "The stone is entering the arena!" The crowd erupted into cheers as we waited for the stone to enter. Then, just as suddenly as the cheering began, it stopped. A handful of priests reverently carried the stone into the arena. The crowd fell silent. Everyone wanted to see it. The gendarmes, dressed in riot gear, accompanied and protected the voodoo priests who carried the stone in, since everyone was pushing and pulling to catch a glimpse.

While they walked around the arena, showing everyone the stone, they chanted and sang, thanking the voodoo gods for blessing the community with a white stone, which ensured a year of peace, good fortune, and bountiful harvest.

The showing of the sacred stone.

The sacred stone.

The priests.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Game

When we first got to Togo, Mr. Kate had one goal*, he wanted to play soccer. In between moving, A-100 and moving again, he hadn't played soccer in nearly 6 months, which was basically his worst nightmare.

Eventually he joined forces with a few friends and formed an embassy soccer team. The first few weeks were hard-- it was difficult finding places to practice and times that would work for everyone, but eventually they fell into a rhythm and started playing.

Word of the US Embassy team got out around town and was quickly followed by an invitation from the Minister of Foreign Affairs to have a "match amical."

Early one Saturday morning, we all headed out to the national field, where some of us played and others stayed in the stands, drinking mimosas, waving flags and loudly cheering our awesome team on!

The best cheerleaders EVER! 

Warming up. 

The Ambassador and Mr. Kate, ready for the kick-off!

Me and my nanny, bein' awesome. 

Fofo, rockin it! 

It was a great game and we had a ton of fun, but in the end, the embassy lost. The teams shook hands, planned another fun game for next year and then we found some breakfast. We were all content with the day's events until suddenly, a few days later, one of our colleagues found this in the paper:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs dominates the American Embassy!
And now we know, next year, we have to win! We will dominate!  Maybe I should take up soccer?

*He also wanted to learn how to knit, scrapbook, make cake-pops and properly braise a pork chop, but this was also important.