In the Spotlight: Peace Corps Togo

by Lisa Barrett 

My very good friend, Molly Conlin, is a Peace Corps Togo volunteer in the Environment and Food Security sector! Here is her interview.

  1. What is Peace Corps?

The Peace Corps is an international development organization with which Americans volunteer 27 months of service in a foreign country. The Peace Corps is wonderful in that they only operate in countries that have requested them and only send volunteers to villages that have officially applied to have a Peace Corps volunteer. Once we arrive at our site, we are instructed to spend the first three months getting to know our community and learning specifically what their needs are and which projects they want to accomplish in
their unique cultural context. Therefore my role is best described as a project facilitator. Outside of some optional grant resources, Peace Corps volunteers do not bring any money into a community, but rather knowledge and skills to utilize local, accessible and renewable resources to solve everyday problems.

The organization has three primary goals which are, 1) to train men and women in a foreign country so that they may meet their goals and objectives, 2) to share and educate a foreign country on the culture, values and diversity of the American people and 3) to share and educate Americans on the culture, values and diversity of the country served. Therefore, a volunteer’s job is to train and develop a community and country according to that country’s goals as well as to exchange cultures building friendships and creating understanding between those people and ultimately encouraging peace between nations.

  1. What is a typical day for you like?

I have been serving here for 21 months already. The first three months in Togo are spent with Peace Corps staff, training on French and local language, culture and technical skills specific to my Environment and Food Security (EAFS) sector. After training, I received my site placement in Koni, a small and rural village in the northern Savanes region, and have been living hetchakpadancingre ever since. Koni has neither electricity nor running water and the vast majority of the community is subsistence farmers.

As an EAFS volunteer, I don’t really have a “typical day”. Some days I am building a permaculture garden and surveying the tree nurseries of my reforestation team, and other days I am meeting with the women’s cooperative that I helped to create and running my girls club at the middle school. The other types of volunteers in Togo, health and education, typically have more structured days either visiting the health clinic or middle school daily.

In Koni, like much of the villages in the Savanes region, locally brewed sorghum beer, or “tchakpa”, is a regular part of any day. It is not as strong beer in America, but has a sweet almost cider-like taste that can even taste a bit sour if it has fermented long enough. My host family brews tchakpa once a week, starting on Thursday evenings till Sunday morning when all of the neighbors come over to buy a calabash full (the traditional gourd bowls tchakpa is drunk from). Everyone usually drinks at least one calabash first thing in the morning to start off the day and only sometimes drinks it at night once the work is done in the fields.

People in Togo value greetings very highly and so as I walk through my village I am constantly stopped by neighbors. In Koni, I am called “Lamoussa”, which means born on a Thursday, so a typical conversation in the Moba language will go:

Neighbor: “Lamoussa, Dom Gaum” (Lamoussa, Good morning)

Me: “Laafiee” (All is well)

Neighbor: “L maanee?” (How are you?)

Me: “Laafiee. Un doit manou?” (All is well. Did you sleep well?)

Neighbor: “Laafiee” (All is well)

Me: “A Tourne eh pway?” (And how is the work?)

Neighbor: “Laafiee” (All is well)

Me: “Bitti?” (And the children?)

Neighbor: “Laafiee” (All is well)

Me: “Chamba?” (And your husband?)

Neighbor: “Laafiee” (All is well)

Me: “Manou?” (All is well then?)

Neighbor: “Manou quay. Belekabeautchien!” (Everything is well. Thank you very much!)

Me: “Nfaa” (Thank goodness)

This same conversation will occur with almost everyone I meet because in the Moba culture it doesn’t matter how busy you are or what you’re in the middle of, you stop and make sure your neighbor is well.

walking-with-kids

  1. What made you choose to do Peace Corps in Togo? 

After graduating from Connecticut College in 2013, I joined AmeriCorps NCCC as a Team Leader for one year. During my time with AmeriCorps I realized that I was most interested in pursuing a career in international development with an NGO. So, I searched for job
openings but soon discovered that for the positions I mollypigwanted, I needed either a master’s degree or ten years of work experience. A member of my AmeriCorps team told me about how he planned to join the Peace Corps and how I could both gain work experience in international development and qualify for scholarships to get my masters and so I applied too.

On the application I had the choice to express interest in working in specific parts of the world. I had previously done a semester abroad in Madagascar as part of SIT’s Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management study abroad program. Madagascar is a French speaking country as is Togo and so I was very interested in returning to Madagascar or serving in another francophone African country. I had also focused much of my Environmental Science studies in college on sustainable agriculture and worked on some farms in Pennsylvania and in France with the WWOOF program. These experiences and interests combined to make the Peace Corps program in Togo a perfect fit for me.

  1. What do you wish people knew about health/agriculture/education in Togo?

I believe that a lot people in America have some major misconceptions about life in Togo. I live in an extremely rural village with very few resources and sometimes when discussing reofrestationtourthe cultural differences I get the impression that Americans view their life as primitive or even backwards. This is not true. People in Togo and people of the Moba culture with whom I live are a modern people living in the year 2017 just like us. Even without electricity, some people have cellphones and follow global news and events. The fact is simply that most people here are extremely poor. There is a difference between being poor and being “primitive”. They have a culture different from our own and greatly value their community. Everyone I know and work with, works their hardest every day to improve their community and are hopeful. Unfortunately, they lack the resources to accomplish most of their goals and the government is often actively working against them. This entire school year has seen striking teachers three if not five days of the week because the government hasn’t paid them in three years. It is the children who suffer and mollyschoolthere is only so much a Peace Corps volunteer or an engaged community member can do in a situation like that. The people I live with in Koni want the same opportunities to be happy and successful in life as any American and they do everything in their power to improve the lives of their neighbors, but they only have so much to work with.

 

  1. How do you think this position has helped inform/form your ideas about the environment (or access to resources or sustainability)? How have some of your views changed? 

My experience with the Peace Corps has shown me that it not only possible to embrace environmental conservation and sustainability when working in development, but also that is in fact essential to responsible development work.  The people of Koni live in the driest region of Togo. It rains three months of the year over the summer and then all plant life dies. Gardeners are most active during the height of the dry season, but they must dig deeper and deeper wells by hand to keep their vegetables alive as desertification becomes an increasing problem. People in much America talk about the threat of climate change mollycompostbut some only experience it as an abnormally hot day in February. In Togo, people, mostly children, are starving and becoming sick from a lack of clean water every day. Most people know about climate change, but even those who have never heard of the term or the science behind it will tell you how the rains have stopped sooner, how the wind storms have grown larger, how the soil refuses to let their crops grow, how the trees have disappeared. Much of my job as an environment volunteer is to show how to naturally and sustainably combat the effects of climate change. Most people buy chemical fertilizer and grow their crops in monocultures because years of colonial and western influence and promise of a chemical solution to hunger has led people to abandon the sustainable ways they had been growing their food for years. When I gather people together to talk about compost, techniques of permaculture, natural insecticides and more, everyone is so happy and motivated to start incorporating those ideas into their work. When I train people on reforestation techniques and provide seeds, everyone is thrilled and does everything in their power to plant more trees. They do not have the resources to cook their food without fire wood, but that does not mean that they want to cut down their trees. The elders remember in their youth so many more trees everywhere and how they would bring the rains and protect from the heat and wind and are some of the most motivated people to encourage reforestation. Togo is a country that is severely impacted by climate change, but western nations are the ones perpetuating and exasperating the problem. America needs to abandon its selfish and entitled policies and begin leading towards the solutions for everyone’s sake.

  1. Where can we find out more?

Check out my Instagram account @mollster7767 !

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