Sunday, November 23, 2008

Live from Morocco, a Post about Cote d'Ivoire

Sorry for the delay - I was busy getting more stuff stolen

How to Make a Decision without Information

Let's be honest. Alex, Katie, and I had no idea what we were doing when we decided to go to Cote d'Ivoire. I was restive and my decision making capacity was compromised when we discussed going to Cote d'Ivoire. I arrived in Lomé packed to go on a ten day vacation with no real intention of undertaking the trip.The decision to travel to Cote d'Ivoire was made the evening before we left. After careful manipulation exacted upon me from Alex and Katie, I decided that yes, despite the warnings, I did want to go. Deciding any earlier would have afforded enought ime to create a skeletal plan, consequently forfeiting all semblances of spontaneity. The traveler's rule of spontaneity though unrestrained, is reckless. The decision to forgo planning was not premeditated or prudent. It was mildly stimulating, and necessary, damn it.

In 2004 Cote d'Ivoire was in the throes of civil war, and Africa experts were beginning to call the country a "failed state". 2004 is the same year that I took my first trip to Togo. Follow me down memory lane as I reminisce about trips never taken. When people ask why I traveled to Togo in 2004, I usually make up some story about howI was trying to reconnect with my roots. The truth however is that my University of Ghana study abroad program took us to Togo. There was no real reason for them to take us to Togo except that the capital was within a days drive from Accra. We found out later that the real reason we were going to Lomé was because we were supposed to go to Abidjan, the largest city in Cote d'Ivoire - but a little something called a civil war stood in the way of19 Americans enjoying the patisseries and cafes of the "Paris of West Africa". So because of this civil war, the study abroad program decided to take us to a "fragile" state instead of a "fail(ing)ed"one. Thanks! But seriously, thanks.

The point is that once I found out I was supposed to go to Coted'Ivoire and couldn't, I decided that one day (while it was probably safer but still not wise) I would go. The thought process parallels case studies found in an introductory developmental psychology textbook. Don't do that! So you do it. You know? The psychology behind it is straight forward, I guess. So working off of a few hours of sleep and the reminder that I did not need a Visa to enter Cote d'Ivoire as an American citizen, I said, "Whatever, it will probably make for a decent blog entry, Allons-y!" Also, I just really needed avacation.

Togo and Cote d'Ivoire are not the same place

We took it slow by spending a couple of very relaxing days in the Western region of Ghana, at Busua and Butre two fishing villages transformed into bungalow beach towns for young European and American backpackers. On our last morning at Butre, my two travel companions and I had a difficult time rationalizing leaving the comfortable and relaxing mantra of the waves, to go to a place the US State Department said had a risk level or "Extreme danger". I read the travel advisories with the same grain of salt as every other traveler, but"extreme danger"?!?! The 2007 Lonely Planet said that British citizensare only barred from entering two countries, Somalia and Cote d'Ivoire (this we learned after we had already returned). So like three naïvegringos leaving America for the first time on a group packaged tourof the Bahamas, we headed for the border of Cote d'Ivoire.The border crossing was much less chaotic than the Ghana/Togo border, probably because the Togo border hurls you directly into the capital city. The Ghana side of the process was straightforward. After getting the Ghana exit stamp, you walk a quarter of a click over a bridge to the Cote d'Ivoire side. In this no man's land between Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire I thought awkwardly about which language I should use. In the end, I chose silence. Here again, there was not too much action. The border guard that registered our passports nagged us aboutnot having visas for a minute before someone reminded him that Americans don't need visas. Really?!?! How few Americans travel this border crossing that the border guard didn't know that we don't need visas? So it was done, we had our stamps. The border guard told usthat Abidjan was wonderful and that we could find everything there. Coming from Kanté, that was alright with me.

We went to the taxi station to get a car for Abidjan. Immediately upon arrival, we sat down to eat some Ivorian street cuisine. While eating, three people sat down next to Alex, Katie and I and struck up some light banter. It turned out that the older woman of the group had to do some business over the border in Ghana, but after an hour, she would be heading back to Abidjan with her driver in an old 4x4. Of course we could get a ride if we waited for an hour. So we waited and debated –Do we trust these people? It was an old woman, of course we trust her! And I did. They came back like they said they would and we hopped in the back of the car. The older woman told us stories about her travels through America and Europe. We hit the big time. She spoke beautiful French, and when we asked her what the local language in Abidjan was, she said, "French". Ah Bon?

Industry. That was my first remark. There were huge perfectly manicured plantations of palm trees with real sprinkler systems to bring water to the thirsty soil. Then there were the rubber tree plantations equipped with the same sprinkler technology. These farms were definitely maintained with big machines. There was money here. The driver blasted past security check points like it was no big thang. This was easy breezy, which meant that something needed to go wrong. And then came the sound. It was sort of like the jolting sound of lawnmower eating large branches. Every time the driver shifted, the car ate some more branches. Luckily this sound started right outside Aboisso, the first large town after you cross the border. We drove to a mechanic. For the first ten minutes I sat in the car my stubbornness alone could will the mechanics to find a speedy solution. I begrudgingly got out of the car after Jean, a friendly middle aged man invited us to wait in his family compound.

We had been in Cote d'Ivoire for only three hours when we were first confronted with the reality of the war. Jean invited us into his compound told us his story of how he came to live in the town ofAboisso. After learning English with the help of a Peace Corps volunteer that lived in his family compound for four years, Jean became an English teacher in northern Cote d'Ivoire. Militants invaded the town where he was teaching and entered his family's compound. Without hesitation the militants shot and killed his brother and his brother's wife in front of their children. The bullets, shot at close range ricocheted off of the ground and changeddirection, barreling indiscriminately towards any object in their paths. One child in the compound we met had shrapnel fly into her face and a piece of a bullet still lodged in her head. After surviving the attack, Jean was duty-bound to take in the children of his murdered family members. His compound in Aboisso was overflowing with children. Jean took us on a walking through the town which sat at the edge of alarge river. He told us how the war had very little to do withethnicity and a lot more to do with politics. He explained that for many generations Ivorians from the north had lived in the south andconversely, many southerners lived in the north. As he explained thiswe passed a wedding celebration at the edge of the river. The wedding was for a couple from northern Cote d'Ivoire.

The sun made its daily descent towards California. The car was still not fixed. Alex, Katie and I knew we were unlikely to make it toAbidjan before dark. This seemed a little too spontaneous. Jean offered us a place to stay in his house. The offer was tempting. Thedriver who took us from the border offered to put the three of us upin his house in Abidjan. Because it was getting late, and we had no idea what to do in Abidjan, he said it would be smarter to stay with him and at least know someone in Abidjan just in case somethinghappened. This offer was a little more enticing, so we jumped at the chance to stay at someone's personal house in Abidjan. He promised usa calm, neat house within a few meters of the Atlantic Ocean. A beach villa.

We piled into a bush taxi from Aboisso to Abidjan. Night and all ofher dirty hidden tricks was definitely upon us. The road was wide andsmooth and I was beaming with excitement about the villa where we were going to unwind that evening. The taxi passed the airport under a congregation of street lights. The artificial orange light splayed was obscured only by the smoke wafting from the countless street vendors grilling up all kinds of meat on make shift oil drum grills. BobbyFlay should do an Abidjan grill challenge. A few moments later, the taxi stopped. Our old driver friend that we would be crashing with told us we had arrived. But this didn't look like Abidjan, or at least not the metropolis I had heard so much about. We must still have a little bit further to go. Not so, we had arrived. The driver friend had not lied to us, we were within the city limits of Abidjan just barely. We unloaded our bags from the back of the old Peugeot station wagon and made a mad dash across four lanes of highway. Once we crossed the highway we proceeded through a small alley and then thepavement stopped. We were stepping on sand. We had officially entered a shanty town.

Our driver friend graciously offered us his small home in the heart of the shanty town. We dropped our bags and stared at each other with theunspoken knowledge that this was to be one of the most uncomfortable moments we had all experienced thus far in life. We found ourselves sitting on some foam sofas slowly taking it all in. Our host was excited, hospitable, and conversed openly. After five minutes he satdown and explained his political beliefs. Living in Togo, a country where very few people talk about politics, and as foreigners, we stay as far away from those conversations as humanly possible, I was not accustomed to this conversation. He explained how the current president used to be his friend, and presented us with a picture of himself with the president. But then something happened and now this man is part of the rebel movement. Great. Seven hours into our Coted'Ivoire and we found ourselves in a shanty town sitting with a rebel leader. A mixture of fear and hilarity ensued. We had to eat and we had to make a plan, however skeletal or unrealistic the plan might be. We couldn't just leave outright, that would have been disrespectfuland also we had no idea where we were. So we ate. The meal was probably delicious but I can't even remember the tastes. The stares of the people did not seem to be curious but disgruntled. Jim Morrison said it best, "People are strange when you're a stranger (in the economic capital of a country that has just emerged from 7 years ofwar)".

We decided we would struggle through the night and leave first thing in the morning. The man just kept pressing on about his political agenda. We purchased a cell phone card for Cote d'Ivoire so we could at least make an outgoing call if we needed to. A strange urge overcame me and it felt like a mix between laughter and the urgent need to call the American Embassy. After dinner I tried unsuccessfully to befriend a man in the shanty compound as a way to ensure that no one would be attacked in the night. If someone in thecompound liked us, they couldn't let bad men with guns hurt us, right? That didn't work. We went to sleep. My dad called and I tried to subtly explain our exact location without disclosing that we were staying in a shanty town with an opposition leader.

We survived the night, and awoke to an overcast morning with the familiar sound of waves crashing just beyond the wall where we slept.We went exploring to find the beach. Again, stares, but not the kinds of stares I am used to in Togo. These people were used to foreigners,but not recently, and especially not in their homes. A woman followed us everywhere we walked, snickering in French, her local language. We snapped a few uncomfortable pictures* and gathered our belongings. Even in the safety of early morning light, it was time to get out of there. We got in a taxi and headed towards a hotel we heard was in a good part of town. With each kilometer of road that brought us further away from the shanty town, another one of my senses returned to my body. One day we will laugh about this we said, just not today.


I am in Casablanca waiting to go to the American consulate tomorrow morning in hopes of obtaining a new American Passport. *There are no pictures of Cote d'Ivoire because my laptop was stolen out from under my nose (literally as I slept).

Posts to appear Soon! :

  • Farewell Transmission: or Leaving Togo (again)

  • Passport: A Beginner's Guide to 'how to lose/get stolen and then obtain a new one from the Consulate in Casablanca'

  • Almost In the footsteps of Welles and Hendrix: How I almost went to Essouira but didn't because of my stolen passport


  • Some photos that were taken post-computer getting stolen

Monday, June 16, 2008

My sister came to visit and she came packing heat

You look different after almost 2 years!

Marisa, my sister, spent two heat filled weeks in Togo eating nothing but corn meal, yam dough, and drinking dirty water. A specially hired crew of elephants and witch doctors greeted Marisa as she descended upon Accra from her Delta direct flight from JFK. Because I did not want her to be poisoned by Accra’s urban transformation (what I like to call, “shadow initiative to Counter West Africa’s dismal rep in western countries [SItCWADRIWC]), I ushered her into a taxi straight for the promised land, Lomé, Togo.

As the taxi headed out of the recently developed Accra airport area, Marisa observed just how different Accra was to what she had pictured in her mind…Ah yes, the Accra SItCWADRIWC was working wonders. Not to worry, in less than five hours Marisa would enter Lomé where the SItCWADRIWC was brought a halt in the early 1970’s. During the drive my sister and I caught up enjoying fresh bagels brought direct from the 24hour convenient store, Bionic Bagels on Nostrand ave in Sheepshead Bay (thanks mom), and reading the latest Rolling Stone (thanks dad) and previous day’s New York Times (thanks Delta).

First stop: Border Crossing from Aflao to Lomé or Why Rolling Suitcases are best Left for the West

The border crossing from Aflao (Ghana) to Lomé (Togo) is one of the worst place I have ever been in West Africa. It does not matter if you are travelling from Togo to Ghana or (less likely) Ghana to Togo, this place is a festival of head aches. Depending on what time, what day of the week, and which border guards are working, you can cross in as little as twenty minutes or as much as two days. The Ghana side is time consuming because they check your bags and make you fill out special customs cards that no matter how many times you fill them out, no matter how many capital letters you use, and no matter how many times you remember to always write your name as it appears on your passport, you always leave some intricate, obligatory piece of minutia blank or misspelled, and annoy the processing officer’s delicate sensibilities. This step can take an hour. So my sister’s first steps in Africa happened to be in Aflao, and for that I am sorry. Where do all these border forms go (sung to tune of where have all the cowboys gone)?

***Travel advisory*** Rolling suitcases: If you’ve got them, don’t bring them to Togo. Rolling those things through rocky, pebbly, muddy, sandy, liquid-y paths is just disgusting. It is easy enough to find someone that will help you carry your non-rolling bag for a small fee, and you can rest easy knowing there is only a 65 percent chance they will make off with your bag.

Now that you have your Ghana stamp, you proceed through intricate undulating paths filled with huge women carry even larger loads on their heads, while you hit their hips with the rolling suitcases. The sweat is really pouring down the forehead now. Just be glad you don’t speak local language. Back to the suitcase: If you own a large rolling suitcase, you probably own the large rolling suitcase’s daughter, the little rolling suitcase. ***Travel advisory 2*** No need to bring both father and daughter on your trip to West Africa.

You have now exited Ghana and entered the no man’s land. This is where all the magic happens. Bye Bye Ghana. Hello Togo! Not just yet though. Now comes the fun part. This is where there is no Togolese office building to process your passport. There is a desk. On this desk are about 50 passports and one man with a stamp. Guess what? A bus from Nigeria is going to Ghana and they have to process passports for every passenger on the bus. ***Travel advisory 3*** Spitting a little local language from the north of Togo will bump you right to the summit of the passport peak. Without the local language (or monetary cadeaus) expect a waiting time of between four hours and six days. During your wait you will be greeted by many people that will present different objects or services for your viewing and purchasing pleasure. These people don’t care how long you have been travelling, or that you might not speak French, or that you may already own a belt, or that you are tired, frustrated and have been baking in the sun for hours, or that you have been asked to buy all of these same products by ten people already. Perhaps you forgot to pick up a flashlight at Paragon before you left, or a pair of socks, or that Chinese plastic hand fan, or maybe you didn’t want the flashlight from the first ten people that wanted you to buy it, but NOW, yes NOW you are ready. You were bluffing all along, now it is time to dig into your deep American dollar filled pockets and buy the flashlight. As time passes and your skin starts to turn into leather from the unrelenting sun, an understanding dawns on you but you are delirious. Not only do you understand West Africa, but you want to write ethnographies about the functionality of the border crossing. You get it. Whereas the sellers of random goods once seemed random and chaotic, you now sense an order. More and more time passes and reality is upside down, and you understand that it is necessarily this difficult to cross a border. Not only is it necessary but it is right and correct and ethical and moral and mandated and who would want it any other way? You buy the pack of tissues to wipe the tears of understanding away from your dirt and sweat streaked face. You are probably high from the fumes of the trucks, but you now understand. Deep.

Then in a daze, you are across. Like a goat charged with eating garbage and pebbles all day long, you wander through wondering where you are and how exactly you got there. You have two stamps and a new euphoric lease on life, which is just what you will need for the next portion of your trip.

Aside: I have yet to meet a person (besides a family member of a Peace Corps Volunteer) that has come to Togo just to come to Togo. I know no one that has flown into Togo for the purposes of a visit and then flown out of Lomé without having at least tried to visit Ghana, Benin, or Burkina. In Lomé, most of the tourists you meet are Peace Corps volunteers coming from Benin, wishing to visit Ghana, or coming from Ghana wishing to visit Benin, and having to pass through Togo. Usually the Ghana/Benin visa process is longer than expected and they end up spending extra days in Lomé. When you meet these travelers they are usually unhappy, tired, bitter, and lonely. Their first question: What can you do in Togo? The answer usually elicits a very lengthy and profound silence. Let this next portion of the blog entice readers that are unsure of their commitment to visit my little host country, Togo.


So after my sister’s 16 hour nonstop trip, I brought her straight to a hostel in Lomé with electricity and air conditioning. Unfortunately the running water was limping so we had to take bucket showers. Marisa really hated bucket showers and bucket flush toilets…more on that later. We spent the afternoon relaxing and hanging out in the Peace Corps lounge and eating delicious Italian food at the very best restaurant in Togo, Filopats. Following this delicious Italian/French fusion dining experience, we had beverages at the neighboring establishment, The Regent, which happens to be the best bar in all of Togo. In Togo, Lomé is the Promised Land. Though there are often water shortages, power cuts, and roads made of sand, Lomé has the best restaurants and most activities (eating at restaurants) of any place in Togo. Also just being near the beach is a nice break from northern Togo. I always expect visitors to really like Lomé. My sister was surprised at how nice the restaurant was, but commented on the lack of city lights, no street lights, no sidewalks, garbage, 1970’s décor, and roads made of sand.

NoTo just like Soho, but Cleaner.

The rest of the trip was spent in various bush taxis and villages in northern Togo (NoTo). I tried to give my sister a balanced view of Togo. When you visit Togo, or many other countries in West Africa you can have a very easy, pleasant time. You can stay in adequate or better than adequate hotels, use rented cars and a driver, eat only hotel prepared meals, etc. The dilemma is this: you don’t want your visitor to get sick, but you want them to leave having an understanding or at lease minimal appreciation of what living conditions are like for the average Togolese person in Kanté and the other places we visited on our trip. I think Marisa had a fair and balanced experience. We had fun, ate well, and also did some work along the way.

We spent most of her time around Kanté and my prefecture. We stayed in my house and visited a lot of my friends in Kanté and Nadoba. Akanto, my counterpart, talked a lot about the difficulties he has overcome and still faces living in Kanté. Everyday we were doing something different and exciting. The time spent in Kanté was filled with candle lit evenings, and waterless showers. We had no water for two days of the trip and then once the water came back on it was light-black in color. The wells around the village were practically empty as well. Moving on to work related issues.

We went into the high school English class and gave them piles of Newsweek magazines that had been building up from my weekly Peace Corps mail days. The class asked about the American elections and Marisa was surprised at how informed the students were about America! I always try to tell people just how informed Togolese people are if they have access to radios, but I was surprised too when they name dropped Eliot Spitzer and then Marisa and I tried to fumble through explaining that situation.

Marisa came to work at AED Kara and met with Abass, the head of the psychosocial program, and they discussed how consultations and counseling worked in Togo. Then Marisa got to come and experience a monthly support group meeting for people living with HIV/AIDS in Kanté. This is the group of people I have been working with since I arrived in Kanté (in one form or another) and we discussed how to make enriched porridge out of ingredients that can be found locally and relatively inexpensively. We discussed how to best open the clinic and find a space to house the association.

I organized two fetes or parties for Marisa. The first was held in Nadoba and an organization for the preservation of Tamberma culture put together some dances and sketches to highlight different Tamberma ceremonies. The following day we had a more relaxed and informal fete in Kanté where local beer was flowing out of old plastic buckets (See below) and three groups of semi-organized dancers danced. As the fete continued, the dances deteriorated into old men basically stomping around. Though people had asked me before my sister arrived if she would want to sacrifice an animal, I decided that stone would be left better unturned.

Marisa met many volunteers in Kara and Atakpame and we were able to have a dinner with some of the children that participate in the monthly Club Espoir. Marisa sang and danced with them as if they were old friends meeting up at a bar in New York City.

Before Marisa left, we spent one day and one night in Accra exploring the University of Ghana campus where I studied abroad in 2004. Marisa seemed happy that we saved Accra for the end of her two week excursion to Togo. It was a nice relaxing (…sort of… we couldn’t find a hotel room for about 1.5 hours) way to finish off the trip. The morning we said goodbye I traveled back to Togo with a friend and by the time I had crossed back into Togo my sister was more than half way home.

Here is the proof that I had a visitor:

Here is Marisa cooking dinner

Marisa exiting her Tamberma chalet

Future brother in-law???

Tchouk....Local brew

My sister entering her grain storage unit

And that is how you host a visitor...

On a side note, Moammar Qaddafi was also a visitor in Kara and Lome this past weekend. Weird!! I wonder if his pictures look similar????

Friday, January 11, 2008


Come, and Bring your Spear

Kanté is Lamba for: “come and bring your spear.” During Germany’s campaign to colonize the north of Togo, the Lamba speaking people from the Kanté area and the Tamberma Valley were summoned to bring their weapons and fight the colonizers. The Tamberma people, another ethnic group in my prefecture, are master mud fortress builders and are notoriously more private and closed to foreigners than other Togolese ethnic groups. Regardless of the validity of these stories of resistance, suffice it to say I was just a smidgeon intimidated upon arriving in Kanté last year to open an AIDS treatment clinic.

During my first few months at post I tried to jump start the project as quickly as I could. I worked with the Assistant Medical and a support group for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). A these meetings the group learned about the services provided by AED Kara and that AED was interested in opening an AED satellite in Kanté. The majority of the members in the group had never heard of AED and had no idea what types of services were available to them at a treatment center like AED. Though the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is extremely high in Kanté, relatively few people attend monthly support group meetings.

AED Kara staff encouraged me to start community AED meetings where infected and non-infected people interested in opening the association could exchange ideas and form an executive board. From the beginning of my service I had been working exclusively with infected people since they are the main beneficiaries of any treatment center and would be in charge of managing the association. I went to the PLWHA support group meetings with the idea of starting separate meetings for the association where anyone interested could attend. The reaction from the group was negative. The infected people did not want to attend open community meetings because they feared community members would discover and divulge their status. Some of the members wanted me to go ahead with the meetings but listed various reasons why they would be unable to attend. Without the help of non-infected people in the community, the association could never succeed.

“If you broadcast it they will come”

I have always wanted to make an allusion to Field of Dreams, and I just did. Without assurances that the infected members of the group would participate, I went ahead trying to garner support from the main powerhouses in Kanté: the Mayor, the Prefet, and the Chief.[1] Having never done a sensibilization, I thought it would be an appropriate step in an effort to inform the community about AED. AED Kara agreed to come to the sensibilization, present their services and bring members to give testimonials about their struggles with HIV/AIDS. These testimonies are invaluable. Infected people willing to share their status with other Togolese people are extremely brave, and make use of one of the most important tools in the fight against stigma and discrimination. In a community that discriminates against people living with HIV/AIDS finding interested people to help open the center is a major hurdle. As more and more people tested positive each day, the medical team grew frustrated with the lack of commitment from the community to fight this epidemic. The numbers of people attending monthly support group meetings were dropping and the main reason was fear of being “found out” by other community members. At the proposed sensibilization people would learn about the realities of HIV/AIDS in the prefecture and the services that are being offered by AED in other neighboring prefectures.

Good Morning, Kanté!

Radio Kéran is located in a typical Togolese compound. Instead of a mango tree in the center of the compound, there is a 150 foot tall (completely off the cuff guess) radio antenna. Metal cables extend down to the cement ground holding the antenna in place. To enter the compound, you have to navigate through the cables and piles of corn. Every night at 6pm everyone rich enough to own a radio in the Kéran Prefecture tunes in to listen to Radio Kéran. I always wanted to have a radio show in Kanté but was dissuaded by the hefty price tag of 15 mille per hour of airtime.

Before the sensibilization, I decided I had to at least advertise the event even if I was going to pay out of pocket. I invited an AED Kara staff member to come and broadcast a brief radio show about AED. The director and owner of the radio station had recently injured his leg so was immobile on his front terrace. That meant that during price negotiations he had to listen to everything I had to say and could not walk away. After a round of Castels (on me), and a riveting discussion about how Native Americans got to be called Indians, we got down to business. Negotiating a price for the radio time was easy after I bought him the drink. He told me I could do as much radio work as I wanted gratis as long as the purpose was meant to benefit the prefecture (but a few subtle shout outs could be squeezed in too). Radio stations around Togo broadcast “communiqués”, airtime to advertise upcoming community events, three times a day until the day of the event. The director of the radio station agreed not only to radio shows for free but communiqués for every event associated with AED Kanté. These communiqués are read in both French and local language. For one week before the sensibilization, communiqués about the sensibilization were broadcast in French and Lamba. Shaking hands, I told the director I would write a proposal to help defray the cost of future radio shows.

The first show with the AED Kara employee was 30 minutes long and touched on every major issue I have been working on for the past year. I only spoke for about ten minutes, but it felt great to vent into a microphone. I had no idea if anyone was: 1. listening, or 2. understanding my French. This is why it was important to bring the AED employee because I left knowing everything I wanted to be said had either been said by me or by the AED staff member.

When I left the radio station it was 7:30pm. Everyone in my compound was outside waiting to greet me with huge smiles and applause. They had heard the show. The next morning while walking around, people I had never seen before approached me about the radio show asking how they could help start AED. Everyone who had listened to the show had at least been exposed to AED and my main project in the community. Also after a weeks worth of communiqués, the community was informed about the date, location, and purpose of the sensibilization.

In terms of turnout, the sensibilization was a success. The crowd was dense with students. The testimonials were the highlight. The audience could not believe that a woman who looked completely healthy could possibly be HIV positive. To this day, people come up to me and ask me if the people who gave testimonies were actually HIV positive or were just actors and actresses from Lomé. Unfortunately the presentation of AED services fell on deaf ears because of the length of the sensibilization. The event started late due to rain, challenging people’s capacity to retain information after two hours of presentations.

The real success has come from the regular radio shows that I have done in collaboration with community members since the sensibilization. The longest show lasted for one hour and fifteen minutes with the Assistant Medical. During these shows we discuss rights and laws for people living with HIV/AIDS, nutrition for people living with HIV/AIDS, where to go to get free testing, and who to talk to if you are concerned about HIV/AIDS. Because everyone listens to the radio it is not shameful for everyone in the compound to sit and absorb the information being broadcast. The radio is a wonderful medium for infected people to get information when they may be too afraid to travel to the hospital. Most infected people in Kanté have no idea that if they are harassed, by law, they are able to go to the judge and have the harasser jailed. For many people in the prefecture, they have no idea that they can receive an HIV test for free.

Since starting regular radio programs hospital visits have increased as have the numbers of people receiving voluntary testing. The amount of people attending the support group has spiked. The numbers of people wishing to have their CD4 count analyzed has also increased dramatically. The first general AED meeting held after the sensibilization had just three participants. A week later, after having done two radio programs, the number of participants jumped to 48. Among the 48 there are many familiar faces from the support group. The support group has also had the highest turnout since I first arrived in Kanté. The amount of progress for AED Kanté has warped ahead. In September of this year I was pushing for a summer 2008 opening, and now we are on track to open in January or February 2008 as planned. There is a functioning executive board and the majority of the work is beginning to pass from the shoulders of the Assistant Medical and me, to the community members who now know what AED is, wish to bring it to Kanté. I also credit the radio shows for the very high turnout at the mass sensibilization. TVT even made an unannounced appearance without having any invitation and without any reimbursement. They ran a 5 minute segment about AED Kanté on the national news. Thanks Radio Kéran!

On a recent trip to the Tamberma Valley, an old Tamberma man came up to me and shook my hand. He told me he recognized my voice from the radio and wanted to tell me how much he and his family appreciated the programs. Reaching the tata dwellers…This is success.

By using the radio to reach underserved populations, I hope talking about HIV/AIDS becomes so common for people that they no longer fear others that are infected, no longer discriminate against infected people, and no longer feel ashamed if they themselves are HIV positive. I would love to employ the strong tradition of resistance in the area and focus it on the fight against HIV/AIDS (a.k.a. the only spears I want to see from people in Kanté, are spears being used to fight HIV/AIDS).

[1] First stop, Mayor of the city for authorization to have the sensibilization in Kanté. His secretary met me with open arms and an open wallet (for me to fill). He also asked for every location of known infected people and homosexuals. What was he going to do with this information? I have no idea.

Now some pictures:

I spent New Years in Kante this year and have some pictures to prove it. But first some photos of general interest.

This is a small Tamberma boy, In the background is the Tamberma village of Bassamba, about 10km from Kante.

Family next to their Tata in Warengo, a village near Nadoba

This would be the outside of my concrete kingdom.

New years celebration 2008... We started the morning out (7am) with a shot of sodabe (rubbing alcohol) and then proceeded to eat that giant white mountain found in the bottom right of the photo. When we finished that giant mountain of delicious, they sent over two more. What kind of sauce did we have with the fufu?

Bon Appetit - Donkey sauce

Who is that handsome devil?

That is Ruth...She participates in Club Espoir each month at AED.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


How to Perfect the Trifecta:

Step 1: Extend your arm out in front of your body, palm facing up. Your arm is in the position described for only a moment because you are gesticulating.

Step 2: You have to be telling a story. The story is not stimulating, but the gesticulations help.

Step 3: Sit under a ceiling fan.

Now here comes the magic: A lizard the size of your index finger has to rest on the ceiling above the ceiling fan. Next, the lizard has to fall from the ceiling, through the spinning ceiling fan, and into your momentarily outstretched hand.

This is what I like to call the trifecta. Some crazy lizard moons must have been aligned the night this lizard fell into my palm. I have been waiting for the perfect story to resuscitate my blog, and it finally came like an omen in the form of a baby lizard.

It was like being struck by lightning the same day I won the lottery. Eat that up, Alanis.


Last week I returned to Ghana for the first time since studying abroad in Accra in 2004. In the past 3.5 years Accra seems to have completely transformed. I could not believe how much progress Accra has made in such a short amount of time. I almost did not recognize the city with the new underpasses, overpasses, streetlights, new buildings, clean streets, fixed gutters, lane additions on major streets, and a mall…

Togo has a long way to go.

Raise your hand if you have been in a small car with a loose bull!

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a bush taxi with a bull tied up in the back. I was sitting shotgun when the bull broke free of the ties and started bucking and swinging his horns like one might think a bull confined in a two door car would do. His bull hooves were flailing all over the place, so I rolled down the window and put more than half my body outside of the car. The driver pulled over with a smile plastered on his face the whole time. He tied the bull down, and every 10 minutes I would persuade him to pull over and re-tie the bull so that both passengers and car survived the ordeal.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Blogingtons Redux

Happy Anniversary

So my first blog entry was posted one year ago today.

I just thought I would try and lighten the mood from my previous message.

There is a large amount of info to publish in the coming weeks, so stay tuned. I promise more uplifting stories!

I leave you with a link, no, a gentle persuasion to come to Togo and experience the wonderment.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


March 2007

My phone rang and the caller ID flashed Tama’s name. Abruptly after the first ring the phone went silent. These types of calls are not uncommon. The caller lets the phone ring long enough to register the call but not long enough for the recipient to pick up. My Twi language professor in Ghana used to call this HIPC calling (the devastating satirical power of that joke needs not be translated literally), more commonly the practice is called beeping or flashing. The idea is that the person getting beeped (beepee) will have more phone credit than the beeper, and will thus return the phone call. Tama rarely beeped me so I knew it must be important.

I called back immediately and Tama excitedly asked if we could have a short meeting about our AIDS association. Having just returned from a Project Design and Management (PDM) training, my optimism about development was somehow restored. Tama caught me in a motivated pocket vis a vis my hopes of creating a functioning AIDS association in Kante.

Association Espoir pour Demain (AED) is a community based organization where decision making power is delegated to people living with HIV/AIDS. AED requires a 5 person decision making body called a “bureau” which is elected by all the members of the association. 3 of the 5 members have to be HIV positive including the president of the organization. Since Kanté is trying to open an AED satellite, elections were held in February and Tama was chosen unanimously to be president.

Moving back in time.....

November 2006

My week long post visit (one week during training during which trainees live in the community they will serve in post- training) in November happened to coincide with one of the AIDS association meetings I would be helping with during my service. Ishmael (predecessor) brought me to the meeting and introduced me to the hospital staff and members of the association. While we waited for the meeting to begin, we sat and talked with Tama, a 31 year old teacher, and the head of Kanté’s peer educators, a group of middle school students that help educate the community. Ishmael had told me he had worked with Tama and his peer educators throughout his service. Tama was very excited to meet Ishmael’s replacement (me) and told me his desire to restart the peer educators group. Last year’s peer educators had all moved on to their third year of middle school and were no longer able to volunteer as peer educators. We exchanged phone numbers and I left excited about the prospect of working with him in the future. Finding motivated, educated people to work with in Togo is difficult.

January 2007

Ishmael brought Tama to AED/Kara last year when his health was failing. During his time in Kara, Tama made a remarkable recovery and had been fighting strong ever since. When I met him in November it was impossible to tell he was sick. During Tama’s time at AED he developed a relationship with the psycho-social director, Abass. During my first month at post I consulted Abass about the AIDS association in Kante. He told me to meet with AED Bafilo (the first AED satellite), invite one of their coordinators to a Kanté association meeting, and elect the bureau. Abass encouraged Tama to run for president and I agreed with this decision. Charlie and I brought Awali, a coordinator from AED Bafilo to Kanté to help explain the bureau and election process.

February 2007

Awali was impressed with Tama and agreed with Abass that Tama would make a great AED president. Tama gave a speech before a vote was taken expressing his desire that the president not be an authoritarian ruler but a person that listens to the demands of everyone in the association. I had never really heard Tama speak publicly, but I was impressed by his short speech, and was hopeful for the future of the association when he was elected unanimously.

March 2007

A few minutes after his phone call, Tama arrived at my door. He seemed genuinely excited to start his work as the president of the association. We sat on my couch and discussed then planned the association for hours. He had developed a system for the members to each contribute a small amount of money each month in hopes that a small account could be set up for the association. He wanted to set up a system of sharing costs so that when one person is sick and unable to afford health care, the association could help defray the costs of treatment. When we finished up the meeting he told me he had not wanted to be president because he was busy as a teacher and had little time to himself. He had been thinking about leaving Kanté and moving back to his home in Niamtougou but had decided to stay to help create the AIDS association in Kanté. He left me telling me he was going to Kara the next morning to have a CD4 count analysis and would be back the following evening.

The next afternoon I received a phone call from Tama. One ring, two rings, three rings. He had to see me urgently. Within a few minutes of the phone call, Tama stood outside my door, beads of sweat pouring down his face. I quickly invited him inside where he refused water and all he could say was, “ca ne va pas”, I am not well. Reaching into his bag, he showed me the results to his CD4 analysis.

Treatment in Togo

For five years Tama had a stable CD4 count of 150 per micro liter of blood. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a CD4 count lower than 250-200 per micro liter of blood is defined as full blown AIDS. For many people in Togo with CD4 counts far lower than 200, there are no funds to help pay for life saving medications. The majority of Togolese people cannot afford to pay 9 dollars or more each month for ARV treatment. In Togo, ARV treatment is reserved for the wealthy and the lucky.

Over the past 5 years the price of ARV drugs has dropped significantly. In May of 2007 the price of ARVs dropped from 8,535 cfa per month ($20) to 4,350 cfa ($10) per month, though access to life saving drugs is still out of reach for most people in Togo. The Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, has cut any new funding until the next round of proposal due to mismanagement of project funds. This has made getting a new government/Global Fund subsidized carnet (1,000 cfa [$2.50] per month for ARVs) impossible until further notice. The carnets are used to ensure treatment for people with CD4 counts lower than 200. Today even people with CD4 counts considerably lower than 200 are still unable to receive a carnet and are often not placed on a waiting list. ARV treatment is a lifelong commitment. If a Togolese person can afford 4,350 cfa one month, in order to properly adhere to the regimen, they would have to be able to finance ARV treatment for the rest of their lives. With the suspension of new funds from the Global Fund, and few other sources for funding treatment programs in Togo, the situation for PLWHAs in Togo today is dire.

Tama was lucky to get his treatment funded by the Global Fund before it was decided that they would no longer fund new treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS. Tama fought the disease and his CD4 count was “stable” at 150 per micro liter of blood. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), A CD4 count lower than 250-200 is defined as full blown AIDS.


The analysis was not difficult to read. There was a graph with the average healthy person’s cd4 count at the top (1,200-1,500 per micro liter) and then at the very bottom was Tama’s dot. 61. Since September 2006 his CD4 count began to drop from 150. Slowly his body built a resistance to the medication.

“I am done fighting, I have lost all hope”, he whispered. The man that had walked through my door the day before, a teacher, an educated person giving back to Togo, had been transformed into a defeated man.

We discussed better nutrition practices or another trip to the hospital. My efforts felt even emptier than they were when Tama refused. I called the medical assistant, the hardest working person I have met in Togo, who also helps run the association. He told me that Tama needed an infusion of drugs and vitamins directly into the blood that costs 2,000 cfa ($5.00). I convinced Tama to try the infusion and take a trip to AED Kara in the morning. He agreed.

The next morning I walked into the AED Kara office and saw Tama with no shirt on lying on two plastic chairs. He looked far worse than he had the day before. His muscles were tightening he was having trouble speaking. He was taken on the back of a moto to the hospital in Kara where he received 11 more infusions. He was in the hospital for almost a week. Throughout the week I would visit him a couple of times a day and by the end of his stay in the hospital his health had make another remarkable come back.

We discussed Togolese history, colonization, the German occupation of Togo, and how he had always wanted to take a trip to the Tamberma country but never had even though he always lived relatively close.

Tama returned to Kanté, took a hiatus from his job, and rested. We discussed future plans for the association but he was still too tired to attend meetings. I received another phone call from him a couple of weeks after his visit to the hospital and stated he would be going back to his village to be with his family and he did not know when he would return. He did return to Kanté to help another person from our association. I was visiting him nearly every day. One day while wandering around Kanté looking for someone’s house I found myself in front of Tama’s house. I told him I was lost and just decided to stop by to say “hi”. Even in a weakened state, he got up and walked with me about a half a kilometer to the person’s house and then waited with me for over an hour until the person showed up.

May 2007

The head of the peer educators, a young, energized 16 year old boy was at my house not long after I had returned from a meeting in Kara. With tears in his eyes he told me that Tama had passed away the night before. Tama had packed a small bag, returned to his village, and within two hours of arrival collapsed in a small piece of land a few feet in front of his home, and passed away.

The student and I stood silently for a few minutes. I had no words of encouragement, no words of condolence. The student told me that all of Tama’s students wanted to attend the funeral, but only some could afford the trip. The $2.00 fee did not stop students from attending the funeral the next morning in Niamtougou. During the taxi ride, I sat awkwardly with 20 or more middle school students. During the 30 kilometer ride, we passed countless students from Kante walking, jogging, and biking towards Niamtougou, to go to Tama’s funeral.

Attending Tama’s funeral was the most difficult thing I have done since arriving in Togo if not my entire life. I share this story only to give more people a chance to know Tama. Not one person mentioned he died of AIDS during his very well attended funeral. No one admitted that it had been AIDS that took his life in Kanté, where he spent the last part of his life educating children.

This is the story of someone that will more than likely never even have the honor of being counted as a statistic.

Friday, April 27, 2007


Some photos for your viewing pleasure:

Host family in Govie (Training village)

Atetou - Village 7 km west of Kante

Atetou cont.

Hospital beds in Nadoba

Tata in Tamberma Valley


Mountains just south of Kante

Area near Govie

Ok more to come with an update.