Archive for August, 2008

the local watering hole

Friday, August 29th, 2008

    It is Sunday, my day to relax. I’ve slept in until 7am and lounged about, reading, gardening and doing dishes. I decide around 11am to go hang out with my neighbors and drink the local fermented millet beverage called Tchouk.

  My local Tchouk stand is only about 3 minutes walk away. It is somewhat suprising to find a Tchouk stand tucked away between the mosques, as I live in a predominantyly Kotokoli, and hence Muslim, neighborhood. Yet the Tchouk stand is open every Saturday and Sunday, and the clientelle are mostly the non-Kotokoli women in the neighborhood. Many of them know me from church, as I’ve been sproadically attending the Catholic service on Sundays.

   I sit on a wooden bench in the shade of a palm tree, and my tchouk is served in a hollowed out gourd cup called a calabash. The tchouk mama sits in the center and the rest of the women sit around her. She also servers spicy pancakes with carmalized onions. I eat four pancakes and drink 2 calabashes, which will facilitate my afternoon siesta during the hottest hours of the day.

   Tchouk is only prepared by women, and each tchouk mama has her own special touch depending on her ethnicity and tastes, much like a micro-brewery.  I don’t know much about how tchouk is prepared, but I do know it takes several days. The day the tchouk is served, it’s level of alcohol will increase throughout the day. Arrive in the morning, and you will be served a sweet harmless drink. By evening the Tchouk will have fermented to a potent force.

  After greeting everyone present, I sit and let the conversation swirl around me. Much of it is in somemix of local languages that I don’t know. It’s not Kotokoli, the language of my muslim neighbors. However, the talk is peppered with French words for things that have been introduced here relatively recently. For example, one coversation is about chemical plant fertilizers. Another is about white people. The man sitting next to me turns and pronounces in French. « White people are strong. Without you, we blacks would still be monkeys in the trees. » I disagree, and do my best to convince him that Africa had a proud culture before the Europeans arrived. He isn’t buying it; after all, he went to school and knows the history that is taught there. I doggedly continue to fight the psychological legacy of colonialism. « Look we aren’t that different. I have 2 eyes, a nose, and 10 fingers just like you. Just the color is different. » This line of thought gets me no where. They all know there is a fundamental difference between the colors. Black Africans are hungry. White people aren’t.

  They drift back into local language and I contemplate the pleasant scene. Chickens peck around the dirt for scraps. A 5 year old girl prances around, joyfully serving the tchouk, washing the dishes, and toting around babies. Two women arrive with babies strapped on their back. The older baby is taken in to the arms of the tchouk mama. She helps him drink the tchouk from her calabash. When his eyes focus on me, he stares at my whiteness and everyone laughs. A 12 year old girl arrives with a tray of tomatoes on her head. One woman sets down her calabash but continues nursing her baby as she inspects and purchases the tomatoes. A neighbor arrives and insists that he will pay for my drink. I accept, knowing that Togolese take great pride in being generous. When I get up to leave I make sure to thank him casually in front of his friends. Too much of a thank you will embarrass him, and create the impression that he did not give willingly.


Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

            I have come to know many amazing people here in Togo, including a student of mine named Munira. Munria is a Muslim woman in her early 20s.  She was one of the three girls that tested into my programming class this past year, and the only one that stuck with it throughout the year.  During the year, I got a chance to get to know and appreciate her.
            Munira is incredibly mature, thoughtful, and helpful. While she is open to new ideas, she is grounded in her religious beliefs and culture. She scoffs at the Miss Togo pageant, hugely popular here, as a waste of resources.  “A woman’s beauty is for her husband.  Her education could be for the whole community”, she says.  Munira hopes to be a midwife, if she can get through the Togolese school system and after that the difficult entry test for the midwife training program. 
            Togo follows the French school system.  After passing a nation-wide standardized test to finish “college” (something like 10th grade), students can enter Lycee.  Very few Togolese make it to Lycee.  Lycee consists of 3 grades is like a cross between high school and the first 2 years of undergrad.  In order to complete Lycee, the students have to pass 2 more nationwide tests “Bac 1″ and “Bac 2″.  Bac 2 is taken after the students complete the last year in Lycee.  It is extremely difficult; it lasts a week and covers any topic that might have been covered in the past 3 years of lycee.  The nationwide pass rate for Bac 2 hovers around 30%, or less.  Many people say that the students are deliberately failed in high numbers because there aren’t enough openings in either of the 2 universities.  Many students will sit through the final year of Lycee up to 3 times, each year succeeding in class, but failing the one-week test at the end of the year.
            In 2007 Munira took the Bac 2 for her first time.  She had suffered through the year with an ailment the doctors couldn’t identify and treat. Her entire body was covered in painful bumps, like a chicken pox.  I’ve seen the scars that are left, a year later.  She wasn’t surprised to fail the Bac2 that year, considering the weeks and months of school she missed.
            She changed to a private school at great expense and tried again in 2008.  It was horribly disappointing to all that she didn’t pass the test the second time.  She was the only one in my programming class to fail.  I know the results are not a reflection of her intelligence, effort, or ability.  I saw her hardwork and curiosity throughout the year, as she took programming in her spare time and just for fun, and mastered the concepts. 
            As I check in with other volunteers throughout Togo, we all have stories of a student or friend, who should have succeeded, but didn’t.  Students who were the best in their class throughout the year have failed the test. Togolese who know the system shrug and say “There are always surprises.”  We Americans are left baffled and frustrated that the test results seem so arbitrary. 
            I have gained even more respect and admiration for all the Togolese who keep working hard, and fighting the odds.  Munira will probably sit through the final year of Lycee for a third time, maintaining hope despite the discouragement. 

camp informatique a success

Friday, August 1st, 2008

The camp has just finished up.  The first 3 days we had 19 enthusiastic and curious girls, followed by 3 days with 16 boys. It was a real pleasure to see the students go from struggling to double click the first day, to typing in poems the second day, to doing internet searches the third day.

Most of the girls had never been in front of a computer before.  The boys, who generally have more free time and more money here, generally were more experienced with the computer.  Yet, they all appreciated the large blocks of time to practice with just one student for each computer.

I will confess to certain frustrations organizing an event like this but I do need to thank all my collaborators and people who participated and helped to make it a success.