As volunteers, we often hear this question; from friends and family back home, from prospective Peace Corps Volunteers, from invitees waiting to leave. It's not an easy question to answer- you have to start from the very beginning, from the basics of everything as sometimes it feels like everything is flipped on its head here and there's no common point from which to start. What makes it really difficult is that there's actually a few questions wrapped up in there; What's Peace Corps like? What's Togo like? What's your experience like?
First of all, everyone has their own Peace Corps experience. There are few similarities between a environmental volunteer working in rural Togo and one working with a well known NGO office, in Eastern Europe. Both volunteers have the title of Peace Corps Volunteer in common, but not much more than that.
Then we get to the different experiences in Togo! Togo is about the size of West Virginia, but manages to contain about 70 different languages and takes, at best, 14 hours to cross north to south. West Africa was cut up by European powers, without regard to ethnic cultures, or even landscapes (beyond giving Europeans good ports), Togo is a mish-mash of everything, once even regarded as Africa in miniature because everything is here, beaches to Savannas.
There is, at most, one other volunteer in country who has an experience similar to mine- Angela lives in the south like me, she's a woman, she also teaches English and she has electricity. After that the similarities stop. Her village is a bit bigger and on a larger road which means she has a bit more access to Togolese prepared food. Angela works at a private school so she has class sizes of about 30, rather than 50-100, she gets reception at her house and has an internet key so she can access internet more often. Her post office is a 40 minute moto ride away, mine is 4km bike ride. I bought a fridge after 6 months, so I have more variety in what I eat or have available, I have a larger group of teachers at my school and 3 other English teachers, while she is the only English teacher at hers.
My life is even very different from the previous volunteer in my village, Akouvi. She didn't have electricity for the first year of her service. I live in the lap of luxury with both a fridge and a fan. She lived in a different house and host family. She was an agriculture/ environmental volunteer while I spend most of my week at the school.
Neal lives in a town about a 40 minute moto ride from me, between me and Angela. Neal is in a bigger place, so people don't know him as well. He gets “yovo'd” a fair amount around town. He works in health. He's a guy, so there's different cultural expectations for him than there are for me.
Kelly is an agriculture volunteer in a post about 1h30 from me, but in a tiny, tiny village, and 6 miles off the main road. She has poor cell service and no electricity. Her village is small enough that they don't have a larger weekly market, but just go the 30 minute car ride to the big town near by. There Kelly can buy vegetables and even some American treats like Snickers and Pringles, but she's also forced to travel every week for her market.
Those are just other volunteers in the south who might have similar experiences, when we start to look at the whole country, there's even more differences. My region is known for the production of pineapples, palm oil and sodabi. Sodabi is a moonshine best used for removing paint and turning you blind and not much else in my opinion. However, it dominates here. Men can be found drinking it at about any hour of the day. Drink some after eating and it makes a little whole in your stomach so you can go back to round 2 of eating.
However, it's mostly men who drink it. I've been offered it many times, but mostly because I'm a white foreigner and they like to see the expression on my face when I try to drink it. Women don't really drink it and by consequence, I don't ever really drink in village. By contrast, the millet based cider or beer-like drinks of tchouk and tchakpa rule the scene up north. You can by a calabash for only 25 CFA, or about 8 cents. The price makes it perfect to sit and enjoy and to treat others. Volunteers are known and appreciated for sitting at drink stands with locals. One volunteer even helps the woman in here village make and sell it, earning her major points.
Proximity to the national road, latitude in the country and size of your village or town affects the food you get. All the way up in Savannes they are hard pressed during the dry season to find even tomatoes. Dust rules the landscape. Here down south I can easily find pineapples, bananas and now oranges, mangoes and avocados are coming into season. However there is only meat are market days, while grills rule the road side in even smaller villages up north. Dapaong has amazing yogurt, of a quality I can't find, even in bigger cities. I can find yogurt in nearby towns here, but thin and watery. During the hot season they have watermelons and other kinds of melon as well, which I never see here. The middle of the country, and larger town on the national road have wagashi, a kind of local cheese, which is rumored to be available in my village, but hasn't actually showed up. Most things I eat are drenched in palm oil which is scarce, expensive and of a poorer quality up north.
Up north the dry heat is searing, but during the Harmattan winds, the nights actually turn to cold. The south is plagued by humidity, but is hot, rather than “I can feel my skin burning off my body” searing hot of the North.
And after all these differences, you get down to the actual volunteer and site placement. Some are superstars at work, they have tons of successful projects, holding lots of health sessions, teaching new farming techniques, creating clubs, and being amazing teachers. Others may accomplish little “work,” but are known for their mastery of local language and love of local food or for dancing up a storm at every funeral and marriage that comes through. Some volunteers somehow do it all, some do none of it. Some walk into working projects left by previous volunteers, some are saddled by the mistakes of former volunteers. Some walk in with a clean slate and motivated community, while others start from scratch spending months simply explaining that they are here to teach about different topics, not just give money, projects or materials like other NGOs.
You might think that “what's your experience like?” and “what's Togo like?” are the same question, but they're not. As a foreigner here, I can't truly know what Togo is like. I don't speak Ewe well enough to understand what villagers are really saying about me, or what's happening in the community. I'm treated differently because I'm a guest and stranger here. I'm treated differently than most women because I'm educated and have a respected job of teacher but perplexing, I don't have kids and I'm not married. There's plenty that I observe and learn about Togo, but there's so much more that I can't really know because, although it seems like a long time, I'm only here for two years.
I know that this post has been long, and I've been running at the mouth, but I figured it might help you a glimpse into “What's Togo like?”