Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Going Home Early

Unfortunately I will be ending my service here in the Peace Corps this week. I have made my decision and it is final. I know I have not been completely candid on this blog about all of my health issues since swearing in two months ago, so this will probably come as a surprise to most people who do not speak with me regularly. Like I have mentioned before, I have had severe problems with the overall function of my GI tract. But it is not the occasional bouts of diarrhea that has forced me to resign. The fact of the matter is that in the last two weeks I have completely lost my appetite and the food that I am eating is not being absorbed properly by my body. I have had chronic weakness, fatigue, and diarrhea for the better part of two months now and it has gotten progressively worse each week. My healthy weight is typically around 165 lbs, but today I am tipping the scales at 145lbs. This has become a serious cause for concern for the last time I was this skinny was about the 9th grade. I have always been able to overcome obstacles that have been thrown my way but this time I feel as though staying here will put my overall health and well-being in jeopardy. The medical unit has done all they could to help me figure out what is going on. All of my lab tests have shown up negative for parasites, bacteria, malaria, etc. My body may just not be able to handle the differences that African life brings, or I may have a serious medical concern that does not show up in lab tests here. Which ever situation it is, there is no choice for me but to return home.

So how do I feel about all this?
In all honesty this situation has been extremely difficult for me to go through. I really had no intentions of quitting the Peace Corps before my well-being became an issue. The Peace Corps has been an amazing experience for me that has opened my eyes to many different issues that I was previously oblivious to. It is sad to have to leave a place that has taught me so much about the world. I have been living in Togo for five months now and for most people in this world that would be too much time in Africa. For me, it wasn't enough.

My best friend from my village is named Ayooba. Unfortunately I had to rush and pack all of my things in a matter of one day so I was not able to speak with him face to face before I left (conveniently the network went down the day I was packing). But I will never forget the text message he sent to me today:
Mark I know god has sent you here for a reason. I am happy to have known you and one day I wish to meet you in America. Remember You must become a Muslim INSHALLAH

Wednesday, 5 November 2008


As everyone knows, last night was a turning point for our nation as Barack Obama succeeded in winning the Presidential Election. The Peace Corps Volunteers that were in Lome were invited to the US Embassy for an all night election results party. It was an incredible experience watching the results come in for we were among hundreds of high ranking Togolese Officials who were also invited to the event. The wave of emotion that hit me as he was officially declared the winner was unlike anything I have ever felt. I really can not recall another time in my life where I have been so proud to be an American.

The one thing that I have learned more than any other here serving in the Peace Corps is just how important developing positive international relations are with foreign countries. I believe the one thing that Obama brings to our country more than anything is a certain international respect that has been missing for the past eight years. Improving our image abroad is something that every Peace Corps volunteer strives for and was really the main objective layed out by John F Kennedy when he started the Program in the early 60s. Besides the grassroots style of helping third world countries develop over time, Peace Corps also succeeds in improving international relations within that given country. I wanted to stress that point in this post because Americans as a whole are very well liked and accepted here in Togo(much more so than citizens of other European countries) and The Peace Corps along with its philosophy for helping developing countries prosper is the main reason why.

I have spoken with people from all different countries and I cannot stress it enough just how much respect and admiration they have for Barack Obama. I am glad that the American people have put their trust in Obama and I am more honored than ever to serve our Government as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Lome bound

After a rough couple of weeks I have finally summoned up enough energy and desire to go to Lome for a complete medical examination. I was having relapses of the same symptoms that I mentioned in previous posts during AIDS ride. It is a a difficult task for me to give presentations in French to mass audiences to begin with, but when you add weakness, fatigue, and diarrhea to the mix makes it pretty much impossible. So my frustrations here continue as I try and find out what exactly is going on. I'm not trying to think about it so much because it really is making me more and more stressed out with each passing day.
On a more upbeat note, my coming to Lome allows me to follow the presidential race more closely. I guess you wouldn't be surprised if I told you Barack Obama is a hero of sorts to the Togolese. I can't talk to more than five people without one of them asking if I have voted yet or who I think is going to win. All of the Togolese I speak to in my town can't get over the fact that I sent in my absentee ballot from Togo to the United States. They think its the greatest thing in the world that I am able to vote even though I am not in the States.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Still Standing

The past two weeks at post have been quite encouraging for me. Overall my health has dramatically improved as if God read my blog and bestowed a little mercy upon me. The series of health related problems have gone away temporarily, and it has really allowed me to enjoy my life again. I am continuing to work at the hospital each week helping with the baby weighing sessions. Baby weighing is something I really looked forward to doing because the weight of the infant is a nutrition related problem which I spent the last five years of my life studying. In many cases, however, it is not an issue of nutrition at all. It is an issue of sanitation and infectious disease. In Africa children do not sleep in immaculate cribs away from dust, dirt, insects, etc. They are exposed to the harsh environment right away and mothers here give their children freedom to crawl pretty much anywhere they please. In the long run, the children build up immunity to many of the germs present over here. That is why a 23 year old Togolese man is not going to be wiped out for an entire month like I was when exposed to the bacteria in the food and water. The problem in exposing children to so many germs so quickly is the fact that they get sick at a very early age which has severe consequences on the development of that child. So basically baby weighing has been difficult because there is no advice you can really give mothers (as a nutritionist) to help an infant grow and develop at the correct pace. If a child is malnourished the mother in all cases I have heard proclaims that her child has been sick. Where nutrition plays an important role is when the child is introduced to other foods as well as breast milk. But I have noticed at the baby weighing sessions, the mothers tend to stop bringing their babies after a year or so, thinking that the critical time period for growth in development is over which is not correct. So why did I just ramble on about this issue? I think the issue of sanitation is not given enough attention when programs are developed to combat malnutrition in developing countries. I think one of the most important issues is the unavailability of running potable water. When infants are exposed to dirty well water they are going to get sick and when they get sick they are going to lose weight. The problem with sanitation work here is the fact that it is a very expensive and time consuming endeavour to try and bring running potable water to small villages in the middle of Africa. The overall sanitation of a community is something that is going to take a very long time to change and right now all I can really do is stress the importance of finding potable water and storing it away from dangerous pathogens. I’m also going to spare you my views on the overall cleanliness of my village in regards to garbage for in my opinion it is one of the dirtiest villages in all of Togo.

Random notes from the past two weeks

I bought a refrigerator which has significantly improved my overall quality of life. I forgot how refreshing cold beverages were.

I finally got around to buying a soccer ball, its frustrating getting schooled by 7 year olds but once I get back into shape and practice a bit I think ill be able to hold my own.

AIDS ride starts Monday and lasts all week. It will be interesting getting to see some of the more remote villages in country and how they react to 10 pale white Americans dressed the same.

Friday, 3 October 2008

The difficulties of living in Africa

It has been about of a month now at my post and I have been overwhelmingly frustrated throughout most of it. The reason for my frustration is an ongoing illness that seems to baffle both the Peace Corps Medical Staff and myself. I have been chronically fatigued day in and day out with spontaneous sometimes week long bouts of diarrhea. Stomach issues are something that is to expected especially living in Africa but, whatever is causing this sense of fatigue and weakness should have been expelled by my immune system weeks ago. On days where my condition worsens I have been confined to my bed drinking Oral rehydration syrup with liter upon liter of water to stay hydrated. It is during this time when I feel utterly useless. Not being able to go out and integrate myself into the culture is severely hindering my Peace Corps experience up to this point. Because there are not many sustainable NGOs in my community, it is up to me to make connections and network with other local health agents or citizens living in close proximity to me. Having this myriad of symptoms plaguing my body has made this task impossible. Being sick also leads to other problems such as: spending more money on prepackaged foods at local boutiques, having other people cook for me, being too weak and tired to clean, increase in the electric bill because the fans are constantly running, etc. With time I can only hope that I will grow accustomed to my environment here in Africa and I must keep in mind that there is a reason why the Peace Corps lists "flexibility" as the most important attribute a volunteer should have.

Okay my whining and complaining is done for now. In other news, the holy month of Ramadan has finally ended and the Muslims (who represent 80% of my community) are not obliged to fast any longer. I have been very interested in the role that religion plays in the peoples lives here in Togo. Prior to me coming to my post I did not feel like the Islam of Africa was anything remotely close to that of Middle Eastern countries. But, I have been impressed with devotion that my friends have to their religion (studying Arabic in their free time, abstaining from alcohol, keeping a strict prayer schedule, etc) and my knowledge of Islam has definitely come in handy when trying to have a general conversation with people of the community.

My next month is definitely an important time for me here in Togo. AIDS ride which is a Peace Corps sponsored event where about 15 of us volunteers in the northern most region will cycle 40km each day from village to village doing HIV/AIDS lectures and theatre style skits. It will be a good time to gather information and discuss possible collaborations with other volunteers. It will also serve as a good time to improve my French and get to see the eastern side of the country which I have yet to see.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

My new home

So it has been about 3 weeks since I have been on my own. I have a very interesting post to say the least. Especially now since it is Ramadan, 3/4 of the community is fasting throughout the day which makes me look even more like an outsider when I sit down at an empty restaurant during the day. Of all things; lack of food has been my biggest obstacle. It has been difficult especially in regards to finding cheap sources of protein. During training my host family would prepare soy based tofu that was an excellent and delicious source of protein. At my post, however, I simply cannot find it anywhere. The reason is because there is an abundance of beef and chicken in the north that satisfies the needs of the community. The problem for me is that in order to buy a chicken I need to use a half of a days pay, which I am simply not going to do. Beef on the other hand is adequate sometimes, but you never know which part of the cow you are getting. Kind of like a mild episode of fear factor without Joe Rogan telling you what you are eating. So one of my future projects will be to increase the amount of soy in the community for it is not only inexpensive; but also a complete protein that can be utilized to promote growth and development with children. Speaking of work right now I am helping the local hospital with their weekly baby weighing sessions. The goal is to identify babies who are underweight and provide the mothers with nutrition counseling. Because of language restrictions this can be a frustrating process but the Togolese who work at the hospital are very nice and help me out a lot. Once the dry season comes which should be soon I will be working with my counterpart in the community on a village saving and loans project in a small village outside of town. Ill have more information and details later on when we are going to implement it. Other projects that I will be working on eventually will include health and english clubs at the local primary school, HIV sensibilisations with at risk groups, and a garbage collection project and or sanitation improvements to the community. Basically I have a lot of brainstorming to do and hopefully I can implement a sustainable project for the community in the near future.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Last Blog Before Post

So the day is finally here. Tomorrow we will all be departing Lome for our various posts. Our time here in Lome has been relaxing. Training has been a stressful time for most, especially if you have been sick as much as I have. Being sick is something that you just need to deal with while living in Africa. It is nearly impossible to avoid it because there are severe sanitation problems throughout the country. Anyway I'm just going to put some notes down of random thoughts that are running through my head before I depart for post:

Togolese people do not follow the rules of "waiting lines", This is the one thing hat drives me nuts and it happens more in Lome than any other place. People will see you in line and then jump in front of you and the cashier does not call them out on it. -my number one pet peeve here

Living in Africa will definitely change your personal definition of poverty.

I'm going to miss our language teachers. Having them speak in a slow and deliberate manner has made me confident in speaking french, however, out in the real world not everyone can speak french like that.

I'm going to miss my host family and the surrounding families. My new compound has a much different feel. Since there are half as many children at my new site and no farm animals, life will be a lot less chaotic there.

I'm not looking forward to the dry season (feb-may) where temperatures reach well into the 100s each day and the power gets cut frequently. Also the surrounding landscape turns from green to an ugly brown. -will probably look a lot like kansas

For my first two months it will be crucial for me to study and practice my French with the community. I'm planning on getting a radio soon to help my French come along. Right now I have enough to survive out in the community but not work effectively with others.

Well that's it for right now. Training was a great experience but now comes the hard part: Living and working on my own for 2 years. Being in the most remote post(distance wise) in country definitely has its obstacles. Living in a larger more transit town will not provide me with the same level of emotional security as a small village would. I am not living in a place where I will be recognized by everyone. But this is the site I wanted and I am motivated to integrate myself in the community as best as possible.

A quote from my counterpart at my site when he was late addressing a crowd:

"In America you have that quote time is money.....but here in Africa time really isn't money"