Fin (entre-temps)

After two relaxing days in Lomé, we’ve made it home!  As usual, it was weird getting off the plane in DC and just taking in my surroundings.  Nobody was speaking French anymore, there were a million cheap and easy food places, and everyone ignored their companions as they keenly checked their smart phones.  Most importantly, there were no individuals that stood out; with a heterogeneous crowd, everyone blended in.

By the way, here’s the YouTube video of the original system that was set up by Dr. Fox thirty years ago.  We guess that after he left, the system fell into disuse so we were there to help restore (with our own modifications) the structures that were there.

Here’s a picture of what our project site looked like more or less after we left. You can see our waste water tank in front of our biogas digester and the algae ponds  furthest back:

Work site from the latrines
Work site from the latrines

I guess I’m a little sad about how the surprise ending to this project.  Mostly, I wish I’d been able to say a proper good-bye and taken more pictures.  But at least I’m comforted that I’ll be back in a few months.  For now I get to focus on my upcoming Aussie adventure!

Fin (entre-temps)

Et il pleut

Originally written July 9th

On Monday, we were working on the latrine pipes when we were invited up to a party that Brad, one of the Duke students, said his family was having. Akisawé, our truck driver, lives with him so thinking that the party was to thank us for our good business (we paid him a lot for transporting everything) we thought it’d be rude not to go. When we arrived, we were surprised no one else from Farandé had come, but we had a good time anyways eating dog, whiskey, and rice. Just as it was about to get dark, we noticed a few dark clouds and decided to head back down in case it rained.

Turns out, we were already too late. We ran down the rocky path as it started drizzling and some children yelled for us to get under a tree. Thinking that it would only pour for a couple minutes or so, we hid under a small one with a thick trunk as the rain picked up. As it grew more intense, Connor crouched down and hugged our bookbags into a crevice under the leaning tree while I did my best to hide under the branches. The rain then started pouring so hard that a fast paced river was soon racing down the path we’d just climbed. We were both completely soaked in a few minutes and just stared at all of the wetness around us.

Eventually we realized that we needed to get to a better spot but after sprinting to a towering baobab, we saw that the true storm had barely started and a huge, ominous cloud was hurrying our way. Seeing a homestead closeby, we jumped up terraces and raced there just as night was falling. Tentatively, we entered saying “Kafara” (excuse me). An old man walked out and immediately told us, “Je ne parle pas Français”. Thankfully, two other women and a child also lived there and spoke a little French. We were able to get across that we needed shelter and all of us sat together on a couple of small stools to wait out the storm. It was completely pitch black at that point and all you could hear was water pounding on the roof and thunder sometimes rolling, sometimes letting out a deafening crack, while flashes of lightning lit up the sky.

Around where we got caught in the rain...
Around where we got caught in the rain…

After about an hour of the most impressive natural water and light show I had ever seen, we decided that the rain had let up enough to leave. However, the old lady seemed confused and asked us multiple times if we were going back up to Kuwdé or down to Farandé. We tried to explain that we wanted to walk up the short path towards Kuwdé and then go down on the main road but she didn’t seem to understand. Finally, she stood up and began to walk out of the homestead. Confused and anxious, we followed her.

For the next twenty minutes or so, we followed the 80 year old woman over the slippery, rocky path with a couple flashlights. On the path, puddles were like ponds and it was pointless to do anything but walk through them. Eventually we came to a river with water charging past us. Alarmed, we told our guide that she didn’t have to cross but she just laughed, pulled up her skirt, and waded across. We held our breath hoping she wouldn’t get washed away and were so relieved when she made it to the other side. Tenderly, we waded in too, the water coming up to our knees, and crossed the river without a scratch.

Once the ground leveled out, the old lady asked us if we knew our way and we reassured her that we did and thanked her as best as we could in Kabiye. Before we had left the home, we had tried to give her some money for letting complete strangers into her house but she had refused. So instead, we told her we would buy her family beer at the next market and her face broke out into another huge grin.

By then the rain had mostly stopped but we still walked for maybe an hour or so before reaching our homestead. The path was ridiculously muddy and truly flooded all over that I almost lost my shoes a couple times. Over the splashing of our feet, we could hear frogs and insects incessantly calling to each other. There were more rivers (but none as fast as the first one) and at one point the water came right up to my shorts. We talked along the way and tried to convince each other that anything we felt in the murky water was just plants and rocks.

Several times, Connor and I would look at each other and just start laughing at how ridiculous the whole situation was. He told me how we were lucky that there was no wind since he had gotten hypothermia last year in a similar situation. When we finally reached our homestead I was inexplicably overjoyed to see that Reine had prepared hot water for us. That night, I took the best shower of my life.

Et il pleut

Le Pouvoir

Originally written July 5th

I know I’ve said it before but everyone here is crazy strong.  Wednesday, the masons started mixing and making “buton” or concrete and it was amazing watching them work.  Women carried wash bins full of gravel and sand back and forth while the men used hoes, shovels, and wheelbarrows to mix gravel, sand, cement, and water.  There were even people carrying 50 kg cement bags on their heads; that’s 100 lb resting on one neck!  I was in complete shock and felt so grateful to the community for coming out.  We could never finish without them!

Women carried gravel on their heads to where the masons worked
Women carried gravel on their heads to where the masons worked

The next day was July 4th and Charlie, the DukeEngage coordinator, invited us and our host mothers up to Kuwdé for a party.  Climbing the mountain took a really long time since there was so much mud and the path wound a lot.  The view was spectacular though.

Near the top, we decided to check out the case de santé, the small medical clinic that Charlie had asked us to check out.  There, they asked us to fix their lighting problem so Connor and I climbed up to the attic to check out the wiring.  We were utterly appalled at the state it was in.  There was bat and mouse poop everywhere and so many spiderwebs that they were sagging under their own weight.  Worst of all, the haphazard electrical wire webs had no order to the colors or connections.  After about an hour of fruitlessly trying to decipher what went where, we gave up and decided it’d be better to just rip out this system and completely start over some other day.

It's a hard hike but totally worth it!
It’s a hard hike but totally worth it!

Fortunately the rest of our night went better.  We ate at Tukenawé’s house and had a feast with rice, pasta, chicken, guinea fowl, green beans, fried cheese, sangria, red wine, and more.  Everyone had multiple servings of everything, and then we spent a while stargazing before heading back down to Farandé.

Le Pouvoir


For the first time, I’m attempting to write a blog post from an internet café in Lomé using a very sticky French keyboard. Tomorrow night we’re leaving Togo for America and then a couple days later I’ll be in Australia. But let’s stick to what’s already happened for now.

I think the most important thing to say at this point is no, we did not finish our project. This whole time we keep finding more and more unanticipated problems that we’ve tried to remedy but this project is really quite large. We found out that to be able to have our pipes slope properly down we had to build a wooden platform to raise our tank (which we did) and dig a hole to lower our solar steriliwer (which they were starting when we left). We finished connecting pipes up to the raised tank but found out one of our valves was bad quality so we couldn’t connect it and that our digester cover wasn’t long enough.

Worst of all, Connor fell off of a ladder and hit his head on a peice of rubble. François, the physician’s assistant gave him 6 stitches but otherwise, he’s ok. No concussion, no broken skull, no loss of memory or anything like that. He’s going to the doctor later today just to check though.

Overall, I had hoped to leave the project better off than it currently is. We were so pressed for time I didn’t get to say good-bye properly either. I definitely want to come back with Connor in December to finish though. I look forward to seeing this whole thing working.

The ladder was leaning against the water tank Connor's drilling.
The ladder was leaning against the water tank Connor’s drilling.

Bon Travail

Many Togolese greetings are wishes. Bon travail, good work. Bon arrivé, good arrival. Bon douche. Good shower.

I’ve felt like we’ve been doing much more engineering work this week. And I swear that’s not just because one of the DukeEngage coordinators is visiting.

We spent the beginning of the week at the Chef du Canton’s house installing solar powered street lights. They were given to him by the ruling government party since, being the chief of several villages in the “canton”, he’s a pretty important guy. While the whole set up was pretty straightforward, the only problem we encountered was that the instructions were completely in Chinese… Sometimes I think I came to Togo just to appreciate how important languages are. And how different all of them are from English. At least my dad could translate. 谢谢爸爸!

We're pretty sure it's dead...
We’re pretty sure it’s dead…

After electrical engineering, we tried our hand at mechanical by trying to fix the fuel pump on the CMS’s generator (which’ll also pump water into our water tower) and finished building the digester top. We’ve also fitted all of the new toilet pipes so they slope down beautifully and have started assembling a solar water heater from Lomé that’ll become our solar sterilizer. But even though we’ve done a lot of work, we still have more to go: the masons have to finish raising the pond floor (they were shocked that we asked for 30 cm of concrete to be poured), we have to build a platform for our overflow tank, and then actually fit all of the valves and pipes together for our entire system. All in under 2 weeks.

Oh and as a side note, I held my first baby here this week! Since all of them usually start crying whenever any Americans approach, this was a really big deal. Félix is a twin so I hope his sister will warm up to me soon!

They insisted on taking a picture of Felix. He doesn't always make this face, I promise.
They insisted on taking a picture of Felix. He doesn’t always make this face, I promise.


Bon Travail


Less than 3 weeks until the engineers come home! Project wise we’ve run into a bit of a money problem, but hopefully we’ll still finish.

Friday night we threw a party to celebrate passing our halfway mark and invited the DukeEngage students over to our homestead. It also happened to be the eve of a funeral so around 9 pm (which feels like midnight in Togo) we heard  drumming in the distance and decided to follow the noise. Walking down the road, we found a small band consisting of drums, trumpets, and trombones encircled by a large group of people dancing in a sort of Congo line. It’s funny because here, the most avid dancers seem to be the frailest old ladies who just happen to know how to be the life of the party. Even though we were nervous at first, we were greeted very warmly and slowly danced our way around the musicians. The band played the same three notes over and over again but it was still really fun!

The next morning was much more somber and what you’d expect from a funeral. We attended the wake at the home of the woman who died and slowly followed the hearse carrying the casket to the church. It felt like the entire village had come to pay their respects and the atmosphere was heavy. But then we were invited by Henry (a fairly wealthy man who used to run the Peace Corps program) to a party that afternoon. Evidently, the woman who died was his mother’s co-wife and he brought us drinks and we danced some more. He also asked about our projects and appeared to be one of the few here who speaks English.

Overall this past Saturday was one of the liveliest that we’ve experienced yet.  Emotions fluctuated a lot but I think it’s interesting trying to learn about the community traditions with respectful curiosity instead of nosy tourism. I think my favorite part of this trip is getting to know who everybody is around me. Kabiye greetings are hard but it’s such a comforting feeling when you see a familiar face around the village.

Didn't matter what they played, just having the band there was great!
Didn’t matter what they played, just having the band there was great!

Plus d’inquiétudes

Togo is not like Uganda. It’s not that I thought they’d be the same, but there just seems to be more here that makes me uncomfortable.

For example, it bothers me that my Kabier (the local language) hasn’t improved, that everyone speeds down the middle of pot hole filled roads swerving to avoid people but not dogs (they’re acceptable as pets, food, and roadkill), and that babies are fed beer to chase away demons. It also bothers me that we spent the whole day yesterday at one hardware store trying to find the right pipes for our project. And this was after finding out that the electric generator is missing a fuel pump, the water tank isn’t correctly sealed, and that iron pipes greater than 5cm in diameter don’t exist in northern Togo.  You have to go to Ghana for them.

Moreover, the last time we were in Kara, a boy with a sunken face came up to our group asking for food. We gave him a loaf of bread and half a can of coca cola. He sat down on the street and downed both, taking huge mouthfuls and hiding his loot when another child walked by. I couldn’t take my eyes off him and I can’t explain exactly how I felt. Yesterday we saw him again and gave him 250 francs. When he replied “Merci Merci” it sounded like mercy to me… I don’t know if I’ve been so blatantly close to hunger before.

I know that we didn’t come here to save the world. We’re here simply because the community asked us to fix their latrines and that’s what we’re going to do. But all this other stuff matters too. The culture and lifestyles of the people are very, very different between us and the Togolese and among the Togolese themselves. Sometimes we talk about how this program or that policy could help Togo improve, but then we realize that we’d just be imposing American ideals on them… It’d be better if the Togolese led themselves.

Plus d’inquiétudes