[Editor’s note: some formatting fairy mangled this post and I haven’t had a chance to fix it until today. Sorry for the reading difficulties!]
Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the African continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around Africa. This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Togo (it’s okay if you immediately thought South Pacific; I, embarrassingly, did) and fellow blogger.
Chelsea Clarke – age 31
What country and program do you serve in?
I serve in Togo, West Africa in the Environmental Action and Food Security program.
What are your programmatic goals?
My program goals include Environmental Education, Reforestation, and Promoting Food Security-Related Income-Generating Activities. These objectives all have the goal of increasing the food security of the communities we are working with- food security meaning equal access to culturally appropriate and available foods for all people, at all times of the year.
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have?
I live in a compound with 17 other people! There are 5 other adults, 1 teenager, and 11 kids, mostly under the age of 5. In this compound, I have two connected rooms to myself, making me the one who occupies by far the most amount of space; most everyone else doubles, triples, or quadruples up. I use one room to sleep in during harmattan and the other room to cook in with my gas table-top stove. When it isn’t harmattan, so, 9 months out of the year, I sleep outside on a cot because it is so hot.
I have no electricity or running water. I do have my own bucket flush toilet- basically a porcelain commode set atop a regular latrine, which only flushes when I pour a bucket of water (usually greywater) down. There’s a little drain a little bit away from the toilet – I have to shower in the same space at my toilet. My rooms and toilet area are all hand-made mud bricks covered in a layer of cement.
What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
The biggest challenge of this life is definitely the lack of privacy and the noise level with so many young kids. I’ve gotten more used to it, but it took some time, especially because twin toddlers were teething when I first moved in! Yikes. My Mom mailed me some earplugs, which helps with getting to sleep at night and also sleeping in past the rooster crows, crying kids, and general pre-dawn bustle.
What’s your diet like?
There’s absolutely no food to be found inside of my village other than corn. I’m actually lucky for this and to live so close to a regional capital, because it means I have to bike in to town weekly to get food. Because it is a regional capital, there are a lot of treats that many volunteers in Togo don’t have easy access to, like dry oatmeal, wheat flour, and even knock-off Pringles! In general, I rotate my meals between a base of beans, lentils, spaghetti, or rice. I either do soup or one of the many sauces I’ve devised with available ingredients. Then I add whatever veggies are on hand. Without refrigeration, near the end of the week I’m getting down to the things that don’t spoil as quickly: onions and cabbage. There’s actually pretty good vegetable variety in my regional capital.
I’m a pretty creative cook, too. I made a very good “chicken” pot pie in village the other day with homemade gravy and crust, and the help of canned chicken. You can actually bake by propping a metal bowl up on small tomato paste cans inside of a pot. While I do pride myself on being inventive in my kitchen here, I’m always dying to find more sources of protein. I crave it.
What have been some of your greatest challenges?
I’ve been in Togo for 18 months now. I’ve definitely had to lower my expectations for what it is possible to accomplish in my village, and that has been a big challenge. It is also a challenge not to compare myself to other volunteers. I’ve come to a good place with that; I can be proud of the work I’ve done here, even if others have done bigger, sexier projects like building a school. I’ve tried to keep consistent with my own philosophy of development, and I can feel good about that at the same time as being proud of those volunteers for their hard work.
The biggest challenge of all is probably being female and dealing with constant harassment and overtures on top of the already exhausting curiosity of being white. It is a pressure that constantly suffocates me. I have to work hard to keep from getting bitter and angry. I had to write myself two separate journal entries about all the wonderful men in my life, Togolese and American, when I felt myself getting blindly bitter and rageful on two different accounts. That helped for the moment, but of course the side remarks, marriage proposals, and unwanted attention persist.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service?
The most rewarding parts of my service have been my friendships, and the projects forged from them. Three of my best friends in Togo are men – kind, dedicated, smart, hard-working, respectful men who pick me up with an encouraging word when I’m down, and help me, no matter how big or small the issue. My host family regularly brings smiles to my face with shared meals and I reciprocate with my attempts at American dishes! I’ve also really loved some of the national trainings I’ve either helped organize or participate in with other volunteers. I’ve done work in village that I’m very proud of, but sometimes I think that one of the most important thing we do is bring awesome work partners together for these conferences and trainings where they can meet, network, and collaborate long after we return to the US.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
I joined the Peace Corps because I felt like my world was rather small. I had, and have, an interest in poverty alleviation as a vocation, but I was cynical about the development world, and I wanted to learn more about it on the ground. I loved being a community organizer in the US, and I wondered how those skills and my privilege could translate abroad. I wanted to leverage my privilege for something good by really working WITH a community different from mine. Not in a condescending way, but by living with people, temporarily becoming a member of the community, finding out what the needs were by asking people, and finally working together with the skills in that community to meet those needs. I also feel that every American should be conversational in a language other than English, and I wanted to put my money where my mouth was and learn through immersion.
It is a lot more difficult to meet community-identified needs than I ever anticipated, which is saying something, because I came in with several years of work experience and a healthy dose of realism. My French skills aren’t pretty, I’d be laughed out of a cafe in Paris, but I can get around West Africa, bargaining for prices, teaching schoolchildren, and discussing world events with ease. I’ve had a lot of big frustrations and discouragements. But part of the goal was to understand development a little better, and I believe I do. Another goal was to make friends and find work partners in another culture, and I have definitely done that.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
Yes, very definitely. It creates a more world-savvy American populace, not just via the volunteers who go abroad, but via our family and friends who become invested in the story of our lives, work, and friendships as we serve. There are about 70 volunteers in Togo right now, just think how many hundreds of Americans can now locate Togo on a map who couldn’t before, just because they are reading our blogs, following our Facebook posts, and writing us letters. To me, that’s a good thing. Conversely, our Togolese friends know that much more about Americans; for most of my friends here, I am their first white acquaintance. I think that sharing food together and working on projects together really can sow the seeds of peace. It is very important to me that my government continues to symbolically support the ideology of peace through continuing the Peace Corps.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to PC or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
For folks thinking of applying, don’t do it if you’re trying to run away from something. But also, you don’t have to be perfect, have your life all together, or be perfectly anxiety-free person to do this. Don’t over think it. Follow your gut.
For those getting ready for staging: pack WAY less than you think you need – clothing, camping gear, books. Forget all the solar gadgets and things. Fill your suitcase with granola bars and beef jerky instead! Don’t worry too much or over think your decision to go at this point. Spend a lot of time with loved ones and eat a lot of ice cream before you go. Know that, like everything in life, it isn’t going to turn out exactly as how you envision it if you join the Peace Corps. But that’s okay. Try to let go of expectations as much as possible.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
Yes! Lots. Immediately after I’m planning a trip. I’m hoping to see some of East Africa, to compare it a bit with my experience in West Africa. After that, I want to return to America by boat, possibly stopping in Greece to WWOOF for a bit. When I get home, I’d like to work for a bit, get acclimated to life in the US, visit everyone I’ve been missing so much, eat a ton of burritos with so much cheese, and research MPP programs.
Thanks Chelsea! You can see more of Chelsea’s projects at her outstanding blog Waking Up in Togo.