Update: 1 Month Down!

Well I’ve officially been in Togo for one month (a month and four days to be exact!) and things are going great. My host family consists of my momma Adjo, my dad Charles, my little sister Nadege, my brother Jacque, and my littlest sister Charlotte. They are so insanely accommodating I can hardly believe it most days. My host mom regularly makes me spaghetti because it makes me feel like I’m almost eating an American meal.

Our days here in PST (pre-service training) are long and packed with information. I wake up between 5:30 and 6:30 depending on how tired I am. Then I usually head straight for the shower. This consists of filling my big bucket with water, going into my cozy little concrete stall, and using a smaller bucket to wash. I get my hair did first, then move on to using soap and a ‘sponge’ (which is really a sheet of this plastic scrubby material that works surprisingly well) and try to get as much of the red dirt and sweat off as possible. This is almost always a futile attempt, since the red dirt here coats everything again in less than five minutes. It’s the effort that counts though, right?

Then I enjoy a delicious breakfast cooked by my host momma. At first, I was getting fried eggs and a bunch of bread, though my host mom tried making me a sandwich one day, and ever since then I have started getting an egg sandwich the size of my forearm. She also mixes in some onion and these little green peppers, which has me sweating out any residual exhaustion I’m feeling. She switches between giving me a cup of instant coffee (which I learned to enjoy very quickly, and now I thank the gods for) and a giant cup of cocoaette (sp?) which I’m pretty certain is just oatmeal, which I also enjoy immensely.

After that, I get dressed in my spiffy business casual and make my way to the school. If I’m walking, it should take me about 15-20 minutes, but ends up taking about 30-45 because everyone I pass has to ask me how I’m doing, where I’m going, etc. It’s actually a lot of fun, and gives me a chance to practice my greetings in the local language of Ewe. They ask a lot of questions like ‘How’s the family?’ (you respond with ‘strong’) and ‘How are the children?’ (again, you respond ‘strong’ even if you have no children). This takes some getting used to.

By the time I get to the school, it’s usually time to start either my French class, or our big-group sessions on really fun topics like sexual harassment, common health issues (and what to do about them), and how to prepare for a successful Peace Corps service. My French class is my buddy Austin and I, and our rad Togolese teacher Honore, and while it’s difficult to notice progress consistently, I do feel like I’m getting a bit better each day. I also get to practice quite a bit at home with my host family.

Around 12:30, we break for lunch, which is usually delivered to the school by my host sister Nadege, who is about 3x stronger than me, I’m convinced. That girl (she’s 11) puts the average American male to shame (do u even lift?). At 1:30ish, we start more sessions or language classes, which go on until about 5 or 5:30 each day. This is Monday through Friday, and we also have half-days on Saturdays (8:00-12:30). After we finish, I usually have to head home pretty soon to be home by 6:00 or 6:30 when my host momma wants me back. It starts to get dark not too long after that, and walking home in the dark here is always sketchy between the motos with no headlights, the goats and other animals, and the holes and bumps in the road.

When I get home, I usually head right into the shower to cleanse off the filth I accumulate throughout the day. As of about a week ago, my host mom has been boiling water for me which I mix with some regular water and get a nice hot shower, which surprisingly feels great despite how hot it can be during the days here. Afterwards, I eat a massive dinner, and get ready for bed. Around 8pm I am in bed, which makes me feel like an old man but I love it. I tend to not sleep super well here just because my room is almost always stuffy and hot, but I’m adjusting slowly but surely.

So far, nothing too crazy has happened, just a lot of repetition and sitting through long sessions and classes. Last week, I did get smacked with a pretty formidable gut bug, which had me pooping liquid for almost three days, and had my gut feeling like I was knitting a sweater in there, but after some antibiotics and a bit of time, I am now back to normal.

Last Monday, while I was on my way to the school with my buddy Austin, we saw a little boy (maybe 8 or 10 years old) walking toward us, crying, on the road. We noticed he had quite a bit of blood on his face and chest, so we ran toward him to find that he had a decent gash on his forehead, about an inch above his eye. I used my poor, poor French to ask him where he lived, and we proceeded to fast walk him to his home. As we got closer, a neighbor woman recognized him, and washed his face a bit with water. A little further along, we found his compound, and another neighbor found the boy’s dad, who took him immediately to the dispensaire (clinic). After it seemed everything was under control, Austin and I found our way back to the main road and continued on to school as the adrenaline dissipated.

The next morning, I come out of my room around 6:15 to see the boy and his parents walking toward me. The father was wearing this super spiffy suit jacket (he had obviously dressed up for the occasion) and the whole family thanked me about 300 times, as well as asking Mawu (the Ewe word for God) to bless me repeatedly. At least I think that’s what he was saying, most of that part was in Ewe. Then the little boy, who was all patched up and happy, thanked me and shook my hand. I found out from his father that he had been climbing a tree and fell (damn he almost lost an eye).

At first, I just thought ‘wow that was really nice, but all I did was walk him to his house’. It wasn’t until I’d processed the situation a bit more after the fact that I began to realize the impact. I was most shocked by the fact that the family went through the effort of dressing up, asking around to find where I lived, and walking all the way over at 6:00am just to thank me. I’m starting to realize now that that is just the Togolese way. People here are so thankful for even the smallest gestures of kindness (which must be exhausting, because everyone is so kind!) and go out of their way constantly to express their appreciation and willingness to help each other.

After a day or two, I realized the entire situation had helped me infinitely more than I helped the boy. I was in the first waves of my sickness, and found myself getting pretty cynical about the demands of training (lack of free time, long and often repetitive sessions regurgitating information passed down through bureaucracy from PC Washington, lack of sleep, etc.) After the situation with the little guy, I was reminded again why the hell I’m here in the first place. For me, I came to learn as much as possible, experience amazing people and things, and help anyone and everyone I possibly can. I had begun to lose that perspective and commitment, and this situation smacked me back into reality. I now realize how perfect the whole thing was: if I hadn’t left my house with Austin at the exact moment we did, we would never have seen the boy, and would never have had the opportunity to help. In addition, I realized how little I actually did (the kid knew where he was going, and he likely would have made it home no problem, found his dad, and got to the clinic, regardless of my presence). I am now convinced that we were meant to encounter each other at that moment, and almost entirely for my benefit. I have always liked to think that everything happens to us for a reason, whether we can identify it or not, and this just further solidifies that belief. In Buddhist terms, there was an infinite chain of causes and conditions that led that boy and Austin and I to be there at that exact moment, and it really helped to smack me out of the funk I was in.

Anyways, other than that things have become pretty standard here. We have our bar that we frequent called Akpe Na Mawu, ‘Thanks to God’ (Togolese beer is actually pretty good, but that may be because there’s only three kinds here and it’s all I can try). There’s lots of funky and gigantic insects and lizards and stuff which keep me on my toes, but most are harmless and really cool. It’s the rainy season, and for the record, Toto had no idea what they were talking about. The rainstorms here can be insane. They turn the roads into rivers and pretty much any solid surface into quicksand. I feel like a good portion of the town knows me now. I can’t go anywhere without hearing shouts of ‘Jamis!’ (how everyone here pronounces my name) and ‘Komla!’ (my local name), and I’m actually starting to feel at home here. The fresh fruits here are AMAZING (oranges, which are actually green on the outside, bananas, mangos, and the like) as is most of the other food (though the fish can get a bit questionable, and the million and a half things they make with corn can get pretty bland). There’s animals all over the place, goats, dogs, chickens, sheep, and the occasional kitty cat, and they all make a constant effort to be as loud as possible. Especially right outside my room around 2 or 3 in the morning. As for today, it’s starting to get a little late, and I need to get ready to head home and prepare for another week.

The next week is pretty packed with language exams, practice presentations, and other high-input activities, though on Monday July 3rd, we head to a town called Pagala for a permagarden activity and a celebration with the whole training group for the 4th of July, which should be a good time. I hope to be writing a bit more regularly, but it all depends on how the internet and electricity gods are feeling. Hope you’re all doing well and I’ll be getting at you soon!


Here goes nothing…

As I’m writing this, I’m currently sitting at Seatac airport, awaiting to depart for Washington D.C. for the first installment of my pre-service training for the Peace Corps.

There’s about 36,000 things going through my head at the moment, but some of the most important are as follows:

I really, really, really love my friends and family who have helped shape me into who I am today. My girlfriend Izze, my parents and sister, and all of you hooligans back in the Ellensburg area (Will, Zach, Maureen, Ryan, Evan, and the rest of the crew), I literally wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all the constant support, reassurance, and push to challenge myself.

Don’t give up on your dreams! Six years ago, I had no high school degree, was working full-time at a Papa Murphy’s (nothing against it, just not where I wanted to spend my young adulthood!), and didn’t have many long-term goals to speak of. After a series of events encouraged me to reevaluate where I was in life, I realized that there was a lot more that I wanted to do. I knew I had an avid interest in history, cultures, and traveling, so naturally the Peace Corps was a good goal. However, the Peace Corps requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. So, I got my GED, enrolled in community college and earned my Associates degree, and transferred to Central Washington University where I graduated last June with a BS in anthropology and environmental science. Now, I am sitting here waiting to spend two years with the Peace Corps in Togo. So, basically, the Peace Corps is what encouraged me to go back to school, hone my interests and passions, and push myself to grow and learn.

Out of all the emotions I’m feeling right now, by far the strongest is a sense of overwhelming and crippling excitement. It’s been a long time coming and part of me still feels like it might be a dream. I am borderline terrified of being in a completely different country and attempting to speak and understand French at a somewhat competent level. I’m confident, however, that the Peace Corps has got me. I am unceasingly nervous at the thought of when and where I’m going to poop my pants upon arrival in Africa (when and where, not if). I already miss many of the things from home, but mostly the people. I also keep picturing my luggage being loaded onto the wrong plane in my head over and over, so it goes.

Above all my worries, nervousness, and paranoid fears of everything that can go wrong, there lies my anticipation. I can’t wait to meet all of the wonderful people who will enter my life in the next two years. I can’t wait to dive in to all the experiences that are heading my way, from trying new foods to riding in strange taxis to getting stung by weird insects. I am excited to learn even more about myself, and to learn as much as I can from the people I meet and the cultures I find myself in.

So with that, I’d better get ready to board. Hopefully my blog writing will get better as time goes on, or else you’re going to be in for a long two years.

So it goes!

James King

P.S. the picture on this post is of my dad and I, just before leaving for the airport.