14 August 2010

back in the US

I'm back babydolls!

In case you haven't figured it out, I'm back in the good ol' US of A. Looks like it's all the chili cheese fries, and milkshakes and choices I want for now. I would like to say that my two years in Togo flew bye and looking back there are brief moments where I say, "wow it's already been two years". But in actuality, I felt every one of those 800-ish days. It is definitely good to be back, especially around my family and friends. Yet it's also weird. People say it's culture shock but I think it's more like a lack of culture shock. I mean I experienced real culture shock moving to Togo where EVERYTHING was new and different. Coming back to America, yes everything was different from Togo, but it was all familiar in a dream sort of way. I keep pinching myself thinking I'm going to wake up or that perhaps my time in Togo was some sort to not so bad nightmare. I don't know. Okay before I ramble too much more I'll say thanks for reading. Sorry for sucking as a writer but I do have to say you suck as a reader/follower of my blog so screw you :)

off to my next big adventure: graduate school. if i have the energy, maybe i'll blog about that too...

- Nikhil

10 February 2010


so as you can tell, i haven't updated in a while. can't really explain what happened and i don't really have the motivation to tell you what i've been up to since i last posted. my service is going great though and im working on projects i feel passionately about. i can't believe that COS conference is just around the corner. as much as im ready to finish my service and move on to the next chapter in my life (graduate school), i know a part of me will miss togo and all that he/she has given me. but its okay 'cause ill be back en afrique bien tot.
btw, thanks to people who actually do read this blog. i meant for it to be a better source of information than what it ended up being but ive gotten random emails from cool people who want help with peace corps apps or want to congratualate me on my stories / service and i thank you for being "faithful" readers, especially even though i have not been a "faithful" blogger.
anyways, i doubt ill be updating anytime soon but you never know. if you do have any questions or comments for me though, feel free to contact me via e-mail.
take care and till we meet again...

06 June 2009

one year in togo

As of this weekend, I have officially been in Togo for a year! woah...

The newbies arrive tonight and I'm super excited about having some new people in country. It's funny because last year, I remember meeting all the volunteers who were about one year into their service and thinking "wow, I hope I'll be as cool as they are one year from now..." and I think I accomplished my goal. But we'll have to wait and see what the new stagiers really think about me and my ridiculosity...

So...I apologize for the lack of postings over the last few months. I've actually been really busy with work and travel and I haven't really had a clear moment to sit and collect my thoughts to put into writing. I've been meaning to write about several things. There was tony and larissa's f-wedding at the beginning of April. There was also my amazing vacation in Ghana I want to tell you about. In May I finished the first phase of my pilot project girl's club with a fete. Finally, I have several reflections on my life in Togo that I would like to share with you. All of this and more shall be revealed over the next few weeks (or at least that's the plan).

This summer is going to be intense, but in a good way. As I mentioned before, I was selected as one of the editors of Et La Sante? and this summer we have two issues to put out, one in June and one in September. I also mentioned that I am one of the regional coordinators for Camp Espoir and I am super pumped to play counselor for a week. Finally, a few weeks ago I got selected as a volunteer trainer for the new stagiers that are arriving tonight. It's sort of like being a FASET leader, except I don't have to be a tool. With those three activities, plus work stuff back in Sotouboua, I basically have a completely booked next three months. I feel bad about being away from post for so much time but at the same time, it's summer so schools are out and it's also rainy season so everyone's working in the champ so it's nearly impossible to do anything anyways. My plan is to finish this summer, do a quick vacation in Benin on the beach for a few days and then head back to Sotouboua, not leave for three months, and get shit done.

Backtracking, I started off my week long trip by heading to Notse to volunteer at Ashley & Danielle's Moringa Fete in Notse. It's kinda funny because last year I celebrated yams in Bassar and now I'm celebrating moringa in Norse. Anyways, I think I've talked about how awesome moringa olifeira is and all the cool things you can do from this "miracle tree" so I won't go into any more details but for the past year and a half Ashely and Danielle, two CHAP volunteers in and around Notse, have been trying to sensibilize their communities about Moringa. So in order to talk about the many benefits and ways to use moringa, they raised money to have a fete complete with a parade, radio announcements and carnival with moringa demonstrations. Me and about 15 other volunteers showed up to help man the booths and educate people about topics ranging from how to make moringa oil to a cooking demonstration with moringa leaves. Overall the event was a huge success and it was great to not only hang out with my fellow volunteers but to also see my health work in action.

So as you can tell, I'm writing to you from the lounge in the PC Bureau in Lome. I've been here all week for work and personal reasons. Workwise, Tchao asked Nacho and me to update the CHAP Toolkit for the new trainees so we've been working all week to add information on family planning, sexual/reproductive health, and HIV/AIDS. Personally, two good friends of mine left Togo (Fabiola terminated her service early and Tig ended her service) and I wanted to be in Lome to say goodbye. It sucks to start having close friends leaving country; these are people we've connected with on a certain level and now they are gone. Helen and Tig are the first ones from their stage to leave and they were some of the first ones to welcome us to Togo; luckily I still have many more weeks with other 2nd years that I am close to but come this September, they'll all be gone and my stage and the september stage will be the only ones left. Sadness...

Hmm...so the new stage gets in tonight and maybe we'll get to take them out tonight but if not, I'm excited about all the good food I can eat now that I've FINALLY been paid (took you long enough PC Washington!). Tomorrow night is the GAD fundraiser at Triskall and then the Regeants party to properly welcome the new trainees to Togo. I'll prob stick around on Monday to get somemore work done and then hopefully Tuesday it's back to post!

I'm off to go and make posters for the new tech house...


27 March 2009

these are a few of my favorite things (in togo)...

- riding my bike in the african bush
- watching goats scratch their bums against a wall
- hearing hindi music over the Togolese radio
- wearing pagne-anything
- cooling off with a vanilla fanmilk on a hot day
- hanging out with my fellow volunteers
- playing with babies during baby weighings
- receiving mail from friends and family
- having a complete conversation in kabiyé
- drinking a cold beer and reading a good book at the buvette across the street
- eating fufu with peanut sauce and pork
- playing with my dog swarley
- biting into the first mangoes of the season
- dancing in the rain
- falling asleep to the sound of my electric fan
- being a public health badass

19 March 2009

busy as a bee...

Hey everyone,

It’s funny how my life right now in Peace Corps is almost completely 180° different from what it was about 6 months ago. Last fall I pretty much spent my days lounging around my house reading books, watching movies, cooking and biking. I felt completely lost in terms of what exactly I was supposed to be doing here in Sotouboua (and Togo in general) and I was seriously contemplating ETing. I was happy, but I was feeling unfulfilled.

Nowadays, I barely have time to relax outside of repos time (where I’m pretty much forced to do nothing due to everything being closed and it being way too hot outside) and I find myself with much more work opportunities than I am able to pursue. I still try to read when I can but my list of books that I have started and not finished is growing (I’m currently in the process of reading about 4 books at the same time, along with several magazines and not to mention all the research documents I need to read for work). I’ve had the opportunity to make some pretty amazing meals (for Togo) with Marcus and Korie (stuffed green peppers, chicken pot pie, wagash calzones, just to name a few…) but I’m not cooking as much as I used to. As for exercising, I do a little every morning and of course I bike around Sotouboua for work but unless I have to do quick trips to surrounding villages for random things, I don’t get to bike for leisure unless I happen to already be biking and have like an hour to kill between meetings.

I’m definitely not complaining but if you had asked me last fall if I thought my life in 2009 would be this busy, I would have laughed. I like being busy. Well okay sort off; I like being busy but there is a balance that needs to be achieved between work and play and I think I am still working on finding that middle ground of moderation. It’s funny because I was always “busy” back in Atlanta but I’m busy in a different way here in Togo. All the projects that I’m working on here are things that I WANT to be doing as opposed to HAVE to be doing.

So this is sort of my excuse for why I haven’t blogged in a while. Apart from work, the only blog worthy event that I wanted to mention was the Safety & Security Conference in Pagala I attended at the beginning of March. As the contact volunteer for my Sotouboua cluster, I am responsible for alerting my group of any news from PC regarding our safety and security. Our conference basically covered what to do in case of an emergency, for example a coup d’état or if there is political violence pre- and post- Election Day next spring (I am fortunate to be in Togo when the next president will be elected sometime between Feb and May 2010). Apart from hanging out with Stephen, the conference was worth it just to hang out with my fellow contact volunteers and eat the amazing food at the training center.

Bad transition but yea, since a lot of new projects have come up and started to take form, let me update you on my work life:

1) Vie Saine Togo: I can’t remember what exactly I have blogged about regarding VST but basically ever since the members, on their own initiative, had elections for the administrative bureau in December work has started to pick up. I was still a little lost at the beginning as to what exactly I should do with them and after a little contemplation, I decided on completing a needs evaluation. Joelle conducted one I believe two years ago but since a lot has changed since then and now, I think it’s important for the members to re-evaluate where they are and what their needs are. For the needs evaluation, I am basically conducting home visits to all registered members in the Sotouboua, Adjengre and Aouda area where I am gathering information regarding their baseline knowledge level, a behavior change analysis and a qualitative needs assessment (basically I want to know what they already know and what they want to do so we can plan for the future). Not only does this evaluation help me collect data but I also get to personally meet all the members. After I finish the needs evaluation, I want to hold a “retreat” for the admin bureau to help them prioritize their needs and reassess their strategic plan. I’m not really sure where I’ll go from there but since my first goal with Vie Saine is to get them sustainably stable, I may try and do some basic management workshops to teach the members good business practices. Oh and I’m gonna start holding “office hours” at the bureau not only to put myself out there to help the members but also to set a good example and demonstrate the importance of having scheduled business hours. I have a lot of other ideas I would like to implement soon (radio programs, a kids club, an internal village savings & loans group, etc.) but all in good time.

2) I.E.A.G.R.M.S.: My girls’ club pilot project is coming along very well. Apart from the small management issue that happened at the beginning, I am actually impressed with how well the project is going. Not only have the girls attended all sessions, but they have been actively participating and doing their assignments like they are supposed. For our first real lesson, we talked about the basics of HIV, focusing on the ABCs of prevention, and then we covered an introduction to small businesses before I demonstrated the first IGAs (income-generating activity) of the pilot project: enriched flour and porridge. I wanted to incorporate a business skills section to the curriculum because I thought that it was important for the girls to learn the principles of good business and apply them to their IGA. For our next lesson, we talked about the importance of good communication and how to negotiate for abstinence and then I invited Golda and Korie (two NRM volunteers) to help me talk about Moringa before I showed them how to make a powder from the leaves that can be used as a nutritional supplement. This past weekend, in celebration of International Women’s Day, we discussed women’s rights and did some self-confidence building exercises. For the business session, I showed them how to make peanut butter and then we talked about how to determine the prices and costs involved in running a small business (I meant to cover this topic last time and talk about accounting this week but we always seem to run out of time).

We have one more class (to discuss how to plan for the future and how to do a feasibility study) to go before our evaluation and at the insistence of my counterparts, we will probably ask PLAN for funding over the next two months to help the girls secure a small loan so they can start the IGA of their choice over the summer to raise funds for school next year (as I mentioned before, schooling after the elementary level is not free). This is a little opposite from the vacation enterprise model but I think that teaching this information over the school year helps reduce tardiness (since the girls are already in a school mode) and this way they can just focus all their energy on running their small income generating activities over the summer without having to worry about “classes”. I am so thankful for my amazing homologues who pretty much run the show. I plan the activities based on the PC Life Skills book and of course from ideas that I come up with but since they pretty much repeat everything I say in a way the girls can understand, it’s pretty much like they don’t need me. I am so glad that the girls are motivated and hopefully after our course evaluation, I can determine what worked and what didn’t work to make improvements for next year. My plan is to come up with a year long curriculum (I am always rushed to cover information in the 4 hours I am allotted so it’ll be nice to be able to stretch some topics out over several sessions) for the next school year and if that model works, maybe do a training of trainers so, like my homologue originally planned, implement it at other schools in the area. Or at least that’s what I have in the works right now in my head. Again, baby steps…

3) Hospital / Dispensaire: In an effort to add more structure to my week I’ve been pretty religious about attending the weekly C.P.C. (baby weighing and vaccination day) at the hospital. They most definitely don’t need my help (well not really) but it’s fun to play with the infants and this way I get to know the mothers. My awesome counterpart Atisso has been making me do a causerie at least once a month so in January I did a causerie on the importance of breastfeeding; in February I talked about the advantages of family planning and this past week I did a causerie on malnutrition. Although I don’t really need to change anything, I am excited though because I think I did make a “tiny” impact by stressing the importance with the C.P.C. crew about giving the mothers an updated copy of their baby’s growth chart (something they had been neglecting to do since they only kept records for the hospital itself) so the mothers can take a more active role in monitoring their children’s health preventing malnutrition. Apart from the causeries, I would like to do some family planning work with the FP clinic but I’m having a hard time breaking the gender gap since it seems to be female-oriented work; however I am hoping to change that by possibly doing male-focused family planning sensibilisations and maybe holding clinic hours for men. We’ll see…

As for the dispensaire, I have tagged along on several of the campaigns such as impregnating bed nets and administering polio and vitamin A to children under 5 but they also seem to have their work well planned out. At the moment, I don’t plan to do a lot with the dispensaire (besides I do have a pretty full schedule of work) but I have been working with the program coordinator for the mothers clubs and he wants me to start working with the local mothers clubs to do small workshops. Although I definitely want to help and do some talks particularly on various health issues, enriched flour and moringa, we seem to be having conflicting schedule issues so I may have to wait till my calendar clears up a bit. I have two years though right?

4) Radio Projects: This is the project that I am currently most excited about and I hate to jinx it in case stuff doesn’t work out but oh well. Before coming to Togo, during my study abroad program in South America, I remembered learning about the effectiveness of using soap operas as a medium for social behavior change. Although I didn’t do a whole lot of research until I got to Sotouboua (since I didn’t know if I would even have a radio station to work with) after a little research online, I came across this awesome organization called Population Media Center. They came up with a training manual (in English and French) called “Soap Operas for Social Change to Prevent HIV/AIDS: A Training Guide for Journalists & Media Personnel” on how to use entertainment media as a vehicle for social messages such as family planning and gender equality. Since doing work over the television is not really feasible here (very few people in Togo have access to, much less own one) the next best medium is the radio. There has been a lot of success in incorporating behavior change messages into radio soap operas, particularly in Eastern Africa so my idea is to use the manual to create a local radio soap opera. I contacted the organization and they have been super helpful and extremely supportive; they even put me in contact with the current coordinators in Senegal who are working on a radio soap opera project through UNFPA & UNAIDS. I am very much in the initial stages of this project as I am still working on putting together a comprehensive committee of people from various sectors (the hospital, the radio, students, etc.). It also just so happens that one of my Togolese counterparts who is involved with the radio station peripherally has worked in the past on a radio project fighting child trafficking and he also has a background in Togolese theater! Could my post be any more perfect for me? I think not...He is super excited about the project and although he is a very busy man, he has pledged his full support. This is probably going to be one of my more time intensive projects since they process of creating the soap opera has many complicated facets and unfortunately it’s unlikely that we’ll get to any producing until next year; however like I said, it’s the project I’m the most excited about since a project like this has never been tried before in Togo.

I also really want to do some separate radio work since Sotouboua has not one but two private radio stations. However private means that getting free air time to do health sensibilisations or any other health work is pretty much impossible. But hopefully if this soap opera project kicks off and I get to make some strong relationships with the radio personnel, hopefully I can start doing some radio work in the fall.

5) Intelligentsia: Unlike working with CEG students, I seem to have the hardest time coordinating with the students at Intelligentsia, mainly because it’s a private school and has a different schedule than the public schools (Wednesday afternoon for public schools is designated as free time for the students to participate in clubs and other activities; due to Intelligentsia’s schedule, their free times are Tuesday and Friday afternoon). I’ve been trying to work with the health & environmental club and the theater club but apart from a couple random meetings, I really haven’t had the opportunity to do anything concrete with them which is a shame since I love working with schools. Hopefully things will change a bit because I would really like to introduce Moringa with the health club and maybe form some moringa peer educators to educate the community about the amazingness of the tree (I would really like to do the peer educator training before Earth Day so that the educators can plant some trees at the school). I also really want to involve some of the theater students in my radio project but since I don’t know any of them very well (since I’ve only met them two or three times), I don’t know who to approach. It’s a little frustrating but then again, c’est la vie togolaise non?

Oh but one “project” that is in the works is an American culture session during the annual “Semaine Culturelle” at Intelligentsia. All the schools around Togo do it to celebrate the ethnic diversity of the country but since we have the best relationship with Intelligentsia, Marcus, Korie and I agreed to have an open panel discussion with the students where they can ask questions about American culture and we will do our best to respond. Kpango also asked me to do a session on American music so I get to play various genres of music and talk about it in French. Semaine Culturelle is the last week of March / first week of April so luckily I have a bit to prepare.

6) Other Projects
- Tutoring: Not a whole lot to say but after a few very frustrating French lessons, I decided it was time for me to switch to Kabiye in my effort to better learn my local language (it’s not necessary to know a lot of local language to work in Togo but it certainly helps). So I am now taking Kabiye lessons and I have set a goal for myself that by December, I would like to be able to give a full 15 min causerie during C.P.C. in Kabiye (even if I have to translate it all beforehand). Wish me luck with that. A couple kids around my house also asked me to tutor them in English so I might start a small little English club but we’ll see how long it lasts since they already missed the first meeting and gave no excuse. I’m also helping some terminale (13th grade) students study for the English portion of their year end exams so they can get into university thanks to an awesome study guide two volunteers up north created for the BAC exam and I’ve come to realize that teaching English is really hard!

- Peace Corps Projects: Two Peace Corps projects that haven’t started yet but I’m super excited about are the CHAP newsletter and Camp ESPOIR. Due to a lack of interest, I’m pretty sure Heather and I are the new editors of the quarterly health newsletter for volunteers. I am really excited about this project because it’s a way to combine my passion for public health with my passion for collaboration; Heather and I are hoping to really transform the newsletter into more than just an update on what health projects are going on in Togo but more into a sort of a forum to share ideas and best practices while fostering collaboration among the volunteer community. Heather and I (and Nicole and Sam) have also been selected as the counselors for the Centrale / Savannes Camp ESPOIR, a week long camp in Pagala for children infected / affected by AIDS. The time commitment is very small (a one day planning retreat in April, a week long training of trainers in June and then the actual camp in July) but I’m still excited to basically be a camp counselor this summer :)

So as you can see I am certainly working with a full plate of activities and although I do get stressed out every now and then, it’s the good sort of stress. Behavior change certainly takes a long time and although I have yet to see results, I do feel like I am on my way to accomplishing what I hoped to do during my two years in Togo. However, only time will tell…

back to being a public health badass,

P.S. Thank you to Christina M., my fraternity and everyone else who contributed to my AMAZING package I received at the end of February. I can’t tell you enough how much your letters, notes, and contributions meant to me. That package totally made my day :)