One Year in Togo, One More to Go: Searching for Successes

by Chelsea Clarke

Crates set up for World Cup viewing. Image by Chelsea Clarke.

After a month of rambling through Ghana, Morocco, and Spain, I am nervous to return to the rural Togolese village I’ve committed to call home for two years.

I often wonder if I am accomplishing my goals for this experience.

It isn’t primarily the physical conditions that I find difficult. Lack of electricity and running water, ubiquitous flies, oppressive heat, and near constant GI issues are all wearing, but it has been surprisingly possible to adjust to them, provided I feel productive in work or relationships.

It is isolating living as I do, in a village where I can only communicate with a fraction of the people and via the broken version of French that is second language to both of us.

Especially when there is no evidence of forward momentum, I worry that I am not where I am supposed to be.

I can live with the bucket flush toilet that requires me to burn all (ALL) of my toilet paper, but not with this self-doubt. I’m afraid that I’ll quit or, conversely, stay long past the time I should have admitted it wasn’t working. Has anything I kicked off sustained without me?

If not, why watch another year go by here?

After the grueling 12-hour trip upcountry and additional motorbike ride from the nearest city out to the village, I’m exhausted. I barely notice the new satellite dish when I walk in.

Satellite?! Did the village get electricity in the time I was gone?

My primary work partner is also the patriarch of my host family. He grins excitedly. No, there’s no electricity, but with this generator and TV, we can watch World Cup games. Great! I think at first.

Upon closer inspection, my enthusiasm quickly fades.

The vitamin-rich moringa trees I planted at home have been eaten by fence-smashing goats.

The model animal husbandry project that has been half finished for months is not done, for want of some moderately priced chicken wire. “We can’t afford it,” he explains.  Can the farmer’s group pool their money, or give a loan? He laughs. “They don’t have the money.”

A map of Togo. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
A map of Togo. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Dejected, I watch the game with a compound full of men and children sitting on beer crates. We pile in front of a grainy TV screen underneath the stars. It is a surreal experience. In this place usually so cut off from the rest of the world, we are now connected in real time with millions around the globe.

Still, how can they spend money on a satellite instead of a project that will provide protein to the children who need it so much?

I spend my first full day back like a spectre, floating around the compound and alternating between reading in my battered plastic lawn chair and lying in the fetal position on my cot, contemplating my failure to inspire.

The next day I force myself to get up and out.

I sit at a neighbor’s tchakpa (local beer) stand and listen in silence to the banter in the local language. People greet me, with delight. They didn’t know I was back! Word gets around; people stop by.

A work partner tells me that a student I sent to camp is starting up a club for disability rights and income-generating activities.

The co-director of my environmental club stops by to greet me and say he is so motivated for the next school year. It is summer vacation, but he schedules a club work day for us to plant out the flourishing moringa tree nursery we started from seed.

Some girls in the club have taken initiative to do the weeding on their own.

Environmental Club, hard at work. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Clarke.
Environmental Club, hard at work. Photo by Chelsea Clarke.

When I call the man I accompanied to an animal husbandry training to see if he has built his enclosure yet, he beams. Not only is it done, he has bought two himself!

Another call reveals that the micro-finance application submitted by my teen girls group has been accepted. They can start their liquid-soap-making project as soon as we receive the money.

I take more heart with each success that comes.

I discover that my host has paid out of pocket for some home improvements that I requested. When I tell him he will be reimbursed by my organization, he claps his hands. He plans to use the money to finish our own animal enclosure.

Will we really finish this project? I don’t know.

And I don’t know, I realize, where the satellite came from, or who paid for it.

I don’t ask. It seems beside the point.

For now, all of this is enough.

Have you ever seen success where you least expected it? Tell me about it in the Comments below!

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