Sam – Final Blog Post

Having just returned to Kuwdé from our departing feast in Farendé with the “Chef du Canton” (the Canton Chief), I’d say it was a decent summary my last few weeks of DukeEngage and my departing thoughts and reflections. This “réunion” took place at the “Centre Sociale” (the Community Center) which sits sort of in the center of town and really is the “social center” of Farendé society. This meeting was meant to celebrate the work we’ve done for our host communities during the past two months, so, true to any good Kabré party, they served us sulum (sorghum beer), kakarase (bean fritters/“beignets d’haricot”) or as we like to call them “beangnets”, and hearty pieces of chicken (meat is usually reserved for special occasions). Once fed and hydrated, the village chiefs, the Chef du Canton, Jesper, and Charlie all gave speeches thanking each other and us, and thanking us again, and sometimes thanking themselves, and then arguing a lot. Finally, once the speeches were done, it was necessary that the meal finish with ten minutes of “joking” about which Kabré men the Duke girls were going to marry before they left and which Kabré women the Duke men would bring back to America. To someone who doesn’t share these experiences, this might not be telling, but to me, this about reflects everything interesting, weird, and great about this culture and my experience here this summer: The tastes of the beer and beangnets, the warm Kabré laughter intertwined with ever present public arguments, the boundless generosity, the grave pride in culture, the overwhelmingly friendly vibe wherever you may find yourself.

Now beginning to look back, there are so many fascinating, extraordinary experiences I hope to hold on to:

There were the many mornings spent at the Case de Santé conducting interviews with insured Kuwdé folks who endlessly gave thanks for our health insurance work, explaining how gravely health insurance has helped their families. The many afternoons spent sitting under shade trees in Farendé or on cool boulders in Kuwdé, listening to new tales about how a clever hare won a race or when an evil monkey disguised itself as a Kabré wife. And the many evenings with Charlie, Kouwénam, Jackie, and Grant at hadjas (post communal work group drinking sessions) where we heard the given day’s village conversation, often speculations for lack of rain and then ensuing counter-arguments (i.e the chopping down of a rain spirit tree, a drunk man at the market slapping a woman from the rain-spirit associated homestead).

Still, there were the almost daily hikes through the plain, the occasional weekend treks to the top of Kuwdé for gorgeous views of the northern Togolese landscape, and there were the Saturday-afternoon markets spent people-watching in crowded, bustling beer huts. And maybe most fondly, there were the many nights of relaxing with my host-family in the courtyard, playing fierce rounds of UNO or “Cinq-Cinq” or just lightly conversing while peeling locust beans together under the stars.

As far as the end to my work, both projects went smoothly. I’m proud of the Health Insurance System work that Jackie and I accomplished and am very glad I was able to assist her with this project this summer. I believe we were about as thorough as possible, that we pushed the previous limits of work done here, that we did nearly everything possible and productive for the continued maintenance of this great project. It was profoundly cool for me to see how simple policies and even simpler changes to them, in practice, make all the difference in peoples’ lives. I’m very content with how this project played out for us this summer.

Concerning this Kabré oral tradition project, I’d also say that I’m satisfied with how that project wrapped up for me. I learned a great deal from this about the content itself, but also so many valuable lessons about the nature of doing this sort of research. There is much work to be done with this project if and as it continues, but I believe I accomplished about what was feasible given the short duration of my time here and the nature of the project (the work does indeed, as they say, “allez doucement” (go slowly)). Despite frustrations that I encountered with this project, I really had a lot of fun doing it, and look forward to continuing, sharing, and playing forward my work. At the very least, I believe I’m the only DukeEngage student this year who, when asked what they learned on DukeEngage, can respond that what I learned from DukeEngage was why we give dogs bones and why monkeys don’t have hair on their butts.

It’s no secret that, I suppose unfortunately, DE students gain so much more from these programs than do our host communities. I wish so much that I had had more to give, more time to do so, and that I could make a bigger impact myself. I very much hope to return to Kuwde and Farende in the future (hopefully for Waa 2020) to continue to repay my debts to my profoundly generous new friends and family up in Northern Togo.

With that said, I’m grateful for everything that my DE experience in Togo was, and I continue to ramble on in this blog because hopefully prospective DE Togo students might read this and understand the great value of DukeEngage: This summer I learned about and experienced a fascinating, very lovely culture, and I did enjoyable and productive work that relates to my studies at Duke. I made local friends and gained a new family in a mountain village in northern Togo, bonded with six other great Duke students (who I might never have otherwise crossed paths with at Duke), and lived side by side with the world’s most expert anthropologist on this culture (that’s no hyperbole) who every day translated to us the complexities of life and culture here. I did without a doubt, experience frustration with many things from mice in my bed, to one very infected finger, to people I worked with, and with other things still. But, most importantly of all I really learned more than I could have ever anticipated and I had a phenomenal time on DukeEngage here in Togo.


Myself, Charlie, my host-father Santi, and my host-mother Ameline. The men are pictured with hoes because cultivating is men’s work, and Ameline with a water basin because carrying is women’s work. (Also, Kabre don’t smile in photos)


Jackie – Final Blog Post

Our work at the Case de Santé is coming to a close as we’re wrapping up the program; and as we’re writing the final report, I’m extremely happy about the progress we’ve made since arriving two months ago.

We found out that the 33 families who were insured this summer saved on average 1500 CFA each – a figure that is significantly higher for those families who’ve had births, who saved up to 5000-6000 CFA. The Case de Santé, on the other hand, is adapting well to new policy changes and making good profits overall, so the community health insurance system, already on its 7th year, continues to be sustainable. After completing many informative interviews, the CDS Committee, Charlie, Sam and I hosted a village meeting in the school publicizing the benefits of being insured, and thanking those (especially Basile and Odile, who work at the CDS) for their extraordinary hard work throughout the year. The meeting went really well, although it had its hilarious Kuwdé elements, when pouring rain, telephone calls and brief naps interrupted many speeches. We also handed out all the insurance cards, which were quite popular, reiterated all the changes of the system, which were again well-received. To bring everything together, we’re now writing up a full report on what we’ve learned this summer about the functioning of the insurance, about families and other statistical analyses we have attempted to improve future services.

The past two weeks have been extremely eventful: as a short vacation, we made a trip further up North to see fascinating double-storied homesteads from a different village, where the animals lived on the first floor and the people on the second. The chateaux were intricately designed fortresses, designed to prevent animal thieves and other intruders. After we returned, the families in Kuwdé very kindly hosted little gatherings to send us off, and last night there was a village-wide party where we had our initial welcome ceremony, where all of us – young children, old women and working men – danced and sang in Kabiye, which continued for hours even in heavy rain.

I can’t really express how sad I am about leaving this beautiful village and amazing country, especially when I just feel like I’ve begun to understand life here. I’ve made local food and beer with my host mother, and have seriously come to love pate (the local corn-based meal) with peanut-okra sauce – much more than I like pasta with tomato sauce. I will miss the unconditional warmth of the people here, the stunning sights in Lao and especially my host family immensely. I not only hope that one day I might be able to return here, perhaps with more skill and time to offer, but also that I can bring back home some of the generosity, kindness and appreciation that characterize the Kuwde spirit.

Grant – Final Blog Post

The nut sheller finally had some success after a long time working on it. My host mother, Belleagi, helped me boil the baobab nuts, and when they were tossed in the machine while still hot, the machine could actually shell some of them. About ten percent of the nuts fed into the machine shelled perfectly, the rest fell straight through the machine. The issue there being that the rotor isn’t perfectly circular. If that’s fixed, I really do think that the nut sheller could work really well. That work can’t be finished in the remaining time, but either I or the engineer for next year should be able to finish the work, be it at Duke or in Togo.

Most of the other projects I worked on were finished as of the last blog post except for the latrine spirulina facility. This latrine set up was built in the 80s by a Swiss engineer, and over the past few years, various Duke Engage engineers have made it their primary project. It’s never been fully operational, and this past year, an important component of the machine broke, bringing the project to a halt. Compounding that problem, Eli, the director of the project and half of the projects in Farende, died. And with his death, there was no one nearly as qualified or passionate to keep the project moving. So with all this in mind, Charlie, Fidele, and I attended a meeting with the church committee that directs the latrines project. I gave my assessment of the work the church needs to do to restore the system to operation and Fidele gave them an intriguing suggestion of forming a public private partnership. Her thought would be that the church retains the rights to the land and the project, but they contract out the managing of the project to a company or entrepreneur. That entity would cover the repairs and management costs while paying the church an agreed upon sum for the right to use the project. The committee listened intently to both suggestions and will take them to higher ups in the organization for a final decision. Like the projects I wrote about in my last post, this won’t be finished during my stay in Togo, but hopefully the suggestions are taken to heart and the spirulina facility will be up and running with minimal intervention from Duke Engage.

Natasha – End of Project

Last Friday my students in the Farendé Writers’ Society presented their work this summer to the community. Four students read their poems that I had chosen. Though I am not sure why, the students’ poetry was, overall, my favorite of the genres we covered this summer. For Friday’s presentation, one student read about her mother, another about the beauty of nature, another about religion and society, and one about the symbolism of Fulani houses. In all these, and in the pieces of writing they did not read, the students shared pieces of their lives that are so unique. Moreover, they highlighted how everyday things are so important. In all of this, I was extremely proud to see how they had progressed since we first met.

Since my last blog post, there have been still many challenges. In particular, getting students to use cameras for pictures rather than entertainment has been a concern for the past few weeks. Typing up students’ writing but also giving them the most time with their journals as possible has been a logistical nightmare. However, this is not what comes to mind when I think of the end of this project. Although my lessons prompted them to write, I really cannot take full credit for the unique voices they have shared through their writing. What I can claim is the relationships that have formed between me and my students as well as between them as writers. By getting to know each of these students, I have gotten to know some extraordinary people. In classes they have supported each other by explaining lessons and by writing peer feedback. What were before long pauses and blank stares are now the insights and inside jokes that have formed over the summer. It is through writing together over the past five weeks that these relationships formed. And that is really the main point of writing to begin with.


This year’s Farende Writer’s Society class, with their new certificates


Millicent – Final Blog Post

During the interviews, due to the large number of applicants that we eventually ended up having (around twenty), Cyril and I ended up conducting half of them, while Charlie and Theo did the other half. Afterwards we deliberated on who to fund amongst them. It was necessary to lower the amount of money the budgets asked for in order to fund more people.  The final result was twelve new clients with five old ones, seventeen in total. After that, names of the clients were posted as well as the date for the contract signing ceremony.

The ceremony took place in Centre Sociale. As in previous years, the first thing we did was act out a “sketch” (skit) where I was the beneficiary and Theo and Fidele played my parents who had made me give them my loan money. This was done to showcase to the applicants that they shouldn’t give their money to family members in the likely event that they wouldn’t be able to successfully complete their projects. Following the sketches, I called out the names of the clients one by one to come sign their contracts with their two witnesses and receive their money. When this was done, Cyril, Theo and I worked with the applicants on their payment schedule. The entire ceremony took approximately three hours, but when it was done, I had successfully completed my project.

Throughout the duration of my project I encountered one main problem. The first one I know past students had also encountered: the lack of intimate knowledge with the types of commerce here that many of the projects were based on. This was most apparent during the interviews. Even though I had gone over the budgets the night before and had prepared notes for each of the applications, I felt as if the questions I had prepared were not significant enough. For instance, while I focused more on the when and how the applicants planned on selling their wares, I should’ve focused more on the budgets themselves, for apparently there were many discrepancies that my culturally inexperienced eyes had missed. Although to be fair, the very nature of my inexperience prevented my having foreseen the discrepancies in the first place. The discrepancies that I speak of pertain to materials the applicants had forgotten or had mistakenly added when they weren’t needed. Or simply problems with how to calculate their revenue to show a profit. It was in such cases that I really felt the work of Cyril and Theo were indispensable, for the knowledge that I lacked was not one that could be easily acquired in the short time frame afforded me here.

Malcolm – Project Conclusion

Overall, I was very satisfied with my project this summer.  Although I was worried about my French-speaking skills at the beginning, I eventually learned that it doesn’t actually require a large amount of vocabulary to teach a computer class.  Most of it was asking them “What is this?’” or “What does this do” and by imagining how I was going to explain something in class I was able to know which vocabulary words I needed to learn to help them understand completely.

The main disappointment I had in the beginning was that not as many people showed up as how many had signed up for the class.  About sixty children said they were interested, but when the interest meeting actually came out, only twenty were there.  In retrospect, we were told to expect something like that to happen, but I still wasn’t prepared for such a difference in attendance.  However, I will say that though some kids didn’t sign up, they would join the class anyway if they saw that the Cyber doors were open.

Also, except for one student, no one ever came to the advanced computer class.  I assume that that’s because there was a problem with the time, but then again they were all there when the class time was decided.  Either way, my disappointment with them was definitely overshadowed by my pride in the beginner class.  By the end of the two months, they surpassed the intermediate class, despite being younger and newer to using computers.  I was especially impressed with the girls who came to my classes.  Often, they brought notebooks and also retained more information than most of the boys.  That’s why I was very surprised when the boys won at the end-of-the-year Jeopardy game.

If I had to give advice to the next cyber course teacher, the first thing I would bring up would be teaching style.  The children respond best to someone who has energy and is entertaining to be around.  For that reason, sometimes in class I would dance a bit or shout or make a little show out of picking one of the students to answer.  The kids here tend to be pretty nervous inside the classroom, so it’s necessary to make them feel comfortable.  Second, I would advise having them do exercises as much as possible in class.  Repetition helps them memorize the information, but what really helps is when they get to see how the computer works for themselves.  Lastly, I would say to bring more videos for them to watch during free hours.  I brought three with me and they’ve been watching over and over and over again every time they get a chance.  I swear it almost made me go crazy to keep her those same three songs.  But the fact that they’d watch those same three videos really shows how much they appreciate them.  They’re watching the one about LDOC as I’m writing this right now.

Colleen – Final Blog Post

The English classes have attained a routine, and while it took longer than I expected to get the advanced students to come to class, I’m very happy with the progress we’ve made so far. A lot of time was also spent figuring out the students’ comprehension levels, especially the advanced students, because advanced level English students still have a hard time understanding what Americans say. At first, I tried to go through an American song with the advanced students, but it was too hard to understand. We finally hit a rhythm in the advanced class when we started playing improvisation games that have flexible vocabulary requirements. A favorite is the game “What are you doing?”, in which the participants only have to have the vocabulary to name any activity with no repeats, getting harder and harder as the game goes on.

In the beginner class, the students have been getting better at participating in class, but I hope they will get more involved in their other classes, too. We went over colors in our last class, and some students knew the vocabulary well enough to teach the others. I’m always impressed at how they’ll help their classmates to get the right answers. We normally go over a new word, break down the sounds that go into that word, repeat it together as a class and then one by one, and then go over the hard parts of the word again. I learned that we need to review our vocabulary frequently in class, or the students will forget what we went over, and will pronounce all of the words the way they used to. All in all, I think that the most important part of my classes has been to try to get the students excited about learning English, and that’s what I’ve succeeded best at in the beginner classes.

Club Dynamique had a presentation of our two sketches for the whole village, and the members amazed everyone, including me, with their style and confidence while performing. One thing that concerned me during the process of preparing the sketches was that no one was rehearsing with their entrances, exits, or movements; the rehearsals were more about repeating the lines for memorization than about having everything exactly ready to be acted out. Later, I realized that it was likely that no one had explained the process of acting, although they were very well prepared to present in front of a crowd. During one of the rehearsals when Cyril wasn’t there (I was pleased that towards the end of the summer, Cyril left me to manage the meetings by myself or with help from Théo), I gave the students instructions of when to move where. I didn’t do a very good job of explaining why it was important, and they were confused as to why I was insisting on changing the normal order of the rehearsals. But they agreed to the movements, and I think the performance turned out better because of it. The students were shining through the sketches, and the audience was roaring their enthusiasm back at the club. It was amazing to see that, despite everything I wish I had said, the students were the ones who knew best what to do. Nothing makes me want to stay here in Farendé more than the prospect of making an even better performance with the Club Dynamique after what I’ve learned this summer.

Natasha – Beginning Projects

Beginning my project with the Farendé Writers’ Society has been extremely exciting but also challenging. At the beginning of each class—which inevitably starts 30-45 minutes late, we will do a short writing activity, have a lecture on the genre we are discussing that week, and then discuss how we can use what we learned in our own writing. It is important to find sample passages for the genre we are covering each week, but it is sometimes difficult to find ones that students will understand. When I am selecting example pieces, I often feel like I am looking at a target but just hoping the arrow lands somewhere different from where we started. The first week we were working on description and read a short passage about the beach, but even though everyone knew what the coast is, not all my students could relate to all the descriptive details. As we moved to poetry this past week, a sonnet comparing the change in seasons to changes in a romantic relationship may not have been the ideal example, but we still managed a good discussion about how poetry can have different interpretations. When we studied the haiku, students enjoyed the simplicity of the examples and this prompted some good writing about nature. Although the class never goes exactly as I had planned, we are making more and more progress each time we meet.

Before each class, they turn in their journals for me to read and write comments in. This gives me the opportunity to provide individual feedback, and more importantly, to encourage each students that their writing is important. Seeing their notes and writing pieces also helps me to plan the next class. As I plan each lesson, I try to come up with material that will be challenging and useful for the older, more experienced students but still accessible to the newer ones. No matter how slowly I speak or how I try to find new ways to explain something, at least one student is usually giving me a blank stare as if I have been speaking English the whole time. The older students are also a great resource in class to help explain something in a different way to the younger ones. In their journals, the students are making good progress and writing about their lives in ways I may never otherwise get to hear about.

With some of the initial shyness and confusion behind us, students are showing more and more enthusiasm for their weekly writing projects. I have just given them cameras to take pictures of what they write about and am trying to emphasize that we plan to publish their writing. I am now working on finding new ways to teach “reading out loud” since having them read the example passages has not made much progress with the younger, quieter ones. Even though each class brings new frustrations, I am really enjoying working with these students. In each of them I see the opportunity to connect with and understand a new person.  We are now about halfway through our classes, and as I write at the end of my comments in their journals each week, I am really excited to see what they will write next.


Working in the Cyber with some students

Millicent – Blog #2

In the weeks prior to the first microfinance meeting, the other Duke Engage students and I had met with the Farendé students at the school to introduce ourselves and our projects. Sadly, no one understood my French when I told them that I was doing microfinance and would work with them to budget and finance their projects. A couple days after that we had sign-ups for our projects. Not surprisingly, a, majority of the  students signed up for computer and English classes, but microfinance  got about 13 sign ups which was an expected number. What was surprising was that a number of those who signed up for microfinance were older men in their late 20s to early 30s. This was decidedly unexpected considering I had expected to be working with youths in their teens to early twenties. When I had asked Charlie if we would fund these older men, he explained to me that it was a case to case basis and that because people were getting married later, the term ¨“youth” was being redefined.  Therefore, an older, unmarried man could technically still be considered a “youth.”

For the first meeting with the applicants I had to work through an example budget with them so that they knew how to properly fill it out. I had previously devised an example budget of my own using sulum (local beer) as the project (even though Charlie advised me to tell them that we wanted more innovative projects) the night before. However when I got to the Centre Sociale Cyril already had an example handout ready using toffee as the project which was what I ended up presenting. We ended up going through yet another example using a yam field as the project which led to a big argument over prices and valued labor. The discussion eventually led us to talking about the proper use of the loaned money. Cyril and the others had to emphasize to them that they couldn’t give the money to family members, even for dire situations such as illnesses. All in all the applicants were very inquisitive and took an active part in the discussion. The meeting ended up lasting some three hours. Towards the end, Charlie suggested that the applicants meet with us that Friday afternoon  with a rough draft of their budgets for me to look over before they handed it in that upcoming Monday.

That Friday I was unsure how many applicants would come in with their budgets in hand so I was pleasantly surprised to see that people were already at the Centre Sociale before the scheduled time. The first person Cyril and I talked to was a young girl making traditional couscous who was a former applicant from last year. She made an error that I would come to realize is quite common amongst the younger female applicants. She had failed to calculate the revenue properly so that instead of showing a profit, she showed a loss. The profits were there, it was just that she had failed to tally up everything that she would be selling. Here was where I encountered one of my bigger obstacles. It was difficult for me to understand how couscous was divided up and how many plates would be rendered from a certain number of bols.

After the girl, came the men. They were all working on essentially the same project: corn or rice. This worried me considering I was told that we wanted a number of innovative projects, and a plethora of the same project didn’t seem to me to be innovative. However, when asked why they were all doing the same project, one man explained that because they need fertilizer (which is expensive) for planting rice and corn, you wouldn’t find many people selling them at the market, which was sound reasoning. In fact for all the budgets concerning rice and corn, the applicants for the most part only asked for money for the fertilizers themselves. Naturally, I knew that we couldn’t fund all of these projects due to money constraint. The upcoming interviews will have to decide which amongst them were the most serious and should be funded.

Millicent – First Impressions

The last ten days or so since we have arrived in Togo have been more or less an adjustment period to Togo itself. Coming here from Paris has certainly been an interesting experience. All of a sudden I’m suddenly forced to assimilate to completely different environment. While the two countries may share the same language, they are as vastly different as can be. While Paris was classically beautiful in its meticulous attention to detail and Parisians aloof and for the most part unfriendly to foreigners, Farende can boast rugged and unassuming type of beauty and the locals themselves are warm and welcoming. It’s physically impossible to walk down the street without having an adult or a child (oftentimes naked) greeting you. I’ve found the greetings to be quite complicated especially when people diverge from the only greetings that I do; so I’ve developed the habit of saying yo or alafia whenever in doubt.

The pace of life here is also something that will take getting used to since for the past several months I’ve become accustomed to the fast pace of  city life: Here, life moves at a decidedly slower pace and no one is in much of a rush. This is perfectly and hilariously exemplified by the fact that people here are perpetually late for events. And while I can boast that the cultural shift won’t be as drastic for me as it might be for the other students, given that I am West African, there are certain things that will take getting used to, namely the lack of luxuries such as Wi-Fi and indoor plumbing that I have come to think are integral to my well-being, when they in fact they were nothing more than the amenities of a privileged life. Fortunately for me, I’ve been lucky enough to have electricity in my homestead chez Marie, which I think will help to make the transition that much easier.