Malcolm – Blog #2

The project that I chose to do was teaching computer classes at the cyber café in Farendé.  The main reason I chose it was because I was worried about my French, and I assumed that I could teach a decent amount non-verbally.  Also, I liked it because the skill of using a computer is incredibly useful, making that choice for my program pretty fulfilling.

At the first meeting for all the kids who wanted to sign up for our projects, the computer classes were the most popular, as we had expected it would be.  With the list of about 45 kids, I tried to divide them into three classes based on age.  But then at the second meeting, the interest meeting for the computer classes, only about 20 of them came.  I was a little disappointed that more didn’t show up, but it was fine.  Fidèle, our site coordinator, helped me split them into four groups, Beginner 1, Beginner 2, Intermediate, and Advanced.  Each class had a reasonable amount of kids and I was satisfied.  I ended by introducing myself, saying that I was this year’s “informatique” teacher.  I made sure to say I had been using a computer for ten years (made up number) so they knew I knew what I was doing, even if I didn’t know French very well.

The first week or so I spent just shadowing Mary Elizabeth, a Duke student who had run the DukeEngage computer classes back in 2014 and now had returned for her gap year.  She gave me some tips and advice and through watching her I was able to learn what the kids struggled with and what they picked up easily.

None of the classes in the first week were successes, except for the fact that they were learning experiences.  At the beginning I was struggling because I didn’t know exactly what to teach and hadn’t yet developed my teaching style.  Since then I’ve realized that even though my personality type is quiet and reserved, that personality just won’t cut it in the classroom.  The kids need someone with energy so they can get excited about what they’re learning.  They also need someone who’s able to engage them.

After a couple of weeks, I started to hit my stride.  I stopped having to making lesson plans and instead just came in with two or three new things I wanted to teach.  The general pattern is always Review, Learn Something New, Exercise, Review.  And then the hour is up.  I can’t say I know most of the kids’ names, but I do know how to make them laugh and smile and participate in class.  I’ve very glad I decided to pick the computer classes because I definitely think it was the best fit.

Malcolm – First Impressions

First Impressions

PRE-VILLAGE: Before we left for Farendé, we all spent a couple of days in Lomé just looking around and preparing for what was to come.  Looking back, I’m glad we started there instead of the village because I wouldn’t have been ready otherwise.  It was a pretty new experience since I’ve never been outside of the United States.

The first thing I had to get used to was the heat.  That first night in Lomé I tried sleeping without the air conditioning on in an effort to prepare myself for what the village would be like.  In the end, I decided to just sleep with the AC on, since I didn’t feel like waking up in a pool of sweat.

FOOD: The only traditional Togolese food we’ve had so far is fufu.  Charlie said it’s best if you don’t chew it.  Instead just dip it in the sauce and then swallow it whole.  My American throat certainly wasn’t ready for that and I don’t think it ever will be.  But the taste was pretty good.  Once we got to Farendé, though, my host mother only served rice and pasta for the first two weeks.  Honestly, I was perfectly fine with that.

INTERNET: Before we left, Charlie told us we’d have internet here once a week.  He definitely used the term “internet” liberally.  At the very least, the internet here has taught me how to be patient.  Incredibly patient.

ELECTRICITY: I’m honestly fine without having electricity in my homestead, but it’s a little weird at night.  Now there’s a time of day when I can’t see anymore.  I feel like I sound dumb right now but trust me, it’s weird.

CHILDREN: All of the children in my homestead just stare at me.  Then again, so do all the people here.  I’ve never really been someone who likes children, so I don’t know how I’ll deal with the six kids I’ll be living with for the next 6 weeks.

FRENCH: I’m definitely the worst one at speaking French in the program, but that doesn’t really bother me.  Usually when people speak to me I nod and smile, unless it’s a simple question that I know how to answer.  I had downloaded some French-learning apps on my phone before I left, but now I realize they need internet.  So instead all I have is my French-English dictionary, which I’ve started studying.

BEER: I had been worried that I wouldn’t like the sorghum beer here but luckily I do.  The first time I tried it I thought it tasted a bit like grapefruit.  The people here are cool with drinking it at any time of day, so I’ve gotten a little too used to accepting beer that some old guy offered me out of his own cup at 10:00 am.

OVERALL: Other than the heat and being covered in sweat most of the time, most of the experience has been good so far.  I’m trying to get used to the flies and being outside all the time.  I’ve never considered myself to be the outdoorsy type.  Every night I dream about killing that rooster outside my door, and every morning when it wakes me up at 4:00 am I stand up and seriously consider it.  But other than that, all is well.

Colleen – Beginnings of Work

After hearing from Charlie that Cyril, the Action Sociale volunteer in Farendé, is placed in charge of organizing sketches against child trafficking, I tried to meet with Cyril as soon as possible. Cyril and his assistant, Théo, told me about the Club Dynamique, a club of local teenagers who work on social justice projects in 17 national categories. Once a year, the Club Dynamique performs sketches on these issues in a soirée, and they last performed a set of sketches in January, including one against “Traite des Enfants”, the approved term for the local practice of child trafficking. Cyril was willing to add another soirée with the Club Dynamique for me to participate in, and let me choose two of the 17 themes to make into sketches. I was amazed at the frankness, honesty, and professionalism shown by both Théo and Cyril, and right away we began discussing the causes and consequences of the issues we were going to talk about. I chose Traite des Enfants and Harcèlement Sexuel: child trafficking and sexual harassment.

Knowing that the students had all performed before, I was eager to attempt using devised theater, a form of collaborative theater I had recently been exposed to, and leading the students to create pieces that would elicit an emotional response to the themes without necessarily using words. I had attempted to explain this to Cyril, but I didn’t communicate very well, and the next time we met, he came in with a typed-up copy of a sketch on Traite des Enfants and asked me to bring a story about Harcèlement Sexuel that we could turn into a sketch. I soon learned that since we were operating in French, which is the students’ second language, simply reading the words on the paper is hard, and that my abilities in French were barely adequate to explain some simple theater games, let alone lead an entire collaboration process! I was put in charge of writing the Harcèlement Sexuel sketch, and right away Cyril edited and printed it to give to the students.

Club Dynamique always begins with some theater games, continues with a discussion of what we were about to do and why, works on repeating the sketches, and concludes with more song-based games. Nervous as I was speaking French at first, I loved teaching new games and learning the old ones. I taught a couple of concentration-based games called “Yes” and “Clap around the Circle”, which we still play at our meetings. We spend the majority of our meetings repeating the sketches over and over, to work on memorization. There seems to be a set routine to rehearsing a sketch within the Club Dynamique, and there’s always resistance when I try to interrupt that routine—for example, by trying to give the actors movements before they’ve memorized the sketch. I’m still trying to find the balance between respecting the routine and introducing new methods to try to make the performance better.

My second project is to teach English classes at the cyber, which was the idea of our site coordinator, Fidel. At first, it was difficult to figure out what exactly I was supposed to teach. Fidel was interested in preparing students for the TOEFL, an English test for international students who want to go to American universities, but so few of the students are going to be able to come to American universities that I couldn’t just teach a TOEFL-prep course. However, most of the students are taking English classes in school, so starting-from-scratch won’t work. Eventually, I found out from the students that they were interested in being able to understand and be understood by American-English speakers, as they learn Ghanaian English in school. I also talked with Jessica, a Peace Corps volunteer who teaches English in a school in Tchikawa, to learn what vocabulary I could teach that is not in the curriculum in school.

It took us a long time to get the English classes going, since they are held on Fridays, and we set the interest meeting after our first Friday had already passed. Then, no one was showing up to the advanced and intermediate classes on Monday mornings: firstly, I was told it was because they were at school picking up their cahiers; then, it was because of the rain; finally, I was told that all of the advanced and intermediate students will be busy almost every morning working in the fields. So, I combined the advanced and intermediate classes and moved them to Friday afternoons, after the beginner English classes and the writer’s society. So far, we’ve gone over greetings and introductions with the beginners, working on the American pronunciations and going over school and activity vocabulary. It’s been very helpful to break the sounds down as much as I can, sometimes making the students laugh with a long “RRRR” sound or making them show me their tongues when they say “th”. Hopefully, these practices will help to get over the beginners’ shyness and encourage them to speak more in class.

Sam – 2nd Blog Post

I’ve been working on two separate projects during my time here: the first being the Kuwdé Health Insurance System project and the second Charlie’s Kabré Oral History Archive project. This blog post is meant to provide a brief update on how those projects are going, so here goes.

The health insurance work began with the inputting of patient data for the past year into Excel, which Jackie and I completed in the first couple of weeks. The next phase has been an interview process with different heads of families. Some of the interviewees are in our system, some used to be, and still there are others who’ve never had health insurance before. The goal of these interviews is both to encourage families to buy insurance and to get feedback. As expected, we’ve received immensely kind responses and little constructive criticism. Most answer each question by praising the insurance system and explaining their understandings of how it’s deeply valuable to their families and community. Interviewees that dropped out of the system or who have never been in it almost always tell us that they very much wish they could have insurance, but they simply don’t have the means. Still, others have speculated that many families are worried that if they buy insurance, then they won’t get sick, or at least not enough to benefit from it. And this is very understandable, as many families can’t afford to lose any money at all—there are little means here to “minimize risk”. But, as a solution, we implemented a new policy that says that if a family never visits the Case de Santé during the duration of their insurance, it will roll-over to the next year free of charge. In reality, this policy will only apply to one insured family this year and implies no loss at all to the CDS. But even so, people are thrilled when informed of this change, as, I suppose, it directly addresses their primary concerns. Anyway, I have very much enjoyed working on this project, I’ve learned a lot, and hope the rest of our work goes just as well. I’ll also add that Jackie has done fantastic work, as she is really the head of this project. Though she’s had to teach me how to use excel above a third grade level and how to use a PC in general, she’s done very great work, and is in the process of statistically analyzing and organizing broader insurance data to best ensure its maintenance going forward.

The oral history archive project is also going well. The goal of this project is to collect various Kabré oral traditions—folktales and fables, songs, and proverbs—and both record and transcribe them in text so as to preserve them forever. Indeed, many Kabré today can’t recall any traditional stories or proverbs, and so the hope is that by creating an archive of such oral histories, that Kabré can continue to learn and pass down and learn their vibrant tradition of storytelling.

Many afternoons after working at the Case de Santé, I hike down to Farendé to meet with Jesper, Charlie’s linguist friend who is the brains behind this project. Together, we’ve collected stories, songs, and proverbs, and have begun to translate and transcribe them. On one hand, this work is rather challenging, as the stories are typically told to me either in Kabré or in a French that is directly translated from Kabré and are thus very difficult for me to understand. Often, I don’t understand the majority of a tale until Jesper and I have written it all down and analyzed it together. But still, it’s very cool to spend many afternoons interviewing village elders who very happily recount for me their stories. And even though on the surface these stories are more or less for children, these elders have such an intensely animated, joyful way of storytelling. Charlie and I interviewed my host father, Santi—an older, very conservative traditionalist, and rather stoic a person—who, when telling his stories for us, would burst into fits of laughter at the animal voices he put on for each of his characters. Without a doubt, the best part of the project is the happiness that is so evident in people’s dispositions when they share these oral pastimes with me. But, Jesper and I have much work to finish before our group leaves the villages in just over two weeks, and so I hope to be very productive and have a smooth, continually great end to my time here.


View from the top of Kuwde, ft. Jackie


Grant – 2nd Blog Post

I came to DukeEngage Togo thinking that I would be primarily working on creating a baobab nut shelling machine. Baobab nuts are a common food here that are high in protein and relatively easy to cultivate. Unfortunately, this type of nut has an incredibly hard shell. This is problematic because in order to crack the nuts and harvest the fruit inside, women must boil the nuts in a huge cauldron for two hours, wait for the nuts to cool overnight, and then crack them with their teeth which, over time, greatly chips and damages the teeth. Thus, the process is both greatly time consuming and physically damaging to the women. So, the idea was that we build some sort of shelling machine that would save the women’s time, teeth, and allow them produce more nuts to bring to market.

But a major hurdle has been that the Full Belly Project—the NGO that created the initial design for this machine—never responded to my many attempts to contact them about getting the mold to finish the machine.  So, I arrived in Togo with the open source plans for the hand crank and the metal frame, but nothing in the way of molds for the essential concrete components that would actually crack the nuts open.  Another stumbling block is that the design, while called “the Universal Nut Sheller”, really isn’t at all universal. It was designed by the NGO specifically for peanuts. But, since the google searches I did beforehand showed no evidence of baobab nut cracking machines in existence, we decided that we might be able to modify this machine to work.

Problem is, with no baobab nuts at my disposal in the US, we had no idea if this machine would work on this specific nut. I’ve since learned that Baobab nuts are small and hard, have little to no gap between the shell and the nut, and are impossible to shell by hand. Peanut shells, however, are relatively brittle and separate from the nut, and as anyone who’s been to a baseball game can attest, they’re pretty easy to shell by hand.

So, after arriving and settling into my routine in Kuwde, I stared working on this problem. Over the past 4 weeks, I drove all over northern Togo with Paketam—one of Charlie’s assistants and a skilled mechanic—to track down all of the parts and get them welded together. First, we assembled the entire metal frame and crank as specified by the Full Belly Project plans, and we were even able to come up with a mold design that may work. But, casting the concrete ran into a few issues: Our outer mold set for too long so the concrete stuck and we still can’t get it out; the inner mold slid out easily, but because the molds were hand bent sheet metal, the dimensions were off and there are some gaps. But, despite all those issues, there have been some initial successes. The first handful of nuts that we tested had some partial shelling, meaning that the machine is at least somewhat working. Thus, the goal for the rest of my time here is to figure out how to turn this partial shelling into a complete one without damaging the nut inside.

But the nut-sheller isn’t the only project I’ve been working on.  I scouted out the local elementary school for a solar panel installation, figuring out what parts of the roof get the best sunlight and making an estimate of the power demand.  At the behest of Charlie, I looked into setting up a Wifi relay to get connection to the aforementioned school.  The technology exists to bounce signal miles away, so with the help of Sam and Jackie, I scouted out the best location to build the relay.   While neither of those builds will happen during my time here, I’m excited to be laying the foundation for future construction that will make a major difference for students one day.


A work in progress…

Jackie’s 2nd Blog Post

The last four weeks have been phenomenal! It’s hard to believe that we’re already through half the program – it makes me rather emotional just thinking about it – but at the same time I feel like I’ve lived in Kuwde for a long, long time. I wake up early in the morning and look forward to the refreshing bucket shower, to my Milo+oatmeal breakfast and the perfect temperature of a Lao morning. Sam, Grant and I have gotten quite skilled at finding perfectly shaped and shaded rocks during hot afternoons. I can navigate my way around the homestead at every time of day. I’ve even won a few games of ‘cinq-cinq’, the local, adrenaline-packed card game that involves throwing cards down with ‘beaucoup de force’. I’ve found Pringles (Salt & Vinegar, too!), peanut butter and Nutella-like cookies in Kara but at the same time I’m starting to really enjoy the food by Bea back home. My Kabiye, the local language, has improved, and after a lot of self-doubt I’ve come to embrace French-Kabiye by saying “bon soir” even at 11 in the morning if necessary. Sometimes, while sitting on a rock and looking out at the savanna woodland, I suddenly remember that I am in fact in Togo, West Africa, and I never fail to be incredibly amazed by everything we’re seeing and learning.

Kara Wednesdays: Eating at Le Chateau!

At the mean time, Sam and I have made good progress with our work at the Case de Sante! After recording all the data of transactions at the clinic during the past year, we (or rather, Excel) have done the math to calculate savings of the insured families, earnings of the CDS and how much families that were not insured would have saved if they were. Backtracking slightly, Duke students have initiated a community heath insurance at the small clinic here in Kuwde, where the income of the employees at the clinic are subsidized by a third party and the insurance reduces the economic risk and total cost of the basic but crucial medical treatment that the clinic provides. We’re in the middle of conducting more interviews to both inform families of the benefit of  insurance, and also to learn from them methods to improve the system for the community. The work has been challenging (how many ways are there to write the same Kabiye names in French?) and immensely rewarding personally.

Natasha-First Impression

Our first day in Farendé, Malcolm, Colleen, and I were wandering around the village trying to find our way back to our houses when we decided to stop in a boutique to buy some cold drinks. Already we were exhausted from the day and lost because all the houses looked the same. Since there were several Fanta posters, we asked for one bottle of Fanta and one bottle of water to share. After explaining this several times, we instead received two bottles of Yuki (a local pop brand) and having just arrived and not knowing how to handle the situation, we drank them anyway while trying to figure out what the source confusion was.

To echo Colleens post, arriving in Togo has been to say one thing and receive a completely different response than expected. People start saying “bon soir” to you at 10 am in the morning. When I try to compliment someone they usually laugh in my face. If you ask a question the way you learned in French class, you probably won’t get the answer you want. Stating the obvious is often part of a conversation. My host family thinks I sleep too much because I don’t have the motivation to get out of bed at 5 am even when the sun has already woken me up. Once I was doing some hand washing, and my host mother Justine was concerned because she thought I could only wash clothes using a machine. These are just a few examples of how, even when you know you will have to relearn how to do the most basic things, it is still even more confusing when it is happening.

Although the confusing moments can be frustrating or awkward, it helps to talk with the other Farendé students about the new things we learn each day. I was especially lucky when I first arrived that Mary Elizabeth, a former Duke Engage Togo student who returned to Farendé during her gap year, was living in my homestead. We spent many nights talking about how things are different here, both with amusement and amazement at what is to be discovered each day. Every day I am learning something new and adjusting what I do and say so I am better understood. Now that our initial impression has begun to mold into better understanding the culture, I am expecting each day to learn something new. I now know people in those houses that once looked the same—or at the very least know when to expect that children will run out to hold my hands when I pass by. I figured out that I could make people laugh—rather than at me—by pointing out other things I can do without a machine. And today, at 9am, someone pointed out to me that I said, “bon soir.”


M.E. and I, hiking up to Kuwde




Colleen – First Impressions

“My house is right there, next to here. See those trees? That’s my house.”

“Oh cool. That means we’re neighbors”

He looks at the children to get them to translate.

“She said she wants to see your house”

So I ended up following a strange man to his house as dusk was approaching (I came right back afterwards). It’s exactly those kinds of misunderstandings that I wasn’t prepared for when I said I was looking forward to cultural exchange. Language and cultural differences mean that even when speaking French in Farendé, the confusion persists; we’re all translating our maternal languages into French, so there are still differences in the actual parole we speak. But I’m learning confusion isn’t a bad thing; the other Duke students will laugh together at the times when Malcolm and I thought we were going for drinks instead of for fish, when we answer “are you married” with “I’m going to the market”. These everyday misunderstandings bring me to the greater topic of difference I’ve been noticing so far during our time in Togo.

The first thing that struck me in Lomé was difference. Not only are the architecture, the streets, the moto drivers, and the food very different from what I’ve experienced before, but the people seem to demonstrate vast differences between themselves. There are people wearing suits, people wearing ornate patterned cloth, and people wearing turbans. There are mosques, churches, cyber cafes, boutiques, street food, and political advertisements (all in favor of the main party, UNIR) almost everywhere you look in Lomé. People speak Ewe, French, Ghanaian English, and sometimes German or Kabiye. Even the bugs and plants are different from anything I’ve seen! Still, life in Farendé includes even more difference from the tentative routine we had in Lomé.

I never before noticed the inherent beauty of a village: Kuwdé, the village on the mountain, has gorgeous views, while Farendé’s beauty is in its bustling village life. I’m starting to learn the names and relations of the people I see most frequently; my host mom, Reine, has many relatives who want me to remember them on the streets. I was relieved to discover that I liked the sulum—the sorghum beer everyone drinks here—and am learning which days which homesteads sell it. And the activity in the homesteads is incredible: at any given time, someone is preparing a meal, cleaning, or getting water. It’s amazing to watch how the homesteads are the product of women’s labor: they control almost all of the activity there, and they have to work around the clock to make the homesteads really a home—for all kinds of animals, too. The hours of entertainment I get from watching the ducks, pigs, goats, and dogs are laughable, and they show just how much of a city girl I am. The need to get used to a different mindsight sets in when I remember that they’re all potential food. That’s just another part of cultural exchange.

Grant – First Impressions

We first arrived in Togo at Gnassingbé Eyadema International airport at about 17h00 where Charlie was waiting for everyone to arrive. We quickly moved in to the apartment where we spent the first 3 days and had our first meal as a group in the capital. The first few days were a blur as the group had our brief adjustment period in Lomé before heading north. The trip north was mostly uneventful, though we passed by tons of buses and trucks, loaded to towering heights and that seemed like they would flip over at any second, but none did. We made it safely to the north, stopping in Kara (Togo’s second largest city) for a nice lunch. Then we pressed on in a rented Toyota Camry across bumpy roads that line many newly tilled fields, until we arrived at the villages where we’d be living for the next 7 weeks. The cars dropped us off at the foot of the mountain on top of which Kuwdé is located, and so we then hiked up the motorcycle path until we finally made it to our village. Once the entire group arrived, a group of village elders and leaders gathered to sacrifice a chicken, thus marking our arrival and symbolizing good faith and luck in the work we would do in their village this summer. The first night staying with my host family felt somewhat strange, as I didn’t know them at all, yet I knew I’d be spending almost 2 months living and eating with them. Fortunately, my entire host family has proven to be really amazing! They are exceptionally patient while teaching me Kabiyé (the local language) and in answering all of the questions that I ask them. Bahim, my host father, even took me to his fields this past week, to answer all of the questions that I’ve had about cultivating. While very different than I ever expected, my initial DukeEngage experience has been even better than I anticipated.

Jackie – First Impressions

The days in Lome flew by with delicious food, intense markets and struggling French. But we’ve been so excited to leave for the village, and life in Kuwde has been so lovely. I live in Lao, which is the mountain in the mountains, and it’s about a 10 minute walk from the others in Kuwde. The first night was full of confusion – after hiking up in the dark with Natasha and Basile, my host father, and taking a quick bucket shower in the dark, we fell asleep quickly in my pitch black room (it’s as dark with your eyes open as your eyes closed).

I don’t think I can say this enough – Kuwde is so beautiful!! There are so many tiny baby goats, little baby guinea fowls that look a little bizzare, and my homestead alone has 5 new puppies. The view outside is stunning, and I could see many of the other villages around the mountains. During the first few days, I was slightly thrown off, nervous, because I found it hard to communicate with many of the villagers who could not speak French, but learning Kabiye became the best way to bond with my family (and many other villagers, who find it hilarious when I try to speak Kabiye) and a rewarding personal goal. I’m still getting used to the food, but my host mother Bea made this one delicious meal of fried bean cakes with a really spicy sauce that I haven’t stopped thinking about. Everyday has been filled with many small, funny, awkward, eye-widening and unforgettable moments that I’ll hope to write more about someday. Two weeks now in Kuwde with Sam and Grant, and with our projects taking off and daily schedules becoming more comfortable, I look forward to more adventures and progress to come.