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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

One Step at a Time

Africa, Togo


We each have our own idea of what's right and what's wrong. We each judge for ourselves whether something is good or bad, fun or boring, worthwhile or pointless. There are some things, though, that many Americans pretty much agree on, such as: When you're sick, you go to the doctor; when you need money, you go to work; and if you don't know the answer, ask—or look it up. I have learned, however, through my experience living in West Africa that the beliefs I have held since growing up as a child in the United States are not necessarily held everywhere else. Beliefs vary from culture to culture. Sometimes you need to look through the eyes of others to comprehend what's going on.

Here in Togo, in West Africa, I've been put in charge of a project to improve the health conditions of a village called Blitta-Gare. I was trained to bring villagers together to help them analyze their problems, look at their resources, and come up with effective ideas for solving the problems as a community. So here I am, with my opinions and ideas, wondering why there are so many obstacles.

To begin with, I've learned that I have to find the right starting point. Everyone told me that all things here begin at the home of the chief. If there are problems or issues within the village, one must go to the door of this quiet old man and tell him your ideas and plans.

Second, there are well-established ways of getting out the word about anything. Whereas meetings or important health alerts in the United States are communicated through newspapers or local television, here in Togo they are passed on by gongoliers, or town criers. The gongolier is a man with a strong voice and a noisemaker who walks through the streets of the village and announces the news. GONG. There will be a soccer match tomorrow afternoon between the high school seniors and freshmen. GONG. The American says if you don't wash your hands before eating you can get sick. GONG. This ends the news. But whereas everyone will show up for the soccer match, the same people will fall sick every year having contracted diseases as a result of poor sanitation.

In fact, there is a functioning hospital here. The medical assistants ride motorbikes out to neighboring villages to give vaccinations to the children. Mothers come in every Thursday to weigh their babies and ask the nurses questions. Yet a person might wait to come in until he or she is hours from death because of malaria, hoping it will go away. I needed to find out why.

What I found was that all of these starting places? The chief, the town crier, the hospital were little more than just that: starting places. It comes down partly to a problem of resources; the chief's time is greatly limited and his resources are scarce. At the end of the day, the week, the month, little has actually been accomplished as a result of my discussions with him. As to health, the people now wash their hands, but the only water there is to wash with is absolutely filthy. And people can't go to the hospital until it's absolutely necessary, because if they did they wouldn't be out in their fields and their family wouldn't eat.

To respond to the problems in my village, I have to step into the shoes of those who have lived here their entire lives, which often means having no shoes at all. If I may assume another role for a moment ...

I am a Togolese father. I have a family of 12, including three wives and eight children. I have three wives because to have only one wife is to be laughed at. I have eight children because each one shows how strong I am, and I expect to have more. Two of my wives are pregnant again. There is no work; at least none for a man without an education. I left school at the age of nine to help my father in the fields. I can get a sum of money perhaps twice a year, once when I harvest the corn and once when I harvest the yams. Money for school fees and food comes from my wives, who earn a small income preparing and selling food at the market.

If my children get sick, I cannot take them to the hospital. The doctors will tell me to buy medicine, which would mean the rest of us could not eat. I will take them instead to the traditional healer, whom I can pay with a bag of corn or a bottle of homemade wine. It is true that often the traditional healer does not help the sick person, who sometimes becomes worse. But it is all I can do. When more money comes, perhaps we can visit the doctor.

When one of my wives is ready to give birth, she will have the baby at the house. Her sister learned as a child how to deliver babies, and she will come from the next village. If there is a complication, we will go to the hospital, but only if one of them is going to die. If they die, we will sell all of the corn and have a grand funeral. All of the family will come, and they also will bring small amounts of money. If I respect the dead in this way, many will respect me when I am dead also.

The stranger with the light skin tells me to boil my water and run it through a cloth before drinking it. He does not understand that there are no pots for boiling near the river where I keep my fields. And I drink from my hands, so how would I run the water through a cloth? He tells me to wash my plates with soap, but he does not give me the soap. Where shall I find this money? Stranger, your face is kind but your thoughts are not prudent. Your ideas are little better than a fool's ramblings.

... And now I'm back to myself again. The American. The Peace Corps Volunteer. I realize that I can't resolve problems with a wave of my hand and a few magic words of instruction. In fact, it will take years and years, but each generation will come to address health issues better than the one before it.

About the Author

Fred Koehler

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo from 2002-2004, Fred Koehler worked in Community Development and AIDS prevention.

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