Back to School

Last week was the first week of school here in Togo. Lucky for me I live right across from the large public elementary and middle schools in town, so I get a nice early wake up call of thousands of screaming children every morning right outside my door. Now I don’t really mind all of the kids, or even all of the noise they make on their way to and from school. Actually, I think I’ve mentioned a few times before that most of the time I’d rather hang out with them than other adults because it’s much easier to communicate with them. I’ve realized that I can make best friends with a group of little kids in my village in like 5 minutes. A smile, some high fives, teach ‘em how to fist pump, poorly attempt to play soccer with them, before I know it I’ve got an entourage of little kids running behind me chanting my name and I’ve only said like 5 words. I wish that were the case for my work here. Walk into a micro-finance office, toss around a few high fives, fist pump the secretary, pick the director up from his desk chair and spin him around a few times till he gets dizzy, make a couple stupid faces and the clients, and bam, I’m done for the day.

I think I’ve also mentioned before how the little kids like to chant the ‘Yovo’ song when they first see me. It gets annoying sometimes, but most of the kids in my neighborhood know my name by now so instead of Yovo they chant James (it’s much easier for the people here to pronounce and remember than Connor), although the kids pronounce it JA-ME-SA, and chant it in the same melody as the Yovo song. I’m pretty proud of myself for this, it probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, but you’ve got to take any little victory you can get. Now, throw in about a thousand new kids, who’ve never seen me before, and I get fiercely yanked right back to square one. Times 50.

I’m serious, I don’t even dare to leave my house when they’re out there. My house conveniently sits right smack in between the school yards and about eighty percent of the population, which means that 4 times a day (they go home at about noon for a little siesta), every weekday, theres a flood of children stampeding past my house. I walk out my door and its like Jeter just stepped up to bat in game 7 at Fenway. I feel like someone put my face up on the big screen, signaling the entire crowd to start chanting. Just instead of ‘Jeter Sucks!’ it’s ‘Yovo Yovo!’. One of them sees me and starts it and it just spreads like wildfire.

It’s not that these little kids are trying to be mean at all, its just most of them have probably seen a grand total of 5 white people in their entire life. And it’s that whole group mentality thing, individually they’re very nice and respectful, but when you get 50 of them together walking past a big red bearded yovo, its open season. I can understand it, I mean they’re just kids, but it’s still takes a fair amount of courage to get up and face that gauntlet 6 to 12 year olds eager to enthusiastically point out the fact that yes, I am in fact the one and only white person in the entire village.

Luckily my counterpart is the director of the middle school, so yesterday we decided that it would be a good idea to introduce me to the students and let them know that I would probably be sitting in on a few classes and maybe even starting an English club after school. Which would be a great opportunity to put a dent in the whole yovo thing. Another volunteer who has already been here for a year, was visiting me that day as well to see what I’ve been working on so far and give me some advice about things and answer any questions I might have, so she came with me to the school that morning. Having another American around to be able to speak English with and relate to is always nice, the fact that she speaks fluent French made it all the better.

So we get to the school just before they’re about to start for the day. Similar to saying the Pledge of Allegiance in front of the flag before school in The States, they all gather round the flag pole in the middle of the school yard and sing the national anthem as one of the older students raises the flag. All of them are in somewhat matching kaki uniforms lined up in neat even rows by year and class, standing in a large circle around the flagpole, being attentive and quiet (as quiet as you could expect any group of a thousand excited kids to be at 7 in the morning).

After the national anthem is finished, my counterpart gives a little talk about the day’s schedule makes a few announcements and then proceeds to the introduction of myself and the other volunteer Tamara. Now, if you’ve read the post about the welcoming ceremony for when I first got to village, you already know that my counterpart likes to give me quite grandiose introductions. He really out did himself this time though. Heres a little recap of the introduction and events that followed:

“Today we have 2 very special guests with us from The United States of America.”

Seems to be getting off to a fairly normal start.

“This is Monsieur James, and Madame Moselle Tamara”

Just James works for me usually but okay, I like it.

“Who knows who the president of the United States of America is?”

A handful of kids raise their hands. The rest are clearly being shy because Obama is absolutely everywhere here. T-shirts, backpacks, underwear(yes I did buy a pair), painted onto bush taxis, giant sacs of rice, there’s even a store in my village called ‘Obama Shop’(the guy sells african soccer jerseys, don’t ask me what that has to do with Obama). Theres no way any of them don’t know who the president of the US is.

After a particularly bold young boy responded quite proudly, my counterpart continued his introductions.

“Well they are like Obama’s brother and sister.”

Ummm….Okay. Not reealy. I’m not quite sure where you’re going with this one now, but okay.

“They are like the president of the United States of America.”

Whoa man. Talk about excessive expectations. Shit dude, You’re really building us up here huh? You’re out doing yourself this time aren’t ya?

“Monsieur James is going to teach an English club so that you can learn English and then go to America one day.”

We’ve talked maybe twice before this about the possibility of me maybe having an English club a few days after school. But by all means man, bring on the high expectations. He continued on in a similar fashion for about ten more minutes. I couldn’t quite pick up everything he said but based on the expressions on Tamara’s face at certain points in the little speech, it wasn’t difficult to get the idea that he wasn’t quite getting any more modest with his projected expectations.

Remembering how he threw me out in front of the highly esteemed crowd of important community members, chiefs, and the prefet, to give an impromptu ‘speech’ upon my arrival at post, I figured he’d have me say at least a few words to the kids here at the school. Anticipating this I threw together a few quick sentences in my head while he was giving his introduction. Nothing special, just ‘Good morning, how are you, thanks for having me, I’m excited to be able to work with you in the future.’ Simple stuff that at this point, after a few months in village, I’m fairly confident in saying in French. I’m not too worried about it, it’s little kids, their french isn’t that great anyway so I figure I can get away with a few grammatical mistakes and make it out alive.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I get through the first two lines, a few little whispers between the kids, maybe a giggle or two. Okay, don’t worry about it, they’re kids, what do you expect? Just keep going. I get halfway through saying thank you for having me here, and the whispers grow to low voices, giggles turn to a few scattered laughs. I raise my voice to continue further. “I’m looking forward to…” Remember when I mentioned wildfire before? Yeah, well picture a christmas tree that hasn’t been watered for about a month and has been sitting in a warm cozy living room next to the fireplace getting nice and dry. Now put a spark from a bad extension cord right under it. Like in one of those fire safety videos where they show how a christmas tree can be completely engulfed in flames in like 2.4 seconds. Yeah. It was like that.

Those little whispers and that giggle turned into full blown yelling and roaring laughter faster than i could even realize what was happening. There were literally kids covering their ears with both hands at the sound of my attempt at speaking French. If I thought leaving my house before was like walking into a gauntlet, this was a fucking gladiatorial colosseum filled with the roaring cheers of bloodthirsty crowds watching me get mauled by hungry lions.

After about a minute of the teachers yelling and blowing whistles for them to be quiet, the crowd once again returned to a few scattered whispers and giggles. I looked over at my counterpart and smiled.

“You can continue now if you’d like” he says to me. The edges of his lips slightly curled up, while trying to hold back a smile.

“Nope, I think that’ll just about do it for me” I said with a grin on my face. “I think Tamara can take it from here”

Now don’t get me wrong, I was fucking mortified at first. I felt like I was in that dream where you’re in grade school and you look down and realize you somehow forget to put cloths on that morning on and the entire school is staring and laughing and pointing at you in the middle of the cafeteria.

The feeling only lasted a few seconds though. I realized that I’m constantly saying how you’ve got to find the humor in some of the more ridiculous and difficult parts of life here. And I think this definitely qualified as one of those times. I’m standing there in front of a group of probably a thousand antsy, energetic little kids, who’ve just been told that I’m like President Barak Obama, and that I might be one of their teachers soon. On top of that, the only white people that they ever see are French, and therefore have impeccable grammar and accents. And all of their teachers have fairly good french accents as well. So when I open my mouth and they hear this strange terrible accent scattered with grammatical mistakes, coming from someone who they’ve just been given such high expectations of, they think it’s hysterical. And I can’t blame them, I agree, the entire situation is pretty damned ridiculous.

If you cant laugh at yourself sometimes, I think you’re going to have a pretty tough time no matter where you are.

As I said before, these kids aren’t trying to be mean, they’re not being malicious or trying to make fun of me. They just get a kick out of it. And let me tell you something, I’ve never had kids in village show me so much respect than after that whole fiasco. I try to time my trips to the market now for when the kids are walking to and from school. Everywhere I go now the kids give me a little bow or curtsey (its a sign of respect here to slightly bow to someone, especially your elders, when you greet them), and call me Monsieur or Monsieur James. They might have thought that my accent was funny and strange, but in the end they certainly got the point of the whole introduction and the director’s speech, and despite my initial concerns, the little mishap did not completely kill my chances of being taken seriously by them(Although I’m sure not too seriously). So as shitty as situations here can sometimes seem, you just have to find a way to laugh and look at the bright side of it all.

 

On a side note, As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve reformatted the whole blog page and added pictures and whatnot. Theres some links on the right side to some other Togo Volunteers’ blogs if you want to get some different perspectives. Theres also little “Sign me up!” button, if you want to get a little email notification anytime I put up a new post. I hope you’re enjoying the posts so far, and feel free to leave comments, It’s always nice to get some feedback and hear what people think back home.

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Malaria

 

            It blows. Theres nothing funny about it. At all. Theres no, “Well at least its an experience”, or “ That’ll be a story for the grandkids”. You don’t think, “Oh man this kindasucks, It’d be nice if I felt better”. It’s fucking miserable. And thats it.

            About a week ago I was wrenched out of a nice, sound, comfortable sleep while staying at the work station in my regional capital, with a feeling in my stomach telling me that I was going to shit my pants and throw up at the same time while that little creature from Alien was trying to claw and push it’s way out through my abdomen. And it came out of nowhere. No, not the Alien, the pain. The entire day before I felt great, I had cooked all of my own meals, and eaten no street food or questionable snacks throughout the day. So food poisoning I figured, was pretty much out of the question. About 3 hours later I had a fever of 101 and had already paid homage to the porcelain thrown about dozen times.

            Now I haven’t been in Africa for that long, but it doesn’t take long to realize that you’re going to quickly have to learn to live with being a little sick most of the time. Diarrhea, mild headaches, upset stomach, occasional dehydration, bug bites, sunburn, (I know, its like we’ve got our own personal Pepto Bismol song), they’ve all just become part of life here. Nothing serious, just minor inconveniences that are part of your normal daily routine.

            This time though, I could tell was different. So with a little help and encouragement from Jake, a fellow PCV who happened to be around, I picked up the phone and called the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer). He told me to keep an eye on my temperature and go to the local hospital and get a rapid malaria test. So I figured, ok, how bad can it be? A little prick in the finger and I’m done. So I grab my moto helmet and head for the door, but of course Jake had some words of encouragement to send me on my way. “Good luck man, just don’t let them stick any needles in you. If they’re not properly trained they could miss and hit a nerve and paralyze your arm or something.” Oh great. Thanks Jake, now I feel much better about this whole going to a hospital in the middle of fucking nowhere Africa thing.

            So I’m on the back of the moto on the way to the Hospital. I’m not feeling too woozy, I’ve got my helmet strapped on tight, and I’ve told the driver to drive carefully. We get to the hospital and I have to admit, I’m quite pleasantly surprised. I was greeted by a gate guard who pointed me in the direction of the building I was looking for, and there was even a little map of the hospital ‘campus’ to help guide me there. It seemed to be quite a well organized and developed hospital. I would imagine, in part, because it was in the regional capital. Maybe I shouldn’t be so nervous after all. Except for one, tiny, little, minute detail. They just happened to be out of rapid malaria tests. Great. Grand. Wonderful.

            At this point I feel my stomach start to rumble again, so I take a deep breath and calmly ask the doctor where the closest disponsaire (local doctor’s office) is who would have a rapid malaria test on hand. I don’t know the area that well, so I have the doctor give the directions directly to the moto driver. He seems to know the place already, so after another deep breath to try to keep the headache in check, and a quick prayer for my bowels to cooperate, I hop onto the back of the moto again. The road away from the hospital is long and steep, and paved with stones. Smooth is not quite the first word that comes to mind when driving down it. Now I’ve been out on this little journey for about 30 minutes at this point. Having to use the little boys room a dozen times in the past 3 hours, you do the math and connect the dots. Lets just say bumps are really not helping my situation.

            We get out onto the main paved road, and I think it’s smooth sailing from here. we’re heading in the direction of a small disponsaire I’ve passed by a few times before, and it’s right on the main paved road, so I naturally assume that’ll be the one we’re heading to. I even read the sign and it had the same name I remember the doctor telling me earlier. I was able to read it as we flew right past it on the moto. I point to the building and yell over the wind and the engine at the driver as we drive by it, but he says no, thats not the right building, they have another office down the road a few k. Frustrated, and not sure if this guy is just fucking with me to get me to pay for a longer moto ride, I take another deep breath and try to relax. About a kilometer further down the road we turn off onto a smaller dirt road, and then onto a series of other smaller trails. At this point I’m thinking to myself “What the fuck dude, where the hell are you bringing me?”

            Aided by the rising fever and slight deliriousness, my mind starts running through worst case scenarios. Is this guy driving me out to the middle of nowhere to rob me? I’ve got no money man, theres nothing for you to steal. He was on the phone speaking local language to someone else right as I was getting on. Did he tell his buddies to get ready cause he just found some white guy hes going to drive over there so they can steal all of his shit? Does this guy even know where the hell he’s going? Is he lost? What the hell are we doing, and where the fuck are we going?

            Now of course all of these thoughts and crazy ideas running through my pounding, delusional head at this point are completely unwarranted and ridiculous. The worst thing a driver will ever do to you is try to charge you an extra 50 francs for a 100 franc moto ride. Overall they seem to be pretty trustworthy guys and they usually seem to know where they’re going. But of course my mind is devising all sorts of insane scenarios for why we’re driving through the bush on these tiny little trails, to get to a ‘hospital’ thats supposed to be able to treat me for malaria.

            Lets stop beating around the bush with innuendos and little metaphors about the other underlying situation though. I’m literally about to shit my pants at this point. Every single little bump we drive over is pushing whatever deathly concoction is in my stomach down closer to the end of my bowels. I’m physically clinching my asscheeks so hard that I’m about to get a muscle cramp, and that little creature from Alien trying to push his way out of my abdomen is being a real relentless little fucker. And the guy driving the moto seems to be taking his sweet time, showing me the scenic rout, like I asked him for a damned safari trip on the way to the hospital.

            Miraculously, to my complete surprise and relief, we eventually came to a clearing in the bush and like a mirage in the middle of the desert, there was a fairly legitimate looking disponsaire standing right there in front of me.  Luckily, although the waiting room had its fair share of crying babies and random sleeping people, I was seen fairly quickly. They poked my finger with a little needle and put a drop of blood into the little plastic testing strip. The test they said, would be ready in 10 minutes. So 20 minutes later I’m sitting there watching 4 different people stare at the little plastic strip like they were reading hieroglyphics. Seriously? Shouldn’t it just be like a little plus or minus sign. A little smiley face, or a little frowny face? I felt like it was a commercial for a birth control test, showing how difficult all of the other tests are to read (In their defense, when I talked to the PCMO she said that the tests aren’t quite black and white). But apparently the hieroglyphic symbol on the test was successfully translated into positive. I had the Malaria. It was official. Africa-1 Connor-0.

            So after strongly refusing to let the doctors there give me any treatment or stick me with any needles (thanks for that probably unnecessary paranoia Jake), insisting that I would be off to Lome, the Capital, that night to see the PCMO, I bid them adieu, thanked them, and headed back to the workstation/house. At this point my fever was getting worse and I was concentrating a majority of my physical and mental effort that I had left on not shitting myself right there in front of them. This left only a very small portion of my cognitive ability to dip into my already tiny French vocabulary and attempt to form those sentences, so I highly doubt that I actually said anything comprehensible to them.

            I know what you’re thinking, why not just go to the bathroom while I was at the hospital? When I say hospital, it is far from the picture you have in your head of a normal, shiny, polished, new hospital in the states. And the state of the majority of the ‘bathrooms’ here is less than passible. Lets put it this way, I’d rather take my chances in the gauntlet of hills, bumps, and potholes on the back of a moto on my way back to the house than risk whatever might be considered the ‘bathroom’ at the jungle hospital. Thinking back on it now, they probably had a perfectly decent bathroom, but like I said, I wasn’t quite thinking clearly at that point.

            So after a particularly miserable trip back to the house, which I won’t bore you with the details of, other than to say that the fortress held strong and no walls were breached, I began taking the pills for the malaria that we all have in our med kits for emergency situations like this. My fever had crawled up to 103 and pretty much all other symptoms had been amplified accordingly. After speaking with the PCMO again we decided that it would be best for me to come down to the office in Lome to get further treatment and do a few more tests to make sure I was going to be ok. I had just packed up my bag when one of the PC program directors came in to drop something off on his way to Lome.

            This had to be some sort of malaria miracle because the absolute last thing I wanted to do at that point was to take another moto out to the road and get jam packed into a bush taxi to take a long miserable bumpy ride down to Lome squished in with twenty five other people. As shitty as I felt in the spacious air conditioned back seat of the new Peace Corps Land Cruiser on the way down to Lome, I don’t even want to imagine how bad it would have been sitting in a bush taxi with malaria for that trip. Now I get carsick half the time when I’m at home in the States on nice smooth paved roads, so pretty much any drive here in togo leaves me feeling a bit queasy if not downright ill. This trip was no different. You know that feeling right before you’re about to throw up where your mouth starts salivating uncontrollably? Yeah I probably swallowed about a litre of saliva. I must have sounded like Darth Vader sitting in the back seat, jaw clenched shut, breathing long heavy breaths only through my nose. Its not that I couldn’t ask the driver to pull over because I was going to be sick. I surprisingly knew how to say that in French, and this guy even spoke English. No, it was the fear, or maybe just flat out knowledge, that if I threw up, there was no way I was going to be able to continue clenching my asscheeks together to hold it from coming out the other end at the same time(Sorry for being so descriptive, but if you’ve gotten to this point and you’re offended, its really your fault for not stopping earlier). It would have been bad. So I just sat there, drifting in and out of consciousness and delirium, praying to got that I’d make it to Lome without throwing up, shitting myself, or both.

            All things considered, we made it down to the Med Unit incident free. It was late by the time we arrived so the PCMOs said they’d wait to see me in the morning and let me rest for the night. Finally I might be able to get a little relief from the discomfort and get some sleep.

            Now, I know that I’ve mentioned before how the malaria prophylaxis has a tendency to make people slightly hallucinate, or at the very least, will give you some crazy and vivid dreams.

            Sorry, I guess I should clarify a few things first: Malaria prophylaxis is the weekly pills they give us as a preventative measure against malaria, thats the one called Mefloquin, or Meph for short. Thats the one that can mess with your head and gives you really vivid dreams. The medicine for the malaria is called Coartem, and thats what you take if you get malaria. That medicine has no side effects that I know of other than fighting off malaria and its symptoms.

            So at this point I’m on both. Yes I know, you’re right, it doesn’t make sense. How could I get malaria while taking the prophylaxis? Apparently there are rare cases when you can get it even while taking the pills. They told us this when we first got here, at the same time they told us that if we were caught not taking our malaria pills, we’d immediately get sent home. When I heard that I just assumed that the reason for the rare statistics of people getting malaria while they were on the prophylaxis was due to people lying about taking it out of fear of getting sent home when they ended up getting malaria. I was certainly proved wrong.

            The funny thing about malaria is that the combination of dehydration, fever, dizziness, and massive headache, as I’ve mentioned earlier, leaves you in an already slightly delusional state. Combine that with the normal side effects of the Mephloquin I had just taken 2 days before and you get a freaky fucked up field day of dreams/nightmares to deal with for the night. Remember when I said that it felt like the creature from Alien was trying to burst out of my stomach that day. Yeeeeaah, he definitely managed to succeed on multiple occasions that night. I would say that it scared the shit out of me, but I think that phrase could be taken a bit too literally in this context. The entire night I laid in bed half cold, half sweating, drifting in and out of consciousness. You know those nights when you wake up and you’re not quite sure if you’re still dreaming? And describing whats going on in your head is completely out of the question because you can’t even begin to make sense of it yourself? Yeah, it was kind of like that but times about 50. There was something in there about Jack Bauer. I think I was Jack, and my malaria ridden body was somehow a giant bomb that was about to explode, or like 5 different bombs, and each one was a symptom. And I couldn’t defuse any of them. And the little alien was bursting out of Jack’s stomach at one point. I don’t really know, I told you it wouldn’t make sense. The entire night was also scattered with frequent, semi-conscious, still kind of dreaming, trips to the bathroom, which made it all the more fun.

            At some point in the Jack Bauer self destructive death spiral I must have actually fallen asleep because I woke up the next morning felling at least somewhat better. And I was introduced to the heaven that is the Peace Corps Med Unit. I’m serious, this place was like a 5 star hotel. Maybe not for you, but compared to the modest living conditions of a PCV, this place is like the Four Seasons. Air conditioning, hot running water, a bathtub, electricity, internet. And Rose. Rose is the amazing woman in the office who takes care of you and cooks for you if you get sick and have to stay in the med unit. And she’s an amazing cook. I walked into the office one afternoon and she asked me if I liked mashed potatoes and roasted chicken. I almost grabbed her and gave her a big hug right then and there.

            The rest is fairly boring. I felt crappy for a few more days, although nowhere near the way I felt that first day and night. Overall a had a fairly speedy recovery, and after a few more tests by the doctor and a few seasons of Modern Family and Parks & Rec to keep me occupied and amused, they released me back into the wild that is Peace Corps service in Togo.