Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Togo
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There is a regular weekly Express Mail Service (EMS) between the Peace Corps Office in Lomé and several mail points throughout Togo for Volunteers. Besides EMS, Volunteers in some cities have their own post office boxes, individually, or as a group.
During your pre-service training and throughout your service you may receive letters and packages at the following address:
PCT / PCV “your name”
Corps de la Paix
Togo has a good communications system compared to neighboring countries. A telephone system links all the regional and district capitals, and these lines are fairly reliable (except during the rainy season when breakdowns do happen). The telephone systems in Lomé and within other urban areas are reliable, and there is work in progress to double the capacity of these systems.
Peace Corps Volunteers can easily communicate via telephone with their families. This does not mean that you will have a telephone available at your site, but all regional capitals offer good phone service to the U.S. Phone continues to improve as more and more “cabines” set up shop throughout the country. Volunteers generally arrange in advance to receive phone calls from people in the United States, which makes it much less expensive than calling the United States from Togo. Volunteers are not permitted to make personal calls from the Peace Corps office in Lomé, but they may receive calls there. Collect calls, or calls to 1-800 numbers, cannot be made from Togo to the United States. There is a five-hour time difference between Togo and the U.S. East Coast (four during Daylight Savings Time).
Cell phone reception is expanding through Togo and most Volunteers end up buying cell phones while serving in Togo. However, owning a cell phone is not required by Peace Corps and can sometimes be expensive on a Volunteer allowance. Furthermore, there is no guarantee of cell phone reception at individual Volunteer sites.
There are fax lines linking Togo with other countries all over the world. Lomé has most of the fax capability, but some regional capitals have fax lines as well.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Internet service providers operate in Togo and Internet cafés are becoming more readily available all over the country. Internet phone availability provides a cheaper option than landlines. Internet connections may be slow and prices vary.
Housing and Site Location
Volunteers in Togo are provided housing as part of the community’s contribution to their work. Most Togo Volunteers live in villages in a two or three-room house, most likely in a compound with a Togolese family. Some Volunteer houses have tin roofs; a few have straw roofs. It is unlikely that you will have running water or electricity although they are more common in larger city posts. Water sources in villages can be traditional wells, bore-holes equipped with pumps, cisterns, and natural water sources—in some cases, rivers. Whatever your source of drinking water, you will have to treat it before use.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer, you receive a monthly living allowance sufficient to live at a modest level in your community. You will also receive a settling-in allowance to defray the initial costs of setting up a household. Both allowances are paid in local currency. The living allowance is deposited into Volunteers’ bank accounts on a quarterly basis, which means that you have to manage your money well to avoid running out before the end of the quarter. Many Volunteers’ bank accounts are in one of the five regional capitals, which means that you will normally take at least one trip to the regional capital each month. It is inadvisable to keep large sums of money at home.
Food and Diet
Your diet will consist of locally grown foods or a combination of local and imported tinned foods. A typical Togolese meal is a carbohydrate base (rice, yams, pâte (boiled corn meal or flour) or fufu (pounded white yams), accompanied by a variety of hot, spicy sauces. Rice and beans, usually eaten at breakfast, is another common meal. Meat is available throughout Togo but it is expensive; fresh fish is only available in larger towns.
Fruits and vegetables are seasonal, occasionally making it difficult for vegetarians to adhere to a sound diet, especially in the more remote areas. Sme Volunteers plant vegetable gardens to supplement their diet. If not, you can find most of your food in the nearest cities or weekly markets. Smaller villages often provide only basic food supplies. You may need to travel to larger towns for vegetables and specific items, especially during dry season.
Togo’s main national highway runs the length of the country. Most of the road is in good condition, but some parts are in poor repair. There are several other sections of paved road, some in good condition, others not. Most of the local roads in Togo are sand or dirt—very dusty in the dry season, very muddy in the rainy season.
When traveling around the country, you will use varying types of transportation. Lomé has many private taxis. Taxis also travel frequently between Lomé and the larger towns in the interior. This taxi travel tends to be fairly irregular and uncomfortable, but always interesting. You will be given an all-terrain bicycle and helmet for your transportation needs at your site. Failure to wear a helmet can result in administrative separation from the Peace Corps.
Use of motorcycles by Peace Corps Volunteers is generally prohibited. However, there is a new transportation policy in Togo, allowing a few specific Volunteers in isolated posts to ride as passengers on motorcycles while traveling to their sites. These Volunteers must wear motorcycle helmets, provided by Peace Corps. More details on this policy will be provided upon arrival in Togo.
Distance from the villages to the prefectoral and regional capitals could be anywhere from 10 to 60 kilometers. While some Volunteers like biking these distances, others prefer taking local public transportation, such as bush taxis, to the nearest mail point, bank, or shopping location. There is a regular weekly Express Mail Service (EMS) between Lomé and several mail points throughout Togo for Volunteers. Besides EMS, Volunteers in some cities have their own post office boxes, individually, or as a group.
The bottom line, and unfortunately the reality of life in Togo, is that travel is inherently more risky here than what one would experience using public transportation in the United States. Peace Corps Volunteers find that their bikes are sufficient for most work-related travel. In addition, Volunteers are clustered so that most are within a bike ride of another Volunteer. It is usually necessary, however, to use local transport (e.g., bush taxis) when traveling long distances. By and large, the vehicles (usually mini-buses or Toyota station wagons) are old and poorly maintained, and it is unlikely that many of the drivers will win safe-driving awards anytime soon!
Peace Corps/Togo provides a shuttle bus service, the Lomé Limo, that runs from the north of the country to the capital and back once a month. Peace Corps encourages Volunteers to limit transport via bush taxi. When it is necessary to use bush taxis, you are encouraged to select what appears to be the safest vehicle available and to go with drivers whose driving habits are known and reasonable. When you find yourself in what you consider an unsafe situation (e.g., a driver traveling too fast despite having been asked to slow down), you should demand to be let out of the vehicle immediately. The best strategy, however, is to minimize travel via public transport and to avoid all nighttime travel.
Geography and Climate
Togo is a small country on the West African Coast. Only 50 kilometers wide in sections, it stretches 600 kilometers inland from the Gulf of Guinea to the savanna of Burkina Faso in the north. Situated between Ghana to the west and Benin to the east, it is roughly the size of West Virginia. Togo supports a diverse population of nearly 5 million and has more than 40 ethnic groups and languages.
Togo’s geography is mainly savanna-like, although some areas in the center of the country are fairly hilly. The rainy season lasts from June to September in the North and from May to October in the South. The rest of the year is dry and dominated by dry harmattan winds coming off the Sahara. Temperatures range from the seventies and eighties in the south, to the eighties and nineties in the north. In the months before the rains, the temperatures can be higher, reaching the low hundreds in the north.
Togolese are extremely social, and most social activities center around community events. Various ceremonies and fêtes are held throughout the year and Volunteer attendance is always well appreciated. In addition, Volunteers get together on different occasions, even if it is just for a regional meeting. Your social life will be as busy as you care to make it.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Togolese, like people everywhere, will make judgments about you in terms of how you act and how you dress. Dress in the West African context is a sign of respect and professionalism – one shows respect for colleagues by how they dress. While appropriate dress and behavior will be discussed during pre-service training, you will also take your cues from your colleagues once you are at your site. Togolese business attire—at least outside Lomé—tends to be more casual than in the United States. You will find, however, that your Togolese counterparts are invariably well groomed and wear pressed, clean clothing. Tight, form-fitting clothing for women or clothing exposing the stomach, back, or shoulders is almost never appropriate. The same is true for shorts for both men and women during professional meetings, be they in your village or in the regional capital.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be over-emphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although many Volunteers complete their 2 years of service without personal safety problems. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Togo. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
What is considered a challenge or a reward varies from person to person, but certainly you will find yourself having to adapt to a different perception of time and productivity. Female Volunteers will have to deal with the reality that Togo is very much a patriarchal society, meaning that men are generally accorded more power and respect than women simply because of their gender. You may spend a lot of the time being totally baffled as to why things are turning out as they are.
The potential rewards, however, far outweigh any challenges. You will almost inevitably find yourself part of a close-knit community unlike anything you have experienced in America. You will receive the satisfaction of being able to share your good fortune with those less fortunate and knowing that you are participating in the most pressing development issues that Togo faces: including the fight against HIV/AIDS and poverty. By the end of your 2 years of service, you will find that you have grown immeasurably and have become a citizen of the world.