Dear Friends of Alaffia,
It is my hope that this recap of my recent visit to Togo finds you and your family in good health. I also would like to wish you a happy new year. It has been a week now since Rose, our girls and I returned from a six-week visit with our cooperative in Togo, and I still find myself disoriented and having difficulties adjusting to speaking and writing in English…. This return has been one of the most emotionally difficult ones as well. I cannot stop seeing the faces of the disadvantaged people that I encountered and those that our efforts have touched. In the following paragraphs, I would like to share with you some highlights of the activities that Rose and I participated in during the past six weeks.
New Coconut Cooperative
We spend our first ten days in southern Togo, where we are building a new coconut cooperative and forming a collective of women to work at the new cooperative. It brought great memories to me of when I started our Sokodé shea butter cooperative eight years ago. I remember the doubt in the women’s eyes, and I saw similar uncertainty in the new coconut collective members. We believe that in the months to come, this doubt will be transformed to pride and empowerment as it has for the women of the shea butter cooperative. Our new coconut cooperative will officially open the first week of March and will provide work for over 200 women.
We then headed north to Sokodé, where we spend most of the remaining time with the shea butter cooperative and community project areas. Here are some highlights of our activities in and around Sokodé:
Additional Cooperative Members – Shea Butter Cooperative
There is not a day that goes by that there are not a dozen women waiting at our cooperative door, asking to be added to the cooperative. Every day that we walk from our house to the cooperative is emotional and frustrating for me… having women my mother’s age begging me for an opportunity at the cooperative. And every day, I have to explain that the cooperative has a recruitment process, and of all these women, the cooperative can only add what we can afford. This year, we held a registration day for women interested in joining the cooperative. This day was heartbreaking; while several hundred women came to us to express interest in joining, but we will only be able to add 47 women this year.
New Alaffia School Inauguration - Kouloumi
For the first time, Alaffia has commissioned and constructed a secondary school. We built this school in Kouloumi, a village located 40 kilometers from our cooperative. Although Kouloumi is located on a main road, and has a population of 3,000, there is no electricity or running water. While the Togo government provided Kouloumi with a secondary school director and teachers, it did not provide them with a school. Six years ago, the villagers constructed a simple building to hold the classes, but it did not have walls or a good roofing system, and when it rained, the water poured into the school, and students were often sent home. Also, because the school is on the outskirts of the village, snakes and other animals constantly entered the building, causing interruptions and making learning difficult. For the past three years, Alaffia has been providing Kouloumi with desks, and during our 2010 visit to the school, their headmaster, Mr. Ganiyou, asked for help building a school in order to reduce the dropout rate and improve the learning experience for his students. Although Alaffia had not undertaken such a large project for one village before, I replied that I would do everything I could to build Kouloumi a school. Construction began in March 2011, and was fully completed by Dec 15. The inauguration day was emotional, where the village chief, government representatives and students all expressed their joy and many words of thanks. The following are speeches from the Kouloumi headmaster and a student body representative:
December 15, 2011
Kouloumi Secondary School Inauguration Speech by Mr. Madjidou Ganiyou, Headmaster of Kouloumi Secondary School:
"It is a great honor for me to take the floor in front of this large crowd this day, to welcome you to our new school, and show you my gratitude to Alaffia for the particular attention they have paid to Kouloumi and to the education of its youth.
In fact, in the years before the creation of this school, Alaffia had already thought about how to help our students by providing school benches and books for their education. In addition, you have motivated them by offering 115 bicycles.
As said by a wise man, "A healthy mind is a healthy body." Alaffia has used this saying by providing our school with sports materials, and has also helped us to plant trees in our school compound for the mental and physical development of our youth. As if this was not sufficient, an orchard of shea trees has been planted for the future life of the school and the protection of the environment.
With a simple project of providing shelter, Alaffia has once again made learners feel at ease with a new building with four classrooms. In addition, this morning a great gift of bicycles has been added to the numerous contributions that the Kouloumi Secondary School has received.
I am wordless to express my feelings of gratitude towards Alaffia. In the name of all recipient students and the teaching staff, we promise to use this building correctly. With the blessings of the almighty, Togo's future leaders shall come from this school.
Long live Alaffia, long live Kouloumi Secondary School, long live education in Togo!
I thank you,"
Kouloumi Secondary School Inauguration Speech by Student Representative:
"We, the students of CED Kouloumi thank Alaffia very much for the new school building, which is been given to us. Alaffia, thank you. With this beautiful school building, all our problems will disappear: the cold, water in our classrooms, our feet and clothes will no longer be dirty, all things that slow down our learning will disappear. Today, Alaffia, you give us better conditions for learning. We will use this building correctly, and promise you to be successful at the end of the year. Thank you Alaffia, and long live."
New Excision Community Project - Kabou
For many years, I have lived with an unpleasant image in my mind of witnessing my older half-sister undergoing excision (female circumcision) when I was six years old. At the time I was asked to bring bowls of warm water back and forth from the kitchen to the room where the excision was taking place. Ever since, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of the pain my sister must have gone through. Fast forward to December 2010, when my youngest sister, Ibada, was finalizing her midwife studies. She was stationed at a small clinic in Kabou, about 85 kilometers from Sokodé, and told me the most difficult part of her training in Kabou was delivering babies from women who have under gone excision. The pain these women go through to birth their children is indescribable, and unfortunately, they make up the majority of women who die during childbirth. At the time of our discussion, I told Ibada that we would launch a new project aimed at aiding these women during pregnancy and childbirth and also a community education program to reduce excision all together. Last month, Ibada joined Alaffia as our new Community Projects Coordinator, and we began this project.
We spent a week getting preliminary authorization from the Togolese health officials in the region. As far as the Togo government is concerned, excision no longer occurs even though the practice is still widespread in some of Togo's nomadic communities. We obtained authorization for Alaffia to take charge of full medical care for 300 excised pregnant women during 2012. This means that Alaffia will not only pay for all medical cost if there are complications, but will also coordinate between the women and the clinic so that transportation is available to bring the women to larger hospitals if complicated surgeries are needed.
This project will be one of the most sensitive and difficult that we have ever taken on, as it is a very socially sensitive and medically challenging topic. According to Mamatou Kegbao, the Head Midwife of Kabou, 1 in every 10 women who come to her clinic for maternal care has undergone excision, but most women who have undergone this procedure do not ever come to the clinic. This compounds this issue, since it means Alaffia will have to visit their homes to encourage them to come to the clinic for care and delivery. As challenging as this will be, I believe if Alaffia truly stands for women's empowerment, then we must do everything necessary to prevent unnecessary suffering of these mothers in central Togo.
During our visit to the Kabou clinic, we also distributed some basic medical supplies, and we are planning to make another shipment to them by July. One of the most disturbing things that Ms. Kegbao brought to our attention was that the clinic has very limited surgical and birthing supplies. Therefore if there are two women giving birth at the same time, the second one may have to wait while the equipment is sterilized. Therefore, they have to make the difficult decision of losing a baby by forcing the mother to wait or risk exposing the mother and child to HIV by using unsterilized equipment. This is not a decision that no person should have to make.
Distributing Bicycles and Desks
The bikes that we shipped last fall arrived in Togo during our visit, and I spent a great deal of time clearing the container through Togolese customs. In the end, we spent over $7,000 on customs duties and fees, a.k.a. bribery, despite the fact that they are intended for students free of charge to aid with their education. After the bikes were cleared and arrived in Sokodé, Rose and I participated in bicycle distributions in four villages. The village of Kpalafoulassi stood out as it is a struggling community made up of subsistence farmers. The nearest secondary school is 7 km from Kpalafoulassi, and high school students (above grade 11) must go 17 km. Regardless of these difficulties, Kpalafoulassi manages to send an impressive number of students to higher grades.
Furthermore, while Kpalafoulassi does have a primary school, it only has three classrooms for its six classes. And, since the Togo government pays for only two teachers, the villagers pay for a third "volunteer" teacher. This volunteer teacher, Mr. Planane Djannou, was being paid only $11 a month to teach two grades. Since this is obviously not a living wage, Mr. Djannou had to supplement his income by farming – even during the school year. As part of our education projects, Alaffia has decided to sponsor this teacher by paying his full salary, $76 each month, for one year. In return, M. Djannou will devote his whole time to teaching.
In recognition of Alaffia’s assistance to their school, the school officials and students spoke words of thanks. I have included an excerpt of the speech given by the student’s representative (shown in the picture below):
"We thank you and welcome you to our village. People like you are necessary for the harmonious integration of children like us into our communities. We did not choose to live here under these conditions, and we thank you for giving us a chance to be like children living elsewhere who have all the assets to succeed in their studies.
Once again, thank you.
Your children of Kpalafoulassi."
Community Project Goals & Pledges for 2012
- Plant 8,000 trees
- Collect, ship and distribute 500 bicycles
- Prenatal care for 600 women and their babies
- Construct a high school
It is very sad for me to see conditions worsening for poor people worldwide each year. Even in Togo, we see increasing environmental degradation, economic dominance by only a few people, political elitism, and increasing population. I often ask myself if I can do enough. But after seeing the few lives that our efforts touch, I feel even stronger that the fight for social and economic justice for all disadvantaged people must continue at all costs. It is a struggle that your support will make feasible in the end. I am forever humble and grateful to be able to give my life to such a cause, as the only way for my children and their children to have peaceful lives on this earth is to care about human life today.
Once again, thank you and have a peaceful 2012,