April 11, 2010

Thank You letter (snail mailed too)

February 4, 2010
At the hospital, Christmas Eve 2009

At the hospital, Christmas Eve 2009

January 31, 2010

Dear  Friends and Family:

Thank you for your incredible generosity and open heartedness in your support of Justine’s operation.  I am attaching the blog post from early December that I posted as a thank you to all of you.

Justine finally had her surgery on December 21, 2009.  She left village on Saturday the 19th and spent the weekend at the hospital, along with a group of six other women from around the country that were all scheduled to receive the same operation on the 21st.  Very quickly the women bonded together and became a tightknit support group, praying with each other, encouraging the others, swapping stories, looking after each other.   Justine was the first woman to have the surgery, early Monday morning.

On Monday morning I myself arrived at the hospital, in Afagnan , about 80km from the capital city of Lomé.   I accompanied Justine’s mother, “Dada” (the local language for Mama) who at the last minute also insisted on coming along.  Cecile, Justine’s 18-year-old sister in her last year of high school in Lomé, had arrived in village on Sunday on her school Christmas vacation and agreed to go with Justine over the weekend.  Cecile was a saint throughout the whole process, and ended up staying almost the entire stay with Justine, sleeping on the floor beside her bed and tending to her needs while sacrificing her valuable and short school vacation.

Justine’s surgery was reported to have gone well, and I stayed the whole day in Afagnan.  Because it was an intrusive procedure, she was in a lot of pain and hazy from medications, but the doctors assured me that she was quite ‘normal’ and on track with her recovery.

I returned to the hospital on Thursday, Christmas Eve, and all the women who had the surgery remembered me and were excited to take Christmas photos with me (I brought a Santa Claus hat just to make them laugh) and while everyone was still in pain, they were at least able to walk around.

Justine was very lucky and was allowed to leave the hospital on Saturday, one week after being admitted.  (There had been a good chance she would not come back before I returned to the USA.)  She returned to village and was able to say goodbye to me when I left village for good on Monday morning.

Justine had a follow-up doctors’ appointment in mid-January, and I telephoned to see how it went.  Her internal organs are still healing and she is in a lot of pain, and is not even allowed to use her sewing machine for at least two more months.  She has a third follow-up appointment in about three weeks, and I will check on her progress again at this time.   Her spirits remain high, and she made sure to remind me to “Tell your friends I said hi!”

Thank you once again for your unbelievable support and touching donations.  Justine and Simon were incredibly surprised and grateful for your help.  Ever since they learned that this surgery really was going to be possible, they haven’t ceased to mention their wonder and their appreciation for the kindness of strangers.  When I left Togo, they gave me a letter for my friends and family, and I am attaching a photocopy (with a rough translation!) for you all.  They have always remained humble and thankful, and we all send you our sincere thanks.

Anna Harrison

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Togo 2007-2009

Simon and Justine's letter

December 27, 2009

To our beloved friends and family of Anna :
We, Justine and Simon, ask you to accept our sincere thanks to everyone (Anna’s friends and sisters) who showed us their love and sent us their help during our moment of difficulty with Justine’s illness in sending us money for medical care.  We thank all her sisters and friends who became benefactors, not forgetting our sister and friend Rebecca.  May God reward you as you deserve!  We wish you an overwhelming thank you and may God bless you !
Justine and Simon

Update on Justine’s Surgery

December 16, 2009

Update on Justine’s surgery

Went to hospital in Afagnan, Simon and I and Vialley (who we asked to come stay at the hospital with Justine since Simon and I are not free to do so) waited for SIX HOURS , then Justine got handed a piece of paper and was told that she needed to go to Lome and BUY BLOOD at the blood bank and bring it herself back to Afagnan before Friday, then she herself will come back on Saturday and the surgery is scheduled for Monday.

“You know in AMERICA normal hospitals have their own blood on stock,” I hissed at the hospital personnel.   “What are we supposed to do now?  Ma yi asime, ma ple blood ? »  (I’m going to the market and I’m going to buy blood )    « This is the fishiest thing I’ve ever heard.  Afagnan is so far away and we spent so much money to come here today and now you want us to come back again? Fiafitowo.  Ma no fia.   Miapkoda.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t insult the doctors,” whispered Justine.

“Well, seriously, they couldn’t have told us this before?  You could have just come by yourself today and Vialley and I would have come next week when the surgery and now we’re all just going back to village now?  It’s so anticlimatic.  Look , I even made you a get well package with coloring books and French books and Uno and playing cards…”

So now… don’t even know if she and Vialley will be back from the hospital before I leave Togo!!!  Justine is in Lome now searching for the blood and has found it and is in Afagnan now, don’t know if she has left yet after successfully depositing it.    I’m frustrated because of the day we wasted yesterday and of the change in dates and also because I don’t know if I will free to go again to Afagnan…


(“Well,” I said later to Justine, who was very discouraged, “the good thing is I was here cause I’m not sure I would have believed you if I was in the States and you called me to tell me you needed to buy your own blood.”)

This is the last time I will be in Lome (i hope!!) before I leave village for good on the 28th.   I will leave village early on the 28th, and complete formalities with Peace Corps on the 28th and 29th.

New phone number…

Surgery Scheduled

December 10, 2009

Justine’s surgery is (tentatively) scheduled for the 15th, in Afagnanyan which is 2 hours on a moto, several hours by taxi , away.   She will probably be there 5 -7 days before coming home.

Odds and Ends…

November 24, 2009

Simon and Justine’s Thanks   (seconded by me)

I cannot write too much about the day I told Justine about the money.  Even thinking about this day reminds me too much of the emotion in her eyes and this is a delicate memory on which I cannot dwell too much.    The following lines must suffice:

“Justine!  We found the money!  More than enough!  It’s going to be OK…”

She sat without moving.  For a split instant I thought she had turned to stone.  We stared at each other for a while.

After a few moments she said with difficulty : “Je ne peux que dire merci.  Merci plus que le mot meme.  Merci ne suffit pas. » I only have my thanks and even my thanks cannot be enough.

“Justine, they all helped!  In two days! Isn’t that amazing?”

She nodded slowly and whispered: “What have I done to deserve such a gift? Where did this kindness come from? How wonderful people are! Merci mille fois.” Thank you a thousand times over.

Then, a few days later Simon called me into the house to talk to me privately.   Playing reflectively with a pen in his hands, he paused a moment, cleared his throat, and began:

“A few days ago you gave us some incredible news that has made my head spin and has profoundly touched my heart.  If, up to now, I or we have not expressed our thanks sufficiently, it is because I could not even comprehend at the moment what you were saying.  That I could not even dare to hope that what you were saying was true.

“What you have done for us, we can never repay you.  What you have done for us, not everyone would have done.   Not even someone in the family would necessary show the love you have shown towards us.   I ran into a friend the other day and told him briefly that your friends and family in America have all helped us.  He looked at me astounded and asked what did Iever do for you that you should give us such a miracle.  He said, too, and rightly so, that a fellow country man would never give money sight-unseen for a problem that does not concern him directly.    That you and your fellow Americans have shown us the generosity that we should all learn from, that we should show compassion to all of our brothers and sisters.

“I have known you for two years and I know your personality, that you hate to ask for favors.  But I also know you have taken our ‘problem of Justine’ very personally, that you were always thinking about it and that you were truly distressed by it.  And I am touched and overwhelmed by the depths of your feelings towards us, who have never been able to afford to give you anything, who have barely done anything for you.  So I know you hate to ask for favors, and I believe you when you say you did not ask your friends and family and Rebecca for this gift of money, and for that too I must thank them for their love that they showed you by giving without being asked.  But I also must thank you because you were the intermediary between them and us, like the Virgin Mary in Heaven.

“What I want to say to your friends and family is : What you all have done is love as God intended us to show towards our fellow man, one of the highest accomplishments of humanity, an inspiration in times of terrible sins and darkness, a light for us to follow in your examples of love towards your sister and love towards the people of Togo who have loved your sister.

“To have been burdened with the news of this problem, and to know there was no solution, was difficult.  And then to hear, suddenly, that the problem has been solved… I cannot describe the weight it lifted off my heart.   God is great and you  are all His angels.

“You all have given us something we can never repay.  To even say ‘thank you’ seems insulting because it cannot express the depths of our gratitude.  Thank you a thousand times. I can never cease to thank you my whole life, and even that will never be enough times. May God bless you.”


Music Project:

I am recording my church choir with my camera and then I am capturing the music with a program on my computer to make audio files so I can always have the music I have listened to for two years.  It is not the best quality but my camera sucks so that’s probably why.   I have already done 11 songs but then the batteries on my camera died.  I’m listening to the music right now on my iPod!

The only thing is it gives me chills just listening to it because I can hear all my friends’ individual voices and I know the first time I listen to it after leaving Togo will be very very difficult.   Just listening to Michel and Justine singing makes me sad already, like watching a video of someone who is already dead

I hope to finish this music project in the next couple weeks . For an impartial observer, the choir isn’t even that good, particularly if you’re not used to Togolese a capella singing (can sound tinny or off-key), but I know all these songs by heart after so many Masses and fetes .  Justine could not believe how many songs I kept humming to her so she could write down their names – over 25…)


Zidane et Meninha

The puppies are growing up fast much to everyone’s surprise and delight, and many random people have commented on how healthy and robust they are.  Probably because they get 2 meals a day (we even make pate just for them if there are no leftovers) and are showered with affection and attention.  I am learning many things about dogs that I didn’t even know I didn’t know !  (However, in the States, I think I’d like to adopt an adult dog and not a puppy.)   From 6am to about 8am there is a reign of terror as they joyfully greet us after a prolonged absence (they sleep outside) and run about excited about life.   This is also when they destroyed my iPod headphones, and they regularly hide my flipflops in different corners of the yard.  After this time frame, they conk out, or Justine will take them with her to her workshop (I don’t like to leave them alone locked up in my yard all day).  If I see that they are restless in the afternoon I will take them for a stroll.  Being rather social they follow me faithfully and are very responsive to voice commands (they do not use leashes). Except they can make me extremely nervous cause they don’t get out of the way when motocycles pass and I’m terrified they are going to cause an accident one day.   They are surprisingly smart and know what “Get out of the house!” “Go over there!” “Stop” and “Ok you can come in but stay by the door” means, although this must be from the tone of our voices since these commands are alternatively said in English, French, and Ewe, even by me  Again, being very social, at night they may cry, but at least they have each other and soon settle down, especially if I’ve tired them out by going for a walk.      Michel and Clement are gleefully counting down the days till the puppies are big enough to take hunting.   Since they are growing quickly, they are saying that November 15 is the Big Day.    (The bad part is that the chief is mortally afraid of dogs and hates my puppies who bark and want to greet him with wagging tails but since he’s afraid he thinks they are threatening him and he has already hit them once with a flashlight and so now they growl at him which just makes the problem worse… Unfortunately it looks like he might be installing his mistress in our compound so that means he will be often in my compound so hopefully the dogs just learn to leave him alone, but it’s a hard situation.)


“Work” and COS

I am slowly trying to wind down “work” projects in village in order to start preparing myself for the idea I’m leaving and to have enough time to do all the “one last time” things I want to do.   Last week was my last session at the collège as well as the Catholic primary school.  I am slowly phasing out my obligations at the other, my favorite, primary school, and as for the other two primary schools I never really started work there this school year aside from a computer training for 20 teachers a few weeks ago.


The only “work” that I think I will continue right till the very end is my meetings every Tuesday with the Catholic women’s group in order to practice conversational French.  Their growing motivation and pride and self-confidence is truly inspirational.  Even when I’m not there they will review the previous week’s lesson by themselves, and husbands have come up to me in the market to tell me : “Did you know that my wife is always trying to speak French to me now? She’s constantly practicing the new phrases you’ve taught them.”    Once when my program director came to visit us, she asked them “What will you do when Anna is not here?”  and they replied “We will keep on looking for a way to teach ourselves.  She has planted a seed that we will never let die.”  And another woman said : “I never used to come on time.  But then I saw how much Anna loves us, how everything she does for us comes from love.  And I saw how what she is teaching will also stay with us forever.  Now I come to the meetings, because I know that if she cares this much , it must be important.”


Over a month ago I walked 25 kilometers to Vogan and back with Michel (the result of a long-standing argument that I couldn’t accomplish this task); a lovely day but my big toe nail rebelled against walking such a distance in closed toe shoes (I wore my running shoes) and after hurting severely for a few days, suddenly turned black, and continues to turn various shades of either white , green, or black  (but no pain)….. Friends have started to gleefully remark “Maybe it will fall off soon.”  Anyway, I’m keeping an eye on its fascinating progress…


My COS date is December 29.  I will leave village on the 28th.  My flight leaves early morning of the 30th (the night of the 29th), and I will spend a few days in France in the Burgundy region until January 4, and then I will fly to Florida arriving January 5.  All very exciting!!



Vialle:  A Mystery in Four Parts



Over a year ago I asked Viallé:  “Do you have a boyfriend?”

She hesitated a split second and then shook her head No.  We were at Justine’s atelier sitting on her porch.  Behind us, we could hear the whirring of the sewing machine.

I shrugged and left it at that, not thinking anything of it. Later she came to my house.

“What I said at my house – it wasn’t true.  I just didn’t want to talk about it front of Justine. Yes – there is a guy.  We’ve known each other forever.  He is in Lomé at the University.  But sometimes he phones me, or he might come back here for Christmas vacation.”

“That’s great but I don’t understand , why can’t we talk about this in front of  Justine?”

“Because – because she doesn’t like him.  She doesn’t think to think of us together.”

“Why doesn’t she like him?”

Viallé shrugged.  “I don’t know.  She just doesn’t. She just doesn’t like people that come from Apegnigbe.”

“But Simon comes from Apegnigbe.”

“She just says he comes from Apegnigbe.  She just doesn’t like him.”




After my return from the States, Viallé approached me again.  “Do you remember –once we talked about a boy?”

Yes, I remember.

“He – he telephoned me to say ca ne peut pas marcher. It just isn’t working. That I should find someone else.”  And pain crossed her face.   “If he doesn’t reconsider – how can I ever bear it?”

I awkwardly offered the standard post-breakup comforts and condolences.  But she wasn’t done.

“He said that Justine went to his family and said that they must tell him to break it off with me.  She threatened them.  She said if they did not pressure him to end it with me, she would leave her husband.”

“But why?”

“She just doesn’t like him!” Viallé insisted.

“Viallé, I really think you should talk this over with her… Maybe ask her if it’s true… I’m sure there’s an explanation…”

Viallé shook her head stubbornly.  “She’ll just insult me or yell at me.”

And she didn’t say it, but I saw the thoughts cross her mind: I’ll never forgive her.

I wrote about this on my blog at the time, but knew that it was a matter in which I should not try to embroil myself.



Many months later, I was curled up crosslegged on Justine’s armchair in her house, during a rainstorm that had caused a hasty entrance into her front room.  We were chatting amicably, and dancing around the subject of relationships.  I saw my chance.  “Doesn’t Kokoutsé have a girlfriend?” I said casually.  Justine said no, he hadn’t shown any interest in any one particular girl as far as she knew. Then I said even more casually: “And Viallé?”

Justine pressed her lips together scornfully and said “No!”  And then she hesitated. “Tu sais – it’s true there was a boy.  She wanted to be with this boy from Apegnigbe [like a suburb of my village]. But it was not good!”

“Why not?”

“Simon also comes from this quartier.  I’m already married to Simon.  It would be like marrying her brother if she marries someone who is connected to Simon.  In our culture we do not do this.  Two women cannot marry two brothers.”

And then she admitted it without shame: “I myself went to the boy’s family and told them that if they do not break it off, I would leave Simon and move back to my family’s house.  Viallé knows that what she is doing is not good.”  I did not say anything.  I did not even judge one side or the other, or ask why their stories differed.  Only I stored it away in my mind, and I thought the matter finished.




But there was more to the story.    A constantly evolving web of details and new information that shifts the tale, that brings new light and new reflections.  Many more months later, the tale continues to emerge, after a year and a half.

“Michel,” I asked as we started our walk to Vogan, “why does Viallé not seem to be very open towards her family, and especially towards Justine?”

“Why do you ask me that?”

“Well – Viallé went to Lomé for two weeks to try to pass a government exam and she didn’t even tell Justine why she went to Lomé.  I know Justine is hurt that Viallé doesn’t confide in her. It’s like there’s always tension between them.”

He sighed a little pensively.  “Moi aussi je vois ce que tu vois.  Between Justine and Viallé there is little love lost.  Viallé has often been like that towards her family, c’est son caractere d’etre un peu cachée. She herself has chosen which members of her family she will favor and love, and the others she ignores.  But between her and Justine is the worst. ….You know, there was something, perhaps, that has caused this divide.  There was a boy…”

“Oh I’m glad!” I interrupted.  “I have heard a little of this story but since Viallé told me in confidence, I could never bring it up to you.  Allez-y, tell me what you know.”

“You know that Justine’s father was opposed to Justine marrying Simon.” (Just yesterday Simon would recount to me how the day of their marriage, Justine’s father didn’t even come to the wedding, and telephoned family and friends to say that the wedding was cancelled and there was no point in coming to village now!  Thus many invited guests did not show up to the ceremony.  He also made Simon pay a dowry of over $400.)  “He was vehemently opposed to it.  And just till now this has created problems between Justine and her father, that have not yet been resolved.  But it also divided the family.  Because Justine’s mother was in favor of the marriage and she supported Simon’s suit,  the papa turned against her and said that it was her that encouraged this match.  And this created une grande division entre les deux. Even today, some years later, there are still problems between the mother and the father.

“And now this suitor of Viallé’s – he also comes from Apegnigbe.  And Justine and her brothers were frightened that if it continues the way it continued with Simon and Justine, that it will create another, bigger problem.  That Justine perhaps does not regret her marriage exactly, but she sees how divisive it was, and how another argument on this matter may completely break her family apart.”

“Viallé made it sound like it was Justine alone who opposed this match.”

Michel gave a snort of derision.  “It was not Justine alone.  It was everyone – her brothers too.  Emmanuel would come to me all the time, very distressed, and talk about it in circles – that if such a case came up in my family, what would I do?  How would I advise a friend?  And then later he admitted that it was him, his family, he was referring to.”

Vous tous,” I muttered resentfully, “you two are best friends and he has to make up imaginary scenarios in order to ask your advice?”

He smiled because he knows that if it was me I would have been embarrassingly frank.  “I know, but in our culture we do not always speak openly about our problems.  Anyway, later he spoke openly about it, about how he was trying to advise Viallé, about how all her brothers were pushing her to not encourage this relationship, to think of the pain it will cause her mother, to look at the divide it has caused in the family, to leave it be before it is too late.   It is not Justine who has caused the breakup between Viallé and her suitor.  They were all against it, and Emmanuel was very unhappy and anxious about the situation.   I don’t know why Viallé has chosen to pin all the blame on Justine.”

I said:  “Justine said it was because they were loosely related.   And also, Viallé refused to discuss it with Justine.  She said she would only be insulted.”

“Justine would have reason to insult her!  Viallé has placed her family’s tranquillity in danger.   And perhaps it is true that the two men are loosly related, but that is not the real reason… I know the boy.  C’est un bon homme– we were at school together.  It’s true that eventually he would make a fine husband for Viallé.  But she knew before starting this relationship that it was a bad idea.  I know what you are trying to say, that if she has truly fallen in love, that it will be hard for her to let him go.  But Anna, this relationship started when we were at college (middle school) together!  That is already over six years ago! She should have stopped it before it went this far, before she found herself too much involved.  She always knew that it could not end well, but she hung on stubbornly.  I know that in your culture you marry for love despite any problems, even without the permission of your parents.  Moi aussi I could not marry a woman I do not love.  But before falling in love, you must think of the pain you will cause your parents.  Is the pain you cause your parents worth the joy of loving someone else?  Il faut mieux de rester seule en place de detruire ta famille. It is better to remain alone rather than to destroy your family.”


Some other updates

October 14, 2009
  • My COS date is December 29 , 2009 !!
  • Thank you to everyone who has sent packages , letters, etc.   While I would never tell you NOT to send anything, keep my COS date in mind .   The things that I will continue to need are batteries and eating stuff, but everything else (craft items etc)  I will not be requesting more of.    (I do not need any more Crystal Lite!)  However if you see something that would start to make great goodbye gifts for ppl in my village, let me know.  That is mainly what I’m going to be looking for .  In particular,  I was thinking some nice goodbye presents would be photos, so if anyone wants to volunteer to print off photos (that I would have to designate ahead of time) let me know.  I would pay you back, of course.  🙂  In particular, the kids from the Easter play keep on asking for the group photo I took of them ! Whoops 😦   I was also thinking a nice present for Justine and Simone would be making a photo book of all the photos of us together over the two years…    Anyway again, THANK YOU for all the packages and gifts !!!
  • Update on Justine :  THANK YOU guys so much for helping me out with money for Justine’s medical visits.  We went to the hospital and got all the tests / analyses done with this money.   The results are that yes, a surgery is necessary to remove the fibromes.  She will never have children if she does not have this surgery.  This past week, she began to suffer from debilitating cramps, that continued even after she was done menstruating, that basically knocked her bedridden .  The only thing that would control the pain was the Vicodin left over from my January surgery that I ended up giving to her.  The cramps are better now.   She went to a clinic in village but they couldn’t help her much since their pain medication is not as strong;  they said that this complication is a result of the fibromes and will never be healed unless she has the surgery.   The surgery will cost about 150,000 CFA, or USA$300.   That is a little under Simon’s annual salary.  I think Simon could find about 50,000 which leaves 100,000 ($200) to find.  Hopefully I will be able to budget well enough that I can contribute something to this need by the time I leave.  😦
  • I thought I was getting replaced, but the person who was supposed to replace me, ET’d.   SO now, all the work I was doing to set up good relationships with directors/teachers in my schools, etc., ever since the beginning of the school year, will have been a waste!   It’s extremely disappointing and somewhat frustrating.   Also, I had been hoping to sell the items in my house to the replacement and give this money to Justine, so now I’ve lost a source of income so to speak.


October 14, 2009

Meet Zidane  and Meninha, my two Mistakes as I’ve christened them.

Meninha and Zidane

Meninha and Zidane


Zidane is the black male and Meninha is the beige female.

Zidane was an impulse buy for which I blame Justine entirely ; she saw me playing with him and said “ I had no idea you liked puppies this much, just go ahead and buy him.”  So I did.  But I left him with the owner for a week cause I was going to be in Lome for Take Our Daughters to Work Week.   Lo and behold, on my return, there were TWO puppies at my house.   I was sitting on my porch cradling my head in my hands, whimpering “Two dogs?  Two dogs?  I cannot have two dogs.”   Justine explained that Zidane’s owner had refused to give her the correct amount of change back so she took the second dog as collateral, so to speak, in order to guarantee her money.   “But now,” she said, looking at me hopefully, “we can’t separate them.  They’ll cry too much.  They should stay together.”   “Justine.  We. Cannot. Have. Two. Dogs.  One was a terrible enough mistake as it was.  I’m leaving in three months.”

But, being a sucker, both dogs have stayed and are wreaking havoc on my life….  Justine’s family has been very cooperative, letting me bring them over to Justine’s workshop if I want to hang out … Adjo thinks they are living dolls and carries them around like babies….

A bunch more photos of the pups can be found at the normal site, as well as another album of photos from Take Our Daughters to Work Week (sept 28 – oct 2)