Friday, July 18, 2014

Olowo-n'djo's Update: Sirina's Story & Togo Trip Recap

Dear Friends of Alaffia,

It is my wish that you and your family are having a good summer and are in good health.  Last week, Rose, our girls and I made it safely back from our three week trip to Togo. Our main objective for the visit was to assist the Alaffia cooperative move to our new location. Before I share with you the progression of the move, I would like to share with you my feelings and experiences during my visit and since my return. No matter how many times I visit Togo, I am always caught off guard by the great suffering of the people, and yet Togo is a place where I find profound peace in my heart. Part of me sees the overwhelming desperation of the human condition and feels a sense that there is no point in trying to better the lives of my people. The other part feels a great level of responsibility that I must do more in mitigating the injustice that permeates our society. At times, I also question why I am the lucky one, as no person pre-chooses what family they are born to and who their life partner will be.  In my case, it is my partner that forever changed my life circumstances from being a farm boy in northern Togo to a man in America trying to revive and preserve the humanity in my people.

New Cooperative in Togo

A specific experience that touched my heart was a visit with Abidé Awesso, Alaffia’s Community Support Coordinator in the Kara Region, to Koundoum, a village that participates in Alaffia’s maternal health initiative.  This was a simple visit to meet the officials of the Koundoum health clinic and the chiefs of Koundoum and surrounding villages to support Abidé in her determination to end female genital mutilation in Togo.  The participation and solidarity of elders is critical for Abidé’s success with this delicate topic.  When we arrived, two things happened that I was not expecting. First, I was not anticipating a large crowd, but all the women from the five surrounding villages that participated in the Alaffia maternal health program for the past three years came together with their children for a welcome ceremony to show their true gratitude. This meant a lot to both Rose and me, as we know this is farming season in Togo, and losing a day of work on the farm is not an easy choice for these families. 

The second thing that touched me was the cultural diversity and richness that continues in my communities. This richness was evident in the traditional drumming during the ceremony. It was the first time in my life as a Togolese native to see the traditional ceramic drums made of two-handled, 30-inch clay jars and goat skin played in Koundoum. In addition, women from Manga village played a specific drum consisting of a clay jar and calabash that is only played by women and creates the most unique sound. I was deeply touched to see and experience these ancient parts of our diverse cultures, and knowing they still exist makes preserving them even more critical.

Traditional drum ceremony

Moreover, on July 5th, we held our first meeting at the new Alaffia Cooperative, which has been named “Alaffia Village” by the cooperative members.  While many words and thoughts were expressed during the meeting, it was Sirina Izetou’s voice that stayed with us.  Sirina joined the Alaffia Cooperative only a couple months ago to weave baskets.  It was toward the end of the meeting when Sirina raised her hand to introduce herself to us and convey a message from her father: 

Sirina Izetou
“I am from a large family of 17 children. Only one of my brothers ever set foot in school. Because of my difficult living conditions, I asked to be recruited by Alaffia and I was accepted. After I received my first paycheck, I sent a portion of it to my father and told him of my recruitment by an organization called Alaffia. What was his reaction when I told him? He started by saying, “How is it that someone like you who has not been to school could be recruited by an organization?” I told him in the town of Sokodé, there is an organization founded by a Togolese residing in the USA which employs poor women to produce shea butter. He persisted with his questions by asking what language the founder communicates with us. I told him he speaks our local languages like Kotokoli and added that he is from Kamboli. That's when he told me that when I met the founder, his wife, his children, his parents, and his collaborators, I must thank them. He ended by wishing that Alaffia grow more than we know. Thank You!”

While Alaffia’s journey is often overwhelming, a sense of courage comes to us when an individual’s life is positively impacted beyond our imaginations.  Sirina’s story also reminds me of the importance of family, and while we have diverse ways of interacting with our parents and at times we do not see eye to eye, we must take care of them and at the same time forgive them, as I could see the joy that Sirina had in her face when she proudly stood in the group and shared her father’s message.
Although we were not able to move the entire cooperative fully into our new location, we were able to install the basket weaving and black soap production. The shea butter production is being moved this week, and I will be returning to Togo in two weeks to complete the remaining sections.  It is our hope that in five years, 1,000 women will be working at Alaffia, double the current 500.
In summary, our ability to move to a new cooperative and to receive messages such as this from Sirina, is made possible by you, our customers, retailers, and friends. You enable Alaffia to keep breathing, and for this I will always be grateful to each and every one of you. I wish you and your family a peaceful rest of summer.

Humbly Yours,

Olowo-n’djo Tchala