Peace Corps

Girls of Togo on WINGS

some of my students performing traditional dance in Kante, Togo

Girls of Togo,” adapted from my 2010 radio series Radio Réussite (produced in French in Togo), airs on the Women’s International News Gathering Service (WINGS) this week. It features my song “La Belle Vie.” Preparing this segment allowed me to revisit the voices of old friends, as well as refresh my memory and awareness of another way of life.

A Conversation with Peace Corps Legend Brownie Lee

Rebekah Brown “Brownie” Lee talks and reflects on cultural and economic difference, race, colonialism, and the Peace Corps at her home in Ouidah, Benin, February 22, 2012. I am revisiting the interview now in honor of Brownie’s recent passing. As the Francophone African saying goes, “Que la terre lui soit légère.” Friend and mentor, you are missed.

Lee cites materialism and the extended family as two major cultural differences between West Africa and the US. She speaks of her own experience taking in children in the various countries in which she lived and worked, and shares her concern about the practice of psychoanalysis (“I came home from Peace Corps, and people were going to counselors like we used to go the the dentist.”). She concludes the interview with her favorite proverb: “The snake cannot give birth to anything short and fat.”

Brownie Lee joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in 1962; she was part of the first group to serve in Togo, West Africa. She then served as a volunteer in Guinea (1964-1966) and had a long teaching career that spanned Eastern and Western Africa, the U.S. and Jamaica, before returning to work in varlous supervisory roles and program directorships for the Peace Corps in the 1980s and 90s, and finally serving as Peace Corps Country Director in Togo and Benin (starting in 2007 and 2009, respectively).

Interviewer Carla Seidl served in the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan from 2006 to 2008 and in Peace Corps’ Girls Education and Empowerment program (which Brownie was influential in starting) in Togo from 2009 to 2011. At the time of this interview, she was serving as a Peace Corps Response volunteer at the International Center for Art and Music of Ouidah (CIAMO), Benin.

Background noise during the interview is Lee’s adopted teenage girls doing housework and meal preparation.

La Belle Vie

Song about gender equality off of my 2013 “Who Are My People?” album. The song was written for my Togolese middle school chorus as part of my work in Girls’ Education and Empowerment. Photos taken in northern Togo, West Africa.

La Belle Vie

La mère souhaite une belle vie pour ses enfants
Elle veut qu’ils soient très bien éduqués
Pour diriger une entreprise un jour
Pour être médecin ou professeur

Mais elle n’a même pas fréquenté l’école
C’est comment?


Oui les garçons peuvent balayer (et cuisiner)
Oui les filles peuvent bien étudier (et diriger)
Tout le monde peut avoir la carrière qui lui plaît (et le succès)
Si nous choisissons l’égalité
Si nous choisissons l’égalité


Tout le monde est digne de respect
Tout le monde a le droit à la santé
Tout le monde peut vivre en prospérité
Si nous choisissons l’égalité
Si nous choisissons l’égalité


Oui les garçons peuvent balayer (et cuisiner)
Oui les filles peuvent bien étudier (et diriger)
Tout le monde peut avoir la carrière qui lui plaît (et le succès)
Si nous choisissons l’égalité
Si nous choisissons l’égalité
Si nous choisissons l’égalité

A Beautiful Life (rough English translation)

A mother hopes for a nice life for her children
she wants them to have a good education
to run a business one day
to be a doctor or a teacher
But she has never been to school.

What do you think of this?

Let’s wake up, let’s change.

Yes, boys can sweep and cook
Yes, girls can study well and lead
Everyone can succeed in the career that they desire If we choose equality

Let’s wake up, let’s change.

Everyone is worthy of respect
everyone has the right to health care
Everyone can live in prosperity
If we choose equality

© 2010 Carla Seidl

Enough to Eat

“If I had money, I’d record
albums of the calls of children begging
their meals in the street. I’d address
books to all the rich people, to let them know that
in this world live millions of humans
who don’t have the rags that they burn.”
—Richard Dogbeh, Beninese Poet

Togo, 2010

Two women walk along the road in front of in colorfully patterned, matching pagne cloth. Assuming I don’t speak their language, one turns and brings one hand to her mouth as if eating. I respond, “Moi aussi, j’ai faim.” And the women laugh and look at one another. What a stupid yovo, if she with her white skin and privilege can’t find anything to eat! I guess we are not so bad off after all.

My own nighttime musing:

Legs under mosquito net
Every evening
slightly slimmer

Could losing weight
be one good thing about
this hunger
this heat?

I talk with a Togolese friend about whether my “hunger,” my stomach grumbling and losing weight from not having easy access to food options that appeal to me, feels any different from the hunger experienced by impoverished Africans. Unlike many locals, of course, I have the financial means to purchase food items; I am not at risk of starving. “I’m not sure,” he says, “but we are used to suffering here. Look around and you can be sure that some of the people you see haven’t eaten in a couple of days.”

Simmer 6: Coming to America

The final episode in the Simmer series combines interview with El Salvadorian immigrants in Asheville, NC, cultural reflections from Robert Kohls’ “Values Americans Live By,” and two original songs.

Luiz Antonio Alvarado came to the United States from El Salvador in 1990. Host and producer speaks with Alvarado and his nephew, Noa Herrera, about cultural difference and the challenges of immigration at Alvarado’s home in Asheville, North Carolina.

Interspersed into our interview are sections form Robert Kohls’ “Values Americans Live By.” The episode also features draft recordings of two original songs appearing on Carla’s 2013 Who Are My People? album: “Suffering Song” and “One Way.”

Learning Lama

Not gumbo but millet kernels between the teeth


I chomped on the Lamba language
reluctantly at first

Munching on it like
the bones
my parents said would
tear up my insides or
get stuck in my throat.

Everyone eats them here.
Not just fish bones
but chicken, guinea fowl
and dog if you are lucky.

Like the toned and chiseled bodies
Lama a more down-to-the-bones language
than decorative, excessive, lactifying

No Dessert

Girl eating Togolese staple food “pâte.”

Dessert? Some people have never even heard of it. This 4.5-minute radio piece examines the cultural relativity of this sweet, after-meal food practice by contrasting views on dessert from the United States and Togo, West Africa. It aired on AARP’s Prime Time Postscript in 2012.

More Background:

I created this piece shortly after my return from Togo, West Africa, where I had been serving as a Girls’ Education and Empowerment volunteer with the Peace Corps. In Togo, there was very little variety in food choices, just mainly a staple starch food called pâte, made from corn flour and water, and served with some kind of sauce. In particular, I was struck by the lack of dessert in Togolese food culture. In other countries I’d lived in, such as Chile and Azerbaijan, there was no tradition of dessert either, but at least there were sweets — they were just eaten at other times of day, rather than directly after the meal.

“No Dessert ” (4:12) takes a humorous tone to tackle themes of guilt and greed within the subject of food and culture. The idea for this piece came to me as I was trying to make sense of the strikingly different food practices that awaited me upon my return to the US. After living in less economically developed areas, it is sometimes hard not to see the American tendency to overeat and have lots of sweets as unfair in some way when so many others eat just to sustain themselves. My intention was to investigate the topic of dessert and make people more aware of their own dessert culture and food choices.

The Togolese person I am interviewing is Catherine Talim, a librarian and my counterpart teacher and co-leader of my Girls’ Club at the local middle school in Kanté.

Simmer 2: The Rainbow or the Stick?

“The Rainbow or the Stick?: Teaching and Discipline Across Cultures” features interviews with Renee Owen, director of the Rainbow Mountain Children’s School in Asheville, North Carolina, and Monsieur Bayamna, a junior high school French teacher in Kante, Togo, West Africa.

Producer Carla Seidl starts off reflecting on her own teaching experiences in Azerbaijan from 2006 to 2008. She then juxtaposes perspectives of two teachers: Renee Owen, director of the Rainbow Mountain Children’s School in Asheville, North Carolina, and Monsieur Bayamna, a junior high school French teacher in Kante, Togo, West Africa, to create an thought-provoking reflection on teaching and discipline across cultures. Seidl spoke with Renee Owen in Asheville, NC in 2013 and interviewed Monsieur Bayamna in 2010 while serving as a Girls Education and Empowerment volunteer with the Peace Corps in Kante, Togo, West Africa.

Simmer 1: Jingling to Health and the Relativity of Poverty

The first Simmer episode features an interview with Malawi Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and songwriter Dr. Jack Allison and an investigation of the cultural phenomenon of dessert.

Dr. Jack Allison served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi from 1967 to 1969 and then led a long career in emergency medicine in the United States. His health-care-related jingles became hit songs in Malawi. In this 2013 interview, we discuss health care, the cultural relativity of poverty, his songwriting, and cultural differences between Africa and the United States. The segment concludes with “No Dessert,” an original piece about the cultural relativity of the food practice of dessert.