Doing Too Much

culvert003My primary task in Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa in the late 1980s was to help farmers establish a plowing regime using oxen. I ran a small training center and traveled to farms. It was fun and interesting, but it also put the farmers in economic jeopardy. They had to borrow money in order to buy the oxen and plows and to build a stable. That meant they had to plant cash crops like cotton… which got them further in debt, for they had to buy seed and fertilizer and pesticide. If the price of cotton dropped, they could lose everything. Before they got oxen, the work was harder, but the farmers weren’t at the mercy of an economic system centered far away and completely beyond their control.

After a time, souring on the project, I concentrated instead on a secondary project inspired by a man in a nearby village, one called Nassiette. He had been planting hedgerows so, with two of his grandsons, I built a tree nursery where we grew neem and a number of nitrogen-fixing seedlings, which they then transplanted onto the edges of pathways around the village.

I had noticed that, during the rainy season, it was hard for four-wheeled vehicles to reach the village, for the one road flooded easily.  I had seen a large piece of cement culvert pipe sitting unused outside the offices of an aid organization in a nearby town. I asked if I could have it and was told, yes, if I could haul it away. So, I hooked up a pair of oxen to a cart, got the two grandsons and another Peace Corps Volunteer to help me load it up, and hauled the culvert to Nassiette.

Our crew dug as deeply as it could, but not far enough down so that the road over the new culvert pipe would be level–which meant, I knew, that it wouldn’t last as long as it might. Still, the culvert did allow water to pass without washing out the road, and it was still there when I returned five years later (the pictures here were taken then).

However, from what I understand, it is there no longer. I wouldn’t have expected it to be, not after more than a quarter century.

Still, whatever its duration, this was a simple and easy project with an immediate impact. More than anything else I did in Peace Corps, it is this simple culvert that I am most proud of.

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