January 2007 News
MTU Master's International Peace Corps Volunteer returns after service in Togo
By Michele Anderson
HOUGHTON -- As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Michigan Tech's Master's International in Forestry
program, Amber Lily Kenny of Houghton, a graduate of the University of Michigan in
environmental policy and anthropology, did not expect she'd spend most of her first year
in Africa helping Togolese farmers raise bush rats. Amber took over the project begun by the Peace Corps volunteer she replaced
in the remote West African village of Agodokpe in Francophone Togo. The farmers
raise these animals in order to increase the protein in their own diet and to
sell the meat for profit.
"It's a really good project and very useful for the farmers involved," Amber said.
Peace Corps Volunteer Amber Lily Kenny of Houghton enjoys a Togolese dish
of fufu and bush rat sauce. (Photo © 2005 Amber Kenny)
Bush rat is an expensive meat in Togo and a delicacy served both at home and at village
festivals. The success of her bush rat project helped Amber gain the farmers' respect, and
she soon began the project related to her forestry studies at Michigan Tech: a community-initiated forest preserve which she designed and implemented in a remote region of
southern Togo which has no real forests.
Bush rats from Amber Kenny's Peace Corps project are eaten as a delicacy in
Togo. The project helped the local village economy. (Photo © 2005 Amber Kenny)
"I proposed planting trees people could use in the short and long term," Amber noted. "The
fruit trees would produce in four years, while species such as teak could be used in 20
years and long-term timber species (such as African mahogany) would be available in 40 to 60
Amber's idea was to have the community participate in establishing income-generating
plantations for economic gain as well as planting trees for their intrinsic value.
"I really wanted to have a forest -- trees for the sake of trees," Amber explained. "When I
pitched the idea to the village chief, he was immediately supportive. He said, 'Of course
you have my support. We need a place to preserve the land for our
Amber explains a tree project to her friend, Holly Martin, also of Houghton,
who came to visit. Working with Amber on the project is her counterpart, BenoÓt
Adza (standing next to Holly) a farmer who acted as a volunteer liaison between Amber and the community.
(Photo © 2006 Amber Kenny)
The wealthiest man in the village donated a hectare of land, and Amber obtained funds
through a Peace Corps grant program for seedlings for this forest. The men cleared the land,
the women transported water and the children transported the seedlings.
"Everyone in the village was part of it," Amber said with pride.
Another one of Amber's projects was her farm team, an agricultural club for secondary
students. She taught them techniques such as bio-intensive gardening and agroforestry --
including trees in agricultural systems to help enrich the soil and prevent erosion.
Teenagers from Peace Corps Volunteer Amber Kenny's agricultural club work in
their bio-intensive garden. (Photo © 2005 Amber Kenny)
also held awareness training sessions for village teenagers to discuss such issues as the
importance of going to school (the local practice of child trafficking may prevent or delay some children's schooling), AIDS prevention and other health concerns.
Amber noted her smaller projects helped her determine which local people she could depend on
for big projects. Communication was essential: Amber conducted all her work in
French or in Ewe, the local language. She also had the help of her counterpart,
BenoÓt Adza, a farmer who acted as a volunteer liaison between Amber and the community.
Carrying items on their heads in the traditional way, young women from Peace Corps Volunteer Amber Kenny's
environmental club return from working in their garden. (Photo © 2005 Amber Kenny)
In her two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Amber's projects involved five villages
totaling a population of about 2,000 people within a radius of nine kilometers (about five
miles) -- with a bicycle as her chief means of transportation.
"The Peace Corps Director, Gaddi Vasquez, came to my village," Amber noted. "It can take
three to six hours to get there (from the capital, Lomť) depending on road conditions. He
was shocked at the lack of transportation for volunteers in remote places. He changed the
rule so PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) could ride on motorcycles as passengers only."
Amber's village was in an area where the closest electricity was 35 km away. It had no running water.
"It's one of the more remote Peace Corps posts in Togo," she said.
The remoteness didn't prevent Amber's sister Emily, 22, from visiting Amber in the village last
summer. After graduating from the University of Michigan, Emily Kenny began studying at the Michigan State University School of Medicine this past fall. Amber writes about Emilyís visit in an email she sent to friends in early September 2006. Below is an excerpt from
Emily comes to village
By Amber Kenny
After our adventures in Ghana ... Emily came to village for two weeks. We have not been together this much for this long (24/7) in about eight years. After a few days we start rediscovering our similarities and more importantlyÖour differences. In short, Iím fast.
Sheís slow. Iím like a chipmunk and she is like Ö a tortoise? In village, where living is
boiled down to the basics, it became very apparent that Emily and I are running on two
different clocks. I donít understand how she can take so long even brushing her teeth.
I tend to plow on through and do things without necessarily thinking them through while Em
is methodical and plans (I suspect this why I have broken five bones in my life and she has
zero). So of course little frustrations arose -- me waiting on Emilyís slowness and Emily
putting up with my not explaining everything thoroughly.
Luckily we have the same sense of humor and got to share some interesting village
experiences together. Oh yeah, one more difference between us. Emily is seriously, deathly,
and hysterically afraid of spiders. On the first day in village I was surprised at how fast
Em adapted to village life -- bucket showers, latrine, 50 screaming children trying to touch
you. However, when Emily first entered the kitchen she immediately screamed and ran out. On
the wall there was a small/medium spider. She refused to enter until I "eradicate the
Emily Kenny learns to pound fufu during her visit to her sister Amber in Togo. (Photo © 2006 Amber Kenny)
After I disposed of the spider, Emily and I ate a delicious dinner of corn and boiled peanuts from my friend's field (the corn is one step up from feed corn, but I love the stuff). While we're eating a chicken starts furiously squawking in the distance. Emily asks half jokingly,
"My God, are they killing that chicken?!" "Squawk squawk squaaaa" -- The chicken is silenced mid-squawk. As our very similar brown eyes (hers just a titch more green) look at each otherís reactions, I see I donít need to answer that question. I hold back the unnecessary comment of,
"at least it wasnít a pig, thatís much worse"; and we continue eating in silence.
2 a.m. rolls around and I canít sleep (Iím already an insomniac and the malaria prophylaxis
exacerbates the problem). Emily is profoundly, disgustingly sound asleep. I decide if I canít sleep then she shouldnít either. I wake her up, and she unhappily decides to use the latrine. Once back in the house, she calmly announces,
"Amber, there is a very large spider on the wall" and then doesnít move. I, fed up with her arachnophobia, exclaim,
"Oh honestly, Emily, you donít even know what the big spiders here look like!!Ö Emily?" Complete silence. I look at Emily -- she is inanimate. I approach the wall, and my sister screams as if her soul is being sucked out and runs outside. I look and see the biggest spider I have ever seen in Togo, possibly in my life. I wonít write about the commotion that followed, but after an intense battle I managed to kill the evil eight-legged creature. Emily came back inside, but the adrenaline was running so high we couldnít fall back to sleep for two hours. We were both insomniacs after that.
Later in the week I help Emily conduct a health study (my genius little sister is in med school right now) on a disease known locally as
"Kuku." Most young children here have swollen bellies due to malnutrition and worms. Sometimes when they develop a fever and a really swollen stomach, it becomes kuku. The traditional cure is to eat a ground-up root called,
"monkeys eat it to get fat," cut the stomach in a pattern of scars and then rub a mťlange of egg white, kitchen roof soot, and a white onion on the cuts.
Children from Amber Kenny's village in Togo pose for a photo. (Photo © 2006
When Emily asked some of the women why children had swollen bellies they answered because
the kids "ate too much" and that the most nutritious foods included fufu and corn porridge
-- both empty carbs. Kids with swollen bellies and scraggly arms are not eating too much. I
am not sure how one (the village, the government, NGOs, me?, the world?) can address these
mistaken views on nutrition and health, but it is a pernicious problem affecting everyone,
especially children, in my village.
It was wonderful having my sister here. With her I discovered things about my village I had
no idea existed (like kuku and views on health). My Togolese friends got to meet a part of
my family and, I think, therefore got to know me better. Best of all, Emily and I got to
know each other better as adults (well, immature 20-something-year-old adults, but still we
got to reconnect) and had a fantabulous time together. I sent Emily back home in true West
African fashion, chock full of local beverage and dancing to her plane. Thank you, Emily!
Amber's research, future plans
Amber Kenny is now back in Houghton finishing her Master's Degree in forestry at Michigan Tech.
"I'm organizing data and researching the subject of costs and benefits of growing teak, a timber species,
versus growing subsistence crops, for the small landowner."
Blair Orr, MTU
professor of Forest Economics and coordinator of International Programs in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science,
is happy with Amber's Peace Corps work.
"Togo is one of the poorest countries in the world and a tough place to live and
work," Orr said. "Amber really did a great job, not only in the work she accomplished in the village but in her personal
commitment to the community. The person-to-person contact is an important aspect of Peace Corps, letting
people from different cultures learn about each other. Once you start to understand a culture it also
makes it easier to work with people on development projects that are really appropriate for their
After finishing her thesis, Amber hopes to go to Washington, D.C., as a step toward returning to West Africa to work in another aspect of international development.
"I liked being in Peace Corps because I was a really good volunteer," Amber said. "It was an amazing experience, but it was designed as a two-year program of service. There comes a point where you outgrow the job and want to do more."
Amber says being a Peace Corps Volunteer helps a person in learning to adapt to difficult situations and in developing self-confidence.
"You really learn about your own capabilities," Amber notes. "You can really change things.
You're not going to change the whole country, but you can better the lives of individuals."
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