After leaving her Vermont home in 2013 to begin her Peace Corps service in Togo, Volunteer Hillary Chutter-Ames soon discovered that some Togolese customs were harder to adopt than others – particularly the West African nation’s “culture of sitting.”
“My community in Togo values highly personal relationships with time spent just ‘being’ together,” said Hillary, who currently serves as an Agricultural Volunteer. “A stereotypically American emphasis on productivity and results has been a challenge to reconcile with this way of work and life – but has also been the most rewarding.”
Ten days before departing for Togo, Hillary earned her bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College – which ranked third among Peace Corps’ top Volunteer-producing small colleges & universities for 2014 – with a wealth of international experience to help her adjust to the new social climate.
“While I haven’t used my Russian so far, the skills I developed at Middlebury have proved invaluable to service in Togo,” she said. “Classes within my Russian major, summer language school and study abroad in Moscow prepared me to learn new languages in Togo – including French and Ewe – by helping me develop language learning strategies and be confident in my ability to live and work in another culture.”
While bonding with the locals in her host community, the South Hero resident carved out her own place in the 15,000-person village by sharing her expertise in proper health and nutrition practices to Togolese women.
“Along with two other volunteers, I organized the Femmes Contre la Faim (Women Against Hunger) Conference, which brought together female leaders in the region for food security and nutrition training,” Hillary said. “The twelve women returned to their villages to implement gardening and food transformation projects to share their new knowledge and skills with other women and to improve food security in their communities.”
Her other projects included working exclusively with young women in girls’ soccer clinics and a women’s savings and loan group and organizing programming for the national Women’s Wellness and Empowerment Conference, which trains 30 women in women’s health, rights and leadership.
Hillary currently manages projects with USAID’s West African Food Security Partnership for Peace Corps Togo, which offers support for food security trainings, technical exchanges and volunteer small grants.
Nearing the end of her service, Hillary reflected on her host village’s influence on her outlook on life over the last two years.
“I often feel that my community is making more of a difference for me than I am for them or with them – like any relationship, it is a two-way street,” she said. “We cook together, eat tofu at the market together, play soccer, work in the fields, learn, share and dance. The difference we have made in the community may be small, or perhaps less visible in the short-term.
“I may not fully comprehend the difference that Togo has made for me for many years to come,” Hillary added, “But the impact, I think, is anything but small.”
Click here to learn more about Peace Corps Togo.