Meet Burkina

learning & sharing Burkina Faso

Settling In

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In photo: The health workers love bringing me fresh babies because they know they’re my favorite thing in the world. This one is a few days old and remains un-named.

Written: September 10, 2016, afternoon
From: a moto repair shop in Koudougou
Feeling: fatigued but relaxed
Hungry for: something cold
Missing: my car

As I begin better learning Mooré, the city becomes louder. When you don’t speak the language, even the most bustling, busy places can be deafeningly silent. When you can’t understand their words, all smiling people are friendly and polite, a potential friend. Most interactions are one sided as voices enter your ears but hardly actualize as words in your brain. And you have so much to say but you can’t so you smile and nod. Even the sounds of a place are at first in another language. I was once getting anxious waiting to catch a bus that comes less than every 24 hours. The person with me who knew that the bus would look like seemed to not be watching for it, not paying attention at all. “We’ll hear it”, he said. And he did, although I was still deaf to it’s sound. In the village, I’m learning to distinguish different animal and insect sounds. I can hear footsteps outside my courtyard and know if it’s a neighbor or stranger.

I’m currently sitting in a moto sale and repair shop, with an emphasis, I suspect, on repair. Being in a moto shop is a foreign place for me all on it’s own. But it’s a nice place to sit and zone out, and there’s always something going on to watch, mindlessly. Only two of ten men are ever working at a time, so you can talk if you want to but it’s loud enough that talking doesn’t feel like an obligation either. I’m in the city for the day, not by choice. I came here to Koudougou two days ago with the intention of doing some major shopping to furnish my basically empty home. I’m almost forced to spend the night with the way the bus schedules work, so I arranged to sleep at the house of a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) here in the city. So yesterday I was supposed to catch the 2pm bush taxi back to my village, but it never came. Having no other options for getting home (especially after having bought a few big peices of furniture), the moto repair guy let me keep my furniture in his shop and I went to get a hotel room.

It was a relaxing night. I went with the mechanic to get chicken and beer last night before crashing, exhausted and sunburnt, in my luxurious hotel room — luxe because there was a ceiling fan and a screen on the window. I slept soundly and woke up, for the first time in a long time, without sweat on my skin.

Another foreign noise just took over my world. A guy’s voice over a speaker, sounding like an auctioneer too close to his microphone, was so loud the whole street of people could hear. Although it drew everyone’s attention for a second, they turned back to their work unphased for the remainder of his message. They were used to this. My first thought was that it was something religious, the sounds coming from a mosque or a church or a guy walking around with a loudspeaker calling people to prayer or repentance.

Just now, it arrived. The booming voice was a passing Airtel truck with massive speakers, advertising and promoting the day of 200% bonus. Airtel is a phone company here, and the one I use. So today if you spend 1000 francs on phone credits, (roughly $2), you’ll actually get 2000 credits. Good deal. With a discount code I can send a text to most people in country for 1 credit. Unfortunately it costs 20 credits to send a text to the person I text most here, because there is bad service in much of the north and east of the country.

Today — with moto repair shops, busy streets, and voices over loudspeakers — is not representative at all of my life in Burkina. Assuming the bus comes today as it’s supposed to, I’ll soon return to my little village, which is actually not that little but still very much village. In land area and population the village is huge. But the village doesn’t have running water, electricity, or stores. We don’t have bars or formal restaurants. Of course we have village equivalents of all these things: water pumps, solar panel energy, the man who sells rice and phone credit, the tree where the dolo-seller sells, and freshly prepared beans and corn for sale on market day. Dolo is a locally made alcohol, reddish and bitter, and its alcohol content? One can never be sure, and it’s changes day to day, seller to seller. Market day is every 3 days.

I live on the grounds of the CSPS, the CSPS being the village equivalent to a community health center, doctor’s office, and hospital. On site we have 4 health workers, semi-equivalent in American terms to a doctor, a nurse, a pharmacist, and a woman in charge of the maternity ward. These four serve 10 to 12,000 people, covering an area a few dozen kilometers wide. So I’m the fifth health worker on site, the volunteer who so far doesn’t really do much for community health but will be active soon, after she is about three months settled in and speaks Mooré a bit more.

Overall I like my house, although I felt more comfortable in my Sanga room. But that will change soon, as I work to make my house a home. Right now my biggest stressor in Burkina is the rodent problem in my house, specifically: bats and mice. I have reptiles (lizards) and bugs (cockroaches, beattles, spiders, flies) too, but those hardly phase me by now. Actually they bother me a lot sometimes but it’s just life here. Apparantly so are the bats and mice, but my tolerance won’t stretch that far.

I’ve been cooking meals in my home on a gas burner. So far my favorite meal was spaghetti noodles with lentil sauce. I used whole green lentils I had leftover from the day before and added some tomato sauce. Cooking for one is hard, but luckily sharing food with neighbors and strangers is normal here, if not required.

Most of my days are spent relaxing, talking under a tree with various villagers, mostly men (unfortunately). Of course I don’t mind being in the prescence of men, usually, but I’d love to integrate as a Burkinabè woman here; that will be really hard. I guess it’s largely that my demographic — a woman old enough to be married and have children but isn’t and doesn’t — doesn’t exist here. After 7 or 8pm women stay home. But I cook dinner earlier than they do, have no children to wash, and have to husband to tend to. I’m also a night owl, and love drinking tea with people. So of course at 8pm I’d want to be in front of my house drinking tea and talking. I’ll either have to turn down this opportunity or accept that I’ll almost always be the only woman.

Other interesting things… I ate goat testicles for the first time the other day. I guess it didn’t taste bad, but it’s not something I’ll ever seek out/pay for. Even here I love painting my nails, but for the first time I left my right hand unpainted. That’s the norm here (even beyond Muslim circles) because your right hand should be clean for eating. I want to be able to reach my hand into any bowl of tô that comes my way, without feeling like people might see my painted hand not approve. They probably wouldn’t care, but still I guess it’s a small part of integration for me.

___________________

Written: September 21, 2016, late morning
From: the Marie Stopes International waiting room in Koudougou
Feeling: energized and excited
Hungry for: salad, fruit, or beer
Missing: my host family near Léo

I’m in the city again, this time by choice. I came with another PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) who lives in a village near mine. She has been here for a year and half, and is leaving soon, but I’m trying to spend as much time with her as possible and inherit some of her special connections and learn her tricks of the trade in this country before she leaves. We biked here. From my village it’s somewhere around 36km, a long but basically pleasant bike ride.

I’m at Marie Stopes, but no I am not here to get contraceptives or learn about family planning. I’m here to use their electricity (to charge my phone) and internet (to blog). As an American in Burkina, or in most western African countries, there are special permissions you obtain just from showing your face and greeting the staff in the local language.

Village life is crazy but it’ll work itself out eventually. I trust I’ll feel at home and comfortable soon.

The health facility in my village is undergoing massive changes right now. The major (head of CSPS in the village), the main nurse, and the midwife are not native to the village but are assigned and posted there. In French we call them functionnaires. So in my village there are three of them. One of them, the nurse, left the village (permanently) yesterday. The midwife is leaving this week. And the major is leaving in a couple months, as soon as he helps settle-in a replacement nurse and midwife.

So basically, in a couple months, I will be the most senior of the health workers at the CSPS. I’m excited about the change overall, but it’s also sad that many of the people I know best in Nassoulou are leaving. Recently the midwife and I have become good friends. I’ve slept at her house with her the past several nights because of the pest problems chez moi. Last night I told her I’m ready to go back to my house and sleep. She explained: no, Alima. I really don’t mind you sleeping at my place. Come again, one more night. Okay, I said. I didn’t need convincing. It’s so nice not sleeping alone in a dark home, in a village you’re not totally familiar with, with bats and beetles…..

Anyway, last night she and I had what is likely to be the last sleepover. We ate spaghetti with dried fish and talked for several hours before falling asleep. She likes to sleep with bright lights (powered by the solar panel battery) and the radio on — men speaking in French about who knows what, and sometimes it’s mostly static. But I like it now too. The light informs you that there’s no bats in your room. And the radio masks the creepy sounds of who-knows-what going on during the village nighttime.

There is a long story behind this, but quite simply I’ll say: I’m likely moving into the midwife’s house when she leaves. So although I’ll be sad for her departure, it comes with a big, bright silver lining.

I had a fancy city breakfast today: café au lait, with powdered milk instead of sweet and condensed milk that they serve in village; a veggie-filled omelette on bread; cold, clean water to wash it down.

Soon I’ll be eating a fancy lunch too. I’ll probably order salad and green beans and a Guiness with an ice cube. This is the meal I dream of, and what makes the 36km bike ride to Koudougou worth it.

My language learning is going well. Most people are impressed with my Mooré skills having been in country for only a few months. And everyone in village considers me perfectly fluent and French, and tend to blame themselves (and not my bad accent) when they can’t understand me. However, I desperately need to devote more time, on my own, to start memorizing vocabulary I have written down. I could write a book in Mooré if I was allowed to reference my extensive language notes. But I can’t take my language notes to the market or to the bar when I want to speak Mooré. Just kidding, I’ve done it before. People don’t ask why I look at notebook before asking them a question. But, no. I need to devote more time to memorizing.

Meal-wise I’m doing fine! I eat 2 or 3 meals a day. I often cook at home, making mainly oatmeal, spaghetti, and lentils. These are my staple meals for now only because these are the groceries I bought, and I want to use up all my current food before getting more. Basically I’ll eat the same few things for a month, and then change it up based on my new groceries and the new foods available at the market based on season. I can say that I’ll probably get really sick of spaghetti throughout my service here, (but I did splurge in Ouagadougou and bought whole-wheat noodles, so that makes me feel a little better). There’s also a small village restaurant a few minute walk from my house. She usually serves food at lunchtime; it’s always rice. I’ve really made this place my own, and even her children are warming up to me. I’ve gone there several times, sometimes eating but often just sipping a beer while I read a book or study Mooré.

I just finished a book last night: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s been on my to-read list for years, and Peace Corps gives you the opportunity to do a lot of the little things you never made time for in the U.S. Like reading for fun. I’m really hungry for books here, and I look forward to my next trip to the capitol so I can take more books from the Peace Corps library.

It’s hard to blog. I have to travel to a city to find Internet, and even then sometimes it’s a challenge. Also, to blog, one has to feel inspired. I can’t force inspiration for writing just because I’m in front of a computer with some sort of Internet connection. Anyway, I’m working on creating a system or schedule that is condusive to blogging, (e.g. write from my village on my phone, email it to myself, and post it when I find wifi). But most days blogging is my last concern, as I work to get settled into my new life.

So I guess that’s all I have to say for now! (Actually I could type forever, but from my phone it’s not that fun.) Thanks for being patient with me and my limited blogging.

Learning Mooré: Mam nooaga bee ye? (Where is my chicken? I bought a cock a week and a half ago. He sleeps at my neighbor’s house but wanders around the village during the day. Now that my neighbor moved out yesterday, I’m not sure where my chicken is. I’ll have to ask around…)

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2 thoughts on “Settling In

  1. So many wonderful things that you are doing! You are making me yearn for more.

    I have questions all throughout so I’ll just ask them briefly and hope someday to get the answers.

    Why did you buy a cock? Were you planning on eating him eventually or planning to keep him as some sort of pet? My favorite meal in Uganda was chicken with rice and broth that I ate with my fingers. We heard a chicken squeaking in the late morning and then ate it for lunch. I remember wondering if the meal was so delicious because of its freshness or because I was eating it with my hands.

    What did you think of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? I read it and loved and hated it. It was a wonderfully written book, with mystery and suspense. But then there’s the torture etc. I wanted to read the rest of the series but couldn’t bring myself back into that part of the author’s world.

    I’m constantly amazed by your love for and ability to learn new languages. Mykel has taken it upon herself to learn Russian. Any advice for her?

    Have you delivered any babies yet? I’ve long thought about becoming a doula or mid-wife and recently it has taken over my thoughts again. I love the delivery process.

    I am amazed with all the things you are encountering that will completely change who you are. Simple meals, stranded by yourself in the city, bugs and rodents. You will be a different person when you come home.

    Love you. Aunt Kim.

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    • Hey Aunt Kim! Thankn.s so much for your comment. It’s one thing to share my thoughts with blog readers but engaging in conversation about what I write is much more rewarding.

      The previously mentioned cock was recently eaten. However, I have since bought a hen and was gifted another cock. The objective is eggs! But yeah, if I have a special visitor I’m not opposed to eating my chickens, especially if they don’t give me eggs soon. I’ll be blogging within the next couple of days and will write some qbout my chickens there.

      Overall I enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I am eager to read the next book whenever I can get my hands on it… which could be a couple years. From a more technical perspective, some of the phrases and grammar were weird, I guess because it was a translation, but that was easy to overlook.

      My Mooré has even come a long ways since posting this post! I can usually convince a stranger now, in small talk, that I am fluent in Mooré. Or when the time comes that I can’t understand what they’re saying, they insist that I actually understand them perfectly but I’m making an excuse not to talk to them anymore, (which they’re right in thinking- sometimes it gets annoying/tiring going through the same questions over and over with everyone who engages me- also something I’ll write on a little bit soon).

      Advice on Mykel’s Russian endeavor! None of the advice I can give is revolutionary. Most of it is common sense or things you guys have already thought of! But I guess first I would ask why she choose to learn it. I think language learning is more successful if the learner has a “good reason” related to true passion for both the decision to study a language and for the choice of what languqge. Knowing Mykel she probably has some reason or passion related to Russian. But if one doesn’t have a reason, it’s possible anyway to find one through research/reading. So once you decide why you want to learn it, I would say find ways to use or see it every day. Train a pet in the language, listen to music in the language, talk with Russian speakers online (risky), label things in your house in the language (and not necessarily just to label them, but label things you might label anyway. If the label isn’t actually useful, the word written on it might not stick). I have to know “mui” means rice or I’ll open the container of beans for example. There is a good app called Duolingo and there is a Russian program there. It’s free. But you guys likely have already heard of this/tried it. Whenever I write anything (in my journal, shopping lists, sometimes texting friends, etc), if I know any of the words in Mooré (usually nouns, sometimes verbs), I write it in Mooré, even if the rest of the text is in English. Also when I learn a cool word or phrase that can’t be translated well into English (all languages have a lot of this!), I teach it to my non-Mooré speaking friends and use it with them regularly. No one minds learning a cool word or two in another language. When you start getting better at the language, record yourself saying full sentences from memory. When you play back these recordings you’ll be able to better catch your mistakes. If I think of anything else I’ll let you know!

      I have only observed a couple births! Sometimes it makes me feel uneasy or dizzy… I’m trying to get comfortable watching because it’s so interesting. But nope, I’ve been of no help! 🙂

      Love you too! Hope the fam has a great holiday season. Salute the snow for me!

      Like

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