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learning & sharing Burkina Faso


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Journal Excerpts 1

 

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In photo: Me, on Christmas, with my homologue and his grandson (Ashad, who loves me almost as much as I love him).

Every few months I flip back through my journal to read and reflect. Sometimes I surprise myself. Sometimes I’m able then to recall things I’d otherwise forgotten had happened. Mostly I’m able to see how much things are changing, and how much I am changing too. I’ll share a couple of the less personal excerpts, and ones that don’t identify particular individuals. I imagine this will relay in a different way the things I experience here.

NB: words in curled brackets are things I didn’t write in my journal but I’m adding now for clarity.

Sunday, October 2

“He asked me if, in America, I had learned to read or if it was natural. Amused at the thought of Nasaras {white people and/or foreigners} being born with the ability to read where Burkinabè must go out of their way if they’ll ever learn, I explained that in the U.S. most of us start learning around 5 years old. That all happened exactly a week ago, and I’m contemplating the question more this morning than ever. Behind the humor, he’s right. It is, more or less, a natural process for Americans. It’s normal – it just happens. It may be hard work for teachers and parents, and many kids may fall through the cracks, but overall it’s the natural way of things – that a Nasara will know how to read and a Burkinabè villager may not. And THAT isn’t funny; it’s injustice.”

Monday, October 10

“The CSPS {health clinic} is busy today. It’s also market day. I hypothesized that maybe the two were related, although I have no evidence because it’s something that just came to mind and I’ve never tried to observe it before. Reasons could include that coming from 12km away is long, but on market day you can kill two birds with one stone – bring your sick child and do your market shopping (or selling). {In Nassoulou, the CSPS and the market are close by eachother.} Anyway so I’m sitting with Marso now, and Madame walked in. The CSPS is full of sick today, right Alima?, she told me instead of asked. I took the opportunity, and particularly the chance to have two sets of listening ears (Marso’s and Madame’s) to ask my question – the relationship, if any, betwren market day and CSPS traffic. Madame didn’t really answer I guess, and was on her way out. But before the thought left the air I caught it, asking Marso more directly.

She answered, and gave me a perspective I hadn’t previously seen the issue from. I wouldn’t have, I guess, because maybe I don’t understand (yet, if ever) the depth of poverty here. She told me that yes, the CSPS is busier on market days. On other days, someone wouldn’t have the money to pay for the medicine, so on market day they come, they sell some stuff just until they have enough money – and then they come buy medicine for their child. I’m asking myself now to what extent that is true and frequent. It’s hard to believe, but I guess why wouldn’t it be like that? Marso was explaining the reality. It hurts. My whole life seems to hurt right now.”

Wednesday, October 26

“I went to work on time for once – making a special effort to do so – but no, bad idea. I’m back home sitting on the bed. I’ll go back soon and hopefully we’ll start (baby measuring).”

Tuesday, November 29

“Little heartwarming moments. This guy with fast speech and a rough smoker voice trying to talk to me at the bar. This is normally a “don’t even try too hard to understand him” situation. I’ll probably like him more if I don’t know what he’s trying to tell me. But he’s with his wife – (first time I’ve ever seen husband/wife drinking a beer together in Nassoulou). The wife “talks to me” through the husband.

He asked the question they always ask first, but when he asked it was different somehow. So I told him yes I have a husband. He said that’s what he thought but his wife was saying when she saw me she knew I wasn’t married. Actually throughout the conversation his wife was always “wrong” about things she was actually right about. I felt a sudden pang of guilt, remorse. But I guess that’s how it goes, right? Wife’s always wrong but somehow – how? – so right.

I tried to say something that could give the wife some points. “But I don’t have any kids!” Then the guy started saying a bunch of stuff I couldn’t understand. Seeing he was insistent I understand, and after him saying again, “Wait you do speak Mooré right?” and me saying, in Mooré of course as the whole conversation had been, “Yes, a little!”… so I told him, okay talk slowly. He started again… No!, I said slowly. So he said it slowly then finally. Like magic I understood. “May God bless you with a child.”

The wife said I was a doctor at the CSPS. I said I’m not a doctor (point for husband), but I live and help at CSPS (point for wife). She weighs babies, the wife told the husband to tell me. Oh yes, yes I do I said.

The husband said I needed to eat better/more. Why was I on my phone with the plate of rice in front of me only half gone? Eat a lot, he said. And have a baby and breastfeed! All sound ideas, thank you sir.

When they were leaving he stood his wife in front of me and complained that she wasn’t big enough. Doctor feed her! The wife was timid and embarassed, her standing while we looked on and commented on her size. Your wife is perfectly big, I insisted – which was true. She was tall and heavy – but only to a healthy degree, how a fit person might become fat a bit in their fatigued old age. No quesrion was she strong and healthy, and cozy in bed too. Poor woman. But she smiled away all the shots. Her sanity, I knew, depended on it.

Although the conversation felt long to me, because it was all in Mooré, and holy moly I could understand all of this in Mooré?! it was really like five minutes. Burkinabè drink a relaxing beer (and bottles are double the American size) faster than any others I’ve met. Their normal is my pre-game chug.

The next guy came in. Alone, just him. Still drinking fast. Still asking me about my husband and kids and why no kids? He asked if I wanted 1 or 2. Three I told him, being contrarian by nature, and so he wasn’t right about Nasaras/Westerners wanting just 1 or 2. He’s the kind of guy with a warm face and careful way of talking and he’s safe and not creepy. His smile it is. And his dirty work clothes and expensive boots. He’s hard working and spends his money from rice cultivating over a cold beer every couple weeks. He was maybe even faster than the wrong wife and her embarassing husband.

Last sip, tap glass stand up.
“Bon?” {he said. This is random French word Burkinabè love to use to note that their leaving}
I throw Mooré. “Wend na kod nidaré! {See you next time if God’s gives it}”
Nindare! Then they make comment I don’t understand and I do the uhuuuh, the noise they do when the mean “yeah!”. By now I’ve convinced them that I understand everything perfectly and they leave smiling, two steps away muterring under their breath “Oh Nasara…” Boom, I made their day.”

Learning Mooré: “Wend na kod veere!” May God give us next year!, a phrase I’ve loved throwing around to n’import qui this holiday season.

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Updates a pigg laa ta

A DOZEN & ONE UPDATES

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In picture: Pascaline cutting up pork for our impromptu Thanksgiving meal

Since last time I’ve written, just about everything in my life is new! I’ve had to re-start, yet another time, the settling in process. Finally, however, I am content with my situation and have established a great foundation for a successful two years of service.

1. House

At the start of month two at site I moved into a new house; it has finally become home. It’s big and beautiful and I am blessed by the shade (and soon fruit) of a mango tree. I even have a guest bedroom with a nice bed and mosquito net! Visitors I’m ready for you! I have a very large courtyard, my latrine is within the courtyard, my shower room is indoors. I had a little bit of a mice problem for awhile but I think, for now, they’re gone. My only housing “issues” are I’m concerned my latrine (hole in the ground with a cement cover and walls around it, for pooping) will fill up before my two years of service, and that my courtyard (still) doesn’t have a functional door meaning my privacy (and maybe security) is greatly reduced. The Peace Corps will likely deal with the full latrine (but I’m not sure how) in the event I can fill it. And I’m currently “pestering” some community members to work on getting me a door. Nothing happens fast. Oh and lastly, my place also came with a little chicken house in the courtyard!

2. Health staff

I mentioned in my previous post that soon all my health clinic (in Burkina it’s called a CSPS) staff would be replaced/new. Well sooner than I expected, yes, they’re all gone! We have a new major (head nurse), a new nurse, and a new midwife. They’re all females (which rarely happens), and that’s cool by me. I think we’ll have a lot of fun together. The new nurse, who from the beginning was quickly becoming a good friend, is still one of my best friends in country. Despite language and culture barriers she is beginning to know the real Alyssa, which is saying a lot in this completely foreign environment. One of the best parts of the staff being women is that that means they have kids with them. (Their husbands stay in the cities but kids almost always travel with mom’s work assignments.) All three of my co-workers have young children that I’ll be able to watch grow up a little bit.

3. Chickens

I’m in love with my chickens and chicken raising. The first chicken I bought, who I mentioned in my previous post, has been eaten now. My friend visited and killed the chicken for me. I made the best version I could of yaasa ginaar, a meal I used to eat in Senegal. (Rice with sauce of onions, dijon mustard, and chicken.) It was great. I had boughten for this cock a wife. Now I have, officially, two chickens- one cock, one hen. My goal is to get eggs, but so far it hasn’t happened. I’m not opposed to eating either of them though, if the occassion arises… espcially if she doesn’t hurry up and give me eggs. Unofficially, four chickens sleep at my house. They say that because my hen sleeps with three cocks every night eggs are sure to come. I’m waiting.

4. Work

As of today, my introductory/non-work period has ended. Pretty soon I can start projects. I’ve treasured the months at site where my only assignments are to study Mooré, get familiar with the village and its people, and start figuring out what the village needs are. It’s hard to explain sometimes what my work will look like. I’ll be focusing on village health education and maladie prevention. For example, in January I’ll start a health and hygiene club for girls at one of the elementary schools near my house. For the village, I’ll plan programs, camps, and sensibilations (teaching sessions) on topics like family planning, malaria, or nutrition. Even already I work with mothers of malnourished babies, mostly every Wednesday morning. However, over time I will develop programs that focus on educating particular groups on particular subjects. Of course for now I have no project results to report! I will keep you updated as my work evolves.

5. Food

I’ve been learning and loving Burkina cooking! My house is well stocked with non-perishable foods now, and whenever I have the opportunity I buy a couple fruits or veggies (veggies are available every few days, fruit maybe once a week). Peace Corps gave us a cookbook created by decades of Burkina Faso PCVs (it’s amazing), and I now have the ingredients on hand to make almost any item there. Except baked goods. There are not ovens in this country, but many volunteers set up a dutch oven – involving a metal cauldron, sand, some tomato paste cans… And then you set it over your gas-powered stove top burner and bake in it! I was’t too much of a baker in the U.S. so we’ll see if I ever get around to setting up a dutch oven.

6. Village integration

Every week I am becoming more familiar and comfortable in village. I have a church that I go to every week and even did the congregational prayer once, (in English which of course no one understands but in prayer something is transmitted anyway). I have a couple new hangout places where I can go and relax and be myself. People for miles all know my name and I’m “bothered by men” less and less (it will never go away entirely). I have more preferences now, like the shop keeper I prefer and the time of day at the market I prefer (hint: the morning before drunk people hangout there). I even know almost exactly what time the baker will have his first loaf of bread made in the morning, depending a little bit on the day of week, and this is probably something he doesn’t even know about himself.

7. My health

No news is good news on this one. I don’t have anything to report other than, grâce à Dieu, I have stayed very healthy! The occasional headache or bellyache is all I’ve been dealt with, unavoidable in any country. I haven’t even vommited or had diarrhea, quite an accomplishment I think, but I already knew from my previous African adventures that I had a strong, or perhaps part African, stomach. Thank you God for my strong and healthy body! Pray that I’ll continue in good health.

8. Language

My Mooré is improving quickly and every day! I just finished a 3-day language training session in Koudougou with a really good Mooré professor who works for Peace Corps. The training was encouraging as I realized just how far along my language skills have come, and I also realized that I can say almost anything I need to say on a daily basis. I also got a wealth of new vocabulary that I can begin putting to memory. My language tutor (and her son) attended training as well. The idea is that Peace Corps would invest their resources in training tutors who can then better train us in our villages. Definitely not a bad idea. We’ll see how much my daily tutoring sessions are different now after the training of us both. During the training in Koudougou there was a huge bi-annual festival. Vendors come from all over West Africa to sell goods, often handmade. I ran into several Senegalese people and was excited to use my Wolof with them. Although they were still impressed to have met a white person or westerner speaking Wolof (and to have found her outside of Senegal), I was sad that I had a hard time remembering even basic Wolof phrases. Mooré has really moved in, and for at least awhile, is here to stay.

9. Burkina friends

As mentioned, the nurse (Jacqueline) is one of my best Burkinabè friends. I’m also really close with my tutor (Pascaline), and her son although he’s 2 years old. (You’d be surprised though how in an environnment like this you can make a good friend out of oddly young people or really old people). One of my best memories of Pascaline is when she came to my house for tutoring on Thanksgiving and we decided to cook a big meal and invite a few people. We made riz au gras (oily orangish rice) and bought pork at the market to cook up. It was delicious, and was so nice to eat a big meal with some of the people I love most here. Beyond these two, my circle of friends is growing wide as I interact with the same villagers day after day and as I meet new functionnaires (French speaking, educated outsiders assigned by the government to come work in my village), recently lots of school teachers.

10. Peace Corps friends

My PCV friends have become even more important and enjoyable than I would have originally imagined. I recently spent almost a week with 5 of them, as there were 6 of us at the language training in Koudougou. Outside of these 5, I have 4 PCV friends who I talk to the most, and they are such a comfort to me here. People from home often ask me how closely I live or work with other Volunteers/Americans here. I am the only one in my village, and there are not many in my region of the country. There is one PCV who lives 7 km from me, but she came two groups before me and is about to leave Burkina! Her 2-years is over. Still, before she goes, I’ll make an effort to spend time with her a couple more times because having a neighbor that close is a treat. After she leaves my closest American neighbor is a PCV who lives in my regional capital, Koudougou, and after that I’m really not close to anyone.

11. Home friends (and family!)

I miss you guys! It’s weird thinking about (many of) you guys bundled up against the snowy cold while I still sweat while doing and wearing nothing. The best way to communicate with me is through Whatsapp. Contact me any way you know how and I can give you my Whatsapp number.

I’ll say that I haven’t been good at getting letters out but it’s happening slowly! You all are (way) more than welcome to mail me letters or packages and I’ll certainly send a reply!

Alyssa Feenstra, PCV
Corps de la Paix
01 B.P. 6031
Ouagadougou 01
Burkina Faso

12. Things i’m missing! / package requests

My mom has been great at sending me things that I ran out of or realized I need. Still, items that I will always enjoy include:

-Snacks (savory ones like chips, cheeze its, etc. or sweet ones like non-meltable candy… but if I get melted chocolate I’ll still love it)

-Yogi brand tea (any variety)

-Candles

-Spices or seasonings (anything will be enjoyed! Off the top of my head my requests would be curry powder and taco seasoning. Feel free to get creative.. Like ranch dressing mix or something could be cool!)

-dried lentils (green, red, brown, whole or split, anything works)

-moisturizing lotion! I didn’t bring any but realized I should have and the ones here aren’t as great as from home.

-clothes? I can’t imagine most of you/any of you necessarily buying clothes for me but… underwear is awesome (size medium at Aerie for reference). A pair of socks or two (but not more) is fun. I’m a medium in most shirts, particularly if they have some stretch to them, but even if they’re too big I can wear them around the house or to run quick errands.

13. Near future plans

My birthday is coming up! I’m not sure yet where I’m going but I’ll leave my village for a couple celebratory nights in a city. We have more freedom of travel now that we’re finished with our 3-month village-obervation period. For Christmas I’m still not sure what I’ll be doing. I’m thinking what may be best is to spend a few days with other PCVs to celebrate, but then be in my village on the day of Christmas. I was invited to spend the day at the home of my homologue (an older man) and my language tutor (his daughter-in-law). They’re going to kill a pig. For the longer-term future, I haven’t planned any vacations yet but hopefully in the spring my best friend from the U.S. and I will get together. It’ll be nice to be with someone again who knows me deeply and who I don’t have to explain myself to.

Learning French: chaud chaud (literally translates as “hot, hot” but you might use it to describe someone reading, writing, working, trying… with intensity or deep concentration.)

Learning Mooré: baagnem (dog meat… because people eat that here. I haven’t.. Yet.)