Meet Burkina

learning & sharing Burkina Faso


sura saame: Peace Corps Burkina Faso Evacuation


In photo: the last minute with Nebie, my best friend in Burkina Faso, as the Peace Corps car arrived to pick me up and take me out. There’s a glint of smile behind my (very real) sad face, because Nebie was telling me my sad lip was too much. My emotions were all over the place.

It’s been a full week since I first heard the heart-wretching news. I kept wanting to post online to tell my family and friends about it but I never felt like there was a good time or I had found the words. I now know there will never be a ‘good time’ and I’ll probably never find the right words.

The Peace Corps Burkina Faso program has ended and all 124 volunteers have been evacuated. It has been a tremendously difficult, sad, and confusing week. Over the weekend we were, with almost no information given, bussed to Ghana, our primary evacuation route. We have been in a fancy hotel in Accra for the past several days doing extensive paperwork, getting medical examinations, reviewing mental health best practices, making big decisions about the coming year, and mostly just supporting each other as we all wrestle with intense emotions. Oh, and we have hot showers and delicious food.

We still have received no information on the specific reasons for evacuation at this time. We are told that the decision was made based on volunteer safety and security. Besides the larger terrorist attacks in Burkina that have made national news in the past couple years, volunteers have heard rumors about other security threats. Ultimately we will probably never know the details of the evacuation decision or whatever became “the last straw”.

I am first and foremost devastated. I left my home in the middle of the night, rushing to pack the most important items into a backpack, saying goodbye to no one. I left behind just about everything. It’s not about the clothes and the kitchen things and my furniture. I left behind my chickens, no goodbye. I left behind my neighbors and co-workers, no goodbye. I left behind my village and the dear little children, no goodbye. And they’ll likely never know, and really never understand, my exit.

I am upset a little bit too, which often comes with feelings of devastation, but it’s different. There is not a place on the planet where I’ve felt safer than I do in Burkina Faso. Although I am not privy to the highest intelligences that government decisions are based on, I never felt the least bit threatened in my daily life. I’m upset that the place I felt most safe in has been deemed off limits for my security. I wrestle too with complicated emotions that involve privilege: of being white, American, and relatively rich – the fact that I can escape danger zones and travel anywhere in the world I want. For many people I love, this will never be an option.

I am trying to attach my situation and emotions to other people and places, past and present. I think about the various refugee crises and how I can now better relate to aspects of refugee experience, including leaving all your possessions behind and having no time for goodbyes or producing closure. Then sometimes I feel guilty for comparing my experience with the refugee one: the links are minimal and I am still so so blessed, so fortunate. No one I know was hurt. I have money and a place to go home to. I am surrounded by and connected to a government and individuals who look out for me and support me. I’m so okay.

I watch the news (in English! It had been a year and a half.), about the hurricanes hitting the U.S. this week. I can’t imagine the loss and destruction, or the experience of losing loved ones in such a way, but it helps put my experience in perspective. Absolutely nothing in this life is certain. Certainty is foolish, fake. The least expected will happen, someday.

As for my immediate and long-term plans: I do not know. Thanks for accepting ‘I don’t know’ as a response, and thank you for praying that God will guide me through the next several months.

For now I am in Accra, with no plane ticket or travel plans out. I might go to Togo. I might go to Cote d’Ivoire. I’m interesting in exploring and recovering in west Africa, spending a few days in Europe perhaps, and then making it to Michigan before September ends. Peace Corps has given me airline money and little bit of evacuation cash. I have absolutely nowhere to be, no commitments to anyone. I’m free, with cash in my pocket, in my absolute favorite corner of the world; I’m so okay.

Learning Moore: sura saame (a broken heart)

Learning Twi: Me wo Ghana. (“I’m in Ghana.” Want to meet up?) P.S. Accra was the first I’ve ever seen of Africa, back in 2013. I’ve stayed in contact with a “host brother” (of sorts) that I stayed with in 2013, and I’ve spent a lot of time reconnecting with him this week. It has been amazing, and I know he’ll be an ever-important person in my life. I also visited my Accra “host family” this week, including little Maxwell who didn’t remember me but loved seeing photos of himself cuddling with me way back when…


In photo: Maxwell (age 5) & me, circa June 2013, saying goodbye as I packed my bags. Accra, Ghana. I was so happy for the unexpected “hello again” this week.


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Chickens & Life

(photo not uploading! will come “soon”…)

In photo: me with two functionnaire guys who teach at the primary school near my house. To my left is the director of the school. To my right is a teacher who helps me run my health club. They were showing Burkina pride for an upcoming soccer match.

I’ve been through a couple hens since last we’ve talked. After coming home from a little New Year’s vacation (traveled to a friend’s village), I thought someone had stolen my hen! She had been so faithful, but suddenly wasn’t coming home at night anymore. Theft increases during the holidays.

A few days later, the midwife came to me with bad news. Your hen is at my house! She’s been laying eggs there! But she died…

She died on top of her eggs. Of the dozen or so eggs, 6 of them managed to hatch. Six little chicks marched around the health center grounds, without a mother. By day two, 6 became 4, and by day four, 4 became 2. Those two, those two strong little orphans, are still alive today, spending lots of time in my courtyard. One is deformed and sick… but I give them lots of love and have a world of hope for them.

Shortly after her death I asked Paul, my counterpart in the village, to search for a hen or two for my cock. A few days later, for the American dollar equivalent of about $4.00, he came back with a hen for me.

I waited for eggs. After just a couple weeks she laid one! At my home in her chicken house. After a few days there was still only one egg. “She’s laying them somewhere else”, my tutor explained knowingly. I didn’t really look, my idea being that one night she’d come home with a family of chicks behind her. I wasn’t going to count my eggs until they hatched, and after my last hen’s misfortunate,
I wasn’t going to get too excited over the pregnancy.

Although I didn’t know where she was laying her eggs, I knew something was up with her; pregnancy was a logical explanation. Every morning at 6:20 or so, my hen (instead of a cock) was my alarm clock. She cried and cried at the courtyard door, waking me up, and I would go and let her out. This wasn’t her normal behavior, usually content to rest chez moi until 8:00 even, and never in a rush to leave my peaceful yard. I assumed, every morning, that she had an egg inside her she just had to get out.

You know, before chicken raising in Burkina, I guess I just assumed that chickens lay all their eggs at once and sit on them awhile and then they hatch. To have a dozen child-fist sized eggs inside one hen all at once I guess, now, seems a bit too incredible. But I never imagined the process of just laying the eggs taking weeks.

About 4 days ago I was greeting a neighbor, a sweet woman who I don’t know well but whose 3-year-old son often visits my courtyard and we eat peanuts together. I mentioned to her that I had hen who, for the past few weeks, had been laying eggs somewhere. She said she hadn’t noticed anything, but that she would keep an eye out, and oh we can look around her courtyard to be sure there’s not an egg stash somewhere.

Sure enough, in an abandoned mud building designed to serve as a kitchen, we found eggs. A neat pile of 9 eggs, in a secluded corner of an open but unused building. I was excited! So my hen has been laying eggs, and there’s nine already, and she’s not even done! Still I kept my eagerness somewhat low and very quiet, mentioning my excitement to just 2 out of my many friends.

Two was too many, my hopes falling in just 36 hours. Two days ago I woke up at 7:10am… “7:10am?” I asked myself, as I instantly thought of my hen. I got out of bed faster than I ever have, to see what was up with my chickens who were a little too quiet for comfort. Sure enough not-quite-mother hen was still inside the courtyard, laying on the roof of the hen house. I approached her and she layed still, showing no excitement or fear that I was a mere foot away. So I started throwing feed on the ground and this pregnant mama didn’t even budge. Man, I thought. She’s gonna die.

I kind of knew that was the end of it, largely because another neighbor guy, a teacher at the nearby elementary school, recently lost 4 chickens to a chicken sickness going around. I had watched 2 of them die just the night before.

The story I’m telling could go on and on. If I gave all the possible detail you’d be reading for another forty minutes. But in sum, I rushed out of my house to ask for advice handling my sick chicken. “Give her fresh hot peppers!”, one friend said. Another said, “This isn’t a crisis. Kill and eat her.”

So I killed and ate her, this soon-to-be-mother of nine or more. I cooked yaasa ginaar- a Senegalese dish requiring chicken and including onion and spicy mustard. I shared some with my tutor and the neighbors. I could only eat a few pieces of her… just a day before I was excited for this new mom! “…And eat her eggs too!”, every knowing party reminded me. “Of course”, I said, with half of my heart.

Childbirth is hard, and in this region of the world it’s especially arduous. I recently heard an African birthing proverb saying that the beginning of life is the closest to death. There’s an abundance of African proverbs alluding to the unsureness of pregnancy and birth. It truly is the most dangerous moment, the most life-threatening event, that most Burkinabè women will experience. The life is the baby is never sure.. The life of the mother is never sure. The husband waits, sometimes outside the birthing ward but usually far, far away.. he awaits, with a fear that eats the excitement.

The first time I witnessed a birth since living in Nassoulou, the baby was born dead. For an hour the midwife hit him, trying to envoke a response. Nothing. After his birth, which took a couple hours, I sat just outside the birthig room for a couple more, quiet and yes sad, but kind of unsure how to feel. Man, is this how it is then, sometimes? No one around me was surprised- yeah, it’s like that. We can’t win every time. I’ve never talked about that day with the midwife or other nurses. We tried to forget about it.

When my first hen died during childbirth, I found it uncomfortably ironic then that she had died at the midwife’s house. When my second hen died, I wanted to believe that it was just the “chicken flu” that killed her… Except that the guy who came to slaughter her told me that it was because of her pregnancy and she had a ruptured egg inside. I asked myself if maybe it was my fault she died. Did she wail at 6am but I had slept through it and since she couldn’t lay her egg it exploded inside her? I haven’t had the courage to witness another birth at the CSPS, fearing that even if it wasn’t me who brought bad luck to the birthing room, if I witnessed another still-born everyone would think so.

Birth and life aren’t givens. The percentage of time death wins is higher in Burkina than most other countries. But these experiences have reminded me that we aren’t garunteed tomorrow. Our life tomorrow isn’t garunteed, the the life of our children tomorrow isn’t garunteed. God gives and he takes. We can count our blessings only when they hatch.

Site life is great and recently has gotten very busy. Busy is good, because it doesn’t allow me to get bored. And someone once told me it’s not possible to be lonely unless first you’re bored. I think I disagree, but nevertheless, boredom and lonliness haven’t stuck around lately.

My biggest project accomplishment has been starting my girl’s health and hygiene club. I have 15 sweet girls, ages ranging 10 to 16. We meet for a couple hours every Tuesday night, and a teacher friend helps translate and teach. The objective is that these 15 girls will be trained and soon able to educate, on their own, their classmates and other villagers. We are in our fifth week and the girls are starting to open up and gain confidence in speaking. I have so much hope for these girls, and see them becoming leaders in their communities.

I’ve started a few other smaller projects and have lots of dreams I hope to soon begin realizing. I drop off a couple letters everytime I make it to a big city, and love communicating cross-continent. I reply to every mail I receive! If you want to chat snail-mail, you can hit me at:

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

I love you guys! Thanks for the support, and talk to you soon!

Learning Mooré: “Bi-yam n daad a ma samsa.” A smart child buhys cakes from his own mother. Instead of shopping elsewhere, a child should support his mother. Investing in her is investing in himself.

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Journal Excerpts 1



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.