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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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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.

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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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Aventures à Toubacouta

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In picture: Crashing a birthday party in Toubacouta. We danced in the center: wonderful entertainment. Photo Credit: Alia Jeraj

I spent a long weekend in Toubacouta, a village several hours south of Dakar, and it was definitely the most interesting weekend of my entire life, in a good way. I have 14 journal pages which describe my experiences in decent detail, but most of the things were truly unexplainable. This post won’t go into as much detail as my journal notes did, but if you want to hear more about anything mentioned in this post contact me. I would love to talk more about it all.

On Friday morning we visited a small health post. My favorite part was the maternity ward; we got two see two fresh babies. We also visited two schools, one which was a public French-style school, and one that was a Coranic school, where instruction is in Arabic and the children work towards memorizing the Quran. This experience made me really want to live in a village and work in a school for my internship. The children are beyond disciplined and don’t exhaust me in the same way American children do. After lunch we visited a women’s group which takes out microfinance loans (with saddening 20% interest rates). They use the loan money to invest in products to resell. The day was so interesting, but it would only get more interesting from here.

After diner our group had a private show from a professional dance team outdoors at our hotel. (You can’t imagine a typical hotel. Instead, imagine several small huts scattered around between some trees. We ate under a pavilion next to a pool that seemed absolutely never used.) The dancers danced next to the pool and the dozen of us students sat in a line of chairs to watch. I was, by far, the most entertained that I’ve ever been by watching a performance. It was amazing! The dancers were so energetic and talented and beautiful. There was a guy on stilts and in a costume, a man covered in leaves, several men and a woman who ate fire and rubbed fire on themselves. After the dance, the dancers taught us some moves and danced with us. It was a blast. I was so amped up, my blood throbbing inside me. This intense emotion though suddenly fed anxiety instead of excitement.

After the performance, Alia and Hannah and I walked back to Hut 14. When we walked in the door, Alia calmly asked, “What are these bugs doing on my bed?” Just a moment later, I screamed. Then we all did. In our room there were hundreds of bugs. Earwigs. Google image search earwigs and you will see the exact bug that was there, pinchers and all. They were covering the ceiling, all over our mosquito nets, our beds, our pillows. There was probably twenty in my backpack, ten on just a single skirt I had sitting out. Computer, toothbrush, they were everywhere. I ran out calling for Waly. Soon after, Waly, the hotel manager, and a couple other hotel workers were over. They were pretty surprised too, but started getting to work cleaning out the hut. There was no other room for us to take.

After spending close to two hours cleaning, the room looked pretty nice. However, after just five or so minutes, the bugs were back. They were crawling in as quickly as ever, and by the time I was ready to crawl in bed, (it was quite late now), there were several more on the side of my mattress. Honestly, I probably would have been fine going to sleep, even with a few around my bed, but I just kept imagining the worst likely: waking up in the middle of the night and having them everywhere again. All over my mosquito net, falling from the ceiling crack where they were entering still, a parade. Even in the morning, how would be leave our beds? It wasn’t going to work.

Eventually, after seeing that there wasn’t going to be a way to rid Hut 14 of the infestation, Waly (bless his heart) offered us his room. His hut was smaller, but after another thirty or so minutes, we finally had it set up to sleep us three. I’m not sure where Waly slept, but I know it wasn’t in our hut. Not even he was going to put up with those bugs. After all this, Alia and I went to buy some beer for us three. Even though the kitchen was closed, the manager agreed to unlock it and get some. We tipped him well.

We drank our beer slowly and journaled about our crazy day. We let our heart rates settle and our mind formulate coherent thoughts and reflections on the day. Finally we were exhausted, and I’ve never slept better.

That was Friday. Saturday was probably just as exciting, though thankfully ended a little differently. We started the morning by taking a little wooden boat through the mangroves. Let me tell you, I was in utter bliss. For a couple hours I had not a single care in the world. I could have stayed there for days, if not forever. Some of the other students on the boat requested that I stop dragging my feet in the water, but the water was warm and beautiful and I just had to. We were going slowly enough, and there were several strong men on the boat, so it was safe Mom, (and I know if you had been there we would be doing that exact thing together). Later we visited a community radio and a community garden. The community garden was almost as beautiful as the mangroves. The garden itself was organized, healthy, and serene. In fact, I haven’t felt I was in a more perfectly peaceful place since being in Senegal. They were growing all sorts of things there, and it was extremely expansive with a couple large wells. We ate mini tomatoes off the plant, and there were also onions and cabbage and several things I didn’t ask to have identified. Even more beautiful than the physical garden was the community behind it. I’m decently knowledgeable about how the community garden works there, who is in charge of what and how it works, so if you’re interested in hearing more I can tell you.

That night we attended a Senegalese traditional wrestling event. I honestly won’t even try to explain this one. Even pictures couldn’t come close to capturing the experience which was unlike anything that exists in the United States. Combine a steady drum beat and loud singers and hundreds of spectators in a circle among some trees and tall strong Senegalese wrestlers fighting wearing next to nothing and everyone dancing and drama breaking out and prize money and… it was a lot.

The day ended as peacefully as it began. The whole time in Toubacouta we had four Senegalese male students attend the events with us. Some of us students requested that these guys help us find a perfect place to stargaze. They walked us to a cement dock in the middle of nowhere. I’m one hundred percent positive that it was the most beautiful starry sky I’ve ever seen. In a small African village, without much light, without much pollution, without much noise at all, and during the season without many mosquitos… it was perfect. If I spend my first forever in the mangroves I’ll spend my second forever under that sky.

Those were the highlights of the trip. Of course I could mention more monkey interaction and eating ice cream and having deep conversations and playing with babies. But this weekend was only a day ago, and already today I’ve already experienced more things worthy of a blog update. Life for me here never stops and it never slows down, (the biggest irony with the Senegalese slow pace of life). On the contrary, each day it gets more interesting. The learning never ends.

Learning Wolof: kepp coye, earwig (literally translates as ‘penis pincher’… yes.)