Meet Burkina

learning & sharing Burkina Faso


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sura saame: Peace Corps Burkina Faso Evacuation

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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…

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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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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.)