Meet Burkina

learning & sharing Burkina Faso


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Empty Wallets, Full Hearts

Once a week I write and turn in an essay about my experiences here. Sometimes the essay topics are chosen for us, sometimes they just must relate to Senegal geography/history/culture, and sometimes they must be a personal reflection. I turn them in in French, but first I write in English in order to organize my thoughts and lay out a map. When I go to translate it into French, some of the sentences’ meanings change a little because of my limited French vocabulary or the non-existence of certain words. Also, when I write the first draft in English, I often choose my words based on what I know I can easily translate into French. Here is the most recent essay I wrote. It needed to be a personal reflection essay, but it’s always good when the essay relates to development which is the focus of the MSID program. The essay is the expansion of a journal entry I wrote near the beginning of my life in Dakar, but since that day I’ve been thinking about the topic a lot and forming an opinion. Here it is.


Empty wallets, full hearts

Since being in Senegal, my ideas and perceptions of many things have changed. My ideas about religion are being challenged, my ideas about myself are being challenged, and my ideas about poverty are being challenged greatly. “Poverty” is one of the first words the typical westerner thinks of when they think about Africa, and “development” is the most commonly proposed solution. Indeed, almost all development scholars include “reduction of poverty” in their definition of development. Since being here I find myself asking questions like, “What is poverty? Why is it an important topic?”

Some friends in the United States, upon hearing that I have a maid at my house here in Senegal, assume my family is rich. I’m not here to talk about my family’s income because truly I don’t know, but consider this scenario: if family A lives on $10 a day and woman B’s family lives on $1 a day, woman B might be willing to work for a wage well within the budget of a $10 a day family. Having a maid doesn’t mean you’re rich, but it means you’re wealthy when compared to someone else in your city. Maybe a family can’t afford a computer but they can afford a maid. Perhaps culturally maids are a higher priority when a family considers what they want to spend their money on.

Now yes, I know that I am in fact living in a relatively wealthy neighborhood in Dakar. But that’s just the thing: this neighborhood is relatively wealthy. Mermoz is wealthy when compared to other neighborhoods in Dakar, and Dakar is wealthy relative to other cities in Senegal. I would argue that relative wealth, and relative poverty, are the only values that are even relevant in a society. Absolute poverty, often expressed in American dollars as people living on less than $1.25 a day, seems almost entirely irrelevant to me. Although it might shed light on how Senegal as a nation compares to other nations in the world economically, it does nothing to talk about an individual’s daily life.

But even if relative poverty values are more relevant than absolute poverty values, I still find myself asking “What is poverty?” I think the more important questions to ask other than “Are these people poor?” are questions like: can they see a doctor if they want to? Can they go to school if they want to? Are they happy? If the answers to questions like these are “yes”, what does it matter how much money is in their bank account?

I’m not suggesting that the discussion of reducing poverty be taken off the table altogether. Surely reducing poverty will probably lend itself to giving people more access to medical treatment, schools, and happiness. However, what if putting more money in someone’s pocket doesn’t lend itself to better access or health? Maybe the infrastructure or the trained doctors aren’t there. What if more money in someone’s pocket doesn’t mean more access to education, if there isn’t a school within walking distance or the teachers are always on strike because of government corruption? What if money is in fact the root of all evil, and that simply more money won’t lead to more happiness? Have we ever seen that casual line between money and happiness proved?

I’m suggesting instead that we stop worrying so much about economic development, particularly on the individual level. Instead, we should ask questions about how many doctors there are, and how accessible clinics are. Are there adequate schools and supplies and are teachers treated well? Are people happy, do they feel empowered, are they free?

I think we are living in an interesting time in history, a time where there are the greatest wealth disparities in the world but the greatest awareness of what exists for the other half. With today’s media, Americans are aware, or at least think they are aware, of the poverty in Africa. Africans are aware of the wealth in the United States, even if the view gets skewed as it travels through the technology waves. But I think that it’s important to critically think about what poverty is so that when we as a world try to fight it, we build up healthier, smarter, and happier people, not bank accounts. Yes, I am living here comfortably. I think anyone could. But my family’s income and whether or not we have a maid does not define poverty. My family in Dakar is wealthy because we can see a doctor when we need to, go to school when we want to, and smile because we’re happy.


Learning French: passer la nuit à la belle étoile, to spend the night under the stars. (I wish.)

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Buses, boys, and bug bites

Don’t freak out, I’m totally fine… but I got hit by a bus this morning. Actually. I walked away with barely a scrape and it didn’t even scare me as much as it should have because I was in a state of disbelief the whole rest of the way to school. You can imagine it kind of like if one of your friends came up from behind you and gave you a hard shove, but you keep yourself from falling over by taking a few large steps. After the fact, the bus honked at me, and I interpreted the honk as meaning something like, “Oh hi, didn’t see you there. It’s just me.” And, in my defense, I wasn’t even walking in the road. I was crossing a driveway to pull into the gas station. Pedestrians don’t have as many rights here as they do in Ann Arbor. To be honest, being hit by a bus seems like the only appropriate ending to a crazy, bizarre, emotional weekend.

There are a few things that happened this weekend that I don’t feel comfortable sharing on this blog due to my broad/diverse readership, but I was definitely faced with some interesting dilemmas, especially yesterday, on Sunday. There’s a couple emotional things that happened yesterday that I can talk about, however.

To begin, I had an important, overdue, and really good conversation with my host brother. We talked about a lot of things. The conversation was prompted by my need to understand the rules about going out and what time I should return each night. Although I tried to explain that I didn’t mind having some rules, the final conclusion of the conversation was that I was an adult, free, and because I was an American, I’m not required to follow the cultural rules in Senegal. The thing is is I don’t mind following cultural guidelines. When in Rome, right? It’s interesting to live by new rules and try to understand another cultural perspective. But I guess I can still learn about the norms here and live by the ones I want to live by. I guess I’m taking the best from both worlds. I’m a lucky girl.

My brother also talked to me for a long time about the dating scene here. It was all very interesting. He told me some tips and tricks for having two girlfriends at once. He made it sound like it was not at all uncommon for guys to have multiple significant others at the same time. And, since at least one but I think two of my professors here have also talked about this, I think there’s truth behind it. Of course there are always exceptions to any generalization, and in this case I hope there are many guys who are exceptions, but it happens more here than in the U.S., I would say, and when it does people are less surprised.

Emotional in a different way was the amount of homework I had to do yesterday. I had two essays due at 9am this morning, written in French of course. Each needed to be between 2 and 4 pages typed. I worked on them just about all day. One was about religion, focusing on Christianity and Islam. The other was adopted from my blog post about what I am learning about meal time. After I finished them Yama read through them and corrected some things. He also had a lot to say about the content of the essays. I could rewrite the essay about meal time knowing what I know now from Yama, and it would be quite different. Of course, I’ll never stop learning. I could rewrite the same essay every week here on a given topic and there would always be more to add.

To give some other brief updates about this crazy weekend, some of which you might deem TMI and you may be justified…

First, I’m not constipated anymore. For about a week prior to this weekend I was having a lot of trouble, and I tried many things to fix the issue. I was drinking plenty of water, trying to eat as best as I could, and was even taking laxatives. Finally, after nothing worked, I drank some sort of home-made remedy from my friend Sadikh. I guess it wasn’t just for constipation but for regulating a healthy body in general, but it was exactly what I needed. I think it was a piece of aloe vera soaked in some water. I’ve used aloe vera topically before but never ingested it. Anyway, it was magical potion for me.

Second, I have so many bug bites. I don’t think I’ve had this much in forever, except maybe while camping as a child. They’re mostly on my legs but they’re everywhere. Admittedly I haven’t been wearing bug spray, but that’s because I never actually see whatever bugs these are that are getting me! I imagine I must be getting some while I’m asleep, but I have never seen a mosquito in my room. Some of them might be spider bites… I have seen spiders in my room. There’s one classroom at school that has a lot of mosquitos in it, but thankfully I’m only in that classroom one day a week. I guess I might start using bug spray on my legs even though I rarely see mosquitos. Somehow they still see me.

Third, today I bought a foot pumice during my lunch break! I was so excited to see one in the checkout line. I used it today after my shower and my feet are now back to an acceptable standard. (I also took another warm bucket shower, which makes my day every time.)

Lastly, I’ve been having really good conversations with several people. I’m beginning to truly know people, including specifically Yama and Haley. Haley is another American on my program, from Wisconsin. I’m so thankful for her. She’s one of the few people here that I think can know me on a deep level, largely because I can be my entire self only in the English language, and I don’t know what I would do without her. Her weird and crazy helps me get through my weird and crazy, and although some could call us unlikely friends, she’s one of the best.

Learning French: Je danse donc je suis, I dance therefore I am. (This is one African take on the more Western idea of “I think therefore I am.”)