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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Burkina with a side of Senegal

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In photo: Ataaya and a view with Yama in Yène Guedj, Senegal on August 20th.

Village life:

I’ve been in Burkina for about 14 months now. The first year, overall, wasn’t too difficult: I learned the local language (Mooré) quickly, developed deep friendships, and felt accomplished in my work. I also was remarkably healthy. And happy.

The most recent 2 months have been challenging. I could name various reasons for this. One reason could be the overall vibe of the village; it’s cultivating season so people are busy in their fields all day. There’s not the normal village hustle and bustle, (by which I’m referring to a dozen people drinking under a nearby tree or the bike repair main with a line of a few broken bikes, as examples). Relatedly, the harvest is a couple months away which means now’s the time when families are running out of food and, relatedly, money. If there’s a month of hunger it’s now. Of course I’m not starving, but it affects me physically (almost no food available on market days for purchase- most of my food I transport from the city for now), and mentally, as I wrestle with the fact that people I talk to every day actually are hungry. “Hungry”: do I even know the feeling?

A couple weeks ago I made really good tacos and was so proud of them. I took one to go walk around the market area, hoping someone would ask, “Alima, what in the world is that?!” They did. I convinced a good friend (bike mechanic) to try a bite, and he did! He was better at convincing people to try it than I was, and soon the taco was gone as the men all wanted to taste and see. “What’s that?”, pointing at the tortilla shell specifically. “Uhh… bread”, I said, knowing I could rack my brain forever and not find a better Mooré word. “And that?”- lentils. “Beans”, I said. “And… that….?” – melted cheese. “Milk sauce!”. I really got creative with my language usage. Maybe such a bizarre food tasted so good because they were simply hungry!

A second reason that village life has been hard the past several weeks is I’ve been a little sick, but not in an easily explained way. I had a slight but steady fever for a week- probably longer. I had absolutely zero appetite: part of this could be due to having limited ingredients and therefore strange meals; part of this could be due to the fact that I was emotionally off, feeling isolated, unproductive, and un-useful. I recently read online that gastro-intestinal issues and mental health are closely linked. I’m not sure if this is true, but it sure seemed that way. I might have parasites of some sort, and if I do they’ll be detected next month at my medical examination.

A third reason for having a rough patch in my service could be contributed to an overall fatigue/temporary burn-out period. In the 14 months I hadn’t taken a vacation. (I have now! I’m currently in the airport in Dakar heading home after a nice 2 weeks here.) My phone service in village had gotten terrible so I wasn’t able to even call people without much effort. I knew lots of crazy things were going on in the world (attacks, American politics, etc.) but I had no news access or reliable souce of information. My main work was paused because of both the school break and cultivation period so I was home and alone and lonely a lot. On one hand I needed a rest from it all; on the other hand it felt like all I did was rest. I felt guilty.

I think this rough patch is over! As I head back to village soon, I plan to arrive refreshed and motivated. I’ll great people ethusiatically, cook appetizing meals, and start a few new projects. I’ll try to convince myself that spending a day at home reading and resting is not something that should produce guilt.

Just peace. Jamm rekk.

Senegal vacation:

“Jamm rekk” is actually not Mooré but rather it’s Wolof, the language I’ve been immersed in the past 2 weeks. My Wolof skills, which were sharp a couple years ago following a semester of intensive study in Dakar, are terribly rusty. However, a shocking number of Wolof words came back to my mind in the exact moment I needed to say them. Everything around me became a cue or a trigger, and my memory served me phrases on a platter.

The vacation was interesting. It had already been weird before leaving Burkina because I had a dramatic incident where Peace Corps required me to change my dates of my trip at what I considered to be the last minute. I felt awkward telling my host family and friends in Senegal about the switch in dates. ..they think I’m not coming at all… they think I’m crazy… they think I’m finding an excuse to wait a few more months, or years, to visit….

Not too mention my poor, confused chicken babysitter in my village who believed I hadn’t left my house even though I told her I had. (She was right- I hadn’t. Still hoping it wasn’t a ‘boy who cried wolf’ situation and she’s been feeding my chickens the past 2 weeks.)

Anyway, I was able to spend a bit of time with friends and host family members in Senegal. I also visited old beach towns I’d loved before. Being in Senegal after having lived in Burkina (and having become Burkinabè even) was interesting. I could compare the two countries on a deeper level.

Senegal felt different a little bit. Like it had changed. Or maybe I had changed? I never remembered the beach at Yène being so dirty: was it dirty last time but I had been wearing romantic, rose-colored glasses and accepted the trash as a part of an African beach?

During my vacation, I hated my 1 visit to a big market in Dakar. The sellers were touchy, pushy, loud, and impolite. Had the market atmosphere always been like this, or could it have gotten worse? Maybe it has changed, but more likely, in this situation, it was me who changed. I may have used to accept this market atmosphere as a normal west-African phenomena. But after visiting countless markets in Burkina- where sellers are totally calm and would never touch me, I felt differently, (and didn’t like), the Dakar shopping experience.

Language was different. My French has truly have taken on the accent and grammar of a Burkinabè speaker, shocking and even saddening my closest Senegalese friends. Wolof sounded different, and I was newly interested in it’s grammar and cultural elements, (for example, the Wolof system of counting money). Relationships were different too, some for the better and some for the worst. It was surprisingly easy to re-connect with my host siblings and I was more at ease with them than I’d ever been. My relationships with my two closest friends in Senegal, contrarily, were emotional and difficult for me. I wanted things to have felt the same like before, but the distance that had formed between us became suddenly evident and painful.

Anyway I know my eyes and my head and my heart has changed dramatically since study abroad a couple years ago. And I know Senegal is changing a lot too. I asked Yama, and yes.. the beach hadn’t been so dirty last time. The market, this time around, may have been extra chaotic because of the approaching holiday (Tabaski). But I knew my eyes were much more critical as well. Too critical at times, comparing too much instead of accepting Senegal as it’s own seperate entity, unlinked. Senegal and Burkina are as different as an American would find them similar.

American Ambassador to Senegal!!:

One of the best days of my academic/professional life was visiting the American Ambassador Mushingi in Dakar. I could go on and on about the day at the embassy and my conversation with him… I hope to post a seperate blog about it someday soon. You guys know how infrequent my blogging has been; no promises on “soon”…

Future plans:

I’m eager for the school year to start back up in village. I want to add soccer to my girl’s health club, meaning we would have soccer practices and games, but health topics would be woven into our meetings. (There’s a popular Peace Corps program like this.) I also hope to re-integrate, more deeply this time, into the CSPS (health center) work.

In December my parents and little sister will come visit Burkina Faso. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for something in my entire life. I have lots of plans for us, but mostly just sitting and talking and looking at eachother. It’s been awhile.

 

Learning Mooré: bēndga (a trap)

Learning Dioula: fey (verb ‘to have’)

Learning Wolof: niakk (word to describe someone from the “true west African bush countries” like Mali, Burkina Faso, etc. In Senegal, friends and strangers alike were hugely entertained to meet a Toubab who had become so exactly a niakk).

Learning French: casanier (a homebody)

 


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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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So Faso Good

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Photo: my host mother cooking dinner with baby Ibrahim on her back.

I’m eating peanut butter cookies that taste so strikingly similar to my mother’s homemade ones it’s comforting. The internet connection is down again at the Cyber Café where I planned to blog today; there’s never been a more fitting time to say ‘if it’s not one thing it’s another’. Anyway, I’m resorting to blogging from my phone using cellular data I purchase by the month. We’ll see how it goes.

There’s all sorts of things I could say. The first month in a totally new environment will naturally provide countless stories of surprise and confusion, happiness and triumph. There’s also a slew of information thrown at me daily that would be interesting to write on, and of course so too would be the things that for me have become mundane basics but are still relevant for readers trying to imagine my new life.

African style, I’ll talk about my family first. I live with a Muslim family. My host father has two wives. Altogether there’s 11 children, so our family is 15 including me. The children are as follows:

Sankara Musa, boy, 14
Sarata, girl, 13
Adama, girl, 12
Rabiuatou, girl, 11
Abubakar, boy, 11
Sakinatou, girl, 7
Noufou, boy, 7
Alassane, boy, 5
Samiratou, girl, 4
Mussilime, boy, 3
Ibrahim, boy, 2

So yes, we have just about every age represented. I adore all my siblings and by now they’re all more than comfortable with me, (although only mom can satisfy a crying, hungry baby). Unlike many of the situations for other PCTs, Peace Corps Trainees, my house is seperate from other houses and who is my sibling, and who is not, is clearly defined. When my parents are home, the only children at our house and these 11 – and they’re always all there. I’m thankful for that because it has allowed me to become closer to my siblings and spend lots of time with them.

Samiratou is my baby. The family even refers to her as such: Alima’s baby. (You should know that, like in Senegal, my name is Alima here.) And she is. She can’t speak any French (and I speak only a few phrases and random words in Mooré so we can’t talk), but we have a good relationship. I favor her, you could say. But everyone is okay with it.

I haven’t talked to my host father too much yet, and I’m not sure about his French abilities, although I assume they are somewhat limited. Someday I’m sure we will have a conversation beyond basic things. Neither of my mothers speak any French, so it’s mostly just smiling and laughing and basic words like “bucket”, “water”, “beans”, “thank you”, in Mooré. However, my three oldest siblings speak French because of school, so they are useful and very appreciated translators. No one here speaks English.

We live in a small village called Sanga, so small that you won’t be able to find it on a map. Our compound is towards what I perceive as “the back” of Sanga, about 10 minutes by bike from the main road. There are a few homes visible from my own, but my home is fairly secluded, with fields on 3 sides, trees all around, and the forest behind. My home is built around a large courtyard where you can find three mango trees, three cows, numerous chickens, and sometimes visiting goats, (most recently a baby one at my bedroom door this morning who wouldn’t budge, apparantly too young to fear people yet). On the eastern edge of the courtyard we have an open air kitchen, where we can make 3 or 4 fires at once to prepare meals or hot water for bathing. Around the courtyard stand 6 buildings, made with a cement-like mud. Five of them are roofed. The eastern-most building is a kitchen, especially useful when it’s raining outside. This is also where we store some of our nicer kitchen ware and maybe some food. I haven’t explored in there much yet. On the roof of the building, I learned recently, we dry things like shea pits that can later be used for shea butter.

Clockwise, the next building is where my host father sleeps. I’ve never been in there. Next, past the cow mud, is the building where Sankara Musa sleeps, the first born son. He’s 14. Sankara, however, just left the family for a couple months. I’m not exactly sure where he went or why,  but seeing as how he is one of my main translators, and a good friend, it was very sad. I guess the next time I see him we can converse in Mooré. Next is the building without a roof, where we store random currently useless items that someday will probably become useful. It’s also, informally, a compost area.

Next is my building… or should I say palace? I am truly in love with the part of the home I get to call my own. When you walk in my door, you enter my bedroom/sitting room/kitchenette. My kitchenette is just a table with food necessities and my water filter. The sitting area includes an old cloth bench from a bus, and a metal table with a silk tablecloth. My bed, with 4 posts and a glamorous mosquito net, is suitable for a princess. My room also has a hallway that leads to my shower. It’s an indoor shower, with a window and a stellar view. Of course we don’t have running water or any plumbing, so my shower is just a cement slab with a hole in the side of the mud wall, but it’s probably my favorite place in Sanga. Also off from the hallway is my 12 by 18 foot walk in closet – an open room with a clothes line, and the place where I store all my belongings.

Between my building and the next is my latrine, where I poop. It’s a simple hole in the ground but I don’t mind it at all. For those curious, and I’ve already had a few ask, I don’t use toilet paper anymore. Don’t worry, I stay very clean. I’m comfortable talking about the subject further for anyone interested.

The final building before the door of the compound is the room where the women and children (except Sankara) sleep. My building, for just me, is bigger than the room where 2 women and 10 kids sleep every night.

I’ve do all sorts of things with my family several to pass the time. Several nights, between 7 and 10 of us gather on my bedroom to color. A kid will rip out a page, color it with my fancy roll up crayons, and then give it to me to check. “Yaa soma!”, I say in Mooré. Good job! I look it over for a couple minutes, really studying it so they know I care. Then there’s a section of my wall where I tape them. I told them they could take their pictures with them but they like their art being in my gallery. The coloring book is Disney Princesses, and it’s fun watching even my brothers take it so seriously. Actually, I recently learned that Abubakar (boy, 11) is the best artist of them all and, as he sat down to start, the other kids warned me of this: “Watch, he’s really good”, they explained.

We’ve also all gathered around on a mat to watch a movie on my laptop. There’s 2 English words the kids know. The first one I taught them is “Good night”. The first few nights after they learned it they lined up at my door, one by one, to all tell me “good niiiigh”. They still do it every night, sometimes at my door. Anyway, the second word they learned was “télé”… which actually I didn’t teach them, but one of them taught all the others. Télé refers to television which is what they call my laptop when they want to watch a movie.

However, my favorite thing to do with my family is lounge in the courtyard and just observe, talk, cuddle with the little ones, tease the older ones, and all around just serve as the entertainment. All the attention I get in Burkina (for being a foreigner and/or white) gets tiring sometimes, but I love being the reason why all 11 kids are talking and laughing (and sometimes fighting) on a mat that normally would seat only 3 or 4 people comfortably. My moms join in on the fun too, and if dad’s around he usually watches quietly from a short distance away. I wonder what goes through his mind.

As to not be overly ambitious posting from my phone with mediocre internet connection, and because my lunch break is near over, I’ll end this post here. I already have 2 more posts planned and partially written, and if this posting goes well, will post the next within the week.

That said, if you have any ideas for things you would like me to post about, please let me know! Also, I’m compiling a list of questions from family/friends/readers, so feel free to ask anything and I’ll anonymously respond to them all in a future post.

Lastly, if you want to send me letters or packages, you can do so at:

Alyssa Feenstra

s/c Corps de la Paix

01 B.P. 6031 Ouagadougou 01

Burkina Faso

 

Contact me, or my mom, for package content ideas, or wait to read my needs/cravings in a future post. Thank you!

Learning Mooré: Mam nonga benga, I love benga. (Benga is a bean grown widely in Burkina, and is my favorite food here. Yesterday I went to my family’s fields where the task of the day was planting benga seeds. I think they’re what we call black eyed peas.)


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Destination: Burkina Faso!

In just a little over a week I’ll be on my way back to west Africa, the place I miss most…

I will serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in west Africa, slighter bigger in size than the state of Michigan, with an estimated population of 17 million people and a life expectancy of 55 years.

I will do pre-service training for the first three months in a village called Léo in southern Burkina Faso. Following training I will serve for 2 years in another village, TBD.

My job title is “Community Health Educator”, and my work may be centered around things like maternal and child health, nutrition, malaria prevention and treatment, hygiene and diarrhea prevention, HIV/AIDS awareness, and teen pregnancy reduction.

Language wise, my French skills will be a huge asset. However, I will also learn at least one other local language. The one I’ll start with is called Moore. Where I’m placed for my 2 years of service will determine if I have to learn another language (on top of French and Moore), and if so, which.

I don’t know many details about how life will look, but I’m excited to share my adventures with my family and friends at home (and in various places around the world).

This last week consists mostly of family time, time with some friends for sure too, and a little bit of organizing/packing.

Next weekend I will first fly to Philadelphia, spending a few days there with other Burkina-bound Volunteers. After that it’s from Philly to Brussels, and Brussels to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso…

Learning Moore: Laafi bala, I’m feeling good. (Used as the response for many greetings.)


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A little reflecting on little changes

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In picture: Me and my globe pillow I’ve had since I was a baby.

PSA to everyone in my life: I live in Ann Arbor, in a big beautiful house with 9 beautiful women. My bedroom is modest but nice. It’s not fully unpacked yet, but that’s okay. You (every one of you) are welcome to come over whenever you want! It’s something I loved so much about Senegal and will miss dearly: it’s not expected, and even can be rude, to ask to come over. Don’t wait for someone to invite you over: they won’t. And if you want to go over, don’t ask. Just go! If that means you are over every day, okay that’s fine. If that means you come over when your friend isn’t home – okay, fine, turn on the TV. If that means you come over when your friend is sleeping – okay, nicely wake him up, or not, but you can stay and hangout. You can treat my bedroom like a Senegalese one, if you want. Stop by! If I’m busy with something important I’ll make just a little time for you, but you can still eat some food and chill while I continue my work. I’m sure just about none of you will take me up on this offer, but it’s honestly there – if you show up at my house unannounced and ask for a drink and snack I will love you for it.

I’ve been home for ten days now and I finally feel like I am able to reflect on my time in Senegal and leaving Senegal. For the first week, it felt sort of like I was physically back in Michigan, but not necessarily emotionally. I still thought thoughts in French. For the first week, when I woke up in the mornings in my bed at home, I had to re-realize that I wasn’t in Senegal anymore. It was always the saddest part of my day. Often I would come close to crying. Once I did.

I realized today in the shower, (where all my best thoughts come), that my four months in Senegal and my next four months over this summer spent in Ann Arbor, are perfect opposites when it comes to many things relating to independence. That’s a confusing sentence I know. What I mean is that, for example, in Senegal I had no control over what I ate, for the first time since I was young. Now, in Ann Arbor, for the first time in my life, I have 100% control over what I eat; I buy groceries and cook all my own meals. In Senegal, for the first time in a long time, I had to be home by a certain time. I kind of had to announce when I was coming and going. I had to be respectful of the family. But now in Ann Arbor, for the first time, I have literally no rules and no one watching over me, (except my dearest roommates like Megan and Kelly of course). Even last year in the sorority house I had a house mom, and there were certain rules (ie: no boys over past midnight, etc.) It’s a weird transition is all I’m saying. The reverse culture shock is real.

Although I feel comfortably adjusted back to life in Michigan now finally, I also realized that some of me will never go back to normal. Waly had told me upon leaving Senegal that this would be a good thing. Senegal did change me, and it would be sad and stupid to think it didn’t. Some changes include:

  • I am more hospitable;
  • I am more willing to share – everything! Food and forks and literally just about anything
  • I am all around more at peace, relaxed
  • I am not as worried about being late, especially to things unimportant, although I still do love punctuality
  • I am more willing to do things I want to/are best for me without worrying about what others think
  • I have embraced life as a privileged American, more on this right here:

I have always known that I am privileged to be an American. I have somewhat understood this privilege too. I’ve known for a long time that people all over the world dream of coming to America, the land of milk and honey. The dreamland. I used to feel sentiments like this: Oh, if only they knew the problems we have here! It’s true, of course we have problems in the U.S. (One journal entry I wrote in Senegal included a list proving a new theory I have about all countries having an exact equal amount of “bullshit”, just manifested in unique ways.) But after my experience in Senegal, I realize that America really is quite a dreamland. Of course it’s easy for me to say that, being an educated, upper-middle class, white woman. However, in general, with enough effort (more is required for some populations perhaps) you really can be successful. Or maybe it’s safer just to talk about myself: I have realized that for me, American privilege means that if I want something enough I can have it.

This realization has amped up my work ethic. After meeting a hundred brilliant people in Senegal who want a job and can’t get one, I realized that I need to take advantage of the privilege and fact that there are so many jobs out there and I need to go get one! I actually recently got two. The first one I will talk about later in this post. The second one is at Tim Hortons, less than a three minute walk from my house; my first day is tomorrow.

Beyond new realizations, Senegal also has left me with a lot of questions. It’s good – there are many things I will continue to think about and educate myself on. The hardest transition of all upon coming home was with Yama. In Senegal, Yama and I were best friends with a side of romance. It’s been hard dealing with the “side of romance” now that I am here. We aren’t dating. And I think we are the kind of people who really can just be great friends for the rest of our lives and nothing else. But he means so much to me, it’s crazy really, and the side of romance has been really hard not to bring in my carryout box back to the U.S. I trust that God will handle the situation and show me what, ahem who, he wants for me. Senegal has made me very patient.

This post is very jumbled I know. There are a few more things I want to mention.

My main job I have, and the reason I am in Ann Arbor, is a research job. I meet with my boss and co-investigator in Ann Arbor, but the research is done in Detroit. The project is really huge, and I would love to tell you more about it if you ask. Basically I will be interviewing immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa who live in Detroit. We want to learn all about their experiences, but specifically will approach those who have started their own business or have influenced specific social circles. As an example, my main task is to interview African immigrants who have started hair braiding salons. (From preliminary research today I found that these women are largely Senegalese! Which is beyond exciting. I will certainly floor them with my Wolof.) My co-investigator is starting by interviewing taxi drivers. We will create a public website with the results.

It seems so far that this job is a perfect transition from my life in Senegal to my life here. I am interacting with Senegal as intimately as possible without actually being there. This intimate interaction with Senegal also comes through my daily conversations with Yama and Sadikh, and also my Wolof lessons from Yama.

We had our first very official Wolof lesson today. Guys, it was by far the best post-Senegal moment of my life. Yama’s patience is unmatched, and we can communicate and fully understand each other all the time, against all odds. We use a free international application called Viber, but we use the voice message feature. Honestly it’s perfect for language lessons! I hear his voice speak the phrases, and he hears mine and makes sure I say it well… but it’s better than a phone call because I can replay the message over and over again. Tomorrow I will go back and review the stuff I learned from him today. I help him with English too, like yesterday when I corrected an essay he wrote about his academic life. We have a perfect system and beautiful friendship.

Beyond Wolof, I also work on my French every day with Rosetta Stone now. I want to get fluent in French of course, but what really motivated me to start was the fact that by the end of Senegal I had gotten really comfortable speaking French and I didn’t want to lose that. Rosetta Stone is obviously amazing. My parents bought it for me in 2011 (but I really haven’t used it), and Senegal taught not to take things like that for granted because not everyone can learn a language if only they want to hard enough.

I read again for fun, currently Divergent. I drink smoothies for breakfast. I scribble out plans in my agenda because it’s therapeutic, even though before I would never do that because it’s not “neat”. I let people come in my room even if it’s messy. Any of ya’ll can wear my clothes. Eat my food and drink my drinks. I give stuff away even if “but maybe I would use it some day”. I cuddle with my globe pillow and let other people too, even though before it was my prized possession only for the shelf. I notice little changes in myself now. They’re good.

Learning Wolof: Maangi sama negg di naan tey. I’m sitting in my room drinking tea. (My favorite phrase from my lesson with Yama today.)


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Pressing rewind

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In picture: The house we vacationed in this weekend. Stunning.

Bringing you an update in backwards order.

Z. Currently sitting in Yama’s bed on my laptop. He is next to me on his. He is writing an essay about himself in English for his English class which started last week. I am starting a 20 page essay in French about my internship which is due in two weeks. We occasionally ask each other for advice, and every thirty minutes or so we proof-read each other’s work. It’s a good system. And cute.

Y. I ate dinner (lentils, my favorite meal) and spent time with my family, “family” being an elastic word that includes my neighbor Laye (who has truly became a father to me here), and the close friends of my siblings.

X. I returned home from my internship. I had a long discussion with one of my coworkers. We talked about a lot of things, I don’t really remember exactly what, but one thing was that Senegalese people always love U.S. presidents, obsess over them even. Especially Obama because he’s black, but even Clinton. Every single one, except G.W. Bush, he said.

W. I had lunch with my boss’s family as usual. My boss had a young male guest over today. It was fun for me, not being the guest. I usually get royal treatment, but today I was just a family member and the royal service was given to the guy. I laughed internally at the whole thing, watching someone have to deal with walking the fine line called “polite”, balancing both denying things (like a nice chair when he really prefers sitting on the floor with everyone else) and being thankful and accepting things graciously.

V. Before that, at my internship, I spent most of the morning translating a document from French to English. It’s my major ongoing project there. The document is dense and wordy. But it’s good practice.

U. I woke up and walked to the bus stop. As I was walking past the women grain vendors across the street, I hear the familiar cry of a little baby. Saliou. One of the hardest things I’ll have to leave behind in a few weeks. He always cries when I leave. I rush over to him and pick him up, which instantly stops his crying, and take him down the road with me where I always buy café au lait. I return him to his grandmother after.

T. I woke up. I slept well. I heard and searched around for Alice, my pet mouse who lives in my closet. Didn’t find her.

S. I visited with my friends who I hadn’t seen in a few days – Jibi, Mouhammed, Sadikh. Sadikh and I talked on my porch for a half hour or so which was nice. I updated them on my vacation I had taken.

R. I ate dinner and spent time with the family, who all asked me how my vacation to Toubab Dialaw was. I was hoping they wouldn’t ask who I went with. They never did. I think they’re smart enough not to; they have so much sutura. I went with a boy, which is very taboo in this culture, (and agrees with Christian values). I have no idea what I would have said if they asked. I can’t imagine lying, but I can’t imagine telling them the truth, and I don’t know which I would feel worse about later. Theoretically if it was possible for them to choose, I know for a fact they would prefer to hear a lie – that’s a cultural thing too.

Q. Yama and I took a private taxi to Mermoz.

P. Yama and I took a shared taxi to Dakar.

O. Yama and I took a Dakar Dem Dikk (public bus) from Yene Guedje to bigger village close by.

N. Yama and I spent our last day on vacation, which included mainly breakfast, napping, lunch, and packing.

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M. Saturday – Our only full day of vacation in Yene Guedje. It was really good. Yama cooked dinner (and cleaned up) with little help from me. So delicious. We spent awhile on the beach, walking and having miniature adventures as they came up.

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L. Yama and I spent a lot of time walking and collecting seashells and sea glass and pretty rocks. This is one of my favorite activities and I’ve never been with a boy so into it too! I sacrificed my makeup bag (which now smells) so he could bring them home safely. (Yama has the best and biggest shell on display on top of his TV now. He just told me that he told his six year old niece that the snail is still alive, but just sleeping. Lalla is terrified and definitely won’t be touching (breaking) it.)

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K. Yama played a few rounds of beach soccer.

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J. A little girl brought me a puffer fish! It was so interesting. I had never seen one like it – it was like a huge white goose-bumped balloon full of water.

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I. Yama helped pull in a huge fishing net.

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H. I built a sandcastle with some girls and decorated it with shells.

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G. All the children on the beach came up to me to talk, testing my Wolof, and mostly just look at me. I didn’t mind but sometimes I feel a little bashful or something. When we were walking it the village it was even more crazy, every child announcing there was a Toubab, and often rushing over to me, “Bonjour Toubab!” I don’t mind it. And it kind of broke the ice making it easier to take a picture of me and this boy dressed up as a lion.

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F. Yama had peanut butter and jelly for the first time in his life. Of all the American foods I’ve introduced him to, this is the one he actually wants to eat again.

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E. Yama and I left for our vacation to Toubab Dialaw, but it actually ended up being in Yene Guedje. We rented a part of a gorgeous house on the ocean. I will never be able to explain how perfect the whole thing was. My favorite feature of the house was the mermaid [of no return] next to our door.

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D. I left my internship to go meet up with Yama for our vacation. I waited outside his English class and we left from there.

C. Friday – last work day of a long work week. I had my backpack packed full for vacation, including a bunch of food I had bought at the American Food Store near the U.S. Embassy.

B. The least best week of my stay in Senegal so far, but still not terrible. Certainly there were high points.

A. Had that amazing experience at church.
What’s facing me now? About three weeks left here. A twenty page paper and another smaller essay in French. My research project, which was finally just approved and I can now start interviews, (will post a blog update about that.) Buying gifts for people at home. Figuring out what I’m doing for the people who have done so much for me here. You know, things like that.

Learning Wolof: Lo ragala niak, boulko téyé. Don’t have what you are afraid to lose. (Yama taught me several days ago and I can’t stop thinking about it.)


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A Day in the Life

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In picture: My lunch today at school. The best school lunch I’ve ever had. Amazingly flavored boneless fish, French fries, brown onion sauce, a tomato slice and a piece of lettuce (quite a treat), and of course, bread. I didn’t eat that whole basket of bread, but my plate was licked clean.

Dakar, Senegal – Tuesday, February 3, 2015

7:45am  First alarm goes off.

7:54am  Second alarm; check to see if Wifi is working. If yes, quickly check Facebook and email for important messages. This morning, and yesterday, our power was out so I couldn’t.

8:02am  Get out of bed; get ready for the day. Put on pants, shirt, and sweatshirt. Mornings are chilly. Go potty, flush. Brush teeth while tank refills and flush again. I almost never can get the toilet paper down in one flush.

8:20am  Quickly eat breakfast – a baguette, a piece of cheese, and hot tea if there’s time. Take malaria pill. Today I left a little late because my mom had new mango jelly she wanted me to try, and Saliou wanted to play with me for a little bit.

8:28am  Head to school; walk quickly. Stop and have a quick chat with anyone you know, or “know” in many cases. Most days I run into my neighbor, Laye, and we hug and chat.

8:59am  Arrive to school.

9:04am  French class starts.

11:01am  French ends. We have a one hour break. Sometimes I will spend this time walking to the Toubab/white person store. It’s essentially a small grocery store. Today I finished up some homework and checked my email/Facebook instead.

11:59am  Wolof class starts. This is by far my favorite class.

2:00pm  Wolof class ends. We have another one hour break. Again, what I do varies. Some days I will buy ice cream and sit near the beach and eat it. Today I ordered and ate lunch at school with my friends. We drink ataaya (tea), after.

3:05pm  Education & Literacy class starts.

6:01pm  Done with school for the day; start walking home. Today I stopped at a fruit stand and bought clementines.

6:35pm  Arrive home; greet anyone at the house.

6:50pm  Drop bag off in room; change into comfier pants.

7:05pm  Socialize with family; test out new Wolof words; struggle with French; play with Saliou, the maid’s baby. Sometimes I go to our roof where Bas’s students are studying and work on homework. At some point the people in my house I’m hanging out with go to the mosque to pray, but I haven’t figured out exactly what time this is yet. At that point, I head to my room and do homework or go online.

8:33pm  Go downstairs to living room so I’m around when dinner is ready. Watch TV/talk if someone else is. Otherwise, write or study.

9:25pm  Eat dinner. It’s always with mama, but the other people around the table varies. My sister is often there, and two of my brothers are often there, but it’s never all of us at the same time. Always someone is out and about. Take vitamins.

9:35pm  Go upstairs; relax; write; homework; laptop; blog.

10:10pm  Shower, change clothes. Wash undergarments.

10:40pm  Walk to Yama’s house, drink ataaya; hang out with him and his friends. Sometimes I ask him for help with my homework. If I don’t go to Yama’s house I hang out with my friends from school, either at their homes or the bar.

12:20am  Yama walks me home; computer; pack my bag for school tomorrow. Fill my water bottles. I force myself to drink 2 liters, minimum, every day. Read my Bible, journal.

1:15am  Set alarm, bed time.

1:17am  Already sleeping.

Learning French: Il sent bon, He smells good. (What I want to say when many a Senegalese man passes.)


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My first weekend au Sénégal

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In picture: Me and Yama at the zoo, visiting with our favorite animal: le lion.

This weekend in twelve sentences:

Jeudi, le 22

Today we took a boat to Gorée Island and it was breathtakingly beautiful. Since I have now seen the House of Slaves on Gorée island and have already seen the Elmina Castle in Ghana, I’ve stood in the exact place so many did who came to the Americas as slaves. The emotions are hard to describe.

Vendredi, le 23

We watched a compelling, interesting movie in class, largely about factors outside Africa that are responsible for the failures within. My favorite part of the day was throwing my lunch up; I felt instant relief and was back to feeling 100% by morning. I think it was the beef.

Samedi, le 24

Yama and I took the bus to the zoo today, and although I usually dislike zoos, I had the time of my life. Yama’s the kind of person you would have the time of your life with even if you were picking up trash on the highway. At night, after Yama, Sadikh, and Mohamed bought me some amazing gelato, we and several Toubabs (what the Senegalese call white foreigners, endearingly) in my program went to a bar/club and we drank expensive drinks and danced our hearts out.

Dimanche, le 25

Today I spent time with the children in my extended family, coloring and playing cards, and helping take Khadija’s braids out. We had 10 people around our lunch bowl instead of our usual three or four, even though the bowl remains the same size regardless of how many hands are sharing it. You feed whoever happens to be at the house when meal time arrives.

Learning French: C’est pas grave, Don’t worry about it.


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Ambassamor – Spreading love all over

Je suis arrivé à Paris !

Some people have asked me, “Why ‘ambassamor’?” It’s my username on several websites and social media outlets. It’s also in the URL for this blog.

“Amor” means love. “Amor” is love in Latin and Spanish. “Amour” is love in French.

An ambassador, a liaison, represents one country in another. When I travel and live abroad, I may, whether I want to or not, be the representation of the United States, young female Americans, Christians, to the people there.

To me, an ambassamor is someone who strives to, above all, show love. As an “ambassador” I might represent Americans, but as an ambassamor, I aim to be a loving one. The love I receive in my family, in my friend circles, in Christ – I want it to radiate from me and touch the lives of others.

My dream career in middle school was to be an ambassador. No matter what my future holds, however, I’ll always strive to be an ambassamor.

Learning French: “Le Sénégal t’attend avec impatience.” (Said to me last night by a Senegalese friend.) “Senegal waits for you with impatience.”