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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So many are coming

You can take the girl out of Africa, but you can never take the Africa out of the girl.

Just after I got back from Senegal, one of my girlfriends texted me, “Hey are you done with Africa?!”

I answered politely, “If you mean am I home from Senegal, yes I am.” But even though I knew what she meant, the question bothered me a little. I am never “done” with “Africa”.

In fact, every single day since I’ve been back (not even missing one!), I’ve been fortunate enough to still interact with Senegal on some level. There are countless and unbelievable examples of this.

Some of you know that one of my summer jobs is related to African immigration to Detroit. I’m hired by the University of Michigan Department of History and am involved in a large research project about recent African immigration in Detroit. We are specifically interested in learning about African spaces in Detroit economically and socially. Our method is to conduct interviews with African entrepreneurs and business owners. My main focus is on women African hair braiding salon owners, but I interview other people too.

Currently I’m sitting at a Barnes & Noble. I conducted an interview in Redford (just outside of Detroit), and couldn’t even wait to get home to start putting my thoughts into words. It will probably take me days to mentally process what happened this morning.

For his confidentiality, I won’t give too many details. However, I interviewed a man who inspired me, encouraged me, and ultimately reaffirmed that this passion I have for Africa is real and God-given. At the beginning of the interview I told him I had been to Ghana, his country of origin. His eyes lit up in excitement, because he could stop saying “Africa” when he referred to where he came from — I had heard of Ghana? I knew of Ghana? I had been there?! I had loved his home country.

He wanted to know all about me then. I told him that after the interview we could talk about me, but first, him. After the hour or so interview went past, he said “Okay, so what are you? Who? Tell me.” So I turned off the recorder and told him about myself.

I told him I was an International Studies and African Studies major. I told him that I spent time in Ghana last summer and then recently four months in Senegal. Then I started telling him why and when I knew my heart was for Africa. I told him about Foday. I told him that as a young, naive, innocent little girl, it was half interest and half frustration that started me on this Africa thing, and I haven’t once looked back.

I’ve left Africa and I’m still making grown men cry.

He just cried. They were silent but quick dripping tears. He didn’t wipe his eyes for awhile, just kept listening. After a few minutes he said “Oh you’ve made me cry”. He said that my story and my passion were beautiful. He said I was beautiful.

My favorite part of the whole thing came next. In all my life, I will never forget it. He was asking me about Senegalese love interests. He asked if there was any romance. I said:

“You know, yes. There is some romance. However, I am waiting. I fully trust that God will bring me a Christian man.”

“So many are coming,” he assured me.

At this, we were both beaming. Laughing, but mostly just looking at each other in the eyes with wide, sure grins. The moment was so full of sincerity and peace. Sometimes it’s so hard for me to believe that yes, God is bringing me a perfect Christian man. Not perfect in your definition of “the perfect Christian man”, but a Christian man who understands me and likes me and understands or wants to understand my passions and life goals.

But when this joyful, wise, Christian, loving, encouraging Ghanaian man looks at you with tear filled eyes and tells you that “so many are coming”, guys… you have no choice but to believe him.

We were blessings to each other. He encouraged me and influenced me in ways I would have never imagined as we sat down to the interview, him still being so skeptical of why I wanted to talk to him.

This is my life and my passion. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Learning Wolof: Jabar: dekel, dundal, dekoo. It is a husband’s responsibility to shelter, feed, and satisfy sexually his wife. (While reading a research report about Senegalese hair braiders in the U.S., I came across many interesting Wolof phrases relating to gender and equality both in society and in the household.)


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It’s-almost-March updates!

As an update, things are going really well. Yesterday I did pretty well with talking to my mom after school and even said some complete Wolof sentences at dinner. I took a bucket shower by filling a pail with cold water from the shower head. It was refreshing and reminiscent of Ghana. My mom was confused why I would use a bucket when we have a shower head, if both were going to be the same cold water anyway. I explained to her that with the shower head, it’s much more uncomfortable because the freezing water is hitting you everywhere and you have no control over it or a way to escape it. The bucket method is honestly much more peaceful, gently splashing water where you need it. My mom was cracking up and went to tell the rest of the family how silly I was, but I think she understood.

I have a new brother! I guess he was visiting other family in a village for a month or so, but he’s back now. He lives in the bedroom that has always confused me a little – perfectly nice and set up, but used only to store our clean laundry. My first conversation with him was funny. He walked into the living room and asked me how I was. This is normal. Every day someone I don’t recognize comes into the house and talks with me, usually several people a day. Then he said, “So what’s your name?” and I told him and asked him his. Lam, pronounced like Laahm, not like the animal. I ask if he was Papa’s friend. Papa is one of my brothers and a lot of people come into the house looking for him. No, Lam said, I’m your brother. He’s the nephew of my Mom, so it’s actually not really the exact relationship, but honestly I’m not sure if any of my brothers are actually my mother’s children. It doesn’t have to be that way here. Lam is super nice so far, and speaks some English which is fun. Still I speak to him in French/Wolof.

Yesterday morning on my way to school I was running a little late. I hate making myself rush because then my fast walking causes me to sweat and then I feel gross for a few hours. Also, I don’t like being that one rushed Toubab in a sea of Senegalese who are walking with peace, at one with themselves and the situation, regardless of what time it is. So, despite being late, I tried to stay cool and calm, knowing I’d only be five minutes late and no one would mind. Previously lost in my thoughts, I saw ahead of me a man on a moto who was stopped on the side of the road and looking back at me. Yama! I walked up to him, so happy to see a familiar face, and one that I love at that. We talked a little bit before he said, “Well get on.” Oh my goodness. Of course I wasn’t going to refuse but I was nervous! Yama is definitely not more cautious than the average Senegalese driver. Most of them are a little bit crazy. And as I was getting on I had told him I don’t really do this ever, so I was worried he would try to make it extra exciting for me. Instantly, I felt amazing riding it. It wasn’t really scary at all, and I didn’t even have to hold on to him in order to feel safe even though of course I held on to him anyway. I could have stayed on that bike all day, the warm air in my hair and cuddling up with Yams. And I wasn’t late! I could slowly eat my baguette and cheese breakfast before class. My arm smelled like Yama for the rest of the day which was distracting.

I have a couple random things I keep wanting to talk about but never have. The first thing is peanuts. Just under half of cultivated land is used for peanut production. While driving to Toubacouta, we drove past a literal mountain. Of peanuts. We were far away from it and sadly I don’t have a picture for you right now, but it was crazy. At first we didn’t even believe Waly because there’s no way you could have a mound that big of peanuts. But no, it was true. I don’t exactly know the facts about the history of peanuts in the area, but the assumed history that I treat as fact that I believe I heard from a reliable source is that during colonialism, the French created the Senegalese economy to be focused around peanuts for export. Although Senegal is independent now, the infrastructure and skill set was here to continue growing them. The peanuts here are absolutely amazing! And very cheap. You can get a bag of them for 50 FCFA, ten cents. They sell them in several different varieties, including fresh unsalted, cooked and salted without shell, cooked and salted with the papery brown shell (think Spanish peanuts), or totally in the shell. You can also buy what we call sugar nuts! They’re peanuts cooked in sugar, coated heavily. I prefer the salty peanuts because as it is my diet is full of sugar, but they’re good. I’ll surely bring peanuts back as gifts. There’s also a good number of cashew trees, and I tried an unripe one off the tree which wasn’t delicious. After they’re done and salted though, Senegal has cashews that are to die for.

The other random thing I’ve wanted to talk about but haven’t is airplanes! My house in Mermoz, Dakar is very close to the airport. And actually, on the ground I don’t feel that close to the airport but I must be because the airplanes that fly over are freakily low. I remember the first one I saw after getting here and it scared me, that’s how low it was. They’re extremely loud, so much so that during school if a plane flies over the professor has to stop talking, (although it seems that people that live here usually raise their voice and power through the conversation without pausing). I’m having a hard time estimating how many planes fly over a day because it seems to vary a lot, some days having only a couple and other days seeming to have a dozen. It probably is like that. When the sun is in the perfect spot and the plane flies over, the whole city goes dark for a second. Once I was in my bedroom and I thought the power went out.  It’s pretty bizarre. I guess in the United States people that live close to airports might experience this same thing. The last thing about airplanes is that I think there is some sort of U.S. military base or something in Dakar too. The most obnoxious planes that fly over are U.S. fighter jets (don’t quote me, I don’t know what they’re called). It makes me sort of annoyed that we, Americans, are flying these obnoxious planes over Dakar. One more reason why Senegalese people have a reason to dislike the U.S. even though they don’t.

I’ve been debating talking about this on my blog, mostly because I don’t want people to worry about me when worry isn’t necessary. But two of my friends and I almost got robbed! It was one of the scariest things to ever happen to me. We were walking in an area that is known for this sort of activity, generally at night. I don’t usually walk down this stretch of road along the beach, but I was going with my friend Cat to buy something she wanted. Coming from school, we had our backpacks, and this made us more of a target. I can perfectly recall the whole thing like a video, but it’s not as easy to explain in written words. Basically us three were walking on the sidewalk, on the side of the road across from the beach which is the safer side. A scrawny, wild-eyed guy came running across the street towards us and motioned with his arms that we three girls clump together. At this time, another white guy was walking towards us girls. The aggressor tried to rally him up too but the white guy knew what was going on and quickly walked away from the scene. I knew instantly what was going on too. The whole thing was playing out exactly how I was warned: the aggressor will put you and your friends together, take out a knife, and demand your things/money. You must give it to him. Luckily I never actually saw the knife that I’m sure the guy had because Cat screamed when he touched her, and two guards that were on security for one of the buildings down the street came to see what was up. A truck in the street had also stopped, knowing what was going on. The combination of Cat’s scream, the guards yelling something at the guy, and the truck stopping in the road scared the aggressor away. He ran across the street and over the beach mound where they’re known to hide. In the situation, my first response was to stay calm; I wasn’t even close to screaming. But I fully believe Cat’s scream saved me, (and by me I mean my laptop, phone, camera, school stuff, agenda, and journal, which is basically my life). I learned several things from this scenario and have changed my frame of mind slightly because of it. All is well. We haven’t reported the event to the Embassy yet but we intend to.

As a last little update, my search for an internship is underway! Right now I have two roads I could go down. The one road is that I will stay in Dakar with my current host family and work for an organization dealing with prisoners, in some capacity. Exactly what I would be doing is unknown at this time, but I have a meeting on Tuesday to talk about what the internship would look like. The other road is that I could live in a village, and either work for an NGO or in a school. Ideally I would take the prison internship but still get the experience of living in a village, but I can’t get everything I want. It’s also not for sure that the prison organization has a job for me, but if they did it would be a really hard decision for me. As of now, I’m thinking that if the prison organization offers me what seems like a great internship, I’ll take it. If God wants me in the village, he can close the door of opportunity to work with the prison, because honestly it’d be a miracle anyway if I actually got the job. I had a “mini-interview” this past Tuesday with a really professional guy who works with the prison system, but he wanted me to talk to someone else. I’ll keep you all posted. It’s all in God’s hands, but you can pray that I would have peace with how the whole decision making process goes!

The weather today and yesterday is “dust”. Literally. I asked Yama what was wrong with the sky and the air, and he said no, it’s just the weather – dust. I insisted that dust wasn’t a weather type, but I guess it sort of is. I’ve been sitting at a bar blogging and my notebook is covered in dust already, and so are my laptop keys. It’s very interesting. In general, school work bogs me down and I couldn’t find anyone to go to the beach with me today on my day off, but life is still so good. Half the days I’m smiling, and the other half I’m on Cloud Nine.

Learning French: Il n’y a pas d’autre Dieu qu’Allah et Muhammad est son prophète. There is no other God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. (It’s been interesting learning about Islam and sharing my thoughts about the similarities and differences between it and Christianity. I’m thankful for being totally free to express my beliefs and for the openness of people here to discuss religion with me. I didn’t know before I came, but you can even read on Wikipedia that Senegal is known for its religious tolerance.)


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Life today, in lists

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In picture: Me, hanging out at the neighborhood beach. I’ll be back here often.

To buy:

  • electrical converter/adapter (so far I’ve been borrowing a friend’s to charge things)
  • peanuts
  • post cards
  • 10 liter water jug
  • phone minutes

To ask:

  • what time, exactly, is each of the five daily prayers?
  • how do you spell the name of our maid? I can be told something five times, but until it’s in writing I might never remember

To do ASAP:

  • wash underwear (it’s forbidden to give your under garments to the maid for washing)
  • start 3-5 page focus paper on Senegalese cultural values
  • organize/take inventory of my cash, figure out what I’ve spent and how much I have left

Things I miss:

  • warm showers

Things I don’t miss:

  • doing laundry (the maid, every Tuesday, washes, hangs, irons and folds everything)
  • iPhone/texting all day
  • rushing
  • putting on makeup
  • the drink/smoke/bang party scene

Blog post ideas:

  • explanation of structure of Wolof language, as I understand it so far
  • a day in the life
  • my observations about the parallel but strikingly different social scenes
  • thinking critically about child labor
  • different ideas about time, Senegal vs. U.S.

New people:

  • Taylor & Andre (met them at the police station getting visas; Taylor works with an NGO, Andre was down to practice Wolof with me and incredibly sweet)
  • Noussa Gueyè
  • Mahdi (met at bar, young doctor from Tunisia)
  • Mustafa

Homework for this weekend:

  • finish newspaper article presentation preparation with Matthea
  • 1 page essay, in French, definitions of development
  • 2 page Wolof worksheet
  • 8 pages in French workbook
  • prepare country presentation – Sierra Leone, Ghana

Things I’ve learned:

  • “Dama xiff”, Wolof for “I’m hungry” isn’t something to throw around. The use of the pronoun “Dama” means whatever you’re feeling is serious. Practicing my Wolof, I casually said this on the porch. My neighbor immediately got up, and returned 20 minutes later with a (huge and delicious) sandwich. I really could have waited for dinner, and when dinner time came, there was no way I could admit to my mama that I had totally spoiled my appetite.
  • Believe it or not, I’ve lived below about a dozen goats/sheep/big-with-horns-but-I-don’t-know-what-they-are and had no idea until today. This morning I feed them with my brother Papa. They eat, among other things, cardboard box pieces soaked in water.
  • The maid’s son is named Saliou.
  • Senegalese clementines. Nothing compares.

Goals:

  • be better at living in the moment. I’ve had this really weird attitude about time lately that I can’t remember ever feeling. I am getting overwhelmed with how short my time here is. Every day I dread the end. I keep imagining it being entirely shorter than it actually is, and I stress myself out over saying goodbye when really it has just begun.
  • hold short conversation in Wolof by next week
  • find a pumice stone or something and get my feet in check
  • wake up earlier, enjoy the mornings

Learning French: le sable, sand (After the beach today it’s everywhere)


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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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Open air rooms & English schools

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In picture: Cat and I, standing at the western-most point of the African continent. Our professor Waly says if we want to swim home, this is where we jump in.

I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling since I’ve been in Senegal. So much has happened already that it’s hard to know where to begin!

After a tour of Dakar today, and one class about African economics, I met my host family! I also am fully moved into my new room. My house is beautiful. I had no idea what to expect but this house certainly exceeded any expectations I could have had. Like seemed common in Ghana, the central room of the house is open air. The sky is the ceiling. My family is even better than the house! Although my host mother speaks mostly only Wolof, her son, who is probably in his late twenties or early thirties, speaks French and is learning English. His name is pronounced “Baas”, although I’m unsure of the real spelling. My favorite part of living here so far is that Baas runs a school on the roof of my house! I met the children he teaches today, who were so polite and wonderful. I would say there are about 15 students, with various ages and academic levels. Baas teaches them English, and he is excited to be able to ask me questions when he is unsure about something. I adore small children. I’ve dreamt of teaching English abroad for as long as I can remember. I love open air rooms and beautiful homes. I love living a few houses down from the Atlantic, with sprawling, beautiful beaches. I love Senegal. All of my favorite things are merging and I can’t stop smiling.

Learning Wolof: Suur na, I’m full (when your host mother insists you eat more)


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“Where’s that?”

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When I tell people I’m studying abroad in Senegal, the response I get a large majority of that time is, “Where’s that?” The ensuing conversation is sometimes entertaining.

“It’s in West Africa.”
“Oh, Senegal is a city in the country West Africa.”

or

“It’s in West Africa.”
“Oh, like by Kenya!?”

No and no. Although originally I was disheartened by the lack of familiarity with Africa by the general public, it doesn’t upset me and I don’t think less of anyone for their ignorance. It’s probably no one’s fault individually, but rather some problem with the U.S. education system or neglect on behalf of the media. Furthermore, perhaps not everyone needs to know about Africa, although I would argue the average American should know more than they do, and I must not take for granted that I’m an African Studies major. I don’t know very much about ionic bonds or derivatives; I don’t study chemistry or mathematics. We all have our own specialities. I also have decided that I have been put into a position where I have a great opportunity to educate my fellow Americans about Africa, or at least the small parts of Africa that I have gained some insight on.

Many of you will know that I studied in West Africa this summer as well. I spent four weeks in Ghana. Although my time in Ghana has helped me prepare for Senegal, the two countries are quite different.

Senegal is a small country, marginally smaller than the state of Michigan, on the westernmost point of contiguous Africa. French, spoken in much of Africa, is their official language. My classes will be taught in French, but I will also learn Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal. Most of the Senegalese population is Muslim.

Although I know a little bit about the history and political climate of Senegal from my classes, unfortunately this is the extent of my knowledge about Senegal. Textbooks would probably never be able to give me a complete and true idea of Senegal anyway, and I’m excited to discover Senegal for myself starting on January 18th.

Learning Wolof: Yendul ak jamm, Pass the day in peace