Meet Burkina

learning & sharing Burkina Faso


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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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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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FAQs

ebolaimage3

With just over a week before I start my journey, I thought I would answer some questions that people frequently ask when I tell them about my upcoming semester abroad.

Are you scared or worried?

In general no, I’m not. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this and I’m ready. The only thing that I might be anxious about is that I don’t feel prepared to carry on conversations in French. I have taken 5 semesters of French at the University of Michigan, but it takes me a really long time to formulate even basic sentences. But, I will be fine! Becoming better at (and maybe even almost fluent in) French is one of the biggest reasons for my studying in Senegal.

What will you do?

I don’t have a super clear idea of what I will be doing, but it doesn’t bother me. From what I understand I will be taking classes for the first half of the semester. It won’t be terribly different from my responsibility as a student in Ann Arbor – go to classes all week, study for them, pass them. The second half of the semester I will switch residences and have some sort of internship, perhaps at a rural elementary school or something. I will get more details once I arrive.

Is it civilized there?

The term “developed” is the most accepted term to use to ask about the standard of living in Senegal. Senegal is considered a generally underdeveloped country when measuring it by various factors. In terms of Senegal’s Human Development, it’s considered a third world country. The Human Development Index measures Senegal’s development, considering life expectancy, years of schooling, and GNI per capita. Is Senegal poor? Most would agree, yes. When considering the rest of the African countries, however, Senegal has average or just above average wealth, depending on the specific value analyzed. Do they lack adequate health systems? Maybe. They don’t have health systems anywhere near that of the U.S. Are they aware of Western technology and ideas? I would imagine that yes, they totally are. It seems to me that there are only very small pockets, if any at all, of people anywhere in the world that are unaware of how life is, in general, for Americans. Their pictures of it may be incomplete or somewhat inaccurate, but I believe that they have a much better picture of our daily lives than we have of theirs. Also, remember, I actually don’t know that much about Senegal.

Do they hate Americans?

I don’t think so. But I don’t know any Senegalese people, so I don’t know what the most common opinion is about Americans. Some people follow up this question with, “But they’re Muslim, right?” They are. And admittedly I don’t know a lot about Islam, but I do know that not all Muslims, or Muslim nations, hate Americans. And if the Senegalese people “hate Americans” as far as they dislike a lot of what the U.S. government has done in the past and present around the world, then I don’t really blame them. In fact, we can probably find many common opinions in this area. I’m 99% sure they won’t hate me, but I’ll get back to you about it.

How many other students from your school are going?

As far as I know, none! I don’t know a single person who is going to be there. The University of Michigan Senegal study abroad program was cancelled due to lack of applicants. I am studying abroad through the University of Minnesota, however, and I believe there will be a handful of students from U of MN to interact with regularly. Coordinating study abroad with the University of Minnesota has been extremely great so far. The staff that I’ve been working with are amazing, their application and preparation process has been smooth and comforting, and I think it’s going to be an awesome program.

Are you living with a family?

Yes! I recently received my home-stay information. I am living with an older woman who has three kids that are moved out. However, my host-mom’s grandchildren usually spend the day at the home I’m staying in. My host-mom’s nephew also lives at this house, and he is 25 and a student. To me, this sounds absolutely perfect. I adore small children and will be excited to have them around. Having someone at the house who is more or less my age (even better, more) might help me have a little group of Senegalese students to be friends with immediately! And, the fact that he’s a guy might mean that he can help keep me safe. Oh, and I’ve never had a brother before; this might be the closest I’ll ever get.

But wait… Ebola?

Yes, that is a valid question. Senegal, like the Ebola epidemic right now, is in West Africa. Am I concerned about it? Not really. Senegal has had only one case and zero deaths. (The U.S. has had four cases and one death). When I try to comfort the concerned individual with these numbers however, they often say, “Yes, but didn’t those Americans contract Ebola outside of the U.S.?” Yes, two of the cases of Ebola in the U.S. were contracted in West Africa, and the other two were nurses who had been treating one of them. However, the patient with Ebola in Senegal did not contract it in Senegal either. My life passion is Africa; if I wait for it to be 100% safe, I’ll never go.

Learning Wolof: Naka mou? How’s it going?