Meet Burkina

learning & sharing Burkina Faso


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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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The malaria pill countdown: 46

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In picture: My first ever wedding crashing experience. The reception was beautiful.

1. For Easter weekend, the Catholics in Senegal bring ngalakh to every Muslim household. Ngalakh is a sweet porridge, millet based and then flavored with peanuts and the fruit of baobab trees. They don’t just bring a bowl of it – but a whole pail or two. I ate some at Yama’s house. At my house, however, my mother said that it wasn’t good for Toubabs, that it would make me sick. Maybe she just didn’t want me to fall in love and eat it all, because I might have. Anyway, it’s a nice picture of Christian love being spread to their Muslim neighbors.

2. The first day of my internship my boss told me I was to eat lunch every day with his family. I still can’t get over how wonderful it is going to his house every day, but then I think, well of course, this is Senegal. My boss’s wife is one of my favorite people I’ve met – so easy to talk too, but also lets me fully be me. That means if I’m not in the mood to talk we can just sit quietly and it’s not awkward. Silence is golden would be my first tattoo. My boss’s parents and grand-mother live there too. Four generations living under one roof, and that’s normal here. My boss also has three daughters, aged roughly two, seven, and twelve. The youngest, Khady, is just now starting to warm up to me. Last week Khady was playing outside and fell, cutting her lip and/or gums. At first when she started crying, Mom didn’t even glance away from her cooking. Then Khady screamed, the blood-curdling kind so of course Mom tended to her. But her “tending” was notable for me, including only: 1) a quick hug, where Khady’s mouth blood got all over Mom’s yellow skirt, 2) “Maasa, maasa”, Wolof for “sorry” when someone is feeling pain, while splashing cold water on Khady’s teary face 3) a 100 (18 cents) franc piece. And that was it. Khady’s sister took her by the hand to go spend her 100 francs. On the way out of the house Khady stopped crying, and came back with a bag of Senegalese style Cheetos, and 50 francs in change. She played with her swollen lip all day but made no mention of it. What a tough girl! That’s how they make them here. (Or maybe I’m just a baby, or maybe when I have kids I’ll realize that this is the way most moms respond in this situation.)

3. On Friday night, out of the blue, Yama asked me if I wanted to accompany him to a wedding reception. Um, yes! I went home to get ready, as best I could, although I realize now I should have done better to bring nice outfits (shoes) to wear. It turns out that the woman getting married was Yama’s ex girl-friend which amused me greatly, not sure why. In many ways the reception was similar to an American one. There was dancing, and cake, and lots of pictures, and mostly people just sat around. The guests were dressed to the nines (is that the expression?), and I really didn’t fit in – not that I ever fully could being a Toubab. The bride was stunning and the little girls and boys running around in formal wear killed me, of course. We took home party favors, takeout boxes with all sorts of interesting little foods in them I had never tried. And juice, juice of course.

4. As discussed previously on my blog, the organization I intern with, among other things, coordinates a child sponsorship program. A sponsor from the U.S., France, China, etc. will be partnered with a child to make sure he can get an education. I love being on this side of the situation, interacting with the kids and seeing what they have to go through in order to receive the money. Last week there was a five or so minute episode I will never forget. A boy, probably around the age of eleven or twelve, came in because he had received a sponsor. My co-worker handed him a 2 by 3 inch slip of paper with a name on it: Robert Martin. He asked my co-worker if it was a male or female, and my co-worker turned to me for an answer. “Man”, I said. The student smiled, staring at the name. He started repeating it to himself, with poor pronunciation, quietly, over and over. Eventually when the name had become familiar in his mouth, he started tracing with his finger the careful cursive letters of the name. Again, and again, slowly. I could sense the sheer joy he had inside him. Then he started his first letter. Cher Robert Martin

5. If you have a two lane road, you can comfortably drive three cars wide. But if you add just one more lane to make it three, you can drive five cars wide. Dakar taught me.

6. I’ve started taking my malaria pill every day at dinner because it’s the only meal I eat at home now, usually. Every time I open my pill container I am, for a second, relieved at how many little maroon pills are still in there. I still have that many days, I remind myself. That’s a lot. But then I remember that there’s enough in there to take them every day for a week after I return home. And then I remember that the doctor also sold me five extra. And then I remember that I originally started with two containers. And then I cry.

Learning French: formation, training course (All week co-workers were talking about the upcoming “formation” and I didn’t realize what it was until today when I participated.)


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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?


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“Where’s that?”

westafricamap

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