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learning & sharing Burkina Faso


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Journal Excerpts 1

 

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In photo: Me, on Christmas, with my homologue and his grandson (Ashad, who loves me almost as much as I love him).

Every few months I flip back through my journal to read and reflect. Sometimes I surprise myself. Sometimes I’m able then to recall things I’d otherwise forgotten had happened. Mostly I’m able to see how much things are changing, and how much I am changing too. I’ll share a couple of the less personal excerpts, and ones that don’t identify particular individuals. I imagine this will relay in a different way the things I experience here.

NB: words in curled brackets are things I didn’t write in my journal but I’m adding now for clarity.

Sunday, October 2

“He asked me if, in America, I had learned to read or if it was natural. Amused at the thought of Nasaras {white people and/or foreigners} being born with the ability to read where Burkinabè must go out of their way if they’ll ever learn, I explained that in the U.S. most of us start learning around 5 years old. That all happened exactly a week ago, and I’m contemplating the question more this morning than ever. Behind the humor, he’s right. It is, more or less, a natural process for Americans. It’s normal – it just happens. It may be hard work for teachers and parents, and many kids may fall through the cracks, but overall it’s the natural way of things – that a Nasara will know how to read and a Burkinabè villager may not. And THAT isn’t funny; it’s injustice.”

Monday, October 10

“The CSPS {health clinic} is busy today. It’s also market day. I hypothesized that maybe the two were related, although I have no evidence because it’s something that just came to mind and I’ve never tried to observe it before. Reasons could include that coming from 12km away is long, but on market day you can kill two birds with one stone – bring your sick child and do your market shopping (or selling). {In Nassoulou, the CSPS and the market are close by eachother.} Anyway so I’m sitting with Marso now, and Madame walked in. The CSPS is full of sick today, right Alima?, she told me instead of asked. I took the opportunity, and particularly the chance to have two sets of listening ears (Marso’s and Madame’s) to ask my question – the relationship, if any, betwren market day and CSPS traffic. Madame didn’t really answer I guess, and was on her way out. But before the thought left the air I caught it, asking Marso more directly.

She answered, and gave me a perspective I hadn’t previously seen the issue from. I wouldn’t have, I guess, because maybe I don’t understand (yet, if ever) the depth of poverty here. She told me that yes, the CSPS is busier on market days. On other days, someone wouldn’t have the money to pay for the medicine, so on market day they come, they sell some stuff just until they have enough money – and then they come buy medicine for their child. I’m asking myself now to what extent that is true and frequent. It’s hard to believe, but I guess why wouldn’t it be like that? Marso was explaining the reality. It hurts. My whole life seems to hurt right now.”

Wednesday, October 26

“I went to work on time for once – making a special effort to do so – but no, bad idea. I’m back home sitting on the bed. I’ll go back soon and hopefully we’ll start (baby measuring).”

Tuesday, November 29

“Little heartwarming moments. This guy with fast speech and a rough smoker voice trying to talk to me at the bar. This is normally a “don’t even try too hard to understand him” situation. I’ll probably like him more if I don’t know what he’s trying to tell me. But he’s with his wife – (first time I’ve ever seen husband/wife drinking a beer together in Nassoulou). The wife “talks to me” through the husband.

He asked the question they always ask first, but when he asked it was different somehow. So I told him yes I have a husband. He said that’s what he thought but his wife was saying when she saw me she knew I wasn’t married. Actually throughout the conversation his wife was always “wrong” about things she was actually right about. I felt a sudden pang of guilt, remorse. But I guess that’s how it goes, right? Wife’s always wrong but somehow – how? – so right.

I tried to say something that could give the wife some points. “But I don’t have any kids!” Then the guy started saying a bunch of stuff I couldn’t understand. Seeing he was insistent I understand, and after him saying again, “Wait you do speak Mooré right?” and me saying, in Mooré of course as the whole conversation had been, “Yes, a little!”… so I told him, okay talk slowly. He started again… No!, I said slowly. So he said it slowly then finally. Like magic I understood. “May God bless you with a child.”

The wife said I was a doctor at the CSPS. I said I’m not a doctor (point for husband), but I live and help at CSPS (point for wife). She weighs babies, the wife told the husband to tell me. Oh yes, yes I do I said.

The husband said I needed to eat better/more. Why was I on my phone with the plate of rice in front of me only half gone? Eat a lot, he said. And have a baby and breastfeed! All sound ideas, thank you sir.

When they were leaving he stood his wife in front of me and complained that she wasn’t big enough. Doctor feed her! The wife was timid and embarassed, her standing while we looked on and commented on her size. Your wife is perfectly big, I insisted – which was true. She was tall and heavy – but only to a healthy degree, how a fit person might become fat a bit in their fatigued old age. No quesrion was she strong and healthy, and cozy in bed too. Poor woman. But she smiled away all the shots. Her sanity, I knew, depended on it.

Although the conversation felt long to me, because it was all in Mooré, and holy moly I could understand all of this in Mooré?! it was really like five minutes. Burkinabè drink a relaxing beer (and bottles are double the American size) faster than any others I’ve met. Their normal is my pre-game chug.

The next guy came in. Alone, just him. Still drinking fast. Still asking me about my husband and kids and why no kids? He asked if I wanted 1 or 2. Three I told him, being contrarian by nature, and so he wasn’t right about Nasaras/Westerners wanting just 1 or 2. He’s the kind of guy with a warm face and careful way of talking and he’s safe and not creepy. His smile it is. And his dirty work clothes and expensive boots. He’s hard working and spends his money from rice cultivating over a cold beer every couple weeks. He was maybe even faster than the wrong wife and her embarassing husband.

Last sip, tap glass stand up.
“Bon?” {he said. This is random French word Burkinabè love to use to note that their leaving}
I throw Mooré. “Wend na kod nidaré! {See you next time if God’s gives it}”
Nindare! Then they make comment I don’t understand and I do the uhuuuh, the noise they do when the mean “yeah!”. By now I’ve convinced them that I understand everything perfectly and they leave smiling, two steps away muterring under their breath “Oh Nasara…” Boom, I made their day.”

Learning Mooré: “Wend na kod veere!” May God give us next year!, a phrase I’ve loved throwing around to n’import qui this holiday season.

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Empty Wallets, Full Hearts

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


Empty wallets, full hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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