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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A little reflecting on little changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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