Meet Burkina

learning & sharing Burkina Faso


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Burkina with a side of Senegal

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In photo: Ataaya and a view with Yama in Yène Guedj, Senegal on August 20th.

Village life:

I’ve been in Burkina for about 14 months now. The first year, overall, wasn’t too difficult: I learned the local language (Mooré) quickly, developed deep friendships, and felt accomplished in my work. I also was remarkably healthy. And happy.

The most recent 2 months have been challenging. I could name various reasons for this. One reason could be the overall vibe of the village; it’s cultivating season so people are busy in their fields all day. There’s not the normal village hustle and bustle, (by which I’m referring to a dozen people drinking under a nearby tree or the bike repair main with a line of a few broken bikes, as examples). Relatedly, the harvest is a couple months away which means now’s the time when families are running out of food and, relatedly, money. If there’s a month of hunger it’s now. Of course I’m not starving, but it affects me physically (almost no food available on market days for purchase- most of my food I transport from the city for now), and mentally, as I wrestle with the fact that people I talk to every day actually are hungry. “Hungry”: do I even know the feeling?

A couple weeks ago I made really good tacos and was so proud of them. I took one to go walk around the market area, hoping someone would ask, “Alima, what in the world is that?!” They did. I convinced a good friend (bike mechanic) to try a bite, and he did! He was better at convincing people to try it than I was, and soon the taco was gone as the men all wanted to taste and see. “What’s that?”, pointing at the tortilla shell specifically. “Uhh… bread”, I said, knowing I could rack my brain forever and not find a better Mooré word. “And that?”- lentils. “Beans”, I said. “And… that….?” – melted cheese. “Milk sauce!”. I really got creative with my language usage. Maybe such a bizarre food tasted so good because they were simply hungry!

A second reason that village life has been hard the past several weeks is I’ve been a little sick, but not in an easily explained way. I had a slight but steady fever for a week- probably longer. I had absolutely zero appetite: part of this could be due to having limited ingredients and therefore strange meals; part of this could be due to the fact that I was emotionally off, feeling isolated, unproductive, and un-useful. I recently read online that gastro-intestinal issues and mental health are closely linked. I’m not sure if this is true, but it sure seemed that way. I might have parasites of some sort, and if I do they’ll be detected next month at my medical examination.

A third reason for having a rough patch in my service could be contributed to an overall fatigue/temporary burn-out period. In the 14 months I hadn’t taken a vacation. (I have now! I’m currently in the airport in Dakar heading home after a nice 2 weeks here.) My phone service in village had gotten terrible so I wasn’t able to even call people without much effort. I knew lots of crazy things were going on in the world (attacks, American politics, etc.) but I had no news access or reliable souce of information. My main work was paused because of both the school break and cultivation period so I was home and alone and lonely a lot. On one hand I needed a rest from it all; on the other hand it felt like all I did was rest. I felt guilty.

I think this rough patch is over! As I head back to village soon, I plan to arrive refreshed and motivated. I’ll great people ethusiatically, cook appetizing meals, and start a few new projects. I’ll try to convince myself that spending a day at home reading and resting is not something that should produce guilt.

Just peace. Jamm rekk.

Senegal vacation:

“Jamm rekk” is actually not Mooré but rather it’s Wolof, the language I’ve been immersed in the past 2 weeks. My Wolof skills, which were sharp a couple years ago following a semester of intensive study in Dakar, are terribly rusty. However, a shocking number of Wolof words came back to my mind in the exact moment I needed to say them. Everything around me became a cue or a trigger, and my memory served me phrases on a platter.

The vacation was interesting. It had already been weird before leaving Burkina because I had a dramatic incident where Peace Corps required me to change my dates of my trip at what I considered to be the last minute. I felt awkward telling my host family and friends in Senegal about the switch in dates. ..they think I’m not coming at all… they think I’m crazy… they think I’m finding an excuse to wait a few more months, or years, to visit….

Not too mention my poor, confused chicken babysitter in my village who believed I hadn’t left my house even though I told her I had. (She was right- I hadn’t. Still hoping it wasn’t a ‘boy who cried wolf’ situation and she’s been feeding my chickens the past 2 weeks.)

Anyway, I was able to spend a bit of time with friends and host family members in Senegal. I also visited old beach towns I’d loved before. Being in Senegal after having lived in Burkina (and having become Burkinabè even) was interesting. I could compare the two countries on a deeper level.

Senegal felt different a little bit. Like it had changed. Or maybe I had changed? I never remembered the beach at Yène being so dirty: was it dirty last time but I had been wearing romantic, rose-colored glasses and accepted the trash as a part of an African beach?

During my vacation, I hated my 1 visit to a big market in Dakar. The sellers were touchy, pushy, loud, and impolite. Had the market atmosphere always been like this, or could it have gotten worse? Maybe it has changed, but more likely, in this situation, it was me who changed. I may have used to accept this market atmosphere as a normal west-African phenomena. But after visiting countless markets in Burkina- where sellers are totally calm and would never touch me, I felt differently, (and didn’t like), the Dakar shopping experience.

Language was different. My French has truly have taken on the accent and grammar of a Burkinabè speaker, shocking and even saddening my closest Senegalese friends. Wolof sounded different, and I was newly interested in it’s grammar and cultural elements, (for example, the Wolof system of counting money). Relationships were different too, some for the better and some for the worst. It was surprisingly easy to re-connect with my host siblings and I was more at ease with them than I’d ever been. My relationships with my two closest friends in Senegal, contrarily, were emotional and difficult for me. I wanted things to have felt the same like before, but the distance that had formed between us became suddenly evident and painful.

Anyway I know my eyes and my head and my heart has changed dramatically since study abroad a couple years ago. And I know Senegal is changing a lot too. I asked Yama, and yes.. the beach hadn’t been so dirty last time. The market, this time around, may have been extra chaotic because of the approaching holiday (Tabaski). But I knew my eyes were much more critical as well. Too critical at times, comparing too much instead of accepting Senegal as it’s own seperate entity, unlinked. Senegal and Burkina are as different as an American would find them similar.

American Ambassador to Senegal!!:

One of the best days of my academic/professional life was visiting the American Ambassador Mushingi in Dakar. I could go on and on about the day at the embassy and my conversation with him… I hope to post a seperate blog about it someday soon. You guys know how infrequent my blogging has been; no promises on “soon”…

Future plans:

I’m eager for the school year to start back up in village. I want to add soccer to my girl’s health club, meaning we would have soccer practices and games, but health topics would be woven into our meetings. (There’s a popular Peace Corps program like this.) I also hope to re-integrate, more deeply this time, into the CSPS (health center) work.

In December my parents and little sister will come visit Burkina Faso. I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for something in my entire life. I have lots of plans for us, but mostly just sitting and talking and looking at eachother. It’s been awhile.

 

Learning Mooré: bēndga (a trap)

Learning Dioula: fey (verb ‘to have’)

Learning Wolof: niakk (word to describe someone from the “true west African bush countries” like Mali, Burkina Faso, etc. In Senegal, friends and strangers alike were hugely entertained to meet a Toubab who had become so exactly a niakk).

Learning French: casanier (a homebody)

 

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Pressing rewind

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In picture: The house we vacationed in this weekend. Stunning.

Bringing you an update in backwards order.

Z. Currently sitting in Yama’s bed on my laptop. He is next to me on his. He is writing an essay about himself in English for his English class which started last week. I am starting a 20 page essay in French about my internship which is due in two weeks. We occasionally ask each other for advice, and every thirty minutes or so we proof-read each other’s work. It’s a good system. And cute.

Y. I ate dinner (lentils, my favorite meal) and spent time with my family, “family” being an elastic word that includes my neighbor Laye (who has truly became a father to me here), and the close friends of my siblings.

X. I returned home from my internship. I had a long discussion with one of my coworkers. We talked about a lot of things, I don’t really remember exactly what, but one thing was that Senegalese people always love U.S. presidents, obsess over them even. Especially Obama because he’s black, but even Clinton. Every single one, except G.W. Bush, he said.

W. I had lunch with my boss’s family as usual. My boss had a young male guest over today. It was fun for me, not being the guest. I usually get royal treatment, but today I was just a family member and the royal service was given to the guy. I laughed internally at the whole thing, watching someone have to deal with walking the fine line called “polite”, balancing both denying things (like a nice chair when he really prefers sitting on the floor with everyone else) and being thankful and accepting things graciously.

V. Before that, at my internship, I spent most of the morning translating a document from French to English. It’s my major ongoing project there. The document is dense and wordy. But it’s good practice.

U. I woke up and walked to the bus stop. As I was walking past the women grain vendors across the street, I hear the familiar cry of a little baby. Saliou. One of the hardest things I’ll have to leave behind in a few weeks. He always cries when I leave. I rush over to him and pick him up, which instantly stops his crying, and take him down the road with me where I always buy café au lait. I return him to his grandmother after.

T. I woke up. I slept well. I heard and searched around for Alice, my pet mouse who lives in my closet. Didn’t find her.

S. I visited with my friends who I hadn’t seen in a few days – Jibi, Mouhammed, Sadikh. Sadikh and I talked on my porch for a half hour or so which was nice. I updated them on my vacation I had taken.

R. I ate dinner and spent time with the family, who all asked me how my vacation to Toubab Dialaw was. I was hoping they wouldn’t ask who I went with. They never did. I think they’re smart enough not to; they have so much sutura. I went with a boy, which is very taboo in this culture, (and agrees with Christian values). I have no idea what I would have said if they asked. I can’t imagine lying, but I can’t imagine telling them the truth, and I don’t know which I would feel worse about later. Theoretically if it was possible for them to choose, I know for a fact they would prefer to hear a lie – that’s a cultural thing too.

Q. Yama and I took a private taxi to Mermoz.

P. Yama and I took a shared taxi to Dakar.

O. Yama and I took a Dakar Dem Dikk (public bus) from Yene Guedje to bigger village close by.

N. Yama and I spent our last day on vacation, which included mainly breakfast, napping, lunch, and packing.

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M. Saturday – Our only full day of vacation in Yene Guedje. It was really good. Yama cooked dinner (and cleaned up) with little help from me. So delicious. We spent awhile on the beach, walking and having miniature adventures as they came up.

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L. Yama and I spent a lot of time walking and collecting seashells and sea glass and pretty rocks. This is one of my favorite activities and I’ve never been with a boy so into it too! I sacrificed my makeup bag (which now smells) so he could bring them home safely. (Yama has the best and biggest shell on display on top of his TV now. He just told me that he told his six year old niece that the snail is still alive, but just sleeping. Lalla is terrified and definitely won’t be touching (breaking) it.)

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K. Yama played a few rounds of beach soccer.

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J. A little girl brought me a puffer fish! It was so interesting. I had never seen one like it – it was like a huge white goose-bumped balloon full of water.

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I. Yama helped pull in a huge fishing net.

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H. I built a sandcastle with some girls and decorated it with shells.

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G. All the children on the beach came up to me to talk, testing my Wolof, and mostly just look at me. I didn’t mind but sometimes I feel a little bashful or something. When we were walking it the village it was even more crazy, every child announcing there was a Toubab, and often rushing over to me, “Bonjour Toubab!” I don’t mind it. And it kind of broke the ice making it easier to take a picture of me and this boy dressed up as a lion.

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F. Yama had peanut butter and jelly for the first time in his life. Of all the American foods I’ve introduced him to, this is the one he actually wants to eat again.

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E. Yama and I left for our vacation to Toubab Dialaw, but it actually ended up being in Yene Guedje. We rented a part of a gorgeous house on the ocean. I will never be able to explain how perfect the whole thing was. My favorite feature of the house was the mermaid [of no return] next to our door.

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D. I left my internship to go meet up with Yama for our vacation. I waited outside his English class and we left from there.

C. Friday – last work day of a long work week. I had my backpack packed full for vacation, including a bunch of food I had bought at the American Food Store near the U.S. Embassy.

B. The least best week of my stay in Senegal so far, but still not terrible. Certainly there were high points.

A. Had that amazing experience at church.
What’s facing me now? About three weeks left here. A twenty page paper and another smaller essay in French. My research project, which was finally just approved and I can now start interviews, (will post a blog update about that.) Buying gifts for people at home. Figuring out what I’m doing for the people who have done so much for me here. You know, things like that.

Learning Wolof: Lo ragala niak, boulko téyé. Don’t have what you are afraid to lose. (Yama taught me several days ago and I can’t stop thinking about it.)


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I believe He’s watching out as I travel around Senegal

I’m truly overwhelmed.

I keep saying “best meal so far in Senegal”, “nicest person so far in Senegal”, “coolest thing so far in Senegal”, “best day so far in Senegal”, “best week so far in Senegal”. I’m not sure if things truly keep getting better or if it’s just the case that everything is so awesome all the time that everything feels like “the best”, “ever”.

This past week was Spring Break for me, and the week between the two halves of my time abroad, the first half being the classroom phase and the second half being my internship/research phase. It’ll be hard to write a blog post summarizing the week, but I’ll do my best. Sometimes when I have a lot to write about, my tactic is starting at the present and writing about the events in reverse chronological order. This post will be something like that, as I am writing about the trip home from Spring Break, and a rundown of my six days of vacation will come later.

clando: an informal taxi, an unmarked car with a random driver; part of the Senegalese informal sector; not exactly illegal; less expensive, just as safe. My theory is that “clando” comes from the word “clandestine”. (For readers who aren’t great with vocabulary, clandestine is an English word meaning secretive.) However, my other English speaking friends here did not make that assumption and perhaps that’s not the case. (I strongly believe it is).

A week ago my friends and I left Dakar to head to Saly for Spring Break. Saly is a small city south of Dakar on the coast known for its beauty and tourist opportunities. Our plan to get there was this: take a taxi from the mosque in Mermoz to the lot with the sept-places, pronounced “set-PLAAS”, which translates as “seven seats”; take a sept-places from Dakar to Mbour; take a clando from Mbour to the house we were renting in Saly.

It was, as always, easy to hail a taxi in Mermoz where we live. “Hailing a taxi” is an overstatement anyway because when you’re a Toubab (white) walking along the street here, the taxis all hail you (honk, slow down, honk again, stop, honk) and you acknowledge them if there’s mutual desire. We bargained with the driver for the price to the lot with the sept-places, a ten to thirty minute drive. While in the taxi, the driver tried to convince us to let him drive us all the way to Saly, a roughly two hour drive. We insisted that we weren’t interested because the sept-places were so much cheaper. So the bargaining began.

Because locals had told us to expect a price just around 25,000 FCFA, we were happy when we successfully bargained with the taxi driver for a price of 15,000 CFCA ($25). This split between four people wasn’t going to be that much more expensive than paying for the taxi, the sept-places, and the clando. Futhermore, staying in the taxi and not getting out until we were at our vacation home was going to be so much less stressful, albeit not as exciting. So we did it. Although we had some difficulties in Saly finding the exact house, where street names and addresses exist only in theory, all went very well.

Now fast forward a week to this afternoon. Our amazing vacation has ended and our bags are packed. We say good bye to the two people who had become our Salian parents, and the pool boy. We walk towards the busy road where a clando will hail us and we will accept. (Taxis don’t exist in small cities and villages.) We plan to take a clando, then a sept-places, and then a taxi – the reverse of our first plan out of Dakar. However, it was as if God was telling us that we weren’t meant to ride in a sept-places, that we weren’t ready; our plan failed again.

After getting in the clando, it turns out that our driver was on his way to meet a friend. He called him to let him know he was going to be late because he had “clients” he had to take to Mbour, a little bit of a drive. When he has the opportunity to make a couple thousand francs he will. Again, we never made it to the sept-places lot. After only a couple kilometers he flashed his lights and pulled his car off the road. It’s not abnormal for a driver to pull off and buy water or fruit or sandals or anything really. But this time there wasn’t anything to buy. It turns out that he signaled for a taxi to stop. Generally taxis don’t exist in small cities like Saly, but this taxi had just come from Dakar and was dropping a man off.

Our clando driver said “Get out” and we said no, take us to the lot with the sept-places because that’s what we’re paying you to do and who is this random taxi driver eyeing us and we don’t want to take a taxi because they’re expensive and even though we are white we are ready for the adventure of the sept-places. The taxi driver came over to our window and said “Dakar? 20,000.” We told him that we were planning to take the sept-places which was much cheaper. Then he said, “Okay, 1,500.” Time stood still. I looked back at Katherine and Tori and Haley in the back seat with the most confused expression. Katherine told him that we didn’t understand what he said, and he repeated himself. “1,500.” I told the girls, no way. Even if he actually means he wants to do it for 1,500, that’s just too good to be true. We aren’t looking to get trafficked.

Then I understood. The taxi was a Dakar taxi, and the driver lived in Dakar. He had taken a man to Saly. Now he was headed back to Dakar. Taxis don’t belong in Saly and he probably wouldn’t be able to get good business because clandos can drive people around Saly for cheap. Not to mention he probably wanted to get back to Dakar to pray and eat. Our clando driver saw an easy way out of driving us all the way to Mbour (because he wanted to go hang out with his friends), and he thought he could help a Dakar taxi driver make 20,000, or at least something, off Toubabs headed home. The taxi driver knew he probably wouldn’t be able to find Senegalese people to drive to Dakar, because they would most certainly take a sept-places, or even a Tata or another big, cheap bus. But today we Toubabs were Senegalese too, and after insisting that a sept-places was just fine for us, the taxi driver decided to give us a sept-places rate if we would just get in his car and go. It wasn’t too good to be true – the taxi driver was happy with the situation too. Because there were four of us, his car would be at max capacity for his trip back to Dakar, and he would charge a rate slightly higher than he would normally be able to charge – 1,500 per head.

It worked out perfectly for all parties involved. He was charging us each 1,500 FCFA ($2.50) to drive us right to the door of our homes in Mermoz. Considering the length of the drive this was an insanely good deal. He even convinced us to pay to take the toll road which got us, and him too, home in record time. We trusted him more than the average man because he was quite old and wearing a traditional Muslim gown, (regardless if this increased trust is merited or not). He stopped just once to buy raw meat but he put it in the trunk. He was mostly silent, and spoke to me only when he wanted to tell me something interesting about what we were driving past. We tipped him well (in a country where tipping doesn’t really exist), and he gave us his phone number if we wanted to call him in the future. “What’s your name?”, Haley asked. “Saliou”, he said. “How do you spell that?”, Haley replied, fingers ready to type it into her phone. “T-A-X-I”, he said with a smile.

Where travel was likely going to be the most stressful part of my day I actually loved it. Also, I officially love clandos, even though the idea was mysterious and questionable before. In a country where unemployment, idleness, and money insecurity abounds, things like clandos put men to work and money in pockets. I’ve decided that although things seem unorganized and crazy in Senegal, systems exist here just as much as systems exist in the United States. Where formal systems are lacking, informal systems take root. Sometimes the systems in Senegal are less efficient than the ones in the U.S. Other times the systems in Senegal are notably more efficient, and more exciting too.

Learning Wolof, but Arabic first: InchAllah, God willing. (It’s appropriate to use this phrase after any sort of plan, and people use it several times a day. For example, “See you tomorrow, inchallah.” “I’m taking a sept-places, inchallah, (and it turns out God wasn’t willing).” “I’ll post tomorrow about my Spring Break, inchallah.”)