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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Updates a pigg laa ta

A DOZEN & ONE UPDATES

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In picture: Pascaline cutting up pork for our impromptu Thanksgiving meal

Since last time I’ve written, just about everything in my life is new! I’ve had to re-start, yet another time, the settling in process. Finally, however, I am content with my situation and have established a great foundation for a successful two years of service.

1. House

At the start of month two at site I moved into a new house; it has finally become home. It’s big and beautiful and I am blessed by the shade (and soon fruit) of a mango tree. I even have a guest bedroom with a nice bed and mosquito net! Visitors I’m ready for you! I have a very large courtyard, my latrine is within the courtyard, my shower room is indoors. I had a little bit of a mice problem for awhile but I think, for now, they’re gone. My only housing “issues” are I’m concerned my latrine (hole in the ground with a cement cover and walls around it, for pooping) will fill up before my two years of service, and that my courtyard (still) doesn’t have a functional door meaning my privacy (and maybe security) is greatly reduced. The Peace Corps will likely deal with the full latrine (but I’m not sure how) in the event I can fill it. And I’m currently “pestering” some community members to work on getting me a door. Nothing happens fast. Oh and lastly, my place also came with a little chicken house in the courtyard!

2. Health staff

I mentioned in my previous post that soon all my health clinic (in Burkina it’s called a CSPS) staff would be replaced/new. Well sooner than I expected, yes, they’re all gone! We have a new major (head nurse), a new nurse, and a new midwife. They’re all females (which rarely happens), and that’s cool by me. I think we’ll have a lot of fun together. The new nurse, who from the beginning was quickly becoming a good friend, is still one of my best friends in country. Despite language and culture barriers she is beginning to know the real Alyssa, which is saying a lot in this completely foreign environment. One of the best parts of the staff being women is that that means they have kids with them. (Their husbands stay in the cities but kids almost always travel with mom’s work assignments.) All three of my co-workers have young children that I’ll be able to watch grow up a little bit.

3. Chickens

I’m in love with my chickens and chicken raising. The first chicken I bought, who I mentioned in my previous post, has been eaten now. My friend visited and killed the chicken for me. I made the best version I could of yaasa ginaar, a meal I used to eat in Senegal. (Rice with sauce of onions, dijon mustard, and chicken.) It was great. I had boughten for this cock a wife. Now I have, officially, two chickens- one cock, one hen. My goal is to get eggs, but so far it hasn’t happened. I’m not opposed to eating either of them though, if the occassion arises… espcially if she doesn’t hurry up and give me eggs. Unofficially, four chickens sleep at my house. They say that because my hen sleeps with three cocks every night eggs are sure to come. I’m waiting.

4. Work

As of today, my introductory/non-work period has ended. Pretty soon I can start projects. I’ve treasured the months at site where my only assignments are to study Mooré, get familiar with the village and its people, and start figuring out what the village needs are. It’s hard to explain sometimes what my work will look like. I’ll be focusing on village health education and maladie prevention. For example, in January I’ll start a health and hygiene club for girls at one of the elementary schools near my house. For the village, I’ll plan programs, camps, and sensibilations (teaching sessions) on topics like family planning, malaria, or nutrition. Even already I work with mothers of malnourished babies, mostly every Wednesday morning. However, over time I will develop programs that focus on educating particular groups on particular subjects. Of course for now I have no project results to report! I will keep you updated as my work evolves.

5. Food

I’ve been learning and loving Burkina cooking! My house is well stocked with non-perishable foods now, and whenever I have the opportunity I buy a couple fruits or veggies (veggies are available every few days, fruit maybe once a week). Peace Corps gave us a cookbook created by decades of Burkina Faso PCVs (it’s amazing), and I now have the ingredients on hand to make almost any item there. Except baked goods. There are not ovens in this country, but many volunteers set up a dutch oven – involving a metal cauldron, sand, some tomato paste cans… And then you set it over your gas-powered stove top burner and bake in it! I was’t too much of a baker in the U.S. so we’ll see if I ever get around to setting up a dutch oven.

6. Village integration

Every week I am becoming more familiar and comfortable in village. I have a church that I go to every week and even did the congregational prayer once, (in English which of course no one understands but in prayer something is transmitted anyway). I have a couple new hangout places where I can go and relax and be myself. People for miles all know my name and I’m “bothered by men” less and less (it will never go away entirely). I have more preferences now, like the shop keeper I prefer and the time of day at the market I prefer (hint: the morning before drunk people hangout there). I even know almost exactly what time the baker will have his first loaf of bread made in the morning, depending a little bit on the day of week, and this is probably something he doesn’t even know about himself.

7. My health

No news is good news on this one. I don’t have anything to report other than, grâce à Dieu, I have stayed very healthy! The occasional headache or bellyache is all I’ve been dealt with, unavoidable in any country. I haven’t even vommited or had diarrhea, quite an accomplishment I think, but I already knew from my previous African adventures that I had a strong, or perhaps part African, stomach. Thank you God for my strong and healthy body! Pray that I’ll continue in good health.

8. Language

My Mooré is improving quickly and every day! I just finished a 3-day language training session in Koudougou with a really good Mooré professor who works for Peace Corps. The training was encouraging as I realized just how far along my language skills have come, and I also realized that I can say almost anything I need to say on a daily basis. I also got a wealth of new vocabulary that I can begin putting to memory. My language tutor (and her son) attended training as well. The idea is that Peace Corps would invest their resources in training tutors who can then better train us in our villages. Definitely not a bad idea. We’ll see how much my daily tutoring sessions are different now after the training of us both. During the training in Koudougou there was a huge bi-annual festival. Vendors come from all over West Africa to sell goods, often handmade. I ran into several Senegalese people and was excited to use my Wolof with them. Although they were still impressed to have met a white person or westerner speaking Wolof (and to have found her outside of Senegal), I was sad that I had a hard time remembering even basic Wolof phrases. Mooré has really moved in, and for at least awhile, is here to stay.

9. Burkina friends

As mentioned, the nurse (Jacqueline) is one of my best Burkinabè friends. I’m also really close with my tutor (Pascaline), and her son although he’s 2 years old. (You’d be surprised though how in an environnment like this you can make a good friend out of oddly young people or really old people). One of my best memories of Pascaline is when she came to my house for tutoring on Thanksgiving and we decided to cook a big meal and invite a few people. We made riz au gras (oily orangish rice) and bought pork at the market to cook up. It was delicious, and was so nice to eat a big meal with some of the people I love most here. Beyond these two, my circle of friends is growing wide as I interact with the same villagers day after day and as I meet new functionnaires (French speaking, educated outsiders assigned by the government to come work in my village), recently lots of school teachers.

10. Peace Corps friends

My PCV friends have become even more important and enjoyable than I would have originally imagined. I recently spent almost a week with 5 of them, as there were 6 of us at the language training in Koudougou. Outside of these 5, I have 4 PCV friends who I talk to the most, and they are such a comfort to me here. People from home often ask me how closely I live or work with other Volunteers/Americans here. I am the only one in my village, and there are not many in my region of the country. There is one PCV who lives 7 km from me, but she came two groups before me and is about to leave Burkina! Her 2-years is over. Still, before she goes, I’ll make an effort to spend time with her a couple more times because having a neighbor that close is a treat. After she leaves my closest American neighbor is a PCV who lives in my regional capital, Koudougou, and after that I’m really not close to anyone.

11. Home friends (and family!)

I miss you guys! It’s weird thinking about (many of) you guys bundled up against the snowy cold while I still sweat while doing and wearing nothing. The best way to communicate with me is through Whatsapp. Contact me any way you know how and I can give you my Whatsapp number.

I’ll say that I haven’t been good at getting letters out but it’s happening slowly! You all are (way) more than welcome to mail me letters or packages and I’ll certainly send a reply!

Alyssa Feenstra, PCV
Corps de la Paix
01 B.P. 6031
Ouagadougou 01
Burkina Faso

12. Things i’m missing! / package requests

My mom has been great at sending me things that I ran out of or realized I need. Still, items that I will always enjoy include:

-Snacks (savory ones like chips, cheeze its, etc. or sweet ones like non-meltable candy… but if I get melted chocolate I’ll still love it)

-Yogi brand tea (any variety)

-Candles

-Spices or seasonings (anything will be enjoyed! Off the top of my head my requests would be curry powder and taco seasoning. Feel free to get creative.. Like ranch dressing mix or something could be cool!)

-dried lentils (green, red, brown, whole or split, anything works)

-moisturizing lotion! I didn’t bring any but realized I should have and the ones here aren’t as great as from home.

-clothes? I can’t imagine most of you/any of you necessarily buying clothes for me but… underwear is awesome (size medium at Aerie for reference). A pair of socks or two (but not more) is fun. I’m a medium in most shirts, particularly if they have some stretch to them, but even if they’re too big I can wear them around the house or to run quick errands.

13. Near future plans

My birthday is coming up! I’m not sure yet where I’m going but I’ll leave my village for a couple celebratory nights in a city. We have more freedom of travel now that we’re finished with our 3-month village-obervation period. For Christmas I’m still not sure what I’ll be doing. I’m thinking what may be best is to spend a few days with other PCVs to celebrate, but then be in my village on the day of Christmas. I was invited to spend the day at the home of my homologue (an older man) and my language tutor (his daughter-in-law). They’re going to kill a pig. For the longer-term future, I haven’t planned any vacations yet but hopefully in the spring my best friend from the U.S. and I will get together. It’ll be nice to be with someone again who knows me deeply and who I don’t have to explain myself to.

Learning French: chaud chaud (literally translates as “hot, hot” but you might use it to describe someone reading, writing, working, trying… with intensity or deep concentration.)

Learning Mooré: baagnem (dog meat… because people eat that here. I haven’t.. Yet.)