Saturday, December 18, 2010

Holiday Greetings

Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year to all!
My older daughter, Janet, her husband Jonathan, and their three children, Abby, Ellie and Jamie will be here for a ten day visit over the holidays so I won’t be posting again until after the New Year. I am really looking forward to a lot of hugs and family time. We will spend some time in my village and some time seeing the sights, so I will probably have a lot to tell you all about after they leave.

Change in the weather
At the beginning of December there was a sudden change in the weather. It started getting cool, even cold, at night. It feels quite nice to step outside after sunset and feel a cool breeze, but if I have my windows open, I am actually cold at night. In any case, I am glad I brought a fleece jacket and a sweater. It warms up as soon as the sun comes up, but is not so beastly hot as in October, and I am not sweating off all my liquids during the day any more. I guess this beautiful weather lasts only about three months and then it goes back to hot, hotter and hottest for the rest of the year. I am trying to enjoy this while I have it.

Windows
The windows here do not have glass in them but are simply metal louvered shutters. When you close them they keep out the rain, and they do help keep the heat in the house at night now. They also darken the room and provide privacy, but the dust and dirt still come through. On a normal house, so do the insects. One of the requirements of Peace Corps housing is screens on the windows, so the insects do not get in through the windows at my house.

Building
With the end of the rain and with the crops in, it is time to do the building. People mix straw and mud, fill rectangular forms with the mess, and set them in the sun to dry. In a couple of days you have mud bricks, like these:


To build a house or a wall, you get a bunch of these bricks, map out the size of the thing you want to build, and start laying them, like ordinary bricks. For a house you might have a concrete floor, but maybe not. The wall is simple set out on the ground. For mortar, all you use is more mud. Here is an example of a wall, in progress:




To keep the whole thing from washing away when it rains during the summer, you cover it with another layer of mud, this time mixed with concrete or some other, stronger material, kind of like spreading stucco on a house. This layer has to be refreshed every few years, or your wall or house will wash away.

They also make concrete blocks in much the same way. Get your sack of concrete, mix it on the ground with sand and water, dump the mixture in a form, wait a bit, and let it dry in the sun. If you are making concrete block, you have to water the blocks so they don’t dry too fast and crack.

Hangar
Another thing you want to have here for most of the year is a good shady place. If you don’t happen to have shade from trees, or if your trees drop their leaves in the hot season, as most of them do, you build a hangar. This is just shelter made out of poles and woven grass mats. The mats are quite pretty and this is quite effective, but the material degrades over time and has to be replaced every couple of years, of course.

Courtyards
A typical house will be in a courtyard. There may be only one house, or several houses inside a wall. The houses usually consist of just a couple of rooms. In a typical, more modern one, there is a living room and one or two bedrooms with an indoor place to take a bucket bath, AKA shower. There may be several houses like this for family members, and some may consist of as little as a single room. Most of the living goes on in the courtyard, however, where cooking is done over a fire built under a pot sitting on three rocks.

When a visitor arrives (like me) the kids run into the house to get “a place” (chair) for you, and put it in the shade. To make a courtyard, you need a wall. This serves the purpose of delimiting you more or less private space and may keep animals in at night, or out during the day

Sheep vs Goats
Speaking of animals, can you tell which of these is a sheep and which is a goat?



There are some that look even more similar than the ones in these pictures. Do notice that there is not much wool on the sheep, and this is winter! No, I have not taken up raising animals. These guys belong to my neighbors. You can see their wall, covered with the protective coating, and how big this corner of their court yard is. This is about ¼ of their courtyard. They keep about 15 sheep and goats, a flock of chickens, a flock of guinea fowl, a couple of dogs and a cat. Good thing they have some space.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Exploring Churches

When I arrived in my village one of most common inquiries from new acquaintances was about the church I would attend. Many of the people I know best here are Catholic and some go to mass every day. In fact the first church I did attend was the Catholic church, for the wedding mass for my community homologue’s daughter. There are a couple of European priests and a Burkinebé priest as well as at least one African brother, who happens to speak very good English. All of the Masses are in Moore, the local language, of which I now understand about 10 words beyond the simple automatic greetings you say over and ever every day, so that would not be a good choice for me, either from the religious stand point or from the stand point of having a clue about what was being said.

Protestant church #1

My homologue was very concerned that I get connected with one of the protestant churches so she took me to meet the pastor of a church that is not too far from my house. They have a three hour service each Sunday. The first hour, 8-9, is billed as the sermon, the second hour, 9-10, is for singing and the third hour, 10-11, is for prayers. I said in the US church services tend to last about an hour, not three, and the Pastor assured me it would be fine if I just came for part of the morning so I said I would attend the middle part, with the singing. He promised to have someone to translate for me. I arrived about 8:50 and they had put a chair for me way up in the front of the church. I indicated I would rather sit in the back, thank you, and they moved the chair. All the members of the congregation, which was not very large at this point, were seated on benches, men on one side, women and children on the other. A man came and sat next to me on a bench. A woman was reading, in Moore, from a booklet. My translator had a copy and he translated very rapidly into French, but it was too fast for me to follow and I have trouble hearing two things at the same time, especially when I don’t understand either of them.. There was a lot of room on the benches, but after the sermon part of the service the children, who had been having a Sunday School lesson or choir practice under the trees, came in, along with a lot of other people, and it was pretty crowded. Once the singing started the man again tried to translate the words for me, but I told him to forget it. I could not hear him because the volume of the singing and drumming was too loud, and I could not understand most of his French even when I could hear him.

There were several groups who sang: a group of teen aged girls, the Sunday School kids, a group of women, a group of boys, and so on. The choir director sang, as did a woman soloist. For all the singing the only accompaniment was drumming, which was loud and enthusiastic. The little church was packed and when everybody sang, the sound was overpowering. The kind of singing that is considered good for choirs here is the kind of sound every American choir director tries to get rid of, that is to say, singing as loud as possible, in a rather nasal tone. When they are on the last verse of a song, the director had them sing more softly, which sounded great to my ear, but on the last line they return to the usual loud, sing-out-at-the-top-of-your voice sound. In addition to the voices, there was a lot of clapping and swaying. One of the children’s groups had a little dance to go with one song. It was dancing in place, but resembled the kind of movements I have seen in the traditional dances.

After an hour I decided I had had enough and left. The pastor came out to say good bye and I thanked him for trying to have a translator for me, but explained that I could not hear clearly with two things going on at once. I attributed it to a hearing problem and apologized, but said I would not be back until I understood more of the local language.

Protestant Church #2
Next my homologue took me to meet the pastor of the big church in the center of the neighboring town. I say big, but it is not as large a building as the Catholic church. They have a service that starts at 7:30 on Sunday morning, in French, which I have a chance of understanding, so that is the place I have been going. They use a book that is the same as the one they were using at the other church, but in French. It is essentially a Bible study book, put out by the national church office here, or maybe it is for all of West Africa. The church clearly produces these lessons both in French and some of the local languages. In any case, I understand a bit of what is being said, and it is good practice for trying to understand spoken French. Both of these churches are Assembly of God, quite a bit more conservative than my comfort zone, but which seems to be the only protestant church in this area, and maybe in all of Burkina Faso.

I asked the pastor if I could get a copy of the book they were using, thinking I might understand better if I could follow along, and he came up with one for me. He also loaned me a copy of the Bible in French, too. Interestingly it is a study Bible, translated by Catholic missionaries, so the Old Testament has the books of the apocrypha interspersed with the books in the protestant Old Testament. In this church there are several men who participate in leading the service. I found out that they are something like lay ministers, and have had three years of training. They not only help with the service but visit the sick and help deal with problems in the congregation. In addition to reading the little book, the lay ministers, and sometimes the pastor, sermonize a bit about each section. I do OK when they are reading from the book and I can see what they are saying, but still have trouble understanding what they say when I can’t see it.

Before and after the reading from this book and the sermonizing there are prayers. I have yet to figure out if all the people are just saying their own prayer or if they are all reciting the same prayer, just at different speeds. Sometimes I think they are saying the same prayer and it is a race to see who can finish first. At other times the leader rings a little bell to indicate it is time to stop. In any case, I can’t understand a bit of it. There is also some singing by the congregation, from a song book that has the words in French. Some have familiar tunes, and one of the lay ministers who sits near me shares his copy of the song book if he can find the page. There is also a small choir, that arrives piecemeal throughout the sermon time. They have a drum to accompany them, but there is also a girl who has a half of a gourd (a calabash) with a bunch of shells around the edge. She tosses it in the air and catches it, in rhythm with the beat of the drums. The choir director and two young men usually sing a trio, with a guitar! It is the only musical instrument I have seen in either of these churches. There is sometimes another group who sings, usually with the lay minister who shares his book with me leading the group. I am not sure how much of a religious experience this is, but it puts my face in the community and helps people place me as a protestant. I think it may improve my French listening skills so I don’t mind biking 20 minutes each way to attend.

One other thing is worth mentioning about this church. At the service I attend, most of the people who come are what they call functionaries, that is, they have jobs with a salary. In this service they pass a basket for the offering, much like in the states. There is, however a table at the front of the church, and as people are entering for the next service, in Moore, some bring a bag of grain or whatever they grow, or a casserole dish, which I assume has food in it as well. I have also seen poles with little mesh baskets, like fish nets, on the ends which I assume get passed in the Moore service as well.

The Muslims

I realized I had contacted the Protestants and Catholics, but not the Muslims and I did not want to neglect them. It took a little while, but eventually my homologue found a Muslim neighbor who was willing to introduce me to the Imam. He seemed like a very nice fellow and happy enough to meet me, although the whole conversation was in Moore except what I had to say in French, with my homologue translating for me.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Health update

A word about my health and other health topics

I was doing fine health-wise until a couple of weeks ago when I picked up a water born parasite called giardia that gives one nasty cramps and other intestinal distress. I was going to Ouaga for a check of some skin spots anyway, but went a day early when I found I was hot, not just because it was 90 degrees or so but because I was running a fever. They kept me there for 10 days, which was a good thing because I lost more weight and was feeling tired all the time. The Peace Corps takes very good care of our medical problems. The dermatologist assured me that the places on my skin I thought might be a problem were not, and I regained my appetite so now I am back at my site and feeling fine. That is also the reason I was fortunate enough to be in Ouaga for Tabaski. Now on to health issues for the locals.

Malnutrition
I have been going to the local maternal health center twice a week to “help” (mostly to get in the way and scare the babies) with the baby weighing. All of the babies born in the town are supposed to come once a month to be weighed and to be vaccinated at the appropriate times. Vaccinations of various kinds are free to the people who bring in their babies, but not all babies come in on the proper schedule. The mothers have a little booklet in which the midwife made notes about the pregnancy. After the baby is born his or her name is added to the book and a record is made of the baby’s weight each month. We have a book that stays in the center that lists each baby born in the town. When the mother brings the baby in, the official worker, who can speak Moore, checks the mother's book to see the baby is there on the right day, has the mother put the baby on the scale, and records in the mother’s book both the weight and whether the baby’s weight is > 100%, > 90%, > 80%, >70% of the expected weight for a child that age. If the baby is 70% or less of the expected weight, the baby gets an examination by the “sage femme” that is, wise woman, or midwife, and the mother gets a consultation about the baby’s problems. The mother is then supposed to bring the child back weekly to keep track of progress and for the midwife to talk further with the mother about better nutrition. Some of these kids are easy to spot at the health service. Often they have reddish hair and a very swollen belly, along with very thin arms and legs.

Up the road a bit is a medical center connected to the Catholic Church where I went for the wedding of my community homalogue's daughter. I met one of the nuns at the wedding, who happens to be American, and she gave me a tour of the facility. They treat severely malnourished babies there, but their main mission is to teach mothers how to make a nourishing baby cereal by combining ingredients they can easily obtain in their villages. For example, cereal that combines a grain, such as corn or millet, with either beans or peanuts, will provide a complete protein for the baby.

This Sister goes out on her moto to visit remote villages that are too far away for most people to be able to bring the children in. She has trained someone in each village to take a simple tape measure and measure the upper arm of each child under 5 in the village. The area of the tape that measures the smallest circumference is red, the next yellow and the rest green. If the arm measurement falls in the red or yellow area, chances are the child is malnourished. She visits the villages every three months for a year, weighs the children, and talks with the group of mothers whose children have been identified as being malnourished. For people who live closer, she tries to get mothers to come to the center to learn how to prepare more nutritious food. There is a big room at the center, with lots of openings to the outside air, in which there are wood burning “stoves” where the mothers cook as they would at home. They also make bags of the cereal with they give or sell, I am not sure which, to the mothers. This seems like a very fine program.

Government Health Care
I have mentioned the maternity and baby part of the government supported health service, but I should say there is another building where people with health problems can come for consultations and prescriptions, and there is a dispensary for giving out drugs. I am pretty sure there is a charge for this service because people have tried to get me to give them medicine for some kind of problem. We were warned this might happen and given strict orders never to share our medications with others so I have to tell them, “No, I am not a doctor or nurse and I have been forbidden to give out any drugs.”

Polio
There is a real problem with polio in Africa and there is a big push to get all children immunized. In November there was a big country wide campaign to get all the children under 5 immunized, regardless of whether they had already been immunized or not. The idea is that, if all children are immunized it will be possible to end this epidemic.

In the town near me, and in other towns I believe, there are centers for handicapped people. Many of these folks have problems with their legs and they get around on big tricycles. The peddles have been placed up by the handle bars and they “peddle” with their hands. Some of them can move pretty quickly. There are also folks who have to use a crutch, like the guy in my favorite little store. They create original arts and crafts or work as tailors, or at other jobs that do not require a lot of moving around or strength. I believe most of these folks are polio survivers, but there are probably other reason for the handicaps.

More on the neem tree
I had the name wrong for that tooth brushing tree. The tree is the neem tree, known in its native India as the tree of 40 because it is said to cure 40 diseases, according to Wikipedia. It is apparently good for more than just cleaning teeth. Check out the article if you are interested in all the things it is supposed to be good for that have not been substantiated. They claim it is drought resistant and evergreen. We shall see about that in the spring when it is really hot and dry.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tabaski

For those of you who do not know, Tabaski is an annual festival in the Muslim faith that is the beginning of the new year. It commemorates the day when Abraham showed his obedience to God by being ready to sacrifice his only son, and the fact that God then sent a ram to be sacrificed instead, so the son did not die. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the son was Isaac, of course, but in the Muslim tradition that son was Ishmael, through whom they trace their heritage back to Abraham. In any case, it is a big religious festival and a legal holiday here. Every family that can afford it buys a sheep, kills it, and has a feast.

I was fortunate enough to be in the capital for another reason at that time, and to have just met an acquaintance of my son in law here, who very kindly invited me to join him and his family for the fete. I did not get in on the sheep sacrifice part of the day, nor did I go to the mosque. My escort, who works in the government here, picked me up (in his car, no less) about 1 in the afternoon and our first stop was at the home of his secretary. He gave her one of the ubiquitous black plastic bags everything is put in here when you buy anything. I think it had some of the meat from his sheep, but I am not sure. The women in the family were in the court yard, preparing the mutton and other food. We were escorted into the house and served pineapple juice. Then the secretary brought a plate of French fries and fried plantains, and another plate with several pieces of grilled chicken. I ate only a little because he had warned me that on this day you are expected to visit many people and eat everywhere you visit.

Next he took me to his house where there were quite a few people gathered. Some were seated on the front terrace and others in the living room. I was invited to sit in the living room where there were overstuffed chairs and couches to seat about 9 people. I sat there and tried a drink made from the sap of the palm tree. It was not bad, but had a bit of a bite to it. I still wonder if it was not a bit alcoholic. I assumed it would not be because Muslims do not drink alcohol. Later those of us in the living room started the line to the food. First there was of a big plate of crudité, that is, all sorts of raw vegetables, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes (green) canned corn, grated carrots and I don’t know what else, with a yummy dressing. Then there were the French fries served with an onion and tomato sauce in place of ketchup, fried plantains, baked fish, couscous, very well cooked lamb, and grilled chicken. Having eaten my fill, it was time to visit another house.

He drove me to the fancy part of town, called Ouaga Deux Mille, that is, Ouaga 2000. It is the new area near the presidential palace where there are a number of government offices, embassies, and very upscale houses for the high up government officials, I think mostly at the level of cabinet ministers. There were a lot of people there, all dressed in their holiday clothes, and here I was, this ancient American woman wearing my traveling clothes. I was glad that my blouse was the one made of the material celebrating the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, so I was not a total western interloper.

At the gate there were guardians, like for all big important houses, but these were dressed in camouflage fatigues so I think they may have been military. Happily, no guns in sight, however. As at my host’s house, there were several seating areas. First there were those seated outside. Then there about 20 men seated on one side of the six sided entry hall. In the center of this hall was a gravel pit, about 10 X10 feet, with a banana tree or some other tropical tree, growing up toward the sky light a couple of stories above. On another side there was what was clearly to be the buffet line, and another set of doors opened into the air conditioned “great room.” There were a couple of seating areas for 10-15 people. We greeted folks at the first one and ended up seated in the second one. At first I was seated in one of those plastic lawn chairs that serve the function of folding chairs here, but very quickly I was asked to stand for a second so they could replace it with a padded chair from a rather elegant dining room set. And THAT is a sign of respect, folks. You get the really good chair if you are an honored guest. My host introduced me as a Peace Corps volunteer and the mother in law of a colleague in American and that was about all the conversation about me.

In any case, after a few minutes it was time to start the buffet line and our room was invited to go first. The choices were rather similar to those at my host’s house, but there were a few differences. In addition to the things he served, there was to and sauce, although the sauce had big chunks of chicken in it, which is not your usual to sauce! The mutton was being sliced by a carver, as you might see at a fancy buffet in the states, and was pretty tender.

After all of the people in our seating area had eaten a server brought over a bottle of Champaign and one of red wine. Only about half the folks accepted and I found out later that, in fact, Muslims will serve alcohol to guests because they know others expect to have wine with meals. The only rule is, they will not serve too much, so as not to cause problems for their guests. It is also possible that the minister and his family are not Muslim, becasue everybody celebrates all the holidays here, regardless of their religion. I had been introduced to the minister on the way to the buffet line and had a chance to thank him on the way out. We were escorted to the front gate by his wife, again a real honor.

We returned to my host’s house were the people who work under him were paying their duty calls to give good wishes for the fete and the new year. Some of them had met my son in law and I knew they really did know him from the little French I could understand, “the big guy with the beard who talks fast and negotiates hard.” That’s him, all right.

By 5:00 it was time for the neighbors to start calling and for my host to go visit neighbors so I asked to be taken back to my living place, having seen the general idea of the fete, having eaten way too much, and being rather tired. What an adventure!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Health

There is, of course, a lot of illness and disease here in Burkina Faso. The thing you hear about the most is malaria. Just a few weeks ago the government health service in this part of the country gave out free mosquito nets to people in the villages who had signed up to receive them. I, of course, have been sleeping under my Peace Corps issued mosquito net or in my Tropic Screen Tent ever since I arrived and taking my anti malaria drugs faithfully.

In spite of putting on insect repellant every day, I still get mosquito bites. Malaria is carried by the mosquitoes that are out in the evening, hence the value of sleeping under a mosquito net. My Peace Corps friends in the health service say that people tend to say they have an attack of malaria (the palu) whether it is malaria or a cold. There is, however, an anti-parasite drug that people get treated with when they have malaria. Several people I know, or their children, have been in the hospital and were treated with this drug, so I am sure many of those who say they have malaria actually do. I hope the new mosquito nets help. The data suggest that using them significantly reduces the chances of getting the disease.

Teeth

One of the most obvious signs of poor health is the condition of people’s teeth. So many adults have missing teeth that it is surprising to see someone with all of them. Often you see a smile with big gaps in it, or only one or two teeth visible. Sometimes you see decayed stumps in the mouth. Pretty sad. There are tooth brushes and tooth paste available at the local stores, but the most common way to clean teeth is to grab a twig off a tree and rub your teeth with it. It turns out this is not just any old tree, but the mim tree. One of my friends stripped a twig of it for me to try and it is pretty bitter. It must have some particular chemicals under the bark. Some people who use them a lot seem to have pretty good teeth, so maybe it is one of those reasons to preserve biodiversity. It may be the next new ingredient in your tooth paste. Who knows? Another friend told me that it works best if combined with sodium, which you can buy at a boutique or the marché. He said that, if you don’t have money for sodium, you can crush salt and use that powder. He has great teeth, so he is a pretty good testament to the effectiveness of this method.

Truffela Trees

If you are a Dr. Suess fan you know about truffela trees, that were all cut down to make sneedes. (Dr. Suess aids the environment.) Someone pointed out that in some of my pictures there are trees that remind one of truffula trees. They are the mim trees, mentioned above, and here is a picture of one. Compare it to the book, if you have one at your house.




Eyes

I have been struck by the number of people with a lazy eye, that is, one that does not focus with the other. You see this in children and adults. You also see people who are clearly blind in one eye. I am sure many people who need glasses do not have them because the only people with glasses are the functionaries, that is, the people who receive a salary

Umbilical Hernias

It amazes me how many of the children have huge umbilical hernias. They may protrude several inches. Most of the young kids run around naked, or nearly so, so it is something you can easily see. Because clothes tend to be quite loose, and often rather ragged, you can see that these hernias are not a new thing. Adults have them, too. I don’t think it matters whether the baby was born at the maternity or at home, but I will keep an eye on the babies I see at the baby weighing

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Harvest Time

Here we are at the beginning of November. The rain has ended and it is harvest time here in Burkina Faso. When the millet has ripened, people go out and cut the grain bearing part off of each stalk. You see donkey carts or big bowls balanced on people’s head going from the fields to the courtyards, where the grain is dried in the sun, removed from the stalk, and stored to be used later in the year. The peanut plants are pulled up and carried home in the same way. As I mentioned before, there were beans growing up the millet stalks, which were harvested a while ago. In some fields you now see the gourds, used to make the calabashes for eating and drinking that have also been growing among the millet.

After the grain is removed, the stalks of the millet plants are cut down and left to dry. They can be used as animal fodder during the dry season, when nothing grows, or woven into mats to be used to create shade, like the hangar I showed you in the demystification entry. To build a hangar you need poles. Because it is against the law to cut down trees here I wondered where they were coming from. Then I heard chopping from semowhere down one of the paths by my house. I looked out to see a neighbor up in a tree, cutting off a couple of branches. It is really just pruning the tree, and it will grow two where one was removed, I guess. Below is an example of this kind of pruning. I did not get the top of the tree in the first picture because I had no idea they were going to prune it. I was get taking general picture of the countryside. I am standing in front of this tree in the picture in the pagna blog, so you can check it out there, too. The top used to be much higher than the part that is left. Maybe you can get an idea from these pictures of how much was “pruned” to get wood for the fire and for a new hangar.






Another thing that happens is that the animals, which have been carefully tethered to stakes pounded into the ground, away from the crops, during the growing season are now set free to roam and graze at will. One day I was surprised to hear cattle lowing and a loud rustling sound. I looked out my window and saw a herd of 50 or more cattle wandering through the millet field behind my house. I had not seen many cattle here, but there were a lot that day! I did not see any cows, only “beef” as they say here. They sure do make a lot of noise!

I asked a neighbor about whether people were upset to have the animals grazing in their fields, and he told me there is a person who tells the village when it is OK to let the animals graze freely. I guess if you are slow getting your crops in, it is just too bad for you. Now there are pigs and piglets of various sizes, goats and sheep with lots of baby goats and sheep, chickens and guinea fowl with their chicks, as well as the cattle and donkeys, roaming everywhere.

Bats are gone

It appears that the poison gas attack was successful in getting rid of my bats, that is to say, killing them all off. They removed the dropped wooden ceiling in one of my rooms and the smell from the attic is terrible. Now I am waiting for the carpenter to go to the nearest big town to make the lath that will hold up the bigger pieces of light plywood that form the ceiling. Interesting to have to make lath! I have to keep the door to that room shut and hold my breath when I walk past it. Hopefully it will have a ceiling and the smell will be confined to the attic soon.

Now that the bats are gone, I thought I could sleep at night without being awakened by critters, but the other night I was awakened by the rustling of paper. Yikes! What was that? I knew it could not be a person because my house is very secure. I told myself to go back to sleep, but that wasn’t happening! I got my flashlight and checked out the room. I found a toad (I love the French name for toads, crapaud, pronounced crap-oh) sitting on my package of toilet paper that was on the floor. I think it perceived the plastic wrapping as water and was trying to go for a swim. In any case, I threw a pair of slacks over it, captured it and put it outside, only to be awaked in another hour by the same sound. This time the toad (the same one or its friend, I don’t know) trying to swim on the wrapping of a small pack of tissues that was on the floor. Another toad trapped and put out and I made sure there were no more attractive places for the toads to try to swim in my room.

I told a neighbor about the toads and she said, yes, the toads come into the house this time of year and hide in the corners. Now that there are no puddles for them to swim in, they try to find cool places to go to ground. I think that they burry themselves for the dry season and re-emerge when the rains return in June or July. I don’t think I have told you about the racket they make. During the rainy season they were very noisy, singing to each other all night long. I got used to hearing the sound, and had not noticed that they are no longer singing until my recent toad encounter. As every perceptual psychologist knows, it is easier to detect the presence of something than the absence of something, unless the change is abrupt and here is a good example of that. (Sorry, I can’t quit being a dispenser of information.)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Bats in the attic

One of the requirements for suitable Peace Core housing is “no bats.” Now I know why. Here is the story:

The first night I was in my new home, about dusk, I heard what sounded like someone tapping on the back wall of the house. I went outside to see what was going on and saw bats leaving the attic though the ventilation holes. They were crowding each other out of the way to leave. It was almost like watching the bats leave Carlsbad caverns, if you have ever seen that. They swooped and swarmed like a flock of birds. Shortly thereafter three men and a boy appeared at the door with a ladder and explained they were going to plug up the holes while the bats were out feeding. They assured me that the bats would not be able to get back in and would find another place to live. They put screening in the holes so the air can still circulate (a good thing in the hot season), and left.

Unfortunately, the bats like my house well enough to find another way in. I was studying French at my table one evening and heard a thump on the ceiling. I was sure it was a rat from the sound of the thump and the skittering of little feet, but people said, no, that’s the bats. For almost a month I have been talking to various people about the critters in the attic, asking them how to get rid of them. Not only do they make a lot of noise day and night, waking me up with their thumping and bumping, they also create a very bad odor. There is a hole somewhere in the roof and when it rains the water drips down into one of the rooms with bat guano dissolved in it. That room smells like a room where a dog that was not house trained has been living. Yuck!

Finally the Peace Corps got to my site to check out all the safety and security aspects of the house and started putting pressure on the locals to help me with the problem. We arranged that I would leave town for a few days so they could put a “product” (poison) in the attic to get rid of the bats. Peace Corps paid for a sack of cement and a mason to apply it to all the visible holes. This “product” is a can of powdered stuff that is supposed to be sprayed on fruits and vegetables with sprayer, to get rid of pests, but they don’t have one of those so they have a creative solution. They will punch two holes in the top of the can and put a can of pressurized insecticide in one hole so the product is forced out of the other hole. I read the label on the can which says “do not enter the treated area for two days without protective clothing.” I sure am glad I arranged to be out of town!

The idea is that there will be people all around the house when they start the treatment and they will see if there are any escape (and re-entry) routes. If there are, these will be sealed with the cement. If not, someone will go up into the attic and clean out the dead beasts after a couple of days. Sorry little bats! I will be glad to be rid of the noise and the odor, but I really do like bats on principle because they eat the mosquitoes that eat me. However I don’t think two years living with bat guano would be very good for my health.

So, where am I?
Sorry I can’t post to the web the name of the village I live in or town I am close to. This is a Peace Corps rule, for security. For the same reason, I can’t post pictures of my house. I WILL show you and tell you where I have been when I come home. I will describe things in general, without distinctive information. Many places here are similar, so that should be easy.

Electric Power
I was assigned to a large village/small town but I actually live in a small village that is right next to it. In the town there is electricity for some houses and businesses some of the time. The power is on from 8 AM to noon, and on again from 5 PM until sometime in the evening, midnight, I think, but it could be 10 PM. That appears to be a rather normal arrangement in the villages that do have electricity. I guess the big demand for electricity in the big towns is noon to 5, for air conditioning or fans in the hottest part of the day, so the seats of power get the “current,” as they say here.

I, of course, do not have electricity. I DO have a wonderful neighbor who had a big solar panel. He offered to help me find a rechargeable battery that would run a small florescent light to study by at night, and maybe run a tiny little fan in the hot season. When the battery needs to be charged he sends the daughter of his live in baby sitter/mother’s helper or one of his own daughters over to pick it up. It really is easier to study at night with this little light than to try to study by the light of an LED lamp, which is what I was using.

Water
I also do not have running water. My community homologue (person responsible for seeing that I get integrated into the community) has one of the kids from her family fill a 200 liter barrel with water from the pump and bring it by donkey cart to my house. At the moment the helper is a girl who hauls the water from the big barrel into the house in 20 liter containers that used to hold palm oil, the most common kind of cooking oil here (Yes, I know it is bad stuff and clogs the arteries, and I don’t use it.) I have a 100 liter plastic garbage can (with lid) that she fills, and then she fills up my four oil containers and the four buckets I have. That lasts me for a little over a week if I am not doing a lot of cleaning.

Even though this is the safest kind of water available, I still put it through a filtration system, provided by Peace Corps, and add bleach to kill the local bugs. It doesn’t taste bad to me, and so far I have had no water related illness. I think I mentioned before that it is the custom to offer visitors a cup of water when they arrive, not a bad idea in this very hot climate. However far folks have traveled to see you, they are probably thirsty. I give them the untreated water because they are used to drinking it and my treated water tastes funny to them.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Clothes

Pagnas

What is a pagna? It refers to a two meter length of cloth, usually cotton, with a bright print, or a pattern commemorating some occasion. There are pagna patterns for holidays like Christmas, the installation of a new priest, or the 8th of March which is International Women’s Day, a big event here, if not in the US. The US embassy designs a pagna pattern each year about friendship between the United States and Burkina Faso. When you buy material, you get it in pieces that are one, two, or three pagnas long.

Pagnas, of the one pagna variety, are very useful. This is the most usual type of skirt for women. Women wrap them around their waists and tie their money in the corner they tuck in, because there are no pockets. The top can be a t-shirt or it can be a matching blouse. I have bought a few three pagna pieces and have had quasi-African outfits made.



Here is a picture of me in one of them. I am wearing a blouse that was supposed to be made like an American women’s blouse, but turned out to be more like a loose fitting man’s shirt, right down to the way it buttons. I am wearing a “cheater” pagna skirt because it has ties on it. It is also decorated with bias tape, which is something tailors may do to make an outfit look fancier. I have not yet got the hang of just wrapping that piece of material around my waist and keeping it up. I still don’t see how women can wear them and ride a bicycle, but they do it!

Women also use pagnas for carrying babies on their backs. To do this you bend at the waist, sling the baby onto your back, and spread the pagna over the kid, just under the head for infants, or arm pits for bigger kids. You tie this very tightly above your breasts and tuck in the ends. Then you pull the bottom of the pagna up to support the baby’s bottom and, with the feet sticking out on either side of you, and tie those ends just under your breasts aand tuck in the ends. The effect is kind of like a halter top over whatever you are wearing, but there is a baby on your back. The cotton material dries very quickly, which comes in handy when the baby wets on you.

Pieces of pagna are used as diapers and sanitary napkins. All the babies have belts of beads or yarn around their waists, often with a religious medal or shells attached for decoration. When I first saw them I asked someone about them and was told “they are for security.” I thought this meant that they were some kind of animist charm or something, but actually they hold up a piece of pagna that serves as a diaper! Silly me.

Once kids are no longer the baby on the back, they may go around wearing just a t-shirt, or maybe nothing at all. They are trained to go into the field to squat when they have to relieve themselves, although they may join the animals and relieve themselves on the road. Once they are “toilet trained” the kids usually wear pants of some kind, but they may be ripped and torn in various places.

Other clothing

The women breast feed their babies for at least their first six months, and often longer. This, of course, is very good because it passes immunity to some diseases the baby and keeps them from getting the bad bugs that are in the water here. en take their babies just about everywhere with them, to the market, to the church, to visit, or even to meetings. They do “demand feeding,” that is, if the baby cries, feed it! To make it easy most women do not wear bras and the tops are very loose to make it easy to feed the baby. Even older women wear this kind of top that is looks like a maternity smock, and has a scooped neck line that tends to fall off one shoulder.

Men may wear western style pants and shirts, or pants and tops made of pagna material. Most clothes are tailor made, by the many tailors in every town. The tailors use the old fashioned treadle machines. You take them a picture of something you like, find a picture in their shop, or draw a sketch. They take your measurements and, magically, without a pattern, they produce something similar to what you had in mind. Not always what you asked for, but interesting. One thing I have had to insist on is pockets in my skirts and dresses. Pockets for women are not a concept here, and not a possibility in a pagna.

Most people have only a few of sets of clothing. They usually have one better outfit for church or celebrations. Some of these can be beautiful, with fancy embroidery on the blouse or shirt, sleeves and skirt. As I mentioned before, you do not go into people’s houses, as a rule. I have been in only two or three here and there is no closet. I have seen clothes piled on the floor or hanging over a clothes line in the room.

Ready made clothes

At every marché there is a person with what I call Salvation Army rejects, that is, American used clothes that have been bundled up and sent to Africa. They are usually quite cheap, so what the person charges is really how he makes a living, carrying these things around from place to place. I expect these folks have to pay something to get a bundle of clothes, too.

Kids may be dressed in anything from a satin and gauze party dress to rather raggedy clothes. A pretty dress will be worn everywhere, fetching water, working in the field, sweeping the courtyard or going to school, and it is worn until it is worn out. Often the zipper is the first thing to go, so it may be open in the back. It is interesting to see people wearing t-shirts with slogans in English, French, or German on them. I think people usually have no idea what the message is on the clothes they are wearing

And me?

Someone asked what I usually wear, and the answer is, my American clothes. I wear cotton pants and either blouses I brought from home or one of the ones I have made here from pagna material. For church and special occasions I may wear a skirt, but I am more comfortable biking in pants and that is the only way to get around. I ALWAYS have on a long sleeved blouse with 50SPF sun protection (in theory) to keep from getting burned and to protect me from skin cancer. I wear a hat when I am not wearing my bicycle helmet and I put on sun screen faithfully, too. So, that’s the story on clothes.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Cell phones

All of the volunteers must have cell phones so the Peace Corps office can contact us. That makes us more like the Burkinabé because just about every adult here has a cell phone. All volunteers have some amount of money deducted from their living allowances each month to pay for what they refer to as “the float.” That is, all volunteers are in a “friends and family” type group. All our numbers are with the Zain cell phone company group so we can call other volunteers and talk to them for as long as we like at no additional cost. Some of the people in my training group have called me from time to time just to say hi and see how I am doing and I try to do the same. The problem with this plan is that some people are in sites that don’t get a signal and they have to go to another village to be able to get on the network. Mostly it works pretty well. People also send text messages.

In order to talk to a person who is not on the float, or to send a text message, you have to purchase “unité” or credit. You buy a card at a boutique (small shop, not an up-scale place like the states) with a Zain sign outside or, in a city, you buy one from one of the many guys on the street who sell the cards. When a taxi stops at a red light in the capital there will usually be a guy standing there waiting for people to ask for unité, or he will come up to the taxi to see if there are any takers. Suppose you buy a card for one mille, that is, 1000 CAF (Central African Franks) which is about $2.00 in US money. You get a thing that looks kind of like a credit card with directions about how to recharge your phone. There is an area on the card where you scratch off the covering to reveal a 10 digit number. You dial *130, enter the number, add # and send it. Now you have 1000 unité on your phone. If you don’t have unité you can’t make a call. Here it only costs you if you make a call or send a text. Receiving calls and messages is free.

Interactions among Burkenabé

The first thing to know is that, in this culture greetings are very important. When you enter someone’s courtyard, you must greet everyone in the place, shaking hands with them and saying a series of phrases. Basically you say, Hello, how are you? Did you sleep well? How is the family? How are the children? What’s new? Are you well? Regardless of how you slept, how the folks are, and so on, the answer has to be that everything is good. While you say (and hear) these greetings you continue to shake the hand of the person you are greeting. At the end of the greeting, if the person is a good buddy, you separate you hands continuing to hold on to the other person’s thumb and middle finger, and finish the hand shake with a snap of the finger. I haven’t quite mastered the finger snap, although I can do it after the fact and people get very excited that I almost did it. This greeting is such a part of the culture that you do the same thing in miniature before you ask for an article at a boutique or buy something from a person at the marché. When you are biking down the road, if you see a good friend you really have to stop and go through the greeting ritual.

When a group of Burkinabé people are talking, I get the impression that they are arguing and yelling at each other, but that is not the case. People tend to speak loudly and the language is quite nasal, which gives it that angry sound to my ear. You realize they are not arguing when you hear a burst of laughter from the group. I don’t understand enough Mooré yet to know what they have been talking about, but it is clear they are having a good time. There is a lot of joking and laughter here.

Visiting

As with the greetings, there is a ritual associated with visiting. When you visit with people it is almost always in your courtyard, not in your house. When a visitor arrives you send one of the kids to fetch chairs from the house. You put them in the shade and indicate that the visitor should take a seat in the best one. If you have not done all of the greetings properly, you start that ritual over again. When we visit one of the important people in the village (all men, of course) my community homologue often slips out of her chair at this point into a very subservient crouching, almost kneeling, posture for this greeting bit. I, of course do NOT follow suit. Next, the custom is to offer your guests some water. When you are talking to people, looking them in the eye is bad manners (I always forget this, being very American). You chat for a while and, if you are the visitor it is up to you to decide when it is time to go. To let your host or hostess know you want to leave you say “I request the route” which means, please show me the way out. Here you have to shake hands with everyone except those who are going to show you out and say farewell. Then the host or hostess walks with you out of the court yard and, at least, to the edge of their property. I have a neighbor who almost always walks all the way back to my house with me. You are expected to go greet your neighbors each day. I do see my community homologue just about every day, and my closest neighbor, but many others stop by my house to say hello.

There is a strong cultural taboo on a man and a woman being together alone in a house, so for a man to enter my house there is supposed to be another woman here with me. This is quite inconvenient when a workman comes to do something about a problem with the house and the woman he asked to meet him here failed to find the house. That also means that, if a man comes to call, I have to take chairs out and we sit on my front porch-that-isn’t-a-porch. That is to say, on the paved place in front of the front door that doesn’t have a roof. After the rainy season they are supposed to put up a covering for shade (hopefully before the hot season in March). I can invite a woman into the house, or, if the man brings along his wife, I can invite them to come in. Quite different from entertaining in the states.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mail, e-mail and pen pals

Thanks to all who offered to be pen pals with folks here. In my village there is neither a post office nor a mail box. For these folks to write to you they have to make a trip to the next big town, about an hour away by motorcycle on a nasty dirt road, to mail a letter. That town also has a cyber café, so it is possible for people to use e-mail when they go there, but I doubt if any but those who have lived in a more urban environment have ever used a computer. In other words, it may be a while before you hear from anyone. I may also give your names to more than one person because I am not sure how serious most of these requests are. The idea of having a correspondent in another country may be exciting but the effort to write and mail a letter may discourage some folks. If you get a letter from someone here, I would love to hear about it. If you get more than one, feel free to pass one of them off to another person who might be interested in writing to someone here.

No cyber? Then how am I on the internet?

I brought my laptop with me, and I bought a USB cell phone modem in Oauga. If I get up at 3 or 4 in the morning and if the network is working at all, I get the best connection then. During the day and evening there are too many people using cell phones on the network and things move so slowly that I will run down my battery waiting for the screen to refresh when I delete a message or ask for the next e-mail from the JCU server. Sometimes the network is down but better than nothing. It works MOST of the time. I was recently unable to access the network for a couple of weeks. It turns out that was NOT the fault of the network, but I made a mistake in paying my monthly bill so I couldn't get on.

Warm hands!

Those of you who know me well know my hands are ALWAYS cold and that I wear a long sleeved shirt or sweater most of the time. For once in my life I have warm hands. When I cross my arms, my hands are actually warmer than my arms because my arms sweat and the air cools them a bit. It is the mini hot season right now. The locals keep saying how hot it is, and I agree. People are sweating up a storm, including me.

An update on crops

The rainy season is almost over. People say there may be one or two more good rains, and then things will start to dry up. The corn has been harvested. People are husking and shucking the corn for drying and storage. Some folks have started to harvest the peanuts, but others are waiting for a good rain so the ground won’t be so hard. The petite mil (small millet aka bird seed) and grand mil (which looks like really tall corn until the tassel part gets heavier and heavier with the grain and the stalks start to bend) are also getting ripe but I guess it will be a while before they harvest it because they let the seed dry on the stalk. I will try to add here pictures of the millet when I first arrived and it looks like corn and how it looks now, with the grain ripening on the stalks. I don’t know how well this will show up on your computer screens, but there are both kind of millet in this field.



People also grow beans of various kinds. I have seen big pole beans being dried and, of course they have been drying the okra as it grows. The okra plants are very productive with very pretty flowers and the pods that seem to grow over night. There are also gourds growing on vines that may be climbing up the millet or covering a storage shed. These will be used for calabashes for eating and drinking.

More on traffic

Some of you asked about how safe the roads are here, after seeing the picture of the traffic. In a word, not very. One volunteer has already had to return to the states because she was hit by a moto while riding her bicycle and broke her ankle. I have seen wrecked busses being towed (two at least) and one collision between cars being sorted out by the police. I try to ride on the dirt roads as much as possible or to walk my bike on the shoulder. The one paved road through the center of town passes through my village fairly close to my house. It is kind of like living a block away from the free way. You hear the traffic, but it is not bothersome. In fact, there may be times when you don’t hear a truck or bus for five or ten minutes. When they do go by, they are often blasting their horns at bicycles, motos or donkey darts as they pass them.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

So, what am I doing here?

Our first three months at our sites we are only supposed to be doing a study of the community. Really this means it is a time for new volunteers to get an idea of how the community works, begin to get integrated into the community, and to try to understand some of the ins and outs of the culture. I am now quite sure I will never fully understand the culture, but I am getting some insights by just looking and listening. During this time we are supposed to have some community meetings to try to get people to talk about what they have in the way of resources and what problems exist. After three months we have to write a report about what we have learned and propose work for the next three months.

Peace Corps development philosophy

The Peace Corps development philosophy is to work with the community to identify needs and to help the community find their own solutions to their problems, not to impose an American solution on them. We also are not here to give them money to solve their problems. There are a lot of foreign aid programs and Non Government Organizations (NGOs) giving grants, but Peace Corps has always been about sustainable development. If you hand money to people to solve a problem today, the next time there is a problem, they will go looking for another hand out rather than figuring out ways to tackle the problem with existing resources. If the sources of funding dry up, people will not have the training to think for themselves about possible solutions to their problems. When the community comes up with a plan and it is successful, there is a feeling of success and empowerment that is supposed to carry over to more development after we are gone. It is that old “give me a fish and I eat today, teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime” philosophy, which I believe whole heartedly. Also, I have seen a number of unused buildings that I am told were built by well meaning NGOs without consulting the local community. After the NGO left, the program that was supposed to happen there died too.

Right now I am doing my study of the situation. I have just been trying to get a bit integrated into the community while waiting for school to start October 1 or 15, depending on the school. I hope to have some meetings with representatives of parent groups and with students, but it is not clear how that is going to get organized. For those of you who have been asking, no I am not yet working directly with girls. I currently intend to have a girls’ club for living a healthy lifestyle at the high school level. I hope to motivate club members to share what they learn in the club with younger girls, naybe as mentors, or maybe running girls’ clubs themselves. Many of the younger girls do not speak French well enough for me to be able to communicate with them, but they really are the target group. After my study of the situation I may have a different plan.

Speaking of School…

Can you imagine walking into school and being taught in a foreign language? Unless the parents have taught the child French at home, that is the situation, because the language of the home here is Moore or Jula. That is the reason French is used in school. There are about 14 different local languages spoken here. Even though Moore is spoken more than any other, it is still used by less than 50% of the people. French is the language of the colonial days, but it does not privilege one group over another.

If walking into school hearing only a foreign language is not bad enough,, imagine being in a class with 100 or more other kids in a room with no lights (no power at the school) and sharing a desk with two or three other kids? It amazes me that people are able to learn anything here. No wonder a lot of kids quit school. This year there is actually a new program called BRIGHT which is a program to create 15 bilingual schools. They will start in the first year with about 10% French and 90% local language, and by the 6th year it will be almost all French. It is rather like what they try to do in bilingual programs in the states. It seems very reasonable to me, but then, I am an American, so who knows?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thanks for all your e-mails. In this blog I will try to answer some of the questions folks asked. First of all, I am doing fine here. During training we heard about the emotional roller coaster that volunteers experience. One day you are feeling great and on top of the world and another day you wonder why you ever left home. The only time I have had such a down time was during the second week of training. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t think! I talked to one of the Peace Corps doctors and told him that if this did not change I would have to go home. He said maybe it was the type of anti malaria medication they were having me take and changed me to another kind. Just knowing that it might be a drug reaction made me feel better about things. It was kind of like when I take Ibuprofen, but ten times as bad. It took several weeks to get mentally back to normal. I think I am functioning at about 95% now, although I still feel a little out of it from time to time. That could be the stress and strangeness, however, or maybe a side effect of the new drug, but I am much better. One thing I learned about myself during this time was that I feel best when I am mentally engaged. Just having a serious discussion with one of the training staff (in French) about cognitive psychology made me feel better. I have applied that lesson to how I try to spend my spare time here. When I have nothing else to do, which is several hours a day, I study French or Mooré, the local language in my village. I am not sure I am learning that much, but I am mentally healthy. I also spend time each day visiting with various people in the neighborhood trying to speak Mooré and French. (more about visiting in a future blog).

The fact that my older daughter and her family are coming to see me at Christmas time is also an emotional boost. I wouldn’t say I am home sick, but I do miss all of my friends from Mud in Yer Eye, the dance community, church, and JCU. I occasionally think about calling a contra dance or playing a tune on the dulcimer and wish I were in a place where I could do that. But mostly this is the adventure of a lifetime and I am glad to be here.

Food

As I said above, when I was having that bad reaction to the anti-malaria drug I totally lost my appetite. I lost the weight I put on just before I left home and some I have been trying to lose for years. I am not sure it is all weight loss. Some may be changing fat into muscle. Because I have to ride my bike when I want to go anywhere except the immediate neighbors I am getting more exercise than I used to. I have to see if I can find a scale to check that out. My new medication must be taken at the same time each day, with food. I selected lunch time because that was the most predictable meal time during training. For breakfast I usually have the same size bowl of oat meal that I have eaten for breakfast for years and a cup of Nescafe, the only kind of coffee you can get here. Then I don’t eat anything until lunch, so I will really want to eat with it is time to take my pill. Thus, lunch is the biggest meal of the day, as a rule.

So, what do I eat? I stocked up on canned goods before I came to my site but I am trying to make meals out of what I can buy locally as much as I can. At the moment one of the things that is easy to find are eggs. They are from pintades (Guinea fowl), so they are half the size of a chicken egg. The yolks are big and almost orange, as you expect from free range birds. There are lots of onions, and a local egg plant that I have not tried to master. I understand they are quite bitter, although I see people eating them raw. One of the things the girls and ladies have on the trays they carry on top of their heads are something that looks like a sweet potato but is white on the inside and tastes almost like are regular potato. These ladies also sell what they call gateau (cake) that seems like cake that has been deep fat fried, fried dough that is really greasy but OK on the inside, little pie shaped things made from millet flour, and peanuts which can be raw, boiled or, if you are lucky, roasted. One of my favorite things at the moment is local bread. It looks a bit like a French baguette, but the taste and texture is more like sour dough bread. From time to time there are tomatoes, cucumbers, and cabbages. One can also visit a small (and I do mean small) shop in a shack called a boutique and get powdered milk, Nescafe, sugar, flour, salt, oil, mayo, margarine, canned tomatoes, tomato paste spaghetti, macaroni, rice and couscous. They also sell non edible things like matches, soap, bleach, and lots of hair products. With no refrigeration I have to eat what I cook or throw it away. Fortunately my community counterpart raises pigs, among other things, and I can take my scraps to her for her pigs.

There is no propane for sale in Burkina Faso at the moment, and it does not look like the situation will change soon. I am lucky to have a community homologue who loaned me her gas canister to use. Very generous of her. Now she does do her cooking with wood or charcoal.

I have made pancakes and French toast, but can’t do any baking. I have made macaroni and cheese with Laughing Cow Cheese, the only kind of cheese product that you can keep without refrigeration, available only in the big cities. One luxury item I got from town was a jar of raspberry jam. I have to see if I can find more next time I go. I have to go to a town from time to time because the Peace Corps deposits our living allowance in an account at the Post Office. There is no post office in my village so I have to go to a bigger town to get my monthly allowance and, while I am there, I can do some shopping at an alimentation, a bigger store (kind of like a very small 7/11) that you only find in larger towns and cities.

I don’t eat much meat, just because there is no way to buy it and keep it. There is a guy who cooks up a pig on market day and I have gone to his hangar a couple of times for a pork sandwich. There are guys grilling meat on the side of the road, but seeing flies all over the meat kind of turns me off. I will get my protein from eggs and eating rice and beans and so on. My latest food adventure is trying the baby breakfast food they sell at the center for malnourished babies, up the road about 15 minutes. They do really good work there and this breakfast food is supposed to have a good mixture of things that give you complete protein. Hopefully if it is good for the babies, it will be good for me. I will let you know if I like it.

Sorry, this got a bit long. I will address some more of your questions in future blogs.
Thanks for all your e-mails. In this blog I will try to answer some of the questions folks asked. First of all, I am doing fine here. During training we heard about the emotional roller coaster that volunteers experience. One day you are feeling great and on top of the world and another day you wonder why you ever left home. The only time I have had such a down time was during the second week of training. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t think! I talked to one of the Peace Corps doctors and told him that if this did not change I would have to go home. He said maybe it was the type of anti malaria medication they were having me take and changed me to another kind. Just knowing that it might be a drug reaction made me feel better about things. It was kind of like when I take Ibuprofen, but ten times as bad. It took several weeks to get mentally back to normal. I think I am functioning at about 95% now, although I still feel a little out of it from time to time. That could be the stress and strangeness, however, or maybe a side effect of the new drug, but I am much better. One thing I learned about myself during this time was that I feel best when I am mentally engaged. Just having a serious discussion with one of the training staff (in French) about cognitive psychology made me feel better. I have applied that lesson to how I try to spend my spare time here. When I have nothing else to do, which is several hours a day, I study French or Mooré, the local language in my village. I am not sure I am learning that much, but I am mentally healthy. I also spend time each day visiting with various people in the neighborhood trying to speak Mooré and French. (more about visiting in a future blog).

The fact that my older daughter and her family are coming to see me at Christmas time is also an emotional boost. I wouldn’t say I am home sick, but I do miss all of my friends from Mud in Yer Eye, the dance community, church, and JCU. I occasionally think about calling a contra dance or playing a tune on the dulcimer and wish I were in a place where I could do that. But mostly this is the adventure of a lifetime and I am glad to be here.

Food

As I said above, when I was having that bad reaction to the anti-malaria drug I totally lost my appetite. I lost the weight I put on just before I left home and some I have been trying to lose for years. I am not sure it is all weight loss. Some may be changing fat into muscle. Because I have to ride my bike when I want to go anywhere except the immediate neighbors I am getting more exercise than I used to. I have to see if I can find a scale to check that out. My new medication must be taken at the same time each day, with food. I selected lunch time because that was the most predictable meal time during training. For breakfast I usually have the same size bowl of oat meal that I have eaten for breakfast for years and a cup of Nescafe, the only kind of coffee you can get here. Then I don’t eat anything until lunch, so I will really want to eat with it is time to take my pill. Thus, lunch is the biggest meal of the day, as a rule.

So, what do I eat? I stocked up on canned goods before I came to my site but I am trying to make meals out of what I can buy locally as much as I can. At the moment one of the things that is easy to find are eggs. They are from pintades (Guinea fowl), so they are half the size of a chicken egg. The yolks are big and almost orange, as you expect from free range birds. There are lots of onions, and a local egg plant that I have not tried to master. I understand they are quite bitter, although I see people eating them raw. One of the things the girls and ladies have on the trays they carry on top of their heads are something that looks like a sweet potato but is white on the inside and tastes almost like are regular potato. These ladies also sell what they call gateau (cake) that seems like cake that has been deep fat fried, fried dough that is really greasy but OK on the inside, little pie shaped things made from millet flour, and peanuts which can be raw, boiled or, if you are lucky, roasted. One of my favorite things at the moment is local bread. It looks a bit like a French baguette, but the taste and texture is more like sour dough bread. From time to time there are tomatoes, cucumbers, and cabbages. One can also visit a small (and I do mean small) shop in a shack called a boutique and get powdered milk, Nescafe, sugar, flour, salt, oil, mayo, margarine, canned tomatoes, tomato paste spaghetti, macaroni, rice and couscous. They also sell non edible things like matches, soap, bleach, and lots of hair products. With no refrigeration I have to eat what I cook or throw it away. Fortunately my community counterpart raises pigs, among other things, and I can take my scraps to her for her pigs.

There is no propane for sale in Burkina Faso at the moment, and it does not look like the situation will change soon. I am lucky to have a community homologue who loaned me her gas canister to use. Very generous of her. Now she does do her cooking with wood or charcoal.

I have made pancakes and French toast, but can’t do any baking. I have made macaroni and cheese with Laughing Cow Cheese, the only kind of cheese product that you can keep without refrigeration, available only in the big cities. One luxury item I got from town was a jar of raspberry jam. I have to see if I can find more next time I go. I have to go to a town from time to time because the Peace Corps deposits our living allowance in an account at the Post Office. There is no post office in my village so I have to go to a bigger town to get my monthly allowance and, while I am there, I can do some shopping at an alimentation, a bigger store (kind of like a very small 7/11) that you only find in larger towns and cities.

I don’t eat much meat, just because there is no way to buy it and keep it. There is a guy who cooks up a pig on market day and I have gone to his hangar a couple of times for a pork sandwich. There are guys grilling meat on the side of the road, but seeing flies all over the meat kind of turns me off. I will get my protein from eggs and eating rice and beans and so on. My latest food adventure is trying the baby breakfast food they sell at the center for malnourished babies, up the road about 15 minutes. They do really good work there and this breakfast food is supposed to have a good mixture of things that give you complete protein. Hopefully if it is good for the babies, it will be good for me. I will let you know if I like it.

Sorry, this got a bit long. I will address some more of your questions in future blogs.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pen Pal, any one?

The other day I was sitting under a tree at the local health center, waiting for the director to come and chatting with several folks. Three of them were nurses (one man and two women) who asked if I might be able to find them American pen pals. I am not sure if they are thinking of surface mail or if they might have access to the internet. I only have the internet here because I have a USB/cell phone modem, which I don’t expect they would have. They might go to the next big town where there are cyber cafes and use e-mail, but I think it more likely they are thinking of written letters, the old fashioned kind of pen pals. Now that I think of it, you have to go to that town (about an hour away by moto or bush taxi), to mail or receive a letter. No home delivery here! Well educated people here read and write a third language, usually English, so these folks could read letters in English and would respond in English (which may not be perfect, but probably would be understandable).

If any of you out there would like to have a Burkinabé pen pal, please send me an e-mail at Larsen@jcu.edu with your name, American mailing address, and e-mail address. You could also say a couple of things about yourself to help get things started. I am sure I will be getting more similar requests so if you don’t want to write to nurses but like the idea of a pen pal, let me know your interests and I will keep your information in reserve for future requests.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Travel and Cultivating

Pubpic Transportation

In Burkina Faso there are two basic types of public transportation for long trips, bus and bush taxi. I already told you about bush taxies, but the other day I road in one that was beyond belief. It was a tiny pick-up truck with benches in the bed along each side. I said I would only take it if I could ride in the cab with the driver. I am sure it was better than the back, but I felt sorry for the other lady who got to sit up front. The passenger door kept popping open and the driver reached across two of us to grab the door by the window opening (no window of course), and slam it shut. Each time he closed it, it would pop open again at the next big rut, which was quite often. I will try my best not to take that one again, but if you are in one place and need to get to another place, it may be the only thing going that day.

While there are a few busses that run rather like an American Greyhound bus, (I actually see them on the road near my house) most are very old, with ripped and worn seats, sagging over head shelves, and windows that may or may not open or close. On these busses air conditioning is not a concept. The amount of baggage and other things that are carried is amazing. First of all, there is a roof rack on which big bags of things, like charcoal, rice and so on may be stored. Next come the motorcycles and bicycles. Yes, on the top of many of these busses you see fifteen or twenty motos and bicycles all standing in a row. Things are also stored in the usual baggage compartment under the bus. If there is not enough space under there, things come inside, into the aisle. They make fine seats for those who get on after all the regular seats are taken.

In the city

In the capital there are some city busses, but I have not tried to use them. When we are there we walk or take taxies, but they are nothing like American taxies. First of all, there is no meter. Before you get in you tell the driver where you want to go and negotiate with the driver about how much you will pay. If you are experienced you just say how much you will pay, with confidence, and the driver agrees. If the driver thinks he can get more because you do not know the going rate, he will ask for more. The taxies themselves almost all have cracked windshields, ripped upholstery, and little in the way of shock absorbers. Another interesting thing is that you may be the only ones in the taxi at first, but then the driver will stop to pick other passengers along the way. One night it was raining and we were lucky to get a cab. It started out with me and a friend, but we stopped three times to pick up other people, so we ended up with four in the back seat. The defroster, of course, did not work so the driver had to use a tissue to wipe the steam off the inside of the windshield for the entire 10 minute ride. The drivers are amazing, weaving around the bicycles, motos, donkey carts, other taxies and pedestrians. It takes a little getting used to, but it is beginning to seem perfectly normal. I am sure those of you who have lived in a third world country will recognize the situation.

Walking in Town and Village

In the city there is no concept of a sidewalk. Occasionally you think you have found one and, guess what? It is actually the cover over the sewer. This cover is about the width of a sidewalk and is divided into blocks about the size of sidewalk blocks, but with cut outs that let the water drain in when it rains. It makes walking have the smell of an open sewer, which is what you have under the cement cover pieces, and there is always the danger that one of the pieces will be missing, so watch your step!

In the village most people walk to most places they are going. In addition to the dirt roads, wide enough for cars, there are many paths to go between family compounds. Right now there tend to be mud puddles on these paths, but for the rest of the year they will be quite convenient.

Cultivating

In the rainy season just about everybody cultivates. If you live in a village your family is assigned the land you cultivate. After the first rain (or second one) you go out with your hand tool that looks a bit like a big ax, but the blade is more hoe like. You turn over the soil and plant your crop, the hope for rain. Below is a picture of me, trying to use one of these gizmoes to plant beans earlier in the summer. After each rain people are out in the fields, using this tool to chop out the weeds. Here are some of the crops I see around my village: petite millet (the kind we think of as bird seed) that grows to over 7 feet tall, grand millet, that must be 15 feet tall now and growing, corn (field corn for cooking, not sweet corn), gumbo (aka okra) which is NOT slimy if you just sauté it, peanuts, and beans (like black eyed peas). In other places you see rice and cotton being raised.

Animals

In my village most people seem to have a donkey and cart. The donkeys braying to go out so they can eat is what wakes me up in the morning. There are also lots of sheep and goats. It is a bit hard to tell them apart because the sheep are adapted to the heat and do not have all the fluffy wool you expect on a sheep. They are bigger than the goats and have a different shape so after a while the difference is obvious. If you are not Muslim you probably have a couple of pigs to eat up your scraps from the table, if any, the chafe from the millet, and so on. And then there are the chickens—everywhere! The roosters crow all night so you get used to them. The hens and chicks run around among the crops, scratching up the bugs, with the roosters in hot pursuit of the hens. There are also petards, AKA guinea, fowl that tend to hang out in groups more than the chickens. Most people seem to have a dog in the court yard, although they are not actually treated as pets. In some parts of the country a dog may end up in the cooking pot. I have also seen cats, but not too many.

Feel free to write

If you have questions or things you would like to know about, drop me an e-mail at Larsen@jcu.edu. I am running the computer from my solar re-chargeable battery and using a USB to cell phone modem. I do check my e-mail a couple of times a week if I get a chance to get on to the computer early in the morning before there is a lot of cell phone traffic. The blog website is very slow to access so about the only time I look at it is when I am posting to it. If you post a comment I am not likely to see it. If you write to me I will try to answer and maybe use your questions for ideas for future bolgs.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Life in an Aftican village: The first week and a half

As I mentioned before I have a wonderful community counterpart (aka homologue) who has the responsibility to help me integrate into the community. She is a leader of the community and is president of the mother’s association, the women who are responsible for providing lunch for the primary school children, and president of the women’s association at her church.

Everybody’s out of town

I also have other people who made the request to have a volunteer here. One is the man who is in charge of a local group dedicated to improving the lives of women and I think he was behind the request. He was supposed to be my supervisor, but now he is the facilitator because Peace Corps wants the person who is my supervisor to be associated with the schools. My new supervisor is a man who is the Inspector for a group of about 20 elementary schools. As I understand it, his job is to check up on the schools in his district to see that everything is going right. Unfortunately, both of these men have been out of town most of the past week and a half. It is, after all, the end of the summer vacation and a bit like August in the states, I think. One day they were both here and we had a meeting with my community homologue and a couple of other people behind the request for my presence to discuss my work for the first three month and to introduce me to some of the important people in town. I followed their motos on my bicycle and we went to the places where several of these folks should have been, but most of them were either out of town or otherwise occupied so I only met the man in charge of the military police, who are responsible for police business outside of the town, and got registered with the police as being a person living here. I also saw where some of the folks work when they are here. Maybe another time.

Food for me

Before I came to the village I bought quite a bit of canned food so that I would have things to eat that I am accustomed to, or facsimiles thereof, like oatmeal, jam, canned vegetables, tomato sauce, tuna, and the only kind of cheese you can keep unrefrigerated, Laughing Cow Cheese. I have been able to buy local bread, baked in an old fashioned stone oven, onions, eggs and, sometimes, tomatoes. So far I am not starving, but I have to branch out and learn to eat more of the food the locals eat.

Transportation

Getting around is either walking or bicycling. I am quite a way out of the main part of the village so I ride my bike most places. It is a very nice 24 speed bike, of which I use only the middle 8 gears. I certainly stand out around here, not only because of my white skin, but also because I wear a bike helmet and ride this fancy bike. As I go down the dirt road the kids tend to come running out of the family compounds yelling “Nasara! Cadeau?” in other words, “White person, do you have a gift for me?” I am learning the local language so I try to greet them first with the greeting words in Moore and that often cues them into the fact that I am not a random tourist. If that does not work and they are really pesky, I stop and ask them (in French) “Gift? Gift? Do you have a gift for ME?” which often gets a laugh or a look of puzzlement because they don’t actually speak French. I want to learn to say that line in Moore. One of these days.

Integration

My task for the first three months is to get integrated into the community and get to know the life of the community as it relates to my project, Girls Education and Empowerment. This is hard because there are so few people who speak French and my Moore consists of hello and goodbye. I need to figure out how to get some community members involved in these discussions, helping me talk to the people who do not understand my bad French, or any French at all. One way to do this is to walk up to a random courtyard, clap my hands at the gate, saying coo-coo. and see what happens. Often people will run to get a chair to put in the shade and invite me to sit down. If there is anyone who speaks French, I explain who I am and where I am living, nearby, and try to get the names of the people who live there. I am so bad with names and faces, as most of you know, that I really need to be able to go back and review who lives where pretty often. I also try to practice Moore with folks. That is a very slow process, although it is usually good for a few laughs.

There have also been a few people who stop by to greet me and some have invited me to come to their place to meet the family, so I am getting to know a few folks. Sunday I visited the protestant church that is nearest to my house. Everything was in Moore, so I understood exactly nothing, but the music was interesting. I will write more about that later, but there are now quite a few more people who have seen me and probably know who I am and where I am staying, if they did not know already. A couple of people I have encountered had commented on the fact that they saw me at church.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Affectation

There were 76 new volunteers to get to their sites so we went out in groups. Each group had a car and driver to deliver all their things from home and things they had acquired with their moving in allowance. I was at the end of the line and was affectated alone, but I had a very good experience. My drive is a Burkenibé who has been with the Peace Corps for 25 years. He put my bike on top of the 4 X 4 vehicle and put in all my stuff from home and things I bought in Oauga and off we went to find a corner where folks were selling the things I still needed, like buckets, plastic chairs and a table, and so on. After picking out what I wanted and discussing the virtues of this kind of stove or battery operated LED lantern we got down the Burkenia game of negotiating and disputing the prices of things. I was grateful for a list the Peace Corps had provided of typical prices volunteers had reported paying in the past. It helped in the discussion and kept us from paying way too much for some items.

I had been told to go to the Gendarmery to meet a person who would guide me to my new home. The information I had was that it would be a new house with three rooms and an indoor bathing place (more about African bucket baths in a later blog, I promise), When I arrived I found the house is about 75 years old, probably built by European missionaries or NGO folks. It has a large living/dining area, and “kitchen” of sorts, three bedrooms, and a bath room that used to have a toilet and shower. The place the toilet was still has one of those overhead water tanks like you see in old European places, and you can see where tile has been put over the place the toilet was. There is a storage area that could have been a linen cupboard. All of the walls were painted at one time, but the paint is chipped and the roof leaked (or leaks) so the walls are streaked with water stains. Hopefully the roof is fixed, but I think I will wait until the rainy season is over to see if that is true. The floor of the living/dining area, kitchen and hall are tiled with the little ceramic tiles (about 1 cm square). The kitchen has a narrow counter and a sink along one wall, but the sink hole would drain on the floor if I did not put a bucket under it. There is a pipe coming out of the wall, but it is plugged up. My driver said he thought there used to be a water tower for the house that would have provided running water.

My community homologue has been taking good care of me. She went with us to look for gas (propane) for my stove, and had her kids filled up my water tank (a 100 liter garbage can). When we could not find gas for my stove, she brought over her propane tank. I think she cooks in the traditional way, on a wood burning stove, so I guess her family will not starve. There does not appear to be any propane in Burkina Faso.

I did have an adventure today. I got to go to a celebration for the onion and rice cooperative group. They were primarily showing off their building for storing onions and telling people from several other communities how they were successful. All the speeches and discussions were in Moore, but it was still interesting, even though I did not understand a word. I spent a couple of hours in the afternoon at my community homologue’s dolo (Burkina homemade beer, made from millet and sugar in three days) concession at the marché. I think I may have helped her business because I am such a curiosity. I tried to say some things in Moore and they found that quite amusing. I had a good time.

The community is much as advertised: no electricity or running water and families living in separate houses or in small compounds of related folks. The paved road runs through the middle of town, between two bigger cities, but the rest of the roads are dirt, and many are just paths. People walk, bike, ride in donkey carts, or tear around on motos. In the center of town some of the shops have electricity, but that does not seem to extend to private houses so my house is like the norm in that regard.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Volunteers at Last

Last week as a Trainee

We have reached the end of our “formation” to become Peace Corps volunteers. It seem like it has been a long time coming for many of us, but for others we still wish there was more time to become more proficient in French or in the local language, the traditional language of our region. Pretty exciting and pretty scary at the same time. We will be forced to speak French because there will be very few people, if any, who know any English. There have probably been more staff, current volunteers, and language and cultural trainers working to get us ready than there are trainees, although we are quite a big group. They have all worked very hard to get us ready to go out into Burkina Faso and work for the good of the people here.

Swearing In

The transition from Peace Corps Trainee to Peace Corps Volunteer is marked by a swearing in ceremony that, in Burkina Faso, took place at the US Embassy on August 27. It was a really nice event that included lots of Burkinabé dignitaries. The most important was the Burkina first lady, Madame Chantal Compaoré, who made a very nice speech. Clearly she is aware of the work we are doing here and appreciates it. The head of the National Party also spoke and his speech also showed his appreciation of our work as he reviewed all the programs we are doing here. There was entertainment by a group of women who did a traditional African dance to drums and singing. It included pairs of women dancing around each other and ending with two very solid “bumps.” Six of the trainees did short speeches in the native languages they have been learning, which was a big hit with the audience. Finally the 76 trainees swore in as volunteers, repeating the same oath of office the president says when he is sworn in. A pretty emotional moment for all of us, I think.

The ceremony was followed by a reception which was a time to let us congratulate each other, but also a time to thank our trainers and tutors for all their work to get us to this place. The host families were also invited to attend and several did, including my host mother and the teen aged girl, Salome, who has been looking after me for the past four weeks and who is now other of my extra granddaughters. It was really special to see them all there.

Affectation

Now all the volunteers are being taken to their various sites all over the country. I am not allowed to put the name of my village on the blog, for security reasons, but I am pretty excited about finally getting to meet the people of the village where I will be working and to see my home for the next two years. Any village (or town) that wants to have a volunteer must provide housing for that volunteer. I understand mine is a new house, which should be really nice. As expected there is no electricity or running water, which means I will have to get water from a pump and either go to bed with the sun or read and study by lamp light. Sounds a bit romantic, but I expect it will not be easy to read that way. I will tell you all about it next time.