Thursday, July 29, 2010

Home for a While

I am happy to report that we are finally in our host families in our new training city. Because of the evacuation and the work involved in locating host families, we are being housed like Noah’s critters, two by two. I have a great room mate who will be teaching maths (yes it is spelled with an s here) for the next two years. Her French, fortunately, is better than mine so she can help me understand what people are saying if I miss things.

We are living with a “grand family,” that is, the extended family of a man, now deceased, who had three wives. All three wives are still living here along with a lot of children of various ages. Some of the children are visiting with the grandmas for summer vacation, but I think some live here year round. I hope to get the family to make a family tree so I can begin to sort out relationships. The best two things are, first, there are several teen aged girls who have become more extra grand kids for me. There French is very good and they know some English as well. Two of the three wives speak French, but among themselves they speak their local language, Jula, and the most common local language here, Mooré. They are taking very good care of us. The youngest daughter of wife #1 runs a restaurant and we have had food that was sent over from the restaurant for several meals. They have the best food I have had in Burkina. We will be staying with our families for only half as long as the program would like, but it is better than nothing.

I am getting a bit better at French and am beginning to get an idea about how one might go about empowering women and girls here. Two other volunteers and I are running a small girls’ club for four sessions, to get an idea of how these can go with Burkina girls. It is hard to run a meeting when we all have rather weak French. The girls are patient with us, however, and are willing to help us explain things to those who don’t understand our very bad French.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


One of the surprising things on the schedule we received when we first arrived was something called “Demystification.” We have been learning in classes about the things we may be doing at our sites and hearing a bit about what it is like to live in a village, but demystification is the time when we go to visit a current volunteer at his or her site. That ends the mystery of what it might be like to be a volunteer here. Each group has gone out on a different schedule in groups of three or four trainees with one of the Language and Culture teachers who have been working with us during our training.

For my visit to a place that shall remain nameless, we started out with a bus ride of about three hours. We were to catch a “bush taxi” to go the rest of the way. A bush taxi in Burkina Fasso is a 21 passenger van/bus. There are bench seats that a supposed to seat three and a fold down seat in the “aisle” to get to the back seats, so you sit four across. The interiors are worn down to the bear metal on the sides and floor and the upholstery is worn and ripped. While we were waiting for the bush taxi it began to rain. We dashed to an outdoor restaurant where there were tables and chairs under a thatched roof. There was an elevated concrete floor, so we kept our feet dry, although we had to move the tables and our baggage to the other side of the platform when the wind began to blow the rain in. We ate and waited for about four hours for the bush taxi to appear. The road to the village was about two hours down a dirt road, full of potholes, which the driver attempted to dodge. It was a bumpy, exciting ride, if you like that sort of thing.

The Volunteer’s house was a bit away from the market which was the last stop on the route. We had lots of help from the village kids getting out things to her house. Her town does not have electricity and they get their water from the community pump. Cooking by the light of candles and head lamps was an adventure. Her house has three rooms and an indoor bathing place, for taking a bucket bath (more on that another time). The best thing was that she had a “hangar,” that is, an outdoor area under a straw roof. While the others slept in the stuffy, hot house, I put up my Tropic Screen tent and slept outside all three nights we were there. It was relatively cool and the fresh air was great for sleeping.

In the village we did the important things like greeting the people, including important people like the village chief, the equivalent of a superintendent of a large school district, and the police, as well as “just folks. Greeting people is very important here, and you talk to each person for a minute or two in a rather meaningless way, so it takes a lot of time. We saw the village school. In a room that had no light except what comes through the openings high up on the wall, and desks for maybe 40 students, they teach 120 first graders. Yes, one teacher, 120 students! It is amazing to me that any learning goes on at all.

On the way back to home base we took the same bush taxi, which they had to push and roll down hill to get started. We ended up with 24 passengers for part of the trip, so there were five across the area meant for four in three of the rows. The exciting thing was the guy taking chickens to market. He had the driver string a rope from the front to the back of the roof rack, and across the back of the bus. He had tied the chickens’ feet together in pairs, (four chicken feet in one bunch) and draped them over the chord so there was a chicken hanging down on each side. He must have had about 50 chickens. As far as I could tell, even though they were hanging upside down going down the road at 60 miles an hour for 4 or 5 hours, they all got to market alive. Hard to believe. Why do it that way, you ask? Remember, there is no refrigeration, so the only way for the meat to be fresh is to have the chicken arrive in town alive.

It was an adventure, and I can see the advantages of such a placement, but I am hoping for an assignment it a place that is not quite so isolated. We will not learn about our sites for a couple more weeks, so I will let you know what they decide is the right place for me.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Some things about what it's like here


The main means of transportation in Burkina Faso are two wheeled vehicles: small motorcycles, mopeds, and bicycles. There are, of course, cars, taxies, bush taxies (mini-vans carrying way more people and things than they were built for), trucks and busses on the road as well. Drivers of four wheeled vehicles have to pass two wheeled vehicles traveling two or three abreast down the road in front of them. If a car or bus meets another car there is a lot of beeping of horns to warn the two wheeled traffic to get to the side of the road. It is amazing there are not more injuries on the road.

Other Volunteers

The people who are finally selected for Peace Corps service are an amazing group with incredible experience. I am the oldest in my group, but only by a couple of months. There are three women in the group who are retired from business positions or changing direction mid career. They are in the Small Enterprise Development section where their experience will be very valuable. In the Secondary Education there are people with experience teaching both in the US and in other countries. In the health sector there are people with a variety of levels of health expertise, including Masters’ degrees in public health. Many of the younger people have studied and worked abroad. Some have participated in various programs in third world countries. Volunteers’ language skills vary from those starting out with no knowledge of French to one who is a native French speaker. There are several who were French majors in college and studies in France. Those with a good command of French are now studying one of the local languages. I am still working to reach intermediate-mid level in French, which is the level we need to reach to be sworn in as volunteers.


We receive a living allowance with which we have to go out and find food to eat. There are a number of options. Along the side of the road are many small stands, built of random tree branches, rough planks, and woven straw mats. There may be peanuts, fruits, vegetables, or cooked food to be purchased. Some of the cooked items are rice and sauce or rice and beans that you can get in a plastic bag and eat however you can, or fried dough or fried plantains. There are also places that bill themselves as restaurants. These generally have tables and chairs to sit on, but these may be a mish-mash of different kinds with various degrees of stability. Some restaurants are better than others, of course, and those that look more western charge higher prices. In these places you can get things like sauce with meat or vegetables served on spaghetti, rice, or couscous.

Another staple is a meat sandwich, which is a baguette sliced lengthwise and spread with just enough ground meat, onion and oil to give the sandwich flavor. You can also get them with an omelet, that is, a scrambled egg with onion or perhaps cucumber in the bread. You never know what they are putting in them on a given day. Drinks can include Coke or Fanta, local beer, or water in bottles or in little plastic pouches referred to as sachets. There are commercially prepared sachets, clearly labeled in printing on the bag, that are safe to drink or those prepared by the vender, which I would not trust for drinking.

For a treat, there are sometimes guys pushing little white two wheeled carts selling frozen milk, the Burkina answer to the Good Humor Man. The frozen milk does cool you off on a hot day. It is flavored with chocolate or vanilla and tastes pretty good. There are booths that are slightly more permanent and can be locked up at night that may have canned goods and even more western “alimentations” that are kind of like a tiny 7/11. They sell snacks, cold drinks, soap, liquor, and so on.

A couple of people in our group like to shop and cook. They have gone to the marché and bought fruit and vegetables. They soak the vegetables in water treated with bleach for a hour or so to kill off any germs, parasites, and so on, when create a salad which they share with any hungry PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) who happens to pass by. In other words, there are plenty of food options and the Peace Corps living allowance is plenty to live on if you don’t go to a “fancy” restaurant every night.

Sorry I am not posting pictures of these interesting things, but the internet is so slow here I can’t get them to post.

Friday, July 9, 2010

July 9, Week two


Since we have been here the weather has been hot and dry although it is supposed to be the rainy season. One day there was a bit of rain and some days it has clouded up and felt like rain, but nothing happened. Yesterday we finally had a taste of a real tropical rain storm and some of the red dust has turned to red mud. It was so much cooler today than yesterday I was glad to have a long sleeved shirt over my blouse. They tell me it stays really nice for several months before it gets really hot.


Thought you might like to know a bit about the training we are receiving here during the staging. The day is divided into four blocks: 8-10, a 30 minute break, then 10:30-12:30. We have an hour and a half for lunch. Next there is a session from 2-3:30, a 15 minute break, and a session from 3:45-5:15. There are some sessions for all of the trainees from all four groups. These are generally about medical and safety issues. Some sessions are for the various task groups, that is, my section, Girls Education and Empowerment (GEE) has technical sessions where we learn about the structure of the Burkina school system and the things we are supposed to do to encourage girls to stay in school. Probably half the sessions are language lessons. I placed into High Novice in French, which is 3 on a scale of 1-9. By the end of training we have to get to Intermediate, mid, which would be level 5 on this scale. Most classes have 2-3 students at the lower levels and I am in a class with just one other student. Mu teacher assures me that I will make it to Intermediate Mid, but I don’t feel like it at this point. I trust the Peace Corps to know what they are doing, however. For our lessons we meet outside and our teacher uses a magic marker with big sheets of brown writing paper as a blackboard. It works pretty well as long as the wind is not blowing too hard! Enough for one day, but much more to tell you all.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Much Excitement

I will start this blog with the big news and then go back and fill in the details. The State Department got some credible intelligence (I have no idea how, or exactly what) that there was a terrorist threat in the city were we were for training so we have been evacuated back to the capital city (see below for details). I was totally impressed with the speed and efficiency of the decision making and the efficiency and speed of execution of the evacuation.

Beginning Training

After our initial couple of days at the Dragon hotel, we moved to Ouahigouya. We spent several days at a hotel that was a couple of steps down from the Dragon, but my room still had air conditioning to go home to at night. We were given a per-diem in local currency and we were on our own to figure out what to eat. With so many of us, we split up into random groups, some of whom were more adventuresome than the others. I had scrambled egg (sometimes with a few variations) on a half a baguette for several meals and rice with peanut sauce a few times. Women often have little stands by the side of the road where they sell small bags of peanuts, in or out of the shell, and fruit, like mangoes and bananas. I understand we are at the end of the mango season, but these were quite sweet and good tasting. I guess I may soon have to wait until next year for more. As it used to be in the US, foods are in season and available only when they are ripe in the country.

We had (and will continue to have) sessions from 8-10, 10:30-12:30, 2-3:30 and 3:45-5:15 every week day, and just the morning schedule on Saturday. There have been a lot of sessions with all the people in all four of the groups who are here now, Secondary Education, Health Education, Small Business Enterprises, and, my program, Girl’s Education and Empowerment (GEE). These cover topics of general interest. We get lectures in somewhat smaller groups about health and safety as well as lectures from the medical officers about disease prevention and what to do when you are sick, which they assure us we will be. We also started rabies shots. Then we get sessions about our specific program, like the structure of the school system here, and Technical Language, that is, the terms used here for various administrative groups and classes, etc. Finally there have been language classes, particularly “survival Moore” (the local language) and a bit of French, but that starts in earnest next week.

The next exciting thing was that we all got bicycles and instructions in bicycle care, like how to fix a flat tire. Peace Corps has a policy that all volunteers must wear helmets, but none of the locals do, so that is almost a sure way to spot other volunteers.


Finally we were all adopted into local families. There was a big adoption ceremony at which we met our families for the first time and they guided us, on our bicycles, to our new homes. All our bags had already been delivered there, and the Peace Corps staff had worked the our host families to get mosquito nets set up over our beds and to see that all the rooms were appropriate for us. At the ceremony there were family scattered around in the chairs with random seat available for us when we arrived, and I happened to select a front row seat next to a very impressive, matronly woman. We exchange a few words before things go started and, low and behold, she became my host Mom. I wish I had taken a photo of her and her family before we were evacuated. I thought we had lots of time. Too bad.

Because I am no longer with them I will not go into detail about them here, except to say that they took very good care of me while I was with them. One of the young women in the family worked at a store where I got things for lunch one day and she had quite a laugh about the fact that I did not recognize her there. This should come as no surprise to those of you who know me well but, as always, it was embarrassing.


On Thursday we had a community meeting of all the trainees and the volunteers who were there` to discuss a Fourth of July party for Sunday. As we were making plans the County Director told us about a meeting she was called to at the American Embassy. It was to discuss a notice about what was referred to as “credible intelligence” that a terrorist group was planning to kidnap an American in Ouahigouya so she made the decision to evacuate all volunteers north of a line the State Department thought was the southern limit of the threat. That meant that we all walked as a group back to the hotel where we had spent the first night and they set up a couple of “dormitories” in rooms usually used for other things and the entrances to the hotel were guarded by soldiers (or maybe it was police, like our state patrol). We sat around for quite a while and finally were given a simple meal of spaghetti and sauce, which was better than nothing. The Peace Corps staff started notifying our host families and went to each of our new homes to collect our belongings. They also went to the sites of the volunteers who were north of that line and collected their belongings. They will not be going back to their sites and some of them were, understandably, upset that their projects had been disrupted this way.

On Friday morning we got up and sat around in the hotel, while small Peace Corps vans arrived with things retrieved from homes. Those of us who received things checked our bags and labeled then. It was amazing how well they and the families did at getting each person’s belongings together. By 1:30 we were headed back to Ouagadougou and arrived by 5. We had a meeting with Shannon who brought us up to date and most of us spent another night sleeping in the clothes we were wearing on Thursday. They did arrange for a VERY good dinner at the restaurant here and some of the volunteers went out a bought tooth brushes and tooth paste for us. This afternoon most of our luggage arrived. It was quite an amazingly well organized evacuation with very few hitches, if any. I need to put in a word of praise here for all the Peace Corps staff, both in the office and all the men and women driving the busses and trucks, some of whom worked on this evacuation for 24 hours straight. The volunteers who are working with us as trainers were also great at keeping things feeling normal and reassuring us about things as best they could. They have all been so patient with us and worked so hard to keep us safe.

The bottom line is, Peace Corps is looking after us, and taking good care of us. They even found a place for us to have our Fourth of July party tomorrow. Just amazing! We will continue with our training on Monday in a new location and Shannon assured us there were plenty of sites wanting volunteers in the south, so there will be places for everybody. For the next two weeks we are staying air conditioned comfort each evening, which may delay getting adapted to the heat, but which sure feels good.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Just a quick note to say I am now with a host family and have finished the first week of training. I am not dealing with the heat as well as I expected, but I am told you get past that. I live with a widow, her two sons and various grandchildren and nieces. They all take good care of me. The internet is slow and I cannot type very well on this French keyboard, so that will be all for now: Maybe next time I will plan ahead and get something on my jump drive.