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.


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.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

More About Biking

Biking on the main road is challenging. I showed you the pictures of bicycles 3 abreast in the street with a car, bus or truck trying to get around the bikes and motos. What you do NOT see in the pictures are the donkey carts, guys pushing hand carts loaded with 4X8 pieces of plywood or 2X8 boards that are at least 8 feet long, and maybe a lady riding along with a baby tied to her back and a tray of fruit on her head. As you ride along you have to watch out for groups of sheep (not enough to call a flock, but 4 or 5 in a group), the random pig with piglets, goats with a couple baby goats following, and dogs looking for a meal. These are likely to walk across the road in front of you at any time. This is on the paved road that runs through the middle of town.

The rest of the streets in the town are dirt roads and have other challenges. The dirt here is reddish brown. Think of Georgia clay or the Southwest in the US. Most of the dirt on the road is sand, clay, or loose gravel, but the ruts get down to the bed rock, so that, as the dirt washes away in the rain, the under lying rock, which is pretty uneven, pokes through. All of the motos and bikes, as well as the walkers, tend to follow a winding path along the road to avoid the worst of the ruts and the bumps of the bed rock. Along the sides of many of the bigger streets there are ditches. Sometimes at the intersections there are concrete “bridges” over the ditches, but other times the path dips down through the ditch. This is not a big problem until there is a big rain, such as we have had recently. Then the ditch turns into a stream and you have to find a detour, which may not be easy.

Shopping in a small town

In the small towns there are not any supermarkets or the kind of stores we are used to. The closest thing to an American style store is an alimentation, which is a bit like a very small 7/11 store. The one advantage for Americans is that the prices in the alimentation are marked on things and you do not have to haggle about the price. Some of your shopping will be done at the little shelters along the road, referred to as boutiques or from women or children (and the occasional man) selling things at the side of the road. This could be some kind of fried dough, tomatoes, water, fruit, or field corn roasted on a small charcoal brazier. The corn looks good, but you have to like gummy, hard corn to appreciate it. Most shopping is done at the marché. I have not done much to date because we are living with families who feed us breakfast and dinner, but I will probably describe these to you when I move to my site and start cooking for myself.


The mainstay of the traditional Burkinabé diet is to (pronounced toe). It can be made from just about any grain including corn, millet and sorghum. The woman pounds the grain in a wooden mortar and pestle and dries the flour by spreading it on a sheet for a day or two. Of course the flies and the chickens check it out, but eventually it is sifted and ready to cook. A round bottomed pot, called a marmite, is set on the charcoal brazier, 3 rocks, or whatever cooking surface the family uses, and water is heated. The flour is gradually added and this is allowed to boil for quite a while. There is a little stirring at this point, but surprisingly little, and I have seen no evidence that the to burns on the bottom of the pot. Eventually it is the right texture or temperature and the fun begins. The cook whips the to vigorously for quite a while, until the texture is right. I am guessing the whipping is rather like kneading bread in that it releases the glutton in the grain. In any case, when properly cooked the to will hold its shape. If put in a bowl and let it cool you can dump the to out and have a bowl-shaped glob of to. This is a very labor intensive food that has little nutritional value. It is served with sauces of various kinds. Many are loaded with vegetables, like tomatoes, onions okra, and leaves from trees like the baobab tree. Unfortunately these sauces are also cooked to death so all those good vitamins and minerals are cooked out of them before they are eaten. If you are lucky the sauce may contain dried fish (well, I do not appreciate the flavor, but the bones cook down and you get the calcium) or a bit of meat. I have yet to meet a to sauce I like, but I am told there are some out there. I will let you know if I find one.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Well, it IS the rainy season here, so it should not be surprising that we are now getting rain almost every day. Sometimes there are short bursts of heavy rain, lasting an hour or so. Sometimes it rains two or three times a day. Other times, like last night, the rain goes on and on. I just hope my house in my future site is on high ground! Now that the rain has started I see that all the empty lots in the town that looked like nothing was there but weeds and trash have turned into fields to raise corn and okra (gumbo here). There are even cultivated patches along the dirt roads in the town. And things are growing, like crazy. You just hope they mature before the rains stop.

The future

We have less than two weeks before we are sworn in as volunteers and we disburse to our various sites around the country. After that I may not have access to the internet very often, or it may be just as handy as it has been here at the training site. I am living with a host family and the internet café is a short three block walk from here. In other words, my number of posts may decline when I move to a smaller place.


I am getting better are the bike riding bit. I expect eventually I will be comfortable with it, but riding in traffic with motos, mopeds and other bikes, three abreast on a paved road, with an occasional car or truck coming up behind you or at you is still a bit scary. I have a 24 speed bike, but only use the middle 8 gears because the country here is pretty flat and I am lazy. That does mean that I go faster than the lady on a gearless bike with a baby on her back, or the guy driving the donkey cart, so I do have to pass people. You have to keep track of those motos passing you while you are passing others.

All Peace Corps members and employees have to wear bike helmets. If we are seen riding without helmets, we could be sent home! Bike helmets are not a concept for the Burkinabé, so if you see anyone with a helmet, you know they are Peace Corps folks. I, of course, am totally happy to have my helmet on any time I am on the bike. I also wear the biking gloves I brought, so that, if I take a tumble, I will not be so likely to scrape up my hands. I was sure glad I had them on a couple of weeks ago when I tipped over trying to get on my bike with my back pack strapped on the back of it. The scrape on my knee is now healed, but my hands were not hurt at all. By the way, I now wear the back pack rather than trying to strap it on the bike and that works better.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Bit More About Stage

Stage is a French term for training. We refer to ourselves as stagiers who are doing a formation, or a course of training. As I have mentioned, we have language training every day, and a couple of blocks of time devoted to the work we will be doing. Until now, this training has been rather abstract. During the past couple of weeks things have become more hands on. In small groups we are doing clubs with students in the summer school program at which the volunteers who will be teaching English, science, and math have been doing their practice teaching. Three trainees meet with groups of students on their free days or times and we practice the kinds of activities we are going to be doing with girls clubs when we get to our sites. We are also going to be running a four hour “day camp” type session next Saturday. Thursday we met with some of the officers of the equivalent of the PTA to see what they do at schools.

A word about school here.

It is hard to believe what teachers and students face at the elementary school level here. It is normal for there to be 120 (yes, that is not a typo, one hundred and twenty) students in a classroom with one teacher. Student desks are designed for three students to sit side by side on a wooden bench which is a board about 8 inches wide, and the desk is only a bit larger. They put three rows of desks across, ten deep in the classroom. If you are in a village, the only light comes through a few small windows with shutters. The blackboard may be green or black “chalk board paint” on the wall. In rooms that have real chalk boards, there are often holes in them, and usually several cracks. A chalk tray is not a concept, nor is an eraser. When the teacher has finished with a section of the board, some lucky student gets to take a sponge or rag from a bucket of water and wipe off the writing. Teaching is primarily the teacher writing things on the board and students copying the information into a notebook. It is kind of hard to have a class discussion with 120 kids, I guess. There are times students are asked to give an answer. Volunteers snap the fingers of their raised hands to attract the teacher’s attention. I have not yet seen a class room full of students. At the Model School classes are very small and the students are those who are eager to learn, or those who have parents who are eager to have them learn. I’m sure I will have more to say on this when I do observations of real classes in the fall.

Getting ready to get on with the job

Many of my fellow trainees are feeling tired of training and eager to get out to their sites. While I have some of the same eagerness to know where I am going to be and exactly what I am going to be doing for the next two years, I know I am not quite ready for this in terms of language skill. The language of the school and the educated population is French, and I am doing better are expressing myself in that language, although I really wish I had my dictionary with me most of the time. What I have just started to learn is Moore, the main “local” language here. There are really quite a few different ones, which is one of the reasons the schools are all in French. It is also the case that there is very little written material in most local languages, because they only have a written form because Christian missionaries created a written form so they could put Bibles in the language of the people. Moore has a few nice features. There are no congregations. The verb form is the same for I, you, he, she it, we and they. The past and future tense are exactly the same except for putting “ne n” before the past tense form. The problem is that there really are no cognates and I am having trouble getting vocabulary to stick in my brain. In other words, I need more time to get my head around this new language. Be that as it may, we are to be sworn in as volunteers at the end of August. That is coming very soon.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A chance to donate, if you are interested

Many of you have expressed an interest in making a financial contribution to the program here. I am sure there will be many more chances, but this one is a fund raiser to help provide small grants to volunteers in the sector I will be working in, Girls Education and Empowerment. Current volunteers are doing a “ride around Burkina Faso” as a fund raiser. If you want to make a contribution, you can do so at this website: