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.

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



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.


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?