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.

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