Monday, January 24, 2011

Language Training

After three and a half months at our sites to get settled in and familiar with our new homes, Peace Corps provided us with a week of language training in the local language spoken in our village or region. (Yeah Peace Corps!) For me, that is Moore (pronounced as if the last letter were a long A), the language that is spoken by about 40% of the people in the Burkina Faso as their first language. I have been seeing a tutor for about 10 hours a month, thanks to Peace Corps that reimburses us for what we pay tutors. I have also been trying to study some books of Moore, but I am not doing very well at learning the language. In my week long training there was another member of my stage group who had been living with a family that speaks Moore with her day and night and she was way ahead of me. The other member of our group was so good in French when he got here that he did not have any French instruction during stage, but studied Moore all 9 weeks. I have been doing most of my communication, except for the ritual greetings, in French.

I have been working through the Ultimate French Review books, trying to learn things I never really learned, and to remember things I knew once upon a time. People assure me my French is better than it used to be. I certainly hope so, but it is still not good and I have a lot of trouble understanding people in normal conversation. If they are speaking directly to me and paying attention to when I look confused, they usually use other words or explain ideas until I catch on. When there is just a conversation going on in a group, I can understand a lot of the words, but often miss the few important ones that convey the meaning of a sentence. Talking on the telephone is a particulate challenge because you do not have any visual cues and can’t lip read.

Adding Moore on top of the French has been hard for me. In French, at least, you have a lot of cognates. If I don’t know a word in French, I can often use the English word with a French accent and actually be saying the right word. No such luck with Moore. There are a few Moore words that have been adapted from the French because they refer to modern ideas, like school that were not a part of the culture before colonization. For the most part, the words are completely different.

At first I thought Moore verbs were going to be way easier than French or English because, regardless of whether it is first, second or third person, singular or plural, you use the same form of the verb in a given tense. It turns out there are six types of verbs and you have to learn the type of verb to get the right endings. This is hard to figure out because there is no general rule (like –er verbs in French) and I have yet to find a good Moore dictionary. To make things even more confusing, you add an ending to the infinitive of the verb, but if there is an object after the verb, you drop part of that ending, and sometimes (I am never sure when) you drop off another letter. Of course, as in every other language I have tried to learn, there are irregular verbs (lots of them).

Moore is a very nasal language with lots of double vowels. You can have a word that looks just about the same except that in one word there is one o, in another there is a double o, and in another there is a tilde (~) over the o or the first of two oos. There are also three extra vowels, and I have trouble hearing the difference between the two kinds of u. the two kinds of e and the two kinds of i. Many words in Moore start with k, w, or z, I know I will never be good enough in Moore to give a talk in the language, but I hope to learn enough to have a short and simple conversation with some of the mothers who do not speak French.

There were only three of us in this group, although some other groups in other places had as many as 5 in a group. Our LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator) was a young man who did his best to keep everybody in the loop, in spite of the differences in our levels of knowledge of the language. The schedule was the same as stage: 8-10, 30 minute break, 10:30-12:30, and hour and a half for lunch, then two afternoon blocks of a hour and a half with a 15 minute break. That is a long time to be trying to pay attention to a language you do not understand. He tried to keep it interesting by using topics we had indicated were important for our work, but the other two are part of the Small Enterprise Development sector and I am in Girls Education and Empowerment. After the first day, he tried to have one block each day as kind of a field trip to try to hear Moore from other people and to use Moore in a practical situation. We visited a market and bought a couple of things, went to a juice bar and had interesting fruit drinks, talked to the secretary at an NGO that is sponsored by the Catholic Church here, focusing on the use of water resources, and so on.

The training week was held at a conference center associated with a Catholic seminary. We each had a private room and I could eat breakfast and dinner in the “restaurant” there. It was really a dining hall and there was no choice about what you got to eat, but that way I did not have to hop on my bicycle and ride into town to find food. Because I do not bike in the dark it was a wonderful arrangement. They also had a good internet connection.

The grounds are beautiful and very well maintained. You feel like you are at a fancy resort and not in one of the poorest countries in the world. Every day men were out raking up leaves and sweeping the dirt areas. Here are a few pictures of the pretty flowers.

Folks who have been in my office at JCU should note the flowing green plant. That is what I had around my window, but this is living in the wild.

There were a lot of birds in the many trees on the grounds. We had our classes on a covered porch of one of the large buildings were conferences can be held. I have to admit to being distracted by the bird calls and the geckos scampering up the trees and walls of the buildings. I understand that sometimes the conference center is packed full of large groups, but it was a pretty quiet the week when we were there.

On the Saturday, there was a wedding in one of the chapels on the grounds. It was interesting to see all of the guests arriving in a big motorcade of cars and motos, including the bride and groom in a car decorated with streamers and balloons. I am pretty sure that the whole group had been at the civil ceremony before this church wedding and that is the reason they all arrived at the same time. Being on time for events is so un-Burkinabé-like.

Another interesting thing was hearing the boys at the seminary singing each morning and evening. They must have a European trained choir master because the sound was what Americans would think of as beautiful. The other thing we heard 5 times a day, starting at 4:00 in the morning, was the Muslim call to prayer. I am not sure if all the sound was coming from one mosque, but it sounded like two men having a conversation in chant. The sound was amplified, of course, so you couldn’t miss it.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Using Soap Operas to Change Behavior

One of the things I learned about several years ago in a talk by Albert Bandura at a meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association was a practical application of one of my favorite theories of learning. Some of you know about Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. Without going into the details, the basic idea is that we can learn about the consequences of behavior by watching other people and seeing what happens to them when they behave in certain ways. For example, if you see someone slip on a patch of ice, you don’t have to slip yourself to be cautious in that place.

This idea, along with several other theories related to communication, was used by Miguel Sabido, a producer of Mexican TV programs, to develop the idea of using soap operas to change behavior in many people in a country. He focused on the exploding population of Mexico. One of the programs he produced featured a character had only two children and worked at a family planning center. Her sister had so many children and so little money that the family had to move in with the grandmother. The differences in the lives of these two families, of course, were quite dramatic. During the time he was producing this and other programs with similar social themes, the population increase in Mexico dropped 34% and Mexico received a UN award for its progress in controlling its population growth. He produced another soap opera in which an old man responds to publicity about a learn to read program for adults. In the program the man faces some obstacles, like people telling him he is too old to learn how to read, and his own feeling that no one would want to work with him, and he succeeds. Before this program, about 100,000 people each year enrolled in Mexico’s adult literacy program. During the year it was broadcast, the number was over 900,000, and the year after the broadcast it was 500,000. The point is, soap operas with a positive social message can lead to big, measurable changes in the behavior of the people in a whole country.

I could go on about this for quite a while longer, but if you are interested in hearing Bandura tell the stories of how soap operas have changed behavior all over the world, listen to his lecture about it at the Everett M. Rogers Award Colloquium, 2007, on Youtube. This link ( is not live, but you can cut and paste it into your browser if you are interested. Actually the first 10 minutes or so are him getting the award. His lecture is what you want to hear.

Population Media Center is one of the groups that is now active in trying to help countries who wish to use this method to work on social problems. I contacted them and asked about how I could help bring this idea to Burkina Faso and they told me about a soap opera focusing on child trafficking in Mali and Burkina Faso that was produced in Mali about 8 years ago. It was intended to be broadcast in Burkina Faso but apparently many of the stations that were supposed to be participating did not actually broadcast the program regularly. One of the groups I am working with here is a small community radio station and I asked them if they would be interested in broadcasting this program if I could get Population Media to get permission for it to be rebroadcast. They are a part of a small group of community radio stations that are working on ways to collaborate. I should point out that this soap opera is in the local language of Mali and western Burkina Faso and the story is actually set in Burkina Faso, so it is perfect for broadcasting in the western part of the country. As I think I have mentioned before, there are 14 different local languages spoken in Burkina Faso. Although this program is in Bambura, Jula speakers here should be able to understand the program.

I recently had a meeting with several of the people from these radio stations. The meeting was similar to what I have been told to expect here. Of the six people who were expected to be there, only two actually came. After some phone calls it turned out that the other four were either sick or taking care of sick children. Two of them called other people who eventually came to the meeting. The meeting was supposed to start at 9:00 but finally got underway about 9:45. After introductions I made a PowerPoint presentation (in French) and explained the project. Then at 10:30 one of the people who had been called to fill in appeared and at 10:45 the other arrived and I went through the whole dog and pony show again. The bottom line is that the four that were there agreed to present the program and my professional homologue took the other two sets of 29 CDs for the other two groups and said she would explain it all to them.

This project is intended to be a pilot, or perhaps demonstration, project to show Burkinabè that people will listen to such a program. This particular show does not have a theme that is so easy to capture in measurable behavior as those I described above, but we are going to do some monitoring to see that the program is actually broadcast and to sample some opinions about the problem of child trafficking and children’s rights to see if we can show a difference in the broadcast area and areas where the program is not broadcast. I hope that eventually I will find people in the Burkina Faso media who are interested in tackling some of the identified problems of the country, such as the need to increase the number of girls continuing with school or the advantages of delaying having children until girls have completed their education. If you read about the method you will learn that an outsider like me does not go into a country telling the people there what problem they need to work on, but rather we can facilitate the people of the country talking about the problems and the kinds of solutions that would work in their country. All goals addressed in Population Media projects must be consistent with the UN human rights statement and with commitments and rules of the country. In other words, this is not an idea imposed by outsiders, but developed by the people of the country to help them improve their lives. That is exactly the philosophy of the Peace Corps, so this seems like a good partnership if it works out. You can also read about the method on the Poplulation Media Center’s web site. I know there is supposed to be some what to make these links active, but I can't do it. Any suggestions??

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Celebration and Carrying Things

A celebration at the church
Early this fall there was a very special celebration at the Catholic Church in my village. The Bishop of Burkina Faso was there to officiate, and my community homologue was busy for a couple of weeks getting things ready because she is president of the Catholic Women’s Association (or whatever the official name is). The church was repainted and redecorated, and this was a very big deal. I wasn’t going to go to the mass, but several people I know well encouraged me to come so I decided it would be a good idea to show up. I went to the protestant service first, but left a bit early to get to the church a bit before 9, when the mass was to begin. I followed lots of people heading to the church, many carrying their own benches and chairs. I arrived to find the church surrounded by people seated on their own benches and on the ground. After putting my bike in the paid parking (not a usual feature of the services here), I marched right up to the front door and was immediately invited to come in and sit with the dignitaries. My homologue had told me she would reserve a seat for me, but this was beyond what I had expected. I sat right behind the nuns and the brothers who were not participating in the service, up by the alter, so I could really see what was going on. The benches for the congregation were packed and it was standing room only. The building is a pretty big space and I would guess there were easily 1000 people in the church, with at least that many sitting around outside.

They had a small electronic piano, set to sound like an organ, to play along with the choral selections and the hymns. The organist set the automatic rhythm and played the melody, and there were several drummers, someone playing a percussion instrument that had the sound of metal hitting metal, but not tuned like a triangle, and a couple of guys playing some kind of whistle, like an ocarina, that made only one sound and that did not seem to be tuned to the melody. The procession of priests was lead in by a group of women and girls who danced them in, and danced three or four other times throughout the 3 hour service. The Mass, which lasted about 2 of those hours, was primarily in Moore, although from time to time there was a bit of French. There were several rituals that may be familiar to those of you who are Catholic. At the beginning of the service, a number of calabashes were filled with water that was blessed by the priests who walked around, inside and outside the church, sprinkling the congregation with holy water, dipped from the gourds with a bundle of straw which serves as a broom in the village. The altar was bare when the service began but, before the Eucharist, they used the sensor (with incense) to bless it, walking around it three times, and put a new alter cloth on it. At the end of the Mass, the dancers lead a dance up and down the aisles and some of the people in the congregation joined in. After the Mass there was about an hour of thank yours and gifts to the church and to the sisters who were opening a new convent.

When my homologue and I left the church we walked over to the new convent. After the convent was blessed, there was a big feast (rice and sauce, tō and sauce, and so on). People were fed in groups based on where they lived. My community homologue took me to the area for our village and I waited around with everybody else while she got things organized. After about an hour she came back and took me to a room where the functionaries and westerners were eating with plates and silverware. Quite an event!

Carrying things
As I think I have made clear, the average citizen in Burkina Faso does not have a car. In my village there seems to be a bicycle or two in most families, and the more well-to-do have a moto. Motos are bigger than mopeds, but smaller than the typical US motorcycle. They do have a long enough seat that two can ride on them. For carrying things, there are also the donkey carts.

You may remember that I was not able to get propane gas for my stove when I arrived. I bought a canister to be ready to get gas when it was available and my community homologue gave me her gas canister to use. In early November I got the news that there was gas available, so I got my good neighbor, Prosper, to take my empty canister to get it filled. He returned with the news that there was not yet gas for the kind of gas canister I had. After waiting a month, I asked him to get a full canister of the kind of gas that is available and he did so. He and his wife, Martine, came over to help me set it up and we discovered that the handle for turning the gas on and off was bent and I was not going to be able to manage it, so I asked him to take it back and get another one. Prosper and Martine carried the canister between them for a little way, but it was very heavy. They were about to set it down when Martine told Prosper to help her lift it up onto her head, and she walked the rest of the way back to their place carrying it alone. Incredible!

I see women carrying the most amazing amount of stuff on their heads. They certainly get a lot of weight bearing exercise. Maybe that is why there is so little osteoporosis here! They even ride bicycles with a baby on their backs and things balanced on their heads, like a bucket full of water or things to sell at the marché. It is amazing what they can carry and how great their skill at balancing things on their heads.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Arly National Forest Visit

The Burkina Faso Arly National Forest is adjacent to national forests in Niger and Benin, so the wild animals are free to roam where they want to in the three countries.

On the 26th we left my village at 7:15, with the driver, Prosper, me and the family. The first part of the trip was pretty smooth, about 7 hours on paved road. My friend Prosper had made reservations for us in a “hotel” at the game park, Arly, with a friend who works there. He called his friend to make sure the rooms would be ready and found out that, unfortunately, there was a screw up of some sort and the reservation never got into the book. At first we thought we would be able to stay there only one night and then have to move to another place where there was no electricity and no dining facility. Eventually they worked something out so that we were able to stay all three nights.

Getting There
Between the end of the nice paved road and the game park the road was unbelievably bad and the drive took us 5 hours. My son in law, Jonathan, said that the road was similar to some he had taken out west as a geology student, but there were times when I was not sure it was a road, and the driver was not sure which way to go. I certainly was glad we had Prosper with us. He knew exactly where he was going because he used to teach at a school near the park. The last hour we were driving on a track that often was deep sand, and then deeply eroded rocks. It was kind of exciting, but also kind of scary, especially when we were not sure if we had a place to stay out in the middle of nowhere.

The Encampment at Arly
The resort was an amazing place, designed for eco-tourism. They had 12 housing units, most of which were built in the round room style with grass roofs.

There was a lounge area near the swimming pool and bar. The food was first class. There was a set menu for each meal, but everything was delicious, and there were three courses for lunch and dinner. The encampment is not only for photo safaris, like we wanted to make, but also for hunting. I was shocked when Prosper asked if my family wanted to hunt some of the wild animals while they were here when he was making the reservation. Just as in the States, there are seasons for killing various kinds of game and they sell hunting licenses for the park. Essentially the hunters keep down the population of grazing animals because there are not enough lions to do the job. Human beings, after all, are the ultimate predators. As a result, the meat we ate was fresh meat from the hunt.

Our Evening Photo Safari
We visited the park twice, once in the late afternoon and once in the early morning. In the afternoon we piled Jonathan and the kids on the top of the 4X4 in the luggage rack so they had a great view.

We had to have a guide with us, and took us on one of the bumpiest rides I have ever had. He explained that the elephants preferred to walk on a cleared path rather than through the tall grass, so the road is full of holes made by elephants walking in the mud. Here is an example of the tracks elephant make, with Janet for size comparison..

We saw lots of an antelope of some sort, or maybe of several sorts. I could not tell for sure, but here is a picture of one of them.

We also got a look at some of the wild boars. I think these are the two creatures we had for lunch and dinner at the encampment.

Our morning Photo Safari, the Elephant Experience
The kids really wanted to get a look at an elephant. The guide said there were some near by so we set out on foot. We saw lots of foot prints and scat (AKA poop). We knew they were nearby because the scat was fresh. The guide pointed to a thicket and said there were a mother and baby behind the brush. Jamie said he could see the baby, and then a big elephant head stuck through the branches of the tree, ears fully fanned out on each side of her head, tusks gleaming in the sunlight, and trumpeting loudly. The guide yelled RUN (in French, of course) and we all took off. Abby ran right out of her flip flops. No time for pictures, of course, but here is Janet at the place we saw the elephant head, pretending to be the mother elephant.

My impression of the event was that it was like being on Disney World on a ride of some kind where a big elephant head pops through the brush and trumpets at you. Really hokey at an amusement park, but stunning when it is the real thing.

We took the 4X4 on a different, awful road and saw a few birds and a troop of baboons on the top of a cliff. Those things at the top of the cliff are not rocks but the baboons.

Later on, back at the guide post, we were visited by a troop of baboons, above. We could almost have skipped the bumpy ride and just hung out where the guides live.

Back to Ouaga
We returned to Ouaga by daylight and the rough road was a bit easier for the driver to navigate so we got back in a little less time. I was able to take the family on a tour of the Peace Corps office. The next day we had planned to visit the Artisan Village, a great place to shop for authentic African art here. Unfortunately I got very sick during the night and was not able to go with the rest of the family. I ended up in the Peace Corps infirmary (again). When the family came to say good by, several of them were also feeling the effects of whatever I had. We think it was the food we ate along the road. It is all part of the African experience, and I was glad it didn’t happen until the last day. Luckily there were able to get on the plane and make it home without any tragedies. All in all, a wonderful experience for all. So, when are YOU coming to visit?

Holiday Visit

On December 21 I went to the capital city, Ouagadougou, known here simply as Ouaga, to meet Janet and her family for their Christmas visit. On the bus I got a call from the Peace Corps Country Director, with whom they were to spend the night. She told me there had been a big snow storm in Europe and many flights had been canceled. She wondered if I had heard anything from the family about a flight cancelation. I went on to Chez Joanna, the little hotel where I was to spend the night. Fortunately I had my computer with me and Chez Joanne has an internet connection. I was able to check on their flight which, fortunately, had left Paris and was on the way. It was 2 hours late, but at least they were not stuck on the ground in France. I understand that they were very lucky because flights before and after theirs were canceled!

We had a very nice dinner with the Country Director who generously put the family up for the night. I had arranged with the brother of my neighbor, Prosper, to have a 4 X 4 with seating for 8 people for the time the family was with me. We did some shopping for things with which to paint the inside walls of my house, two big commercial sized buckets of white paint. After we added the luggage to all those things we looked like a bush taxi and headed back to my village for the night.

Crocodiles and Old Friends
The next day we visited with the family where I stayed during my training. On the way we stopped to see one of the tourist attractions, the sacred crocodiles (actually caiman). The attraction is that you pay a fee and the men who run the place use a chicken tied to a rope to lure a caiman out of the water. These things are so used to being fed and dragged around by their tails that they are almost tame. They haul the critter up onto the beach and invite you to touch them or pretend to drag them around by the tail, as in the picture below. This is my daughter Janet and the three grand children playing crocodile hunter.

We had a nice visit with my old host family and Abby and Ellie got to meet the two girls in the family with whom they have had a few e-mail exchanges. I took advantage of having a big vehicle at my disposal and bought a mattress and a big clay jug to use as a water cooler.

White Christmas?
It certainly was not a white Christmas here, except for the walls inside my house. Christmas Eve day and Christmas were mostly spent with the family scrubbing the walls, putting grouting around the edge of the wood pieces that serve as a ceiling to keep the dirt up in the attic, and painting my living room, kitchen and hall. The rooms used to be a rather dark turquoise. Below is Janet on my new ladder by one of the water stains that made the house look so dirty. The flash lightened the color of the old walls, but you can get the idea.

They used stark white paint and the old color bled through a bit, so now the walls look like a very pale turquoise. My gift to the family was their trip here and their gift to me was painting the walls of the rooms I use the most. If they had been here for a week, they could have finished the job. I am not sure if I will ever get around to doing the rest of them. We shall see.

Christmas in Burkina Faso
On holidays here the custom is to go visit your friends. On Christmas day Janet and I went to visit my community homologue, who has helped me get integrated into the community, and my neighbor and “Burkinabé son”, Prosper and his family. Prosper takes care of me as he would his own mother. At each place we were served food drinks. I was totally unprepared to entertain in this way, so when people stopped by I just gave them greetings and invited them to sit for a while. Next year I will be prepared.

Soccer, the International Language
Because they had lived in Paris for 5 years, all of the Pershing speak better French than I do, except for Jamie, who forgot all of his French as soon as he came back to the United States. Jamie brought a soccer ball with him. As soon as he stepped out into my courtyard and started kicking it around, about 20 kids appeared. He and Ellie had a good time playing with the kids, although Jamie can’t speak a word of French. One day Able, one of the sons of my homologue, went with him to the soccer field by the school. Because Able speaks a little English idea was supposed to be that Able would translate for him, but Jamie could not understand Able’s English. He had a good time, anyway. Somehow with soccer all you need is hand signals and feet.

Fetching Water
All of the kids went with my “water girl” to get water from the forage (a faucet from which you can fill your water jugs without having to pump it or pull it out of the well). This water is somewhat treated, and safer to drink than other water sources, although I still add bleach and filter it. The girl uses a big 200 liter barrel which she hauls in a donkey cart. When she gets to my house she has to transfer the water in 25 liter jugs that used to hold palm oil, and pour the first 100 liters into a garbage can in the house. Then she fills the four palm oil cans and I am usually set for about 10 days. With the family there they had to go twice to get water. I think the kids got a better idea of the value of water in Burkina Faso after hauling it a couple of times. Many of the people here carry their water in big basins on their heads. Abby, my oldest granddaughter wanted to learn how to do that, but I think you have to start pretty young to be able to carry so much that way.

More on the trip in the next installment….