Monday, March 28, 2011

More about my house

More about my house
I told you a bit about my house, but I thought you might be interested in seeing some pictures of the interior. I am not allowed to post pictures of the exterior as a matter of security, but I think the inside is more interesting anyway. First, here is a picture of me in my living room.

There are several things to notice here.

The chairs are referred to here as village chairs. They are made of tree branches, goat hide, and metal wire. They are very cheap, the equivalent of about $3.00 each. In normal use, being hauled to and from the courtyard every day, getting caught in the rain, and so on, they may last a few months or a year. I am hoping these will last for my two years here. I found the seats a bit hard for sitting and asked my Burkinabè daughter in law where I could find some cushion stuffing. A couple of days later she showed up with the blue cushion I am sitting on which is a cover over a piece of foam rubber. At Christmas, when my family and we did a run to the big marché, I was able to buy a chunk of foam to use for making cushions. I had some left over pieces of material from dresses I had made for me at the tailor (there will be another blog about clothes) and I used them to make the covers you see behind me and on the other chair.

The little table is lucky to be here. When I had my first termite attack it was sitting in the corner behind were I am sitting. I had lined up my books on it against the wall and thought it was a great idea until I noticed one day that there appeared to be mud on the top of several of them. I looked closer and found that they were termite tunnels. I knocked the tunnels off and put insecticide all over that side of the room. Before I noticed the tunnels the termites had eaten the margin of my Intermediate French Review book, and a track across the top of this table. They only got through the first layer of the plywood so it is still serviceable. On the table is also a copy of that great picture of my family some of you have seen in my office or on the wall in my living room at home. It is a great conversation piece and reminds me of home. The whisky bottle is filled with peanuts and a gift from my Burkinabè daughter in law.

Water storage
Behind me in the picture are the things in which I store water. About every 10 days I get 200 liters of water. The daughter of my community homologue comes with the donkey cart and a 200 liter barrel filled with water from the town water supply. I understand that it has received some treatment and is much safer to drink than water from open wells, but I still treat it. Below is a picture of the things I store water in. There is a big 100 liter garbage can, four jugs that hold about 22 liters each, and a few buckets for what won’t fit in the other containers.

Water treatment
Even though the water is supposed to have been treated I don’t trust it. Here is a picture of my water filter.

You put the water in the top bucket and it slowly drains into the bottom one through a filter. I add Eau de Javel (bleach) to the bottom bucket and the water tastes like it came out of the faucet in Cleveland. Now I also put Eau de Javel in all the water I use to wash dishes and rinse vegetables, etc. I had an attack of giardia back in November and I am pretty sure it was from not putting the bleach in the water I use for dishes and such. I have always soaked vegetables in bleach treated water as soon as I bring them into the house. However if I leave tomatoes on the counter after that, they get dusty. I think I rinsed some off with untreated water and the rest is history. Ugh! Not fun.

Other stuff in the living room

The picture above shows my book case with one of the wall hangings from the handicapped gift shop I mentioned before, and a small drum that is decorative but makes a good sound. I will try to bring it home if the termites don’t get it before I leave. The book case if full of paperbacks from the “library” at the transit house. I am really grateful to have a place where I can get books to occupy my time where there is no work to be done. Every time I visit Ouaga I have a half a dozen books to return and come back with more. On top of the book case are two bronze bookends that my family bought for me at Christmas. They are a boy and a girl reading books. Next to them you see my substitute for a fly swatter. When flies get into the house (every time you open the door) they tend to end up on the screen doors. I have found it very efficient to take that piece of cloth, trap them between it and the screen, and squish them. It is much easier than trying to swat them and saves the screen, I think.

A couple more pictures

Above is another wall hanging from the gift shop I have mentioned,

This last picture shows a piece of hand weaving that I also use as a wall decoration. I actually wore it as a pagna at our in-service training when I first bought it and I think I stretched it out, so it looks like it is hanging crooked. I still like it. Also notice the bicycle in the livingroom. My neighbors would have a fit if I tried to leave it in my courtyard over night. Someone might steal it!

Monday, March 21, 2011


In the Peace Corps all volunteers get bicycles to use for transportation. When my daughter, Janet, was a volunteer in Mali, the country next door to Burkina Faso, she had a moto. A few years ago the Peace Corps decided that motos were a bad idea because so many volunteers were injured in moto accidents. Now you need special permission to even ride as a passenger on a moto, and no one is permitted to drive one. You get approved only for riding on dirt roads and you have to wear a helmet. Riding a moto without a helmet is an automatic ticket home. All of that is fine with me. I was given moto privileges and a helmet, because for one of my projects I need to visit some villages that are far away. With luck I will travel in a car with someone from the association I am working with and will never have to use the moto privileges.

Moto dangers
The other volunteer in our group who is about my age (I think she is about 2 months younger) was riding her bicycle and was hit by a moto. She is still recovering from a fractured ankle. I heard about a teacher at the International School of Ouagadougou who was in a moto accident and seriously injured. He has been in medical care in the US for the past 6 months. The son of the Inspector of schools in my village (essentially the supervisor of all the schools in the school district) was in a moto accident that broke his jaw. He was in the hospital for quite a while with his jaw wired shut. When I come back from a trip to Ouaga and am carrying a back pack full of food items you can only get in the big city, I am grateful that my Burkinabè son rides down on his moto to meet me and help me carry stuff home., but I am also glad I go back home on my bicycle.

PC Bicycles

The bicycles we were given here are wonderful. Here is a picture of mine. They are 24 speed mountain bikes, although I generally keep the left set of gears (with a range of 1-3) set on 2 and use only 1 to 8 with the right set. It is surprising to me how much I change gears when my eye says there is not much difference in the lay of the land. It looks like a pretty flat ride, but sometimes there is a little uphill grade and I shift down to 3 or 4, and then there is a slight downhill grade and I shift up to 8 so I get some effect from peddling. I am getting to know the road from my house into the village and am no longer surprised when I find I want to change gears. Near my house I shift down to 4 or 5 on the way into town, and up to 8 on the way home and “go like the wind.” If it were not for the fact that I change gears all the time I would say the land here is quite flat.

Biking in Ouaga
When I visit the capital city, Ouagadougou, I leave my bicycle in the village and use a “community bike” (an old, reconditioned Peace Corps bike) that is more like the single speed ones the locals have to ride. When I ride around Ouaga I really miss my gears! I should explain that the Peace Corps headquarters and the Transit House, where volunteers can stay when they are in town, are in a quiet residential district where bicycle riding is safe. I do not ride on the busy paved roads such as you saw in my picture of road traffic, although there are lots of Burkinabè who do.

Transit House
The Transit House is a large house in Ouagadougou where volunteers can stay when they are in town. It costs the equivalent of about $7.00 a night to stay there, and there is a kitchen so you can cook meals, as well as hot water in the showers. When I arrived in Burkina Faso a number of people told me I would not want to stay at the Transit House when I was in Ouaga but would want to go to a small hotel nearby. They warned me it was dirty and noisy, with a fraternity house kind of atmosphere. It turns out I really like staying there. First of all, there are several rooms with bunk beds, but most volunteers sleep on mattresses on a big screened in porch. There are ceiling fans and lights so it is the best of all possible sleeping arrangements short of an expensive, fancy hotel with air conditioning. When it gets really hot I may opt for that choice, but for the moment sleeping on that porch is about my favorite thing about visiting the capital. It is true that it can get a bit noisy when all 28 “beds” are occupied, but I am a good sleeper and have not had any trouble sleeping yet. As I have often said, sleeping is one of those things I do really well!

The chance to meet and get to know other volunteers is a thing I also get out of a visit there. All of the volunteers are interesting people, with amazing life stories and skills they are happy to share with you. Many of the younger volunteers do like to take advantage of being away from their sites to do a little partying, but I just say no thanks to invitations to go bar hopping and find other people who also prefer a more quite evening. I even found a volunteer who likes to play cribbage, so I sometimes get my cribbage fix. If I were staying alone at a hotel I would never have the chance to get to know these folks and hear their stories. I also learn about what other volunteers are doing at their sites, learn from them, and get ideas of things I can do.

For example, one of the men, who is about 28, worked for 7 years for a law office doing data crunching and designing ways to present data for court cases. He is an Excel wizard and his job here is with an organization that gives loans to small businesses. Among the other things he does he is showing that organization how to make use of Excel, and he is a terrific resource when I have a question about how to use it with the organization I am working with.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Some Health Issues

More about babies
I am still going to the maternity center two mornings a week, when I don’t have other things scheduled at the time, to help with weighting the babies. Since January they have changed the routine a bit, and I also understand things a bit better, so here is the story. When a woman comes to the maternity center for pre-natal consultation she gets a little blue book which she brings with her each time. It contains a record of all the consultations before the birth. After the birth there are sections that get filled out about the baby: name, birth date, birth weight, date of polio vaccine, and so on. Babies get the polio vaccine shortly after they are born.

Mothers are supposed to bring the babies in once a month, especially the first, second and third month, in order to get the series of baby shots. I am not sure what all is in the mix, but I expect diphtheria, tetanus, measles, and so on, just as in the states. The problem is that most of the mothers are illiterate and don’t know how to read their appointment date. They also may not have a calendar or know what day it is. This results in mothers showing up too soon for the second or third shot, or, on the other hand, not coming back for 3 or 4 months. On the baby days the mothers arrive with babies on their backs and sit around on wood benches in the waiting area until the staff finally get there and get set up (West Africa International Time, WAIT). There are often mothers there by 8:00 and we often do not get started until 9 or 9:30. Last week the vaccine did not arrive until 10:00.

The baby weighing routine
In theory I could do this alone, but most of the mothers do not speak French and I don’t speak enough Moore to be able to explain things to them, so there is always another woman there with me. The mother comes into the room and hands her book to me or the other woman working there. We check to see if it is time for the baby to be there and, if it is, we find the baby in a record book and find his or her record card. Mother strips off the clothes and puts the baby on the baby scale. In taking the baby off her back and stripping off the clothes, most of the time she holds the baby up in the air by one arm, just the way we were taught NOT to do it for fear of dislocating the baby’s shoulder. At first I found it alarming, and I still cringe when I see it, but the babies seem to do just fine. After we record the weight, we measure the length by having the mother hold the baby’s head at the top of a plastic gizmo that is about 3 feet long. The baby is lying on her back with her mother holding her chin to keep her head at the top of the gizmo, and I grab the poor little thing’s feet and slide a plastic plate up against the soles of her feet. Most of the babies don’t like this too much, although if I am quick we can sometimes measure the length before the baby starts to scream.

We then check a chart to see how the baby is doing. The options are better that 100%, 85%, 80%, 75% and so on. I think the 100% means how much a child that length should weigh. When you get a baby at less that 75% the nurse I am helping explains to the mother that there is a problem and refers her to the head nurse for a consultation. I assume in really bad cases they refer the family to the center for malnourished children, up the road. On average we see 25 to 45 babies each day, and there are usually two or three who need consultation. Sometimes it is clear as soon as you see the baby on the mother’s back that there is a problem. Other times the baby looks OK until his clothes are off, and then you see the skinny little arms and legs and know the child is not getting proper nutrition.

Kick Polio out of Africa
I mentioned the polio vaccine. It turns out that polio it is still a problem in this country and I believe in all of Africa. In November there was a big campaign to get all kids vaccinated, with the slogan “Kick Polio out of Africa.” There is another one coming up this month. They want to vaccinate every child under 5, and I think there are plenty who do not ever come in for immunizations. The other day I met one of the women from the maternity center and a man from the health service on the road wearing vests with the Kick Polio out of Africa slogan, complete with a soccer player kicking a soccer ball. They were doing a door to door (or courtyard to courtyard) trek around the village, looking for unvaccinated kids.

Evidence of polio
Everywhere I have been in Burkina you see people riding adult sized tricycle-type carts that they peddle by hand. The chain to move the bike is attached to peddles that are in front of the rider as he or she sits in the three wheeled cart. You see people in them on the busy streets and even going down the highway. There are homes for handicapped where people are trained in handicrafts and in my town there is a gift shop that is operated by the handicapped association where they sell their products. When the Pershings were here they bought some of their souvenirs there and I have bought a couple of wall hangings from them to decorate my living room.

Sex Ed for 6th graders
When I started to ask people why girls do not finish high school, one of the common responses was unplanned pregnancy. I have learned that Burkinabè do not talk about sex, even with their spouses. There is no sex education in the schools and the first encounter student have with sexual information is 10th grade biology. That apparently is too late for many girls. In a meeting I had with officers from the parent’s association and the mothers association, one of the suggestions from the mothers was to have a program for mothers and girls about sex and how to avoid unwanted pregnancy. I thought it was a great idea. At our in-service training we received a sex education kit from the Peace Corps. It is designed as an HIV prevention kit, but you can use it to cover any aspect of sexuality. Because of my connections at the maternity center it was easy to find the perfect person to help me with this project. She is a retired mid-wife who has seen too many young girls having babies and is very enthusiastic about this project.

We will first of all explain what menstruation is. Apparently many girls begin to have their periods without having any idea of what is happening to them, and they are terrified. Next we will explain how to avoid unplanned pregnancy. Abstinence, of course is the first method we will discuss, and it is the only sure fire way of course. We will do a demonstration of condoms and how to use them, using a wooden model of the male sex organ, and then explain other forms of contraception. Finally we will talk about HIV infection and how the use of a condom can prevent transmission. My counterpart, the retired mid wife, is fluent in French and in Moore and I expect I will not get to say much, which is fine with me. It is better coming from a Burkinabè than from me! We shall see how it goes. I hope this will become a tradition that continues in these schools after I leave the country.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Making my house a home.

My House
In the middle of August there was the Peace Corps placement ceremony where I received an envelope to find out where I would be for the next two years. I was somewhat surprised to read that I would have a small two bedroom house with a living room/ kitchen and indoor “shower” in a small town with electricity and running water. When I arrived, I found that was NOT the case at all. In fact I am in a small village next to that small town. There is no electricity or running water in this village but the house is bigger than advertised. It clearly used to have running water because there is a small kitchen with a sink and the stub of a water pipe. The hole in the sink, however, would drain onto the floor if I did not have a big bowl under it. In the indoor bathroom there is a nice shower stall, again with the remains of a water pipe, but no water. From marks on the floor you can see that there used to be a sink and a toilet. In fact the water tank for the toilet is still hanging up on the wall, overheard, as in old fashioned toilets you may have seen in old houses. In addition there are three bedrooms, not two. There is way more space than I need, but I am not complaining. It is good for having company.

One thing the community must do when asking for a volunteer is to agree to provide free housing. Volunteers really don’t have much choice about where they are going to live. There are, however, several Peace Corps regulations about houses provided to the volunteers. They must not have bats, and they must have a private latrine and shower, a hangar or other shady place, and be in a courtyard, surrounded by a wall. Here people live mostly outdoors, so the courtyard is their living room, dining room and kitchen and you need a wall so you are not living “on the street”. As you have read, I had bats. There was a private latrine and shower for my house, but no walled courtyard and no hangar. Gradually all of those things have been corrected so there are no bats and I have a wall and a hangar for shade.

When I first looked at the inside the house I thought it was filthy. After careful examination I discovered that it was not dirty, but that people had scrubbed the walls clean and in the process they had removed the paint. As a result the concrete walls showed through on all the corners where there had been dirty little finger prints. It still looked like there were the marks of dirty hands, but really it was the result of scrubbing dirt off. Furthermore, there were water marks on most of the walls from rain leaking through the roof and down the walls, picking up bat poop on the way. In a word, it was revolting. Here is a picture of what the water damage looked like. It was like this if all of the rooms in the house.

This house has a tin roof with enough room between it and the walls for a kind of ceiling made out of thin pieces of plywood. Every day I would sweep around the edges of the walls and remove bat droppings and dust that had sifted down from the attic in the night. This continued even after the bats were eliminated. When the Pershings came at Christmas they brought a calking gun and a number s tubes of calk. Jonathan sealed the edges of the ceiling in the living room, kitchen and bathroom, and, later on, I did the bedrooms. It is amazing what a difference that has made. The only thing to sweep up now is the dust that blows in through the windows. In addition to calking, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the Pershing family painted the living room and kitchen. What a difference! Here is the "after" picture of the same wall:

This picture also caught the corner of my mosquito net incase you are wondering what that thing is in the right of the picture. I no longer feel like I am living in slum housing. I have continued the painting project and now all the rooms are finished. I have hung a few decorations on the walls of the living area, and it now feels like a home.

The paint here is interesting. It comes in 30 liter cans, costing about $22 a can. That is a lot more paint than you could get for $22 in the states! It is very thick and cleans up with plain water. It is easy to wipe up drops of paint that get past the drop cloth, even after they are dry. I used a bowl to put paint in and, when the paint dried on it. I thought it would be a total loss. I left it in a bucket of water over night and the paint slid right off. On the other hand, I will not be able to wash the walls or I will wash off the paint, like when the folks cleaned up my house before I arrived. I am trying very hard not to touch the walls!

I mentioned that I now have a hangar, which, for my house, is a kind of roof over the “front porch” of the house. It is a frame of tree branches covered with checo (pronounced seko), big mats woven of grass. The checo is used for roofing material in traditional houses, covering for the stalls where people sell things at the market, storage bins for grain, and, of course hangars. After the grain is harvested there are tall grasses (6 feet or so tall) that people go out a collect, then weave into these mats. Here is an example of checo used almost like a wall.

The fact that one layer of checo would not keep the rain off is not an issue since there is never rain this time of year. What you want is shade! If you were using it for the roof of a house you would use several layers and it would only leak a little bit. Almost all the houses in my region have tin roofs but the rooms we stayed in when we went to the animal park at Arly had roofs made of 6 or 8 layers of checo.

My hangar

The hangar was built with branches cut right off the tree, not given any time to dry out. Not surprisingly, the weight of the checo has bent the branches a bit and I had trouble opening my front door. Fortunately my Burkinabè son, Prosper, and one of his friends figured out how to correct the problem. First they stuck other branches up on top of those used originally to raise the roof a bit, but after a week of two, the door was hitting the branches again. The current solution has been to add a new prop to hold the whole thing up. It is a forked branch sitting in a can that used to hold dry milk. We shall see how long that works. It is really great to have someone who takes care of me as if I were his mother!