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.
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.
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.
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.