Saturday, April 30, 2011


How people dress here
Here is a picture of a gardening group who had a celebration of the success of their onion preservation project (in the building behind them). It shows people in many of the kinds of clothing I will describe below.

Clothing for women
As I have mentioned before, the standard clothing for women is a top and matching wrap around skirt that is called a pagne. A pagne is defined as a loin cloth in the French-English dictionary, but here it means a piece of 45 inch material about 2 yards long that you simply wrap around your waist. A good example is the lady in the front row, on the right, with the long sleeved striped t-shirt. I have not got the hang of it and the picture in an earlier blog of me in a pagne is a “cheater” that has strings on each end of the cloth that you can tie to keep it up. Often women keep coins wrapped up in the end they tuck into the waist. When they make change or buy something they essentially start to take off their skirts. Usually they have a couple of pagnes on so it is not a big embarrassment. Tops are either very close fitting, with a zipper up the back, or very loose, to serve as a maternity and nursing top. These are worn by women of all ages and often slip off one shoulder, as in the picture below:

The fabrics are very colorful, with big designs on them. Sometimes the pattern in the cloth is ignored and heavy embroidery designs are sewed around the neck and down the front, as well as on the sleeves and bottom of the pagne. Another kind of decoration is done with bias tape, as on the one I am wearing in the picture. There is another example in the back row, left side, of the first picture.

Check out the feet of the women in the photo. The standard foot wear is plain plastic flip-flops. Some are made of leather and have a decoration on the part that goes between the toes, and may have a slight wedgie type heel. Occasionally people go bare footed, but there have been big campaigns to teach people the dangers of hook worms and other parasites you can pick up walking around without shoes when there is animal dung all over the ground, as there is here.

Women’s head wear
Women almost all wear pieces of cloth tied around their heads, as you see in the photos. Often this is a scarf or a piece of the same material the rest of the outfit is made of. The Muslim women may wear another style of scarf that wraps under the chin and covers all the head and shoulders. That is not a sure sign of one’s religion, however, because I have seen Catholic women wear them, too (none in the picture, however).

Clothing for men
There are examples of most of the following in the top photo as well. Men, especially those who are not simply farmers, often wear European style pants, shirts and shoes. Neck ties are not often seen in a village like mine, although you might see them in a big city. My language tutor stopped by the other day with two neck ties and asked me to show him how to tie them. The choir director had decided he wanted the men to be wearing ties for a special occasion and he (and I expect his friends) did not know how to knot them. More traditional clothing for men looks a bit like pajamas—at top and pants made out of the same kind of material as women’s clothes. The tops are somewhat like a caftan, but not so long. There are several men in the back row dressed in these outfits but it is a bit hard to tell because you can’t see their legs. Most men wear flip-flops, even if they have on European style shirts and pants, but some wear European style shoes, too.

Head covering for men
Muslim men wear some kind of head cover, too. Some look a bit like a big Jewish yamaca, but most are more like a pillbox hat. Check out the guy on the extreme right side of the photo. They are sometimes quite fancy, crocheted or covered with embroidery. Men may also wear base ball caps or traditional woven hats that are kind of cone shaped, to keep the sun off in the hot weather. Here is a picture of one, on the head of my language tutor.

School clothes
In primary school the kids wear whatever they have. Some look like they are ready to go to church or a party and others look like they are dressed in rags they picked up off the side of the road. Foot wear is almost always flip-flops.

In the secondary schools, students are supposed to wear uniforms, which may be different for different schools in the big cities. Here they are all kaki so that, if you go to college (middle school) in one of the private schools, your uniforms will still be good when you go to the Lycée (last three years of high school). The shirts for boys and girls are about the same, short sleeved European style shirts. Boys wear pants, and the girls usually wear long, straight skirts, but a few wear pants, like the boys. Here is a picture of some of the girls in my girls’ club. The two on the right are in uniform. The extreme right one is wearing the school t-shirt and typical skirt, and the other is wearing the shirt and pants style uniform. The other two girls have on more European style clothes. Again the overwhelming majority of students wear flip-flops for their foot wear.

Making clothes
By the way, the term pagne can also refer to a measure of cloth. When you go to the marché, you buy on one, two, or three pagne piece of material. Then you take that to your tailor and explain the kind of outfit you want. You may point to a picture on the wall that is similar to what you have in mind, or you can draw a picture. The tailor takes your measurements and, without a pattern, just cuts it out and sews it up. I have found that I sometimes have to go back a couple of times for them to get things right. For example, women do not generally ask for pockets in things and I insist on pockets in skirts and dresses. I also have had to make them change the location of darts in dresses but, in general, they do an amazing job cutting things out “free hand” and sewing them up. It reminds me of the costume makers in the theater whom I have seen do the same thing. Tailors tend to have big seam allowances so it is easy to let things out if they are too tight. Better to make things too big and take them in than to lack material if they are too small.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Food here

Eating here
People have asked me what I find to eat here. Actually about half my meals are made from things I buy at the marché or boutique (a tiny store with a few basic supplies). My town has a marché every three days. At the marché I can find peanut butter, and, depending on the season, fresh fruit and vegetables. At the moment there are lots of tomatoes and onions, and also a bit of okra, carrots, eggplant, cucumbers and lettuce, but things in the latter group may or may not be available on any given day. At one point I could get what they call sweet potatoes. They taste just about like American potatoes. The flesh is white, but a bit fibrous. You buy them already cooked and people eat them as a snack. I could make hash browns and mashed potatoes with them. I have not seen any for the last couple of months. There were bananas but they have not been available for quite a while. The only fruit currently available are mangoes. Apparently there are several types of mangoes. The ones in season now are small, about the size of your fist. They start out green on the tree, but turn yellow and are soft when they are ripe. You squish then in their skins, cut off an end, and suck out the juice. Actually, I like to cut them open, squeeze the pulp and juice into a bowl, and eat it like apple sauce. It is really sweet and I am beginning to like the taste.

Another thing I have learned is that, if I get to the guy cooking up goat meat and other animal parts on his grill early enough, I can buy a raw piece of goat leg without the other stuff. I have to cut the meat away from all the ligaments and fat, but when I do that, it is just plain meat and makes a good meal. I sometimes fry up little pieces and put them in a sandwich of local bread. What I usually do is fry up some onions with the meat, and then add water and rice with some American herbs and let it cook until the rice is soft. On market days there is a guy who cooks up a pig, if he can find someone willing to sell him one. I can buy a small sack of just plain pork (no organs, intestines full of blood, or brains) and use that in sandwiches or with couscous or rice.

Here are a couple of pictures of my kitchen. First you will notice this used to be a house with running water, but years ago all the plumbing was ripped out. I have a sink, but the water would drain onto the floor if I did not put a bowl under there to catch it. The water for washing dishes and cooking is in the two buckets, one in the sink and one on the floor. I add a capful of bleach to each bucket to kill off any bugs that have escaped the local water treatment efforts. The cloth over each bucket is to keep out the dust.

The stove is a three burner gas stove that is hooked to that blue gas tank under the shelf. You see my two favorite pans, a no-stick frying pan from the US and my one pan with a handle. Next to the stove is the Burkina Faso Peace Corps Cookbook, called “Where There Is No Microwave,” full of helpful hints from past volunteers.

The next picture shows the rest of the kitchen. Except for some herbs and spices, everything was bought here. There is a big can of powdered milk, iodized salt (that you have to search for), a kind of oleo that stays solid at 100 degrees (called Blue Band), oil, and vinegar. On the bottom shelves are the rest of the nested set of pans, none with handles, and some miscellaneous cooking things.

There are a number of folks who bake “local bread” in what you might call a stone oven, although these are built of the mud bricks you use to build house. I never am sure who will be baking on any given day, but there are a couple of places that usually have bread. Mostly they bake it in these small, long skinny loaves that are just about the right size for one sandwich, but a bit hard to stuff. Here is a picture of a loaf on my small cutting board with a mug, match box, and kitchen tools to show the size.

In addition to the meat sandwiches I have mentioned above I like omelet sandwiches when I can get eggs. At the moment eggs are not available. When there is not much food, the chickens and guinea hens stop laying eggs. Another reminder of home is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The local peanut butter is just plain ground up peanuts. I like to add a bit of salt before I use it for sandwiches. The jelly is something I get when I am in Ouagadougou. There are a couple of stores that cater to Europeans and American and you may be able to find all sorts of French food items there. You never know what they will have in stock, so you can’t go with your heart set on a particular item or you may be disappointed.

Freeze dried food
When I was sick and losing weight last fall the doctor suggested I try to find ways to eat food I am accustomed to. One of the things Janet and family brought to me in their three suitcases full of goodies were the freeze dried back packer’s meals. They are pretty expensive, I guess, but good for a change of pace. Another thing my daughters have sent in care package boxes is something I never even knew existed in the states, past sides. They are some kind of pasta with sauce ingredients all together in a packet. You just add the packet to a couple of cups of water (with powdered milk) and you have a really American tasting meal (actually two meals).

There is not much here in the village in the way of sweets. Desert after a meal is not a concept. There are hard candies, but that is about it for sweets. In my food supply boxes from home I get my favorite kind of sweet and salty granola nut bars. I have to ration them so as not to eat the whole box at once.

Soft drinks
Coke is here! (Pepsi is not.) While I can by Coke, Fanta, or Sprite with no problem, warm soft drinks are not too refreshing. I can get a cool (not cold) half liter one for about a dollar, but what I drink most is Kool-Aid pink lemonade (again from home). I can buy sugar here and mix up a half a package at a time in the Nalgene bottle you see below, next to my canari (desert cooler).

The canari is a clay pot sitting in a pan of sand. You put water in the pot and it seeps out through the clay. As it evaporates the water in the pot gets cooler than the outside air. It can be as much as 30 degrees cooler than the outside air. A drink that is 70 degrees tastes pretty good when the room temperature is 100!

Next to the canari is they kind of pot the Burkinabè use for cooking all their food. I will be using it to make a Dutch Oven that is explained in “where There Is No Microwave.” I have yet to try it out, but I will tell you about it when I do.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Keeping cool

Power where there is no power

When my Burkinabè son saw me studying with LED flashlights at night he told me I needed to get a battery and small florescent light. I knew people sometimes use car batteries for such things, but it seemed to me that, if I bought one, it would be hard to take it to a place to get it charged. He explained that there was a smaller one that would work and that, if I bought one, he would happily charge for me with his solar panel. All I would need to do is let him know when it needed charging and he would send one of his girls over to pick it up in the morning and return it in the evening. We went shopping and got the battery and light, which you can see in the pictures below. The battery also works well for charging my cell phone, which you can see happening on the table.

Beating the heat
Yes, it does get hot here. Most days since the middle of March it has been about 100 degrees in the middle of the day. One of the other things that the battery can run is this little fan. It actually puts out a fair breeze.

If I am really hot and want to get cooled off I use the squirt bottle you see next to it to get my face wet and let the fan evaporate the water. It gets almost cold, which is surprising when it is 100 degrees in the house! Another trick I heard about is getting pagne wet and putting it over you. The first time I tried it I was really surprised how cool this is. If I want to take a nap after lunch, as most Burkinabè do, this is a great way to get comfortable. A small cloth dipped in water and waved in the air for a few seconds is also pretty refreshing on the face.

The best thing, however, is putting a long sleeved blouse in a bucket of water, wring it out and putting it on. I call this trick my village air conditioning system. I dip the long sleeved shirt you see on the chair in water every 20 minutes or so. By the evening my t-shirt or blouse is wet and cool, and I think, this is a pretty comfortable temperature. But if I stop wetting to top layer I am suddenly hot again. I was really worried about getting through the hot season, but for now, these things are making it quite bearable. The heat lasts through May, however, so this is just the beginning.


First of all, here is the bed I normally sleep it. You saw a corner of the mosquito net in the pictures showing water damage before and after painting. The mosquito net was supposed to hang from the pieces of wood you see at each corner of the bed. I felt a bit confined by the thing and decided to suspend it from the ceiling.

I had to get two mattresses for the bed because, with only one, I felt the bed slats. I think of it as a box spring and mattress set without the springs. I do always sleep under the mosquito net even though I have not seen a mosquito in my village since the end of the rainy season. Even though I take anti malaria medication I am told there will be malaria in my system when I leave here. Less is better than more, however, and mosquito bites are itchy.

Sleeping out under the stars

When it is 100 degrees or more in the house at bed time and cooler outdoors, I am glad I bought this screen tent and 4 inch think self inflating sleeping pad. The stripped thing on the sleeping pad is beach towel that I put on there to absorb the sweat. Sometimes in the middle of the night it is cool enough that crawl under it and use it as a light blanket instead.

The Moon
Shortly after I arrived I glanced out one of the windows after dark and the thought “How can there be street lights out there? There is no electricity here!” flashed through my mind. Of course that was just the instant reaction, but I was surprised at how much light there is from a full moon. It is quite possible to walk around outdoors and pretty well see where you are going, although I am not likely to try to ride my bike by moon light.

And stars
When I am sleeping outside and the moon is not up, I can see lots of stars. The constellations, of course, are displaced compared to where I am used to seeing them at home, but the familiar ones are there. (No, I don’t think you can see the Southern Cross from here.) When the moon is full, you can hardly see any stars at all. All of this may not be surprising to those of you who camp out a lot, but as a long time city dweller it is something I had not realized before.

The yard
You will notice that the screen tent is sitting on bare ground. That is the way you keep a tidy courtyard here. You chop out any plants that try to grow there with a daba, a hand held hoe. Then people sweep their courtyards every day, to gather all the trash they have dropped around during the day. I have hired one of the village women to wash my clothes for me and, when she comes, she sweeps the yard, too. That gets up all the leaves and makes it look like a good Burkinabè yard.