Sunday, October 30, 2011

More Differences

Being homeless in a village

If you are poor in Burkina Faso and live in a village, you can build a house out of the dirt from the ground and make a roof out of the tall grass that grows wild here. Your village chief can designate a plot of land where you can build a house and where you can farm the land. Here is a small house my friend Prosper built on this new farm plot. It will be a house for a caretaker when he gets the place fenced in for his sheep and goats.

If you are just living on a piece of ground the village chief assigned to you, you can plant millet or corn, and, at the end of the growing season, you may have food for the year. If you want a window or door for your house, that would require money. You would need to get someone to loan you seeds to plant, but it is not like being homeless in Cleveland, Ohio. Here you do not need to worry about freezing to death in the winter, and the possibility of growing enough food for a year is there. Of course farming is an iffy business and if there is a bad year for crops, things may not be so great. Most of us would not like to live that way, but at least nobody freezes to death under a bridge here!

Property rights (or lack there of)

Property ownership is just being westernized. If you were that poor person who asked the village chief for land to cultivate and to build on, it would be yours to use only as long as the chief lets you live there. If he decided to grant it to someone else, you would have to move. Now days it is possible for you to get a paper showing you have the right to that land, a title of sorts, but that costs money and requires a degree of sophistication that most village folks do not have. Prosper is a school teacher so he is what we call a functionair here, that is, a civil service employee. He has both the knowledge and resources to get a deed to this little plot of land.

Unfortunately, the traditionally way of dealing with land use is changing. I have heard of a village in Mali where the government decided to give a long term lease on parcel of land to a Chinese group and the people who had been living there for generations had to move out. Their village was destroyed with no compensation for those displaced. There have been articles about this in the New York Times, explaining that this seems to be happening all over Africa. It seems that richer countries that are running out of land see a lot of apparently vacant land in Africa and want to get the use of it to feed their own people. That really leaves the Africans in a bad way. The government gets the money and the people who lived there really become the homeless poor. They have to find a new place to live and the crops that are raised where they used to farm now leave the continent.


One similarity to Cleveland is that ants like to invade the house, especially if you fail to wipe up sugar spilled on the counter. These ants do not look like the American red ants I see each spring and fall. They are bigger and almost transparent. They also move really fast if you try to squash them. Another type of pest that has an American relative is termites. They are a constant problem in the villages. You may be fine for weeks at a time and then, suddenly, there is termite trail climbing your wall. Here is a picture of one, before I knocked it down.

When you go into any house in the village you are sure to see the signs that people have had visits from these critters. People say, “just spread some Rambo insecticide and they will be finished,” but really it only lasts a few weeks, and they are back again. I had a termite attack on the branches that support my hangar. My friend Prosper was visiting and saw the signs of the termites. He jumped up and started knocking their coating of mud off my support and later on sent his nephew over with a can of used motor oil to coat the base of the posts (see below). That seemed to keep them at bay for a while, but it also lost effectiveness and had to be re-done.

Early in my stay the termites attacked some of my books that were sitting on a little wooden table next to the wall. I am sorry I did not think to take a picture of the attack until I had destroyed it, but it looked like some mud had fallen out of the attic onto the top of several of my books. When I pried it off, the little critters scampered down the tunnels, back out into the yard. Here is a picture of the edge of one of the books they chewed. Fortunately they mostly ate the margin, and not the text, so I can still use it.


You have already heard about my bat problem, but I wanted to show you a picture of my new bat house. The last time they exterminated the bats, I decided to try giving them an alternative place to live. I had the carpenter construct this bat house but I am not sure if they have decided they like it better than my attic.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


There are hundreds of differences between how things are done here and in America. Here are just a few of them:

The Beginning of School

Schools here are supposed to open on October 1, which was a Saturday this year. The primary schools have Thursdays and Sundays off and just a half a day on Saturday, so you might expect teachers to be in the classrooms on October first to welcome the students and get things started.  However; on October first many teachers did not even know where they would be teaching or what grade level they would teach.  When I was teaching at the university, I knew the courses I would teach and the days and times they would meet almost a year in advance; so this system of assigning people to classes seems very odd to me. 

Last year; my neighbor was the director (head teacher) of a small school quite far away from where he lives:  He asked to be assigned to a school closer to his home. He found out he would be given a new assignment; but not where or what grade. In fact; he did not even find out the school where would be teaching until a week after classes were supposed to begin!  He will be teaching the first level of primary school at a school that is, indeed, a bit closer to home. He has 80 children in his class and, at the moment, no desks or books for the children. The children now sit on the floor, but he assures me that the desks will be coming. 

School readiness

Most of the children in my neighbor’s class arrive at school speaking only the local language spoken by their family at home. The only French they are likely to know is “Nassara, pas de cadeau?” (foreigner, no present?). The first term is obviously spent teaching beginning French and many teachers have no choice but to use “the direct method,” that is, speaking only French and teaching the meaning through gestures, acting things out, and so on. Teachers are not assigned to regions based on their maternal language; but by some other criteria, seniority I suspect. My neighbor speaks three of the local languages, so he can use the language the children know in most cases, but the educational philosophy for most schools does not allow bilingualism. There are a few experimental schools in the country that start by using the local language 90% of the time and gradually increasing the amount of French until by the 6th year the local language is used only 10% of the time.  Even though, from what I have been told, these schools seem to produce better results, many parents want the traditional French only method: I find this interesting, given that most of the parents cannot speak French and are illiterate.  This means that they are unable to prepare their children for school. It is only a handful of children who arrive at school speaking any French or having seen books around the house. Even among the better educated locals, the idea of reading for pleasure is not a concept.

Beautiful Homes

I just got word that my house in University Heights received a “House Beautiful” award this year. This is because University Heights bills itself the City of Beautiful Homes, and because the folks who are taking care of my house for me while I am here have been doing a great job.

This would not be a concept here.  If you have a big fancy house in the city, you hind it behind a big wall, with a guard to be sure no one comes in who is not invited.  I have; in fact, seen some beautiful homes here, with lush landscaping. But you would never know if from looking at the wall. Here are a couple of examples.  You have to use your imagination about what is behind them.  I don’t know!
Time and Planning

I know I have talked about the Burkina idea of time before, but it is interesting how this affects planning.  Being “on time” in the American way does not happen in the villages.  People may not have watches, although have cell phones that show the time.  This is not a big help, however, because you have to get your phone battery recharged every few days, and, without electricity in your home, that means you take your phone to a boutique to get it re-charged.  Often this involves removing the battery, so you have to re-set the time when you put it back in.  Unlike American cell phones, there is not magic signal from the cell phone company that resets your phone to the correct time.  You have to rely on others to get the best guess of the actual time.

If you decide you want to have a meeting at 8:00, you tell people to come at 7:00.  Of course everybody knows you are going to do this, so they do not bother to come until 8:00 or 8:30.  It is a viscous circle, as you can imagine. I am planning my sex education meetings at the primary schools.  Last year I was there at 2:45 to get ready for a meeting at 3:00.  At 3:15 the director of the school finally came to open up the classroom and get some kids to sweep the floor.  We actually started at 3:30 but people kept coming for the next half hour.

Contact information
FYI, my e-mail address:

I know most of you get my note to say I have posted again and have my e-mail address, but there are a few folks who read this blog who are not on my distribution list.  If you would like to be added to the list, send me an e-mail.  Do the same if you have questions or comments

Friday, October 7, 2011

Peace Corps at 50

 Peace Corps is 50 Years Old

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps. As many of you know, it has placed volunteers in 139 countries around the world.  For those who are not already familiar with the goals of the Peace Corps I will quote them here:

Peace Corps Goals

1.  To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women

2.  To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served and

3.  To help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.

The celebration in Burkina Faso

To celebrate this anniversary there were special events throughout 2011, with a big celebration on September 24, around the world.  Here in Burkina Faso we had a three day “Peace Corps Fair” in an effort to inform people in Burkina about the work volunteers are doing here.  On the first day of the fair there were two special events scheduled, the swearing in of a new group of volunteers and the arrival of a group of people who rode on a bike tour of Burkina Faso to raise money to help volunteers fund small projects at their sites.

We arrived bright and early 6:30 AM or so to set up our displays.  It was cloudy and we all hoped it would not rain, but it did.  As is often the case here, the rain was preceded by a strong wind, full of dust. The wind continued as the rain fell, and the result was that the tents and tables that had been so carefully set up were just about destroyed.  Maybe you can get an idea of the damage in the picture below.

As we ran for the building, many of the carefully prepared poster displays got quite wet, and some escaped from people and blew away in the wind.  We waited out the rain and tried to dry off things as best we could.  Eventually we all went to the auditorium for the swearing-in ceremony. 

There are a few traditional things that happen at these events.  One thing they always sdo is to have representatives of the new volunteers, who have been studying local languages for several weeks, say a few (or a lot of) words of greeting in several of the local languages. This volunteer was one of those giving greetings.  He is dressed in a traditional chief’s costume because his stage mates had voted him chief of their stage.

Another traditional aspect of the event is cultural entertainment.  This time there was a dance troupe and musicians who played the balophone and drums.  I am told this particular group dances in the style of a city called Bobo-Dilasi. If you watch the video on, you get a much better idea of what the dancing was like. (By the way, I am not in the vidio)

Also there are speeches by important people, in this case, the Directorice of the Burkina Faso Peace Corps, the American Ambassador to Burkina, and the Prime Minister of Burkina.  The prime minister presented this gift to the Peace Corps to honor this 50th anniversary.

Peace corps presented baskets to the Prime Minister that contained tree seeds, representing the commitment of the Peace Corps to plant 50 trees in each of the 50 towns and villages where volunteers serve, and a million trees over the next 5 years.  Trees are an important element in the fight against the desertification of the country.

After a reception honoring the new volunteers and the people who rode through that rain storm to get here by the end of the ceremony, we set up for the fair.  Here is what things looked life when the blown over tents were re-erected or replaced with new ones.

The group I work with here, PengdwendĂ© had a table highlighting some of the projects of the association that I am not involved with, making shea butter, growing onions, and recycling the small plastic bags in which people buy water.  Because safe drinking water is not always easy to find, water is packaged in these little plastic bags and sold on the street.  When you buy one, you bite off a corner, suck out the water and throw the bag away.  You see these bags all over the ground, along with the black plastic bags I wrote about before.  These water bags are made from a thicker kind of plastic and they happen to be recyclable.  The only problem is collecting them and getting them to a recycling center. Here is a picture of out informational display about the organization surrounded by the folks who worked at the tables.

I was at a table telling about the soap opera project.  PengdwendĂ© has a community radio station in my town and cooperates with five other community radio stations in producing informative radio broadcasts.  These six stations agreed to broadcast the soap opera Cesiri Tono, a soap opera aimed at informing people about children’s rights and the tragedy of child trafficking. In the soap opera one of the characters is a boy who is given to child traffickers by his parents because the tell the parents they will give him a good education and they tell the boy he will get a bicycle.  He ends up working long hours under very harsh conditions on a cocoa plantation, but is finally saved from this terrible life by one of the other characters. Because it is a melodrama, there are lots of other problems in the story line, including forced (arranged) marriages, violence against women and children, prostitution, and alcohol abuse. As I have mentioned before, this program is in Djula, the trading language of much of West Africa, and was written and produced in Mali, the country where my daughter, Janet, served as a volunteer 1983-1985.

As I may have mentioned before, the exciting news is that Population Media Center, the group that helps countries conduct the research needed, to write, produce and broadcast the program, and do a follow-up evaluation, has received funding to do not just one, but TWO soap operas here. The reason for doing two is that the target audience here are the people of the small villages who probably do not speak or understand much French. Among those people there are a total 14 different languages spoken, which is the reason French is used as the official language and is the language used in schools. There are, whoever, two languages that are spoken more than most of the others, Djula and Moore. Those are the two languages that will be used in these new soap operas.

I guess that is enough about the fair except to say that, in spite of what looked like a total disaster on the morning of the first day, it was a great success, with lots of fun and information for those who visited. It was organized and run by the volunteers, with the support of the professional staff, and it was, in my opinion, an outstanding event.