Saturday, April 28, 2012

AIDS prevention

AIDS prevention
One of the projects I have been working on here is sex education and HIV/AIDS awareness.  In East Africa HIV/AIDS is a huge problem.  In some countries on that side of the continent, as many as 40% of the population are infected.  Here in West Africa the infection rate is not so high, but it is still about twice as high as in the US.  Education about how to avoid HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is one of the priorities for Peace Corps volunteers everywhere in the world.

I knew I would be doing HIV/AIDS prevention activities when I got my invitation to be a Peace Corps volunteer and I was not sure how comfortable I would be as a sex educator. When I was teaching Introductory Psychology, I used to blush just explaining the ideas of Sigmund Freud! After two years of talking about it, I am quite comfortable discussing it in French.  We will see if that transfers to English in America.

One of the projects I have been doing, both this year and last year, is to provide informational sessions outside of the regular school schedule for students in the equivalent of 6th grade, and to all levels of Junior High and High School here in my town. There is a woman who works at the maternity center who helps me with the sessions for the girls and a man from the health service who helps me with sessions for the boys.  I tell the students something in my hard to understand French (poor vocabulary and strange American accent) and my friends repeat the ideas in French with a Burkinab√® accent that many of the students can understand, and then again in Moore, the local language that children learn at home.

The discussion of sex is pretty much taboo in African culture and it is a hard topic for parents to bring up.  I have invited parents to attend the sessions in the primary schools, partly so they will know what we are telling their children, and partly to help them open the conversation with their children at home.  Unfortunately, not very many of the parents accepted the invitation. 

Almost all of the students in the 6th grade in each primary school did come to the meetings and were very interested. In the junior high and high schools a smaller per cent of the students attended, but those who did come were very interested in the information we had to share and they had many questions. The basics of human biology are not part of the regulars school curriculum until 10th grade, so many students were glad to learn about their own bodies and how girls get pregnant.  Unplanned pregnancy is one of the reasons people cite for there being so many fewer girls in high school than boys. Helping girls understand the risks of early sexual activity is how this fits into Girls Education and Empowerment.  But I feel it is also important for the boys to understand the risks and how to protect themselves and their partners if they do decide to be sexually active. It takes two to make a baby!

In keeping with Peace Corps policy, we did discuss abstinence before marriage and fidelity after marriage as the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. Given the problem with unplanned pregnancies, however, it was also important to explain the importance of using protection if you do have sexual relations.  I did a demonstration about how to use a condom, and showed students that, even though condoms are pretty strong, it is possible to break them.  We also stressed the importance of putting used condoms in the latrine so the kids would not play with them and possibly contract HIV that way.

Joining the world fight against AIDS

Another AIDS awareness project I worked on here was suppose to take place on World AIDS Day, December 1.  Because of delay in funding for the project I did not get the materials needed until February, and I wanted to do it when another AIDS activity was going on at the school.  That activity never materialized so I decided it was time to just do my project.  This idea was to get students to think about avoiding HIV/AIDS and to make a pledge to live a safe and healthy life style.

The project consisted of making a mural or sign about AIDS in a public place.  To do this I talked to the principal of the school and he thought it was a good idea.  We selected one wall of the library building.  First we had to paint it white so that the slogan would be easy to read.  I started to paint it myself, but boys came along and wanted to help.  I ended up sitting in a chair in the shade, supervising.  I felt a bit like Tom Sawyer, although I did not charge them for the privilege of helping.
The wall did not look so great after one coat, so I invested in a second bucket of paint and another group of boys helped with that.  Here is our nice white space on which to write the message.
I asked one of the boys who had done a really good job with the white paint if he would help me paint the slogan.  We agreed to meet at the school on Saturday morning at 8:00.  The Librarian met me there and we got out all the supplies, but my boy did not show up.  His friend was there and assured me he was coming, but that his parents had sent him to the market for something but he would be here right away.  By 8:45 he had not appeared so I left his friend in charge of the paint and ladder and went to a wedding I had promised to attend.  On Sunday I passed the school after church, not expecting to see anything on the wall, but this is what I saw.
It is not exactly what I had in mind.  I gave the boys a drawing with the bottom half of the wall blank, as a place where students would make a paint hand print to show they had pledged to live a healthy life style, but what was done was done and I was not about to start over. The slogan translates roughly to "The students of this High School say NO to HIV/AIDS

Last Tuesday afternoon, when there were no classes scheduled, we invited the students to take a pledge to live a healthy and safe life style and to protect themselves and their partners from HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. After taking the pledge students could put on a latex glove, put their hands in black paint, and put a hand print of the wall.  To facilitate cleanup I bought a box of latex gloves and had students put one of their hand before dipping it in the paint

Here are the two boys who painted the slogan being the first to put their make on it.
Here is is, after about 50 students had made their pledge.

After they put their hand print on the wall, they could try to answer a question about HIV/AIDS.  The man who is the librarian at the school also works with a group for AIDS prevention and helped me with the question and answer part of the project.  If a student just attempted to answer a question, the won a condom.  If they gave the correct answer, they won three.  I have received many comments about the wall from teachers at the school.  I commented it was not exactly what I had in mind, but one teacher said, "It is good the way it is.  It is clear that it was made by the students and not something an adult put up."  I think he is right. Another commented that it would be a nice way to remember my time here in the town. I think that is the only material thing I have done that will cause people to remember me, except for my project to repair a village pump, which I will tell you about next time.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Approaching the end

Close of Service
March seems like a long way from August, when the group with which I joined the Peace Corps ends its time in Burkina Faso. However we had our Close of Service (COS) conference the last week in March and I don’t think it was a bit too soon.  After I attended the conference I understood the timing of this event. One reason is that there is a good deal of paper work you have to do before you can leave the country, and it will be helpful to get drafts of these reports, or even the actual reports, finished before you are in Ouagadougou and there is a plane to catch the next day.

One of the things you have to write is a Description of Service (DOS), in which you describe all the things you did during your two years here that you would want a future employer to know about.  This takes the place of a letter of reference you might want to have to document the experiences you had while serving in the Peace Corps. It is limited to two to three pages, so you really can’t tell everything, but you can highlight the important things.

Another thing you write is a final report that goes to a volunteer who follows you at your site, so that person knows what you were working on and who the people are who were working with you.  You also do three project write-ups, telling specifically about the three projects you think others might learn from.

We also got an idea about the COS medical exam.  They want to check us out and make sure we are not going home with a tropical disease that the typical American doctor has never seen and might not recognize.

About two thirds of the three day meeting was devoted to helping volunteers think about what they would be doing after they finish their service here.  I know a few who already have acceptances to graduate school or law school, but many do not have any clear idea of what they are going to do when they get home.  Some are planning to take a trip to some other countries before returning to the US, but others just want to go home. Many of those who are traveling also do not know what they are going to do when they get home.  That is the reason so much time was devoted to helping them with information about how to get a job.

Our facilitator for the meeting was a volunteer in Turkey many years ago and she has been doing COS conferences in various countries from time to time.  She had several excellent presentations that helped volunteers think about how to present the work they have done here as part of a resume or CV.  I actually learned some things about writing resumes and CVs for potential employers that I did not know. I am going to mention a couple of them here because those of you who talk to students who will be job hunting soon might find some ideas here.  If you already know more about this than I do, you can skip to the following part.

Resume writing ideas
Over the years I have seen a section in resumes that I always thought was a bit silly, called “Objective.” Basically what everybody says is that they want to get a job like the one advertised, or a job that will use their talents.  That seems redundant with the fact that they are applying for the job.  I was pleased to hear that the latest thinking about the objectives section is that it is a waste of valuable space in the one page you have when you write your resume.

I also learned that there are two different ways in which to present your work history.  In one, you list your jobs chronologically and say what you did there, which is the way I always thought you should do it .  In the other you list you skills and experiences, which I found much easier to read and understand. You also list your employers, but by pulling out the skills you have and the kinds of work you have done, you can save a lot of space and make clear why an employer might want to hire you.

Another interesting idea was the “elevator speech,” that is, a 30 second speech you work up in which you say what you have done and the kind of job you are looking for. The facilitator had people practice this and many found it difficult to do.  It seems like a handy thing to have on the tip of your tongue when you are job hunting, because you never know when you might have a chance to talk briefly with someone who might know about the perfect position for you, if only they knew what you can do and the kind of job you would like.

Party Time
Because the COS conference is the last time the people in a given group will all be together, the tradition is to have a party.  We were lucky enough to be able to use the conference room at the hotel where Peace Corps had us staying so there was no problem with people getting back to the hotel when they wanted to leave.  I had an outfit made from material celebrating the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps. I had thought I would have something made for the fair in the fall, but I did not get the material in time so I decided to use it for this event.  Here is a picture.
The material is blue with white print about the anniversary.  I had my friend Martine make the pants and “boubou” top.  Then she sent it to Koudougou to have it decorated with the embroidery.  After I had it made I learned that this party is traditionally a costume party.  Fortunately some people wore costumes and others dressed up.  Here is a picture of some of the people in Girls Education and Empowerment section.  Unfortunately some of the folks were not around when we took this, but you can see that many dressed up in costume, but not all. Notice the sign in the background says "Super Stage,"  That is because we were such a big group. although we like to think we did a super job.
This is my friend Wendy, another older volunteer, who came in costume.  She dressed as the guy who stands in the street near the stop light and tries to sell you minutes for your cell phone while you wait for the light to change.  They actually do a brisk business. And yes, the Obama shirt was a good choice for this costume.  It is a favorite clothing item here.
More about clothing next time…..

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Soap Operas Begin

The soap operas begin…(sorry, no pictures this time)

A while ago I wrote about Population Media Center (PMC) and their work using soap operas to change behavior.  This past week I had the privilege of observing their training session for the people who will write the scripts for the two radio soap operas to be broadcast here in Burkina Faso.  The 24 participants are people who have applied for the position of script writer. Based on their experience and credentials, they were chosen as the finalists and this week is their training in the Sabido methodology that PMC uses to produce these serial dramas to change behavior.  After four and a half days learning about the Sabido method they each created a 5 minute radio script. This was the basis of the final decision about who the writers will be. 

The workshop was facilitated by Kriss Barker and a number of people who worked on PMC soap operas in other African countries including Mali, Rwanda, and Senegal.  Based on how well the writers have understood the method, and how creative they are, PMC will select the four best writers who know Djula and the four best writers who know Moore, creating two teams who will write the two different soap operas.  As I have mentioned before, Burkina Faso has many different ethnic groups and each group has its own language.  People want to preserve their ethnic identity so they speak that language at home and teach it to their children, leaving it to the schools to teach the kids French. Also, people who did not go to school or who did not succeed in school often only understand their local language. The target audience for the soap operas is mostly the rural population, who do not have access to TV and who may not have learned French in school.

The first day introduced the general idea of soap operas to change behavior, but the biggest part of the day was devoted to a report of the formative research that was conducted.  The researchers used several methods to get information.  Probably the most important was the use of focus groups to find out what people believe about certain issues. In selecting the participants they tried to get representatives of all sectors of society. What the people in the groups said was recorded and transcribed so the script writers will be able to look over what people said and adopt the words and phrases real people used when talking about the issues.  This is important because it makes the characters more real and like the folks next door.

The opinions expressed by the participants in the focus groups were analyzed and basic attitudes expressed were summarized to give a general picture of how people of various ages and both sexes feel about the various topics. One question was, “what is the family?” People said that there is the linear family, those related to you by blood, but there is also the extended family that includes relatives by marriage and distant cousins. Even close friends and neighbors may be considered to be brothers and sisters here and are thus part of the family in this sense. I have noticed this here, where someone will introduce a good friend as his brother or sister.  I sometimes ask later whether that was a “real” brother or sister and often find out it was a close friend, who is like a brother or sister to the person.

In spite of modernization, traditional views of the roles of men and women remain.  People say that men are the “chief” or head of the family and make all the important decisions for the family.  The role of women is to obey their husbands, have children, and take care of the household. They are always expected to be submissive. Because of their vulnerability, they need to be protected by the man. The role of the children is to help with tasks and to obey their parents. Children are considered to be the wealth of the family. These attitudes were expressed by both men and women.

The researchers also did an analysis of the existing research on some of the major issues and my favorite finding was the average number of children Burkina Faso women have, depending on their education.  Women who have no schooling have an average of 6.5 children, women completing primary school have an average of 4.9 children, women who finish secondary school have an average of 3.4 children and women who complete college have an average of 2.4 children. Educating women is one of the best ways of slowing population growth.

The Sabido method uses melodrama as the basic theatrical form.  In a melodrama there is a clearly bad person, and a clearly good person.  The Sabido method adds a transitional character, one who struggles to make a change of behavior throughout the series. This person is influenced by the bad person to behave in a bad way and by the good person to behave in a good way.  This is the critical character, the one with whom you want the listeners to identify and the person whose behavior you want them to adopt.

The Sabido method actually creates long running serial dramas rather than soap operas.  While soap operas can run for 20 years, the serial dramas have a long but limited run, usually a year and a half to two years.  It has to last long enough to let listeners see the change in the behavior of the transitional character over time, and to see that character facing some of the difficulties in making a change in behavior and how those problems can be overcome.  That helps show people how to deal with problems they are likely to experience if they also try to make a change in their behavior.

In the Sabido method, you start with the theme, or problem you wish to address.  This leads you to an idea about the behavior you want to change, but you need to do the formative research to confirm or change your focus.  For example, a campaign aimed at married women to help them avoid AIDS will do little good if they are contracting it from husbands who become infected while working in the city or another country.  The behavior you have to change is really that of the husbands and not the wives, so your transitional character has to be a man and the program has men as the target audience.

After you are sure of the behavior you want to change, you make a “values” grid, listing the values that would be held by the negative character and the values that would be held by the positive character. Only after you have the values clearly in mind do you identify who the three important characters will be and begin to make a plot line. This is completely backwards from the way most script writers approach writing.  They usually start with a story idea and develop characters after they have the basic plot. That is the reason for the week long training in this method.

In reality, each serial drama has three or four different themes that move along in parallel throughout the series. Sometimes they intersect, but most of the time each plot line is separate. Each group of characters has to be introduced and the audience has to be hooked on the story before you get to the place in the story where the behavior of the transitional character starts to change. The audience must recognize the good character as good, the bad character as bad, and find the transitional character to be likeable and realistic. The bad character must be really bad, but not despicable.  That is, the bad character has to clearly believe that his or her behavior is not bad, but completely justified.

Once the plan for the show is made and the first few episodes are written, they are tested with audiences to see if people are reacting to the characters in the expected way.  Kriss told about a time when the writers had a negative character who was a man who beat his wife and spent a lot of money drinking.  The script writers thought they had developed a character was clearly bad, but the test audience thought his behavior was normal. This kind of testing to see that the program is working as it should is carried on throughout its production and the characters and plot may need to be adjusted.  That is why these writers will be hired for two years, although they might be able to produce scripts for the number of episodes needed in less time.  They need to make adjustments as the show is broadcast, to be sure it has the greatest effect possible.

Because the writers selected for these jobs will have employment for two years, I am sure the competition will be keen.  I was wondering if this competition among the potential writers would result in hostility between them, but as far as I can see folks get along well. I don’t know who I would hope to get the jobs.  I like them all.  It has been a real pleasure to meet so many bright and talented people all in the same place! This is, of course, just a summary of the highlights of the training, but I found it fascinating and was grateful for the chance to see the training done.

Arts and Crafts: Weaving and Carving

 Loom for the Handicapped

I have seen several types of weaving being done here. The traditional style of weaving is done on a hand loom,, but here is a modern improvement, specifically for the handicapped folks. There are quite a few folks here who have lost the use of their legs due to polio and there are associations that have a goal of making these folks self sufficient.

Here is one of the men demonstrating the loom for me.

A big difference between this and other looms used here is that you do not need to use your feet to work with this one. In his right hand you can see the shuttle he uses to throw the weft thread back and forth as he weaves. 

More Sophisticated Looms

South of Ouaga there is a woman’s group that another volunteer works with. Elizabeth and I visited their workshop. Here you can see the shed in which they work and how they keep the tension on the warp threads as they work weighted down with a pile of rocks. Primitive, but very effective.

It was interesting to see that the kinds of looms they were using were like those I saw on a visit to Greenfield Village, the living history museum in Greenfield, Michigan.
As you can see above they sometimes use very bright colors, but some are much more subtle. This is one of the looms with four harnesses attached to pedals. By pressing different combinations of the four peddles with your feet you can make quite intricate designs.

Carved Masks

Masks play an important part in the traditional religion. They are used in various ceremonies, but they are also a popular tourist item, so many artists make them for the tourist trade. Here are a few that were on display at the place we stayed in Bobo.
 Here are some that were for sale at the gift shops near the Sabou sacred crocodiles.

By the way, one of my readers told me that there is a picture in the April 2012 National Geographic that shows a couple of children in Burkina Faso dressed in some of the more elaborate masks, not those made for tourists.  Check them out on the back side of the front cover, I believe.

Other Wood Carvings

Animal carvings are another popular tourist item. The carvers insisted that they were all ebony. I had to go check out the meaning of ebony, and found it means any dark wood and not the wood of any particular tree.
 The human figure is a popular subject as well


Traditional African drums are sometimes made from the things in which women pound millet. They are made from tree trunks, hollowed out so there is a depression in one end. As the women pound, the depression gets bigger. Here are a couple of my neighbor women pounding millet in one of these big mortars.
To make a traditional drum you just take one of these old mortars and stretch some kind of animal hide over it. That is the kind I saw at the music museum on Ouaga. In recent years, the drums have kept the same general shape, but they are now made from fresh wood, and carved specifically for this purpose.

Here is a baby one that I have hanging on my wall.
Here is a short video clip of people playing drum.  The man closest to the camera is playing the djembe and the woman in yellow is playing one made from a big gourd. The rattle is a gourd covered with shells strung on a net around it. Click the link below to see and hear about 12 seconds of drumming.

Rock carvings

Near Ouaga is a place called Leongo that has been set aside for rock carving. As in many place around Burkina, there are lots of granite boulders poking up out of the ground. Someone got the idea of turning a bunch or stone carvers loose on this outcropping of rock, and the result is a very interesting tourist attraction. Every two years carvers from all over the world are invited to come, select a rock, and carve whatever they like. There are lots of carvings in a wide variety of styles. I will show you just a couple of examples.


Jewelry is the kind of thing that is easy to take home as a souvenir. At the Artisan Village and at the gift shop at the home of the sacred crocodiles you find many choices. Things may be small like this little blue choker,

Or more elaborate, like this necklace and earrings. The earrings and large piece on the necklace are wood.
 Here is a selection of necklaces on display at the artisan village
And some bracelets, too.