Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Last Blog Entry

Leaving my village

In this blog I want to tell you about leaving Burkina Faso.  After Camp GLOW I returned to my village for a few days to pack up the things I would be taking home and to get the house ready for my replacement.  Lindsay, the woman who will be moving into my house and spending the next two years working there is, amazingly, from the Cleveland area!  Here is another example of how common coincidences are.  Peace Corps sends you to a small country in West Africa, and the person you are replacing is practically a neighbor, not only from the same state, but from another suburb of Cleveland. Here we are, together.  As you can see, she is much younger than I am.

Farewell Party

On the day before I left my site I wanted to have a chance to say goodbye to people I had worked with over the two years and to throw a party for the neighborhood. I asked my community homologue if she would be willing to organize it for me. I started passing out invitations before I went to Camp GLOW. We had the party in the courtyard of my good friends and neighbors, the Taogo family. A group of women started preparations on Thursday by baking "cake," small pieces of a sweet dough that is deep fat fried. 

On Friday they made shrimp chips and  the hot pepper sauce (to add to the sauce, as we might add pepper) They also fried the fish for the sauce.

 One woman was occupied with cutting up the greens for the sauce.
A couple of young men got the job of killing and preparing the chickens for the pot.

On Saturday there were about 10 women working all morning. They put a measure of each of the kinds of drinks in small plastic sacks. You get a drink by biting off a corner of the sack and sucking out the contents.
 The big task was to make the rice.  In the end there were four big kettles of it.
 The party was announced for 1:00 and I imagined it being rather like an open house with people dropping in. My Burkinabè friends insisted there had to be a ceremony, and I was to be the first speaker. After I thanked the folks for coming, and for being so hospitable for the past two years, I was informed there was to be a toast, and I was to lead it. When everybody had something to drink I said we should drink to friendship between Burkina Faso and the United States.
 Then the inspector of the schools presented me with a certificate saying I had done good work in the town. It can’t be a ceremony unless there are certificates…
 I received several small gifts which you will see if you come to one of my talks about my experience.  Then everybody was served heaping plates of rice and sauce, or spaghetti, or couscous.
The functionaries such as teachers sat together
the men sat together, 
 the women sat together, 
and the children sat together.
I was really pleased by the turnout and the chance to bid farewell to folks I have known for the past two years.

Some of the men who work at our one tourist site brought their drums.  I thought all you musicians might get a kick out of this photo of the drums sitting in the sun to “warm up.” In our band we will do just about anything to keep our instruments out of the sun!

There was also the man with the stereo system who played popular African music while the drummers drummed along.
The women and children danced to the music.
One of the ladies even got this old fellow up to dance.
 The next morning I had planned to do some last minute packing, but people kept stopping by.  My good friend, Nadine, gave me two sets of clothes, a matching pair of pants and shirt in the Burkinabè style and a dress made from hand woven strip cloth. Here I am wearing it when I went out to dinner in Ouaga.
 I had arranged for a taxi from Ouaga to come pick me up with all the things I had to return.  The taxi man arrived a half hour early, and my friends and neighbors came even earlier, so I was not finished with my packing. I ended up throwing things in a couple of suit cases to deal with in Ouaga. The taxi-man  took this picture of me with my  Burkinabè family just as I was about to leave.
 In Ouaga I went out to dinner with the friends in the picture above.  These are the folks who had been so hospitable to me, taking me to Tabaski and out to see the wet lands around the reservoir for Ouaga.  They gave me this stunning dress that I wore to the swearing in of the new volunteers.  Here I am with the woman who will replace me at my site, Lindsay.
 I had lunch with another friend who gave me this very comfortable dress. This is the woman who is one of the script writers for the soap operas to change behavior,
I also wore it for the final Peace Corps event for volunteers who are finishing their service. There were eight of us finishing our service that week. 
After the staff reminisced about us, and we were given Peace Corps pins and badges. The main thing people had to say about me were related to my age.  Let me tell you, retirees, Peace Corps is a great thing to do if you still have your health!
The very last thing before going to the airport was having dinner at the fancy restaurant near the transit house. There were six volunteers enjoying the meal, but I did not get everybody in the shot.
FYI I made it back to the USA with a minimum of problems.  We  sat on the runway at JFK in New York for nearly an hour, waiting for there to be a gate where we could disembark.  Fortunately I had lots of time between flights so I did not panic.  It is good to be home!

Need a Program for your organization?

One final note.  I will be giving talks to various groups over the next few months and if you know of a group who would like to hear something about Burkina Faso and serving in the Peace Corps, I would be happy to arrange a talk and slide show (no speaker’s fee) for you.  Drop me an e-mail and we can make arrangements. Thanks for your encouragement and for reading this blog.


Sunday, August 26, 2012


For the past three weeks I have been in a town called Léo preparing for and helping run a camp for Junior High aged young people. A number of you made contributions so that we could hold this camp, and I thought you might like to hear a bit about it. I will, of course, be doing an in-person report to the two churches that gave such generous support to the camp.

The camp took place on the campus of the Provincial Lycée. It has a fairly large campus, with about 10 classroom buildings with 2 classrooms in each one. They look like they have been here for quite a while.
It is clear that a German gymnasium (high school) provided a lot of financial help for the school at sometime in the past because various buildings and furniture have labels in German showing they were provided by the gymnasium.
Those things sitting on the desk are water filters.  One of the things we talked about with the students was the importance of drinking clean water.

Our first task was to move all of the bench/desks out of a number of the classrooms. Here are some of the volunteers hauling them to the room where we stacked them.
We stuffed it full! We thought that, at the end of the camp we would have to put it all back, but another camp started the day we left, so we were off the hook on that one!
We set up three of the rooms as sleeping quarters for 20 students each. One of the things Peace Corps is involved in here is to try to reduce the number of cases of malaria in the country. Léo has a lot of mosquitoes, because it gets more rain than much of the rest of the country. In Africa, mosquitoes = malaria, so mosquito nets were needed, two campers per net. At the end of the camp, each camper was given a mosquito net to take home.
There was electricity in most of the rooms. Usually there were four fluorescent light bars, one on each wall, but usually only a couple were working. Here is an example of the kind of electrical wiring you see here.

In each block of buildings usually there was only one room with an electrical outlet. The room where all the women slept in did not have any lights or electrical outlets. Most of the women had brought "bug huts," aka screen tents, to sleep in.

After setting up we did a three day "Training of Trainers" session during which we tried to demonstrate to the Burkinabè who were helping as camp leaders the methods we wanted to use in the camp. Peace Corps favors teaching methods that have lots of participant involvement. This is quite different from the approach our counterparts are used to using in the classroom. Here we are doing the "Human Knot" activity. People stand in an circle and join hands with two other people who are NOT next to them. The task is to untangle the knot created by doing this. 

After two days of that, we looked at all the sessions we would be doing with the students and divided them among ourselves. We spent the third day planning what we would do in each session with the other people working on that session. We tried to have a Burkinabè facilitator paired with a Peace Corps volunteer for most sessions. That was a really good idea because the campers could understand the Burkinabè better than the Peace Corps volunteers, and the Burkinabè could understand what the campers were saying when we Americans sometimes could not. The first week was for girls and the second week for guys, thus camp G2LOW, Girls and Guys Leading Our World. Here is the sign that welcomed them.
Sessions were held in a classroom and topics covered gender equality, sex education, understanding of violence, decision making, tree planting, and health topics like good nutrition, avoiding malaria, good hygiene, and treating diarrhea. The group was divided into five teams and in many sessions the teams met separately to discuss issues of come up with ideas on a topic.

After these discussions, each team presented what they had talked about to the rest of the group.
The first week we have 60 enthusiastic girls. Here you can see them in the classroom, with may wanting to participate. Here, you not only raise your hand when you want to answer a question, you snap your fingers to get the teacher's attention, and sometimes even call out "me, me!"

One of the activities the students particularly like is putting on skits to show an idea. If they can act out the parts of people doing things wrong and others doing things right, or showing the consequences of such behavior, it means they did get the idea. Most of them were interesting and some were down-right funny. Some of the students had clearly seen some over-acting on soap operas and really hammed it up.

While many of the sessions were the same for the girls and the boys, the girls got to put on the camp t-shirts and march into town singing a song (in French) that you may know in English, Everywhere we go, People want to know, Who we are, So we tell them, We are the girls, The mighty, mighty girls!

The march ended at the mayor's compound where each of the five teams planted a tree.
During the boys' week we did not go into town but the boys learned how to prepare what they call peppiners, that is how to plant seeds and get them started in individual plastic bags that you buy safe drinking water in. Here are some of the boys filling their little plastic bags with compost enriched dirt.
Students took a pre-test when they first arrived at the camp and took the same test on their last day. It was clear from our statistics that the campers had, indeed, learned something at the camp. Combining the data from the girls and boys, overall they got 42% of the answers right and on the post test they got 68% right. I did scoring and data entry and I know that this may not reflect the whole story because there were several questions where they had to list three or four things to get credit for the question. A lot of students had nothing to say on a question on the pretest and listed several things on the post test, but just not enough. It was also clear that there were still things they needed to learn, but we only had them for a week (five days, really, because the first and last day were opening and closing ceremonies and travel). In any case, I enjoyed the time with the students, and it was a great way to end my service here in Burkina Faso.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Cops and Robbers

Gendarmes and Police

When I arrived in my town, my community homologue took me around and introduced me to the important people.  Two of our stops were at the Gendarmerie and the Police Station.  At each place I was introduced and they wrote my name and other information from my identity card in a log book. I wondered about this two level system of law enforcement. Here are a Policeman and and Gendarme in uniform. The policeman is in white and tan, and the gendarme is in blue
 Last year the man who is the assistant to the head of the police here stopped by my house.  He had been talking with friends in Ouagadougou who mentioned that people for the American Peace Corps could be helpful to someone who was interested in farming. I told him I was not a volunteer in the agriculture section, but I would be happy to see if I could get some information for him. He invited me to see his farm the next day and offered to take me there on his motorcycle.  He had arrived just at dusk, when he was getting off from work. He was not in a uniform and I really did not know whether or not to trust him.  I told him I was not supposed to ride on motorcycles (which is only about half true) because it did not seem like a good idea to jump on a motorcycle with a strange man claiming to be a policeman. I told him I would meet him at the radio station in the morning and ride to his farm on my bicycle.  The radio station is the one run by the association with which I do some work, and also the place I went every couple of days to get my computer battery recharged and to work using electricity. When I got to the station the next morning, the first thing I did was to ask Isadore, the program manager, if Vincent really was a policeman. Isadore assured me he was what he claimed to be and greeted him when he arrived, so I felt reassured and agreed to go see his farm. 

His farm was about a 15 minute bike ride further down the road. He had a cow and several sheep tied up under a hangar, those structures made of tree branches with a woven mat on top to provide shade.  It is also the place where farmers store feed, as we might store hay in a barn. Inside a courtyard he had constructed several round chicken houses made of mud brick.  Inside there were nesting boxes all around the wall. He showed me his well, which was only about 15 feet deep.  He said he had hit the granite layer and could not get through it to dig the well deeper.  What he was hoping I could do through Peace Corps was to give him some financial aid to drill a deep well.  I had to tell him that this kind of project was not something Peace Corps could help with.  I did agree to see what I could find in the way of printed material about farming in Burkina Faso. Peace Corps did have a number of resources electronically that I was able to get for him. Eventually I printed the big book about chicken farming for him. He was also interested in doing some tree farming and I got some free tree seeds for him through our program to encourage Burkinabè to plant trees. He has been a policeman for 25 years and was thinking of farming as what he would do when he retired. Here is a picture of Vincent, again in uniform.

When my bicycle was stolen, I reported it to the police and the gendarmes.  At the police station they made an entry in their log book. They also assigned a number to the report and gave me a piece of paper with the case number on it, with the official stamp of the police department. I also reported the theft to the gendarmes, who went through the same routine, except that they did not give me a paper to show I had reported it. Because the bicycle was recovered by the gendarmes in another town, they checked around with other gendarmeries and the folks in my town called me and told me where to go to recover it.

Why two police forces?

When I asked why there were two different law enforcement groups in town I was told that the police were for the town and the gendarmes dealt with problems in the outlying villages. When I went to report that my cameras had been stolen, I met a new gendarme, Omar, who had recently been assigned here from a posting in Ouaga. 

Omar stopped by the house to visit on his day off. He knows a little English, but we spoke mostly in French.  I asked him to explain the difference between gendarmes and police.  He said that the gendarmes are really part of the army. Their task is security.  That means that if there is threat to the country from outside, they become part of the army.  The rest of the time they are concerned with internal security, which means keeping the peace and offering protection to the population. Their training begins, like any soldier, at a boot camp where they are put through rigorous physical training and so on.  After that, they learn about the law and law enforcement.  I asked him if they ever did things like look for finger prints at a crime scene.  He said they did not have the technology to do that.  They do not have a data base of fingerprints or a way to match prints they might find with known criminals. They certainly know about the idea from European and American movies and TV programs that are popular here.

The police are more responsible for local problems.  While I was reporting my stolen cameras at the police station a number people came in to get various papers recorded or stamped to make them official.  If you want to apply for a job or to be admitted to a college or Lycée you have to show you have the educational qualifications. You get a copy made of your certificate, buy an official stamp from the mayor's office, and take the original and the copy to the police who check you ID, the original and the copy and stamp the copy to show that it is valid. In that sense they are like the notary public in the US. 

One of the popular action TV shows here is the series 24, known here as Jack Bower.  It has been dubbed in French and people pass around the episodes.  I have not watched it, but I understand that they show a lot of high tech intelligence methods on the show. My cameras were stolen while I was watching the finals of the Lycée soccer tournament.  One of the teachers was using his new camera to record the event.  He used the video recording function to record a couple of the speeches that were made before the game. While the speech was going on, he panned across the audience and of I was easy to pick out of the crowd. He thought maybe we could figure out who had been sitting behind me during the game and thus catch the thief.  We loaded his video onto my computer and we used the freeze frame function to get "snapshots" of the people in the crowd.  Then I zoomed in on the faces of the people sitting behind me and he thought the police might be able to recognize the people from what we could see.  The images were very poor and all you really could see was a blur.  He thought the images could be enhanced, like they do on TV, but of course I don’t have the technology to do that and neither do the Burkina Faso law enforcement people here in my little town.  I doubt they could do it in Ouaga either.  Could YOU recognize these men?

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Few Odds and Ends


At our mid service medical check-up and at our close of service checkup we get a routine dental exam, including tooth cleaning and x-rays.  I was surprised by the modern equipment in the office I visited.
One time last year I was having pain in my teeth and I was not sure if it was because I had a sinus infection or if there was a dental problem, so they sent me to see the dentist. The kind of x-ray equipment that they used was different from what I have seen in the US, although some volunteers said they have dentists that use the same kind of equipment. Instead of the bite-wing x-rays with the film in them that you hold between your teeth, here they put a plastic covered square, about 2 cm on a side, in your mouth and snap x-rays that are sent to a computer.  Here is the dentist looking at my x-rays.
Apparently they do not have full confidence in this technique (or maybe it is the Peace Corps that does not trust them) because when they did not see any problem on the computer images, they sent me to the place where they do the kind of x-ray where the machine moves around your head and you get a view of all the teeth on the same piece of film.  In any case, the teeth were not really the problem so I just got drugs to fight off the sinus infection, after which the dental pain disappeared.

The tooth cleaning technique here is also different.  Instead of scraping with the little metal pick, like my dental hygienist uses in the states, they use a tool attached to the drill-rig that spins and sprays water.  The first time I had my teeth cleaned that way I thought I would drown.  I have heard people describe it as feeling something like water-boarding torture.  I will be glad to get back to the American way of doing things, or at least to having I person doing the job with whom I can communicate so I can complain clearly!

Security in the City

In an earlier blog I showed you that, on residential streets in the big cities, you do not see much of the houses because the courtyard is surrounded by a wall.  Here you can see a typical street. Notice that there are several double doors that can be opened to admit a car.
What I did not show you was the things on top of the wall intended to keep burglars from climbing over them.  This is the top of the wall around the place where volunteers can stay in Ouaga.
Here is a wall around a nearby house that is topped with barbed wire (which may not be too clear in the photo. Others are topped with broken glass, but I have not taken a picture of one here.

Hair care

When I was coming to Africa someone told me they had heard there was a beauty parlor on every corner in most African towns.  The person wondered how poor people could afford beauty parlors, implying that people did not have their priorities in order.  Here is an example of what might count as a beauty parlor, a woman sitting on the ground, braiding a little girl's hair in front of her house.
People are willing to pay someone to do this because it would be very difficult, or maybe impossible, to braid your own hair and, compared to what it would cost in America, the services are relatively cheap. One common hair dos that took me a while to get used to involves using a plastic string to gather the hair into little puffs. The string goes from one puff to another to another.  
In another the tufts of hair are wrapped with the sting and the finished bits may stick up all over the head. 
In another version, the sections of hair are wrapped in plastic which are continued until the sections of hair look like little curls hanging down all over the head.
Sometimes rather than little curls there a longer ones, like these.

A more common kind of style involves braiding, including some extra false hair or other fiber to make it hold up longer and to add to the style. 

Both boys and girls get their heads shaved from time to time.  I am always surprised when one of the neighbor girls gets her head shaved.  Those of you who know me will not be surprised to hear that when this happens I have trouble recognizing them!  When a young person has a shaved head I can't tell if I am seeing a boy or a girl, unless she is wearing earrings.
I have seen no one with an Afro and I have seen very few Africans with dread locks, although some of the African-American volunteers wear them and reggae singers wear them.

Most of the time women cover their hair with scarves, often made of the same material as the dress they are wearing.  Here are the mothers of the bride and groom at a wedding.

Temporary Tattoos

A lot of the volunteers, like many young people in America, have tattoos of various sorts.  Here in Burkina Faso there is a tradition of decorating feet and the left hand with henna "temporary" tattoos. During Camp GLOW set-up, a group of volunteers had a local woman do some on their arms.
 When the decorating is being done, the "paint" forms a bead on the skin.   

 When it dries, you peal it off, and what is left is the color on your skin.