Big Up from Aribinda

Friday, December 19, 2008

La Première Dame Rend Visite à Nous















This blog was written 18 December

One day in village, I notice a flurry of activity. This activity was along the lines of a massive clean-up of my neighborhood. I didn’t know what was going on because the people, for the most part, don’t paint the tree trunks that annoying white, clear brush and trim those same trees, or burn slash on weed-infested grounds. We just let the place go. I mean, who would come and visit us?

Well, actually, the 1st Lady of Burkina is coming to visit us. Huh, that’s interesting. But, why? Well, she wants to promote Burkina’s HIV/AIDS programs and take a little Sahelian tour. What’s on tap? Well, first, she’s gonna give a little speech at the mayor’s, some even in Koronfé! (the Fulse, the main ethnic group of Aribinda, speak Koronfé; the first lady is Ivorienne: I don’t know what she speaks), then she is going to view the animals and sample some of the local dairy products. Oh, is Saga going to be involved? (Saga is my neighbor and his sons occupy a courtyard near my house. They are my closest family acquaintances in Aribinda) Yes, he is one of the main participants.

So, with that little dialogue for you, you understand what the purpose of her visit was for. After the clean up was completed, the villagers waited eagerly. Some even claimed it would be a huge fête (party in French). I was skeptical. I mean, what could this possibly do for us?

As the days dwindled before the fête, I started becoming more interested. Fleets of horses and camels starting coming in out of the bush, school was canceled for the day, it seemed people were having clothing made especially for the event. I didn’t know if I was going to attend or not. Finally the day comes. I hear frenzied activity, knowing the population of Aribinda had, probably, at least doubled. I had a beer with a Jean Zongo, my surveillant one night, and I saw some acquaintances from Djibo who had come just for the party. At that point, people started to tell me that all of the mayors and people of important station from all the towns and villages in the Sahel were going to be in Aribinda. I could just see them, patiently waiting and talking quietly with one another, anticipating an audience with the first lady, their chance to get some individual attention.

I put my jeans on and grab my camera. I stop by my colleagues’ place and they inform me they aren’t interested. I’m going to see Africa, take some pictures. Barry tells me that Madame Compaoré came in a Hummer 2. I feel disgusted. We have a small conversation about how much fuel those things consume, the problems this world, particularly Americans have, with petroleum consumption. I take my leave and start walking over. On the way, I see my buddy Yacouba and we walk over together, where we get separated. The first thing I notice: Camels! And a shit ton of them! I get excited. I start asking the turban-sporting brothers if I can take pictures. Yeah, go right ahead they assure me. I wondered what ethnic group they came from, Fulani and Tuareg are some of the first that came to mind. I take a few pictures and then start to make my way around the mass of people that flew like an uneven rainbow around the eastern end of the Mayoral complex, one end terminating in a line toward the cell-phone tower. Damn, everbody had clothes made with the same pagne, or cloth design. Halloween orange with a large flower motif in blue and white. I see several students, exchange a few pleasantries, then make my way up toward a group of people who are even closer to the action.

I get up to the roped-off guard line, boys in blue moving around with Kalashnikovs draped over their shoulders, Croix Rouge workers moving up and down the lines, sticks in hand ready to smack somebody if they get outta line. Crowd control troops, sporting fashionable green camo, their flexible, steel-embedded tipped batons arched in half at their hips by a band, sauntering around. I see some more students, engage in the standard greetings, tell a few kids they need to study, then spot Idrissa, one of my neighbors and a son of Saga, tending his biggest cow. Mokhta spots me, starts hollering at me to come over. “Viens, viens! Et amene ton appareil!” Bring your camera he says. Eh, the insatiable appetite for pictures the Burkinabé have. I look up at the Africans in the acacias, still climbing for a better vantage point, trying to get a better look. Oh, Africa, I am here today! What an event for me to witness, so totally Africa, so totally awesome. I walk up to a policeman at the line, close to an entourage who is definitely traveling with the first lady. Speaking French, asking the police officer if I can enter and stand with my neighbors, the others start jawing at me.

They start speaking Mooré to me, telling me I have to speak Mooré to get in. I tell them the ground is Fulse, you need to speak Koronfé, at which point the Mossi brothers start laughing (the Mossi speak Mooré, they make up the largest percentage of the indigenous population of Burkina Faso). They notice my less-than-Français African accent. One starts asking me in broken English if I am American. I reply in English. Somebody mentions Barack Obama. I reply with glee, relating my happiness over his election to our highest office. Then another of the entourage, in injurious broken English, offers, “John McCain is your president.” Whoa brah, you’re African. I’m American. I get pissed off a little, barely containing myself and reply in acid French, “You’re not American, I am. Et John McCain, je le deteste. Il est cafard (cockroach), comme George Bush. Les deux, je les deteste. George Bush, particulièrement, je le deteste tellement!” They looked at me like I was crazy, like if they said the same thing at that point about their president Blaise Compaoré they would face a firing squad. I turned away, disgusted with the whole John McCain-is-your-president-thing still fresh in my mind because of the color of my skin. The policeman, amused with my rant, granted me permission to join my neighbors.

I saunter over to my neighbors, start taking pictures of Issouf and Mokhta, with the horses, with the cows, with whatever animal. I spy Konsta and his son Hama, who delivers my water. I exchange a few greetings. Turns out they are giving sheep to the first lady. I learn that other people are giving her a horse, a few cows, and some other goats and sheep are going to Ouaga too. The big cow shits, a tiny drop of the plop rebounding off the ground and striking the left leg of my jeans right above my knee. Shit, literally! The bull, must be Aribinda’s biggest, being tended by his Peul guardian, his latest offspring with the aforementioned cow gamboling about. Then, all the speakers are finished with their discourses. Madame Chantal Compaoré starts making her way over to the tents where the cows and various milk products are being kept, flanked and tailed by a huge procession, brothers in suits, some other well dressed African women, older, official looking cats in what appears to be Burkinabé military uniform. She gets close and with all the activity, the bull flips out. He takes off toward the green and red podium, placed in the middle of the mayoral grounds where speeches were delivered. A little African pandemonium breaks out, oohs and aahs, the Peul cattle guardian giving chase, trying to calm Saga’s bull. I let out a little giggle. Yeah, sweet, sweet, sometimes crazy Africa. A few minutes pass, Chantal samples some yogurt and milk, then the H2 starts backing down into the fray to retrieve it’s presidential cargo. The boys in blue and green camo start making a perimeter, the first lady approaches and then steps into the American-made gas guzzling trap. Her window comes down, she waves to the jubilant crowd, then the H2 slowly ambles away.

I tell Issouf I wanna see camels. He escorts me over to the other side, where I take a ton of pictures of the camels, my jubilation not rubbing off on the Africans. Here I am, the local Peace Corps volunteer, acting like a tourist. I take a video, more pictures of the camels, a few pics of a group of horses. Sated, I tell Issouf we are following the camels back to the house. I get back to the main entrance road of Aribinda, police and gendarmes start spreading out along the road. I get to my colleagues’ place once again and the Kalashnikov-sporting gentlemen start cordoning off the road. Then, the automobile procession comes through. I don’t know how many cars there were, but it was an odd assortment of Croix Rouge 4x4s, the H2 about 10th in line, UN WFP cars, maybe a CRS Land Cruiser, gendarme-laden trucks in the front and rear, rifle barrels to the ever-blue sky. They pull around to a house near mine. I visit with my colleagues for a few moments and then head home, getting permission from a trooper to walk to my house.

Huh, that was interesting. But what really happened? At that point I just started thinking about another cool experience that Africa and it’s wonderful people shared with me. More thoughts on this as they come…

So, What Do the People Here Think about Osama bin Laden?

This blog was written 19 December

Isn’t that what it boils down to? If you do not conform to a confused, extreme set of conditions based on a heavily nuanced dogma, Osama says your life is forfeit.

One day, lying on my cot under my hangar, I remembered I needed to speak to Saga (don’t know if I am spelling his name correctly!) about my panier order. Panier is French for basket and it is what many people here, including yours truly, use to protect young trees from all the animals. His sons had also recently told me they didn’t know what Barack Obama looked like, so I wanted to give them a Time magazine in which Barack was featured.

I went down and showed his son Idrissa the magazine. It soon drew a crowd of people eagerly wanting to see what Barack Obama looks like. We discussed his victory some more, how long he will be president, etc. Then I told Idrissa I would like to see his father and he led me into the courtyard. There, in the shade of a small dwelling on 3 plastic mats, sat 5 Muslim brothers talking. I went and shook all their hands, bits of greetings in 3 or 4 languages. They welcomed me warmly and I was made to sit on the mat close to Saga and another of his companions.

It was a pleasant day and the gentlemen were exceedingly friendly. Not a one besides Saga spoke any French, so he interpreted by speaking Mooré. He introduced one gentleman as a Peul, another as a Mossi, and of course he is Fulse. He was just celebrating the fact that all the ethnicities, for the most part, get along very well in Burkina Faso. I started by discussing tree protection when Idrissa came back with the Time magazine. Very quickly the conversation turned to Barack Obama and joy consumed the men as they viewed pictures of the newcomer president.

Saga became enthralled with the magazine and all the other men were very interested as well. They carried along in rapidly paced Mooré, a language that I cannot follow. We discussed Barack some more, myself detailing his ascension, when he actually takes office, how long he will be POTUS, etc. The men were excitedly discussing this as Saga continued to flip through the magazine, examining the strange ads, admiring the bizarre English text. He finally arrived at an article that dealt with the brain and what makes us good… or bad. One flip of a page and the bottom margin was lined with people, on the left the Good (Gandhi, Mother Theresa, MLK, Jr., and my man, the Dalai Lama), and on the right the Bad (Augusto Pinochet, Stalin, Hitler, Osama bin Laden, and Pol Pot). The only face they recognized was Osama bin Laden. Saga instantly brought Osama up with the others and they started a quick discussion. Saga asked me whom the others were and I tried to detail for him a little of each of these remarkable people.

At this point, two other brothers joined the fray. One reclined on the mat, a lighter-skinned fellow, probably Peul. The other may have been Peul as well. He sat in a chair and leaned his head back facing us. A red and white checkered cloth, resembling the design, I believe, of some kafiyehs, loosely adorned his head. They had the air of being devout. I had seen the lighter-skinned gentleman, a very nice fellow, praying many times before and whenever he would greet me it was only in Arabic. Saga and the others continued to argue/discuss Osama bin Laden. Then he asked me what I didn’t like about Osama. I told him he ruthlessly kills babies, women and children, among many others for no good reason whatsoever. I tried to explain to them he was partial to Wahhabism, a skewed form of the original interpretation of Muslim texts. However, Osama also probably likes to infuse Wahhabi and Qutbi fundamentals, creating one heavily nuanced and Draconian Islam to fit his world view. I told them, based on his criteria of Islam, he would probably want to kill you gentlemen, and he would not believe your devoutness.

Let me explain here I am no expert. But I have read extensively about Osama bin Laden. The latecomers to the powwow, still in their same positions, seemed to be arguing for Osama bin Laden. The others didn’t seem convinced, almost thinking Osama is not a good person. Saga said he agreed with me, said he was not with Osama. I was thankful, of course. The discussion then drew to a close as the other brothers were left to think about the exchange. I talked tree protection issues with Idrissa and Saga for about 10 minutes. Then, I got up off the mat, shook everyone’s hand (they were all very friendly, even the two who seemed to extol bin Laden), and walked the short walk back to my house.

Of course, for some people here, who don’t have jack, and I mean nothing, religion is what they turn to. That’s what happens in a lot of cases for poor, destitute souls, the world around. I have seen quite a few T-shirts in Burkina Faso, particularly in my area (a heavily Muslim area), that lionize bin Laden. One screen print depicts Osama on horseback, clutching a 2 foot scimitar in his right hand, appearing as ever the warrior. I have seen others, ones which I care not to describe. I still remember when I met some Japanese volunteers. Their first words were al-Qaeda when I told them where I lived. Oh, là-bas, il y a beaucoup de Muslimas. Then they all looked at each other, shaking their heads, a few saying al-Qaeda. I still think about how those Japanese volunteers just jumped to a fearful conclusion, one seeming so discriminatory and generalizing. Disgusting, and I know that sometimes I do generalize. Generalizations are terrible and
I just hope I never make generalizations that disturbing.

My Last Fête in Village, Dieu Merci!


This blog was written 18 December

So, just a little over a week ago, I experienced my first Tabaski in village and consequently my last fête in village. I am happy they are over. They wear on me, the cultural nuance of the fêtes are draining. During this holiday, it is the custom to sacrifice any number of sheep. Bismillah, ir-Rahman ir-Rahim!

I again went to my Proviseur’s house for a meal, a la Ramadan 2007. Again, I started imbibing. Being a bad Buddhist, I guess I can do that. Most of the muslims, of course, shun alcohol as the tenets of their belief prescribe. These things are always awkward. Honestly, it is hard to get into it. It is a cultural thing I feel I am behooved to honor, not much more else. The conversations between the feasters usually exclude me, sometimes using mostly Mooré to communicate. I tend to stick to myself, and this time, as I was getting drunk and text messaging my buddy Clay, things just continued to get more awkward. If the conversation is in French, I understand most, but don’t care. So, I lose track of the conversation during my inner self-dialogue, contented to be alone amongst this group of people.

Then comes the hard part involving holidays here: people in need asking you for a cadeau by saying bonne fête. I respond with bonne fête, then I am supposed to give something to them, usually money. People still hate it when I give them the whole ‘I’m a volunteer’ routine. On the walk to my counterpart’s house, I greeted two Peul women, their hair in tight braids, barely visible under the colorful material draped about them. I responded to them then turned my pockets inside out to show I had nothing. They thanked me, gave me smiles as I said good-bye in Fulfulde, their kind faces smiling, accentuating their heavy gold earrings. We arrive at the house, then continue to another colleague’s house, where we all sit down to another meal. I felt like drinking more beers, but some of my colleagues said I should take a sieste first. So, I did something stupid: told them all that I would buy them all a beer at the local watering hole.

Well, first of all I told them what time to be down there. They were late, of course, like always. Why was it such a bad idea you ask? Well, at CPL, the bar, if you will, there was a ball. Meaning, everybody and their dogs would be there. I would be required to give cadeaux like crazy. Well, I took a bag of candy for not just the children, but everyone. Some of my students greeted me. I gave them candy and they expressed that that was for the children, that they should receive money. Hey, don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have spent money on trees. That’s my gift to you, a better, more green environment.

A few more people asked for cadeaux. This one woman sees me, does a b-line right for me, doesn’t greet me, i.e. say bon soir first, she just says bonne fête. I say bonne fête back and give her a piece of candy. She looked at me like I was crazy, giving me a half-ugly sneer before turning away. Geez, that’s that shit a volunteer gets? Here I am giving my time freely. Tough for me sometimes with these cultural differences.

Watching some of my colleagues’ reactions was interesting, not always kind. Some were very good, giving out small coins. I didn’t have many small coins, but that’s not a good excuse to not give money. I could find it. Basically, I have had enough of being “rich” around so many people who are, in some cases, a step from being destitute. I do have so much, but they don’t realize it’s gonna be difficult for me to get a job in the States when I get back. Am I rich? Again, you must examine it through your own lens, from your own perspective. I am going to stop at that point about the whole rich-or-not thing. Having had conversations with some makes me angry. One of my colleagues told me because I am a white volunteer, I have a lot of money. Heh, not true, I don’t have a lot of money. People in village think I make 500,000 francs a month, truth being I make around 130,000 francs a month, less than a third of the supposed amount. I have even had conversations where I show villagers my disdain, them apologizing because they didn’t realize I made so little. Again, I am not an NGO worker. I am a volunteer. Not that I should be praised for it. Just, damn, don’t ask me for a gift. The fête thing just grinds on me. But hey, it’s over, so I don’t have to bitch about it ever again.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tunisie vs Burkina










This blog was written 27 September


On a little prefatory note, a villager (a really nice older gentleman who I talk to every once in a while) stopped me to tell me he looks forward to when Barack Obama will be president. That really made me feel great. Not only do the vast majority (probably around 95%) of PCVs back Barack, most Africans who have expressed their opinions do as well. He cited a 46% to 40% gap. Given his view and the way he told me about percentages leading up to October, I think Africa is ready to have a son in the White House. I just hope Americans make the right choice this time…

Round 1 of African qualifying may be done now. Burkina was placed in a 4 team group with Burundi, The Seychelles, and Tunisia. The most formidable, definitely, was Tunisia. One day sitting in Dori at Yaneth’s place (I think in May), I was listening to BBC Sports. They gave the cast and said Burkina came back from a 1-0 deficit to beat Tunisia 2-1 in Tunis. That piqued my curiosity. I started wondering how the national team was doing.

The top team advances to Round 2 of qualifying. In some cases, the second place team advances as well. Teams that go to Round 2 are vying for a spot in the African Cup of Nations. If they do well enough (win a group in Round 2), they get to go the the Africa Cup and the World Cup, the greatest sporting event on earth.

Then, all of a sudden, Burkina’s 4-0. Tunisia’s coming to Ouaga to play in Stade 4 Août, then the Stallions (Burkina’s mascot) have to finish the home-and-home and go to Bujumbura, Burundi to round out the six game set.

Bryan tells me the game’s Saturday night. I was excited. A group of us were going on vacation to Benin and Togo, so why not start the vacation a little early by going to an all-African match. The crew took off to meet at Erica’s place. We also got to see Kim’s place as well. They’re both 3rd year volunteers working through Peace Corps with Catholic Relief Services. Then we went to the stadium.

I knew security was relatively lax, even though Burkinabé police force were there in force, some dressed in partial riot gear. Security allows anyone to walk to the gates, better yet, to the doors leading directly to the seats. This leads to a confused, potential blow-up atmosphere… and it’s great for pickpockets. I took my camera and put-on an air of being ready for anything, à la Luke Skywalker. But like that famous young Jedi, I couldn’t yet control the force. I had my camera in-hand with the wrist strap engaged, quite sure that was a good place. It was. Nothing happened to my camera. But, before we hit the fracas, replete with a shit ton of pickpockets, I didn’t switch my camera case to my Velcro cargo pocket. Doh! Somebody just snagged my camera case!... and I didn’t even feel it, imagine that! I tried to help Kelly and Melissa get through the scrum. Melissa got through quickly, then the line bunched up and we got pushed back.

I thought to myself, once more, organized chaos, sometimes Africa at its finest. The cop had had enough. One crazed fan at the head of the column was trying to force the clogged gate. The cop pulled his long flexible baton, you know, the ones that have a several-inches steel weight in the end covered by rubber. I watched the cop start to crack this dude in the back. The guy was getting whipped and he looked at the cop with this injured look like, “Man, why you hitting me?!” My first instinct was to pull my camera and take some pictures, maybe some video. However, I didn’t want my camera to become “fair game” in all the mayhem. We got through shortly thereafter, Kelly and I shoving our way along until it was our turn. The over-zealous ticket takers (come to think of it now, that was a hard job!) didn’t give me my ticket stub. Kelly lost her shoe in the process. I asked a security guard to look for it and Melissa came away with her friend’s shoe, the guy who found it demanding 10 francs. I forgot to mention that shortly after getting through the gate, still in limbo, some guy fell down and grabbed my left Velcro pocket on the outside. My money and phone were in there. So, I smacked the guy and popped his hand off my pocket. Someone had already stolen their fare share from me. Then we got to our seats and we found out David’s phone got jacked. Poor guy, he sat through the match ticked that someone had ripped off his phone.

We watched a game that was mostly played in Burkina’s forward strike, the Tunisian goal keeper made a few good saves. Nothing spectacular. Burkina definitely played a more aggressive game in the front, had a good few crosses and some OK corners, but nothing ever happened. The game ended 0-0, to our favor. We were then 4-0-1 and when Tunisia didn’t get the win, it was like a win for us. The atmosphere was great. The band never stopped playing, the crowd was into it, all the colors. The Burinabé two stripe flying by the FIFA flag, and African flag, and the Tunisian red with crescent flying all in a line. It was different from American sporting events I guess. More disorganized, I don’t know about more fanfare, but definitely lots of fanaticism in an African fashion. The scrum was interesting to witness, barring none of us got injured or displaced. Africans of all persuasion were there. Our 1000 franc seats got filled up, so we had to go to the 500 franc seats. All the better, we were sitting with the vrai African crowd. Just makes me want to go to more international matches on the pitch.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Political Rant

So, what do I have to say? OK, let me start talking about politics that I can talk about, the ones regarding the United States. All things considered, I hope Barack Obama gets that coveted victory. I have been going with him from Day 1, when the people who believed really thought he had a chance. I am so excited to have him as my President.

Not only am I excited, but many Burkinabe are excited as well. One little guy in my village, don’t know his name, loves the fact that an African-American can become the President of the United States. But that one little guy pales in comparison with respect to sheer numbers. Africans all around are going for Barack Obama. I want that to be known. His campaign has energized my colleagues and the villagers that I live with. You could say that a whole continent loves their son, a son of Africa. I think it is wonderful. But not only does he represent Africa, he represents the whole world in my eyes. He is different (read: not white). He can bring a sort of credibility to what we thought was a too-long dominated “strictly white” position of office. Therefore, people in the Comoros, Lucknow, Colombo, Singapore, Sucre, Port-au-Prince, Havana, amongst so many other places can actually feel like they have a brother in the White House. Not some dopey oil-rich, legacy-title holder.

Speaking of that guy, it’s also about time for change of direction. I mean, don’t mistake me, I never voted for him once! What a bad decision, huh? I hope a lot of people are kicking themselves (and hard!) for voting for him, even once! I mean, what the fuck? Where have we gone? Where are we now? September 11 was a terrible thing, but the Republican strategy of scaring has left so many people freaked out. I’ll tell you what, Bush has done a good job targeting terrorism. He has instituted many safeguards, security and otherwise, that will help make us more safe. Forensic accounting for tracking terror money, counterintelligence (which hopefully has gotten better), amongst other things. Homeland Security Office, a joke. He has done some good things, but let’s move on to the wrong ones.

Number 1: Iraq. He created a lawless state, helped in its young days by Paul Bremer, that walking piece of human excressence. Just do it, chuck all the Baath Party out into the street, let’s see what happens? Wow, the genius, taking an indigenous population that was integrated, now take their jobs, give them nothing, and try and start from scratch. Heh, funny joke on the Iraqi people… And it makes the American people look so stupid.

I can’t even start to scratch the surface on Iraq. Opaque accounting, security outsourcing to the private sector (see Blackwater and soldiers-of-fortune whom the administration wanted to grant impunity), Abu Ghraib, etc. I could fill a page. The administration sexed up data and intelligence, granted credence to the LIE that Sadaam and Osama were in bed together. News Flash: I guarantee you that Osama bin Laden hated Sadam Hussein. You wanna know how? Sadam Hussein was a tyrant, but he was a self-proclaimed liberalizing-tyrant. What I mean is Sadaam ruled with a secular style. You think Osama bin Laden wants to be engaged with secular governments or their populations? Osama bin Laden wants you to be riding camels, making sure all women are covered from head to toe, only their eyes showing. He wants your kids to play with dolls that don’t have faces. He wants a purely Wahabbi Islamic state, replete with the legal doctrine of Shari’a. He wants basically the worst possible system I could think of. And he would get along with a leader in Arabia who wants to rule in a secular manner? Stop deluding yourselves.

Back to the US. Bush limited habeas corpus to the detriment of everyone. X-Ray at Guantanamo is a terrible topic, as is tapping everybody’s phone. Does anyone remember the moon base establishment he wanted to put into the State of the Union address one year? We need to build a moon base and put him on it! But, let’s be reasonable, let’s not put him in a position of any kind of authority. Something would surely go wrong.

So, I liken Bush to a drunk driver. We’ve been in this car all along, which, of course, represents the USA, and he pushed the other chauffeur out, the guy who actually won the popular vote. We had only been driving for a little while and then we got hit by another car, going in the ideologically different direction. Well, at first the car did OK, it actually gained speed after a few miles of spinning it’s tires. But then, after another few hundred miles, the driver threw his cigarette out the window and started a fire. Well, that fire has raged on, but we drove so far from it. In fact, Americans can’t even see it really, except for all the tax payer money that gets lost (how many times over could we have fixed Social Security?) and the bodybags that fill up and come home. The people that really see it are the Iraqis and American soldiers. And the rest of the world (minus Persia and the other Arabian states plus Turkey: they feel the effects of conflict on their borders ) gets to see our idiocy. Now, finally, we’re almost to where the drunk driver gets out of the car. Except, the car is now on fire. Barack has his work cut out for him.

Sorry, where did that all come from. Just my shout out to Barack Obama. It just turned into a Bush tragicomedy. A list of grievances. Too bad I’ll never see shit from it.

Ramadan... Again

Written 29 October

Another year, another Ramadan. My second trip around the block, needless to say, was a totally different experience.

I am a mainline veteran now, a grizzled, burly Sahelian. I have been in-counry for nearly 17 months, 17! Even I can’t believe it sometimes. This Ramadan, however, I was ready. There was no getting drunk at my muslim proviseur’s house, no going and eating a lot of food. Just a lot of the whole ‘bonne fête’ (good party) thing and then my mixed reactions to it.

First of all, let me explain to you how it works. People who have a little bit of money, they get hit up by villagers. Let’s call them the bereft. Or children. Mostly women, or small children. OK, women and small children. When men said bonne fête to me, they just continued by, big grins on their faces. I think they don’t want to start taking from me. Well, if someone says bonne fête to me and I say it back, that means I need to give them something (read: money). Well, I like to give money to the community in other ways: my missed opportunities in America add up to money being spent here. Also, my American sponsored money is going to Africans. And, I have been planting trees in the community. Is that selfish of me? No. As I have said, I am giving my time and I already spend money in the community. So, I give candy. In special cases I will give money, but it isn’t much. I learned it was OK not to give money from the Burkinabé themselves. My colleagues showed me that much last year.

So, the kids start coming over, but not in the droves I thought they would come in. I start handing out toffee. No problem. Day goes by, I tell my buddy Adama I’ll take him for a beer. Issouf jumps in and says that I will buy him a Fanta. Well, I do like Issouf. I’ll buy him that Fanta. But, I don’t like the way he chimed in like that. You don’t pull shit like that in the States I thought. But hey, Africans who eat millet all the time without fail, who don’t and never will have an idea of what variety is, hell, this time I’ll buy him the Fanta.

We head down to the local watering hole, CPL. We get some beers, Issouf gets a Fanta. But, Issouf doesn’t sit with me. I take that as an affront. I buy you something, you should show me a little respect, sit with me for a while. Adama and I are enjoying our cool SOBBras when two of my students show up. We do the whole exchange:

Me: Bon soir, ça va?
Them: Oui, bon soir monsieur. Bonne fête.
Me: Bonne fête.

The candy comes out. That happens a few more times. I recognize my friends greeting me, a few drunks want to talk to the local nasara. I see my students come by, giggling, their smiles light up in the single vertical tube suspended above the raised circular cement dance floor. Then, I spot a few Mossi women, one is my vegetable lady. They come up to me. Bon soir. The hand shake. Bonne fête. I reply. Then, the people just stand there. I am caught in this weird spot. Can I give candy to this middle aged woman who rips me off on vegetables? Adama and a few others, while she stands above me, waiting for her present, explain to me that now I have to give her something. She wants a Fanta. Here we go again! I am a volunteer, I live here like you, I don’t make a lot of money. Sorry, here’s some candy. She was actually satisfied with that. But you know, I tell people I’m a volunteer. They don’t care, to them I’m rich. Well, I am going back to the States. I am not rich over there.

Time goes along. I meet the guy who manages the water situation in Aribinda. He’s a real nice guy, we talk for a little above the blaring Ivoirienne music that’s knifing my eardrums. He’s so drunk he buys me a beer then he gets on his moto and he’s going home. Issouf’s brother comes up (forgive me, don’t know his name! Too many faces in village!). He bullshits me into buying him a Fanta too. Adama tells me to stop doing that. I tell him it’s for the brothers. I am stopping at that point.

Then, I am done, tired, I’ve had enough of this scene. Adama tells me I should buy beers for his two amigos sitting with us. Huh? No, I didn’t bring money for that. For me, you, and a few others. What is this system of giving cadeaux (gifts)? How did it start?

Well, I was happy when I got home and lie back on my cot. No more cadeau giving, no more bonne fête bullshit. Well, sure enough, more little girls show up around noon. I tell them to go away, the party was yesterday. It continues to happen. I continue to scold the children, telling them they’re crazy. Then I go into town to eat. Some people ask me if I am coming to the fête tonight. I tell them no. Ehh, attendez. La fête elle continue ce soir? Oui. La fête continue pour combien de jours? Ehh, 3 jours. I ask some other people. They give me 7 days. What is going on? I mean, that’s a gap there. Sure enough, close to the time I get home, I hear voices of women. Sounds like they are coming closer to the house. Bon soir at the gate. Then, bonne fête. OK, there are 4 of them. Give them 100 francs (about 20 cents) and be done with it. They accept and file out. I punch my lights out then start reading with my Freeplay lamp.

Next day, no more bonne fêtes. I am glad that was my last Ramadan in village. It is confusing and it just makes me feel bad. I mean, am I giving enough? I guess I just don’t know.

Now, I am going to extend this blog to a few other things that have happened that caught my attention. I recently ran into Edouard, a Burkinabé guy who lives in Aribinda who speaks English well. He studied it in school and used to be a translator for FESPACO, the international film festival that rotates between Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Tunis, Tunisia every year. In 2009, come February, I’ll be at one of the biggest parties in West Africa, let it be known. Back to Edouard. He works at the medical center. I asked him how work was, a very important question in Africa for the most part I believe. He told me it had been hard of late. He spoke of infant mortality, talked about how he knows it’s not their fault, but whenever a child dies, it still feels like it’s their fault. Man, ground zero as far as I’m concerned. Child mortality is a big thing here. I guess it never touches you until you witness it. It was a touching conversation. I tried to sympathize with him, telling him I can only imagine. I always am so careful, never saying ‘I know’ when I know that I don’t know. That’s the wrong thing to say. Sympathize and try to empathize, that’s my thing.
What a good guy, doing such a tough job in a marginalized place such as this. Kudos to that guy.

Another conversation stands out in my mind. Issouf, one of my neighbors came over the other day to just have a conversation with the local American representative. Namely, this guy. We talked about random this, cette chose-là, this other dealie and that. Then we got on the topic of there being no work in Burkina. The population here is truly jobless, I don’t know what the unemployment rate is, but probably on at least 80-85% of the peoples ID cards it says ‘cultivateur’ or ‘cultivatrice’. He told me that he was redoubling the 4th level. That means he didn’t pass his freshman year, so he has to do it again. But, he says after he gets past that year, he’s going into the military. He tells me it is possible to get into the military at that point and at a certain age if you can pass a certain test. I tell him to do it, it would be a good opportunity. Then he tells me he would like to be placed in the south, far from home. I ask why not Djibo, why not be close to home? He tells me that if it were like that, with everyone from home so close to him, it would be too easy for them to frequently ask him for money. If someone dies, if there’s a wedding, if there’s a baptism, the list goes on. My buddy Pete told me the same thing about one of his buddies, a teacher colleague. He was getting sent back to his birth region, back to where he knows a lot of people. He expressed the same hesitations and fears to Pete that Issouf convince me of. Burkinabé, yeah, if they’re broke… Yeah, they’ll ask you for money. It’s just that way. I don’t question it anymore. You would lean on your patron, hell, I would lean on mine if I had one. Any spare change? I need to get some rice with sauce man, I haven’t eaten in a day and a half. Yeah, I would definitely be begging too! Gotta eat some how…

Togo, Le Beau

Written 29 October

… which started at the border crossing. The Beninois border officials were ridiculous. Didn’t care for them. And before then, I was already feeling like we had been in that country for a little too long. Grand Popo wasn’t that cool. I mean, Busua Beach in Ghana was much better for the swimming, the seascape, and partying. But I was happy to get into Togo. And lucky for us, it was a short drive.

Coconut palms and papaya trees dominated the road along with the occasional pineapple grow. It was a nice ride along a beach that the great, late Ryszard Kapuscinski once called the longest fishing village in the world. He witnessed a coup in Benin back in the late 60s, if I remember correctly. We got into Benin and within 10 minutes witnessed a more capital development, more than anything I had seen in Burkina: heavy industry. A large campus devoted to cement manufacturing was positioned near the beach, a port very close by probably. If African countries are by the ocean, they have a much better time, I believe, as I witnessed with Togo and Benin vis-à-vis Burkina. If you have a coast, you have a medium by which to more easily take things on/move things to or from the exterior.

We got through that industrial park-by-the-sea and we were in Lomé, a bustling little city of less than a million right on a wide expanse of yellow, flat sand. The wide beach-side avenue was a crumbling disaster of a “road,” if you could call it that. There were hovels all along side it, the denizens living in an utterly bereft fashion. As the main beach road continued, there was a nice hotel tower and then the presidential palace. That’s Africa, hovels situated right next to the commercial eyesores and palatial estates. There were trash cans, something Burkina lacks in great numbers and many anti-HIV/AIDS advertisements, something good to see. It was a charming town, at least I thought. We took a stroll and had a street sandwich after dropping our gear in the Copacabana hotel. After the sandwich, we walked through the marché. Man, what a sight. It was crazy, a true frenzy of African market activity. Dried fish stalls right next to the pagne vendors, fake nikes and papayas and cabbages all rammed up close to one another. The buildings were tall, stacked up next to eachother, some in disrepair, others not completed, just spires of looped rebar jutting 10 feet into the sky. People hollering, cars honking, it was frenetic. It reminded me of the marché a little in Accra. I really liked it. All those pagnes, which are the bolts of cloth that you see Africans haggling so much. Lomé was cool.

After one night, we had to make a run for it. Our time was running out. We got a reasonable cab ride to Kpalimé (say paul-ee-may). It came highly recommended from Radhika, another PCV who recently COSed. Well, she was right. Even the ride was incredible. Mango, papayas, palms. Then, these trees that resembled Ceiba, the huge Mayan trees standing in Southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and elsewhere in Central America. The mountains looming up. The thought of waterfalls, just the thought of water after being in the Sahel is magical. It was my favorite town of the trip. Wish I could’ve stayed for 4 nights instead of the two we had. Got street cheese that was great, the food was extra spicy (yea!), found Castle Milk Stouts the night before our departure. The people were nice, a lot of the Yovo thing going around (white person in Fon). David and I were stopped by some muslim brothers who didn’t want me taking a picture of their mosque… unless I gave them some baksheesh. I declined and we moved away, laughing with the Africans as we went. Mount Agou hung in the distance, a flat-topped peak in the distance, mingling with the gray-black swept sky in the foreground. Behind us the church loomed, the sky also looking uninviting.

The next day, we tripped to Kpimé Falls. After fighting with the “guides,” we finally got into the area for a decreased price. Thanks to Zach again for being willing to go at it with the guides. The trip was cool, up at first through tree cut zones to a higher plateau, where we came to a damned pool. Kpimé Falls itself was a damn with a valve-controlled culvert. Bust! I mean, it’s not even a vrai cascade, as I would say in French. The journey continued down a rich green trail, riddled with coffee bean, Ceiba trees, and the typical wicked black ants. Wild bananas and papaya trees everywhere. We came to a natural 50 foot cascade where we lingered, David and I trying to get pictures of the ridiculous butterflies while the others took a dip in the scummy looking pool. Then we hiked back out. Not nearly as cool as Wli Falls people, a vrai waterfall, the highest in West Africa, on the Togo frontier in Ghana. Go there instead.

We went back to Kpalimé and did a tour of some of the art places (good ones there) with a few purchases being made. We then got really good Togolais street food one last time. As we were sitting there eating admist the blasting music and general chaos of the candle lit street, we watched a little kid, about 4, pull up his one-ply thick cardboard pad, his improvised bed. He curled up on that and his mom lay on him a small blanket. That reminded me of Africa, the odd juxtaposition, the melange right there where it just doesn’t seem to work, but they make it work. Resilience, resourcefulness, that’s what Africa is.

We nearly got out of Togo the next day, making our way to Daopaong, a town 30 km from the Burkinabe border, after about 13 hours of transport. Yeah, it was kinda ugly. There were some good waterfalls gushing from the ridges along side the road. And I guess I got to share the back seat with my in-country wife, so that was fun! Togo, I wish I had more time for you.

Now, to the whole question: Are Peace Corps volunteers, when travelling in their region, ever really on vacation? I think, yes and no. First off, we bitch about prices unlike real tourists. We earn a pittance. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a generous sum that Africans would covet. But not enough to do the real tourist thing. We also know the whole dependency bit and see it too much. There is to some extent a reliance on volunteer work here. Look at the footprint of NGOs busting ass. When you see so much of it, it becomes tiring. That’s another factor. But then again, we are traveling and seeing different cultures, hearing different languages. Guess we just have to suck it up and deal with it. Plus, it’s cool that I get to do this. Travelling as a PCV with other PCVs is fun, especially when you meet PCVs from other countries, even in their site, like Grand Popo. We met the a girl, Elizabeth, who had just been sent their for only one week. What a place, what an experience. I am just blessed to be traveling francophone West Africa at all… but it’s super cool to trip on the US government’s dime!

Bienvenue a Benin

Written 29 October

I want to start this blog off with a prefatory note. I have always intended this to be a travel blog as well as a Peace Corps experience. I figure, we work hard, we gotta play hard too, right? But, I have to ask a question: Are Peace Corps volunteers, when in their region, ever really on vacation? I will try to answer that at the end of my next blog, le blog qui concerne le Togo.

So, West African travel is bad. Let’s just leave it at that. We get on a bus around 7 o’clock, all of us with questionable seats, I don’t think we could consider a single one comfortable. Well, the 7 of us, before we know it, are on the side of the road, about 10 minutes out of Ouaga. Our bus had already broken down. We waited roughly 4 hours for a new bus to show up at which point we go back on and started the long haul to Cotonou, Benin, what I have heard is a 24 hour trip. We don’t stop till we get to the border, I’m guessing a trip south from Fada-N’Gourma 3 hours. We finally cross the Pendjari River, the border area where there is a nice national park. Benin becomes greener and greener. Then, we break down again for another hour and a half roughly. We get back on the bus and travel another few hours, at night now, to Natintingou. We stop and eat. Wow, they have cheese (street cheese, at that) in Benin! “I’m gonna love it here,” I said to myself. Then, we get back on the bus. We finally come to a rest in Penessoulou, Benin. It is about 11 pm. The driver says we are going to sleep here. Oh, jeez, all my luggage is racked on the top of this thing. What am I going to do? It’s cold as heck out here!

After trying to sleep in the sand, getting eaten by mosquitoes in the process, I decide to try the concrete under the bus. You ask why I didn’t stay in the bus? Ever sat in the back seat of a bus with 4 other people when the seat was made for 4 people for, eh, roughly 10 hours? Yeah, it was like that. Well, the pavement was warmer. But, a strange noise was beckoning from the north along the road. “ Is that the muezzin? I know it is the month of Ramadan right now, I guess it wouldn’t surprise me,” I said. Sure enough, the muezzin was belting out the call to prayer with a bullhorn… at 2:00 in the morning! Where am I? Shortly after that, the driver had had enough. We got on the bus and took back off. Slowly, sunlight graced us with her presence, sending glowing yellows over the wonderful hills and low rock escarpments that make up Northen Benin. So many papaya and mango trees. Nimes all around, palms shooting up with ever increasing frequency, pineapple and banana grows all along the road. A lack of donkeys also. Where were the black sachets that Burkina is famous for? Did I mention electricity in the upper reaches of the country, at least along the main thoroughfare. We finally get to about halfway down in the country at my estimate. It must be around 5 am. The road gets bad, really bad. We get into Abomey-Calavi, the road is a shambles. No bicycles, tons of motos, lots of people wearing complets. A great number of the motorcycle drivers are wearing yellow or orange shirts. A frenzy of people outside the university, students gathering at the admin buidling, looks like they are about to start classes.

We finally get into Cotonou. The place is crazy. I see no bikes, just organized chaos, a plethora of taxis and motos jockeying for position, the colorful complets abound. The air has a stale, smoggy garbage strewn weight to it. We get to the gare. It’s about 1 pm, meaning the trip took 30 hours. We find a hotel and crash. I come to find, right away, that the Beninois are a very helping, very friendly people. We all want to get out of Cotonou. So the next day, we head to Ganvié, the stilt village on Lake Nokoué. On the way there, we learn about the zemi-johns, the moto-taxis that are everywhere. That explains the yellow and orange jerseys these guys wear. The smog again overwhelms us. We wonder why there aren’t more bikes. Well, who would want to ride a bike where you were sure to get killed by a moto or taxi?! We went through an intersection where I didn’t see any kind of traffic control, just drivers eyeballing one another, wondering if they should take the plunge. We get out to the landing and hop a pirogue (a dug out canoe made for about 11 people). We take a tour of the village, everything on stilts. It was very neat. Our guide tells us that part of the reason the people built their village out here was to avoid the Dahomeyan Empire, the slave trading, war mongering regime that kept a capital in Abomey, just north of Ganvie about 40 miles. They couldn’t capture those sharp oarsmen and women out in their environment. And you should’ve seen it, the little 4 year olds in their 4 person dugout, in the rudder, wheeling those things around like it was nothing. Really fun to watch. However…

…the place was a tourist trap. You couldn’t take a picture of anyone unless you paid. So, we were careful, taking building shots, shots of ourselves, etc. When we did venture to take a picture, we made sure there was no one watching or their backs were turned. A few people got some cool pictures of a market on the water, consisting of canoes only, people peddling their tomatoes, okra, and onions from the water, like little produce islands bobbing up and down in the questionable looking water. The lodge was also a joke. While relaxing on the deck of the stilt hotel, people of all age would come up to us. Cadeau, cadeau, argent, argent. It was sickening. The people were so used to tourists and so dependent. I hated that part. Another thing was funny. When we found out how much it cost for rice or cous cous with sauce, we almost soiled ourselves. 3500 francs! What, it costs 5000 francs for a room! Hey, in village I get riz sauce for 200 francs! I ain’t payin’ that! So, we searched all around for food. We bought bread at the water market and got some other food (with a good and spicy sauce!) for 1000 francs and shared it. A few Africans were amazed that we were eating with our hands, slopping the sauce on our shirts, being well integrated. Well, we sure as hell were not paying 3500 francs for a meal we get in village for 200 francs! This is where the whole ‘Are you really ever on vacation when you are a Peace Corps volunteer?’ question comes from. The woman who made the food was pissed we never ordered anything. Her evil eyed looks told us to stay away.

So, after a single night on the lake in that tourist trap, we left and headed out for the old capital of the Dahomey Empire, Abomey. There, we expected to find cool palace ruins, like the West Africa Lonely Planet advertised. Abomey is a UNESCO World Heritage site after all. Well, it was a disappointment. That being said, just the ruins were a disappointment. I found the Beninois in Abomey to be extremely pleasant and helpful. That’s also where I learned a new “White Person” song:

Yovo, Yovo, Bon Soir
Ça Va Bien, Merci

All the little kids are saying it. I like it more than the

Le Blanc/Toubakou/Nasara
Il n’y a pas de cadeau?

that all whites get in Dori, a shit hole of a town in Northeastern Burkina. But yeah, we hit up a museum that was neat, got to see the throne that sits on human skulls, learned about how the Dahomey kings would parley with the Germans, Dutch, and Portuguese. They mainly sold slaves to the Portuguese, but slaves ended up from Hispaniola to Brazil, the so-called sugar colonies. Those Dahomeyans, they were somewhat of a blood thirsty bunch. They employed powerful Amazons, you know, the women warrior badasses, built short stunted walls with humain remains, the kings siring hundreds of children with thousands of women, purportedly. Yeah, everybody who buried a king had to die too, only like three people in the whole empire knew the location of royal graves. Glad I wasn’t an indigenous anywhere near where they were pillaging villages for slaves!

After two nights in Abomey (which also had a great marché), we cut for Grand Popo, a small beachside village lying about 40 km from the Togolais border. Beautiful, nestled close to a river with a steep beach, on the Bight of Benin, Slave Coast, Grand Popo was a cool spot. Nice people, beautiful palms, cool, small marché on the river. We stayed at a place called The Lion Bar, a reggae inspired hotel nestled amongst the coconut palms. Paintings of a lion, Haile Selassie, Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh dominated the, of course, green, gold, and red façade of the buidling. They had some reggea phrases translated into French that didn’t really flow from the English that well. But we all know we lose something in the translation, either way we go. The food was good, the people were nice, the drinks were good. They made a drink called a Coco Zion. First, they had to climb a palm and cut a fresh coconut then cram a ton of rum into it with some pineapple juice before they gave it to you with extra coconut milk on the side. Yeah, it was good. But a little short of paradise. The break wasn’t as kind as Ghana. I didn’t want to take a full out swim in the water, it was just too mean. I am not gonna fight a riptide like that for anybody. Second, the beach was so steep. Not much frisbee throwing went on. Then, David and I got hit so hard by bed bugs, my God. I must’ve gotten bit about 100 times on both my ankles/feet! It was terrible.

While we were there, we went to Ouidah, which is called the present day capital of voodoo. We didn’t see much voodoo stuff though. Traveling on a Peace Corps wage is difficult to say the least. We checked out the old Portuguese slave fort that had been converted into a museum, then did the Path of the Slaves. This is the historic route where the slaves took their walk from the fort to the beach along a sandy path. Statues commemorated the journey along the way, with everything from a few Amazon statues to a serpent eating it’s tail to symbolize the continuity of the Dahomey Empire. We got to the beach where a large ceremonial gate had been erected. The Point of No Return the portal is called. It has a relief of slaves in chains, being pulled out onto lighters that take them to the moored slavers (the big ships) that would take them on the long haul to the Americas. An eerie strip of beach, wicked, black and grey clouds floating in the back, gesturing to me a little, “Be ever thankful this wasn’t you.”

After Ouidah, we spent two more days in Grand Popo, then we hit up Togo. I did like Benin, but it was too touristy. That goes with experience and pricing. The voodoo stuff was so prohibitively priced. My brother’s a pilot. I wanted to buy him a fetish for good luck. You never know when it might come in handy. Well, when they cost a little over a hundred dollars for a small trinket, you have to decline. Ouidah was definitely cool, Abomey was a cool town too. The ruins were a disappointment, but hey, not all ruins are like Chichen Itza and Tikal (big up Guatemala and Mexico!). The food, good and spicy, with good cheese, a great change to the boringness of Burkinabé food. But the people: great. The Beninois are pleasant and helpful, just like most West Africans. But hey, still got to deal with the people from Togo, the next episode…

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Volunteer for a Year... A Hard Year




This blog was written 23 August and completed 30 August

On the eve of having been a volunteer for a year, I guess I don’t have many things to say on the subject. I guess I am just happy that I have been able to do this, to survive. I have not thrived. Rather, I have struggled. I thought so many things before I came. I remember talking to people in the States, telling them how I didn’t want to have expectations. Having no starting point, that’s how I wanted it. I had no idea what sub-Saharan Africa was, it was just some spot on the map that represented a hell of an adventure, possible tribulations.

Having been here, I have learned so much about myself. My connection with my “Americaness.” My love of information. How much I miss my family, my friends, how much I rely on them. How much I miss my culture. I have been, for a majority of my service, the most northern volunteer in Burkina Faso. Also, the teacher with the least amount of hours in a village with a dearth of resources. Of course, being the most northern volunteer is nothing compared to the junk that volunteers in Niger and parts of Mali go through. But, being in the Sahel and having 5 hours of class a week has tested my resolve. Because I had so few hours, I found myself in a deep depression in January and February. Nothing to do, I recoiled from the community, didn’t practice my French as much as I would have liked. I would call it a success now though. I could have bagged it, just said fuck it. Well, here I am.

And I am staying. After living here and doing my thing for the first episode, I gotta see what happens during the second episode. What’s the end gonna be like? How will my work expand during the second half of my service? I feel like I don’t want to let my community down. Andrea and Malcolm did it for two years, I sure as hell can. Andrea had it that much harder too. No cell phone, transport was harder. Come on, I got it relatively easy.

Well, I have 11 months left. And yes, I am counting. I am split, torn between two different worlds. Here, in Burkina, serving and trying to make a difference. Needless to say, struggling for a pampered American. Over there, in Oregon, finally appreciating the rain, cooking for my mom and dad, taking the dog out on the river or up the mountain with my brother and sister. Going out with my friends, laughing it up, seeing what people are up to. Well, we never grow by taking the easy route do we? Yeah, I like to refer to myself as du Hard Corps, like the stage that showed me how to roll. Plus, I’ve already been here for close to 15 months, what’s another 11 months? Gonna go by fast I’m told.

And the new stage just swore in last night. Reminded me of how I was. Nervous to go to site. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, how hard that first month was gonna be. Well, I am staying to teach, plant trees, and serve people who have accepted me into their community and gave me another reason to live and show my love.

Going to Benin and Togo next week. I’ll have more soon, hopefully on the topic of voodoo, ooh!

Wish me luck, I’m gonna need it! Much love!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Of COS Parties

This blog was written 16 August.

So, I am writing this with a body that is broken down into a series of pain zones. My head is swirling right now actually after getting 4 hours of sleep. Clay and I got back to the transit house around 3:30 last night, then we gorged ourselves on the wonderful guacamole Patrice made. Then, I passed out.

Needless to say, I am hung over. On Flag, that is. I like it more than Brakina, or SO. B. Bra, the typical three beers they serve in Burkina. Ooh, the monitor is fluttering, eek. I planned the COS party (Close of Service) with Babette. We typically have these parties to send the COSing group out of country. It is a celebration of their service. I am going to miss Leslie, Aaron, Jeremy, Ben, Josh, and all the others. I have really bonded well with the group that came in-country about 9 months ahead of us, they are really cool.

We started the party at the transit house then after 3 hours moved it to a club close to centreville Ouagadougou called Le Pandora. It's a cool spot. Thanks to the Peace Corps, who gave us a vehicle and one of the coolest drivers Idrissa, getting to the club was cool. A big shout goes out to administration for being so cooperative with the COS party planning. They showed a lot of support and offered some good critique.

Overall, the party was good. Some people got way too drunk way too quickly, as is usually the case. I won't name names. The house party went well, then we got to the club, and about 3 people left right there. Two were sick, one from being too drunk, and the third was just too drunk to really function. Caleb, we love you, you are hilarious! Everybody was having a good time. There were some Americans there, as well as French. It was disappointing to see some people were taking from our 60 L of beer we had bought. One cat, a Brit as it turns out, was taking beer as he pleased. I didn't like the looks of him, but Clay and him struck it up and it turns out I probably would have gotten along with the guy real well. Clay started talking to him about Oregon. The guy said he lived in Corvallis and went to OSU for 9 months. He hated Corvallis. Yeah, it's not the greatest place, but it isn't that bad. He asked Clay if I hadn't given up my pocket knife yet. They were talking about the kind of professional class in Oregon that loves to get out into the wild, run trails, check the river, hike the mountain. He thought it was ridiculous. Funny to see some Brit in flat Burkina talking about a place I lived as he drinks beer provided him by the US Government and some of it's best workers. That's a blatant shout out to all volunteers.

Outside of somebody peeing underneath an A/C unit near an electrical hub, the night at the club went well. The DJ was a fuck, not letting me speak on the microphone to announce the King and Queen of the COS stage for our Homecoming themed party. Clay and I also had a near altercation with a Ghanaian taxi driver, but we cut on him and took Omar's cab. But, the dancing was fun and the food wasn't bad. I did have some fun, maybe too much at times, as I was one of the people in charge of making sure nothing bad went wrong. But hey, we did it up and didn't break or ruin anything, so I would say we did quite well.

OK, happy trails. More to come soon. Headed back up to Ouahigouya for week 10 of stage. The new kids are coming around. Funny I was like that once! Much love!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

They Come and They Go: Changing of the Guard

This blog was written 1 August.

Once again, I am back with a few more stories that I find funny that highlight some of the differences between Burkinabe and Americans. The first story is my most recent arrival back in Aribinda. I came in off of Abga’s taxi-brousse, can’t remember the day. Of course, I was greeted in the standard way. It’s like a party when I come back to site, the people always welcome me warmly. Let’s me know they still enjoy my presence. One of my biggest fans, Harouna, an oft-drunk local, always loves to help me with my bags coming or going. This time, he was on the receiving end of my Outrider 75. I was coming from Ouaga, so I had a few goodies to deposit at the house. My bag was especially heavy. As he unloaded the bag, I said:

“Heavy huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, got a dead body in there.”

He looked at me like I was a nut job. Nothing funny about that apparently. It was funny to see the way he measured me, his eyes squinted for a second, mouth drooped a little. Then, after a few awkward moments of silence, I told him it was an American joke. He looked at me in a bizarre way and gave me a nod, his mouth still drooping a little.

The second happening occurred a few days ago in Djibo. I had had enough of site and was due to come to Ouaga in a few days, so I hopped Abga’s car and headed west. In village, I had been stressed out over a tree planting project that I had started and was evolving ever so slowly. During the rainy season, there isn’t a lot to do in village. All most the whole populace is en brousse, in the fields, planting millet that will feed them for a whole year. So, there isn’t anybody to really talk to or hang out with. Plus, a lack of classes really gives me time to concentrate on book study of my French, read, figure some crosswords or do sudoku. Not much else. Being so stressed, I also think I made myself sick. I won’t go into details ;-).

When I got into Djibo, I went to the DPEBA hotel and asked for a room. I sat down with two Burkinabe gentleman who were in the office as I waited for Ahmed, the kid who runs the hotel. We exchanged the normal pleasantries. How’s the family, how’s work, did you sleep well? I told them I was sick. They asked in what way. Quickly, the conversation turned to diarrhea. We talked about preparing food yourself and also going from a more village setting or small town to Ouaga. That seems to change your poop. I know, lots of poop talk, but hey, that’s what I deal with here. Not only do I still have poop talks with all of my fellow volunteers, but guess what: I can have ‘em with Burkinabe too! That makes my day a little brighter!

Le sujet à discuter would be the change of the guard that is taking place in the ranks of Burkina Faso Peace Corps Volunteers. This simply means one group is leaving and another is coming in. I have worked one week with the new kids. I like them, yet some of their behavior has been a little suspect. For one, they have a newsletter. Huh? During stage, you are around each other so much, who the fuck needs a newsletter?! Quite ridiculous and a waste of paper people. Secondly, during a med session on drugs and alcohol, our wonderful PCMO, Cameroon’s finest doctor, Jean-Luc Eyango was giving out bags of chocolates for correct answers. He gave, I believe, three bags away. I wanted some of it. I wanted to holler out to Jean-Luc, gimme that bag, I’ll open it. These kids, I mean, just got here. Yeah, stage is stressful, but gimme some frickin’ chocolate. Well, the three or so kids who got a bag of Snickers or whatever just opened their knapsacks and dropped the bag in. I was disappointed, that’s for sure. I didn’t find that too weird until later, when Kevin mentioned that during his stage, if somebody got a bag of chocolates, they opened them up and shared them right there. So, yeah, that behavior is bizarre. I do remember my group sharing. Who could eat the whole bag, right? Plus, we were all stressed out.

Changing of the guard, the passing of the torch. That’s what I am going to call it. Arriving in-country last year, I remember how I looked up to the volunteers when I was just a trainee. I was impressed that a group of individuals could do what they have done for a year. For a pampered American, such as myself, this is a difficult place to live. You can ask my mom and dad, they saw me doing it. I remember telling Joel I just wanted to be a volunteer, I wanted those initials PCV, not PCT, as in trainee. He reminded me of that just the other day, the day I said good-bye to my Coloradan brother. Miss you man, drink a Trippel for me, cool?

But they did something and continue to do something as they leave the country. They are passing the torch onto us, to show another group of newbies how to walk and talk in this so-called strange place. It’s only strange when you first arrive. And that’s when you are most impressed with the people who have spent 9 months, 1 year, almost 2 years here. Then, that kind of wears off. You become a veteran, a Hard Corps member yourself. Especially if you live where I live. I am a Sahelian volunteer, I put up with more than your typical volunteer, in Burkina at least. I have no problem telling you that I am tougher than most of the volunteers here.

So, as Joel, Jill, Markus, Brooks, Jenny and all of my other friends leave, I know they are happy to be going home. And, they are also happy that the group of trainees that we once were are now good volunteers, capable of bearing the role of model volunteer. That first year flew by. They tell me to watch out, the second year will go by even quicker. A big shout goes out to my RPCV peoples, you know who you are. You were bold and succeeded. Much love, big up!

But, on the flip side of that, I am here for two years. As I rode the STAF bus from Djibo to Ouaga yesterday, I reflected on my first year. Difficulties, successes, the future, blah blah blah. Then, I saw this beautiful little African baby, sans britches, messing around by the water pump. Cute, I said to myself. Then I thought, this is it. This is all that little kid is probably ever going to see. I was thankful. For me to sit here and think that I am tough, hah, that’s a laugh. Look at these people, struggling. As the bus went by, the people in the field, bent over their hoes, would straighten up, stare at the bus as it rambled by. I almost felt like time and modernity, some comfort, were passing them by without giving any thought. I am blessed to see and be able to do so much. Be thankful people.

Shout goes out to my family on this day before my birthday. I love you and miss you so much. Keep the river clean and drink a Pabst, a TG IPA, a Pine Marten Pale, and a Brutal Bitter for me. Next time you’re up by the Saw Tooth Ridge, tell Thielsen I’ll be back soon to dominate it. I miss those mountains and rivers. Big up my beautiful Oregon. I better stay like Zane Grey though. Don’t talk about it too much, people may get curious and start going there!

Friday, July 4, 2008

'weather' to sleep in it or not



This blog was written 4 July. Happy Independence Day people, someone, please drink a Terminal Gravity IPA for me, cool?!

This is simply a bitching-blog. I want to tell people of the hardship, the frustration I encounter with living where I do. Namely, the Sahel of Africa, that sparsely wooded, semi-desert strip of land that exists right below the Sahara. Many volunteers, including myself, often refer to it as the Sa-HELL, it is so damn hot! I like to equate it, some times, to living in an oven or kiln. Sometimes it is that unbearable.

The other night, I tried to sleep inside. Well, it hadn’t rained for two days, so the sun just beat down on the house that day. Plus, my being somewhat not with it from time to time, my cot is near a wall, which soaks up, and conversely, bleeds heat rather well. I need to simply move my cot away from the wall, but sometimes that doesn’t work.

I finally got up at 12:30. I went to bed at 10 that night. So, I tossed for over 2 hours. I finally got up and dragged the cot outside. There were bats screeching and flying overhead, other little creeping noises I don’t like disturbing me. Dreaded scorpion carriers, big spiders, crawling up on the cot with me, that nightmare stuck in my head. There are so many things that could stress me out while I try to sleep. Warm winds, ever present heat seeping from the ground and nearby walls, packs of dogs fighting, squealing, barking, donkeys hee-hawing, sheep and goats braying, cows grunting, cats crying and fighting in my courtyard. The only thing that could soothe me is the black blanket covered with stars that covers the hot earth. I finally pass out.

Eh, what’s that? Oh man, the wind has picked up. Ahhh, it’s alternately warm and cool, sand whipping through it. OK, dust storm, get your ass inside now. I get in the house and place my cot, look at the clock. Oh, 2:40 am. Maybe I got 2 hours of peace. The dust storm whips and howls outside, a few spatters of rain smack the tin roof. Will I get any peace tonight? Probably not. My eyes, dead and so red, I drearily get up for a snack of a few dried apricots. More rain. OK, good luck getting to sleep tonight. It is significantly cooler now, so maybe. The rain picks up, beating the roof. Sleeping in this din will be next to impossible. Somehow, I fall asleep. Then, I wake up at 5:30, donkeys and cows doing their thing. Man, sleeping has never been such a challenge.

With the rainy season here, the storms can be incredible. I got in the shower the other day. From there, I can see one of the granite hills. It was partly cloudy, a few sunbreaks to the west and north. I then looked to the southeast. Oh, wow, look at that wall of dust. Usually, before the rain storm hits, there is a dust storm. They can differ greatly in intensity. Just by looking at this one, it looks bad. I start to bathe, dumping cups of water over myself. Oh, I don’t have but three minutes, that thing is screaming towards me, the pre-blast cool winds picking up already. I finish quickly, the great wall of brown and menacing black clouds gathering on the eastern horizon. I run inside, grab my camera, snap a few pictures. With sand shooting into my nose and mouth, time to retire. I shutter the windows, but unfortunately, in village, no windows are sealable, you can just limit the draft. The light goes from yellow, to reddish-orange, to brown. My headlamp’s glare shows the diffuse dust flooding my house. It is so dark, brown and deep red lights coming from the mostly-shut windows. I sit there for 15 minutes, seeing the reds, browns, yellows, and oranges coming from outside. Then, a little rain, more rain, and an intense pounding of my roof. Coolness and that smell of rain, I love it. It’s misty outside, some blacks and deep grays in the clouds. Lightning rips to the north over the biggest hill, which I am just south of. Another wicked fork of lightning to the northeast, the converging rumbles of the electrostatic blasts ring in my ears. The sheep and goats huddled up close to a wall, profiting from the warmth of the wall and their collective body heat. Another wicked flash… THUNDER! I love electrical storms and this region must have some of the best in the world!

Contending with the mud and wet sand afterward is somewhat of a pain. However, it’s nice and cool, I can deal with this. Oh, man, I forgot about the bugs and their reappearance! Man, I better just grin and bear it. Nobody wants to hear my whine about it.

name calling

This blog was written 4 July.

I am so sick of getting “treated poorly” on transport. I better toughen up, thicken my skin a little, because I got another year of it. I remember thinking I wanted to know what it felt like. I know it now, without the racism. And I am thankful for that. Now after being pointed out, obviously, for the difference of my skin color, it just aggravates me. On having to take transport in this country, my comportment changes from amiable to pissed-off. I don’t want to talk to anyone, be involved with the Burkinabe at all. They all seem to piss me off when I am on transport. That’s just me not being zen, because so many of the Burkinabe on transport are very nice.

I was recently going back to Aribinda and we stopped in Gorgadji, a village about 45 km east of my site. I was getting out of the taxi brousse and a Burkinabe simply just says le blanc. He didn’t even address me, he just said it. He didn’t ask a question, nothing. I almost grabbed him by his shoulder and turned him around just to ask him why he did that. A cooler head prevailed. I walked away and just thought to myself what a stupid asshole he was. Why not just say monsieur? Instead, my color exposes me to this. It is just cultural, yet I still have a huge problem with it. I’m a celebrity, mostly for the tinge of my skin and my being an American. People in Dori do it to, to an excessive extent. They just don’t know it pisses us off, it’s just they way they do it and look at it.

When we arrived in Aribinda, that same guy got to see how the villagers in Aribinda embrace me. Monsieur Mac, c’est comment? I looked at him, and he was looking at us, a blank stare on his face. I am more a part of the community then just white. There is more to me than just being this pale, pasty guy. I also remember getting off the bus in Ghana on that nightmare of a ride from Ouaga, the first thing a Ghanaian calling to me was Hey, White! I started laughing so hard, I mean, what the hell is that? The Ghanaian started busting up too. It was just otherworldly. I mean, this is the culture. Just gotta breathe and practice that meditation the Dalai Lama taught me.

Finally, I have never experienced in-your-face racism here. I hope I never do and I can’t really imagine what it would feel like. I read Black Like Me and man, was it good. I can’t remember who wrote it, but wow. His perspective of being a white man from Texas and knowing many blacks who were involved in the civil rights movement gave him a great vantage point from which to write. I remember him speaking about the ugliness of it, how it made you feel subhuman, a kind of stain or filth. People were, better yet, are, made to feel inhuman, less than a person. An ugliness incomprehensible to me. I think that is a book all should have to read. Plus, it’s short and a page turner.

Let’s have some compassion people. Embrace and love diversity, it will set you free.

nasty, yet a little funny, business

This blog was written 4 July.

So I am going to give you a tale of utter frivolity. It is something that a lot, but not all, volunteers go through in Burkina Faso. I am not going to name most of the people who are guilty of the same ridiculousness. This so-called ridiculousness doesn’t involve any malfeasance, non whatsoever in fact. No, it involves people, in particular places at just the right time under certain physically stressors. You’ll get the gist of the subject fairly quickly, I am sure.

So, as most of you know, the food in Burkina Faso is so much different than the food here. When we first arrived over a year ago, many of us had difficulties with the food dealing with texture, how much oil and salt was in it, the lack of vegetables or the ever-present mystery meat that was floating in it, plus we were getting a different E. coli. The list goes on. Lots of us, most of us I can attest, had one if not many problems with our alimentary canals. I think you’re catching on. The latest saga just has me as the main character! ;-)

I tripped to a friend’s site to check it out. We are out of school, so I wanted to see where Clay lived. We spent a few days just hanging out, not doing much. Another volunteer came down to hang out with us. We’re having a good time, going on ville, relaxing, reading a lot. We go into town one day and eat some rice with peanut sauce. This plate as I remember was pretty sub-standard. I didn’t enjoy the street food at Clay’s site. We then toured the marché and grabbed a few things. We were walking along the road to grab something at a boutique when I started to feel the rumblings. I asked Clay and the other person if they had any lotus tissues, they said no. Then, they asked me the inevitable question: How you doing? I replied, Ca va venir! It’s going to come!

Clay suggested we take the quick, 5 minute shortcut back to his house. At this point I figured I could hold it. But, you never know. Given the situation, in this country, a volunteer never knows what to expect. Transport is especially daunting if you don’t know the condition of your ass, speaking figuratively. As we walked, I recalled a story that the other volunteer who was with us is famous for telling. She had a very hilarious thing happen to her during stage in her host family’s house. But, hey, that’s a different story. But, you now know everyone is susceptible.

As we neared the house, my situation went from an overheating code to near meltdown. We were roughly 80 yards from the house when Clay pointed it out to me through the trees. I started a rough jog, not going too fast because I was afraid of egging the turtlehead on. I became even more stressed about 30 feet from the latrine when I felt it coming. I couldn’t contain it anymore, it was on me! Clay’s neighbors new something was amiss because I was not greeting them. Instead, I was flustered, running/limping for the latrine. I get up to the latrine path and there were two goats lying right there in the shade. I stop and scream GET OUT!, the goats sprint out of the way, and I run into the latrine, knowing that I had missed the target by 30 feet! The damage was done! Shortly after, Clay and the other arrived. A few painfully humiliating moments later, I asked Clay to come here. He asked if I needed a new pair of boxers. I said yes, and could you bring me a half-drawn bucket of water? Thanks man, I need to bathe!

Yeah, the other volunteer’s story about pooping in a bag in her room due to someone occupying the bathroom in her house because she couldn’t hold it. Diarrhea just exacerbates the situation. Another volunteer crapped his pants while teaching. A volunteer shitting herself on transport, probably about 30 minutes from Ouaga. One of my buddies shitting the bed while his wife and he were asleep in it and the further madness of that story! Stories of people puking and shitting their pants at the same time. This place will make you lose it, I mean it, yes! One story another married couple told me about. He shit his pants in village, so she asked him WTF?!, you a baby or what? Then, two days later, she soils herself! Oh, man, that shit stinks! I am a 30 year old man, and I just recently pooped my pants. Wow. And, oh yeah, chickens shit on my bike last night. I’m always getting my nose rubbed in it here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Travel and Buying Things For People... I'm Not Gonna Buy You That!

This blog was written the 8 June.

This blog includes a bunch of randomness. Un mélange, if you will. I guess most of my blogs have been like that, but I think that is the best way to do it. So many things going on.

Travel difficulties, written 10 June. I have them a lot being where I am situated. I’ll give you the latest example. Yesterday, I got up at 5 am to go catch the 6 o’clock outta Dori to Ouaga. Everything was cool, and around 7:45, we are pulling into Tougori, where there is a barrage (a big man-made lake. They are fitted with what we call reverse bridges, or downward sloping plateaus. When the barrage is full, water runs over these reverse bridges in mass quantity, and quickly. To put it lightly, it can be very dangerous. Many vehicles tip over or shoot off the side of the road because they can’t see the edge due to the water. I would like to know what geniuses decided this was the best course of action!) Well, sure enough, there was a camion that had tipped it’s front left end over the edge, causing a back up.

We were forced to get off the bus and walk over to the other side on the almost finished bridge. Can’t wait until that thing is done, let me tell you! I didn’t grab my stuff (wish I had) because I thought after a while they would get the camion unloaded and outta there. Well, I waited on the other side of the barrage for a while, then another STAF bus shows up, and everybody gets on it. I was so far away from the barrage hanging out I didn’t see people had started ferrying their stuff to the other side to wait for the car. So, I was a little late for the first vehicle and ended up missing it. Then, I sat down in Tougori and got a beer and started tearing through Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt rocks. I’m sitting there, around 10:40, and another, empty!, STAF bus goes by. I load my gear, try to bike to the gare. It looked like I was gonna make it, then it pulled away. I am sure the Burkinabe got a kick out of seeing a screaming nassara on a bike, struggling to catch up to this bus. “Attend, attend,” j’ai crié. I was pissed when I missed that bus. Ended up paying 3000 francs CFA to get another bus. Frustrating, but I gotta keep that zen outlook, just go with the flow, not be in a hurry. A great lesson I learned too: if your bus stops to avoid something, grab all your gear and talk to the crew running the rig. Still, I hate transport in this country!

So, the school year is over. I finished up around the 20th of May. According to me and many other volunteers, the school year is too short. We started around the 10th of October and then we finish close to the end of May. C’est quoi, ça? Late November through February constitutes the cold season. Late March through May is the hot season. Finally, the rainy season runs from the middle of June to the middle of September. So, there is the answer to the question. The reason the school year is so short is because the people must get out en brousse to start preparing in late May/early June when the first rains delight the dry-as-a-bone earth. The people then plant their millet that will hopefully last them the whole year. This is a population that relies almost solely on subsistence farming. Some estimates put the employed work force of Burkina Faso around 15% of the population. Please, close your eyes. Imagine a place that is so dry, water is such a commodity, the ground not good soil but coarse sand (in some places like the Sahel, where I live). So, 15 out of a hundred are working, the rest doing what they can to survive. The statistics are probably a little skewed. Some people do handy work, some construction, things like that and get paid for it. Remember too that there still aren’t many banks in developing countries/economies such as here. People save their money in the forms of cows, sheep, and goats. Yeah, if there is a drought, where animals die and the crops don’t turn into enough to feed the family, there is a huge problem. These people are tough. They exemplify so many things I think are missing in Americans. But, given our relatively rich state, that’s why it is like that. As I have said before, be thankful for what you have and please, try and give something. Change the inequity that is a constant black cloud over our world.

That last thing I thought I would share with everyone is something I find funny and typical given my experience here. With all the things I am able to do because of my heritage, because of where I come from, because of the quality education I can take advantage of, I am very rich. Yet, I tend to think that I am not very rich, especially when it comes to straight revenue figures. Here, I am so rich. Most people take me as a tourist, I guess, and they ask for money. I go into the whole ‘I’m a volunteer’ line and try to disarm them, tell them I don’t have money. True, some big wig Fulani herder may have a lot of money in his cows, so technically, he’s got more than me. But, he doesn’t have the connections or abilities of this white guy, or better, privileged foreigner. I mean to point out a perceived racial inequality that exists in some peoples’ minds and also bring to peoples attention that many Africans, not all, think they are inferior because of their color. This inequality, bien sûr, does not exist dans mon esprit. White people have typically made darker-skinned peoples lives hell. Remember, everyone, celebrate diversity. Everyone is beautiful and the things they have to offer make this world a wonderful painting of all shades of colors.

Back to my story. My bon Moussa comes back with my water after he finishes doing the laundry. He tells me the guardian au lycée wants me to buy him a watch. I tell Moussa he’s crazy if he thinks I am just gonna buy him a watch. What is this? Am I just here to buy things for people? Am I a courier in a free-market economy here? No, I am a volunteer. Well, the next day, I take a bike ride on the route to Koutougou, a village 30 km northwest of Aribinda. On my way back, I see the guardian (I don’t know his name). He asks me about the watch. I tell him I am just going to Belehede, they don’t have watches there. I specifically tell him I am not going to Djibo. He cuts me off, demands a watch. I make no promise. “Je peux pas promettre rien.” He says, “Dieu est grand.” Oh, qu’est-ce que ca veut dire? That means exactly what, God is great or God is so great he can send us a rich white guy who can buy us whatever we need? I think not (regarding the second item, of course!). So, I saw the guy again a week ago. He tells me “Don’t forget the watch.” I tell him I can’t do it. I ask him for the money. He tells me he wants a cheap watch, nothing that’ll break the bank. In other words, I am treating him to a free watch. He demurred and now I am supposed to provide. Well, this guy will never get a watch from me. That’s for sure. I am not going to provide handouts. We should not provide handouts, this needs to be learned and communicated well to populations who do give. Americans give and volunteer a lot. I believe more in the great spirit of American charity now that I have been overseas. We need to promote education and smart aid programs, such as giving support in the form of expert-led development and grass roots projects. We must change the world in a top-down to bottom-up coalition, experts and smart supervisors at the top coordinating with volunteers and aid workers at the epicenter, in the midst of the culture, like the Peace Corps. Maybe some day that guy will get empowered to buy that watch for himself, huh? I guess it’s up to me to empower him! There’s a secondary project for me!

Beaucoup d’Amour tout le monde! Je vous verrai bientot!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

More Cultural Lessons


This blog was written the 27th of May. Much love goes out belatedly to our troops and those who died in the service of the Great Nation of the United States. In memoriam, much love.

So, this blog is again a mélange. I have been in Ouagadougou for a few days now, soaking up a little English time with my fellow volunteers. Good news from that front as well. Two of my friends, Bryan and Chrissy, have gotten 3rd year extensions. They want to work a little more in Burkina. So, Bryan is leaving his post in the Sahel (he’s one of my “closer” neighbors at 120 km away!) to work at developing an IT curriculum in the Ministry of Education in Ouagadougou. Chrissy, a GEE volunteer (girls education and empowerment) is going to be working in Bobo-Dioulasso, I believe with an NGO. So, places for me to stay if I need, always a good thing!

I have been training with about 16 other volunteers and staff in French the past few days. Believe it or not, on June 2nd, I will have been away from Oregon for a year. Hard to believe it has been that long. Pops, you always told me it would fly by. I miss you like crazy mon pere, but I’ll be seeing you soon, that’s for sure. I find it neat that at the start of the second trip around, I understand so much more. I am really just scratching the surface now, in village and with a lot of my Burkinabe colleagues and friends. I understand French a lot better now and my speech does improve everyday. It’s great to see Vini, JP, Firmin, Theophile, Patrice, Siaka, JZ, Awa. The new CD Doug is fun to interact with too, so all in all, it’s a great time to be a volunteer.

I am training to greet the 32 new stagiares who are arriving in-country the 11th of June. I will be working three training weeks throughout summer, helping the trainees with everything I went through a year ago. I hope I can be as effective as the volunteers who showed me the way.

This part of the blog was written the 29th of May. Today was a good day at training. We had a session called cross-culture, which was a key part of our training during stage while I was a Peace Corps Trainee. Stage is the training that trainees go through to become volunteers. We broke up into small groups by counting out numbers. I was placed in a group with 2 Burkinabe, one Asian-American volunteer, and two African-American volunteers. We got a scenario of an African-American volunteer. The last paragraph mentioned the volunteer was bugged out because no-one enjoyed his music and he didn't share in a lot of the activities that other volunteers enjoyed. He felt ostracized even among other volunteers. I thought this was a little pity party for this theoretical volunteer.

I stated that opinion to the group. I said it sounded like he was whining. Of course, it was a brief story and I hadn't heard the whole bit of it. There had to be more reasons than that. Well, I am not trying to make excuses for myself. My buddy Robert from Michigan told the group he thought when people called the volunteer selfish, said he wasn't integrating well because of these things, or said he was whining were not good criticisms because they judged from a sole point of view. I felt bad right there. Then, it got worse. Aisha, another volunteer, talked about this situation being hard for her because she was an African-American. She asked why everyone always stereotypes blacks as whining or why people place them in these situations. Then, I felt really bad. I felt like a racist a little. I didn't feel real bad because I do feel like he was whining a little. However, I still feel, as I write this, that I am a little bit of a racist. Yaneth helped me understand a little better, being a woman of Colombian origin. She said some people of different cultures identify very strongly with their musical heritage, things of that nature, and so on. So, I need to think about perspective. The last thing I wanted was to hurt someone or for people to think I am not tolerant. I am glad it happened though because it gives me perspective. I am going to talk to Robert tonight and ask him what he thinks. I do need to talk to Aisha about it and apologize. I would like to understand more of her side. Hell, that's part of the reason I joined the Peace Corps. Honestly, I don't feel it that much, that, you know, racism feeling. The Burkinabe, for the most part, love Americans, especially it seems white Americans. What a lesson.

OK, some new things that I would like to tell everyone. Tradition is a hard thing to break. I guess I shouldn’t look at it like that needs to be broken. However, I believe there is a detriment into the whole ‘It’s just like that’ thing. You know, like when people look at something and just give up. They just accept the status quo… and move on. The status quo where I am at is, for me, unbelievable. However, these people never see how things could be. They are habituated to the things they do. It takes, maybe, 2 hours to get water. It’s just like that. There’s nothing good to eat, or, I eat the same thing every meal. It’s just like that. Transport sucks, life is hard up here, I can’t get a job. It’s just like that. Eek, enough already. People seem resigned to just accept it and move on. But there’s no place to move to, at least not where they’re at. Damn.

Well, due to reasons of policy, I can’t make comments regarding the government in Burkina. I dared to ask someone what they thought of President Blaise Compaore. I asked Hassan, a buddy of mine in village who grows beans for a living. He gifted my mom and dad with a cool goat sack when they came. He is a generous, good, hard-working soul. Well, I forgot that he was Mossi, but I still didn’t expect the answer I got from the guy. He tells me he loves his grand-fils (grandson). Huh? Oh yeah, Compaore’s Mossi too. So, he is happy that a Mossi is the president. I guess it makes sense when you talk about tribal thought or the way a lot of people perceive Africa. Tribe and relations matter a lot. Like the Kikuyu and Luo in Kenya, or some of the problems they have in Nigeria between ethnic groups, the Copts versus the Muslims in Egypt, although that is probably more a religious thing, the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, there are separations in Africa that don’t predominate as much in the rest of the world. There are still definitely things in Asia and parts of America, the issues that face Europeans and the émigrés who would like to be Europeans, etc. But man, it seems set here.

Then, the other day, I went up to the antenna to charge my phone on the diesel booster they have that runs the antenna’s power source. My buddy Toure and I were hanging out and some other friends were having tea. Some guy rides up on his moto and we all saluer (french verb for to greet) him. Toure and this guy start having a discussion about money. Toure proposes giving the guy 100 francs to eat by the marche. But then he pulls out 200 francs and says he doesn’t have the money. The guy and Toure start laughing. Turns out Toure is Mossi and the guy on the moto was Bissa. Well, they have a joke that exists between the Bissa and the Mossi. It’s like that in Burkina, as well as in a lot of other African countries. The different ethnic groups tease and joke with each other. It’s a way of keeping it fresh without conflict. I think that’s great. But then Toure turns to me and explains it. I am already familiar with how it works. Songhai, Fulani, Gourmantche, Mossi, Senofou, Bissa, Bobo, Fulse, among many others, all making fun of each other instead of fighting. But he adds a flair. He tips his head towards me and tells me that’s why there are no wars in Burkina. I said yeah, that’s great. But, I could see the insinuation. I sit there, representing, in ways, a bellicose American, involved in so many wars. But, our wars are a l’exterieur, oui? I think maybe not. Racism is still a bitch. But, the wars we are currently fighting (and the wars we have fought) do make us a war-like country. We harm many people through indiscriminate acts, yet we don’t talk about them like we should. Our travesty that is going on in Iraq is bullshit. Yeah, I know the war is ‘improving,’ but when are we gonna see returns? We have invested a shit ton into this thing, now when am I going to collect interest? That means, when are we going to be able to let these people rule themselves? When are we going to have to spend money, a lot of it mind you, in a place where it is arguably not worth the investment? I see people suffering, but I am not sure that our actions will have done anything positive for a long while to come. I don't want to offend my Iraqi brothers and sisters. Sadaam was a bad man, but what about initial goals? Bush has mismanaged almost everything. I was against the war from Day One, if you want to know. I am sick of seeing the US fight dumb wars where we have no business being. I could see why Toure said that, but a lot of the wars we fight are outside the States.

OK, I hope I didn’t piss too many people off. But that’s it. That’s my view. How can we solve the situation without spending so much money? The current strategy of bringing Shia/Sunni neighborhoods together may be working. But at what capital cost? We are infusing copious amounts of cash, in an opaque manner, into what I believe may well be a ramshackle system. Why can’t we fix Social Security, a pertinent issue for me, or, why can’t Bush not veto a child health care bill, which I believe he did not too long ago? I believe in strong defense, yes, and even believe in military tactical demonstration if someone is threatening your country. We must be strong against terrorism. It's funny how conservatives don't think liberals believe if we keep it on their turf it won't come to ours. We all know the Number One Goal of certain terrorist cells is to get here. I don't need a Hawk to tell me they're trying to bring terror, death, and mayhem to our beautiful country. It is a fact. They are coming. We can't catch every action or counter every feint. I can’t believe people voted for him once, for crying out loud… Oh, and my African colleagues all love Obama. That is to be expected of course, but I think it would be good for the whole world. America needs a boost after the liar leaves office. An office that has been tarnished and yielded impotent by nepotism, obfuscations and prevarications, scandal and gross negligence.

Much love goes out. Inshallah, we will have peace someday.