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.