In the beginning of March, I set out with nine other volunteers to a horse festival in the far northwestern pocket of Burkina. Our mission was to get there by traveling through the bush, visiting extremely remote villages along the way.
Instead of making a blog post about it, I scanned my travel journal (complete with sketches and diagrams) and uploaded the photos. To see it, go here.
In addition, check out my pictures.
As always, I hope all is well!
Setting up a home is a tricky thing—it’s the fantastic alchemy of searching out random objects and settling in with them. In my case, it’s taken a little while. I was trying to figure out why this was, for I usually make great efforts to establish myself wherever I am. Unfortunately, I really have no answers. It just is. But what’s fascinating is the assortment of items I do have around me:
I’m sitting on a woven cot that I bought in Ouaga and transported to a hotel strapped to a run down taxi. In front of me is a coffee table I had built in Gouran made from repurposed wood from an old sign I found by the road. I biked that back 15 km to my house only to saw off the legs, which were far too tall. On the table sits a ceramic bowl I bought at our Peace Corps fair in Ouaga. A volunteer’s women’s group made it. The two chairs across from me I bought in Tougan, transporting both of them back to a hotel, strapped to the back of my bike. Maps: The National Geographic Institute of Ouagadougou; an incredible walk around Ouaga in the midday heat. Shelves: wood bought in Gouran, with my landlord bringing back on his motorcycle and banko bricks given to me as a gift. On those shelves are transit house books, care package books, a cheap souvenir from Dakar, candles a volunteer bought for me in Dedougou, and a wine bottle filled only with rocks and pleasant memories. Fabric rests all around me, coming from all parts of this country—mostly scraps from clothes I’ve had made. I have masks from Festima, a bench from my neighbor, curtains made by the women of Koumbara, Ivoirian plastic mats from all over the Sourou Valley, and a Bates College pennant I bought at the 2011 graduation. Next to that pennant is my bike helmet that I bought in the States before coming to Burkina. I can still remember the salesman telling me I that looked like Lance Armstrong when I tried it on. Even more memorable is how his singeing brand of gloomy condescension made me squirm in my own skin. Moving to my kitchen, you’ll find a long counter I designed and had it built in Gouran—again my landlord bringing it back on his motorcycle. It’s almost two meters long. You’ll also find more fabric, a gas tank from Tougan that I’ve had to refill in Guiedougou, a horribly unsafe tabletop stove from Ouaga that is missing a knob because of catching on fire (twice), and a jubilee of care package spices. Guarding the entrance to my bedroom are nametags I’ve acquired as a trainee and beyond. Inside my bedroom is another cot from Ouaga, a cement bag filled with assorted possessions, a miniature Eiffel Tower that sits on my windowsill to remind me of a dear friend, and the same mosquito net I was given when I first settled into my house in Ipelce—of course patched with duct tape that I bought at an REI in Baltimore.
I’m most certainly aware of the cliché that “every item tells a story.” And in directly playing into that tired adage, I can assert that nowhere have I ever been so aware of the varied stories behind everything in my home. Transporting items around Burkina is frustrating and exhausting under optimal conditions. With that in mind, it feels nothing short of miraculous that anything made it in here at all.
So, with that intro, check out the pictures of my (finally) set up home. Now when you think about me living in a mud house in Africa, at least you’ll know what it looks like.
This time of year I often find myself in my hammock outside my courtyard. As the animals settle down for the night and the village slowly returns to its dormant state, the sun sets and the sky gradually opens up. Resting in my cocoon of knotted black cord, I frequently take notice of the moon itself: a crescent of molten silver floating in the indigo inkwell of the nighttime sky. As always, the stars are out, yet they don’t dare approach that great lunar body. Clouds add to the collage: diaphanous veils of grey silk weaving across the constellations, obscuring just enough to provide interest in their movements. As I lie there, I can’t help but remark that this could be the sky of a cold, winter night in New England. As the smell of smoked softwood reaches me, I know the family with whom I live has taken to sitting by the fire. Usually I would go join them but occasionally on nights like these, I prefer my seclusion. Again, I imagine myself stateside, beside a stone fireplace, nose pressed to a frigid glass window, staring at that very same silver crescent. In this vision, all I can feel is comfort: the dichotomy of the bitter cold on the tip of my nose and the warmth of the fire on the nape of my neck.
These reveries don’t last long. What does dominate my thoughts is the Fulani family I met last June. As Malian refugees, they made an impression on me—enough of an impression to devote a blog post to them. What now is disconcerting to me is that they were heading back to Mali just before the worst was to occur. I don’t know where they live—how far north, east or west. Perhaps they’re just over the border, living in an identical village to mine, far from the arm of the rebels. Perhaps they never even left Burkina at all. Regardless, I can only hope that this family is living peacefully. However, I can’t help but assume that they’re not as close to me as I would want. Letting my mind wander, I wonder: what have they seen? What are they going to see? What do they have left? What don’t they have left? What is to happen to them?
It’s a sickening feeling: knowing that I watched a family that had been set on the run, walk up that road and back into harm’s way. Obviously there was nothing to be done on my end, but the mental image is nevertheless fixed. If only any of us had known how much worse those sahelian and desert landscapes were to become. If only we had had any inclination that any ostensible peace would be long to come. However, maybe that family did know; maybe they knew more than I. Maybe they had made the choice to return to their home, regardless of the costs. Whatever the case, they walked up that road and out of sight slowly and with purpose.
With the escalation of the crisis, the southern gains of the rebels, the arrival of Western military assistance, and the entry of ECOWAS forces, the crisis in Mali has been delivered to the international stage. And as I write, Burkina and the UNHDR are bracing for an influx of 70,000 more refugees. What is so overwhelming about this whole ordeal is its unpredictability: like most conflicts in Africa, your guess as to what is going to happen is as good as mine. So there I lie, staring due north where the stars fall behind the tree line, knowing that the tranquility I am experiencing is a scarce luxury not that far over the horizon.
Yet again, where is that Fulani family?
As I sway gently in the harmattan winds, I realize that I’m actually a bit cold. Retreating to the warmth of my mud house, I look up once more at that great indigo inkwell peppered with stars and that radiant crescent of molten silver, now partially occluded by those unapologetic veils of grey silk. Acknowledging that I’m thinking in platitudes, I wonder whether a member of that family is looking up and seeing exactly what I see, exactly as I see it. And then I remember what I saw earlier in the day. I remember the French fighter planes overhead piercing the azure afternoon skies on their way north. Instead of wondering how far that family is from me, I take some peculiar comfort in realizing that after all, I might not be that far from them.
Devotees of my blog (ie: Mom) will remember that last Christmas I deftly summarized the plot of the Sesame Street Christmas Special. I did this because—as tradition in my house goes—my brother and I would always watch it around Christmas time. Since I couldn’t be there, I figured I would explain it the way I remembered it. I think it was reasonably accurate. This year, I have turned my attention to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, another tradition in our house. It usually happens with my brother and I watching it, followed by my dad wandering in and joining us. Enjoy:
The movie opens with a cartoon sequence of Santa visiting the fateful Griswold household. A series of punishing missteps lead him to being almost discovered, causing him to flee through the ceiling. I always liked this opening as it reminded me of Home Alone antics: another Christmas classic.
When the actual actors appear, they are riding in an amazing wood-paneled station wagon—the kind of station wagon that a soccer mom would be proud to roll around in during the early 90s. Clark and Ellen singing Christmas carols. After a hilarious altercation with the most stereotypical of rednecks, the car flies through the air and crashes into the lot. The family then sets out to find the most perfect of Christmas symbols: the tree! They certainly find one, but it’s just about 20 feet high. The daughter, Audrey’s eyes freeze so she can’t really see it because it’s so cold. Obviously, I mean isn’t that what usually happens in the cold? I’ve been in Africa so long, I’ve forgotten. Speaking of forgetting, guess what Clark forgot to bring with him…a saw. Flash cut to that majestic wood-paneled vehicle riding off into the sunset with an enormous tree on top, followed by a root ball the size of an industrial washing machine.
Enter the antagonistic neighbors, Todd and Margo: they’re rich, young, sleek, and wear sunglasses at night. Their silver Saab is the perfect accent to their cold, austere lives. Clark comes out of his garage with a chainsaw, ready to cut down the tree in order to bring it inside. What proceeds is probably my dad’s favorite part of any movie ever (and this is a guy who lists Fellini’s 8 ½ as one of his favorite films). What can I say? He’s got a diverse bench of interests:
Todd: Hey Griswold, where do you think you’re going to put a tree that big?
Clark (playfully): Bend over and I’ll show you!
Todd: You’ve got a lot of nerve talking to me like that, Griswold!
Clark (playfully again): I wasn’t talking to you.
[Camera pans to Margo, played by Julia Louis Dreyfus]
Let’s fast forward to Clark at work. He’s worried because he’s putting in a pool for his family and is still waiting on his bonus from his horrible boss. When his boss does walk by, he asks for a report, casually forgets Clark’s name, and then storms off with an army of drones behind him. As they walk by, Clark greets them as follows: “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christma—kiss my ass, kiss his ass, kiss your ass, Happy Chanuka.”
Clark goes shopping to get some last minute gifts and is found window-shopping a lingerie counter at the mall. The patron is a gorgeous woman and Clark fumbles. What follows is a list of word play he accidentally comes up with: smelling/smiling, blouse/browse, hooter/hotter, nipple/nip, adultery/adulthood. He insinuates that his wife is dead, then divorced, then implies that he has a “yule log” but it’s difficult to tell because it’s such an awkward, bumbling interaction. It is ended by Rus, his child, showing up. Now that’s an act break!
Fast forward again, when the family shows up. Comically elderly and crotchety, they are the perfect companions for the ride to hell that becomes the Griswold Family Christmas. When they come in, pleasant reunions quickly give way to disgusting displays of bodily ailments: draining a pint of fluid from the lower back, a mole that’s changing colors, hemorrhoids, and a painful burr on a heel. I think this is my favorite part of the movie. There’s something so gleefully tragic about it all.
Now if my memory serves me right, Clark tries to light up his house with 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights. It obviously doesn’t work right away because of the wiring and Clark loses his temper by kicking and punching the little plastic Santa in his yard. My dad also loves this part.
When it eventually does work, the town needs to turn on it’s auxiliary nuclear power.
As the camera pans down the line of the whole family marveling at this fantastic waste of electricity, we see Catherine (Ellen’s cousin) and Eddie, her sleazy but bighearted husband. They rolled into town in a dilapidated RV with their two kids and Rottweiler named Snot. Amazing, I know.
I’m going to just going to touch on everything I love about the movie from here on out because this is getting long and I can imagine that if you’ve read this far you’re starting to lose your patience:
Clark uses a new nonstick coating for his sled resulting in slapstick hilarity, Clark gives a gift to his horrible boss only to see it’s the exact shape as all the others he’s received, Clark imagining the pool in the backyard made all that much better by the lady from the lingerie counter, Ruby Sue thinking Clark is Santa Claus and using the phrase “shitting bricks”, Eddie emptying his chemical toilet into the storm sewer (“Shitter was full!”), Eddie casually referencing the Bhopal chemical spill by asking Clark if his company had been the one to kill off those Indians a while back to Clark responding “No we missed out on that one”, Aunt Bethany (played by the woman who did the voices for Betty Boop and Olive Oyl) and Uncle Lewis showing up for Christmas Eve dinner, Aunt Bethany’s dementia resulting in her wrapping her cat and jello mold, Aunt Bethany saying grace by stating the Pledge of Allegiance, the turkey falling apart because it’s so dry, Aunt Bethany’s cat being fried by trying to eat the lights off the tree, Todd’s and Margo’s relationship becoming strained, Clark receiving his bonus which turns out to be a subscription to the Jelly of the Month club, Clark losing his temper, Eddie kidnapping Clark’s boss, a squirrel getting in the new tree that had replaced the one that had been set on fire by Uncle Lewis, and finally reconciliation once the SWAT team smashes through the windows of the house in order to save Clark’s boss. Aunt Bethany sings the National Anthem after Uncle Lewis threw a match in the storm sewer causing a massive explosion that propels the plastic Santa across the sky.
Merry Christmas, indeed.
I spent this past Christmas with my host family from training down in Ipelce. I wanted to go because I didn’t know if I’d have the chance to see them again! It was a great time, very relaxing, just hanging out and drinking dolo. I hope everyone back home had a great Christmas/holiday!
There are few experiences in Burkina Faso as bizarre or as simply dangerous as public transportation. Getting from point A to point B on a bus, bush taxi, flatbed truck, or any other improvised means is always sure to confuse or terrify and is rarely ever uneventful. It’s absolutely true that the greatest risk to my life here in West Africa is transportation, and once I came to terms with this, my trips became a lot less hair-raising and a lot more fascinating. This comfortable relationship with the macabre is an absolute necessity for volunteers here in Burkina. Those that can’t get their heads around it usually ET (see glossary).
That being said, while on dilapidated buses and bush taxis, I have had the distinct pleasure of witnessing just about everything peculiar this world has to offer. A great deal of it is disgusting. Some of it reflects the true depths of human sadness. However, all of it is in some sense hysterical. Below I have compiled some examples that I have experienced (with some other volunteers’ experiences thrown in). They are divided into three categories: mechanical failures and accidents, animals, and bodily functions. Enjoy:
Mechanical Failures and Accidents
These are just samplings of some of the varied experiences I can have while on public transportation. In fact, they might not even be the weirdest; they’re just what come to mind as I’m writing this. The majority of these come from experiences on the bus that takes me from the Sourou Valley to Ouaga. This company is known by its appellation: STAF. Volunteers like to joke that it means Shitty Transport Always and Forever, or So That’s Africa, Fuck. It is notorious for having the worst buses, for being the most dangerous, and for having the worst service. While this is all true, it’s my only option. I can’t fault it too much, though, because it’s given me some of the most incredible experiences that I couldn’t have picked up anywhere else. In fact, I’ve recounted all of these experiences above with a smile on my face. I know, most of them are profoundly disgusting, but as I mentioned before, once you come to terms with this, it all just becomes an interesting story. And while it’s impossible to forget the unparalleled danger in riding on these death traps over nonexistent roads, we develop a cavalier attitude to help us through the situation. Then, through that lens, we can witness the wonders (or horrors?) of the modern world in all their splendor.
I know what you’re thinking: Jason hasn’t put up pictures in a while. It’s true, I’ve been bad about it. Even though I’ve traveled around quite a bit lately, you—the general public—wouldn’t’ even know. I’ve simply been letting them build up on my computer because I don’t feel like tackling the Herculean task of uploading them all while using internet that makes me long for the days of 56K. Of course I’m well aware of the fact that this only makes the problem worse.
However, you can rest easy now because I have spent the past few days using up all of the transit house’s bandwidth uploading all of my latest photos. You can expect to see the PCV food security summit in The Gambia, working on fields by the river with my counterpart, teaching the new PCTs and fishing down in Ipelce, and of course photos from my parents’ visit.
I’ve been all over not just Burkina but West Africa this rainy season. Enjoy the pictures!
As I’m wrapping up my MSC (Mid-Service Conference), I thought it would be fun to reflect on a particular moment that I had the pleasure of experiencing twice. I’ll explain:
This week, my stage has being staying at Hotel des Conférences Ouind Yidé (which they shorten to the laughably unsexy acronym of HCOY) on the Fada N’Gourma road at the eastern edge of Ouaga. When we first arrived in Burkina, we stayed at a missionary-run hotel and conference center known as SIL (extrapolation unknown) just a few blocks away. Perhaps you can imagine my initial bewilderment with my surroundings as I first stepped out onto the streets. The world outside SIL’s walls was a convoluted patchwork of motorcycles whizzing by, dilapidated cars rumbling over roads that didn’t exist, and ramshackle bikes pedaled by toddlers. Food was scattered everywhere—and everywhere it was, it was aggressive: sheep heads, chicken heads with their feet neatly shoved up through their beaks, and anonymous organs shimmering on the spokes of rusted metal bike wheels suspended over trash fires. But what truly struck me was that the world (my New World) lacked diversity of color. Every square inch of this tiny pocket of Burkina—the only one I knew—was bathed in sienna, ochre, and umber of every hue, rinsed in a Naples yellow glow. It gave a seemingly boundless appearance to my New World, one of unparalleled chaos and complexity. And it was all mine to explore.
The first night we arrived, we were bussed into SIL, ate dinner there, and promptly slept within the confines of the center. The second night, we were sent out with PCVs in search of food. Down on the Fada road, there were a few nondescript riz sauce (rice and sauce) places offering standard fare. That evening, however, I was taken by a fourth year volunteer to eat atchieke (steamed, pounded manioc, served with a crudité of cucumbers and onions, palm oil, dried fish, and MSG on the side for a modern touch). As we sat eating at a table by the road next to a sewage drain, I couldn’t help but notice a large, ominous building under construction across from me. It was a quintessential African building: heavy with bizarre angles, unnecessary and precarious balconies, metal, cement, lacking finesse and nuance, yet commanding an overwhelming and foreboding presence. It stood over the road, imposing itself upon all those who passed, beating its chest and demanding undue reverence. As the sun set and my New World was engulfed in a warm pthalo film, I kept staring, transfixed by this building. As my eyes continued to scan the scene around us, I noticed that to the right was incredible commotion, but to the left, as one left town, there looked to be a great void. It was all deeply terrifying in its own way because this New World of mine was so unknown to me. Every option, every place to go, every thing to see became an insurmountable challenge. And when during the day I felt a surge of endless possibilities, I now felt only the weight of infinite forthcoming trials.
I was so immediately taken by this building because it so seamlessly symbolized my anxieties and apprehensions. It’s sad, grey exterior swathed in the receding light of dusk seemed to reflect all that I didn’t understand and all that I thought I would never know. It stood there, not caring whether I came or left, ate or starved, lived or died. It was the ultimate challenge to me and to my dogged nature. I ate my dinner quietly, listening to stories of volunteer life in rural and urban Burkina and tried my best to soak it all in. I didn’t retain much, however, since my thoughts were dominated by my own fears and angst. But the dinner ended. We went back to SIL, I put another day behind me, and waited for the next.
A few nights ago, a couple other PCVs and I went to eat some cheap food in that very same location. Over a year later, I again sat at that same table, by that same sewer, with that same building (still under construction, by the way) looming over me–yet this time it was dressed in an awkward jumble of white tile. As I ate my sheep sandwiches and grilled corn, the conversation again faded away as I watched the light change over the building’s façade. Its imposing nature hadn’t changed, but the world around me had. Scanning the scene for a second time, I noted that the chaos hadn’t left, but had transformed into a well-understood collage of human activity. All over, my New World had simply become My World and the fact that this realization did not surprise me was a silent and powerful victory.
I left Koumbara on the morning of 13 June with the intention of going to Tougan. A few kilometers up the road near the turnoff for Yayokoura, I came upon a Fulani family camping out on a raised clearing of the bush. They motioned for me to come over and since I was early for catching the bus anyway, I pulled off to greet them. I was certain they weren’t from around this area.
Upon saying good morning with the usual back and forth, I asked them where they were from: aw bi bo jamana juma na? Their reply: Mali.
Currently there are about 80,000 Malian refugees (Bambara, Fulani, Tuareg, etc.) living in Burkina. They have set themselves up in urban centers, they’ve found themselves living in refugee camps further up north, or they’ve simply been camping out as this family was. With a weak harvest last year here in Burkina and with this added stress on the already delicate food system, much of the country will be feeling a significant strain in the next couple months (see Burkina’s medium-term outlook here). Ironically, those living in the northern refugee camps actually eat better than their neighboring Burkinabè because with the status of “refugee” they receive food aid trucked in to the camp, passing the impoverished Burkinabè on their way. While that remains an interesting aside, it’s not why I’m writing this.
I’m writing this because for so long I’ve been living in this poor yet peaceful little pocket of Burkina without having a face-to-face interaction with those whose lives have regrettably intersected with armed conflict. While I knew of refugees in Di, 30 km up the road from me, I never go to Di. There are refugees in Tougan but I don’t know who they are. There is an ethnic conflict raging not far from me up in Mali but I don’t see it.
As the family motioned for me to come sit and eat with them, I felt extremely odd. There I was standing with a backpack full of expensive electronics that needed charging while a family directly in front of me didn’t even have anything to shelter them from the approaching rains. I quickly and decisively dropped my bag in the mud and sat down. The family was optimistic since they were finally on their way back to Mali after being displaced by the Tuareg rebellion and military coup back in March.
What I found so unbelievable was the fact that this family with nothing was offering me food and drink and a place to sit. They saw my clothes, they saw my bike, and they knew that I was living comfortably. Yet they still were willing to share with me what little they had. And those are the people who get the short straw every time. Since the African independence boom of the 1950’s and 60’s, basically every country on this continent has had its share of coups, wars, genocides, and awkward-at-best transfers of power. In West Africa alone—quite possibly the most destitute region on the planet—there have been more assassinations, military coups, civilian revolutions, ethnic strife, and civil wars than one can count. You can cite the civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire, the stadium massacre and subsequent conflict in Guinea, the flare up of the fifty-year-old Tuareg rebellion in Mali, the genocides in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the rather directionless coups in Guinea-Bissau and Mali; with the exception of Liberia and Sierra Leone, we haven’t even gone further back than 2000. All these terrible incidents involve those fighting for an ideal. But what is that ideal? What is an ideal that involves—at best—the poorest citizens fleeing and—at worst—genocide?
Let’s take the latest conflict in Mali into consideration with due reference to this Fulani family. How has it failed them? Lack of infrastructure, lack of schooling, lack of policing, lack of governmental representation, lack of respect for their beliefs, and lack of respect for their property are a few to start. They’re just another family caught in the crosshairs of those with an ideal. They’re an unfortunate number, a sad statistic. Yet they’re not that to me anymore! They’re not distant abstractions, but living, breathing human beings! They’re not pictures on a sleek website cajoling you into helping charity cases. They’re the ones who smiled at me, wished me well, and invited me to share their breakfast.
Right now I’m writing this on my expensive computer in my solid mud house with a metal roof and concrete floor. Three kilometers away, a family is sleeping outside in the mud amongst their animals, bracing the driving rain while cocooned in deafening claps of thunder. They endure this as they slowly try to make their way back home. Is this what those renegade soldiers who initiated the coup back in March were thinking about when they greedily stole power from a state that was comfortably and stably democratic? Is this who the Tuareg imagine when they burn down UNESCO World Heritage sites in Timbuktu and shoot up small villages all across their tiresome state of Azaouad? Did this family sleeping in the mud ever ask for a military coup or a civil war? Probably not.
So when you read this, look around. Look at that shiny computer in front of you. Look at that comfortable chair you’re sitting on. Feel the climate control that’s set at just the right temperature. Next time you go to Whole Foods (or any supermarket for that matter) think about that family sitting in the mud whose food is local and organic not by ethical choice but because they have no other option. When you drive your car, think about those children set on the run who are missing an education through no fault of their own. I tell you this not to push a canned and unfair comparison. I’m well aware that people are born into different situations in this world and that you shouldn’t feel sorry for having that computer or car or organic produce. And you certainly shouldn’t beat yourself up because I’m telling you a sob story that doesn’t affect your life at all. However, what I ask is that when you go about your life noticing what you truly have, try to think about what you would do if you woke up one morning with no choice but to leave it all but the bare necessities. If you lost it all through no action of your own, would you be so willing to give your last to a complete stranger? How about a stranger whom you know doesn’t need it and didn’t even ask for it?
This family did not even hesitate before simply offering me what there was to offer. Through the simplicity of their actions, it was clear that their only demand was mutual respect. And for that, although displaced due to situations out of their control, they showed themselves to be the eye of the storm in a region that has known too well the tempests of conflict and discord.
For that reason alone, I bought a sack of mangoes in Tougan. Biking back in the evening on that same stretch of road, I handed it to the family for their trip home. Pausing as storm clouds gradually shrouded us in a thick, cerulean blanket, I simply wished them well on their return: Allah k’aw nyuman segi.
First and foremost, I owe a huge thank you to everyone who contributed to Camp HEERE. Your generous contributions went towards the education of almost sixty of the highest performing primary school children in the Sourou Valley. For those who are unfamiliar with the acronym, HEERE, I will explain it. First, it is important to understand that the word, heere, is Jula for peace–pronounced air-eh. It is the absolute ubiquitous word of the language, never absent from any greeting or conversation. Naturally, we wanted to take it and create a recognizable acronym for the camp. What was decided on was: Hygiene, Environment, Education, Recreation, Ensemble. The acronym is actually in French so the last word means together. I was going to write about the camp from my perspective, however I have our grant request written by a future professional grant writer, Elijah LaChance. In it, he explains the rationale, motivation, and sustainability of the camp far more efficiently and eloquently than I can. Thus, I present to you Camp HEERE:
Executive Summary: The future of a community depends on its children and on the stewardship of its natural resources. For rural villages in Burkina Faso, the two go hand in hand. As desertification looms, new generations must confront the problems of poverty, poor hygiene, and disappearing community identity. Many young people are moving away from their villages. In response, schools, associations, and other community groups in the Sourou Valley, with the enthusiastic participation of 14 Peace Corps Volunteers, have banded together for a landmark effort: an agriculture and life skills camp for youth designed to confront issues involved in growing plants and growing up. While the communities have provided much, material costs stretch beyond the reach of local budgets. Campers will participate in a variety of projects, including learning to plant trees, studying (and tasting!) healthy eating habits, and exploring malaria prevention by making anti-mosquito cream from a local tree, thus helping these communities to improve their quality of life in drastically changing times. Also, students will discover an enriching camp environment and meet new friends for the first time. The camp’s impact will extend outwards into the communities, as the students from each village will work with their local PCV to plan an activity or project they can carry out in their own village. Further, reverberations from the camp will sustain the project years into the future, as the sense of interconnectedness and pride established will help shape the hearts and minds of the next generation of camp and village leaders.
Background Information: The village communities of the Sourou Valley are interconnected on almost every level. In a river valley with vast agricultural potential, these villages see the effects of climate change, improper hygiene, and poverty on a daily basis. They share resources, including secondary schools, mayoral districts, and health centers, but at times each village seems isolated from the world, or even the next village over, and faced with unconquerable odds. Children in primary school generally have limited contact with children in other villages (villages less than 10km apart often have radically different local languages) and seldom receive instruction on environmental practices, hygiene, and income-generating activities. Nevertheless, these children live a life surrounded by traditional expertise and agricultural and economic potential. They lack inter-village connections, and leadership and development skills. One central hub in this community wheel is the large village of Lanfiera, part of a political and economic center of three villages and approximately 10,000 people. The middle school in Lanfiera has enthusiastically volunteered to host the camp. Also, Association Bade Gnouma of Guiedegou, the health center in Lanfiera, and Groupment Faso Ka Di from Gouran immediately agreed to lead sensibilizations. The 14 PCVs involved in the project represent the DABA (both Agriculture and Business) and Education (formal and non-formal) sectors and are all currently living in immersion environments in small, largely rural villages in the Sourou Valley, experiencing the vast differences in conditions in this fascinating and forgotten corner of the world (village sizes range from 100 to 5,000 people). Local expertise in a variety of areas, especially agriculture, appears in the most unexpected places in every village, and such positive deviant role models will form a central portion of the camp.
Community Need: A farmer in Diele, a village of about 1,000 in the heart of the valley, described it this way: “In the time of our ancestors, there was rain every year. The day came, there was rain, the dry season came, there was no rain. We lived together, and we knew the world. Now, things change. The soil does not stay firm, the rain does not come… Our children, our old people were never sick. They used traditional methods. We have forgotten. Things always change; they will keep changing. Our traditional methods will not work, or maybe they will, we do not know… Our children will live in a world that has changed. We want them to live well, and live well together.” His point is this: climate change and social change, the encroachment of the desert and the encroachment of the modern world are problems that will not go away, and which cannot be successfully encountered alone. For the communities of the Sourou Valley to thrive, it is the children of the valley who must be prepared to face the future. If they are not, he asks, “They will live how? They will farm how? Will there be a village?” His question is real. More and more, young villagers leave for larger cities or for Cote d’Ivoire as soon as they can: people with certain skills become maids, teachers, and government functionaries. People without skills become laborers, hustlers, and prostitutes. Villages in the Sourou Valley are not seen as good places for young Burkinabes to make lives for their families. In some ways, the need for this camp has less to do with specific skills like tree-planting or making hand-washing stations and more in instilling an intrinsic sense of pride that goes beyond individual or village accomplishments, and a belief in the future of the Sourou Valley. After all, if these children believe their communities have a future, they will work for it, and one day will see that future themselves. Through their belief, they will become the leaders of tomorrow.
Community Initiation and Direction: Communities initially request Peace Corps Volunteers by filling out a Volunteer Request Form. While individual needs varied by village, hygiene, environmental education, and income generation were common threads that ran through all the requests in the Sourou Valley. When working with our communities, each PCV used PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) tools to evaluate the needs of their communities. Each community expressed its enthusiasm for projects in agriculture, poverty amelioration, and hygiene, and in passing these lessons on to their children. One PCV said “The Peace Corps is about making new clothes based on Western designs from Burkinabe materials.” While the idea of a camp is a new idea in the Sourou Valley, it is one with which the Peace Corps has a great deal of experience and which has been used to tremendous effect in Burkina Faso. One of the original inspirations for the camp came from watching the success of Camp G2LOW in Boromo and thinking of ways the model could be used to confront problems in line with the guiding tenets of the newly-formed DABA program. Though proposed by PCVs, the agriculture camp is our attempt to make something new of Sourou Valley priorities and needs. Upon being presented with the idea, the communities showed immediate enthusiasm. The CEG at Lanfiera immediately agreed to host, and the health center and several surrounding groups and associations, including Association Bade Gnouma of Guiedegou and Groupment Faso Ka Di from Gouran agreed to lead sessions. Each community member or group will plan the content of their own session, and the villages of Lanfiera, Gouran and Guiedogou will be particularly involved in setting up the logistical details of the camp.
Community Contribution: Each of our respective communities has agreed to fund the transportation costs for each student and each community is responsible for bringing the selected students to the camp by Thursday afternoon. The CEG at Lanfiera has agreed to let us use the school facilities for our camp activities and as well as for dormitories for the students. The sessions will predominantly be led by Burkinabe community members, many of whom are professionals, and they have generously volunteered their time to impart their particular knowledge and skill sets to the youth in our camps. Many of the supplies for the camp do not need to be purchased and can instead be borrowed free of charge for the duration of the camp (including cutlery, buckets, knives, mats, etc.) and several of the communities have offered the use of these supplies. The most expensive part of our camp will be feeding the kids, volunteers and helpers nutritious meals three times a day and we have specifically not asked our communities for food donations because the past harvest was especially hard on our villages and it seems counterproductive to ask them to provide food for a camp that tackles issues of food security while simultaneously interfering with their own abilities to feed themselves. While most of the community contributions are in the form of transport, accommodation and volunteered time and the monetary value of such contributions must therefore be estimated, we are confident that the total value of the community contributions well exceeds 25% of the cost of the camp.
Planning: All 14 PCVs have been meeting to set up our goals and objectives, budget, the topics our communities wish to be covered, and discussing the logistical concerns of the camp. Some of the logistical constraints to be tackled are the feeding, accommodation and management of the camp which will be organized mostly by the Volunteers while the actual food preparation and management of the camp will mostly be done by the Burkinabe. The sessions to be covered by Burkinabe community members include tree care and transplanting, moringa and healthy eating, malaria prevention, neem cream and soap making and those individuals and groups are responsible for creating an engaging and informative demonstration/sensiblisation. Volunteers will be in charge of checking in with said groups and to help ensure that the presentations are audience appropriate and keep in line with the camp’s, Peace Corps, and communities’ objectives. Also because camp’s are a relatively new concept to the Burkinabe, Volunteers will be in charge of facilitating some of the more traditional camp-like activities including games, arts and crafts, songs, campfire and skits.
Preparation: Because the PCVs will be managing the money from the grant they will be making all the purchases necessary for the camp. Local Burkinabe volunteers will help with everything else from food preparation to setting up mosquito nets and organizing kids. PCVs and their school directors will be responsible for selecting the students and informing the parents and getting written permission. PCVs will also discuss and go over the camp program with all participants before the start of the camp. PCVs will be responsible for organizing Volunteers to do things like bring water to the camp.
Execution: (see program) PCVs will be responsible for managing the camp atmosphere while Burkinabe will be in charge of the sessions. Kids will be divided up into groups of 8 with 4 boys and 4 girls of different grades from different villages with two PCVs for each group and each group will go through all the activities together which should help form linkages across villages and promote gender equality.
Follow-Up: At the end of the camp, PCVs will reconvene with the four kids from their village to talk about their favorite activities and decide on something to present to their school back home either in the form of a demonstration, sensitization, skit, song, etc. After the camp, Volunteers will go back to their villages with their kids to present something they learned back to their villages to demonstrate what they learned.
Project Sustainability: During the camp, students will learn to plant a tree, make neem cream for repelling mosquitoes (and malaria), and make liquid soap and a hand-washing station. They will receive lessons on nutrition and on various environmental issues. The campers will then return to their villages and give a presentation or do a project identified by each village’s children in conjunction with their PCV and Burkinabe session-givers from the village. These follow-up activities will allow the campers to share their knowledge with their communities. Perhaps more importantly, they will also allow the children the opportunity to be recognized by their community for their increased expertise, giving them a sense of self-worth and accomplishment. The agriculture camp is, in many ways, a perfect reflection of Peace Corps development philosophy at its best. As PCVs and village schools continue to pursue agricultural, environmental, and hygiene activities, the students who attended the camp can become student leaders and lieutenants, giving invaluable support to the community in accomplishing their goals. Also, as the years continue to pass, having educated children will provide the next generations of village leaders. As the African proverb says, “If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people.” Each year, the community will be able to do more of this project by themselves. Working off the model of Camp G2LOW, Burkinabe trainers will take on more responsibility for the content and presentations of the camp. Villagers will take on a greater role in camp logistics. In years with better harvests, food can be provided by the communities. It is true that the Peace Corps will have to be involved in the funding of this project again next year, but with each camp, the camp will become more Burkinabe-run and, therefore, will more closely reflect Burkinabe interests.
There you have it. If you’ve made it all the way through that, I hope you have a greater understanding of what we were working towards. Make sure to check out the picture album I uploaded. In it, I tried my best to describe the actual goings-on of the camp. To relay that here would be a little redundant. So that’s it, thank you everyone, it’s been an incredibly successful camp. If you do have any questions, however, you know how to contact me.
Hope all is well!
Believe it or not, I’m two weeks shy of one year of living here in Burkina. I was thinking of how I could commemorate this and had a (hopefully) fantastic idea. I was reflecting on how occasionally I write a blog post and I never really know who reads it if really anyone at all. Thus, I concluded that maybe there are people out there (family, friends, random people stumbling upon this blog) who might have questions for me regarding life, work, service, going to the bathroom, etc. Or not. Well, I’m banking on the fact that maybe there are a few questions out there since I’m certain I’ve left at least a few things open ended over the past twelve months. And I am taking advantage of the fact that I will be in Ouaga for the week with internet. There.
So go ahead, ask away as a comment to this post! You can post it anonymously if you so choose! I’ll have internet each evening and will be able to respond. This will be fun.
Hope all is well.
PS: Our Camp HEERE was a great success. Expect a post devoted to the camp, and devoted to thanking everyone who donated to help make it a reality for roughly sixty young students in the Sourou Valley.