For those of you who remember my promises to put up pictures, you can rest assured that they were not empty promises. I have just put up virtually every picture I have taken here in Burkina since arriving in the beginning of June! You can look through the albums which extend from training in Ipelce and Ouaga, to demyst in Banfora, to swear-in, to affectation, to (most importantly) my first months at site.
Click here to go to my photo album and/or read on…
Now for an update on my life. I will start at the beginning: I arrived in Koumbara on the morning of September 28th. To my surprise, there was an enormous and jubilant crowd of people waiting for me outside my house. When I stepped out of the car, I was mobbed by little kids and, well, everyone who wanted to shake my hand and get a little piece of the American. Someone then fired off a huge gun (I suppose marking the celebratory occasion) and all my possessions were swiftly moved into my house for me. I want to say that it was overwhelming but it really wasn’t. It was so chaotic and brisk and joyous that I got lost in the events of meeting important members of my organization along with important members of the village and the mosque. By the time I was inside my house, setting everything up, I felt incredibly calm and at ease.
As the days passed and turned into weeks, I developed a routine. Since digging up most of my courtyard for a garden (in which I’ve planted peas from Nick, jalepeno peppers, carrots, and will soon transplant brandywine and black krim tomatoes) I’ve needed to go get water every morning. Most volunteers have children to get water for them but not this guy; my counterpart usually comes over early (around 6 AM) and we get a few good trips in to the well before all the women come so that we’re not burdening them by taking up space. For anyone reading this who is not a volunteer yet, establishing a daily schedule–something you do as a routine that gets you out of the house–during your etude de milieu period is incredibly beneficial. Once you start to settle in, the weight of what you’re doing and (more importantly) what you have to do can be very overwhelming and if you’re just sitting at home, it can become debilitating.
That being said, my first time at the well was one of the most difficult experiences of my life. It was not incredibly physically demanding but I made the mistake of going with my counterpart when all the women were there in full swing. And naturally when I showed up trying to use a well for the first time, they thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. So funny in fact that they laughed every time I pulled up the bucket; they laughed and pointed, told jokes about me in Jula and Dafine, and generally did not hide their amusement. I would just be trying to work and (as I thought) share their culture with them but I would only hear “blah blah blah tubabu cee [white/foreigner man] blah blah blah” and then bursts of laughter punctuated with excessive pointing, staring and giggling. This would be fine, yet I had to go back over and over, hearing their roars of laughter as I pulled away on my bike balancing my 20L jerrycan on the back, only to return to excited gasps and snickers when I showed up again to grab another.
Now I have put it this way to underscore a very important distinction. To us Westerners, this is rude. Yet I’m not in America or Europe. I’m in West Africa where referring to someone by their appearance is commonplace and the urge to laugh at someone is not considered something to stifle. I was completely burnt out after only two hours at that well and all I wanted to do was sit inside and read a book all day. I just couldn’t take any more laughter and jokes at my expense. At first glance, I was a floundering American man in a strong African woman’s world and felt that they had made that perfectly clear. Yet this is dangerous thinking. It’s perfectly fine to get fed up with people laughing at your or treating you like a medical oddity here–it really is! Like it or not, and no matter how well-integrated we are, we still have a different culture to share and different social norms engrained in us since we were old enough to interact with others. Thus, it’s OK if a situation gets to a point that we’re just not comfortable with. However, it’s dangerous to view that morning at the well through an American lens. Those women weren’t being “rude” but were simply reacting to a ridiculous situation unfolding in front of them in the way they knew how. This is not to say that I have not come across people who were rude to me by Burkinabe standards, and to that you can always respond appropriately. Nevertheless, that morning at the well was tiring, stressful, and incredibly difficult to endure but I learned a valuable lesson early on that a nuanced view of everything is necessary and If I lose that, two years will be a long, long time.
As of now there are two projects that my organization, Faso Djigi, and I have identified as our priorities. The first is a large-scale moringa powder production to help the community supplement its nutrition and a reforestation project to creat a much-needed protected forested area for the village with useful trees and shrubs for the poor soil and natural environment. For those who are not familiar with moringa, it’s a tree that originates in northern India and has been known for hundreds of years there for its purported medicinal properties. It turns out that it’s not exactly “medicinal” but the leaves contain high levels of vitamins A and C, potassium, calcium, and most importantly protein, making it beneficial for balanced nutrition and in turn, health. For more information go to Trees for Life to read more. It’s remarkable, fast growing, disease resistant, incredibly drought tolerant, and nitrogen fixing–not to mention nutritious. You can also filter water and make high quality oil with the seeds. When the seed pods are young, they can be eaten–they taste like asparagus. Our plan is to start a nursery around March/April and plant a large orchard in June at the start of the rainy season. Protection will be an issue because animals LOVE this tree so if you don’t to anything to prevent them, they will eat it down to a stump. Once the trees are tall enough and the animals can’t get to the leaves, it’s not as big an issue.
Why does the village need this? And why does Faso Djigi want to do this? For one, the Burkinabe diet is primarily focused on carbs: sorghum, millet, corn, and rice. They eat these with sauces usually of dried or fresh okra, tree leaves (baobab mainly), or hibiscus leaves, that are boiled for very long periods of time, damaging the vitamin and mineral content. Thus, many times, a meal will actually only consist of empty starches like white rice or corn to that has been boiled to excess. There is often no protein and very few vitamins as a result. This is dangerous and with a lackluster harvest this year, we might run into problems come June and July. Faso Djigi is interested in this not only to help the community’s collective diet but from the money we hope to gain from selling the powder, we hope to put into helping provide subsidized certified seed to local farmers who could not afford the better grain in the past. This last addition is my idea and hopefully if things are successful the village can run with it after I’m long gone. The keys to sustaining a project like this will be consistency, accountability, and responsible oversight but so far everyone seems very motivated and professional so I don’t think those will be issues.
The best part about moringa is that those interested don’t need to change their behavior. Food culture is one of the most resistant arms of a people’s culture to change. When my PTA, Andre Oule, worked in the US to send money home to his family, he made to at home basically every night. Where I think that is absurd, he says he didn’t really care for American food and enjoyed the tasteless corn paste (my impression) instead. When different foods were introduced and accepted here in Burkina, they were altered and adopted to fit what was already being done. Rice and spaghetti are around and very common (the latter being more common amongst the wealthier/restaurant crowd) yet they serve the rice with sauce just like the staple dish of to, and mash the rice around in their hands to form a non-distinct ball of starch with sauce before popping in their mouths. They do the same with spaghetti. Italians would be horrified. This is fine–and for the record, I rather enjoy millet to with okra sauce–but when trying to help people with their diet, less change is always the way to go. It’s simply more sustainable. This is why moringa leaves, dried or fresh, are perfect; the population already makes a multitude of leaf sauces and doesn’t need to do anything different. Nothing needs to change but the leaves, and even then you can use moringa to supplement what’s already good to begin with. It is important to note that you can only add moringa at the very end of cooking. If you boil it more than five minutes, you’ll destroy all the good stuff. This is why in between now and April, we plan on holding sensibilizations and information sessions to educate the community at large about how to grow and handle moringa.
What am I eating? When I’m not eating to and rice with the neighbors or with my counterpart’s family, I’ve grown fond of pasta with palm oil and garlic. Also I make a really mean yam with tomato sauce and black eyed peas. Rice and beans (black eyed peas) and lentils tend to sustain me and make up the bulk of my diet because the market day is every 5 days, 13 km away so if I want meat and fresh vegetables, that’s when I could get it. Unfortunately meat is expensive and it is just so much easier and economical to not bother with it…unless someone gives me a chopped up goat in a black plastic bag (which happened). However, I’m armed with a great spice collection (thanks Mom and Dad) and assorted condiments from Marina and Skimas markets to keep things interesting. That and the occasional bunch of tomatoes or cabbage really brightens up my day. Even without those luxury items, I definitely can’t complain!
My house is fantastic and I feel like it’s almost too big sometimes. Take a look at my photo albums to see! And as per my previous post, I do have a puppy named Juma to keep me company…
That’s all for now. I’m finishing a week in Ouaga for IST and will continue IST in Tougan with my counterpart where we will start to develop our desperately-needed reforestation project. People have asked me for my updated address to send letters or packages and you shall receive that when I get to Tougan and can talk to the post office there to figure everything out. I hope everyone is well and wish you all the very best!
Thank you Jason for giving us a great view of your life. I think your house is great: so much space. And, as we have discussed, I sure hope the garden comes up well, so the ladies in the village don’t laugh more at the silly American man!! I am interested to see everything. I also am interested in the Moringa tree project. Having protein infused into the diet will have major affects: I am not sure you will be there to see it, but in some years, the nutrition should improve in a major way. I think the kids are great! I like the picture of the 3 girls “saluting” you as they do teachers.
The village looks very clean, but just baking out there in the sun! The dog has a very interesting shape. It will be fun to see what he looks like as he grows. But certainly that “breed” (!) of dog has been isolated from the rest of the dogs for millions of years. Truely a different type of dog. I think you have taken a lot of pictures, for trying to keep your camera somewhat hidden.
Thanks again for a wonderful gift. Start making your list for the next shipment! In particular, think about what you would want to augment your diet. (I see the Centrum vitamins I sent to you. Hope you are taking them…)
My dear Jason,
all we read from “notes from the Sahel” seem to us so exciting amd new.We wish you good luck and successto your project and all the best for you and your little Juma.
Love from Greece