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Ask Me Why

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.

You Never Give Me Your Money

Upon the acceptance of my USAID SPA (Small Project Assistance) grant, I feel as though it’s an apt time to explore the loaded issue of money here in Burkina.  As a concept, what does it mean?  What can it do?  What can’t it do?  How do those who lack it manage their meager resources?  And throughout, I will try to touch upon what damage the injection of capital into an unready, underperforming system can do.

The grant that I recently wrote is designed to help my local village group, Faso Djigui, start a 400-tree moringa orchard and powder-production business and service here in Koumbara.  Although the motivation is there, lack of resources and education on how to manage an orchard and business necessitates a little help with getting the project off the ground.  The key to SPA grants (and all development grants of this nature) is to set it up in such a way that convinces your community that the money they will be receiving is not a gift, yet merely help in accomplishing a large project with great future potential.  When you ask Burkinabe (some very prominent figures, even) what “development” is, a great deal of them will say that it is, “people coming and bringing money.”  This is not their fault—the past 50+ years of development work (especially in West Africa) is largely characterized by unwarranted gifts of money, unprepared communities, and rampant corruption on all levels, resulting in a slew of unfinished and unsuccessful projects.

With that in mind, how does one write a grant asking for large sums and at the same time break through the deeply engrained expectations of receiving unearned money?  First, one must explain why a grant is needed for a particular project.  I started by reiterating my purpose in Koumbara as a volunteer and how this project was their idea and based on their needs.  Developing a sense of pride in their project is extremely helpful.  If they see it as their own baby, they will be more inclined to do what is needed to do, as opposed to waiting around for money to miraculously appear—you get very good at waiting here in West Africa.

Second, one must identify what exactly the group needs money for.  By separating the large expenditures from the small ones, we were able to identify that we simply didn’t have the money for 200 meters of high quality metal fence.  However, we determined that there was labor we could do ourselves, and equipment we could build (such as field preparation, and building drying racks for the moringa leaves).

Third, with the SPA grants giving 75% of the project cost and the community needing to contribute 25% in money or labor, one must structure the grant to illustrate what the group will be getting and what the group will buy themselves.  Since the metal fence took up such a huge portion of the grant, I was able to show my group that our money will be buying everything but the metal fence—hopefully giving them a stronger sense of ownership in the project.  Some volunteers will work with the grant and search out possible labor the community could do in order to drive down the price tag on their 25% contribution.  I shied away from that because I felt that would further perpetuate the idea that if they finagle with the system, they can get their gift of money without having to put much up themselves.  It’s a tricky and time-consuming process, to say the least.  Our project had a total cost of around 800 USD.  The government will give us 600 USD and we will have to produce 200 USD—roughly 100,000 CFA.  This is more than the one farmer’s annual income, yet through innovative approaches to pooling money, we will hopefully be able to get it together soon.

What does having money mean?  Having money in Burkina can be everything to some people.  If you look at the data, the highest levels of childhood malnutrition are not up in the Sahel (the northern tip of the country), but down in the southwest where the soil is the most fertile and abundant.  How is this the case?  As it turns out, farmers in the southwest sell and export everything, valuing the money and what they can do with it over the health of themselves and their families.  Moreover, having money can mean the detachment from rural communities and their needs.  This country is filled with those who have risen to prominent-enough positions that allow them to ignore the plights of those whom they have left behind.  I say “prominent-enough” because you don’t need to make it that far to receive some nominal government posting.  You can mention development and community health and education projects to these detached functionaries and they will feign interest and approval, yet it’s often easy to see when they’re not legitimately interested.  This is most certainly not the case for all functionaries here, although it’s prominent-enough (see what I did there?) to warrant a mention.  However, having money can mean, simply enough, elevation out of poverty.  This is what we’re aiming for, yet changing attitudes about what wealth means is what takes time and energy—helping a group start a business will be work for me, but teaching them how to responsibly manage the money they will be receiving will be another challenge in itself.

What can money do?  In the hands of those responsible and committed to the improvement of their communities, money can be a powerful tool.  It can help spark projects, it can help fix broken projects, and it can build an excitement and a sense of purpose within the community.  When Faso Djigui starts making money by selling their moringa powder, those profits will be stored in a bank account accessible only to the president, the treasurer, and my counterpart together.  They will then use this money to help subsidize improved seed for the farmers of Koumbara, allowing them to provide an additional service that previously would have been impossible.  Unfortunately, large sums of money in poor areas that lack accountability can lead to corruption, embezzlement, and infighting.  I know one volunteer who works with a prominent group in a prominent town outside one of Burkina’s largest cities.  He recently found out that over the two years of his service, his counterpart had been skimming money off the top and since nobody was watching (and if they were, they weren’t caring), he had gotten away with it.  We’re not talking small amounts here; we’re talking millions of CFA.  In all, when starting from scratch (like I am), creating stopgaps and checks in the system is crucial.  My group has set up their bank account under the pretext that it is only for use on group projects, not for them personally.  Hopefully that sentiment is as sustainable as I want to believe it is.  However, it will all rely on the culture and attitudes of the members of the group as time progresses.

What can’t money do?  Money alone can’t solve problems.  Those who are lazy with good intentions will try to convince you that if they could just get some money, they’d do some good with it.  Or if they’re really lazy they’ll just try to convince you that they need money—period.  The problem is that essentially for the past 50 years, that’s what’s been happening.  And what exactly do we have to show for those billions and trillions of dollars pumped into this system?  In fairness, yes there have been significant improvements, but for the amount of money given in the name of aid, most developing countries in Africa come up wanting.  An elegant example of what money can’t do is the all-too-familiar problem with the local health center—the CSPS.  These were built all over Africa and most villages and locales have one.  It was a WHO program designed to deliver reliable healthcare to those in rural areas without access to hospitals.  They were built by the host government, staffed with trained nurses, run by solar panels and battery banks if electricity isn’t available (like my village), and practically given medicines from foreign governments that they sell for pennies to their respective communities.  True, the injection of large sums of foreign and domestic money made that happen, yet just having a CSPS doesn’t get people in the door.  It costs 3500 CFA to give birth there (that’s 7 USD), yet most families forego the CSPS because they value keeping the money over the sanitary conditions and trained staff.  Frustratingly, what the head of the family will often spend 3500 CFA on is usually something we would value less than a proper and safe birth.  Money in the form of a functioning health center alone can’t change habits and attitudes, especially in such a risk-averse society that lacks basic safety nets that we take for granted.  When someone is sick, they use the CSPS as a last resort, claiming that the medicine is too expensive (which is not true).  This is a significant problem, and the delay in getting to the CSPS when something is actually gravely wrong has been the cause of two meningitis deaths in Koumbara this year.

How do those who lack money manage their resources?  This is fascinating topic here in Burkina and further north.  When you don’t have a bank account, animals are your bank account.  A goat goes for 10,000 CFA.  A sheep goes for 25,000 CFA.  A cow goes for 100,000 CFA.  A chicken goes for 2500 CFA.  You get the point.  The more animals you have, the more you have at your disposal—simple as that.  Although this is a form of saving, what most people in villages lack is the notion of planning ahead.  Here in the Sourou Valley, the Fulani, a quasi-nomadic ethnic group that lives all around our villages can be identified by their wealth of animals.  They’re usually quite poor in terms of physical money, living in much simpler conditions than their Dafine or Samo counterparts.  However, there are a few Peuls who have been able to capitalize on their animals and have been able to make a great deal of money, building houses and buying motorcycles.  It is possible to use your animals as a source of income but most Burkinabe are wary of that activity.


I had a negative interaction with an older woman a few months ago, in which she wanted me to buy her a shirt.  I politely refused, and after some playful back and forth (at least I thought it was), she told me I was a bad white person:  tu es un mauvais blanc.  I asked if she felt that the only good white people were the ones who gave her money and she said yes.  Thankfully she wasn’t from Koumbara or I would have been more upset.  People in my community tend to get why I’m here and don’t act this way.  However, this underscores an important challenge we face here.  Due to the preconceived notions described earlier, I’m constantly harassed when I travel.  Kids will demand a soccer ball or money; women will demand that I buy things from them because I have money; men will simply ask what I’m going to give them.  It can be insanely frustrating at times, yet we must remember that these are learned behaviors—and not just from the failures of the development community.  At the Dedougou mask festival, wealthy Europeans flocked to the center of town to pay children to be their guides, or simply give them money thinking they’re helping out.  That only teaches these kids that when they see a white person, there’s some possible money to be had.  When you look at children’s drawings depicting the mask festival, they show white people with electronics hanging off of their person.  This is where they learn it—and with no reliable notion of the problems of the Western world, they can confidently assume that white equals rich and rich equals gifts.

This post may come off as negative.  Unfortunately, the problems of money in the developing world so often outweigh the good.  However, I hope that I was able to illustrate the progress that is to be had with the proper allotment and usage of capital.  In summary, to quote The Beatles, “you never give me your money.”  That’s right, because we here in Koumbara earn our money, and we earn it ourselves.



Since I last posted that packing list, it has come to my attention that I’ve left off some key items.  Here they are:

Food.  Whatever space you may have left, stuff it with food.  Clif Bars (the protein bars taste better than the original ones, I think), beef jerky, candy of any sort, you name it.  You will thank yourself.  It will be important to acclimate to your host family’s food, but for snacks during the day or at night, you’ll thank yourself.  If you don’t have room and think you might really want some American snacks right away, make a package and send it to yourself about a week or two in advance of leaving.

Ziploc Bags.  These are amazing and amazingly useful.  You’ll be surprised with what you do with them sometimes.

Guide Book.  There are guide books at the transit house here but they’re woefully out of date.  The Brandt Guide to Burkina is good and Lonely Planet and Rough Guide’s West Africa guide books are both great.  This isn’t entirely necessary but good to have and can be a fun escape sometimes.

Super Glue.  You might not need this but it’s so small that you might as well throw it in because you never know when you might need some, in the same vein as duct tape.

Happy packing.



Well it’s that time of the year.  The new DABA and Education stages are priming and preparing to come to Burkina.  I remember where I was last year at this time so I figured if any of them actually look at this blog, I could give them some pointers with the ultimate packing list.  This is a mix of what I brought that I was happy with and things I wish I had brought with me.  Also, as a DABA volunteer, this will be more agriculture-specific.  Hopefully for future stagiaires, this post will be filled with fascinating insights and poignant reflections on Peace Corps service in Burkina.  For anyone else who might read this, I’m sorry but the next few paragraphs will be extremely boring…


Any 75 L backpack.  I used a large backpack as my main luggage.  Any brand will do, really.  Don’t stress over it.  I found the 75 L quite large but keep in mind, a backpack is not necessary since the Peace Corps picks you up at the airport and transports your luggage wherever you need to go (from your approximately first three days at a hotel in Ouaga to your training site of Ipelce, back to Ouaga for swear-in, and then to your individual site).  However I enjoyed the mobility.  Keep in mind, you’ll get dropped off at the training center but your family will come to pick you up.  It might be a donkey cart or just your host dad on a rickety old bike.  Don’t worry, it’s all part of the fun.

Any 35 L backpack.  I used this as a carry-on and also for the more immediate items I would need in Ouaga.  Again, any brand will do so don’t fret.


1 pair of work pants.  Mine are heavy-duty cotton.  They’re breathable and extremely durable which is a plus.  Keep in mind, although it gets extremely hot here, it is not necessary to deck yourself out in space-age fibers and wicking clothing.  You’re going to sweat no matter what and you already will stand out.  You don’t need to stand out more by looking like you’re on a safari or about to run a marathon.

2 pairs of dress pants.  You will need to look nice at times.  I brought linen dress pants and couldn’t be happier.  Although linen can be expensive, nothing breathes better, really.

2 pairs of casual pants.  Say goodbye to your shorts.  You will never wear them because they’re not appropriate.  Thus, a couple pairs of casual pants are necessary.  Linen is also good for this.

1 pair of good jeans.  Durable is key.  Jeans are great for going out in Ouaga and Bobo.  They take up a lot of space, however, so stick to one pair.

7 cotton t-shirts.  You will wear these all the time.  Make sure they’re not already on their last legs.  It might go without saying, but don’t bring anything precious because after two years it will be most likely ruined.  Also, V-necks tend to give you more airflow.  This is good when it’s 120 degrees outside—which it is now.

3 collared shirts.  You will need these.  Short-sleeved ones are perfectly acceptable.

2 pairs of socks.  You will bring dress shoes so bring a pair of dress socks and a pair for sport.  You’ll almost never wear them but it’s good to have them.

7 pairs of underwear.  No need for crazy new fabrics.  Cotton boxers are totally fine.

1 bathing suit.  There are pools and rivers here.  Bring one and you’ll thank yourself.

1 hoodie.  This is unbelievably helpful during the cold season.  However, it’s big and bulky so if you can’t fit it in, have someone send it over.

1 scarf.  During the cold season you’ll actually be glad you had this.  Also, it’s very helpful for biking amidst all the dust of the dry season.

1 belt.  You will lose weight, probably.  Also, just bring a belt to wear with nice clothing.  Make sure it matches your dress shoes…that I will get to in a minute.

1 raincoat.  It rains, bring one.

1 pair of dress shoes.  These are necessary.  Make sure they’re comfortable.

1 pair of good flip-flops.  It is not necessary to seek out something that really straps to your feet—ie:  Chacos.  A pair of leather flip-flops is perfectly fine.  I have Rainbows and they’re fantastic.  Although being expensive for a flip flop, they’re the most durable ones you can buy and will last you two years without trouble.

1 pair of casual shoes.  It will be good to have these because you might go somewhere that requires close-toed shoes.  Toms are great because they pack well, but anything works.

1 pair of running shoes.  If you want to do active sporty things.  The kids at the center in Ipelce love to play soccer and always love if you join in.  So keep that in mind.  If you’re not interested in sports activity, feel free to ignore this suggestion.

*A note on shoes:  You can find shower flip-flops and any other type for shoe in Ouaga and all over so if you’re running out of space, keep that in mind.  They just might be less-than-desirable quality if you buy them here, though.

1 pair of mesh shorts.  Awesome for sleeping or around the house.  Not awesome for wearing out in public unless playing sports.

1 long-sleeved shirt.  Good to have, that’s all.  Not necessary, though.

1 tie.  It’s good to have a tie.  You never know when you’ll need one or feel like it might be appropriate to wear one


Laptop.  If you have a decently portable laptop, just bring that.  There is no need to buy a netbook.  However, I highly recommend having a computer.  It makes your life so much easier.

Solar charger.  I have a Solio charger, which is fine.  If you leave it out in full sun all day, it can charge your phone for about 20-30 minutes.  That’s acceptable to me but apparently there are better ones out there.  Feel free to make these decisions on your own.

Rechargeable batteries.  Fantastic thing to bring.  Sanyo’s Everloop batteries work great.  Batteries here are expensive and of greatly inferior quality.  I highly recommend bringing 8 AA and 8 AAAs.

Digital camera.  I brought a little point and shoot which is great because it’s easily portable and doesn’t draw too much attention.  If you have a nicer SLR or something, that can work.  Either way, if kids in your village see you have a camera, all hell breaks loose because they all want to get their picture taken.  Moral of the story:  sometimes it doesn’t matter how fancy your camera is.

2 universal to French adapters.  You can buy them here but they’re flimsy.  Just bring two from home.  Make sure they’re universal and not just for US outlets because most likely your phone charger will be British.  Don’t ask why.  Maybe they’re made in Ghana or something.

At least a 500 GB hard drive.  Bring this and fill it with movies and TV shows.  You will thank yourself.  PCVs trade media like crazy when we’re together so if you don’t bring over a lot, have not fear.  Also, as a related aside, you should probably develop an appreciation of Arrested Development before coming here.

2 8-GB USB keys.  These are great for sharing work and music.


Shortwave radio.   Fantastic for listening to BBC or VOA in the morning and evenings. Kaito KA1102 I hear is great with fantastic battery life and very compact.

Headlamp.  Great for moving around the house at night.  You most likely won’t have electricity.

iPod.  Self-explanatory.  Any music playing device will be worth its weight in gold.

Speakers for your iPod.  These are great so that you can listen to music in your house.  Any portable speaker works for this.  Altec Lansing makes one, I believe.

-Outdoor Things-

Leatherman.  I have the Leatherman Wave.  Absolutely fantastic for around the house and also as a DABA volunteer.  Any multi-tool will do, but Leatherman is quality.

Field knife.  Great for traveling and eating the impromptu mango.

Knife sharpener.  Your blades will get dull.

Mesh tent or bug hut.  Bug Huts are great and a cheaper option.  However if you do go for a different tent, make sure it’s freestanding (as in not needing to be staked in order to stand up).

Sleeping pad.  Small is key, and Thermarest has a prodeal with Peace Corps so I would go that route.

Sleeping bag.  I have a Marmot Never Winter bag (30 degrees).  It’s absolutely perfect for sleeping in the cold season.  I highly recommend getting a sleeping bag with those specifications.

Compressible pillow.  Good for long bus rides or if you have a visitor staying at your house.

Quick-dry towel.  This is great.  I got mine at REI.

Small collapsible backpack.  I have an LL Bean Stowaway bag.  It’s great because you can fit it into your luggage and take it out when you need to just do day trips or if you’re running around Ouaga.

2 Chico bags.  Perfect for the market and everything else.  They’re compact and durable—a necessity, I think.

1 roll of duct tape.  Bring it and fix things with it.

Seeds.  Bring whatever seeds you might want to grow in a garden at site.  Hierloom tomatoes?  Go for it!  Herbs?  Why not!  Bring whatever you want.  If you really want something to grow here, bring multiple varieties and brands of the same thing because odds are the seeds are not accustomed to this soil.  However, I managed to successfully grow Burpee Brandywine tomatoes if you’re looking for something proven to work.

1 water bottle.  Just bring a 1-liter water bottle.  I like the Platypus ones because they’re compressible so they pack easily.  For storing large quantities of water, don’t worry about bringing anything because you can find things for that here.

Tape adapter for iPod.  If you can find one of these, bring it.  A lot of times bush taxis have stereos with tape players.  This way you can play your music in the bush taxi.  Everyone loves it and you don’t have to hear Burkinabe music blasted in your ears for hours on end.  It’s usually a great cultural exchange.  Also, the main PC bus that will transport you has a tape player.  If you want to ride in style while listening to all your favorite music, bring that adapter.  It’s possible to bring an iTrip or whatever but radio waves are not as strong as they are in the US.

-Indoor Things-

At least 1 notebook.  I use a Molskine as a work journal.  It’s great because it’s incredibly durable.

2 books that you want to read.  You’ll trade a lot of books during stage.  Bring a couple that you can really get into.

Pictures of family/friends/pets/loved ones.  This is a necessity for showing your host family and for your own sanity when you have your own place.

Musical Instrument.  I brought a mandolin.  The ukulele is a popular choice.  Or if you don’t feel like carrying something extra, bring a harmonica or two.

Pastels/colored pencils/watercolors.  If you’re artistically-inclined, go ahead.

At least 5 of your favorite pens.  Pens suck here for the most part.

-Toiletries (bring a 3-month supply of the following things)-

Good facewash


Shaving cream

Toothpaste.  Bring a variety with a screw-on cap.  Things will get smashed around in your bag and the last thing you want is for your toothpaste to get everywhere…like what happened to me.

Sunscreen for your face



Bar soap and plastic holder.  Bar soap is easy to find, just bring one.


Razor, extra razor blades

Camping mirror

-Gift for your host family-

Don’t worry too much about this.  I brought a book of photographs of US Parks.  This was great because my family was fascinated by the scenery and there was nothing that reminded them of the opulence that they believe exemplifies our country.  It’s up to you, but a book of pictures is a good way to go—especially since you don’t know what the child situation will be like with your family.  If there are a lot of kids, you can ask someone to send you some stuff during stage.

-Things I don’t have but others seem to be happy with-

Smart phone


-Things you absolutely don’t need or don’t need to bring with you-

Anything having to do with water purification

Any over-the-counter medicine

Kitchen supplies/spices

French-English Dictionary

Books on first aid or tropical medicine

Mosquito net

Insect repellant

Umbrella.  Su has asked me to put this in because she did bring one and it was destroyed in the first storm.  A raincoat with a hood will suffice.

*Don’t forget to bring a bike helmet!  The best thing to do is to buy a new one, bring the receipt, and get reimbursed during stage.  It’s a simple process and the extra $45 or so can be very helpful.  Also, a packing tip, clip it to the outside of whatever bag you’re using as your carry-on.  Otherwise, it will take up way too much space in your bag.

*You’ll get a one-time-use debit card at staging with about $40 on it.  This is for expenses from staging to Burkina (food, etc.).  However, bring an extra $100 with you to country.  You’ll have the opportunity to exchange that money and having that in CFA is a great little savings account during the 3 months of training when you will be on a walk-around allowance.

*Bring your acceptance packet with all forms filled out—it’s a pain in the ass to be missing something at staging.

Well that’s all I can think of at this time.  I hope that helps out for I tried to be as complete as possible.  Good luck, and we’ll see you soon!


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Jason Tsichlis

Post Calendar

May 2012