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The Return to Innocence Lost

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.


(There’ll be) HEERE in the Valley

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.

Project Implementation: 

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!


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Jason Tsichlis

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June 2012