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 am a college friend of your mom’s and i’ve truly appreciated your thoughtful observations eloquently expressed. both your mom and i were exchange students and while in no way would i compare my few brief months away from home (in such a remote area as Bretagne, France, no less) i do so strongly relate to how the trauma of your experience has triggered a re-awakening of not just all your senses but of your basic emotional core. And it is so compelling to read this in your blog. among your many future endeavors i hope you keep on writing. you have so much to say!
This most recent entry is truely poetic. Both Daryl (who commented above) and I were studio art minors in college and we appreciate your references to those pigments. I can feel your apprehension of that second night: such an ominous building representing unrelenting challenges on a background of fear and uncertainty. How different all of the society looks to you now. You can see it, not just look at it.
Let’s see what I “see” in 11 days…