Jason Tsichlis

Jason Tsichlis has written 31 posts for Notes from the Sahel

Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground

Let me paint a picture for you:

I wake up around six o’clock in the morning.  I’m in my room, on my lit pico, and snuggled in my sleeping bag (which is designed to keep someone comfortable down to 32 degrees).  I don’t want to get up because not only am I very comfortable, but I know that I’m going to get a rude awakening when I open that door to my courtyard.  However, I must start the day.  My neighbors will be eating their bouille soon and I want to get in on that.  So I kick off my sleeping bag, summon all my strength, roll under my mosquito net (which isn’t exactly necessary this time of year but I like it anyway), and walk to the door…

The metal door creaks as I open it and…Ah!  It’s so cold!  I get goosebumps immediately as I step outside in my shorts and ultra-hipster WRBC tank top (thank’s Nora).  The harmattan, finishing its journey from the Sahara nearly knocks me over into my garden.  My toes feel as if I’m wearing flip flops in November, and my ultimate mission is to just go to my latrine, pee, and get back inside so that I can bundle up with a scarf and hoodie (thanks Mom), make some tea or coffee, and shovel some peanut butter into my mouth before going to my neighbors.

The temperature, you ask?  Oh probably no less than 60 degrees at that point.

I’ll be the first to admit it:  I’m cold.  Those volunteer blogs I read before coming here last June were not kidding around; a sweater or hoodie is certainly key this time of year.  During the day, it would be safe to say that the mercury hits the low or mid 90’s.  And that’s perfectly reasonable.  No layering necessary.  However at night, some people here have measured the temperature at around 55 degrees.  Can you believe that!  I grew up in the Northeast (Philaelphia’s not exactly the coldest city but cold enough), spent four years going to college in Maine (ah!  cold!), and spent another two years living in Boston–a city famous for its ever-changing yet constantly shitty weather.

One of the more striking examples of my changing biology was an evening I spent sitting outside.  My parents called and we were talking about–among other things–the weather.  They asked if I was cold.  I was wearing my hoodie and exclaimed that, yes, I did feel a bit chilly but it was the evening so that was to be expected.  Upon their inspection of weather.com, they found that it was actually 82 degrees where I was.

However, this weather is great.  Not only does it feel great to be bundled up in the morning and at night, but sometimes when the cold wind blows, it can trigger pleasant wintertime memories of home.  In fact, one morning, my neighbors and I were eating breakfast and talking about how cold it got in the US.  I brought out my New England picture book and showed them photos of harbors frozen over in the winter.  They were blown away but I’m not quite sure they fully comprehended how much colder it needed to be for that to happen for they were already bundled up in winter coats and sitting around a fire.  In fact, I’m not too sure I comprehend it either anymore.

But the hot season is approaching.  At the height of the day, it definitely does feel a bit hotter with the sun beating just slightly harder on my skin.  I’m trying to enjoy the cold as much as possible for I’m told that the hot season from March to May is just shy of hell-on-Earth.

And to close, how does one say that he or she is cold in Jula?  Well, to say that I am cold, I say:  Nene bi ne la.  If I want to ask if someone is cold, I say:  Nene bi ele wa?  In case you didn’t pick up on the common denominator there, “nene” means cold.

Lastly, I have uploaded more pictures.  I’ve finished uploading into the album “First Months at Site” so check it out to see what’s new.  In that you’ll see some pictures of what everything looks like when the harmattan blows into town.  In addition, there is an album of my Christmas I spent in village.  I actually do have more pictures but they’re on my camera and you’ll have to wait to see them.  Sorry!

Work is going well, I have been making a good deal of soap with the womens groups and we are putting together money for our moringa project which will begin in earnest very soon along with an extensive reforestation initiative.  I hope all is well back home, and wish everyone a happy continuation of winter.  Stay tuned for more updates on my work!


Christmas on Pluto

I suppose I have a “tradition” each Christmas.  We don’t do it every year but most years that I can remember, my brother and I have watched the Sesame Street Christmas special from the early 1990s—on VHS no less.  Since I am not in the US (or near a TV or VHS for that matter) I have decided to summarize this fantastic episode as I remember it:

It begins as any decent Christmas-themed special begins:  on Christmas Eve day with the gang at the local ice skating rink.  It seems fun enough, there’s music playing, possible singing, yet the details escape me at this time.  Everyone’s there:  Big Bird, Cookie Monster, The Count, Elmo, Grover, Oscar, Bert, Ernie, possibly Snuffy, and I believe a random mix of ethnically-diverse people.  Cookie Monster—being the natural-born troublemaker that he is—suggests a rousing game of “crack the whip.”  Well, he doesn’t so much as suggest it as he yells it:  “LET’S PLAY SNAP THE WHIP!”  The whole bunch thinks this is a great idea.  How could they not?  However, poor Oscar, who is not quite as deft at skating as the rest (possibly having something to do with the fact that he sports a trash can as his clothing/housing), finds himself on the end of the line.  Hilarity ensues as Oscar is flung from the line and down several flights of stairs onto the street below.  Naturally feeling slighted by these events, Oscar quietly vows revenge…

Moving on to later that day, Ernie and Bert are in the process of finding the perfect gifts for one another—a bit last minute but we don’t need to dwell on that.  O’Henry would be proud for Ernie painfully parts with his rubber ducky to buy Bert something relating to paper clips.  Bert also parts with something paper clip-related (what’s his deal with paper clips anyway?) to buy Ernie a soap dish for—that’s right—his rubber ducky.  The central player in this Gift of the Maggi saga is Mr. Rooper, or Cooper, or something like that.  Although it was visibly difficult for him, the mere fact that he knowingly let these two life partners part with their most prized possessions in order to buy the counterpart object for the other is rather cold given the spirit of the holiday season.  I don’t believe his apathy has ever been seriously explored but it is rather atrocious.

Meanwhile, Elmo interviews children about Santa in the same vein as Kids Say the Darndest Things.  It’s not too interesting because the kids are very young so they don’t really have any thoughts other than the fact that Santa comes and they get presents.  All the while, Snuffy is busy being useless.

In one of the funniest—if not the most peculiar—bits, Cookie Monster attempts to contact the North Pole.  His concern is, naturally, cookies.  How will he get them?  What varieties?  And how MANY, DAMNIT?!  He tries writing a letter; however, for some reason the paper and pencil remind him of cookies.  Within a New York minute, he has eaten them.  Next comes the typewriter.  He devours it and makes quite a spectacle out of it.  The way I see it, it wasn’t in his best interest to write on Christmas Eve anyway.  With the postal service the way it is around Christmas time, there’s no way Santa would have been able to honor his requests within such short notice.  Thus, being the truly analytical thinker that he is, he decides to call.  Unfortunately, the receiver reminds him of “ROUND COOKIES!” and he tears it apart only to hear sleigh bells and Santa’s deep, resounding voice answer from inside his blue furry stomach…

At this time, Oscar decides to exact his revenge.  He finds Big Bird (who was always too accepting and gullible for his own good) and informs him of a legitimate issue.  He tells Big Bird that Santa’s got a lot of chimneys to go down.  Not only does that sound like a tall order in one night but the chimneys on Sesame Street are quite small.  If Santa’s supposedly a big, jolly guy, how could he possibly fit down a chimney with the same circumference as a grapefruit?  Big Bird is flummoxed…

Meanwhile, Snuffy continues to be useless.

The episode reaches its climax as Big Bird almost freezes solid on top of the roof of some house.  It wasn’t his house; they’re very trusting over there on Sesame Street.  He falls asleep and Santa walks right by.  We never see Santa but are allowed to understand his presence.  Thankfully, Oscar’s trickery is detected by the same crew of ethnically-diverse people from the ice skating rink and Big Bird is brought inside.  They then sing Feliz Navidad with that guy who wrote it.  Bert and Ernie discover the roots of their interconnected follies.  Although I’m not entirely sure how that plot line ends, I assume that everything works out for them.  Cookie Monster gets cookies, and Oscar even gets something, I believe.  The moral of the story:  Merry Christmas!

Christmas for me was rather interesting.  My community is entirely Muslim so not only was the holiday not recognized, but the funeral for my neighbor actually fell on that day as well.  This might sound odd, but the funeral itself was rather quite a large party—more of a celebration of life rather than strict mourning.  I had resigned myself to the fact that my Christmas was going to be bizarre no matter what I did so it was actually a great day in my eyes.  I spent Christmas Eve night in a village about 45 km north of Koumbara with some other volunteers but due to the fact that I was expected back in village for the funeral on the morning of the 25th, I had to travel very early.  I left at 6 AM with three packages strapped to the back of my bike.  After three hours on bush paths, a flat tire that I patched with a piece of rubber from my bike, I made it back home just in time to wash and hit the mosque!  All the while, I had the Nutcracker on my iPod to keep me company.  Back in Koumbara I was able to spend a lot of quality time with those in my community whom I don’t see very often as well as spend some quality time with my neighbors and counterpart.  Overall, I’d say a very good, very memorable Christmas.

Other than that, I’d like to wish everyone a slightly belated happy holidays but a very on-time happy new year!  I’d like to thank my parents and my family in Greece (ευχαριστώ!) for their wonderful packages that I was able to open on Christmas day.  Stay tuned for another post on how my work at site is progressing!


Jason don’t live here no mo’

Just in time for the Christmas season!  As promised, here is my new address since I did move a few months ago…

Jason Tsichlis

B.P. 36, Tougan

Burkina Faso

l’Afrique de l’Ouest

That’s it!  So if you feel like sending me a letter or package, now you have my real address.  Check out my contact page for some tips on sending mail to my neck of the woods.  That’s all for now; I’m working on another update from site so stay tuned!


A Day in the Life

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!


Juma Meets the World:

That’s right, after a long silence from the internet, I have returned with the news that I have acquired a wonderful, roughly 8-week old puppy.  He’s a little malnourished and shy and he is the runt of the litter but the little guy caught my eye and I just couldn’t say no when he was offered to me.  His name is–as the title of this post indicates–Juma, which means “Friday” in Jula.  Why have i chosen this?  Well, he is named in honor of my family’s beloved childhood cat, Friday, as his brindle coloring is indicative of her tabby coat.

You may also be wondering where I’ve been.  I’ve been at site, getting to know my community, and working on getting projects off the ground.  Since time is limited, I will post this for now but stay tuned since I’m in Ouaga for the week at IST (in-service training) and will upload ALL my pictures of my house and community and will do a full entry to update you all on my life since I’m sure you’re probably wondering what I’ve been up to…

Now, another picture to tie you over until I get back to the computer:

Jula 101

Welcome to your first (and possibly last) lesson of this lovely West African trade language, Jula!  I decided to do this for a few reasons:  1) because I thought you might like to know a little bit about what I’m speaking, and 2) because I need a way to safely process what I’m learning so that my head does not explode.  Ready?  OK, we’ll start with the alphabet…

The Jula alphabet has 28 letters.  It does not have Q and X but has 4 different ones.  The first is depicted as a Greek epsilon (in this case, I will bold the e).  It’s sound is similar to the E in “pet” whereas the regular E sounds more like the vowel in “pray”.   In addition, there is an N that makes a n-y sound like “senorita,” an N that makes a soft n-g sound like “ringing” and an open O that is depicted as a backwards C but in this case, I will just bold it.  Other things, the C is pronounced as a “ch” sound just as in Italian when the C precedes a vowel.

Prepositions are incredibly important in Jula.  They also happen to be all over the sentences (seemingly at random).  Their meanings also change depending on where you put them and what verbs you’re using.  In short, if you mess up the structure of a sentence, more often that not you’re saying something completely different, quite possibly even in a different tense.  An example using the ubiquitous “ye” followed by the direct translation:

I am an American:  N ye Ameriken ye. [I am American am.]

I ate rice last night: N ye malo dumu kunu wulafe. [I past-participle rice eat last night].]

He wants couscous with tomato sauce:  A bi basi ni jabaji ye fe.  [He/she tense marker couscous with onionwater (yes, the literal translation of jabaji or tomato sauce is onion water) other half of “with” want.]

As you can see, “ye” is used (among numerous other uses) as “to be,” as a past participle, and as the other half of “with.”  It’s impossible to translate “ye.”  It has no sense in English–or any other language for that matter.  Other pronouns include be/bi, la, ko, ka, ma, ra and probably a bunch of others i forget.

Ka fe is a peculiar verb.  It means “to have” and “to want” depending on how you use it.  Below is an example.  Also, verbs come in their infinitive form with “ka” in front just as we put “to” in front of our verbs in English.  However, “ka” is also used as a way to determine possessives and as a way of splitting two part sentences so be careful.  Now, on to a very dangerous example:

I have a wife:  Muso bi n fe.  [Wife/woman tense marker I have.]

I want a wife:  N bi muso fe. [I tense marker wife/woman want.]

Needless to say, a good understanding of Jula is necessary so as not to end up prematurely married.  Now, on to numbers.  Thankfully they’re more straightforward than in English.  I won’t count all but here’s an example from 1 to 10:  kelen, fila, saba, naani, duuru, wooro, wolonfila, seegi, konondon, tan.  11 to 19 is tan ni kelen, tan ni fila, etc (“ni” means “and” but can also form another possessive sentence but we won’t get into that).  20 is mugan then the 30 is bisaba, 40 is binaani, and so on.  100 is ceme and 1000 is waga.  This is all fine and good but when dealing with prices, one must multiply by 5.  I know, confusing right?  So let’s practice:  If someone in the market says something costs 20 (“nin ye mugan ye”) really means 100 CFA, 50 really means 250, and so on.  Thus, when I got my clothes for swear-in tailored, it cost me waga kelen ni ceme fila–1200 or, more accurately 6000 CFA (roughly USD 12…not bad for two pairs of hand tailored pants and a vest).  This can be confusing but you do get used to it and practice is always good…

In Jula, building nouns from verbs and verbs from nouns is very important.  It forms a peculiar circle.  Take for instance, the verb “to eat”:  ka dumu.  Depending on how the verb ends, you add ni, ri, or li to form a noun.  In this case, we add “ni” to form “dumuni” or “food.”  From here, we can add the verb ka ke (to do/to make) and form dumuni ke.  We’re now back to a verb which can b used interchangeably with ka dumu.  This practice is woven in and out of sentences and requires VERY attentive listening or else you’ll get VERY lost.

Let’s jump ahead.  We’ve got some basics down so I’m going to give a full phrase explaining what I’m doing here in Burkina:

The Peace Corps is work by the American government.  I will live with the Burkinabe here to work for 2 years to assist a village:  Koridelape ye Ameriki guwerneman ka baara da do ye.  Nne bina sigi ni Burkinabe ye yan, ka baara ke san fila ka dugu mogo deme. [Peace Corps is America government of work is.  I will live with Burkinabe (other half of “with”) here, to work year 2 to village give assistance.]

Hopefully that was a good lesson for you.  That’s all for now, and I hope you enjoyed jumping into my world for a little bit!  If you do have questions regarding tenses or really anything, feel free to email me.

Also, I was informed that my cousin, Maria, and her husband, Costis, in Greece have just had their first kid so congratulations to them!  That is all for now.  Stay tuned for awesome news of swear in, coming in under 2 weeks!  Take care, all!

Hello Goodbye

We have made it to an interesting part of training!  We now no longer live in Ipelce but in Ouaga and will be here for the next few weeks doing nothing but learning Jula.  Despite feeling as though we hit a milestone (so to speak) and the fact that we get to experience a totally different life that–in conjunction with village life–makes up this complex fabric that is Burkina Faso, saying goodbye to my family in Ipelce was difficult.  There was so much about that village (and the villages of Narotenga and Nakombgo) that made me smile on a daily basis.  Thus, below are several goodbyes and hellos regarding my old and new lives of training:

Goodbye:  family, pintards in my tree waking me at 3 AM, sleeping with my door open, the kids that always said “ca va? ca va?” every morning as i rode by, l’arbre, the guys at the center that always helped with our pepinieres, the folle in the market that always wore a winter coat, dolo alley, the yogurt place, Jean-Baptiste and The Green Door, bike trails, and of course all the people that were so accepting and welcoming of us.

Hello:  new family! salads almost every night, DANGEROUS roads, the creamery, locking and bolting myself in at night because of “bandits,” Jula class all day every day, the pool, and the general chaotic nature of Ouaga

We’ll be here until September 22nd with a short little trip to Tougan to meet our counterparts.  Swear-in is on the 22nd and after a big fair, we’ll start moving to our sites on the 26th (happy birthday, Mia).  Needless to say, I think we’re all excited to be in the home stretch…

Aside from that, not too much to report.  I will try to upload some pictures later but for now, check out what I’ve got up of my old place in Ipelce.  I’ve got to get to class!

Burkina Fascinating

So it’s been over a month since we first landed in Ouaga and I’m finally able to get around to explaining a little bit about my life here.  I am living with a family in the village of Nakomgo, just about 40-50 km south of the great capital.  I live with a relatively normal family of mom, dad, and two sisters.  Other fellow PCT’s are inundated with children chanting their names over and over when they arrive home.  Thankfully I have none of that.  On the plus side, when they move to site, they will be fully prepared to deal with that nonsense and I will not.  My family here is also relatively relaxed which I love.  If I need to work late or want to meet up with other PCT’s they’re very open and give me great space and freedom yet are always there to talk to learn more about the Burkinabe lifestyle, practice my French which is really improving, or practice my Moore (not really making that sustained an effort there since I need to learn Dioula for my site anyway).
I train in two places in the area.  I live adjacent to Ipelce, a medium-sized village right on the main road to Ghana and there is a fantastic agricultural training school there.  Inside the walls of this school, the 12 DABA (Developing Agriculture and environmental Business Activities) trainees have a model field complete with our own pepinieres (tree nurseries).  My pepiniere consists of 92 Moringa, 46 Ziziphus, 26 Acacia Albida, 26 Lucaena, 23 Acacia Senegal, and 23 Baobab trees all started from seed.  I’m content so far as I’ve received a relatively high rate of germination for them all.  Furthermore, they’re all varieties I have selected that have nutritional or other important properties for cultivation in this area.  In the model field, my team of Michael, Sabastian, and myself have planted red sorghum, millet, black-eyed peas, yellow corn (although used for human consumption, it’s not sweet corn like we know it but the variety we use for cattle feed in the states), white sorghum, and millet.  We have done some intercropping with sorghum and black-eyed peas similar to the Native American “three sisters” method as they don’t compete height-wise and form a fantastic symbiotic relationship that serves to aid both plants in the long run.
What is life like?  It’s certainly interesting.  A question I have received a lot is about food.  To be frank, the food is not good by American standards.  There’s no diversity in flavor or texture and most things you eat in the marche can be scary–will I throw up in a couple hours?  That said, you do get used to it and start to like what you eat.  To is the staple food of Burkina.  It’s made of mashed corn or sorghum boiled somehow for a long time and again somehow formed into a paste that you pick up with your hands and dip into a slimey sauce of okra, tree leaves, soumbala (an interesting black ball that comes from trees…?), or peanut.  The same idea is applied to rice:  plain rice with sauce.  Meat is interesting.  If you get something with meat in it, you often don’t know what animal or, more imporantly, part of the animal you’re eating.  For example, I ate cow penis shish kabobs the other day–thought there were weird mushrooms mixed in with other chunks of meat.  They were not.  Lesson learned.  You can get salads and we all crave them however at this time there are really no cucumbers or tomatoes or really any vegetable other than eggplant and some okra in the marche as it’s the beginning of the rainy season.  This makes salads rather exotic and expensive and DANGEROUS because proper sanitation and cleaning of the produce is needed to not become violently ill.  If you get a salad, though, you have no idea how the veggies were cleaned if at all.  These are gambles but we take them (and some have lost pretty bad) but you can’t live on to alone!  Fortunately mangoes are still in season for a little while longer.  They brighten any day.  Overall, to sum up food, it can be a challege sometimes but when you get something good it makes your day.  In addition, although I openly discuss the food’s negatives, they are small by comparison to what the food means here.  It’s life and sustenance and we all treat it with respect whether it’s to sauce feuilles for the fifth night in a row or an awesome salad on a hot day.  What trumps anything, however, is the company with which you share your food.  Whether you’re eating with fellow PCT’s or Burkinabe family and friends, it’s really hard to complain.
As far as weird insects are concerned, yes they’re all around and a lot of us have been given termites to eat that fly around after the rains.  However, most don’t really do anything.  The scorpion carrier spiders are big (size of your hand), are everywhere at night, and are fast as lightning but if you put your lantern on the ground they’ll usually run toward it giving you a chance to kill them with your flip flop or whatever you have–if you’ve got the reflexes of course.  However, other than looking like they came from the bowels of hell, they don’t really do anything so it’s hard to be afraid of them now.  There are scorpions about, though, so it’s important to be on the lookout especially in the shower or latrine at night.  Cockroaches are also everywhere (especially in the latrines at night) but again they don’t do anything so no worries, just ignore them.  Your best friends are the salamanders and lizards who eat all the scary things.  I have one in my room hanging out while I type this.  I haven’t given him a name but am working on it.
There are fascinating aspects of this culture–from the way someone’s face lights up when you greet them on the road in their local language, to incredible the incredible hospitality at my family’s house, neighboors’ houses, and *cough* dolo bar…  You can also get children to do anything.  If you want a water or soda, just walk up to a child on the street, give him the money and tell him sternly to “go get me a 50 CFA sachet of water” and he will run off returning with your product not looking for any payment.  It’s truly amazing not because they do it but because they WANT to do it.  Not only is this practice absolutely commonplace in this culture but what makes it easier is that I am such a sideshow freak in the Ipelce market, the kids love to follow me around anyway.  I am exotic and fascinating with my white skin (although I have probably the best farmers’ tan of my life right now) and if I tell them to do something they will fight over who gets to do it for me.  Really, everyone wins.  In the States would you give money to some random kid on the street and tell him to get you something?  The answer to that rhetorical question is obviously no.
Lastly, the most important news, I found out today where I will be living for my two years of service!  I don’t know much but will be in the village of Koumbara in the Sourou valley.  I will be working with a local organization, Groupement Faso Djigui on live fencing, organic composting, tree planting, nutrition, improved agricultural techniques, and small business trainings.  I’m excited because the local CSPS (health center) works a great deal with Moringa trees!  I really wanted to work with this fantastic tree through a childhood nutrition lens so I’m really happy about this placement.  I’m also excited because I’m only about 40 km from the Mali border, making vacations in Dogon country super easy and apparently I’m living on my own in a big house with big windows (all relative of course, probably 2-3 rooms max) and my own couryard.  Awesome.
Well that’s all for this long-overdue post and this unusual internet access.  There’s so much more to write but there is to to eat at the moment.  I am fine and healthy (with a slight 4 day intestinal jubilee last week that Nick was fortunately on the phone for) and am thinking of everyone back home a lot as I trudge my way through PST.  I’m upbeat and optimistic though, and definitely excited to get to site in September and get to work.  I hope all is well back home and you know my email address so if you have questions or want to say hi, you can always write to me and I will get back to you as soon as I can!


Teach me how to Ouagadougie

As our first week in the capital comes to a close I find it prudent to update the world on the latest goings on here in Burkina.  This past week has been one of relearning.  We have relearned everything down to the most basic levels of human functioning:  how to eat, how to sleep, how to go to the bathroom, how to order food, how to greet people, how to shake hands, how to sit, and generally how to interact with people.  It’s pretty incredible how much we have to go back to square one.

The week has been quite good.  We’ve been staying in a compound in Ouaga paired up in rooms with a fan and (sometimes) an air conditioner and internet–incredibly luxurious conditions to say the least.  We have received vaccinations, received our bikes, learned how to self diagnose some basic gastrointestinal problems, made practice malaria slides, worked on our French and Moore, and generally have enjoyed the “summer camp” vibe around the compound.

Eating out has been interesting as I’m not good enough at Burkinabe French (or Moore for that matter) to actually branch out.  We all leave in a couple hours to meet our host families and start our new lives.  Since finding out that the Ag volunteers will be serving in the Sourou valley off to the west by the border with Mali, my thoughts have turned to the local language of Jula and hope that my host family speaks both that and French.  I stress the word hope.

That’s all for now, I’m well and enthusiastic and stay tuned for my first post from my training village of Ipelce.

Packing and Preparing

I’m currently writing this from Baltimore as I’m on my last swing through the mid-Atlantic to see people before staging on June 9th.  I’m all packed up and pretty excited to say the least.  Also, I figured I could give those interested a quick list of what I packed (and maybe why I packed it)…


2 pairs of lightweight khakis, 2 pairs of lightweight casual pants, 2 pairs of work pants for field work, 1 pair of mesh shorts, 2 casual collared shirts, 2 more dressy collared shirts, 1 UV-protecting collared shirt for the outdoor work, 7 cotton t-shirts, 7 pairs of cotton boxers, 1 long-sleeve shirt, 1 pair of lightweight sleeping pants,1 scarf (I’ll be the one laughing when the cold season comes…maybe?), 1 pair of flip flops, 1 pair of work shoes, 1 pair of dress shoes, 1 pair of casual shoes, 2 pairs of socks, 1 pair of khaki shorts (don’t anticipate wearing them too much), a couple ties, 2 pairs of glasses, and 1 pair of sunglasses.  I think that’s it…


Netbook, point-and-shoot digital camera, headlamp, solar charger, 8 reusable AA and AAA with charger, external hard drive, and a USB flash drive.


4L Platypus water tank and 2 1L water bottles (they’re great because they can pack flat and weigh next to nothing), leatherman, field knife, screen tent, warm weather sleeping bag, sleeping pad, compressible pillow (thank you, Mia!), quick-dry towel, and a bike helmet.


Assorted toiletries, mesh loose-leaf tea spoon, assorted spices, pastels and sketching pencils, and a mandolin.

That should be it.  I’m sure I’ve missed a few things but that’s the general list!  Right now I’m relaxed and going through some final preparations before staging on Thursday.  Stay tuned for my first post from Burkina!

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Jason Tsichlis

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June 2023