This category contains 31 posts

So This Is Goodbye

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:  “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.  We are never tired so long as we can see far enough.”  While his seminal transcendentalist views on the interrelated properties of man, nature, beauty, and discipline were born in the temperate woods of New England—far from where I’m putting pen to paper—his truths can resonate.  My entire service can be viewed as a perpetual eye on the horizon.  The turn of every calendar page brought me closer to success—closer to the profound reward of being able to see my family, my friends, my home.

I’m confused, though.  This is my home—a home, at least.  I’ve been living in Burkina Faso for over two years now, a willing captive roaming the corridors of the labyrinth of West African development.  This “Land of Upright People,” of lost luck and found ingenuity has nurtured and challenged me just as any home possibly could.  Consequently, that eye I kept trained on the horizon energized me when I was tired and comforted me when I was ill at ease.

Far enough:  to see far enough is not to see perpetually.  To see only what is necessary or available is a far cry from clairvoyance.    In my 789 days in Burkina, I was forced to rely on reason to guide me in my horizon dreams.  As a new volunteer, looking twenty months into the future for comfort could only bring sadness and frustration, so to know where my horizon actually was became invaluable.  Yes, it might have been on my stateside return, but it also lied in the success of a project in my village.  It could lie anywhere:  in the approaching market day or in the fantastic expectation of the kids in my host family running to my bike as I returned after a long absence.

And so it is with a great deal of disquiet that I leave this place that Providence seems to have missed.  I am ready to go—ready for reunions and reminders of the world I left behind.  I am ready for the creature comforts I so easily lived without.  However, I can’t leave here without the weight of unnecessary guilt.  Like an albatross around my neck, leaving my village in the middle of a lackluster rainy season forces me to feel like something of a deserter.  I have had to remind myself that I have every right to leave when my time is up, but perhaps I was never one to do it entirely willingly.  The morning I left my village, I felt as though I was ripping off a piece of myself.  The people to whom I was saying goodbye had wholly and unfailingly filled the roles of family, friends, and home for two years.  The finality of such a goodbye belied the fact that there is no word in the English language to accurately describe what their unswerving hospitality, generosity, and trust meant to me.  And there is no word to describe what these people will continue to mean to me for the rest of my life.

Thus, in my dearth of words to describe how I feel about my second home, I must adopt Emerson’s:  “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.”  Without goals large and small, horizons near and far, I would have been hopelessly lost and unable to truly appreciate the unconditional warmth and love with which I thrived.  It’s time now, though:  as of this morning I have officially closed my service and now upon me is the ultimate horizon that for over two years I have steadily and dutifully approached—

I am going home.

As a result, this is my last blog post.  I want to take this time to thank everyone who read what I had to say since June, 2011.  Although I did not write very often, it was always gratifying to know that someone out there was appreciating what I had to say about what I was experiencing.  I will be flying out of Ouagadouou tonight, will spend the weekend in Athens and will return to Boston on the afternoon of Monday, August 12.

If you have not seen my pictures, take a look at them here.  I will finish uploading all of them on Monday when I get home.

Once again, thank you to everyone who read, kept in contact, sent care packages, and thought of me during my time in Burkina Faso.  Your support (vocal or not) helped to remind me that although I found a new home in the dust of the Sahel, I did not lose the one I already had.

Ala ka hɛɛrɛ k’aw ɲɛ.


The Books I Read

When I began training over two years ago, I started to keep a list of the books I was reading.  I thought it would be interesting to look back on what I had read after I had finished my service.  Now that my service is winding down and I’m in my last week in Burkina, I have decided to share this list.  It can be said that I spent the bulk of my service reading books that I had always wanted to read and books that I was told I should read.  As a result, there is enormous diversity to what I put in front of my eyes:  from Steinbeck’s East of Eden to Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh, from Fey’s Bossypants to Joyce’s Ulysses.

I was initially reluctant to share this list because I did not want to imply that I spent my time idle and solitary.  However, I eventually decided it might be fun to put up the full list, for no reason other than the general public might be interested in what exactly I was reading in the evenings when there was no electricity or internet to occupy me.

And so, without further ado, here are the books I read—in the order that I read them:

  1. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder
  2. Ham on Rye, Charles Bukowski
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  4. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  5. Matryona’s House and Other Stories, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  6. Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, Tim Butcher
  7. The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson
  8. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
  9. Ending Hunger in Our Lifetime: Food Security and Globalization, C. Ford Runge, Benjamin Senauer, Philip G. Pardey, Mark W. Rosegrant
  10. The River Between, Ngugi wa Thiong’o
  11. The Qur’an, translated by Tarif Khalidi
  12. Endurance:  Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing
  13. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  14. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, David Eagleman
  15. Othello, William Shakespeare
  16. My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk
  17. The Constant Gardener, John le Carré
  18. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemmingway
  19. The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff
  20. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid:  A Memoir, Bill Bryson
  21. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
  22. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers
  23. The Iliad, Homer (translated by Robert Fagles)
  24. The Odyssey, Homer (translated by Robert Fagles)
  25. Blink, Malcolm Gladwell
  26. The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling
  27. This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  28. The Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  29. Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, Annie Proulx
  30. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell
  31. Table of Contents, John McPhee
  32. The Prince’s Speech on the Future of Food, HRH the Prince of Wales
  33. The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller
  34. The Color Purple, Alice Walker
  35. Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods, Nina Federoff and Nancy Marie Brown
  36. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  37. Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut
  38. The Extra Man, Jonathan Ames
  39. Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela
  40. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  41. And on Piano…Nicky Hopkins, Julian Dawson
  42. Bossypants, Tina Fey
  43. A Collection of Essays, George Orwell
  44. A Death In Belmont, Sebastian Junger
  45. Ulysses, James Joyce
  46. Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder
  47. Hiroshima, John Hersey
  48. The Dragon’s Trail: The Biography of Raphael’s Masterpiece, Joanna Pitman
  49. Twenty Prose Poems, Charles Baudelaire
  50. What Is the What, Dave Eggers
  51. Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
  52. The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, Calestous Juma
  53. Candide, Voltaire
  54. The Art of War, Sun Tzu
  55. Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-1947, Edmund Keeley
  56. A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul
  57. If I forget Thee, Jerusalem, William Faulkner
  58. All the President’s Men, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
  59. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  60. The Upanishads, translated by Eknath Easwaran
  61. Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
  62. Steppenwolf, Hermann Hesse
  63. Sailing from Byzantium, Colin Wells
  64. Birds without Wings, Louis de Bernières
  65. All the Pretty Horses, Cormack McCarthy
  66. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
  67. The Restless Atom: The Awakening of Nuclear Physics, Alfred Romer
  68. Walden, Henry David Thoreau
  69. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau
  70. The Adolescent, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  71. Life & Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee
  72. One Flew Over the Cucoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
  73. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris
  74. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  75. Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut
  76. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
  77. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
  78. The Crucible, Arthur Miller
  79. Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson
  80. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  81. King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild
  82. Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  83. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, Cormack McCarthy
  84. The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  85. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
  86. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  87. The Gospel of Matthew, Saint Matthew
  88. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
  89. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

And that’s all she wrote.


Let Your Soy Grow Tall

This is the story of soy in Koumbara:

When we hear “soy” we think many things.  We think healthful  and we think agricultural subsidies.  We think respected Asian tradition and we think Monsanto.  Today the word “soy” is more likely to incite ire over its less-than-wholesome applications in processed food.  However, here in Burkina, I’ve come to know soy as a great tool.

This past month, I took my counterpart (Yacouba) and his wife (Awa) to a training on soy cultivation and transformation out east in Fada.  They learned all about how to grow it and in addition, how to turn the dry, yellow seeds into tofu, milk, and yoghurt.  During those three days we consumed more soy products than I can count.  And the taste!  If you treat tofu like meat, marinate it, grill it, you’re going to have something pretty incredible on your hands–not some floating chunks of white mystery in your miso soup.

Back in Koumbara, we’ve taken to introducing this new product to the community.  Since the idea of curdling some solid paste from bean-water is not exactly up their alley, the people of Koumbara have taken to calling tofu sogo, or “meat” to simplify the idea.

What do they think?  They love the stuff.  Women come up to me now and ask:  An bina sogo ke lon juma?  What day are we going to make meat?  After introducing it, there is a verifiable buzz in the village.

In addition, they can’t wait to plant it knowing that the roots are nitrogen-fixing and can thus be another plant in their arsenal of crop rotation.  In fact, the FAO singled out soy as the crop for the future of West Africa.  The tofu/milk/yoghurt are also intensely healthful, providing a source of protein and essential vitamins not found in the typical Burkinabe diet.  Since meat consumption in Koumbara is non-existent save festivals and special occasions, soy can give these families the opportunity to provide a consistent source of “meat” to their children.  And this time of year–hunger season–there are a great deal of distended bellies from improper and insufficient diets.

Part of my rationale for taking my counterpart’s wife was to give her something to teach.  She is an intelligent woman, but shy (as she was raised to be) and I wanted to help her to empower herself.  Perhaps that’s wishful, sophomoric thinking, but seeing her in the small Koumbara market, shadowed by our leviathan white-tiled mosque, donning her apron (that she brings out especially for tofu), and teaching while she deftly stirs her work, I see that spark that could very well be her coming alive.

That’s the story of soy in Koumbara.  The product is not just soy sauce and processed food.  It’s potentially a corner piece in the grand puzzle of this community’s food security.  And hopefully it’s Awa leading the charge to solve it.


PS:  If you’re interested in learning more about soy in Burkina, check out my friend Sam’s column on it!

All the Wild Horses

In the beginning of March, I set out with nine other volunteers to a horse festival in the far northwestern pocket of Burkina.  Our mission was to get there by traveling through the bush, visiting extremely remote villages along the way.

Instead of making a blog post about it, I scanned my travel journal (complete with sketches and diagrams) and uploaded the photos.  To see it, go here.

In addition, check out my pictures.

As always, I hope all is well!



Open Doors

Setting up a home is a tricky thing—it’s the fantastic alchemy of searching out random objects and settling in with them.  In my case, it’s taken a little while.  I was trying to figure out why this was, for I usually make great efforts to establish myself wherever I am.  Unfortunately, I really have no answers.  It just is.  But what’s fascinating is the assortment of items I do have around me:

I’m sitting on a woven cot that I bought in Ouaga and transported to a hotel strapped to a run down taxi.  In front of me is a coffee table I had built in Gouran made from repurposed wood from an old sign I found by the road.  I biked that back 15 km to my house only to saw off the legs, which were far too tall.  On the table sits a ceramic bowl I bought at our Peace Corps fair in Ouaga.  A volunteer’s women’s group made it.  The two chairs across from me I bought in Tougan, transporting both of them back to a hotel, strapped to the back of my bike.  Maps:  The National Geographic Institute of Ouagadougou; an incredible walk around Ouaga in the midday heat.  Shelves:  wood bought in Gouran, with my landlord bringing back on his motorcycle and banko bricks given to me as a gift.  On those shelves are transit house books, care package books, a cheap souvenir from Dakar, candles a volunteer bought for me in Dedougou, and a wine bottle filled only with rocks and pleasant memories.  Fabric rests all around me, coming from all parts of this country—mostly scraps from clothes I’ve had made.  I have masks from Festima, a bench from my neighbor, curtains made by the women of Koumbara, Ivoirian plastic mats from all over the Sourou Valley, and a Bates College pennant I bought at the 2011 graduation.  Next to that pennant is my bike helmet that I bought in the States before coming to Burkina.  I can still remember the salesman telling me I that looked like Lance Armstrong when I tried it on.  Even more memorable is how his singeing brand of gloomy condescension made me squirm in my own skin.  Moving to my kitchen, you’ll find a long counter I designed and had it built in Gouran—again my landlord bringing it back on his motorcycle.  It’s almost two meters long.  You’ll also find more fabric, a gas tank from Tougan that I’ve had to refill in Guiedougou, a horribly unsafe tabletop stove from Ouaga that is missing a knob because of catching on fire (twice), and a jubilee of care package spices.  Guarding the entrance to my bedroom are nametags I’ve acquired as a trainee and beyond.  Inside my bedroom is another cot from Ouaga, a cement bag filled with assorted possessions, a miniature Eiffel Tower that sits on my windowsill to remind me of a dear friend, and the same mosquito net I was given when I first settled into my house in Ipelce—of course patched with duct tape that I bought at an REI in Baltimore.

I’m most certainly aware of the cliché that “every item tells a story.”  And in directly playing into that tired adage, I can assert that nowhere have I ever been so aware of the varied stories behind everything in my home.  Transporting items around Burkina is frustrating and exhausting under optimal conditions.  With that in mind, it feels nothing short of miraculous that anything made it in here at all.

So, with that intro, check out the pictures of my (finally) set up home.  Now when you think about me living in a mud house in Africa, at least you’ll know what it looks like.


Moonlight Mile

This time of year I often find myself in my hammock outside my courtyard.  As the animals settle down for the night and the village slowly returns to its dormant state, the sun sets and the sky gradually opens up.  Resting in my cocoon of knotted black cord, I frequently take notice of the moon itself:  a crescent of molten silver floating in the indigo inkwell of the nighttime sky.  As always, the stars are out, yet they don’t dare approach that great lunar body.  Clouds add to the collage:  diaphanous veils of grey silk weaving across the constellations, obscuring just enough to provide interest in their movements.  As I lie there, I can’t help but remark that this could be the sky of a cold, winter night in New England.  As the smell of smoked softwood reaches me, I know the family with whom I live has taken to sitting by the fire.  Usually I would go join them but occasionally on nights like these, I prefer my seclusion.  Again, I imagine myself stateside, beside a stone fireplace, nose pressed to a frigid glass window, staring at that very same silver crescent.  In this vision, all I can feel is comfort:  the dichotomy of the bitter cold on the tip of my nose and the warmth of the fire on the nape of my neck.

These reveries don’t last long.  What does dominate my thoughts is the Fulani family I met last June.  As Malian refugees, they made an impression on me—enough of an impression to devote a blog post to them.  What now is disconcerting to me is that they were heading back to Mali just before the worst was to occur.  I don’t know where they live—how far north, east or west.  Perhaps they’re just over the border, living in an identical village to mine, far from the arm of the rebels.  Perhaps they never even left Burkina at all.  Regardless, I can only hope that this family is living peacefully.  However, I can’t help but assume that they’re not as close to me as I would want.  Letting my mind wander, I wonder:  what have they seen?  What are they going to see?  What do they have left?  What don’t they have left?  What is to happen to them?

It’s a sickening feeling:  knowing that I watched a family that had been set on the run, walk up that road and back into harm’s way.  Obviously there was nothing to be done on my end, but the mental image is nevertheless fixed.  If only any of us had known how much worse those sahelian and desert landscapes were to become.  If only we had had any inclination that any ostensible peace would be long to come.  However, maybe that family did know; maybe they knew more than I.  Maybe they had made the choice to return to their home, regardless of the costs.  Whatever the case, they walked up that road and out of sight slowly and with purpose.

With the escalation of the crisis, the southern gains of the rebels, the arrival of Western military assistance, and the entry of ECOWAS forces, the crisis in Mali has been delivered to the international stage.  And as I write, Burkina and the UNHDR are bracing for an influx of 70,000 more refugees.  What is so overwhelming about this whole ordeal is its unpredictability:  like most conflicts in Africa, your guess as to what is going to happen is as good as mine.  So there I lie, staring due north where the stars fall behind the tree line, knowing that the tranquility I am experiencing is a scarce luxury not that far over the horizon.

Yet again, where is that Fulani family?

As I sway gently in the harmattan winds, I realize that I’m actually a bit cold.  Retreating to the warmth of my mud house, I look up once more at that great indigo inkwell peppered with stars and that radiant crescent of molten silver, now partially occluded by those unapologetic veils of grey silk.  Acknowledging that I’m thinking in platitudes, I wonder whether a member of that family is looking up and seeing exactly what I see, exactly as I see it.  And then I remember what I saw earlier in the day.  I remember the French fighter planes overhead piercing the azure afternoon skies on their way north.  Instead of wondering how far that family is from me, I take some peculiar comfort in realizing that after all, I might not be that far from them.


Christmas Vacation

Devotees of my blog (ie: Mom) will remember that last Christmas I deftly summarized the plot of the Sesame Street Christmas Special.  I did this because—as tradition in my house goes—my brother and I would always watch it around Christmas time.  Since I couldn’t be there, I figured I would explain it the way I remembered it.  I think it was reasonably accurate.  This year, I have turned my attention to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, another tradition in our house.  It usually happens with my brother and I watching it, followed by my dad wandering in and joining us.  Enjoy:

The movie opens with a cartoon sequence of Santa visiting the fateful Griswold household.  A series of punishing missteps lead him to being almost discovered, causing him to flee through the ceiling.  I always liked this opening as it reminded me of Home Alone antics:  another Christmas classic.

When the actual actors appear, they are riding in an amazing wood-paneled station wagon—the kind of station wagon that a soccer mom would be proud to roll around in during the early 90s.  Clark and Ellen singing Christmas carols.  After a hilarious altercation with the most stereotypical of rednecks, the car flies through the air and crashes into the lot.  The family then sets out to find the most perfect of Christmas symbols:  the tree!  They certainly find one, but it’s just about 20 feet high.  The daughter, Audrey’s eyes freeze so she can’t really see it because it’s so cold.  Obviously, I mean isn’t that what usually happens in the cold?  I’ve been in Africa so long, I’ve forgotten.  Speaking of forgetting, guess what Clark forgot to bring with him…a saw.  Flash cut to that majestic wood-paneled vehicle riding off into the sunset with an enormous tree on top, followed by a root ball the size of an industrial washing machine.

Enter the antagonistic neighbors, Todd and Margo:  they’re rich, young, sleek, and wear sunglasses at night.  Their silver Saab is the perfect accent to their cold, austere lives.  Clark comes out of his garage with a chainsaw, ready to cut down the tree in order to bring it inside.  What proceeds is probably my dad’s favorite part of any movie ever (and this is a guy who lists Fellini’s 8 ½ as one of his favorite films).  What can I say?   He’s got a diverse bench of interests:

Todd:  Hey Griswold, where do you think you’re going to put a tree that big?

Clark (playfully):  Bend over and I’ll show you!

Todd:  You’ve got a lot of nerve talking to me like that, Griswold!

Clark (playfully again):  I wasn’t talking to you.

[Camera pans to Margo, played by Julia Louis Dreyfus]

Let’s fast forward to Clark at work.  He’s worried because he’s putting in a pool for his family and is still waiting on his bonus from his horrible boss.  When his boss does walk by, he asks for a report, casually forgets Clark’s name, and then storms off with an army of drones behind him.  As they walk by, Clark greets them as follows:  “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christma—kiss my ass, kiss his ass, kiss your ass, Happy Chanuka.”

Clark goes shopping to get some last minute gifts and is found window-shopping a lingerie counter at the mall.  The patron is a gorgeous woman and Clark fumbles.  What follows is a list of word play he accidentally comes up with:  smelling/smiling, blouse/browse, hooter/hotter, nipple/nip, adultery/adulthood.  He insinuates that his wife is dead, then divorced, then implies that he has a “yule log” but it’s difficult to tell because it’s such an awkward, bumbling interaction.  It is ended by Rus, his child, showing up.  Now that’s an act break!

Fast forward again, when the family shows up.  Comically elderly and crotchety, they are the perfect companions for the ride to hell that becomes the Griswold Family Christmas.  When they come in, pleasant reunions quickly give way to disgusting displays of bodily ailments:  draining a pint of fluid from the lower back, a mole that’s changing colors, hemorrhoids, and a painful burr on a heel.  I think this is my favorite part of the movie.  There’s something so gleefully tragic about it all.

Now if my memory serves me right, Clark tries to light up his house with 25,000 imported Italian twinkle lights.  It obviously doesn’t work right away because of the wiring and Clark loses his temper by kicking and punching the little plastic Santa in his yard.  My dad also loves this part.

When it eventually does work, the town needs to turn on it’s auxiliary nuclear power.

As the camera pans down the line of the whole family marveling at this fantastic waste of electricity, we see Catherine (Ellen’s cousin) and Eddie, her sleazy but bighearted husband.  They rolled into town in a dilapidated RV with their two kids and Rottweiler named Snot.  Amazing, I know.

I’m going to just going to touch on everything I love about the movie from here on out because this is getting long and I can imagine that if you’ve read this far you’re starting to lose your patience:

Clark uses a new nonstick coating for his sled resulting in slapstick hilarity, Clark gives a gift to his horrible boss only to see it’s the exact shape as all the others he’s received, Clark imagining the pool in the backyard made all that much better by the lady from the lingerie counter, Ruby Sue thinking Clark is Santa Claus and using the phrase “shitting bricks”, Eddie emptying his chemical toilet into the storm sewer (“Shitter was full!”), Eddie casually referencing the Bhopal chemical spill  by asking Clark if his company had been the one to kill off those Indians a while back to Clark responding “No we missed out on that one”, Aunt Bethany (played by the woman who did the voices for Betty Boop and Olive Oyl) and Uncle Lewis showing up for Christmas Eve dinner, Aunt Bethany’s dementia resulting in her wrapping her cat and jello mold, Aunt Bethany saying grace by stating the Pledge of Allegiance, the turkey falling apart because it’s so dry, Aunt Bethany’s cat being fried by trying to eat the lights off the tree, Todd’s and Margo’s relationship becoming strained, Clark receiving his bonus which turns out to be a subscription to the Jelly of the Month club, Clark losing his temper, Eddie kidnapping Clark’s boss, a squirrel getting in the new tree that had replaced the one that had been set on fire by Uncle Lewis, and finally reconciliation once the SWAT team smashes through the windows of the house in order to save Clark’s boss.  Aunt Bethany sings the National Anthem after Uncle Lewis threw a match in the storm sewer causing a massive explosion that propels the plastic Santa across the sky.

Merry Christmas, indeed.


I spent this past Christmas with my host family from training down in Ipelce.  I wanted to go because I didn’t know if I’d have the chance to see them again!  It was a great time, very relaxing, just hanging out and drinking dolo.  I hope everyone back home had a great Christmas/holiday!


Ridin’ Dirty

There are few experiences in Burkina Faso as bizarre or as simply dangerous as public transportation.  Getting from point A to point B on a bus, bush taxi, flatbed truck, or any other improvised means is always sure to confuse or terrify and is rarely ever uneventful.  It’s absolutely true that the greatest risk to my life here in West Africa is transportation, and once I came to terms with this, my trips became a lot less hair-raising and a lot more fascinating.  This comfortable relationship with the macabre is an absolute necessity for volunteers here in Burkina.  Those that can’t get their heads around it usually ET (see glossary).

That being said, while on dilapidated buses and bush taxis, I have had the distinct pleasure of witnessing just about everything peculiar this world has to offer.  A great deal of it is disgusting.  Some of it reflects the true depths of human sadness.  However, all of it is in some sense hysterical.  Below I have compiled some examples that I have experienced (with some other volunteers’ experiences thrown in).  They are divided into three categories:  mechanical failures and accidents, animals, and bodily functions.  Enjoy:

Mechanical Failures and Accidents

  1. In the middle of nowhere in Northern Burkina, my bus’ transmission goes.  We stop and get out.  I look to see what they’re doing and their two tools are an old rag and a machete.  Naturally, that solution got us only 10 km before breaking down in a town about 50 km from Ouahigouya.  All hope was not lost, however, because there was a man by the road selling watermelon.  This made it all tolerable.
  2. Window falls out of place and crashes on school children.  It was a bumpy road, what do you expect?
  3. PCV Elijah’s bus caught fire one evening.  The windows were used as exits.
  4. The front axle breaks.  It is replaced by planks of wood, hammered into place with a crowbar.  Surprisingly, this actually worked.
  5. Bush taxi leaves Tougan, makes it 30 km down the road to Yako and has to turn back.  In all, we broke down 17 times.
  6. It’s raining, the bus is flying down the road and goes into the opposing lane to pass a broken-down truck, only to be heading straight for a passenger car.  The bus swerves off the road, clips a tree, and crashes into a house.  Miraculously, nobody is hurt.
  7. Bush taxis and buses are notorious for flipping over since they pile cargo too high on their roofs.  This danger is heightened during the rainy season when the roads are basically impassible.  While I haven’t been in any of these accidents (yet), there have been a couple PCVs who have been in them.  Scary stuff.  In fact, 10 people just died when a truck flipped over right outside my provincial capital.


  1. The day after Tabaski 2011, I took the bus to Ouaga.  The overhead areas were completely filled with roosters and chickens.  They spent the ride flapping around wildly and defecating on people’s heads.
  2. One time on a bus from Koudougou to Ouaga, I felt something warm.  It was a sick chicken that had shit all over my foot.  It was diarrhea.  Thankfully I was wearing my rubber flip-flops and was able to hose the whole situation down a few hours later.
  3. I saw an open-air truck flying down a dirt road one day.  It was FILLED with massive longhorn cattle.  Suspended on wires above the bed below was a Tuareg relaxing in a hammock, swaying violently above the longhorns below.  Epic.
  4. We are sitting on a bus heading to Bobo.  All of a sudden PCV Bilin starts getting wet.  He is sitting by the window and notices that the animals on top are peeing.  It is coming in through the window and getting all over his face.  Naturally sore by this, he gets up and moves to the center of the bus.
  5. Quite possibly the greatest scene in all of Burkina transport, PCV Eric is taking a bush taxi.  When he looks up, he notices that on top is a live cow strapped to a headless dead cow.  The blood from the dead cow was leaking through rust holes in the ceiling and started pooling above the cloth of the canopy.  This saturated the cloth and blood began dripping on a lady’s head.  She was mildly annoyed.  After some time of this, another passenger took a t-shirt and held it to the cloth, effectively plugging the leak.  The ordeal was not over.  As PCV Eric was fixated on the blood, the all-forgotten live cow (in a jealous rage, I assume) reminded everyone of his presence by forcibly urinating through he window and all over PCV Brandon.  They hadn’t been in country for 20 days.
  6. Goats and sheep often are thrown underneath the bus.  One time I got off the bus and found a goat chewing off the handlebar of my bike.
  7. Usually animals will get out of the way, but sometimes they don’t.  When this happens, I can only imagine the village has a party and eats some meat and the child that was supposed to be watching the flock gets beaten.  My bus incinerated a bird that flew into the front grille once.  The same bus also unceremoniously ran over a goat.  Another bus killed 11 cows and 4 sheep all in one massive accident.  I can only imagine that village ate very, very well that night, and that some child was beaten very, very thoroughly.

Bodily Functions

  1. Don’t think for one second that PCVs do not add to the beautiful dysfunction.  For instance, PCV Rachel is on the bus with me and gets sick.  It happens.  She leans her head out the window to vomit but the bus is moving too fast.  Thus her vomit gets sprayed all over the windows and passengers behind her.  What’s truly telling is the fact that they didn’t really mind.
  2. I once spent eight hours on a bus next to two children vomiting.  I have no idea how they had so much vomit but they just kept going.  I was fascinated.
  3. I once sat next to a woman breast feeding her child.  This happens all the time, but this one was different because the child kept spitting out her nipple and it kept flopping over onto my arm.  After far too long of this, I complained to her.  She switched breasts.
  4. PCV Bilin is on the bus.  A man has to urinate and the driver won’t stop.  Naturally he pulls out a bottle and starts trying to pee into it.  Unfortunately the road is bumpy and he ends up spraying everywhere and all over the women he’s sitting with.  They make fun of him for the rest of the ride.
  5. One morning a baby defecated on my feet.  I didn’t feel too bad because he shit more on his mom.
  6. Chain reaction of vomit:  One old lady is vomiting, some kids see it and start vomiting, then another woman sees that and starts vomiting.  Down the line it went in epic fashion.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.

These are just samplings of some of the varied experiences I can have while on public transportation.  In fact, they might not even be the weirdest; they’re just what come to mind as I’m writing this.  The majority of these come from experiences on the bus that takes me from the Sourou Valley to Ouaga.  This company is known by its appellation:  STAF.  Volunteers like to joke that it means Shitty Transport Always and Forever, or So That’s Africa, Fuck.  It is notorious for having the worst buses, for being the most dangerous, and for having the worst service.  While this is all true, it’s my only option.  I can’t fault it too much, though, because it’s given me some of the most incredible experiences that I couldn’t have picked up anywhere else.  In fact, I’ve recounted all of these experiences above with a smile on my face.  I know, most of them are profoundly disgusting, but as I mentioned before, once you come to terms with this, it all just becomes an interesting story.  And while it’s impossible to forget the unparalleled danger in riding on these death traps over nonexistent roads, we develop a cavalier attitude to help us through the situation.  Then, through that lens, we can witness the wonders (or horrors?) of the modern world in all their splendor.


Picture Book

I know what you’re thinking:  Jason hasn’t put up pictures in a while.  It’s true, I’ve been bad about it.  Even though I’ve traveled around quite a bit lately, you—the general public—wouldn’t’ even know.  I’ve simply been letting them build up on my computer because I don’t feel like tackling the Herculean task of uploading them all while using internet that makes me long for the days of 56K.  Of course I’m well aware of the fact that this only makes the problem worse.

However, you can rest easy now because I have spent the past few days using up all of the transit house’s bandwidth uploading all of my latest photos.  You can expect to see the PCV food security summit in The Gambia, working on fields by the river with my counterpart, teaching the new PCTs and fishing down in Ipelce, and of course photos from my parents’ visit.

I’ve been all over not just Burkina but West Africa this rainy season.  Enjoy the pictures!


More Songs About Buildings and Food

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.


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Jason Tsichlis

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June 2023