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.
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.
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!
Believe it or not, I’m two weeks shy of one year of living here in Burkina. I was thinking of how I could commemorate this and had a (hopefully) fantastic idea. I was reflecting on how occasionally I write a blog post and I never really know who reads it if really anyone at all. Thus, I concluded that maybe there are people out there (family, friends, random people stumbling upon this blog) who might have questions for me regarding life, work, service, going to the bathroom, etc. Or not. Well, I’m banking on the fact that maybe there are a few questions out there since I’m certain I’ve left at least a few things open ended over the past twelve months. And I am taking advantage of the fact that I will be in Ouaga for the week with internet. There.
So go ahead, ask away as a comment to this post! You can post it anonymously if you so choose! I’ll have internet each evening and will be able to respond. This will be fun.
Hope all is well.
PS: Our Camp HEERE was a great success. Expect a post devoted to the camp, and devoted to thanking everyone who donated to help make it a reality for roughly sixty young students in the Sourou Valley.
Upon the acceptance of my USAID SPA (Small Project Assistance) grant, I feel as though it’s an apt time to explore the loaded issue of money here in Burkina. As a concept, what does it mean? What can it do? What can’t it do? How do those who lack it manage their meager resources? And throughout, I will try to touch upon what damage the injection of capital into an unready, underperforming system can do.
The grant that I recently wrote is designed to help my local village group, Faso Djigui, start a 400-tree moringa orchard and powder-production business and service here in Koumbara. Although the motivation is there, lack of resources and education on how to manage an orchard and business necessitates a little help with getting the project off the ground. The key to SPA grants (and all development grants of this nature) is to set it up in such a way that convinces your community that the money they will be receiving is not a gift, yet merely help in accomplishing a large project with great future potential. When you ask Burkinabe (some very prominent figures, even) what “development” is, a great deal of them will say that it is, “people coming and bringing money.” This is not their fault—the past 50+ years of development work (especially in West Africa) is largely characterized by unwarranted gifts of money, unprepared communities, and rampant corruption on all levels, resulting in a slew of unfinished and unsuccessful projects.
With that in mind, how does one write a grant asking for large sums and at the same time break through the deeply engrained expectations of receiving unearned money? First, one must explain why a grant is needed for a particular project. I started by reiterating my purpose in Koumbara as a volunteer and how this project was their idea and based on their needs. Developing a sense of pride in their project is extremely helpful. If they see it as their own baby, they will be more inclined to do what is needed to do, as opposed to waiting around for money to miraculously appear—you get very good at waiting here in West Africa.
Second, one must identify what exactly the group needs money for. By separating the large expenditures from the small ones, we were able to identify that we simply didn’t have the money for 200 meters of high quality metal fence. However, we determined that there was labor we could do ourselves, and equipment we could build (such as field preparation, and building drying racks for the moringa leaves).
Third, with the SPA grants giving 75% of the project cost and the community needing to contribute 25% in money or labor, one must structure the grant to illustrate what the group will be getting and what the group will buy themselves. Since the metal fence took up such a huge portion of the grant, I was able to show my group that our money will be buying everything but the metal fence—hopefully giving them a stronger sense of ownership in the project. Some volunteers will work with the grant and search out possible labor the community could do in order to drive down the price tag on their 25% contribution. I shied away from that because I felt that would further perpetuate the idea that if they finagle with the system, they can get their gift of money without having to put much up themselves. It’s a tricky and time-consuming process, to say the least. Our project had a total cost of around 800 USD. The government will give us 600 USD and we will have to produce 200 USD—roughly 100,000 CFA. This is more than the one farmer’s annual income, yet through innovative approaches to pooling money, we will hopefully be able to get it together soon.
What does having money mean? Having money in Burkina can be everything to some people. If you look at the data, the highest levels of childhood malnutrition are not up in the Sahel (the northern tip of the country), but down in the southwest where the soil is the most fertile and abundant. How is this the case? As it turns out, farmers in the southwest sell and export everything, valuing the money and what they can do with it over the health of themselves and their families. Moreover, having money can mean the detachment from rural communities and their needs. This country is filled with those who have risen to prominent-enough positions that allow them to ignore the plights of those whom they have left behind. I say “prominent-enough” because you don’t need to make it that far to receive some nominal government posting. You can mention development and community health and education projects to these detached functionaries and they will feign interest and approval, yet it’s often easy to see when they’re not legitimately interested. This is most certainly not the case for all functionaries here, although it’s prominent-enough (see what I did there?) to warrant a mention. However, having money can mean, simply enough, elevation out of poverty. This is what we’re aiming for, yet changing attitudes about what wealth means is what takes time and energy—helping a group start a business will be work for me, but teaching them how to responsibly manage the money they will be receiving will be another challenge in itself.
What can money do? In the hands of those responsible and committed to the improvement of their communities, money can be a powerful tool. It can help spark projects, it can help fix broken projects, and it can build an excitement and a sense of purpose within the community. When Faso Djigui starts making money by selling their moringa powder, those profits will be stored in a bank account accessible only to the president, the treasurer, and my counterpart together. They will then use this money to help subsidize improved seed for the farmers of Koumbara, allowing them to provide an additional service that previously would have been impossible. Unfortunately, large sums of money in poor areas that lack accountability can lead to corruption, embezzlement, and infighting. I know one volunteer who works with a prominent group in a prominent town outside one of Burkina’s largest cities. He recently found out that over the two years of his service, his counterpart had been skimming money off the top and since nobody was watching (and if they were, they weren’t caring), he had gotten away with it. We’re not talking small amounts here; we’re talking millions of CFA. In all, when starting from scratch (like I am), creating stopgaps and checks in the system is crucial. My group has set up their bank account under the pretext that it is only for use on group projects, not for them personally. Hopefully that sentiment is as sustainable as I want to believe it is. However, it will all rely on the culture and attitudes of the members of the group as time progresses.
What can’t money do? Money alone can’t solve problems. Those who are lazy with good intentions will try to convince you that if they could just get some money, they’d do some good with it. Or if they’re really lazy they’ll just try to convince you that they need money—period. The problem is that essentially for the past 50 years, that’s what’s been happening. And what exactly do we have to show for those billions and trillions of dollars pumped into this system? In fairness, yes there have been significant improvements, but for the amount of money given in the name of aid, most developing countries in Africa come up wanting. An elegant example of what money can’t do is the all-too-familiar problem with the local health center—the CSPS. These were built all over Africa and most villages and locales have one. It was a WHO program designed to deliver reliable healthcare to those in rural areas without access to hospitals. They were built by the host government, staffed with trained nurses, run by solar panels and battery banks if electricity isn’t available (like my village), and practically given medicines from foreign governments that they sell for pennies to their respective communities. True, the injection of large sums of foreign and domestic money made that happen, yet just having a CSPS doesn’t get people in the door. It costs 3500 CFA to give birth there (that’s 7 USD), yet most families forego the CSPS because they value keeping the money over the sanitary conditions and trained staff. Frustratingly, what the head of the family will often spend 3500 CFA on is usually something we would value less than a proper and safe birth. Money in the form of a functioning health center alone can’t change habits and attitudes, especially in such a risk-averse society that lacks basic safety nets that we take for granted. When someone is sick, they use the CSPS as a last resort, claiming that the medicine is too expensive (which is not true). This is a significant problem, and the delay in getting to the CSPS when something is actually gravely wrong has been the cause of two meningitis deaths in Koumbara this year.
How do those who lack money manage their resources? This is fascinating topic here in Burkina and further north. When you don’t have a bank account, animals are your bank account. A goat goes for 10,000 CFA. A sheep goes for 25,000 CFA. A cow goes for 100,000 CFA. A chicken goes for 2500 CFA. You get the point. The more animals you have, the more you have at your disposal—simple as that. Although this is a form of saving, what most people in villages lack is the notion of planning ahead. Here in the Sourou Valley, the Fulani, a quasi-nomadic ethnic group that lives all around our villages can be identified by their wealth of animals. They’re usually quite poor in terms of physical money, living in much simpler conditions than their Dafine or Samo counterparts. However, there are a few Peuls who have been able to capitalize on their animals and have been able to make a great deal of money, building houses and buying motorcycles. It is possible to use your animals as a source of income but most Burkinabe are wary of that activity.
I had a negative interaction with an older woman a few months ago, in which she wanted me to buy her a shirt. I politely refused, and after some playful back and forth (at least I thought it was), she told me I was a bad white person: tu es un mauvais blanc. I asked if she felt that the only good white people were the ones who gave her money and she said yes. Thankfully she wasn’t from Koumbara or I would have been more upset. People in my community tend to get why I’m here and don’t act this way. However, this underscores an important challenge we face here. Due to the preconceived notions described earlier, I’m constantly harassed when I travel. Kids will demand a soccer ball or money; women will demand that I buy things from them because I have money; men will simply ask what I’m going to give them. It can be insanely frustrating at times, yet we must remember that these are learned behaviors—and not just from the failures of the development community. At the Dedougou mask festival, wealthy Europeans flocked to the center of town to pay children to be their guides, or simply give them money thinking they’re helping out. That only teaches these kids that when they see a white person, there’s some possible money to be had. When you look at children’s drawings depicting the mask festival, they show white people with electronics hanging off of their person. This is where they learn it—and with no reliable notion of the problems of the Western world, they can confidently assume that white equals rich and rich equals gifts.
This post may come off as negative. Unfortunately, the problems of money in the developing world so often outweigh the good. However, I hope that I was able to illustrate the progress that is to be had with the proper allotment and usage of capital. In summary, to quote The Beatles, “you never give me your money.” That’s right, because we here in Koumbara earn our money, and we earn it ourselves.
Since I last posted that packing list, it has come to my attention that I’ve left off some key items. Here they are:
Food. Whatever space you may have left, stuff it with food. Clif Bars (the protein bars taste better than the original ones, I think), beef jerky, candy of any sort, you name it. You will thank yourself. It will be important to acclimate to your host family’s food, but for snacks during the day or at night, you’ll thank yourself. If you don’t have room and think you might really want some American snacks right away, make a package and send it to yourself about a week or two in advance of leaving.
Ziploc Bags. These are amazing and amazingly useful. You’ll be surprised with what you do with them sometimes.
Guide Book. There are guide books at the transit house here but they’re woefully out of date. The Brandt Guide to Burkina is good and Lonely Planet and Rough Guide’s West Africa guide books are both great. This isn’t entirely necessary but good to have and can be a fun escape sometimes.
Super Glue. You might not need this but it’s so small that you might as well throw it in because you never know when you might need some, in the same vein as duct tape.
Well it’s that time of the year. The new DABA and Education stages are priming and preparing to come to Burkina. I remember where I was last year at this time so I figured if any of them actually look at this blog, I could give them some pointers with the ultimate packing list. This is a mix of what I brought that I was happy with and things I wish I had brought with me. Also, as a DABA volunteer, this will be more agriculture-specific. Hopefully for future stagiaires, this post will be filled with fascinating insights and poignant reflections on Peace Corps service in Burkina. For anyone else who might read this, I’m sorry but the next few paragraphs will be extremely boring…
Any 75 L backpack. I used a large backpack as my main luggage. Any brand will do, really. Don’t stress over it. I found the 75 L quite large but keep in mind, a backpack is not necessary since the Peace Corps picks you up at the airport and transports your luggage wherever you need to go (from your approximately first three days at a hotel in Ouaga to your training site of Ipelce, back to Ouaga for swear-in, and then to your individual site). However I enjoyed the mobility. Keep in mind, you’ll get dropped off at the training center but your family will come to pick you up. It might be a donkey cart or just your host dad on a rickety old bike. Don’t worry, it’s all part of the fun.
Any 35 L backpack. I used this as a carry-on and also for the more immediate items I would need in Ouaga. Again, any brand will do so don’t fret.
1 pair of work pants. Mine are heavy-duty cotton. They’re breathable and extremely durable which is a plus. Keep in mind, although it gets extremely hot here, it is not necessary to deck yourself out in space-age fibers and wicking clothing. You’re going to sweat no matter what and you already will stand out. You don’t need to stand out more by looking like you’re on a safari or about to run a marathon.
2 pairs of dress pants. You will need to look nice at times. I brought linen dress pants and couldn’t be happier. Although linen can be expensive, nothing breathes better, really.
2 pairs of casual pants. Say goodbye to your shorts. You will never wear them because they’re not appropriate. Thus, a couple pairs of casual pants are necessary. Linen is also good for this.
1 pair of good jeans. Durable is key. Jeans are great for going out in Ouaga and Bobo. They take up a lot of space, however, so stick to one pair.
7 cotton t-shirts. You will wear these all the time. Make sure they’re not already on their last legs. It might go without saying, but don’t bring anything precious because after two years it will be most likely ruined. Also, V-necks tend to give you more airflow. This is good when it’s 120 degrees outside—which it is now.
3 collared shirts. You will need these. Short-sleeved ones are perfectly acceptable.
2 pairs of socks. You will bring dress shoes so bring a pair of dress socks and a pair for sport. You’ll almost never wear them but it’s good to have them.
7 pairs of underwear. No need for crazy new fabrics. Cotton boxers are totally fine.
1 bathing suit. There are pools and rivers here. Bring one and you’ll thank yourself.
1 hoodie. This is unbelievably helpful during the cold season. However, it’s big and bulky so if you can’t fit it in, have someone send it over.
1 scarf. During the cold season you’ll actually be glad you had this. Also, it’s very helpful for biking amidst all the dust of the dry season.
1 belt. You will lose weight, probably. Also, just bring a belt to wear with nice clothing. Make sure it matches your dress shoes…that I will get to in a minute.
1 raincoat. It rains, bring one.
1 pair of dress shoes. These are necessary. Make sure they’re comfortable.
1 pair of good flip-flops. It is not necessary to seek out something that really straps to your feet—ie: Chacos. A pair of leather flip-flops is perfectly fine. I have Rainbows and they’re fantastic. Although being expensive for a flip flop, they’re the most durable ones you can buy and will last you two years without trouble.
1 pair of casual shoes. It will be good to have these because you might go somewhere that requires close-toed shoes. Toms are great because they pack well, but anything works.
1 pair of running shoes. If you want to do active sporty things. The kids at the center in Ipelce love to play soccer and always love if you join in. So keep that in mind. If you’re not interested in sports activity, feel free to ignore this suggestion.
*A note on shoes: You can find shower flip-flops and any other type for shoe in Ouaga and all over so if you’re running out of space, keep that in mind. They just might be less-than-desirable quality if you buy them here, though.
1 pair of mesh shorts. Awesome for sleeping or around the house. Not awesome for wearing out in public unless playing sports.
1 long-sleeved shirt. Good to have, that’s all. Not necessary, though.
1 tie. It’s good to have a tie. You never know when you’ll need one or feel like it might be appropriate to wear one
Laptop. If you have a decently portable laptop, just bring that. There is no need to buy a netbook. However, I highly recommend having a computer. It makes your life so much easier.
Solar charger. I have a Solio charger, which is fine. If you leave it out in full sun all day, it can charge your phone for about 20-30 minutes. That’s acceptable to me but apparently there are better ones out there. Feel free to make these decisions on your own.
Rechargeable batteries. Fantastic thing to bring. Sanyo’s Everloop batteries work great. Batteries here are expensive and of greatly inferior quality. I highly recommend bringing 8 AA and 8 AAAs.
Digital camera. I brought a little point and shoot which is great because it’s easily portable and doesn’t draw too much attention. If you have a nicer SLR or something, that can work. Either way, if kids in your village see you have a camera, all hell breaks loose because they all want to get their picture taken. Moral of the story: sometimes it doesn’t matter how fancy your camera is.
2 universal to French adapters. You can buy them here but they’re flimsy. Just bring two from home. Make sure they’re universal and not just for US outlets because most likely your phone charger will be British. Don’t ask why. Maybe they’re made in Ghana or something.
At least a 500 GB hard drive. Bring this and fill it with movies and TV shows. You will thank yourself. PCVs trade media like crazy when we’re together so if you don’t bring over a lot, have not fear. Also, as a related aside, you should probably develop an appreciation of Arrested Development before coming here.
2 8-GB USB keys. These are great for sharing work and music.
*DON’T EVER PLUG USB KEYS OR EXTERNAL HARD DRIVES INTO A PUBLIC BURKINABE COMPUTER unless you want to be overrun by viruses.
Shortwave radio. Fantastic for listening to BBC or VOA in the morning and evenings. Kaito KA1102 I hear is great with fantastic battery life and very compact.
Headlamp. Great for moving around the house at night. You most likely won’t have electricity.
iPod. Self-explanatory. Any music playing device will be worth its weight in gold.
Speakers for your iPod. These are great so that you can listen to music in your house. Any portable speaker works for this. Altec Lansing makes one, I believe.
Leatherman. I have the Leatherman Wave. Absolutely fantastic for around the house and also as a DABA volunteer. Any multi-tool will do, but Leatherman is quality.
Field knife. Great for traveling and eating the impromptu mango.
Knife sharpener. Your blades will get dull.
Mesh tent or bug hut. Bug Huts are great and a cheaper option. However if you do go for a different tent, make sure it’s freestanding (as in not needing to be staked in order to stand up).
Sleeping pad. Small is key, and Thermarest has a prodeal with Peace Corps so I would go that route.
Sleeping bag. I have a Marmot Never Winter bag (30 degrees). It’s absolutely perfect for sleeping in the cold season. I highly recommend getting a sleeping bag with those specifications.
Compressible pillow. Good for long bus rides or if you have a visitor staying at your house.
Quick-dry towel. This is great. I got mine at REI.
Small collapsible backpack. I have an LL Bean Stowaway bag. It’s great because you can fit it into your luggage and take it out when you need to just do day trips or if you’re running around Ouaga.
2 Chico bags. Perfect for the market and everything else. They’re compact and durable—a necessity, I think.
1 roll of duct tape. Bring it and fix things with it.
Seeds. Bring whatever seeds you might want to grow in a garden at site. Hierloom tomatoes? Go for it! Herbs? Why not! Bring whatever you want. If you really want something to grow here, bring multiple varieties and brands of the same thing because odds are the seeds are not accustomed to this soil. However, I managed to successfully grow Burpee Brandywine tomatoes if you’re looking for something proven to work.
1 water bottle. Just bring a 1-liter water bottle. I like the Platypus ones because they’re compressible so they pack easily. For storing large quantities of water, don’t worry about bringing anything because you can find things for that here.
Tape adapter for iPod. If you can find one of these, bring it. A lot of times bush taxis have stereos with tape players. This way you can play your music in the bush taxi. Everyone loves it and you don’t have to hear Burkinabe music blasted in your ears for hours on end. It’s usually a great cultural exchange. Also, the main PC bus that will transport you has a tape player. If you want to ride in style while listening to all your favorite music, bring that adapter. It’s possible to bring an iTrip or whatever but radio waves are not as strong as they are in the US.
At least 1 notebook. I use a Molskine as a work journal. It’s great because it’s incredibly durable.
2 books that you want to read. You’ll trade a lot of books during stage. Bring a couple that you can really get into.
Pictures of family/friends/pets/loved ones. This is a necessity for showing your host family and for your own sanity when you have your own place.
Musical Instrument. I brought a mandolin. The ukulele is a popular choice. Or if you don’t feel like carrying something extra, bring a harmonica or two.
Pastels/colored pencils/watercolors. If you’re artistically-inclined, go ahead.
At least 5 of your favorite pens. Pens suck here for the most part.
-Toiletries (bring a 3-month supply of the following things)-
Toothpaste. Bring a variety with a screw-on cap. Things will get smashed around in your bag and the last thing you want is for your toothpaste to get everywhere…like what happened to me.
Sunscreen for your face
Bar soap and plastic holder. Bar soap is easy to find, just bring one.
Razor, extra razor blades
-Gift for your host family-
Don’t worry too much about this. I brought a book of photographs of US Parks. This was great because my family was fascinated by the scenery and there was nothing that reminded them of the opulence that they believe exemplifies our country. It’s up to you, but a book of pictures is a good way to go—especially since you don’t know what the child situation will be like with your family. If there are a lot of kids, you can ask someone to send you some stuff during stage.
-Things I don’t have but others seem to be happy with-
-Things you absolutely don’t need or don’t need to bring with you-
Anything having to do with water purification
Any over-the-counter medicine
Books on first aid or tropical medicine
Umbrella. Su has asked me to put this in because she did bring one and it was destroyed in the first storm. A raincoat with a hood will suffice.
*Don’t forget to bring a bike helmet! The best thing to do is to buy a new one, bring the receipt, and get reimbursed during stage. It’s a simple process and the extra $45 or so can be very helpful. Also, a packing tip, clip it to the outside of whatever bag you’re using as your carry-on. Otherwise, it will take up way too much space in your bag.
*You’ll get a one-time-use debit card at staging with about $40 on it. This is for expenses from staging to Burkina (food, etc.). However, bring an extra $100 with you to country. You’ll have the opportunity to exchange that money and having that in CFA is a great little savings account during the 3 months of training when you will be on a walk-around allowance.
*Bring your acceptance packet with all forms filled out—it’s a pain in the ass to be missing something at staging.
Well that’s all I can think of at this time. I hope that helps out for I tried to be as complete as possible. Good luck, and we’ll see you soon!
Vacation has come to an end. Whereas most vacations I can think of tend to suspend reality until I return, visiting Ghana was not only restful but also informative. After spending about ten months in rural Burkina, it can be so easy to assume that what I experience is the experience everywhere—what I live is Africa. Although other countries do rest around me and I do know of their different situations politically, economically, and socially, without visiting and seeing them with my own eyes, those factors can become nothing more than white noise.
Once we crossed over the border into Ghana, I noticed a few things shift drastically: there were immediately more police checkpoints and political posters/signs. In addition, the house construction changed. Where on the Burkina side, it was the typical mud brick house with a slanted corrugated metal roof, on the Ghana side, the houses were painted cement with (and I don’t know why I picked up on this so strongly) gabled and more complex roofs. Also I found infinitely more mosquito screens on windows, which reflects more of a cultural preference than anything else since they’re not expensive.
Simply put, Kumasi was a culture shock. As a city of about one million people, it’s bustling and chaotic. There was car traffic and there were numerous multi-storey buildings. That might sound absurd that those two things were so overwhelming but believe me, they were. I distinctly remember going out to eat with some Ghana PCT’s and noting that people were looking down from above on their balconies. I remember that being an odd feeling.
Cape Coast was an incredible place. We stayed near the castle at a beach “resort” that was slightly seedy but a great party spot and fun place to unwind. The highlight of Cape Coast was obviously the castle. I don’t really have it in me to describe that place for I just can’t find the words that would do justice to my feelings. However, I will say that it was one of the most important experiences of my life.
The bulk of our vacation was spent at the southernmost tip of Ghana and basically the second most southern point in all of West Africa. While there, I didn’t realize how close we were to the equator. The fact that it cuts through the DRC makes it seem worlds away yet we were only a few hundred miles north. Perhaps the stifling humidity and incessant sweating were clues. Anyway, I did nothing but recline on the beach, play in the waves, eat, drink, and play ping-pong. That was the goal, after all. Mission accomplished.
After two days in Accra staying with Sam’s friend from college, I’m back in Burkina and ready to head back to site tomorrow morning. Vacations can do a lot for you mentally; they can be refreshing or damaging. However, the greatest gift from this trip was not all the amazing sights and foods and relaxation and partying. The greatest gift was sitting on that bus heading back to Ouaga and actually looking forward to getting back to site and back to work. What that says to me is that in the face of infinitely more comforts, I know where my life is centered and that I wouldn’t want it to be anywhere else. How could I honestly ask for more?
So with that, I now have all my tree seeds and hopefully by the end of this week our nursery will have about 2500 trees growing. Fingers Crossed, obviously. And lastly, I have uploaded my photos from Ghana so take a look. I don’t have any pictures from Kumasi or Accra, though. I don’t know why, I guess I just didn’t feel like taking pictures while there. Anyway, enjoy!
It’s time for vacation. I’ve been living here in Burkina for almost ten months, the hot season is upon us, and so it’s time for a little relaxation. My counterpart also pointed out to me that I should absolutely take two weeks now and go because when I get back, we’ll start planting in our tree nursery. We’ll start digging our well and preparing our field for the moringa orchard. Once the rainy season has started in earnest, it will be time to fish and work in the fields again. Then come September, there will be the harvest. Point being: get out now and take some time because we have a lot of work ahead of us.
Where am I going? Well after careful consideration (well to be truthful, there was only one destination in our minds) four of us decided on a beach vacation in Ghana. What does Ghana have that it’s neighbor, Burkina Faso doesn’t have? Below is a list:
Beaches, good beers, English, “rainforest”, seafood, wildlife, trees with leaves, resorts, real safaris, tropical food traditions, kente cloth, trade routes, ecotourism, more access to air conditioning and internet, a lack of dust, lions, oh and an Apple store in Accra (not that I have any money to spend there but still). There’s a reason why we call PC Ghana the “Posh Corps”…
That’s just an incomplete list but some things I’m looking forward to upon arriving. However, with Ghana being a much more developed country comes increased tourism. And with increased tourism there is more petty crime, more scam artists, and more unwanted attention. However, it is all to be taken with a grain of salt.
The beginning of the trip starts with a roughly twenty-hour bus ride from Ouaga to Kumasi in central Ghana. That might sound miserable however this bus is air-conditioned, not falling apart, and I will get my own seat and (hopefully) not have to share it with a vomiting baby—all improvements on my current mode of transportation! We’ll spend some time in Kumasi checking out the sites, including one of the largest markets in all of West Africa, then it’s on to Kakum National Park. After that, we will spend a few days in Cape Coast getting our fill of history—and if you’re me, trying to go fishing. Then we will plant ourselves at a beach resort in Akwidaa Beach for about five days. After that, we will go to Accra to spend a couple days with Sam’s Ghanaian friend (and so that Brook can take the GRE). Then, hopefully much rejuvenated, we will take the 24-hour bus back to Ouaga.
So that’s that. A week or so ago I was feeling a little bit of vacation regret. I didn’t think I was ready to leave site like that for two weeks and especially did not feel ready to handle a much more developed country and return mentally unscathed. However, as the date of departure crept closer, I began to feel more prepared. The “tubabu” chants from little kids up in Gouran and in Tougan were starting to grate more and more and it was then that I realized that perhaps it was time for a little break.
I hope all is well back home and I’m thinking of you all!
It is my sad duty to inform you that my beloved five-month-old puppy, Juma, has passed away. He died on the evening of March 14th after just a two-day battle with an unknown illness. I suspect that he ate something toxic (since he basically ate everything he found) but I suppose we will never know for sure. What we do know is that he was a fantastic companion and confidant for the five months we spent together and that I will miss him greatly. What follows is a eulogy that “Jumes” most certainly deserves:
He was the nicest dog around: Juma was friendlier than any other dog I have seen here. Whenever a dog would walk or run by (even off in the distance) he would lose his mind, run up to it, and try to befriend it. This usually ended in him being snarled at or at times bitten. It was how he learned but he was never the dog to initiate any form of aggression. In addition, he loved people, particularly other volunteers because they knew how to play with him.
He was a born destroyer: In his short five months, he put rips in every pair of my pants, broke the gate to my courtyard, ate twelve jalapeño plants, ate my six-foot-tall moringa tree down to nothing, broke my screen door, chewed holes in my only pair of jeans, chewed the bindings off of one of my chairs, and put holes in my mosquito net. There’s probably a lot more but those are what come to mind at this point in time.
He was smart: By the time of his death, he knew his name along with “sit,” “shake,” “lie down,” “settle,” and we were working on “roll over.” Not bad at all.
He loved tô more than anything: I have no idea why. He tolerated his dog food that I would lovingly bring back from Ouaga (an incredible pain in the ass, I might add) but for some reason, he would go crazy for tô and could eat maybe three times more than me in one sitting. And I can eat a lot of tô.
He made me glad I had cement floors: He was impossible to housebreak! Well not really, I almost had it at the end. However, before you go and say that it was probably because he was a quasi-wild African dog, Brook (the volunteer in Yo) was able to housebreak her dog in one week. This could also mean I’m bad at housebreaking dogs…
He turned my house into a bone yard: No dog loved bones more than Juma. And no dog loved sharing those bones with me more than Juma. One night he brought in a horse tail. How did he get that? We will never know.
He lived fast and hard: Juma played hard and many dogs didn’t like that, but he was always crouched down with his but in the air and tail wagging. He would run and jump and play with anything he could get his paws on. Often when the sun was going down he would hit what I called his “second wind.” This is when he would be so uncontrollably full of energy that he would run in circles in full sprint, slamming into walls and anything else. It was truly a sight to behold.
When living in a village in Burkina Faso, it’s important to be able to carve off a special section of your brain for any animals that you care about. It’s important to love them but to be able to let them go about their lives and to keep a small emotional distance between them and you. Although Juma would follow me whenever I left the house and spent every night of his life sleeping inside (oftentimes next to my cot), he was free to run and play and dig and chew outside all day. I realized early on that to deny him these basics of dog life in order to fit him into an Americanized mould was to strip from him what he was born to do. When I first brought him home, I had quiet intentions to bring him back to the States with me at the end of my service. I thought: “What a better life he will have.” I then began to think about what this meant. In the US, he would need a leash; he would need to have his life structured around my schedule of work or school; he would be cooped up in an apartment; he would not be able to dig at will; he would not be able to go to the bathroom where and when he wanted. The list went on and I quickly realized that his life in village was leaps and bounds more fulfilling than his life would have been in the US. And when one has a dog in this environment, he or she must be aware of the reality that although animals have great freedom, their situation is never stable. Things happen and unfortunately a dog dying like this is not uncommon. In taking on an animal as a companion here, I had to mentally prepare myself for an event like this and although it was still difficult, I’m glad that I did. To borrow a very popular expression used here: c’est comme-ça ici.
So with that, little Jumes, you were a great friend and you will be sorely missed up here in the Sourou Valley.
I hope all is well back home. I am currently in Ouaga prepared to leave for a beach vacation in Ghana on Monday the 26th! I will try to put up a less depressing post before heading out. Take care for now!
The village of Boule sits on the dusty road from Tougan to Ouahigouya here in Burkina. I’ve never actually been there yet the bus I take that eventually deposits me in Ouaga goes by this place. At first glance it looks like a typical Sahelian village: mud houses, awnings with millet stalks, fences of wood, and a deep, penetrating dryness. Yet one doesn’t have to look too closely to see what looks like an oasis. Yes, it’s a community garden. And in this dry expanse of landscape in which there is not a single color other than “earth tone” there is an entire hectare of verdant, well cultivated gardens. How do they do this? They have a couple wells. Seeing this is a startling reminder of the power of water and how so many goals can be accomplished by its introduction into the system.
I reference Bouse because it illustrates a successful utilization of resources in order to reach a common goal. It is what I strive to achieve here in Koumbara with our moringa orchard. In order to harvest the leaves year-round, we will need a well in our orchard to water the trees during the dry season. That is simply a necessity. Thus, we are in the process of finding those that are willing to dig such a well (the water is about 30 meters down through lateritic rock) and then we need to go about cementing it so that it will be functional for longer than just a few years. In addition to watering to keep the leaves, having our own well will help in diverting our needs away from that of the current needs of the village. Koumbara’s water resources are already stressed. There are 2238 people in this village and just two pumps. There are a multitude of wells but during the dry season a good portion of them do dry up. If we are to water this orchard during the dry season, we cannot in good conscience stress the system in such a way. I am working on getting a broken pump fixed here but this work takes time…
My group and I have just completed our tree nursery which will serve to protect our trees at their youngest stage. It’s a great step for us as this is the first physical manifestation of our determination and motivation. I have uploaded pictures to an album of simply that so you can see the construction from start to finish.
Lastly, I had the absolute pleasure of going to Festima 2012: the Dedougou mask festival. Words cannot describe how interesting the costumes and masks were. They came from all over Burkina along with Mali and I believe some from Togo, etc. I have uploaded an album of that as well. Check it out!
I would also like to take this time to thank everyone who has sent me packages/letters so far. I cannot tell you how wonderful it is to receive your gifts and they most certainly are appreciated. So thank you Mom, Dad, and Nick, Aunt Jane and Cus, Sherry, Mia, Tyler (by proxy), and Aunt Tasia, Uncle Antonis, and my whole family in Greece. Thanks so much!
I know this post might be a little short but it’s hot and I’m tired. I hope all is well! More to come soon.