Monday, September 13, 2004

You've got a friend in Burkina Faso

Hey folks!
Welcome to my inaugural Real World Ouagadougou email! I had wanted
to get this up and running sooner, but since they don't see the value
of "free time" in Peace corps training, I haven't been able to. I'm
already halfway through my 12 weeks of training, and I've just come
back from a weeklong visit to my future site, a village about 140 km
east of ouaga with around 2500 people... and not much else. I'm sure
I'll have plenty to say about that in a later email. For now I'll
try to cover the major aspects of where I'm livin. Like:

Good question! It's landlocked, situated between Ghana, Cote
d'Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Benin and Togo. Don't know where any of those
are either? Then I cant really help you. Burkina is about the size
of Colorado, and has a population around 13 million. Ouagadougou is
the capital, and the other major city is Bobo-Dioulasso, in the
south. Interesting tidbit: The UN publishes an annual ranking of
countries called the Human Development Index, based on their wealth,
development, health care, quality of life, etc etc. This year Canada
topped the list, followed by Sweden and Norway, and the US at 4th or
so. Out of 177 countries, Burkina came in at 175. That means this
place is POOR. (The two countries in last place were Niger and good
ol Sierra Leone)

It's hot, man. There's no AC. Today it was hovering around 100.
It's not pleasant to go to bed and wake up sweating. We're in the
rainy season, which cools things down a bit, so we're generally
grateful when it rains (as are the 90% of the population who survive
on subsistence farming; if it doesn't rain now, they don't eat
later). Just as we're starting to feel refreshed, and the
temperature drops below 80, the Burkinabe (Ber-KEE-na-bay) locals
start to shiver and break out their winter jackets. Talk about thin
blood! There's also a hot season... That'll arrive in April. Wish
me luck.

Carbs and oil. Lots and lots of carbs and oil. No atkins here. We
get a lot of rice, sometimes spaghetti or couscous, all doused in
oil. But the national dish in Burkina is called To. Let me tell you
a little bit about To. To might best be described as a cross between
Cream of Wheat and Tofu. You scoop it up out of a communal pot, roll
it up into a ball, and dip it into a slimy green "snot sauce" made of
okra, baobob leaves and MSG. My host family prepares To for me every
night for dinner. MMMmmm. To is made from millet, the national
crop, better known back home as birdseed. The millet grain is
pounded for hours, stripped of its nutrients, and then boiled until
it's transformed into the succulent gelatinous dish, that tastes
rather like nothing. Would it not be easier for them to cook Indian
food? This I wonder.

With my amazing french, I must be getting along just fine, hmm? Not
so fast. French here is only spoken by the people who've been
through at least elementary school... so guess what. Outside of the
cities, not many people speak it, least of all women, and especially
not in a village of 2500. During my site visit, I nodded a lot and
came up with a number of variations on mmm hmm. I had a deaf and mute
guy come by my hut (nicer than you imagine) to greet me. For half an
hour. He made a lot of broad gestures, which didn't make any sense
to me, and I wondered what I was supposed to do with him. But later
I realized, my conversation with him was about as good as any of my
attempts at communication with others! At least he couldn't hear me
slaughtering his language.
There are a good 50 or so native regional languages here.
I'm learning the main one, Mooré. Some facts about Mooré:
It's the
only language (in my knowledge) in which you can say that the sky is
green and the trees are blue without raising an eyebrow. There's a
serious lack of words to describe colors, and mass confusion as to
which is which. A guy walked by in a purple shirt, and we asked 2
local guys what color it was in Mooré. One said it was red, the
other guy said green. Maybe they're all just colorblind. There are,
however, 3 verbs for "to chew" (depending on what exactly it is
you're masticating) and 3 or so each for aunt and uncle (depending on
whose side of the family and whether it's your parent's older or
younger sibling--but if it's your dad's older brother, you just call
him dad, cause that's how the familial chain of command works).
People here also have an annoying habit of stating the
obvious. They'll tell you something, and you'll look around for
someone who speaks french to translate, and it'll be something
like: "you came to the market!" or "you drank water!" Yes, yes I did.

I'm white. People like to point this out all the time. One of the
first words we learned in Mooré was Nasara, which means Whitey.
As I
bike around my village, I hear lots of "Whitey! what's up?" "How's
it goin whitey?" Or just a mob of children darting in front of my
bike screaming "NAAASAAARAAAAAAAA!" and trying to shake my hand.
Many a time I'll hear the familiar shout, and glance around to see
where it's coming from, and it'll be a little kid waving to me from a
couple hundred yards away. It's slightly disconcerting the first
time a little girls face lights up when you ride by, and smiling
shouts "Nasara, bonjour!" while squatting over a puddle of urine on
the side of the cowpath.
Now, it's flattering to get all this attention and get little
kids lining up the shake my hand everywhere I go. I'll try not to
let it go to my head. But it's not easy being a rockstar (shed a
tear of pity for me). I'm luckier than the 4 gals in my training
village who live in polygamous family units with 20 or so kids
hanging around. They get audiences crowding around as they write in
diaries or take a trip to the latrine ("you went to the bathroom!")

There sure are a lot of black people in Africa!

Peace Corps Burkina Faso is #1! in africa for cases of diarrhea
amongst volunteers. My training group of 28 experienced this first
hand on our 3rd night in country, when just about everyone was
getting in line for the communal bathrooms, puking out of both ends,
after contracting food poisioning... and the runs have just continued
since then! At the very least it's been a bonding experience, to the
point which we feel quite comfortable talking candidly about our
poop. Out of our entire training group, I think I'm the only one
who'se yet to come down with some horrible invasive intestinal
parasite (knock on wood!) Not bad for 6 weeks in Africa. I just
keep wondering when my stomach will give out.

Living here for 6 weeks has certainly given me a new perspective on
what's truly important in life: Toilets. The food I can handle, the
heat I can cope with, but damn. I miss the toilets. None of this
aiming for a hole in the ground crap for me. I miss all of you, of
course. but I really miss the toilets. Luxury is a raised flushing
toilet (with a seat) and a copy of Entertainment Weekly.

So by this point I'm sure you're all wondering, when can I come
visit?? I can't get guests until after at least 3 months in my
village. That means, plan your trips starting in February!

I've got lots more to talk about... So you'll just have to wait to
hear about Sex and the Village and Burkinabe Watch. And maybe
something about just what I'm supposed to be doing here! I'm always
happy to hear from you. Seriously. (And I heard a rumor going
around that I can't receive care packages, but that's simply not
true.) Let me know what's goin on at home, cuz I'm a little out of
the loop.
Take care!