Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Me against the amoebas

Greetings from Ouagadougou!
You're lookin at a brand spakin new Peace Corps Volunteer. Last
week, after 11 weeks of training, we swore in at the US Embassy, at
the ambassador's posh digs. All of the trainees got traditional
Burkinabe outfits tailored, so we were all a wild mix of bright
colors. Someone described it as "prom on acid."
After the ceremony, which was covered by the national media,
we hopped across the street to the embassy's American Rec Center,
which boasts a pool as well as burgers, burritos, onion rings,
milkshakes, air conditioning, movies. A slice of heaven right here
on earth. In fact, we spent the entire week in a nice air
conditioned hotel, eating delicious real food and enjoying each
other's company.
Now that we've tasted paradise, however, it's getting ripped
right out from under us. The new title marginally increases or
level of respect, but it also means it's time to go to our sites
around the country and begin our work. We're banished to our
villages for three months, during which time we will commune with
the people until we finally emerge from our cocoons and spread our
beautiful integrated wings... Wish me luck.

I'm sad to report that my health streak has finally come to a bitter
end. It was probably a karmic punishment for all the gloating I did
about my iron intestinal tract, or the result of a vast conspiracy
amongst the other trainees to contaminate my food. In any case, I
to my knowledge, the last of the trainees to succumb to the Big D,
making it all the way to week 9 with healthy bowels, shattering
previous records.
Our wonderfully blunt medical caretaker Daynese informed me
that I had caught the Bad Guy, the little amoeba that could, the one
that causes amoebic dysentary. "This is the one that kills people."
She also reminded me to watch what I'm eating and drinking, cause
all the other flow-inducing parasites, it's caused by fecal
contamination. Believe me, I would avoid the poop in my food if I
could. But the poop is everywhere. It's just what happens when you
commune with animals and the earth.
It makes it tougher to down the food knowing you're playing a
game of Russian Roulette. One night you're eating Tô with snot
and BLAM! Giardia. Shake a hundred kids' hands in a day, POW!
Eat with a fork washed in poopy water and WHAMO! Blastocytosis. Yes,
eating in this country is an adventure sport.

Yes, there is pole-dancing in Africa.



Part I of an ongoing series on members of the insect kingdom and how
they suck

I was the kind of guy who couldn't harm a fly. But living in Africa
changes a man. It all began on the ninth day of the eighth month of
the two thousand and fourth year of Our Lord, my first night in my
family. I've previously stated my distaste for the toilet situation
here. But if you've gotta shit in a hole, it might as well be a nice
hole. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I found that my
latrine was clean, deep (so it doesn't smell and you can't see the
swarming maggots (it takes about 3 seconds for poo to hit the bottom
(David Jay, can you do the physics and tell me how deep that is?
(correcting for the speed of sound, of course)))) with a cement
chest high mud walls and even a decent view!

Chapter I
That night I went back, flashlight in hand, ready to pee
before going
to bed. As I lifted the cover, roaches poured out from underneath
and scattered everywhere. Big, fat hideous roaches, we're talking 3
inches long, large enough to see their ugly little heads and eyes
staring back at you. I swung around with my flashlight to see that I
was surrounded on all sides. They sat there, waving their antennae
guarding their precious hole. I fled. Maybe I screamed. I don't
I decided to hold it. I went back into my hut to sleep, and
lo and behold, the brutes had also laid claim to my home. Three of
them, on my walls! I barely escaped with my life. My host brother
asked what was wrong. I told him. "Yes, but they're harmless," he
had the gusto to reply! What the hell does you know?! You don't
understand what I'm going through! Just do something, anything,
He went and got some insecticide spray and fumigated my hut.
I'm sure it was more harmful to my lungs than to the roaches, since
those monsters can survive nuclear fallout. Still, I was solaced,
and took comfort from the mosquito netting I tucked in carefully
around my bed. At least can't get through that... Or can they???

Chapter II
For the next several nights I would dread inevitably having
to pee after nightfall. I would spend a good few minutes every time
psyching myself up to go. Every time, rather than just going in and
doing my thing, I felt compelled to scope out the surroundings with
the flashlight, and they would always be there. Sitting, watching,
waving. I tried leaving the cover off, peeing from afar--it was
just a mess. And yet, I peed.
Meanwhile, back in the hut, I learned to do a thorough search
of the quarters before turning in. One night, I spotted a lone
roach sitting on my wall. Ok, I thought. You damn roaches have
given me more anxiety than anything else in this country. I'm gonna
have to get used to you eventually. I'm here to grow as a human
being. It's time to make peace with the roach. Be one with the
roach. You just sit there and be, and I'll just slip under my
mosquito net and sleep.

Chapter III
Much like every night, inspite of the netting, I did my usual
paranoid search of my sheets before hopping in. Under the pillows,
along the sides. I lifted the top sheet. Much to my sheer horror,
one of THEM was sitting there at the foot of my bed. My skin
crawled. My safe haven had been breeched. Thankfully the beast had
perished in its quest. I flung it to the floor, shuddering. I
looked back at its brother on the wall. That's it, motherfucker.
I've had enough. That was the last straw. Prepare to die.
I whipped out the insecticide and sprayed it good and long.
It started to skittle around nervously. What happened next was
something straight out of a bad Lariam hallucination. The spawn of
satan spread its wretched wings and FLEW. Right past me. It landed
somewhere. I searched frantically. It scuttled over my foot. I
hadn't wanted to squish it, but the shoe was coming out. (They
don't serve any other purpose here, it's sandles all the time.) I
squirmed and it it as hard as I could. It chrunched. I hit it some
more. And then some more. And again. You checked into the wrong
motel, bastard! You're ant food now! You can die! All of you!
Eradicate! Eradicate! Eradicate!
So began the war.

As for the latrine, well, I still go there during the day.
At night, I step out and water the crops. At first I was worried
what my host family would think. Then I realized that, hell, they
think I'm a weirdo anyway.
Late one night, I heard chrunching sounds eminating from the
latrine area. My flashlight revealed a scorpion chewing off the
head of one of my adversaries, grasped in its claws. Now that's just
disgusting. But you, scorpion, are an ally. Just don't get any
ideas about crawling into my bed.

When you go to a foreign country, you can be sure you'll make
many a communication flub and cultural faux pas. Peace Corps
Burkina Faso is no exception. In fact, the Chief of our training
village of Boussouma allegedly sacrificed a number of animals to
protect our foolish selves from precisely this eventuality.
The most common for the new french speakers is the use of the
word "excité." While this may appear like the word "excited," in
French it means horny or turned on. And so, the new trainees get
off the plane and go around telling the training staff how "tres
excité" they are. During the host family adoption ceremony in
of the training village, attended by all the family's and town
leaders, the trainee speaker made note of how very sexually aroused
they were to be arriving in the village.
Soon, all of us began to speak franglais, simply because it
makes more sense to us to blend the languages together, and all the
trainees (stagiares) are on the same page. (ie, After I'm
my objectif will be to sensibilize the villageois about palu.) Once
I was speaking to another stagiare after we were offered a shower
and asked her, "Imane, are you gonna go douche?"
Another stagiare in my village fell quite ill one night while
in her host family. Only the father was there, and he only spoke
Mooré. She flipped frantically through her Mooré notebook,
and then
told him with urgency, "I need a midwife!"
One of the girls in Boussouma would shrug her shoulders when
she didn't understand what her host mothers were telling her, or
when a kid in her courtyard would cry when he saw her (her mom liked
to joke to the kid that the nasara was there to eat him). Whereas to
us a shrug means "I don't know," here it's more along the lines
of "I don't give a shit."
Sometimes non-verbal communications can hit the mark better
than anything else, however. On her third night with her host
family, while eating, Trinelle suddenly puked involuntarily on her
host father's leg. Not only did the family never again serve her To,
but they also placed a bucket by the dinner table for the next
week. Maybe I should have taken this approach to express my opinion
of the fish powder that my host mom went out of her way to put in all
my food.

If you're a Republican! Nobody gives a shit that I'm gay.
There are, however, rumors going around about right-wingers in our
midst. And, believe it or not, some have even outed themselves.
They're people too... I guess.
Some of us believe that the Peace Corps is actually a deep-
rooted right-wing conspiracy to round up all of the bright,
motivated, idealistic progressives in America and ship them off to
the most remote places in the world.
Now I hate to get political. But consider this. Peace
Corp's annual budget is something along the lines of $350 million.
This to send thousands of Americans out into the world to live with
local people, share their culture and work with them towards
sustainable development. Compare this to any other government
expenditure (say, the $80some billion to blow up iraq) and you'll
see that it's actually taxpayer money fairly well spent. Now Bush
publicly recognized the value of Peace Corps and advocated doubling
its size over the next few years, and then soon after slashed its
budget. Thanks, Bush. Now I can't get AC in my hut!!
As you head to the polls on 2 november, take a moment to
think of me, sweating my ass off in a hut in Africa, and ask
yourself: could this have been avoided? Thank you.

Many of you have written to ask what you can do to support
development work abroad. The answer is: send me stuff. You can
send anything with the following exceptions:

If you'd like more specifics, since I'll be starting to cook my own
food, it'd be great to have spices, sauce mixes, etc. anything that
can be made by just adding water. I'll happily read anything you
send. I'll have a lot of time to devote to developing myself as a
human being, so if you send me Contortionism for Dummies, by the end
of two years I'll certainly be able to wrap my legs around my
head. Want me to learn the accordion? Ship one over along with
Accordion for Dummies and it will happen. You get the idea. Photos
are always good, and fun to share with the people.

My new address is:
Philippe Gosselin, PCV
s/c CSPS de Zamsé
Districte Medical de Zorgho
BP 34 Zorgho
Burkina Faso
(West Africa)

Anything sent to the old address will still get to me, but may take
me longer to get to.

Really, beyond stuff, I'm happy just to hear from you. Again, I must
include a caveat. Here's an example of what NOT to write:
"Robert and I came back from Cleveland last night. It was a
very nice
weekend. We stayed at the Residence Inn ... There was a
fully equipped kitchen with pots/pans and dishes, stove, microwave,
dishwasher.... there were 2 queen size beds, a dining table with 4
chairs, a
working desk, a full size sofa and stuffed chair, 3 steps to go up in
the bathroom; the
ceilings were at least 12 feet high with windows from floor to
ceilings... it
was huge! It even included a full buffet
breakfast, including: eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, bagels..., make
your own
wafles, real oatmeal, fresh fruit salad, yogourts, assorted fruits. I
hope I am
not torturing you with this..."

Mom... That's just cruel.

All right, off I go to my village, in a matter of hours. I will try
sneak to email at some point during my 3 months of exile, but from
here on out the opportunities will be fewer and farther between.

I wish you all the best!