Monday, January 03, 2005

A day in the life of a Nassara

Ciao from Ouagadougou!

I'm a little worse for wear after ringing in the New Year with a wild Cancun Spring Break 2005 Beach Party, minus the beach, but here I am once more, diligently filling you in on the word from
the bush. I'm nearing the end of my first 3 months in village and the first 6 in Burkina. Seen the third world, lived in a hut, eaten the To, bleeted with the goats, sunbathed with the lizards, and been known simply as "the white guy." All right, so what's next? Oh, right. More of the above. A year and 9 months more. Shit. Sure, coming here sounded like a big adventure. And it has
been, I must admit. But the novelty wears off, and then you realize you gotta LIVE here. The reality of my life in Zamse is frankly quite banal...:


4:45 am- Stirred from slumber by the amoebas. Can it wait til...? No. It definitely can't. Must brave the roaches in the latrine.

4:47 am- Pull up my shorts. --Hold it... Not done yet!

4:50 am- Kick dog out of bed. Crash.

6:00 am- Sun rises

6:01 am- Dog's sleeping pills wear off. Stop licking me, dog. Let me sleep, damnit! Stop chewing the desk! Fine, I'm up.

6:15 am- Record my dream about chinese buffet.

6:30 am- Summon the energy to do yoga out of my illustrated guide from the library in Ouaga like a good peace corps volunteer.

7:00 am- Dog is napping.

7:15 am- Dress, sunscreen, pop a doxy to stave off the malaria, feed and water dog, fill my water bottles, put out my evening shower bucket to warm in the sun, pack my backpack, munch on some crunchy kudakuda peanutballs.

8:15 am- Am I forgetting something?

8:20 am- Oh... brush teeth.

8:30 am- Maybe I should go to the clinic.

9:00 am- I really should go to the clinic.

9:30 am- Listen, if I don't go to the clinic and put my water in the freezer, it won't be cold for lunch.

9:32 am- Out the door.

9:33 am- Greet women sitting outside waiting for their prenatal consultations. Stick my water in the freezer as if it's not the main reason I'm going there. Take my seat inside as my counterpart
nurse consults the women. I understand nothing.

9:34-10:00 am- Stare at wall.

10:01 am- Work up motivation to ask a question. My counterpart takes this as an invitation to complain about his job, how he hasn't slept or eaten since yesterday cause there was a woman giving birth and a kid in the hospital, and he's got his monthly reports to do yet, and he's all by himself, and, en tout cas, c'est pas facile!

10:22 am- He finishes responding, poor guy, but I still don't know how much it costs to give birth in the maternity. Motivation lost. Pile of old Newsweeks from former volunteer beckons. How about I read instead?

11:00 am- As I'm busy working, my 14 y/o helper girl Sophie arrives to clean dishes, fetch water and wash the clothes should I need it. She gets a slightly generous 7 or 8 dollars a month. Jealous? Oh,right... You just have the "electricity" do it.

12:00 pm- Look at that! Time for lunch. I sneak my reward out of the freezer and head home to make a meal that will feed me again at dinner.

12:45 pm- Devour my sumptuous spaghetti con tomato paste y agua on the porch. Damn, I'm good!

1:12 pm- Resent the dog as she eats my last few bites.

1:15-4:00 pm- To read, perchance to nap...

4:00 pm- If it's a marche day (every third), bike over and stock up on kudakuda for me and the dog. Long for a plump tomato.

4:20 pm- He he he...
(i'm kidding.)

4:22 pm- What to do...? I know, read!

5:38 pm- Grab solar-lukewarmed bucket of water, strip nekkid, and dump it on my head as the sky turns pink. Feels AMAZING. Bucket- showers are quite the unexpected pleasure. You must try it.

6:00 pm- Sun sets. Stomach rumbles. Must feed the amoebas! But then Isaaka, my 14 year old village buddy, comes over to chat. Every night. I appreciate it, but I feel guilty eating in front of him.
All the village kids, actually. So I wait...

7:00 pm- Slap that spaghetti on the gas stove, snag some more ice water from the clinic, eat on the porch under the stars as I relax with a crossword. I've been forced to limit myself to one a day. Two max. Must ration.

7:24 pm- Sleepy sleepy... But I want to listen to the news. I suppose I could read until

8:00 pm- News headlines on the BBC shortwave.

8:20 pm- Slip into bed. Quality time with right hand.

8:30 pm- I'm out like a log.

8:31 pm- Dog sneaks into bed.

(the language, not Michael)

Now I realized a little while ago that all this reading, as engrossing as it may be, won't get me nowhere in village. So I've started making a point of dropping everything at 4:15 every day and
biking over to a random courtyard to greet and visit, whether I have the urge to or not, cause I usually don't. Apparently it's not the neighbors' job to welcome the newcomers here, but rather the newcomer's job to go out and make himself welcome. I didn't make the rules, so I don't feel bad as I barge in and wait to be offered a seat. The more awkward part is barging into somebody's home without speaking their language. But I've got the greetings down. Ready?

As you enter, they say: Welcome!
If you're a guy, you respond: Chief!
If you're a girl, you emit a shrill AAAIEEEEE!

Depending on the level of formality and respect, you crouch down a certain degree, then grasp hands. (always the right, the left is the poop hand--fish grips are ok!)

Now you're faced with a rapid-fire barrage of questions to which the only appropriate answer, no matter how much your day is sucking, is Health!

-How's the afternoon?

-And your work?
There's Health!

-And your family?
Only Health!

-They're good?
They're good!

-MmmmFAAAAAAAA! (whatever that means)

They stop talking and release your hand. Ok, are we done? No! They grab it again.

-How was your sleep?

-How did you wake?
Just Health!

-How are the whities?
There's Health!

-And the people from your homeland? They're good?
They're good!


They let go of the hand. that it? Wait for it... One more round! Now they start a new barrage, not of questions, but of benedictions, to which you must reply Amen!

-May God continue your good health!

-May we thank God for your visit!

-May God give you a good day!

The tricky part is knowing when to stop saying Health! and start with the Amen! If you mess it up they'll laugh at you and you'll look like a total fool. (But there's no pressure, really, because
you already do).

Repeat with all members of the courtyard.

I don't even do it the right way, cause you're not supposed to wait for the questions to be posed and answer them individually, but say everything overlapping, mixing questions and Healths, so it sounds like a mumbled mess. I'm working on it.

After this little exchange, I've exhausted most of my Moore, save some phrases I've learned out of necessity:

I don't have a wife.

I already have a wife at home.

I don't want a wife.

They're my wives. (point to nearest Nassaras)

Now that that's out of the way, all there is left to do is sit there and stare at each other. It used to be incredibly awkward, but since I've been here, my capacity for sitting and staring at people without speaking has increased exponentially. So, it turns out this 4:15 pm chunk of the day isn't so painful after all, and I've even started to enjoy it. Once, I don't know how, a group of wives who speak no french actually chatted me up for over an hour. Then they gave me some peanuts. Score! It was a good day.

No, it's not all bad. And to prove it, here's a selection of things that have brought me to the verge of joyful tears recently:

* On my very first 4:15 greeting outing, finding, hidden in a house not 70 meters away from mine, a group of guys, speaking FRENCH! Reading a French Burkinabe newspaper. Playing scrabble--in French! Turns out they're local elementary school teachers, in my backyard no less! Thank you Jesus! People to talk to! They whoop my ass at Scrabble.

* We were in the middle of another weeklong series of vaccination sprees in all our satellite villages. This time, in addition to the oral polio vaccines, they were also giving measles shots. So now the children were screaming in horror at the needles, as well as the mere sight of me. Surround-sound shrieking children all day for 7 days. Someone was testing me. Fortunately I brought a book. Anyhow, one day while we were waiting for the rest of the team, I start chatting with my vaccination partner Souleman, who happens to speak very good french. He tells me about how he's finished most of his high school, but wasn't able to complete his BAC and go on to because his family ran out of money. (I ask him how much it would cost, out of curiousity. $60, about).
I tell him about the hard time I'm having doing any work, since I'm supposed to be talking to people, interviewing villagers about health issues, etc, but nobody speaks french, and for the
moment, I can only tell them that I don't want I wife. He says, well, since I aint got anything else to do, I'd be happy to go around with you and translate. ...Really? You would do that for me? You mean I might actually be able to DO something here? I nearly break down in sobs of relief
and kiss his feet. Later on, something strikes me. Peace Corps provides a hefty $20/month budget for hiring a language tutor. I need help with my Moore... My friend Soule needs the money... He's easy on the eyes from both the front and back... Sweet, sweet blessings of providence! Could it work? Stay tuned...

Two other things that brought tears to my eye:

* While biking through another village 10km away, my riding partner points to something on our left... Oh, my God, it's a LAND FORMATION! A little cliff, maybe 20 feet high and 40 long. It used
to be a mountain, he said, but it got up and flew away. Well, of course. It was probably lonely. But finally, finally, I find something that's not flat!

* As I was strolling around the marché, I turn a corner and--Holy Shit! Onions!! I haven't seen any fresh veggies in the marché since the pathetic little tomatos disappeared over a month ago. And here, big, voluptuous onions! I snatch them up and dab my eyes with a hanky. To think that in the States I would always gripe, What do you MEAN the strawberry pie is "seasonal"??

(I also cry later that night as I chop one up for my curried pasta, but for a different reason altogether)

OK, just one more, before I nauseate you all:

* Picking up my first two care packages and a couple cards in time for my birthday. It meant a lot to me. Not the stuff so much as knowing that folks back home support my efforts. When the kids are
staring and all I can do is stare back, it's not always easy to know if it's really worth it. But you guys... It got me RIGHT HERE. All right, I'll stop! (cheese and granola)


A: What's a birthday?

I didn't want my 23rd birthday (dec 10, sag) to go by completely unrecognized, so I floated the news to a few people. First, I asked Isaaka what people normally do to celebrate in Zamse. "Yes... no..." That's how the kids reply when they're confused. Maybe I was using the wrong word. I asked him what day he was born. "1984?" No, Isaaka, that's the year, and besides, you're not 20. I try for a couple more minutes, but to no avail. Not only doesn't he know when his birthday is, he also doesn't know what it is. No use in telling him that mine's tomorrow now, is there? Turns out many people don't know their birthdays, or even the years, which makes it a little tough to celebrate.
On my birthday, I tried again, with the pharmacist. You know, it's my birthday today! "Oh." Allright, fine, I give up.

Forget it, it's not a big deal. Just another typical day in village. Fortunately, my PC neighbor Imane had other things in mind. She showed up in the evening with a huge bag of vegetables, which we cooked for dinner, and ate lamplight along with a cucumber vinaigrette and mac and CHEESE and a chilled beer while being seranaded by her bjork CD. It was delicious. During dinner, one of
my acquaintances stopped by, and asked "Why didn't you tell us it was it was your birthday?" Excuse me?? Turns out that among the faction of burkinabe that do celebrate birthdays, the rule is for the birthday-boy to throw his own party and treat all his friends. Well, now I know. But you know what? I like Imane's way better.

The desert is some more of my famous ice cream in coffee, chocolate and peach varieties. After dinner I'm treated to a facial with no less than 3 different exfoliants. We wrap out the evening playing rummy with my Colt Studio Hairy Chested Men playing cards (the kids get such a kick out
of them!). It was fun times. No birthday spanks, though. I'll be collecting them when I get back to the States. With interest.

It's time to wrap it up! I never finish up what I plan to say. But no worries, I'll be back in Ouaga later this month when I take off on Bike-a-Thon, a weeklong cross-country AIDS awareness bike trip. It sounds awesome, I'm very excité for it, and I'll tell you all about it in the next letter!

I promise this is the LAST TIME I'll mention packages,* but just so you know what's up: When the French colonized Burkina under a different name many years ago, they left behind their fondness for bureaucracy as a substitute for reason. Thus, even though you write CSPS de Zamsé on the envelope, and they know who I am, and they know my situation, the folks at the post will let only me pick it up in Zorgho, so that I can sign in 6 different places and have an ID check and retinal scan. I can go pick it up, and I'm happy to, but it's 40km each way and very difficult to do in single day on bike.

SO... If you send a package, please just leave my name off of it. This way my counterpart will be able to pick it up for me, since he's got a moto and passes through Zorgho all the time. The address is:

CSPS de Zamsé
B.P. 34
Burkina Faso

For regular letters, you can go ahead and put my name, it'll come straight to me. (and I promise to write back) That's all! Thanks!