Monday, June 06, 2005

Laafi Laafi Land

I'm freshly returned from my first trip to the far north, the Sahel desert region which makes Zamsé's sad landscape look like a lush tropical jungle. No big pretty dunes either... The land is even more utterly flat, its only distinguishing features a scattering of thorny bushes and trees. So why would I ever want to go there? Well, I'll tell you!


I joined 6 other volunteers for a Guinea Worm week around Djibo. Guinea worm is something you get by drinking contaminated water. One or more thin white worms grow inside of you for a year til they're a yard long or so, and then they shoot out of your chest in a gory shower of blood. Ever seen Alien? Actually, the worm is a little less dramatic. It picks a part of your body, often the feet or hands, but it could be anywhere: genitals, boobs, even eyes. The emergence is a very slow painful process, taking a couple weeks. If at any time you stick the affected body part in water (say a pond) for some relief, it shoots out its eggs and contaminates the water thatother people to drink. Of course you could die if the exit wound gets infected, or, say, you've got 80 worms coming out of you at the same time. Oh yeah, and once you've gotten it there's nothing you can do but wait for them to come out. Sucks to be you.

The good news is that Guinea Worm is on the verge of being eradicated in Burkina Faso, thanks in part to the dedicated work of handsome gregarious studly PCVs like yours truly. In fact, I'll just claim all the credit for myself, thank you very much. Most of the cases left are in remote areas on the borders, and so we went up to 2 affected areas near Mali. We rode around in truckbeds all week, not on roads so much as sets of tire tracks in the sand, got dropped off in villages, each of the PCVs with a team of 3 or 4 local volunteers, and we walked from courtyard to courtyard, across vast distances in the beating desert sun, uphill both ways (even though it's flat!), and educated every single person about The Evil Worm and how to crush it! (with water filters, which we then distributed.)

Our job was to sit on our ass as the local volunteers did all the work--hey,we don't speak the language! It's tough, but somebody's gotta do it. Our official job was to manage the team, make sure the sensibilization sessions were thorough and effective, and supervise the distribution of filters. One of the first villages we worked in was a gold dig site, not so much a settled community as a jumbled collection of huts, with a somewhat rough-around-the-collar population. Sheer chaos. Hundreds of kids following us around everywhere. They didn't care what we were saying, they just wanted whatever we had to give out. People pushing and fighting, kids clawing over each other to get straw filters, which they quickly took apart and dragged on the ground behind them, like they do with all their toys. Fortunately I was there to impose order and save the day ("throw the filters and run!"). My contribution was to dash into the crowd, say my piece to the team ("remember to wash out the cup! AAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!") and flee until I was once again needed. I learned that sometimes in health work you can do nothing but try, and hope that something was accomplished.

The rest of the week went much better. People listened and learned, everybody got filters, and my team kicked some Guinea Worm ass! Watch out, worm! Go pick on somethin your own size!


At night we stayed at the local clinic where we were based. We had to walk around with our headlamps vigilantly scanning the ground in front of us lest we step on a scorpion or get a 2-inch thorn in our foot. We had a number of close calls for both, but no puncture wounds or poisoning, dieu merci.

We set up our mosquito net tents outside. My one-man tent ("the taco") was the subject of much ridicule and cruel taunting from the other PCVs. Our first night, Jackie, who was helping coordinate the week, just stood and laughed for what had to be 20 minutes at my tent as it flailed helplessly in the slight breeze, as I tried to go to sleep. Ok, my tent is small. I admit it freely and without shame. There's barely room for my arms, let alone another person. In fact, it would be nearly impossible for another person to sleep in my tent without having sex with me (the others suggested I find a way to use this to my advantage). But it's not the size of the tent that matters, people! It's... other things!

We got a taste of the weather up north in the form of wind and sandstorms. These tended to blow away our tents when we weren't inside, and even sometimes when we were, which led to some wild chases across the desert.

While not making fun of me, chasing tents, or running from scorpions, Andy and Pei, the Asian Americans in our group, were busy convincing our burkinabe counterparts that Jackie Chan was their brother and Bruce Lee their uncle. Burkinabe only ever watch Kung Fu/martial arts action movies, and so Bruce and Jackie and Jet are the best known celebrities after Michael Jackson. And of course since they never see Asians in person, it's only too easy to convince them that they'd better not pick a fight with Andy or Pei, cause baby, they got some moves you don't want to experience first hand.


How's everybody doin tonight? Aw, come on, you can do better than that. I said, how is everybody doin tonight?! Is there health in the crowd this evening? Lemme hear you say LAAFI BEEME! Nothin but health? Lemme hear you say LAAFI BALA! I'd like to start off with a new number tonight. A little song I like to call Laafi Laafi Land... It goes a little somethin like this:

Everything is Laafi
In Laafi Laafi Land
And if you mention otherwise
You're likely to get banned!

Beneath of every baobab
Inside of every hut
You'll find a load of Laafi beeme
And nothing but!

Sure we got malaria
And the runs can make us blue
But to us it's all Laafi bala
By the way, how do you do?

I don't care if you're dying
Or if your mom's not well
You'd better tell me Laafi be
Or you can go straight... to... the... SaHELLLLL! Hey!

Thank you! Thank you ladies and gentlemen and folks in between! You're beautiful! I'll be here two years!


Yes, yes I can see it now. Laafi Laafi Land, Africa's first mega themepark, and that will be its theme song. It's mascot will be a loveable cartoon vulture with a squeaky voice. The park's main area will be the Mossi Kingdom, a family fantasy-land of millet mazes, donkey-cart rides, and lots and lots of hoes. We'll offer discounts to families with over 10 children, and a tops-optional dress policy will be popular with European and African women alike.

Later we can add the Lipicot Center, a futuristic space whose centerpiece will be a huge round mud hut containing a time-travelling ride. Recline on a cot and watch as two years of your life pass you by. Then, once we've racked up the cash, we can expand and create the Animal Kingdom, a zoo with a selection of Burkina's most fascinating and exotic wildlife, ranging from goats to sheep to donkeys to chickens. It's companion park could be the Insect Kingdom, with swarms of flies and mosquitos, and rides like Scorpion Encounter and Locust: Raiders of the Lost Crops. Then maybe add a waterpark, Marigot Madness (watch out for that schisto!)... the possibilities are endless, and the potential windfall for investors unimaginable. Any takers?

Truly, Burkina is a country ripe for investment. I already mentioned a while back the Burkinabe diet, which will trim you down with intestinal parasites while toning you up with work in the fields, and all the while not getting enough to eat. Shit, sweat and plow the pounds away! Another entrepreneurial possibility would be to open a chain of Sweatbox Yoga Spiritual Retreat Centers marketed to new agey american tourists. In trendy cities like Chicago and DC, yuppies flock to these places, rooms where they jack the thermostat up to 120 degrees and do yoga. But why bother with the heating bill? You could do Sweatbox Yoga anywhere just by stepping outside into the sauna that is Burkina. And what better way to find yourself, what could be a more spiritual experience, than sweating profusely in an African village?

Burkina is also well-poised to offer services to the fashion industry. Open any catalogue and you'll see loads of pre-faded, worn-looking, stone washed, frayed hemmed clothing. Americans are so damn lazy that they can't be bothered to wear-in their own wardrobe, so they spend millions of extra dollars buying clothes that have gone through these fancy machines and acid-wash vats that beat them, fade them and tear them. Instead, just send em to Burkina, where the unclad locals would be happy to wear them in and beat them up much more cheaply (and thoroughly!) before shipping them back off to Abercrombie and American Eagle. And while we're at it, why not have them take over the pesky chore of wearing in your new Birkenstocks as well?


Actually, Africans probably already are wearing your clothing. If you've ever wondered what happens to all those old t-shirts you dump in the Goodwill bin, well, they end up here. Rumor has it that once a volunteer spotted a villager wearing his high school's class t-shirt with his name on the back. Volunteers love to dig through the piles of clothes in the market to find campy shirts from the 80s. But more interesting is seeing villagers walking around with t-shirts with slogans in English that they obviously don't understand. Some of my favorites:

--A guy wearing a D.A.R.E. to Keep Off Drugs! t-shirt, while his friend standing next to him wore one with a pot-leaf print.

--"One by one, the penguins steal my sanity" in bright red on a guy walking around ouaga.

--"Nuke a godless communist gay baby seal for Christ" on a guy hanging out at a cigarette stand in Koupela.

A couple of times I've seen other gay references on t-shirts... One of my village friends always wears a California Aids Ride tee with a large logo for the LA Gay and Lesbian center. Another volunteer apparently saw a singer on TV in a Burkinabe music video wearing a t-shirt reading "I can't even think straight!" Oh, if they only knew. Course, assuming that nobody can read the shirts backfired once for my neighbor Imane. She found a shirt in a market in ouaga boldly proclaiming "MASTURBATION IS NOT A CRIME". She had to snatch it up, of course, how could she pass? She wore it a couple times in village before coming to the realization that "masturbation" and "crime" are actually the same words in French.

When I first got here, I couldn't for the life of me remember who was who in village, because they've all got names like Issa and Issaka and Issouf, and, frankly, they all looked to same to me! (and I'm sure that now when I go home I won't be able to tell all those nassaras apart--I'm having a hard enough time with the 13 new volunteers!) I tried to remember them by their t-shirts, but then I thought to myself, wait, when they change their shirts, I'll be screwed! But after a couple of days, I realized that the shirts don't actually change from day to day, making it quite possible to remember people as Burger King guy or Pittsburgh Steelers chick.

It's not just what they're wearing, but how they're wearing it. The unaboob look is all the rage amongst my village women, who keep a single long breast hanging out of their Beckham jersey collars, sometimes with a small child attached. Even though I've pretty much seen it all, there are still those moments when I think Wow... that's just surreal. Like the time a woman came into the clinic wearing a fluorescent green mesh tanktop. She was exposing it all, which all the women do anyway, but the mesh tanktop made it look quite naughty and inappropriate to wear out in public. Of course then she whipped out a boob to feed to her baby and normalcy was restored.


And speaking of looks, I've recently given up on letting nature take its course with my head. My hair grew, and it looked good when I could keep it wet and kempt, which was never. It also grew wild, with a number of small bug families taking up residence. And then the small bugs attracted the small brightly colored birds and their nests, which was cute, but the bird crap was just too much. I came to Ouaga and before the party for the newly sworn in volunteers I asked Chrissy to take clippers to my head. Shave it! And the hair was shorn, and then there was a mohawk, and it was good. Better than good, it was badasssss! Check out the before and after photoshoots:
(where you'll find a folder of simmering "Glamour shots" as well as some new photos from Guinea Worm)

Then exercise your right and duty as an american and VOTE for your favorite at:
and click on polls.

Not that your vote makes a difference, of course, unless it comes with bribes. The mohawk feels so much better in this infernal heat. And the new punk 'do comes with a phat new 'tude. Whatchou lookin' at, kid? You gotta problem wid dis shit? No, you can't have the damn nalgene! Ok, so the attitude is pretty much the same, but my head will never be. I'll let you know what the village thinks.

Peace out, yo.