I know it’s been a little while since my last post, but access to the Internet at my site is pretty limited. There’s a lot of things that I want to touch on in this post so I apologize if it’s a little scattered or if I’m repeating some things from previous posts. Right now it’s Friday afternoon, October 13th. If everything works out as I hope it does (which it rarely does here), then I’ll be able to post this sometime on Sunday.
So the big news right now is that I’ve been at my site for a little over a month and I’ve actually started teaching. I arrived in Baraboule on the afternoon of September 6th. The whole experience was a little crazy. A Peace Corps vehicle picked myself and another volunteer up at the hostel in Ouaga that morning, we then dropped her off at her site, drove up to Djibo and stopped there for a few minutes where 3 volunteers who are a year into their service hopped in for the last 30k to Baraboule to check it out. When we got to Baraboule, the driver and the other 3 volunteers helped me unload my stuff and then took off after about 15 minutes or so. And then there I was, my first time ever in Baraboule – not knowing anyone or anything. (I had met one of my colleagues during training, but he didn’t show up in Baraboule until I had been there for about 3 weeks.) As you can imagine, the first few minutes, hours, days were pretty interesting as I started to meet people and tried to figure out where everything was. Of course, the fact that the majority of the people here in village don’t speak French makes it that much more challenging.
I think the first thing I’ll talk about is my living situation. I have a pretty nice house with 2 rooms. I think it’s a mud-brick house with a cement type covering over the mud bricks. The roof is made out of tin. (I’m sure you can imagine how loud it must be during the rain storms with the tin roof.) One of the rooms serves as my bedroom and the other serves mostly as my kitchen. I even have a nice hangar where I spend most of my time when I’m at home. The hangar has a cement floor and plenty of shade. Next to the house is my own personal latrine and shower area. The latrine is your basic whole in the ground with a piece of wood covering it and the shower area is right next door. There’s simply a small wall dividing the shower area from the latrine, the shower water actually drains into the latrine. I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘This would be a lot easier if I had pictures to look at.’ I assure you I have been taking pictures and that next time in Ouaga, I’ll be doing my best to post as many as I can. (The next time I’m in Ouaga will most likely be somewhere around December. This is when the first trimester ends at school and we probably have our first IST – In Service Training.)
I really lucked out in the sense that the volunteer who was in Baraboule before me left almost everything I need and it is all in really good condition. I have a double-sized bed with a real mattress (I think most volunteers have foam mattresses.), propane stove, plenty of pots and dishes, some nice chairs, etc. To make it even better, because the site was empty for over a year the Peace Corps gave me a settling-in allowance for a new site which is twice as much as they give for someone moving into an existing site. Usually you have to spend this money on everything I just listed, but because I already have all of that stuff from the previous volunteer I get to keep the money and spend it as I choose – not too bad.
Ok, more about my living situation. One thing that is different about my house from almost all of the other volunteers is that I don’t have my own courtyard. My house is in the courtyard of a family. (Some other volunteers are in the courtyards of a family, but usually they still have their own small, walled off courtyard within the larger family courtyard.) As you’ve probably read in a previous post, the head of the courtyard is the president of the APE (parent / teacher association) here in Baraboule. So what this means for me is that I’m pretty much a member of the family. They actually feed me both lunch and dinner pretty much every day. I’ll talk a little bit more about the food situation in a minute. So I’m also lucky in that the head of the courtyard (Alou) also speaks French so I have someone that I can talk with in the family. (I’ll also get more into the language situation in a minute too.) He has 2 wives and I think 8 children (some of who are in my classes at the school). So you would think that my privacy would be very limited since I don’t have my own courtyard. However, in a sense the family protects me and in general I think I actually have more privacy than some of the volunteers who I’ve visited that have their own courtyards. Although for the most part, being the only foreigner in the middle of an African village – you almost have to give up your sense of privacy.
My house actually does a great a job of retaining heat which I’m sure I’m going to appreciate during those 2 nights a year when the temperature drops into the 60s. Because of the heat, I often actually sleep outside in a tent under my hangar. At some point I’m going to buy a lipiko (similar to a cot) which I can keep outside for sleeping during the hot season. (I think that’s around the March, April, May timeframe.) I think you really don’t have a choice but to sleep outside during these months. I haven’t run into too many undesirable creatures in my house so far. There was one night that I had a couple of bats in here, but at least they were eating the bugs. I’ve also seen a couple of cockroaches, but for the most part I’ll only find one or two of them in the latrine at night and not in the house. Not too bad considering that I’ve seen a latrine here in Burkina where the wall was covered by so many cockroaches that you couldn’t even see the wall – just a wall of cockroaches. Spiders and I have pretty much worked out an agreement whereby as long as they keep killing insects, I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me. There’s one volunteer nearby who’s found 5 scorpions in his place during the last month and another volunteer who’s found one in her house, but I’ve been lucky so far as far as those things are concerned. My worst infestation is that a few times I’ve found little frogs in the house. It’s a little odd waking up in the middle of the night to something moving, carefully getting up to see what it is, and discovering that it’s just a little frog. Anyhow, if I have a choice I’ll take the frogs over the scorpions anyday.
I’m pretty sure I’ve lost a little bit of weight since I’ve been here, but in general I think I actually eat more here as far as quantity of food is concerned than I did in the States. Again, my situation where I’m in a family courtyard makes my eating situation different from most volunteers too. I’ll usually make some oatmeal for breakfast (good to keep everything in the system moving since there’s very little fiber in the diet here) and then the family will almost always feed me both lunch and dinner. Of course, this means that I’m eating whatever they eat which 9 times out of 10 is to (pronounced ‘toe’). This is basically a dish made out of millet (it can be made out of corn or sorghum too). It’s served in a bowl and has the consistency of Play-Do. You basically scoop some out of the bowl with your hand and then dip it into the sauce in another bowl. The sauce is usually made out of okra or baobob leaves. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a piece of meat in the sauce. No, I usually don’t know what type of meat it is, but I’d probably guess goat or sheep most of the time. If it’s not ‘to’, then it’s either rice or beans – but both of those are very rare. I’m a pretty big fan of when they make the rice and beans mixed together.
At dinnertime, I’ll almost always eat with Alou. Because it’s Ramadan right now, we’ll often start drinking some porridge like thing called bouillie – this is also made mostly out of millet, but has milk and sugar added it to it so it’s not too bad. After that it’s the to and then sometimes grilled corn (since it’s harvest time for the corn) or some watermelon. Usually that’s followed by tea. The making and drinking of the tea here is a whole process in and of itself. It’s almost more of a social event than anything else. The tea is served in glasses similar to shot glasses and there’s almost always 3 rounds. The entire process can take up to an hour. One thing I get that is rare for volunteers in Burkina is fresh milk. Alou owns some cows so often they’ll give me a bowl of milk after dinner or during the day. I’ve literally seen the cows being milked that evening so it doesn’t get much more fresh than that. Before drinking it, I do pasteurize it which basically involves just bringing it close to a boil. So it may not be cold, but it is fresh milk. At lunch, I usually eat by myself since it’s Ramadan and Alou is fasting during the day. This is almost always just ‘to’ with one of the sauces I mentioned before. So as you can probably tell, I get plenty to eat. As a matter of fact, I always get fed first before anyone else so there’s never been a time where I haven’t had enough to eat.
My French is still improving as the days go by. I definitely still have a ways to go before I really feel comfortable conversing in French, but it’s getting there. As I mentioned earlier, most of the people in the village don’t speak French. However, I do get to speak French with the other teacher who is here and with Alou pretty much every night. The main language spoken in the village is called Fulfulde. Slowly, but surely I’m starting to pick some of it up. The Peace Corps offers 10,000 francs ($20) a month during your first year to hire a language tutor so I’ve ‘hired’ Alou to help me learn Fulfulde. I figure this will also by default help my French since he’s pretty much explaining everything to me in French. Unfortunately, Fulfulde is not the primary language spoken by my family to each other in the courtyard. They speak a language called Keronfe with each other. So if I learn Fulfulde - I’ll be able to communicate with pretty much everyone in the village, but I still won’t understand what my family is saying to each other in the courtyard. There’s also another language spoken in the village called Moore which is the language of the Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Burkina. This language is useful because of how many people speak it in Burkina, but it’s pretty much only spoken in Burkina. The cool thing about Fulfulde is that approximately 15 million people speak it throughout West Africa so in a sense, it’s more useful. Anyhow, I have my hands full right now just trying to improve my French and learn Fulfulde. If I pick up any of the other 2 that’s great, but I’ll be happy if I can just feel comfortable with my French and Fulfulde.
I should probably talk about the village itself – Baraboule. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m pretty far ‘out there’. The Peace Corps recently tested their Emergency Action Plan in Burkina and I think of the 90 or so volunteers in Burkina, I was the second to last one they were able to contact. I wouldn’t say that I’m in a small village because it has a lot of things that you’ll only find in bigger villages – an infirmary (like a walk-in clinic), police, and a CEG (equivalent of a junior high school, it’s where I teach). However, it doesn’t have a telecenter which most villages this size have and also I can’t get cell phone coverage most of the time. There is actually a small hill in the village that I can stand on where I can get reception and also if I put my cell phone on top of my hangar in the evenings, I can sometimes get reception to send and receive text messages. (I’m not sure exactly how I figured that out. Before I started teaching, I had a lot of time on my hands.) There are 3 small boutiques here where I can buy a good amount of stuff – rice, macaroni, tomato paste, sugar, coffee, and occasionally bread. Also, every 3 days there’s a very small market. Unfortunately, there’s not much here in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables. I think the best I’ve found in the market is a few onions. There’s also a good sized pond here that I’m told has crocodiles in it. The people actually aren’t afraid of the crocodiles as they bathe and wash their clothes in the water. I guess the crocodiles will sometimes eat a small goat or duck, but they pretty much leave the people alone. So I’ve also been told that this pond dries up during the rainy season which is crazy because it really is a good size. I’ve taken some pictures of it to compare it when it’s full of water to when it’s all dried up. That’s another important thing to mention about Baraboule. From what I understand, during the hot season it’s common that the village runs out of water. It’s not that they don’t have wells and pumps, it’s just that they all dry up. So I guess that people have to go to other villages a few kilometers away to get their water. I’m not worried about myself since I know that they’ll take care of me and make sure that I have enough water, but I’m obviously not looking forward to seeing others in the village having issues with water. (It’s ironic that the stranger is the one who gets taken care of first.)
As far as around Baraboule is concerned, I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m very close to the border of Mali (about 10 miles). I haven’t made the trek out that way yet, although I guess there isn’t much to see. I don’t even think there’s a border crossing so there probably isn’t even a way to know that you’re in Mali. Technically, I’m not allowed to leave the country without informing the Peace Corps so finding myself in Mali would be a bad thing. I have a good amount of volunteers who are pretty close to me – one who’s only 5k away which might as well be next door as far as the Peace Corps is concerned. Usually once a week or so (more often before school started), I’ll make the 18 mile trek into Djibo which is the nearest ‘city’. (calling it a city is a pretty big stretch) It’s not a bad bike ride. It’s a dirt road, but it’s in pretty good condition. (I think the nearest paved road is a little over 80 miles away.) It usually takes me between an hour and a half and 2 hours depending on the wind, how tired I am, and how many flat tires I get. (I’m averaging a little over one a week – there’s lots of thorns here that are almost impossible to avoid.) So Djibo is actually where I’m hoping to post this on Sunday. There’s one Internet café there that costs 1200 francs ($2.40) an hour - much more expensive than Ouaga (300 francs an hour or free at the Peace Corps bureau), but it’s the only choice. I’m told that it ranges from being totally unusable at worst to an extremely slow dial-up connection at best. Hopefully I’ll have good luck. So my gameplan is to bike into Djibo tomorrow, get a hotel room and stay there for the night, and then bike back on Sunday. The hotel in Djibo has running water, electricity, and a fan so it’s a nice change of pace from village life. (although the electricity in Djibo shuts off every night in the entire city from something like midnight – 7am or 2am – 7am) It usually costs about 1000 francs a night ($2) so it’s well worth it. (I think the actual rate is $4, but they give the Peace Corps a discount.) I actually brought a few DVDs with me to Africa so if I have my laptop with me, I can actually watch a movie while I’m staying the night there. Djibo is also where I can get fresh fruits and vegetables depending upon what’s in season. Finally, the last thing I’ll mention about Djibo is that it also has a couple of supermarches. This obviously directly translates as supermarkets, but the best comparison I can think of is to a corner store in the States where you have 2 or 3 aisles of goods. Here I can get canned meat (like tuna, corned beef, chicken – most of it is spam-like quality, but it’s protein), packets of mayonnaise, popcorn, toilet paper, cookies. I’ll often buy canned meat and eat it after eating the ‘to’ to get a little protein. The popcorn’s great too and really easy to make in village.
(Ok, so now it’s Friday, October 20th. As expected, I wasn’t able to post this last weekend. However, I did use the Internet in Djibo this past Wednesday for a few minutes and it really is a dial-up connection. Unfortunately, the computers there aren’t new enough to have USB ports so I can’t use my memory stick, but I do have a CD-R that still has some space on it so I’m going to try and burn this document to the CD-R and upload it that way. Ironically enough, if this laptop was old enough to have a floppy-drive I could have just used that. Anyhow, it’s a little after 7pm here and pitch black outside. The sun sets at about 6pm here and by 6:30pm there’s no light at all. I just made myself a cup of coffee and I’m going to try and stay up for a little bit and write a little more.)
So I suppose I should talk a little bit about why I’m here in the first place – to teach. I just finished up my 3rd week of teaching today. I have 2 math classes, one is the equivalent of 7th grade back in the States and the other is the equivalent of 8th grade. For the first 2 weeks of school I also had the equivalent of a 6th grade math class which had about 100 students in it, but the school got a couple of new teachers this past week so that class was given to one of the new teachers. Between the 2 classes, I teach for 10 hours a week. During your first year, the Peace Corps recommends that you teach no more than 15 hours a week so I have a very light schedule. It’s ironic that it worked out that way because for the first 2 weeks it was just myself, another teacher, and the director. Then this past week the school’s staff doubled in size when it got 3 more people – 2 more teachers and a surveillant (similar to a vice-principal).
Nothing too eventful has happened in my first 3 weeks of teaching. I did have one student throw up in class during my first couple of days. And during the second week, the other teacher told me that I had to speak with the 8th grade class because none of them showed up for one of his classes and I’m the ‘professeur principale’ for that class. (similar to a homeroom teacher) In the 7th grade class there are about 50 students and in the 8th grade there are about 33. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday I start classes at 7am and on Monday and Friday I start at 9am. I don’t have any classes in the afternoon so most of my time in the afternoon is spent preparing for the next day and studying the languages.
One thing I find amazing is that the students are taught in French, but outside of school they almost never use French. With each other and with their families they’re almost always using one of the local languages. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be taught in a language that you hardly ever use.
I think that’s all I want to say about teaching right now. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to write on it as the school year progresses. I do want to talk a little bit more about the different seasons and the harvest. Right now, the rainy season just finished up about a couple of weeks ago and we’ve entered a mini hot season before the cool season starts. This means that it’s getting up to between about 105 and 110 most days right now. So the good news is that the harvest this year was good enough that they shouldn’t have a problem with food over the next year. Here in Baraboule, I guess the corn harvest wasn’t so good, but the millet harvest was good enough that it makes up for the lack of corn. So the way it works during the rainy season is that it rains every 3 or 4 days. Usually this is a pretty awesome spectacle as you’ll see a wall of brown coming at you in the distance which is the dust storm coming ahead of the rain. A few minutes later you’ll get hit by the wind and the dust, then after that it usually will rain for a little bit. Anyhow, if it goes for 5 or 6 days without raining the people start to get worried because the crops will die. The rain basically becomes the main topic of conversation. So it seems fairly obvious that every few years it’s going to happen that it’s going to go a few extra days without rain and that the crops are going to be bad that year. It’s kind of just a fact of life here. It’s just amazing to me how dependent they are on the rain coming every 3 or 4 days. I think 2004 was the last year they had problems with their food supply and they needed to have outside assistance. I guess one good thing is that this is a relatively peaceful country so it’s not hard for relief organizations to come in and do their work. The other thing that’s interesting about the rain is how localized the storms are. There’ll be rain in a village only 3 miles away, but here in Baraboule we’ll just got a dust storm or vice versa. So it’s possible for one village to be worried about rain while one just a few miles away is doing just fine.
This is something that I may have mentioned before, but I think is worth noting again. In general, it is amazing how nice the people here in Burkina are. Before I got here, I read in a few different places (guidebooks and such) that the main asset of Burkina is the people and their friendliness. I think part of me assumed when I read that was that they were saying that because Burkina doesn’t have much of anything else. However, from being here and from talking with people who’ve traveled around Africa, it really does seem to be true. If I go visit another volunteer, most of the time I’ll be leaving with some sort of gift whether it be corn or rice. This is coming from people who have practically nothing to give in the first place. I had someone visiting my site a couple weeks back and the head off my courtyard dropped off 10 eggs and a liver. Of course, while extremely generous – this presented the challenge of what to do with the liver. We ended up chopping it up and frying it in some oil with a lot of salt and pepper. While I’m not going to start buying animal livers, it was much better than I expected it to be.
Ok, I’m going to start wrapping up for now, but before I do I can do a quick question and answer period:
What’s up with the cell phone? I’m trying to call you, but I can never get through. What’s the best way to get in touch with you?
As I mentioned before, I almost never have cell phone reception in my village. The best chance of getting through is on the weekends when I’m often visiting Djibo. There’s probably about a 50/50 chance that I’ll in Djibo on any given weekend. As far as text messages are concerned – they do get through sometimes, but I wouldn’t consider them reliable. If you need the number again and don’t feel like searching through prior posts for it, it’s 011-226-76122793.
The best way to get in touch with me now is either through snail mail or email. They’re both probably about the same right now. Letters and packages take about 2 or 3 weeks to get here and I’ll probably be able to check email about that often. Snail mail is actually probably more of a sure thing. I do have a new address. The old one will still work, but it goes to the Peace Corps office in the capital so I’ll only get that mail when I visit the capital or someone brings it up to me. The new address is a post office box that I share with the volunteers in the Djibo area. Anyhow, the new address is:
Bryan Chambers, PCVBP 204DjiboBurkina Faso, West Africa
I want to visit. What do I need to do?
I would love to play host if anyone wants to come out and visit. My big school vacation periods are during the months of March and December and then for the majority of the summer (June, July, August, and September). I would recommend against March because of the hot season, but I think the rest of the months are very doable. As far as what to do, there would be a few options – seeing my village, going up to Dogon country in Mali, going to one of the wildlife reserves, heading down to one of the resorts along the ocean, or some combination of the above. (and probably more that I haven’t thought of) Since you wouldn’t be spending 2 years here, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t need the plethora of shots that I received. I think Yellow Fever immunization is required to enter most countries in West Africa and probably some malaria medication wouldn’t hurt either. (Although you might want to consider consulting the advice of an actual doctor. I only play one in village.) Anyhow, if you are interested in coming anytime soon please get in touch and we can start to plan things out. Of course, I’m probably here for another 23 months so you do have a couple of years to make it out this way.
I want to help. What can I do?
I know there are some people who would like to help in some way whether it be sending supplies or donating money. At this point in time however, I’m really still just getting to know the village here and what their real problems are. As the next few months go by, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of ways that people can lend a hand if they want to, but for now I think the best thing is for me to just spend some time here and learn more about the village and the lives of the people here. When I do have a way that people can help, I’ll be sure and post it on the blog.
Alright, that’s about it for now. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post this during the upcoming weekend. Monday marks the end of Ramadan so I actually have a long weekend. I think next to Tabaski (another Muslim holiday) this is their biggest holiday of the year so there’ll be a lot of celebrating going on in village. Thanks again to everyone who’s sent a letter, care package, email, or posted on the blog – it’s always very much appreciated. Hope everyone’s doing good back home (the general North America area)!