Thursday, August 28, 2008

GRITS2BF No More...

Hello all. Okay, so it has been a while, and I am guessing that if I even had any fans/loyal readers of this you have all abandoned ship and moved on to the next hot blog. I had a few requests to post at least one "getting re-acclimated" email...so now more than two months of being at home, and watching at least 5 major banks fold, I am bored enough to do that.

I got back on Friday, July 18th thanks to some fancy flight intinerary from Peace Corps. The most ideal thing would have been just to sleep at the airport, because later that afternoon I returned again to fly out to the Morris Family Reunion in Pittsburgh, PA. Once a year my mom's side of the family has a reunion, and it allowed me to see my Mom, brother, sister-in-law, cutest-in-the-world nephew (seriously, no joke), and my extended family. So, culture shock had to be thrown aside as I jet-setted on Jet Blue (SATELLITE TV, yummy snacks, cutely dressed flight attendants....if this is America I LOVE it!). It was a day of family, food, food, more food, a rockin' DJ, and a very fun Chinese Auction. At every family reunion it is a Morris tradition to hold a Chinese Auction, and this year there were a lot of cool things to bid for. As I was browsing the merchandise I spotted a basket full of "smart" books, as they came to be known my me. It has "Collapse," a Mark Twain Biography, and more. All of them were in hard back. I immediately thought to myself..."WOW, we have to win those. We would look so smart having those on our shelf. So, after buying about 150 tickets and scaring anyone away from putting tickets into the bowl for the books, we won the books. Triumphantly I walked up and claimed my prize...oh yes...we are smart...just look at our bookshelves!!! (P.S. at least 2 people have commented on what "smart" books we have...so there!).

After our triumphant return from Pittsburgh it was time for me to settle into our apartment, decorate, enjoy being "home," and look for gainful employment. I put "gainful employment" last on my list because it is the most boring and painful part. Everyone knows the economy is basically in the crapper...so I wasn't overly optimistic about my chances. 

I spent my first few weeks at home giving our apartment that female touch. We bought some book shelves, a television stand, made an Ikea run for various accessories. BTW, seriously...LOVE Ikea!!! We took the Ikea Water Taxi, that's right...a boat to Ikea! It was beautiful...especially at 1:30 in the afternoon while I thought about all the schlubs chained to their desks in cubicles (oh...little did I know). Mike even took a week off and we had a "staycation." We lounged around, went on long walks, went to the Natural History Museum, took a car up to Randall's Island and played mini-golf and I learned how to hit golf balls at the range. After about 20 minutes of spinning in circle and continually missing the ball, cursing it out, and then throwing the club in frustration I finally made my first hit...oh how exhilarating!!

After almost a month and a half of pounding the pavement, begging, pleading, name dropping, resume sending, internet searching, crying (alright...just a little), penny pinching, sleeping, Guitar Hero playing, and the like....I finally got the call. It was like being in the minor leagues and then all of a sudden getting a call from the Majors to step up. I hadn't planned on getting back into advertising (I swear!!), but I did take a few meetings in the off chance that I decided I wanted to give it another try.  I had a few other opportunities kickin' around, but let's be honest here people...you gotta make those Benjamin's and non-profit work just wasn't in the cards for (not yet anyway). So, after a successful informational interview (I know how to charm them...), I got a job offer at BBDO, a very large but very creative advertising agency. So, here I sit, writing to you from my cubicle in a huge corporate office. Just over two months ago I was sitting in a mud brick hut sleeping 3 hours a day, planting corn in a field, and crapping in a hole...well, sadly, that is no more. No more staph infections (well, actually not true...I am fighting a staph infection for the 2nd time since being home), no more Toh, no more attieke, no more chickens running around in my yard, no more children hugging me while I run...it is all gone, only to be recalled from the recesses of my mind. 

I have managed in the two months that I've been home to have 3 Peace Corps reunions with various volunteers that I served with in Burkina. Helen and Nanette came to visit, and I went to Boston and hung out with Minh, Helen, Nanette, and Rose. It has been a pretty amazing time. To say that I feel a bit "out of place" here is understating. People ask me all the time how my experience was, and how do I even sum it up in words...or at least in a sentence or two before they lose interest. I feel like an alien that landed on another planet...or like I know a secret that know one else in the room knows. I don't mean it in a superior way, not at all, just in a "I feel separate" kind of way...I don't even know how to describe it, but I would imagine that anyone reading this that has ever lived abroad would understand immediately.

I am also fighting lingering feelings of loneliness. Although being in NYC puts me in one of the most crowded cities in the world, I have never felt more "alone." In Burkina I was never alone, whether that was with my villagers, or with my fellow volunteers partying in the capital. You were never short of a friend to confide in or get a drink with. Back here in the States I have to book my friends 2 weeks in advance just to make sure that they have the time. It seems so sad to me how isolated people are here. At least I have Mike with me, and that has been my saving grace.

I will tell you one thing that hasn't happened that I thought would...and that is that I haven't gone crazy on Starbucks! I know, right?!?! I thought I would basically be hooking it up intravenously, but (and I swear this is true) I have only gone to Starbucks 4 times in the 2 months that I have been back. Before leaving for the Peace Corps I managed to turn Mike into a coffee addict, so I have been enjoying fresh home-brewed coffee. I guess the difference is that I know I am not going back to Burkina (any time soon anyway), so there is no "rush" to get it all in....honestly, I would trade all of the Starbuck's and flush toilets just to go back to Burkina and see my friends...and I mean that. 

Anyhoo, this is rambling and a bit boring, so I say to all of you who have followed this blog, thank you! I hope for anyone new you get a chance to read through my mishaps and triumphs, and that I provide entertainment and insight for you. Thanks for all of the support from anyone who has helped me while I was there, and as always...Stay safe!!!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Nasara Bye-Bye!


Two years? Two years! Two years. Where does it go? I can remember perfectly the ride with Mike to Philadelphia on September 25th, 2006. I can remember the goodbye, and the crazy leap into the unknown. Burkina Faso? I didn't even know that country existed until I was invited to serve there! How do I put into words how I feel, looking back, almost two years later. I have seen, experienced, and learned in these last two years. It overwhelms me to even think about it.

After an intense 2 months of learning French (although by the time I left training I didn't feel like I knew anything) and culture...of we went! December 1st, 2006 I headed off to Banzon not knowing what it looked like, the language (for the most part), or the people. I was SO scared, but in the Peace Corps you aren't given a lot of time to be scared. You just keep moving forward because that is all you can do. The first few months were hard...people laughed at me and asked me for money. Then, as time went by, the transformation happened. People started calling me by name, and recognizing me as something other than the "toubabou" in village. Slowly friendships began to form, and it is only now, close to 2 years later that I realize the significance and importance of these people in my life. Normally, I am not one to dwell on the past (or sadly all that much on the present). I tend to focus my eyes forward in a planning mode, which for most of my life caused me to miss out on all the wonderful things that were happening to me at the present moment. When I moved from one stage of my life to another I never wasted time on sentimentalities...I just moved forward with excitement. However, I am realizing that Peace Corps has changed that. Leaving my village was the first example of this. As my last few days crept up on me I found myself looking around everywhere and trying to suck it all in. I would tell myself, "Remember this view. Remember this smell (even the bad ones). Remember this moment. Don't let it slip away through the cracks of your memory." Every where I went the thought of it being the "last time" I ever did this would overwhelm me. It got to the point that I could barely walk through my market and greet my friends for fear of breaking down into tears. Here I am with a free ticket back to the "promised land" and all I could think that I wanted was to stay here with them forever. It just didn't seem fair that they stayed while I got to leave. As the day of departure approached my house began to swell with gifts. My friends who have so little had bought me baskets, calabashes, pagnes--and not just for me, but for EVERYONE in my family. I have gifts for my grandma, my brother, my sister, my nephew, my mom, and Mike...and they have only met one of those people in that list. To say that the Burkinabe are a generous people is definitely understating it.

On the last day my friends came over and were shocked to see that I wasn't completely finished packing--yeah, I am still a procrastinator...something Peace Corps didn't manage to change. They all sat in my house while I finished the last of my packing, and I gave out various gifts of things that I couldn't fit in my bag (you would be surprised how popular bra's are...big sellers!). After a couple of hours I announce to everyone, "well, I'm ready. I am just going to shower now, and then I will meet you guys outside." Everyone just stared at me and then my salad lady said, "go ahead. we'll wait here." Okay, my shower is inside...so I had to grab my towel and walk into my bedroom and shower while everyone was waiting outside. AWKWARD! When I came out wrapped in a pagne and a towel on my head they thought I was attempting to dress "African" and all applauded. Where will my applauding audience be when I step out of my shower in New York? Where will my excited children be yelling "bonjour" when I walk into my courtyard? The days of being interesting and different are kind of over...a white girl in New York City doesn't exactly stand out. :-( As I boarded the bus to go to Bobo for the last time a crowd congregated out in front of my house to say goodbye. This time I was smart and wore my sunglasses so people wouldn't see me cry...even though they did...which then started a domino-effect of everyone else crying. It took all my strength not to jump out of the bus and say "I'm just kidding. I'm staying!" But, sadly, that isn't an option for me at this point...and as hard as it is to move forward, and as much as I am resisting it, it is something that must happen.

So, here I sit in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso--where it all began. I look back on these two years of my life in awe. In awe of all the wonderful things I was blessed to have experienced and witnessed. It seems like a dream or some movie of someone else's life...not something that I actually lived through. People ask me how I feel about leaving, how will it be to go from the poorest country in the world to one of the richest...or from a small village to one of the largest cities in the world. Honestly, I am not sure how I will feel about it. Everyone says that I should be happy because I can't get anything and everything my heart desires...but I feel that it doesn't have the same meaning when it is so readily available and in such overwhelming quantities. A glass with ice...or a hot shower...none of that is novel. So I wonder how long it will take for me to fall back into my "American" attitude and begin viewing my life as mundane. I can only hope and pray that these feelings and these lessons stick with me. I want to value every little perk in life, from an ice-cold glass of water to a good coffee (not instant...blech!). Something I think we could all work on a little bit. I am by no means a sage, but the advice I would give to everyone is to (as cliche as it sounds) stop and smell the roses. Stop and be thankful for all that we have (even in our recession) because compared to the rest of the world it is a HELL of a lot.

Alright...I am going to get off my little soapbox of the value of this experience in my life (which, by the way, if you weren't paying attention, is immeasurable!). I am going to try to turn my eyes forward (never forgetting the past), and focus on the next step in my life...New York City, a job, and re-starting the life that I left behind there. For now, I have to focus on doing all my last minute departure stuff and willing myself on that plane. As we leave we have to take language tests to see how far we come, and although language is no broad indicator of how we fared here...I feel like it sort of represents my growth. When I started I was Beginner-Low (you can't go any more down than that) and as I learned yesterday I am Advanced-Mid (one level from the top)...not tooting my own horn or anything, but that is quite an improvement if I say so myself! :-D

I will leave you with one little story (although there are so many that it's difficult to know where to start) that I wrote back in June. Interestingly enough, this story will be published in an anthology "Peace Corps at 50" which will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps...so I can add published author to my resume...WOO HOO! This by no means encompasses my entire service, but I feel it embodies the idea of getting back to the basics, and that it is these connections that are most important in life. Sadly, I don't know if my friend Brahim will even remember me when he grows up, but I did give him a picture of me and I can only hope that I am given the means to return. Thank you all for following along with me on this two year journey, and I hope that maybe you learned along the way with me. I may update this from the States, but really, what is so interesting about a white girl living in NYC? Thank you to everyone for their love and support, and as always (and for the last time while in Burkina Faso) Stay Safe!

A picture of me and my running buddy, Brahim...he looks scared here, but every time I pulled a camera out he got scared...
The sun peaks through my straw hangar, the thwack of the axe can be heard fro across my courtyard, and the naying of the donkeys signal another day has begun. In Burkina Faso the last thing that I need is an alarm clock. As if set to a timer--even though usually NOTHING runs on time--my village comes to life as the sun peaks over the horizon. The people--and animals--start their day, whether I am ready for them to or not...there is NO snooze button.

I jump out of bed, thankful for the morning coolness as it flows over me, knowing that in 3 hours the sun will beat down and I will have to take refuge for a while from its rays. The mornings have always been my favorite, not only for the gracious breeze and cool air, but for the sounds and sights of my village coming to life.

For me, my mornings are the same. I lace up my shoes, take a gulp of water, and I set off. I pass several of my neigbors, all of whom have been up for hours already preparing breakfast and lunch, washing the children, cleaning the house, and preparing to set off to the fields--it is the rainy season and everyone has a field to tend to. As I run past I wave hello and pass my morning greetings to my neighbors--"Aw ni Sogoma," I shout as I jog by--Good morning in my village's local language of Joula. We rush through the greeting ritual as I pass by. At this point the odd looks have subsided, and most people just know me as the crazy american girl that "faire's le sport." Running is never done unless trying to get away from something, or in playing soccer...and most certainly not done that often by a girl.

I continue on my path through the mango groves which are teeming with ripe mangos. Their scent fills the air and I have to resist ripping one off the tree and eating it right there. I don't know if I will ever be able to buy fruits from a supermarket again. I wave to the villagers and children who are already in the grove, picking the mangos for sale in the market. I pass as the children make their way to school in the morning, carrying their little rice sack backbacks as they bound along. I dodge the various cattle, goats, and pigs along my route, Passing the river, and continuing on into the rice fields. The view is spectacular, and a far cry from 9 months ago when I was staring at the New York skyline from my office window. Oh, how much my life has changed in such a short time.

As amazing as all of this is, it is the end of my run that I look forward to the most. As I crest the hill out of the mango grove the familiar cry pierces the air. There is Brahim, my two-year old neighbor. "Madame! Madame!" he cries as he sees me come over the hill. He darts towards me from his courtyard, his little legs carrying him as fast as he can go. His eyes are lit up, and there is a smile on his face
that could light the world. Normally we shake hands, high five, and I pat him on
the head...but today is different. As he runs up I put my hands out and UP he jumps giving me the biggest little bear hug that he can muster. He has always been so shy to this point, and his affection surprises me. "Bonjour," he says...the only word of French I am sure he knows. He props on my hip and I jog him back to his mother. He pops down to the ground, gives me a hug and then runs back to his house.

I wave goodbye and finish up my run, just a little more energized than the moment before. Happy...content...that his hug is one of the highlights of my day...and something to look forward to every time I crest that hill to make my way home.

To Burkina I say Thank you, Merci, Aw ni ce, Baarka, and Fofo! Quoting the hundreds of children that have probably said this in my service...NASARA BYE-BYE!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Morockin' Around the Clock!

I am coming to you live from Burkina Faso, having just arrived from our whirlwind Moroccan vacation! I am running on about 3 hours of sleep, so I apologize if this post is bad, random, boring, etc.

I can first open by saying that Morocco is AMAZING! In 7 days we climbed the highest mountain (in North Africa anyway), sailed the shining seas (or at least stared at them), and crossed the scorching deserts (in an air-conditioned train car). Before my friend Rose suggested we go, I had no intention or interest really in visiting Morocco. I had heard different things about it...but I didn't put it at the top of my list. However, after our quick 7 day tour, I am already planning my return trip.

It is impossible to even begin to compare Burkina Faso to Morocco. Everything is different from the landscape, the culture, the people, the food, and the level of development. It is like taking a step in to Europe or Israel. Morocco is crazy and vibrant and alive...and it was an interesting contrast. I think I am having culture shock just coming back to Burkina.

On our first day we headed straight to Marrakesh to get a taste for the bazaars, markets, and lively Moroccan culture. The market streets and alleys wind for miles and we could get lost for hours just walking, staring, eating, drinking coffee, eating some more, and drinking coffee some more (I thought no one could bypass me for coffee intake...but I can't hold a candle to these caffeine-infused Moroccans...you might as well hook me up to a coffee IV to keep up). On our first day in Marrakesh I don't think that we were prepared for the forwardness and abrasiveness of the Moroccans. Within our first 10 minutes walking through the main square
we were accosted by pre-teen henna girls. Before I knew it they had grabbed my hand and were squirting the henna cream in a design and saying "No money, no money! Good luck husband! Henna good luck husband!" Well shoot, if it's no money, and I get good luck in the husband department...SIGN ME UP! Yeah, well, that is until the moment that they finished. "Money. Give Money. WE WANT MONEY!! GIVE ME MONEY!" I tried giving them 10 durhams (a little more than a dollar), but they threw it on the ground in a theatrical display...to which I took it back and said, "fine then. You get nothing." She then gets very close and agrees under her breath to take the money. Me and my friends agreed that the next time they girls tried to attack us we would bitch slap them...little twerps. For the rest of the night we walked around with this ugly smeared henna on our hands, and with the shame of knowing that two 10 year-olds basically held us up. Sadly, this wasn't the only time that we got cheated, hosed, rinsed, etc. for money. Thanks to a pretty horrible deal on a wooden camel...we nicknamed getting ripped off as "getting camelled." Oh well, I think it is the Marrakesh experience.

Here is a picture of the lively market at night. All the stalls are steaming with wonderful foods like snails, meats, couscous and more!

Orange juice stalls are everywhere, and you can get a fresh-squeezed glass of OJ for .40 cents!

Here are Leslie and Rose enjoying what Marrakesh has to offer...cappuccinos and grapes! YUMMY!

Here is a pic of the square lit up with the Mosque tower in the background!

After a wonderful time in Marrakesh shopping and eating and eating and eating some more, we decided to get our fat rear ends in to the mountains for a hike. We took a taxi to this quaint little village called Imlil, which sits at the base of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa--around 12,000 feet. Our first mission was to find the hotel, which my friend Leslie had booked for us. She had no idea where it was and as we asked around we kept being pointed up the mountain. Here we are, hauling all of our luggage hiking up the side of a mountain...not even knowing if our hotel was that way or this way. 10 minutes into our hike sweat is pouring down my face, and I proceed to curse Leslie out for her poor choice of accomodations. After asking 5 different people, and walking through various courtyards we come upon a metal door with the hotel name scrawled in chalk across the top. VOILA! Our hotel...way to go Les. Upon entering though, we discovered that we had found quite a gem. All that hiking to get to the top of the cliff paid off as we had amazing views from the balcony. Like most Peace Corps volunteers we came mostly unprepared and me and my friend Rose only had flip-flops. We had no idea that an 8 1/2 hour hike on the highest peak in North Africa laid ahead of us. As we start the hike we pass people in full mountaineering gear...hmmm....and we in Chaco flip-flops. It was a 10k hike both ways...so about 12 miles on some seriously rough terrain in Chaco flip-flops, and aside from a pretty nasty stubbed toe we did pretty well. It is also worth noting...for those that like to get a kick out of bad things happening to people, that I got pooped on twice by the stupid pigeons that fly around on the mountains . TWICE! Someone told me that was good luck...but at the time I don't think I saw it that way.

Here are some pics from the hotel, and one really bad one of my feet (beware!).

Leslie and Rose posing on the porch of our hotel

A picture of the view from our hotel...just beautiful

A picture of my battered feet....and this was just halfway through...pedicure please!

While we were there we met a Peace Corps volunteer that gets the lucky fortune of living in a nearby village in these mountains. I have to say that I was VERY jealous!

After our mountain climbing adventure...which even to now is leaving my calves screaming for mercy, we decided to fit in the last of what Morocco has to offer...the beach. Off we went to what most volunteers in Morocco refer to as the best place in the country, Essaouira (sp?). It is a little fishing village south of Casablanca. It has a huge market (Medina), and fresh fish everywhere. The city itself was beautiful, and the food was amazing (as it always seems to be here)...so we couldn't complain. It gave us all a chance to relax, eat some more, drink even more coffee, and again...eat. Honestly, if one verb had to be used to describe our trip it would be "eat."

After lazing at the beach we hopped an overnight bus to get back to Casablanca so that Rose could get her flight back to the good ol' US of A. Leslie and I hung out for the afternoon exploring the city...which really just consisted of oohing and aahing over all the wonderful things to eat (including McDonald's and KFC!!)...and then eating all of those things...haha! We took a trip to see the 3rd largest Mosque in the world, which was quite a site. It is built right along the water, and it was beautiful to see. After that I convinced Leslie to come with me to "Rick's Cafe" which was built in memory of the movie "Casablanca." We walked in and were greeted by the most luxurious looking restaurant we had ever seen (or maybe we've been in Burkina too long). Here we were in jeans and tops...and we just waltz into this 5 star restaurant. We sit down at the bar and realize that we can't afford anything that is on their menu and we start discussing whether it would be appropriate to split a daquiri. The bartender sees our discussion and offers up wine by the glass, which is much more in our range. As we browse the wine list we glance at the menu and immediately our mouths start to drool. Leslie gives me a look, and I look back at her, and before I know it I am asking the bartender if they take credit cards and we are ordering ourselves a goat cheese and fresh fig salad....and then the roast duck entree...and then another salad. Hahaha! We couldn't help ourselves. It isn't like food like that comes along everyday in Burkina...give me a break! As we ate our fabulous meal the music of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole streamed over the restaurat and we really felt like we were transported back to a time of class and sophisitication...that is except when I caught of whiff of how we smelled. It was a great way to end our Moroccan vacation!

All in all we did a lot, saw a lot, drank A LOT of coffee, and ate a HELL of a lot of food. Aside from another onslaught of Staph infection in my foot, it was the best vacation I have been on in a long time! We thankfully made it back to Burkina in one piece..happy and healthy, and that is all you can really ask for.

Alright...well, I will update you guys later as I prepare for my final departure from Burkina Faso...Stay safe!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Just Call Me Farmer Steph...

Yep, that's right...I am an official "cultivateur" now! I have to be honest, I don't know why I didn't do it sooner, but as the waning days of my service arrive, I am trying to take advantage of "quality time" with my village friends. This past week I took my friend up on his offer to help him cultivate in his fields. During the rainy season the village empties out as people rush to their fields to arrange the dirt and plant the seeds. It surprises them to learn that not every family has a field that they cultivate in every year for their food. I had to break the news to them that most Americans never step foot on a farm, but buy their food from a grocery store. I don't think I have ever even seen a working farm. Anyway, for the sake of demonstration I want you to stand up...that's right, stand up out of that chair. Now, spread your legs a little more than shoulder width apart and bend over at the waste...like you are stretching. Now, find yourself about a 3-5 pound weight (here we call these hand-held hoes, "dabas"). Just swing that weight into the ground...now do that for about, eh, 7-9 hours. Any takers?

I had seen people working in the fields, and said, "Wow, that looks hard. Too bad for them." I now, however, have a new found appreciation for the work that these people do, and in 100+ degree weather no less! Shade? Forget about it. This past week I decided to try my hand at this African farming by helping my friend Joseph arrange his fields in preparation for planting rice. Basically his field is just dried over dirt, so you have to go in with a "daba" by hand and whack at it to loosen it up, and break up the hard chunks. So, off we went Monday morning to his fields. Unfortunately I don't have pictures of me cultivating...I'm sure you would love to get a laugh...but I hope to have some soon as a volunteer is coming to my village and I can put her on camera duty. I was able to take a few on the way to the fields though:

Joseph is up front leading the way on bike, while his kids pull our supplies to the field

Here are Joseph's kids posing with their trusty steed

We arrived at 8:30 and I was gifted my "daba" and off I went to get my first lesson in farming. Within the first 1/2 hour I had blisters on both hands. My back hurt for the first hour, and then it subsided into a dull aching pain. I was determined to hang in there with them, and "pull my weight." At about 11:30 or so Joseph noticed the blisters on my hands, and got a little I don't know what he was thinking, or how bad he thought it was, but he came to my house every day for the rest of the week to check on me. I tried to explain to him that it was nothing, just a blister...but I think he was worried that my hands were broken. After three hours of work he decided that I had worked enough, and we went for a soda. I always feel this need to prove to my villagers that I am equally as capable of physical labor as they are. I think they have it in their head that "white people" (i.e. foreigners), because of their wealth, do not have to do any physical activities, and therefore we are weak. Throughout my time here I have tried to prove otherwise by pulling my own water from the well, washing my own house, running , biking, and now farming. It is nice to see that surprised look on their face when you get down and dirty with them, and participate in these physically difficult parts of their lives. I feel like it garners me a bit of respect. After my first day everyone in village kept asking me about going to the fields, and could they see my hands. Here, the sign of a farmer lays in the feel of his hands. Much like the English Aristocrats...if you had soft hands then you were a wealthy nobleman, and if you had rough and calloused hands then you were a commoner. I am proud to have the hands that show hard work, and that I have gained a bit more acceptance and respect from my friends.

A day later I went to help another friend, Lucienne, plant corn seeds in his field for the upcoming harvest. At this point my back, legs, and shoulders were still aching from my work the day before, but I didn't want to show signs of weakness so I continued on. Lucienne was so excited to have me in his field that he even bought me my very own "daba" to use. Again, it is the same kind of work except you go by row and every few feet you dig a little hole, drop a couple of corn grains in it, and then cover it up. On our first row I was moving at a snails pace, and I think by the time I had a half a row done Lucienne had done 3...but I was learning. We worked from 8 am to 1:30, and then his wife came and brought us lunch. For the farmers in the fields it is the wife's job to prepare lunch and bring it out to them. We had To and Baobob sauce, with some fish. Not the most appetizing thing...especially since his son who was with us stuck his dirty foot in the sauce.. Of course I kept on eating it...come on, I was hungry! The hard part I find with this cultivation thing is that after eating a HUGE lunch (and they expect me to eat a ridiculous amount) you have to go back out there with a full stomach and bend over for another few hours whacking away at the ground. I felt like I was going to lose my lunch on more than one occasion. We even spiced up the work after lunch by having a "Semence Race"...obviously I opted out considering that I am slower than hell, but Lucienne, his wife, and their friend all raced to see who could seed a row fastest...hey, whatever helps the work go by quicker right? Surprisingly, Lucienne's wife won the competition. I told Lucienne that now he has to cook her dinner...hah! We'll see if that happens.

All in all I ventured out into the fields three times this week, and I hope to get a few more days in before I leave. There is something about the accomplishment you feel when you look out on this piece of land and know that you are helping things grow...things that will help them feed their families and make their livings. In all actuality the parts of the the field that I touched will probably go fallow because I'm so clueless, but it made them happy that I came out their and shared in this experience...and I will never look at an ear of corn or a bag of rice the same again.

In between my stint out in the fields I have been chugging along on my girl's camp. We are in the last week, and the closing ceremony is this Saturday. The health group is preparing to teach women how to make enriched porridge flour, and teach them the proper way to breastfeed their babies. Fingers crossed that it goes well. The Commerce group will be selling their chosen products in the market here. We have decided on Popcorn, Peanut Brittle (surprisingly easy to make...if I am not making it that is), and Omelet/Meat Sandwiched. It is a pretty ambitious list, and I will try to fill you in on how it goes. On Tuesday the girl's came over to do a trial run of all the products just to make sure the taste and packaging would work. I put my gas stove outside and we started with the Peanut Brittle. To make the brittle you just melt sugar in to a "caramel" like substance then pour it on a plastic sheet with peanuts. I was certain that I knew how to do it, so I start pouring the sugar in the pot, and starting to heat it up. In the background I can hear one of the girls weakly saying that she has made it before and she does it a different way, but of course in my "American" manner of being the adult and always being right, I ignore her. By the end my pot is covered with little chunks of hardened sugar, and it looks nothing like the caramel I was supposed to get. I turn to her and admit my blatantly obvious failure and ask her if she would help me. Within minutes we have gorgeous bubbling caramel in a pan, and I felt like a complete idiot. I had learned a valuable lesson...one that I have learned many a time here, but never really took notice of. I think in our "American" culture we always think we know the "right" or "correct" way to do things, and any deviation from that course sets of alerts in our heads. In the Burkinabe culture it is the same thing...always stirring counterclockwise, making sauces in the exact same order, writing the same, etc. I was just so unwilling to admit that maybe her way was better, so I continued down my path until I had sugar water. I don't know why something as insignificant like making caramel really set off an alarm in my head, but I realized just how closed I am to different ways of doing things. I imagine a lot of us are like that. If someone prepares food different from the way we were taught we grimace a little bit...but who's to say that their way isn't better than ours. I think there is a lot to be gained culturally and in many more ways by trying to remind ourselves to be a bit more open to new and different manners of accomplishing a task. Okay...enough lecturing...class dismissed.

I have talked a lot about the perks of being the foreigner in my village. One of them is having small children come by my house and hang out and offer to do any number of cleaning or housekeeping activities:

"Est-ce-qu'on peut balayer?" - Can we sweep?
"Est-ce-qu'on peut laver vos plats?" - Can we wash your plates?
"Est-ce-qu'on peut laver votre maison?" - Can we wash your house?
"Est-ce-qu'on peut cherche de l'eau?" - Can we get water?

Because I live in a closed off courtyard it isn't as often as some volunteers, but lately I seem to be pretty popular in this regard, and I don't really mind. I wonder if when I go back to New York City if little children will stop by our apartment and ask to do our dishes or clean our house? Can I hope to have children cheer for me every time I walk in to our building yelling "BONJOUR MADAME!" and scrambling to shake my hand? I have been a way for quite a while...but somehow I doubt that. Anyway, so these three little girls in the picture below have started making a habit of coming to my house every morning and every afternoon (which to be honest is a bit annoying at this point considering that when I have nothing for them to do they just stare into my house and ask for drinking water every 5 minutes. Anyway, so I started to feel bad about them sitting out there all alone so I dug through my Mom's bag of goodies (a huge bag of gifts that I have refused up to this point to hand out), and found these arithmetic flash cards. I pulled out the addition and subtraction and held an informal math lesson in my courtyard. It turned out to be a lot of fun, and at the end I gave them these little balls that when you put them in warm water they make rags...have you seen those little expanding things? They LOVE them here! It is funny to watch their faces as the balls expand in the water to create these wash clothes. Here are the girls with their newly won prizes:



They earned it considering that right afterwards the swept my courtyard and my house, washed my floors, and did my dishes--and no, that's not child labor...that is "Afrique."

Well, it's time for me to run my last few errands and head back one last time to village. The next time you see a post it will be when I am passing through Bobo with all of the junk I have collected these last two years, and trying to stuff my life here into 2 bags. Shoot, y'all all now how I pack...this is going to be quite a challenge. On July 5th I will be off to Morocco for a week, and then back to Ouaga on the 14th to do my closing paperwork.

Also, just for good measure, is anyone interested in taking in a gorgeous African cat? Unfortunately Mike has put his foot down on me bringing back my wonderful cat, Shea, to live with us. So, if anyone is interested and could pick him up in NYC, let me know, and I will see what I can do about getting him back. Here is a pic of my little beauty:


See you all soon, and stay safe!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Move over Carrie Bradshaw...there's a new fashion icon in town!

Hey there loyal readers and friends. I just realized that it has been quite a long time since I last updated my blog, and so I thought I would finally let you know that YES, I am still alive!

Through the marvels of my Worldspace Satellite radio I feel like I haven't missed a beat on what has been going on back home. Hillary conceded her presidential campaign, China is recovering from earthquakes, and American idol ended. Of course it seems the biggest news of late has been the release of the "Sex and the City" film. I have to be honest, when I learned of the prospect of this movie I kinda thought to myself..."OH NO, BAD IDEA!" Yet, from what I hear the movie is pretty good. Unlike Carrie Bradshaw, or really anyone on Sex and the City, I have NEVER been considered a fashionable or fashion-concious person. I am like Andy, the main character from "Devil Wears Prada." I care enough about my appearance not to want to look like crap...just not enough to spend the money and time to not look like crap. Honestly, just like in the movie...my idea of couture is shopping at Club Monaco and Banana Republic. Yeah...I'll admit it...I am still wearing clothes that I had in high school (yep Mom, those khaki shorts you hate and tried to throw away...I found 'em and I still got 'em!). Maybe what my style would be considered is classic chic, or not even chic...just classic. Anyway, as I have recently learned however, I am on the breaking cusp of fashion in Banzon, Burkina Faso. Oh yes, ladies and gentleman, I am a fashion icon to the over 4,000 women that live in my African village. I broke the taboo of women wearing pants, and watch out because the baby doll T-shirt trend is catching like wildfire. Most recently, I have started a run on a brand of flip-flop. I was recently browsing at my friend's boutique for a new pair of shower sandals. I saw a cute bright pink pair. In the United States I wouldn't be caught dead in these, but after 2 years living in the African bush, they kind of appealed to me. In going to purchase them he told me, "you don't want those, they won't last." Of course, I ignore him thinking, "well, I only have a month left so as long as they can last that long." I put on my new purchase and go strolling through the market to give my greetings to the various ladies that I hang out with. Along the way I get a variety of comments on my flip-fops. The next day I go back to Lucienne and I show him the shoes--after one day of wearing them they were already breaking apart. "I told you that would happen," he says. Once again I am humbled by his knowledge and my stubbornness to never listen. He then tells me that just that morning 4 women had approached him and asked for the same shoes as the "toubabou" (white lady) was wearing. He told them that they wouldn't last, and not to waste their money, but they insisted on getting the shoes. WOW...in one day I incited a run on hot pink rubber flip flops! I feel like a real trendsetter already! Once again, my celebrity status stuns me...I feel like Paris Hilton, except without millions of dollars and a sex tape on the internet. Hmmm...will my trendsetting ways continue back in the US....maybe my return to the US will cause a huge run on african pagne complets. We'll see now won't we...maybe I will turn up on the catwalks at NYC Fashion week next year. Just to give you a sampling of some trends...here is a pic of my rockin' new flips, and a picture of me in a pagne complet. If we get the word out now we might start the trend before I even get back.

Pretty sweet huh? Bet you wish you could get you a pair of these...and only $1 at any local Banzon boutique!

Aren't you just green with jealousy?! You can only dream of having one of these outfits.


Outside of my busy schedule or club-hopping, trendsetting, and being a village socialite, things here have been just as busy as always. I am trying to eek every bit of experience that I can out of being here before I ship off back to the United States in July. I am currently conducting a 4-week long Girl's Empowerment Camp with 12 local middle school girls--a project that I did last year as well. We are working on projects in the fields of health and commerce, and although we got off to a rocky start, things seem to be going really well. It's difficult here because the girls are always so shy and afraid to speak, and it can take what seems like an eternity to get them to voice themselves. I was really impressed in the last few days as we broached some pretty "taboo" topics such as female excision (the cutting of the clitoris...sorry for such a raw usage of genital vocabulary, but that is what they do to 90% of women here), birth control, sex, and HIV/AIDS. I was so proud to see them getting really involved and engaged in the topics, and asking tons of questions to the nurse (a male nurse no less...of whom I pleasantly declined a male condom demonstration...hah!). For the business group we are currently working on marketing, accounting, and feasability studies for businesses. My hope is that they open a pizza parlor (oohh...maybe a Domino's chain)...but more than likely it will be some fruit-filled dough thing...oh well, a girl can dream can't she.

I will be finishing up with that in the next few weeks, and then it is just a few days before I pack my bags and head off to Morocco and then the United States. I can not tell you how hard it is for me to imagine my life back in America. For so long my reality has been pooping in a hole, bathing with a bucket and a cup, shopping in open air farmers markets, riding my bike everywhere, wearing stinky nasty clothes (and being okay with it), reading by candlelight, sleeping under a mosquito net, running through mango groves, and so much more. And, all that is about to change in such a dramatic way...and aside from a possible visit, I can not go back to this life that I have made here. That is something, that as my time here dwindles, I am feeling more and more nostalgic about. I look at landscapes or people and I have to close my eyes and try to record that image for later. I want to drink it all in, and be able to draw upon it when I am at my most frustrated in America. What did it look like...What did it smell like (yeah...even the bad smells)...how can you hold that all inside of you forever.

Anyways, enough of that sad talk. I am hanging out here with some of my rockin' neighbors Leslie and Audrey, and we are getting some much needed rest from being in village. I am just going to enjoy my last few weeks here. Hope you are all well...see you soon...and as always, stay safe!

Friday, May 02, 2008

Attieke? No thank you!

I am reporting to you after a site visit to another volunteer, Rose. Rose used to be a volunteer in Guinea...remember Guinea? The place that I was supposed to go in January 2006, but I turned it down because it didn't feel right. Anyway, after political upheavals there they moved a few of the volunteers to Burkina to finish out their service. So...after she so graciously visited me to do a world map in my school, I hitched it up to Satiri to help her with her world map...a rather large 2 m x 4 m endeavor on the side of the school. It was an eventful trip, including my SECOND only vomiting experience in this country...which is quite a feat I think. Upon arrival in Satiri it is obvious that it isn't the "bustling Metropolis" that is Banzon. Our food options are limited to beignets, REALLY salty rice and peanut sauce, and attieke (MY FAVE!). So, of course I chow down on a bowl of attieke (pronounced: uh-check-ay, made from fermented manioc) and some fried fish heads...YUMMY! Things were going great...I was feeling pretty good about the food. It was a little crunchy, and the oil had more of a black color as opposed to the lovely golden brown we are used to. But, hey, it's Burkina...I have seen worse. We eat our meal and head back to her house for a little afternoon nap. As we are walking over to finish drawing the grid lines on the world map I start to feel a bit woozy. Being that I rarely throw up, I almost never recognize the signs when it's about to happen. I attempt to help with the work, but finally give up and we commission a small child to show me back to Rose's house while she continues on the map. We start walking and already I know something isn't right. My mouth starts to water like crazy and I know what's about to happen. We walk past this large group of men sitting around drinking tea and doing pretty much nothing. They enthusiastically greet me and start yelling, "hey, toubabou, hey...how are you? Where are you going? What are you doing?" Well...in t-minus 2 seconds I was heading for the ground...and as for what I was doing...well, puking my guts out while they just stood there and watched. I heard them talking in Jula to one another, "hey...look, the white girl is throwing up." The whole time I am thinking, "hey, where is that Burkina hospitality...get over her and help me!" At this point I have created a Jackson Pollock painting on the ground, but I catch my breath enough to tell someone to fetch Rose. Truly, after that I felt perfectly fine, and the rest of the week went wonderfully. I just had to avoid the one thing I actually enjoyed eating for the rest of the week. That night as I was talking to Rose about the whole thing we both agreed that while in Africa you can always say, "well, it could have been worse." I could have had it coming out of both ends in front of all those people, I could have still be throwing up, I could have had wrenching pain...but I didn't. Eh, it's not so bad, and it could always be worse. NEXT!

After 2 days of drawing and painting with the kids, and then a whole other day to fix everything the kids did, we finished. VICTORIOUS! These projects are really hard, but the buzz that it creates in the village, and the discussion it starts on geography is pretty wonderful. Most people don't know what the rest of the world looks like, what a continent is, where they are in relation to other places...and this map is a perfect tool to remedy that.

Alright, well, here are some pics of our world map, and also of some footage I shot of her teaching at the local middle school. After my experience seeing her teach I now know why I am a business volunteer...no way in HELL could I deal with these crazy kiddies who are packed 125 to a class!

Here is where we started...a large blank canvas

Then the kids started drawing the countries using our grid system

After that, the painting begins...and so does the stress! These kids are crazy when you put a paintbrush in their hands.

The painting continues, and people (and cows) look on
Okay...I just thought this picture was cute. Here are some of the many little kids that sat and watched us draw/paint for 3 days

Here is Rose...this is the day we had to go back and re-draw, re-paint, and re-fix...

Rose and I with the finished product...FINALLY DONE! Voila!


video

Here is Rose teaching geometry to 125 students...do you ever remember calling the teacher like this? A little eager are we?
Also, thanks to the convincing words of both Rose and Mike I have booked a trip to Morocco in July...not that I can really afford it. But, in the words of Mike, "Life is for living right? You gotta seize the moment!" Well said good sir! We are heading out July 5th to spend a week boppin' around Morocco.

Soon after I will be hoppin' on a plane to head back the US of freakin' A...for good (or at least for the foreseeable future). That's right ladies and gentlemen...it looks like I will be heading back home in July. I have two more months left of time here, and it is a bitter sweet last few months. To love a place so much, but to want to leave it...it's a hard thing to rationalize in your head.

Anyway, I am in Bobo for a day or two, and then headed back to village on Sunday. Back to the grind...it's that time of year AGAIN for my girl's camp, and I have got a LOT of organizing to do to have it ready to roll in June. Hope all is well there...I'm just here trying to stay cool, which is quite a task. See you all soon! Stay safe!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My 15-Minutes (or actually 24-months) of Fame...

Celebrity, Fame, Recognition...all the most sought after and revered things in American culture...and all I had to do was join the Peace Corps to get a taste of what that's like. In an African country it goes without saying that being the only white person in my village makes me stand out a little. There is no hiding from the prying eyes and curiosity of villagers. From going to dump my trash (which they then sort through and take their faves...tuna cans seem to be the big prize), to buying rice and sauce in the local language, walking, cleaning my house, eating with my left hand (I'm left-handed and that is a major NO NO in this culture)...it's all fair game to them and they have no qualms about staring, yelling, taunting, touching (yes...they sometimes just poke me to see what happens...Pillsbury Dough Boy ain't got nothing on me), shaking my hand, and more. When I first arrived in Africa close to 2 years ago it was a novel and rather interesting occurence. Who thought little old me could garner such crazy attention. I am like the Angelina Jolie (looks aside...except for that one time when I ate a mango and got an allergic reaction that caused my lips to swell up just like our lovely Angie...not my shining moment) of Africa. What I have found most interesting is how intoxicating, yet at the same time daunting, "celebrity" can be...even in Africa. My status as the "toubabou" or foreigner in the community provides me some pretty interesting privileges. I am always invited to local events and I get a chair in the shade! I get to cut the line for food, I get the choicest bits of fish head and cow liver, little kids always offer to carry my bags home from the market, they sweep my house, and even come by my house to say hello and ask to do my dishes--now that is something I could get use to!! No matter where I am if I want a coke, beer, food, bread, whatever...I just stop a passing child and give them money to go fetch what I want (don't think poorly of me...it's just the custom here). Off they run, no matter what their previous plans were, and they bring back exactly what I asked for. Can you imagine doing that in the States? "Excuse me little child, could you get me a Coke from the corner store?" Aside from screaming for the police, or just taking your money and leaving for good I highly doubt you would ever get that Coke. It is scary how easily you fall in to this trap of "entitlement." When I went home for my visit in the States I was appalled if I didn't get what I wanted..."What?!?! No caramel macchiatto...how dare you do that to me. Do you know who I am?!?!" Well, in the States one 25 year old white girl is no novelty...darn! It definitely has it's perks, that is for certain, but every upside has a downside...and mine is absolute lack of anonymity. I can't go anywhere or do anything without a posse of people following me, talking about me in a language I don't fully understand, laughing, staring, and poking. It grates on you after a while. All I want to do is go sit somewhere, but even that becomes a chore. 20 kids follow me and then sit 3 feet away and just stare...it's hard to feel like a museum exhibit, and it's hard to be constantly laughed at--even if it's not meant maliciously. Occasionally I get phone calls from home while I am sitting in my market...by the end of my 5 minute phone call I can have an audience of 30 people just staring and listening to me talk the "toubaboukan" language. If I try to text message I can turn around and see 5 people watching my every move. Any amount of privacy that I ever had went out the window once I moved to my village...I can't burn my garbage, wash my clothes, or even go to the bathroom without half my village knowing about it. My experience makes me feel bad for even Britney Spears (well sort of...I don't make millions of dollars...) I have found myself looking for new bike routes that allow me to bypass certain houses. What's funny though, about this whole "celebrity" thing, is that on the one hand you get tired of the annoyances of constantly being recognized and harrassed. But, there is an upside to my "celebrity" lifestyle here...I get pretty much whatever I want whenever I want it. If I want trees planted in my courtyard, or someone to come and fix my leaky roof, all I need do is ask and I shall receive. The other day I was in someone's courtyard and I saw that he had this really cute sign, in Burkina fashion I said, "hey, that's really nice. I want that." Normally Burkinabe say that knowing that the other person isn't going to give it to them. It is meant as more of a compliment. But, for me the "toubabou" within 2 minutes it was strapped to my bike and I couldn't make him take it back. Here is a picture of that fabulous sign now hanging in my house:



Last week I ran into the Principal of the middle school and he asked that I come to the school tomorrow for a meeting with a women's group that wants to work with young girls on empowerment and sexual education. Great! I love the theme...that is until I walked in to the school the next day to realize that it wasn't just a meeting. There were 200 girls piled into the classroom waiting for my class on Sexual Education and Behavior...WHAT?!?! If my experience here has taught me anything it was to do things on the fly...so off we went. By the end of the class, and by talking with the women I learned something really interesting. Elementally, at our most basic level, we are all the same. The director and the women start going off about how students don't respect their elders anymore, it isn't like it was years ago, and that there should be more pressure put on the parents at home to instill good values in their children. "What can school teachers do if the parents don't enforce rules and teach morals?" Does that sound like a familiar discussion? Girls are running around after boys, and vice versa, and they are ending up pregnant. This year out of 100 girls there are 5 pregnancies. A rather astounding proportion. My Burkinabe counterparts were surprised when I told them how interesting I thought this discussion was, and that it mirrored EXACTLY the debates that we were having in the States (role of school and family, etc.). No matter where you are, no matter what your status in the world, we all suffer the same trials and tribulations in the same way...even if the setting is different.

As a sidenote, I thought I would include some recent photos I took in my village...Enjoy!

Some hippos who came a little close to the shore

Here are some little kids that came to watch us make Enriched Porridge Flour. The little one in the front HATES me...moments later she ran away screaming!

Zalissa and another group member holding up the finished product! Baga Mugu (Enriched Flour).


A picture of one of the literacy classes that my organization sponsored this year. With these classes over 20o men and women learned to read and write in their local language.

The women performing the theater sketch for World Malaria Day/Global Youth Service Day

The two little girls who were in the sketch...don't ask me about the powder...I have no idea

Here is our villain...the Mosquito (Moustique in French, and Soso in Joula)

Anyway, I guess that's all for now. I am headed to my friends village to draw and paint a World Map. Hope all are well...miss you all, and stay safe!