Friday, March 23, 2007

Burkinabé Culture 101

Hello all…again. Now, I know what you are thinking…how can this girl post so much? Isn’t she in Africa? Well…yes I am, and yes I have been posting a lot. I have returned from my week long local language training in my village and I am taking this opportunity to send this out to everyone because I don’t know when I will get internet access again. I want to give you an update on my cat, but I have a little fun Burkinabé culture lesson first. I was talking to some friends about some odd Burkinabé quirks that we have noticed are picked up. It is a little early to be worried about this just yet…but I often wonder how I will ever be able to make the change back to America…the pace of life…working. I mean, what would my boss say if I said, “well, I’ll take the job but I would like to have a nap time between 12:00-3:00 thanks.” I think that they would look at me like I just grew a third arm…here are a few other quirks of Burkinabe culture that at this point seem common place:

  • Nose picking – remember how your mother always told you… “don’t pick your nose dear…that is impolite and gross.” Well, guess what all you closet pickers in the world (you know who you are…you’re the ones that glance around to make sure no one is looking and then you take a quick dig up there…you were just scratching right?) Well, in Burkina Faso you are free to dig for gold ANY TIME YOU WANT. In the middle of a business meeting…go right on ahead, get that booger obstruction out of the way and flick it on the floor. Having a serious conversation about global politics…dig around in there for your buried treasure. You can dig through your nose anytime, anywhere, and in the presence of anyone…it isn’t faux pas ladies and gentlemen.
  • Snot Rockets – Piggybacking on the whole nose picking topic, there is the always lovely blowing of snot rockets. That’s right, projectile mucus shooting…we could even have a competition. Now, I will admit to this one…look toilet paper and tissues are precious and with the sinus infections I have been having I don’t want to waste precious paper products on my nose. So, what do I do? Bend over at a 90 degree angle and make sure your nostrils are pointed towards the ground—you don’t want snot splattered all over your shirt do you? Hold one nostril closed and blow with all your might out of the other…if you are lucky you will get a perfect yellow projectile that shoots on the ground. It is okay to do this, just like the nose picking, anytime, with anyone, and anywhere.
  • Earwax Cleaning – in the US we use cotton swabs or Q-Tips…in Burkina that is a little bit of a waste when there are so many other adequate objects that can do the job for you. Look no further than your key ring for a perfect earwax digging device. The medical clinic in village sees a lot of cases where things have gotten lodged in ears, etc…maybe it’s time to rethink the whole car key method…

  • PDB (Public Display of Breasts) – Boobs, boobs…everywhere! Calling all men, calling all men…if you love breasts then Africa is the country for you. Actually, Africa will cure you of your breast addiction if you had one. Or, as Ben, another volunteer here just said, “It sure makes you appreciate the good ones.” Here in Burkina you can walk topless, pop your boob out to feed your baby, or just let ‘em swing in the breeze (and let me tell you they swing!). Truly, it is amazing. Imagine this…or don’t, whichever you prefer…these women have such saggy breasts that they can pick it up and flop it over a t-shirt collar no problem! It is truly a sight to see…and unfortunately for me I see it all the time. It is acceptable to do it anytime…the waitress wants to feed her baby while taking my order? No problem…just pop one of those suckers out and swing the baby under your shoulder like a purse and let him go to town. I will never look at breasts the same…can you imagine if in a business meeting or in the office in women just walked around with their breasts hanging out feeding their babies? Well, that’s how they do it in Africa. Now for those of you wondering…this is one habit that I haven’t picked up on…mostly because (A) I’m not pregnant and therefore can’t breastfeed, and (B) my chest is WAY to small to sling anywhere…
  • The World is your Bathroom – who needs a toilet? Using the bathroom on the side of the street was reserved in the States for when you are so drunk you aren’t even coherent enough to know what a bathroom is. As my Dad always told me…”just pop a squat!” If you see anyone squatting down, they aren’t looking for a dropped contact lens…chances are they’re pooping or peeing. Look, when you gotta go you gotta go…and I will admit that while running I have had to run into some small bushes…I don’t think I need to remind you of the explosiveness of my bowels…’nuff said I think.
  • Man-on-Man – This is an odd one I have to say. I would like to preface this by saying that in Burkina homosexuality is taboo and not talked about, and in all local languages the word for "homosexual" doesn't even exist. In the States a heterosexual man would never hold hands with another guy, or sit on his lap, or rub his shoulder, or squeeze his knee…it just wouldn’t happen. However, in Burkina Faso…it’s not a problem. There is no taboo when it comes to male-to male contact…aside from kissing. It is very interesting, and VERY different from American culture…

These are just of few of the strange cultural quirks that I am beginning to pick up the longer that I live here. I will admit to snot rocket blowing, and maybe an occasional nose pick…but NEVER have I cleaned my ears with car or moto keys.

Okay, so I kow you have all been dying for the news about Gateau my cat...hanging on the edge of your seat…sending out little animal prayers. I saved the news for last for two reasons: (1) because I wrote this entry last week before I knew the health condition of my cat so this is an add on and (2) I didn’t want to depress you. Well…ladies and gentleman I now have a one-eyed cat. As it turns out, some kids in the village shot a metal spike-looking object at him and hit him directly in the eye. I had asked my homologue and neighbor to take him to the vet, but evidently that didn’t happen and all they were giving him were these eyedrops…but guess what people…when a cat HAS NO EYE an eye drop is no good. I swooped in and took charge and had the veterinarian come over to take a look at him. You know it’s bad when a Burkinabé recoils from looking at him okay! Anyway, he gave the cat a shot of antibiotics and tried to look at what was left of his eye. His eye is “casse” – or broken. I was pretty upset about it, and more upset that children were shooting metal spikes at things—not just my cat—so I decided I would confront the little buggers. Well, that turned in to quite an ordeal. The kid that lives in my courtyard, Ali, saw the kid shoot at my cat—which makes me wonder why he didn’t stop him but that is a whole other issue—so he walked me over to meet this little terror. I carried the cat with me, and literally as soon as I was within earshot he starts yelling and telling me it wasn’t him and he points out another boy. That boy eventually implicates his older brother who isn’t even there. Well, I drew quite a crowd, and since the police station is so close they came to see what was going on. One thing led to another, they intimidated the kids a little bit, and we finally uncovered the culprit. That evening, as I was having a meeting with my organization this kid comes into my courtyard trailed by about 6 other children. He comes up and the poor guy is shaking and crying. He has the slingshot in his hand and he hands it over to me. I felt really bad…I don’t want them to be scared of the “toubabou,” and I had no intention of making it such a big deal. I told him not to worry, that I just wanted to talk with him and that I didn’t want anyone to get “frapped” – spanked. The next day I had a meeting at the police station with the chief of police, the two boys involved, their uncle, and their father. I basically said nothing, and my homologue spoke in Joulé most of the time. I told them at the end that obviously there is nothing that can be done now, but that I was just upset because in America we don’t value animals the same way they do here. I don’t mean it as a bad thing, I just mean that in America animals are like members of the family, where as here they are DEFINITELY not. A little cross cultural exchange… Anyway, I highly doubt that from this moment forward anyone will dare touch my cat…or at least I hope so. It was a huge ordeal, but in the end it was handled how I think it should have been. I don’t want to be the scary white girl, but here kids don’t respond to someone being totally nice…sometimes it’s good to scare the pants off of them to gain respect. I didn’t want to do it…but after talking with my homologue he told me that it was necessary. So, I have a one-eyed cat, who at the moment is a bit of an eyesore. I am hoping the bloody crusty part will fall off and it will heal up on its own. I didn’t post pictures for obvious reasons, but if you do want one let me know and I will email it to you…I have to admit…it is a bit gruesome.

Anyway, enough of the sadness…I will leave you with that. I hope that you are all doing well. The heat has officially come (it was 105° at my site) and I am already wondering how I am going to handle it. Honestly, I cannot even tell you what sleeping in 95°+ weather feels like…I kept my room in NYC at a comfortable 72°!!!! Oh Lord give me the strength, that is all I can say. Thanks for reading this far…as always, Stay close…and here is a new Joule phrase that I picked up:

Ala ka su heere (tile) di! – Have a great night (afternoon) – depending on when you read this!

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Palestinian and a Jew sit down in a hair Burkina Faso

Hello all! I know you must be wondering about my title, and I promise you that I will get to that story all in due time. Right now I am in Ouagadougou wrapping up the end of our two weeks of training. I am headed back to village on Sunday to do some local language training for a week. I have to say that I am READY to be back at my site, and relaxing in my house. I have been surprised as to how much I just miss being in my village, doing my regular routine, etc. Plus, with all the cool stuff that we have been learning here in training I am ready to go back and start saving the world! HAHAHA! Well, at least digging a couple compost piles anyway...gotta start small.

So, yesterday I was sitting in a session when I received a text message from one of the members of my organization in Banzon. I HATED the fact that I had to leave my cat under their care for 3 weeks, but there was really nothing I could do. I have been calling to check up on him, but I have been worried that something was going to happen. Well, guess what...something did. I received a text message (in French, mind you, which makes it all the more hard to understand) stating that he went to check on my cat, and found him with only one eye...and something about little kids hitting him. Well, needless to say, I freaked out! Look, call me a crazy cat lady if you want...but try and put yourself in my shoes. I live IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE! My cat is basically my family...and that is a concept that Burkinabe definitely do not understand. Here in Burkina Faso the idea that a pet is a member of the family is absolutely unheard of...laughable even. Animals are meant for food (that's right...dogs and cats are yummy according to my neighbors), to kill other animals (cats kill mice, dogs kill small rodents), and to herd farm animals. Outside of that, they see no purpose in having a pet. The people here think I am crazy when I buy fish for my that they LOVE to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. "You are giving that to your cat? You are paying to feed your cat?" It is definitely an American/developed world ideal that they haven't picked up on...and how could they when they can hardly afford to feed themselves. ANYHOO...I called him back and told him to take him to the vet, and that I wanted an update. Well, unfortunately I can not tell you much in regards to Gateau's health at the moment. I know the veterinarian in my village looked at him and gave him some medicine...but I don't know whether he is missing an eye...whether a small child poked it out...whether they hurt him. It is all a mystery. One thing I do know is that in talking with several people in my village...I expressed to them that there will be hell to pay if I come back and my cat is dead. It is a little extreme...but if I find out which child hit him...well we are just going to have to have a meeting and discuss how we treat animals in the United States. One of the aims of the Peace Corps is to share American I am going to do that. You DO NOT hit just don't...and especially not mine. Okay...deep breath...SERENITY NOW!

I feel better now. So, back to my story about the Palestinian and the Jew. I was going to get my eyebrows waxed...that's right, you heard me right...there is an amazing salon in the capital city that does eyebrow waxing and she was amazing!! Anyway, afterwards my friend Veronica (the one with the roaches remember? Hehehe...she will hate me if she knows I refer to her like that...hahaha!) went to get her hair cut next door. I sat down on the couch to wait for her to finish her spa day, when this older man sat down next to me. I asked him where he was from and he said, " is a country with a lot of violence. There is no peace there." Well, heck, that narrows it down. He just sits there with an amused look on his face as I play 20 questions...Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, the Sudan...the list could go on forever. Finally, he concedes and tells me...Palestine. Well, of course I supidly respond by saying..."OH, really? I am going to Israel in May for vacation." Well, this just set of a firestorm. He starts retorting back to me that Israel is not a country, and that I am actually visiting "Palestine"...that the Israelis stole it from them, and continue to kill and torture his people. Now, before anyone goes and gets all huffy about this topic because I know it's sensitive, I just want to say that I have no leanings in either direction. I believe that in a lot of ways both sides are at fault. So, just take this as a funny/interesting story and nothing more. I didn't bring this up to start a Middle Eastern or Jew/Arab debate. Then he realizes that I am an American (DING...pretty obvious!) and procedes to rail me about our foreign policy, the war in Iraq, etc. This is a very deep conversation to be having in French...much too deep for my abilities. I admit to him, rather stupidly but honestly on accident, that I am Jewish. Well, that just opens up a whole can of worms. Several times Veronica looked over at me, and was seeing if I was definitely got a little tense there for a while. We debated for a while, he gets a little heated and I do my best to deflect. I told him, just like I learned in Kindergarten, can't we just share? In the end, we both agree to disagree on a couple of topics, and I tell him that I am sorry for his family's suffering and the suffering for all of those around the world..."I'm in the PEACE Corps...all I want is that too much to ask?" After sitting in silence for a while he turns to me and says, "thank you for this discussion." We shake hands, and then he offers me and my friend a ride home from the salon in his car. Now, I know what you are thinking...DON'T GO WITH HIM! I wouldn't do it in the United States, but here in Burkina we ex-patriates really try and stick together. So, Veronica and I rode home with this Palestinian man and his sister who was visiting from Morocco. Looking back on this experience I really feel like I bridged a gap here...I am after all in the Peace Corps right? Making peace one person at a time...hehehe.

Anyway, everything else is moving along. I am ready to get back and check on my cat and make sure he isn't one-eyed, or one-legged, or something like that. I am keeping my fingers crossed. Otherwise, I am doing really well! I am motivated and ready to get to work...and I just hope that feeling lasts! I am also excited for my trip in May to Israel (or Palestine...whichever your prefer). I hope everyone is doing well...Stay close!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

It feels like home to me...

I'm back in action in Ouahigouya, and man does it feel good. My first three months--and supposedly the most difficult part of Peace Corps service--has come to a close and I am back where I started in Ouahigouya for the second part of my training. After this, the Peace Corps releases me into the wild to begin implement whatever projects and ideas that I would like to do.

I can not describe to you the feeling that I had coming back here. It reminds me of when I would leave New York for vacation and come back to Alabama. When I walked into my host families courtyard I was immediately greeted by hugs, and "bon arrivee". I have never felt so loved in this country, except when I am here. I truly don't think I could have imagined that I would get so attached, but as of now this is the only place in the country where I feel truly loved...not loved because I am American, because they want a visa, or because they want money...I am loved because of me, and because I am a part of the family. They are my Burkinabé family. No one will ever take the place of my family back in the States...but they hold a really special place in my heart that is for certain.

Training is going well, and I have to say that things are REALLY coming together for me here. I was a little scared that I would spend the next two years reading and knitting--which isn't necessarily a bad thing--but after collaborating with the rest of the volunteers and having a chance to reflect. I am psyched to get back to my village and start some projects. A lot of you were curious as to what types of projects I was going to be doing, so I thought I would give you a little bit of information. I have a lot of planning to do, but here are a few things that I am thinking about getting started with:
  • Composting - natural fertilizer for farmers...I am going to teach them how to make it, use it, and possibly sell it.
  • Moringa - If you haven't heard about this tree--which most of you probably haven't--it has 7x the Vitamin C in one orange and 4x calcium in one glass of milk. I want to work with my health center to sensibilize (teach) women about the benefits of its usage, how to grow it, and how to sell it. Malnutrition here is definitely a problem that I want to focus on.
  • Kick Aids Soccer Team - this is a program started by Africare where you play soccer while at the same time utilizing activities that teach kids about AIDS as well.
  • CEG Community Garden - I want to start an after school club where kids manage a vegetable/fruit garden. The profits that they make from selling the fruit they can use to buy books, dictionaries, etc.
  • Marketing Workshop - I am going to have a workshop with different "commerçants" (business people) in my village to teach them the basics of marketing and accounting.
  • Maison de la Femme Project - this is by far the most intensive one that I have. I am trying to get the government to give the women soap-making equipment, sewing machines, and other machinery to allow them to start some small business projects and trade schools. I have a lot of steps and governmental hoops to jump through...but I can't just watch a brand new building go to waste.

Anyway, that is just a list of a few things on my list. It is a bit ambitious and I am sure that some will fall to the wayside...but time will tell.

This past March 8th in Burkina was one of the biggest holiday's in the is Women's Day. That's right, get down and worship the ground that I walk on, I am woman here me roar...all that good stuff. For our training, we had to put together an entire 4 hour event at a private school in Ouahigouya--including opening and closing ceremonies and activities for about 200 kids--and they gave us about 2 hours to plan it. We decided to have a field day type of event where the kids would rotate through activities stations...sounded like a good idea right? Well, I had to open my big mouth and say...why don't we do the human knot? You know that activity where everyone stands in a circle and grabs hands and then you have to untangle yourself into a circle again? Well, the Burkinabe definitely didn't know it. By the end of the activity kids had been stepped on, strangled, twisted, and everything else...and I don't think I saw them crack a smile once, except when I tripped on a rubber strap and busted my butt. Wow...a "nasara" falling on the ground is pretty funny to these kids. Maybe instead of doing an activity I could have just walked around falling on my ass for two hours. Hehehe! Yeah, our American idea of fun and the Burkinabé idea of fun is very different...and I don't know why it took me until now to figure that out. On top of that, I confused my Kiehl's 15 SPF lotion, and just the regular now I look like a LOBSTER! We stood out in the blazing African sun for 2 1/2 hours...and I got FRIED! Ouch!

Anyway, a lot has been happening...but in the end I don't really have all that much to share. I am definitely adjusting and this place is feeling more and more like home to me...something I wasn't quite expecting. Also, my plans have been confirmed...ISRAEL, May 18-28!! I can't wait! Mike and I are meeting in Paris and continuing on. This is going to be amazing, I just know it!

Thanks to everyone, and as always...stay close!