Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Busy Week...

I think that in my time being here that I forgot what "working" and "stress" was like. These words were lost in the recesses of my mind, and for the most part I haven't had to dredge them up. That isn't to say that I haven't worked...just not in the "American" sense I guess. So, when this past week came upon me (i.e. business workshop, world map, and school garden)...I was a bit overwhelmed to say the least. I had both the world map and the school garden project in the same day. I didn't get my normal "repose" (i.e. siesta, midday nap) and I found myself getting upset about this point. "How dare they keep me busy during my nap time?!?!" Then I remembered the days of eating lunch at my desk, and powering through with the midday I guess life isn't SO bad if I don't get my nap just one day...HAH! Anyhoo, my "busy" week is over, and now I am taking a breather. I had a rotation of visitors/helpers come through my site to help me do my workshop and map, and I can't thank them enough for their help. Our generation is a generation of collaborators...for the most part we like to work together ("two heads are better than one"), etc. So, I can't thank them enough for taking the bumpy, dusty, and long ride out to chez moi to visit and help out.

I will be honest, after spending over 16 months here I didn't have very high hopes for the business workshop. I wasn't sure how many would actually show up, and what their participation and comprehension would be. 4 of the 8 participants couldn't write very well, or speak French (try teaching accounting...yikes!), so we had to stop a lot to translate into local language. After my Girls Camp experience where the girls sat there and hardly said a word....I wasn't holding out any hopes. Also, my procrastinating self didn't even crack our guidebook on how to teach these things until the day, we were employing a "sink or swim" philosophy. I don't promote a "low expectations" way of thinking to go through know, "the glass is half empty" and all that crap. However, I have found that in my experiences that I prefer to go through life with low expectations, and then just be pleasantly surprised if things go my way. So, when this project decided to go my way...I was absolutely bowled over. I feel like every Peace Corps volunteer talks about that "moment"...the moment where they suddenly feel the impact that they are having in their villages (however small they may be). I had done some interesting projects...but I hadn't quite felt that impact and gratitude from the people involved. I think it was something that I needed to buoy me give me that extra spark. It surprised me that the one project that I didn't dedicate all that much attention or time to was going to turn out to be that moment. From the first day all the way through to the last, it was the most fun and beneficial experience that I have had. The group of 8 guys were AMAZING! They all participated, and laughed, and shared their experiences...there was never a moment of silence in the room. We covered Marketing, Buying, Stock Control (you wouldn't believe all the old and moldy merchandise they have sitting in corners), Costing, Accounting, and Financial Management. We talked on the most basic of levels--make a sign for your business, offer promotions on your old products, buy what your customers want. I couldn't believe the response that I was getting from them. I honestly swelled with pride. They actually GOT IT...they understood what I was talking about! Not only that...but they said so, and they also said the most elusive word for me here..."thank you." Aside from gift giving, I haven't heard that word all that often in relation to my work. People just assume the foreigner is here to why say thank you? It was so refreshing to see people--right before my eyes--benefiting from the knoweldge I was sharing from them. Also, I felt for once, " this is what I am here to do." I was assigned as a business volunteer and had hardly cracked into that subject. Business is what I went to school for, promotions/marketing were what my career was...FINALLY I can actually teach something that I know as opposed to trying to teach animal raising or farming! Let the choir of angels sing...I have done it...I have finally felt like I have made some level of difference that will live beyond my presence here. Sustainable is our goal, and I can't think of anything more sustainable then knoweledge....and the entire workshop only cost me $21. Definitely money and time well spent on my part.
I unfortunately didn't take all that many pictures (the workshop was from 6-8 at the lighting wasn't all that good). Here are a couple:
Welcome to the Business Workshop!

Another business volunteer, Helen Ho, and I at the end of the workshop. We gave all the participants certificates and sodas. They were so excited!

The World Map...well...the world map was an interesting project. I had never worked with the students (boy and girls) by myself and in large numbers. I would imagine that giving paint to middle schoolers in the US would be stressful enough, but the kids here?!?! WOW! I will first say that the map does look like a map. I think everyone at the school is impressed that it turned out like it did. I guess for us anal Americans it was a bit difficult. Kids were flinging paint around, about 20 new islands just appeared in the Pacific Ocean, and congratulations Hawaii you have just been upgraded to continent-size! I about smacked those children a hundred times. They are passing and dropping paint across the map like they were trying to imitate a Jackson Pollock painting. It was almost more than my nerves could handle. Thank goodness I had my friend and fellow volunteer (in the education sector), Rose Kanasty, there to help me. She has been teaching lovely little monsters like these for the past 2 she knows how to handle them. I am WAY too nice...and the saying "give an inch, and they'll take a mile" has never been more appropriate than here with children. She helped me set ground rules, communicate with the kids, and be the "bad cop" of the two of us. I still have about one whole days work to make it presentable...but I am going to fix all the mistakes, and then this Monday we are going to have a presentation ceremony at the school. Even with all the frustrations...It was fun to see the kids pick up a paint brush and be artistic for a while.

The school garden project on the other hand didn't really go so well. The Africare representative came out to my village to look at our site, and to talk about how to proceed. No matter how many times I told my school director that they weren't going to offer financial assistance he seemed not to listen. So, again, during the meeting he asked what they were going to provide financially. Once he realized nothing he turned on me, as if this was entirely my idea, and basically said that they never really wanted a garden in the first place, that students don't know what they want, and that it's too expensive. I just sat in my chair...totally embarrassed for wasting this NGO's time and mine...and for feeling like an idiot. Because of this perpetuation of, "well, if we just wait, a NGO will come and give us money to fix our problems," it has perpetuated this laziness and greed in people. "Why take the time and effort to fix anything when eventually some aid organization will come and fix it for me?" or "what am I getting out of this monetarily?" Everyone wants their fair share, and sometimes I just get tired of it. I may be becoming an aid worker who doesn't believe in giving aid!?! If people just sit around waiting for the "white people" to roll in and fix everything they will never do anything for themselves, and will never feel true ownership for what they do accomplish. There is a big difference on how you treat a car that someone gave you as a gift, and a car that you financed yourself...and the same goes for development in rural areas. I am slowly believing that aside from the passing of knowledge these people are completely capable of helping themselves, and should be forced to do just that. Not to sound mean, but desperation breeds innovation in a lot of ways... my soapbox. For the most part this past week passed amazingly well, and I really feel good about some of the things that I have accomplished. They say that the 2nd year of service is much more fruitful...and I am already feeling the effects of that. Well, I guess I have to sign off and return to village. My mom comes in 3 weeks, so that is something to definietly look forward to. WOO HOO! I miss you all...stay close!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Village caroling, un-symmetrical green beans, and much more...

Hey you guys! How is it going? I am in Bobo enjoying the food and company of other English-speaking people. I came in to town to buy paint and brushes for my 3 1/2 x 7 foot world map that myself and the kids at my local middle school are doing. I am by no means we will see how this goes. I will try to get pictures up for you! Next week is my marketing seminar with 10 local businessmen in my that should be very interesting as well. I am trying to kick off the New Year with a bang, and to stay busy so that I don't drive myself crazy. Thus far, my saving grace has been Mike and his most generous DVD burner -- I haven't missed an episode of my fave shows thanks to him and my car-batter powered portable DVD player. God bless technology...nuff said!

Things in village have been relatively quiet...the hippos are out in full force in the river, the temperature is dropping below 60 at night, and I haven't been too sick lately. You can't ask for much more now can you? A few days after New Year's the village band decided to tour around and do their version of caroling. A group of about 100+ kids showed up at my house along with a drummer and a balaphone (kind of life wooden bells) player. They jammed in my courtyard for about 10 minutes while the kids danced and sang and ran around. It was really amazing. Here is a picture from that event:

I don't know if you recall my talk about green beans in the last entry...but wow, they are everywhere. A few days after I saw the refrigerated truck depart Banzon to take 10 tons of green beans to the French public...I saw it come back to Banzon. Weird? I think so. After further inquiry, it turns out that evidently the French are a little pickier about their green beans than I would have thought. The company purchasing the green beans sent ALL of the 10 TONS back to Banzon because they said that they weren't all the same length. WHAT?!?! I separated those green beans...and they were the most gorgeous and unblemished specimens I had ever seen...I guess just not perfect enough for the French. Green beans are now piled high in the market, and you can get 2 kilos of them for less then 15 cents! I have been stuffing my face with them every day...sauteed, boiled, steamed...any way a green bean can be made I eat it. The villagers seem to be pretty upset and dissappointed by what happened. According to one of my village friends, they invested 2 million CFA ($4500) of their own money into starting the harvest of the green beans, and had stood to profit 620,000 CFA ($1400)...but now that the company has sent back all the beans, they are not even sure if they are going to pay them anything. It really is such a shame. I have never seen the villagers so mobilized and motivated about a project. Everyone I knew at one point or another was working out in the green beans fields. I say to the company that sent them back....SHAME ON YOU! Green Beans taste the same whether they are a centimeter longer or shorter than the other. To all my readers...Just say NO to symmetrical green beans!

Okay...enough of that...well, other than that there isn't much going on to fill you in about. My mom FINALLY booked her ticket to come and see me: Feb. 25th - March 10th. I am so excited about her upcoming visit, and my villagers have quite a few things planned for her. I will leave you with the following picture that I took while sitting in my market...can you spot the irregularity?

Do you notice anything wrong with this picture?

Hope 2008 is treating you well thus far...Stay Close!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Happy New Year...and a stack of green beans!

So, here we are officially into 2008! Every time the clock strikes midnight I feel like things should be different, or that I should feel different...but alas nothing has changed and time keeps marching relentlessly forward. Surprisingly in Africa, the land where time stands still (or at the very least is irrelevant), the New Years celebration is quite an event. Last year I spent my New Years huddled up in my house watching "A Few Good Men" and munching on popcorn. Not exactly the New Years I had planned or wished for, but as the new white female in town I didn't feel like facing the barrage of marriage proposals and "je t'aime's", so I opted to stay in. This year however was completely different!

My friend Radhika--of Christmas Pepperidge Farm beef log fame--came to my village with the intention of staying until the 30th, and then departing to spend her New Years in the big city. However, after just 3 days in my village she she fell in love and said that she couldn't imagine spending her New Years anywhere else--well, actually everyone canceled on her and she had to choose between New Years alone in Bobo with electricity and running water, or New Years at my house with bucket baths and battery-powered lights. I am happy to report that I won out on this occasion! SCORE! Her visit proved to be very productive and motivating for me. In the days she was here I learned where green beans come from, purchased a new table and completely re-organzied my house, hung all new pictures, fixed my bike, cleaned the spiders off my ceiling, and came up with 3 new project ideas. 2008 is already shaping up to be a good one!

One of my best treats for New Years has been the re-emergence of my favorite green vegetable...the green bean! After Radhika's arrival we went touring around my market to greet people and see what we could make for dinner. My friend, Rasmane, approaches us and asks if we would like green beans. Well OF COURSE I do!! He tells us that we are going to get green beans, but that I can't buy any of them. Hah...we'll see about that. After a long walk we arrive out in in this huge field. Thirty or so people are sitting on mats sorting through piles and piles of green beans, while others are out in the field picking them off the plants. Green beans grow on this rather pretty flower (above ground). I know it seems stupid, but it looked so strange to see this thing that I eat still attached to the plant. We were immediately put to work sorting green beans with the rest of them--assuming that I would of course get a cadeaux for all of my hard work. Turns out sorting green beans is a lot harder than I thought. I got yelled at several times for not throwing out bad ones. They only accepted perfect un-blemished green beans to be packed in the box, the other rejects got piled on the mat. The good beans got packed in boxes and were being shipped to France, while the bad ones would be eated or sold in our market. As I sorted my beans I couldn't help but think about the destination of these veggies. Right now, somewhere in Paris, someone is standing at the grocery store putting green beans in their little plastic sack...and they probable aren't thinking about the little old Burkinabe lady that plucked it from its plant, or the mother with her crying child strapped to her back around the pile sorting all of the beans in the perfect direction, or the little kids whose job is to shuttle the packaged beans to storage. Here in a small African village that no one has heard of in a country that most people don't know, there are people picking and choosing and organizing these beans. All to send to some unsuspecting person who decides to buy them at the grocery store. The next time you are in the grocery store buying yourself an green bean, apple, or a head of lettuce, ask yourself where that came from? back to the festivities of the New Year. Throughout the day Radhika and I were continually stopped and asked what our plans were for celebrating the New Year...and could our plans include them? After much deliberation we decided that we would go to the bar early to avoid the real drunks, and just leave before midnight. Being a girl here is so much harder than you would come at you from all directions asking you to dance, give them a correspondent, be there girlfriend. Earlier that day I had to fend off my friend, Abou, who kept telling me in his broken English, "I love you. You are a pretty girl. I am a gentleman, and you are a pretty girl. I mean, woman. I love you." It then took me 5 minutes to explain to him that he didn't love me, he couldn't love me, and that I was married. Which evidently didn't matter to him because he is married too. Oh well. At about 8:45 we left my house to go have one beer at the bar and then we were going to hole up in my house. When we got there the place was packed with little kids dancing their little hearts out. Sadly, at 9:00 they ushered all the young'uns out and it was adult dancing hour. Let's just say that I was surprised to discover how many prostitutes were in my village. After our beer we packed up and went home. Just as I was getting in to my pajamas I get a call from my friend Mattias telling me that they were waiting for me at the Prefet's house (the prefet is like a governor or mayor figure). Interesting....I never got the invitation. I reluctantly hopped back in my clothes, and we walked over to see what all the fuss was about. On our walk over I kept promising Radhika that we would only stay for 20 minutes, say our "Bonne Annee's" and be out of there. Oh...little did I know what we were in for. Upon arrival I noticed 5 large tables organized in the yard. This is ALWAYS a bad sign, because that means that there will be a meal and other organized events involved. How naive of me to assume that this was going to be simple. The Burkinabe have a strict class system--and thanks to the poverty there is only two classes, poor and kinda poor. The tables were organized based on importance. At the head of the courtyard were 10 cushioned chairs, reserved for all the "important" people in the village including the prefet, the head nurse, the head policeman, etc. We were not included in this "elite" group. We got the two uncushioned chairs right next to the comfy "elite" table. This, as I was told by my friend Radhika who has done these things before, is quite an honor. We are like B-list actresses ready to break onto the A-List scene! Woo hoo! I felt bad for all the poor ostracized people at the 4th table in the row--they were the Kathy Griffin's for the evening. This party was very much in contrast with the one we had just left at the bar. It was like going from a bonfire party in the backwoods to taking high tea. In one party people are really loud music, dancing, drinking, yelling, and talking...and here....well, people just sat there. Occasionally, when a good song came on they got up to dance. But, this mostly consisted of people standing in a circle moving back and forth from one foot to another. They weren't even smiling. I couldn't tell if they were having fun, or wishing they could get out of there as much as I was. After an hour of sitting there they finally brought out refreshments, which consisted of little cake pieces--which we started eating immediately, but were then warned to stop because we had violated some etiquette because the "elite" table hadn't gotten theirs yet. I kept asking my friend if I could go home, but he kept telling me to wait. "Things" would be happening very soon. Thank goodness Radhika was there or I don't know if I could have stomached the evening. We just sat around and joked about things. At one point I made a joke about "sharting" (if you don't know what that is I am not going to explain it) which point she started cackling so loud that we had to be hushed by two different people. Our laughing was probably about the only laughing heard all evening. I don't know why, but the "elite" of Banzon don't know how to throw a party. People just sat in their seat staring off into the middle of nowhere or sleeping. A few got up to dance, but otherwise it was a pretty quiet party. The New Years passed and we all got up and hugged and did the Burkinabe head tap. At this point I was hoping to leave, but thanks to Burkina ettiquette and procedure I was told I could not. Radhika faked sick and snuck out at 12:45 leaving me all alone. Evidently, they were going to serve more food and there would be more "partying." At 1:30 the food finally started leaving the whole chicken for everyone--I wonder who was paying for all of this...the town of Banzon perhaps? After that the Prefet stood up and gave a rousing speech telling eveyone that the "funcionnaires" (i.e. rich people...compared to everyone else in the village) should stick together, and do these kinds of parties more often. I couldn't help but feel a bit elitist...while we were having this reserved soiree, you could here the blaring music and hollering of the villageois. If given the choice, I might have preferred the villageois/common folk. After I picked apart my cold chicken, I stared at all the sleeping people at my table and decided it was time to go. Overall, this evening was vastly different than the one I spent in village last year...and regardless of all the unexpected events I can't help but relish every moment...from the crazy bar to the reserved party...from the dancing and drinking and eating.

I don't know if it is because of my eventful first transition into 2008, the fact that I am finishing my service this year, or the presidential election (thank goodness)...but this year feels like it is going to be an exciting one. To everyone reading this I wish you "Prosperite. Fidelite. Sante. Longevite. Et Plus." Happy Holidays...I miss you all...Stay close!