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 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 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 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 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. 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 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) 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!