Monday, January 21, 2013

Well, This is Awkward

It is time to make the future known to the world (or the 14 of you who read my blog and don't already know). The time has come. I am coming home.

The past year in the BF has been perhaps the most incredible in my life so far. I immersed myself in a completely new culture. I learned two new languages and expressed myself (somewhat) intelligently with them. I taught a computer class. I ran a 2-day workshop. I helped organize and run a youth camp. I started a hip-hop folk band. I rode my bike 1500 kilometers in a month. I developed a coherent and somewhat informed idea of development. Though I haven't accomplished as much as I would have liked and it is known that most volunteers do their best work during their second year, I am proud of myself and wouldn't trade this experience for the world. Or even a really good sandwich.

My only regrets are that I am abandoning my village and prospective projects and that I am again reducing the size of the G25 shrinking stage. Sorry guys! I'm sure we'll see each other stateside and good luck with the rest of your service. Just 10 more months! To my homies in the North, watch out for those terrorists.

But in general I am glad to be going back. It will be amazing to be with Kellynn again, without this huge distance, this job, this impending reseparation hanging over us. It's like our lives have just begun. This is the first time where the future has been completely open for us. It's rather exciting.

Sooooo....about the blog. I don't know if I'll have anything really interesting to say here anymore. Maybe I'll post occasional exciting events from America like, "Whoa, the iPhone 23 is the illest," or "I'm so clean!!" or something. But probably not. So I want to take this moment to thank you for reading, assuming you still are. Why are you still reading? I'm not in Africa anymore. I'm no longer interesting. Stop. STOP.

Jeeze.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Necessary Injection of Optimism

Things have been feeling a little dark around here lately. Looking back on some of these blogs begs a positive counterpoint. Because honestly, I am happy here for the most part. I have found my place and am enjoying an ever-growing work and social schedule. Life in Titao is good.

I have recently taken up some interesting projects which have somewhat restored my belief in what I’m doing here. I was introduced to the first by a colleague at the municipal high school where I now teach a beginner’s computer class. M. Sawadogo, the English teacher for the school, speaks beautiful English and believes passionately in the importance of the language and actively promotes it around town. He has started an English club at the high school, though at this point it is largely driven by his own energy. He would like the students to take a more active role (Sustainability! Yay!), but they are too shy. Having sat-in on a few meetings I think this is because the club is almost like an after-hours English class. I have been working with Sawadogo to make the club more fun, to give the students more of an opportunity to speak and take control using some of the techniques that were used during Peace Corps training.

Besides the club, he has reserved a time block at the local radio, Le Voix du Loroum, to present a program encouraging the use of English in the community, beyond the required classes in high school. He invited me to be a guest speaker on the show two weeks ago to talk about family and the importance of education. I helped him design the structure of the program and improved some of his grammar, but truly this is his gig and he is great at it. Saw begins by introducing the program, the topic of the day, and his very special guests. There ensues a discussion with the guests on the given topic to permit the listeners to hear real English in dialogue. He plays music periodically so we can regroup, with artists such as the South African Reggae king Lucky Dube, Simple, and well-known American stars like 50 Cent and Rhianna. After this Saw gives a short English lesson, providing key nouns, verbs, adjectives, and phrases relating to the theme of the day. The rest of the broadcast is reserved for listeners to call-in and chat or answer questions posed by Saw.

I count Sawadogo among my best friends in town. He is the perfect Burkinabé counterpart, asking only for my collaboration and creative thinking, himself bringing to the table durable enthusiasm and ideas and taking charge of his own projects. While encouraging the use of English may not be part of the Peace Corps’ project plan in Burkina, M. Sawadogo’s English club and radio broadcast are projects which I know will be continued after I leave Titao.

Coincidentally, Titao’s radio is awesome. The government installs and supports local radios to encourage free speech and spread local information, and Titao got hers set up just this year. Everybody has a radio or a compatible cell phone, and since other forms of entertainment are either too expensive or unavailable, they are turned on and tuned in almost constantly. After doing just two broadcasts, everybody I know complemented the show and said they had listened to me. Awesome; I’m now even more of a local celebrity.

Another project I’m in the process of planning is very big and very exciting (at least to me). I recently met a man who last year organized a community-wide plastic bag pick-up contest thing (this sounds better in French). He wrote a proposal, went around town to the different structures and asked for support and donations. Almost everyone was implicated, all the way up to the mayor and the high commissioner. During the week of the contest, he said that the whole town is mobilized to clean up, everyone vying for the prizes for collecting the most plastic by weight (shovels, wheelbarrows, etc.). After the collection is finished, he gives the small plastic water sachets found to a French NGO which uses them as plastic pots with which to plant tree nurseries. However, due to their main work of promoting school gardens, they are not able to use most of the sachets that are recovered.

Bing Bing Bing! Hi there, I’m a Peace Corps volunteer with Environmental experience.

This year after the contest, I’d like to take the water sachets to each of Titao’s five primary schools and teach the upper classes, probably 5th and 6th grade, how to plant tree nurseries and take care of trees while they grow. I want to give two lessons, one in March right after the contest to talk about the importance of trees and how to seed a nursery. For this session, I’ll give each student a seed and a plastic pot and we will all fill them with the right mixture of dirt, sand and cow manure. Each student will be responsible for his or her own tree over the following three months. In June, around the end of school, I’ll come back and talk about the effects of plastic on the environment and the importance of recycling and will teach the students how to plant and care for their trees over the next few years. We will dispose of all of the sachets in the least harmful manner possible, seeing this clean-up campaign to its necessary conclusion.

I’d like to do these sessions with a Burkinabé counterpart, either the teachers of the classes or an agent with the Department of the Environment and Sustainable Development, someone who can continue to do the lessons in the years to come. The problem with either of these entities is that their positions are temporary. Teachers and government workers operate under an illogical system of exchange, where one year you could be working in the north of the country, and the next in the east where you don’t speak the local language. I don’t get it but that’s how it is. I think I’ll go for someone local.

At this point I’m trying to figure out exactly what the best disposal method is for plastic. Everyone’s given me different answers. Any ideas? I’ll do some research when I’m back in the states. I’m also trying to come up with a good motivation for the kids to take care of their trees. Bonbons? A grade? A slap across the head if their tree dies (just kidding)? I’ll come up with something.

Well anyway, that’s what I’m up to right now. Keeping busy to stay happy, while still counting down the days until I go on vacation to the states to see and hold my lovely wife and if she lets me, everyone else. Oh, and eat bacon every day. And cheese. Yessir, life is good.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Bike Tour, Truncated


Well, bike tour is over and I am proud to say that I biked every single Kilometer of our 1,500 km route across the surprisingly diverse country of Burkina Faso. It was an incredible experience in so many ways. I’ve never undertaken something this physically demanding and I surprised myself at what my body can accomplish. I watched the landscape change; the idyllically open savannah of the Sourou Valley; the desolate sands of the north; the square, red mountains of the mid-west moving to the lush, humid forests of the south. I saw the true diversity of life here, from the smallest village to the capital city, from the largest ethnic group to those on the fringe. I saw a range of volunteer projects which expanded my idea of what Peace Corps is and does. We made neem cream, had dance competitions, organized mosquito net races, cheered on women’s bike races, conducted malaria sensibilizations, watched plays on HIV/AIDS, played soccer, read books to kids, and much more. Most importantly, my view of development and my place in it has changed, or rather solidified out of the grey blur of what it was before, into something real, something I can say with the authority of experience (see the post below).

Too much happened on bike tour for me to put into words. If you’d like a play-by-play of our exact schedule and all the activities we did, check out the GAD blog at www.burkinabiketour.blogspot.com. What I can offer is this journal entry from the first day of the tour. Hopefully it will give you taste of what each day of the tour was like. Enjoy!

August 29th, 2012

We spent a forebodingly overcast morning in Dedougou setting up a tent for the notable invitees and waiting around for them to show up for the kick-off ceremony. Around 8:00 the Naba and the representative of the governor arrived and 31 Dedougou women lined up with their bikes to race for glory (and 10,000 FCFA). We placed our bets. At the sound of “Zero!” these women FLEW. The 1st back raced over the line, threw her bike to the ground, and fell into the waiting arms of the waiting paramedics. I have often overtaken, on foot, Burkinabé riding bicycles. This goes to show how unaccustomed these women were to riding this fast, to what they call, “sport.” The prizes were awarded and we eight starting volunteer riders quickly lined up for the ceremonial start just as the first few drops began to fall. We too raced the course, through the ever-intensifying rain and then hurried to find shelter in a local volunteer’s house. We all listened to the drumming on the roof and decided to make the most of it by talking, planning the day’s route, and playing darts and dorm-room HORSE basketball.

Even without the rain there were a few complications with starting the tour. First of all, the Peace Corps car, inexplicable, had been stuck in 5th gear the day before and needed to stay in Dedougou for repairs. Additionally, due to the Malian refugee situation in Northern Burkina, a rumored Al-Qaida threat, and the fact that we had posted our bike schedule online, we were to be accompanied by two armed National Police. We waited for this to be arranged.

Finally, with the remains of the drizzle, mud caked on everything, and the resolute click of a bullet sliding into the chamber of an AK-47, we pushed off. The mud and cold were cut through by the sheer joy of the beginning, the start. We splashed through puddles, singing and talking, enjoying the movement after so much inertia. The country flashed by, clear and fresh, the startlingly light green of newly-grown Savannah grass waving in the breeze. This was a different world here, biking up into the Sourou Valley. This was almost the Africa of myth, of popular consciousness. It was all around us and it was all alive. The moments when I suddenly remember that I’m in Africa have become few and far between, but now when they do com they’re surreal experiences, all in an instant composed of my old visions layered with the new pieces of understanding I’ve gathered.

These thoughts faded as my eyes searched for my companions receding in the distance ahead of me. I realized then that I’m a slow biker. Persistent, but slow. The novelty of the landscape was replaced in my mind by a growing consciousness of my calves and thighs. The sun broke through the white sky and the drip of rain gave way to the drip of sweat. Somewhere along the way my rear derailer decided not to move anymore and stuck me in 1st gear. The police and some other riders stopped to help and managed to move my chain to 4th gear which at least got me moving again.

We caught up with everyone at a fork, the well-labeled north road of which would lead us to Sono, our first site of the tour. We crossed a bridge over the brown, swollen waters of the Mouhoun and spent the last 10 km stretch on an amazingly consistent and smooth dirt road. We met Sami, the resident volunteer, who guided us to her small mud-brick duplex through the spacious, pastoral streets of her village. We were met at her door by her strangely young chef du village and her two homologues vying for first handshakes with each of us. A crowd of children, teenagers and interested adults began to surround Sami’s courtyard as we cooled off and sat around.

Since our stuff was still in Dedougou waiting to be picked up by a new PC car from Ouaga (meaning no showers or clean clothes), we decided to take a walk around Sono. We crossed a few courtyards greeting notables and friends, picking up more followers with each step. We passed many half-acreish gardens surrounded by interesting woven wood fences. I considered the possibility of doing this in Titao, but realized that we simply don’t have enough trees to make it feasible (or legal). And our gardens are huge. In any case, it was interesting to see this new, compact technique. We were allowed in the Mosque with our shoes on. It was beautifully laid out, with a half-covered inner courtyard, the moss-green stones and worn architecture suggesting an enduring tradition. We exited through the small back room reserved for women onto a small tree-covered square serving as a small marché.

We paraded over to the primary school with hundreds of children in tow where Sami had planned to do a mosquito net race. These races are very fun and demonstrate the correct method of putting up a mosquito net. We split the crowd into two teams of eight and ran through an example of the race to thunderous applause and laughter. Then the two teams lined up, someone counted down to zero, and the first pair of each team shot off with a mosquito net. They each tied a corner of their net to the waiting line and then ran back to tag the next pair who tied the other corners. These in turn tagged the pair with the sleeping mat who, after slipping the mat under the net, ran back and tagged the last pair. One from each pair dove under the net to sleep while the other tucked the favric under the mat for the win. This is what should have happened. These being kids, there were some ridiculous variations. In one case, a participant tied their corner on the wrong side, resulting in the net getting all twisted. This however did not prevent three kids from diving under it at the same time. At least they were all laughing and having a good time and seemed to get the main idea.

The clouds shifted and deepened in color as we walked through rolling green hills back to Sami’s house. In time with our arrival came the new Peace Corps car, amid much rejoicing. Dinner (rice, sauce, and huge fried catfish) came shortly after and we took turns eating and showering in the cooling, quietly descending evening. Here there were no streetlights, no chugging generators, no sudden blasts of music; just the mechanical hum of frogs, a slight wind, and the occasional approach and fade of a distant motorcycle. In that moment I knew peace.

We moved our things to the school where we’d be sleeping and set up our eight bug huts in a single class room. The National Police set up outside, preparing to spend the night in chairs, guarding our rest. Drifting easily into sleep but wary of the early wakeup call and the 45 km ride of tomorrow, we closed our eyes to the strangely comforting click of a rifle.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Full Circle


I opened my eyes to a blank white sky and the Harmattan winds blowing the memory of a feeling into my sleepy mind. I raised myself and blinked around, gazing at the drying weeds, the sorghum and millet stalks towering above my house, the yellowing bean leaves, hearing the crackle of it all shake together, smelling the almost subconscious fluttering of decay. And then it hit me; nostalgia. This day had the same quality as every other October I’d ever experienced, including that of last year when I first arrived in Burkina Faso. It’s a feeling tinged with sadness, of the beginning of the end, but carried forward with the anticipation of the harvest, of holidays, of familial warmth.

I got up and stretched and considered how odd it was that I should have such a familiar feeling in such an unfamiliar place. Had a year living in this country truly allowed me to feel the full cycle of things, to feel reminiscent? It seemed so. It took me all the way back to Sapone when Kellynn and I rode home for the first time to our host family’s house, dodging animals and ducking through the sagging sorghum fields. I remembered watching with delight the last rain of the season, at the time being my first encounter with the violence of African rain. How different things were then. How different a person I was. I cannot now venture to enter the mind that was mine a year ago. Certain things have become more certain, certain things less. What can I say?

After breakfast I headed over to Philippe’s house. The mother of the proprietor of my house had passed away two nights ago and we went together to pay our respects. On the way back we passed another courtyard with a group of people sitting outside on nats, the customary way to wait to see someone. We stopped, took off our shoes, sat down and greeted everyone. We learned that someone in the Chef de Village’s family had passed away the night before and that the interment would be this morning. The Chef of a nearby village had also died in the night. Shocked by the concurrence of these three deaths, we expressed our condolences with dismay. Philippe told me he planned to go to the burial and asked if I’d like to go. As it was something I’d never seen before and pushed by the sentiment of the day, I said yes.

Titao’s cemetery lies around the base of a small, desolate hill on the outskirts of town. I had never ventured here before and was awed by the sheer number of dirt mounds stretched to the foot of the small, red rise. We made our way among these towards a large gathering of men and boys surrounding a hole. In typical Mossi fashion, three boys tirelessly dug while the crowd around them informed them of what they were doing wrong. I looked inside and saw a common grave, except the workers were in the process of excavating a small trench along one side of the hole. They soon finished and Philippe and I went to sit and wait for the body to arrive.

Cooled by the wind and delivered from the heat by the ever-overcast sky, we sat and waited. We talked of death and poverty and the difficulties of escaping them. I could hear the anger undercutting Philippe’s voice. Anger at what, I don’t know. Death? Frustration? Apathy? Tiredness? It became too much and we fell silent. Nudged by the fall breeze and these thoughts, the thread of remembrance began to unravel and I looked upon the last year as from on top of a mountain. Here is what I saw:

I had wanted so much to do something, to help, to learn. I came here full of hope, discouraged and cynical of the American life I saw around me. Everything was new and I devoured each new experience eagerly, knowing that it would nourish the person I wanted to become. Then Kellynn was forced to leave and I realized that this was never something I had wanted to do on my own. And yet there were still experiences here for the taking; still I had not done any actual work that I could be proud of; still there was so much to learn. I made a promise to myself that I would see this through for at least a year. I threw myself into work, starting projects left and right. I buried my loneliness in activity, and when that lulled, into the company of other volunteers and alcohol. I came out of each project with a new understanding of how things are done here and began to see patterns emerge. Speaking with other volunteers and seeing how they live helped me create a clearer, more comprehensive idea of what life here is and what we as volunteers can do within it.

I believe that the majority of volunteers are placed with organizations at the village level to ameliorate the larger, entrenched problems that the higher levels in the ministry do not care to deal with. For example, formal education volunteers take the role of teachers to address the problem of overcrowded classrooms. However, there are plenty of qualified Burkinabé eager to teach. The real problem is that the government will not pay the salaries of more teachers. So in effect, the Peace Corps is supporting this bad policy and volunteers are left to manage, as free labor taking jobs away from locals, classes of 100 students and more. I know less about the medical system in Burkina but have heard health volunteers complain that their job is to make sure that their Burkinabé counterparts do their jobs and that there is not enough oversight or support from the ministry. This goes for the Agriculture sector as well. We are placed with host associations, the majority of which are financed by American or Burkinabé aid organizations such as USADF, USAID and FAIJ, purportedly to be some kind of on-the-ground auditor. We are unwitting good-will ambassadors banging our heads against bureaucratic walls, filing quarterly reports for the benefit of our associations’ benevolent donors. This is not what I imagined service to be.

Besides our primary projects, I’ve seen the biggest impediment to getting anything done here as being the half-a-century-long culture of post-colonialism. For decades, motivated by institutionalized guilt, foreign organizations have come to poor communities, done on-the-fly community assessments, thrust large sums of money into a small number of hands, and left. The carcasses of these projects lay strewn everywhere, evinced by faded signs, crumbling buildings and silent, unmoving machinery. Where does the money go? With little to no follow-up and oversight, the funds for the new mill could just as easily become someone’s new motorcycle. Then here comes the Peace Corps volunteer, yelling, “Sustainable community development!” and what’s the first thing people do? Ask us for money. I am tired of hearing about someone’s “lack of means” to accomplish their dream project. But who can blame them? This is all their history has led them to expect; that nothing can be accomplished without outside aid. This is not the land of the self-made man. Goals are not to be reached for, but to be begged for. This view is probably shaped in part by the fact that I’m currently reading Atlas Shrugged. Nevertheless, I feel that if I am to truly accomplish anything here, it will be to convince someone, anyone, that they have the power to change their own life. To refuse to give someone money is one of the most important things I can do.

Dust rose in the distance and broke through my melancholic reverie. Everyone stood up as one. A truck with a covered bed backed up to the edge of the cemetery. Men began filing out and the last took hold of a stretcher within and brought it over to the grave. The body was wrapped in a straw mat and tied to the stretcher with a white cord. Two men started mixing water with some dirt to make a mortar. I was awed by the silence around me. Never had I heard a group of Burkinabé so large be completely quiet. That is to say that there is usually a lot of quiet joking that goes on or a phone ringing at least, but not today. The cord was untied and the body was lifted from the stretcher. An intricate, vibrantly red rug was pulled over the grave, held by about 20 men. Men inside the grave took down the shrouded figure and lay him in the shallow trench. Bricks were handed down one by one to cover the small opening. The last brick disappeared and the rug was taken away as the two men began delivering shovels of mortar to those in the grave. When the tomb was sealed and the grave vacated, everyone took turns heaving dirt into the hole. The wind threw dust towards where we were standing and we shifted around. With the hole filled and the mound created, there followed a slight pause and then suddenly everyone fell to a crouch, which I followed. Someone close by the grave said a few words aloud and then a profound silence fell once again. A minute or so passed. And then, in a dizzy contrast to the waiting that had preceded it, everyone got up and left.

I walked back with Philippe, immersed in my own thoughts. I asked a few questions about the burial, but was thinking of it in my own terms. I have been here a year. I have come full circle. What more do I want out of this? How much more can I endure by myself, without the support and presence of my best friend and wife? I feel that the hopes I came to this country with have been buried in the sand of the past year. Are there new ones to replace them? Are there new seeds to be planted in the next year? Honestly, I don’t know.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Camp des Leaders de l'Avenir

Hi all,

It's been awhile since I rapped at ya. I was extremely busy during the month of July planning and conducting a youth camp for 6th graders in Ouahigouya. It was great. We talked about gender, sex, hygiene, being a leader, malaria, nutrition, and a lot more, played games and soccer, had a field trip to a library, sang songs, etc, etc, etc. It was a blast and a great experience doing so many things I've never done before; teaching classes, planning activities to keep kids occupied 17 hours per day. It was exhausting but amazing.

The video above is a song I wrote for the camp called "Nous Sommes l'Avenir" (We are the Future). Super cheesy and probably poor French, but catchy and the kids seemed to like it. Sorry the video sucks.

Here are the lyrics:


Strophe 1 :
Nous nous couchons sous nos moustiquaires pendant tout la nuit
Ce que nous mangeons est bien nutritif
Et quand nous quittons le latrine nous lavons les mains
Comme il y a quelque chose de faire lendemain

Refrain (x2):
Nous sommes l’avenir (écho)
Nous sommes les leaders (écho)

Strophe 2 :
Comme une fleur nos corps vont faire beaucoup de changements
Et avec ceux, les nouvelles sentiments
Nous devenons des hommes et femmes mais nous n’avons pas peur
Car nous voyons nos places dans le futur

(Refrain)

Strophe 3 :
(Les Garçons) : Nous aidons maman préparer le Tô et faisons le lessive
Nous les voulons pour améliorer la vie
(Les Fils) : Si nous étudions bien et travaillons dur et levons nos voix
Quand nous devenons grandes nous pouvons faire n’importe quoi

(Refrain)


After the camp finished I suddenly found myself with nothing to do for a month. The first week was nice and relaxing: I gardened, helped my homologue cultivate a little, played music, and read a lot. But I am not one to remain idle for long and started getting bored and antsy. I went out looking for work and actually found a women's group which somehow found time away from the fields to make some soap. I want to talk to them about some other product possibilities like Neem Cream or Moringa Powder. I also just met some guy that organized a campaign last year to clean up all the water sachets and other random plastic shit littering the town and use the sachets as tree nursery pots. I literally had this same idea a few months ago, but had no idea how to motivate people, since Burkinabe do nothing for free. The way he did it was to make it a contest: whoever collects the most sachets by weight wins a wheelbarrow, a shovel, and some other goodies. He gives the sachets to schools, the idea being that they’ll plant trees in them. Genius. I’m going to help him with next year’s edition by providing seeds and doing tree planting demonstrations at the schools and helping him tighten up his budget a bit. I’m really excited about this.

So things are slow, but well. I'm looking forward to the upcoming Bike Tour in September and should have some pretty interesting things to report after that.

Love,
Dan

Friday, June 29, 2012

How Do You Say, “Yin and Yang” in Moore?


The past two days have been a study in duality, and a test of my nerves. I awoke yesterday morning out of an intermittent sleep, still a little damp. A dust storm had woken me up around midnight the night before followed quickly by a deluge of rain. After running around grabbing my things outside, throwing them blindly into the house, closing the curtains and shutting the door, I lay down on my bed and listened to the storm hammer out its violent mixed-meter music on my tin roof. Not wanting to get too far away from the dream I’d been having, I closed my eyes and tried to drift off. Then I felt a drop on my forehead. I opened my eyes to more darkness and the beginning of a light spray from above. Apparently my roof was not designed to withstand this much water. At some point, somehow, I fell asleep. Now I got up and stretched. Lifting my arms above my head elicited a strange, foreign pain in my armpits. I felt around and found a cartilage-like lump surrounded by loose swollen flesh under each arm. After a short bout of sleepy confusion, my limited knowledge of human physiology led me to the tentative conclusion that my lymph nodes were swollen. I had been sick the week before and felt that this made sense, though darker prospects came to mind. I called the medical officer who told me to take 800 mg of Ibuprofen with every meal to reduce the swelling, keep an eye on it and call her in a few days to rule out the most benign possibilities.

 After a quick, distracted breakfast I set out for a meeting with my association. I arrived ten minutes late to an empty office, which is not unusual. After another ten, our accountant showed up and said that the meeting had been cancelled. The consultant was not able to come due to the flooded roads and would have to reschedule. So, unsure of who was going to show up anyway, we had to wait as a slow trickle of association members came to the office just to be sent back to the fields they’d come from. I took the opportunity to add to my comprehensive contact list for our association, a rather lofty project consisting of amassing names and phone numbers of all 2000 plus members, which would ideally prevent such communication problems in the future. Part of me was glad to not have to sit through a meeting as I was now free to go help my homologue in his field. He would be planting beans today.

Leaving the accountant to inform the late-latecomers, I headed out to the bush. My homologue met me at a bridge and I followed him further down the road. Almost immediately I heard a squeak and a sharp pop and felt my bike veer. I stopped and looked down, hoping for jammed gears. What I saw instead was a broken quick-release. The screw had snapped in half. Deciding to deal with this later, I left my bike with some friendly cultivators and we headed to the fields together. “I’ve never seen this much rain!” my counterpart remarked, jolting through rocky streams and getting stuck in the wet sand. “It’s a gift.” “I must have brought it with me,” I said, thinking of the fires currently engulfing my home state.

We made it to the spot and found Philip’s wife, Wendende, sitting unhappily on a donkey cart. We greeted each other and as I reached the limit of my Moore, the couple began to talk and argue. I heard something about “tomorrow,” “rain,” “cultivate,” and “kids,” but wasn’t sure about their connection. So I used the time to take in my surroundings. It was an amazing day, a cool breeze circulating the humid air under the graciously mostly overcast sky. All senses were alive; the high multi-layered mingling of bird song; the sweet heavy smell of rain and some kind of spring bloom; the familial, earthy feel of other cultivators in the distance; the green, the GREEN, everywhere. It was truly beautiful. Suddenly Philip said, “Okay, let’s go,” and started walking back. “Wait…what? Why?” I asked, perplexed. He replied, “It’s too wet to sew. We’ll come back tomorrow.” This is something I never thought I’d hear here. All we’d talked about since I arrived in Burkina was how dry the past few years had been, how terrible the harvests were. Now it seemed we had the opposite problem. This morning the Chef de Village, a member of our association, had told me that the water level in the dam was higher than expected and that all the rice he’d planted would die as a result. No good. For everything else though this rain is a God-send—assuming that it lasts through August and that people can actually get their seeds in the ground.

We retrieved my bike and wheeled it back the 2 kilometers into town where we found a blacksmith who soldered the quick-release back together. Upon trying to refit it, however, we discovered that the axle had snapped as well. In the Burkinabé’s typically hurried helpfulness, many hands were set upon my wheel, ball bearings went flying, and parts got switched around before I knew what was happening. After a short while everyone admitted that they had never seen a quick-release or a hollow axle and that we should talk to the bike guys in the marché. I probably would have cried at this point had it not been for Philip, who led me to the bike boys and when they also didn’t know what to do, patiently helped me reassemble my back wheel, though still broken, and walked beside me back to his house, pushing his motorcycle the entire way. “We have a saying in Moore,” he said. “Rise early if you want to get your work done on time. You never know what will happen on the way.” I thought about this as together we ate the Tô with Baobab sauce and Pork that Wende had made, each of us pondering this strange, frustrating day. My only positive thought was that I really have a family here, that I have a Burkinabé father and mother that truly care about me. It really means a lot. This however did not prevent me from labeling the day as a fail, locking the gate when I got home, getting drunk and watching Arrested Development until my computer’s battery died.

The next day I woke up weirdly refreshed, ready to right the wrongs of the yesterday. The first good sign was that my armpits were no longer sore. Always a good thing. I put on the coffee and, today being a grande marché day, made a huge shopping list. After breakfast I headed out on foot, saying hello to all the strangers who come into Titao on Fridays and aren’t used to seeing me around. Because I was early, the place wasn’t too crowded yet and I made my way easily through the milling Friday shoppers. I found everything I needed; a new, regular axle, a number 15 wrench, extra ball bearings, grease, bananas, even eggs, which I hadn’t seen here since my second week at site. Feeling good, I stopped at my neighbor’s house for some samsa, a delicious fried dough ball made with onions and bean flour. These I ate and then went about fixing my bike. Due to my never having repaired or seen the inside of a bike axle before, this took some time before I figured out the theory behind it and got my bearings (pun points!). It took a few test rides and adjustments, but I finally got it in riding order.

Now able to get about town easily, I went and visited each of the four elementary schools in town collecting the permission slips for a camp some other volunteers and I will be doing in Ouahigouya in July which I had distributed earlier that week. I met two of the boys that will be going who seemed bright but reasonably shy in front of their director and a strange American. One of them had recently received the highest mark in the entire province on his Certificat d’Etude Primaire (CEP), the test which allows one to move on to middle school. Bon Travail, kid!

With all four permission slips collected, I chatted with the director who had read me some of his slam poetry before, M. Sou. I asked him how the poetry club was going. “Unfortunately, with summer vacation, the work in the fields, and some teachers and kids returning to their villages, it’s on hold for the summer,” he said. “We’ll recommence next year.” He told me that in the meantime, what he really wanted was to work on his slam, to find some musicians, a guitarist or balaphone player to accompany the poetry. This sounded amazing to me, like folk rap where the words and music are tied only by feel, not flow. Always on the lookout for new waves and surprises in music, I was about to suggest myself as his man for the job when the words “sustainable development” popped into my head like a subliminal warning from training. I mumbled something about hearing one of my neighbors playing guitar sometimes when suddenly I thought, fuck it. I’m here for a year and a half. Why shouldn’t I be selfish and start a crazy band? “I play guitar. Do you want to play a little tonight?” I asked. “Pourquoi pas?”

Back at my house we sat outside in the fading light and I played him a few of my songs, finding them hard to explain in French. He seemed impressed. Then he read me one of his slam poems entitled, “l’herbe n’est pas toujours verte chez le voisin,” which we turned into a kind of slap-happy shuffle. I was really loving playing music with someone again, feeding off someone’s energy and contributing my own. We also tried a slower, sadder one called, “un preservatif pour ma sœur,” (a condom for my sister) about the social taboo surrounding the discussion of sex in Burkinabé society and how it leads to the augmentation of such problems as HIV/AIDS and teenage pregnancy. I was amazed. I had never talked with a Burkinabé about this kind of thing before. Here was a leader, a social deviant who wanted to shock, to shake things up, to encourage change by creating music and art. An African punk-rock-art-folk-slam band. Never thought I’d see the day. The additional beauty of it is that this could be considered a project. This is VRFable. This is WORK. I love the Peace Corps. We played until dusk, discussing recording possibilities and playing on the local radio station in the near future, until Monsieur Sou said goodnight and headed home.

To top off this day that more than made up for the day before, I made myself a four-egg veggie omelet with vache qui rit. That night, I dreamt of how we would sound with the resonance of a balaphone and djembe behind us.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Le Tour de Burkina 2012


Greetings from Burkina, family and friends and readers!

I'm writing to inform you of the 3rd edition of the annual PC Burkina Bike Tour, kicking off on August 29th. This year the tour will cover 1500 km of Burkina's finest paved, semi-paved, and dirt roads, visiting 30 volunteer's sites over the course of 24 days. I will be (attempting to) ride the whole way on my Peace Corps issued Trek Mountain Bike. Wish me luck!

While seeing this country, getting in shape, and visiting volunteers' sites are the major perks for riders in the tour, the main goal is to raise money to fund Gender and Development projects for the upcoming year. In years past the tour has raised almost $6000 and this year we hope to top that. Examples of projects funded in the past by bike tour include providing the start-up costs to a women's group for an independent income-generating activity, and youth camps, such as the one which I will be helping run this summer in Ouahigouya.

If you're one of those who has always wished to donate to a worthy cause but were unsure how the money would be spent, now is your chance! ALL donations go straight to community projects. There are no administrative expenses (we are volunteers after all). Each full-time rider, like me, is encouraged to raise at least $150 before the tour starts. That's only $0.10 per Kilometer! A little bit goes a long way here, and it's all tax-deductible. For more information on the bike tour and how to donate, please visit the bike tour blog at http://www.burkinabiketour.blogspot.com/.

Thanks and love