15 December 2009

That title is meant sarcastically. I'm in Ouaga, and this weekend I leave for Togo - and today I have to go back to site for all of three days. Argh. But duty calls; I have to fill out report cards for the end of the trimester, so as convenient as it would be to stay, it just can't happen. Bummer.

This post's shoutout goes to the usual suspects: my brother, who is planning to come visit me; and my parents, whose most recent package was full of top-notch goodness (the Pizza Hut parmesan/romano cheese packets being particularly exciting - they didn't last long).
Ouaga safari

I had the chance a few weeks ago (just after my last post) to visit one of the president's alternate residences. It's not technically in Ouaga, but it's pretty nearby. The reason people visit this presidential palace in particular is the menagerie: the prez keeps a zoo on the grounds. It was, well, sad really. The enclosures are awfully small for the animals kept there. Also, the enclosures are just chain link fence: not something that would even register when watching antelope, but being less than 10 feet from a couple of the largest species of wild cats (a bengal tiger and a pair of lions) with nothing between you but hurricane fencing is pretty exhilerating. Hyenas are much bigger than you'd expect if your only exposure to them was The Lion King. And LOUD. Again, nothing but chain link fence, and this one not even very high - about head level. The guide, to get them riled up, kept putting his foot on the fence; the hyenas would then very sincerely try to eat it. At which point he would kick their snout. Burkinabe have a very different outlook on animals in general than we do. They wouldn't even really understand the concept of "cruelty to animals" without in-depth explanation, in the same way we wouldn't understand if someone berated us for cutting out grass. Yeah, it's LIVING, but that doesn't mean you worry about its FEELINGs.

The primate enclosures made the space given to the predators seem kind: for example, 3 adult baboons were kept in a cage I'd say was about 5' x 5' x 10'. There was also a cage containing a few monkeys of various ages, who displayed a very direct form of displaced aggression. The guide would poke the oldest with a stick; being unable to attack the guide, this monkey would then attack the next younger, who would in turn attack the youngest.

The hippos were nifty. The guard, thankfully, chose not to taunt them. The most startling thing that happened there did not, in fact, happen there - after we walked away and were gone at least 150 yards, one of the hippos roared; it was so loud I really thought it had somehow escaped and was right behind us.

The only other thing of note on our "safari" were the ostriches, which ran entirely free. As in, I've now had an ostrich basically BRUSH past me (there was not any physical contact but only because I moved - I did NOT want to piss off a bird several feet taller than me that kicks like a mule).
Senior moments???

It's not ENTIRELY my lousy memory that causes me to routinely use my geometric tools when I'm lesson planning or test grading. It's also the fault of whatever jerk decided to make them of clear plastic - I set them down and they disappear! I tore my house apart while making up my last test, scattering papers and other items all over - only to find the ruler sitting in what would be plain view on my table if not for the fact that it's basically INVISIBLE. Stupid ruler.
Well, that's kind of mobid

I may or may not have mentioned this before, but while I live in a courtyard by myself, there are several other apartments there. They just stand empty. I found this somewhat strange my first year, but figured it was just a question of supply exceeding demand...until recently my landlord (who is quite old) began construction on another. I asked him about it, and it turns out those apartments aren't there to be rented at all. My landlord has had this entire courtyard of apartments constructed so that, when he dies, the family who will come in from other parts of the country will have places to stay. I found this remarkable both for the offhand manner in which he spoke of his own death and for the amount of foresight it shows - most Burkinabe are very in the moment. But I shouldn't be too surprised by that latter - I've always just assumed my landlord was a villager with an above-average education. In fact, it turns out that he was a very powerful figure in this country in the 60s. I haven't asked him about this directly because it's a conversation that couldn't help but be very political in nature, but I'm trying to find a solid history book so I can get a more complete story.
Good music (part 1)

Thanks to the acoustics in my area, I can very clearly hear the tv at the video club I've mentioned in the past, despite its being, if not far from my house, not particularly close either. I often go when I hear it fire up, but sometimes I'm not in the mood - the people who go are their to see action, not plot, so I often can't hear dialog and therefore have a hard time following movies (too bad, it WOULD be a good way to improve my ability to understand a European accent). One night I was feeling that way so i stayed in, and it worked out beautifully - they were playing things louder than normal that night, so I could hear the tv perfectly but without the background of burkinabe watching. Which of course wouldn't be very interesting if they were watching a kungfu movie, but in fact they were watching some locally produced variety show, which featured at one point a 15-minute long piano solo. I didn't know the tune, but it sounded very Gershwin-esque. It was just beautiful, I could hear it very clearly and with no interruptions. It was a nice 15 minutes.

One interesting thing about being a second-year volunteer is the opportunity to compare and contrast with my first year. There are definitely some similarities. For instance, the week of Thanksgiving was hands-down the worst week I had in the classroom all year last year - the students were just uncontrollable. Same problem this year. Like last year, thanks to the rainy season, my hangar (the thatched ceiling of my porch) is drooping and needs to be re-positioned. I've started attending video club again (which I did fall of last year, then stopped after the holidays). I've once again attempted a compost pile. Not everything's the same (I haven't been baking this year, for instance), but enough is that it's kinda weird.
Speaking of the video club...

It was funny and sad when watching one of the Blade movies how shocked all the Burkinabe seemed when a woman was one of the kick-assinest martial artists. They just couldn't shut up about Cette femme est forte! Unrelatedly, I mentioned above the problem of chatter there. For a long time the video club was making me insecure about my French, because of the fact that I couldn't seem to follow the movies well unless there were subtitles (even subtitles in French work well enough for me now). Until we watched a movie in English and I STILL couldn't follow. All the same, I should try to listen to RFI more.
Positive feedback

A comment made by an APCD in regards to a proposal our Food Security Committee made to the office here regarding tracking food security projects among volunteers: "It was so popular it was passed up the chain. It's in Washington on the agency director's desk right now." Go us! Our work also apparently had a starring role in a conference in Dakar, Senegal, a week ago. It's nice to be appreciated.

The last couple of times I've left site, I've come back to find that someone has taken the soap out of my outdoor shower. It's a small thing, but it's extremely frustrating - until now I've always felt like I was in a small enough community to not have to worry about theft, and now I just can't be sure. It's small, I know, I know, but that's just the thing that bothers me - it's SO small a thing that it's something everyone can already get. Soap is made locally and extremely inexpensive, so this theft, though not of anything I can't replace, feels like it's all about ME rather than about the THING being stolen. Plus I hate having to lock my bathroom after almost breaking a key in the door trying to get in one evening before I pooped my pants.
Good music (part 2)

I have Les Mis stuck in my head quite a bit these days. Partly because I'm reading the book, but more so because in one of my favorite songs ("The Confrontation") Javert refers to Valjean as Monsieur le maire, a phrase I hear two or more times a week, since that actually IS how one addresses the mayor here.
Ethnic identity

After being here for a while, you get to be able to tell the differences between the major ethnic groups. But some people can be of one ethnic group genetically but of another traditionally (a past history of slavery will do that). So it's weird seeing a clearly Mossi girl in full-on Peuhl garb - it made me thing of high school spirit week. I don't know, maybe I shouldn't include this blurb, I don't think I can explain it well.

Our masks came out for an annual local holiday in my village (another parallel to last year...). Last year I'd gotten the impression that people don't talk about who wears the masks, because once they put them on they're not themselves anymore, they ARE the persona of the mask (an ancestor, specifically). Well, more recently I found that some people are quite willing to talk about who wears them, and MOST recently I found out why the dichotomy - you can talk about it, but not when kids are around. Because you don't want the kids to find out that's really their Uncle Jimmy in a fake beard and a red suit. Er, I mean vegetable stalks and a wooden mask.
Respect for disabled people

I recently waved and said hello to a deaf guy in our village. And it broke my heart when he turned around to see to whom I was talking, because it's so unusual for them to be treated as normal citizens.
Is this some kind of metaphor?

A few volunteers were out at the bar the other night when some guys came by selling (fake) Christmas trees. We decided to chip in and buy one for the transit house. We come traipsing into the house a bit later and start hollering about our find - only to find we're interrupting the celebration of Hanukkah that one of our Jewish volunteers was sharing with the group. Crass commercialization, meet sincere expression of faith. Fortunately, he was an extremely good sport about it.

That was the word used by a Burkinabe to express how impressed he was with my friend K's fluency in Fulfulde. She elicits somewhat similar expressions often (I've referred to this more than once), but to hear it in English gave it a more visceral reality. The guy, as you might guess from this, spoke great English; he'd studied something or other in Arizona.
Good music (part 3)

The setting for that last encounter was a concert at the French Cultural Center, where I got to hear a group called the Mountain Men. A French guy on guitar, an Australian with kind of Marty Feldman eyes on harmonica, and some of the greatest blues I've ever heard. I closed my eyes and I was home for a while - especially when they played "When the Saints Go Marching In" followed by "Georgia on my Mind". They also played a couple pieces with a Tuareg group, which produced an interesting fusion.
In closing, what can I say except "Who dat?" Sorry, Maggie, but when the Saints and Colts go undefeated to the Superbowl, I'm gonna have to wear black and gold. I like Peyton a lot - but I've liked the Saints much longer.

11 November 2009

In the life of a second-year volunteer

First off, apologies for the delay. My provincial capital lost its internet (that's right, the whole town did, but weirdly, not all at once. First the high school, then the internet café, and finally the PLAN offices.) So now I can only get internet when I make more extended trips, such as to the capital, Ouaga. Upshot: my posting frequency will be reduced this year. But if you want to talk to me, I still always have my cell phone, +226 70 94 99 60, which receives both international calls and texts (sometimes). Which brings me to my next topic...

Shoutouts for this post go to two friends, both named Christina, who took time out of their busy schedules (and money out of the bank accounts) to call me! Thank you both, it was lovely to catch up.

A budding star in our midst

And since I'm apparently better than usual at segues today, it's appropriate to mention now that one of these two namesakes will be appearing on television this month. She was a volunteer in Burkina, extended for a third year in Togo, and therefore got a month leave to visit home. HGTV decided this homecoming would be a great chance to film a holiday decorating special hosted by Sandra Lee. It's showing Nov. 28 at 8pm EST on both HGTV and the Food Network. Of course, the Peace Corps is not the focus of the piece at all, so if you'd like to know more about what she does as a volunteer, you'll find a link to her blog at right (and I should mention that she's in the midst of gathering funds through the Peace Corps Partnership Program to provide training to 82 educational workers, and I should further mention that I can think of few volunteers, indeed few people, I admire as highly as I do her for her work ethic and ability to succeed under extremely challenging conditions: in short [too late for this parenthetical!], I'll personally guarantee you that any money you send her is money well spent).

Don't break the bank

But don't send her all your money! I'm hoping in the near future to be in a position to ask for you to send money to help out another project, one looking to reduce malaria by providing mosquito nets - sleeping under a net drastically reduces the risk of malaria, as mosquitos are much more active at night. More on that as it develops - and more on other projects I may need funding for in the next section.
Second year, already?

Or equally appropriately, depending on my mood, "Second year, STILL?" Because sometimes it feels like the time has flown by; others I feel like I can't wait to get home. Which I plan on doing sometime next summer. I can't be any more specific than that at this point. Neither in regards to time nor duration.

My first year, I was extremely busy teaching. I have mentioned before, I think, that 20 hours may not seem like much, but it is in fact 33% higher than the maximum the schools are requested to load on volunteers, and the typical load for a Burkinabe teacher, who is both fluent in French and deeply familiar with the curriculum, neither of which applied to me then (am I implying a fluency in French now? Not as much as I mean I know the junior high math curriculum now! But there's no denying that my French is better by leaps and bounds than when I began my African teaching career. This will come up again in a later section of this post.) So now, what happens my second year, when I have both much stronger language abilities AND I already have lesson plans made up for three different levels of classes? I get knocked back to 10 hours, both at the same level! The two years of my service got mixed up! This should have been the other way 'round!

So now, in terms of my primary project, I am your typical second-year volunteer: competent, calm, confident. But in terms of secondary projects...last year I was so busy teaching I didn't have time for anything else! I was a full-time teacher! Whereas other volunteers this year are building more successful projects based on what they learned their first years...I'm kind of like a first-year volunteer, trying to figure out what's needed and what I can do. When I described this problem to a friend, I said "Now I have all this time, and I don't know how to be a REAL volunteer and do all this other stuff!" She responded, "ARE you being a real volunteer and actually doing nothing?" Hey, learning how to play the harmonica and reading Les Misérables in its original language isn't noth - yeah, she's right.

But I WANT to do things. I've got plans. As I've mentioned above, some of these plans involve funding. So, if you want to help reduce malaria in my small corner of Africa, that will be the first to get off the ground, I should think, and I've already mentioned that project. Another volunteer has found an organization that provides mosquito nets at cost, and they already partner with Peace Corps in other West African countries. Of note, if I should have the happy circumstance of collecting more money than I need to supply my village, the extra automatically spills over into another village - so you're guaranteed that you money is working.

If you're more interested in helping increase literacy here, in a few months I'll probably be looking for the funds to build bookshelves; my school, by the grace of a Canadian NGO, has a room FULL of books, most of which are kids' books and ideal for the youngest students to practice reading (and learn about other cultures - the books are mostly either Canadian in origin or translations of American books). But thanks to that lack of follow-up so often found in development work, this room I speak of is a room full of PILES of books, in no particular order and with nothing in place to protect them from termites, or keep track of how many they are, what they are, who may have at some point borrowed them, etc. It's a room no student is allowed into, because as things are right now if they were, the entire stock would be "borrowed" indefinitely in a matter of days. I'm hoping to rectify this situation and organize the library - a library that no one is allowed to visit isn't the most useful place in the world.

Finally, if you're more interested in fighting starvation and poverty, I will also at some point be asking for funds to provide my villagers with communal pickaxes. The ground here, when it isn't sandy, is sun-baked cement-hard clay. A pickaxe is not normally needed for traditional planting methods (only a shallow hole is needed), but I've succesfully introduced to some of my villagers the technique of zai holes that greatly increases crop yields - but also requires deeper holes, which are sometimes exhausting, sometimes impossible to dig with the local cultivating tool (known as a daba). Of course, all of these projects are dependent on finding community support, which I have yet to do. As stated above, I need to figure out if my community WANTS these things. If not, there's no point in doing them.

Change of pace

Life here often has a numbing sameness. Sometimes you get into a rut, and you don't even realize it until some small thing happens to break up the routine. Two examples: I was walking along with a volunteer friend while we were in Ouaga, and she handed me her nalgene and said "Taste this." I did, and said it tasted kind of like soap. She agreed, and noted that in the states she would have made a face and thrown it out, but here, it was actually kind of nice that it was something different. I agreed, and we shared the water for the rest of the walk. Another day, at my site, I stepped outside to walk to the nearest boutique to buy some laundry detergent, and I noticed that while, as always, I was having to watch my step in my courtyard to avoid animal excrement, said excrement was cow-produced; normally, it's donkey droppings* I have to look out for. And it brightened my day a little to have something different to do.
*In the interests of full disclosure, I have to point out that I was ALSO excited because cow dung is far superior to donkey dung in a compost pile. But really, the change-of-pace thing was part of my happiness.

Let's toast

You always toast on the first round of drinks here. The one I hear the most at site: À notre santé et la diarrhée a nos énnemies: To our health, and diarrhea to our enemies! Of course, if you REALLY wanted to wish diarrhea on your enemies, you'd go to the local sorceror and make it happen. But if you ever did such a thing, you'd never tell anyone. (Not because they'd think you silly for believing in it, of COURSE you believe in it, EVERYONE does. That's the problem - you'd be shamed for performing evil on a neighbor.)

How to order a steak in French

Mentioned this in my last post, when I talked about my birthday dinner. I didn't know how to order medium (I love a good red steak, but in West Africa, I'll have the cooked all the way through, thanks all the same), so I guessed with a direct translation: moyen. Which they understood, but as it turns out wasn't correct. I was curious, and checked out my dictionary. A medium steak is au point, "at the point." Well done is nearly a direct translation, bien cuit, "well cooked." The most interesting is how to say rare: saignant, lit. "bleeding." I like that.

My old counterpart

My counterpart, the then only other math & science teacher at our school, got promoted to be director of a school in our regional capital. (This led me to believe I'd have a higher workload this year, contributing to the floundering in terms of secondary projects mentioned above - I spent no time this summer developing ideas with my community, because I was SURE I'd yet again be so busy I wouldn't have time to do anything other than teach!) I got a text from her after she moved saying she'd come visit some time. That sounds like a nice text, right? Except that I'd heard earlier that day that she had actually just moved the day before, the day that I had texted HER to congratulate her on her new position and to say I'd stop by to come visit her at her new place, and she didn't even bother to tell me that she was still in town!

Gr. Oh well. My new homologue is now my director, who has frankly been more helpful to me than she was anyway (that's not at all her fault; cultural mores between the sexes would have made it difficult for her to go out of her way to spend time with me, and me being the proud and insular person that I am, I rarely asked her for help - because I rarely needed it, of course! And just to be clear, since sarcasm doesn't scan well in text, I'm saying that I believed myself more capable than I likely was. Er, am.) I selected him less on my own needs than on those of whomever replaces me next year - he's likable, knowledgable (though not in math and science, unfortunately), and he speaks good English. A useful trait for an English teacher. In fact, above my normal 10 hours I'm also helping him in his English classes 3 hours a week.

Lapin or liévre?

Whenever I've discussed rabbits here (and this is, by the way, ALWAYS in the context of "what's for dinner?"), whenever I use the word lapin (rabbit) people look at me funny. They understand, but they themselves always use the word liévre (hare). Well, in the mornings, some mornings anyway, I now have a visitor to my porch that I HAVE to use the word lapin for. And in the U.S. I wouldn't even say rabbit. I have a snow white, hippety hoppety BUNNY rabbit that comes to munch on my grass. The kind of thing you'd give a kid for a pet as an Easter present. And it's surprisingly unafraid of me. As long as I'm not moving directly toward it, it'll let me get in arm's reach. Not that I've ever tried to reach it. But I wonder about that. Does it belong to someone, is that why it's acclimated to people? Maybe it, like everyone else here, thinks Americans are too soft to eat bush meat. I'm not, but it's not entirely wrong - this bunny is WAY too cute for me to try to catch it and eat it. Even though rabbit is the best meat I think I've ever had, both in the U.S. AND here.

Only in Africa

Is the thought I had as I was sitting by the road one day and watched a cherry picker truck drive by with a goat riding on the back. If they'd stopped and if I'd had my camera charged, I'd have probably offered them money to put it in the basket itself so I could get a picture.

I had this feeling again a week or so later when I was visiting a local boutique and a villager randomly introduced me to the guy I was sitting next to, blurting that this was both his dad and his little brother. Actually, the only "only in Africa" part to this is that he randomly volunteered the information - the fact of weird relationships through marriage reminds me, as in an earlier post, of living in the South.

New volunteers

I have several new neighbors...well, not REALLY neighbors, but anyway several volunteers in my very general area of the country (the northeast) have been replaced. I miss the old ones, but it's a good new crew I'm surrounded by, too. One notable feature among the new group is that I've gone from having NO ONE matching me drink for drink to THREE people, which has put me in the novel situation of routinely being the one to say "No more for me tonight, thanks guys."

Kungfu video club

Ok, it's not officially a KUNG-FU video club. But we have a video "club," not a club really, a place where a guy uses a generator to run a tv and show a movie on dvd, and collects enough from the 50FCFA fee from everyone who wants to watch to pay for the gas plus make a bit of money. And 90% of what they show there is kung-fu movies. Well, try this on for a multi-cultural experience: one night, in a village in Africa, I watched a German kungfu movie dubbed in French. That's four cultures and three continents represented. Not bad.

Also seen at the club, in the 10%, French-dubbed versions of Con Air and Spiderman. Con Air I didn't watch 'cause I didn't think it'd be half as much fun without hearing Nick Cage's ridiculous southern accent. Spiderman I did watch; people asked me if I thought it was good and I said yes, but I don't imagine they got nearly as much out of it, not having grown up with marvel comics. If you're interested in seeing a hybrid bad kung-fu/bad horror movie, look no further than Ninja III: The Domination, the story of a young femal aerobics instructor, with crimped hair that would make Charlie's Angels weep with envy, who becomes possessed by the spirit of a ninja who's only purpose seems to be killing whoever killed its last host, and doing so in such a public way that it's current host is bound to be killed (probably by law enforcement), thus ensuring the cycle continues. I'm convinced this plot would not have made any more sense to me if I'd seen the movie in English. At one point, during one of her non-possessed moments, she licks v8 off of her hand to seduce her boyfriend. I'm sorry, tomato juice just isn't sexy, not in any country. [SPOILER ALERT] They're able to defeat the ninja spirit with the aid of a non-dead ninja who fights her in the Buddhist temple conveniently located only a few miles from her California suburbian home.

Reading exercises

I didn't just jump right in to reading Hugo. I started by trying to read Camus, both L'Étranger and La Chute, but eventually gave that up as a lost cause. I've mentioned that Camus' works are so brilliantly written that he single-handedly changed my mind about liking the language - but spending an entire day getting through a paragraph is just too wearing. I regressed to using our "library" as a personal supply of children's books. I've read a number of stories about Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Dingo, er, Goofy, as well as several re-tellings of Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. One version of Cinderella made an interesting claim. Snopes says it ain't so, but it's an interesting story all the same. The French for "glass" is verre. But in medeival times, there was a type of fur known as vair (same pronunciation) used as trimming on clothes. The claim is that Charles Perrault, in writing the account in 1697, was transcribing an oral account that had retained the word in the story although by then the word was no longer in use. And it was therefore assumed by M. Perrault that the slippers were verre instead. I'd say the Snopes argument is compelling but not conclusive.

Village cuisine

I LOVE benga. I eat it constantly while in village. Benga is beans and rice. If you're not me, it's beans and rice with oil added, but I always ask them to hold the oil (well, I used to always ask; now everyone in my village knows, and the vendor I usually go to even automatically held the oil when serving three of my volunteer friends who have visited). But you have to be careful. The process of harvesting beans isn't perfect, nor is the cleaning of rice in large quantities by hand, and your first bite in a new mouthful should always be gentle lest you find a rock and break a tooth. Well, I was lucky enough to find a (used) nail one day. It felt kind of like finding the baby in a king cake, only more like tetanus.

Tom Sawyer, anyone?

I'll soon be whitewashing the walls of my house. It's not that I mind the red mud color, it's actually a nice color (much more pleasant than the raw cement color of, well, those houses made of cement), but when your only light runs off of a battery you have to charge with a solar panel, you need to do whatever you can to increase its effectiveness. I got some whitewash from volunteer neighbors who had used it in their house as a base coat (it's much cheaper than real paint). Unfortunately, I've only got about two thirds of what they gave me.

When I got back from visiting said neighbors, one of my colleagues asked what I'd brought for him from their town (this is a standard question, not rude at all here). I jokingly said I'd brought back some paint, but sarcasm is mostly lost on people here and he said he'd be by around 8 to pick it up. Once he'd accepted what he'd taken to be a sincere offer it would have been incredibly rude to try to explain I'd been kidding. So I gave him a bag of whitewash. He said he was going to use it to paint his door, which should only use a fraction of what I gave him. But I have no idea whether it's culturally appropriate to ask to have the remainder back. Well, I haven't started yet. Maybe what I have will be enough anyway.

To be clear, I'm not in any way put out with my colleague. It's just something that when I think about, I think "Well, that was a dumb thing to say."

Faith in nasara

A few weeks ago, two other volunteers and I went to visit two yet other volunteers in the west of the country. Which means we passed through Ouaga. I don't know why, perhaps because of the confidence in my voice, perhaps because I am white and therefore have strange powers, but when I told him which bus station I wanted to go to in which neighborhood, he promptly started driving us out there, despite the fact that said bus station does not, in fact, exist. I thought I was remembering the station from an earlier trip, and I was - but I'd mixed up companies. Fortunately, seeing the station that belonged in the realm of reality combined with the taxi driver asking me where my mythical* bus station was, since he'd never seen it, prodded my memory, so we got off at the one we'd ended up at and made it too our destination.
*I'm not ENTIRELY crazy, there IS a bus station by the name I gave, and it does go where we wanted. It's just in an entirely different neighborhood from the one I named.


I do a lot of it. Which wears down parts. I discovered the hard way that you can't just put a new chain on a multispeed bike. You need to replace the cassette (the smaller gears on the back wheel) at the same time, or you end up with a nice new chain that skips with every pedal. So you have to put the old chain back on, but at this point you've weakened that one by taking it apart and putting it back together...

Also, shout out to my brother who sent me some really cool bike additions. I now have a compass on my bike, and an odometer/speedometer that works by placing a magnet on one spoke and then a sensor on the fork that measures rotations per minute. When I first pulled it out and started playing with it, I kept exclaiming things like "Oh, COOL" with glee as I read about each feature and discovered the mechanism by which it worked (when he'd described it to me, I was worried it was something that would actually contact the wheel and therefore slow me. Technically [NERD ALERT] if you're cutting magnetic field lines through a coil to induce electricity, you ARE taking energy from the system, but a completely negligible amount in this case). One volunteer watching me play with my new toys said, "Whoever sent that to you, knows you really well." And she was right. Thanks, Pat.

And let this not be a slight against my parents, who have consistently sent me packages and who also know me well, so I know I always have good American food to treat myself with when I'm down. Thank you guys, too.

Am I being spied on?

The system for volunteers who want to leave site for short non-work trips is known as TAC. You text a phone number containing your name and where you'll be when. The phone is supposed to be held by a guard at the office (this takes some explaining. On the one hand, there are rules governing how much time we're allowed to spend away from our sites. On the other hand, in the case of an emergency, the office needs to know where we are so they can contact us/plan to evacuate us. So this system is a compromise - while technically we are only allowed to TAC 4 nights per month, no one in a position to penalise volunteers from breaking these rules is handling the logs, and the bureau promises not to look at the logs unless they have very good reason. The idea is that volunteers will report where they are, even if they're "illegally" out of site). Well, last time I used it, the text message I got back wasn't the usual "Ok" or "Reçu," but "Well received," a phrase I've only EVER gotten from the American APCD here. So the question is, is he monitoring my TAC (why? he's not my APCD!) or is he giving the guard lessons in obscure English? I'm joking by the way, there's nothing sinister about this APCD, I've worked with him on a couple of projects with satisfying results. But it was a weird text message to get.

Broken promises

There was an education volunteer here from the stage before mine that I became pretty good friends with. Over the course of two weeks, we once played a game of chess via text message while at our respective sites. I promised her I'd come visit her and we'd walk the 10km (6.2mi) to her nearest bigger town. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to work out a time to visit her before she left the country. When I went on the visit to volunteers in the west I mentioned earlier, it was in fact to the replacement at her site. At the last minute I had bike trouble. Did you wonder if I was going to expound on the comment about weakening an old chain? Well, it didn't break on me while I was pedaling, but it did have a link come half apart, so I decided to leave my bike in Ouaga while we went on our trip so that the casette could be replaced and I could put the new chain on and be done with it (the new one has a quick-release link, negating the problem of weakening the chain). We got to the bigger town and found a taxi brousse to the site. But when we wanted to leave, there were no taxi brousses. It looked like I was going to have to walk that 10km after all - with a bag full of gear! Fortunately, after we'd been walking about 25 minutes, a truck passed by and picked us up, so we got the best of both worlds: a pleasant walk in a pretty area, without it becoming such a long walk that it was no longer pleasant.

Better French, worse communication

I noted early on that thanks to my knew schedule, I've had a chance to work on my French a good bit (aside from the aforementioned reading, I've been working my way through The Ultimate French Review and Practice, doing every exercise except the oral ones. I'm on Chapter 22 right now). My French has improved a lot (though I see on the sidebar that Nick's most recent post is about the imperfect subjunctive, and tense-mood combo I have yet to even study, much less master). And I suddenly find that it's a problem! I'm teaching the youngest collége kids this year, 6ème students (about our 6th grade), and I sometimes find they're not following me because I'm using words or grammar they've never studied! It didn't occur to me at the time, but having only basic French like I did when I first got there was an ADVANTAGE for that class. So I'm struggling with that.

The 3ème (9th grade) students on the other hand, some of them snicker at my French mistakes, which I find absolutely enraging - I'm there teaching them English, which they've now studied over THREE YEARS, and they can't follow simple commands or answer simple questions, but they'll mock me for having French only slightly worse than theirs when they've studied THAT language for nine years whereas I have for a year and a half. I shouldn't generalize like that, there are some students in the class who ARE quite good at English, and most of them don't make fun of my French at all...it's just that the few who do drive me nuts. They are, of course, the worst students. The ones I need least fear will ever read this post with comprehension (well, depending on how evolved translating software ever gets, I guess).

A village Halloween

I visited my friend K over the Halloween weekend for reasons entirely unrelated to Halloween. But the day before, I made an offhand comment that it's the ideal American holiday to share with Burkinabé - it's a mask tradition, as is often seen here, and moreover it's the one holiday that children there celebrate the same way they do here - by going door-to-door asking for gifts! So the morning of, we bought cardboard and string, and that evening we had over about 30 kids who made masks, wore them, then said "Trick or treat" (in English) at the door and we gave them candy. I've gotta say, it was one of the most fun Halloween's I've ever had, and though my costume may not have been as intricate as my brother's (check out his profile picture on Facebook), the cardboard mask I wore that night is a souvenir I'm as excited to bring home as any artifact I've bought while here.

The village in question is in the true Sahel (I'm personally in a transitional Sahelian region, which is a pretty narrow area - as little as 45 km north of me it's markedly drier and less vegetated, and as little as 20km south of me you see grasses growing that can't survive in my village). As a testament to the amount of dust there was (the amount of dust we were inhaling, ick), one evening I looked in the sky and saw a strange dark/light striation; I realized that there was so much light scattering from dust that I was actually seeing the line of a shadow cast by a cloud that was partially obscuring the sun.

Note to self

Yes, steel wool is effective at cleaning the oxidation off of car battery terminals. However, note that as it is both steel and thin, it is both a good conductor and flammable. Which makes connecting the terminals with it something that should probably in the future be avoided.

Why am I in Ouaga in the middle of the week?

I was planning on coming Thursday or Friday for a meeting. But instead I got to have a new, though very typical, Peace Corps experience. I got so sick I had to come to the Peace Corps office.

Don't worry, I'm healing up nicely now. But it was a bit scary when the thermometer read 104.6. That was Sunday. It was weird knowing it was over a hundred degrees as I huddled shivering under a blanket. They started me then on an antiobiotic that was available in my village, which immediately knocked my fever down from the scary range to the typical yuck-I-have-a-cold range. However, since it did not totally knock it out within 24 hours, they asked me to come in, which I did yesterday (Tuesday). And what a fun ride that was. I took the first thing going out of my site (I was still too sick to consider biking), which turned out to be a taxi brouse that had goats lying on the floor. ALL over the floor, about 20 of them, so packed that to get to my seat I had to walk on the other seats to get there. Which almost meant stepping on one guy's hand, who saw me coming and obstinately refused to move even a finger. I wonder why it should be that the same culture that produces people who will go miles out of their way to help you also produces people that won't shift a finger to give you a foothold. It seems to be something about transport in general - you should see the scuffles trying to get on the buses on market days! Anyway, I got to my seat and had to sit with my legs tucked to my chest - not that I'm above resting my feet on a goat's stomach, but they'd put me in a seat with no leg room.

When volunteers leave the transit house, they pick up the ID they left with the guard upon entering. We had a new guard yesterday, and I noticed that in searching for my ID (based on picture, I hadn't said my name), he had missed it and already put it aside. Before he could look through any more I pointed to mine and said "No, it's that one. I've lost weight since then." He gave it to me and said "I hope you get better." (The exchange was actually in French.) Ha. Appropriate, since I was sick, but he just meant it because I'd lost weight.

As I said, I'm feeling much better now; when I got here they switched my antibiotic and this one is doing well. The diagnosis? Well, it's NOT malaria, it's NOT dengue fever, and it's NOT typhoid fever. What IS it? Who knows? Just some infection. One of those things. Ça va aller.

07 September 2009

Ghana Vacation!

Actually, I have plenty to update about before I get to the vacation, so I may end up not doing it justice...


This isn't the first time I've brought up the phenomenon, I believe. My favorite kind is when we use French grammar but English words. In Burkina French, the most common way to expressive possessive is with the preposition "pour," "for." To say, "That's mine," I'd say, "ça, ç'est pour moi." A group of us went out to a nearby bar, and someone had the clever idea of bringing a bottle opener from the transit house since waitstaff sometimes have the perplexing habit of bringing beer and then not opening it until asked. When someone asked her if it was hers, she said, "No, it's for the house."

Girl's Camp!

I spent the better part of a week assisting other volunteers at a "girl's camp" they were running. Girl's camps are a really common secondary project for volunteers from all 4 sectors here, the goal in general being to encourage the girls to get as much education as they can and to try to take control of their own lives (and to live them responsibly...like not getting pregnant at 14 for instance). I helped in several sessions, and led one on first aid and origami (the process of how those two things got thrown together is still opaque to me). It was cute how the class of 25 girls chose their seating arrangement: the desks here fit three students normally, and they were in a classroom with enough desks they could even have sat one per desk and still had room to spare. Instead, they squeezed in 4 and 5 to a desk. The youngest girls we called the "cupcakes," cause they were tiny and so cute you just wanted to eat them up.

Autrement, the funniest thing that happened was the session led by a Burkinabé on family planning. His main argument for spacing out children? So that the wife will be available more often for sex, and therefore the husband less likely to cheat! In the same session, he talked about the price of condoms, and the fact that they're so cheap that even if you're using FOUR PER NIGHT you're not spending much.

One of the projects during the camp was to have the girls make liquid soap, then wander around town to sell it, having groups compete to see who could sell it the fastest. The idea was to teach them about marketing, costs and profits, etc. Can you tell this camp was run by a Small Enterprise Development volunteer? Anyway, it struck us as we were discussing the plan that it's one of the nice things about living here that it's perfectly acceptable to have 12 year old girls wandering around town. Imagine trying a similar project in the US! Although as it turns out, the girls didn't wander at all - as soon as we gave them the bottles they gave us money! It turns out they'd already talked to their family and neighbors and collected money from them to buy the soap! They told us that this, too, was a form of marketing, and we couldn't disagree.

I missed the last day, when the girls performed skits they'd written during the week. And I'm sorry I did, as there was one in which a girl got pregnant, tried to get a back-alley abortion (abortions are illegal here), then when that didn't work drank a potion to do it herself which ended up killing her. At the end they all said in unison, "Just say NO to abortion!" Hm, not EXACTLY the take-home message we were hoping for...

Old technology

In a conversation about research, I mentioned to my friend something or other about microfiche. She said many people her age (she's 24) probably don't even know what that is, and I was really dating myself. To which I immediately responded that I may as well date myself, as no one else has recently shown any interest in doing so.


My second African birthday was celebrated at a German restaraunt in Ouaga. I ordered a steak roquefort, and for the first time since arriving here was asked how I wanted it cooked! I wonder, gentle reader, if you can really appreciate how big a deal that was. It was a wonderful way to spend my birthday. Then we all went to a bar where my friends bought me and my birthday buddy (one of my neighbors from the group that just swore in shares my birthday!) shots of Johnny Walker. Good steak, then good whisky. Yes, I was very content that night.

Swear In

Went great! We now have 32 awesome new volunteers. I prepared an informal powerpoint presentation describing the SE program that was run during the reception after the ceremony; likewise other volunteers prepared presentations describing their own sectors. I was very happy with our finished product, but it was completely ignored by nearly everyone there in favor of the table we set up selling moringa products. Oh well, it's nice to see such a strong interest in moringa! Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the outfit I wore (a bright yellow boubou, a traditional Muslim garment here that looks like nothing else so much as a nightgown with pants underneath) but there ARE pictures, I made sure someone took some. I just haven't gotten them yet. Afterwards, as we were catching a bus early the next morning for GHANA(!!!), we decided to basically stay out all night dancing. Which I did with shameless abandon.

Ghana Vacation!
Wow. Just, wow. Without any exaggeration whatsoever, the moment you cross the border from Burkina into Ghana, the difference is profound. Thanks to their port and their well established tourism, Ghana's level of development is miles, light years ahead of ours. We felt like we'd gone back to the States - though I know full well if I'd come straight from Atlanta to Ghana I wouldn't see it that way at all. Really, though, I lack the words to describe the difference. But that's never stopped me before! Ok, I'll give a couple of examples. Technology: On the BF side of the border, the process to record your passport is to fill out the salient details in a notebook. On the Ghana side, your passport is scanned into a computer. Literacy: In Burkina, I have to come to Ouaga to find a bookstore, and pretty much any signage on the road outside the capital is for an association or government office. In Ghana bookstores abound; almost every hotel we stayed at had a bookshelf in the reception where you could trade a book you'd read for a new one; and there are billboards for everything from adverts for phone companies to signs urging you to do your part to stop domestic violence. Environment: In Burkina, the world is your garbage can. In Ghana, there are civic garbage cans even in the smaller towns.

I have NEVER seen a sign like this in BF.

Ok, I'll stop dwelling on that point now and instead bask in the memory of how awesomely great the vacation was.

With a few exceptions, I found Ghanaians to be less exuberant than Burkinabé. I don't mean less friendly, exactly, just less imposing with their friendliness. I've seen Ghana described as "Africa for beginners," and I can understand why. If you are considering an Africa trip but worry about culture shock, you should really consider Ghana. A few interesting quirks of the language: people say "You are welcome" to actually mean that you are welcome, as in they're glad you're there. But when someone just randomly says that to you, you can't help but think, "Was I supposed to just thank him for something?" Also, I find it absolutely endearing that when answering a yes-or-no question in the affirmative, they will say "Yes, please": "Do you have Castle Milk Stout?" "Yes, please. How many would you like?" Speaking of, CMS is a beer that would be well-received in America it's so good. Finally, the signs in the hotels cracked me up: they say basically that the hotel isn't responsible for items stolen from your room, so if you have something you're worried about you should check it with the front desk. The phrase they actually use is "You must hand over valuables to the front desk." Ha!

We started off by stopping in the second-largest city in Ghana, Kumasi, which has (arguably) the largest market in West Africa. It's dazzling, intense, confusing, and wonderful. We got completely lost, of course, but that just meant we got to walk around all the more.

A small fraction of the Kumasi market

From there we went down to Cape Coast, site of the Cape Coast Castle, an old British slave-trading fort. The tour would have been more interesting, I think, if we hadn't been with a group of rowdy Ivoirians who in my opinion really didn't show the proper respect to what was a horrible time in their neighbors' (and their own) not-so-distant past. Also, the tour guide was pretty pissy ("People, can you PLEASE be quiet so I can continue the tour?"). But still, it was a sight worth seeing (and one, it turns out, that President Obama saw on his recent visit to Ghana).
This is one of the NICER rooms.
From there, we made a trip to Kakum National Park, a rainforest reserve about 30km north of the coast. We went on the "canopy walk," a series of rope bridges and platforms built 30-40 meters (90-120 feet) over the floor of the forest. Naturally, you get a pretty incredible view from that high up. And while they're described as "rope" bridges, to be entirely accurate you'd have to call them rope and metal and wood and steel cable bridges. My comment to my traveling companion, K, was that they are rockety, but not rickety.
Not recommended for the agoraphobic.
After that adventure, we decided to take a break - we'd been traveling almost every day of our trip. We went to the beach in Busua and stayed for four nights and did nothing but lounge in hammocks by the beach (it was kind of cold, and the surf wasn't high enough to convince us it was worth being that cold to barely body surf), read, and eat ridiculously delicious seafood. K at one point found some Fulfulde speakers and chatted with them - I am forever complaining to her how jealous I am of her for that, but she DID already speak French when we got here, to be fair. It was neat seeing the way the surf swirled the very fine sand as it hit the shore - prosaicly, it reminded me of what my laundry water looks like after a full load.
The view from the rooftop bar across the street from our cabin on the beach.
On our way back up to Burkina, we stopped in Kumasi again. We went back to the restaurant we'd loved the first time through, but knowing the town a little better I took us by a different root. I bragged to K that I was glad I knew the town better and could take us around this other road so we could avoid all of the faux types; naturally the echo of my voice hadn't even died away when we were approached by a guy trying to sell us the same mediocre acrylic paintings that everyone else in that area wanted to sell us. Sigh.
We made a stop at a monkey reserve before leaving. In the towns of Baobeng and Fiera, monkeys are sacred, and if a person is found to have brought harm to one, the same harm is brought to him or her. So the monkeys are very habituated to people. The Colobus monkeys stay in the treetops, but the Mona monkeys will come down, and if you have a bit of patience, will take food right out of your hands! One actually held my hand for a few seconds.
YOU try taking a picture while feeding a monkey!
This one I don't have as good an excuse for, just that my flash takes forever.
The ficus is a parasitic tree that eventually kills its host, leaving a hollow mesh structure you can climb.
Our last adventure of the trip was the result of a misunderstanding. After the monkey reserve, we didn't have time to get any farther than Techiman, which is a large enough town but not touristy, so we didn't know where to stay (there's nothing in the guide book, and no one we know had ever stopped there - though it DOES have the largest cloth market in the country, which we unfortunately missed by no more than an hour). We asked the cab driver to bring us to a "cheap" guest house. Well, it turns out there's a guest house named "C. Guest House," which is what he thought we said. It was indeed cheap. It was also indeed the chosen guest house for a large group of merchants who had decided to hire some prostitutes to blow off some steam before leaving after the big market. Quite a switch from the Presbyterian Mission we'd stayed at in Kumasi the night before! The first thing said to me when I walked into the office by a guy who was hanging out (waiting his turn?) was "What's your name, white man? I like your style!"
The last two days of the trip were a series of bad transport taken in an effort to go somewhere we finally decided we just couldn't get to without going crazy. But in the end we got back into Burkina, a day earlier than planned even (you see, we knew going in that the aforementioned destination might be dicey to get to), which was great because it meant we didn't miss the going away party for a really cool volunteer who is by now trekking through Uganda in search of mountain gorillas. I could say so much more about the trip than I have, but enough's enough.

So, it's been a hell of a summer, and I'm both glad I had it AND glad it's almost over. I'm exhausted! Soon I'll be going back to site, where I hope to stay for a long time and settle in (well, I may do some day trips to neighboring villages before school starts). So it will be some time before I can update you on my exploits. Oh! Almost forgot the shoutout. Tonight (I've spent several hours on this post, it's late!) the shoutout is for Vernon and Nancy, two friends of my mom's who have been very supportive both of me, and, more importantly, her! Cheers, ladies!

10 August 2009

I'll start this post out with a shout-out to Carson, since he's first on my list of notes. I really appreciate the steady stream of mail, man, especially considering how lousy I am at writing back.
Chemistry in Burkina
I recently got the chance to read two real-for-true chemistry articles. The first came compliments of Carson, who read a non-technical review of an article which interested him and decided to send me the actual 30-page article! It was a treat to geek out for a half hour. I don't know what journal it came from, the printout didn't say. Think of how shocked I was to receive a letter that thick!

Soon after, I spent some time with the other chemist from my stage, and as it turned out she had brought back from her recent trip to the states an article her boyfriend had published. So I got to geek out AGAIN. I miss reading research. I do NOT miss performing it.

Bump start
I read that term recently to refer to what I'd always heard previously described as a push start: the process of pushing a vehicle (I've mostly done it with motorcycles), preferably down an incline, until you get enough speed to drop the clutch and turn the engine over to get it started. Well, on a trip to Ouaga recently I got to help - with all of the other passengers - push a BUS to start it this way. I don't think they actually expected me to help, but come on, was I really going to miss being able to tell that story? Fortunately, at the intermediate stops on the several-hour route, the bus stayed running and we didn't need to repeat the process.

Who would win in tug-of-war, a donkey or a cow?
You might think the cow, it's certainly got the weight...but there's a reason you see donkeys pulling plows and not cows. A couple weeks ago I saw a donkey pulling a cart that had a cow tied to it...and wheresoever the donkey was taking it, it was a place the cow did NOT want to go. That cow was pulling just as hard as it could against its lead rope trying to stop the cart, feet dug into the ground...and that donkey just kept plodding along as if it weren't tied to anything at all. The cow's feet left furrows in the road until it gave up. Winner: donkey.

Cranium games
You know they have a whole line of them. One of them is named Cluzzle. I argue that the "u" should be pronounced as in the word "puzzle," so that the "Cl" could be interpreted to come both from "clue" and from "clay" (the idea is to give people a clue about the word or phrase you want to represent using clay), But I was in a minority of one - everyone else pronounced it "clue-zzle." Anyway, it's a reasonably fun game.

Lost in translation
While working at stage again, we had a session at which all trainees and staff were present. At one point, I asked a question of the sesson leader (a Burkinabe), and after responding he asked me to translate for him. I thought this was weird both because most of the staff speak English anyway AND his French is of course better than mine, but I started - only to be stopped by the stagiares who patiently explained to me that the leader had already SAID it in French, and it would be much more helpful if I could translate it to English, please. Oops.

Style tips
When your t-shirt says something in a language you don't know, find someone who speaks that language and ask them to translate it. Or you might end up looking to someone who speaks that language like the buff 30-year old Burkinabe man wearing an "Active girl" t-shirt did to me.

Apologies to stagiare S, who should in fact be commended for getting hair extensions braided in a very popular Burkinabe fashion. I'm sorry that my first response was just to say your name and laugh for several minutes.

The new me
Not as in I'm changing anything dramatically; as in there is a person in this stage, M, who reminds me of me - he's kind of a smartass cynic. Here is a rough representation of a dialogue he had with the aforementioned S (before her transformational hair decision that I in all honesty really do think is cool, it was just SUCH a change) after she had performed a needs assessment with her class...

S: Wow, that was so great! When we split off the girls from the boys, all of the boys listed as needs these material things, like books and desks and bicycles. The girls, on the other hand, seemed to really recognize some deep issues, like that they need equal rights, and to be respected as much as boys, and -
M: So basically the boys asked for real things and the girls spouted cliches.
S: I am going to kill you while you sleep.

Technically, that last line wasn't spoken, it's an interpretation of the look she gave him. Don't worry, it was all in good fun, and the odds of one stagiare killing another are low (if non-zero).

Dream job
Why, oh why oh why, couldn't this have come up around this time NEXT year?
LEGO Education Development Specialist

We're in the midst of our mid-service medical exams, which includes a trip to the dentist for an exam and getting our teeth cleaned. The backs of my front teeth where I couldn't see with a mirror were really gross - I'm never skipping a yearly cleaning again. All is well, though, no cavities.

Good luck!
I've had crazy good luck booking work that ends up helping out my personal schedule. After a week of being a PCVF at stage, I stayed in town for an extra couple of days to be a guest speaker for the Food Security Committee...and the day we (myself and a co-chair of the committee who joined me) did that, we were asked to stay an extra day to be guest speakers for a session on survival in Burkina (a hodgepodge of topics that PCVs think it is useful/convenient/necessary for the new PCVs to know; we talked about topics from phone plans and check writing to how to maintain a latrine free of flies). Which meant my dead day between working stage and having to be in Ouaga for a meeting became a day on which I had a free place to stay and was paid to be there. AND it meant I got a ride in a PC car down to Ouaga. And now, thanks to another job, I get to be in town for the last couple of days of my friend C's service, AND I've got an impossible-otherwise-to-get spot at the transit house for the Swearing In ceremony of the new volunteers!

Right then, off to start the groundwork for getting something made for Swear In. And to buy cheese. REAL cheese. Ouaga is spoiling me.

16 July 2009

These are the people I "run" with

Just to give you an idea of the caliber of person we have in Peace Corps Burkina Faso:

Ronkonkoma, N.Y. Resident and Peace Corps Volunteer Places First in Burkina Faso Marathon

I am humbled to be counted in their ranks.

06 July 2009

I can't say I'm a fan of July

For one thing, it's the month my brother was born. Ugh. Just kidding! (Or am I?) But really, I am feeling sorry for myself as most of our second-year SE and GEE volunteers pack it in and prepare to move back or move on. Good for them, of course, but it's a loss for us. You will be missed, folks.

Ok, enough of the touchy-feely crap. I'm back in Ouaga, working again. Most of my secondary projects seem to be more involved with the infrastructure of Peace Corps Burkina Faso than with the development of resources for Host Country Nationals. This is not good or bad in and of itself, it's just the milieu I am most comfortable in. But it does make for bad numbers on my quarterly reports, which focus on number of HCNs served and have no place to discuss how our work might be of aid to current and future volunteers. Anyway, on to the format I've found works best for me: random paragraphs!


Yes, sheep and goats are different. You can tell by the tail. Usually, that's the ONLY way you can tell here. But recently I saw a sheep that actually had wool on it! A first for me here in Burkina. It still wasn't covered all over, but it had a good clump over its front haunches.

Interior decorating

When it comes to style, folks here take a relaxed attitude to ideas like "clashing," or "loudness," or "appropriateness." The last time I left site was in a taxi brousse; the driver had decided to spice things up by using shelf liner as a decorative adhesive over every surface to which it would stick. A lovely floral print.

Game day

Last month, a HUGE soccer match took place in Ouaga: Burkina vs. Cote d'Ivoire. This was a big deal because of our group of four, we are the two contenders to earn a spot in the 2010 World Cup. I attended the game against Guinea a few months earlier, and was looking forward to attending this one too. Unfortunately, due to safety issues the Peace Corps office decided at the last minute to ban volunteers from attending, but I came to Ouaga anyway, to at least watch the game on a good TV. Ouaga during an important soccer match is like Mardi Gras! People were honking their horns driving down the streets, screaming, waving huge flags on the back of tiny mopeds; it was great. One guy had even painted his face and body in Burkina colors - a really cool idea, but somewhat ill-advised given the lack of availability of paints made for said purpose here. I suspect his choice was an acrylic-based paint that is popular for coating the mud walls found in village construction. Whatever it was, he was more or less incapable of moving his mouth due to the paint on his face. Like I said, a cool idea...but I worry about that guy.

Unfortunately, we didn't win the game, but it was still a blast to watch - which many of us did on a big-screen LCD TV in a bar named Titis (and yes, we pronounce it in the most offensive way possible). My favorite player Pitroipa, number 11, had some fancy moves - but coolest move of the night goes to the goalie, who would routinely throw the ball to his teammates while performing a flip. I was unimpressed with Cote d'Ivoire's number 11, Drogba, the most internationally well-known of the players there. But it's entirely possible I'm just bitter. But even though we lost, we held our own against a team that won its last match 5-0. And with the collapse of a wall in Abidjan's stadium, it looks like our rematch will not be held in Cote d'Ivoire, but in neighboring Ghana. Which slightly increases the chances that we could still end up in the World Cup. I'm not holding my breath (not least because that match isn't until September).


It's interesting how traditions persist in a society that is, in many ways, moving forward so quickly. On a bus sitting in front of me was a woman who was functionnaire through and through; she had the clothes, the attitude, and the French. My point is that this woman was well educated. And she still had a penny-sized sack of burlap pinned to her hair: some fetish to protect or aid her magically. Its copper coloring matched her outfit; I wonder if she has several to accesorize with.

Working stage

They're a great group! I do have a couple of funny stories, but I won't crack jokes at their expense in so public a forum. Instead I will simply say that I very much enjoyed working with them, look forward to doing so again, and even more look forward to working with them after they become Volunteers.

An aside that fits here only because it happened while I was in Ouahigouya - while I clearly can and do go weeks at a time sans computer, when there's one available the addiction comes right back. Once while at the PCVF house alone, I actually caught myself about to turn on the laptop someone had brought just to play solitaire - when there was a deck of cards right next to me.

The Sunday after I worked at training, I went to hang out at the pool - a common hangout for both PCVFs and PCTs. For the first time in this country, I saw a monkey! Some guys had one on a chain outside of the pool. I don't know why. Just for kicks, I guess. I didn't get too close because it seemed rather nervous about white people. Go figure.

Leaving stage

I'd done laundry a couple days before my week with the trainees was done, and left it out to dry (atypically, it took more than 24 hours, due to high humidity. Ah, rainy season.) When I got back from the pool, it was gone! I searched high and low, convinced that my peers had decided to pull one over on me. My mistake was looking inside. As it turns out, there was no practical joke - one of the staff had kindly pulled my clothes off the line and put them under shelter...but respecting our privacy, she didn't want to go inside, so she put them in the garage. In short, one person's kindness had me thinking that all my colleagues were jerks.

Bus trouble

Leaving was itself a two-day ordeal. The first bus I wanted to take was so late that a)I'd have perforce travelled at night, and b)even if I'd been willing to break that rule, it would have gotten trapped by rain halfway to my destination thanks to its running late. So after spending a night more than intended, I took morning transport the next morning. And took 12 hours to go 113 km (I could have biked it in 6).

First step: arrive at bus station, discuss disposition of bike with kind of shady guy who insists on calling me "mon blanc" and further insists that I respond "mon negro" (he actually corrected me after I overcame my embarassment at the possessive pronoun enough to say "mon noir"!). Yeah, THAT's not intensely uncomfortable for someone from the States. I try to explain that this sort of exchange would be entirely unacceptable in the US, but he is uninterested.
Second step: wait two hours for bus to arrive.
Third step: push, shove, but stop short of elbowing and biting people to get on bus in order to reserve seat. Normally I hate this step and will take slower bus companies to avoid it, but for this trip there was no choice - and frankly I was ready to take out some aggression anyway. That feeling would prove to increase all day.
I'll stop numbering them now. Next: Stop for...well, I don't know. Though I'm pretty sure everyone else on the bus did. Some guy was either hurt or sick. We waited for about 45 minutes for...well, I don't know that either. Something changed. Maybe someone from a nearby village arrived to help him. Maybe 45 minutes is just the culturally appropriate time for a bus to wait for someone to see if he'll get better. Presumably he didn't, since we left him. Or hell, maybe that was his stop. Things like this happen all the time - and by "things like this," I don't mean people dropping their pants to rub toothpaste on their legs (something he did while we were waiting); I mean things that everyone around us understands intuitively but that we don't even have the basic knowledge to ask the right questions to find out what's going on.
Next: Stop again, this time to switch buses. The route is blocked because at a place where it is only one-lane (because of a new bridge being built), a mango truck has possibly broken down and definitely dumped its load of mangoes all over the road. This in itself should only cause maybe a half-hour delay...
Next: Get to bus on other side of mango truck to discover that it's not being reloaded, because the staff have decided to take this opportunity of its lack of cargo to change the leaf spring. This turns out to be an unfortunate decision, since there is no replacement handy. Four hours later, they've found one, reinstalled it, and we're ready to go again. One moment of levity: while reloading, the staff are trying to lift a motor scooter onto the roof of the bus, and unlike at the station they have no platform to do it from. There is one guy alone on the roof to pull it up after the three on the ground have managed to lift it over their heads. One of those three, as soon as the weight was being held by the one on the roof, ran as fast as he could, certain (as I was) that the roof guy was going to drop it. He didn't - but the runner and I shared a laugh.

When we stopped, I should have just biked on; but by then it was three in the afternoon and I'd eaten nothing all day (there's a lack of opportunity to eat when your bus is stopped in the middle of nowhere for repairs). Naturally by then I was frustrated, tired, hungry, and generally grumpy - and I knew that if I tred to bike anything more than 5km I'd be sick at the other end of it. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover upon our recommencement that we were, in fact, less than 5km from the next village.

Fortunately, the only other incident of note during that trip was that at one stop, my seat neighbor bought me a Fanta. When buying food or drink on the bus, it's typical to either buy a small piece of food or sachet of water for your neighbor (at the very least, you should offer to share what you've bought for yourself), but a soda is more expensive and a very nice gesture.

With friends
I spent the next couple of days with friends, which was relaxing, and there's nothing to report except that I have awesome friends.

4th of July
First, the 3rd-
The plan: if we can't find transport, bike with my friend Y from Djibo to a small village 40km away. This plan surprised me, since up until a couple months ago Y was vehemently opposed to biking if she could avoid it. But I was game.
The execution: We got a bit less than 20km down the road (but I couldn't accurately judge as we're going Y's pace, not my own). At that point we should have passed another village, but it had yet to appear. Y made the crack, "Do you think we made a wrong turn?" She thought this was funny because there's only the one road; there ARE no turns. And yet, her comment made me think...was this really the right road out of Djibo? Now that I think of it, it wasn't really the right direction...So I made a call, and sure enough, I'd led us down't the wrong road. Clever me! It's not that I hadn't TRIED to verify that I knew the right road, just that I hadn't quite asked in the right way when I did, and so thought that the directions I was given jibed with the road I thought I should take. Anyway, we turned around and went back, and basically biked 40km just to end up where we started.

And then, Y said let's just try again! She was willing to bike 40km again the same day! I was shocked - but again, game. Fortunately, there WAS transport on the correct road, and we were spared an 80km day. We got to C's (have you noticed I keep mentioning the same people...er, letters...in this blog? I'm nothing if not consistent) in time for dinner, a wonderful beef stew prepared by D. Not me D, another one. I did, in fact, prepare lunch the next day, but it was not wonderful, merely passable.

Now, the 4th-
This trip was only part vacation, it was also part work. More so for D and another volunteer, E, who were there at C's village helping all week with a girls' camp (a common secondary project for volunteers during the rainy season, with the goal of encouraging girls generally to take more ownership in their lives and specifically to pursue their education), but I helped too for one session. I led a session teaching the girls origami. I enjoyed it so much that I agreed to work at another girls' camp in a few weeks. I was very impressed with the girls - for young girls from a small African village, they had very good French and were very willing to laugh and help each other and work with me (once they got over being shy with me, which took almost no time at all). Clearly, C has had an impact in that village - and credit where it's due, it was equally clear that the (male) teacher she was working with made a point to encourage these girls. Rare here, and gratifying to see.

In the evening, we had another great dinner prepared by D, this time chili. And fireworks. Kind of. For the second day in a row, a sarcastic comment saved the day (the first one I'm referring to is Y's wrong turn comment). We were sitting on the porch when Y heard a small popping sound and said, "What's that?" I noticed that the inside of the house seemed brighter than before, and I half-jokingly said "C, is your house on fire?" She ran inside and screamed, "YES!!" A candle had caught her bookcase on fire. Fortunately, there were buckets of water available and nothing important was burned. Though it was a close thing - there was a lot of money nearby, and the closest item which would have probably caught in less than a minute was a tube of rubber cement marked "highly inflammable."

Then we watched Breakfast at Tiffany's, and really I just don't get it. Audrey Hepburn's character is just AWFUL. And the male lead isn't much better - sure, he's a nice guy in his way, but given Holly GoLightly's personality, there can really be only one reason he likes her so much - she's beautiful. How is this movie so popular? One character who has devoted her life to using people, and the other is as shallow as an uninflated kiddie pool. I can't deny we laughed at it, but not for reasons I suspect its creators would approve of. I know I have at least one friend that I'm going to catch all kinds of crap from for not liking this movie, but I'm sorry. I don't.

Return trip
We biked it. This time in the right direction (my colleagues very helpfully pointed many, many times to make sure I turned the right way on the one road that runs through C's village.) It was a pleasant ride, though the wind slowed us. Y can most certainly not claim to be a non-biker anymore.

Being white
A couple of times recently someone has shouted some form of greeting to which I've responded only to find they weren't talking to me. Because, being white, they almost always ARE for me. It's downright offputting when they're not!

More bus travails
Ever been kneed in the neck? I have. On the way from Djibo down to Ouaga for my current project, a kid working for the bus was clambering down the aisle as best he could (it was full of people) by walking along the armrests. And naturally we hit a bump as he passed me. Bus travel here is something I would strongly recommend to anyone with a masochistic streak. Or a sadistic streak for that matter, you could get your own in pretty readily.

Current project
And what am I back in Ouaga for? This time, I'm working with another volunteer and an APCD to prepare an agriculture manual for PCBF. Actually, we're putting together a couple of documents, but that's the big one. Our main resource is a similar document for a neighboring country, but we're adapting other materials also. It's an exciting project, and our hope is that our work will lay the groundwork for eventually introducing an agriculture or environment sector into the country. Of course, that's an administrative decision and thus I can't comment on its likelihood. But I can say that from the volunteers' view on the ground, it would be a worthwhile endeavor. This country is struggling with desertification and crop failures in a major way.

Whew! Another long post with no overarching theme. Hope you had more fun reading it than I did writing it! Today I find out who my new neighbors will be, but I won't bother waiting for that before posting this, since I make it a policy not to share information on other volunteers' placements (nor even their names, generally. That may seem hypocritical given that I have names attached to the blogs I link to, but in each case I checked to see that they themselves share that information in their blogs. At least, I *think* I did - if you happen to read those and know that I'm wrong, do let me know and I'll change link names as appropriate.) Also, I hope you like my new PC banner on the right. I thought it was pretty nifty.

11 June 2009

Happy 1-Year Anniversary!

Yep, it's officially been a year as of today. One year ago a group of 30 of us flew into Ouagadougou with precious little idea of what to expect, and even less of an idea of how we would adapt.

And now here we are.

Today is also the day that the NEW stagiares arrive. Although I am in Ouaga, I will not meet them while they're here - the Training Manager keeps very strict rules concerning access to the new folks, and I'm not working with them until Week 2 of their stage. If any of their parents happen to be reading this, a) don't worry, the people who will be meeting them are capable volunteers and extremely good choices for helping them through their first couple of nights, and b) don't be surprised if you don't hear from them right away. They probably won't have a chance to hit a telecentre to call until they get up to the city they'll be training in.

Now then, this post won't be as comprehensive as the last one, because this time I neglected to keep notes on what I wanted to write about for the most part. I'm working from memory. And shoddy tools give a shoddy result...

Professeur Principal
This is the name of the professor in charge of a class, and in most situations Peace Corps volunteers don't do it. But when you're in a school with four teachers for five classes, there just aren't that many options. It generated a small amount of extra work for me at the end of each trimester, but I had no idea just how much work it required for the end of the year. My last week in school was by far the busiest I've ever been in this country, and that's counting a week when aside from preparing and teaching classes I had to grade 400 of my own tests PLUS 70 practice nationally-required exams for a class I've never taught. I've kind of been winding down ever since.

A decent translation of that would be workshops, I guess. At the same time I was doing all that PP stuff, my homologue and I gave a VIH/SIDA (that's the French way of saying HIV/AIDS) sensibilisation (you can get the flavor of that word without translation) to about 150 students aged 12-24 at our school. It went well, thanks in large part to some presentation materials that one of our volunteer committees managed to get for all volunteers. I still owe them a report on that, actually. I also gave the agricultural workshop I mentioned in my last post, and that went really well I feel. Though I haven't checked back in with my farmers to see if they're using the techniques we talked about. I still owe a report on that one, too...

Secret Meetings
Once my school obligations were finally finished, I went to hang out with a nearby volunteer friend. Turns out some of the fonctionnaires in his village (that's the catch-all term for government workers, everything from the military to teachers to doctors. Pretty much any job that is not farming or selling things is some sort of fonctionnaire position.) have a secret club - and he'd only recently started being invited. He got me an invitation as well. Now, I say club, but I don't mean they have a secret handshake or plot world domination...it's just an excuse for some guys (it's all men) to hang out, eat some chicken, and drink some sodas, without having to invite everyone and their brother. It was a good time.

Not so Hardcore
I haven't made my 140km bike ride yet, but I have reached a new high mark - 125km. Unfortunately, the trip did not go smoothly. I was two hours late getting out, and because I was late I hit a headwind that started up right as I was leaving; between those two problems, instead of arriving at my destination at 9am as planned, I got there at 1pm. Which means I was biking through the hottest part of the day. The upshot is that a ride that should have taken 6 hours took 9, and one that should have ended when the temp was about 90 degrees in fact continued for a significant time in 115 degrees. I ended up having massive heartburn and couldn't participate in the party that was my reason for making the trip. All in all though, I got off light for being so hard-headed - at any point in that ride I could have pulled over and waited for a bus or taxi brousse to pass, there were many.

Once There...and Well Again
While I didn't get to party (and it was a cool party, local music and dancing, and great food), I did get to explore my friend's village the next day. It's always interesting to see how others live here. Her village is much larger than mine, but still small in the grand scheme of things. The people were very friendly, and many stopped by the day after the party to make sure I was feeling better. For the first time ever, I played Bocce Ball. Kind of a strange place to do it.

On to Ouaga
After that, I came to the capital to hang out with some friends who were in town for a meeting of the Peer-Support and Diversity Network (PSDN). This has caused many volunteers to ask if I'm on that committee, which continues to shock me - don't you people KNOW me? I am many things, but a supportive peer is not one of them. Ok, that's not actually the case, I can be supportive when I want to be, but I'm not a good choice to encourage people I don't know well through their difficulties - my sarcastic wit tends to make me seem insensitive to those who don't know me. I'm not warm and fuzzy, is what I'm saying. However, for whatever reason, two of my favorite people in the country ARE on the committee, and I enjoyed getting to hang out with them.

And then to Fada
And one of those favorite people asked me if I would like to accompany her to Fada. She's leaving soon, and wanted to visit parts of Burkina we hadn't seen yet. Naturally I said yes - in fact, I've traveled with her before, this is Y from the New Year's trip I took. We acted like tourists, visiting the sacred hill (great view of the city) and a baobab with horseshoe-shaped marks in its trunk, traditionally explained as having been made by an ancient chief who actually rode his horse up the tree to hide from an invading tribe. And then we got our sand read.
Most cultures have some sort of tradition of divination, I think. Tarot, numerology, tea-leaves, that sort of thing. The Gourmantche in eastern BF read sand. Y and I found a guy who both does this and speaks French (a rare combination), and he took us out into the bush, took off his pants (to reveal that he had another pair on underneath, but we certainly had a moment of shock before that became obvious), sat us down, and told us to ask him questions and the sand would answer them. Y's reading was more interesting than mine, but of course it's not my place to share hers. Mine included some interesting tidbits, namely that both my brother AND my sister would come visit me - surprising enough - and then the doozie - I'm going to marry an African. Actually, after he said that, he backpedalled and said that the sand didn't actually say where she was from, but that she has dark skin. Y asked probing questions (she's arguably more concerned about my romantic well-being than I am...and having written that I feel that I've made an implication that is not true - she likes to see her friends in relationships, that's all) and we found that my future bride could be indian or hispanic; not necessarily VERY dark-skinned, just not white. Hm. Oh, but we'll date for 6 years first, because while in my heart I want a relationship, in my head I don't, I really just want a friend. That part rang true, at least. Y's remark was "Wow, she must be very patient."

Training of Trainers
After that, up to a city I know well, though I haven't been there in nearly a year. Stage this year is being held in the same place as ours was, and so was our ToT, the event where those of us who will be PCVFs (the PCVs who work at stage) receive training. I got to visit my host family and hang out with some volunteers I don't get to see much of otherwise. I also got very sick, fortunately only for a day. Something about that place.

Another city I had not yet visited - it's where they held the aforementioned "hardcore party" that I missed in April - and a town near another of my very favorite people in the country (my other volunteer traveling-companion from New Year's, C). I got to see several volunteers who live in that region, and had a blast with them. I also discovered and bought my new favorite shirt - a bright blue-and-red-striped soccer jersey with a giant picture of Obama. When I wear it, people don't yell "Nasara," they yell "Barack Obama!". It's pretty great.

And Ouaga Again
And now I'm working with a few other math teachers developing critical-thinking exercises to compile into a book to give to all PCBF math education volunteers. That work is going pretty well, but it's not terribly exciting stuff. Saturday I return to my village, but only for a week - come June 21, I'll be working at stage! So I'll get to meet all the new hip, cool, with-it young beautiful people who have come to show us old farts how it's done. Perhaps most exciting about the timing is that I have a rock-solid excuse to be in Ouaga on the 20th, so I'll get to see our football (that's soccer, remember) match against Cote d'Ivoire! That's gonna be intense. If we beat them, we have a real shot at getting into the 2010 World Cup games.

Shout Out
Hi, folks at St. Columb's! My mom has informed me that probably several more of you will be reading my blog. Hope you enjoy it!

09 May 2009

A month at site, a long bike ride, and why Burkina is like the South

As a part of the wheeling and dealing that got me approved to work that stint in Ouaga at the end of March, I agreed not to leave my site at all during the month of April. The hottest, driest month of the year. Which means I missed the "hardcore party," a fête thrown by the crew of volunteers in the hottest, driest part of the country. I was pretty bummed about that, not so much because I feel the need to prove I'm hardcore (I feel like I kind of am, as evidenced by...well, I'll get to that), but because many of my friends were there - I'm not in the Sahel, but that's the crowd I run with. Anyway, a month at site may not lead to the same kinds of excitement that comes with the constant chance of getting run over or mugged in Ouaga, but it went smoothly enough, and I've had plenty of free time to think about what to write about. Unfortunately, I didn't really spend any of that time thinking about how to link my many disparate thoughts, so while this post will be long, I suspect it will be somewhat disjointed.

Burkinabé and Jesus
The Peace Corps has a very clear policy: volunteers do NOT proselytize. My question is, is there a policy on how to respond when locals do it? It's surprising the number of times I've found people who want to talk to me about how much they love Jesus. Really, it makes me feel like I never left the South.

Everchanging hair
The fu-manchu finally became more trouble than the joke was worth, and like the rest of my hair it is now slowly becoming compost in my yard. Our country director claims he's never seen me with the same hair twice. This reflects somewhat more on the frequency we see each other than on my hair, but it IS true that my hair has gone through more phases in the last 10 months than in a typical decade of my life.

A New/Old Hobby
One reason it became more trouble (all right, at least ONE segue!) is that I've started regularly practicing my cornet. I don't know how people do that with facial hair, it's a real hassle. I try to get in at least an hour an evening. For some reason I have the damndest time remembering that the A flat scale has a D flat. Anyway, one side effect means that I now have a crowd of visitors under the age of 5 every night. They're good kids, and a couple speak a smattering of French. For some reason, they love to greet me anew every 5 minutes or so, which makes playing continuously a bit difficult, but they're cute. My goal is to play in the Ole Miss alumni band and really scream...but it's slow going building my lip back up. Unfortunately, one of my spit-valve pads is pretty worn and I have to adjust it every time I use it to get a good seal. On the plus side, the climate is so dry that I don't use it that much.

If I quit, it won't be because of the heat, vicious though it can be. It will be because of the insects. The flies and the ants DRIVE ME INSANE here. So I have a request. It may not be entirely legal to send foreign plant seeds, but it's pretty routinely done without a problem. I don't want genetically modified tomatos or fast-growing squashes. If you really want my undying gratitude, send me Venus fly-trap and pitcher plant seeds. I think these plants require a lot of water, but believe me, if you send them, they will be WELL cared for. Totally worth the water expenditure for the joy of vengeance whenever I see one of those pods closed. As for the ants, I'd love to import some ant lions, but that I think would be a little too difficult.

Irony, Thy Name is Dabilgou
At least, my being named Dabilgou is ironic. I've known for a while that Dabilgou, while a Mooré name, is kind of local to my area - often, Mossi in Ouaga don't recognize it, though I've met Dabilgous as far away as my friend K's site around 100km away. It turns out it's a VERY local name - it originated in my village. And its origin is this: when the French colonists first arrived in Zege (I can only imagine they were just passing through), they sat in the shade of a baobab tree with the village elders and said that they could show them how to live a better life. The elders responded "We already know how to live, don't tell us what we already know." And the Mooré for "don't tell me what I already know" is da bilgi. Thus the name of these men (and as it happens the tree they sat under) became Dabilgou. So here I am, another whitey trying to help the people of Zege live a better life...and my name is their negative reaction to the first whites who tried the same (or claimed to, at least).

A Night in Niounougou
Months ago now, on a weekend that I planned to visit Ouaga, I decided to bike that Thursday evening 45km to a friend's site on the main road, the idea being I could take a morning bus the next day without having to get up early enough to bike 2 hours before catching it. I didn't get out until 5 in the evening, and I had no bike light, but I decided that shouldn't be a problem because as I just said, the trip only takes about 2 hours, so I could just use my cell-phone LED for the last couple kilometers I would still be out when night fell. In fact, I had high hopes of making the trip in UNDER two hours, as it was windy: that road runs northwest, and the wind is nearly always from the east, so I planned on it pushing me along. Well, it turned out that the wind was freakishly blowing from the wrong way, and after two hours it was fully dark and I was only HALFWAY THERE. Fortunately for me, as I passed through the small village at the halfway mark, a man passed me on a moto, stopped, and came back. I could tell from his hat that he was a chief; as it turns out, he was the chief of the even smaller village just on the other side of the one we were in, and he invited me to spend the night with him. Now, if he hadn't been a chief, I probably would have said no, but I figured I could trust a chief, and I'm glad I did. He set me up basically my own room made of straw walls in his courtyard, and even covered my bed with a mosquito net. This was one of those moments when I thought to myself, "Wow, I am really in the Peace Corps." So now I stop by whenever I'm biking to or from site...on those rare occasions when i'm not doing so in the small hours of the morning at least.

Trinkets and Novels
During my New Year's trip, as I've mentioned, I acquired a small wooden elephant and later named him Bogart. Later, my companions from that trip bought me a small wooden duck keychain. I have finally named the duck - he's Camus. Because I'm (very, very slowly) reading La Chute by Albert Camus, and it's the first time I've read a French book that I haven't hated every second of and given up after three paragraphs. It's still excruciatingly slow going - I have to stop every third word, and Camus uses words that don't even appear in my smallish dictionary - but the writing is so good that I don't mind (though I don't do much at a time because it's tiring). I'm learning not to hate French (I still don't think it's a pretty language all told) at least.

Secondary Projects
Confirmed: I will be working stage, the training of new SE volunteers. Related, I will be developing a session for that stage on the Food Security Committee. I have started work on my school's library*. I will be hosting two formations this month in village, one on an agricultural technique known as "zai holes," the other on HIV/AIDS. I will also be working on developing critical-thinking lesson plans for the math curriculum to keep in the PC office. Not confirmed: I plan on applying for a program to teach English for 5 weeks in Ouaga. Well, I think I will...I like the idea of it, but it would mean a large amount of time away from my site, so I'm internally debating - and even if I decide to apply, I may be turned down on exactly those grounds. Well, we'll see.
*Funny story there. As a reward to students who helped me move all the books, I let each of them check out one book. Most chose dictionaries, or illustrated encyclopedias, and a few chose novels. One chose a translation of a Danielle Steele book. I'm looking forward to hearing how he liked it.

In mid-April, I was very stressed by all the grading I had to do. Not only did I have 400 of my own tests to grade, I was also asked to grade the math section of 70 practice BEPCs, the exam required to pass from 9th to 10th grade. It was really hard work, considering I don't teach that class, but I feel like I was fair to the students. Too bad they mostly failed.

Ok, I've already asked for one thing to be sent in this post, but I have a second request. There's a book I really, really want. It's called (in English) "Trees, Shrubs and Vines of the West African Dry Zones", and it's a really kick-ass field guide that would be really fun to have here. But it's expensive, around $100. So rather than asking any one person to send it for my birthday, I'd like it if maybe everyone who was planning on buying me something pooled together to get that.

I convinced a friend to play chess with me via text, that was a lot of fun. Then I visited my nearest neighbor, and we played. He checkmated me when I was up by FIFTEEN POINTS. I was up a queen, a rook, and two pawns. Seriously need to work on my end game! And my opening and middle game, but never mind that.

I'm Kind of Hardcore
100km in a bit over five hours! As soon as my semi-self-imposed exile was over, I biked 100km to visit my friend K. The weird thing is that by the end of it, I wasn't exhausted - I wanted to keep going! So if my workshops fall into place at the right times, I'm hoping later this month to bike 140km to visit another friend, Y (one of my traveling companions during the New Year). She's leaving soon (sad for us, happy for her).

There's probably a reggae cover of every song ever made. In fact, there's probably several, because it seems like even every reggae song has a reggae cover. Well, today I heard a reggae cover of the reggae song "Different Colors, One People." How do I know it wasn't the original? Because the original didn't work the theme from Super Mario Brothers into its chorus, that's how.

This Time It Wasn't My Fault That I Lost It
No, not my pocket knife. My razor. My dad had a really nice adjustable safety razor, and at my request he sent it to me here (safety razor blades are really easy to get here). Well, I had left it along with my other toiletries in one of the bathrooms in the Transit House while I was staying there last March, and it disappeared. I was very disappointed that someone will take it. Well, someone did - but it was an honest mistake. Weirdly, someone else here had EXACTLY THE SAME RAZOR. Small wonder he just assumed it was his when he saw it - what are the odds? He eventually realized he had 2 and brought mine back and left it where he'd found it...but unfortunately I wasn't around for a very long time and presumably due to its apparent lack of ownership in the eyes of the cleaning staff it is no longer there. I don't know whether I'll ever see it again, and this makes me sad. I get by with a local 3-piece razor, one much like the travel safety razor my dad gave me at the same time as the nice one. I've gotten to where I don't cut myself with it. Much.

And that's it. Long and disjointed, as promised. Off to a night of debauchery. Anyway, a beer or two. When are you coming to visit me? That's right, I'm talking to YOU.