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.


eileen said...

OK, I copied this latest blog and took it to church; I put the pages in a manila envelope and titled it-
"Out of Africa"; not original, I know. But,it's a great read and I wanted to share it. ;) mom

Anonymous said...

I hate Camus—but I of course have only read his work in translation. I was once told that he's considerably better in French: good to have confirmation of that.

Maria-Isabel said...

Hi David! Agree with you about the French language. My learning it isn't going too well - but I still have 2months and a few days 'till I need it ;-)

Take care and I look forward to your next post.