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.


eileen said...

So glad you saved the part about the fever until the last. Now I know you are OK. You may be a wonderfully mature, male individual, but your mama still thinks of you as her little, tiny 1st born, when you are sick. Give us a "definite estimate" about coming back to US !

Marg said...

I'm glad your fever is down and that you are feeling better already!! That was a nice, juicy post, which I love. :> It was so good to talk to you yesterday!!!