17 March 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Given my Irish descent and the Peace Corps's goal of educating people
about American culture, if I'd been clever I could probably have
hosted a party and claimed it as a secondary project. However, that
was not an option because...

I didn't give up alcohol for Lent. Recalcitrant recidivist that I am,
I didn't give up ANYTHING for Lent. But, you see, Lent overlaps with
funeral season. And funeral season means drinking. Lots of drinking,
at all hours. About the only way I can function throughout the day
without repeatedly insulting my neighbors' "hospitality" is by coming
up with a much better reason not to drink than things like "I have to
go to work," or "I try not to drink before breakfast." These are
simply not acceptable reasons here. Lent is. So no drinking at site
until Easter. And by then the funerals will mostly be over as people
get ready to start the planting season.

For reasons noone bothered to share with me, the Catholics hosted a
carnival last Sunday. Carnie games are the same here in their most
important aspect - they're rigged - but it was fun to see the
variations. We didn't throw softballs at milk bottles; we threw
rag-stuffed plastic bags at condensed milk cans. The ring toss offered
prizes such as soap and packages of spaghetti.

I got a chain letter from a student today. I think the last time I got
a non-electronic one I was 10, and that one didn't resort to threats
(it was supposedly some academic project, and while at 10 I was too
naive to ask "What possible gap in human knowledge could be filled via
chain letter?", I was also much too lazy to copy any letter 7 times,
or whatever it was). This one claims to be a missive from the Virgin
Mary and come from Bosnia-Herzogevenya, 1894. Aside from spreading the
Good News of the chain letter, you must also pray to get your good
luck...and prevent your family from dying, of course. That Holy
Virgin, she's feisty!

14 March 2010

World War Z

You know how when you move someplace new it takes some time to get
used to the sounds. Well, I've been here awhile. I'm used to the
animal noises - the pig squeals, the guinea fowl cluck, the bat
squeak. But a couple nights ago, I heard something that sounded like
nothing other than a zombie groaning straight out of a movie. I still
don't know what the hell it was, but it's not a sound that is easy to
fall asleep to - especially when the dog-barking sound emanating from
the same general area suddenly gets cut short. Happily, the dog
started barking again just as I was starting to consider sleeping
inside, and heat be damned. That sound was spooky.

Folks here had a SECOND party yesterday (13 March) to celebrate
International Women's Day (8 March), and AGAIN no one thought to let
me know. Although the hilarious argument I was lucky enough to catch
today about whether women should be "allowed" a 2nd day almost made up
for it. One side maintained that the 13th is not the 8th, 1 + 3 is
only 4. To which I responded fine, 4 is half of 8 so give them half
the day - noon to midnight. But my friend Christophe had an even
better observation: put a 1 next to a 3 and you close the two loops.
It's an 8 again!

I had ice today in village, and no matter how sick that unfiltered
water makes me, it was worth it. I asked Christophe why he doesn't
always have it, and he said it doesn't sell. Well, demanded our friend
(having lost the 8 March argument and happy to join another) do people
know you have it? Do you advertise? No, said C, I just sell it if they
ask. I told C that if he promised to carry some every day, I'd
personally make him a poster so it would sell. So my new project: find
out how to say "Ice for sale here" in every language spoken here. I
want that ice!

13 March 2010

No more funny subject lines

I figured out the solution to that little problem. Which is not to say
I won't still throw in crazy subject lines in emails, actually. I just
no longer have as good of an excuse.

The 8th of March is International Woman's Day. Last year my village
did nothing special that day except close school - no surprise, that's
generally how things work on any non-religious holiday outside of the
cities. So last weekend I went to my provincial capital (see next
section). Monday morning, as I'm waiting for transport back to site,
people start telling me that I'm missing the party there! Apparently
our provincial celebration was being held in my village this year.
Now, this must have taken MONTHS of planning - there were women's
groups from all over, representatives from the UN office in Ouaga,
chiefs of all the villages, the freakin' Minister of Agriculture, they
even made tshirts with my village's name...and through all of that
planning, it never occured to one single person that hey, maybe this
is something our Peace Corps volunteer might like to know about!
I didn't end up missing that much, but if I'd had some warning I'd
have done something to participate. As it was, the only contribution I
made was during lunch, when I made it a point to take over the serving
job from the women, who had naturally assumed that role because that's
how things are done here. Which speaks much louder than imported
orators as to how seriously people take women's empowerment here.

Other than grocery shopping and relaxing with friends who happen to
have things like ice and fans, I got to help said friends experiment
with a project they've set up to make charcoal from millet stalks. I
don't know if I've ever said it directly here, but you've probably
picked up on the fact that the theme of my service, outside of
teaching, has been fighting desertification. This charcoal project is
a cheap, clever way to discourage tree-cutting. Lesson one - wear old

10 March 2010

Rodents of unusual size? I don't believe they exist

A newly discovered quirk of my phone: in gmail, no matter whether I am
composing a new missive or replying to an existing conversation, the
subject line is filled by whatever the subject was of the last message
I sent in Facebook! I've tried sending Facebook messages with blank
subjects, but it just retains the older subject in that case. Nor does
clearing the cache work. So I've taken to filling the line with quotes
from favorite movies, since I'll be forced to read it so often.

Grits aren't the only thing I miss here. I miss potatoes! They are
grown in this country, but for reasons that escape me the people in my
particular village have no interest in them. So I occasionally crave
fries. Since one thing I can get in Ouaga is instant mashed potatoes,
I brought some back to site, prepared some, let it cool, then formed
it into balls and fried it. I got something that tasted almost, but
not quite, completely unlike french fries. But it killed the craving

Whoever put together our Mooré manual chose to translate "to shit."
Not in some scatological section. They just thought it was a verb we
might need. I couldn't agree more.

I have finally, after a year and a half, convinced a small number of
students that if they don't understand something in their classes,
it's worth their time to stop by my house and ask for help. Recently,
I noticed one student writing his numbers right to left. I can't help
but wonder if that's a signal of a fundamentally different way of
thinking about our decimal system. Without question there's a
disconnect between how I think, and therefore teach, and how my
students think, and therefore learn. But I've yet to bridge that gap.

I tried to use bleach to make a fun tie-dye pattern on some pants that
already had a faded spot. Against all expectations, there is fabric
here of high enough quality to resist bleach! All I managed to do was
make the pants look old and sun-faded, subtly enough that it doesn't
look at all intentional. FAIL.

02 March 2010

Studying a new language is fun!

Is a lie I tell myself. It WILL be fun speaking Mooré, but let's be
real, the first couple months in a new tongue are just painful. At
least I'm finally, after 21 months, trying.

Special thanks to brad, who made the brilliant discovery that Nutella
+ coffee = hazelnut mocha. For those mornings when regular just isn't

"Name 3 characteristics of the North American population." I'd really
like to see some of those answers. I bet "rich" made the list on
several students' papers.

I've taken to laying books gently on the floor, rather than just
tossing them down as I once did. Not because I'm worried about hurting
them. It's because seeing the plume of dust rise when I they hit the
floor is just a depressing reminder that it's been 24 hours since I

-Somali pirates involved in "land attack"
My more serious thought: anyone who hijacks food aid deserves to burn
in the 9th circle of hell. My more flippant thought: if it's on land,
are they still pirates?
-GM sales rise due to Toyota recalls
But wait. 2 headlines down...
-GM recalls 1.3 million cars
Ironic enough? NO! In this one, we find that the supplier of faulty
parts is "partially owned by Toyota." Sounds like the fix is in!
-Ice found in lunar north pole
How freakin' cool is that?!? Can we revisit that NASA budget decision Mr. Prez?
In short, I deeply appreciate being in touch with the wider world
again. Thanks, BBC News!