Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Paris? Yes please.

Sorry I've been ignoring my blog, but life has been busy!

Some momentous events that have happened or are upcoming…

1. I got to meet the Prime Minister of Burkina Faso a couple of weeks ago and helped give a presentation on the work we’ve done to help the flood victims. This is basically the second guy in charge of this country after the President. So.. that was pretty exciting. That would be the 3rd time I had a minor appearance on Burkina TV. :)
2. I’m going to France TOMORROW for a 10-day vacation, during which time I will get to celebrate my birthday in Paris and spend time with people who love me. I cannot wait!
3. Temps seem to be dropping into the 90’s before dark lately, so that’s been a nice break. Otherwise, it’s 110-120 degrees every day. Even at night, you can hardly feel a relief from the heat. It has started raining though, and that’s just been lovely…. Except for the continued flooding.
4. I officially accepted my invitation to Columbia University, so I will definitely be starting there in September.

The nature of the project I’m working on is a “crisis” so everything needs to be done yesterday, or as soon as possible…. ALL the time. Some days this is exhausting, but most days I don’t mind because the more I work, the faster time flies. I’m well past halfway through this assignment now, and I’m getting excited to come home and get back to my life I put on hold, start grad school, etc….

Our reconstruction has been moving along at a good pace. We’ve constructed well over 100 homes in just about 8 weeks now. Unfortunately, after we helped people construct solid foundations, they continued to build the remainder of the walls with unstable mud bricks that basically melt when it rains hard. And unfortunately again, that’s exactly what happened this past week…. Some of the “brand new” houses we’re building have already begun crumbling after the first few rainfalls.

This is all quite discouraging for many reasons, other than the obvious that is seems like we just took a huge leap backwards after many massive ones forward. The government is one frustration. They sent people out to the middle of nowhere, where there’s no drinking water, no infrastructure, no drainage, and it’s a flood zone. Therefore, thousands of displaced flood victims who have lost everything were given new plots of land about 5 or so miles away from their old homes IN A FLOOD ZONE. It’s a frustrating process. People here don’t have the money to construct their homes the way we’re advising them to, so we’re trying to revamp the entire program to help them construct the entire home now and not just a good foundation. We’ll see how this develops. Otherwise, it's really an unsustainable and pointless effort.

We're also planning a huge tree-planting ceremony in June. We're going to plant over 1,000 trees at the site, which will give people shade and help beautify the desert-like zone they were sent to. This will be a collaboration with the Peace Corps, so we'll hopefully have at least 30 volunteers, plus our African volunteers, running all over planting big old mango trees everywhere.

Otherwise, I really feel like the 4 months I've spent here so far have been more satisfying and impactful that the entire 2 years I spent here the first time. Not only have I been able to help people rebuild their homes (whatever part will be a success), but I've also been able to: help old friends secure work with my company who've been unemployed for years, get funding to get a pump installed in a village that has no drinking water source, participate in a school reconstruction project with some French people I met, and help plan various presentations for major international and national donors and political figures. It's been a much different experience than the Peace Corps was, and is proving to be as good an insight to my intended career path as I was hoping it'd be.

Well, my head’s already on Paris time, so that's about all I've got to say.. must get packing now!!

Merci et a plus!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

2 months in!

Hello friends.

It's been a while since I posted a blog, but I don't really feel like I have all that much to report.
HOWEVER, 2 great things did happen on March 13th:
1. It was my official 2-month mark (1/3 of the way through already!!)
2. I found out that I was accepted to Columbia University to pursue my Masters Degree!!

So this was a landmark weekend... relatively. In addition, I also potted some plants and hand washed some clothes. It is such an exciting life, let me tell you.

Living in the big city is actually much more difficult than living in a village. I mean, physically, it's obviously much more comfortable with my A/C, running water, good food, etc... but socially, it's not that easy. When you are the only stranger in a village where there's no electricity or other entertainment, it's really easy to make friends. Actually, you are immediately everyone's friend, whether you like it or not...

But I don't really have much of a social life in the capital. Having a bicycle and my 2 feet to get around doesn't make it any easier, either. Additionally, there's road work literally surrounding the area where I live, which now physically cuts me off from the rest of the city. I have to traverse an obstacle course to get to work, climbing over and under fences, and jumping over ditches. To get a taxi, I now have to walk 10 min from home and wait for a taxi for no less than 15 minutes. He'll try and jack up the price every time, too, because not only am I white but I am also living in the part of town that's practically inaccessible. :(

Work is going pretty well. At this point, I've become the center of it all. Every day I field calls from, and solve problems for, beneficiaries, construction workers, material suppliers, construction inspectors, and colleagues who're helping with the project. It's great to feel so involved and to troubleshoot everything going on. But sometimes it's just frustrating because all the solutions that I can come up with are completely out of my control. Whether it's internal bureaucratic procedures or government protocol, eventually it just becomes a waiting game.

Overall, I'm learning a lot with the project and getting great construction management and project management experience. Combined with a Masters in Urban Planning, I think this was the right move to get a career in the field I want - (planning and international development). If you know me at all, though, you know I just go wherever life takes me. I'm not much of a planner, and while things are working out as I "planned" so far in 2010, who knows where life will take me next? :)

Oh - one fun thing I get to do this week is Skype with my friend's classroom in Chicago! One of my friends from the Israel trip asked me to talk to her kids about Africa, so we set up a Skype date. I'll be up on their big projection screen, answering questions about what's going on on this side of the world. Should be fun... and I'll leave out the really gross stuff.

Hope to hear from you soon... It would be great to hear some news from you all, too.


Friday, February 12, 2010

sooooo Burkina

What I love most about this country, hands down, is the people. Burkinabe people are the warmest and most welcoming people I’ve ever met. They can also frustrate the heck out of you, but mostly because of cultural misunderstandings and differences. After wanting to just hate a person, they can flash a smile and say something funny that completely makes your mood do a 180.
On that note… I would like to share some funny stories that are such typical Burkina moments, that as soon as they happened I had myself a little private chuckle and thought how it was soooo Burkina!

Burkina Moment # 1 : eating out
I went to a relatively fancy restaurant in town with 2 other Americans who live in my building. We were the only ones in the place, and the waiter comes over with 3 fairly thick menus. Already I am impressed because for some reason, you almost always get at least one less menu than number of people at a table in many restaurants, and there are usually no more than 5 things to choose from. So the waiter gives us a good 15 minutes to mull over the menu. As we’re discussing the many choices, we all realize that each menu is different. Some of the pages had totally different prices and food choices! Not being too surprised (because this is sooo Burkina), we ask the waiter if he has certain dishes on our respective menus, when he returns to take our orders. He says “no” to each one of our requests before saying “please allow me to make some suggestions for your orders, because we only have 2 dishes available tonight…..” and proceeds to name 2 dishes that weren’t on any of our menus.

Burkina Moment # 2: being white
As a white person in this country, you get used to some level of special treatment, for better and for worse. You cannot walk down the street without someone every 50 feet yelling “Nassara” at you, which means “stranger” or really just “white person.” It’s not said in a rude or negative way… more just a matter of fact way, like they are acknowledging your presence and have to just yell out “YOU’RE DIFFERENT!”
Along those same lines, people also get very excited when you do something JUST LIKE THEM. And on some level, I suppose I get used to getting praised for every mundane thing that I do… so for instance, when I leave my work area for lunch and eat a local dish that everyone else is eating, it is impossible to do it without everyone in the immediate vicinity remarking on how amazing it is that this white person is eating the same foods as them (it’s often just rice, by the way)… I also get met with extreme excitement, praise, and many benedictions whenever I simply shake hands with someone. If I decide to throw some local language out there… typically nothing fancier than a “good morning” really… people react as if I just cured cancer or something. The hand clasping and laughter that ensues makes me really feel like I did something amazing! .. .So this is why I own a shirt that says “I am a rock star in Burkina Faso.” I guess it’s also such a downer when I come back to America and everyone isn’t immediately praising me for carrying my own bags or knowing how to ride a bicycle. What a letdown.

Burkina Moment # 3: tradition
Ouagadougou is a pretty modern city, all things considered, and many people who’ve gone through the school system have relatively modern thoughts and ideas. So the other day, I was driving with a chauffeur from my workplace to the construction site and noticed a whirlwind of dust that spun high into the air, kind of far away. They look like mini-tornadoes, but do nothing more than blow a big gust of dirt in your face. I pointed it out to the driver, and his response went something like this “oh yeah… it’s one of those dust whirlwind things…. Or …. it’s a sorcerer. That’s how sorcerers travel, you know. The evil ones and the good ones. Female sorcerers are the worst, though… they are the most evil of them all! If you are happy in your marriage, and one of these sorcerer women get a hold of you…. Boy, o boy, will you have problems. G-d really knew how to make those women evil. *snicker*… Oh, those sorcerers… “ Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard people talk about sorcerers, but you expect it more on the village level than in the city…. And also, I’m pretty sure that we have those “female sorcerers” in America too. Except we call them “homewreckers.”

Burkina Moment # 4: kids
Kids are the best Burkinabe people of them all. Not only are they the most cheerful people I’ve ever seen, but they are goofy and carefree and everything else that I like being when I’m not forced to act like an adult. Some of them are also terrified of white people because they’ve never seen one before. On one of my more frustrating and difficult days in the field last week, I was completely exhausted from explaining and debating in French that I walked away for a break, and to find some lunch. This one adorable little boy comes running up to me, brakes hard in front of me with a big, goofy smile, and yells “chocolate!!!” and runs away… and because I am a big child myself most of the time, I chase him around in a circle for a while, as he continues to yell “chocolate” at me and laugh incessantly. When I finally grab him, he starts kicking, screaming and crying, and runs off to his mother because he was terrified of me when I got too close. Of course, this sort of thing gets every witness in an uproar of laughter, which is always fun to do… and so with a smile, one word, and a laugh, that little boy completely took me out of the funk that had settled in for the day.

Burkina Moment(s) #5: brutal honesty
Interestingly enough, Burkinabe people address serious matters of conversation indirectly, often using a 3rd party to make sure that points are made with grace and with complete understanding. However, when it comes to all the daily little things we Americans are generally pretty sensitive about, it's nothing but brutal honesty over here. For example....
One of my colleagues took out some little cakes to eat and offered me one. I said no thanks, and he asked why I didn't want one. I said, "I don't want to gain weight here, and I'm also not that hungry." He replies, "that's good, because you're already kind of fat. You shouldn't get any bigger than you are." ... and ... I cried. OK, I didn't cry, because if I had a franc for every time someone here called me fat, well... I'd probably have a dollar's worth of francs (which is a lot, incidentally). Maybe I winced a little, though... because it still takes a long time for a girl to be OK with people calling her fat "because it's culturally acceptable" even the 2nd time around.

OK logging off now... hope all is well in America. I see the snowstorm is driving everyone crazy in the NE, but it's making me miss home a bit..... Best of luck shoveling out of it and staying safe on the roads!

Sweating it out in 90+ degree heat,

Monday, February 01, 2010

Blogging while my electricity is out....

Life in Ouaga is pretty sweet. Aside from the periodic and unexpected power and water outages (1-2 times a week), everything has been great. It’s giving me a good chance to reconnect with my bat senses, even though there has been the occasional stubbed toe. I was in the shower tonight when the power cut out, so that was pretty fun getting back to my room without walking into any walls. Regardless, I have a balcony and the sky offers a gorgeous starry view… so it’s all OK by me. Plus I had the chance to catch up on my blogging. At any point in time I have at least internet, running water or electricity in my crazy big apartment, which is more than I ever had in village the first time. I figure if I keep comparing everything to the village life, I will never be disappointed. I also have my iPod and my exercise room for when nothing at all is functioning, so that’s OK, too. In case you’re wondering, my exercise room has nothing but a jump rope and a plastic mat for sit-ups, but if I didn’t use it for that purpose, it would just be an echoey, empty room that I will never use… so.. I guess it feels more hoity-toity to call it my exercise room.

The one and only thing that actually scares me some is when I'm biking in town. My only provided mode of transportation is a bicycle, unless I have my friends with cars pick me up, or I take a taxi. But every day since I've been here, I've seen at least one vehicular accident... often involving someone slamming into a bicyclist. Traffic patterns aren't anywhere in the realm of safe, and everyone seems to go where they want on the road at any given time, with little or no signaling. It actually reminds me of driving in NYC, except that 90% of the vehicles are motorcycles and bicycles. And unfortunately for me, the bicycle gets the least respect.

In other news, the job is going really well. I went through a couple of days of training to learn the business processes of the company I’m working for. Then I had another 5 days of training in the field to learn about various construction techniques using native, natural resources such as earth, rocks and granite. We constructed 5 sample foundations and foundation walls using these techniques. It was like being back in geotechnical lab at some points because I learned how to distinguish the various soil types found on site to determine which ones could be used to construct adobe homes. We also built concrete foundations and walls, but the ones using natural resources were really interesting to learn. Not only are they more environmentally friendly, but they are more practical in the heat and cold.

Our mission is to help 400 of the thousands of displaced persons reconstruct stable foundations for their new homes after having lost theirs in the catastrophic flood of last September. Between the government and all the other international agencies over here, everyone who lost their home will receive some level of aid. We began handing out coupons this week that cover the costs of labor and materials needed to construct a solid foundation for a new home. Then we will just supervise the construction process to verify that they’re using the materials provided and that the masons are using the proper construction methods. My role is somewhat supervisory, but at the moment I’m still getting my bearings and making sure I understand all the measures that have been implemented up until this point.

The Harmattan winds have begun kicking up dust at every turn, so I come home every night covered in a nice thick layer of red dirt, as it sticks quite well to sweat. However, the temperature is only in the upper 80s-low 90’s so I can’t complain until the HOT season gets here in about a month. Then I’ll be reporting temps upwards of 110, if memory serves correctly. And then I will talk more about how great it is to have air conditioning at home… except when there’s a power outage.

I have a bunch of pics and videos that take forever to download, so if I can’t get them up on this site, I will post somewhere else and post the link to them on this blog. I’m using skype at home, too, so if anyone wants to skype me, my username is stephanie.servetz .... that is, of course, when my internet is working.

That’s about all there is to report from my end. More soon…

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Extreme Makeover - Home Edition

Holy crap I have an amazing apartment in Ouagadougou!! It’s a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom, extremely spacious apartment, with air conditioning, a refrigerator, a balcony (!!), a stove, etc… simply ridiculous. I realize how much of a volunteer mentality I still have by the way I reacted to this place. I came here expecting more than the village lifestyle, but I was still preparing my self for the possibility of bucket baths and extreme sleep discomfort. However, this place is bigger than most apartments that most of my friends and I have in America. Once I get it set up, I’ll post some pics so you can be jealous. (heheh) If anyone wants to visit, you’ll have your own room, complete with a Queen-size bed, and your own bathroom!! Is that incentive enough???

Bizarrely, I do find that I miss some elements of the village compared to Ouaga. For instance, in the village, if I ever needed help with anything from killing a spider to welling my water, I would just have to holler to the nearest person and they’d be more than happy to take care of me. In Ouaga, I need my cell phone to find help. In village, I could get fresh cow’s milk from a woman who’d just show up at my door, honey straight from the hive from someone who’d just show up at my door, or pick local fruits off a nearby tree for a snack. In Ouaga, I have no idea where to get any of that, but I’m pretty sure I’ll mainly be shopping in an actual supermarket. This will be an entirely different ballgame than the first time I lived here.

I had my first day of work last Friday, and it felt just like America. It was a very full 8-5:30 day, complete with my own workstation, 2 meetings in the field and one in the office. They were not kidding when they said I’d hit the ground running. Between jetlag, fighting a cold, getting used to the heat again (it’s only in the 90’s for now…) and readjusting to everything being in French again, I was passed out by 10:30. I worked Saturday, too, but it was more relaxed and intermixed with personal errands for my new place.

I feel completely at ease in this country, and while it’s been an exhausting couple of days, I’m a little amazed at how familiar and comfortable it all is. The foods, the mannerisms, the language, the culture… it’s actually the pace of the “big city” that’s taking more to get used to than anything else!!

I’ll try and get some pics and/or videos up soon. My boss and I drove around some of the displaced person sites that have been mostly abandoned by now. People who got shuffled into the temporary government sites have since moved in with family or friends, or began reconstructing their own homes. Everyone will be receiving some level of aid from the government, but things do not move as quickly as we’d all expect. Timelines have passed, and the situation has changed. Mostly, my work will consist of helping document the movement of people from these temporary sites to new, permanent homes. CRS (the agency I’m partnered with) is providing funding for people to get construction materials for the foundations of a new home and a temporary latrine. There are many more complex elements involved… but since I’m just trying to wrap my head around it, I won’t blog about too many of those details.

I officially moved into my place this past Sunday. I am going to try and get Wifi set up at home, but unfortunately things move at the pace of Africa… meaning that if it works out, I won’t even get it set up for at least 2 months. So I’ll have to keep you all posted on that. I do have cybercafés all over, so it’s not like I’ll be out of touch… just not from home for a while (if at all). My only insect interactions so far have been with a friendly gecko who was hiding in my food pantry, a huge and nasty cockroach who woke me up when walking in my bedroom on some plastic, and some harmless ants in the kitchen. As long as I don't see any of the scorpion-carrying, hairy camel spiders, though... I am OK!!

My cell number here is: (011 226) 76 90 66 10
You know the drill if you called me while I was here last time. For the rest of you, I’d recommend getting a calling card if you plan to buzz me… or we can just try Skype when I can get to a cybercafé.

More soon…...


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Just as I remember it.

Burkina is exactly the same. As soon as I stepped foot off the plane, the smells and sounds were so familiar (in a good way). I've eaten rice with peanut sauce and sheep liver (my favorite meal), drank water out of a plastic baggie and sweated like nothing else during my 1 block walk to get food.... just like the good old days. One major difference will be that I'll be living in Ouaga!!!! with an apt that has running water, electricity and possibly wifi. Now THAT is a foreign concept to me in Burkina. I can't wait!

It's amazing to me how much this feels like home, though. It's actually even more amazing that the US, Israel AND Burkina Faso all feel like home to me. What a whirlwird of a few weeks I've had....

I'm in meetings/training sessions all day with the Peace Corps, with a small swear-in ceremony to make my service official tonight. I was supposed to get one-on-one training with a shelter expert from Kenya who specializes in reconstructing homes after natural disasters... but he's on his way to help people in Haiti instead. So for me, I think I'll mostly be learning the scope of my job and visiting sites to better understand what's in place and what will be done while I'm here.

Otherwise just want to let everyone know I'm safe and sound and excited to get started on this new endeavor!!! I plan to get a cell phone tonight, so I will post that number as soon as I do.

Big hugs!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Burkina Faso, TAKE TWO

Hi everyone,

For those of you who will continue to be my loyal readers, you'll be happy to know that I plan to blog while I am in Burkina Faso again from January 2010 - July 2010 for a disaster relief project. Burkina Faso experienced 25% of its annual rainfall in one day, this past September 1, 2009. The damage caused by this flood caused the displacement of an estimated 150,000 people.
Here's a video summing up what happened that day:

Through Peace Corps Response, I will be working with an NGO and the Governement of Burkina Faso to help rebuild homes and infrastructure that were destroyed. I will be based in Ouagadougou, which means I will (thankfully) have running water and electricity, and regular email access. I will be traveling to satellite villages where the majority of the destruction took place, but this is all in and around Ouaga.

My head's not in the game yet because I just returned from Israel, where I experienced an amazing and life-altering 10 days. Israel is nothing short of a beautiful country, with breathtaking landscapes and people full of life and very strong moral fibers. However, since I need to get ready for this trip, I'm struggling to pull my head out of the clouds and begin my preparations!!

I will post my Burkina number when I get a cell phone, but in the meantime, I am available on FB or email...

much love,

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Just to check in with those wondering where I am in the world, I'm in Casablanca, Morocco!! It's vastly different (and by that I mean immensely more developped) than the capital of Burkina. There are so many satellite dishes and there are sidewalks, and everything is so clean! I'm with 5 other EX-Peace Corps Volunteers. So we are 6 of the original 15 of us who arrived in Burkina together in March 2005. The other 3 of us who finished service are on a motorcycle trip from Ghana to Morocco, so I won't see them again until we're all back in the States.

Lucky for us, one guy in my group knows a woman he was in college with who works here in Morocco. And again lucky for us, she has an amazing, large apartment that accomodates all of us. She's so nice and set us up with everything that could easily WOW newly released PCVs from Burkina Faso... like we ate cheese and cake and used a washing machine and slept in real beds.... simply glorious.... And the weather is perfect. We arrived here about 11 a.m. yesterday and didn't leave her apartment all day because we hadn't slept at all before our 6 a.m. flight and also because we had everything we could ever need in one place. We stepped out on her balcony (!!!) at night and the air was cooler than any air I've felt in burkina since January. It's just perfect.

I guess we'll actually try and leave the apartment at some point and check out some sites here... like the Big Mosque of Casa, the beach, Fez, I don't know what else... But I'll probably not blog anymore, and I'll be home in ONE WEEK from today! Can't wait to see everyone!!

A Bientot!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The party's over...

Well..... I've finished. I have checked out of village, said my goodbyes, and by next Friday I will no longer be an official Peace Corps Volunteer. How do I feel...?? all mixed emotions, as you may imagine. Obviously I'm thrilled that I'll be rejoining my family and friends and old life again... but the departure from village was way sadder than I was imagining it would be. Let me backtrack ...

In summary, since my last posting..... I finished up school, I turned 28 years old, I ate more hippo (there were more attacks), I got sick one last time, I packed my bags, I gave all my stuff in my house away, and I had many small goodbye parties in village. My goodbye parties were fun.... I was invited to a few peoples' houses on different nights for dinner. Had stuffed pigeons and lots of chicken. My big goodbye party at school was this past Tuesday from about 4 pm to 2 am. First we had a goodbye ceremony, during which there were speeches and gifts presented. Then a big meal with all the invited guests, lots of pictures with the guests and my students, and finally a big dance at night at the school. It was fun because it gave me a chance to just be relaxed and have fun with my students instead of playing the disciplinarian role (which I hate). I had fun giving away stuff from my house to people I chose. If you start randomly asking who wants what, the harassment will never end and people will never stop showing up at your door. But I subtley invited people over and gave them stuff I thought they'd appreciate, one by one. When I said goodbye to my 14 year old best friend (sweetest girl ever, with the cutest family ever), she cried for about a half hour. My neighbor also began crying when I hugged her goodbye... they both made it really sad and hard for me to keep on saying goodbye. A couple of people.... villagers who I know are very poor, gave me money "to buy water" during my trip... 1000 francs each, which is about $2 each. One person gave me 200 francs, about $0.40. People were just so giving and it was really touching how sad people were saying goodbye to me.

It's difficult to put into perspective what you are gaining from this experience when you are one year into it or even 18 months into it...because a lot of the time you are uncomfortable or homesick or sad or bored or HOT or whatever... but when I was leaving village I realized that I didn't dislike where I was every minute of my two years. Sure there are ups and downs and times when you wish there was a coup d'etat... but the contact I had with the friends I made was worth the last two years. What you learn about yourself and what you can support, plus to live in a place that is almost like a fantasy world time warped from the past... it's not something you can get in America. So all in all... I'm glad I did it. Not the easiest two years of my life, but certainly the most adventurous and character-building time of my life thus far.

I will be home by June 26th. I'm travelling to Morocco soon to spend one week there, and then I'll be one my way home! I can't wait to see everyone and get all the hugs I've missed out on!!! See you very, very soon!!!!!!!

Friday, April 20, 2007

60 days and counting!

Real quick life update… First of all, I will be home in TWO months!! That is the best news of all…. Except that my friends Emily and Keith (in America) just had their first baby… a little girl!!! As sad as I am to not be able to meet her, I did get to see her photo shoot on the internet, and she is beautiful!

In BF news…. As the heat rises and the sweat pours out in buckets from my pores, I am as excited as ever to return to America, where there is the option of air conditioning and pools. Bizarrely though, the last two days in village we had an unusual amount of rainfall that was early for the rainy season. It brought much needed cool air, but it also dumped a huge quantity of water on us… So much water in fact, that it cut my village in two parts. Being that our bridge is still crumbled into the river, there is now no way of crossing from my side of the village to the other side without having to walk through rushing water. And after the last two days, there was enough rushing water to go white water rafting in. Class 5. Seriously the amount and speed of the water was no joke and I had to wait on my side of the bridge for 3 hours until the water subsided enough to be able to pass through the river when it was less high (up to my shins) and rushing a lot less. About a month and a half ago, some big time city workers had come to village to begin rebuilding the bridge. But being the way things work here in Africa, they got off to a great start but after two weeks they’ve disappeared, nowhere to be seen to finish the job. What they did was come through with a bulldozer to remove the crumbled concrete and level the ground a bit to begin preparations of the groundwork. They even hauled in from Bobo large quantities of sand and gravel and even iron to reinforce the new concrete bridge. But alas, we are still waiting for the concrete to arrive. Therefore, the ground was level and the piles of material have been sitting on the side of the road for a few weeks now….waiting, waiting….. And then the rains came and swept away a bunch of those materials down the river, and the ground is no longer level. It has in fact become a deep crevasse that makes traversing the river near impossible and very dangerous. So that is the bridge situation.

School is OK. I’m so unmotivated and so are the kids, especially when you consider the heat factor. But I’m getting through the rest of the year and there really is only about one month of work left. Yay! After that, you will never see me in front of a classroom again. Ever. In my life. If I learned one thing in these two years, it is that teaching is not for me.

The one extremely unfortunate piece of news that has happened in the last week was the death of my good friend’s 7 year old son. It was actually ten times more horrible than it normally would have been because I actually watched him pass away. Last Sunday, I was in town with a friend and heard that our friend, Karim’s son – Ilassa - was in the hospital (health care facility – no electricity or running water – try to imagine what kind of health care you could get). So we decided to stop by and see what was happening and wish our best to the family for a good recovery. When we got to the hospital, Ilassa was hooked up to an IV and unconscious. He took these extremely deep breaths every minute or so, but on the exhale it was like his face got stuck and he took a few seconds to exhale correctly. After about ten minutes of watching him with his family and the doctor putting some fluids in his IV, we all watched his heart stop beating. Just like that. It was one of the worst moments in the entire time I’ve been here, as you may imagine. Ilassa was one of the quietest boys ever, who used to be afraid of me and has gradually grown to accept shaking my hand to greet me and even began being courageous enough to call out my name “POKO” when he was with his friends and he saw me. He was in his first year of school and the oldest child of my friend Karim. Karim was so proud of him because he, himself, is illiterate and never went to school but has vowed to send all of his kids to school. Karim is a guy who is big and tough but sweet at the same time, and to see him sobbing over the death of his boy really hurt to watch. It was really heart wrenching. I don’t even know what sickness he had. Right now it is meningitis season and it has already killed many people all over the country. But I think Ilassa may have died of malaria, based on the symptoms people were saying he had. It’s just hard to say because no one really asks those questions. They just tell you “he died, he was sick” - end of story…. So it’s sort of frustrating but understandable because unfortunately death is a relatively common event. People just don’t look to investigate what happens every time. I think I’ve been to more funerals in my two years here than in my whole life in the states.

So sorry to end on a really sad note, but that has been what’s been going on over here. It was a sad week. Next blog I hope to have better news to share with you… If I had my way it would go something like this: “Guess what everyone??? We have a brand new structurally sound bridge in Padema!! Complete with guard rails and night light reflectors to protect people!! Also, the hospital now has electricity and running water and there is a health care system in place so no one is afraid to go to hospital (to avoid having to pay money) and the care is TOP NOTCH! Kids have been getting vaccinated against meningitis, yellow fever, and TB. The road has also been paved, so my village is now getting a constant stream of merchants who bring fruits and vegetables to us on a daily basis. Life is good, and everyone’s happy and healthy! …. And I LOVE teaching!!”

Um…. Yeah. Back to reality…..

Friday, March 30, 2007

My last trimester!!!

Sorry it has been so long since I’ve posted, but with school and an END OF SERVICE conference (!!!!!), I haven’t been on the internet very much. In case you didn’t notice, that bolded part in my first sentence means that I am just about finished with my PC service!!!!! Less than three months to go..... it’s unbelievable! I’ve officially been in this country for over two full years, as we arrived in Ouaga on March 16, 2005. That just blows my mind, and it’s hard to wrap my head around how fast the time has gone.

Now I will excuse myself ahead of time for the mathematical psychosis in this blog, but as I was sitting on my most recent 5-hour bus ride, I started thinking about how I have passed these two years, and, well… being a math teacher and all, my head starting thinking about a statistical breakdown of time spent in Burkina Faso. The PC is very big on putting things in chart or graph format, and I guess that I have been slightly brainwashed to start thinking in similar terms. So here is the percentage breakdown of how I figure I have spent two years of my life as a PC Volunteer thus far:

Out of the 16,968 hours in two full years (excluding my 3 wks vacation in the wonderful United States of America) this is how I figure I have spent my time…..

Teaching (in class and lesson planning)...2250 hrs ~ 13.2%
Training (Pre-Service and In-Service) ....540 hrs ~ 3.1%
Sleeping .................................5968 hrs ~ 35.1%
Traveling on transport ...................350 hrs ~ 2.1%
Vacations (in BF, Ghana and Mali) ........758 hrs ~ 4.5%
Free Time ................................7102 hrs ~ 42.0%

So here’s the thing... From the very first day of training, it’s ingrained in our heads that we, as volunteers, have three objectives… These are:
1. Primary Service to Country (for me that is teaching)
2. Cultural Exchange - meaning talking with Burkinabe about what American people and culture are all about and learning what Burkinabe people and culture are all about.
3. To bring home to the states the knowledge about the Burkinabe people and share it with our fellow Americans.

Now, Objective #3 is something I have to do when I am finished with my service and back in America, so my time in BF should be split between Objectives 1 and 2 (normally a 50/50 split, right?). HOWEVER, due to the educational schedule and my low number of scheduled teaching hours, only 13.2% of my time has been spent on Objective #1. Taking out sleeping, traveling, training, and African vacations, that left a whopping 42% of my time that is free, in which I was expected to be culturally exchanging. Since that is quite a tiring amount of cultural exchanging, it really boils down to about 2/3 of that 42% spent on staring at walls, reading, or swatting flies into my screen door with my fly swatter (best purchase ever). Therefore, if 1/3 of that 42% (or 14%) of my time was actually spent on Objective #3, that would mean that I spent 2375.5 hours (about 99 days) exchanging with the Burkinabe.

The moral of this mathematical lesson is that if I have actually spent 99 days working on Objective #3, I think that my mission is accomplished and I can now spend the remainder of the free time I have left until June going back to staring at walls, reading, and swatting flies into my screen door with my fly swatter. Well, maybe to have a round number, as it seems I've developped some form of OCD, I’ll get to 100 days, but that’s it!

This brings me to my next mental flow-chart..... Again, this goes back to something that we saw numerous times in training. During practically every medical training session I have ever sat through, there is reference to a graph that is supposed to represent the emotional roller coaster that is our Peace Corps service. Basically it tells us that ups and down are normal and it gives it to us as a function of time in 3 month increments. It says that we should expect to go through a variety of emotions based on cultural shock, homesickness, physical illness, loneliness, effectiveness in work, cultural barriers, and lots of other things that make us ride that roller coaster. Reflecting on my ups and downs, I think that chart has been pretty accurate, but I’d like to propose another chart from the volunteer perspective… that is a chart of MOTIVATION as a function of time. It’s actually very simple to visualize. It starts out at a plateau, where I’d categorize motivation as “very high” or “eager”... Then somewhere around the 12 month mark (coinciding with emotional lows, per the PC emotional roller coaster chart), motivation takes a sharp nose dive and lingers somewhere around “ambivalence” ... Getting further into the second year of service, I’d say there’s a slight rise around the 15th month to “renewed motivation but with lack of energy”... and then from months 18-24 there is a steady decline in motivation until you finally reach the final low point of “lack of interest in anything but staring at walls, reading, and swatting flies into my screen door with my fly swatter.”

To summarize these statistical reviews of my time and emotions, I’d say that I’m just about ready to come home. And that I am pleased, but slightly terrified, that I can still pass five hours on a bus with the thoughts in my head, such as the analysis of my life by percentages and flow charts.

Speaking of passing the time, since I haven’t blogged in a while, the only things I’ve done over the past couple of months have been teaching the second trimester of school, my end of service conference, and a small side trip to a city in the south of BF called Gaoua. The second trimester of school was fine… same old stuff…. And the conference was really great because not only did I get to spend a week with my awesome training group (we’re down to 9 people by the way) in an A/C hotel, with a pool and amazing food, but we also discussed a lot about life after Peace Corps and getting back to our American lives. Actually, talking about getting back to our American lives made us all a bit anxious about the idea of job searching and reverse culture shock and all that, but I think mostly we’ve all reached the point where we’re ready to move on, so it was really great to discuss. Also, the other volunteers who are NOT at the end of their service (ha – suckers!) were kind enough to throw our group a big goodbye bash. This is sort of a tradition amongst volunteers so that everyone can be together with the outgoing group one last time. So we had a really fun day-long party with a kickball tournament, pool, food, dancing, and two awesome little surprises. The first was a funny skit people played to represent all of us. It was basically a skit of everyone’s character flaws, but of course, that’s why it was so funny. And the second was a hand-drawn picture of all 9 of us in my group, which was amazing!

My trip to Gaoua was OK, too. I went to visit a museum they have there to teach about the culture of an ethnic group called the Lobi, who live around the Gaoua region. It’s pretty incredible how they lived and how recently they lived like that, because some of the info and pictures are from the 1930’s. The Lobi were probably the most warrior-like group of people you will find in this country, and there were pics of warriors with poison darts that they made using snake venom and decomposed corpses. They really did wear loincloths made from animal skins or shells because even in the 1930’s they did not have fabrics to make clothes. Female excision was an absolute must if any girl was to be considered for marriage. And women pierced their two lips with pieces of bone that held in place pieces of gourd shells between their lips and teeth. So it looks as though their mouths are protruding, but this was done to make the women more attractive to men. Once married, the women would sometimes bind the pieces of gourd to each with another piece of bone whenever they had a problem with their husband that they wanted to discuss. Therefore, they’d walk around all day with their lips literally sewed together until the problem was resolved. I don’t think that would fly so well with us American women, but I guess it’s also a good passive aggressive, patient way to communicate with your husband.

As we are getting deeper into HOT season again, I am remembering what it feels like to be aware of every pore in your body. It’s hard to imagine that a person can sweat as much as he/she does, but it’s literally like when you go into a sauna and your body naturally starts dripping just sitting there. Well it’s pretty much like that from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. nowadays. On that five hour bus ride I spoke of earlier, in order to escape the suffocating felling I had being trapped on a non-A/C bus in midday with many neighbors and screaming babies, and aside from the mathematical psychosis I was suffering from, I was trying to take notice of all the little things that are part of everyday travel and life so that I don’t forget it when I go home…. Like the rooster that was strutting around in the overhead compartment that is supposed to be for luggage. Needless to say, I did not sit on that side of the bus or put my stuff up on that side, in case he needs to relieve himself during the voyage. Or the women who sprint up to the windows of a stopped bus selling food from plates on their heads. They sell anything from eggs to carrots to little fried dough balls to water in a bag (for drinking). And it’s funny how you get used to these things and sometimes look forward to those ladies so you can stick your head out of the window of the bus, drop money on her plate, and eat the carrots that have been sitting out in the sun and dust all day long and think that it’s such a treat that the carrot lady was there today. My neighbor opted for hard boiled eggs, so when he came back from the window he had four eggs cradled in his hands. He stuffed two in his pockets and cracked open the other two for his little treat en route.

The last interesting thing I have to share with you all ... (This is a long blog, huh?) that a reporter from PBS came all the way to my village last October to do a report on cotton production and how the US subsidies affect international cotton farmers. The people in the footage from BF are from my village and the main Burkinabe man in the show is actually the parent of one of my students I know very well.
The program aired in February, so if anyone is interested in reading it, here’s the link:

And finally, if anyone was thinking of sending any more packages, I’m leaving in less than three months, so don’t bother sending more stuff!! Unless you’d like me to share it with those less fortunate volunteers who are not yet through with their services. Or, if you’d like to still send something, I’d welcome any school supplies to give out to the kids at the end of the year… like pencils, pens, erasers, rulers, compasses, protractors, pencil bags, etc… otherwise, I’m coming home, so no more packages needed!! And a big THANK YOU to all of you who have sent me stuff since I’ve been here!! They made HUGE differences in my everyday life and saved me from starvation when I could no longer bear the lack of variety of food available in village.

I don’t know when I’ll blog again, but surely before I am finished with service.
Happy Passover and Easter to all!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Please not again.....

For the third time, I'm preparing myself to live through hot season in BF. Within a week, it has already gone from pretty cool and comfortable all throughout the day... to HOT! And its starting really early this year. Ugh. Not looking forward to sweating through every minute of the day and night once again....

As for work, school is going pretty well. I really love my 3ème students, who are the kids who are going to be taking the national exam at the end of the school year that they have to pass in order to continue on to high school. My 3ème class is exceptionally intelligent and dynamic, and I think that if it wasn't for them, I can't say for sure that I would have lasted through a second year of teaching. There's one girl in particular who is extremely inspiring. Her name is Aminata, and she's 14 yrs old. She lives in a village about 10 miles from where the school is, and she lives during the school week in a house with two other female students. Can you even imagine a 14 yr old in America living with two of her classmates, cooking for herself, cleaning, etc, and studying enough to be one of the best in the class?? She was 3rd out of 40 students the first trimester, and she's just extraordinary. There are some kids in the same class who are 20-21 yrs old (they're kids who repeated entire school years many times because they didn't have good enough grades to continue on to the next class - like being held back, but several times in several different grades). Aminata kicks their asses so bad in school. Love that girl.

My PCV neighbor, Megan, and I also started an English Club for my 3ème and 4ème (the younger class) students. So once a week we get together for 1-2 hours and play games in English. The 3ème kids are hilarious.... the first week we had about 20 kids and played pictionary with them. We split them into groups of 5 or 6 and told them to pick team names. So the first group comes up with the name "King Boy." Now, ingenuity and creativity are not very cultivated in the school system, or in general very much over here, so we weren't too surprised when the next two team names the groups came up with were "Best Boy" and "Golden Boy." We formed a fourth group after some stragglers came in late, and when we told them to come up with a team name, it wasn't a surprise that after they had a small conference amongst themselves, looked at the team names that were already written, they came up with the name "Crazy Boy." Meg and I laughed so much with them. They're just really cute and very bright and very funny. I am really happy that they're the class I get to end my service with because I think they're going to do really well on that exam at the end of the year, and I'm glad I'll be able to say that I helped them get there - at least in math and maybe some english. My other, younger class I teach - 4ème - on the other hand, are not quite as bright and dynamic as the older kids. We do the english club with them, too, but with them it's slightly torturous. For instance, we played 20 questions this past week, and we had people, places and objects that we chose that they had to guess the identity of. So one kid would go... "Is it a person?"... "Is it a place?"... etc until they guess the thing. One example of why this was difficult was a boy whose word to guess was 'Ouaga' (the capital of BF)... so his questions and our answers went like this:

"Is it a place?".... YES
"Is it a village?".... NO
"Is it a city?".... YES
"Is it a window?".... um.... no
"Is it an airplane?"..... um... what?

I guess he didn't understand the game because his questions continued like that for a couple more before eventually starting to guess cities. One other kid also stood up and pretty much stared at everyone for a good 2 minutes between questions. It got awkward.

Overall, though, I am enjoying teaching more the second year and since I am teaching the same kids I taught last year, I know every one of their names which makes classroom management easier, and it's nice to see what they actually remember of what I taught the year before so I know I wasn't totally useless and that they understood my French.

I've eaten some cool things this past week, too. OK, well maybe not cool.... but different than what you'd find in an average American meat market. So throughout the course of a week I ate stuffed pigeon (absolutely delicious), monkey meat stew (not so bad), and bush rat (also not too bad if you don't have to look at the head - which I did). So since I've been here I have eaten goat, sheep, cow, hippo, caterpillars, pigeons, guinea fowl, chicken, turkey, random other wild birds, bush rat, lemur (I think that's what it was), lizard, and monkey meats. Yum. Who says there's nothing to eat in Africa? If you know the right people, someone will hunt and kill something in the night that you can buy the next day and put in a nice, hearty soup.

That's all for now. Just checking in. Hope everyone is doing well and enjoying the cold weather.....
Only four months to go!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Happy New Year!! The year I come home has arrived!!!!

Since Thanksgiving, I’ve been a pretty busy gal. Mostly with fun stuff - after school finished up, of course. So yeah, school is on break until next Monday, and during that time, my college buddy, Kristina, came to visit !!! So happy to finally have someone from home here on my new home turf and see and experience what I have been living for almost two years now!! She got to see my village, some of the south of Burkina, Ouaga, and Mali!! Mali was such a blast, and I would say it is the most beautiful place I have been since coming to Africa. The region we went to is called Dogon ('dough-gone') country, and it's north of Burkina about 90 km. I went with a group of 8 people, and for three days, we hiked up rocky, steep cliffs that were about 300 feet tall, and slept two nights up on the cliffs! It was freaking cold, by the way. But luckily we were all prepared with blankies, tents and sleeping bags. And yes, we hiked with all that stuff in backpacks, or strapped to backpacks. We had a wonderful Malian guide, as well, who is fluent in English and has definitely spent way too much time with Americans and other foreigners. I know this because he used the F word more than any of the rest of us. It was very funny hearing an African guy cursing in English. Especially in the mornings when it was pretty chilly and he'd repeatedly say "Damn, it's F-ing COLD!" with an franco-African accent. Attaining the Peace Corps objective of cultural exchange?? - check!

Here are some pics from Mali:

Another great time I had with Kristina was at a zoo that the President of Burkina owns, or used to own, or something. It was amazing! Actually, Kristina thought it was sad, but I thought it was amazing…. All about the relativity of where each of us has been for the last two years, I guess… but anyway, we walked around the zoo and saw giraffes, tigers, lions, elephants, zebras, hippos, monkeys, ostriches, turtles, peacocks, and lots of other cool animals. I tickled a lion’s paw that was pressed up against the cage while he was sleeping, and an elephant tickled MY foot with the end of his trunk. The fence had a small opening in the bottom and I guess he wanted to smell my feet. And by the way, in case you didn’t know, hippos are HUGE!! I had only seen their faces peering out of the water when I saw them on lakes. But I got to see their massive, full selves this time. They really are like water bears. I'll post pics soon, but I have to wait to get them from Kristina.

One other notable event of the holiday season was actually on Christmas Eve. I spent it at my friend Haoua’s house (the same Haoua who was in the states the same time as me last year). But the special guests who joined us were a man who was a volunteer in BF back in the 60’s with his family and 2 of his friends! It was really fun exchanging stories and chatting with them. And really just being around an entire American family again was pretty fun, so if you’re reading this, Robert, thanks for spending that time with me and Kristina. I really enjoyed hanging out with your family.

Other than that, no particular news. I don't feel like writing anymore because uploading pics tired me out and made me mad at this computer. So more next time.

Happy New Year everyone!!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The best Thanksgiving BF has ever seen!!!!

Thanksgiving was so wonderful!!! It is my favorite holiday, and instead of being bummed out about not being home for it (like last year), some other PCV's and I hosted a big T Day dinner THIS year in Bobo. It was perfect! We had 27 volunteers come down for it... some from as far as a full day's trip away!! And thanks to my great family and friends, we had tons of decorations and all the traditional food you get to eat in the states. And since we have much to be thankful for, we all sat around family-style and did the traditional "what are we thankful for" roundtable before eating. We did Thanksgiving a little like how the Pilgrims and Indians did it, too..... slaughtered, defeathered and gutted three HUGE turkeys for dinner. Though we did have an oven to cook in... but whatever. How many of YOU slaughtered your own turkeys??? Got to love Thanksgiving! Here are some pics....

(Thank you, SUJIN, for the decorations!!! Everyone was blown away by the decor, and it made it really feel like we were home... )

The three assassins after the deed of killing the turkeys was done... and the aftermath!

The de-feathering team

The kitchen staff

Laura cutting up the grilled and sauteed turkeys. We cheated on the actual cooking of the turkeys. I got a local restaurant, who is a friend of the Peace Corps, to cut up and cook the turkeys. But we really did kill, pluck, gut and clean them ourselves before handing them over!!

The BIG FEAST!!!!!

Me, about to pack on a few pounds, and absolutely thrilled to do so.

Kelly's and my pies

Me and my PCV neighbor, Megan. We practically live in the same village and we share a great love of food!!!

One very satisfied customer, all full of turkey!

What I am thankful for most of all is the support from everyone back home. Especially my family!! But also my wonderful friends. It's just been nonstop support from you all ever since I left you, and I can't express how much it means when you are this far from home. I am also extremely thankful that I get to spend NEXT Thanksgiving in America, and that I only have seven more months to go!!!!

In October, I may have written about a festival we had in village for the installation of a new mayor in my village. Here are some pics from that day, too.... the instrument that looks like a xylophone with gourds is called a balofon. I am wearing an outift made of a fabric the village picked out to be "the fabric" of use for clothing to wear for the festival.

And finally, here is a great picture I captured of that monkey, Sushi, who bit me and made me get a rabies shot. I just like this action shot - it makes him look very intimidating, n'est ce pas??

That is all from me. I will write more soon. One of my awesome friends is coming for a visit in just a couple of weeks, so I should have some more good pics from our time together and whatever travelling we will get to do.