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,


At February 13, 2010 10:38 PM, Blogger Sujin said...

Where do you get a "I am a rock star in Burkina Faso" t-shirt... I want one!

At February 16, 2010 10:46 PM, Blogger Lisa said...

Hi Steph! I've seen a whirlwind of dust somewhere in the southwest so we must have sorcerers here as well! Also, you are our rockstar!! Everyone who knows you thinks you are awesome!

At February 19, 2010 1:09 PM, Blogger Samantha said...

STEPH - it is so awesome to read your blog again.

At February 19, 2010 8:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really like when people are expressing their opinion and thought. So I like the way you are writing

At March 05, 2010 1:13 PM, Blogger Kara Garbe said...

Thank you for this blog. Your observations bring back memories of my own service in BF!


At March 08, 2010 7:55 PM, Blogger Rick said...

Excellent... A few of these really remind me of some of the places I've been in the last couple years - Nepal in particular with the restaurant story!


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