Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The End

Thanks for keeping up with us for two years.
Monday, November 05, 2012

Two-Dollar Self-Serve Emergency Room

Nature wants me dead. It has made four separate attempts to destroy me in the past couple weeks. And it's so unfortunate that with the current course of events continuing the way it is, I may not survive my time abroad, much less be there when the Mayans awaken from the sea floor and take the Earth. A Mayan is like a godzilla, right? I'm confused. My point is that my days and my luck may have run out.

It's hard to pinpoint just when my luck abandoned me. It was there at high school post-prom when I won a ski resort lift ticket. When I was a freshman in college I remember finding a 20 dollar bill on the sidewalk. I often look back on these accomplishments and feel like a high-roller in the casino of life. Yet, here I was, minding my own business, about to bike home from Banfora with groceries, whistling the Sesame Street theme, when all of a sudden the sky turns black.

Winds came at me as though through an opened door on an airplane. I told my trusty bike everything would be alright, pulled her to the roadside and ducked between a metal boutique and a brick wall. This was a perfect hideaway from the ensuing nearly horizontal rain. Naturally, three other men sought shelter beside me. I exchanged minimal pleasantries—faking a lack of comprehension to cut short all the usual foreigner-induced conversational tropes—all the while keeping one earbud in, listening to my beloved podcasts. Oh, my precious podcasts. Suddenly, around the corner we hear the cracking of the 4x4-inch wooden poles supporting the overhang.

There's a series of movies called Final Destination (they're great, really) where innocuous everyday environments and objects turn against the heroes as gauntlets of doom. This felt like that. The tin roof of the overhang crashed to the ground around the corner. Then after a gust of wind, the tin hit the wall. Then another gust blowing between the wall and the metal sent the thin corrugated sheet of tin straight at me. My baseball instincts kicked in and I stuck out my hand to catch it. It didn't hurt or bleed all that much. But at some point I realized I could see all my handguts, like all those colors and shapes that you're not supposed to see.

After the rains an hour later, I had biked to the Banfora hospital where I sat in a room across from a reclined shirtless boy, rubbing his belly and staring at me. Like me earlier, he was unresponsive to small talk. My phone was too soaked to operate so I borrowed the nurse's to call the PC doctor. The nurse then handed me a list of things she'd need to stitch me up. So, this emergency room is like a pizzaria where customers supply the flour, tomatoes, and cheese? She pointed to where I should buy them (a building a few feet away) and I thought she was pointing at the pharmacy, a five minute walk outside the compound.

She emptied the bag I'd journeyed to buy, swabbed up my hand, stabbed me with some anesthetic, and waited nary a moment for it kick in before threading my wound closed. I winced, made involuntary faces and noises, to which she invariably asked "ca fait mal?" and continued to barrel through.  It could be a trend in Burkinabe health care—at the dentist, too, they are speed demons that seem to believe incidental pain is worth the speed. They might be right. This contrasts to American doctors' slow pace and oversensitivity to patient's potential for even slight pain. Discussion question: are American patients sissies?

I should say that the entire stitching operation was done expertly, albeit solo and in an informal fashion. I was sitting upright on a bed, flipflops dangling and holding a kidney dish under my other iodine-scrubbed palm. She was on her sixth stitch of eight when a male nurse came in and "helped," making jokes about my name being a country. His mouth sounded like it was full of cotton. In retrospect he may have been just some guy.

I want to emphasize here that the total cost of an ER consultation in Burkina Faso is a whopping two dollars. Are you listening to me, Bon Secours Health System of Richmond, Virginia? Bet you sleep pret-ty good at night, Bon Secours, on them bags o' gold, dontcha?

So to finish my story about how Mother Nature has a vendetta against my soul: not two days later am I in a different city on my bike again when a surprise downpour catches me again off guard. In my escape, I fall off and scab up my elbow. The next day I am running to catch a bush taxi when I stub my toe on a large rock. First, the elements of wind and water conspire against me, and now earth? Finally, a week later I got food poisoning from vegetables and my bowels felt as though they were on fire for 24 hours. And yet, I don't know. Somehow, sitting here now, I feel mighty, as though I've overcome the trials of Hercules.
Monday, October 01, 2012

Fifteen Things that Surprised Me

1) It hit me when I was bike riding and noticed locals growing watermelons on power lines. Burkinabe are super resourceful. They take advantage of their surroundings with ninja-like ingenuity. Through the will to repair and preserve what's broken, a little muscle, and some elbow grease, miracles can happen. Who knew, for example, you can blow up a car tire with a manual bike pump? Ibrahim did. In the picture below, Salif has resourcefully converted his buddy's tailoring shop into an office.

2) I hope to the stars that no Oxford-league traditional English grammarians have made the trek to Burkina. Here they would encounter the most appalling bastardizations of a fragile language that should be uttered delicately. There exist phrases no self-respecting English-as-a-first-language speaker would dare speak: "Are you in top form?" "I speak English small small." "Bye bye (used in a formal situation between working adults, not toddlers)" Also, the French word for shampoo is shampooing.

3) I'm not sure - America might have been through a similar state of turmoil, what with the Occupy movement taking the streets and all - but it's odd to see so many strikes for so many different causes clamoring around town. We happened upon a farmer's strike in Banfora, protesting ranchers' cattle trampling their crops at which a lethargic group held a flag and marched anticlimactically out of town. Few people even noticed. Students used to strike constantly as well, even elementary school students (which meant they'd go around chanting nursery rhymes). There are striking sugar workers, cotton workers, army, police, you name it. It often results in vicious cycles: during the 2011 unrest, city law enforcement protested the government by looting an innocent third party - the merchants so the merchants burned down police stations.

4) Like it's no big thing, adults will scale two-story trees, risking life and limb to tap trees for alcoholic palm wine. They're sometimes accompanied by cobras and other snakes that love to roost up top to sneakily attack perching birds and dangle in the air to intercept passing ones. In some villages cityfolk pay children to climb trees and cut off the palm fronds for artisanal baskets and such.

5) It's so unsettling to have to share transportation with four-legged beasts of burden that it would throw any PETA spokesman into a hissy fit. One day I rode on a taxi with a bleating nightmare of 15 frightened goats tied up by the legs and dangling from the roof. Their cries sounding vaguely human. It was an hour-long rollercoaster with white hairs flying into the open windows and sticking to everything and everyone. I was with Tana's counterpart and together we listened to podcasts, which he didn't understand. Animals aren't the only thing to fear on taxi rides. Sometimes transport is stacked sky-high with other objects, foam mattresses for example.

6) I thought I had experienced every form of weather, save for acid rain before I set foot in Burkina. A modern-day dust bowl plagues our region on certain days. It's known as the Harmattan period and has the eerie calm of a blizzard and wreaks havoc on the population's respiratory systems.

7) Despite the hundred-degree weather, there's a dress code for men here - long pants. I tried to abide by it for my first year or so but have more recently fallen into a habit of wearing soccer shorts. I've noticed a strange phenomenon of 60-year-old village women "checking out" my knees as I greet them in passing. My eyes are up here, tanties.

8) The laissez-faire child care system of African villages was somewhat surprising. The complete lack of supervising kids means that I sometimes see little kiddos who live a kilometer away playing in the sandbox that is our front yard. Here's a little boy wearing a playboy bunny necklace:

9) Our neighbor Daouda helped us test our car battery by dipping his fingers into the sulfuric acid of each terminal and then sticking each acid-soaked finger into his mouth to taste it. I was ready to run for the defibrillators, but he walked away seemingly in good health. A few hours later all the kid spectators were chanting "N bina battery jii min" (I want to drink battery water).

10) I suppose I was surprised at the quantity of roommates I would share my mudhut with - all manner of mice, crickets, lizards, roaches, bats, scorpions, tailless whip scorpions, spindly-legged scary spiders, flat wall spiders, and Tanas. Also ants. Tana brought some Jolly Rancher candies in bag from America last summer and we stowed them on the third level of our dresser with some other junk like yarn. Some sugar ants found the stash during the couple weeks we had been away had built dirt passageways all up and down the wood of the dresser. They had an elaborate network underneath our junk that they seemed to think would be their new home. We cleared out all the junk but you can still see their dirt-constructed conduits on the dresser:

11) Some of the more surprising restaurant practices include: (1) Washing glass out with a splash of coke or beer before pouring the rest in - it almost seems superstitious, like tossing salt over the shoulder. If a coke costs 400 CFA, then there you go, 20 CFA you've just thrown into the dirt. (2) In a land of questionable health codes, some restaurants (even the most popular ex-pat dives in the capital) are like race tracks for rats. I counted at least ten rats racing the circuit (or 2 rats doing 5 laps) while waiting for my pizza one night. Come to think of it, this gaping grotesquery could be turned into a lucrative gambling if they named the rats and invested in a ticket booth. (3) Tossing chicken bones onto the ground after dining is commonplace. (4) The customer isn't always right. During birthday party, my party became furious that the waitress had implied that complimentary side dishes accompanied our main course when they weren't actually free. The waitress and her manager refused to admit fault. Later, after an appeal to honesty, the manager dropped the cost of the side dishes. To make amends, she drove us to our side of town instead of a taxi while talking about how she helps orphans - it was uncomfortable and weird.

12) There's a strange need among strangers (a phenomenon almost entirely unique to teenage boys) to accompany me when I'm biking, riding in my wake or right beside me like we're old buddies trudging through some marathon. I'm not too into this, so I usually change speeds erratically, but they usually miss the cue and keep hanging out. Oftentimes I'll pass someone slowly plodding down on the road, and then all of a sudden they become possessed with a wave of competition and pedal maniacally on their gearless bike as if to prove something.

13) Oranges are green when grown in tropical climates and only turn orange when grown in temperate climates. I may need to audit a remedial kindergarten class in order to refresh myself of secondary colors and fruits.

14) I never thought we'd go out one night every year and watch sugarcane fields burn like it's fireworks.

Here's a picture of Anne, Tana, and I at the last sugarcane burning

15) The smell of armpit bacteria is surprisingly different here. In Burkina deodorant is a luxury for the rich, so I smell others' B.O. regularly. On long taxi rides when my seatmates have themselves a stretch, that's a recipe for asphyxiation. Has anyone ever died from a smell? Anyway I want you to experience this too, so When I get off the plane, everybody should immediately rush around me to waft it in, as it will soon enough be replaced by American armpit bacteria. I'll try not to bathe for a few days before my arrival so I'm especially musky.
Thursday, September 20, 2012

Waterfall Hunting

From atop the cliffs of Takalédougou, many glories can be beheld. Sugarcane fields, cashew orchards, cassava fields, and rolling hills beyond. But the cliffs themselves are also worthy of attention. There be crags and grottoes so enormous that a village councilor once told us the whole 2000-person village could fit into a special "cachette" cavern if trouble were ever to happen upon this peaceful region.

But come late August and the last hurrah of rainy season, the deluge starts coursing off the cliffs. Overnight, waterfalls start popping up every which where. As my volunteer work winds down, I've been increasingly putting on my Indiana Jones hat and pioneering solo and team expeditions to take photos. To bring you these photos, I've risked life and limb trudging through marshlands and dodging booby traps, such as low tree limbs, and ferocious beasts, such as squirrels.

Waterfall number one, pictured on the right, is really far away and I would have had to machete my way through a few football fields of overgrown underbrush to reach it. It's barely visible in this low-quality picture, but to me it resembles the waterfall from Pixar's "Up." If there were any houses here flying on helium balloons, I didn't notice them. Below this paragraph are three pictures of waterfall number two.

Waterfall number three, tucked away in the crevasse, required that I in my gym shorts and camera trudge through a family's field while they were working. They were fairly forgiving, playing it off like it's something that happens every day out in the wilderness.

The last waterfall has special significance for the village. Every year in mid-August they have an all-day culture party atop it. People drive in from all across the country to drink, dance, and watch performances atop the raging rapids. Tana and I first visited the infamous Cascades of Takalédougou back in dry season in early 2011. To get there, you must scale one of the many irrigation pipelines that the sugar corporation SOSUCO uses. Our courtyard family members, Fatouma, Mogomake, and little Natagoma, accompanied us one foggy day to the summit where there was barely a trickle of a waterfall.

Under stormy skies, we came again recently when the scenery is much more lush. You can see the highway and then sugarcane fields in the distance.

This time when we came, we brought some friends: volunteer Barry, Fernando (a Portuguese organic farming researcher), Daouda (Fernando's friend), and volunteer Anne. Barry set his camera in a tree on a timer, then barely made it into the picture.

After waterfall hunting, we all made some fajitas, traded movies, and then went to see a talent competition at the local bar.

Karfiguela Waterfall

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Two Years in Headlines

We've been amidst some politically weighty world news during our time here. Here's a running list from whatever random news sources I could scrounge up that represent some of the big events that have affected our lives and work:

Nov 26, 2010 - Blaise Compaore re-elected in Burkina Faso landslide - He has been the president since the eighties.

1 January 2011 Burkina Faso Ranks 176 out of 178 on UN Economic Human Development Index

10 January 2011 - Al Qaida 'behind Niger kidnapping'  - This led to Peace Corps Niger closing.

14 January 2011 - Tunisia: President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali forced out 
 14 January 2011 - Tweeting Tyrants Out of Tunisia Only a three countries north of us, Tunisia's government was overthrown and the revolution set off a chain reaction for the Arab Spring.

25 January 2011 - Anti-Government Protests Continue in Egypt 
28 January 2011 - Egypt's president imposes nationwide night curfew
5 February 2011 - Egypt ruling party leaders resign but regime holds  -The revolution in Cairo that led to Mubarak's fall. We listened live on BBC World Service with our shortwave.

Cote d'Ivoire
6 April 2011 - Gbagbo negotiating exit from Ivory Coast 
7 May 2011 - Ouattara takes oath months after Ivory Coast vote 

Burkina Faso
18 April 2011 - Students Burn Buildings in Burkina Faso Protests 
15 April 2011 - After Protests, Burkina Faso’s President Dissolves Government 
18 April 2011 - In Burkina Faso, military mutiny spreads 
19 April 2011 - Burkina Faso gets new PM as mutiny spreads
22 April 2011 - Burkina Faso pres. names himself defense minister 
27 April 2011 - Merchants torch buildings in Burkina Faso 
28 April 2011 - Police in new mutiny in Burkina Faso
23 May 2011 - Protesting students ransack Burkina ministry building 
25 May 2011 - Burkina Faso averts crisis - We also wrote about being stuck inside our transit house in the city during all the April protests. During the heat of the unrest, we were put up in a nice hotel far from the protests where we played kickball and ultimate frisbee and had a delicious Easter dinner.

2 May 2011 - U.S. kills Osama bin Laden decade after 9/11 attacks 

10 May 2011 - Peace Corps Volunteers Speak Out on Rape
21 November 2011 - Obama Signs Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act 

20 August 2011 - Nigeria leader, UN vow to work on after HQ bombing 

6 September 2011 - Libya convoy enters Niger, Gaddafi not aboard
3 October 2011 - Residents flee Gaddafi hometown
21 October 2011 - Gaddafi dead 

18 November 2011 - Benin: Pope Heads to Voodoo Heartland On Africa Visit

15 December 2011 - Victoria’s Secret Revealed In Child Picking Burkina Faso Cotton 
13 January 2012 - Child Labor For Victoria’s Secret Cotton Examined By U.S. 

16 April 2012 - Charles Taylor convicted of war crimes in Sierra Leone

3 April 2012 - 200 000 flee fighting in Mali  - By September 18, 2012 there are still 108,000 Malian refugees in Burkina Faso
6 April 2012 - Mali coup: al-Qaeda linked rebels declare independence 
12 July 2012 - White House offers $10 million for Mali refugee aid 
29 July 2012 - Mali's Interim President Outlines Political Transition - Peace Corps Mali was suspended and we began to see more ex-pat development workers and missionaries around Banfora and Bobo staying at hotels.

16 July 2012 - U.S. Peace Corps volunteers questioned in Ghana over death

25 July 2012 - Ghana VP sworn in hours after President John Atta Mill's death 

6 September 2012 - Burkina Faso's Paralympic team overcomes bureaucratic/logistical obstacles to compete

14 September 2012 - Widespread protests against U.S. over anti-Muslim film - Due to a slanderous film targeting Mohammed produced by an American ex-convict, there is outrage in the Arab Spring: enraged extremists react violently in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Lebanon.
16 September 2012 - Burkina Faso: President deplores Muslim violence

18 September 2012 - Burkina Faso ambassador to France  resigns after being accused of embezzling $518,000

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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The King of Cassava

Behold Siaka reigning supreme over his kingdom of cassava plants. All through late July while his neighbors were harvesting their yields, Siaka lay in wait, counting down the moments until his master plan could be hatched. You see, he and his wives are locally known for their business of manufacturing and distributing attiéké, a delicious starchy dish, like rice or couscous. Siaka is a beloved community luminary, one of the few non-city-dwellers I've met here proficient in English. He's also our village's own farmer version of Warren Buffett, dedicating countless hours to writing out business plans and plotting out how to get some sort of foothold on his future.

Today Siaka took the first step in his ascent to becoming the business tycoon he's destined to be. He took a microloan through an online microcredit institution called Zidisha. And it's all thanks to his own persistence as well as the awesome legwork and string-pulling of friends (previous volunteer Amanda and her family, former assistant PC director Dan Rooney, and James and Julie alongside their entrepreneur friend also named Siaka).

On the Zidisha website, Siaka made a profile and within a few days, generous donors from all over the world chipped in. Before he knew it, the money was wired to the Banfora Ecobank: a thousand bucks for a gas-powered cassava grinder and some sifters. On a first-come, first-donate basis, a group of philanthropists (most of whom had never met Siaka before) pitched in their pennies, which he'll pay back each month as he builds his empire. Today, Siaka has the honor of being the second Zidisha loan in the country and has further invested in solar panels so that his village women employees can work into the night. Here's a look at the online system that made his loan possible:

Microcredit has been around since the seventies but has only recently caught on in the US thanks to the internet. If you've ever watched Hulu as I have, you've probably also ignored ads for Kiva, one of the most popular of these microloan sites. These are connected times we live in, and I wholeheartedly believe that microloans are one of the best ways for us middle-class Americans to lessen the poverty of people in the developing world. It's a system with built-in accountability that is statistically more often than not a win-win. It motivates success-oriented people to think critically and work hard, patterns of success that cascade to others around them. Yada yada, world peace, yada yada... Anyway, I'll see myself down from this soapbox, but take a look first at these photos and film of the glorious arrival of Siaka's new cassava grinder. Watch him in his silly hat unload it from the bush taxi, haul it over, cut the ribbon, and grind some inaugural cassava.