Sunday, April 17, 2011
Written by Chad
Thirty strangers. Three nights. One house.
I spent seven hours counting baobab trees out the bus window as we voyaged from our tropical bungalow to Burkina Faso’s capital city Wah-guh-doo-goo. We hopped off the charter bus in the big city with our luggage full of dirty-laundry-to-be and our hearts full of dreams. For dinner we taxied to the gentrified corner of town called Ouaga 2000 (a name that maybe sounds like an infomercial gadget). Indulging in coffee milkshakes and Mexican was a welcome departure from the purgatory of pasta meals that dominate our village diet. Our stomachs full, we returned to the Transit House, which one might define as a glorified dormitory for volunteers. It has a 24-hour guard, oodles of beds, a kitchen, WiFi connectivity, and a library of trashy romance novels. I haven’t read them all yet, but I’m leaning towards Team Edward.
Anyway, this was Thursday night and just after I changed into pajamas and checked the closet for monsters, we heard what sounded like popcorn popping. What do you know, it turns out to be the distant sounds of Presidential guards protesting in the streets. In response, the President famously announced his decision to dissolve the government. By the Friday morning Burkina Faso articles flooded international newspapers, many of which were perhaps reporting on it for the first time. Case in point: one American article called the people of this country “Burkanese” instead of Burkinabe. Amidst the hullabaloo, our headquarters obliged us not to leave the Transit House until the city lost its newsworthiness.
Thus began our stint as three-day unfilmed reality stars. Unfortunately, a lot of key reality show elements were missing: private confessionals, voting people off, and eating disgusting insects. Still, as thirty odd people cramped into a one-story building, we tried our best to be unhygienic, testy, and dysfunctional. In the picture below, David, Stephen, Brittany, Thomas, and I gathered together to play a game of “Texas Hold Them,” using tootsie rolls and moringa plant seeds as poker chips.
None of the usual restaurants were open for delivery, so we scrounged up a mountain of spaghetti and an ocean of tomato sauce, hodgepodged from cloves, red wine, cranberry jelly, and other ingredients as chaotic as the political climate outside the compound. See the iron chefs in this picture craft their culinary masterpieces while reciting excerpts from Mad Magazine. A dinner of a hundred homemade empanadas would follow, a feat worthy of the Guinness Book.
After dinner the mood struck some of my reality show co-stars to dress up in kitschy costumes from the thrift bin. Now I have blackmail fodder for Stephen, Casey, John, David, Thomas, Molly, and Hayley.
Saturday was another day confined to eating our diminishing rations within the ever-constricting walls of the Transit House, which was beginning to seem like a life raft in the eye of a hurricane. But before we were forced to resort to eating each other, our bosses had sent a driver out to shop for us. He returned with enough rice, eggs, onions, garlic, bananas, etc. to turn our famine into a smorgasbord. Our second saving grace came that afternoon. Our “How I Met Your Mother” marathon was put on hold when the guard spotted an ice cream man pushing his freezer cart by the compound. In moments all thirty of us twenty-somethings were throwing our money at the poor guy, buying every last bag of vanilla and chocolate. After gobbling down my dessert, I felt how a gerbil without an exercise wheel must feel. I had spent the last couple days sitting on my butt either on a bus or in this building, so my leg muscles were atrophying to near total disuse. David and I decided to powerwalk a few laps around the building’s perimeter. Our peers pointed and laughed at us.
Saturday night while Ouagadougou had a federally mandated curfew, we mandated a house game night, breaking out Scattergories, Apples to Apples, and Risk. I joined a friendly game of world domination with David, John, Stephen, Erik, and Meegan. I went with the Western Hemisphere route to victory but was trounced by the guy who won Australia. Why is Australia always the key to victory?
It was Sunday morning and the Transit House was starting to feel like home when the Ouagadougou streets settled enough for us to dispatch to our respective villages. So Tana and I, accompanied by Stephanie and Lorena, caught an approved taxi to the TSR bus line. We paid an extra two bucks for air conditioning, waited an hour to board, and then boarded a non-air conditioned bus. This bus took us across town to another TSR bus station. There we twiddled our thumbs for another hour to board a second bus, which this time had air conditioning.
Due to the political situation, there wasn’t any fuel to be found in Ouaga, so our driver decided to just continue driving to the destination city Bobo-Dioulasso until we found a serviceable gas station. He never found one and the bus stopped accelerating out in the middle of nowhere. While he was struggling to rev the gasless engine, a local man beside us joked that he wanted his two bucks back now that the air conditioning was cut. We hopped off the bus and sat in the shade for an hour until the driver produced enough fuel to get us to the next town.
In the next town when we stopped to fill the tank, the bus was swarmed as usual by a group of roadside saleswomen. Normally these women would offer ready-to-consume foods and drinks to passengers such as mangoes, breads, and sodas. You can imagine our surprise to see all fifteen women holding giant bags of onions. Each of the fifteen had her own onion bag. Why sell only onions to people who are hungry for an immediate snack? You can’t bite into one like an apple. We were taken aback to see passengers excitedly buying up these onion bags like they were the last food on Earth. I swear the strangest commercial phenomena seem to always occur on African buses.
After more than our fair share of delays, we finally arrived at sundown in the southern city of Bobo-Dioulasso (less than an hour from our village). Now Tana, Stephanie, and I are sleeping in the local Peace Corps office for the night. And I’m using the WiFi to type this. Tomorrow we’ll catch a cab and arrive safe and sound back home in village just in time for my birthday. Thanks, Carol, for the birthday present package. And thanks to you, international mail, for not delivering my taxes here yet.
Tuesday, April 05, 2011
Written by Chad
I'm not always understood even in my mothertongue. Often when I approach some people chatting enthusiastically, I have this tendency to cannonball right in mid-conversation with some offhand comment. That's when the music abruptly cuts off with a needle scratch and everyone around the room's smiles fall flat, as if vacuumed into the black hole of my irretractable words. Then after the awkward stares of bewilderment, the people I interrupted explain, "We were talking about such-and-such, not about whether American Idol should do a spin-off for pets." This also happens in lots of other situations besides the incident above when I accidentally attended a Lamaze class.
Anyway, as if I wasn't already socially inelegant enough, our plane lands here, smack dab in the middle of Nobody-Understands-English-Land. Now I wear my social ineptitude like a scarlet letter on my chronically unshaven visage. On any given day in America there's a likely chance my mouth's sputterings won't make sense, but here it's a foregone conclusion. If conversation is some kind of exquisite ballroom dance, then in the States maybe I'm a wallflower with two left feet and in Africa I'm some kind of blind, paraplegic amputee... who's comatose. If you happen to be a blind, comatose amputee who happens to be reading this, please don't take offense until after the next paragraph (after which you'll pity me and drop the lawsuit). Also, wow, talk about a coincidence.
Anyway, having spent the first twenty-four years of my life greeting people with a simple hello, my brain isn't conditioned to greet people according to the time of day. I'm walking along daydreaming whimsically, then someone jumps out of nowhere and I panic: is it morning, afternoon, evening, or night? Since I think in the Queen's English, I have to translate my ballpark guess in a split second. My default impulse is usually blurting out "Ani wula" (good evening). Especially in the morning to the first person I encounter. Excuse me if I don't keep tabs on the sun's position every waking moment. The sun and I have an agreement. I stay out of his business, don't stare directly at him, and he doesn't burn my face off.
So today, as a friend--or complete stranger, depending--I'd like to impart to you some of the quirky nuances of communicating in West Africa. That way if you quit your successful job and move to West Africa, you won't be doomed on countless occasions to blunder as I have. First thing, you'll need to know the rudimentary nonverbals:
- You know how an American preschooler likes to wave--holding his hand up like he's taking an oath and flapping his four fingers up and down? That's how you beckon somebody here in Africa. Or you can yell Fozzy Bear's signature catch phrase, which in the local language of the Mossi people translates to "come hither."
- To beckon a dog in West Africa, make a clicking noise with the front of your mouth. To beckon chickens or chicks, make a side-mouth click. Yes, there's a difference- try it, you naysayer. To beckon computer mice, I'm not sure.
- To shoo away pesky animals, you hiss at them. It works, too. And although I haven't lab-tested it, I have a theory that snakes might interpret this as flirtation.
- Speaking of which, if you ever scratch someone's palm with your pointer finger while handshaking, this is the Burkinabe equivalent of brazenly making a pass at them or delivering a smarmy, innuendo-laden pickup line. One time we hired a tiny, old man to help clean our latrine, which by the way contained a bike tire tube and a dead chicken among other buried treasures. And when I shook his hand, I felt a palm scratch and thought he was hitting on me. Sadly, it turns out his index finger was just dislocated.
- To indicate that somebody is crazy: do an upside-down gun-to-the-head gesture with your hand, then in a single rapid motion rotate your hand away from your head. This one's tricky to describe, so I hope when you perform it, people understand. If they don't, please don't sue me- an amputee group is already waging class action against me.
- To indicate someone is a man, stroke your chin like a contemplating diabolical supervillain. To indicate someone is a woman, clench two tiny imaginary damsels in your fists and hold them to your chest like King Kong.
- To get somebody's attention, make a loud cartoony smoochy noise until they look at you. We hear these smooches all the time walking through the city. As an American, it initially struck me as something the drunk at the end of the bar might do, but in reality it's as neutral as a simple "hey."
- To hail a cab, put your hand parallel to the road and fan the ground like you're patting dirt.
- After hearing bad news, it is customary to put your hand on your face. Make sure it's your own face.
- Greeting everybody you see as if they're all your best friend might be interpreted as fake in America, but here it's the best way to gain acceptance. When you're greeting someone, you can show extra respect by holding your elbow with your free hand as you handshake. Oftentimes, people will hold your hand for the entire time you talk to them--don't panic--this is normal. If you're a woman, also flex your knees in curtsy-esque maneuver. If you don't feel like shaking people's hands across the room, nod your head as you shake your own hand across your chest. You can also show respect by touching your solar plexis right after the handshake.
- To inquire "where are you going," hold one arm out with your palm facing down and then rotate it facing up. Taxi guys, eager for passengers, always do this gesture to pedestrians.
- To alert someone to danger, snap your fingers.
- To warn your enemies that you're going to hit them, raise and lower your hand in the air while snapping.
(Teaching legend Theo draws and labels the human body in Jula)
If you decide quit your job and move to West Africa, nonverbals aren't the only thing you need to know, unless you plan to be a mime. Thus, we now turn to the Jula (Dioulla) language of Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Mauritania, and Cote d'Ivoire. And forgive me- I'd rather write about the oddball stuff than be a dullard who reports useful, pertinent, meaningful matters of consequence. So here's a crash course on all the linguistic trifles I could glean from a single week of Jula class:
- The word for bicycle negeso means "metal horse."
- Some of the Jula words for body parts make me laugh. Kunsigi, the Jula word for hair, is actually a combination of the words for "head" and "sit." Bolokunadenw, the word for fingers, means "children at the head of the hand." The word for knee kunbiri means "head that bends." The word for buttocks jukuna means "head of your back." Nyadenw, the word for eyes, means "face children." In summary, your body is covered in heads and children.
- The word for diarrhea is konoboli meaning "running stomach."
- The words for basic colors are really long: neremuguman is yellow and green is binkeneman, which means "healthy grass." They only acknowledge six colors and they don't have a word for purple or orange. This must make interior decorating a chore.
- The word for a tailor, fanikalanla, means "clothes covering person." Perhaps, the most satisfying word to say is butikitigi, which is a store clerk.
- When you see somebody drinking you can say "Ala k'aw wili ni heere ye," which means "May God help you stand up with health." When you see somebody eating you can say "Ala ka suma I kono," which means "May God cool the food in your tummy." At a wedding, you can say to the bride and groom, "Ala ka bolo ni seen boara," which translates as "May God get from your marriage many hands and feet." The hands and feet of the many kids you will hypothetically have.
- In the Jula language and tradition, all sisters of your wife are also your wives (Sorry, Sherry and Stacy). I'm also obliged to share Tana with my brother Ryan as she is also his wife.
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