My first post for Global Voices Online discussed the expatriate bloggers living and working and writing in Burkina Faso. Today, we’ll investigate another group of expatriates living in Burkina Faso as we delve into Peace Corps bloggers.
Peace Corps is a U.S. government program that sends Americans to live in foreign countries for a tad more than a two years working on various development and educational projects. Burkina Faso hosts more than 100 Peace Corps volunteers, with the majority of them just a few years removed from the university. They will spend their time living in villages and small towns scattered around the country working in the fields of health, small business development, girls’ education and some teach at public schools.
In respect to full disclosure, this would be a good time to admit that the metal desk I am currently writing on claims its origin from the Peace Corps Burkina Faso office; as do most of the chairs in my house, ditto for the tables and not coincidentally, the house itself. (The computer remains mine.) These furnishings are not so much a present to me, but to my wife, who is employed in the Peace Corps Burkina Faso office where she oversees a group thirty or so of these volunteers. For those who fear preferential treatment towards certain bloggers: With more than 100 volunteers in country, and the fact that many bloggers write under a nom de guerre, I can’t say that I’ve recognized more than a few names on these blogs.
Now, to the bloggers. As a whole these writers are honest – sometimes brutally so – and perceptive chroniclers of the foreign environment they inhabit. Oftentimes their posts read like letters home, chocked full of local color and enlightening friends and family (many who will never step foot in Burkina Faso) on a variety of topics from cultural norms to working conditions right down to the minute details of their day-to-day routines.
If I had to choose an overall theme of concern to many of these bloggers, I would start with the idea of technology. Roughly speaking, Burkinabé villagers have very little in the way of technology, while many of these young Americans arrive in country outfitted with more gadgets than a U.S. warship. One blogger, Justin Lopina reported his purchase of a solar panel for his house:
About $200 in all (I'm eating poor THIS month!), I'll have all the power I need for lighting, movies, music, and my cellphone. I need to work something out for the gameboy though. Mmm… Power.
Perhaps more disorienting to these bloggers is the dichotomy that exists in urban Africa, where one can find the accouterments of the connected world standing directly next to symbols of rural isolation. This is explained by René, who writes the Peace Corps: Burkina Faso blog:
More than one trainee has gotten up from the cybercafe, walked out into the searing heat, and goats, and vultures flying around like pigeons, and asked “Someone tell me again, where the hell am I?
If you asked 10 Peace Corps bloggers why they joined the organization, each would offer a different answer: It beats getting a desk job; the gratification of working in the development field; travel is another consideration, as is learning another culture and the opportunity to live with different people.
Caleb, who writes Burkina Faso or Bust blog, views his experience as test to see whether he can survive two years without electricity. In the early going he’s found it to be difficult, yet he is amazed at the ease locals conduct their lives:
Instead of children zoning out in front of the television, they are thoroughly entertained with the rigorous activity of playing with for example, my trash… or really anyone’s trash for that matter. Whether it be a plastic bag, tin can, or piece of string, they will find a game to play, or a way to annoy me with it. For an hour straight, to my dismay, a kid played with my watch because if a button is held down it beeps once every ten seconds or so.
A majority of Burkinabé lives in rural settings, but outside of those few who work for the government, villages are largely bereft of any employment outside of agriculture – the country’s primary industry – and a handful of menial jobs. Most people with any education flee their village in search of work in larger cities, a reason the capital Ouagadougou has grown so prodigiously during the past 15 years.
What strikes many of these bloggers is how dissimilar their backgrounds are from their friends and neighbors in the village. “The other day for instance my neighbor asked me if it rains in the US,” writes Lara from the blog Lara in Burkina. (Another blogger was asked if people in the United States live underground.) In the case of the neighbor, it’s not that she lacks intelligence, Lara writes,
It's just that she has no access, for the most part to the outside world. There is no internet, only maybe a few tvs, and no public library.
A flip side exists to the countless references of technology and its absence. More than a few bloggers dutifully list each and every book they’ve read while in the country. These lists are amazing for their scope and breadth.
For many bloggers, life in Burkina Faso’s countryside represents the first time they’ve survived without the aid of those simple conveniences so often taken for granted. (It should be noted that many urban Burkinabé also take these items for granted.) “In America, there is the luxury of running water. In Africa, its not quite so easy,” claims the writer calling herself Becca Faso in her eponymous blog:
The good pump nearest my house is about a five minute walk away. I dont know if you remember or not but water is really freakin heavy. really…
On the other hand, instead of being seen as the savior bringing awe-inspiring technology to villagers’ lives, many bloggers often find themselves playing the role of the foolish and naïve foreigner trying to understand life in a complicated setting. In this respect, many bloggers focus on locals’ intricate knowledge of their physical environment. “The villagers are very resourceful and can recognize any plant, knowing whether it is edible,” writes Stephanie in Stephanie’s Letters from Burkina Faso:
Once I saw an old lady walking home, carrying a plant she pulled out of the ground. I asked her what she was doing and she told me it was a tomato plant she found and was taking to plant at her house.
Digging up unknown plants and eating exotic foods has its place in many stories: Anecdotes abound regarding eating bush rat or camel meat or some unidentified sauce. Living in close proximity to the animal world, however, presents another issue altogether. “For roommates I have and army of crickets, mice, geckos, all varieties of bugs and spiders, and the occasional scorpion (ACK!),” explains Radhika Reddy in ramblings from radhika in burkina. “The other day I found a snake in my latrine. Hard to panic when squatting so I calmly watched it slither away while my life flashed before my eyes. for all you herpetologists out there, I`m not sure if it was poisonous but it looked like an argyle sock.”
Pictures of idyll and tranquil village life are often shattered by the realities of those simple domesticated creatures: goats bleating, cocks crowing and dogs barking. The tandem blogging team of Jill and Markus McKay-Fleisch created an ongoing list of reasons why they hate the chickens inhabiting their courtyard.
Here are a few highlights:
-They cluck for no good reason.
-They poop everywhere.
-They're dumb. Studies using chickens as subjects require hundreds of trials before they learn anything.
-They eat everything, including chicken meat and their own poop.
-They're ugly. And they smell bad.
-They're hard to catch.
-They are pretty tasty, though.
Living so far away from friends and family is an overriding theme of every Peace Corps blog. Some rely on Ipods and cell phones and DVD players to get through the lonely times, while others have learned to lean on the companionship offered by animals and pets. Life for pets can occasionally be difficult in rural Burkina Faso, and blogs are full of remembrances of the kitty that died or the dog that mysteriously ran off. From Ami and her blog Le Culte du Moi, here’s an example of a pet situation that got away:
The pet camel, as we all know, was turning out to be an expensive pet. Not to mention the fact that it scared Hama, my neighbor, and kept spitting on Hama's laundry whenever it was put on the line to dry. In lieu of “Spitty Cent”, there is now a white goat tied to a tree in my yard. The thing was cute at first (and like, 10 bucks), but geez, it's also annoyingly loud. All night it bleats and starts up again in the morning when the 4:45am azan sounds off.