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Burkina Faso: New schools, village feminism and the shame of all birds

“February’s already here,” writes new Global Voices Online author Paula Odhiambo in a recent post, “but we’re all still finding our place and getting our footing in 2008. It is bound to be an interesting year, and is already full of great expectations.”

Ditto that for those blogging from Burkina Faso in English.

Keith from Under the Acacias immediately got to work on one of his new projects for 2008 of planning to build a Christian primary school in Gorom-Gorom. The project is still in the initial stages, and he’s using this time to coalesce design ideas that will allow the building to be more aesthetically pleasing and eco-friendly than “the cement-brick ‘ovens’” that often double as schools in Burkina Faso. He traveled 200km southeast to view the Gando school and meet the Burkinabé architect who designed it, Francis Kéré, winner of the 2004 Aga Khan prize for architecture. It was here where Keith found inspiration:

Almost all materials and work is local – mostly earth and rock, both in ready supply. The walls are made from pressed mud bricks, with a measure of cement mixed in, using the brick press. The bricks are resistant, but need to be protected from the rain – in this case by the suspended tin roof.

Two adjoining classrooms had different floors – one cement, one dammed earth. The dammed earth seemed visibly to be resisting better. The ceiling of the classrooms was made by lying bricks on top of rows of metal bars, providing insulation and allowing air flow. The tin sheet roof is suspended over the brick ceiling by a metal frame, protecting the building from rain, and allowing air flow. Kéré says that they have not had any problems with the wind, even during very high winds that knocked down trees.

When the calendar turns to February in Burkina Faso, the whole country becomes covered in a not-so-fine film of dust, brought on by the winds of the Harmattan from the Sahara Desert. From Becca Faso:

WOW. How do I describe it? The Harmattan is an amazingly gusty and constant wind that sweeps across the Mahgreb and the Sahel knocking over all the sky scrapers, light-up signs, electrical poles, and trees in its path. That last part was a joke. We don't have any of those. It is sooooo gusty! It moves my outdoor chair around and lifts my tin roof. The thing you must remember is that we've not had rain since early september. This coupled with persistent gale force winds means that the ground is now in the air. There is a general haze all the time because of all the dust and dirt in the air. Is dirt a greenhouse gas?? Haha. No, really? If I dont keep my mouth tightly closed outside, my teeth will wear dirt sweaters. Gross. Teeth are not the only things that suffer. There is a constant battle between me and the perennial layer of dirt covereing my house. Thank you GOD that I only have a two-room crumbling shack to sweep out. My entire world is the color of mud . . . my clothes, my skin, my formerly white cat, the air, the ground . . . the harmattan displaces what usually stays beneath my feet and repaints the whole world.

Perhaps we can pin it on the beginning of 2008, with those obligatory New Year resolutions. Or, maybe it’s the dry, hot winds that force everyone indoors for cover. However you look at it, people are just more contemplative this time of year. Especially so for Peace Corps bloggers, when the first months of the year mark a major hurdle: either they are well into their first full year of service or they’re making their final laps because in a few short months, their time in Burkina Faso will be complete.

For those leaving soon, it’s a natural time to question whether they’ve done any good at all. Girl Raised in the South recently had an epiphany regarding her work:

I feel like every Peace Corps volunteer talks about that “moment”…the moment where they suddenly feel the impact that they are having in their villages (however small they may be). I had done some interesting projects…but I hadn't quite felt that impact and gratitude from the people involved. I think it was something that I needed to buoy me through…to give me that extra spark. It surprised me that the one project that I didn't dedicate all that much attention or time to was going to turn out to be that moment. From the first day all the way through to the last, it was the most fun and beneficial experience that I have had. The group of 8 guys were AMAZING! They all participated, and laughed, and shared their experiences…there was never a moment of silence in the room…. I couldn't believe the response that I was getting from them. I honestly swelled with pride. They actually GOT IT…they understood what I was talking about! Not only that…but they said so, and they also said the most elusive word for me here…”thank you.” Aside from gift giving, I haven't heard that word all that often in relation to my work. People just assume the foreigner is here to give…so why say thank you? It was so refreshing to see people–right before my eyes–benefiting from the knowledge I was sharing from them.

Even if the work situation has sorted itself out, living in a foreign country always raises questions. Jill, from Jill and Marcus in Burkina Faso, is currently working through her relationship with Burkinabé culture:

It would take a lot more than two years for me to really integrate into Burkinabé culture because I'd have to change. A lot. For instance, I don't cook. I don't like doing it and, more importantly, I suck at it. And this is a level of suck that can't be improved with practice. Markus, on the other hand, is a great cook. It doesn't seem fair to subject him to two years of burnt rice and crunchy noodles just so we can fit the traditional Burkinabé gender roles.

Since I can't be like a Burkinabé woman, maybe I could be like a Burkinabé man and drink tea and chat for hours and hours. This would be a lot easier for me to do than attempting to cook…

So, I react to Burkina like I would a prom date with the wrong impression–by keeping it at arm's length. But just because I, an opinionated, type A feminist who's a terrible cook, don't really fit in here doesn't mean I can't appreciate the culture from the outside. Where else can I sit under a tree at my favorite bar on marché day, drinking cool beers, people watching, saying hello to friends, and being greeted by tiny elementary school students? You don't have to be just like a Burkinabé to appreciate things like that.

The issue of gender roles raises an interesting point. From foreigners, especially those living in rural areas, one hears a lot of talk about what they feel is the constricted and marginalized nature of women’s lives in Burkina Faso. For some people, this insight not only teaches them about the so-called ways of the world, but also teaches them little about themselves. From Moco in Burkina Faso:

I never really thought of myself as a feminist before coming here. If pressed to definitively say that I was or was not, I would have replied yes, but it wasn't a constant thought in my mind. Funny how things chance when you arrive in a country where women are incredibly marginalized. For example, a Burkinabe colleague will bring up the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, and baldly state “Clinton's woman cannot win because women cannot be president; they are not strong enough to lead men.” Another day, with another man, the issue of excision (female genital mutilation, look it up) arises, and it is explained to me that though it is illegal, without it, women will not be faithful and obedient to their husbands, so it continues. Needless to say, these conversations are a little hard for me to stomach, and its a thin line between expressing my opinions and offending those of another culture.

It wouldn’t be a round-up of blogs from Burkina Faso without an interesting animal tale or two. Sit back for a piece from Clay in Notes From Burkina Faso:

I walked over to my neighbor's house a few weeks ago to catch up on the day's news. Sagnon was sitting on his porch, and when he saw me walking up he pulled up another chair next to him. I sat down and, seeing his newborn chicks walking around the yard, asked him how many he had. Right when I did so, a large eagle swooped down out of nowhere, picked up a baby chick, and took off. L'aigle! L'aigle! Sagnon was standing up on his porch, yelling and swatting at an eagle long since gone. Well, I guess I only have three, he said, and sat back down. Want some tea?

Finally, Stephen from Voice in the Desert translates a Fulani poem about bats:

Wilwindu semtini pooli
Alla semtin dum
Sabu bilan koyde de jumnita hoore
Walaa leebi nguuri ina piira

Oh bat, you are the shame of all birds!
God himself has shamed you
You swing by your feet and hang your head down
You've got no feathers and you fly by your skin.

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