Burkina Faso: teachable moments, missing bathrooms and road rage

Pity the school teachers of the Peace Corps. While their compatriots toiling in health clinics or with micro-credit programs pretty much work loose hours and come and go from social events in the capital city at their leisure, teachers are stuck at home with a inflexible schedule, classrooms full of hundreds of students and loads and loads of homework to correct each night.

It is especially hard this time of year. February is too soon for the school year to be over, but students are teachers are too far along for learning to still be a novelty. For Peace Corps teachers, some working without any previous classroom experience, this may be the time when those new skills are becoming quite honed.

Here’s a post from a Peace Corps’ teacher on one of those early “teaching moments.” It’s from Will Mitchell’s Journal:

School is going well. I am getting to be competent enough at teaching that I am no longer the main roadblock to my students’ education. The huge classes, the lack of materials and equipment and staff, and the overly theoretical curriculum are now bigger barriers than my still-apparently-hilarious mistakes in French. I have become more confident and friendly and learned my students’ names, which minimizes discipline problems. The school built a blackboard on the outside of my house so I can deal with the crowds of students who come to ask me questions, which is rewarding. One student, a Coulibaly, actually laughed in delight when the points I had him calculate from a linear eq ended up in a straight line on a graph. Why does that happen, Monsieur?

One early lesson teachers learn is that no matter where they hail from and what their backgrounds are, students act the same everywhere.
For Lara in Burkina:

[P]eople (myself included) always assume that just because there's rampant poverty in Burkina the kids will all be angels or something like that anyway. Not true. They do everything that we did when we were in school. There are really motivated kids who ask for more homework, but also the kid who sits in the back and doodles until I call on him in the middle of the lesson (yes I am that teacher). In the end though I'm kind of relieved because it makes it easier to relate to them.

Like I said, though, sometimes the school year becomes a little too long and the mind starts to wander. For Joel in Burkina, it opens to such reveries on his next career.

When I'm not busy teaching children the importance of not pooing on the path I take to school each morning or perfecting the art of small talk with the men in the market (I can out-talk any meteorologist about the weather. I guarantee it), I've been preparing for my future. This week I have decided that I want to become a newswriter for The Onion. Perhaps you've heard ot it? Here are a couple of articles I recently wrote, yes, in my spare time (Lately “spare time” = between books). Do enjoy.

I am going to stay with this bizarre sub-theme for a few minutes, so please be patient. For someone writing these round ups for the past few months, I have to say this is one time a very odd theme just descended upon more than a few blogs.

“People keep on pissing on my house,” protests the Dabbler in Burkina. “It really bothers me, but I have no idea if that action is as much a cultural taboo here as it is in America, so thus far I have not made a big deal of it.”

To continue:

The first time it happened (to my knowledge), a couple weeks ago, the guy chose a spot right next to my back window. I happened to be inside at the time, and when I heard the familiar pattering of liquid hitting a surface I looked out and there he was, not 2 feet away from me, relieving himself on my wall. I was so surprised at his brazenness that I said nothing for a while, merely stared at him, slightly embarrassed for violating his privacy, but simultaneously outraged that he was exercising said privacy against my wall. When he had finished, I almost apologetically accosted him, speaking to him from my window (again, not 2 feet away). There was no anger in my voice, and I bashfully requested that “next time” would he please find another spot? The man glared at me in sullen irritation, whether from the disrespect of my demand or the fact that he understood no word of the French I was speaking, I cannot say.

Like Joel’s thoughts about the future from above, village living allows the mind plenty of time to wander and come up with all kinds of cultural and political implications of such an apparently brazen act. Here’s what the Dabbler came up with:

Is this some sort of symbolic gesture, a middle finger of defiance extended by the African man to the Western system that routinely pisses on him? I doubt it. In my experience, it is the American that is more likely given to passive-aggressive, abstract gestures. No, I would wager a guess that these individuals simply have the need to “go”… and apparently, my house is ideally situated in the village for that need.

When in actual need of a bathroom out in the bush, most foreigners in Burkina Faso will put away their sense of propriety and decorum. This, of course, usually happens on car trips.

From Burkina Mom’s Life in Africa:

Here's the truth:If you are a person possessing two X chromosomes and an even minimal sense of modesty, the first rule of travel by car in Burkina is: Don’t Drink Anything. Drinking leads to peeing and the highway rest area “facilities” consist of roadside shrubs. Small, scrawny, practically leafless shrubs that could not even provide Paris Hilton with sufficient cover.

And while the countryside may seem deserted and traffic minimal, I guarantee you that the minute you step out of your car to enjoy a moment alone, a couple of young boys herding cattle will appear as if by magic. Then an old guy on a bike will pedal past with almost painful slowness. Finally, a bus from Mali will trundle by, the roof covered in bikes, bags, chickens, baskets and young men who couldn't get a seat inside, but have a great vantage point for being entertained by the sight of half-dressed travellers lurching around out in the bush.

If I could choose a second sub-theme from these posts, I’d have to name it “motor vehicles and their dangers.”

From My So-Called Life in Africa:

Driving here is hard, especially if you’re not used to it! . Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if only two things weren’t true:

1.The police are hardly ever directing the traffic. And even when they are out, it’s useless because no one listens to them. Everybody just does their own thing. And when the street is full of bikes, cars, scooters, donkey carts, hand carts, pedestrians and even a few horses and camels, it doesn’t work out too well.

2. People drive completely CRAZY!!! You see at least one smashed motor bike or one wrecked car in the road a day. At least.

People drive so badly that you wonder if they even took the driving test (Let me tell you, I bet that most didn’t!)

This all adds up to some touch-and-go moments on the streets of Ouagadougou, population around 1.3 million and rapidly increasing. Let’s go back to My So-Called Life in Africa:

Besides all the crazy driving, there are obstacles to dodge. Take today, for example. We saw: a group of little 9 year old girls coming home from school on foot and crossing the road right when the light for the car lane turned green! A gum-chewing kleenex vendor weaving his way through the motor bikes to get his latest client’s change from his pal on the other side of the street. Plus a taxi stopping right in the middle of the lane to pick up someone. Then we saw saw a donkey cart with no donkey blocking the road. Where was the donkey you ask? A little ways further…laying there DEAD in the middle of the street!

I witnessed a certain road incident, also. As I was sitting down at a macquis – an open-air bar – with friends a few Saturday nights ago, I saw what happened when a young man crossed the busy boulevard in front of us on a small motorcycle and promptly got hit by an oncoming truck. The sound of metal striking metal is something I won’t easily forget; nor will I let go of the sparks that flew as the truck screeched to a halt. It was the sight of the moto driver that stirred something strange in me, however. It wasn’t compassion, but anger.

I continue on in AfricaFlak:

I don’t think of myself as a cold person, but there was no reason, not one, for the moto driver to be anywhere near those car lanes. Actually, there was one explanation: he didn’t look. Some days, when I am more generous and understanding, I do think it’s kind of cute to watch the two million motos of Ouagadougou driving around on all sides of your car at all speeds, zipping in and out of traffic, running stop lights and generally having complete disregard for the rules of the road. If you can learn to drive here, you can drive anywhere, I often tell my guests.

But, when these moto drivers – and we are not only speaking of teenagers on a joy rides – take their lives into their own hands, they also place it directly into ours. And that’s not fair. Auto and truck drivers become ultimately responsible for their safety. It’s us who have to live with the consequences of their actions, not only legally – for West African justice often deems that those who can pay for the damages are at fault – but morally and emotionally.

Driving is a responsibility, and Ouagadougou’s winner-take-all system of road rules only keeps people in the hospital and families visiting cemeteries. I’ll be harsh here: For such a naturally mellow people, too many Burkinabé drive with a ferocious aggressiveness and a complete disregard for others once they get behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle.

File this last bit under: Facts you need to know.

From Moco in Burkina Faso:

Q: Does Mayonnaise really have to be refrigerated? (clearly this question has been foremost in your mind)

A: No, this is a lie propagated by the refrigerator industry in the Western world. I keep mine on a bookshelf in my house after opening it, and despite the 90+ degrees temperatures, its good for weeks. This applies to pretty much all condiments. Dont be grossed out, its the truth….

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