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Burkina Faso: Home of black bags, baobabs and cute kids?

Let’s begin with some old business. From Stephen Davis of Voice in the Desert: His book Sophie and the Albino Camel is up for the Norfolk Shorts shortlist of books under 150 pages. (For some reviews of Sophie and the Albino Camel, check here.) While he won’t know the outcome until April 16, he did expound on why he loves writing short fiction:

1) Novella sounds nicer than novel.
2) My writing style has always been on the lean/chiselled/tonguetied side.
3) You can write a short book in less than a month.

Speaking of book reviews, Jill from Jill and Markus in Burkina Faso, reviews Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman, a former Peace Corps volunteer who wrote about her experience living in neighboring Côte D'Ivoire. The short version goes like this: “It's scientifically impossible to have that positive of a Peace Corps experience.”

Here’s the longer, non-blurb version:

I let this book sit on my bookshelf collecting pounds of red dust before blowing it off and opening it because I thought it'd be a nice treat at the end of my service. Since it was written by an RPCV, I expected it to be well-rounded, with fewer descriptions of adorable black kids and more frank discussions of things that need improvement. Erdman does talk about many common problems in Africa like men having girlfriends in addition to their wife or wives and people in power stealing money. But these criticisms are dwarfed by descriptions of dancing at ceremonies and still more cute kids. I'm sure she glossed over the negative so as not to leave a bad impression of her beloved village. If I wrote a book about my experience, I'd probably do the same thing. I love Titao. It recharges me. But I would also mention the bad. Like the black bags littered all over the ground that, to me, are more “African” than baobabs and cute kids.

This brings up that certain dilemma for all sorts of foreigners: How does one write honestly to capture the real Burkina Faso? Rule number one: You can’t rely on the clichéd term “a land contrasts.” Rule number two: The title “Malaria Dreams” has already been taken. Like the Africa as portrayed in Western newspapers, how proper is it to rely solely on statistics, like Burkina Faso’s abysmal ranking in the 2008 Human Development Index?  

Of course, Burkina Faso comes alive when you speak a local language. Here’s a good example from Will Mitchell.

A recent trip between my site and Bobo, a nice 70k ride on a narrow bush trail, summed up the different versions of life that exist in this country.  Out in the bush, an old man in a dirty robe greeted me and asked where I was going.  He sighed on hearing Bobo, as if disappointed by my predictable answer.  Ala k'i nyuman don, he said, may God sweeten your arrival.  That's a poetic thing to say to a stranger, isn't it?  Much later as I entered Bobo and saw the crowds, dressed in filthy rags for work or stylin for hanging out and talking on cell phones, the thick fog of exhaust and noise, begging children and indifferent women driving motos, imported goods of all description for sale, good and bad food, everyone in a hurry, I was overwhelmed by the difference that exists between the life of that old man not so far away and the urban experience that his grandchildren are probably living.  There was a transition zone, where instead of millet plantations I rolled through wastes covered in blowing plastic bags, then the dusty slums on the edge of town, women balancing loads of illegal firewood that they must have walked a great distance to find.  I wonder how many generations have to live in the transition before they get The Burkinabe Dream- A moto and a cellphone for every man, gas and running water for every woman.

Burkina Mom has spent the last few years compiling a million such moments of transition in her warm-hearted honesty. Here’s one took place in front of her house, in a pretty fancy neighborhood, when she came outside and found her guards speaking to a Tuareg who happened to be perched on his camel.

And at least a few times each month, we get a Tuareg tribesman coming through. They come down from the north of Burkina, or Mali or from over in Niger. They're here to sell things they've made and to just check out life in the big city. And when they start to run low on money, they can usually pick up coins by going through the residential areas, where parents will pay a few cents for their children to ride a camel for a bit.

This man didn't speak much French or Mooré, but we did understand that he had come down from Gorom Gorom. I gave him a bit of money and then asked if he'd move the camel, so I could go run my errands today.

Gender is another complicated subject. Hanging out and playing sports with some co-workers, Christina in Burkina gets a little more information than she bargains for.

Volleyball in village continues… and we play almost every night! This is SO fun and I am so grateful to have started up this group. Unfortunately there aren't any women except me. At first one woman fonctionnaire/teacher joined us – she had the time to play because a female cousin lives with her to help take care of her son and cook. But Valerie decided to give up because she wasn't good, and wasn't in very good shape. Despite the fact that women here lead physically demanding lives, they do not have the habit of playing sports. If a woman didn't make it through a decent amount of school, she would never have played any organized game. Even when the men and I play volleyball in the evenings, the women are home preparing to cook. The men have said, if their wives started to come they'd have to hit them for not being home to cook. Is this slightly with tongue in cheek? Maybe. In any case, the women who could find the time to play, like my teacher friend, are often overweight because being big here means you are “healthy,” doing “well,” and “comfortable” in your life.

Age is also fraught with issues. Valentine from My So-Called Life in Africa found herself caught between two worlds at a bar with her mother not far from her house in Ouagadougou. On one side, standing on a stage, was a group of middle aged teachers from her school playing rock ‘n’ roll music while perched in the back was a group of fellow students. 

I glanced back at the band – it looked like they were having fun. They acted like a group of teens in a rock band.
Yeah
, I thought, A bunch of balding, wrinkled teens.

Then I noticed an actual group of teenagers from my school, maybe about 3 years ahead of me. They were watching, some of them with an amused look on their faces and others with pure boredom. Just then I realized this was a twisted situation: Those teens should be the rock band playing. They should be the dancers in the mosh pit. And the adults should be the confused and bored group sitting at a table.

Most foreigners, even writers, eventually understand they may never really belong in Burkinabé society. For one, there are too many differences. The elephant standing in the middle of all this, of course, is economics — an issue extremely difficult to transcend. A post by Marcus in Jill and Marcus in Burkina Faso sums these differences up.

After living in a place for two years, you want to feel comfortable and that you're being accepted as an equal and not just seen as a wallet with legs. But you can never be that. All I want is to be in a culture where I'm normal again. I came here wanting to drink millet beer, eat tô, and get to know Burkinabe. Now, all I want is an Anchor Steam, some Taco Bell, and to blend in.

From Becca Faso

In Burkina, at least in village, a man's wealth is measured by his number of cattle and wives.
“Mr. Sawadogo has 5 wives and 15 head of cattle!”
“Dang!!”
Being an Arkansan this is not such a foreign concept for me. I will relate a conversation between myself and a student to all of you – one i have about every week:

“Madame, will you take me back to America?!”
“Sure. You can stay with my parents until you learn english. But its expensive and I'm not gonna buy you a ticket.”
“That's okay Madame. I have ten cows!”
“1o Cows?! Why didn't you say so!”

For Josh from Burkina What?, however many differences there may be, it is the personal relationships that will always last. When a good friend was in need because his wife was sick and in need of medical attention, it was Josh’s friendship (and money) that came to the rescue…for the moment.

Is Peace Corps worth it? That gift to my host father would be called what, for many development workers, is a dirty word: unsustainable. It is a one-off gift that will hopefully help one family avoid one possible crisis this one time. But that money wasn’t what made today amazing. Today was amazing because I shared a moment I will never forget with a frail 60-year-old Burkinabe man who calls me son and who I call father. It was amazing because I felt like I caught a quick glimpse of a small part of God’s plan, and it overwhelmed me. I knew that my 2 years in Africa would have an effect on me. I never would’ve guessed that a single moment would touch me in such a powerful way.

I could end with something like “it’s just best to get out of your comfort zone.” But that would be kind of cheap, wouldn’t it? Charlie from Blooming Desert learns a lot through an embroidery club she started.

So far, I have six students of varying levels of ability although most of them have never done any sewing before.

It has been a great way of making friends and improving my language – I now know many useful phrases such as ‘keep it tight’, ‘they need to be all the same’ and ‘it's wonky’. I'm hoping not to have to say ‘it's wonky’ too much as it would be good to have some marketable produce soon. Hot season is also known here as hungry season, so I hope to be able to give them a means of earning an income to help them get by. For now, the women are enjoying learning and more are asking to learn every week. It's an encouraging start.

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