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Burkina Faso: Level four culture shock

In The United Kingdom a bit more than a week ago, the Office of National Statistics reported that in the past ten years, nearly two million Britons have moved abroad, making up the second largest emigration in the country’s history. Presently, that means that 5.5 million Britons live in foreign countries. So, what does this have to do with Burkina Faso? It proves a point, a fundamental truth really, about foreigners: They eventually go home. Or at least most of them do. It just happens that in Burkina Faso, a number of foreign bloggers are getting ready to pack up their things and head elsewhere.

Leaving, of course, stirs up a lot of emotions. In a place like Burkina Faso, where many foreigners come to work in the field of development, getting ready to move on makes people philosophic on the nature of their work. Namely, did they do any good for the country?

Take for instance, Jill, from Jill and Markus in Burkina Faso. She’s been one of our most honest – and refreshing – voices from foreigners living in Burkina Faso. Many may be taken aback by some of her opinions, but they can’t knock her turn of phrases. In what may be one of her last posts from Burkina Faso, she doesn’t disappoint.

I've had a fun time being a teacher and teaching. I'll miss the review sessions when I ask a question like “What are the reproductive glands in a man?” and 100 students shout in unison “The testicles!” I'll miss handing back a paper with “Bon travail!” written on the top next to a sticker of a dinosaur and seeing the kid acting like a bad ass, fanning himself with his paper with a cocky look on his face, trying to make sure everyone around him sees his grade. I'll miss the time I got to announce to all the teachers in our end of trimester meeting that the highest scoring student in the class I calculate grades for was a girl and hearing their surprised, pleased reactions. I'll miss when I announce that the highest grade on a test was a perfect score and the whole class claps.

So, I was feeling a little sad when I walked into my last class ever. Luckily, my students are really very thoughtful. They went out of their way to bomb their last test. And in really dumb ways, too. Many of their answers were just the question rephrased. And knowing that I have a million tests to grade, some of them made it easier for me by answering “Why” questions with just “Oui.” And the guys whose tests I graded last blatantly cheated so that the last thing I did as a teacher was to write “Cheating!” in big, red letters on their tests. They're so sweet!

And then there were the students who'd figured out that after being their teacher for two years, I'm not coming back next year. They're the ones who've been stopping by the house to exchange addresses so we can write, who've been very politely carrying my bag to my bike for me after class, and who wished me “Bon voyage!” as I left the classroom. Those jerks, making it hard for me to leave this place.

Before we go on to those leaving, let’s stay with teachers for awhile. As a former English teacher in a foreign country – this one in Eastern Europe – I understand that teaching school is a perfect opportunity to view every level of a given society. As Liz Jordan points out in her blog, Africa and Other Things, education’s perception in the eyes of parents and the rest of society illustrates how a country views its children and the state of its future.

The results from the second trimester at my school were absolutely depressing. Remember: to be considered as passing, a student’s grades must average out to a 10/20, 10 being la moyenne. Now earning 50% of the points here and 50% in the States is not the same thing. In my school in America at least, most kids got Bs (80-89% of points), others got less and some got more. Here, I would say that a kid doing B-level work like that would get about 11 or 12 out of 20. If they make 10/20 as an average at the end of the year they can continue on to the next grade. If they don’t pass once, they repeat the year, and if they don’t pass twice then they can no longer continue at the school. At the end of the second trimester, we had only 30% of our 6th grade students with the moyenne. In the 9th grade class, there were only 5 students (out of about 60) who had the moyenne. The class average for this class was about 7/20. Think about that. That means that for their tests, on average, a student will only earn about 1/3 of the points. At the end of this year these students will take their national BEPC examination to see if they have “passed” the first cycle of secondary school and can continue into high school. How do you think the class is going to do if their grades are this poor?

There are two reasons that results like this are depressing. First, if on average only a third of students will be able to continue in school, the school will not be able to function for long because unlike a free public school in America, most of a school’s money here comes from the students’ annual fees. Without enough students, there’s not enough money to pay teachers, buy supplies, and in short a school cannot run.
The other side has to do with where these kids go if they don’t go to school. They go to the fields or they go to town and look for work. And then they face hard times because there’s just barely any good ways to make money here, let alone good money, and while they’re no longer burdening their families with having to pay school fees, they’re certainly not able to really help their families either. There are still so many families who, even if they had the money, don’t see the importance of education. I don’t mean that they should see the value as an American does. I mean that they don’t seem to really believe that if their children go through school that the amount of money that they’ll be able to make (and therefore use to support the family) will be so much greater than if they had never been to school. If the child is actually motivated then this difference will eventually completely outweigh all the trouble – time and money – that school was.

As Liz finds, the solution is not as simple as you’d think:

This mindset is a real source of frustration for me. Investing in the future is just not something done here by most. Investing in the coming harvest: yes, investing in not angering the ancestors: yes, investing in preventative health care: no, investing in your children’s futures: not really. People are focused on what will go in their bellies tonight and perhaps on tomorrow but you can’t count on much beyond that. Who can blame them? They don’t have a choice. But with school they kind of do have a choice. Yes there will still be many families who simply cannot afford school fees; this I understand. But for other families, maybe if the father went and drank beer less often or bought a less fancy moto or cut down on other frivolous expenses then more families would come up with the means to send more children to school. Finding the money has to start with prioritizing education. Certainly there are starting to be a lot of families who are learning by experience what an asset an educated child can be.

Becca Faso’s classroom worries are in other areas.

How have I been keeping myself occupied lately you ask?? Well, I have been teaching Sex Ed. That's right. Sex Ed. In Africa. In french. Actually the french makes it easier because I don't react when i say things like “muqueuse uterine.” Pleasant. I had to draw lots of diagrams of the reproductive organs on the board for the students . . . in colored chalk. Corpus cavernosum in purple. Oviduct in green. It was a good time. They had many many mis-understandings about the origins of pregnancy which I was very sad about because they tend to become sexually active at young ages here. “Madame, is it true that if you only have sex during the day you won't get pregnant?” “Um . . . no. That is NOT true. The time of day has nothing to do with it.” We talked about STD's and condom use. Family Planning and the menstrual cycle. There are several illegitimately pregnant girls at my high school and I really feel strongly about teaching sex ed. I must admit though, and its difficult to admit this to myself, but I fear that it all went in one ear and out the other and then when it comes down to it they will side with their traditional beliefs. Argh! This is development. You battle mind-sets and points of view and its a lot of work for not a lot of gain. You can give a day-long sensibilisation about the evils of female circumcision (which is illegal and yet still rampant in Burkina) and then have someone approach you and say “Sorry I can't meet your for tea tomorrow. My daughter is getting circumsized.” Wait . . . what?

Let’s get back to those short-timers. For the Dabbler in A Dabbler’s Diary, these past few months have been spent contemplating the age-old question: Have I given as much as I received?

A person whose opinions I value recently suggested that my frustration of feeling that I was not a “good” volunteer came from my inability to decide exactly what kind of volunteer I wanted to be. Was I the well-integrated stranger, the spoiled expat, the worldly writer, or the Peace Corps party socialite? They all seemed attractive choices to me, and so I tried to be all of them at once, or each of them during different phases of my service. I didn't come to Burkina Faso to significantly change anything. I came for the arguably selfish reason to learn, believing it to be the height of arrogance to try to “save” someone without understanding them, but I got caught up in the excitement and peer pressure of my more idealistic colleagues, and in my rush to prove myself I made some incredibly naïve mistakes. In my 2nd year I calmed down, and I tried to focus on organizing activities that would be productively beneficial to my village rather than earn me a mark that I could show off as a badge of my competence. (Please note that I am not accusing all of my fellow volunteers of the same fallacy; many of them have done remarkable work.) Today, only a handful of weeks remain before I take my leave of Burkina Faso and return to the United States. All of my personal goals for joining Peace Corps have been accomplished; what remains is the consuming need to fulfill my part of the bargain — not to Peace Corps, but to the people who have been my neighbors and friends for nearly 2 years. How can I repay them for the things that I learned from them, that they shared with me? This isn't guilt, nor is it charity, that I'm talking about. It is a sense of responsibility.

The ever-organized Burkina Mom stumbled upon a sad truth while preparing her family’s menu four weeks in advance: With the rainy season not yet underway, Ouagadougou’s markets now offer very few vegetables. “I was struck by all the stuff that we don’t have right now (like broccoli, cauliflower, decent green beans, etc) and things that have gotten really dear,” she writes. “Cabbage is still a good value. But it’s hard to build your menu around cabbage day after day.”

Then she noticed something else:

Women walking the dirt roads of Ouagadougou, selling pale yellow cakes from baskets balanced on their heads. These cakes are made of neere powder (from neere tree pods). It’s considered “famine food”- cheap and not very tasty. It’s what you eat when there’s nothing else. This is the first time I’ve seen it being sold in the streets of the capital city.

And, later, she goes on to provide a little more background.

The neere tree(or Locust Bean tree in English) seedpods are gathered and opened. Inside are the small black seeds that are saved and fermented to make the popular soumbala seasoning that goes in almost every Burkinabé sauce. But surrounding these seeds is is a sweetish yellow powder. This is removed, crumbled and pressed firmly into a half a gourd. Then it is popped out of the mold, retaining the dome shape. There's no other ingredients to these “cakes”- not even water and there's no cooking involved. The powder is said to be rich in vitamins A, B and C. I certainly hope it is, because a lot of people are using this a filler in their diet these days. Rice and other grains have gotten so expensive, even city folks are going back to the “wild” foods from out in the villages.

One “cake” costs about 6 cents US (25 fcfa)- quite a good value if you are really hungry

How does it taste? I kind of like it. I think it tastes vaguely like chestnut flour. The texture is a bit creepy, though. Kind of like biting into sandy styrofoam. Valentine spit it right out. Lucky we can still afford rice!

“I've just passed the six month mark of being here in Djibo, and I have probably just officially hit level four of culture shock,” writes Charlie in her blog Blooming Desert. “I mean the one when everything seems more difficult and it feels like my sense of humour is hiding behind a cloud.”

She continues:

I am ashamed to admit that while we live in Sector 1 of Djibo, surrounded by people who can barely afford to buy millet to make nyiiri for their family, millet makes my stomach turn; we live on pasta, meat and vegetables instead. I am supposed to be sharing the love of Christ with these people but we have so much compared to them, that I often feel no better than the rich man with Lazarus on his doorstep. I am frequently unsure of how and when to help. I want to create work and life skills for people, not dependency. I want them to see through us a God who loves and cares deeply for them, not just white tubaakus who give stuff away. It's a constant struggle to do the right thing.

Keith Smith, who writes Under the Acacias, recently had one of his blog posts printed in the June edition of Christianity Magazine about the time he found himself preaching in a local mosque. His version can be found here:

I had been passing the mosque, and the imam was standing in the doorway. “A salaam aleykum,” I called out in greeting.

“Wa-aleykum a salaam,” he replied. I approached, we shook hands, and we went through the normal greeting sequence, asking after each other’s health and family.

“Toy njaata?” (“Where are you going?”) he asked.

“I’m just off to talk with people about the story of ennabi Iisaa Almasiihu.” Fulani Muslims know ennabi Iisaa Almasiihu (the prophet Jesus Christ) from the Qur’an, and hold him in high esteem.

The imam welcomed me into the mosque. I kicked off my sandals at the door, and went in. There were about half a dozen local men sitting in a group on mats in one corner, their backs propped up against the mud-brick walls and pillars of the mosque, the inevitable pot of Arab tea simmering away in the background.

“Bismillah!” the imam repeated, “Haalu!” (“Speak!”) The other men turned their eyes expectantly to me, waiting to see what this strange white man had to say.

In fact, Muslims and Christians share a lot of common ground, much more, say, than with the atheistic materialism of modern western society, so dominated by the pursuit and abuse of wealth, power, and pleasure that Christ so strongly criticised. This is not to deny the fundamental differences between the Christian and Muslim faiths, but our stories and moral values have a huge amount of overlap that comes from sharing some common roots.

So I began with what we held in common:
“We know that there is one God.”
“Wallaahi! Goonga!” (“In the name of God, it’s true!”)

As we end, and some of us say goodbye to Burkina Faso, let’s go back to an anecdote from Liz Jordan and her blog Africa and Other Things:

My dear neighbor Oued was very sick. Danny brought him some leaves. He told him to boil them and drink the resulting liquid. Leaves do everything here it seems. You eat some because they taste good. You put others around the house to keep away snakes or sorcerers. Others you drink to heal your body – but these rarely taste good at all.
“Even snakes do this!” Danny asserted to me.
“That’s impossible Danny,” I told him.
“Uh uh, I saw it! In Cote d’Ivoire! With my own eyes!” he assured me.
“Ok what happened. I’m listening.”
“Two snakes, big ones, gros gros,” he held up his hands wide apart. “They were fighting to decide who was the stronger one. They fought and fought and one snake won. The other was very weak and just laid there. The winner left and brought back leaves for the other one to eat.”
“Snakes have no hands, Danny. What did he get the leaves with?”
A noore. His mouth.”
“Oh.”
“And the weak snake got better.”
“I see. Then what happened?” I asked.
“We killed both snakes, of course,” he said plainly.
“Oh.”

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