Sunday, October 3, 2010

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Children of the Forest

On August, 27th I officially graduated from Peace Corps Trainee (PCT) to a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). The change of titles was the culmination of over of 10 weeks of training in Burkina Faso, West Africa. You could feel the excitement at the US. Embassy in Ouagadougou as the volunteers and I raised our right hands and took the oath that marked our crossover. Immediately following was an epic celebration that included beer, cake and blessings from the First Lady of Burkina.
Training is now over. The volunteers and I were shipped to various parts of the country to pursue our specific sectors of development. The four current sectors in Burkina Faso are Secondary Education, Small Economic Development, Girls Education and Health. I am a Community Health Development volunteer and thus assigned to a small rural village in South-West: Burkina Faso.
The dominate ethnic group of my village are the Lobi, who make up roughly 80% of the 2900 inhabitants of my village. Other ethnic groups include the Mossi, Dagara and Peul. French is widely spoken but the dominant language is Lobiri. The Lobiri word for Forest is “Lou” and “Bi” means child. Essentially, the Lobi are the Children of the Forest. My village is nestled among rolling hills and lowland valleys and it is currently the rainy season. The days are hot with cool nights and rains that come and go. The average temperature during the day is between 79-98 and nighttime temperatures hovering between 74-89. It’s often not the actual heat that causes you discomfort in this country but the stuffy houses and huts that lack ventilation and air-conditioning. Attempting to cook or clean inside your house during the mid-day heat is a recipe for disaster. This combination means life in village is public.
My small 2 room house is located within the walls of a family compound. Flanking my house is a small boutique that sells matches, rice and bread. Located directly outside my kitchen window is a small “bar” under a massive mango tree. The actual house is well built by Burkina standards. I have spent the last few weeks making repairs and accumulating furniture and cooking supplies. A small hardware store in my regional capital allows me to formulate rather satisfying home improvement projects. I have repaired a screen door, painted my bedroom green and replaced a faulty lock. Attempting construction projects here is on another level than back home in the States. There is no Home Depot in Burkina.

My local market is a scene out of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. You make your way through a field until you reach a densely wooded hill. You maneuver the jungle path until you reach the top of the hill. The market occupies the top of the hill and overlooks the rest of the village. The only things modern are the chimes of cell phones and the only infrastructure is small wooden hangars. Women sit in the shade of mango and baobab trees cooking fried dough as men drink and socialize. Your eyes water as smoke fills your lungs from the fires cooking pork, dog and bush rat. Children sit on mats sells various fruits and vegetables as you try to decipher 4-5 different languages. You see women wearing traditional clothing, men in track suits and children in ratty NFL t-shirts. The scene is truly wild and beautiful.

My days in village are categorized by my sector in the Peace Corps. I spend most mornings at my local health clinic. Even with my experience in nutrition and public health I often find myself the pupil and not the teacher. Every day is something new and my co-workers at the clinic expose me to a wide variety of maladies. The top aliment is malaria but the clinic gets everything from snake bites to blunt trauma. Parasites, dysentery and malnutrition are very severe, especially in the young population. The people I work with are experts in treating these problems with medicines but the preventive cause is my field of work. The prevention aspect of health is my target in village. It’s often the children who are brought to the clinic to late who don’t make it. My village only has 3000 people but the health clinic also serves neighboring campments so the number swells to roughly 11,000. Mothers may carry a baby on their back from 10+ Km away. They have brought their child in but failed to recognize malaria or parasites and now we are faced with an underweight 2 year-old with a 105 degree fever. It can be frustrating work but also rewarding and interesting. Nutrition is a big interest of mine here in village as many of the children have stunted growth or parasites due to water sanitation and food intake.

Two aspects I enjoy about the Lobi is their belief in animism and love of a good party. In village, I don’t have to be a Christian or Muslim to fit in but just Austin. Actually, it’s Austini Poda in village. The name Poda was given to me by the chief after I gave him a bottle of whiskey as a gift. My name is pronounced Austini. In village I can just be myself and I am not pressured to attend church every Sunday or rise with the call to prayer. Thus I can spend my time learning about something completely foreign to the Western world; fetishes. The second aspect is a double-edged sword. The Lobi are extremely social and drink a millet beer called Dolo, Chapulo or Tan. It’s a brewed beer made locally that can taste extremely sour or sweet. The alcohol content is equivalent to mild US beer. I call “DOLO” a double edged sword for 2 reasons. While I love the social nature of my village it can be frustrating when you’re just trying to go to the market or not feeling well and feel pressured to drink with villagers. When I mentioned I had a “bar” next to my house. It’s a Dolo bar. The Lobi will socially drink under a tree from sunrise to sundown. This cultural aspect is hard because it’s hard to motivate people for health projects when everyone is drinking all the time. Yet, there are benefits. My birthday is coming up in October and I will be having 2 celebrations. The first and most anticipated is a gathering of my fellow volunteers in Ouagadougou for a weekend of celebrating. The 2nd is a village party that involves me sacrificing a duck and partying under the stars with my fellow villagers. Both experiences are radically different and good for so many reasons.
Life in village has its challenges. You are never truly alone. You are constantly surrounded by children and other villagers but you do at times experience loneliness. I typically see a fellow volunteer or two when I make my weekly pilgrimage to the regional capital to buy necessities. It is also a daily battle with the food. My diet in Burkina is rather simple and it can be a challenge at times. I don’t have electricity or running water so cooking on a small gas stove presents its challenges. In village I tend to eat a lot of pasta, rice, veggies, fruits, oatmeal and assorted meats that include pork, rabbit, goat, and dog. For drinks I have water or Dolo. I treat myself by adding drink mix powder to the water.

The volunteer before me painted “Being in Africa is like Being on a Dark Star” in my kitchen. I often think about this quote. Burkina Faso and village life is truly simple and beautiful. There are days when the rain pounds the roof and you settle down with a book on the history of Yugoslavia. Other days are hot and you feel restless and homesick. Days of sickness are the most troublesome as being physically sick exacerbates feelings of homesickness. Those are especially the days you miss your family, friends and Subway sandwiches. I am loving my time in Africa but it is not easy being away from family, friends and the creature comforts of your own country across the sea. That is why being here is a dark star. You experience this foreign life of adventure but that is categorized by hardships.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Routine of a Stagaire

The rainy season of West Africa has begun. Nightime is characterized by heat lightening or a cool breeze. The thunder in the distance gives the impression that B-52 bombers are laying seige to the city of Ouagadougou.

The routine of daily life in West Africa has its postive and negative aspects. The heat and lack of creature comforts make the most simple tasks seem daunting. Peace Corps training is centered around a full schdedule of language classes, health seminars and security briefs. Dehydration and fatigue make a full day of classes a long day.
Training is a 3 month period before a Peace Corps trainee or "stagaire" becomes an official volunteer. Before being sworn in as a volunteer you must prove your ability in French, a local language and various other components. Training is equivilent to a West Africa boot camp. Our training includes: how to take transport throughout the region, use local currency, bargain in the market, bicycle training, and various techinical and cultural classes. Malaria is a real danger and we take weekly Lariam pills for adequate prevention. A side-effect is vivid dreams. My latest episode consisted of me... "laying in a bed of leaves, eating bananas with gorillas".
The other day we had to poke ourselves with needles to create malaria slides. The concept of "prevention" is key in West Africa and we need to be prepared for malaria.

As a health volunteer in West Africa I am charged with implementing better health education and sanitation throughout the country. The Peace Corps uses our first few months in country to give us a in-depth look at healthcare in Burkina Faso.
We spend our days learning to make soap from materials in the local market or visiting maternity clinics. The end of the day is characterized by a cold bucket bath under the stars or a luke warm shower at a hostel in the capital.

The country of Burkina Faso is very poor and extremely low on the development index yet the people of this country make up for the lack of infrastructure. Our Peace Corps trucks are often greeted by warm smiles and a friendly "Bonsoir". The concept of greeting strangers in the street is almost non-existent in the United States. Burkina Faso is the complete opposite. It is a cultural expectation that when you cross someones path you will greet them, ask about their family and discuss how work went that day. The volunteers and I often find ourselves greeting almost everyone that crosses our path.

While walking in the capital the other day. I was followed by a street "petit". The little boy didn't beg for money or food. He just calmly strolled through the market with me. He followed us for an hour or so, chatting in French and giving useful bits of information wherever he could. In the end, I bought him a 20 cent street ice cream called FANMILK. He smiled and downed the special treat. I came to Africa to help the people of Burkina Faso but I'm not an idealist. I understand that I alone will not be able to bring development and healthcare to Burkina Faso. Yet, in this boy I have come to understand why I came to Africa. To exhange ideas, culture and smiles with the people. To show them the best side of America and in turn learn from their culture. I want to understand the lessons that West Africa has to offer.

Until then, training continues....

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Welcome to Burkina Faso

This is my first ever blog post in an attempt to share my experiences in Burkina Faso, West Africa with my family and friends.

The experience of traveling to West Africa can be life changing. I myself have visited the African continent two times before. I have even visted Burkina Faso but something felt different this time as I boarded the plan from Paris to Ouagadougou. I had committed to the Peace Corps. I was no longer a tourist but a volunteer on the adventure of a lifetime.

Before departing for Africa, Peace Corps volunteers must complete a rigorous staging in a selectd American city. The volunteers and I assembled in Philly to begin our 27 month journey. Everyone in my group is wonderful and we enjoyed our only night in Philly with a few hamburgers, beers and ice cream. The process of transplanting 57 volunteers from America to West Africa is no easy ordeal. The fatigue began to mount but the constant rush of adrenaline keeps you moving though the endless airports, bus rides, baggage claims and checkpoints.

Arriving in on the Ouagadougou tarmac was like coming home. It had been exactly 2 years since my previous adventure in Togo and it all came rushing back to my head. The smell of charcoal and fruit hits your nose and the culture shock turns the most benign incident into a cultural experience.

The Peace Corps brought us to an interesting hotel and so far everything has been amazing. Our days have consisted of meetings, language tests, food and security updates. Moving abroad is no simple task. The process of starting of life overseas is tedious, especially when you are in a devleoping country. The people of Burkina Faso are extremely friendly as they guide us through the task of getting bicycles, ATM accounts, cell phones and changing money.

The weather has been hot and humid and the silence of the night is broken by a million grasshoppers having an orchestra outside my window.

In the next few days, we will begin our training in the northern half of Burkina Faso. By monday I will have my host family and begin community health training. My french skills are coming back fast and I think everyone is looking forward to experiencing the culture of Burkina firsthand.

I hope everyone is doing well back in the States. I miss everyone very much. I want to thank ya'll for the support. Leaving for the Peace Corps is no easy task and everyone including my family were very supportive of my endeavor. I will try my best to keep in contact with everyone as much as possible. The internet situation can be flaky at times so please bare with me. If you interested in my adventures just shoot me an email or facebook message. Or you could always come visit. Africa is waiting for you!

Au revoir mes amis,