Sunday, May 4, 2008


I realized some time ago my education here goes way beyond the local language and customs. I’ve become familiar with so many new sounds. I now know the sound of a chicken when it’s being killed, a goat when it’s giving birth, the baby next door when it’s hungry. I know the sound of the tonal repetitions in the local language when two close friends meet in passing; the rumble of the flour grinder two houses down and the hum of a nearby generator; the sound of mice and big lizards running around my ceiling at night and the ruckus that ensues when one chases the other (I always root for the lizard); the sound of the marché across the way from me carrying on well into the night; the deep-throated grumble of cattle as they graze in front of my house; the low clicking orders of their herder; the whining of children versus the baying of goats, though I swear one goat sounds like he’s always saying in a deep grumpy voice “Badddddd!” (I’ve named him Eeyore); all the different bird and insect calls. I’m even learning to discern the voice of each student who, in passing at night, will see me cooking dinner by candlelight and holler out from the dark “Good Evening, Madame Catherine!”

There are no glass windows here, just metal shutters and sometimes screens, so you can hear everything going on within several dozen meters. With all the noise I find myself listening more. That is, before I put in earplugs at night to try and get some sleep!

Friday, May 2, 2008

April 2008

“Chaleur, Circumcisions, and Mangos, Mangos, Mangos!”

After so much traveling, it was nice to settle back into village life. In addition to school, I started meeting regularly with two work partners beginning to organize Badjoudé’s second annual International “Day of the African Child” celebration – a festival highlighting primary school talents in traditional theater, music, and dance, while at the same time educating about children’s rights. The last two weeks were spent moto-ing around the countryside visiting over 20 little primary schools in the commune, inviting them to participate—tiring but fun!

One weekend was spent in a nearby village, Anandana, attending a mountain-top circumcision fête – grown men, no anesthesia, not allowed to show any sign of pain. Incredible. In a totally opposite vein, the next day was spent at the 1st birthday party for the little girl of my best friend in village – Mounirou, Badjoudé’s Sage Femme (“wise woman” or mid-wife).

The party was as delightfully chaotic as a one year-old’s birthday should be : complete with collapsing chairs, near choking, popping balloons, and three costume changes for the princess of the day! I helped serve food and supervise then spent the rest of the time taking pictures of the kids. Nearly 100, to be exact. I couldn’t help myself, they were so cute!

Another weekend I had the honor of hosting my two lovely post-mates Heidi and Lindsey and my best bud Megan. They came to help me paint a world map at my school since the original had long since peeled. It took us three long days but in the end it was beautiful and fairly proportionally accurate to boot. Us, my homologue, and a geography teacher who helped all celebrated afterwards with cokes and galettes with fresh piment sauce at Badjoudé’s one buvette (bar). My colleagues tell me they have already been using it to teach their classes about continents.

Last but certainly not least, April announced the arrival of true mango season. Mangos now compromise a good third of my diet. Everyone walks around with a mango in hand or mouth, even the goats! Everyone has the tell-tale strings in their teeth. Yellow poo abounds. Just as exciting as mango season was the long-awaited return of the rains. When we had our first shower after so many dry months I went out and twirled in it. I hope never to take rain for granted again.

March 2008

“In - and out - like a lion”

With a week of in-service training on an organic farm in Porto Novo and another week of training ending with the ALL-VOL(unteer) Conference, I felt like I wasn’t in village very much- though long enough to crash a king’s funeral (ie. huge party with traditional dance and lots of food) and go to a local Women’s Day celebration on March 8th. However, the month yielded plenty of quality hanging-out time with volunteer friends, including an all-night dance party on a terrace overlooking the ocean!

After a second week in air-conditioning with other Americans it was time to get back to village. When I got home, the dead bat in my kitchen sink was a nice slap back into reality!

Burkina Faso -- February 15-25, 2008


What a trip! When we take off in a rattly mini-bus for the north-western border of Benin, we have no idea what we’re in for. There are five of us: Jordan, Megan, Phoebe, Rima, and myself and we are about to get to know each other a lot better.

The mini-bus in itself is an adventure -- things are looking pretty good until we cross the border. Not long after, the engine starts making ungodly racket which includes ear-piercing pops out the back every few minutes. The other passengers don’t seem concerned so we decide ‘when in Burkina, do as the Burkinabé’ and patiently wait for the breakdown. It doesn’t take long. The medley of ‘repair stops’ follow in quick succession. In between stops, the chauffeur keeps insisting everything is fine despite the fact the car is moving at approximately 1.5 mph. I’m not kidding. I couldn’t look at the window without cracking up, especially after we got passed by loaded down donkey carts. TWICE. Accepting the situation, we each tried to distract ourselves from the fact that if we weren’t so lazy we very well could get out and walk faster to Ouagadougou.

Several hours later, the driver finally admits defeat and we hail down another mini-bus, much to the chagrin of its already crammed-in passengers. Eventually, we make it and celebrate that night with a dinner of salad, french fries, and chocolate mousse. Our first taste of Ouagadougou is delicious.

The good thing about our prolonged arrival was there was plenty of time to take in the Burkina landscape. My first impressions are stronger than I expect – Burkina definitely has a feel altogether different from Benin. To begin, there are donkeys everywhere! I couldn’t remember seeing one such beast of burden in Benin (though plenty of asses…) but now they were everywhere you looked. Also, villages are more spread apart and houses are consistently mud-brick, without the sprinkling of cement building seen in Benin. All this backs up our knowledge of Burkina Faso as one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite the obvious hardship, there’s a great spirit here. The people are friendly and laid back, even more so than the Beninese. This was characterized by their use of the expression “il n’y pas de probleme” (“no problem!”) in about every other sentence. You couldn’t help but smile. And then, of course, there’s Ouagadougou.

Ouaga is a pleasant surprise. It’s a clean and relaxed city, or at least seems it in comparison to Cotonou which Lonely Planet describes akin to “being stuck in a taxi with a chain-smoking speed freak.” There’s green space and lots of people on bicycles, even businessmen. Every two years, Ouaga plays host to Africa’s most important film festival, and the effects of this role are clearly visible, not the least of which in the many movie theaters.

That first morning we walk directly down the street, past the huge central mosque, and buy a kilo of strawberries before going to a supermarket (a real supermarket!) where we purchase baguettes and goat cheese. We then classily gobble this breakfast feast outside on the curb. Even with all the build-up, the strawberries are worth the wait. Having heard they were grown in Burkina we became increasingly distraught when our many stops in villages along the way yielded no sightings. Finally, just before getting dropped at our hotel we see a woman carrying a huge pyramid of red that wasn’t tomatoes or piment!

That day we mostly just wander around… without realizing, we had planned our first full day in Ouaga on a Sunday and everything was closed. However, we do manage to find a BOWLING ALLEY, and are unable to resist, especially considering the total lack of more culturally appropriate options. They even have the cool shoes! That night we treat ourselves to lasagna and the best kiwi sorbet in the world at a popular ex-pat restaurant.

Having had a taste of indulgent city life, we head out early the next morning for Bobo-Dialasso. As if the name isn’t cool enough (locals call it simply ‘Bobo’) this transit town instantly wins me over. Centered around its huge market, the small city lazily makes it way down tree-lined streets bustling with merchants, tourists, and people going to and from work. Just one block from the market, our hotel is in a perfect location.

Wasting no time, we drop off our stuff and take off on foot for Kibidwe, the historic district landmarked by an extraordinary 19th century mosque. Touring the quartier requires guides and we luck out with two easy-going guys who deftly lead us through winding alleys and mud-brick passageways. Since most the buildings are still inhabited, we regularly glimpse families going about their daily routine, some greet us warmly while the rest ignore us completely. Along the way we see a sacrificial mound, a river of “sacred fish,” and many artisans eager to sell us their over-priced goods. Despite our unhappy new role as tourists, nothing can take away from the overall awesomeness of the experience. The genuineness of the people and their lifestyle emanates and I leave feeling honored to have shared in their culture, if only for an hour. The tours ends at the mosque which, with its many towers and protruding wooden struts, is by far the coolest I’d seen since arriving in West Africa.

On the topic of superlatives, Bobo’s Grande Marché wins “Best West African Market.” It’s expansive, but not overwhelming. Labrynthine lanes branch out from a central star-shaped cement structure open to the sky. Occupying the inner circle are the fruit and vegetable stalls, watched over by colorfully clad women. From here to the market’s outer rim are stalls of most anything you can imagine, including booth after booth of beautiful African prints. The wider lanes are covered by thin muslin sheets that billow in the breeze and glow in the afternoon sun.

The market also has great food, saucy pasta with the most incredible, melt-in-your-mouth cooked cabbage. Yes, cabbage. You’d have to taste it to believe it.

The next morning we walk to a museum which to our delight has a gallery of contemporary local artwork, in addition to displays of traditional ceremonial items. Even more exciting (especially for Megan our resident art history major) our guide is one of the artists being showcased and the other arrives within a couple minutes. Megan, Phoebe, and I each end up buying small canvas pieces painted with all-natural mud dyes. For the equivalent of 15 US dollars we purchase truly unique African art and get to chat with the artists afterward! Continuing through the small but charming museum, we tour two models of traditional nomadic and sedentary (farming community) Burkinabé homes. We later mingle with more local artisans working on batiks, iron, and wood carvings on a shady hillside behind the museum.

That afternoon we put on our swimsuits and pile into a taxi in search of “La Guinguette,” described as a crystal clear bathing area in the middle of a lush forest. Sounds good! Supposed to be only 18 km out of Bobo, after 45 minutes it becomes clear our driver has no idea where he is going. He claims he “went there as a child” and “thinks he remembers a short-cut.” What follows is a ridiculous comedy of errors which find us trespassing into a water-processing plant, driving down an empty creek bed and through several families’ compounds, and finally coming in the back way to a mission where we are told “Oh yes, of course, just down the road” when we ask for directions. Three hours after setting off we arrive hot and sweaty, only to hear the news that visitors are no longer allowed to swim. FINE. We decide to go see it anyway and it ends up being a beautiful little hike complete with a suspension walking bridge, a valley of ferns, and (as promised) a crystal clear swimming hole no longer used for swimming.

The next morning, the real fun begins. Sitting in front of our hotel drinking coffee, we notice large groups of people roaming around the streets. We heard the market would be closed due to a one-day strike but had no idea it was quickly spreading into a nation-wide protest against rising product costs.

So we continue sipping our coffee, casually watching as the groups of people (upon closer inspection all men, mostly young) get increasingly rowdier, at one point tearing down a stop sign and setting fire to some tires in the middle of an intersection. They also have started building road-blocks which, when we look down the road in the opposite direction, we see are for approaching armed police vehicles. When we start to smell something suspiciously like tear gas our sweet and overprotective waiter Andre kindly suggests we move inside. As bizarre as the situation may sound, we never felt in danger. We were part of a crowd of people, tourists and locals, standing on the side of the street just watching. No one was paying a bit of attention to us.

We later wander down the empty streets to the bakery where we buy some pastries black market-style, out the side door since -- for solidarity’s sake -- they’re not supposed to be open. Accepting we won’t be getting out of the city that day (police have all roads blocked) we resign ourselves to a day by the pool in a nearby hotel. It’s there we run into Cory, a Burkina volunteer, who is there with his parents who are visiting from Tennessee.

Thanks to him, we get the full update on the situation and realize we should probably call Peace Corps Benin to let them know we’re okay. Within a few hours, what starts as a simple check-in call escalates to the point of all of us being escorted by a Peace Corps SUV to a hotel outside the city. There we meet with Burkina’s safety officer who makes it sound like we’ll be on lock-down for a couple of days. Not so, the next morning the country director calls to tell us to be ready to leave in 15 minutes and “pack light” since we’d be squeezing in nearby volunteers – 16 in all for one car –to evacuate to a different town. Already loving what a good story this has become, we’re all in a jovial mood as we introduce ourselves and cozy up for the 2 hour ride. In a huge coincidence, I end up in the back of the SUV, knee-to-knee with a girl I graduated with from William and Mary! In the words of Ani DiFranco “the world is absurd, and beautiful, and small.”

The next day finds us back on the road again, this time doing a cross-country trip dropping off three Burkina volunteers in their villages before finally pulling up to the Peace Corps transit house in Ouagadougou at 7:30 that night. Early the next morning us and three other Benin volunteers who had been passing through are driven to the border where we are met by Noel, our safety guy, and another air-conditioned SUV. And so ends our Burkina adventure, safe and sound back in Benin, having not done everything on our itinerary but having seen more than we could have imagined.

On Mangos -- February 2008

I’ve had my first taste of African mango and now I can’t get enough. You cannot imagine how good it is: how juicy, how sweet, how full of flavor, how decadent, how (yes, I’m going there) sensuous.

Lindsey, my friend and post-mate, is of the mind that papaya is the sexiest fruit. (This is just one of many important things PC volunteers debate in our free time) To back up her claim, she points to the fruits’ shape – gently curving like that of a woman’s hips. Once cut open, you find the fleshy fruit protects an inner core that, once punctured, bursts forth a hundred squishy, delicate black seeds.

The symbolism is definitely there; I would say the papaya is the most womb-like, most womanly, perhaps most strongly feminine of fruits, but is it sexy?

For that distinction, I feel we must go further than just appearance and look at the whole experience. The color, the taste, the texture, the fullness of flavor, the way it drips down your chin. Taking the entire aesthetic and eating experience as a whole, I think mangos must win hands down.

Their color – the skin is deep green that shifts to crimson as it ripens. On the inside is the brightest, most unapologetically orange you’ve ever seen. It’s a happy but strong color.
The taste and smell is full and sweet. Never overwhelming, just keeps you wanting more.

Now the best part is when you eat it. Never quite finding the perfect cutting method to get the fruit closest to the pit, you resort to taking it by hand and eating open-mouthed with juices going everywhere, the taste and smell filling your senses.

Not that you LOOK particularly sexy. I’ve eaten only a few mangos so far and it’s always at this moment, when I’ve given up cutting and pick up the whole pulpy orange mess, and sucking what remains stuck to the pit, it’s always at this time I’m terrified a neighbor or student will come knocking. I won’t have enough time to clean all the juices off my hands and face and they will KNOW. They’ll smell the distinct sweetness, see the orange strings in my teeth, and know I am greedy enough to be eating mangos two months before season!

Go forth and hunt one down for yourself. I promise you even the worst mango is ten times better than the best banana. Hands down.