3The perks of living in a fishbowl
- Nov 26, 2004Greetings America!
So November 2nd, huh? What were you thinking? Here's a sneak peak
at your next 4 State of the Unions:
Terror, terrorists, terrorism, war, evil, "nucular," defeat, enemies,
WAR IS PEACE, terror!, pay no attention to that man behind the
curtain! civilization's most sacred institution! just look at that
stunning job recovery! we will prevail!
What you will not hear: Osama, WMDs--whoops!, deficit, we might as
well try diplomacy in North Korea cause they ain't got no oil!
Anyway, I'm in Ouaga once more, exceptionally allowed to leave
village to celebrate Thanksgiving. The American embassy here hosts
a big Thanksgiving potluck at the ambassador's house. The hungry,
dirty Peace corps volunteers have a bad reputation for showing up
empty handed and chowing down vast quantities of the missionaries'
contribution. But I at least brought brownies. Well, I helped make
them. Actually, I just bought the egg. But I certainly did my part
to consume the goods. Two heaving platefuls, and then back again
for desert. I need the reserves of fat for my return to village.
Meanwhile, the west african cycle of seasons continues on its merry
way, from rain, to heat, and now to dust. The Harmattan wind is
blowing through, bringing with it chapped lips, cracked feet, and
stuffy noses. You can taste the dust in the air, but hell, I'll take
it! At least it's cool and possible to sleep at night. It's also
harvest time, which means party time in village.
Speaking of which...
WELCOME TO ZAMSE
A month ago I moved into Zamsé. Zamsé has a population of
about 2500, though you'd never guess it looking around, since
everyone is spread out over several kilometers, living amongst their
fields. Zamsé is probably best defined by what it doesn't have:
water, electricity, phones within 15km, police, gendarmes, local
government, fruits and vegetables, a gay bar (or even beer for that
matter), and hills. Now, if you're gonna be living in an African
village for 2 years, it may as well be a pretty African village. So,
during our site placement interviews, I asked for some place with
greenery and scenery. But instead, I got yellowery and flattery. Erm,
flatness. Dude, this place is flat. So flat that I wrote a little
diddy about it. Wanna hear it?
They asked me what I'd like best
I didn't mean it, they guessed
The scenery's nil
Not one single hill
Flat as Paris Hilton's chest
I can't say that the place is ugly. Slightly desolate, perhaps. But
it bears a slight resemblance to our romantic visions of the African
savannah--if you squint your eyes a little bit, switch the tall
waving millet for tall waving grasses, the donkeys for dingoes, and
the goats for gazelles, and ignore the cock-a-doodle-doos. And hey,
if I'm desperate for a hill, I can always bike 10k. JEALOUS?
I'd also be lying if I said I lived in a hut. I actually have a
pretty nice pad, way bigger than I need. It used to be the old
maternity/delivery ward (guess that explains all the blood on the
walls!) but they built a bigger, better one next door, so for the
past 4 years it's served as a home for PCVs, and will for the next
2. I've got a big bedroom/living room, a kitchen, a home gym (oh
yes!), and a spare room that for now I'm dubbing the play room. High
ceilings and a tin roof, an open covered porch in one corner, all
wrapped up in striking cubist architecture. It's a mansion really,
and I feel a little guilty having it all to myself. But not too
SO WHAT AM I DOING HERE??
To tell you the truth, I often wonder this myself. But if
it's a job description you're after, I'm happy to give it a shot.
Burkina has a centralized health system, and at the bottom of the
hierarchy are 1500ish village health clinics, which are staffed by a
state-employed nurses, and depending on their size, other personnel
like assistant nurses, midwives, etc. Each clinic covers an area of
8-15 or so surrounding villages in a radius of 10k, and are in
principle managed by village representatives. Health volunteers in
Burkina are posted to one of these clinics, charged with the mission
of improving the quality of life in the village and surrounding
area. Vague enough for you? We're not allowed to treat people, but
focus instead mostly on preventative health care. This includes
stuff like improving the management of the clinic, educating the
population about various health issues (sanitation, malaria, STIs,
HIV/AIDS, nutrition, etc) and more touchy social issues (forced
marriages, female genital mutilation, family planning, etc),
motivating community groups, and being all-around cheerleaders for
community health. Really its up to us to decide what the priorities
are in our villages and figure out how to tackle them. The idea is
for the work to be sustainable, so it gets carried on after you
leave, like putting together a theater group that does AIDS-themed
performances, etc. And we can take on whatever side projects we so
desire. It's really unstructured, which has its benefits, but means
feeling quite useless for the first couple months... or longer?
As for my village, we've got only one nurse for a population
of 10,000, so he's consulting by day, delivering babies by night;
instead of cleaning, the janitor gives the shots and assists with
minor surgery; and the management committee doesn't really manage,
cause they're illiterate, and don't speak french. Oh boy.
Before thanksgiving, we went on a 4-day 6-team vaccination
spree to all our surrounding villages, biking from courtyard to
courtyard to administer an oral polio vaccine and vitamin A to all
the screaming children under 5 years old. I tagged along, rising at
the ungodly hour of 5:30am, and biking between 10 and 22k to get to
the villages, and then back when we were done. All in all, I
probably saw 100 courtyards and 400 kids.
*Innumerable children bursting into tears and dogs growling upon
seeing my freakish white skin.
*I was offered two wives. (one 8 years old and the other 3)
*The biggest bellybutton I've ever seen. For some reason kids here
get major outies that stick out an inch or 2 from their bellies and
then shrink when they get older. But this one kid's bellybutton was
HUGE--a good 6 inches. It was like half a yam sticking out of his
stomach. I was impressed.
*All kinds of boobs. Well, mostly the kind resembling tube socks
that droop down to the bellybutton. It's a little awkward shaking
hands with topless grannies. Hey I'm all for women's lib. It just
takes some getting used to.
CURRENTLY SERVING INTESTINAL PARASITE #: 3
Please take a number.
PEACE CORPS: Your poop will never be the same.
THERE ARE PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS STARVING IN AFRICA
Just think about that next time you leave food on your plate.
Before leaving for village, I did some shopping at the big expensive
western grocery store in Ouaga, Marina Market. In a brilliant use
of foresight, all I bothered getting were big jars of mayo and
mustard, figuring I'd easily get what I needed once in village.
Now in village, seeking out one by one the four necessities
of life (food, cold water, shelter, and getting laid). Now, health
volunteers are in luck for the cold water, cause we get to sneak our
nalgene bottles into the freezer of the gas-powered fridge used to
store vaccine vials. With this matter settled, I went to our one and
only boutique, which, in terms of the first necessity, sells only
spaghetti and rice. So, the first day I cooked up some spaghetti
with mustard on my gas stove. The second day I had rice with
mustard. The third day I decided to mix it up a bit and have
spaghetti and rice. There was a crusty bottle of hot sauce 2 years
expired left behind by my predecessor, so I added a dash of that. On
the fourth day I got desperate and had rice with mayo. Not bad,
really, if you're starving.
By the end of the first week, I was ready to go to my
neighbors begging for To. When I did a little tour of the village,
riding around visiting a bunch of courtyards, they must have seen
the hunger in my eyes, because they all sent me off with peanuts. Is
that all I'm worth to you people? I thought. Hey, I'll take it! I
came back with enough peanuts to fill a very large bowl.
Unfortunately, it took as many calories to shell a peanut as I gained
from eating it.
I used the last of my wasting muscles to ride to Imane, my
PCV neighbor 15k to the south. She lives in a veritable metropolis,
cause her boutique carries canned peas, cous cous, powdered milk and
tomato paste! I dropped a wad of cash, quickly becoming a preferred
customer. I returned to village with a backpack full of goods. Not
only that, but my helper, Sophie, took my all-natural organic
peanuts and transformed them into all-natural organic peanut butter!
Finally, the proof I'd been seeking that there is a God, and a
benevolent one at that.
I've since managed to diversify my repertoire considerably.
The real feasts happen when Imane comes to visit, stuff like pasta
topped with a rich garlic ginger eggplant peanut-butter sauce, and,
in a stroke of genius on my part, ICE CREAM. (full fat powdered
milk, sugar, stick in the freezer and voila!) It turned out a
little more like milk shake goo, but let me go on the record as
saying it was delicious and I am amazing. Mix in a little peanut
butter... Brilliant. In fact, I've discovered the only thing that
doesn't quite go with peanut butter is tomato paste. Yet another
life lesson from the Peace Corps.
I swear, I'll be such a junk food junkie by the time I get
home. Bring on the cheez-its and the ho-ho's! Meanwhile, don't be
surprised if I come back from Africa with a new set of love-handles.
MY WAR ON MICE
I spent my entire weeklong site visit cleaning up my place.
It was filthy, but at least when I got back in 6 weeks, I'd be
moving into a nice clean home.
Six weeks later, when the Peace Corps van dropped me off at
my new home, nature had reclaimed what it considered its own.
Everything was covered in a fresh coat of dust. I had 20 or so
lizards in my bedroom, a massive ant colony in the kitchen, and a
cozy nest of a dozen mice hidden in a wooden door in my gym.
Fortunately, I had no time for a breakdown, because a bunch of
village guys had showed up to greet me and move in my stuff. They
grabbed brooms, swept up a storm, and then proceeded to use them to
whack the lizards and mice. My bleeding heart had pangs of guilt,
and I had half a mind to tell them, "you don't need to kill them,
just set them free!" and the other half saying "ok, kill them." I
The next two weeks, I continued to clean, and clean, and
goddamnit if I didn't need to just keep cleaning some more. I went
through housewife syndrome, depressed that the cleaning would never
end. Any of you who saw my dorm room in its natural state will know
that I'm not a clean-freak by any stretch. But even I have my
Evidently, the arrival massacre hadn't been complete. Every
day, I would rise to find a new collection of mouse pellets all
around my kitchen. What's worse, they were digging into my food, my
precious food! I picked out the pellets and ate it of course, still
insulted by their lack of consideration. I put up with this for a
couple weeks, but they grew brave, poking their heads out and
clattering the pots and pans as soon as I stepped out to eat dinner.
Eventually I said enough. The mice have to die.
My weapon: poison. Cowardly, I thought, but I can't bring
myself to whack them with a broom. Nor do I have the agility. But
I can make damn good poisoned cous-cous. They'll die feasting.
The next morning, I cleared out 5 dead mice from the floor
and dropped them down my latrine, ready to get on with a pellet-free
cuisine. Curiously, though, over the next couple of days, all my
cooking began to smell more and more like rotting mouse. It turns
out my metal kitchen table was constructed in such a way as to allow
a mouse to easily crawl in and die, and also make it nearly
impossible to said rotting mouse out. I tried banging it out, I
tried plugging up the holes, but the eerie stench remained, and I
sensed a deep defeat. I simply cannot win.
MY WAR ON SCORPION 2000
Back home we call them pincher bugs. They're small ugly
little things with pinchers on their butts. When I asked my village
friend what they were called, I heard Scorpion deux mille. I think,
wow, that's an odd name for a bug, but I like it. What he actually
said was Scorpion de mille, millet scorpions, little jerks that come
out along with the millet harvest. But I preferred to call them
Scorpion 2000s. Who knew they came in such large numbers?
Those Scorpion 2000s like to go everywhere. Underneath lids,
inside books, inside clothing, and, the ultimate sin, inside my
mosquito netted fortress. I did spot checks before going to bed
every night, finding numerous under my pillows, on the nets,
everywhere. That's not a way to get my sympathy. I crushed them
all without remorse. During the night I'd feel a little tickle on
my leg. Is that a trickle of sweat? I grope for my glasses and my
flashlight. It's a Scorpion 2000 crawling up my leg. Unlike the
ugly beastly roaches, these things don't even try to avoid you. I
scrambled awake 3 more times that night with more on my chest and
Where were they coming from? I had no idea. Somewhere on the
ceiling. The next night I tucked in my netting extra carefully. I
killed 20 around the room before going to bed. Every 30 seconds I
heard one dropping into the room beside my bed--plip! plip!-- and I
scrambled to crush it from within my mosquito net. I stayed awake
for 2 hours, crushing more than I could count. But I got them
all... Finally there was a lull. IS THERE NO ONE ELSE? IS THERE NO
ONE ELSE?! Good. Finally I could sleep.
LIFE IN A FISHBOWL: MY WAR ON CHILDREN
The volunteers during training told us to resist the urge to
throw rocks at the kids in village, and I laughed. I would be
buddies with the village kids, hang out with them, hear their
stories, teach them neat things about the world, and wouldn't that be
Now my house has a nice little covered porch area with some
reclining chairs and beside it a hammock that the previous volunteer
left behind. Surrounding this corner of my house is a mud brick
wall enclosing my courtyard that has worn down to about 3 and a half
feet, and on one side a wide open gap serving as the entrance.
During my first lonely week, children would come through the
gap, shake my hand, and take a seat on the chair or the hammock or
the floor, or just stand around the table I keep outside. Company!
They didn't talk to me, but that's cool, we're hangin out, we're
chillin. And chillin. And we're still chillin, and they're talking
about me, but that's ok. And now I wonder if they're ever gonna
leave. And so I sat, reading, or doing whatever I was doing before
the visitors arrived, now trying to ignore their presence, the fact
that they were staring at me and wondering what they were saying
about me. Eventually they'll leave, I think. Eventually they do.
Then they began coming at rather inopportune hours. As I
revelled in fantasy dream-land, I'd hear a congregation forming on
my porch, the shuffling of chairs, and then some clapping and
some "kwa kwa kwa!"s to announce their presence. What the hell do
they want? It's fucking 6 am. The sun is barely showing. If I
ignore them, they'll go away. Five Kwa kwa kwa!s later, I give in,
gt up, put on some clothes. I open the door to a couple of kids. I
shake their extended hands. Yes? You're here because? Do you know
it's early? We stare at each other a minute. Well I hate to be
rude, but I was sleeping... More stares. I guiltily shut the door on
them and hop back into bed. Eventually I hear them leave.
And then, later in the day, there would be more. They'd
touch my bike. No, you can't have it. No, you can't ride it.
Please don't change the... Look, just leave it alone. No, you
can't have my nalgene. No, I don't have money. No, you can't have
my book... Listen, I've got nothing to give you! Fine, water.
They'd all drink water, saying "Blah blah blah nassara blah blah
Nassara..." I'd get hungry, waiting for them to leave so I wouldn't
feel guilty eating my lunch of spaghetti, rice and mayo in front of
all of them. Listen, kids, I'm gonna make my lunch, so... Stares.
So I'd appreciate it if...
Soon I came to appreciate that Burkinabe children can't take
a hint. Nor do they understand the concepts of "Privacy" "peace and
quite" "personal space" "alone time" "why are you here" or "what are
you looking at?" This is no time for politesse. Feeling like an
asshole, I tell them, ok, time to go. You have to leave. Get out
of here. They stare at me a minute while I wonder if they
understood anything, then slowly file out.
I go inside and make lunch, and 10 minutes later, come out to
see that they're back, and their numbers have doubled. I get worked
up. I told you to get out, so go! Yibe! Scram! They laugh at me,
and begin mocking my French. This I don't appreciate. I point out
the mocker and tell him to leave first. They don't get it. They go
out, giggling. And they stand outside my wall, staring in at me,
still mocking me and laughing at my struggle. It's at this point
that I find myself fantasizing about throwing a rock at them. I
lose it. I scream "ALLEZ!" at the top of my lungs, and they jump,
then go on their merry way. I lock myself in my room, ashamed at my
temper. I drop in bed. For the next 20 minutes, I hear the kids
repeating my scream, and laughing in the distance.
My first project as a PCV will be to build a moat. In the
meantime, I order a large straw gate to fill that gap in my wall.
It hasn't helped. This means war.
Oh, it's goin great!
MAN'S BEST FRIEND, FRIED: MY WAR ON PUPPY
The volunteer-compiled Peace Corps Burkina Faso cookbook has
a section on how to slaughter and prepare animals to eat, like
lizards, rabbits, and of course chicken. When I read the part about
how to slaughter a dog, I laughed. (as in, ha ha, my god, what kind
of sick bastard would want to do such a thing? (as it turns out, my
predecessor in Zamsé for one)). And then I went and got a puppy.
The PCV hostel in Ouaga has a library of books left by
volunteers and free for the taking. I stocked up big-time before
heading to village, using up baggage space that might have more
intelligently be used for food. One book that caught my eye was How
to Raise a Puppy You Can Live With. I'd considered getting a puppy,
so I picked it up and brought it along.
One fine market day in village, I was strolling through the
market, eyeing the impressive lack of vegetables. As I rounded one
corner, there was sitting an adorable little puppy, beckoning me to
come pet it, and so I did. Almost immediately, a lady sitting nearby
selling rice asked me if I wanted to buy it. A crowd formed around
us. Is the Nassara going to buy a puppy? A translator stepped
forward. Are you serious? I asked. Of course she was. I hadn't
prepared myself to get a dog so soon, and I was sure I hadn't thought
it through (shots? spaying? feeding?) but geeze, I already had the
book! And so I bought her for 50 cents. (I've been chastized
numerous times since that I should have only payed 10)
I carried her through the marché, the wide dumb grin of a new
parent on my face. She was so well-behaved as I rode her home, her
head sticking out of my backpack. Once chez moi I whipped out the
camera and got photo-happy. Me, a dad. And what a good little puppy
The first night, she crapped and pissed on my floor, chewed
on my glasses, my chairs, my mosquito net, my pillow, my rug, my
books, my birks, and my ear, and when she wasn't busy chewing she
howled and whined. Shit. This was such a mistake. I didn't sleep
much that night. Or the next two. Or even now.
Soon enough, though, I had her crapping outside, and she even
followed me to pee at night. Her whining waned. But never did she
stop chewing. It's not as if she's deprived of things to chew.
There's a whole world to chew on outside the house. But somehow
that's just not satisfying for her. She insists on chewing my
sandles, my clothes, my furniture, my bags. And she knows what NO
means, oh, she knows. She just does it to taunt me, to test me. At
night I'll hear a crunch crunch and I'll wake up, shout NO! and
shine the flashlight on her. She'll flash me her little puppy dog
eyes, I'll roll over, close my eyes, and then more crunch crunch
crunch. When I've had enough of this game, I'll put her outside and
listen to her cry for an hour. Back inside, chew chew chew. For
the love of god, dog, just stop! My sleepless nights made me even
crankier than usual... and, although I'm vegetarian, pondered if I
would make an exception. Every minute of the day I have to tell her
NO! and she listens, for a couple seconds. Eventually, she'll give
in, and, in a fit of frustration, start chewing on her foot instead.
She also loves to eat cow shit. I tried telling her not to,
that that's kind of gross, but I gave up. She'll eat cow shit if
she wants to, and if I try to stop her, she'll just want it more.
She even brings cow pies home to eat. Several times she's vomited
(her favorite place to vomit being on the rug, as opposed to the
cement floor). She eats it all back up immediately, thankfully, but
I wondered what the dark spots were in her vomit, and discovered they
were pebbles! Lots of them. Damn, dog, maybe that's why you're
vomiting! Still, she goes around eating rocks, and yet again I'm
helpless. Is this a common behavior for dogs, or is she just very
I'm terribly indecisive, so it took the help of another
volunteer to name her Soyaka, which in Moore means "crossroads,"
which, appropriately, happens to be my favorite film in recent
memory. But the name's not sticking for whatever reason, so I might
switch it to Kipare, meaning chili pepper. Or I'll just change it
every couple weeks, and give her an identity complex. I'm sorry
pup, I read the book, I'm doing my best.
Are children this difficult?
MY CHRISTMAS WISHLIST
*electric fencing (solar powered)
If you send any of these items, you should note that if possible it's
best to send in a padded envelope rather than a box if possible
(otherwise I have to bike 40k to pick it up at the post and pay a
small fee--which I'm totally willing to do). Also, it turns out
regular Air Mail is faster and more reliable than Global Priority.
Oh... and some ritalin for the pup. Thanks. =)
ONLY 23 MONTHS TO GO, folks. All this futile warmongering makes me
wonder if I'll really come back from this a better person. I'm
feeling a bit like a crotchety old Scrooge--I've never wanted to
throw rocks at malnourished kids before, after all. Or ruthlessly
kill mice or eat dogs. If I make it through, it will be with a
patience made of steel.