Ciao from Ouagadougou!
I'm a little worse for wear after ringing in the New Year
with a wild Cancun Spring Break 2005 Beach Party, minus the beach,
but here I am once more, diligently filling you in on the word from
the bush. I'm nearing the end of my first 3 months in village and
the first 6 in Burkina. Seen the third world, lived in a hut, eaten
the To, bleeted with the goats, sunbathed with the lizards, and been
known simply as "the white guy." All right, so what's next? Oh,
right. More of the above. A year and 9 months more. Shit.
Sure, coming here sounded like a big adventure. And it has
been, I must admit. But the novelty wears off, and then you realize
you gotta LIVE here. The reality of my life in Zamse is frankly
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A NASSARA
4:45 am- Stirred from slumber by the amoebas. Can it wait til...?
No. It definitely can't. Must brave the roaches in the latrine.
4:47 am- Pull up my shorts. --Hold it... Not done yet!
4:50 am- Kick dog out of bed. Crash.
6:00 am- Sun rises
6:01 am- Dog's sleeping pills wear off. Stop licking me, dog. Let
me sleep, damnit! Stop chewing the desk! Fine, I'm up.
6:15 am- Record my dream about chinese buffet.
6:30 am- Summon the energy to do yoga out of my illustrated guide
from the library in Ouaga like a good peace corps volunteer.
7:00 am- Dog is napping.
7:15 am- Dress, sunscreen, pop a doxy to stave off the malaria, feed
and water dog, fill my water bottles, put out my evening shower
bucket to warm in the sun, pack my backpack, munch on some crunchy
8:15 am- Am I forgetting something?
8:20 am- Oh... brush teeth.
8:30 am- Maybe I should go to the clinic.
9:00 am- I really should go to the clinic.
9:30 am- Listen, if I don't go to the clinic and put my water in the
freezer, it won't be cold for lunch.
9:32 am- Out the door.
9:33 am- Greet women sitting outside waiting for their prenatal
consultations. Stick my water in the freezer as if it's not the
main reason I'm going there. Take my seat inside as my counterpart
nurse consults the women. I understand nothing.
9:34-10:00 am- Stare at wall.
10:01 am- Work up motivation to ask a question. My counterpart takes
this as an invitation to complain about his job, how he hasn't slept
or eaten since yesterday cause there was a woman giving birth and a
kid in the hospital, and he's got his monthly reports to do yet, and
he's all by himself, and, en tout cas, c'est pas facile!
10:22 am- He finishes responding, poor guy, but I still don't know
how much it costs to give birth in the maternity. Motivation lost.
Pile of old Newsweeks from former volunteer beckons. How about I
11:00 am- As I'm busy working, my 14 y/o helper girl Sophie arrives
to clean dishes, fetch water and wash the clothes should I need it.
She gets a slightly generous 7 or 8 dollars a month. Jealous? Oh,
right... You just have the "electricity" do it.
12:00 pm- Look at that! Time for lunch. I sneak my reward out of the
freezer and head home to make a meal that will feed me again at
12:45 pm- Devour my sumptuous spaghetti con tomato paste y agua on
the porch. Damn, I'm good!
1:12 pm- Resent the dog as she eats my last few bites.
1:15-4:00 pm- To read, perchance to nap...
4:00 pm- If it's a marche day (every third), bike over and stock up
on kudakuda for me and the dog. Long for a plump tomato.
4:20 pm- He he he...
4:22 pm- What to do...? I know, read!
5:38 pm- Grab solar-lukewarmed bucket of water, strip nekkid, and
dump it on my head as the sky turns pink. Feels AMAZING. Bucket-
showers are quite the unexpected pleasure. You must try it.
6:00 pm- Sun sets. Stomach rumbles. Must feed the amoebas! But then
Isaaka, my 14 year old village buddy, comes over to chat. Every
night. I appreciate it, but I feel guilty eating in front of him.
All the village kids, actually. So I wait...
7:00 pm- Slap that spaghetti on the gas stove, snag some more ice
water from the clinic, eat on the porch under the stars as I relax
with a crossword. I've been forced to limit myself to one a day.
Two max. Must ration.
7:24 pm- Sleepy sleepy... But I want to listen to the news. I
suppose I could read until
8:00 pm- News headlines on the BBC shortwave.
8:20 pm- Slip into bed. Quality time with right hand.
8:30 pm- I'm out like a log.
8:31 pm- Dog sneaks into bed.
(the language, not Michael)
Now I realized a little while ago that all this reading, as
engrossing as it may be, won't get me nowhere in village. So I've
started making a point of dropping everything at 4:15 every day and
biking over to a random courtyard to greet and visit, whether I have
the urge to or not, cause I usually don't. Apparently it's not the
neighbors' job to welcome the newcomers here, but rather the
newcomer's job to go out and make himself welcome. I didn't make the
rules, so I don't feel bad as I barge in and wait to be offered a
seat. The more awkward part is barging into somebody's home without
speaking their language. But I've got the greetings down. Ready?
As you enter, they say: Welcome!
If you're a guy, you respond: Chief!
If you're a girl, you emit a shrill AAAIEEEEE!
Depending on the level of formality and respect, you crouch down a
certain degree, then grasp hands. (always the right, the left is the
poop hand--fish grips are ok!)
Now you're faced with a rapid-fire barrage of questions to which the
only appropriate answer, no matter how much your day is sucking, is
-How's the afternoon?
-And your work?
-And your family?
-MmmmFAAAAAAAA! (whatever that means)
They stop talking and release your hand. Ok, are we done? No! They
grab it again.
-How was your sleep?
-How did you wake?
-How are the whities?
-And the people from your homeland? They're good?
They let go of the hand. ...is that it? Wait for it... One more
round! Now they start a new barrage, not of questions, but of
benedictions, to which you must reply Amen!
-May God continue your good health!
-May we thank God for your visit!
-May God give you a good day!
The tricky part is knowing when to stop saying Health! and start
with the Amen! If you mess it up they'll laugh at you and you'll
look like a total fool. (But there's no pressure, really, because
you already do).
Repeat with all members of the courtyard.
I don't even do it the right way, cause you're not supposed to wait
for the questions to be posed and answer them individually, but say
everything overlapping, mixing questions and Healths, so it sounds
like a mumbled mess. I'm working on it.
After this little exchange, I've exhausted most of my Moore, save
some phrases I've learned out of necessity:
I don't have a wife.
I already have a wife at home.
I don't want a wife.
They're my wives. (point to nearest Nassaras)
Now that that's out of the way, all there is left to do is sit there
and stare at each other. It used to be incredibly awkward, but
since I've been here, my capacity for sitting and staring at people
without speaking has increased exponentially. So, it turns out this
4:15 pm chunk of the day isn't so painful after all, and I've even
started to enjoy it. Once, I don't know how, a group of wives who
speak no french actually chatted me up for over an hour. Then they
gave me some peanuts. Score! It was a good day.
LIKE A NEWLY CROWNED MISS AMERICA
No, it's not all bad. And to prove it, here's a selection of
things that have brought me to the verge of joyful tears recently:
* On my very first 4:15 greeting outing, finding, hidden in a house
not 70 meters away from mine, a group of guys, speaking FRENCH!
Reading a French Burkinabe newspaper. Playing scrabble--in French!
Turns out they're local elementary school teachers, in my backyard no
less! Thank you Jesus! People to talk to! They whoop my ass at
* We were in the middle of another weeklong series of vaccination
sprees in all our satellite villages. This time, in addition to the
oral polio vaccines, they were also giving measles shots. So now
the children were screaming in horror at the needles, as well as the
mere sight of me. Surround-sound shrieking children all day for 7
days. Someone was testing me. Fortunately I brought a book.
Anyhow, one day while we were waiting for the rest of the
team, I start chatting with my vaccination partner Souleman, who
happens to speak very good french. He tells me about how he's
finished most of his high school, but wasn't able to complete his BAC
and go on to because his family ran out of money. (I ask him how
much it would cost, out of curiousity. $60, about).
I tell him about the hard time I'm having doing any work,
since I'm supposed to be talking to people, interviewing villagers
about health issues, etc, but nobody speaks french, and for the
moment, I can only tell them that I don't want I wife. He says,
well, since I aint got anything else to do, I'd be happy to go
around with you and translate.
...Really? You would do that for me? You mean I might actually be
able to DO something here? I nearly break down in sobs of relief
and kiss his feet.
Later on, something strikes me. Peace Corps provides a hefty
$20/month budget for hiring a language tutor. I need help with my
Moore... My friend Soule needs the money... He's easy on the eyes
from both the front and back... Sweet, sweet blessings of providence!
Could it work? Stay tuned...
Two other things that brought tears to my eye:
* While biking through another village 10km away, my riding partner
points to something on our left... Oh, my God, it's a LAND
FORMATION! A little cliff, maybe 20 feet high and 40 long. It used
to be a mountain, he said, but it got up and flew away. Well, of
course. It was probably lonely. But finally, finally, I find
something that's not flat!
* As I was strolling around the marché, I turn a corner and--Holy
Shit! Onions!! I haven't seen any fresh veggies in the marché
the pathetic little tomatos disappeared over a month ago. And here,
big, voluptuous onions! I snatch them up and dab my eyes with a
hanky. To think that in the States I would always gripe, What do
you MEAN the strawberry pie is "seasonal"??
(I also cry later that night as I chop one up for my curried pasta,
but for a different reason altogether)
OK, just one more, before I nauseate you all:
* Picking up my first two care packages and a couple cards in time
for my birthday. It meant a lot to me. Not the stuff so much as
knowing that folks back home support my efforts. When the kids are
staring and all I can do is stare back, it's not always easy to know
if it's really worth it. But you guys... It got me RIGHT HERE. All
right, I'll stop! (cheese and granola)
Q: HOW DO YOU ADMINISTER BIRTHDAY SPANKINGS IN BURKINA?
A: What's a birthday?
I didn't want my 23rd birthday (dec 10, sag) to go by
completely unrecognized, so I floated the news to a few people.
First, I asked Isaaka what people normally do to celebrate in
Zamse. "Yes... no..." That's how the kids reply when they're
confused. Maybe I was using the wrong word. I asked him what day
he was born. "1984?" No, Isaaka, that's the year, and besides,
you're not 20. I try for a couple more minutes, but to no avail.
Not only doesn't he know when his birthday is, he also doesn't know
what it is. No use in telling him that mine's tomorrow now, is
there? Turns out many people don't know their birthdays, or even the
years, which makes it a little tough to celebrate.
On my birthday, I tried again, with the pharmacist. You
know, it's my birthday today! "Oh." Allright, fine, I give up.
Forget it, it's not a big deal. Just another typical day in
village. Fortunately, my PC neighbor Imane had other things in
mind. She showed up in the evening with a huge bag of vegetables,
which we cooked for dinner, and ate lamplight along with a cucumber
vinaigrette and mac and CHEESE and a chilled beer while being
seranaded by her bjork CD. It was delicious. During dinner, one of
my acquaintances stopped by, and asked "Why didn't you tell us it
was it was your birthday?" Excuse me?? Turns out that among the
faction of burkinabe that do celebrate birthdays, the rule is for
the birthday-boy to throw his own party and treat all his friends.
Well, now I know. But you know what? I like Imane's way better.
The desert is some more of my famous ice cream in coffee,
chocolate and peach varieties.
After dinner I'm treated to a facial with no less than 3 different
exfoliants. We wrap out the evening playing rummy with my Colt
Studio Hairy Chested Men playing cards (the kids get such a kick out
of them!). It was fun times. No birthday spanks, though. I'll be
collecting them when I get back to the States. With interest.
It's time to wrap it up! I never finish up what I plan to say. But
no worries, I'll be back in Ouaga later this month when I take off
on Bike-a-Thon, a weeklong cross-country AIDS awareness bike trip.
It sounds awesome, I'm very excité for it, and I'll tell you all
about it in the next letter!
I promise this is the LAST TIME I'll mention packages,* but just so
you know what's up: When the French colonized Burkina under a
different name many years ago, they left behind their fondness for
bureaucracy as a substitute for reason. Thus, even though you write
CSPS de Zamsé on the envelope, and they know who I am, and they
my situation, the folks at the post will let only me pick it up in
Zorgho, so that I can sign in 6 different places and have an ID check
and retinal scan. I can go pick it up, and I'm happy to, but it's
40km each way and very difficult to do in single day on bike.
SO... If you send a package, please just leave my name off of it.
This way my counterpart will be able to pick it up for me, since
he's got a moto and passes through Zorgho all the time. The address
CSPS de Zamsé
For regular letters, you can go ahead and put my name, it'll come
straight to me. (and I promise to write back) That's all! Thanks!
HAVE A HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!