A journey ends

Leaving my village after two years was more beautiful, more painful, and more powerful than I could have ever imagined. I don’t even know how to begin to explain the love and friendship I was shown over the past few days as I said my goodbyes. The days (and nights) were filled with endless visits, thoughtful gifts, silent tears and nonexistent sleep. 

Leaving my village, where crying is considered shameful and negative emotions are suppressed until they find their way out in distorted ways, was a battle of emotional endurance. “Fo rat n loog n bas tondo,” they’d say, day after day. You want to go away and leave us. “Bi fo boos kiuugu n paase.” Just ask for one more month. “Ra kum dat! Fo sen n kum, mam pa na n puus fo!” Don’t cry! If you cry I’m not going to say goodbye to you!

Well, I cried. And they said goodbye to me. Most of them at least. There was one that was just too hard. My old lady friend, my Burkinabé grandmother, who in the past two years has lost her sight and most of her mobility, but never her sense of humor. With her, I just couldn’t do it. Not without breaking down at least, and that would have been considered worse. But we had breakfast together, ate boiled sweet potatoes with our hands, and shared a laugh or two as always. And when I went back to my courtyard to finish packing, we both knew I wouldn’t be coming back again.

But let me rewind a bit. Two days before my departure, the health clinic staff and I invited the whole village to a party outside the health clinic to celebrate all we’ve accomplished over the last two years. We ate rice and drank zoom koom, a local millet-based drink, and we reflected on the two years we spent together. Women that I worked with in neighboring villages walked several kilometers to come and celebrate and say goodbye. And I was showered with love and praise and gifts. The elders of my village went first, handing me a live chicken dangling by its feet. Each of my women’s groups went next, each giving me a different type of traditional woven fabric, along with the group of women from my own courtyard as well. One group even got their gift wrapped in the city, its sparkly paper exclaiming “IT’S A BOY!”  I got a locally made ring from my friend the pharmacist, and another beautifully wrapped present from my co-workers at the health clinic. And the peanuts! I can’t forget about the many overflowing basins of peanuts. The gifts, it seemed, were never ending.

In the two days following the party, I hardly stopped moving to sit or to eat or to think. It was all packing, goodbyes, gifts, visitors, laughter, tears and benedictions. Peace Corps has decided not to send another volunteer to my village this year, and so I had to move every last thing out of my house. And giving it all away was a process in and of itself. The night before I left, I sat under the stars with a revolving flow of women, kids, friends and coworkers, chatting and drinking tea as I finished emptying my house. I finally fell asleep under the brilliant canopy of stars at about 2 a.m., and then woke up at 4:45 with the first call of prayer. When all was ready to go, the kids in my courtyard took my bags and bike ahead as I followed on foot with a procession of women behind me, accompanying me on the first steps of the next part of my life journey. As we left our main courtyard I spotted my pugnyanga, my old woman, sitting as usual against her neem tree, and I just couldn’t hold it in anymore.

“Stop crying Breejeetie!” my friend Matoma yelled, shaking her fist in my face. “Stop crying! We’re not going to walk with you if you cry!” I heard her voice trail off behind me, having stopped walking. But as anyone who’s ever cried before knows, it’s not so easy to stop the flow of tears once they’ve started. Finally they caught up to me.

“Stop crying Breejeetie!” She said again, this time a little weaker. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her wiping her own eyes with her headscarf. Together, we kept walking.

When it was time for the women to head back, they each came forward and shook my hand – this time, and only this time, with their left hand. The left hand here is only used for dirty things, never to shake hands or even hand something to someone. But if you do greet someone with your left hand, the person must eventually come back to make it right. That morning, I was given more left hands than I can count.

Four women, along with my good friend Madi, accompanied me all the way to the bus station in town. Two of them rode their bikes with me, each carrying a piece of luggage, and the rest followed in what we call a taxi moto – basically a motorbike with a cart attached – with the heavier bags. We arrived to find the bus station teeming with passengers, so we had to wait about an hour and a half before we could catch a bus. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Just before I boarded the bus, two of my best friends – 13-year-old Mahawa and Yimeo – pulled up on their bikes for a final goodbye – the best surprise all morning. Everyone together helped me load my bags and bike under the bus, then gave me their left hands and wished me a safe and healthy journey.

But even then, I didn’t journey alone. Two of my favorite neem cream ladies, Ramata and Kalizeta, insisted on accompanying me all the way to the capitol. So they each paid the equivalent of $10 (neem cream sells for approximately 20 cents) for two-way tickets to the city, just to see me off. When we arrived in the capitol, they put me and my bags in a taxi, shook my left hand, told me not to cry, and went to wait in line for another bus to take them three hour journey back north, hoping to make it before dark.

So here I am now, settled in Ouagadougou, about to begin working on the inexhaustible list of paperwork and errands and reporting that make up the close-of-service process. It’s a whole different world here, but it’s one that will get me that much closer to re-entering the world of home. The two years I spent in my village in the hot, dusty north of Burkina Faso were the most challenging, most beautiful, most frustrating, and most rewarding of my life. And I couldn’t imagine a better way to end them. I’m ready to go.

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Tabaski

Sitting cross-legged on my cot outside, I breathe a sigh of relief as the stifling afternoon air begins to mingle with a cooler evening breeze. I’m exhausted, and although the day’s been fun, I’m looking forward to the sweet reprieve evening brings with the setting of the sun. Finally, a moment of stillness.

Then there’s a knock on my courtyard wall. “Asalaam alaikum,” my neighbor sings, announcing his presence. He has come to give me holiday greetings. “Ne y taabo!” he says. “Wend na wing d vẽere!” Happy holiday! My God show us next year!

“Wend na wing d sẽn pa vẽere!” I reply. May God show us the years after next.

He sits down across from me and leans back as he reaches deep into his pocket. He’s brought me something. “Hadi nemdo,” he says as he pulls out his gift for me – a black plastic bag ripped in places, raw sheep meet spilling out the holes.

“Puus y barka!” I thank him, smiling, as I put out my hands and hope he doesn’t notice my reluctance to fondle raw meat that’s been sitting under the African sun all day. I take the oozing meat from him and go set it inside, then shake his hand again in thanks.

He killed the sheep himself about six hours earlier, after morning prayers at the mosque. He and hundreds of other men in my village, and in villages all over the world, took their best knife and slowly (the knives aren’t too sharp here) sawed off a sheep’s head, a sacrifice to God. Today is Tabaski, also known as Eid al-Adha, the day to honor the Prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his young first-born son. Today is the only day of the year that everyone in my village will get to eat meat, the day women cook giant pots of rice and noodles and more rice to share with all their neighbors. Today is Kibisi daare, as we call it in Mooré.

Well, not actually today. My village celebrated it last Friday, based on the lunar cycle and whether or not the Imam sees the moon the night before. It was a bitter-sweet day for me, celebrating with my community for the last time as I prepare to close out my two-year service. I ate rice with my kids, took pictures at the mosque, and greeted hundreds of neighbors. I cooked three giant pots full of spaghetti to share with my “family” (the approximately 250 people I live with), and brought Twizzlers (courtesy of a care package) to my neem cream ladies for a sweet evening treat. But through it all – the laughter, the prayers, the food – I would periodically just sit back and soak up the sounds, the smells, the scenes, thinking of the end that’s near.

The following day I said early morning goodbyes and headed out of town to help train the new Peace Corps health trainees who arrived earlier this month. It’s hard to believe that they were me two years ago! After working with them for a week in a city near the Ghana border, I’ll head back to the capitol and then home for eight final days before I leave my village for good. I’ll then have a week in the capitol, to finish reports and medical check-ups and have a final “close-of-service” ceremony, and that’ll be it. As of November 21, I’ll no longer be a Peace Corps Volunteer! Which is also hard to believe.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – back to Tabaski. Back to the rice, the sheep heads, the henna and the prayers. I’ll let my photos speak for themselves. Enjoy!

My friend Mahawa, putting henna on her feet the night before the “fête,” as many women do. She also put henna on my hand (but only the left – gotta eat all that rice with the right!)

All the girls get their hair done specially in the week leading up to the holiday, and all the boys get their heads shaved.

A few of the elders from my courtyard and me on our way to the mosque. The woman to the right of me is dressed the most elegantly because she has had the privilege of going to Mecca. As such, she is shown copious respect.

Women near the back of the mosque, praying as the chants from the loudspeakers envelop the village.

The village religious leaders gathered together near the end of the prayers.

The village elders (male only) made up the first few lines of prayer mats, all facing toward Mecca.

All the kids get new clothes for the special day, and they’ll wear them day after day after day until they’re quickly and entirely worn through!

One of my neighbors and his sacrificial sheep

The little girls in my courtyard got new jewelry to match their new outfit, thanks to Grandma Lou’s generous care package of gifts! From left to right: the butterfly clip, the purple ring, and the pink bracelets.

Here are a few more of the many happy little girls, with their hairclips from mam yaaba, Grandma!

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Just hangin’ around

I don’t have time for a full post today, but I thought I’d just share a few photos. After traveling a lot this fall (for work stuff and vacation in August), I’ve mostly just been filling my days back in village with my kids. Here are a few of my favorites.

My little leprechaun

I’ve always thought he’s got one of the best smiles around, and it reminds me of a Petron smile!

All smiles.

The very popular Burkina-style tandem

Little Rasmane shows off his play phone. One thing these kids are not short of is creativity!

Oh, and one more thing. MY VILLAGE IS GETTING ELECTRICITY!!!!! Yup, right as I’m getting ready to pack up my stuff (I leave in almost a month! Crazy…) the poles and electrical wires are going up with a speed and efficiency I haven’t seen in my village in two years. I’m trying not to think about how I could have had a FAN blowing on my for the past two years… and instead think about how exciting this is for my village. “Bugma watame!” they say as they watch the lines going up, which literally means “fire is coming,” (there’s no word for electricity in Moore). Of course, each household will have to pay to actually get it connected to their house, so it’ll be a good long while before it’s hooked up and widespread. But, still exciting news. Here’s a few photos I took to capture the new and modern landscape of my village.

Bugma watame!

The changing landscape of my village as it welcomes electricity

Thanks for reading! I’ll have more next time.

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Ghana: the land of fried chicken, beautiful beaches and English

After a long and wet summer full of kids and camps and mud, three fellow PCVs and I hit the road for our last vacation: Ghana! It certainly didn’t feel like vacation at the beginning though, because in order to get there we had to first survive a 20-hour bus ride. On West African roads. And following typical West African tradition, the bus left two hours late, which meant an extra two hours of sitting on a cramped bus, waiting. But that was only the beginning.

We had left our hotel in Ouagadougou before 7 am that morning, so by midday we started to get pretty hungry. Thankfully we had a few snacks along, but nothing substantial, assuming the bus would have to stop around mealtimes since West Africans aren’t really the pack-a-lunch type of people. We were wrong. We did stop at the border around noon, only to be hustled back onto the bus immediately once we were handed back our passports. At around five we passed through our first big city, and we nearly drooled on the window panes watching all the street food go by. We tried asking the driver when we were going to stop. His response: silence. For reasons we couldn’t quite figure out, he wouldn’t respond to any of our questions, in any language. So, we just sat tight and tried not to think about our empty bellies.

Finally around 8 p.m., after the sun had gone to bed, we pulled over at a bustling rest stop and rushed off the bus into the dark to find food. And boy we were in luck! Fried chicken galore. This was our first introduction to Ghana’s street food – thick legs of fried chicken and spicy fried rice for just over a buck. Deee-licious.

The glitches in our plan didn’t stop there, but our moods at least were significantly lifted by the greasy road-side cuisine. The bus’s air conditioning broke not long after that, so we sweated along with the 60-some other travelers in the cramped, over-packed bus, all of us sharing the same stale, fried food-soaked air. Just as the four of us started drifting to sleep near midnight, we awoke to our bus driver frantically shouting at us “GET OFF THE BUUUUS!!!!” (Now he talks to us!) We later figured it was just a semi-routine switch to a smaller bus after half the passengers disembarked at their destination. But at the time, we were exceedingly groggy and confused.

Once we hauled our luggage and rapidly growing kankles to the awaiting mini-bus, we settled in and tried to sleep, only to find ourselves literally flying off the seat cushions every minute and a half. Since it was pitch black outside I don’t know if it was construction or just a miserable road, but we certainly did not get much sleep in that last 6-hour leg of the trip. We finally arrived, relieved, in the capital city of Accra at around 6 a.m. and promptly hailed a cab to take us to our hotel. Which, we soon found out, had lost our reservations and was completely full. Oh wait, but before that, our cab broke down on the side of the road and then wouldn’t let us get in anther cab until we paid him the full amount. Then we found out we didn’t have hotel reservations and couldn’t afford any other hotel in the area with our modest Peace Corps stipends. So there we were at six in the morning, dirty and tired and carrying all of our luggage, walking around the streets of Accra looking for a place to at least get a cup of coffee. Eventually, despite the disheartening (yet not surprising) lack of Starbucks, we did.

The hotel we ended up at wasn’t much more welcoming, as their water had been turned off and they didn’t have any kind of back-up system (like, say, buckets for bucket-bathing). So no showers for us smelly travelers. Not until late afternoon, that is, when we finally managed a cold bucket bath.

Needless to say, we were ready for a treat that night. And for more treats for the following 11 nights of vacation! And treat ourselves we did. That night we picked the fanciest pizza place in town, Mama Mia’s, and we each ate our own gigantic pizza. Here we are in front of the restaurant, finally ready to enjoy our vacation!

Ready to eat our troubles away with the best pizza in West Africa (according to me)

From there, I’m happy to say, our trip only got better and better. We ended up leaving Accra early for some smaller towns along the coast because of our rapidly shrinking wallets, but in the 48 hours we were there we managed to find the best, most American (and most expensive) places to eat. Including Accra’s one and only American fast food chain: KFC! (Exciting to us, probably not so exciting to those of you reading this from the U.S.)

We spent most of the rest of our time in Ghana hanging out in smaller towns on the coast, enjoying the beach, the cooler temperatures, the fried chicken, and the absolute lack of schedule. It was fantastic. Here are just a few photos from our coastal retreat:

Street shopping in Cape Coast

Another view of Cape Coast

On our way back north, in the bustling city of Kumasi.

As sad as I was to leave the land of fried chicken and beautiful beaches and English, I really started to miss my village. These past few weeks I’ve begun to really feel the clock ticking, to use that well-worn cliché. And while it’s not a clock I want to slow down, I do want to take advantage of every passing minute. Even if it means hobbling through “puddles” like these on my way to and from anywhere:

Thanks to the rain this year, this is not an unusual ride back to the village from the city.

Above all else, I want more moments with my kids – pumping water and hunting for mangoes and just goofing around. Here’s one of them, anxiously waiting to play UNO with me by my doorstep.

Words cannot express just how much I will miss them.

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Camp G²LOW: Girls and Guys Leading Our World!

I’m not sure if I’ve ever – in my nearly two-years here in Burkina Faso – had so much fun, gotten so little sleep, spoken so much French (not Mooré), and felt like I was truly making a once-in-a-lifetime impact on Burkina’s future leaders: its top-achieving, underprivileged youth. All in one incredible 3-week span.

I just returned from another week of camp, only this one with over 100 kids in the city of Fada N’Gourma, about 400 km to the southeast of where I live. The camp I wrote about in my last post, le Camp des Leaders de L’Avenir, was a camp that a few friends and I decided to throw together in about a month and a half here in our own region, with kids from our own villages, using our own village counterparts and friends to help us teach and monitor the kids. But this camp that I helped run in Fada N’Gourma is part of an even larger organization of girls’ camps that was first started in Peace Corps Romania 15 years ago, and has since spread to 60 countries. It’s called Camp GLOW: Girls Leading Our World.

Last year a group of ambitious volunteers decided to bring this incredible experience to Burkina Faso, only with a twist: they’d call it Camp G²LOW, Girls and Guys Leading Our World. They decided that the best way to bring about gender equality is to include both girls and boys in the discussion, and give them both access to new ideas and information and ways of thinking. So that’s what they did! After trial and error last year they’ve put together a great model, and that’s what we ran with this year in the city of Fada N’Gourma. We brought together about 100 of the top students from the surrounding area who have recently completed the equivalent to our 8th grade and spent an entire week discussing life skills, leadership, gender equality and sexual responsibility. And although it was exhausting to the core, it was one of the most empowering, rewarding, and exciting weeks of my service.

One of the difficulties with bringing together students of the same grade level here in Burkina Faso is that their ages can vary dramatically. While most of our students were between 13 and 15 years old, we had some who were 12 and some who were 19. I could’ve sworn one of the guys on my “team blue” was older than me! (He wasn’t…I don’t think.) But regardless of the sometimes gaping differences in age and background and economic status (city kids vs. village kids), they all worked together exceptionally well, and by the end of the week we all became a (very sleep deprived cause we were having too much fun) family of sorts.

Especially the family of “Blues”! Each of us PCVs was paired with a young Burkinabé volunteer to be leaders of a team of 8-10 students who wore a unique band of color throughout the week. A 25-year-old woman named Rosine and I were co-counselors of team blue. For each color there was a girls’ team and a guys’ team, so our “co-team” was a group of blue-clad boys led by my friend Pat and another Burkinabé male volunteer. Throughout the week we studied together, reflected together, ate together, played together and, as I’m sure none of the kids will forget, won points together towards a camp-wide competition! It was so fun to see my team of girls, from all different villages and of all different ages, grow together and become friends.

Unfortunately the Blues didn’t win the cumulative week-long title of champions, but we did come out with the collective “gold medal” from our very own camp Olympics! On Friday morning, the last morning of camp activities, we put together a string of events such as a team relay race, the long and high jump, a spelling bee, team tug-of-war, and an eating contest. I know none of the kids will forget the fun and ultimate goofiness of that day!

One of my fellow PCVs has put together a short montage of video clips as a keepsake from the week of fun, set to one of the most popular songs in Burkina Faso (and maybe all of Africa) right now: P-Square! Click below to watch and enjoy!

Unfortunately my Internet is being far to finicky today to upload photos, but there are a bunch of great ones taken by our resident PCV photographer Cindy on the Facebook group for the camp, in the album “Camp G2LOW Fada.” (I think you can look at them even if you don’t have Facebook, but if not let me know.) Check them out at the address below!

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=oa.343985982349796&type=1

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A week we’ll never forget

A camp photo with our Peace Corps Burkina Faso Country Director! She came all the way from Ouagadougou to visit us at camp and say one last farewell during her final week in country before she moves on to bigger and better things.

That first night of camp, once all the kids had arrived and settled in and headed to the cafeteria for dinner, the room was so awkwardly quiet you could have heard a mosquito buzz out the door. There wasn’t even the comforting chink of forks against plates, since the plates were plastic and the forks were nonexistent (we ate in the style the high school in town normally does their meals, which is with our hands).

But on Friday night, our last supper together, we could hardly hear ourselves think over the laughter and shouts and even singing – yup, the singing of our camp songs led by the kids themselves! The transformation over the five days of camp was so incredibly fun to see and be a part of. The first day of camp we were practically pulling teeth to get them to answer the simplest yes or no question in French.  And by even the second to last night I couldn’t get to sleep over the girls’ giggles and chatter, as I laid smiling in my bug hut outside the classroom door, listening to them singing camp songs from under their mosquito nets in the dark.

I truly couldn’t have asked for a better first camp experience. We talked about malaria and hygiene and good nutrition, and about how our bodies change and grow and develop during puberty. We talked about what sex is, and how a woman actually gets pregnant, and how to be prepared to make decisions about sex that are safe and comfortable for one’s own body and mind. We talked about the role gender plays in society, and how gender roles can be limiting and how they can be changed. And we talked about how to be leaders, how to communicate assertively, and how to take active roles in creating our future. To sum it all up, we tackled a handful of critical subjects for adolescents that these kids might otherwise never learn or talk about. And while much of it was challenging – with language barriers and cultural taboos and gender divisions and age differences – I think all of us PCVs believe that seeds of curiosity and critical thinking and respect for oneself and others were planted, and that it was the beginning of something really cool for these twenty-eight lucky kids.

Each morning of camp, as the sun rose in the refreshing early morning air, we gathered the kids outside the classrooms for a 6:30 am wake-up activity. The first morning each camper received a rope – a plain, simple white rope – to do some jump roping and to introduce the idea of goal setting. And from that moment on, they were inseparable. Not the kids from each other, or even from us – the kids were inseparable from their ropes! You would have thought we’d given each of them an iPhone, or whatever is the latest rage among pre-teens in the U.S. these days, and not a fraying piece of white twine. They went everywhere with these ropes – to class, to dinner, even to the showers! Some walked around with them hung over their shoulders, ready to be swung and jumped over at a moment’s notice. We had to nearly pry them out of their hands to do other activities, and whenever we had a temporary pause in class, away they’d go jumping. Here are a few of the boys and their new best friends:

One of my favorite sessions of camp was our “Panel of Professionals,” where we invited six community members who have succeeded in life in one way or another to come and talk to our young people about planning and creating their future. We heard from a nurse, a teacher, and a woman who owned her own business (among others), and they all had incredible things to say that kids here, especially village kids, rarely hear from their role models. The woman who had started her own business shared her own experience of dropping out of school, and how she hopes the kids won’t make the same mistake that she did because education is so important. Another woman shared how she found other ways to continue learning and growing when her father refused to continue to pay for her schooling after the 6th grade. And yet another shared how, while she was a student, she told her boyfriend she didn’t want to take the risk of getting pregnant because she wanted to study hard and become a nurse. And that’s exactly what she did! I couldn’t have asked for more exceptional role models for our kids. Especially the kids from my own village, whose classmate, a 14-year-old from our village, gave birth to an underweight baby during the year-end final exams, and whose baby then died the next day. Teen (and even preteen) pregnancy happens all too often here, and all too often without the consent or understanding of the teen herself. So at camp, we tried to help both girls and boys understand not only how one gets pregnant, but also how one can make healthy decisions for one’s own self regarding sex.

Just to give you a little more background info, all of the topics we taught these kids, and that we teach to our villages in general, are subjects and messages that the Burkina Faso government and Peace Corps have together decided are its priorities. Many of these topics, even those often considered taboo, are things that are supposed to be taught at some point in the Burkinabé school system itself. But because of enormous class sizes, terrible drop-out rates (especially for girls), low French comprehension levels and many other factors, there are gaps in these kids’ education. And that’s where we try to make up the difference. Things like sex and pregnancy and puberty especially are things that traditionally are not appropriate for a mother here to talk to her daughter about, and so if she doesn’t get it in school, she may never get appropriate, accurate information – much less advice or guidance.

Unfortunately I’m running out of time, and there’s no way I can share all the precious and/or hilarious moments with you through just one post. But I’ve got a bunch of photos and even a video uploaded to Facebook, so be sure to check them out!

Click here for the photos: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10101496497244407.3144410.8647808&type=1

And here for the video clip on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10101496499030827

If you don’t have Facebook, you can also copy and paste this into a new tab to view the video on my flickr page:      http://www.flickr.com/photos/57089595@N02/7628794026/

Thanks again for helping our 28 kids become les leaders de l’avenir! It truly was a week that neither we nor the kids will ever forget.

My kids from Bissighin and I on our last day of camp. :)

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Camp des Leaders de l’Avenir

Le Camp des Leaders de l’Avenir has officially begun! And considering none of us has ever run a camp like this before, it’s been (so far) a success! We’ve got 28 kids here from seven different villages, and they’re the top of their class. Each village selected (where each of us PCVs lives and works) sent two boys and two girls from CM2, or the equivalent of their sixth grade. And by “sent” I mean that the campers somehow found their way to the city where the camp is taking place: some came by bus, some got rides on motorbikes, many others borrowed bikes, and one girl, from more than 10 km away, walked to camp!

My plan was to bike in with my kids, but unfortunately we had some bike technical difficulties (as is to be expected with the rusty contraptions that pass for bikes here). We were able to solve all but one, so four of us biked in – bags strapped behind us – and I was able to find another adult from my village to take the last camper on his motorbike.

Here we are, ready to set off on our 10-km ride to camp!

One of the first things campers did when they arrived yesterday was learn how to set up their mosquito nets. We’re sleeping in two classrooms at the biggest high school in town, 14 girls in one and 14 boys in the other. The campers are at that gloriously awkward stage of adolescence, where almost all the girls are taller than the boys. To tell you the truth, it’s hard to believe some of these boys are even old enough to be here they’re so small! Yet despite their looks, they’re all between the ages of 13 and 15, and they just passed their post-primary school exam to be able to continue on to middle school. Hopefully our camp will help prepare them to succeed!

A few of the girls and their mosquito nets. Everyone sleeps on a mat on the ground, as most of them do at home.

Because the kids have never done anything like this before, the campers were initially painfully quiet. And on top of that, they’re not very confident in their French, so they’re extra shy in speaking up during activities and sessions. Primary school is technically taught in French here in Burkina Faso, but in regions where pretty much all the students are Mossi (like here) teachers often revert to Mooré when the students don’t understand. Also, kids from villages (like these) rarely hear any French at home, so finding the time to practice and feel comfortable with the language is hard. But, that’s one of the opportunities we’re hoping to give them here at camp! So far they’re doing amazingly well. Little by little they’re opening up, they’re smiling, and they’re starting to have fun.

This morning one my counterparts from village came to help us teach about hygiene and hand-washing at camp. Here’s a photo of our group from Bissighin! (Plus my fellow PCV Chris, who works at the high school here in town.)

That’s about all I have time to write at the moment, but I’ll be sure to keep you updated! The camp sessions run through Friday, and our closing ceremony will take place Saturday morning. So far we’ve got one out of five nights done, and we’re on our way to completing our first full day of fun.

Thanks again for your help in making this camp happen!!!

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A day to celebrate

If any of you have ever planned an event before, I’m sure you know the feeling. When you look at all the (semi-)controlled chaos around you and realize that, if you just secretly slipped away, it’d all go on without you. When that heavy weight you’ve been carrying on your shoulders, built of frustrations and missed deadlines and I-can’t-take-this-heat-anymore moments, begins to crumble and, before your mind’s eye, begin to turn into fond old memories. When you take a deep breath, and begin to relax, and find yourself smiling.

Those are the moments when it all feels worth it.

Saturday was a day to celebrate. My team of masons and I – plus all the men who dug more than 200 meters into the rock-solid northern ground, all the women who carried hundreds of gallons of water on their heads for mixing cement, and all the kids who gathered wheel barrels full of sand and gravel to bring to the work sites – had been sweating over this project (literally) for almost two months. I’d be lying if I told you I never wanted to pull my hair out in the process. More than once I caught myself day-dreaming about a wonderland where deadlines were always met and cell phones were always charged and a woman’s words carried the same weight as those of a man. But that’s what make those positive moments even sweeter, right?

In fact, in the past few weeks I’ve had more of those sweet moments than I can count.

Like when one of my masons, who was building a house near mine and wanted to take a break for lunch, came over to borrow soap: “You’ve gotta wash your hands before you eat, right?” he said with a knowing grin.

Or when a mother, after one of our masons finished teaching her family about hygiene and diseases, said her kids would no longer go out in the open to “use the bathroom” – now they had one of their very own.

Or when I’d listen to one of my masons, who’s never read a book in his life and can’t even sign his name, teach his family and friends and neighbors about why using a latrine helps prevent the spread of dysentery, parasites, polio, you name it.

And then again, everyday, when I ride my bike through the village and see those brand-spanking-new latrines, I just can’t help but smile.

But back to Saturday. On Saturday, over 100 people gathered at the health clinic to celebrate the end of a month and a half of hard work, 63 new latrines completed, and the ways in which we, as a community, will continue to take an active role in improving hygiene. Here are a few of the highlights:

One of the head organizers of the project, a young man who never had the chance to study past grade school, spoke to the whole crowd about the importance of these new latrines in preventing diseases, and about the important choices we all can make to make our lives cleaner and healthier.

Over half of those who came to listen were men, who are normally nearly impossible to mobilize for events like this.

And it looked like those men enjoyed themselves!

Everyone learned how to make easy, convenient, and hygienic hand-washing stations out of empty cooking oil jugs, and each family that received a latrine took one home for their families. Here’s one of them being used for a hand-washing demonstration. (Note: that means we used 63 empty jugs, each of which used to hold 20-liters of cooking oil. And we were able to buy all 63 empty jugs in the village itself! That should tell you a bit about our diet here…)

Everyone (or mostly everyone) washed their hands with soap using the new hand-washing stations before we all chowed down on some delicious (oily) rice!

Bon appétit!

Also, the head of the health administration for the entire region, also known as the Médecin Chef de District (MCD) came out to celebrate with us and congratulate the village on their hard work. It was a surprise (we found out he was coming only the day before) and a very proud moment for the village! All in all, it was a major success.

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Later that night, as the sun was getting ready to set and the heat was beginning to dissipate, I decided to go for a quick jog to decompress, de-stress, and reflect on all the day’s happenings. Well, I went for a jog, but it turned out to be less for reflecting and more for laughing. You see, my 8-year-old friend Manguiru spotted me putting my dust-covered running shoes on and shouted for me to wait for him as he ran to grab his strap-on sandals. Then on the way out of the courtyard, a few other little boys saw us and wanted to join in the fun, so soon our numbers grew from two to four. By the time we were out of the courtyard we were quite the sight, and everyone we passed along the path pounding millet or resting under a tree began to lift their heads in our direction and chuckle.

They’ll never make it past the schoolyard, I thought to myself as I looked down at the boys, three of whom were barefoot. Then I noticed all the boys looking behind them.

“Breejeetie! Look!” huffed Manguiru, pointing behind us. Sure enough, there were about 20 kids trailing behind us in a 50-yard tail; some young students, some toddles, and almost all barefoot. If only I ran with my camera! I thought, laughing.

Within the next quarter mile or so most everyone turned back, except the three little boys by my side from the start, plus one determined little fellow chugging along about 100 yards behind. Now, I thought I was in decent shape, but when a mini-swarm of barefooted boys can match your pace for several kilometers, and you may or may not be breathing even harder than they are, it certainly makes you re-think your exercise habits! By the time we got back to the village, however, we were all equally sweaty and exhausted. The second we reached my courtyard the boys collapsed on my cot laughing, as I went inside to get water. When we had drank our full, I walked over to some open space to stretch my dehydrated muscles a bit. It took just one bizarre stance on my part to catch the boys’ attention, and before I knew it they’d jumped up from the ground and began mimicking my every move. I could hardly stretch I was laughing so hard! Of course, the boys didn’t get the point of stretching, so they just moved around into what looked like the positions I was doing, which made it all the more hilarious. And this time, I did have my camera! Check it out.

My running buddies

It may not have been the time for reflection I imagined, but it was a certainly a way to de-stress nonetheless. :)

Oh, and I can’t forget! We’ve reached our fundraising goal for summer camp!

Thank you so so so much to each and every one of you who contributed to the project. As usual, I’ll keep you posted with camp planning, pictures, stories and updates. We’ve got about four weeks now to get everything organized…and then the fun will begin!

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An update and an invite: latrines and summer camp!

This Saturday is our closing celebration for the latrine project, and the masons have been working from sunrise to sunset to finish constructing the foundations, put the latrine covers in place, and teach the new latrine owners how to use and maintain their latrine to keep their family healthy! Here are a few photos:

How many men does it take to put a latrine cover in place? A lot! That thing weighs a ton.

A few of our masons teaching the families about hygiene, disease prevention and hand-washing.

Yay for completed latrines!! All that’s left now is for the family to construct the latrine walls, using a combination of mud bricks they make and cement from your donations.

Photos from the celebration this weekend to follow! Thanks again for helping my villagers help themselves. Together, we’ve really made a difference!

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And now, for the invite. I know many of you have already generously donated to building latrines in my village, and I don’t want you to feel like you can’t read my blog without me guilt-tripping you into pulling out your wallet. But I also know that there were several family members and friends who didn’t get the chance to donate to the latrine project before we reached our goal – so here is your chance to make a difference! :)

Wanna help send kids to summer camp?!

It’s that time of year again…school’s letting out, the weather’s heating up, and summer activities are about to begin! Here in Burkina Faso it’s not heating up any more than it already has (thank God!), but you can certainly feel the season changing – kids getting ready for end-of-the-year exams, women shelling peanuts to plant, and men gathering compost to use as fertilizer in the fields. And everyone is anxiously awaiting the rain!

This summer, while everyone and their mother (literally – you often see three generations working in one field at the same time) heads out to the fields to try and make up for last season’s shortage, a few other volunteers and I have decided to keep busy by collaborating on a big project altogether. And what better summer activity than camp!

After living and working in small villages for almost two years, we’ve found that young people from rural areas especially often have few positive role models and mentors to help them with things like developing healthy relationships with their peers of the opposite sex, understanding the importance of hygiene and sex education, practicing positive decision-making, and setting and achieving life goals. Together, we volunteers in the north would like to begin to change that. We want to bring smart, motivated students (age 12-14) into the city for four days packed with learning, growing, and fun. We’re working to identify positive role models within the students own rural communities who we’ll bring in as guest speakers, counselors and session leaders. We’ll play sports; create skits; take a field trip to use computers at a local cyber; discuss gender roles and how to change them for the better; learn about abstinence and sex education; practice leadership skills and decision-making; and create a healthy environment for the students to question what they know, learn what they don’t, and begin to take an active role in creating their future. And we’re really excited for it!

We’ve spent much of the last couple weeks making plans, holding meetings, and identifying local stakeholders and counterparts with whom to collaborate. The largest public high school in our regional capitol has offered spacious, safe facilities to lodge the campers, and classrooms and school grounds for learning activities. Another organization has offered to let us use their projector and other technical equipment for running classroom sessions. But we still need about $1, 700 to help us transport the campers to and from the city, feed them for the week, and buy basic materials like notebooks and pens.

Will you help us create this opportunity for more than 25 young girls and boys to attend a once-in-a-lifetime summer camp?!

Like our latrine project, we’ve got only a short window of time to collect funds. The camp is scheduled for mid-July, so we’ve only got ONE WEEK to raise the funds so that they arrive in time to buy materials and get ready!

To donate now, follow this link: https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=686-224

THANK YOU thank you THANK YOU thank you THANK YOU thank you THANK YOU!

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Two down, 58 more to go

It’s hot here. And when I say hot, I mean reeeeally hot. Like sweat dripping off your face and arms and legs when you’re sitting hot. In the shade. But, fortunately, that’s done little to dissuade our team of masons from the daunting task ahead! To build 60 latrines in just one month, in over 100 degree heat. In fact, since the funds have arrived, they’ve been rather eager to get it all going. 

It all started with my early morning wake up call. The one that I didn’t call down to the front desk to request.

“Breejeet! Breejeet!” The anxious voice accompanied anxious rapping on my sheet-metal courtyard door.

Of course, it being hot season, I was sprawled out and sweating in my culturally inappropriate tank top and shorts on my cot outside, just a few feet from my early-bird visitor. I had just sleepy stuffed my earplugs in after the 5:30 a.m. mosque call for a few more minutes of shut-eye. But believe me – this was audible through those spongey orange sanity-savers.

“Breejeet! Get up! Tomorrow has come!” Boureima, my primary action-planner for the project, called to me through the door. A hundred and 90 sacks of cement, plus various other awkwardly and/or large pieces of equipment, were packed in a truck and on their way to the village. And we didn’t have a place to put it all!

Well, we did. But several bumps down the road later, it turned out we didn’t. So I quickly threw my pillow inside and threw some clothes on my sweaty body and went out to face the tomorrow (and sacks of cement) that had come!

First on our list was to go talk to the old man in Bogodogo, another family courtyard about 100 yards away. He had the keys to the “banque de cereale,” or the building where grains are stored. Luckily for us, there’s an extra room on the side with a separate door and lock, that’s filled (still to this day) with dust and dirt and destroyed machinery. But hey, details, details. Luckily for us again, this important old man agreed to let us store the material there. So we dragged him from his lounging mat on the floor to go open the door for us, and we arrived just as the truck began kicking up the dust of our village floor.

As you might imagine, a truck coming to the village, much less one full of fancy new materials for the village’s new latrines, amounted to quite the spectacle. One by one the kids started to wander over, and heads started to turn from the women pumping water nearby. Excitement was building. Change was on it’s way!

And since that morning, change really has been happening before our eyes. The team of masons has met almost every day to learn more about their jobs, plan our work, and practice teaching each family about hygiene and the importance of latrines in disease prevention. (I’ll spare you the other inevitable bumps on the road details.) And just this past Saturday we broke ground on our first latrine for the proud soon-to-be-latrine-owner Ali Sawadogo.

We did the first two latrines together (and when I say “we” I mean they did the work and I attempted to find a slice of shade to shelter me while watching and supervising) to make sure we were all on the same page, and then on Sunday, the team spread out and began to tackle the other 58. In a week, once the cement from those first two latrines has had time to set, we’ll regroup to put all the elements together and finish our very first latrines! Not to worry, pictures will follow. But for now, here’s a few from our first week on the job!

The men unloaded the cement by carrying the 50 lb. sacks on their heads

Boureima, the early bird, posing with our new materials

Four of our masons practicing their teaching skills with their new visual aids

Hard at work on our first latrine cover!

Mixing cement is no easy feat

My co-supervisor on site

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