Saturday, November 13, 2010

Random Postings and Musings

10 November – Abbe Pierre 1:06pm

I guess it's been a few days since I've typed anything - getting bad at this journaling thing, obviously. Now when that red squiggly line comes up under the word “journaling” I think of how much it annoys David (a SED trainee, awesome lender of books that rock) that we've turned an object into a verb, but I feel like it's ok here, not just because colloquially we accept “journaling” as the action verb of writing in one's journal, but because we've also accepted a fair number of French/Moore words as English since arriving in Burkina, such as “sensibilization,” “stage,” (pronounced st-AH-j) and “stagiere” (pronounced st-AH-ji-er) (a health training/demonstration, the Peace Corps training period, and a trainee, respectively). Unrelated to our poor grammer, we've been coming in to KDG for classes for this week! It's been awesome although it means we get back kind of late sometimes and have to bike home in the dark. I'm still frustrated that I don't have/make time to study, but after such a long day of class the last thing I want to do is study more! I tried last night, outside with my lantern while everyone else ate, but I don't think I could do that again because the bugs were driving me crazy. Somehow my room is pretty bug free – I suspect it has something to do with the spiders I'm working really hard to ignore that live near my ceiling. On the other hand, dinner was awesome - potatoes with some kind of surprisingly tasty sauce.

Had my interview with Dr. Claude yesterday. I was really glad that we had just had the session on using theater for sensibilizations with Becky, so I could report that we were finally starting to learn things that felt more useful and encouraging to our future work as volunteers – on my questionnaire sheet I had mentioned not learning anything really helpful. She asked about my visit on Demyst and even though I knew she asked everyone pretty intently about their visit I wanted to make sure she wasn't considering me for Audrey's replacement and expressed that I really didn't like the site location, how spread out the village was, and particularly how isolated her house was. I also was very vocal about wanting to be in the North, and the only people being replaced there are Ilana and Aaron. I think I would prefer Aaron's site after talking with him and reading his Etude de Millieu, but I think either one would be just fine in terms of being motivated and ready for a second volunteer. I'll get lots of comparisons, sure, but I hope that it'll push me to be a really helpful volunteer instead of just using this to take a break from life and the “real world”. If there are high expectations, I know that I can meet them.

I feel like I truly skated by for a lot of my life. If I didn't learn it in class, I didn't spend a lot of time studying it outside of class. I justified it that I needed a break from thinking all the time, that after class and homework and labs and papers it just wasn't fair or productive to study any more. But I don't think that's going to fly here – it's going to be long day and I'm still going to have to go home and study. I think it'll be easier in village when my time is my own and I'm not trying to get integrated with my family during my only time I could be studying. Still, even here I know I could make a better effort to converse for an hour, then go to my room and study for an hour instead of just sitting and picking out two or three words of Moore from the conversation until I fall asleep in my chair, then waking up and wanting to go to bed. I know I said this pretty much every semester in college but it still rings true – I hope I take this opportunity and run with it. I will never have this chance again, to spend two years living in and learning from a community, to learn a language while immersed in a community that speaks it daily, to teach and learn from people who will almost certainly never be able to visit America. I just hope I can hold onto this feeling, onto this inspiration of wanting to do so much for myself and my future village, the community I will (hopefully!) come to call my own.

10 November – Romongo, 10:24pm

I apparently have a lot of random ideas/thoughts that I want to blog about, so throughout the day I write them down and sometimes even remember to look at my notes. Here's today's thoughts, brought to you by the writing style of the books I'm currently reading : The River Why by David James Duncan, and If on a winter's night, a traveler by Italo Calvino. Both are fantastic and you should immediately go find them at your nearest library unless you are Katie Brown who lent me the latter and who will receiveitbackatsomepointIpromise. :) Actually, in the meantime you should really consider The River Why – if you wrote a book on flyfishing I imagine that the humor, language and convoluted but witty banter between characters (and scientific digressions) would look a lot like this book.

On Fresh Fruit And Being Picky:
At home I'm a bit of a fruit snob. Ok, a lot of a fruit snob. Bananas are the perfect example – in the US I would only eat a banana if it were just leaving the unripe stage, when the peel was unblemished and still tinged with green, revealing a fruit that was not mushy or bruised. I had convinced myself that I didn't really like the “strong” banana taste of truly ripe bananas and would abandon a bunch after a few days even if there were more to be eaten. I also didn't eat oranges because they took too much work to eat. Once peeled I liked eating them, but the work and mess to get to the fruit wasn't worth it for me since it wasn't really a favorite item – I liked oranges, but didn't love them. See, a fruit snob.

Here, I love fruit. It absolutely brightens my day to receive fruit at breakfast or dinner, and I love buying it at lunch if I can. My theory is that lack of variety and nutrition in most of the things we eat here make any and all fruit extra appealing even if we disliked it in the US. The small green bananas from Cote D'Ivoire with their sticky, dirty, bruised peels make me smile because I know that even if half of it is bruised and smashed beyond recognition, it's going to taste amazing. An orange, with it's green peel, is a tantalizing puzzle, the wonderful scent of the peel giving way to a fruit that tastes at times like a mix of an orange and a grapefruit. Even fishing out the seeds somehow isn't a pain like it usually seems. Apples here are an expensive import from Europe, with one apple selling for 200-300CFA. While that's about 50 cents USD, here it's more than the cost of a loaf of bread, or the same as 4-6 bananas. The last time I was given an apple with dinner I even pulled out the seeds and ate the core – it was delicious. I've also been introduced to the guavas that grow on the tree outside my house – it looks like a lime and the peel (which you eat) tastes a little limey. The inside is slightly sweet with small hard seeds that I was told to eat, although since they're too hard to chew I'm surprised people don't spit them out. And right now we're in watermelon season! Mmm...I should buy one this week for my family. December is the small mango season, which I am very much looking forward to, and I think the main mango season is sometime in the late spring or early summer.

Vegetables are available, but not readily part of one's diet. A lot of sauces have a base of tomatoes and onions, sometimes leaves of various trees or cabbages, always a Maggi flavor cube. Corn and maize were just harvested 2 weeks ago, so for a few days we had fresh corn grilled on the fire embers but now it's being dried to pound into flour for tô for the upcoming year. I also one time was served a cucumber and tomato dish mixed with mayo, vinegar and salt. In the market I've seen a couple squashes, avocados, eggplant, something also called an eggplant that looks like a tiny, shiny green pumpkin/squash, but reportedly is very bitter. There's a large assortment of yams and potatoes, but they're generally lacking the advantageous vitamins and nutrients of most other veggies. You can get salad at a restaurant, but most of us haven't seen it at home. While we were on Demyst we added tomatoes, onion, green pepper, and eggplant to most everything – mac and cheese, omelets, stir-fry, lasagna. I get the feeling that most of us are going to adopt a similar cooking style - if you have a vegetable available, put it in everything you can.

On Name Order And Linguistics:
Here, as in Japan (and I'm sure many other countries), names are customarily written with the family name (last name) first. It probably shouldn't have, but I was surprised that when I started asking for people's names they always introduced themselves as “(Family Name), (Second Name) (First Name)” and I bet they were quite confused when we would just introduce ourselves by our first names. When I was given a family name by my host father, I learned it as “Oudraogo, Raiimei Alimata” and my family calls me Madamoiselle Oudraogo or Alimata, or sometimes the whole thing just for the heck of it. Even when I was asking the kids for their names the first time they told me their entire names and I'd have to try and tease out which final syllables were the name I should call them.

It's probably a very elementary analysis, but it made me start thinking about the cultural values and assumptions that go into something as simple as how people introduce themselves. In this culture there is a very high value placed on family and being part of one, as evidenced by the courtyard living arrangement and the words used to describe family members. They say their family affiliation first because identifying one's kin is initially more interesting/important to the person asking for the name than the individually identifying name of the person being asked. Just by hearing your family name, a Burkinabe knows roughly what region you are from, what language you speak, and what values you have. I've seen this happen when my LCF introduces himself – they'll ask where he's from and his last name, then guess what region/district of the country he's from. So far they've always been correct. Some last names and regions are also known for things, like being cotton growers, or businessmen.

Conversely, America and many developed Western countries are very heterogeneous – there are many last names of infinite origin and mutation, so knowing someone's last name isn't all that useful to us in terms of identifying commonalities since we won't have nearly as many as people living in a more homogeneous society. In contrast to communal living with an extended family, a nuclear family of parents and their children tend to live in stand-alone houses with a yard and a fence to separate our domain from that of our neighbors. We also place a high value on individuality, on the accomplishments of a person rather than the honor or status of an entire family. So it makes sense to introduce oneself as only a first name, the name the person should call you, the only one they will find useful and important.

I don't think one way is better than the other, but I do find it interesting that so many cultural pieces fit together so neatly in differentiating one from the other. Even learning a local language highlights cultural attitudes here and prompts me to examine the values inherent in English or French words. One example is learning the members of the family. Our poor LCF has to put up with our frustrated whining as we try and remember the different words for : uncle(s) – father's older brother, father's older brothers, father's younger brother, father's younger brothers, mother's brother, mother's brothers, or aunt(s) – mother's older sister, mother's older sisters, mother's younger sister, mother's younger sisters, father's sister, father's sisters. Obviously age distinction and the related level of respect due to that person is very important, but especially for those of the same gender as the person in question. In English and in French, the word for all male siblings of either parent is “uncle” or “oncle”, and the same is true for female siblings of either parent - “aunt/tante.” Much easier to learn certainly, but perhaps there is something valuable about knowing a very specific relationship between two people by the title. Then again, the word for “grandson,” “granddaughter,” “nephew,” and “niece” are all one word – the nephew of my unmarried 31-year old LCF is his “grandson” by title, and along with that he is expected to help with the raising and care of that child pretty much as if it was his own. Who knew linguistics could be so interesting!

On The Courtyard And Family Structure:
Family is about the most important thing here and it is your security system in every way. My courtyard has 36 people living in it and all are related somehow to my host father. Although he only has one wife and 6 children, he is also the head of the family for: the three surviving wives of his father and some of their grandchildren whose parents are working elsewhere/divorced/dead, a couple of their nephews, the nephew of his wife, and two of his father's brothers. It is not uncommon to be sent to live with other extended family members to continue your education in another city, or if your parent's can't afford to feed and educate everyone but someone else in the family has a little more money and can help. My host father's oldest daughter, 17-year old Habibu, just left a few days ago to live with her uncle (father's younger brother) in Bobo in order to go to high school. She'll take night classes and will work with the family during the day in the fields in “exchange” for covering her school fees and taking care of her.

The courtyard is also typically structured to encourage a small community feeling. While each smaller “family” or relative usually has their own mini-courtyard, they all open onto a larger courtyard where the women sit at night to talk and the kids chatter or nap on mats. I think our courtyard is a little unusual in that there are two entrances – the main one where the animals spend the day and where the women work, and a tiny one that my immediate family (host mom, dad, and their kids) and I use, where my host dad sits and talks to people and where we all sit outside at night when he's home. It's not uncommon for eating to be communal – everyone eating out of one bowl, but separated by gender.

Since I'm fed on my own in my room I'm still trying to figure out how it works in my family. I know that my host mom and the older daughters sometimes make enough food for everyone in the courtyard even though the other women are also making food as well. And when I go outside to our small entrance sitting area after my dinner it seems like my father eats with the older kids – definitely the sons, but I think sometimes the daughters. I've seem him share breakfast on a Saturday with his youngest daughter. Tonight I didn't see my host mom or sisters eat, but sometimes I've seen my host mom with her own bowl, eating near but not part of her husband's eating circle, and I presume that the other kids either eat with her or just run around and take food where they want (this seems pretty likely – there are always children running to or from somewhere).

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