Wednesday, January 19, 2011


If you have questions, you should email me and I'll answer them on here! About Burkina, about living in my village, about the food, about anything I've put on here – if you have a question leave me a comment or send me an email - I'll be getting back to internet again in about a week and a half.

Up/Down, "A Prayer For Owen Meany"

14 January – Kossouka, 4:39pm

I debated about posting this entry for fear of worrying my family, but this is part of my life too and I really want to share that with you. Don't worry – we expected that it would be like this sometimes, and things always do get better. :)

“It will get hard but remember life's like a jump rope – up, down, up, down, up, down” - Blue October
I was talking to Emily today about how being a new PCV must be somewhat similar to being bi-polar – one minute you're on top of the world, two minutes later you're holding back tears, then you go to the marche and some days it's so odd and amusing that you're laughing out loud while other days you're so frustrated you want to forget about your groceries and go home. Sometimes I feel like things are finally evening out into a general positive trend, and then I have another day that sends the pendulum back into it's familiar swing. Yesterday was that day for me. I woke up with text messages from two friends, which made me smile and feel really cheerful, and then I even managed to have somewhat of a conversation with they guys at the coffee stand. Yay for language wins!

So then I went to the CSPS for baby weighing – Thursdays are always good days because I actually have something useful to do. I admit, my frustration and humiliation were all my own fault, but for some reason I felt it so much more poignantly than I believe I rationally should have. Last week I talked with David about how they determine if a child is malnourished and suggested that perhaps I could set aside the booklets of children I suspected of being malnourished or in danger of becoming malnourished soon based on their weight change patterns. He seemed to agree that this was a good idea, so this week even though I wasn't working with David I went ahead and set aside a couple of booklets. Next thing I know, the midwife is telling me that women are getting upset and I should stop mixing up the booklets. I protested that I wasn't – all the booklets that I'd recorded a weight for went into the pile she had been taking them from, except for these few which were ones I thought we should test for malnutrition. She said that the malnourished ones already had numbers, so I didn't need to set them aside. I explained again (in my bad French) that these were the ones that didn't have numbers but who I thought might be malnourished and I thought we could get their height at the end.

While I guess I could live with her telling me to stop doing that, her laughing at this was what really hurt the most. It made perfect sense in my mind – I actually look at the weights and the trends while they are just checking to write it in the record book and to see what vaccinations the kid needs. But clearly she didn't, so I put the “mixed up” booklets under the pile so that when she flipped it they would be the first women of the next group to be called for vaccinations. I continued to feel silly and a bit humiliated and just wanted the morning to be over but there were tons of women who had come and the piles of booklets just kept appearing. I had a mix up when someone weighed her baby when I hadn't called her name, then causing the woman whose name I'd actually called to try and weigh her baby after I'd called another name. I couldn't understand what she was telling me and repeated the new name, and the midwife yelled at her in Moore to wait until her name was called. So then I get to the booklet of the woman who'd cut in line and she says her baby's already been weighed. Now we have to figure out who she had taken the place of, then find and correct both booklets. Small, silly, not too hard to fix (except for the language issue) – it was just another little thing that didn't need to go wrong and even so, shouldn't have upset me in the least, but did.

I was pretty ready for things to be over at this point, and then there was the baby that they did measure for malnutrition. On weighing days they only do the ones that are the most obvious and this was no exception. It was the thinnest child I've ever seen, and every week we seem to have at least one “skeletal” child. Skin streatched taut over cheek-bones, eyes sunken into hollow sockets, a drying line of drool from one corner of his mouth, his head flopping onto his shoulder. So dehydrated and skinny that the skin on his stomach had wrinkles and stayed tented when you pulled it away. I've seen them before and didn't feel all that affected (to the point that I was concerned about my inability to feel emotion towards the situation) but this one just broke my heart. I think what got me was that he was too weak to make any noise – all the kids get mad as hell when we put them on the board to be measured but he just flopped there, mouth hanging open in a tiny silent scream, limbs lying jumbled and not resisting as we straightened them. Even getting vaccinated provoked just a slight opening of his mouth, again without noise.

After this, I honestly wanted to go home and forget going to the market. But I was out of vegetables and since that's pretty much all I live on right now I knew I needed to go if I wanted to eat for the next three days. So I went. I smiled at the gallette (millet pancake) lady and chatted with my vegetable guys who give me extra of everything in exchange for overcharging me (really, I wish they'd just give me the amount I want at a fair price – who can eat 8 patates in the 3 days until the next market?). I even bought a radio and my usual samsa (bean-flour beignets with spicy salt powder) for lunch, and there were bananas and apples from the lady who sells peanut butter. I was smiling, I laughed at the typical language confusion that accompanies me on market days when I try to interact with people in my 10 sentences of Moore and their 10 sentences of French.

I returned home and made my plans for dinner – soy-ginger vegetables over rice – and sat reading my book while enjoying my lunch of gallettes, samsa, and frozen bisap (sweet hibiscus tea). It was like the morning had never happened – how can my feelings over the course of just a morning be so disjointed that I can go from almost crying to laughing? I feel like I live in a series of moments, cut off from one another, with a selectively forgetful memory that allows me to feel such intense feelings but stops them from flowing into one another – it's up or down, but it's rarely in between, or changing from one to the other, or neutral.

After the repose I intended to go back to the CSPS but ended up at my major's house looking at photos and charging my computer (for the first time since getting to site). It was chill and rather nice, actually, to just hang out with someone. I didn't want to overstay my welcome so I made up an excuse of some food being ready at home to cook and left as it was getting dark, and spent the evening eating my rather tasty creation while reading and trying to find the news on my radio.

I just finished “A Prayer for Owen Meany” by John Irving today – Dad was right, I did enjoy it. I can't exactly say why, it was just a really well written and engaging story, with references to places I knew, places I could imagine, and characters I found very believable. I think it would be easy to get confused in a book like this that jumps back and forth between time periods in the narrative but somehow the author managed to come to the final scene from before it happened and after it happened and it all fell into place – you got bits and pieces of what was coming, but they didn't all fit together until right at the very end. Plus there are references to a cousin who joins the Peace Corps and goes to Nicaragua to teach forestry in order to escape the draft, which was kind of amusing and fun and reminded me of Mr. Nelson's story of almost joining the Peace Corps. From what I've read it seems like the Peace Corps of the 60s and the Peace Corps of today bear very little resemblance to each other, but I like to think the spirit of the founding ideal remains the same.

Life In General - Reading, Cleaning, Action Plan For The Next Two Years

10 January – Kossouka, 1:21pm

I've been reading an almost ridiculous amount. I usually leave my house by 8:30 or 9 am, come back for the repose when the CSPS closes between 12 and 3pm, and then go back to the CSPS until the sun sets around 6pm. This leaves me an incredible amount of free time – I read, I play sudoku, I learn new versions of solitaire, I cook, I clean my house, I make shopping lists, I listen to music, I nap, I study French or make lists of words in Moore. Honestly, it's nice. I wish I had my college text-books – I feel like I could learn so much more here without the stress of having to memorize anything for a text, of just learning for the sake of learning.

My next big challenge is finding more people in the village who speak French, or someone who can translate for me. I want to start asking questions about how people perceive health, what concerns them, what they want to learn about, what they already know but don't put into practice and why. The problem is that the people I can easily ask – the people who speak French to me – are almost all from other places. Governmental workers are affectated to a village where they're needed, never to their home village, so all of the CSPS staff and school teachers and people working at the mayor and prefet's offices are out. I want to ask my CoGes staff, but I feel like they're so involved in the health care system that they would tend to be the exception in their health beliefs rather than the rule for the general people of the village. Perhaps they could act as facilitators and translators, introducing me to people they know? At some point we'll actually have a CoGes meeting and I'll be able to come up with a good plan with them as to who can help me with what.

I did get my first notion of a project that is desired! Moussa, the English teacher, said he'd really like it if I could come to the school and do sensibilizations on family planning and contraception because they have a pretty big problem with teen pregnancy. I know I have a lot more to learn about it before just charging in and giving a condom demonstration, but it's nice to at least have one concrete identifiable thing that someone besides me has identified as a priority.

I've also started to really enjoy cooking for myself – it's been challenging to come up with different meals with the same basic ingredients. If you have any recipes that use: tomatoes, onions, garlic, spaghetti/macaroni, rice, lentils, oil, peanut butter, sugar, sweetened condensed milk, sweet potatoes, tomato paste, flour, soy sauce, fake cheese (Laughing Cow), peanuts, instant coffee, tea, margarine, and occasionally green peppers, limes, eggplants, please send them along! So far I've made tortillas (veggie fajitas, quesadillas with tomatoes, with spiced sauteed onions), rice (with steamed veggies, with peanut sauce, with salt and pepper, with lemon-pepper tuna, cooked with chicken bouillon, with curry powder), spaghetti (with tomato paste and cooked vegetable sauce, with stewed tomato/onion/ garlic/eggplant/green pepper/cumin sauce, with olive oil/basil/diced tomatoes), macaroni (with the same as above, with cheese and diced green peppers), green peppers braised in tomatoes and cumin then stuffed with the cooked tomatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, fried sweet potatoes, tomato soup with veggies, soup mixes with lentils and/or oatmeal (when I still had oatmeal), black-eyed peas (they take much too long to cook, even after soaking for 24 hours), canned chickpeas (with spices, with rice), and sandwiches (cheese and tomato, peanut butter and banana, peanut butter and jelly, cinnamon-sugar and butter).

I haven't made much in the way of desserts, but my chocolate rice pudding was quite delicious and I think next I'm going to try and make cookies to give to my CSPS staff. Actually, now that I've written all that down I'm pretty impressed with how much I've done! Besides being an unwilling almost-vegetarian, I'm clearly not going to starve and I haven't had to resort to rice twice a day like some volunteers. I'm actually kind of bad at cooking rice without it either being soggy or burned – I got so used to using my rice maker that now I have to re-learn how to properly make it in a pot. I'm going to be very sad indeed when tomatoes and onions are out of season since right now they're the base of most of my sauces, along with either cumin or basil and parsley. There's always tomato paste, but it's just not as tasty.

I've also finally figured out the lazy way to do laundry. It still takes a ridiculous amount of time, but less water and less effort – instead of soaping up and scrubbing each article of clothing multiple times, then wringing and rinsing multiple times, I can follow the directions on the back of the soap packet and just let them soak in soapy water for 15 minutes, quickly scrub them once, and then rinse. Huzzah! Oddly I don't really miss having a lot of the conveniences of the US. While a microwave would be nice, I've gotten used to either figuring out another way to heat something or just going without heating it. A washing machine would be easier, but I feel really accomplished when I finish all of my laundry by hand and can watch it flapping away on the clothes lines that criss-cross my courtyard. I would be happy to have a Swiffer, but all those disposable cleaning clothes would be a pain here since all of my garbage goes into a little pile in the corner of my courtyard that I set on fire from time to time, thus ensuring that I will give myself lung cancer from inhaling burning plastic while simultaneously killing the environment along with all of my neighbors. Plus, what would I be saving time to do? I already have too much time! I was struck by a sentence in The Tao of Pooh, talking about how we work so hard to be able to afford things to save us time so that we can work more. While I think my sudden abundance of time has less to do with a lack of modern conveniences and more to do with a lack of regular working hours, the implication of causation isn't entirely inappropriate.

It's interesting to watch a country going through growing pains. A lot of the things people tell me are comparisons between Burkina and the US/Europe, appropriate not only because I'm from the US but also because Burkina and much of West Africa is in the process of becoming more Westernized, trying to navigate between notions of tradition and progress, of what is appropriate, what is modern, what is both. There's definitely a lot of understandably conflicting feelings – they want electricity, but don't want television shows that constantly show them all the things they don't have. They want to be modern and respected on the international stage, but don't want to lose traditional systems of power like the chief and the chief de terre. They believe that to be modern entails being educated and having to move away from their family compound to find a job, but they also want to hold onto the unity and power structure of the large family courtyard. There's a pride in “progress” that has happened so far, but also sometimes an almost accusatory tone towards me (representing all the new concepts of modern/progress/globalization) and a sadness for all the things that are changing. Now the chief doesn't pass down his power to his first son because his first son is the one most likely to be educated and employed by the government in another village. Progress, one that people agree is important and good, but at the price of something old that was also agreed to be important and good.

The People I Know

10 January – Kossouka, 1:21pm

So it's been a tiny bit of time since I last typed anything, mostly because there is somehow too much and yet not enough time to do anything here, and also because I didn't yet have anyway to re-charge my computer. Now that I've asked Sylvie if I can use her electricity, problem solved. Also, being here affords me a lot of time to ponder things so then you get blog entries like this – just warning you in advance.

Life here seems to be all about contradictions. You feel like you're settling in, you feel like you know no one. You feel like there's absolutely nothing for you to do, you feel like there are tons of areas that you could address in your work. You feel like all you do is repose and laze around, but at the end of the day there's still things you wanted to do that remain undone. You feel like you can be understood, you feel like no one is speaking your language (literally and figuratively). You feel all alone in the world, then you have a good conversation with someone and feel like you have a friend. You feel like no time has passed at all, you feel like time is racing by and you still have so much you were supposed to have accomplished by now!

All of these are true, sometimes at the same time. I've become a huge fan of the common phrase here “ca va aller” - it's going to go, it'll happen, it'll work out, just give it time. I've been told it is sometimes applied to situations when PCVs are frustrated and certain that it will not go but I think it does a good job of describing the common mentality here, which I kind of like. While there are sometimes when you do need to take active steps to make something go, it won't just happen on it's own, in general I tend to think that if it's going to work, it's going to work. Maybe not on my time frame, but eventually if I'm persistent and it's possible, it'll happen. Ca va aller.

What about the people I'm meeting? I've met a pretty good range of people despite feeling like I haven't. There are the old ladies at the maternity who sit and talk in Moore – I understand when they're talking about me and Lauren and how eventually I'll know Moore like she did. There's the guy who I first thought was overly friendly until I stopped and talked to him for a while and found out that he helped to build my house, was good friends with Lauren, and his wife volunteers at the CSPS. There's Moussa, the English teacher at the middle school who I can actually have semi-deep conversations with since I can use a mixture of French/English to get across concepts like “home vs. house” or how the American media portrays Africa. There's my CSPS staff – some seem indifferent, some are more friendly. I feel closest to my major – she's the person I stop and chat with the most and we're relatively close in age, or David who is very receptive to all of my questions about how the CSPS runs or makes decisions.

There's the student I met at the water pump who declared himself my “petit African” despite my protests that he couldn't be my boyfriend. I thought that was the end of things even though we exchanged phone numbers, but the next weekend he was back from school and upset that I hadn't called. We talked for another hour and I thought I had convinced him that we aren't going to get married, but he's still talking about how in 5 years I can call him and tell him I'm ready to be married and he'll be there. He seems oddly serious about this – I don't know if I should be flattered or what.

There's the guy at the Malaria conference who seemed to be flirting with me until he invited me to call him when I come to Seguenegua to meet his wife and 6 month old daughter. There's all of my stage friends – I haven't kept in touch with the vast majority, but after an accidental phone call from someone I realized that I could probably call up any of them and chat for a good long while. There's the woman who makes galettes (millet pancakes) at the market who I stop and chat with every market day, and the three guys I buy vegetables from, and the woman who sells bananas and peanut butter. There's Collette, the woman who volunteers at the CSPS and helps with the WFP distribution every week, who encourages me to talk to the women who show up but I always stay silent because I can't say anything in Moore to them besides “Hello” and “Thank you”.

There's Fatou, the mother of Carine, who came to my house for coffee one day after she insisted on helping me pump my water but who didn't pick up her food rations last week. There's the man who I see at the water tap filling up the big wheeled water barrel to bring water to the CSPS staff, who will fill my bidon if I show up while he's there. There's Aissa, the girl with the red beads in her braids who was coming to greet me every day but who I haven't seen in a while, perhaps because I'm not home as often as I was at first. There's the adjoint mayor, Francois, who just seems like a really nice guy and who I'd like to go visit just for the hell of it. The prefet reminds me of Uncle Steve for some reason – he's very tall and carries himself in a friendly but powerful way. There's the lady who sometimes helps Collette who reminds me of Aunt Sally for reasons I still can't figure out.

I guess I do know a lot of people, considering. Pretty cool!

Happy New Year and Happy Birth Day!

1 January – Kossouka, 12:41pm

Where to begin? I guess I'll start with yesterday. I started the day off with a triumphant moment – I went and found bread for breakfast! Trust me, little things like this count a lot when it's kind of intimidating to step outside of your gate. I figured that the two big mud-brick domes behind my house were ovens, so surely someone was selling bread in the mornings. Lo and behold, there's kind of a cafe back there, tucked into the edges of the market area and they gave me a quick and friendly Moore lesson in how to ask for bread (mam data buri-ye or buri-yi if I want two). The bread was warm, the people were friendly, and I had to stop myself from doing a little jig as I returned to my house.

I talked to a couple of friends and was excited to hear about their holiday plans, but was a little uncertain as to what I was going to do myself. My CSPS staff had all left for Ouaga and I wasn't really looking forward to celebrating the new year myself. But lucky for me, my major came back that morning from her training trip (since it was right before her vacation time she'd been gone almost the entire time I'd been here). I ended up wandering over to her house from the CSPS as the sun was starting to set, and essentially invited myself to her party by sitting down and helping with food prep with a bunch of other women in her courtyard. When I went back to my house to grab a jacket I asked if it was ok for me to stay for dinner and she was really enthusiastic that I should come back, so after that I relaxed a bit.

Things I re/learned about Burkina cooking:
-chickens are not cooked whole, they are disjointed and cooked in pieces, always. Thankfully this time we threw away the feet, innards, and heads! I love functionares.
-carrots are grated into mush, not strips
-you cannot eat the seeds of tomatoes or cucumbers – these are thrown away and people are very surprised if I tell them that Americans leave them in
-cutting takes place in ones hands, not on a cutting board.
-can openers do not exist – you pierce the lid of tins with a knife, working your way around. This perhaps explains why there are no sharp knives in Burkina.
-salad dressing consists of half of a large jar of mayo mixed with spices and whisked with oil. I think I now have the recipe to fatten all of the malnourished children in record time.
-we were all puzzled at our host family thank you ceremony that we were told to make up plates to serve to the important guests when we'd assumed it was a serve-yourself affair. But really, that's apparently how it works. One of Sylvie's friends made plates for each of us – men first, me next, the rest of the women after – and set it at our feet one at a time. Sylvie also got a drink for each of us, opened each one, and then went around to pour each one into a glass. The plates were washed and the second course was served the same way.

Aside from those little factoids, the story continues. We were preping food for quite a while, and I was really thirsty and cold, so I went home for some water and my jacket. I returned and it was getting pretty late at this point. While we waited we ate some french fries and cravettes, and Sylvie arranged the salads (carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, canned peas, raw onions, canned ham, and the dressing) on large platters, and brought out one platter of fried potato chunks and one of french fried patates (kind of a sweet yam/potato) to be covered and wait for the arrival of people. It was 11pm before people arrived, looking very fancy. The women were dressed in an odd fusion of American and African – a long skirt in a modern fabric and cut, pin-striped jeans that clung tightly, tank tops and heeled shoes. Sylvie's son somehow managed to dance around (naked) for a couple of hours, generally getting into things and being a pest but still amusing, especially because no one seemed to find it odd at all that he was naked even though everyone kept saying it was cold.

My suspicions about the functionare housing were correct – it's much nicer. Her house is raised above the courtyard on a cement foundation, with a separate living room, kitchen, and I believe (from what I glimpsed down the hallway) an indoor bathroom and at least one bedroom. She has her TV next to a car battery but clearly has wired electricity from somewhere – I didn't hear a generator so perhaps a solar panel. She has a beautiful new laptop and someone brought in and hooked up a huge speaker system for us to play music and dance. It was very impressive to say the least!

We sat and watched TV and I felt out of place in my nice but ordinary day-to-day clothing. Sylvie reappeared just 20 minutes before midnight, her hair down and styled, wearing a very modern knee length skirt and fitted jacket – I actually didn't recognize her she looked so different. I also really want to copy her outfit – it would be perfect business wear in the US but in a fun fabric! Drinks were poured while we watched some karate-type movie (think Hero or House of Flying Daggers) and at midnight we prompted someone into saying a few words in honor of the new year. We clinked glasses, Sylvie went and formally greeted each of us (cheek kisses for the women, forehead taps for the men), and we ate.

After dinner most of the men left and the rest of us started dancing. They seemed very amused with my American dancing, but I just kept at it – they don't know if I look ridiculous or not by American standards so why care? I'm sure I looked just as silly attempting to copy their dancing, but it was a lot of fun to try something new. The music was kind of a modern twist on traditional Burkinabe music and I found it a little of hard to dance to simply because it was a bit lower energy than most “dance” music and each song tended to just have a single arc that it repeated over and over for about 6 minutes, which is much too long for my attention span. Still, it was fun dancing and being with a bunch of people and when I went to bed at 2 am I could still hear people partying outside my window.

I woke up this morning around 8am, pure luxury! I went to get bread again, ate my breakfast and went to the CSPS where I saw Sylvie. She asked if I wanted to come help with a delivery. Eyes wide I said “yes please!” and followed her into the birthing room, where I've never been before. I tried to introduce myself to the mother in Moore and asked in French if it was ok for me to be there. She just stared at me, not in a particularly friendly manner, but neither Sylvie nor the old woman standing in the room moved to translate. Sylvie parked me in a chair at the mother's head, which was fine with me. The mother was so skinny I could hardly believe that she was having a child – lying on her back with her long, skinny thighs pointing into the air, hands gripping tightly to her boney ankles, breathing heavily through each contraction but otherwise silent. I guess that whole thing about not crying in front of anyone translates into not showing pain as well.

The birth proceeded fairly quickly after that and seemed to be very matter-of-fact – both women had clearly done this before. The baby was cleaned and weighed, then handed to the old woman (I'm assuming she's an accoucheuse villigoise – a village midwife trained to assist the CSPS staff) and the mother followed them to the recovery room on shaky legs a few minutes later. Sylvie cleaned and sterilized the room and the instruments, and that was that. It was incredible and an honor to be present at this woman's birth, the first of the new year, and I do hope that I get to see more births in my time here. Maybe next time I'll actually know the words in Moore to offer a bit of comfort and support!

Actually, That's The Dust

29 December – Kossouka, 5:57pm

I'm sitting in my chair outside, reading my latest book. It's good, and I've been so caught up that when I suddenly look up I realize that it's misty. I stand on the small ledge around my patio for a better look over my courtyard walls. The mountains in the distance are gone, and even the Zain cell tower is a bit fuzzy. The sun should be almost set now, dropping us into the long shadows and growing duskiness of twilight, but this mistiness diffuses the light, making it somehow brighter than it should be but in a slightly ominous way. This isn't the friendly mist of Scotland afternoons, with the watery sun breaking through every now and again to smile on your face. This is a gray, darkening mist, the perfect background to the beginning of a tale of monsters or armies or deadly diseases. The air is cool, tempting me to put my button-down back on over my camisole, but I resist on principle. At least the wind that scoured us this morning has died down, although I'm sure that my face, neck, wrists, and feet are covered in a fine layer of dust that won't be revealed until I shower.

The Simple Life - I'm Going To Become A Crazy Cat Lady

28 December – Kossouka, 9:20pm

I'm listening to AFI – Sing The Sorrow. It reminds me of Kay, and high school, and of babysitting for my neighbors across the street where I felt mildly rebellious and guilty for listening to my devil rock music after the kids went to sleep while their stereo played the Christian radio station. Going from the incredible structure of stage to village life has been a shock even after demyst and feeling surprised at the slower pace of things. But that really seems to be what it's like au village. You wake up. You make breakfast. You might go do something at the CSPS. You go home to repose for 3 hours while the CSPS is closed. You go back out until the sun is going down at 6pm and then your evening is your own. Part of me wishes I could go take part in the nightlife I hear outside my courtyard, even if it's just my neighbors watching TV too loud, although I suspect a semi-public screening of something or other. Some nights there's music and I miss going out and dancing with my friends in Denver. There's a solid comfort in my new routine - I go home when it gets dark, make dinner, and sit and read and drink my tea. But it also feels very...old-ladyish. :p Just wait until I get my kitten!

Christmas, Real Food, New Friends, Musings

26 December – Kossouka, 8:34pm

Yesterday was kind of normal and kind of sad because it was so...un-Christmas-y. Granted, I didn't go out of my way to make it so, but it was still a little disappointing. Not that it was a bad day, by any means. They weren't kidding about the roller-coaster effect here. I woke up, read and had some chai, and when I went to get water the woman there with her daughter followed me home. We had coffee and I listened to her talk while her daughter kind of listlessly played (I think she's ill). I hardly understood most of her French, but it was so nice to just have someone come and sit in my courtyard and I think we probably spent a good hour or two just sitting and chatting. I did my dishes and my laundry after she left, and made my first real meal, having biked to Seguenega on the 24th to buy flour, rice, milk, and veggies. I made rice with eggplant, onion and garlic, and of course wildly overestimated how much I needed. I did the same for dinner – the tortilla recipe even in half made 5 tortillas, way too many, and stir-frying an eggplant, an onion, and a green pepper with diced tomato topping made for too much filling. Still, with some salt, pepper, and cumin, it was delicious, and the leftovers made a great breakfast over spaghetti this morning. :D

I did get to talk to lots of family and friends, which was fantastic but did make me really wish I could be home having Christmas with family instead of it just being another day here, albeit with the holiday Moore greetings instead of the usual ones. I got a lot done, I made a friend (Pre-k style, I wanted to call my mom and tell her because I was so happy when I realized that someone was finally talking to me as a friend, not as a colleague or as someone telling me that I should learn Moore faster), I met my neighbor – a boy of maybe 17? who sent a kid to lure me out of my house before coming over to introduce himself which was pretty adorable in a 6th grade kind of way. And then today I went to the marche too early and nothing really was out yet so I went to the CSPS to sit with the nurse. We chatted, and a friend of hers was there so I listened as they talked in Moore, and I hung out in the pharmacy and asked a bunch of questions. The friend very kindly took me around the marche later and helped me find where to buy soap and credit for my phone. It was kind of funny that someone who doesn't even live in my village was the first to offer to take me around it.

Michel (my neighbor) called and said he was coming over, but when it was apparent that he wasn't actually coming over I took a quick nap and read and generally lounged during the repose. I meant to leave around 3pm, but didn't end up actually getting out the door until Aissa came to greet me again like she did yesterday. It made me inordinately happy because even though I don't have much to say to the kids when they come over it's still nice when they show up, and she seems really sweet and friendly even though we can't say that much to each other. I followed her out of my courtyard but told her to go ahead when her friends called from across the way and I continued on to the CSPS. One of the women had given birth so I watched the paperwork being filled out and made faces at one of the kids who was there with the many women attending the birth.

So far life here doesn't feel exactly like I'm serving under conditions of hardship. When I go to Ouaga next I might get an internet key, and I'm thinking of a car battery or solar panel next month, thus turning my 'hut' into my own internet cafe/charging station and eliminating the need to ever leave my village except to get mail and money once a month. I mean, sure, it would be nice to have running water that I don't have to haul or filter or bleach. I miss being able to microwave foods that are ready to eat when I'm hungry instead of having to plan ahead or just be hungry while something cooks for an hour. I miss the variety of foods and the convenience and quality of a grocery store. I miss having a refrigerator for when I make too much food, and lights that don't run on batteries. But I don't feel like those are going to be huge adjustments when I go home, not the way people talk about them. I might feel a little shocked and awed, but not in a “what am I doing here while people are suffering?” way. Perhaps that's the trap – you think it'll be no big deal but then it is and suddenly you feel like a stranger in your own country.

For all the fears that seem to surround being foreign in Africa, I feel very safe here. Out of place, but respected and generally safe. While I don't think a lot of people are to the point of liking me as a person, I think they would all respond if I was in need of help. People are hesitant to come into my courtyard, and even if they do let themselves in my gate they don't even look in my screen door until I come out to greet them, and never ever make a move to enter my house. For all we worried about negotiating boundaries, it seems as though Lauren either did a fantastic job or everyone is terrified of me, but either way my boundaries are already set exactly where I want them. People can come in and sit if I invite them, or to say hello if I don't hear them, but I'd rather they don't come in my house without my express invitation, which I will not be making to anyone unless they are my very good friend.

I put up my maps and some photos today. My Denver poster is crooked, but I'll live. I still want to re-paint, but it can wait, and my walls were just crying out for help. I feel pretty lucky that my house is becoming my home!

Christmas?, Baby Weighing

23 December – Kossouka, 9:51pm

Well, I can tell you that it doesn't feel at all like Christmas is around the corner. It's hot. It's sunny. Snow is something people might have seen in a photo or on TV once. I've yet to see a Santa Clause or a reindeer or any kind of shopping countdown. It's refreshing, but also kind of takes the joy out of the holidays. Sorry, friends and family, I can't afford to send you anything from Africa yet, but I promise that next Christmas I will shower you in exotic fabrics and Burkina Faso backpacks. If you send me your measurements I could even have my CoGes president make you something! As of right now, he's the only tailor I know, but I'm sure there are more. I'm actually kind of hoping there are more – it seems very biased of me to pay him as a tailor when I'm going to be working with him all the time.

I met a guy today who works for the government to check the effectiveness of the food distribution programs for pregnant women and new mothers. His clothing gave him away as being a functionare (government worker) of some sort, although I guessed teacher and health agent before he corrected me and said he was from Ouaga. I got his phone number and email, and I actually do want to call him up and get his results. He said he had seen our swear-in on TV - I bet he recognized the shirt I was wearing since it was the fabric we all used for our outfits that day.

I watched baby weighing and vaccination this morning. I don't think I'll ever be able to do this on my own! It was way more complicated than it was in Nakaba, with a huge crowd and everything being recorded in several notebooks and then being passed from Salmata (the midwife) to David (the...not sure, maybe another adjoint nurse?) for vaccinations where he somehow seemed to know what each child was getting without even looking at the notebooks. I bet I could eventually get down the baby weighing, even the filling out of recommendation sheet for the CREN, but I sincerely hope that they don't think I'm going to learn to do injections (I'm kind of relieved that Peace Corps recommends against us doing them).

We had a few kids getting PlumpyNut rations for the week (who didn't necessarily look terribly underweight until you saw how old they were), but only one “skeletal” baby being referred out. I still really can't comprehend how children get to this state, especially with the relative access of resources. I know there are lots of factors, some of which I might eventually comprehend, but this child was 2 ½ years old and weighed 11 pounds. 11 pounds! Some babies in the US are born close to that weight. She truly looked like all those photos you see of starving African babies, like an old woman trapped in a baby's body, with all of her teeth crowded into that tiny mouth, and her giant eyes, and her impossibly skinny limbs. She didn't even have the distended belly anymore, her skin was slack and stayed wrinkled, indicating her severe dehydration. Yet she didn't seem all that distressed, just kind of quietly looking around. I think she just didn't have the energy to be upset at the poking and prodding. Her weight for height measurement, a malnutrition indicator, put her below the 60th percentile, meaning that she weighed less than 60% of what she should for her height, even with a height that has been stunted by malnutrition in the first place. And even though it was terrible and sad, it didn't affect me the way I thought it would. Maybe if I had known her before I would have felt more emotional, but it was just kind of a given. Here I am watching babies being weighed in Africa, here's the starving one they always take photos of, here's the cute happy one who's smiling at me, awww...that one over there looks like he's going to start bawling if I look at him for too long so I better look away... It just wasn't something that registered emotionally for me, which in itself kind of worried me. I haven't become that jaded from the pictures on the TV, have I? Now that I'm staring at them two feet away from me?

Meeting Village Leaders

22 December – Kossouka, 8:56pm

Boriema, my CoGes treasurer, came over and took me to be introduced me to the prefet, the first adjoint (Francois) and the second adjoint (Miriam) of the mayor, some of the teachers at the closest primary school, and the chief. Thankfully all of them spoke French and we were actually able to talk a little about why I was here, what I hoped to do, and what I liked so far about living here. I was surprised at how friendly the chief was, especially after how formal the chief of Romongo was, but we had a nice little conversation and he seems like the kind of guy you could show up and visit. When we got back to the CSPS Boriema promised that tomorrow or the day after we'll go meet the vielles and the chief de terre, and while we were standing there I met Moussa, perhaps my favorite person in the whole village for his absolutely amazing English.

Francois made a lovely little speech today that really touched me – I felt a little teary-eyed and my cheeks hurt from smiling so hard. The gist of it was that he was incredibly happy to have me, and that now I was from Kossouka, working with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters, to improve the health of our family. There was a lot more to it – Burkinabe are absolutely amazing at giving moving off-the-cuff speeches – but that was what I translated to English in my head so I would remember it. I always feel the need to respond in kind, but I can hardly explain why I'm here, let alone express all my desires for working with people here, to take on their problems and find solutions in the community and how excited I am to be here and get to know people and to identify myself as part of the village.

We ended the evening hanging out in front of the CSPS with the staff and whoever wandered by. I still felt like a clear outsider, but I'm content to just sit and listen to their mix of French/Moore while watching the sun set. I'll admit, just being around people who could understand me and who I could understand, feeling like something useful was happening – it was a nice change of pace. Did my laundry for the first time and then realized that my wet clothing would then be subjected to the dusty winds of my courtyard, kind of defeating the point of washing them. My shirts are in need of a second wash, but the rest turned out pretty well for just being dunked and agitated in soapy water a couple of times – I didn't feel like going into the whole scrubbing and wringing multiple times routine that I did at my host family because I had a lot to wash.

Tomorrow I'm going to hang out at the CSPS for the morning, since it's vaccination day, and then I want to bike to Segenega to buy staple foods. Frankly, as interesting as oatmeal and soup is, I think I should actually be learning to do more than just heat up water – I have yet to actually “cook” anything that requires more than adding boiled water and stirring.

Venturing To The CSPS, Birth Records

21 December – Kossouka, 8:29pm

Today I finally got tired of waiting for my CSPS staff and CoGes members who keep saying they'll come take me around, but not knowing where to go I ended up at the CSPS and tried to talk to people. I think it...could have gone better. I guess I'm not a horribly curious person, or maybe I'm just afraid that my questions will come off as totally “spy-ish” since I'm new, so I just kind of sat there. I greeted a number of people, and the old women in particular were very sweet and receptive to my greetings, but they don't speak French and I don't speak Moore, so we kind of left it at that and I moved on to the next building. I sat around with some mothers and their babies for a while, but really had nothing I could say beyond asking for one of the baby's name. She said he was naase but he looked much too small to be 4 years old – my host sister Mamu at 2 ½ (in theory) was much bigger than him.

I finally saw one of the CSPS staff, whose name and position I'd unfortunately forgotten, and asked if I could do anything, but he was just doing consultations and suggested the maternity. I walked to the next building over and greeted the men, then the women who were sitting on the other end of the patio area, then spent a good deal of time being laughed at for not knowing Moore. At least, that's what I took it to mean, since one woman in particular would look at me, look around, and keep saying something about not understanding Moore and not speaking Moore, leading me to the impression that I would clearly never learn to speak Moore if I couldn't understand it. While this is true, having her repeat it over and over wasn't doing wonders for my desire to speak or understand it. I tried speaking with them in French, but that just elicited more laughter and no responses in either language, so finally I said goodbye in Moore and French (more laughter) and moved on to the third building.

I exchanged some greetings, but didn't poke my head into the consultation room to interrupt and see if I could help. I ended up looking at the French and Moore in my notebook for a bit, copying down the map of our aire sanitaire, (the area that uses our CSPS) and feeling utterly exhausted I went home and proceeded to take a nap. After lunch I started another book and hid until about 4pm when I ventured back out to the much less crowded CSPS. I ran into the same guy I did earlier and ended up looking over the birth records for the last month, which was surprisingly interesting. I also sat and talked with him for a while and it was so nice to finally just get to speak with someone who I could understand. He said that Thursday is vaccination day, which sounds like a good thing to show up for, and when I told him I might want to be a midwife he said that soon I'll be doing the births all by myself. I sure hope not! I don't think PC carries liability insurance for when the nasara drops your baby and it dies. Just saying.

Interesting things on the birth records – there were 40 from 12 Nov to 12 Dec. All women but one were excised 1st degree, the one who wasn't was recorded as “normal”. They give babies an APGAR score even here – score one for the MHC alums! All babies either started as a 7 and went to an 8, or started as an 8 and went to a 9, except for the one born dead who had a 0 for both. The age range of mothers was from about 17 to 46, and a fair number of the older mothers had lost a child and/or had some kind of disparity between number of pregnancies and number of births. There were a lot of abbreviations that I didn't understand and I'm really looking forward to learning how to fill this all out. Some were carefully recorded and seemed relatively complete, others were obviously in a hurry and hardly legible – I should have looked to see if that had any correlation with the time of day the baby was born.

Hello To A New Home

17 December – Koussouka, 8:02pm

Today we woke up and I hustled to pack. We ended up waiting well past our scheduled leave time of 7am, so I had breakfast downstairs, chatted, and started saying goodbye to people as they were leaving. I was surprisingly unemotional – it didn't feel dramatic or sad or much of anything. Even saying goodbye in a rush to Stephen while packing was less emotional than I expected – I know I'll see him again and we'll keep in touch so there's no big reason to worry. Even while our driver was loading our car I was still ok. But when everything was packed and it was time to get in, to leave the safety of the hotel and the familiar faces, I started to panic a little. Holy shit, this is happening - I'm about to go to my site and be done with training and have to actually figure out what I'm going to do for the next two years.

We piled in and drove first to the big Sonapost so we could get more money out of our post accounts. We entered the building and the change from two days ago was impressive. There was tea and coffee available as you entered the door, and the place was almost empty. We hopped back in the car and started driving out of Ouaga. I was tired but was in the middle of the front seat without a headrest, so I talked with the driver while Alicia slept on my shoulder. We made a few quick stops, and I listened to some music and told myself that I will not run after the car when it leaves me.

We were getting closer to Emily's site, and somehow it looked just like we were driving into Tucson. It's surrounded by small “mountains” but the land where we were was flat and populated by small-leaved desert trees among the dried yellow grasses. We eventually found our way to her house – the one with the screened windows, of course. We were greeted by her major and some of her CoGes members, who helped us carry things into the house. It has a living/cooking area and two bedrooms, along with a really nice shower in her courtyard that offers a view of the mountains and a latrine just outside her wall. The hangar is new and offers a nice shady spot to rest, and she can turn a fairly large part of her yard into a garden if she wants to. The driver changes her lock and hands her the keys, and he says a little speech to the men assembled. Alicia and I hug Emily goodbye, and we're all tearing up but we get our tears under control very quickly. I hand over Ollie, her puppy, as we leave, and I can't see her as we pull away from her house.

Then we headed to my village! I'm nervous and I'm scared that I'm going to cry, but I'm also excited to see my house and I'm hoping that it's as nice as Emily's seemed to be. We ask directions a couple of times, and finally see my house, a tall single story house with a high courtyard wall and a red metal gate. My major greeted us – she's young, maybe in her late 20s or early 30s. She opened the door and I walked into my kitchen/living room. There are two tables/counters for cooking, each with a shelf or two, plus a high small stand for my water filter, a huge bookshelf, two smaller side tables, two chairs (one cane, one apparently missing it's bottom and back), 4 plastic chairs, 4 mats, 3 calabashes for food strung from the ceiling, and a mirror. I go through the doorway to my bedroom, ducking a little to avoid hitting my head, and see a full/queen sized mattress balanced on it's side, a narrow tall shelving unit, a large water storage container, and a set of hooks on the wall by the door. I'm a little nervous, looking for the promised canteens full of cooking stuff, but behind the bed I discover 4 large metal lockers.

Outside is just as wonderful – my courtyard isn't as large as Emily's, but it's still quite sizable and the hangar has been fixed. The latrine is quite large and has a level surface (trust me, it makes a difference), and to my surprise and delight the shower has a shower caddy constructed out of hollow metal tubing and hung over the wall. Sweet! The courtyard is dirt, so I can possibly plant a garden, and the area right outside my door is poured cement. Alicia and I get the keys from Sylvie (my major) and start going through the canteens. It's like Christmas! Anything I could have possibly wanted and then some is here – sheets that somehow still smell freshly washed, tons of pots with lids, pillows, the stove, tea mugs, books, papers, buckets – it's amazing and I'm so grateful that the last Volunteer chose to leave all these things that will absolutely make my moving in much easier.

We had to wait for my gas tank to arrive – it was a little more complicated than just filling up the old one since the company here has changed and the old tank needs to go with my driver back to Ouaga. The tone is decidedly different from being at Emily's – we're relaxed, taking some time, chatting, looking through the things in the house. When the time comes for them to leave I think about the advice Sunyata gave me and plant my feet firmly, picturing myself sending the smallest of roots into the hard ground beneath my feet, beginning the process of anchoring myself here to my new home. I feel a leap in my throat as Alicia and the driver climb in, but smile and wave as they pull away. I don't cry, I don't run after the car. I'm scared, but I'm also excited to get inside and start digging through those trunks!

My CoGes president filled my bidon (a 20L plastic container) so I have some water to put in my filter and to clean with. I thank him, and turn to my major who tells me to take the rest of the day to repose, that tomorrow we'll start meeting people. Sounds good to me - I immediately get to work wiping down all of the furniture and sweeping out the rooms. Surprisingly things aren't as dirty as I'd expected for the house being empty for nearly a year, and there are hardly any bugs or spiders. I think I'm going to like it here. I unload boxes, move furniture, and thank Lauren every time I find yet another thing that she didn't have to leave but will absolutely make my time here better, like an iPod speaker, sharpies, a camping pad, some of her papers, drink mixes, and an impressive stash of spices, many of which I've never used before and some of which I've never even heard of. I spend the rest of the day cleaning, arranging, rearranging. I'm ridiculously proud of my home, and wish more than once that someone was here to see it. I'm glad that Lauren seemed to cook for herself, since no one comes over to ask me to eat with them and I don't go searching for someone to eat with even though I really don't have any staple foods to eat, just oatmeal, care-package granola bars, and soup. Even most of my tea I would prefer with milk and sugar, so I have chamomile with honey instead.

I set up my bed in the same corner Lauren did, the nails helpfully already in place to string up my mosquito net. There's no bed frame but I kind of like the mattress on the floor. I kept the narrow shelves for clothing in the corner at the foot of the bed, next to one of the trunks for random things that didn't go anywhere else. The big green trunk next to my bed has the pad for the cot, some extra pillows and my tent with the two camping pads. The laundry basket is next to that, and the wash basin with the crack has become my toiletry holder next to the door. In the main room I put the stove in the corner next to the hanging calabashes, and perpendicular to it along the other wall is the second countertop. Next to the stove is a big goblet (a plastic cup) with all the cooking utensils she left (a bunch of knives, spatulas, ladles, strainers, etc – thank you!) and a second goblet holds silverwear. A small woven basket has the lighters and matches, and the shelf below is for spices I think I will use the most. There are nails on the sides for hanging a small cutting board, a measuring cup and spoons, a tami for sifting flour, and pot holders.

The second counter has my tea and coffee on the first shelf, with my frying pan and the pot I suspect I will use the most often, and a jug for dipping water out of the water storage next to it. The second shelf holds some of my food – cereal, lentils, peanut butter, jelly, honey, nutella, and oil, along with two egg crate pieces Lauren left. Under my water filter on the two shelves are my drink mixes and my med kit. In the opposite corner, across from my door to the bedroom I've set up the sling chair (I found the sling part in one of the trunks) next to a small side table and the bookshelf. The bottom shelf is all books, of course, and makes me terribly happy. Above that are PC books and papers, the third shelf is plates, bowls, mugs, and snacks, and the top shelf is the overflow of spices and all of the other food I've purchased but won't use all the time like canned lentils and chickpeas, care-package macaroni and cheese, a value pack of VQR, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and soup packets. I spread out one mat under my chair and table, and the rest are next to the bookcase in the corner. The plastic chairs are sitting on the other side and I think that's just where they're going to stay. I put the wicker chair and the other small table outside, and had my tea out there this morning. Life is good.

Shopping In Ouaga Day 2, Swear-In

17 December – Koussouka, 8:02pm

I woke up the next morning (the 16th) and realized that it was the day for swear in! Yay! We didn't have any agenda in the morning, but I wanted to go buy a big bag (they sell large square vinyl ones that zip) and go to the Transit House to take a bunch of books. I went to breakfast downstairs and found that Antoinette and David both wanted to go to the small market nearby. I learned how to haggle properly (thank you David), we bought what we needed, and even managed to get all of it back to the hotel – people were very amused at David and Antoinette carrying a mattress on their heads. They wanted to go shopping elsewhere so I started walking to the Transit House which was right near the restaurant we'd been at the night before. It was a much longer walk without company, and I ended up having to call Josh to get me to the correct side street, but in the end I found it and will certainly be able to find my way back next time. I talked with the PCVs that were hanging out at the House (I was pleased by how many I already knew!), and then grabbed lunch nearby with Al before we caught a taxi back to the hotel to get ready to go to the Ambassador's house.

We all looked magnificent in our matching pagnes, if I do say so myself. (A pagne is a printed piece of fabric that you can buy at any street market and comes in a bolt of 3. You can ask the vendor to cut off one – a little more than 5 ½ feet long and 3 ¾ feet wide - but they prefer if you buy all three at once. Used for making clothing, curtains, baby-carrying slings, etc) Don't worry, we took lots of photos! I think the Americans were amused, but the Burkinabe seemed impressed with our matching outfits – you see a lot of families wearing matching outfits for important ceremonies here. The ceremony was interesting for the most part, and the hor-d’overes and drinks while mingling with staff and older PCVs after the ceremony was over was a lot of fun. When we stood up in front of the Ambassador to take the oath (the same one given to government workers, court justices, and the President) I was kind of hit with a feeling of “This is it!” a happy and slightly nervous sensation of being about to take the proverbial plunge into the unknown. Cliché, perhaps, but true.

A couple of us took the bus back to the hotel to leave our bags in our rooms, and then we caught a taxi to a restaurant with a big outdoor seating area so we could sit in long rows. There was a good mix of old and new PCVs, and as more people kept showing up we just kept adding on tables. After dinner people kind of split off into groups to go find entertainment – I ended up playing pool (badly, but it was a lot of fun none the less) for a few hours with a bunch of older Volunteers and then we went and joined everyone else at a restaurant that also had a bar/dance floor. I got the chance to chat with a bunch of new people, and it was an absolutely fantastic way to celebrate becoming a Volunteer and also saying goodbye to our stage group.

Leaving Host Families, Leaving Koudougou, Shopping In Ouaga (Dec 14-15)

17 December – Koussouka, 8:02pm

It's been a crazy awesome few days. I'll try to start with what I remember of the 14th and work my way up to now – sorry this is so long. I ended up breaking it into separate posts to make it easier to read, but it was all written the same day.

So, the morning of the 14th I woke up a bit early to pack my last minute things, like my mosquito net and any remaining things lying around. I had really wanted to take a family photo, but sadly the family was still getting up at the same time as normal, and since goodbyes took so much longer on this last day of goodbyes it was already past 7 by the time I sat down to bolt my breakfast and try and get to the CSPS. I gave the candy, cards, map and postcards to my host dad with the promise to send him the family photos, and then I biked quickly to the CSPS, hoping I wouldn't be too late. It was surprisingly hard to leave my host family – it was sad to say goodbye and I was almost glad of the excuse to leave in a bit of a hurry so I wouldn't have to think about it any more. I got to the CSPS about 20 minutes late and the car hadn't even come yet. So much for rushing! My host aunts had given me bags of peanuts, so we snacked a little while we waited. Emily came with her adorable puppy – I think this one was a good choice, he's super chill, friendly, and likes to sleep a lot. When he went over and curled up between Stephen's host dad's feet we all about died of cute.

After an interview with our trainers about how we felt stage went, we all went for lunch and then came back to Abbe-Pierre for committee elections. I ran for GAD (Gender And Development) and VAC (Volunteer Action Committee), and was torn as to which I wanted to do more, but since I was the only enthusiastic one about running for VAC I was elected to that. I'm excited to be on the committee, I just wonder if I wouldn't have enjoyed GAD more even though I worried that I didn't really have concrete ideas to bring, just a desire to sit and talk about gender all the time. We had to re-vote for CHAT (Community Health and AIDS Taskforce) multiple times since 6 people ran and we could have 2 people. Lindsy voted by phone since she was in Ouaga at the med unit for her thumb. We didn't elect anyone to the IT committee and gave our slot to SED since no one wanted to be on it from Health. It looked like we weren't going to have anyone on the Youth Committee either (I forget the whole name or acronym) but Lindsy said she'd do it, and I think she'll be really good at it – we all wanted to nominate her to run anyway. The whole process took a while but went pretty well and I'm excited to find out more about VAC and what it entails besides just acting as a liaison between the Volunteers and the Bureau.

So after that we all go celebrate the end of stage by having drinks, and then dinner, at El Dorado and Cafe Resto. Honestly, I bet they'll miss our business when we leave, but not the way we show up in a massive group and end up talking rather loudly. After it got dark people started breaking off to go back to Abbe-Pierre. Our group from Romongo met up a little early to prepare for the talent show, and our selections from our in-the-works “Peace Corps – The Musical” went over with great acclaim. We explained that Stephen was both the writer and the only one of us who could actually sing, but we were happy to be backup singers/the chorus/ the dancers to assist in his genius. It was pretty fantastic, actually – we took songs from musicals and changed the lyrics. Thus, “Maria” from West Side Story became “Nasara”, “I Could Have Danced All Night” became “I Could Have Shat All Night”, etc. Our power ballad was “Jean-Luc, You Weren't There At Midnight” which Stephen sang solo and we provided the “interpretive dancing” in the background. Overall the talent show was horribly inappropriate, culturally insensitive towards Americans and Burkinabe alike, and unbelievably awesome – I laughed so much my cheeks hurt from smiling.

After a few hours of sleep, we're up and getting ready to go to Ouaga. I surprise and amuse myself by being too lazy to walk to the American bathroom and just using the latrine instead. Our bus has a flat – we pile out and Issouf changes it, and surprisingly we make great time, arriving just after the other bus. Or rather, they had to keep stopping for various reasons, so we made better time than they did. We're at the same hotel as last time, but my roommate, Lindsy, is staying in the med unit so I have the room all to myself. Sweet! We only have the afternoon of the 15th and the morning of the 16th to shop in Ouaga, but first we have a quick lecture from Jeff. We learn who is leaving when and how they're getting to site, and get our checkbooks and learn to write a check here. We go downstairs to see where we're going to be putting all of our stuff that we buy, and I ask Rob for a quick map of Ouaga so I can actually get to all the places I want to go. We also keep running into lots of PCVs – it turns out that the SE group from the last stage is in Ouaga for their IST and staying on the floor above us in the hotel.

After lunch, Wendy, Steve and I hopped in a cab and went to the post (which is also the bank). It was kind of crazy – first I got confused which direction we were headed so we stopped a cab going the wrong way, then we walked a fairly long way before catching another one and squishing in with the two other passengers already there. 5 or 6 seems to be a good number for a taxi here – two in the front seat, 4 in the back. The post was confusing, but after about 30 or 45 minutes we were in the right place, with our checks and ID cards in the line on the counter, and soon were in possession of our money. We then caught a cab over to Marina for food shopping. I admittedly went a bit overboard and spent a lot more than I intended to, although in retrospect I should have also made sure to purchase things like rice and sugar. I did get a lot of useful things, just none of the staple foods that I actually need now that I'm here at site and wanting to make dinner. We went back to the hotel to unload our groceries next to our luggage and were immediately ushered out the door to go to a going-away dinner for Aaron, who was about to catch a flight back to America-land in a few hours. We managed to get our giant group to the restaurant, and had a really nice time meeting some Volunteers and eating lots of good food.

Last Day of Classes, Goodbye to Host Families

13 December – Romongo, 10:11pm

After our morning classes (lang tech that was a reprise of a worksheet we'd already done and a Q&A session with Shannon that was pretty helpful), I stopped by the photo place on our way to lunch but they still didn't have any paper. I was pretty disappointed – I'd intended to print some of the photos of my host family and give them to them, but I guess I'll have to see if they have a mail address and try to print them in Ouaga or when I get to site. After lunch we rushed back to Abbe-Pierre and drove to Romongo, stopping to pick up food on our way. We were just on time for when we had said the thank you/goodbye ceremony for our host families would start, but since no one had actually shown up yet we had lots of time to get ready - we started a little over an hour late. The ceremony went really well for being mostly improvised - Bridget gave a lovely speech, we had speeches from each of our dignitaries (the prefet, and the representatives of the mayor, chief, and two other people I don't remember), and a really sweet one by my host father on behalf of the host families. We presented our families with certificates and I was really happy when my host mom and favorite aunt came up with my host dad. We were amused that the certificates were in English, but I guess since it was from an American organization it kind of made sense.

I intended to pack but most everything else needs to be packed in the morning, so I read a little and tried to chat with some of the kids. Dinner was bengado! One of the meals I like! It's dried peanut leaves, pounded, mixed with water, and then steamed in balls before being broken up into a taco-meat consistency and mixed with oil and salt. While I think taco spices would absolutely improve it, it's still fairly tasty on it's own and, most importantly, it doesn't have any dried fish in it. And after dinner my host dad called me into his room/the tv room and gave me and the rest of the kids some kind of potato-type starchy tuber with a dry skin that you cracked and removed before taking parts of it and dipping it in a piment/salt mixture. Delicious!

He also told Saimata to take me around to “demande la route” of the older people in Moore. I was a bit confused since I assumed that everyone knew I was leaving tomorrow, but didn't argue. The oldest aunt who always gives me food actually seemed surprised and sad that I was leaving, which was touching. Saying goodbye to Fati was surprisingly hard and I had to stop myself from crying – I'm really going to miss talking with her. We switched to French, and her benedictions in both languages were touching and made me wish I could say more back to her. The rest of the adults had already gone to bed, so I sat and talked with the kids while they braided hair (I was asked for my bicycle by my “fiance”) for a little before going back inside. I know tomorrow is going to be early and hectic, so time for bed!

LPI, Movie Night, Visiting Chad and Tana, Mystery Flower Vegetables

12 December – Romongo, 9:45pm

Yesterday was our last language proficiency interview in French, which went really well, much easier than my first one. For one, I didn't have any theoretical situations (I think my first LPI involved me floundering to describe what I would show a visitor if I was taking him/her around Denver) and it's just a lot easier to speak French fluidly after two months here despite not actually learning all that much in terms of new vocab or grammar. And I “know” the grammar in that I have a notebook with how you form all of the tenses, but can't use any but passe compose, the imparfait if I want to say “I was” or “I had”, and the near future (“I'm going to...”). Still, it's been enough to get me by, especially here where most people don't speak perfect French either. My LPI involved talking to him about my morning, then my “question” card was to speak with him as if he was my host mother and we were having a conversation while she was cooking dinner. I asked about her day and about what was being cooked, and then we digressed on how one makes riz gras, the advertisement practices and overuse of Maggi (a bullion cube added to just about every sauce I eat), and tasty alternatives like adding veggies and select spices. I was actually sad to end because I was enjoying talking to someone I hardly ever interact with.

After our morning session we went out to lunch, where I actually got to hang out with a bunch of SED people that I hardly ever interact with – it was a nice change. Then we went in search of a place to print photos. I started with the one nearby, where Bridget had gone, but it was out of paper (and still open – the people there were watching TV and turning away customers). So I went further down the guidron, to another I'd seen as we drive into town. They only did film prints, so I went further, to the photo place Miriam had pointed out. Turns out they only do film as well, but the guys there were super friendly and seemed sincere when they asked me to come back the next day to hang out and chat (there's a good verb in French, but I have no idea how to spell it). I told them I'd be back on town in Monday, but since it's our good-bye ceremony to our family's that afternoon I don't know if I'll actually make it back there. Still, it was really sweet and I actually think that if I get the time I'll drop by and at least say hello.

My quest unsuccessful, I headed to the internet cafe where I updated the blog, sent emails, and Skyped. All of us intended to meet back at Abbe-Pierre at 6:30 for the movie, so in my hurry to be on time I stopped at the alimentation to buy VQR and crackers for dinner. I should have known that after two months here we're on West African International Time and I was the 3rd person to arrive even though it was exactly 6:30pm. Shoulda stopped for real dinner. I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to the NAK (a week long evening festival being held in Koudougou – yesterday was the last day), but I still think my time was well spent.

Went home with Chad and Tana for the evening and was so impresed with their home. Not only do they live in an actual house (you know, multiple people sleeping in separate rooms but in the same building connected by a hallway with a living room and a bathroom), but they have electricity, tiled patios (vs. dirt), and a toilet. It might not have a seat or flush, but you can pour water in the bowl to make it flush and after using my latrine for 2 months it was incredible. Their host mom insisted that I bring my tent inside and even though I initially didn't want to, when I woke up cold indoors I was glad I had agreed to be sheltered in their living room. After my alarm went off twice I went ahead and started to pack up my stuff. Their host mom then came out and seemed very surprised, and told me to go back to sleep! I explained that I needed to be at Abbe-Pierre at 7:30am, buffering 30 minutes so I'd have time to find breakfast after leaving. But I apparently got up way too early and found myself sitting around reading, not wanting to leave at 7am for a trip that would only take 20 minutes even stopping for gateaux. I was then summoned onto the patio to a tablecloth-covered table with baguettes, Nescafe, Lipton, Nido, and sugar, next to an aluminum thermos of hot water and a real tea cup on a saucer. Eh? It was so sweet of them to feed me breakfast, and I made sure to thank the women profusely, all of whom spoke wonderful French.

So we showed up to the center, stopped for gateaux on our way home (fried dough beignets = delicious), and then I biked to my house with Emily, who wanted to avoid going home while also fixing her bike. We certainly got some good practice – it's a lot harder to take a tire off the rim than Al's demonstration made it look, and my patch kit with directions dated 1996 came with 6 patches but barely enough glue for the one we used, the rest having dried up or maybe condensed down into just a few drops. I had to remove one of my tires because the tube was misaligned – the valve was at an angle and I was afraid it would develop a tear from rubbing against the rim. Once I fixed it I realized that the back tire had the same problem, but after fixing 3 tires (both of Emily's and my one) I just couldn't bring myself to do another so I left it for now and I'll fix it in Koudougou when I get help replacing my bike seat. I also went ahead and cleaned my bike, oiling the chain, checking the gear shifter alignments, identifying the parts that I'd read about in the maintenance manual. Yay for learning new things!

Once we finished playing with our bikes, Emily kindly stayed while I did my laundry. It was nice to have company, and I know her presence certainly slowed down the rate of shouted Moore words (I'm expected to repeat them, but the kids don't know enough French to tell me what they mean so I usually don't) and demands for gifts. I was glad that someone else got to see it, because now she gets it when I say that they just ask for things constantly. We finished at about lunch time, and after washing the puppy she went home and I started packing. Somehow it seems weird to be packing up all of my stuff yet again, although now the problem is that I have a 2 foot tall stack of new paper and books, plus some care package stuff I haven't eaten. I consolidated the food to one box, put dirty clothing in the other, and all the books went into my hiking backpack and purple bag. I'm trying to get everything for the next week or so into my carry-on since I don't know when or how often I'll have access to the rest of my stuff, but I'll have to carry my sleeping-pad separately since I plan on sleeping outside while we're at Abbe-Pierre in Koudougou.

I was called outside by my host mom and got to watch the distribution of some kind of flower? Vegetable? It's a small bud shaped thing, ranging in size from a bean to a strawberry, a pink bud surrounded by a green pedicle. Much to my surprise, you pull out the bud (kind of a firm, almost waxy tightly clumped bundle of petals around a bunch of stamens which are more developed on bigger flowers) and keep the pedicle that surrounds the base to cook into sauce to make it viscous, like a super-okra (which they also use liberally in their sauces). For a while I worked with my host mother, then she left and I was absolutely very bored and wishing for company. My wish was answered by a herd of pestering children, and then I was glad when they left me alone to my work. I was very pleased when my host mom corrected a visiting boy and said that my name is Alimata, not nasara. Now if only she would tell the old man who lives in our courtyard, although I guess it's only fair since I don't know his name either.

My mother read my mind and called today – I wonder how she knew I needed her to call, to hear from home? I imagine it's about as hot there as it is here, but I'm glad they set up the Christmas tree anyway. I wonder if people here have Christmas trees? I have yet to see a pine tree, so my bet is no, at least not as I conceive of them. Dad called right after - two calls in one day is a new record! It was really nice to just have non-Africa contact, to feel part of the world out of Peace Corps for a moment.

Confrontation vs. Indirect Action

10 December – Romongo, 9:50pm

Today was interesting - we had a session on corruption. It sounds like the answer is always to cool down your anger and call Dr. Claude for advice since she knows the health care system and can help iron out anything that is actually a misunderstanding on our part, or can give us advice on how to diplomatically respond to things. I'm glad we had this session because when we started analyzing the “scenario” story and how we should respond, my immediate response was pretty direct and confrontational, which just doesn't work here (even though the American in me stubbornly maintains that it should).

Basically, the story was that a woman recognizes that her child has early symptoms of malaria (good!), but because the CSPS is far away she uses traditional cures of eucalyptus and neem first (bad). The child gets worse, so her mom takes her to the CSPS after borrowing money from the neighbors to pay for the consultation (needs options for saving money for health emergencies). The medicine costs more than she brought, so the mother leaves her daughter to go get more money. She returns to find that the pharmacy doesn't have the medication on hand (not acceptable pharmacy management), and goes and cries to the head nurse. He offers her the medications out of his “private stock” (not kosher, and where did the meds come from?) but at a much higher price than the government dictates for the sale of that drug (absolutely not acceptable) and she can't afford it. You, the volunteer, show up and greet the patients. The head nurse sees you taking an interest in this particular girl and discretely tells you that it's the fault of the CoGES for poor pharmacy management that this girl will probably die without treatment. You hop on your bike to the nearest other CSPS, buy the medications, and give it to the grateful mother, whose daughter lives (we're big on happy endings in our scenarios). But now what do you do?

Even my most diplomatic attempts to address the situation fell flat, mostly because I couldn't think of any response that didn't involve going to someone higher in the health care system. As Volunteers we work very hard to convince people that we aren't spies for the government. Thus, even if we see blatant corruption, even resulting in awful patient care, we can't go to the higher-ups of the corrupt person because it will make everyone see us as spies there to rat them out to the district. Although it's tempting to call up the supervisor of the head nurse and get him transferred or fired, it then would taint our interactions with other health agents who would worry that we were watching them to get them fired as well, which would obviously make it very hard to work on health issues without the support of the health clinic. We also discussed trying to convince the pharmacist and the CoGES to keep better records, to make sure medications were stocked and not stolen or lost, and that all the money was accounted for. While it still sounds like a good idea to me, Rob said that it was only a little effective as there are ways around any system if the head nurse still wanted to buy black-market meds and sell them on the side for more. Similar to in the US, there's a pretty strong notion that if it costs more (or if it costs anything if the alternative is free), then it must be better in some way. Thus, you find people selling “free” vaccinations and people will willingly pay for what they could easily access for free because they feel like if there's a price it must be important and thus worth it.

Health Care In Burkina, Setting Boundaries At Site

Sorry it's been so long! It's hard to get to internet from my new site, but here's what I've been up to in the last month.

9 December – Romongo, 9:14pm

Today we had an interesting session with one of the higher-ups in the health system, the director for the Central-West Region. It really helped make the distinction for me that we work at the village level, overseen by a district, overseen by a region, overseen by the top country officials. He spoke wonderful, easily understandable French, a decent bit of English, and had worked with Peace Corps in placing volunteers in the past so he was very knowledgeable about what we were there for and was confident that even if our specific impact couldn't really be measured due to all the other aid work that goes on in Burkina, he will always request to have us here because he knows we make a difference. We also learned that at a national level, malaria, acute respiratory infections like pneumonia, diarrhea diseases, and HIV/AIDS are the most pressing concerns for the country, particularly the first two.

The national campaign against HIV/AIDS has been incredibly successful, with most current rates being quoted around 1.3%. While this could be due to any number of quirks in survey techniques and reporting rates, the country did take a very strong stand in the mid/late 1990s and the Ministry of the War Against HIV/AIDS (roughly translated) is headed by the President himself. All ARVs are free, provided you can afford the blood tests to find out the specifics of your particular strain and stage at your district or regional capital, which may or may not be feasible. Pregnant women are tested and treated for free as part of the campaign to reduce maternal-infant transmission. Oddly, it seemed obvious that many would not be able to afford the blood tests when we were told that they could cost between 11,000 and 15,000cfa, which is a lot of money here but only comes out to $22-$30. $30 to determine which free drugs you need to save your life, but it's too high for most everyone I will be working with over the next two years and unsurprisingly it seems like many people avoid getting tested or work very hard to avoid disclosing the results to anyone for fear of the stigma attached to being HIV+. Some people are chased from their villages, particularly women, and while there are some resources available at a big city like Koudougou for free ARVs, vocational training, and housing, many will struggle to survive on the fringes of society near their village.

It sometimes feels really overwhelming – you can't possibly help everyone, even if you're willing to raise money to afford testing for people, or to provide nutritious food to everyone, or to pay for transportation to higher levels of medical care. And I know that's the Peace Corps niche, capacity building so that a village and community can improve their standards of health through prevention of disease – hand washing, using mosquito nets, early treatment at a health center, assisted births – but even now in the “abstract” it's hard to know that at some point I'm going to have the ability to help an individual person that I personally know by giving them the money they need. While the Peace Corps can't control what we do with our money, they give a compelling argument for not starting a trend of paying for necessary medical costs. For one, it's not sustainable. While that doesn't seem like a big deal in the face of the pain of someone you know, here you're almost certain to come across not just one person who needs your help, but an overwhelming amount, and you could easily spend all of your time trying to solicit money from friends, family, and organizations in order to cure serious situations while not working to prevent more. And what happens when you leave? The savings and credit club that you helped to establish might be able to help provide emergency help, or perhaps those income-generating activities (IGAs) that you helped them to get off the ground would allow enough “extra” income to save for medical expenses, but if all you did was pay for the need yourself you've now left the community even more in need because they now know what is available but don't have the means to access it without you. I understand that and I absolutely support the need for sustainability. But I know that the first time I turn someone down will break my heart, even if I help them find the money elsewhere (and usually they can from family, but as the “rich” foreigner we tend to get asked first).

We talked about setting boundaries for our houses, for visiting times, for privacy and time alone. We talked today about integration. Some people adopt village names, work hard to learn the local language, and dive into their work, hardly ever leaving site. While they usually bond more with their community and feel more “integrated”, Aaron (Harouna) remarked after about a year that he was losing his identity as an American by molding himself to meet the expectations of his village, and that there's something to be said for still being seen as a bit of a foreigner (albeit one that is clearly no longer a stranger). The other extreme is someone who spends a lot of time out of site, insists on an American name, and speaks almost exclusively in French. They may not feel very well integrated with their community, but also are more sure of their self-identities as Volunteers serving for a set period of time to improve the health knowledge, attitudes and practices of the village as best they can, and might be slightly better prepared to re-integrate to American society (or perhaps worse off since they expect to have an easier time). I still haven't decided the tack I want to take, but I'm hoping that I will find a good balance between being present and integrated in my village, and keeping my sanity by leaving from time to time.