Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not an SPCM, MP update, Going to Waga

March 26th

So you remember Sentimental Peace Corps Moments 1 and 2? Well, one of the girls came back to visit me this morning. I found out when I woke up to her knocking insistently on my door. Not my gate, which hardly anyone can open, but my door. Thank goodness I lock my screen door, otherwise she might have been knocking on my mosquito net! After a few greetings and several minutes of discussing her coming back “later”, she finally left. I closed the gate, and put a nail to lock the flap so no one can reach in and lift the latch. I went to use my latrine. I hear a knocking on the gate. I wash my hands and open the gate and in she runs. I ask what she's doing. She replies that she came back! Well, yes, I did notice, but why? No reply. I laugh, and take her by the arm and escort her out. Later, I tell her. Not in 5 minutes, ok?

Later, sitting in my courtyard around 3:30pm, I hear a knocking, right when I was getting up to use the latrine before going back to work. The timing these kids have! Tonight, the gate is locked, no more early wake-up calls.

Moringa Project plugs along. I found out today that only about 30 out of 100 of the tree protectors have been made (you know, the ones ordered back in December), so now that the money has finally come in I told them that we'd buy the 30, but to not make any more, and I'll approach the schools about planting soon, in between a packed sensibilization schedule next month. Goodness! Got a text from the director of Ecole C, saying that now he's on vacation so maybe we can talk about the well next week. I got this 20 minutes before I planned to call him about it. I guess that's another thing we'll squeeze in! I hope we can finish the application by mid-April so we get the money in time to dig before the end of the dry season. Too bad it's so hot right now, this would have been easier in January, but at least we'll know it's deep enough to reach water all year long! I did get a copy of some grant applications for wells, so now I at least have an idea of what kinds of materials and costs are involved so that when the director is ready to start, I'll have all of my paperwork pretty much finished.

Leaving village on Wednesday to go to Ouaga for work, and to go to the COS party for Super Stage! I know they still have a few months left, but the idea of being here without them is very hard to contemplate. What are we going to do when nearly 70 volunteers finish their service and leave all at once?


March 25th

Sentimental Peace Corps Moment Part 2, the girls from the pump yesterday came to my house with friends, one of whom spoke French and informed me that everyone wanted to greet me. I happily stretched out a hand and they all grabbed hold, squeezing and examining my wrist and palm and fingers. We giggled and smiled, said goodnight, and then they left and I went back to my tea. Awwww.

Polio Day 2

March 24th

Today was Polio day 2. I did wake up early to go see everyone off, but agreed with Major that today was not the day for the nasara to be out in the sunshine. I went home and dozed in my chair for an hour, then got up and started getting water for laundry. Did the laundry, left my computer to charge, helped with the paperwork as groups came back. We got 58% of the estimated target population yesterday, by today we were up to 92%, with 2 days left to go! Granted, the number of kids we're supposed to be finding is an estimate, a percentage of the estimated population in each village, but we usually manage to find enough kids to cover the estimate and then some.

A happy village note for today. I was getting water and three young girls came up to greet me. Since the CSPS is right next to the school, this happens fairly often. The first girl crossed her arms and bobbed, the way they do in school, but the next girl stuck out her hand. My first thought is always Germs! But hands are meant to be washed, so I happily shook her hand. She stared at our hands, her little hand so stark against my seemingly giant, blindingly white paw. She kind of squeezed my fingers between her fingers and thumb, as though surprised they felt normal. I laughed, and so did she. The third girl came up and did the same. We giggled. I saw them again, walking the other way a few minutes later. I said hello in Moore, and said something about nasara fingers being strange, and we all laughed and continued on our way. Sometimes it really hurts when people here point and comment about my skin color. But other times when they approach in a friendly and curious way, it just makes us both laugh to see all the places where we're still the same. Sentimental Peace Corps Moment!

Polio Day 1

March 23rd

Today was the first day of the polio campaign! I got up nice and early at 5am, and went with Azeta and Sali to the neighborhoods within walking distance, then over to the marche to find women who were there with their small children. It's tiring being on your feet all morning when you usually aren't, but greeting lots of people was fun. We sat and ate in the marche, and had our district supervision check. I bought 2 sachets of water, plus drank most of my bottle. We got back to the CSPS and endured the typical long wait while major does his calculations and such for nearly 2 hours while we all sit there before he tells us our village assignments for the next day. I was very relieved when we finally got to leave by 2pm.

I'd forgotten that even though the heat doesn't bother me anymore, I seem to sweat a lot more than most people here and lose water very quickly, and I soon realized that this massive headache (and my morning crankiness) were from being dehydrated. Normally by 2pm I would have had 2-4 cups of tea and 2 bottles of water, more than double the amount I had this morning. Took some Ibuprofen, continued to drink tons of water, spent the afternoon reading, and now I'm feeling a bit better tonight, although I'm strongly considering staying at the CSPS tomorrow in the shade instead of walking around in the sun, just to let myself truly rehydrate fully. Lesson learned!

Placental "revision", site visit from Congo

March 21st

*Warning – this entry contains fairly graphic descriptions of post-birth gynecological procedures, involving blood and placenta and such things. Again, feel free to skip, I promise the next entry doesn't come with a warning :)

What a day, eh? Yesterday was the stillborn twins. Today was a healthy birth that delayed PAM nearly 2 hours, because the placenta tore and Belem had to keep “revising” the uterus. We had set everything up, I'd matched all the health notebooks to the record cards, but since we didn't have the key to the store room we couldn't actually start distributing. I went to get the key, but since the birth was imminent I just stayed to watch. Out came the baby, a girl, giving a nice healthy wail immediately after her feet came out – the most beautiful sound in the world. Good muscle tone, she was moving around so much they had a hard time weighing her because the scale kept bouncing! The problem was that the mother kept bleeding. I assumed this was kind of normal, after all the book I'd just finished (Contraceptive Technologies – 1998, yes I'm a little nerdy) said that some women continue to bleed for several weeks. But Belem said the difference was that this was bright red blood, which meant there was active bleeding from somewhere. Time to start feeling nervous.

When that happens, that means there's been a tear somewhere, or that part of the placenta is still in the uterus. A revision involves pulling out that material, which involves my accoucheuse with her arm halfway up to the elbow inside this poor woman's vagina, with the other hand pushing on her stomach to bring the uterus into range. I was totally fine with the blood, and even when she started pulling out bits of placenta and blood clots. The part that made me almost faint was the obvious pain and distress this woman was in. Remember, people speak about “birth without pain” (aka, with an epidural) as something only rich ladies in Ouaga have – they'll give you a local anesthesia if they stitch your episiotomy, but not before they cut it. Even with no painkiller involved, the woman, exhausted from the birth, was still able to fight Belem quite effectively. Burkinabe women are almost always silent during births, it's culturally unacceptable to cry or scream or even moan. The fact that this woman was making noise at speaking volume was indicating that she was in severe pain. And watching her distress was really hard for me, especially knowing that there was no alternative. If they left it alone she would get infected and most likely die. There was nothing to be done but apologize and keep at it until it was done.

We left her under the watchful eye of the village midwife, did a super fast PAM distribution, and then it was back to the maternity to check on the woman. One more revision later, and the bleeding had stopped so she was able to go rest with her newborn. Yay happy ending! We also checked on the pre-mature baby born last night, convincing the mother to go to take her to Seguenega. It was heartbreaking and miraculous, this tiny creature that truly looked more like a fetus than a baby, only 1.2lbs. I couldn't believe she was still alive, but lo and behold she was breathing, her heartbeat fluttering almost visibly beneath her thin skin. The woman's story sounded like something out of a soap opera. She'd left her husband in Cote d'Ivoire to travel, had ended up here with her in-laws, had experienced “stomach problems” that her mother in-law had tried to treat unsuccessfully, and then they brought her to the CSPS where she gave birth about 3 months early. The mother in-law was unaware of the pregnancy, I certainly hope the new mother had noticed!

So that was the morning. It's so dusty right now, and definitely getting hot even though the dust actually keeps things looking a bit overcast for most of the day. I went home, had an amazing grilled-Velveeta sandwich (thanks Aunt Sue!), read, and tidied up the house. I was just opening my gate to go back to the CSPS to organize the PAM paperwork when the PC car pulled up. Congo even gave me a hug! And then Pascal showed me that I had a care package! Does it get any better? The SSC (Safety and Security Coordinator) from Mali spoke nearly perfect English, without the odd pauses or cadence that most people here have when they speak English. The SSC from Togo was quieter, but very polite. We had “American coffee” (Starbucks VIA instead of Nescafe), and sat and talked for a bit. Congo reviewed the materials kept in all PC cars, Pascal fixed my bike, we talked a bit, they saw my house. We went to the CSPS to talk with my major, and I was super proud to show my staff off to my Bureau staff. They had wanted to take a village tour but it was getting late, so we stopped to say hello at the Mairie, walked around the Prefecture even though the Prefet is in Ouahigouya, and then they dropped me off at home before heading to Kongoussi. The SSCs from Mali and Togo are visiting Burkina for a week to train with Congo, since he's the best SSC in Africa and knows how to make volunteers feel comfortable coming to him with safety concerns. They wanted to visit some sites, and asked to come to mine since they were visiting the mining area near Emily's village.

Stillbirth, Alimata thinks I speak Moore

March 20th
*Warning – this entry talks about witnessing a stillbirth. I initially didn't think it was a good idea to post about it but, this blog being a chance to egotistically chronicle my life here, it was a very moving morning and very much a part of my reality here that I never could have imagined before I came. Feel free to pick back up after the ***, or skip it and go onto the next one.

Woke up to my alarm at 6:30, and it was too hot to go back to sleep, so I went to the CSPS to help after a leisurely breakfast outside. Belem was doing a birth, and from the look of the woman's stomach the baby was still in there. But then I noticed how quiet everyone was. We greeted each other, and after Major left she said something that sounded like “morning.” I asked her to repeat it because she usually smiles when she practices her English on me, and then I caught it when she pointed to a bundle of cloth on the other table and said “les jeumaux” (twins). Not “morning”, “mort-ne” - stillborn. The woman was giving birth to twins, and the one who had been born was dead. The next hour was very subdued.

The two babies were as large as most singleton births, a boy and a girl, both clearly dead before delivery. The word they use for that is “macere”, which always kind of makes me shudder because it sounds like “masticated,” as though the children were so chewed up and degraded before birth that it clearly wasn't worth trying to resuscitate them. For some reason I thought they would smell more, or look more clearly decomposed. But they didn't. I didn't get very close, to be honest. From across the room they looked white and shiny, like most babies, but gray and pale underneath, as if they were anemic, their mouths slightly open, their bodies without muscle tone, evident only because they didn't hold themselves curled up like most newborns. I found myself feeling grateful that their eyes were closed, and everyone was conscientious about keeping them covered.

When they went to weigh the second baby, her foot was uncovered and set itself down on the scale, as though to let us measure it's length as well. I don't know why that image was so poignant, but I feel it like a mental photograph – that's what I will remember, a pale foot set down on a scale, a mouth silently open with blessedly closed eyes. I've seen a birth that needed resuscitation - it was a very stressful and hopeful and dread-filled experience as Sali worked on the baby for a minute until it finally took a breath and let out a gargling cry. But this was the first time I'd seen a dead baby, and even for the midwives who see this every so often it was a quiet and sad morning, silently mourning this loss of life in our own ways.


After a sad and subdued morning at the maternity, Burkina did a typical roller-coaster emotional flip flop. We left work and I ate lunch before reluctantly made my way to the marche. I wanted to do a grab and dash because of the wind and the dust, but instead I sat with Alimata for over 30 minutes just talking, and it must have been my lucky day because she stuck to words I could understand, asking about work and my friends, and I must have impressed her with my responses, since she told me that now I speak lots of Moore, that now I'm a Mossi! It made me ridiculously happy, and I even said, in French, that I clearly needed to leave before she found out how much I don't understand. Thankfully she didn't understand that. After that I did my marche tour and headed home to read. This afternoon I went back to the CSPS to talk to Major, but he was back in Seguenega. So I came home, did some yoga, and here we are.

In village news, the first Polio campaign of the year starts on Friday. I'm excited to show the ASCs that I'm willing to give up my time to help them like they are for me. Kimdaogo has been so eager to get started again that I'm considering asking him if he just wants to go on all of the sensibilizations? He's so sweet and enthusiastic, even when he asks me to marry him it's clearly intended and received as playful joking, which is a nice change.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

March 17th

Today I made green Moringa-powder pancakes for breakfast. They look pretty weird, but didn't taste bad, a bit like green tea. (photo to arrive on facebook shortly) Happy St. Patrick's Day!

MP update, CPNs

March 16th

Moringa project is, what else, experiencing issues. All of my planned days for April, the ones that each director approved and has not informed me otherwise, will not work. Monday the director was gone for personal reasons. Thursday got changed to today, but today was surprise exams for the teachers, and next week is some kind of exam period for the students, and the week after that is vacation (why did no one tell me about spring break when I first came to them?!). Since I'll be gone most of May, that means we need to do all 7 sensibilizations for the 17 classes in one month. Most of them have stated a clear preference for Thursdays, but I try not to do them on marche days which gives 3 days a month. I guess if we did each school all at once (kind of hard with 500+ students at Ecole A) it would work. B is one day, maybe we can make that on a different day, D is normally a Monday or Tuesday, A seems to be ok with non-Thursdays (could we do a Wednesday/Thursday and do the whole thing in one go?). The biggest issue is that I have ASCs scheduled to work once a month, with at least a 2 week gap so they don't feel overburdened. If we cram this all in, it's going to be with people easily working two weeks in a row, or twice in a week. Well, we'll make it work, no use crying over the loss of a (very very) pretty schedule.

In our CPNs today we had a woman in her first trimester who weighed 39.6 kg – under 90 lbs. My staff was shocked when I informed them that a woman of her height (about average, maybe 5'5”) and weight would be hospitalized for malnutrition (well, anorexia). It's hard to tell with a lot of the women since everyone wears such baggy clothes, but her collar bones were very prominent and her face looked thin and much older than her age. They put her in the malnourished program, of course, but I honestly have no idea how someone with such little body fat was even having periods, let alone able to conceive successfully. I keep thinking I've seen it all...

Home, Travels

March 12th

Back in Kossouka at last! Last night when I got home to my very dirty house I initially thought I should set up my bug hut outside, but the night seemed to be cooling off and I'm glad I didn't since I had to get up in the night to get a pagne to cover myself! What's going on Burkina? Don't get me wrong, I do prefer to not sweat all night long, but it's mid-March and clearly time for the heat to get cranked back up. What kind of PCV will I be if this is the one and only April in Burkina history that isn't so hot even the locals warn against it? Plus, after 100+ temperatures, the rain in June feels even more welcome.

Slept very well, until Dave called a bit after 8am. Got up, made some tea and oatmeal, and got caught up on his life. He's decided not to go to Mali – he's been traveling a ton the past month, it's more expensive than he thought, and he'd have to leave site again in a week. So he'll save his money and go to Morocco to visit his friend in June, a choice that sounds better all around. He said something that really hit me, that sometimes traveling feels more like a checklist than an actual desire. I had been about to type that I would love to go to Mali and visit Dogun country, but do I really? I don't know much about it, I think I just want to go to say that I have, to explore it, to check it off. Maybe if I learned more about it I would have a sincere desire to visit, but at the moment it truly is a place to be checked off.

But where do I truly want to travel? How does a name on a list of countries translate into a real desire and motivation to visit? With the internet I could virtually “visit” most any country and satisfy my curiosity about it, so what pushes it that step further? I want to go back to places like Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia, France because I have fond memories and want to re-explore old places with new eyes, as well as seeing all new places. I want to visit Nepal because I have family there and getting to see the tallest mountains in the world would just be amazing, plus the whole region sounds very intriguing from books I've read set there. India is known for it's chai and ashrams, as my interest in the spiritual aspects of meditation and yoga are deepening. I think Japan would be fun because of a love of Japanese food. Morocco promises delicious food and camels. Chile has skiing in the summer. Egypt has pyramids, ancient history, and the Library of Alexandria. Israel/Palestine has so much cultural, historical, and religious significance. Europe as a whole promises easy travel, amazing foods, artwork, and architecture. Tanzania has safari animals. I think if I had the choice, I would chose to travel around Western Europe, although I feel like I would learn and grow a lot more if I chose to explore a different region that doesn't initially pull me, like the Middle East or South America. Here's to many future travel adventures! Where do you want to go?

To all of my lovely international ladies

March 8th

Happy International Women's Day! To celebrate, Amy and I went with Paul (the new DPT) to the American Rec Center, and enjoyed an afternoon/evening talking to other PCVs, browsing vender stalls set up on the tennis courts, eating food from around Africa (Algerian was our favorite), and listening to the band. The singer's song in English were really impressive, and when we spoke to her we found out that she'd lived in NYC for 10 years! Well that explains it. Bonne Fete!

Leaving DDG, VAC

March 8th

I do hate it when I stop writing and then feel the need to provide myself with a 'catch-up' which always seems to take so much time and effort. Better to just write every day, even if it makes the emails I send Sunyata almost embarrassingly long.

So we left DDG in the morning on the 4th. Kate negotiated with a bus company to take all 15 of us to the Transit House, and we rode in comfortable style with tons of leg room (it seemed to be an old school bus, complete with “Body Fluid Clean-Up Kit” still attached to the wall next to the driver). It was quite impressive to see that big bus parked in front of the House – a taxi will never be the same.

The next day we had a little welcome ceremony for Paul and George, the new DPT (Director of Program and Training) and APCD-DABA (Assistant Program Country Director for Agriculture and Business), then our internal VAC meeting. With the addition of the newest stage VAC is made up of two guys and 11 girls – poor Ebben and Drew! (Lucky Ebben and Drew?)

The 6th was our bureau meeting – long and full of stuff from the Bureau, not much from us, but basically painless. I went out to dinner with a few old friends and a few people I didn't really know, and we spent a wonderful evening talking a sharing. It's been exciting getting to meet people from the new stages!

And, finally, yesterday I typed the minutes from the VAC meeting. To my surprise and horror it took nearly 5 hours to type, format, and double check, exponentially increasing my respect for Althea who always managed to do them the day of the meeting, whereas I will happily take the extra allotted day to get everything in order.

Festima Day 2

March 3rd

Woke up this morning a bit before 7, early enough that I was the only one up and about. I only woke up a few times in the night, not bad considering I'm sleeping on cement with only my yoga mat plus a towel and a pagne as padding, my extra clothes and bug hut bag wadded up in a pillowcase as a pillow. We didn't get moving until pretty late, maybe by a bit after 9 everyone was up and moving. We grabbed avocado-egg sandwiches for breakfast (yum!) and went back to the same venue as last night. We bought the expensive tickets, along with our photography passes (3 mille total, not bad considering).

There's three kinds of seating. For 100cfa you can stand at the edge of the performance area behind a fence, but you mostly see the backs of the masks. For 500cfa you can sit in chairs under tents. For 1000cfa, you get to sit in stadium-style seating and the masks dance directly in front of you. We chose the expensive seats and ended up taking some of the reserved seating in the front row since the VIPs were clearly at another venue this morning – I was nervous but we were right up in the action! If you're coming all this way, might as well spend the extra money. This weekend has cost just about 20 mille, but since it's probably one of those once in a lifetime things, it seems worth it. We got lucky and it seemed to be a “mask review” so we saw 4 or 5 groups instead of just 1 or 2. I got some decent pictures, but I'm going to see if I can get copies of Anna's photos since she had her fancy camera with a zoom that had me green with envy.

Each group parades into the center of the performance area from “off-stage” – first the musicians, then the masks, then the entourage (some of which seem useful, most of which just get in the way of your photos). The musicians and entourage go over to the microphones to the left, and the masks sit/lay down on the ground facing the stands. The musicians play, but there's also a separate drummer and flute player who seem to cajole each mask in turn to get up and dance. The musicians are often accompanied by some kind of “mask handler” and they appear to work together to inspire, antagonize, energize, and eventually calm down the mask when it's time for him to sit back down. The whole thing has this aura of either overdone drama, or inexplicable spiritual forces at play. The masks seemed lethargic until they're spinning and flipping and dancing, it looks spontaneous yet perfectly coordinated to the music, and they often seem reluctant to perform (hanging out by the musicians, sitting back down) until they are sufficiently encouraged or antagonized, and then they go out of control and dance until one or several handlers rush in to hold them and take them back to the edge of the dancing circle. It was weird, but also really interesting. The music consists of drums, whistles, recorders, wooden three note flutes, and sometimes balafones. Not something I'd be rushing out to buy a CD of, but it did fit the frantic, on edge performance energy.

The masks are dressed differently depending on where they're from and what kind of mask they are. I saw some in tight fitting cloth outfits, some in raffia outfits cut short so they looked like bristles or fur, some in raffia left long so it looks more like a mop, some that looked human and some that didn't. Some performers wore small or large wooden masks (several feet tall or wide) while others wore raffia sculptures or cloth face coverings.

The last act we saw before leaving for lunch involved what we lovingly named the “haystack” and the “Mardi Gras haystack”. They danced and moved around for a bit (the MGh did some lovely undulating) but the surprising part was that this one was interactive. There was a group of women in matching pagnes dancing with the musicians, and a guy dipping a branch into water and sprinkling it around. The haystack stopped moving at one point and sat down, a big raffia cone with a suggestion of a face area. They started beating on it and whipping it and sprinkling water and spitting alcohol on it, then tipped it over and continued to do the same to the empty cone structure inside. Where did the person go? The kept at it, tipped it up again, tipped it over again, and inside was a little statue of a mask dancer that turned. They showed it to the audience, blessed it, put it back under the mask, and tipped it back up. It started to move again, but sat down. So they tipped it again and there was a bird! Again, showed to everyone, blessed, tipped back over to cover the bird. Whipping and blessing resume. It shakes a little but doesn't get up. They tie a cord to the front and get 3, then 7 men to try and move it without success. The second time they even snapped the rope, but the mask didn't budge an inch.

Then they got a girl, maybe 7 or 8 to try, and the minute she pulls the string, the mask gets up and starts dancing again. Poor girl was terrified! The announcer held her hand up like a lightweight champ and walked her around the circle, then tried to get her to touch the mask and take a photo with it. Well, then it moved and she started crying and refused to get near it, so the announcer discretely gave her a mille and sent her back to her parents. The dancers came over and started pulling people out of the audience to dance as the group slowly made their exit. It was a very long and odd performance, but a cool thing to see.

We went home for lunch and had couscous with peanut sauce made by Kate's neighbor, then people headed to the pool. My back tire was completely flat and leaked audibly when I tried to re-inflate it, so I went to get it fixed. Sadly it was the $14 tube (thanks Mom!) I brought back from America, the one that is supposed to self-seal small injuries, but this was a tear at the valve stem where the tube had gotten moved inside the tire rim. He actually cut out the valve, sealed the hole completely with a piece of rubber and a hot piece of metal, then attached a moto tube valve. It took over an hour, but was kind of fun to watch, despite the repair guy being very lethargic and cranky, and not really speaking French or Moore or anything I understood. Still, he managed to do it, and I even got him to smile by the end. I'm crossing my fingers that it lasts for a while!

After a nice dinner with a small group of people (5 instead of 10 or 20) we just sat and talked, and now I'm getting ready for bed. Tomorrow is early to Ouaga, back to work and the real world. Still, it's been an awesome visit and I'm glad I got to experience Festima, and DDG, and seeing so many friends in one place! Photos up on Facebook.

Festima Day 1

March 2nd

After about 6 hours of dusty travel (4 of them on unpaved detours around where they will someday put a paved road), we've safely made it to DDG and are happily ensconced in Kate's courtyard. Despite my paranoid worrying, we got to the gare in plenty of time this morning, even though it was on the other side of town. It wasn't a bad bus, really, but the seats were a bit close together (no room for your knees), and as always there was a lot of dust. Midway to Koudougou a guy handed out candy (menthol cough drops that everyone considers to be “bon-bons”) to everyone. Stranger Danger! But as we were eating our candy he started some kind of health talk. I didn't understand all of his French, but did catch him referring to digestion problems, why you shouldn't eat yogurt, high cholesterol, sexual frustrations, coughs, stress, and fatigue. Anna and I looked at each other – was this some weird health sensibilization? And then came the pitch – his special soy-based syrup, guaranteed to fix anything! And just today, for you on the bus, it came at the discounted price of 2 mille, down from 4 mille! But wait, there's more. If you buy today for the low price of 2 mille, he'll give you a second bottle totally free! It was so weird sitting there listening to an in-person infomercial for a product that seemed, at best, suspect. We smiled to each other and turned back to our magazines, but he did a brisk business for the next 20 minutes walking bottles from his box in the front to the many buyers in the back. Certainly well worth his bus ticket and whatever fee he pays the company to let him advertise on their route.

We arrived in DDG, hungry, tired, and very very dirty. Thankfully the first stop was food! We went to Kate's house to shower and repose. Her house is amazingly beautiful. The paint is new so it looks clean, she has three separate rooms – a bedroom, kitchen, and living room, plus a latrine/shower, two cemented patio areas that are covered, and a palm tree. And electricity! I'm very jealous. She's done a beautiful job furnishing it, it actually looks like a home instead of the typical Peace Corps “the cheap furniture works just fine” hut.

We all woke up and headed out again around 5:30pm, going to the artisan village where people were selling art, crafts and food. The pushy sales made me super uncomfortable, so I didn't buy anything other than the food, but that food was definitely worth it, particularly the tofu kebabs and a local beer that was surprisingly light and sweet. Then we went to go see our first mask performance, a bit after 8. They hadn't arrived at the venue yet, so we bought our tickets and went to get a soda at the cafe nearby. Apparently we missed the start because we watched the Benin group walking away down the street after their performance, so we paid our bill and rushed off, arriving at the venue in the midst of the second group – not sure where they were from. It was certainly interesting, but brought up a lot of questions and was kind of underwhelming because I didn't really know what was going on. Still, it was fun in it's own way, and we'll see how it compares to tomorrow!

Plans for Festima, well

February 27th

Today I slept in (all the way to 7:40), and ate leftover dirty rice with green beans and chickpeas for breakfast with my tea (yum!). I intended to talk to the directors of Ecole C and A today, but only got to C because Sali needed help – there were so many women for pre-natal consultations. As always it was a great conversation, I told him the new dates and he was super enthusiastic about the possibility of a well, so I'm hoping I'll hear from him soon and can talk to Aicha (our Volunteer Support Officer) more specifically about what we might need. As Kerry pointed out, I need to find a PCV who did a well project recently and figure out how it worked and what supplies they used. I'm really excited about the possibility of building a well at this school, mostly because it makes so much sense. The kids have just sat through our hygiene lessons about how important it is to wash your hands, so having water available and accessible just seems like the logical next step.

Going to Ouaga on Thursday so that I can get the Friday morning bus to Dedougou – I (along with many other volunteers) am going to Festima, the Mask Festival! Not too sure what a Mask Festival entails, but I'm excited to find out.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Clean, spider-free house!

February 26th

I love it when my house smells like this, a mixture of clean laundry and nag champa incense. It just feels so comforting.

Today was a cleaning day, much improved by feeling better (I was a bit nauseous yesterday, bending over to do laundry was challenging). I finished the dishes, washed my sheets, cleaned my mosquito net and nattes, and even swept behind the bed and the bookshelf. I was terrified to get behind that bookshelf, but all I found were a couple of little lizards and a lot of cobwebs. For better or worse I didn't see the scorpion that I stunned earlier in the week, with any luck it got eaten or made its way outside. I did sweep up a dead scorpion carrier behind my bed, a thought that makes me shudder. I tucked my net very securely along the wall edges of my bed when I re hung it. I'll still be keeping an eye out for critters, but it feels much nicer knowing that the hiding places in my house have been cleaned out for the moment.

Eww spider, Julienne and Nacoulma moving

February 23rd

Just as I was opening my computer to type for the evening I saw a giant spider on my wall, another scorpion carrier, 3 or 4 inches this time! They're so scary looking! I was so scared to get near it that I practically threw my shoe, but it was very dead and left a nice white smear of who knows what on my floor and dustpan. It was heading for my room and fell into the beam of my light, otherwise I might have been sleeping with it! I'm cleaning out behind the bookshelf this weekend, it has to be done. *shudder*

On a happier note, we did our last hygiene sensibilizations today! I sent a group to Ecole C without me (when I called the director he said that it went very well and he was very impressed), and I went to Ecole B with two ASCs. Sadly, the two that went with me didn't like to talk at all, in any language, so the director and I did the whole thing, and I think it went pretty well. The kids sounded like little birds, instead of saying “Moi! Moi!” (the typical way to get a teacher's attention if you want to answer a question), they would repeat “Oui! Oui!” or “Non! Non!” in chirping voices. It was odd, but cute.

Once we were finished I went back to the CSPS to help finish baby weighing, and then we helped pack up Julienne and send her off to (her new village whose name I don't remember). Nacoulma left as I was getting back, off to Bougan. I took a picture of the pickup truck, one very tall load that contained Julienne's entire house (minus two chairs and a giant woven basket that will be delivered on Saturday). It's just incredible to compare the amount of stuff between this move and the one I watched with my parents 15 months ago. One pickup truck vs. one semi-trailer. I'm going to miss Nacoulma's voice next door, Stephen and Fannie greeting me (her two kids). Fannie finally had starting talking to me, one day I even just left her and went inside because she wouldn't stop! I'm going to miss Julienne's laugh, and particularly Rex's enthusiastic welcome and escort home from getting water. Luddie (Julienne's little sister) is staying here to finish the school year, but I feel bad for her, she clearly was unhappy today.

Belem, "Lamb", Scary critters

February 20th

I woke up this morning and intended to re-plant my garden (lizards keep eating it) but Sali called and asked me if I had a sensibilization. I said no, and she asked me to come into work. My first reaction was suspicious – if it were my major I would have said no, but Sali can handle the maternity on her own so there must be something up. I asked about Nacoulma and Belem, and she just replied that I must not have heard the news. Well, no, I'm never informed of much of anything – what happened? She just told me to come in. So I finished my tea, tried to stop my hair from sticking up funny, put on some clothing, and headed for the CSPS around 9. Much to my dismay she was just getting started, still weighing women while Julienne took blood pressure. Every day I'm tempted to point out that if they would just start on time at 7:30, they would be done by noon instead of having to stay into the lunch break, but like every other day I decided this was more antagonizing than I really want to be with the few people in village I can speak to in French. I was confused why she wanted me there if she already had help, but I got busy arranging everything in the office so we could get started.

The reason she called me was quickly revealed, and then painfully discussed in extreme detail for the next 4 hours. Belem's husband died suddenly over the weekend. She was understandably distraught, and I think Sali went with her (to Ouaga I presume) and just got back yesterday. It was really hard to sit there and listen to them pick it apart for so long, especially because all they were doing was talking and distracting one another while I just sat and listened and filled out all of the paperwork myself.

I was thinking about a passage from Lamb today (a book by Christopher Moore, highly recommended). I'm pretty sure Jesus didn't learn kung-fu from Buddhist monks in the mountains of China, but there's a part where he and Biff (his childhood best friend in this comedic fiction) have been told to line up 20 wooden pillars in the snowy courtyard. They've spent hours learning to jump up onto them, and more hours until they can jump from the one they're on to the one next to them. Then they're kept waiting, one over from where they started, until the sun goes down and the teacher tells them to get down and put the pillars away. Biff asks why they had to set up 20 when they only used 3. The teacher asks why they were thinking about the 20 when they could each only stand on one. I feel like that's the lesson I'm trying to learn right now. Part of me sees the path ahead of me in life, all the steps I need to take to get there, thinking about grad school and careers and vacations and such. And I don't discount the need for goals, for planning for a future. But right now I'm pretty clearly on a pillar, a single pillar that isn't going anywhere. I know I'm going to keep standing on this pillar, in this place, for a good long time. So I might as well focus on it, right?

On an entirely different note, yesterday I saw a scorpion in my house. Interestingly, it was on the wall behind my chair, just in the same place as where I remember the first one being, sometime about a year ago. I hit it with my shoe, although not too hard. I found it under my bookcase, tail uncurled and twitching. Ok, I thought, not quite dead but I don't need to get guts on my shoe, it'll die soon. I went to get the dustpan to scoop it up, but the moment I touch it, it scrambles away behind my bookshelf. Well damn. I tuck my mosquito net securely around my bed and pray it dies overnight. Tonight I'm in my chair by my bookshelf. Something falls behind the shelves and a 2 inch long spider-thing comes scuttling around the corner towards me. I think this is my first sighting of a scorpion carrier, apparently called a camel spider by everyone besides Burkina PCVs. They can get to the size of plates, and the big ones are attracted to artificial light (ie your headlamp) so I guess I'm in luck because it scuttled back under the bookcase in a hurry. I hate spiders. Snakes I actually like. Mice are annoying but cute. Even cockroaches I can sort of handle, although if they crawl on me I will scream and shudder and immediately need to clean myself. Spiders are not ok. Small ones that stay up by my ceiling? I can live with that. But big thick bodied ones like this are creepy in every way. I've had a light trained on my shelves all night so I can see if it makes a break for the bedroom, and I will be very securely tucking my mosquito net tonight!

Pancakes make me happy

February 11th

Mmm, Saturday. I got up around 8, watered the garden, drank my tea and read, listened to the wind, made cinnamon pancakes sprinkled with sugar. I talked to Ebben for a long time, while doing my laundry and cleaning the house. I finally hung up so I could shower - it was freezing in the breeze, but so nice to feel clean – my hair is so fluffy after being washed 3 days in a row! I left my phone to charge, talked to Nacoulma (who is leaving Thursday instead of today), and then talked to Emily. Now I'm reading and choosing a movie to watch on my laptop – overall, what an awesome day!

Dirty Nasara Hands

February 9th

Another sensibilization today, my 4th, at Ecole C for the first time. It went better than I could have hoped! We were missing several people, so I re-arranged the groups, sending 5 off to Ecole A (with a wish and a prayer that it would go ok – at least Collette had been at the last one there so she'd be able to explain it to everyone), and taking 4 with me (including the engaging Kimdaogo, who I stole from the other group) to Ecole C. We were greeted by lots of curious children, and 4 teachers stayed to help us. One ASC (Abdoulaye?) helped explain how it had worked well to have the kids all sit outside so we could teach to all three classes at once, and after a bit of confusion (Is it too cold? Could we do it indoors?) the teachers had the kids sitting in a 3 sided square, with us as the 4th side sitting at several child-sized desks that had been brought outside for us.

I took Emily's idea of “dirty Nasara hands” and did a quick demo before we started. I introduced myself, then started by saying that it's very easy to see dirt on white nasara hands, so I was going to show them why it's important to wash your hands really well. I bent down and rubbed my hands in the dirt, coating them in a light tan layer. I then said “Ok, I'm going home to eat dinner. Can I eat with hands like this?” “Noooo!” they cried. So I got out my water bottle and awkwardly poured some over each hand, creating a nice dark mud. “Ok, I've washed my hands with water! Now they're clean and I can eat, right?” “Nooo! You have to rub them.” “I have to rub them? Ok, like this?” I add a little more water and smear around the mud, which admittedly is lightening a bit and I don't get too into rubbing for fear I'll rub it all off. “Ok, I've rubbed my hands together – are they clean yet?” Some yes's, some no's, so I walk around and show them closer. I ask – “Do you wash your hands like this?” They say no, but I've never seen a kid or adult who doesn't wash their hands like this – pouring a little water into one, rubbing the two together, repeat twice, and you're done, right? So I ask “Ok, what do I need to do to be clean?” One little boy who speaks French yells out “Use soap!” “Yes, exactly – I need soap!” So out comes my soap holder, and I proceed to demonstrate adding water, scrubbing the soap all over my hands and between my fingers, and rinsing with the running water. Ta-da! Clean nasara hands, complete with giggles and applause.

The ASCs take over at this point, and I never get over being amazed and proud of them. Today was a little short, but most of them were really engaging and one (Daniel?) even brought toothpaste and soap to show the kids! The super tall teacher was really into it, going on for nearly 10 minutes after we'd finished, expanding on what we'd said. I don't know if any of it got through, but it was fun and I really enjoyed myself. I was effusive in my gratitude to everyone, and they seemed to appreciate that. Either that or I was annoying and embarrassing them, but the sincerity was real so I hope they knew that.

We got back to the CSPS to discover the people from Ecole A. I asked how it went and got a “pa soma ye” (not good) from Souleymane. I asked what happened and they said that the kids had left. Normally kids don't have school on Thursdays, but they typically show up anyway, and if the teachers tell them to come on Thursday they do. I sent them over at 8:20, hardly late at all by standards that count 2 hours late as being on time. They said that the teacher told them to come back tomorrow. I was worried about imposing on their time on a marche day, and asking them to come back again after a fruitless morning, but they seemed very willing to return, cue more grateful praise and gratitude from me. (Note – they did all come back and our sensibilization went very well. The reason I was surprised that they'd be willing to come back another day is that they usually get paid to do work like this, but I'm asking them to do it for free.)

The Harmattan has begun

February 6th

I had trouble sleeping because of the wind blowing all night. When I woke up I had a text from Emily about the Zombie Apocalypse outside. I got up and lo and behold! Everything was shrouded in what appeared to be fog, I couldn't see much further than the coffee shack behind my wall. With the terrible gusts of wind that had been torturing me all night, I knew the truth – this was dust. Since I didn't have anything in particular to do, I took advantage and left my house exactly twice, to water my garden. I watched visible clouds of dust puff into my house through the screen door, and was in a very unhappy mood indeed, watching the floor and house I just dusted and mopped yesterday become inundated in a layer twice as thick as what built up all last week. So tragic! Welcome to the windy season.

Sensibilization at Ecole A

February 3rd

The sensibilization today at Ecole A went so well! I was so so proud of my ASCs for being so through and engaging with the kids in a way I think would take me a lot of practice. The teachers decided to do all three classes at once, outside in a big square. I was a little concerned that 6 ASCs weren't going to have enough to talk about, but they took it in stride and 5 of the 6 did mini presentations on different aspects of hygiene. Then the teacher stood up and started talking about how they were going to start assigning students to clean the latrines and bring water so they could wash their hands. I was thrilled! Not sure if it'll actually happen, but at least the idea is there. Now I'm even more excited about doing malaria prevention next month.

All this will apparently be good practice for the science camp in September, where I've been assigned to organize the daily health sensibilizations on malaria, HIV/STIs, and hygiene – the three topics we're doing with the students in the next few months. I'm a little nervous but really excited to be in charge of something – I'm sure it'll be fun no matter what.

January - Back in village

-From January 15th: Having the weekend back in village to clean my house and reflect has made me realize that this new year can mean a big shake up in my life here. The last time I got back from the US, in May, my CSPS was terribly under-staffed, just 3 of the usual 5 workers. I started to help, and eventually became a fixture in the maternity, helping every day. Even when we got new people a few months ago I stuck to my position, helping them learn our routines, still being the main person filling out paperwork and organizing supplies. Two of our nurses will be leaving sometime in the next few months, and right before I left we got another new nurse (temp or permanent I'm not sure), but as it stands we have an unbelievable 8 nurses to do the work that used to be done by 3, and now that malaria season is over there's less work to go around. The upshot of this for me is the scary yet exciting opportunity to stop working at the CSPS. I enjoy routine. I like that I had a place I was expected to be every morning because it got me out of bed and out the door and even if I did nothing else for the rest of the day I still felt I had been productive because I'd spent my entire morning helping. But it has been increasingly clear that I'm no longer truly needed – there's only one room for the morning pre-natal consultations, and with all 4 of us plus a pregnant woman that little room felt pretty cramped.

So now I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to do for the next year of my service. The Moringa Project with the schools has suffered yet more complications, so tomorrow I'm off to talk to each director and revise my schedule of sensibilizations – with any luck we might be able to start next week instead of this week as we'd planned. The grant for the fencing still hasn't gone through, so Emily has switched to having the kids build their own out of sticks. Since I already ordered enough for 100 of my 200 trees, I'm holding off on planting until the money comes in and then we're going to alternate “real” fencing with student made fencing and see if there's any effect on the trees (totally unscientifically, since we aren't controlling any other factors like the number of times the students remember to water their tree). On Tuesday I'm going to go with Boureima, the CoGes treasurer (and my counterpart from that workshop way back in stage) to visit the barrage, the lake where people grow vegetables during the winter. Sometime this week I want to meet with the ASCs to talk about what we're teaching this month, hygine and nutrition, so that we can come up with a list of things they think it's important for each team to emphasize and figure out if we need any supplies.

Then I'm really looking forward to getting to know people better. I'll do school sensibilizations at least once a week, but with my free time I can visit the mayor and the prefet, try to track down the money that's supposed to be paying into the library, visit my satellite villages and get to know the ASCs and teachers in each one (and maybe plant a few more moringa trees along the way). March is our VAC meeting and the COS conference for Super Stage. April is my birthday. In May I'll be taking another vacation, to Paris and New England, and Emily and I are talking about short trips around Burkina to visit friends during June and July. I believe our COS conference is in August – crazy. September we're planning a science camp for middle school students – I've volunteered to help and I'm so excited! October is the arrival of the new health stage, with any luck I'll get to help, or at least host some PCTs on demyst. November is the start of our COS process, if my projects are finished I could be home in time for Thanksgiving 2012. Wow.

-Read two books in particular this month that were informative, readable, and moving: “The Fate of Africa” by Martin Meredith, and “And The Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic” by Randy Shilts. I would absolutely recommend them both.

-I re-planted my garden, but everything that sprouted was immediately eaten by lizards! I bought a mosquito net and started using pieces of it to cover things as they grow, but right now I'm only growing moringa, basil, and cilantro, a sorry cry from January when I was also growing tomatoes, eggplant, wildflowers, green beans, lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, onions, and tomatoes. But now that I'm traveling a bit more I don't want to leave as much work for Marina, my neighbor, when I ask her to water for me.

December - Integrated/still confused

-From December 4th: Yesterday Kerry, Shannon and I were out shopping (which is surprisingly tiring!) and when we were walking around centre ville they commented that they were so impressed with how I interacted with the sellers, that I was calm and friendly and patient. I hadn't thought about it. Their comments left me with this sort of realization moment, a mental question asking if maybe I'm more comfortable here than I usually give myself credit for. It was a really cool feeling, to think that even amid the fumbling for words and the cultural misunderstandings I can still navigate and feel like I almost know what I'm doing, to the point that even other volunteers notice.

-From December 14th: I've come to the realization that living in another culture means hiding a lot of yourself. Not necessarily on purpose, but I feel like I would have to live here for a very long time before I would feel even a little bit like “myself”. Right now it feels like there are two parts to my life – there's America Jess, and there's Burkina “Zess-e-ka”, and it's nearly impossible to bring the two together. I still feel much more attached to America Jess, still consider that to be how I define myself, but that makes it hard to admit that I really can't express much of my America personality to my friends and colleges here.

I think I came to Peace Corps expecting to struggle with cultural differences, but also to have some nice lightning-bolt moment where it would strike me that we're all human and not so different after all. It's true, no matter what your language or culture or comfort food of choice, we do have a lot in common with each other, which is pretty neat. But I didn't realize just how deep culture and cultural mores and expectations and reactions could run. It's why PCVs react badly to being called “nasara” or feel hurt when people constantly point out things that make us different – we come from a culture where obvious, unacceptable, or embarrassing differences are politely ignored. It's why Burkinabe say yes to all of our projects even when they don't want to do them or think it's a bad idea, because saying “no” in this culture is next to impossible, so rude as to be unthinkable.

There are so many times when my CSPS staff members will say something, or ask a question, or make some comment and I'll think “you really just don't get me, do you?” They truly can't understand when I explain to them that calling someone “the white” or “the black” or “the fat one” or “the old one” are so rude as to be totally unacceptable in my culture. In their minds you can use a racial identity as a put down, but it doesn't have the connotations as in the US – you can imagine our surprise in stage when we heard people telling us “oh, he's Bissa, he's my slave” “no, no, the Dagara are the slaves of the Bissa, she's my slave” and had to come to accept that this was a common form of joking and actually indicates a historical linking of two tribal groups.

Well, yesterday was a moment when Sali got to tell me “you just don't understand” and I truly didn't understand. For several months my Major has been talking about getting a laptop from the US. Upon discovering that Amazon-France doesn't ship to Burkina, we decided that since I was going home for Christmas he would give me the cash and I'll get it shipped to Arizona and bring it back. I'd printed several choices when I was in Ouaga, he chose one, and life seemed good. Then my midwife, Sali, decided she wanted one. Ok, I thought, bringing back two computers is kind of a pain but no worries. I told her that Major still had the papers of the different laptops, she should ask him for them and then she could choose. “Oh no, Major can't know that I'm asking you to bring me back a laptop.” “Why not” “He just... can't.” “But I don't understand, he's getting one, he's already chosen it, why can't he know that you're getting one as well?” She exchanges a meaningful glance with Koka, the woman who does twice monthly enriched porridge demonstrations for a local NGO. “Oh Jessica, you don't understand”

Nope, sure don't. She refused to elaborate further, so I told her I'd get the papers from Major and tell him it was for someone else. I really have no idea! Technically he's her boss, but they're about the same age and she's been here for much longer so she has a bit of a power advantage from that. I could understand if she was getting one and he wasn't, but they live next door to each other, see each other every day, she has no way to charge it except at his house or at the CSPS – it seems very unlikely that this will stay a secret for very long. The frustrating part was her complete unwillingness to even try to explain it to me. Maybe it's something she doesn't have the words for in French – that's usually my problem. I'm so curious to see what happens! (Follow up note - everyone now knows that they both have computers, Major found out within a few days of me getting back when she needed to charge the battery, and I never did get an explanation for why it had to be so secret at first)

-Although I didn't write about it (I was too busy enjoying it!) I did spend 3 weeks back in the US – Christmas with my parents in Tucson, and New Year's in northern California with Sunyata. The whole thing was amazing, and such a great opportunity. I ate more delicious food in those three weeks than I ever imagined it was possible to eat – chocolate, cheese, beef, wine that comes in a bottle instead of a box, ice cream, salads, curry, thai, I even tried (and enjoyed) mysterious new things like swiss chard and mustard greens and tofurkey. I went to museums, I went hiking, I walked on a beach, I went to dinner parties and shopping in stores that had an overwhelming abundance of options. The hardest part was leaving. I think I made a right nuisance of myself the last few days with my parents, crying for seemingly no reason all the time. All I can say is that I had expected to finish my vacation feeling ready to go back to Burkina, and instead all I felt was deep sadness and anxiety to be leaving, to be going back. Once I was back in the country for a few days it blew over and things were fine, but I had clearly underestimated the emotions that go into leaving and returning from service here.

November - Starting the Holiday Season with Tabaski!

-This was when my grad school searching definitly took on the focus of Women's Health and I started looking at specific programs. From November 4th:

What I've learned about medical professionals, so far. Doctors go through the most training – 4 years med school, plus 2-7 more years of specialized training. Physician's Assistants (PA's) are like mini doctors – they get a shortened version of the same kind of training, and often share the first year of med school with the MD students. They do rotations through different specialties, but aren't required to do a residency like doctors do after they graduate. They write prescriptions, order and interpret labs, and basically do most routine and mildly complicated cases, with limited supervision by an MD or DO (osteopathic doctor). Nurse Practitioners are the PA's of nursing. They are Registered Nurses (RN's) with additional masters or post-masters level training (some schools have Doctorate of Nursing programs, which goes beyond post-masters), and can see patients, write prescriptions, order and interpret labs, and work under limited MD/DO supervision. They can work in multiple settings – hospitals, clinics, college health centers, birthing centers, and private practices, among others. NP's are trained in the nursing model of care rather than the doctoral model, and focus on holistic and preventative care. NP's can specialize and be licensed in different fields such as Midwifery, Family Care, Women's Health, Acute Care, Adult and Family Mental Health, etc.

-Celebrated my second Tabaski with Alimata when she kindly brought me some mutton cooked with macaroni and a big container of rice. An odd combination, but I did very much appreciate all the rice that I didn't even have to cook myself! I shared with some kids who came by, since I clearly wasn't going to eat it all myself and they were harassing me for money, as is their right on fete days like this, even if they know I never actually give them money.

-This is the time of year when it starts to cool off again at night, you wake up and you're not sweating! I made a note of this several times – clearly I was impressed.

-Due to grant issues, the timeline for Moringa Project is pushed back to January, after I get back from vacation. I talk with the Major and the ASCs and we decide to wait and start the health lessons in January as well.

-The newest vegetable to reach my marche was cabbage. I was skeptical about the merits of cabbage in any form besides a salad, and the “Spicy Cabbage” recipe in the PCV cookbook looked a little dubious, but I decided to give it a go and it turned out so delicious! Almost like fried sauerkraut, but spicy. You cut the cabbage into thin strips, soak it for an hour in vinegar with pepper, salt, piemont (I used Cajun salt and cayenne), and crushed garlic cloves, then fry it in some hot oil for a few minutes. Amazing!

-We won some kind of “clean-CSPS” competition, and used our prize money to throw a party! We (the staff and ASCs and myself) cleaned the CSPS, and cooked an incredible amount of food. A 200L trash can of zoom kom (a sweet drink made from millet flour), 25 kg of rice, 10mille of fish, piles of onions and eggplants – it was crazy, but we did manage to feed about 50 people with a good amount of leftovers. I had a lot of fun eating with the women of the CSPS staff – it took me a while to realize that the men were eating separately from us. I don't get to eat in a group with my hands very often, and I found myself really enjoying it, although I did burn my fingers with almost every bite. To make up for my weak nasara hands, I out-piemonted them with ease – it was exactly what the rice was missing, even better than adding salt (to my surprise!). I ignored the fish, to the amusement of everyone – the rice was just fine, thank you. Most fish that you buy fresh (not dried or smoked) comes from Ivory Coast more often than it comes from the local lakes and dams. Plus during the clean up the men came and re-built my hangar, so now I have a shady spot in my courtyard to sit outside when it's too hot in my house.

In interesting things unearthed in the clean up, we found: a box of plastic speculum's, pens stuck into consultation notebooks from 7 years ago, cloth posters about guinea worm transmission (now eradicated), monthly reports from 1996 and 1997 (there were only 5-10 births per month! Now we have 60-70 on average), bouille demonstration notebooks from 1976 (awesome, but why do we still have this?), a falling apart examination table, a moto that doesn't work, and about 2 dozen (I kid you not) frogs that had taken up residence behind a pile of boxes.

-From November 17th: I just love being outside after so long being trapped indoors by the rain, and then by the mosquitoes. I like that life here has rhythms. There's a part of the year you sleep inside and part of the year you sleep outside. A part of the year when the sun rising in your window and heating your house ensures you're up out of bed on time, and a part of the year when you can easily and happily sleep in. A season for eggs, a season for vegetables, a season for mangoes (I'm still kind of put off by the thought of eating mango after my overindulgence last April). A season for working in the fields, a season for school, a season for sitting and doing not much beyond basic personal maintenance, a season for gardening. A season for animals being tied to bricks and rocks and walls, a season for animals roaming wherever they want around village. A season for long hard hours at the CSPS, a season for short work days and long hours spent sitting and talking. Rhythms. Patterns. Comfortably predictable.

-From November 28th: To celebrate my halfway-through-service vicinity (arrived 13 months ago, scheduled to leave in 12-14 months depending on the exact day of my COS), I wanted to write about something that has been a big part of my service. Babies? The CSPS? Attempting to learn Moore? Well, all of those, but I'm thinking about books! Those wonderful heavy objects that fill my suitcase between Ouaga and village, providing me with English and escape on demand. Today I'm reading a particularly amazing book, and wanted to share the highlights of my literary adventures over the past year or so. Thanks to a suggestion during stage I have a list of nearly every book I've read while here (I forgot to write down a few of them, like the midwife book I read in French), and I've started marking the ones that mean something, the ones that I know I'll want to own and re-read, the ones that for some reason or another moved me or made me think in a new way, the ones that I just really really enjoyed for no good reason at all. So, without further ado, here are my top books of PC Year 1:

If on a winter's night, a traveler – Italo Calvino
The River Why – David James Duncan
A Prayer For Owen Meany – John Irving
The Monsters of Templeton – Lauren Groff
The Lost Boys – Orson Scott Card
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – J.R.R. Tolkien
Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce – Douglas Starr
Jitterbug Perfume – Tom Robbins
Running With Scissors – Augusten Burroughs
My Jesus Year:A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith – Benyamin Cohen
Not Wanted On The Voyage – Timothy Findley
Lost and Found – Carolyn Parkhurst
Lamb:The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal – Christopher Moore
Dry - Augusten Burroughs
Kitchen Confidential:Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly – Anthony Bourdain
The Witch of Portobello – Paulo Coelho
The Disappearing Girl:Learning The Language of Teenage Depression – Dr. Lisa Machoian
Ender's Game – Orson Scott Card
The Wisdom of Whores:Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS - Elizabeth Pisani

October - One year in-country

-I started talking with my parents about the possibility of coming home for Christmas – I'm happy to say that it happened, a much needed break from Burkina, although coming back was rough for a few days. The transition from Burkina to the US and back is not an easy one in a lot of aspects, but seeing the people I love was worth it, even if I drove them crazy with my constant exclamations of “Oh my gosh – look at this eggplant! It's so big!” I also got to celebrate Dad's birthday with German Chocolate cupcakes, which felt very fitting and would have been a little difficult in Burkina.

-We got a new prefet this month, I met him once on the day I went to go say goodbye to my old prefet, and then didn't see him again until January (watching Burkina lose to Angola in Africa Cup soccer)! Despite my old prefet's annoying need to constantly say that I needed to dump my boyfriend and stay in Burkina with him forever, I was actually a bit fond of him and even a little sad to see him go. He was always fun to go sit and talk with, and he was fairly helpful when I came to him with the idea for the Moringa Project.

-I wrote this on October 7th, in response to a text message question from Sunyata, and as part of that great soul-searching experience that is Peace Corps, I wanted to share it.

Anniversaries are a good time to reflect, although it's kind of hard to believe some days that I've been in Burkina for a year (a year already? Only a year?) So much has changed since I got to the country, since I got to village, but it's usually kind of hard to see unless I'm looking. I feel more settled, although things still throw me off some days. I'm more fluent in French and Moore, although I often feel like I don't understand as much as I want to/should. I feel like I'm finding work and purpose, although I also feel like I should have accomplished more by now. I have friends, Burkinabe and American, that I didn't when I got here. I can see that I've changed a lot, but it's hard to put into words and quantify. A change in the way I think. The way I see things. I ask more questions. I want to share myself more with people. I reflect more. I worry a little less. I try to find the humor in situations. I feel the ups and downs more acutely – emotions are bigger, more powerful. I make a point to try and listen to myself, to figure out what I'm feeling and needing and wanting, and how to act on those. I've become a little more serious in some aspects and a little more playful in others.

Unexpected? A lot of the above. I knew I would change by coming here, I just had absolutely no idea how or in what ways. I realized that I'm a little more shy than I thought, especially in very new situations when I don't know how to act or what's expected of me. I've found an enjoyment of cooking, renewed a love of tea and reading, and I've become pretty good at condensing text messages and interpreting the cryptic half-words that somehow make sense now. I'm less annoyed by flies landing on me, but still shudder when anything else crawls up my leg. I think I expected to get over a fear of spiders, but I still hate them, I just let them live if they're near the ceiling and showing no signs of coming down into my territory. I thought I'd be more scared of scorpions, but (knock on wood) the two I've seen have been pretty small and I was fairly calm about getting rid of them. I've found that I have the patience to capture flies on my screen door and let them outside, one by one, rather than kill them and have to clean bug guts off the door. After thinking about it for years I finally shaved all my hair off (twice!), and although it's not a favorite style I'm glad I finally did it and wonder why I never did earlier.

The most influential – can I wimp out and say everything? Being here is just so....everything has an impact. While it's normal now for me to take an hour or two just to shop for some veggies, to use a latrine, to bathe out of a bucket, to stop and greet practically everyone I see, to put on sunscreen two or three times a day, to wake up in the middle of the night to close my windows and move my furniture away from the windows when it starts raining, to gather my water 20L at a time in a plastic jug carried on the back of my bike, to even ride a bike on a regular basis, to laugh off children who are afraid of me and adults who stare and make 'rude' comments, to live without electricity, to do laundry and dishes by hand, to sleep under a mosquito net, to speak in 3 languages daily and think in 2 of them, to cook most every meal from scratch out of the same 4 veggies...that's all “normal” now, it's even comfortable most of the time, but still so different from life in the US and changing the way I act and think and see my life and the world in big and small ways. I'm better at improvising – if I don't have what I need I'm confident I can jerry-rig something to make it work for the moment, even when I'm out of duct tape.

Favorite village moment(s). Hmm. The first day I forced myself to leave my courtyard without someone coming to get me. The first time I bought bread and everyone was super nice and helping me say what I wanted in Moore. The first day someone visited my courtyard just to sit and talk. The slow realization that I'm starting to fit in and make my home here. Long conversations. Reading books I'd never have read otherwise. Not screaming or freaking out when I had bats or other creatures show up unexpectedly. The first time I called this home and called the people here my friends. The first time I left village and actually felt sad to be leaving. This last time when I came back to village and felt such a profound sense of relief and happiness to be home. The first time it rained. Days when I smile so much my cheeks hurt. The satisfaction and accomplishment I feel when I finish my laundry and see all my clothing flapping proudly in the breeze. Dancing in my living room. Cooking something new and tasty! (today I made a sandwich with lentils, onion, green pepper, cumin, and garlic, topped with tomato slices – it was delicious and made up as I went along). All the little moments, really.

-Made further progress on Moringa Project, speaking to each school director individually. Emily and I had wanted to start planting trees in our villages at the beginning of the school year so that it could be a competition between the schools and between the villages, but due to a lack of response to our grant request, we continued with the process bit by bit and decided to delay planting until November.

A review to kick off another round of blogging

Well hello! I've been getting a little better about keeping a journal recently, which means I should go ahead and work on trying to keep up this blog – nothing worse than constantly checking a blog and finding it hasn't been updated in months, right? I'm very sorry! Life continues to have it's ups and downs, but it's still adventuring on and I'll try and catch up to where I am now by re-reading what I did write in my journal. Here I was thinking that I hadn't updated since September (and thus I prepared posts from September up to now) but look at this – I even posted something as recently as November! Well, I'll still give the re-cap anyway since I already typed it all up.

September – a month of many beginnings

-Ah yes, the beginning labor pains of Moringa Project (also known as the 'Ok, Let's Try This Another Way' Project). September was when I started talking to the Mayor, the Prefet, and the chief about a project to have elementary school students plant and water moringa trees, linking this with a schedule of health lessons by myself and the ASC's (community health agents) and motivating the students to water their trees by making it a competition with Emily's neighboring village of Kalsaka. Using the arrival of the bike tour as publicity, Emily and I held a big meeting for the people involved (the Major, the ASC's, anyone from the schools that we could find during the summer vacation) and it seemed off to a good start. This was our first time turning in our grant application, asking for money for fencing for the trees to stop goats, sheep, and cows from destroying them.

-This was also the month that I began investigating the lack of money for the library. I found out that the Maison des Jeunes is supposed to pay the mayor's office a fee every month for some chairs Lauren bought them during the construction of the library, but we weren't sure if it was getting paid or why the mayor's office wasn't passing that money on to the library. In my fear of saying the wrong thing and possibly complicating the situation further, I moved very tentatively and slowly, effectively accomplishing nothing beyond learning what was supposed to be happening, but wasn't.

-My mom and uncle David came to visit! Too much to even say in a re-cap, but it was amazing. We saw Ouaga, my village, the granite sculpture gardens and President's zoo in Zinyare, lunch with friends in Ouahigouya. It was so wonderful to see friendly faces, and to get to share a part of this experience so deeply with people I love.

-Went to swear-in for the new stage, which was part of a 3 day fair/exhibition in Ouaga to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps. Our country was one of the only ones to do a public celebration, let alone to go to the effort of a 3 day event. It was madness, but it only rained the first day and overall I think it went really well.

-I started spending more time and effort to re-connect to a few of my friends in the US (which is probably a contributing factor to writing less on here). It takes a lot more time to respond individually, but I started feeling a lot happier to be taking the chance to re-build old friendships and feel closer to people I care about even though we're so far away.

-I was starting to look at grad programs, in September I was leaning more towards getting a graduate degree as a Nurse Practitioner in Midwifery. That has since shifted to a focus on Women's Health, having spent a lot of time in the maternity and being much happier helping with the day to day work on a predictable time schedule rather than the 3am births. So far I've found 7 programs that look promising, but I'm still on the search since I have over a year until I can apply – I'm not in any big hurry to get things decided because I want (and need) to focus on being here and now, which is hard when I get deep into “grad school research” mode.

Posting for my friend Kayleigh - wish her luck with this scholarship application!

James Rhio O’Connor Memorial Scholarship Essay

Kayleigh R. Sechi

Don’t waste your money on the quacks.”

This is what James Rhio O’Connor was told in response to his questions about investigating alternative medicine. He has learned weeks earlier that he had cancer, and waited several more weeks for an oncologist to return from vacation to provide further information about his illness. The oncologist explained that he had mesothelioma and suggested that O’Connor and his wife enjoy the few months that he had left to live as nothing could be done to save him. O’Connor would say years later that he was only left with the name of his disease and many questions. It was now up to him to find the answers, “Deep in my heart, I knew I would be okay and that I would survive.”

It was during the most historically successful period of the tobacco industry in the United States that James Rhio O’Connor was born. Researchers were only beginning to consider that external sources may cause various cancers. The health effects of lethal substances were invisible: there was no gun fire and no sound of explosions in the distance that the world has learned to fear during the Second World War. The effects of tobacco and other cancer causing substances, called carcinogens, were initially silent until terrible illness would manifest later in the lives of thousands of people. O’Connor was diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos much earlier in his life.

It was not until 1971, the same year that President Nixon declared the war on cancer, that subsequent controlled clinical trials confirmed that mesothelioma, a cancer of the lungs, which was appearing in people working in certain professions, was caused by exposure to asbestos. The United States was simultaneously in a battle against tobacco. Just as tobacco companies had information about the health dangers of smoking for years before admitting the risks of cigareete smoking, employers had known since the early 1900’s that workers exposed to asbestos suffered health problems and eventually death. Asbestos was present for the majority of the twentieth century in the materials used by professions such as insulation and fireproof materials used by heat technicians and firefighters. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of asbestos in 1989 citing it as a carcinogen. With an illness that has been the subject of so much injustice, how could Rhio O’Connor hope to battle it without the help of conventional medicine?

After I had emergency transplant surgery, I came to recover with my family at a house in central Massachusetts where people stayed to recover from illness; many of them facing a cancer diagnosis. Every morning, we would walk downstairs, usually with the aid of a family member, and into the kitchen. Just to reach the kitchen was a serious accomplishment. We would attempt to eat, and begin the daily regimen of medications, clinic appointments, testing, procedures, and medication changes. It was wearing and surreal, but at least we were not alone. Cancer is a strange animal. It is not an external enemy. Instead it alters the cells inside the body, changing normal cells into an out of control system that is unable to stop growth.

But if cancer cells are simply our own cells twisted into an out of hand version of their original form, then could we somehow slow the process by helping them to remember how to return to their natural state? If cancer is inherently a part of us, then there must be a way to communicate with the disease. Rhio O’Connor realized this early in his diagnosis and turned to nature in hopes of helping his body to remember its former healthy state.

O’Connor realized that the fight against cancer that we often encourage through conventional medicine may be better approached by working with the disease through alternative medicine. Just as all of us were happy to not be alone in the recovery house, the human body does better with a synergistic approach than an abrasive one. With the help of alternative practitioners, he created a program specified for his own body that included a healthy diet with supplement and vitamin and a healthy lifestyle. If there was no way to kill the cancer cells, then he certainly returned the memory of their healthy state. After being told he had months to live, Rhio lived for six more years.

Conventional medicine is surrounded by charts and statistics attempting to represent human response to medical treatment. There is no doubt that it has saved many people, but it is also clear that this information cannot account for the individual patient. Every person is different and has a unique genetic sequence, and therefore every time cancer begins the corruption of normal DNA, that cancer must intrinsically become unique as well. It is only logical to assess a cancer case as an individual. This is what O’Connor and his physicians did and it is why he was able to find an individualized method to allow him to live for years longer than expected.

As we have become aware of the benefits of healthy lifestyle, average lifespan has increased and we see the development of more cancers like mesothelioma that take years to manifest. Conventional medicine is responsible for many vaccination developments, and alternative medicine is responsible for our increasing awareness of lifestyle changes. The combination of preventative medicine such as vaccinations and alternative medicine working together is the ideal situation, but it must be individualized. At one time, surgeons treated breast cancer patients with identical large-scale mastectomies. Today, we can use the scanning techniques of convention nuclear medicine as a preventative measure, and then determine what route or combination or routes suits the individual patient.

Those of us who have survived illness know that we are attentively instructed to follow directions. However, when it comes to questions about alternative medicine or quality of life, we are often left alone. Rhio O’ Connor found support from those who agreed to help him find a way to live against a supposedly dead-end diagnosis. O’ Connor was right to question the original conclusion and lived for six years after being told he had mesothelioma thanks to his own perseverance and “the quacks” of alternative medicine the oncologist has told him to forget about. Patient care must be comprehensive. We must treat individuals and I feel fortunate to learn this before entering medical school. We should never give up on saving a life because as Rhio said, “There is always a tomorrow, but never a yesterday.”

For more information on Rhio O'Connor and mesothelioma, please visit