Thursday, September 20, 2012


September 19th

I had a moment today of really feeling the imminence of my leaving, several actually. This evening I sat outside with Djeneba eating the first corn of the season (grilled on a charcoal brazier for us by her teenager sister/nieces) and talking about how some day she'd like to move up in the system and become a pediatrician (she's an IB, one step above an AIS, but below an IDE and then the pediatric attache). We watched Rashid play, giggling, eating (and dropping) his corn, as we looked at Mariam's photos and commented on the ones of ourselves. When Mariam and Mohamad got back from buying juice she and Djeneba started talking in Moore. I considered leaving but stayed, enjoying just being in the presence of people who make me so genuinely happy to see them. I love that when I see my staff or my ASCs for the first time after being away I just feel so giddy, like my smile can't get any bigger because I'm so happy to have the chance to exchange the same old greetings, attempting to infuse them with the joy and warmth I feel so they know that for me it's not just the same old rote speech, that I actually want to know about their family and their health and their fields and their work.

When the mosquitoes were getting thick and it was getting dark I finally excused myself to come home and drink my tea and read my book. I'm reading an anthology of travel stories, and now have about 20 more places on my list of places I want to visit. One was about Orr Hot Springs! I couldn't help but giggle, I can't wait to go back someday. The one that got me out of my book and onto my computer to write was a guy visiting Dubai, describing his flight as he left. I remembered that I, too, will be taking an Emirates plane and changing flights in Dubai, that I'm about to embark on a series of flights that will be longer than any trip I've ever taken. I guess LA to Sydney, Australia was the longest single flight, but I'm going to have 3 flights on this trip of at least 8 hours apiece (Ouaga to Adis Ababa to Delhi, then from Doha to London). And the thought made me really excited! Even the hassle of air travel still holds a level of wonder and adventure that I remember as a kid. Then the image of leaving the Ouaga airport for the last time made me almost cry. I don't even begin to know how to work out my feelings of being here, of preparing myself and my friends for when I leave here. Every time someone asks and exclaims over how soon I'm leaving I tell them (only half joking) that they can't talk about it, it makes me too sad. Even the frustrations, the delays, the annoying idiosyncrasies of being here – I'm going to miss them. I'm going to miss searching frantically for PAM papers and notebooks all over the CSPS, miss the fact that I can show up late to anything knowing it will never start on time, miss the amusing frustration of microphones that never ever work even though people insist on still using them despite being totally incomprehensible to the audience.

That last part actually takes me to this morning. After breakfast I went over to the CSPS to help with PAM distribution. Just as I was sitting down to start matching books to papers, Major arrived and said that we were doing a presentation at the CPL (the Maison des Jeunes) and that he was going to make all the women go to that and come get their rations later. I, as always, was resistant to this change in plans, but he seemed determined and announced it and off they went. I helped move our papers and such back inside, then biked off to meet them there. Lo and behold this was a “conference”, a presentation of several hours to easily 100 women and their babies, about birth control. I declined to present anything, the guy from Seguenega almost got booed for only speaking French, but then I was handed several cameras and became the official photographer. I also took some for myself, including a series of this adorable toddler, maybe a year old, who seemed to be enthralled with a beer cap, particularly putting it on his head and then trying to toddle off until his mom gently grabbed an arm and pulled him back.

After it was over (and our supervisors came and made us do part of it over for their benefit, for the 15 women still in the room waiting out the rain), I went and bought gallettes from Alimata, who was thankfully feeling better (someone had told me this morning that she was sick), then sat at home with some jasmine tea and read while it kept raining. I left a bit before 15 to help with PAM, stayed there for a few hours, and then had my time sitting outside with Djeneba and Mariam, talking, taking photos, laughing. I love that I can have a morning full of boredom, an afternoon full of frustrations, and still get to the evening after sitting and talking with friends for an hour or two and remember my day as happy and beautiful, even in the bored and the frustrating parts.

Insomnia Guilt Trip

September 13th

68 days left in country, something like that. I woke up this morning at 2:30 and then tossed and turned for an hour, suddenly only able to think guiltily about my promised West African French vocabulary project for Madame DeMarie (my high school French teacher who let me sit in on her classes before I came to Burkina) and the pictures I could use for it. I finally gave up trying to sleep at 3:30, made myself some mint green tea, and got started. I don't know if my computer's fan is broken and things are overheating, my hard drive is overly full, or if the file is just too large, but it takes an inordinate amount of time to select and change items or to save the presentation. Still, I got some done, wrote ideas for needed pictures, and started writing some descriptions in the notes in my pidgin village French. I've also been organizing the massive amount of digital resources I got from Lauren Savoy, including a video from a PCV in Guinea where the first 5 minutes are a perfect example of a West African market. Apparently everyone there eats rice at home and in the market, instead of here where everyone eats tô (although I guess it is rare to buy tô in the market, but millet or beans or manioc is more of a market staple than rice in my village).

I watched the sun rise and heard the village start to wake up as I worked, it was surprisingly nice even though it felt weird to be awake so early. I started my laundry around 7am, and had the first load up and drying when the slight overcast became dark and it started to downpour. After 30 minutes the rain stopped (the sun had started shining brightly about 10 minutes previously) and that was it for the day! So strange, the weather near the end of rainy season.

Science Camp

September 12th

Science camp ended up being awesome and totally worth it. I had a team of 4 girls – Justine, Roukieta, Salimata, and Edwige; our team (as dubbed by our overly forceful, always right, never present facilitator/homologue) was the Etalons (the Stallions, the Burkina soccer team). At first the girls were silent, not responding to eye contact or direct questions or pleas for input. But, beautifully, over the week they started talking, one by one. Roukieta was clearly dominant and loud, but by the end when we were writing our poster for the science fair even Salimata (the youngest and shyest) was finding ways to get her opinion in. The experiment and write up itself – dissolving sugar into hot, warm, and cold water – was painful in the extreme, but talking to them about their classes, answering questions, and demonstrating the Macarena and YMCA were fantastic and unbelievably touching. I totally admire teacher PCVs for their patience with the kids all day every day, but I now better understand the rewards that make it worth it. For example – it takes an incredibly long time for even a 9th grader to write down a sentence, especially if it must be formulated independently and not just copied (although even taking direct dictation was very very slow). But when they suggest ways of keeping variables constant without prompting when setting up your experiment or smile talking about dissection or making circuits light up – you can't help but smile and feel proud.

The 38 kids took 2 courses a day, each about 2 hours plus a 30 minute break in the middle. They had a health lesson for an hour 3 mornings of the 5, and an astronomy lesson on 2 nights. The whole thing of course had it's ups and downs, with issues sprouting up left and right (late meals, building showers for the kids, water shortages, very late transport arrival, forgotten pre-tests, egotistical counterparts, too many PCVs, illnesses). But in true PC fashion it didn't seem to phase us, we just kept finding work-arounds.

We left on the morning of the 9th, on Visionaire where we managed to rent out the entire bus and get it to come pick us up at the high school instead of carting the kids and our stuff to their station. Luba, Emilie, Marisol and myself didn't have kids to deal with so we walked out to the main street and caught a cab to the House. For the first time in about the past 6 months, it wasn't full! I got to talk to Wendy, who had just gone to a fistula conference, and then had lunch with Wendy, David B, Emilie, and Jose. Went shopping for veggies and had borscht for dinner courtesy of David – I expected to not like it but was pleasantly surprised. This is the volunteer who makes pot stickers from scratch in village, approximately 1000x the amount of effort I put into most of my meals, and I can't wait to ask him for recipes to add to my cookbook.

Return To KDG!

September 5th

Welcome to Science Camp! Being here does have it's ups and downs, but overall is going really well. I do think it's safe to say we have an excess of volunteers. Most of my work is in bursts, a lesson, someone asking for me to go get something, a meeting with my team of kids, supervising shower time, but there's still a lot of down time (which can be very nice, but on some days is just too much). Still, as people are getting sick it's handy to have extra hands to take over. All of the other PCVs are from the stage after mine, and I'm really enjoying getting to know so many new people who are all so passionate about science and teaching!

The story that shouldn't have happened but was funny in the end was trying to get to La Reunion the first night I was in town. I thought I remembered it, out past where the paved road ends, but Drew kept saying it was close enough to bike with people on the racks of our bikes, so I assumed I was thinking of a different restaurant. Turned out it was the same one, but due to construction and our unwillingness to actually look and see if we could get around or over the big pile of dirt we ended up going on a wild detour a huge way out of the way. We waded through mud, biked over washboard roads, and ended up having to pass our bikes and jump over a 3 foot ditch from one re-bar-spiked cement ledge to another. It was terrifying, it was unnecessary, but we made it and had beer and alloco and frites and laughed and talked and it was good and somehow worth it after the fact. :)

These women that Marlow and I are working with for the health lessons – Esther and Gloria – are simply amazing. Their title is “assistant sociale” and they not only counsel students, but do health lessons at the school on all kinds of topics. They've been doing it a while, Gloria mentioned 1996 as the time of one particular affectation. They've been all over – villages, cities, North, South, East, doing stuff in schools on family planning/prostitution/staying in school/early pregnancy, with villages to teach on forced marriage/early marriage/excision/covered wells/building latrines, etc. Gloria is doing another camp this week as well, a “Camp for Success” where kids from middle school up to university come and learn about how to do well in school and how to get into a trade or become an entrepreneur. It has a strong religious theme as well. They start at 5:30am and keep going until 8pm, which just seems crazy to me. The two of them are currently employed at the high school where we're doing the camp, which is how we ended up working with them.

Yesterday we caught frogs for today's dissection, but I didn't go watch, it seemed cruel somehow even though I remember enjoying dissection in school. It rained today, finally, really hard but only for a few hours. I've been eating way too much gateaux, but it's just so tempting, especially since people keep going to buy more several times a day! Otherwise I've been keeping busy by talking to people, doing odd jobs like refilling hand washing teapots, and working on my resume and DOS.

Where AM I From, Exactly?

August 31st

This morning as I was buying bread I kept getting called “La Russe” by a guy I didn't know at the coffee shack. Since when have there ever been Russians in Burkina? I understand when they call me “La Francaise” or even “La Belge” since French and Belgian (and even German) NGOs have a fairly big presence in Burkina, but Russian?

I don't know what it is, but I'm feeling better about going to the science camp, even staying the whole time (earlier I'd been hoping to leave early since I have so little time left in village). It could be simple resigned laziness, or my feelings about working at the CSPS this morning, but I'm looking forward to the time away so that I'll appreciate all the more when I get to come back. I've still got some stuff to work out on my way home at the Bureau, paperwork and appointments and this issue Jeff called about. They apparently got our COS date a little wrong and now I officially COS November 16th (instead of the 15th), That's fine, but he said that since the 12th is a holiday I might want to come in on the 9th to get stuff started, which seems excessive. I'd really prefer not to be sitting around for 3 days over the long weekend just to have one extra day to do Bureau paperwork, so I'll ask Jeff if there's anything I can do to get things done in advance of those final “COS” days.

Buzzards and Monkeys, Oh My!

August 30th

I lay on my back at the end of my yoga this morning and stared at the sky. It was a dreamy morning blue, with the faintest suggestion of wispy clouds if you imagined hard enough, clear and bright but still easy on the eyes. I watched the buzzards soaring and wandering aimlessly on the thermals, first a few, then a dozen, then breaking off in groups and pairs, circling over and over yet moving slightly each time to the right or the left, appearing at the edge of my vision and gliding across until I couldn't see them anymore, then turning and crossing again, hardly a waver or a flap of a wing, breathtaking in their size and ragged grace. They're beautiful in their own way up there, much different from the startling WHUMP scrabble scrabble when they land on my thin tin roof – no matter how often they do it, I still startle every time.

I was cleaning out the junk side of my second shelf, the one that has come to accumulate letters, papers, games, cards, nail polish, a sewing kit, and who knows what else – I even found a Koosh ball! Remember those? When did that show up in my house? I also cleaned out my luggage canteen (a big metal storage trunk). Somehow it's the only one that has escaped taking on a funny smell, I'm trying to clean and air out all the rest. At one point I went outside to throw some trash down my latrine, and right as I was getting to the door I heard a little tapping on my roof, the way it sometimes creaks in the heat. But as I went outside I realized it was raining. Not hard, but a steady drizzle, the sun shining away bright as anything. It made me laugh, I had been completely caught off guard! A monkey's wedding, as my mom would say. It kept raining for a few minutes, then the sun came back out, a nice little pause to the day.

Busy Small-Small

August 27th

I wasn't planning on writing, but today was so productive in little ways that I felt compelled to prove to myself that I'm a useful volunteer and human being. I got up pretty early, had my tea, and since it hadn't rained I started my yoga before 8am, which was very nice indeed. The air was cool, my hamstrings were sore and tight, and it was delightful to just relax and stretch. I started to read, but then kicked myself into cleaning off my side table, where I came across a bunch of papers to organize for the new PCV. Then I sat down to finally start writing this mythical document I keep promising to produce for her with information on the house, the village, helpful contacts, and a history of past projects Lauren and I started. There's even a whole list of project ideas, which kind of makes me feel guilty about all the things I didn't do, even though I do think the things I did do have been pretty successful. I know there's no way she'll do all the things on the list, but I hope it'll be helpful as a place to start.

This afternoon I went to get water at the CSPS before starting to work on a mural I'm painting at the despensaire. I saw Belem at the maternity and realized I could sort through the PAM papers while I waited, since there were too many patients waiting to be seen for me to move them to make room to paint. Belem said Sali hadn't been feeling well that morning, so we went over to check on her, then I settled back in with my 5 inches of paperwork. We have about 240 people in our program, a huge change from last year when we might have been lucky to have 100 at any given time. Major came over with his register and that sheet where we mark the ages and distances of everyone who came to the CSPS in the past month, so after I was done organizing our paperwork I helped with that too, reading off the data for him to mark (it went much faster compared to yesterday when I was trying to mark what he was saying).

It was getting kind of late, so Major told me I could stop to go paint my mural. Now I can successfully report that I have....a big white rectangle on the wall! Ok, it's not too exciting, but for now it's a step, tomorrow I'll grid it and draw the outline properly, then it's time to start mixing paint! I also gave Major my “Ou Est Jessica?” (Where is Jessica?) calendar outlining my travels the next 11 weeks. I cut out Bobo and decided to go to OHG for a few days instead before swinging through Ouaga at the beginning of November. I remember Kerry saying she was always in Ouaga for something or another right before COS, but I'm hoping I can get the entire month of October in with my village before leaving again. I'll be gone nearly half of September, the week of the camp and a week of VAC plus a side trip to Fada, home all of October with a quick visit at the end, and then leaving for good in November. I still need to write my DOS (Description of Service) and my recommendations, and take a look at that terrifyingly long check sheet. Today marks 80 days left in country, and I'm pretty solidly ignoring my feelings about this.

I'm reading a really good book right now, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. It's a book within a book, and it's so creative and engrossing. The way the narrator talks about her love of books, the way she reads, why she reads, how her reading has changed since childhood and her adult reading is almost an attempt to recapture the way books felt and meant as a kid – it's like someone put me into words, it's amazing. I'm not a twin missing my twin, and I certainly don't like writing biographies, but I love how the main character just can't get enough of stories, and how this book manages to twine together some rather disparate threads in ways that somehow should come off as awkward but don't at all, they just weave in and out but you can still keep track of them as separate but together.


August 26th

I've been thinking a lot about my service, especially because leaving feels suddenly so close. Why did I join PC? Why Africa? I guess it was a lot of things, and I'm sure my answers have changed being on this end of it now. But from what I remember I think that something about PC had always appealed to me. Maybe I saw PC as a low level trial run of sorts for my desire to join Doctors Without Borders. I was still fairly certain at that point that I wanted to go to med school, but was starting to have some doubts. I also wasn't sure of my ability to get into a med program without a thesis, any internships, or anything beyond the bare minimum of having gained my BA. I saw PC as a way to stand out, as well as something I wanted to do for it's own sake. I'd definitely romanticized the idea of being a volunteer – the no electricity, remote from a city, living in a hut in Africa somewhere – thing. I had no idea what I'd be doing, but I assumed it would be health related, weighing babies, teaching lessons, I didn't really care as long as I got to go. When my recruiter asked where I wanted to go I knew I would truly be ok and come out with a good experience no matter where they sent me – Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, some Caribbean island. But when pressed I said I wanted to go to Africa, that's just where I'd always imagined going. I admittedly didn't exactly anticipate coming to BF specifically, I was kind of rooting for Rwanda or Madagascar (both on my list of PC countries that spoke French), but I was still excited getting to look up information on my new home for the next 2 years.

People come to PC, to Africa, for so many different reasons. It's pretty clear that, while I did sign up to help and give back and “make a difference”, a lot of my motivation for being here is fairly selfish. In the 'it'll look good on my resume/get me into grad school' sense, but mostly in the personal development sense. I knew that if I did PC I would become a very different person. Not that there was anything wrong with who I was at the time, but I realized kind of unconsciously that I needed and wanted something else, an experience totally different from the life I'd lived. Being a PCV isn't exactly living alone in the African bush, it's very hand-holding and structured and in this day and age involves quite a lot of contact with people in America. But being here, living here, speaking new languages and eating new foods and doing my laundry by hand and not having electricity and especially meeting new people – all of these and so much more have clearly changed who I am and how I think and act. I don't know how much will translate to living in the US. I'm not actually sure I want all of these changes to stick, some of them feel very “temporary adaptive” and should stay that way (such as eating out of my cooking pot to save doing another dish, or only connecting to village friends at a somewhat superficial level due to cultural and language differences).

Other things feel like they're just beginning, starting to blossom, and almost feel like they can't continue until I leave. Burkina has been the catalyst to start the reaction, but it's also the limiting factor and the process can't continue until I leave and have new inputs to keep it going. Burkina has given shape and new definition to my life path, has shone a light in new and exciting directions, has started to help me expand my view of the world and is teaching me to think differently and see deeper levels of meaning and repercussions. I don't think it could have done those things if I wasn't already open to them on some level, and I know there are still many levels that have yet to be raised to a conscious plane, but I know they're there, and I'm ready to try and dig down to them, and that's scary and exciting in so many inexpressible ways. So I guess right now the most I can say is that I'm glad I decided to come here, for whatever mix of reasons, and I'm glad it was here. I'm sure that my experience would have been very different if I'd gone elsewhere, or even come here at a different point in my life (not in a positive or negative way, just different).

COS Conference Recap

August 23rd

Where to begin? As always, taking a break from writing leaves me with a lot to say and little patience to try and recapture it all.

Visiting Wendy and JK: What fun! I got off the bus in Sabce around 8am, and quickly found my way to Wendy's house. We walked a couple of km out to one of her villages where she's starting a woodlot. It's a big fenced in area where they'll plant trees, then teach an older woman from each nearby courtyard how to cut wood without killing the trees so they'll stay productive for a long time. Having the wood close by is safer, easier, and gives the women an important job and role in their families. Wendy had received the grant money just before leaving on vacation, but the project needed to be done before the rains really got started so she crossed her fingers and wrote a huge check to the material supplier and handed it over to her counterpart. He had told her that the fencing went up, but this was the first time she'd seen it herself and I think we were both delighted to see that the project had gone forward even without her there. We took some pictures, talked to some people farming nearby, and walked back to make lunch. We sat around her house for the rest of the day, talking, reading, exchanging pictures, sending emails. Mariam, her adopted daughter/friend came over and sat around inside, taking advantage of the fan. The next morning we weighed some babies (her CSPS has a vastly different system of handling malnutrition than ours does, to the point that even after an explanation I still don't get it), and then I ran to catch the bus to JK's village.

I got on the little TSR mini bus and immediately noticed another nasara. Despite this being pretty rare, etiquette demands that we not make assumptions of each other, and since he didn't try to catch my eye in return I kept moving and sat 2 rows behind him, near the exit for a quick escape since I was only going 20km. Not a few minutes from Yilou he flips the top of his bag so I can see it between the seats – a Peace Corps patch. Ah, this must be that new Kongoussi Response volunteer. But now it was awkward so I got off directly in front of a smiling JK and she confirmed that it must have been Sam, and that he's pretty shy and doesn't speak up much. We dropped my stuff at her house, then went to go greet some people in her marche. We talked almost continuously, especially when it started raining like crazy and we were trapped inside. Thankfully by the next day it had stopped raining. We carried all our stuff through the mud to the bus stop, hopped on a bush taxi, and headed for Ouaga.

COS (Close of Service) Conference: As Kerry said, perhaps the most useful training we receive from PC. We were put up in the Excellence Hotel for the conference and the following party. I ended up rooming with Lindsy and Antoinette in a suite on the first floor, complete with lounge, air conditioning, and a TV with the news in English! Our door overlooked the pool, but it admittedly smelled a bit funny, didn't seem to have any kind of filtration or cleaning system, and did have a large population of hungry mosquitoes.

We had “class” from 8-5 daily, a stark change for most of us used to village time, but we managed alright. Just about every session was useful for some and not for others, but overall it was bearable even when it was something that didn't concern me at all (for me the sessions on Peace Corps Response and how to get a job with an NGO were less compelling than the one on how to deal with questions we'll be asked by friends and family when we get home). The resume session was long but needed, and Ellie, our facilitator, helped me go over mine line by line one evening. We did a feedback session for the Bureau that Ellie couldn't stop raving to me about; I think I was lucky in that I kept going first on each section so I got to say all the thank you's when discussing things said by the Health PCVs. Still, her praise gave me a lot more confidence in my ability to be diplomatic even when I didn't think I was doing that great of a job.

On the last day of the conference comes the COS party! Planned by the stage following the one leaving, there's usually food, drink, and inflatable pool animals involved; this time was no exception. The slideshow, compiled by Emily and Scott in my stage, was incredible, complete with a sequence of photos and superlative for each person as well as a bunch of photos from times when we were all together. I was nominated “Stage Mom” which made me laugh and think fondly of being “Mama Jess” to the crew novices. After that we had a champagne toast, some photos, a nacho buffet, and dancing! I ended up in bed by 1am, but I'm told that the festivities continued until 3 or 4, including several brave souls taking a dip in the potentially hazardous pool with the above-mentioned inflatable sea animals.

The day we were supposed to go home was Eid, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, which created some problems since it meant that the country pretty much shuts down and everyone is home with their families. In our case it meant that buses didn't run and we were all still stuck in Ouaga. I wanted to talk to people in the Bureau and get money out of the bank, and since the holiday fell on a Sunday everything on Monday was closed as well! Thus I was in town for a bit longer than expected but ended up getting some work done as well as having the chance to skype with a few friends! I'm trying to convince Kerry that she should move to St. Louis with me in January, I think we'd actually make decent roommates and some of the 2 bedroom apartments we found on Craigslist were really nice and surprisingly reasonable (especially to her, having lived in NYC before coming to Burkina).

I decided to go home on Tuesday, and ended up setting a new record for total travel time to my village. After I got to the station it started to rain like crazy, the bus was late by several hours (it's usually late but I always get there early because on a few occasions it has left earlier than planned), and getting on was just crazy, everyone shoving and pushing with more energy than usual, trying to get out of the rain. Someone offered me a seat he'd reserved – I had been reluctant to take it but eventually I was very grateful; we got on the bus around 3pm and didn't get off until nearly midnight. We made it to Kongoussi, packed some more people on, but then the rain barrier was down due to flooding and we just had to sit and wait at the edge of town. Several hours later we were allowed to go, but the bus broke down not 30 minutes after and we were stuck waiting for another bus for a few more hours. A new bus finally came, we transferred everyone over, and off we went. I slept a lot of the way there, the old lady next to me woke me up when we got to Kossouka, and I hopped off directly into a big mud puddle. I was in awe of the stars, you hardly ever notice them in Ouaga but in village they're just overwhelmingly beautiful! It made me happy, like the little girl who fell asleep against my shoulder on the bus. I walked home, marveling at the milky way and mourning that this will soon be gone when the next PCV gets here and the new street lamps get turned on. I opened my gate and, to my delight, my yard was free of weeds, someone had tidied up my hangar, and my basil was over 2 feet tall! What a wonderful gift to come home to, even (especially) at midnight.