Monday, December 13, 2010

It was a weekend of holiday festivities here in Ouagadougou. Saturday night Emilie, Elisee, and I went to the home of our friends Yann and Carolaine for a pool-side Christmas barbecue. We were gorged on merguez sausage, carrot soup and grilled duck. Since it's getting a bit chilly here once the sun goes down (chilly meaning... mid-80's?), we opted to dance instead of swim the night away.

The following morning after too much fun and too little sleep, we rolled out of bed to host a holiday brunch at home. Emilie deserves most/all of the credit as she did all of the set-up and cooking, with me pretending like I knew what I was doing as her sous-chef. The sister of a fellow volunteer had just arrived from the States and held the title Guest of Honor, which meant that she got to bring bagels, cream cheese and lox from the States. We also whipped up scrambled eggs and hash browns and put out the remains of our most recent care packages from home. I was thrilled that I could play Mariah Carey's Merry Christmas in the background knowing that, if anyone were to complain, it was at my discretion to dispose of them. Only a few snarky comments were made, however, so no one got the boot.

No more festivities until next weekend, so it is time to hit the gym to recover and prepare for the final onslaught of cookies, candy and holiday cheer.

On an unrelated note, I just want to thank everyone who has made a donation to Friends of African Libraries in the past couple of weeks. Thanks to your generosity, we are well on our way towards reaching our fundraising goal for the month! We still have a ways to go, but are confident that we will get there by the end of the Open Challenge on December 22nd. Check us out on GlobalGiving:

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Christmas Decorating

Emilie: Did you see that stand selling tacky Christmas decorations by the side of the road?
Charley: YES! Can we stop and buy some on the way back from the gym?
Emilie: YES! And since they were also selling statues of the Virgin Mary, maybe they won't try to rip us off like everyone else does.
Charley: Doubtful.

We may have been scammed a bit, but can you really put a price on fake miniature Christmas trees when there isn't a real Fraser Fir or Scotch Pine available on the entire continent? Our house is now colorful and tacky as can be for the holiday season. All that's left to do is teach Sadie how to pull a sleigh.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I haven't had a great internet connection for a few days, so this isn't my promised update about my parents' visit to Burkina or our trip to Paris, but I will do my best to get to it this week!

This is a quick request that you check out Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL)'s project page on GlobalGiving. As I mentioned in my last post, I'm now working with a small NGO here in Burkina that helps manage small village libraries. Every summer they run reading camps for elementary school students in several villages in Burkina and Ghana. To raise funds for next summer's camps, we are taking part in GlobalGiving's December Open Challenge, which is an opportunity for us to earn a spot on GlobalGiving's site, giving us access to huge donors and bonuses for our projects if we reach certain fundraising goals. Even if you aren't able to donate, just taking a minute to check out our page and sharing it with friends on facebook will help us reach our goal! Fundraising is not my favorite part of the job, but I'm realizing how vital it is to keep small NGO's like FAVL up and running.

If you have a couple of spare procrastination moments, please check out our project page:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Has it Really Been 5 Months?

Well, I suppose it has. The Sandman's predictions have indeed come true and I'm now settled in a new home South of Peace Corps Burkina Faso's no-travel zone. Getting used to living in a city has had its ups and downs, but overall things have mostly been looking up since the big change. While I'm incredibly grateful for my experience living in a small village, I think I've realized I'm a city boy at heart. I loved being able to read for hours a day without distraction and I don't know that I'll ever read that many books in a year again, but the pace of life (and work) was too slow for my tastes.

My new house:

Now that I'm working with an NGO in a city, I always have things to do, even if I'm still not on a 40-hour week. A quick rundown of things I've done since starting work with Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL) in September - helped lead a weeklong reading camp for 25 elementary school students in southern Burkina, helped organize and lead the first northern Burkina FAVL librarian meeting, did literacy research in Ghana for a week, helped organize a fundraiser here in Ouaga for FAVL, continued preparations for the new library in Belehede, and co-wrote a grant proposal to introduce LED technology to several villages here in Burkina.

Mask Making at FAVL Reading Camp:

I've also been able to stay in touch with friends and counterparts from Belehede, even though I haven't been able to return except for a rushed trip to collect my belongings and puppies (escorted by Peace Corps for security). I attended a week-and-a-half long training here in Ouaga with two counterparts to learn how to run Coaching 4 Hope camps. Coaching 4 Hope is an organization that teaches kids about HIV/AIDS through soccer games and drills. I haven't played soccer since I was about 10, but I don't think I embarrassed myself too much, and my counterparts had a great time.

The following month (September), I was able to co-lead the Model Girls Camp that I was supposed to run in my village before evacuation scrambled all of my plans. Our Country Director was incredibly supportive and managed to secure funding for me to transport 40 girls and 4 adults from my village out of the no travel zone to Ouahigouya (where I trained for the Peace Corps oh-so-long-ago-now) for a week of camp. We used some of the drills we learned at Coaching 4 Hope to teach the girls about HIV/AIDS in the mornings and we spent the rest of the days talking about family planning, planning for the future, what it means to be a role model, health and nutrition, and playing games and doing arts and crafts activities. It was a full week and I was incredibly thankful to the Peace Corps for helping me to move the camp to a new site so I wouldn't have to disappoint my community.

Learning about Gender Roles and Coaching 4 Hope at Model Girls Camp:

The only sad news of the past few months is that Kit, one of my dogs, died last month. I'm not sure what happened, but my neighbors found her body in their courtyard behind their house last month, after she had disappeared for a couple of days. We'd been told during training that it's highly inappropriate to cry in public here in Burkina Faso, which at the time I didn't foresee ever being a problem, but that was a challenge.... It took Sadie a while to get over it, but she seems to be doing pretty well as of late. According to my roommate, "Sadie's actually acting like a normal dog these days!"

Since this is getting long, I'll break off with one last photo and continue later with an update about my parents' visit and my trip to Paris - it's nice having internet on a daily basis again after having to bike 40km to use a computer.

Sadie, having enjoyed Thanksgiving too much, recovers:

Saturday, July 3, 2010

What the Sand Man Said

I suppose an update is long-past-due. A little over a month ago I went to visit some friends out East in Fada and we hit up some of the local "tourist attractions" which included a giant tree that once-upon-a-time a warrior goddess charged up, mounted upon a steed (maybe?) and a "mountain," which took us an arduous 5 minutes to hike. The highlight, however, was going to have our futures foretold by a local sand reader, who predicted that 1. I would be moving to a new site for my second year of service 2. My boss would come visit my site 3. My love life looked bleak for the near future, but someday marital bliss and Happily Ever After awaits. I had a feeling that what he said was Truth, mostly because of the spirits watching over him (circa 2:20 in the video).

Things are a bit up in the air at the moment, but it looks as though he may have at least been right with prediction #1. While I can't yet say for sure, it seems very likely that I will be moving to Ouagadougou for my second year of service to work directly with FAVL, the organization my village is collaborating with to build our community library. The final details haven't been hammered out, but I'll probably make the move in late August or early September. I've already had meetings with FAVL, the Girls Education and Empowerment director, and the Peace Corps country director, all of whom have been supportive of the plan. I'll let you know when everything's in place, which will be much easier to do once I have frequent access to internet in Ouaga. While it will be sad and difficult to say goodbye to my village, there are extenuating circumstances which are pretty much out of my hands. The great thing about working in Ouaga, however, is that it will actually be easier to get the library completed and I will be able to continue working directly with Béléhédé, through FAVL, even if I will no longer be living there.

Right now I'm down South in Bobo, visiting other volunteers, celebrating my friend Jillian's upcoming wedding, watching the World Cup (and being shocked yesterday by the Netherlands' upset of Brazil and saddened by Ghana's loss), and enjoying the much cooler and greener part of the country. I was planning on heading back to Ouaga on Monday after celebrating the 4th down here, but I may stay a bit longer since I have a meeting with the FAVL librarians in a nearby village on Thursday, and it doesn't make much sense to make the 5 hour trip back to Ouaga only to turn right around in a couple of days. We'll see....

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Community Library

My big exciting news for the month is that my village is on-board to create a community library! We've been talking about the project for months and it's finally gaining momentum. Last week my counterpart from village and I visited with the Burkina branch of an organization called Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL - it makes me think of Fieval Goes West). The organization helps small villages create and manage libraries, including one that recently opened in the village of one of my nearest Peace Corps Volunteer neighbors, Emilie Crofton. (

Here's a video of her library opening this past month:

Community libraries are crucial to promoting literacy in a country with the lowest level of literacy in the world (only 35% of men and 15% of women can read and write). Much of the problem is due to a lack of access to reading materials. In Béléhédé, one of the only sources of literature is text books at the elementary school, of which there aren't even enough for all of the students. A community library would not only provide reading material for the students, but for the literacy centers in Béléhédé, where older kids who aren't able to travel to secondary school and adults in the community come to learn the local languages, Koronfé and Fulfuldé, as well as French. The literacy centers are popular, particularly with women from the village, but the centers face the same problem as the school: lack of books.

It took Emilie about a year to get her library up and running, so I'm anticipating a similar time table for the library in Béléhédé. My counterpart, Alou, and I have already begun looking at buildings that can be refurbished for the project and started preparations for a library committee. While the village provides the building and someone to be trained as a librarian (Alou) and FAVL helps refurbish the building, trains the librarian, and provides on-going management and oversight of the library, fund-raising mostly falls to me. I'll be working on starting some small income-generating activities with the library committee so that the community is a part of the fund-raising process, but I'll also be doing a whole lot of grant writing and brainstorming to raise the rest of the needed funds. The goal is $10,000, of which we've raised $1,000 so far (thanks Mom!).

A lot of people have asked if they can send me anything or help out with my Peace Corps Service in any way, so if you'd like to donate, that would be a wonderful way to support the work I'm doing here. I definitely encourage you to check out FAVL's wonderful website - - for more information about the organization and the work that they do. And here's a breakdown of how a contribution would help:

10$ - Covers the purchase of 2 new African novels or other reading materials

$50 – Pays for the six month subscription of a nationally-read newspaper for the library

$100- Covers the librarian's salary for a month

$500 – Pays for the purchase of bookshelves, tables and chairs

$1,200 – Covers the cost and installation of solar panels for a library

Donate by mail with a check to:

Friends of African Village Libraries
P.O Box 90533
San Jose, California 95109-3533

Be sure to earmark the check to Béléhédé

For more info, definitely check out FAVL's and Emilie's websites:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hi! I'm in Ouaga, but heading back to village in a few hours so only have time for a quick update with a few photos.

Garden and reading club are both chugging along and give me something to do every afternoon and evening. Water is running low, so I'm crossing my fingers that it holds out until I can harvest my corn in a week or two.

My friend Boukary drawing water from the well in my garden:

The moat (or irrigation ditch...) surrounding my garden:

Kit distracting one of my reading groups:

Reading club:

Soap-making unfortunately didn't take off as well as I'd hoped. The women keep telling me that people aren't buying it, but they also never have it out with them in the market, so I'm trying to convince them that they need to actually display the product if they want people to buy it.

Hot season is HOT. I don't usually look at a thermometer, but I glanced at one a couple of weeks ago and it was at 115F. After about 10 a.m. it's really too hot to do anything besides sit in the shade and try not to move until it starts to cool down around 5.

This vulture is convinced that I'm dying of heat stroke and stalks me in my courtyard:

One of the nurses asked me to go with him to do an HIV/AIDS training at a school in a nearby village, which was really exciting. I didn't really know what to expect and it ended up being mostly a lecture on Abstinence, although when I asked the nurse if we could talk about condoms and safe sex he was OK with it - thankfully I'd thought to bring a couple of condoms. While it didn't go over as smoothly as I'd hoped, it was good to at least see what education the kids here are getting so that I can better prepare for future talks.

Some camels chilling outside my courtyard:

Another afternoon in the garden:

One of the women who tends the garden next to mine:

This cow hanging out by my garden would have been under water a few weeks ago:

Sadie and Kit hiding from the sun under the shade of my Papaya tree:


OK, that's all for now. Sorry for such a scattered update, but I'll be back in Ouaga in the middle of April for a week attending a conference on maternal and infant health care with a woman from my village and a bunch of other volunteers, so I'll have time for a longer, more coherent post!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Back in Ouagadougou to take the GRE and, sadly, to say goodbye to a friend who had to return to the States. While I'm not thrilled about either of these situations, at least I can get another update in!

To my great relief, things finally started to pick up a bit once I got back to site. I returned with a list of ideas and possible activities for the community, which received a mixed response. While nobody was opposed to any of the ideas, the indifference with which they were received by some was rather a letdown after the effort I put into the brainstorming. I still couldn't quite figure out what the community wants me there for if they don't want me to work with them. Unfortunately, I get the impression that many communities just want their very own American to show off and boast about, regardless of whether the American actually gets anything done.

Thankfully, the school director was one of the few who was very receptive to several of the ideas and he quickly helped me to get a reading club started with the CM1 class (roughly 4th grade). The CM1 teacher broke the students up into six groups and now every day a different group comes over to my courtyard for an hour and we go over their reading book together. Even though it's only six hours of work a week, it's a start and was much needed to make me feel like I have a reason for being there. Each group has about 10 students and I would estimate that about a quarter of the kids in each group can read. Most of them just look at the page and have no idea how to process the information they see there, unable to sound out even the most basic words in French, the language they've been taught in for the the past 4-5 years. Needless to say, it'll be slow going, but the wonderful thing is that they're motivated (even if only by the candy I give to students who volunteer to read), and even the worst readers will raise their hands and give it a shot. And even more encouraging, the few can read always step in to help those who are struggling, guiding their fingers to the right spot on the page and helping them sound out the words.

I also started a small income-generating activity with some of the women in my village. I brought back with me from Ouaga supplies to make liquid soap and had an impromptu training session with a group of 8-12 women in the marketplace. We made about 30 bottles of soap, 10 of which sold within the first 24 hours. Sales slowed after that, but Monday was our big, once-every-three-weeks market day, so I'm anxious to hear how business went. If it went well, we'll whip up another batch.

Other than those two activities, January's exciting developments were my acquisition of two puppies and new garden. I've been trying to get both a dog and a garden since I got to site, and both finally came together within days of me getting back to Béléhédé.

A group of kids showed up at my house one morning holding two puppies. I thought they were offering them both to me, but they told me I had my pick of the two and that the other was already promised to another neighbor. I didn't know how to choose, so I just pointed to the closer, bigger of the two. I dubbed him Zizou and spent the afternoon trying to get him not to be terrified of me, with little success, though by the end of the afternoon he finally seemed at least a bit comfortable with his new home.

Later that night, as I was getting ready for bed, I heard a knock on my courtyard door. The moon wasn't yet risen, so when I opened the door I could barely make out a person's silhouette, while off in the distance I could hear a moto engine idling and see its headlight amongst the trees. The silhouette thrust something forward and when I looked down, there was puppy number two. I was taken aback and tried to think of something to ask or say, but the person just handed the puppy off and retreated into the night.

Zizou and Ajax spent several days warming up to me and then they played a devil of a trick on me by turning out to be girls. After a couple of people verified this (the same people who verified that they were male when I first got them), Zizou and Ajax were scrapped and a couple of days later I settled on the names Sadie and Kit.

So, my abundant free time in January was directed towards playing with the puppies; planting corn, tomatoes, green beans, pees, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, basil, and peppers in my garden, which is really just a strip of my landlord's garden next to the dam, which he was nice enough to share with me; watching the Africa Cup of Nations matches on a generator-powered TV in village; reading and biking.

I'm in Ouaga until Monday morning, which means I'll have internet access for a few more days. After that, it's back to site until at least late March, so I'm not sure when the next update will be.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Back to Béléhédé

Well, I suppose I've probably written enough over the past few days to make up for the dearth of updates during the Summer and Fall, and here's a last bit before I head North tomorrow morning. I'm packed up and ready to return to village, crossing my fingers that I pass through Djibo while the post office is open so I can pick up the packages and letters that have been gathering dust since my last pick-up in November. While it's been great seeing friends and traveling a bit, it's hard to justify being away from site for so long. If while in village I often feel that I'm not doing what I came here to do, I know for a fact that I'm not doing it when I'm hanging out with other Americans in the frat house that is our Ouaga crash pad. I have to come back for a couple of days next month to take the GREs, but other than that I'm hoping I can make it all the way to June or July without leaving home for more than a day or so.

I'll leave you with a couple of last photos of a dinner that our country director hosted for us at his home during our in-service training the week before Christmas. I lucked out big time with the other 15 Girls Education and Empowerment Volunteers that the Peace Corps threw me together with in Philadelphia; maybe every group bonds like ours has, which would be wonderful, but can I go ahead and say that we're the best? Well, it's my blog so I'm gonna go ahead and say it: we're great. My frustrations have been eased by having a whole group of amazing people here who are going through the same thing and dealing with the same issues, and who are only a text message or a 2 hour bike ride + 5 hour bus ride + bush taxi or two away. I'm crossing my fingers that if I close my eyes and think of snow, I'll be able to survive my first hot season in Burkina, which will start warming up in a couple of months.

Monday, January 4, 2010