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

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Christmas in Togo

I got to explore some non-Burkina West Africa after our In-Service Training, during a week-long Christmas vacation. For a couple of months my friend Coleman and I had been planning on going to Togo and Benin, but we forgot about the actual planning part and wound up with a truncated trip to Togo, sans the final Benin leg. We left Ouagadougou around 6 a.m. the Sunday before Christmas on a Greyhoundesque bus, iPods fully charged for the ~twenty hour trip (which was much more bearable than the forty hour trip we'd anticipated). The only real excitement on the way down occurred when we reached the border, where we had to buy visas as we hadn't bothered with that step in advance. We were hurried off the bus and down the road, told that once the bus went through the checkpoint it would keep on going whether we were through or not. Thankfully our white skin was a green flag and we were whisked to the front of the line and through the visa process without hassle. It was only when I decided use the bathroom (read: bush at the edge of the parking lot) that the bus almost left without me, forcing me to cut short those plans as well.

There was a startling shift of scenery once we crossed the border - green things growing everywhere, hills, paved road, sure signs of development - the trip was eye-opening to the different degrees of development within West Africa; being in a country with ports makes an immeasurable difference. Lomé in particular was like like a looking glass, as there was still the riot of noise and color and poverty of Ouagadougou, but it had a glossier sheen, or at least fewer vacant lots. I hate to say it, but the grass really was quite a bit greener. We got in around one in the morning, found a hotel close to the bus station, and called it a night (though not until we had broken the one fan in the room...).

The next day we spent wandering around Lomé, checking out the market area, bookstore, and beach and sampling Togolaise cuisine. Attieke, egg and bean sandwiches, and Fufu topped the list of favorites and the local beers clearly outclassed Burkina's Brakina and So.B.Bra, though we found no bar or club to rival Ouahigouya's Baobab or Ouaga's Mitatas and Calypso (to be fair to Togo, we weren't really looking).

We spent one more night at the hotel and then took a taxi east towards Benin (so close, yet two whole visas away) to a little town on the beach called Avépozo. We got out at the sign of Chez Alice, which one of our guidebooks had recommended and which should have been a red flag signaling a tourist trap. From the East African Art to the imported butterflies (well, we suspected) to the two monkeys tied to a tree on permanent time-out, everything was out of place for where we were in West Africa. There were a handful of older Germans who didn't seem to be together or altogether there, and who we didn't see anywhere else but on the grounds of Chez Alice. The whole place gave off a strange faux-African hippie commune vibe that put both of us ill-at-ease. The beach was only a short walk away, however, so we made the most of the afternoon, had some great FuFu, Awooyu, and Fan Lait on the main drag of town and crashed around in the waves. One of the reasons we'd chosen Chez Alice was for the cheap camping rates and we spent the night awkwardly camped in the courtyard shared by all of the hotel's guests.

The next morning we walked down the beach a ways to a swimming spot we'd found the day before, a steep strip of sand sloping towards the ocean, at the top of which was perched a handful of cabanas and beach chairs. We threw down our stuff on an empty seat and jumped into the surf, my clumsy New England ocean style not quite adequate for the West African waves, which resulted in several painful body slams against the sand. After the beat down I went back up to the chairs, where I was approached by someone who told me we'd have to pay to rent the chairs unless we wanted to stay at their hotel. Neither seemed terribly appealing at the moment, so I grabbed our stuff and plopped it down on the near-deserted beach. Only after another swim did it occur to us that maybe the offer was worth considering, as we were less than thrilled with our current set-up. We asked the attendant if we could take a look at their cabins, which was probably the best decision we made the whole trip.

Each cabin was stripped down, no show simplicity, with a small courtyard and a bin of water for bucket bathing. The price was great and it took us all of a minute to decide to switch lodgings. After lunch and another battle with the waves, we collected our stuff from Chez Alice and moved into our new almost-authentic African paradise, where the only other guests seemed to be from Togo, Burkina, or other nearby countries. For most of the time we had the whole place to ourselves and vacation finally felt like Vacation. I couldn't have pictured a more idyllic location and the hours stretched on and on as we settled into a blissful repetition of swimming, eating, sitting, and reading. It would have required at least another week for us to grow weary of the idle isolation.

We finally got around to thinking about planning our vacation, now that we were well into it. The big decisions were what to do for Christmas and how to go about the Benin visa situation, as we had to leave Togo by the 26th and we weren't planning on going back to Ouaga until the 29th or so. Because we hadn't gotten visas in advance, we would only be able to get a 48-hour pass to Benin, necessitating an extension that would have been nearly impossible to obtain due to the holidays. We called Peace Corps friend Christina, whom I had replaced in Béléhédé and who was spending a third year volunteering in Togo, about an hour north of Lomé. I'd been hoping to visit her since we met during my site visit in July, and she had extended an invitation, but we felt bad about taking her up on the offer on such short notice. She was adamant that it was no trouble, however, and as she was hosting several other Burkina and Togo volunteers, it promised to be a festive holiday even if it wouldn't include the usual trimmings of family, snow, cookies, and card games by the fire. Christmas day plans settled upon, we decided to spend one more night in Avépozo, giving us one last perfect day at the beach, capped off with a Christmas Eve sunset over the Gulf of Guinea and a large dinner complete with a couple of dusty bottles of French wine that we'd found in the back of the hotel's bar.

After a night of sleep broken by bouts of drumming from revelers on the beach, I awoke to the first Christmas that didn't involve rushing down a flight of stairs to see what Santa had spread beneath the tree. While it was sad not being able to share the day with family back home, it was a beautiful morning and after wandering around town for a bit, we finally found someone to open up shop and prepare an omelette breakfast for us. While everyone in Avépozo seemed to still be sleeping after a night of celebration, once the eggs and coffee started cooking, we quickly found ourselves in good company and we had the feeling our chef was almost-glad to have been awakened, as he was in for a brisk Christmas business.

After breakfast and one last swim, we hailed a cab and headed back to Lomé, where our last hope of making it to Benin was dashed when we went to the bus station and discovered that the bus schedule wouldn't work out with our tentative itinerary; the only feasible option was to buy tickets back to Ouaga for the following morning. It was hard to feel too disappointed as the trip had been perfect up to this point and we still had a party with friends to look forward to. So, after lunch we hopped in another cab and headed north to Tsévié, where Christina is spending her third year as a Peace Corps Volunteer, helping to incorporate and implement Life Skills lessons into school curricula and after-school clubs. I lucked out and got to share the front seat with the driver and one other passenger, while Coleman got stuck in back, packed in with a boisterous bunch of women from Ghana, who had somehow managed to get drunk on their way from a Christmas morning church service and who spent the hour-long trip fondling Coleman and demanding vows of marriage. I turned up the volume on my iPod and listened to Mariah Carey belt out "All I Want for Christmas is You," while enjoying the view of lush green vegetation and ignoring Coleman's laughter and screams for help from the back seat debauchery.

Christina came and picked us up when we got into town and took us back to her beautiful home, where we were greeted by Kait and David, friends from Burkina, along with some new friends from Peace Corps Togo. After bathing (I forgot to mention how humid Togo is; I think I actually prefer the higher temperatures of Burkina, since the heat is at least dry heat - the only time we weren't sweating was when we were actually in the ocean) we spent the early afternoon lazing about and catching up, sharing vacation tales and discussing the differences between volunteering in Burkina Faso and Togo. We finally got around to the festivities, placed an order of beer to be delivered, and started dinner preparations. Afternoon slid into evening and beer into wine and conversation into carousing, interrupted only once by a quick beer run, which was a party in itself as Kait and I decided to have an impromptu dance party with some Togolaise women and children in the neighborhood. While it was slightly humiliating to be shown up by a 7-year-old's dance skills, I had more fun in those 15 minutes than I often have in a week and it was definitely a highlight of the day's events. We had considered going out dancing, but were having such a good time (and such good food!) at Christina's that we decided to stay in and continue the revelry in her courtyard. Sometime around midnight I finally called it a night, covered myself with a pagne, and crashed.

While I'd never anticipated a Christmas like this, I couldn't have asked for a better first one away from home and family. Christmas Eve on the beach in Togo was the complete antithesis of cold, snowy Water Valley holidays on the family farm, and I've never before spent Christmas day with people I hadn't known my entire life, but somehow it all felt about as right as it could have felt. I was even able to talk briefly with my family back in Marblehead before my phone cut out, which never would have seemed like a sufficient Christmas present when I was a kid, but was more than enough this year. While traditions change and toys and family both get old, only the latter is irreplaceable and worth holding onto as long as possible. This year I was also blessed with new friends and experiences, so I couldn't have really asked for anything more. (If anyone from the Peace Corps is reading this, however, I am still asking for a job description and some work!)

The next day we all sweated our way through the humidity back to Lomé, and Coleman and I boarded a bus back to Ouagadougou for another week of vacation and one more night of celebrations to welcome in the the new year. It was a long bus ride back, with a 4-5 hour stop at the border - Coleman is a magical wizard of languages, even at 6 a.m., and managed to make many new friends by breaking out his newly-learned Jula, while I can only manage cranky at that hour - but we slid smoothly back over the border, even though our visas were slightly expired.... As we left behind the greenery, the well-paved roads, multi-story buildings, and other signs of development and headed north past vast open planes, mud huts, and herds of cattle, I realized that far as this country has to go to join the developed world, and little as I may be able to contribute to that process, I am very happy here and here is home for now. People here understand the importance of friends and family in a way that many Americans fail to fully grasp, and though there is a shortage of any number of things that Americans deem essential, there is almost never a shortage of people to look after you whether you're in need or not.

Anyway, to draw this to a close, I hope all of you who might be reading this are surrounded by good friends and family during the new year. If you happen to be far away from most of them, keep your eyes open for new friends - they're everywhere!


Here are some photos of a day I spent out in my friends' sesame fields:

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy New Year!

"Besides the obscurity arising from the complexity of objects, and the imperfection of the human faculties, the medium through which the conceptions of men are conveyed to each other, adds fresh embarrassment. The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity therefore requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but that they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriated to them. But no language is so copious as to supply words and phrases for every complex idea, or so correct as not to include many equivocally denoting different ideas. Hence, it must happen, that however accurately objects may be discriminated in themselves, and however accurately the discrimination may be considered, the definition of them may be rendered inaccurate by the inaccuracy of the terms in which it is delivered. And this unavoidable inaccuracy must be greater or less, according to the complexity and novelty of the objects defined." [A. Hamilton, The Federalist Papers]

I'm sitting stumped in Ouagadougou, unsure how to begin this first update since I left for Peace Corps staging in Philadelphia last June. Since the beginning was almost 7 months and 5,000 miles ago, it seems like starting there would be a rather onerous undertaking, tedious both to write and to read. Even my last journal entry was 3 weeks ago, a chunk of time that included a hot dusty bike ride through the Sahel, my first night away from my village in over 3 months, reunion with other Peace Corps friends, a week of in-service training, a trip to Togo, Christmas on the beach, and dancing late into the night with friends and strangers to celebrate the passage into a new year and a new decade. I'm afraid I have no idea how accurately to describe the complexity of the experience so far, due not only to the imperfection of my faculties and the obscurity of my role in Burkina Faso, but also to the fear that sharing honestly about the experience will leave you with the impression that ample disappointments have undermined the hopes and expectations which I expressed in my first post last June. So, while hunting for some adequate words with which to catch you up, here are a few photos:

First glimpse of the continent:

Celebrating the end of Ramadan with friends in Béléhédé and Swear-In at the American Embassy in Ouagadougou with the other new Volunteers:

Last Prayer of Ramadan at the Mosque and Friends in Village:

Molly is a Rock Star and Jessi & Tyler won the award for best matching local outfits at Swear-In:

My house and view from the school in our training village:

Kids swimming at the dam and two women from my summer host family:

A neighbor in village and Leslie & my clashing shirt and tie at Swear-In:

My host brother's son and a puddly view of Komsilga after the summer rains:

Group Bonding activity (they were fun for the first week of training...) and a rainy day in Komsilga

My hut in Komsilga and biking up the trail to my family's courtyard:

Women pounding millet in Béléhédé and Marita presenting the chief of Komsilga with a present at our end-of-the-summer celebration:

Kids in Komsilga:

More kids in Komsilga and some trees straight out of Dr. Seuss.

Fun at school in Komsilga and Mikey says good-bye (or hello?):

OK, here we ge go...

After 10 weeks of nominal training, the highlight of which was living in a hut in the courtyard of a wonderful and generous host family in the small village of Komsilga, 12km outside of Ouahigouya, I officially swore-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer at a ceremony at the American Embassy in Ouagadougou. During the ceremony I gave a speech in Koromfé, the local language spoken by the predominant ethinc group of Béléhédé, the village which serves as home until August of 2011.

I spent the Fall settling into Béléhédé, which is situated in the hot, dusty, northern province of Soum. Though the village lies in the Sahel, there is a dam which has permitted trees to flourish and add some green to the plains of red. The village is home to about 5,000 people, most of whom belong to the Koromba ethnic group, some of the first settlers of Burkina. The other main ethnic group, the Peulh, mostly live in the bush around Béléhédé, where they tend their flocks. Cultivation and animal husbandry are the main industries and I'm surrounded by fields of millet, sorghum, corn, peanuts and sesame, as well as donkeys and flocks of sheep, goats, chickens, guinea fowl, and the odd camel. There are also elephants abroad, wandering the frontiers of Burkina, Mali, and Niger, although I have yet to see one.

Our first three and a half months (September-December) were supposed to be focused on getting to know our community, building relationships, observing classes at school, and learning about Burkinabé culture and customs. Thankfully I was able to make friends quickly, as I'm the third volunteer at my site and people are accustomed to having a random American wandering around and not quite comprehending the way things work. I have a small group of friends that often comes over to my house in the afternoon for tea and a group of small children that often comes by to color and read (or pee in my courtyard...). Highlights of the Fall included celebrating Ramadan and Tabaski with my community, which involved going to the mosque for the final prayer of Ramadan, going from house to house with friends to break the fast with chicken and rice, and handing out candy to kids.

Many mornings are spent watching classes at the elementary school, which is the only school in village. Kids who pass the middle school entrance examination have to find lodging with family or friends in Tongomayel, a village 20 km away, or Djibo, 20 km farther down the dirt road. Unfortunately, most families don't bother with these arrangements due to costs or the perception that formal education is relatively unimportant, and thus elementary school is as far as most kids go with their education. Which is supposedly where my work comes in....

Up to this point there hasn't been much work, which is my biggest frustration with the Peace Corps. While I know that the simple act of sharing daily life with people is a wonderful way of establishing communication and understanding between Americans and people of other countries, I often get the impression that that is all the Peace Corps expects of me. We were told during our recent in-service training that simply leaving our house is a success; after two years of service here, I hope I will be able to say that I did more than go for walks and drink tea, much as I enjoy both of those activities. I'm crossing my fingers that things will start picking up now that we've finished our settling-in period.

When I head back to site in a couple of days, my main goal will be to start a girls club with the CM2 class (equivalent to about 5th grade), either a reading or a soccer club. The soccer club will require me to remember how to play the game and to suppress memories of the championship match of my U10 season. I think I can manage both. I'll also be leading a series of community needs assessments and planning sessions, which will hopefully get people in my village motivated about working together for the next year and a half. I want to propose a community library and resource room during these workshops, which would be a huge undertaking, but one which other Peace Corps volunteers have pulled off and which I think is a feasible goal for my village.

I also started giving English lessons on a local radio station during the Fall with a couple of other volunteers in Djibo, which I plan to continue through the Spring. My favorite part of the lessons is trying to teach colors with phrases such as, "Michael is holding the blue pen." Keep looking at your radios, kids. The country music that we play during breaks is pretty special as well. Another favorite activity that takes up a too-small-chunk of my time is helping out with vaccinations at the local health clinic. My only fear is that every child in Béléhédé under the age of 1 is forever going to associate their first painful, traumatic experience with the goofy looking white man who was actually only responsible for the record-keeping, not the shot-giving.

I'm running out of steam and being chided by friends for having spent too much time on a blog post, so now we're going to move into list format!

-Malaria is not pleasant: the hot, soupy disquietude of my bowels while my temperature shot up to 105 degrees was a disturbing sensation that I hope I won't ever have to experience again.

-Corporal punishment is also not pleasant, but I'm afraid that is something I will be witnessing a lot more of in the elementary school. While thinking of ways to broach the issue with teachers at my school, I'm trying to remind myself that it was a common disciplinary tactic in the U.S. until very recently and is something that takes time to change.

-I have two Papayas: one a tree, the other a kitten. I probably spend more time watching both grow than I spend working. Sad, but cute.

-The only upside of not having much work is that I have hours and hours to read every day. I'm currently working on The Federalist Papers, just started Fathers & Sons, and am looking forward to starting Moby Dick and Les Misérables when I get back to site.

-I spend too much time thinking about the future and will be taking the GREs next month, even though I probably won't be heading to grad school until the Fall of 2012.

-I'll be running a camp for elementary school girls at the end of the school year with a bunch of other volunteers, which should be great fun and provide at least a solid week or two of full-time work!

-Don't leave milk sitting out for more than a day or so, especially when daily temperatures routinely hit 90-95 degrees in the middle of winter.

-If you're interested in a vacation to Ouagadougou or elsewhere in West Africa sometime in 2010 or 2011, get in touch! I can't pay for your plane ticket, but I can put you up for free in a non-air conditioned house without electricity or running water. Think about it.

-I don't go on facebook any more, so if you've tried to contact me that way, I'm sorry for not responding; it is enough trying to keep up with e-mail with such sporadic computer access! Feel free to e-mail me, though, at charles.casler@gmail.com.

-And finally, I love getting letters! If anyone want to correspond via snail mail, here's my address:

Charley Casler
B.P. 204
Djibo, Burkina Faso
West Africa

I've of course left out many things I was planning on saying, but that will just have to teach me a lesson about updating this thing more than once every 7 months. I don't have internet in Béléhédé, but I've heard rumors that there is now one computer with a slow internet connection in Djibo, which is only a 2 hour bike ride away. So I'll try not to be so neglectful in the future.

Happy New Year!