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

-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!

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