Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Happy holidays everyone! We miss all our friends and family back home and are thinking about you today. Wishing you the best!

James and Julie

Friday, November 26, 2010

Our Village's Primary School

Dear Family and Friends,

Greetings from Africa! As many of you know, we’ve been volunteering with the Peace Corps since June. We’re settling into our small village, which is located in the lush southwestern region of Burkina Faso, and getting to know our community’s challenges and needs.

The most obvious aspect of village life is how difficult it is to survive. More than 80% of Burkina Faso’s population relies on sustenance farming, and education provides one of the few opportunities to break the hand-to-mouth cycle. When children learn how to read, write, and perform basic math, they manage money better, have fewer children, and are more involved in their communities.

Our village has a primary school, but through an unfortunate series of events, it remains partially completed. Three rooms lack a roof, floor, and desks, thus limiting class size, and students do not have access to latrines or a library. Without a fully functioning school, some children simply cannot attend.

Education is essential to economic development and one of our projects is to help our village of Karfiguela finish its primary school. The village is currently raising money for more desks and is ready to donate labor, sand, tools, and transportation of materials. The cost to complete the school is approximately $8,000, which is an astronomical amount in a community where a large family survives on less than $500 a year.

We’re hopeful that with the support of our family and friends, the village of Karfiguela can finish the primary school and give its children an opportunity for a better future. To donate, please click the button on the right side of the screen and electronically send funds via credit card or PayPal.

100% of your donation will go to the construction of the school, and we will post photos of its progress on our blog. This holiday season, rather than buy a fruitcake or cheese platter for a neighbor you don’t like, why not help build a school in Africa?

We appreciate all of your help and support!

Happy Holidays,

James Megivern and Julie Ryan

Click on album below to view more photos: 

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Before leaving the United States for our Peace Corps adventure, we had the pleasure of telling our family, friends, and co-workers the surprising news that we were moving to West Africa for two years. The responses were great, but we want to address some of the misconceptions about Africa that surfaced. This post is the first attempt to “bust” a few myths.

Myth: Burkina Faso isn’t a country.
Fact: Although many people have never heard of it, Burkina Faso is a country in West Africa. It lies just north of Ghana, and in an effort to help visualize its position on the globe, James affectionately refers to it as “Ghana’s Hat.” Burkina is a former colony of France and gained its independence in 1960. The country was called Upper Volta before it officially changed its name in 1984. Today, it is near the bottom of the human development index and one of the poorest countries in the world with per capita GDP of $428.

Myth: The lion to human ratio is 5:1.
Fact: While there is an abundant assortment of wildlife, including lions, I can assure you that the ratio is nowhere near 5:1. Most of the cool wildlife that one would imagine in Africa does exist in or near Burkina - lions, cheetahs, elephants, crocodiles, giraffes - but due to hunting and destruction of their habitats, most of the wildlife lives in preserves and national parks. The animals we see on a regular basis are domesticated farm animals (goats, sheep, cows, donkeys, pigs) or creepy critters like spiders, lizards, and the occasional snake or scorpion.

Myth: We’ll be working with Nigerian princes to increase the effectiveness of their email scams.
Fact: I’m sure you’ve all found an email in your inbox that starts something like this:
“I am Abdullah, prince in Nigeria. I flee my war torn country and need transfer $20 million to bank account in United States…
You get the picture. Rumors started that we would be working with these “Nigerian princes” to help clean up their English, avoid spam filters, target the elderly, etc. Although an interesting project idea, it isn’t true. Based on village needs, we’ll be doing income-generating activities with our village’s women’s associations, fundraising and finishing construction of a primary school, working with the tourist campground to increase revenue through improved marketing and business practices, and attempting to improve the management practices of a rice cooperative.

Myth: There are no consumer goods in Burkina Faso.

Fact: After hearing the story of James and the Plastic Bag (story will be posted, stay tuned), someone commented that he was surprised there were plastic bags here. In reality, a surprising variety of consumer goods exists in Burkina: plasticware, motorcycles, kitchen utensils, hardware, and electronics like cell phones and TVs. Not surprising is the lack of quality of most products. It seems like China’s “best” are shipped to the U.S. while all of the products too shoddy for picky American consumers get sent to developing countries like Burkina Faso. The motto “everything you need, nothing you want” is very fitting.

Myth: You can’t pack for a two-year trip with a limit of 80 lbs.
Fact: When I told a friend of the 80 lbs packing limit, he replied “I pack more than that for a two-week trip!” Although difficult, we met the many weight and size restrictions imposed by the Peace Corps and airlines for our trip over AND managed to pack a 40-pound grinder (thank you Compatible Technology International!), essentially reducing our weight limit to 60 lbs each. Many people asked us what items one takes on a two-year trip. For those interested, we’ll post a list of the items we packed in the near future.

Myth: You cannot live without electricity or running water.
Fact: We are amazed at how comfortable and enjoyable life is without electricity or running water. Romantic, candlelit dinners are an every night occurrence. Flashlights and headlamps are our best friends after the 6:30pm sunset. Bucket baths have replaced showers and we compete to see who can use the least amount of water (James usually loses). I was wary about squatting over a latrine for two years, but now it feels so natural, the only thing better would be a “water-birth.” I’ll let you know how that goes.

Two downsides to no running water are the many trips to the water pump to refill our 200-liter bidon (plastic garbage bin) and doing laundry by hand. We have alleviated the problem somewhat by employing child labor to fetch water on occasion and placing basins outside to collect water. We’re very close to finding someone to do our laundry, but we’ll continue to wash our unmentionables for cultural and modesty purposes (Burkinabe consider underwear to be very private, and seeing someone else’s is like seeing them naked).

Myth: The African police ride giraffes
Fact: The thought of policemen on giraffes conjures images of the red-shirted Canadian Mounties. However, police in Burkina have bikes, motorcycles, and cars, just like the United States. Sorry to disappoint!

Myth: Play’n with Pygmies
Fact: A certain relative (you know who you are) convinced himself that we’d be interacting with pygmies on a daily basis, and perhaps even participate in pygmy-throwing contests and things of the sort. Pygmies used to live in far southwestern Burkina Faso, but based on conversations with people in our village they have since migrated south and no longer exist in Burkina.

Myth: You’re going to catch AIDS!
Fact: Many countries in Africa have an alarmingly high percentage of citizens infected with HIV, but fortunately Burkina Faso is not one of them. National statistics show that 4% of Burkina’s population has HIV/AIDS, which is comparable to many areas of the U.S. Obviously there are many cases that go unreported, and for foreign aid purposes, it benefits the government to show improvement in these statistics over time. Based on our interactions with Burkinabe and medical professionals, the most significant medical problems are malaria, diarrhea (especially in young children), and respiratory infections from the dust.

Myth: Africa is dangerous.
Fact: Sure, Africa has its dangerous areas. Regular news stories include: the occasional civil war, overthrown governments, gun-toting rebels killing innocent people, and AQIM (Al Qaida’s North Africa chapter) kidnapping westerners. The reality is that Americans typically only hear the worst of Africa in the news. Africans hear stories about the States: September 11th, the occasional shooting-spree, Oklahoma City bombing, etc. Most of Africa is relatively safe, and I’d much rather be here than walking the streets of East St. Louis…

Myth: Muslims are untrustworthy. Maybe even dangerous.
Fact: No one we know actually said this, but I read in the August issue of Time (thanks to Josh’s mom for sending) that many Americans distrust Muslims. In our experience, Muslims are very peaceful, welcoming and friendly and it’s been a joy to celebrate their most important holidays with them. Burkina has large populations of Christians and Muslims and it’s impressive how the two groups respect each other and their beliefs. If only we could learn their secret of religious tolerance and export it to other parts of the world.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pictures from October

Click on the photo above to view the album of October photos. Almost done with the captions, but be patient! :) This is Africa and reliable internet or electricity is virtually nonexistent.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

MIF Kit Mishap

Warning: This blog post contains graphic gastro-intestinal details of life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. Please continue reading at your own risk and if at any time you experience nausea, light headedness or general discomfort, please exit your browser and step away from the computer.

Of all the countries in which Peace Corps serves, Burkina Faso has earned the dubious honor of ranking high on the list of annual diarrhea cases. Hundreds of cases are reported each year by volunteers in Burkina and countless more are self-treated and go unreported. With the help of this blog, all of my cases which carry an interesting tale will be reported.

Those of you who know me well have probably heard some of my gastro-intestinal tales from the U.S. Just imagine what can happen when you’re living in a country that’s #1 for #2…

Before I begin, let me enlighten you with some G.I. basics. There are three main causes of diarrhea: parasites (giardia, amoeba), bacteria (E. Coli, Salmonella), and viruses. The typical transmission mechanism for these three causative agents is fecal-oral. I know that doesn’t sound appetizing, but there is a reason for the high rates of transmission. In Burkina, flush toilets are a rare luxury and in village, even latrines can be uncommon. Villagers (especially children) typically do their business just about anywhere. In fact, one of my first sights in Burkina was a small child “popping a squat” in a dusty field while I was eating breakfast. The ubiquitous fly is the most common vector since it carries the disease from the fresh pile of poo baking in the sun directly to your Coke bottle or plate of rice. Wind can also carry dirty dust particles into food and drink.

Luckily, our health care as volunteers is among the best in the world. When a volunteer comes down with a persistent case of diarrhea, a stool sample (a.k.a. MIF kit) is sent to the lab for diagnosis. Depending on the cause (parasite, bacteria, virus), medicine is prescribed and, boom, problem solved. However, trying to aim a “sample” into a quarter-sized opening can be challenging, even for the most adept poopers. And it is here where my story begins.

During training, I had pleasure of being able to complete two MIF kits. The first (giardia!) was rather uneventful. I simply used the “wrap hand in toilet paper, catch, and spoon into vial” method, and I prided myself on the execution. Success with the second MIF Kit, though, proved more elusive.

Since my first collection went so well, I attempted to use the same technique. I readied myself, hand wrapped in toilet paper, for the big catch with the same level of anticipation that I imagine an outfielder experiences during the World Series. I lined up and released. I was impressed with my aim (my eye-hand-ass coordination must come from years of playing video games as a child?) as it was a direct hit. Unfortunately, there was another variable I hadn’t considered: liquidity.

This was nothing like the first sample – it was pure liquid evil and catching any was impossible. What actually hit the toilet paper simply soaked through to my hand, leaving nothing to spoon into the vial. I had to find another way, but how? Since my hand was already quite messy, I decided it was time to go for broke and attempt a direct shot into the quarter-sized opening. The task was rather difficult given that the vial opening was 1/20th the size of the previous target and my hand was playing backup. I considered “McGyver-ing” an elaborate mirror system to assist, but there was no time. I simply aimed and fired. It felt as if I was playing the circus game in which one squirts water into the clown’s mouth. I produced enough “sample” to cover my hand and fill the vial. The sad part of it was there was no carnival worker to give me a prize for my efforts.

Then I began the arduous task of cleanup. Luckily this adventure occurred in our host family’s bathroom, a rare treat as it contained a shower, sink, and toilet. Even better, they were basically on top of one another, so I simply turned on the shower and washed the entire room, the vial, and myself. The next day I handed my hard-earned sample over to an employee at a bus station in Ouagadougou for a doctor to pick up and examine. If only that employee knew what was in the bag he was holding. My diagnosis this time? Bacterial infection.

Sidenote: If the creators of stool vials happen upon this blog, please start emulating the beverage industry and make wide-mouth bottles!

Disclaimer: If you enjoyed a real African story such as this one, I already have more! If you found this post disturbing and can take no more, please leave a comment to that effect.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bandji: The Escape Artist


We promise these posts will come more frequently – we’re just days away from purchasing a car battery so we can charge our computer at home. However, you’re in luck - we’re sure by now the unfaithful followers have given up on us. This leaves a more intimate audience to share all the great stories and details of our lives. So be prepared for things to get a bit more interesting in the next post!!

The past few weeks since our last update have been busy. We’ve been spending as much time as possible in our village getting to know people, learning their needs and desires, and determining potential projects. We’re especially excited to work with the women in Karfiguela as they’ve shown a lot of energy, enthusiasm, and initiative.

Since our arrival in village we’ve wanted a cat both for the furry friendship they provide and to help catch the insects that inevitably find their way into our house. We asked Siaka (James’s counterpart) to help us find a kitten and one night while having tea, he sent his younger brother to fetch it. A few minutes later, his brother rolled up on a bike holding a rice bag, and needless to say, we were a little weary. We returned home and opened the bag to find a rather homely kitten inside. It had a face only a mother could love and looked rather sickly, but we were the proud new parents nonetheless. We named him Bandji (bahn-jee) after the palm wine that many people enjoy in this region. Bandji was scared, but after some powdered milk and cat food (yes, we bought cat food from one of the few places in all of Burkina that sells it) he hid comfortably in a nest we made from a basket and some fabric in our “garage.” The next day during playtime, Julie set Bandji down on our porch and he immediately ran like an escaped convict into the tall weeds. Hours of searching turned up nothing and other than several brief sightings later that day and some “meows” coming from the darkness, we couldn’t find him. While away, Issouf, one of the neighbor kids, found Bandji and placed him back into the holding cell. When we returned, we found a worm-like parasite in Bandji’s paw, so Siaka took him to a vet in Banfora for vaccinations and medication. Upon Bandji’s return, we learned that “he” was actually a “she.” The next several days we played both doctor and prison guard to she-Bandji, going out to the garage either to feed or to medicate. We were used to the game of hide-and-seek that Bandji liked to play during our visits, but this day, she wasn’t in the garage at all. We haven’t seen her since, but can only venture to guess that Bandji found the strength and courage to climb up a pile of wood, squeeze through the partially open window, and leap into the weeds to freedom. We now have another kitten on order, so we’ll let you know how Bandji 2.0 goes.

We’re happy to report that we’ve survived our first scorpion attack! It was a typical evening chez James and Julie, and we had just finished dinner. Julie left the kitchen/sitting room, headlamp in hand, and as she turned down the hall, she saw something scurry away from our bedroom door. On a normal night, catching something scurrying is nothing new. Ants, lizards, spiders, and crickets (and mosquitoes!) are all frequent guests at our house. There was something different about this scurry. Julie noticed the arched tail and announced there was a scorpion in the house. James, being the man he is, yelped and immediately jumped up onto the cot while Julie tracked its path down the hall. The scorpion found itself cornered near the bathroom where Julie covered it with a large salad bowl. Our first goal was to get it out of the house; the second goal was to kill it. Julie slid a thin but sturdy cutting board under the bowl, flipped it over and brought it outside on the patio. James’ brilliant contribution to the effort was the use of Rambo (it’s like Raid in the U.S. but with an awesome name!). James, machete in hand, Rambo’d the scorpion to death. Then in a mix of revenge and celebration, James chopped the scorpion’s tail off with a machete. J&J: 1, Scorpions: 0.

In other wildlife news, as we were biking home the other day, we spotted a snake under the mango tree. This sighting prompted James and Siaka to clear away the 6 to 8 foot tall weeds around the house during which Siaka killed another snake. We saw two more in the several hours following the weed removal, but we’re hopeful that we don’t come across too many more. Most snakes in Burkina aren’t dangerous, but snakebites still hurt!

As you may have viewed in our online photo albums, Julie and I recently visited two volunteers in nearby villages. In Diarabakoko, we helped Leslie with a girls’ camp and got the recipe for an all-natural shea butter mosquito repellent (boil neem leaves, add soap then shea butter; stir often), which we may start making with our women’s groups in Karfiguela.

In Takaledougou, we visited Amanda and the nearby marche for some delicious and hard-to-find cashew butter. Our women’s groups are also interested in drying mangos, and conveniently enough, we able to tour Takaledougou’s small yet impressive mango-drying factory, which exports dried mangos to Europe (and maybe soon to the U.S.!). Even more amazing, the entire facility is run without electricity.

Au revoir!

James & Julie

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pen Pals

We're going to be pen pals with our hometown high school French class during our two years here. Here's our first letter to French students at Ankeny High School!

10 Octobre 2010

Bonjour les classes de français! On va commencer en anglais et après un peu de francais.

Our background
James graduated from Ankeny High School in 2000 and spent three years at Drake University, eventually deciding on a business degree. Around that same time, Julie graduated from Ankeny High and they both started at Iowa State University. Julie knew ever since her high school trip to France that she wanted to study abroad, and James just couldn’t miss out on the opportunity as well. They both spent a semester in the northern city of Amiens, France practicing French, learning about the culture, traveling, and of course, studying once in a while. James graduated from ISU in 2005 with degrees in Finance and Management and worked in corporate finance at John Deere for two years in Moline, IL. Julie graduated in 2007 with an accounting and finance degree and after a brief tour of the U.S. and Europe, she and James moved to Minneapolis where they spent the next two years working in finance – Julie at General Mills (maker of Cheerios and Yoplait yogurt) and James at UnitedHealth Group.

Now, they will call Africa home for the next two years as Peace Corps Volunteers.

Peace Corps in Burkina Faso
John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961 as an international development agency that operates under the U.S. government. The three goals of Peace Corps are:
  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served.
  • To help promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.
Peace Corps volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, range in age from 18 to 80, and work in sectors like business, education, agriculture, environment, and health.

There are four sectors currently serving in Burkina Faso: Secondary Education, Small-Enterprise Development (SED), Girls Education and Empowerment (GEE), and Health. While each sector has its own job description and goals, they are all interconnected in their roles in development. Projects are community driven, ca va dire, villages express their needs and projects are chosen based on feasibility and motivation. Training is done separately for each sector, but once a volunteer arrives at site, he or she can work on projects from any sector.

Julie is serving as a volunteer in the Girls Education and Empowerment sector. A GEE volunteer’s goals is to empower women and girls and to increase the enrollment and retention of girls in school. This is a very difficult task as many families cannot afford to send their children to school and need the entire family to help in the fields and around the house. Most girls in village spend their days getting water, pounding corn to make to (pronounced “toe,” a common dish in Burkina Faso), preparing meals, caring for younger siblings, doing laundry by hand, and working in the fields without the aid of machinery. Some of Julie’s potential future projects include: securing funds and managing the construction of our village’s partially finished school, girls clubs and camps, working with the women’s associations/micro-credit clubs, partnering with the community health clinic to increase usage, and holding formations on basic hygiene, importance of and methods for family planning, and how to avoid malaria.

James is serving as a small-enterprise development volunteer. SED volunteers work with individuals and larger associations to improve business practices and management, start new income-generating activities, and grow existing small businesses. James’ potential future projects include:  working with the village campement to increase tourist traffic, helping repair the canals that provide water to the rice fields, developing new small enterprises like a tourist boutique, agriculture projects like Moringa tree plantings and drying of mangos, and assisting the rice cooperative with their management skills. Note: Moringa trees are fast-growing, have highly nutritious leaves, and are an important resource in fighting malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa. When comparing pound by pound, Moringa leaves have twice the protein of yogurt, three times the potassium of bananas, seven times the vitamin C of oranges, four times the vitamin A of carrots, and four times the calcium of milk.

Secondary Education volunteers teach math, physics, chemistry, and IT (basic computer skills) in the lycees and colleges. Many also lead less formal English language classes.

Health volunteers typically work in villages and in conjunction with the local public health facilities (CSPS). Common projects include sanitation (using latrines, handwashing, etc.), nutrition, family planning, general health education, and baby-weighings.

Our home in Karfiguela
While most of Burkina is a dry, Sahelian climate with lots of red dirt and sand, we are fortunate to live in the lush, green south. The village of Karfiguela (population ~ 1,000) is located 8 kilometers from Banfora in southwestern Burkina Faso and is surrounded by sugar cane and rice fields. Our village is Muslim with animist traditions and was settled long ago by people in search of fertile land to grow crops. Farmers grew corn, millet, and garden crops such as tomatoes, onions and cucumbers until the 1970’s when a Chinese group came to Karfiguela and built sophisticated cement canals and taught the villagers how to cultivate rice. Now much of the livelihood of the village is dependent upon rice production. The group also constructed several buildings where they lived and worked in the outskirts of the community, and we now live in one of those houses from the 1970’s! Our home is cement with a metal roof, and like the rest of our village, we do not have electricity or running water, so we use headlamps and candles at night and get water from the nearby pump.

The village is organized into clusters of mud-brick huts with thatch roofs (except for the occasional cement and tin roofed house) connected by narrow dirt paths.  Large families live in each cluster and  since the houses are usually one room and used only for sleeping, the courtyard is the heart of the family. Everything happens in there – families socialize, prepare meals, receive guests, dry crops, and care for their animals (goats, sheep, chickens).

While Burkina is not known as a must-see destination, Karfiguela is near two of the top attractions in the country – the Cascades de Karfiguela (beautiful waterfalls) and the Domes of Fabédougou (unique 1.8 billion year old rock formations that formed when there was an ancient sea in this region). Because of its favorable location near these attractions, our village gets some tourists (mostly Europeans and mostly French), and since people are more used to seeing foreigners, children don’t cry at the sight of a “toubabou” (Jula word for foreigner) but do tend to ask for cadeaux.

L’école a Burkina Faso
Le premier d’Octobre était le premier jour d’école a Burkina Faso. Le premier jour, il n y a pas des cours et tous les élèves nettoient les salles de classes. Aussi, les parents des élèves coupent les herbes entre les bâtiments. Le jour d’école est 8h – 12h et 15h – 17h avec une repose entre 12h et 15h. La repose est pour le déjeuner et parce qu’il fait très chaud pendant l’après midi. La système d’éducation est un peu comme la système de France. Dans l’école primaire, il y a 6 nivaux: CP1, CP2, CE1, CE2, CM1, and CM2. Le succès est très difficile pour les étudiants à Karfiguela. Il n’y a pas un collège dans notre village, donc,  il est nécessaire pour les élèves qui continuent leurs études d’aller au Banfora ou un autre village, Tangrela.  L’inscription pour un élève est 2,000 CFA ($4) chaque année est malheureusement beaucoup des gens au village n’ont pas l’argent pour l’école.  Aussi, il est nécessaire pour les élèves d’avoir les stylos (les Bics), les cahiers, les règles, et les habilles propre.  Les élèves qui peuvent aller à l’école, c’est difficile de faire les devoirs. Apres l’école ils ont beaucoup de travail (spécialement les filles) à la maison, et sans l’électricité, il n ya pas les lumières pour étudier. Julie espère qu’elle peut travailler avec le village et avec les enseigneurs pour améliorer les problèmes d’école.

La langue Français a Burkina Faso n’est pas le même qu’en France.  Le Français est la deuxième ou troisième ou peut-être quatrième langue pour la plupart des Burkinabé et beaucoup parlent juste la langue locale (Moré, Jula, Karaboro, etc.) et un peu de Français, sauf on a fini l’université. La grammaire n’est pas stricte et aussi, ils utilisent les mots différents.  Par exemple, on dit «bœuf » plutôt que « vache » et « porcs » plutôt que « cochon. » Aussi il y a beaucoup des mots d’argot, d’Arabe, et de la langue locale.

We attempted to do some in English and some in French! Again, let us know if there is anything you’d like us to change going forward and please send us questions or general topics that we can answer and discuss in our next email!

A bientôt!
James & Julie

Girls Camp and 1st Day of School

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Home Sweet Home

Karfiguela, Burkina Faso
Chez nous

Our dearest friends and families,

Ma ni ce (mah nee chay), merci, thank you for your patience as we grow accustomed to our new schedules and life here in Burkina. We are done with our two months of training and are now living at site! Our village is beautiful—it doesn’t even feel like we’re in the same country. It’s more green and lush than the northern part and the palm trees and small hills in the distance make us feel like we’re on a tropical island minus the ocean and beach. The name of our village is Karfiguela, population ~1000, and it’s near the Cascades (gorgeous waterfalls), the Domes (amazing rock formations), and Banfora (large town with a few restaurants, cold drinks, a good sized marche to buy produce and other goods, and real cheese, which is a rarity outside of Ouaga). Our village does not have electricity (the stars at night are absolutely amazing) and all water comes from the village pumps. The nearest internet cafe is in Banfora, and as with most internet in Burkina, the connection speed and the computers are similar to what was in the U.S. in the early 90s. Be patient with our posting :).

Our house is charming. It was built in the 1970s by either the Chinese or Taiwanese (no one remembers exactly which country they were from and most Burkinabe think anyone who looks like they’re from SE Asia is Chinese – they’re amazed by the diversity of Americans and find it hard to believe that there are Asian Americans, African Americans, etc., but this is a topic for a future post). The roof is metal as are almost all volunteers’ roofs and the floor is cement. The house has a main room for sitting and cooking, a bedroom, an indoor room to bathe in, and an extra room outside that we use as a garage to store our bikes, tools, and other random items. The house was originally built with indoor plumbing and a generator for electricity, so there are little reminders of modern comforts like the non-functioning sink in the indoor bathroom. Our latrine is right next to the house, which is very convenient, and there is a huge mango tree in the front yard that is so very lovely to sit under in the afternoon. April is the start of mango season, so send any recipes our way. We found one recipe for mango wine in the cookbook put together by other volunteers, so we'll let you know how that goes this spring. The house also comes with a group of adorable children who live in the same courtyard. They come over to check on us at least once a day and hang out for a little while on our cement terrace or under the mango tree. We’re going to get some chalk so they can color on the cement and have a place to play.

Living in Africa is a challenge and we are often reminded of American life in the 1800s (Little House on the Prairie, anyone?). Everything takes more time – washing dishes and clothes involves bringing water on our bikes from the nearby pump then scrubbing by hand. We fill a 200L garbage can-sized container in our garage with water and we go through it quickly when it’s a wash day. Preparing meals takes pre-planning as most of our shopping is done in Banfora, which is 8k away or 30 minutes by bike. There is a small boutique in the village that sells some small essentials like tomato paste, drinks ranging from Coke (warm because there’s no electricity for refrigeration) to boxed wine (Karfiguela is mostly Muslim but very “gauche” aka left), bread, small packets of powdered milk, Omo (powdered soap that’s best for clothes but can be used to clean anything), candles, rice, etc. We’re going to attempt to make friends with gardeners in our community and buy as much of our produce in village as we can, but that can prove challenging due to availability and village politics (more later). Needless to say, our appreciation for supermarkets, packaged food, and machines that wash clothes automatically has grown significantly.

We arrived in village this past Thursday after spending a few days in Banfora shopping for whatever items we needed. The quintessential bright white Land Cruiser that all NGOs seem to have, ours with the Peace Corps symbol on the side doors, dropped us off around 8:30 in the morning and our neighbors helped us unload. We didn’t experience what some volunteers do – mild panic when the Peace Corps car pulls away. For one, James and I are together, and two, we’re fortunate enough to have a rare overlap with Kat, the volunteer who we’re replacing. The knowledge transfer from her and other nearby PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) has been amazing, and we’re getting up to speed faster than we imagined. We’re getting to know the community, its needs and wants, the language (the little bit of Karaboro we learned during training is a different dialect than Karfiguela’s Karaboro. Again, more on the language later), and learning all the little things like where a good tailor is (almost all clothes are custom made; you pick out the pagne aka fabric and take it to a tailor and a few days later you have a new outfit), the route to nearby villages (street signs are nonexistent in Burkina except for the occasional few in large cities), where to find the best peanut butter, how to cook well with the available ingredients (we had fried eggplant sandwiches with tomato sauce last night – yum!), etc.

We make small goals each day as we settle into our house and meet community members. It’s rainy season, and everyone cultivates their fields during the day, so most of our interactions and work will be at night when people are around. Our first night in village, Siaka (James's counterpart in village who he'll work with on various projects over the next couple of years; my counterpart is in Bobo right now due to a death in the family, so I haven't met her yet) took us to meet the chief, who curiously was wearing a boubou (long shirt and pant outfit) without the pants. He welcomed and thanked us for coming to Karfiguela and gave us a benediction for the success of our work. Friday we biked to a nearby village to visit another volunteer and go to the awesome marche there to get some fruits and veggies. It poured rain so the ride home was like a refreshing shower. Yesterday we did some laundry and dishes, got water, painted our new table that we’ll use to prepare food on and store dishes (gas burners on the top with shelves underneath), and in the evening we met the President of the Parents’ Association for the primary school and the President of one of the women’s associations.

We have more control over our schedule now, and we promise to write more frequently. We started a list of potential future topics:

Village politics
Serving as a couple and the opportunities for expanding minds
Culture exchange
Karaboro, our new language
The Burkinabe (stereotypes, labeling people, etc.)
Burkinabe children
Medical training, issues, etc.
Burkina fashion
Peace Corps (goals, development philosophy, etc.)
Burkina Faso, the country

Email or post if there’s anything you want to know more about, otherwise we’ll continue to ramble on various items of our choosing.

O ma ple guri (o mah plee gurr-ee),

Julie et James

Friday, June 25, 2010

Bienvenue a Burkina Faso

We've been traveling for over 24 hours (it feels more like four days) and have finally arrived in Burkina Faso! We got in around 9pm Wednesday night, and our intro to Burkina was a blast of hot air as we walked down the stairs of the plane. We waited outside the building for 10 minutes or so because the electricity was out, which was no surprise once we entered and saw that the airport was under major construction. The place looked more like an incomplete one-story office building than the airport of a capital city. Finding our luggage took some time as the airport staff unloaded hand carts while everyone crowded around the area, but we were quickly ushered to our lovely hotel and given food and water. Peace Corps has guided us the whole way and are easing us into the country. The hotel we're at actually has a weak wireless internet connection, showers, western toilets, lizards, and air conditioning, but all of that will change when we move to our training site on Friday.

Today was a busy day meeting our program directors, medical officers, and language instructors plus taking care of a few admin items like bank accounts and walk around money (a small amount of CFAs -- pronounced "say fuhs" -- for meals and other items). We had a delicious dinner at our country director's house of couscous with chicken and a yummy liquid yogurt with chunks of fruit and pearl millet, plus chocolate chip cookies and salad, which will become luxury items over the next two years.

Tomorrow morning we'll get a few vaccines (rabies, meningococcal, typhoid, hep A & hep B, and maybe a couple more for good measure). We started anti-malaria meds today and look forward to potential side effects like insomnia and vivid dreams when we do sleep. In all seriousness, the medical care is excellent, and we were told that we'll become quite close with our PCMOs (Peace Corps Medical Officers) since we’ll call them with all our various medical issues, small or large. In the afternoon we’re heading to Ouahigouya (why-he-goo-ya), which is our training site for the next two months. We'll spend a couple of days in a less nice hotel, then we meet our host families. We're excited to see more of the country and its people as we've been in the protective, American-friendly, training bubble so far.

We're getting to know our fellow trainees, which are a pretty awesome group. I've been surprised at how representative of the U.S. we are, as if you walked on a college campus and picked out people at random. Obviously we all decided to join the Peace Corps and with our idealistic hopes, we tend to be more liberal, but overall a great group and support system for the next two years. There are a few other couples and a handful of older women (lovely ladies who could be our mothers and grandmother – never too late to join the Peace Corps!) as well.

We have cell phones! Peace Corps provided us with SIM cards and we'll purchase phones in the next few days, so feel free to give us a call. My number is 74 29 02 85 and James's is 74 29 03 58. Country code is 226. All incoming calls and texts are free for us, and it costs us dollars a minute to call the U.S., but we can text you for 90 CFAs (say-fuhs), which is roughly 20 cents. It's much cheaper for you to contact us, ~40 cents a minute from the U.S. to Burkina using Skype. As trainees and later as volunteers, we don’t receive very much money, so we may not respond, but know that we'd love to hear from you. Don't forget that we’re five/six hours ahead of central standard time depending on daylight savings (right now it's five hours), and we tend to go to bed pretty early (sleep 10pm-6am Burkina Faso time). The heat and travel tire us out....

More posts to come as internet permits!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Today we move to Africa

It was incredibly difficult saying goodbye to our families and friends, but it's exciting to start this chapter of our life. Most everyone has been supportive, which makes all the difference as we prepare for two years and two months without electricity, running water, regular internet access, or family & friends.

We're in Philadelphia for Staging, which is basically a day of setting expectations and getting yellow fever vaccines (more shots given in host country) before flying to Burkina Faso. Our Staging group is fairly large -- 57 volunteers in total with another 20 or so Education volunteers in country -- and diverse in terms of background, age, relationship status, and experience. We've been enjoying the "last times" as much as we can -- hot showers, soft beds, American food (chocolate, cheese, and good beer :) ). We'll post more later since we're packing up now for the next leg of our trip -- bus to JFK (3 hrs), flight to Paris (8 hrs), airport wait (4-5 hrs), flight to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (5 hrs), then shuttle to our hotel. We'll be living with a host family for the next two months of training in Ouahigouya.

Today we move to Africa. It still doesn't seem real.

Friday, June 11, 2010


We're glad you could make it! James and I will share our experience serving with the Peace Corps here, so check back often for updates and pictures. We hope to see you again soon :)