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