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.