Saturday, January 29, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions

Responses to commonly asked questions. Summary:
  1. Why Peace Corps?
  2. Selection process
  3. Location
  4. Salary 
  5. Leaving Peace Corps
  6. Adjustments made
  7. Currency
  8. Daily life
  9. Clothing
  10. Religion
  11. Food
  12. Neighbors
  13. Government
  14. Village structure
  15. Language
  16. Culture, Marriage, Family, Holidays, Music, Fun
  17. Health
  18. Animals
  19. Climate and geography
  20. Donating blood

1. Why did you choose the Peace Corps?
Julie’s love of international travel was sparked by Mrs. Pace’s high school class trip to France. The experience prompted her to study abroad in France during college, and James jumped at the idea to extend his already long college experience. Backpacking throughout Western Europe ignited our love of exploring new cultures, countries, and cuisines, and we knew right away that we wanted to live and work abroad in the future.

After studying abroad, Julie began looking into international volunteer programs but was dissuaded from volunteering after college (by then-working James and parents) and instead joined the working world.

Once we were both working and starting to think about the future, it didn’t take long to realize that we wanted a challenging and meaningful life. We wanted to use our knowledge and business experience to serve others in the world (so idealistic!), and we knew that we were at one of the few points in our lives (without a house or kids) when we could have such an amazing experience.

We began researching international volunteer opportunities and talking with friends and family who had served in Peace Corps. Peace Corps became the obvious choice because there are so few programs like it. The length of service, type of work, and countries served were all a great fit, plus the Peace Corps is a government agency, so volunteers are provided with many benefits including health insurance and a monthly living allowance. Sure that Peace Corps was what we wanted, we began the application process.

2. How did you get chosen?
The application process for the Peace Corps is long. The average time for a single applicant is 9-12 months. The average is even longer for married couples. When we applied at the beginning of 2009, the number of applicants was even higher due to the poor economy (those who couldn’t find jobs were applying) and because of Obama (his presidency motivated people to serve).
Step 1: Online application. It includes three references (employment supervisor, volunteer supervisor, and work colleague/friend) who respond to short answer questions about the applicant, two essays (motivation statement and personal description of cross-cultural experience), school transcripts, lists of applicable skills, and all the other background information you’d expect to provide. This is the point where applicants preference regions of the world and programs of interest. We submitted our applications in February 2009.

Step 2: Interview with a regional recruiter. Our interview was in downtown Minneapolis at one of Peace Corps’ regional offices in April 2009. As a married couple, we did individual interviews as well as a joint interview. We answered questions about how we handle stress, if we’ve been abroad before (we studied in France together, so that helped a lot!), and many other questions. The three interviews took about 4 hours.

Step 3: Nomination. The regional recruiter nominates an applicant to a general program in a region of the world. Nomination means that an applicant is qualified to serve, and it becomes Peace Corps Washington’s task to place a volunteer in a specific country and program. We were nominated in June 2009 to business advising (James) and women empowerment and girls’ education (Julie) in francophone sub-Saharan Africa with a tentative departure date of June 2010.

Step 4: Medical/Dental Clearance. Once nominated, volunteers receive a packet in the mail with medical and dental forms which are to be completed and returned to Peace Corps. Volunteers must be healthy enough to live for two years in tough conditions. After several trips to doctors and dentists, we received our medical/dental clearance in September 2009.

Step 5: Invitation. Peace Corps Washington works with individual countries to place nominees. When a match is found, Peace Corps mails nominees the coveted invitation packet. It is so exciting finding the packet in your mailbox and opening it to discover what country you’ll call home for two years. Nominees typically have 6-8 weeks between invitation and departure, which is barely enough time to pack, say goodbye to friends and family, and prepare one’s life for two years abroad. We received our invitation packet in mid-March 2010 and left in June for two months of training in Burkina Faso, West Africa.

3. Did you get to choose where you are?
During the application process, applicants are able to preference their top three choices for regions of the world to serve. Due to our background in French and the fact that 37% of volunteers serve in Africa, we assumed service in Africa was likely. Our top three choices when we applied were: Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and North Africa/Middle East.

During in-country training, stagieres (aka trainees) provide their preferences for location and amenities (i.e., region of country, village or city, electricity or no electricity, etc.), but final placement is done by Peace Corps, which strives to match a volunteer’s background and experience with the needs of a community. Overall we’re very happy with our location – we live in a small village, which we wanted, and are close enough to a larger city to get cold drinks and access the internet when needed!

4. Do you earn a salary?
We don’t earn a salary but are paid a living stipend by Peace Corps and encouraged to live at the level of our community. The stipend varies by country and region, but we’re paid around $250 per month, which is more than enough to live very comfortably in Burkina. At the end of service, volunteers are paid a re-adjustment allowance of approximately $7,500 to secure housing and other necessities after service.

5. Are there circumstances or windows of opportunities to leave the Peace Corps?
There are three ways for a volunteer to leave the Peace Corps:
Early Termination: A volunteer can Early Terminate his/her service at any time and for any reason. The volunteer is provided with a plane ticket home and receives a pro-rated amount of the re-adjustment stipend.
Medical Separation: A volunteer who becomes ill or injured and can’t return to site within 45 days will be medically separated and sent home to the U.S. for recovery. There are opportunities to re-post to site, but the volunteer must apply again.
Administrative Separation: If a volunteer breaks any of the many rules (like driving motorcycles or biking without a helmet) they can be administratively separated from Peace Corps and sent home.

6. What adjustments have you had to make?
Before leaving, we sold a car, quit our jobs, stored all our belongings, and left our cat in the care of our parents. Our entire life was consolidated down to two suitcases and a carry-on. Talk about packing light!

Once we arrived in Burkina, we lived briefly (3 days) with a host family in Ouahigouya, a city near the northern border shared with Mali, but Peace Corps decided to move training to a city further from the border.

After a brief stint in Ouagadougou, the capital, we lived with a new host family in Koudougou, our new training site. It was quite an adjustment moving all over the country while being in classes from 8am – 5pm. Living with a host family was a big change, not only because of the cultural and language differences, but also because we had lived on our own for so long before Peace Corps. Plus, we had to occasionally eat Tô (see section on food). Our days were highly structured, and training with nearly 80 other volunteers reminded us a lot of high school!

Now that we’re living in village, we’re adjusting to life without electricity and running water. Using a latrine and taking bucket baths is daily routine, and biking is our primary source of transportation. Since there is no restaurant in village, we cook every meal on our gas stove. Some volunteers have official host organizations and “offices” where they work, but our assignment is very flexible and our work is self-directed. We love getting to know our community and its needs, and we’re looking forward to organizing projects in the coming weeks.

WAIT (West-African International Time) is what people jokingly call the always-late culture that is Burkina. If a meeting starts at 9am, people will start trickling in around 9:30 and everyone won’t be there until 10 or 11.

Partly due to its colonial relationship with France, Burkina is highly bureaucratic and hierarchical. The Burkinabé love paperwork, job titles, and ink stamps; everyone who is anyone has a stamp used to sign papers. If you don’t address someone by their title or meet the appropriate people and inform them of your work, they could get offended. In village, the bureaucracy is more manageable. It’s proper to get “the ok” from the village chief and other key leaders before starting projects, which also serves as a way to communicate upcoming activities like family planning formations or a camp for girls.

Greetings are very important in this culture. A typical greeting goes something like this (but in village, it’s local language):
Bonjour! Ça va?  (Hello! How are you?)
Oui, ça va!  (I'm good!)
Bien dormi ?  (Sleep well?)
Oui!  (Yes!)
Et ton mari?  (And your husband is well?)
Oui, ça va!  (Yes, he's good!)
Et les enfants?  (And the children)
Ça va!  (They're good!)
Et les voisins?  (And your neighbors?)
Ça va!  (They're good!)
Le travail?  (How's work?)
Ça va!  (It's good!)
And they do this with every person!
Dressing appropriately is also strongly valued. It is inappropriate for women and girls to wear dresses shorter than their knees (although in village breastfeeding in public is common, and we often see people bathing in the canal or ponds… figure that out), and women rarely wear pants. Men always wear pants unless playing football, when shorts are worn, and some men wear ¾ length pants. James enjoys exploring his capri-wearing side and hopes capris make it to mainstream America in the next couple of years. Shorts are a rare sight, which is sad because it is so hot here!!

The other main adjustment is being a foreigner in West Africa. Burkinabé automatically assume that we’re rich (and we are by their standards). We’re often asked questions about the United States and how to obtain visas. We stand out wherever we go and from what we can tell, the experience is similar to that of a celebrity. Some people will snap pictures of us, children want to shake our hands, and some kids and even adults will chant and sing “nasara” (nas-are-uh, Moré for foreigner), “toubabou” (two-bah-boo, Jula for foreigner), or “les blanches.” Sometimes we’ll ignore, but our favorite response is to say “les noirs” back at them. It’s been known to get a laugh or two from the kids and even the adults.

This is not an exhaustive list of adjustments, but it’s a good start. It’s odd how quickly living in Burkina Faso has become normal!

7. How does the currency work (conversion, trade)
Several West Africa countries, including Burkina Faso, are members of a currency union and use the Communauté Financière d’Afrique (CFA) franc. The CFA (say-fuh) is pegged to the Euro (656 franc = 1€), and therefore fluctuates around 500 CFA to $1. Few stores and restaurants accept debit or credit cards, even in large cities, so we use cash in 100% of our daily interactions. Coins are valuable because everyone hoards change. It’s rude to use a large bill for a small transaction and it’s not uncommon for a boutique owner or waiter to ask for change. Sometimes, when a boutique owner does not have change, they give candy or other small items to make up the difference. There are several banks chains throughout Burkina, and the Peace Corps Bureau is looking into switching to a bank for our living allowance payments. Until then, we use the post office banking system, which is cumbersome and inefficient due to the limited hours, no ATM cards, and fees for checking our balance or taking money out.

8. What is daily life like for you?
We typically wake up around 6 and start the day with a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. After that, there is no normal day. Although we do have routines starting to develop, every day is different, which is what we really like about our service with the Peace Corps. We may go work in the fields— weeding sesame, harvesting rice, or planting tomatoes— with some of our fellow villagers. Julie visits the school often to talk to the director and teachers, and James goes to the campground to discuss business and accounting practices. We’ll usually visit the staff at the health clinic once a week since we will be collaborating with them on projects in the future. We occasionally meet with different groups in our village like the two women’s associations, parents’ association, and rice cooperative.

Since our village doesn’t have a marché, about once a week we bike 10 kilometers to the large city of Banfora to restock our pantry. We use the time to check email, get cold drinks, enjoy brochettes or porc au four (meat is hard to find in village), and go to the tailor. James recently started working with an artisan in Banfora to expand his shoe-making business.

The sun sets around 18:00 or 18:30 (time, like in Europe, is on a 24 hour clock) depending on the season, so at night, we either have tea with a friend in village or go straight to making dinner by candlelight. Since we purchased a car battery, we can now stay up a little later writing or watching a movie, but we’re usually asleep before 21:00 (the days are exhausting!).

We also spend time visiting neighboring volunteer’s villages and we travel to Ouagadougou quarterly for Peace Corps meetings.

9. Describe more about the clothing.
Outside of Burkina’s larger cities, few prêt-a-porter stores like you’d find in the U.S. or Europe exist. Here, pagnes are king. A pagne is a large piece of cotton cloth that can be used for many things, one of which is clothing. Pagnes are purchased by men and women in the market and then taken to a tailor to be made into custom-fit shirts, pants, and dresses. The most commonly used pagnes are approximately $3 each, and the price goes up from there as does the quality. The cost of turning it into an article of clothing is another $3 for a shirt, $4-8 for a pair of pants, $4-6 for a dress, $8 for a complet (matching top and skirt outfit for women) or boubou (matching long shirt and pajama-like bottoms for men). High-quality tailors in larger cities like Ouagadougou, the government capital, or Koudougou, the textile capital, will charge higher prices. Pagnes come in an unbelievable variety of colors, and patterns. For special occasions (funerals, elections, weddings), pagnes can be ordered with specific designs or photos on them (minimum order is 2500), so it’s not uncommon to see people’s faces on pagnes with “en remembrance de” or “votez pour ____”.

Pagnes are often worn, especially in village, as purchased. Many women simply wrap the large piece of cloth around them as a skirt and wear a t-shirt. Women typically have old inexpensive pagnes to wear in the field and more expensive pagnes (embroidered or sequined, perhaps) to wear for special occasions and parties.

What are some of the other uses for pagnes, you ask? Pagnes are used to tie babies onto mothers’ backs. Or to tie babies onto children’s backs. They are used as head wraps. They are used to help haul water. They are used as tablecloths, rags, sheets, curtains, bags, and so on. They are used for so many things – it’s amazing how resourceful people are in this country.

In larger cities, fabrics like linens and cotton prints that are found in the U.S. can be purchased and turned into different articles of clothing, too. Businessmen and government employees typically buy these since they are more expensive.

Another popular clothing item in West Africa is football jerseys. Africans love to wear jerseys of their favorite players – Samuel Eto’o and Didier Drogba shirts are everywhere. Jerseys of European football clubs are ubiquitous. Arsenal, Manchester United, and Real Madrid are among the most popular.

Ever wonder what happens to clothes donated to those less fortunate? Much of America and Europe’s discarded clothing ends up in Africa. This clothing manages to find its way to people who make a business out of selling them very cheaply (I bought a t-shirt for $0.40). It’s not uncommon to see grown men wearing Britney Spears t-shirts circa 1998 or people wearing clothes that you would normally see on the opposite gender (just the other day we saw a little boy wearing bedazzled jeans in bright pink – Burkinabé tend not to recognize gender-specific styles, only that men wear pants and women wear skirts).

10. Discuss the different religions.
Religion in Burkina is very important, and nearly everyone identifies with one religion or another. It’s said that 50% of the country is Muslim, 50% is Christian, and 100% is animist. What does that mean? Animism is the belief in spirits and was the main religion prior to conversion to modern religions. Animists believe in the spirits of ancestors and in forces that influences the natural world. Animists perform sacrifices (usually chickens, which are then cooked and eaten afterwards – yum!) to appease the gods. When Islam and Christianity were brought to this region, people converted, but many have retained their animist traditions. Today, unique Islam-Animist and Christian-Animist religious hybrids exist. Our village was animist until the 1970’s and has only recently converted to Islam. As you can imagine, animist practices and beliefs are still pervasive.

In most cities, you see both Christian churches and Muslim mosques, and you hear the Muslim call to prayer 5 times a day as well as church bells on Sundays. Animism adherence of 100% is a bit of an exaggeration and traditional Christians and Muslims exist too. They have many of the same beliefs and traditions as their counterparts in other regions of the world. Laid-back Muslims who call themselves “Musulman Gauche” (Left Muslims) are common. They still pray, although perhaps not as often, and may drink the occasional alcoholic beverage. Rarely do women wear a hajib in Burkina, but you will see this traditional head covering from time to time though it remains more typical of Arab countries like Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

Religious tolerance in Burkina is second to none. Christians and Muslims live in harmony and even inter-marry. Muslims and Christians will even celebrate one another’s holidays together. The mutual respect of each others’ holidays and beliefs should be the envy of other parts of the world.

11. Describe the food, meals, etc.
The national dish of Burkina Faso is Tô (pronounced “toe”). It’s made by pounding corn or millet into flour and then boiling until it’s reached a thick consistency. Tô is a starchy, filling, nutrition-less blob that takes the shape of whatever bowl it’s placed in. In many ways, Tô is corn-flavored Jell-O. Burkinabé typically add a sauce of either Baobab leaves (remember the tree from Le Petit Prince?), hibiscus leaves, or eggplant, which helps add some nutrients to the meal.
Rice is another staple meal. Rice is served as Riz Gras or Riz Sauce. Riz Gras is rice mixed with cabbage, eggplant and tomato sauce, sometimes served with two mystery-meat chunks (usually beef, but in a country where some ethnic groups eat dog and cat, one can never be certain). Riz Sauce is plain rice typically served with peanut, eggplant, or tomato sauces. Rice is sometimes also served soaked in water (they call it bouille, which is basically porridge).
Benga, which is beans in Moré, is another dish that is especially popular with the Mossi people in central Burkina. Oil and spices are added and it is similar to a meal you’d find in Latin America.

Food is almost always eaten with the (right, not left) hand. Right hands are used for everything – handing money to the lady at the marché, passing a paper to a teacher, shaking hands, eating, etc. – because the left hand is used to wash oneself in the toilet (toilet paper is a relatively modern item and expensive, so most people use a plastic teapot of water and their left hand). Silverware is rare but definitely used in many restaurants and homes, both in villages and cities.

Tô and Rice are eaten very often, sometimes for every meal of the day, but other culinary options do exist. These other options are relatively expensive and out of the price range for many villagers except for special occasions and holidays. Grilled chicken, pork, beef brochettes, fish, and lamb can be found at some restaurants. In larger cities and around touristy areas, Italian food, burgers, and pizza even exist. Ouagadougou has most everything, but no McDonald's! A couple of the more exotic items that we’ve seen people eat here are fried caterpillars and other insects. They’re considered a delicacy here, but most outsiders find the dirt-like taste unappealing.

Farmers grow corn, rice, millet, sorghum, sesame and raise animals such as chickens and (if more wealthy) cattle and pigs. Fruits and vegetables are plentiful. Mangoes, papayas, watermelon, bananas, guava, oranges, lemon, apples, strawberries, pineapple and many other fruits can be found, although only seasonally. There are even more exotic, rare fruits here like weda (“lion fruit”) and sugar apples, which taste similarly to pears but look like a round, green pineapple and have a lot more seeds. Vegetables like beans, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, eggplant, chick peas, lettuce, potatoes and its tuberous brethren manioc, sweet potato, and cassava are grown. If you’re not cooking vegetables before eating, it’s recommended to soak them in a bleach solution for 15 minutes to kill anything that may cause illness.

There are just a few grocery stores in the country (only in Ouagadougou, the capital, and Bobo-Dioulasso) which carry a wide variety of Western food. Although expensive, you can find Western candies like M&Ms and Nutella, maple syrup, canned fruits and veggies, balsamic vinegar, spices, cheeses, and different meats. It is literally like Christmas morning every time we step inside the store.

Even though the Burkinabé aren’t too adventurous or creative in the kitchen, we make some delicious dishes with what we can find available. On our gas-powered 3-burner stovetop, we make pancakes, crêpes, French toast, omelets, quesadillas, mac ‘n cheese, curries, pasta dishes, and a variety of other meals. Once we buy a large enough cauldron, we’re going to make a Dutch oven, which will allow us to bake breads, pizzas, cookies and other items.

Burkina does have some interesting beverages. We drink water most frequently to stay hydrated, and we’re careful about filtering it and adding bleach (2 drops/liter) to kill any amoebas or bacteria, especially in village. We’re starting to drink unfiltered tap water in larger cities because the water is cleaner there, plus we really miss ice cubes and cold water. So far, no problems! There is Coke, Fanta, and Sprite, but Pepsi products are very hard to find. The more unique drinks are home-brewed millet beer (called dolo) and palm wine (juice from the Roniers palm tree, served both fermented and as juice). Bissap is a delicious sugary beverage made from the flowers of the hibiscus plant. Other fruit juices that can found include passion fruit, mango, tamarind, weda, lemon, pineapple and orange.

In Burkina Faso, women do most (all) of the meal preparation and clean-up. Meal-time routines vary by region and ethnicity, but often adults eat first and leftovers are for the children. Sometimes, women are relegated to eat after the men, too. When there’s a lot of work in the fields, women cook and carry rice or tô into the field for lunch.

12. What kinds of relationships do you have with your neighbors and people you work with? With other towns?
Peace Corps volunteers are paired with a Burkinabé who is their official work partner or counterpart. Due to family issues, Julie’s original counterpart moved so she is in the process of getting a new one. James’ counterpart, Siaka, is a motivated 22 year-old (most counterparts are much older) man who lives in village. We see Siaka nearly every day and since we don’t yet speak Karaboro or Jula, he serves as our translator. He is great about connecting us and with the village during meetings and community events and teaches us a lot about the culture. We talk with him often and our favorite pastime is drinking tea while planning projects or exchanging culture.

Our neighbors are very friendly, and even though one family speaks only Karaboro and two others speak only Jula, we have a good relationship. Some of the kids are of school age and are starting to learn French. They often come over to play on our patio and love to bother us by continually asking for candy. We occasionally eat meals with neighbors and always give the kids leftovers from our meals (lack of refrigeration and the high rate of malnutrition amongst villagers means we’re more than happy to share our meals if we have extra). We typically exchange little items like oranges, peanuts, or rice, and we sometimes bring gifts like bread, fruit, or cookies when we return from traveling. As with most neighbors, we borrow items from one another like bike tire pumps or a water buckets.

13. Discuss the government and politics of the village.
According to The Economist, Burkina Faso is run by an authoritarian regime, but due to Peace Corps rules, we cannot comment on the government itself. Election day was November 21st and Blaise Compaore, serving since 1987, won again.

The leader of a village is the chief (chef) and the position is passed down generation after generation within a family. The chief helps settles disputes between villagers, distributes land (sometimes a separate person called a land-chief or “chef de terre”), and makes decisions on behalf of the village. The conseille is an elected position and serves as a link between the local government and the village.

14. How are towns structured?
Ouagadougou remotely resembles cities of Europe. It has a bustling downtown (centre-ville) complete with a large market and several two or three story buildings with the rest of the city radiating outward. The other cities in Burkina Faso are not nearly as large or organized. Few buildings exist with more than one story. The market is still a very important and central area in the city. Most roads are dirt and stoplights are rare. In our nearby city of Banfora (pop. 70,000) there are two paved roads and two stoplights.

15. How many languages have you learned to be there? What was the learning process like?
French is the official language of Burkina Faso and the only language we’re required to learn to serve here. During in-country training, a volunteer must test at the intermediate-mid level of French in order to volunteer. During the two months of training, language is taught two to four hours a day, six days a week. Once a volunteer reaches the intermediate-mid level, they begin learning a local language, which varies depending on which region of the country they’ll be posted to.

Our village speaks Karaboro, a very small language only spoken by 65,000 people in the world. Outside of the few small pockets of Karaboro, Jula is widely spoken in southwestern Burkina Faso and in several other West African countries. We’re getting tutors in village so we can continue studying Karaboro and start learning Jula.

For those interested, James somehow managed to test at advanced-low at the beginning of training while Julie tested at intermediate-mid, so we spent the majority of training learning Karaboro. At the end of training, Julie tested at advanced-mid French, while James stalled at advanced-low. We’ll be tested several more times during our service, so we’ll see at what level we end at.

16. Discuss the culture, marriage, family, holidays, music, fun activities, etc.
Marriage & Family: While family and marriage are very important, there are some major differences between the U.S. and West Africa. Urbanized areas and those who are well-educated and well-paid are much more “western” in their behaviors. We’re going to focus on the rural and village families because Burkina is 90% rural and the differences are much starker.
Like France, for a marriage to be official, a couple must file the necessary civil forms because a religious ceremony does not suffice.
Families tend to be large to help with the copious amount of work around the house and in the field, and everyone works together to survive. The infant mortality rate for children under five is extremely high (diarrhea is one of the top killers), so to compensate families have even more kids. Muslim men occasionally have more than one wife with an unofficial limit of four. Larger families such as these tend to live in villages and are subsistence farmers.
Families live in complexes of mud-brick houses that collapse every five years due to rain and deterioration. People sleep indoors most of the year, but nearly everything else is done outdoors - cooking, entertaining, bathrooming, working, and raising small animals.
When a son marries, the wife comes to live with his family in his courtyard. Conversely, when a daughter marries she leaves to live with her husband's family. Multiple generations live in the same courtyard. Homelessness is extremely rare because everyone is taken care of by their families, and nursing homes and daycares do not exist.

Holidays: Holiday celebrations vary depending on religion, but as we mentioned before, Muslims and Christians are respectful of each other’s holidays and will sometimes celebrate the other’s. Government offices are closed for all major Christian and Muslim fetes. Christians celebrate Easter, All Saint’s Day, Christmas, etc. Two of the most important Muslim holidays are Ramadan and Tabaski. Muslims fast during daylight the month leading up to the day of Ramadan, which changes every year based on the lunar calendar of 354 days. Tabaski, also known as Aid el Kébir (feast of the sacrifice), is a celebration of the Old Testament story where God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son as a test of his faith. Abraham agrees but at the last moment God decides to substitute a sheep. Tabaski is observed by the Muslim world each year 70 days after Ramadan. Holidays are typically celebrated with family and friends and involve food (chicken or lamb), music, and dancing.

Music: Traditional music like African balafones and drums are often played in Burkina and are heard at religious holidays like Tabaski and Ramadan. Music from West Africa is popular like DJ Arafat from Côte d’Ivoire and other artists in neighboring countries. English music is popular, too, like Akon (from Senegal!), Eminem, 2Pac, and Rihanna. Akon is so popular that there are even Akon boxers available. Burkinabé love to blare music from their cell phones.

Fun Activities: Fun activities are in many ways quite different from the U.S. Much time is spent working. Because of household chores, women and girls have little to no time for leisure. Men will typically make sugary green tea in the afternoon or evenings that is shared amongst many friends, and this represents a significant social past time. If young men are done with work in the fields, a favorite event is a nightly football game. About once a week movies are shown at night on a TV/DVD player powered by a gas generator. Football games are also viewed this way upon occasion. Theatre groups are popular, but not as common. During holiday celebrations, dancing is popular among the young, single population.
Toys as we know them do not exist here. Kids who are too young to work in the fields play with items they can find around village. Kids even go through our burned garbage to find treasures.

Culture: In this section and in the answers to other questions, we’ve dealt a lot with the culture of Burkina Faso. One topic we haven’t covered yet is excision or female circumcision. The government has outlawed this practice, but in many places, especially rural areas (our village included), it still happens on a regular basis. In order to avoid punishment, this ritual is happening to girls at a much younger age than in the past. Supposedly, the old women will take the of-age girls out of the village for the procedure, which signifies a rite of passage. Excision is done primarily to maintain a girl’s chasteness and purity, and ultimately makes relations and childbirth extremely painful. We’ll spare the specifics of excision, but want you, the reader, to know that this still practice still goes on.

17. What health problems are prevalent and how are the sick treated?
The most prevalent health issues in Burkina are malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory infections (due to the dusty conditions). Hepatitis, yellow fever, dengue fever, tuberculosis, meningitis, schistosomiasis, typhoid, cholera, and skin disorders due to unclean water also exist.

The government runs medical clinics called CSPSs which are located throughout the country and staffed by doctors and nurses. For most minor issues and for delivery of newborns, the Burkinabé typically use the CSPS. Hospitals are available in regional capitals and are used for more serious illnesses and injuries. Some rural populations still rely on traditional medicine to treat illnesses and will only go to the CSPS if the local medicine man/woman is unable to cure them.

The Peace Corps volunteers’ health care is among the best in the world. There are two full-time doctors on staff and a phone number to reach them 24/7. Any health problem that may develop is fully covered by the Peace Corps at no expense to the volunteer - no co-pays, no deductibles! We received vaccines for yellow fever, hepatitis A and B, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, rabies, typhoid, diphtheria, and meningitis. There could be even more too – the first few days in Burkina we felt like pin cushions! We also religiously take malaria prophylaxes in order to suppress the malaria that is in our bodies. If we were to stop taking the mefloquine, we’d surely develop malaria. To date, we’ve had giardia, several bacterial infections, staph infections, and heat rash. Luckily, nothing too serious!

18. What animals do you encounter?
A wide variety of animals and insects exist in Burkina. On a daily basis we encounter flies, mosquitoes, bats (they love our mango tree during fruit season), spiders, dogs, goats, sheep, cats, cows, and pigs. We have the pleasure of calling several lizards roommates. Our kitten is finally old enough to begin hunting and eating them!! Occasionally, we’ll see scorpions and snakes. Luckily none of the scorpions in Burkina are especially dangerous (the sting hurts for awhile), but there are several species of snake that are poisonous. Hippos, the most dangerous animal in Africa, live in a lake several kilometers away. We’ve also seen elephants and crocodiles.

In more remote areas of the country and on wildlife reserves, you can see lions, monkeys, elephants, buffalo, African manatees, leopards, and the rare cheetah exists. Just across the border in Niger giraffes can be seen.

19. Discuss the climate and geography.
Burkina is a landlocked country bordered by six neighbors; Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Côte D’Ivoire, and Mali. There are three main climate zones that run east-west through the country. The northern part of the country is flat, dry and dusty and resides in the Sahelian zone. Endless red sand mixes with sparse shrubs and few trees. The central region is located in the Sudano-Sahelian zone. This region receives more rainfall and more trees and shrubs are present. The south/southwest of Burkina, where we call home, lies in the Sudano-Guinean zone. This region of the country receives the most rainfall and it is very green with lush foliage much of the year. The southwest has waterfalls, interesting rock formations, and even some small hills.

West Africa doesn’t have daily weather so much as it experiences broad air mass shifts. Burkina Faso has four seasons but not the same four seasons you would experience in the U.S. or Europe. Burkina’s seasons are cold, hot, dry, and wet and two seasons are always occurring simultaneously.

Cold season starts around October or November and continues to January/February. Daytime temperatures are bearable (80-95 degrees) and the nights are refreshingly cool (65-70 degrees). Winter clothing abounds as most Burkinabe consider anything below 75 degrees to be unbearably cold. It’s amusing to see people sporting stocking caps, scarves, and winter coats in temperatures that Iowans would consider to be summer.

Hot season starts in February/March and runs through May. It is this time that the Harmattan winds blow from the Sahara, covering everything in red dust. In the northern part of the country, temperatures can be 130-140 degrees Fahrenheit. The south can be 120+.

Rainy season runs May – September/October. Afternoon and evening showers are common. The rain comes down in sheets with an intensity not seen in the U.S. These thunderstorms are usually brief but extremely powerful. The remainder of the year is dry season. Rain is infrequent to rare and the sun shines every day.

20. Will you have to be careful about donating blood once you return to the US?
Remember the “have you been to Africa?” question asked during blood drives? Whether or not we can donate will depend on the blood bank's requirements. Most likely yes, but we'll have to wait a few years.

Monday, January 17, 2011