Saturday, October 6, 2012

Clean'n out the closets

It's time to start giving away the hideous clothes we'll never wear in the U.S.!

Friday, October 5, 2012

New kittens! Again...

Our cat, Nso, just delivered 4 more kittens, her 4th batch! She is eating everything in sight and is expected to be released from the hospital Monday.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Socca in Nice!

A relaxing evening in... in Nice. Socca (thin, grilled chick peas), a specialty of Nice, paired with a light Belgian wheat bier. Bon appetite!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


A trip to the motherland. So much food, so little time.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Happy Bobo Birthday

It's that time again - time to celebrate my 3rd birthday in Burkina Faso.

This birthday was bittersweet. Not only because of my ever-advancing age, but all of our friends from our training group are leaving. Soon they will all be in the first world while we continue using latrines in the BF.

There was one bright spot however - someone scrounged up two candles - a 3 and a 2. I was delighted that  I am not yet 32. Happy birthday!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Should I eat this grilled bug?

Ok, down the hatch.

And the verdict is....

Not bad! They could be served in movie theaters.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Future

Happy Anniversary! June 23rd, 2012 marked two years in Burkina Faso. We can’t believe how fast time has passed. At this point in our service, many of you may be thinking:

“Two years…shouldn’t you be coming home soon?”

Yes, we should. Our original end date was August 24, 2012, however, we’ve decided to extend our service until December 2012 in order to finish a few important projects. We officially “COS” (close of service) on December 5th, 2012.

“What will you do until December?”

The school construction project is nearing completion (the full report and additional pictures will be shared in a future blog post). The transformation of the school was incredible and the village is so proud to have a finished school. Thank you again to those who donated!

To complement the new school building, Julie plans to paint health murals to promote the newly constructed hand-washing stations and latrines.  She will also create a small school library for students allowing access to books and study materials. This year only 15 of the 60 sixth grade students in our village passed the primary school exit exam required to enter middle school. During summer vacation, Julie will organize study sessions with the older students to help them prepare for next year’s exam.

I am working with Siaka to build Marley’s - the new restaurant and campground in our village. Construction of the sleeping huts is completed, and we’ll work on business skills development and customer service until our departure.

My most significant remaining project is La Vie Chère - the upcycled shoe and accessory business. Moussa and I have been busy creating new designs and Ten Thousand Villages (the world’s largest fair trade store) has requested samples of products as a preliminary step to ordering. To see more new designs, visit the website and “like” us on Facebook!

We’re also preparing for SIAO, Africa’s biggest art and crafts fair, which takes place in Ouagadougou every two years. This year the fair is in October, so we’re finalizing designs and will be building an inventory over the summer in preparation for the big event.

At the end of August, we’re meeting Julie’s parents in Europe for a two-week, whirlwind vacation, visiting London, Paris, and Berlin. Julie and I will remain in Europe another week doing something, somewhere.

“Interesting… so what are your plans for the future?”
Last fall, I applied to business schools and received an invitation to attend Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. Duke was very gracious and allowed me to defer admission until August 2013.

Julie will apply to business schools (including Duke) this fall.

“Wait a second. You COS on December 5th and don’t start graduate school until August. What will you do with all that time!?”

We’re really looking forward to spending time with our families and friends! We’ll be home for the holidays, and can’t wait to reconnect with our families. Luckily, the timing of our return will also allow us to be quickly re-indoctrinated into American society through the consumerism and gluttonous eating that defines the month of December.

In January, in an effort to escape the horror that is a Midwestern winter, we’re planning a COS trip(s). We’re hoping to travel to Peru and trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and possibly Thailand to soak up some sun on the beach. We’d also considering driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in California, trying out Oregon wines, and hiking Bryce Canyon and possibly the Grand Canyon since Julie has never been.

Before graduate school begins, I will continue writing my yet-unnamed but future best-selling humorous travelogue about our experiences in Burkina Faso. The release date will be determined at a later time but in order to ensure its success in the U.S. market, the book may include vampires.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Miriam is Back!!

Three weeks ago, out of the blue, Miriam appeared on our porch! Last July, her family moved to a village 30 km away to work on a cashew farm and we’d always promised ourselves that we’d go find her. Before we could, she found us!

Awa (mom), Miriam, and her little brother have returned to Karfiguela indefinitely, according to Awa, because her husband is now a “fou” (crazy). We aren’t quite sure what that means – “fou” is thrown around quite liberally in Burkina. Miriam has jumped right back into old routines of going to the water pump and demanding presents and money. We’re so excited to have little Miriam back!!

We apologize for the blog drought – it’s been a hectic month or two. But we’ll increase our post frequency and explain what we’ve been up to. Coming soon.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Nasara Weekly

It should come as no surprise that Peace Corps volunteers stand out, especially in Africa. Our service is often described as two years of stardom, and I agree. In many ways we are treated a lot like celebrities.

People often stare at us. Burkinabé take pictures without permission or knowledge. Random Burkinabé frequently want to shake hands or greet me on the street. People of all ages yell and wave as I pass by. We’re regularly called Nasara or Toubabou (essentially translates to “foreigner” and is used on all foreigners -- Burkinabé and Westerners alike). Some kids even want to touch me – just to say they touched a toubabou. I haven’t had a real stalker yet, but I’m sure other volunteers have.

The only thing missing is the paparazzi and tabloid magazines. Host country nationals are so captivated by our every move that I’m surprised no one has created a weekly tabloid recapping PCV news.

Imagine you’re Burkinabé and walking into your local alimentation (small non-perishable grocery store) or street-side stand and pick up this week’s copy of Nasara Weekly. What better way to learn the latest PCV “celebrity” gossip?

Here is a mock-up of the first issue. What a great income generating activity for an aspiring writer!

Sorry U.S.readers - there are lots of inside jokes here, but you get the idea.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Burkina FaTso

Editor's Note: The following post is written as a humorous exposé of weight loss/gain in Africa. James overstates things from time to time -- he can be a bit of a drama queen. If you are offended by muffin tops, mystery meat, or Jason Alexander, please read no further. 
If not, enjoy the latest from Burkina!

Forget South Beach. Forget Atkins. Between the sweltering heat, boring food, and near constant gastro-intestinal issues, Africa should be the best weight-loss plan on Earth. So before departing, I went on a whirlwind tour of farewell dinners and eating binges. A third helping? Yes, please. Two desserts? Why not!? A 10,000 calorie burger? I am moving to Africa, after all.

Once I arrived, I became even more convinced of the magic African diet. Every male between the ages of 18 and 45 resembles Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Gorgeous, lean muscles. 6 pack abs. 2% body fat. It’s amazing how endless hours in the field can transform a body. I thought it must be only a matter of time before I too look like them.

I could not have been more wrong. After ten months in Africa my body more close
ly resembled the rotund Jason Alexander. What little muscle I had quickly disappeared without a
high-protein diet coupled with a weightlifting regimen.
My chest and arms withered away and my body’s jiggle coefficient has steadily increased as my mid-section has become ever doughier. Poke me and I’ll giggle like Poppin’ Fresh...

After some thought, I’ve come to a few conclusions
(read, excuses) regarding the dreadful and disgusting state of my body.

The food options in West Africa are a carb-lover’s dream. Tô, or boiled corn flour, is the national dish. It’s incredibly cheap, popular, and lacks any nutritional value. Tô assumes the form of whatever receptacle in which it’s cooked and can be best described as corn Jell-O. Rice and pasta are the next most popular meal options and Burkinabé will even add spaghetti as a topping to rice. Carb on carb delight.

Quality protein is extremely hard to find. Goat, sheep, cows, and chickens roam everywhere, but they aren’t the wonderful Tyson hormone-injected variety that Americans enjoy. African animals forage all day for food and (at least in our neighborhood) must dodge mangos (thrown by me from the porch). Different cuts of meat are a completely foreign idea to Burkina’s “butchers.” Most meat is simply hacked apart by a dull machete. Imagine trying to eat your rice with peanut sauce dish and getting bits of intestines, bones and other mystery chunks.
If you’re lucky enough to find a meat vendor, so many questions come to mind it’s an immediate turn-off. How long has this meat been sitting outside in 100 degree heat? Why are there so many flies on it? Is this goat meat? Or sheep? Beef? Could be dog. You just can never be sure.

For generations this scene has transpired at the dinner table: An American youth didn’t finish his/her dinner and is getting up from the table. Well-intentioned parents then yell, “Finish your dinner! There are starving children in Africa.” Thanks, mom. Because of your conditioning, I eat everything in sight and the starving African children you referenced are literally right outside my door.
If you can accurately determine exactly how much food will satisfy your hunger, there’s no problem. But what if there are leftovers? There is no electricity in village and therefore no refrigerator. The extreme temperatures ensure that any remaining food will be covered in mold by morning. We can and do give leftovers to our neighbors. However, they  don’t always like the foreign dishes we make. And if they can recognize the ingredients, it may blow our cover as the poor volunteers living and working amongst them. Pasta is a rare luxury and canned vegetables or tuna are completely unaffordable for our neighbors. With those things in mind, I end up eating that second serving; it’s a shame to let it go to waste.

I came to Burkina with the mindset that I must eat everything in sight just to keep weight on. That idea was then reinforced by the Peace Corps medical staff’s motto “eat when you can eat.” As I reflect on their advice, I’m not sure it holds true for volunteers who live 10 kilometers from real cheese, butter, and cold beer/Coke. Whenever I leave village, it’s a free-for-all. Doctor’s orders, after all.

Exercising in Africa is difficult. Although I’ll occasionally work in the fields, I don’t do it nearly enough. I’ll harvest rice with the men, but after ten minutes of what might be considered hard work, the same phrases are inevitably uttered (although not in English):

“You must be tired, go sit down.”
“The sun is hot and you’ll burn. Get in the shade.”
“Get the white dude some water!”

American-style, twentieth century exercise, like running for example, is rarely observed in Burkina. It’s an unfortunate reality, but who has the calories to spare? Occasionally the military, a soccer team, or firemen run down city streets to stay in shape. The rare sight of even these runners elicits stares from passers-by. I’m harassed and gawked at just walking down the street or shopping. Imagine the kind of taunting and ridicule a pasty-white guy in short-shorts running down the street will receive. And in village!? I tried running and I may as well have landed my spaceship in Times Square.

No surprise, but it is hot and we’re almost always sweating. The only time it is cool enough to exercise is early in the morning, which also happens to be the only chance to be indoors and not be dripping with sweat. It’s difficult to knowingly commit myself to constant sweating.

Julie, my wonderful and supportive wife, seems to take great joy in reminding me of my advanced age and expanding waistline. 30 years old! Practically middle-aged with the bear claws to prove it. And let's not get started on the receding hairline...

I may as well just throw in the towel now and get buried in a piano case.

I recently came to the difficult conclusion that I may have women’s genes. I’m not talking about the skinny jeans those young hipsters are wearing. My body seemingly responds to carbohydrates like a woman’s body. In a carb-heavy diet, most men lose considerable amounts of weight and become very thin. Women’s bodies store those carbs away to nourish babies or something. Unfortunately, I have the muffin-top to prove that I’ve got the genes of a woman without the ability to breastfeed.

My last fault? I’ve spent much too long sitting on my large behind thinking of excuses and writing this entry rather than exercising.

A Resolution
In spite of all of these evil forces working against me, I’ve recently turned over a new leaf. It’s my new year’s resolution. And this is the kind of resolution that doesn’t require standing in line for the cardio machine at the gym… because there aren’t any. I’ve finally started running, and the villagers are getting used to the daily sight of my ghost-white thighs. They cheer for me as I “do the sport” and I even have a growing rotation of running partners. If I can keep it up, maybe I’ll be ready for the next trip to the beach. This close to the equator, bikini season is a year-round concern.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Wait for it... wait for it... oh look at that tiny cute one at the end!!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Happy Hour Part II

We find ourselves again at happy hour on the patio. After a long week at the office it's great to relax! In the photo, you'll notice Julie sipping vintage 2012 palm wine (from local palm trees) out of our finest glassware - a mayonnaise jar (right hand). The classy establishment where we purchased the wine (3 guys sitting under a tree) allowed us to bring it home in an empty fertilizer container (left hand). Julie is sitting on our new $3 wood chair.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Happy Hour!

One of our new favorite routines is a weekly Happy Hour on the patio.

Our recipe:
A bottle of the finest wine $3 can buy. (Yes - a glass bottle!)
1 summer sausage courtesy of care packages
1 loaf of bread, toasted
2 rounds of FLAVORED Laughing Cow cheese (from America)
1 sachet (read plastic bag) of green olives

Unfortunately, half the items on our list can't be replaced once they're gone.

An added benefit of a two-person happy hour? No boring conversations about kids' soccer games or kitchen remodeling.

Bottoms up!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Raise the Roof!

Dearest friends and family who have stayed with us despite our infrequent posts and lack of pictures, thank you! It's been a whirlwind the past few months. We will do better, we made a resolution for 2012.

Birthday at the Cheesecake Factory!
James and I loved seeing friends and family when we vacationed to the US (never thought I'd vacation to Iowa...) for my baby sis's wedding. We also loved stuffing our faces with the delights of home cookin' and mouth-watering restaurants. We brought back two suitcases full of processed food and an extra 11 and 7 pounds, respectively, which we promptly lost thanks to biking and tasteless dinners. Nothing here measures up after homemade ice cream... chicken wraps... cheesy mushrooms... pizza... I'll stop before I become too sad to eat my Vache Qui Rit (Burkina's version of Velveeta) mac n cheese dinner.

One week after returning Nicole became our very first visitor! She braved the 24+ hour trip and ventured into the unknown of Burkina Faso. She got her fair share of "you're going to Burkina what?" only to enter a land where many couldn't pinpoint the US on a map. Guess it works both ways. We spent time in our village where Nicole got so acclimated to living cheap, bucket baths, and latrines that other Peace Corps Volunteers mistook her for one of our own. We painted signs for Siaka's restaurant Marley's since I learned the previously week that James has zero art skills, then visited the waterfalls, domes, and hippo lake, played soccer with kids, and toured the village health clinic, where Nicole deftly diagnosed and treated our neighbor boy Issouf of ringworm. Put Nicole's bike skillz to the test when we traveled south to Niansogoni to see the cliff dwellings, then briefly stopped in Bobo before going on safari and seeing ELEPHANTS! Including cute 2 ton babies. I'll attempt to post a video later when I'm not writing on the iPhone in village in the dark. It was fun getting a new perspective on Burkina and life here.

After seeing Nicole safely off, we boarded a hellacious 24 hour bus ride sans air conditioning to Togo. Arriving two shades darker due to the dust, we spent hours washing our clothes and James's peanut butter covered bag. Sidenote: If you decide that you too want to bring 5 gallons of peanut butter from Ouaga to Lome on a bus, please make sure that it's closed well and won't explode all over the undercompartment of the bus and everyone else's luggage. Thanks.

We met up with our second brave visitor, John, and were off to see Ganvie, the village built on stilts in the middle of a lake in Benin. Beautiful – the Venice of West Africa. It was like any other villages we've seen except people took canoes instead of bikes and farmed fish instead of corn. There were boutiques selling phone credit, packets of spaghetti, and sachets of gin, women paddling around selling vegetables and other wares for making dinner or braiding hair. People collected (in canoes) around the water pump (yes, a water pump in the middle of a lake) and it became very dark at night without electricity. By some miracle the rickety two story place we stayed had lights and an actual shower and though James lost his iPod through a hole in the floor (retrieved by the nice lady selling booze and knitting in the courtyard), the place didn't collapse like I thought it would.

We wove our way through Togo, probably spending more time squeezed on transport and as a result touching each other non-stop than actually seeing things, but it was worth it for the mud fortresses of Koutammakou that I wanted to visit ever since starting my application for Peace Corps in 2008. We stopped at the cliff dwellings at Nano in northern Togo before crossing the border and making our way across Burkina and to our village. John jumped into village life helping out at Marley's, and we all celebrated Christmas in Bobo with twenty or so other PCVs and Chris! who made it on a Christmas Eve flight and bus. A couple days touring Bobo then the lovely Karen and dashing Derrick arrived!

No time to rest as we rushed north to Mopti, Mali to see Dogon Country. Amazing. We hiked for three days through cliffs, celebrated New Year's in style, and ended at the awe-inspiring cliffside dwellings. Our guide Oumar was amazing as was the company.

We returned triumphant to Burkina and spent a few days in our village before John, Chris, and Karen left for Accra, Ghana to enjoy swimming pools and Derrick, James, and I voyaged to Bobo then Ouaga to send him back to America via football match in London.

Then life got pretty quiet. I enjoyed that for about one day then started in on school stuff. Incredible how much progress has been made! Met up with the President and Secretary of APE (parent's association) to buy the roof in Bobo then back to Banfora for the remaining supplies. The masons arrived January 16th, and they've been working non-stop. Already the building is unrecognizable, and I can barely keep up with pictures. Note on cameras: our Sony TX5 dustproof, waterproof, shockproof camera lasted about 6 months in Burkina before breaking. We're trying to get it repaired for the second time, but it's not looking good. If any Sony employees read this, I believe your company owes me a camera that can handle a little bumpy, dusty adventure. Pathetic attempt but I'll give you one more shot.

So lately James has been working hard with Siaka on his restaurant repairing the hangar and preparing to construct sleeping huts. He's also been spreading La Vie Chère internationally and prepping to repair the canal with the Rice Association.

I've been virtually living at the school. Every day there's a new problem to solve (Umm, what do you mean you didn't measure correctly for the roof?? Ok, I guess I'll climb the ladder in my skirt and show you masons how it's done) or cool new thing to see (400 liter cement handwashing stations!).

Overall the village has been amazing. The parents are motivated to help in any way they can (example: Paul's dad who is nicknamed "The American" repaired the metal doors and windows at cost, which was a third of the price if someone else did it). People constantly tell James and I thank you, and we remind them that it wouldn't be possible without their help, too.

This is definitely not a typical Peace Corps project. Most volunteers do few if any funded projects and when money is involved, it's usually less than $1,000. Part if it depends on resources (Karfiguela's school wouldn't be possible without your support and the grant from the US Embassy) and part of it depends on your view of development. Volunteers can effect change just by addressing a community's mentality.

Example: A PCV can conduct sensibilisations (awareness campaigns) and hold informal causeries (chats) with community counterparts and say, "God isn't the only one who decides if you get sick. You have some control. Wash your hands with soap, eat nutritiously, and go to the CSPS (health clinic) right away when you're sick instead of the traditional medicine man. That's how you can stay healthy."
Happy 2012!

Another really effective tool is to find the “Positive Deviants” in your community and empower them to be agents of change. Positive deviants are the rare people doing things differently, with better results. Maybe it's a mom feeding her kids well or a dad who's sending his daughter to university.

But sometimes, you can only talk so much. You can tell kids they're supposed to wash their hands with soap, but if there's nowhere for them to do this, how can they change their behavior?

When we arrived in village 1.5 years ago, the primary school made the top three list of most needed projects for every group we talked to from the chef du village to the women's associations to the rice cooperative. What was once a sore point for the village - an outside group came almost 10 years ago to build the school then bouffed (stole) the money and left, leaving the building and teacher housing unfinished - is now a source of immense pride. The entire village is excited to have a finished building since almost every single family has kids there, and the teachers and students are most excited of all.

I couldn't be more impressed with the way the APE bureau has stepped up to manage. Once they found out that I hadn't budgeted for paint, they became even more dedicated to finding the lowest prices for materials so they could have a beautiful finished building. Of course they leave all the tedious paperwork to me due to technological and literacy restraints, but I love it because it takes me back to Excel spreadsheets and crunching numbers, making budgets, and performing risk analyses. I miss being an accounting nerd :)

Enjoy a few pics:

CP1 (kindergarten) kids dancing with excitement for their new classroom! On the right are Seydou, the APE president, and Karim, the secretary. Both have been instrumental in dealing with the issues that inevitably crop up and making decisions. Literally couldn't finish the school without them.

The master mason, Salif, in the middle with the roofers and little helpers in the back. Paul's (motivated high school student who facilitated last summer's girls camp and has been our Karaboro tutor) little brother Yanma (adorable little guy) "helps" the masons almost every day because he wants to make sure his classroom is done as soon as possible. He's 5 years old. So. Cute.

In other news, the saddest thing this week was finding out that my great uncle passed away. The hardest thing about Peace Corps after dealing with harassment/discrimination is missing out on everybody's lives back home.

The second saddest thing this week was noticing that one of the little boys who hangs around our house has a dislocated shoulder. I took him to the CSPS (remember our PC vocab from earlier?), and after looking at his arm and consulting with the boy and a couple village ladies, the major (head nurse) told me that the boy had dislocated it three years ago and he would have to go to the hospital in Banfora for surgery. When I asked how much that would cost, he said at least 75,000 CFA. I sucked in my breath. That's over half a month's stipend.

Would the major please explain to the little boy that he needed this so he didn't grow up handicapped?

Yes, the major said, but it wouldn't matter. The family can't afford the surgery and in the parents' mind, they can just have more healthy kids rather than pay the money to fix the one they've got.
Major, what can we do? Isn't there some group that can help?

Maybe, he said. Action Social. In Bobo. (It might as well have been in Paris). But I was white. Wasn't I going to pay for it?

I don't have that kind of money, I said. Please tell his family about Action Social. Explain that the boy's life will be so much better.

Ok. I'll try.

Another one of the tough things you'll experience in Peace Corps that you most likely won't hear much about and no amount of training can prepare you for. Yes, technically James and I could pay for this boy's surgery, but then we'd have a line out our door of people expecting us to pay for their medicine/treatment/new bike/whatever. We live and work here, and it's hard enough convincing people that we're not here to hand out cadeaus (presents) and bags of money that we have lying around our house. It's harder knowing that if his parents had taken him to the doctor three years ago, it would have been a simple pop it back into place procedure that cost a few mille ($4-6). Even worse watching this 6 year old kid running around with a useless arm and believing he had been born like that because he's only ever known life with a dislocated shoulder.

This must be one of my longest posts yet. Sitting here thinking happy thoughts about the school -- dancing kids! -- and a potential second annual girls camp this spring -- if the Gender and Development committee funds our grant! I'm off to take a bucket bath and go to bed. The sun and chickens will be up at 6 tomorrow :)

Friday, January 6, 2012