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 :)


  1. Hi Julie! I love this post! All this information is fantastic and makes me feel excited and nervous at the same time... but mostly excited. Hope you and James are doing well! P.S. would you recommend bringing an iphone?

  2. Hi Kelly! Glad that you and Andy are getting ready for this adventure :) you guys will love it here. Just be patient, open, and ready to laugh! You can definitely live without an Internet phone, but you won't regret having one. Blackberries work right away and unlocked iPhones (the newer the model the harder to crack). We got an older iPhone and love it. It's been amazing to get work done and stay connected to home all from our house in village. Not everyone has great reseau (reception) but you won't know until you get to site. Hope this helps! We're excited to meet you two, and good luck packing!