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Adventures in West Africa

Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010

Bonjour from Burkina!

I just spent a week in Bereba, a village in the Southwest.
It was an experience and I’m unsure whether I liked it or not. The difficult parts about living in Burkina-heat, humidity, dust/mud depending on weather, mosquitoes, concerns about food/water safety-are exacerbated in the village. The positives differ from those in Ouaga-great music, beautiful expansive sky.

•    “Why are my feet getting wet?” -transportation to the village
•    “You might get some bites in weird places.” -living without running water or electricity
•    Do caterpillars contain vitamins? -village meals
•    Dirt poor. Literally. “But SO much better than Guinea.” - the village
•    Q&A with the Chef de Terre - a poignant meeting the village chief
•    “We’re waiting for them to kill the white cock first.” -tourism in an African village

“Why are my feet getting wet?” -transportation to the village
I’m seated in the backseat of a sedan. My water bottle isn’t leaking, so why are my feet getting wet? I look down to see brown water rapidly rising to the level of my seat. My skirt starts to get wet as I squirm to move my feet and my backpack to higher ground. We are driving through another deep muddy puddle on our way from the town of Hounde to the village of Bereba. Later, the two program chauffeurs have us evacuate and some local men with impeccable timing show up to push the car and the bus. 20 or so kilometers took one hour.

“You might get some bites in weird places.” -living without running water or electricity
I stayed with a Peace Corps Volunteer, which gave me a great chance to learn about Peace Corps and her girl’s education and empowerment projects. Per Peace Corps’ requirements, she had a walled-in latrine/shower area and mosquito netting on the door and the windows. (Windows usually just have metal blinds.) Shower is a misnomer: a small walled area with a drainage hole just above ground level on the far wall. Showering involves splashing oneself with cold water from a bucket. The toilet is a hole in the ground, with a rusty metal disk to cover it. “I push it over with my foot, and it’s only me using it,” said my host. Due to the darkness, I thankfully didn’t see the bugs that fell onto or through my mosquito net until morning.
Do caterpillars contain vitamins? -village meals
Gelatinous, flavorless, solidified Cream of Wheat. Gummy, pasty, jello. I had to stifle the urge to throw up my first bite of tô, a porridge-like village staple made of water and ground sorghum. About half of the group turned to stashed-away Luna bars for lunch. The food wasn’t that great, and the village has no fresh fruit. No wonder I see so many kids with enlarged stomachs- tô lacks nutrients in addition to taste.

“Surprisingly dry for being fried, and coarse like I would imagine wood to taste, but just keep chewing,” I thought to myself as I gnawed away at fried caterpillar and reached for my glass of tonic water. I have now officially tried Some Weird Foreign Food that Americans Think is Gross. Our last day, we stopped at a restaurant in Hounde and my professor pulled fried caterpillars out of his shirt pocket, where he was keeping a villager’s gift. I hesitated for a bit before deciding to try one before I could talk myself out of it.

Dirt poor. Literally. “But SO much better than Guinea.” - the village
Southwest Burkina has more lush green vegetation than Ouagadougou, and the vast open sky was beautiful at night when not filled with rain clouds. Bushes and shrubs encroach on windy footpaths. I managed to figure out how to walk to one of the student houses where we ate meals, which is quite an accomplishment since most houses are scattered about amidst low trees and brush. In the market area, filled with low stands made with thatched-roof and wood poles, a large tree at the center drew “Aviator” movie comparisons.

Overwhelming, pervasive, depressing… I’ve been struggling how to describe the incredible poverty, and words just don’t convey the village. The poverty overwhelmed me, especially the first couple days, and was certainly the most striking aspect of my time in the village, even more so than the lack of amenities. I suppose one could actually say that the villagers are dirt poor, as their houses are made from mud brick. Everywhere I looked, I saw obvious and subtle needs: for more nutritious food, better jobs, more jobs, dental hygiene, family planning, education about clean water, level roads, more teachers, more classrooms, eye care (no one had glasses), …the list goes on, and that’s even before naming electricity and in-home running water. And yet as the county seat, Bereba has many things that many villages don’t have: several water pumps to get clean water, a primary school, a secondary schools, a community library, a railroad station, a bread bakery, a health clinic, a maternity clinic, a mayor’s office, a police station, a new mosque donated by Kuwait… My Peace Corps host had been placed in Guinea for seven months before being evacuated, and she emphasized that Burkina was much nicer.

Q&A with the Chef de Terre - a poignant meeting the village chief
Wearing matching green plaid pants and sport coat, bright blue flip flops, and silver-rimmed sunglasses, the chef de terre received us outside his house reclined in a common stick chair. I expected a sort of self-righteous, backward-looking man who was mostly interested with preserving his power. Instead, I met a thoughtful leader with a clear concern for his people. Laci, whose name means “the chief must not get angry,” shared his desires for Bereba to develop and for its people to have knowledge. [Burkina has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, even for a poor country, hovering around 23% and lower for women.] Without prompting, the chief said his biggest worry is for the education of the village youth. He wants all the kids to go school but he worries for the village because there are not enough classrooms or teachers. Class size averages 100-150 students. As I sat with six SCU students in my French class at the local middle school, I tried to ponder having 143 others in the same classroom. Plus, for the past several years, the middle school has not had French, English, PE, or math teachers. Hence, it’s not surprising that few students pass the high school entrance exam that has a large English component. “What can Bereba do?” he asked us. “What can I do? What can you do?” What haunting questions. 

On a lighter note…

“We’re waiting for them to kill the white cock first.” -tourism in an African village
Burkina Faso doesn’t have much tourism (could many people even find it on a map?), and Bereba, the village I was in, is no exception. Nonetheless, I did manage to experience a mask dance, commissioned by my program. The masque wore a wooden mask in the shape of a chicken, and a shirt/pants ensemble made of plant fibers that flew out to the side when he danced but made him resemble an overweight scarecrow when he stood still. In order for the griots, the traditional musicians and storytellers, to have a mask ceremony, they had to sacrifice a white cock. Luckily there are no PETA members in our group. [Check out a photo here: ]

The last morning I went on an early morning ox cart ride. Yep, like Oregon Trail or a pumpkin patch hayride, twelve people sat on a metal cart as two strong oxen trotted out to the fields. The farmer pulled out a peanut plant for us to taste; fresh peanuts have the moist and crunchy texture of a carrot.

On other days, locals took us on small group tours: “This is the train station. This is the market. This is the chief. This is the school. This is where another white person lives [the Peace Corps Volunteer]. This is a woman making dolo [home-brewed millet beer]. Here, have some. Is it made with open well water you ask? Well, you’ll probably be fine.”

Returning to Ouaga, I was relieved to have fruit, fans, and flush toilets. I’ll now have a few weeks in Ouaga before returning to the villages for a month-long stay. My house in Ouaga is just south of this road on the third street left of the canal running north/south and intersecting the big horizontal road (Charles de Gaulle). Confused? That’s pretty much how directions work here.This week I start photography classes and will be working on a simple children’s book. I’m contemplating the theme of opposites: hot/cold, near/far, tall/short, dark/light. In the meantime, I'll be appreciating running water and ceiling fans!

A bientôt,


P.S. Thanks for the e-mails! I apologize for the lack of communication online. I’ve been trying to send this e-mail for a week now. We were told we’d have internet at the house, but the USB internet keys rarely work. The internet café is often closed when it says it’s open, and, to give you a perspective on the speed, it’s taken me 35 minutes just to load my inbox. Be grateful for hi-speed wifi!

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Tags: Sarah Tkach (Burkina Faso)

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