I’m back!!! I bet you thought I had disappeared off the face of the planet. That, or else fell into my latrine. I’ve been pretty lazy about updating my blog and I was also on vacation for two months in Americaland. Needless to say, blogging kind of took a back a seat to me stuffing my face with food and watching movies non-stop back Stateside. Don’t worry, I plan to write the equivalent of a dissertation to explain all that has happened in the last four months. Hmm…I think I shall start off talking about hot season. When hot season arrives, one thinks that they have entered the ninth circle of hell (reference to Dante’s work for those of you who are not familiar). As I mentioned in an earlier blog that hot season began early this year. I am talking 115/120 near me and upwards of 130 sometimes up north. Some days, I thought I would be okay if I just sat under my hanger all day and tried not to move. Yeah, that really doesn’t help—my thermometer under the shade would be like 105/110. My thermometer goes up to 120 degrees but every time I would look at it, it would be past the 120 mark. After I while I stopped looking at my thermometer; my ESP told me where the mark would be. Some where during the middle of hot season there was a day where I felt sick and nauseous all day. The whole day I just laid under my hanger all day and refused to leave. However, I knew I had to leave around 2:45 because I had a health lesson at the primary school at 3:00. So I mustered up enough energy to dress in more appropriately clothes (I was in a tank top at short shorts at the time).Given the choice, I would gladly have gone naked. Maybe even shaved my head but let’s not get crazy here. Anyhow I set off to the school and start throwing up on the side of the road. I now have a temporary aversion to cabbage and peanut butter (the supper from the night before). I get to the school looking awful and normally all the health agents and teachers like to tease me about how “cold” it is. So upon arriving to the school, the director of the school makes a joke and says something to the effect of how it was cold that day. I respond, “Not a good time to make a joke. I am sick, hot, and just threw up along the side of the road. If I could muster up enough energy I would hit you. But I do not have enough energy so consider yourself lucky.” He just starts to laugh so much he has trouble breathing and says he bets this is nothing like America. And I am thinking to myself, “You think?!!” Hot season, like transport, is so awful that you just have to suck it up and think of it as amusing. You know everyone is suffering and that, no, you will hopefully not die of heat stroke. Sometimes, volunteers will text at 3 AM stating that it is 100/105 degrees in the house, that they can’t sleep, and they think they may die. When I sleep in my bed, I wake up with wet hair that makes it seem like I just took a shower and a silhouette of my body on the bed sheets. These days during rainy season, right after it has rained and it is chilly, I think to myself, “Relish this moment. Relish this moment.” Ahhhhh…Cest la vie
I just recently organized an AIDS conference at the district to educate my community health agents. The conference went really well and all the health agents learned a lot. One funny thing that happened during conference was when the facilitators divided the health agents into groups to talk about different things and then to share their findings with the rest of the group. For example, one group discussed all of the modes of transmission while another group discussed methods of prevention. My job was to be supervisor of the group who was discussing modes of transmission. The health agents got the most obvious modes of transmission e.g blood and unprotected sex but they still were missing a lot of information. For example, I mentioned that there was more than one way to have sex and that each sexual act posed a risk of infecting ones partner. I was in a group of all married women and they were like, “Really? There is more than one way have to sex?” I was like, “Sure, there is anal, vaginal, and oral sex.” The women looked so confused. They had never learned about these sorts of acts. Sex in Burkina is kind of like “Wham, bam, and thank you Madame.” They then proceeded to ask me to explain each sexual act to them. I happily explained each one. So at the end of explaining these we then started to make a poster of all the modes of transmission. They women wrote out the modes of transmission on the poster but then I noticed that they wrote unprotected sex and the three types of sex as being two different categories/things. I mentioned that it may be a good idea to combine the two since anal, oral, and vaginal sex were considered sex and if done unprotected they could leave to contracting HIV. The women responded, “No, they are not. They are two different things. Those things are not sex.” It took me a good five minutes to explain to them that they were one and the same thing. Another interesting thing that happened during the conference was when the facilitators were explaining not only the types of sex that could transmit the virus but between whom e.g. man/woman, man/man, and woman/woman. A couple started giggling and the men shook their heads in disbelief and said that that would never happen (homosexuality). The facilitator got a big smile and happily explained that homosexuality does happen that they should know about it. Instances like these make me happy I was able to give the health agents the opportunity to attend a conference on HIV/AIDS. Even though these individuals are health board members and community health agents a lot of them are ignorant on health topics such as AIDS. Lots of the health agents and health board members are locals who have not received their high school diplomas and have not received formal training. These individuals help out during vaccination campaigns or do basic sensibilizations on family planning, malaria, and AIDS. I am also in the process of planning an International Women’s Day complete with a soccer match between the women and girls, a raffle, and a theatre troop presentation and sensibilization on family planning. So this last month I have been selling tickets for the International Women’s Day raffle. I sold just over 700 tickets at 5 cents each. Whatever I make in profit the health board will match it. Everyone is so excited for International Women’s Day because of the raffle. Every time I leave my house to go to the market or the hospital I have people asking me when the raffle is again. Everyone approaches me to buy tickets. I feel like the most popular person in the village; it’s great! Lots of times when I am walking women will come out of their family compound to flag me down to buy tickets. Once they approach me other family members/neighbors see me they start to come to. One time I was on the road so long selling tickets that they brought me a stool saying it would probably be awhile so I might as well get comfortable. Initially, since it is International Women’s Day Ganga only wanted to sell tickets to women since that was what the last volunteer at my site did. I told him no that I was going to open it up to everyone because of the family planning skit the theatre troop would be performing. I do not know why but district insists on only educating women on health topics (no men). While this may empower women, they are not the ones ultimately making the decisions for the household e.g. whether one can buy soap, contraception, and mosquito nets etc. So I told him that the incentive to come to the event would be to see if they are able to win the prize. And if they are going to come we might as well sensibilize as many people as we can, especially the men. Therefore, I was going to open of the raffle to the men. I just also attended a latrine building workshop at another volunteer’s site. It went really and I was able to bring my counterpart so that he could learn about the importance of practicing good hygiene and how to build latrines. At the end of the workshop each volunteer received materials to go back to their sites to build their own latrines. Very happy about that! In the next couple of months I want to really focus on good hygiene/sanitation and the importance of using latrines. The majority of the people know that latrines prevent infections/illnesses but they do not use them. Granted the only people in village who have latrines are the functionaires(teachers and clinics workers that are not from the village) but there are latrines at the maternity, clinic, and church. However, people do not use these latrines. I will see a person squat right beside the latrines and urinate and/or defecate and not go in the latrine. It is mind boggling! Since I have arrived here I have made it my life’s mission to find out why they do this but I am no closer to the truth. Anywhooo…back to the latrine formation. One interesting thing that happened at the latrine formation was that there was a man in the volunteer’s village who was chained to a tree. Apparently, he was “not all there” and one day started cutting up all of his clothes and walking around in a loin cloth. The village thought he would be a danger to others so there solution was to chain him to the tree. During the time that the man is chained to the tree (4 months) the village prays for him to get better. After his confinement is over if the village still thinks he is not all with it they will chain him up again. This has caused the volunteer to be incredibly distressed to the point that she has cried several times because the “prisoner” has not committed any crime yet, they just think he might. His legs have also swelled due to lack of circulation from the chains. But he is cared for; they have built a hanger for him so the sun does not beat down on him and people do bring him food. Because mental health institutions/facilities do not really exist here and/or if they do exist I do not think the families have the means to send their relatives to them, the village’s solution is to chain them up.
I feel like these last few months have flown by. Work wise, all of my projects are coming together and I feel great. I just finished a Family Planning regional bike-a-thon with two other volunteers. I had a great time and we were able to educate individuals on why practicing family planning was important. However, hot season just began so most days—no, no make that all the days-- it was awful to bike. Lol. We thought that by planning it in late February we could just miss hot season but it began early this year. In the shade it was 107 degrees. Ick. At the peak of hot season it can get up to 120-130 degrees. Anyway, back to the bike-a-thon—it went well and 19 people participated--3 volunteers, 12 theatre troop members, 2 health board members, and 2 women from a local NGO. We visited ten villagers and educated more than 2000 people. Family planning or lack thereof, is a really big issue in Burkina. I think less than five percent of people in rural villagers practice it. The average women here has 7 kids but I have seen women have as many as 15. The issue with having that many kids is that they do not have means to properly raise the kids. Often the families do not have the means to feed or clothe their children or even send them to school. From time to time at the maternity I will see women who are so malnourished themselves that they are unable produce milk for their babies. Moreover, it is part of the Bissa tradition that even if one is currently breast feeding, if she become pregnant again, she has to stop breastfeeding immediately(not good—if a child is weaned to quickly or before the time that he/she should be, it can cause severe malnutrition). During my last two week nutrition workshop a couple of months ago with a group of women I posed that question. Hearing their response that they would stop breastfeeding and then asked why is it part of their Bissa tradition. The women told me they did not know why but that they just practiced it because it was tradition. I then asked says who? The women said the elders said so. I was then like, “But why is it tradition? I do not do something unless there is a rationale behind doing it. What happens to the women’s body that she cannot breastfeed while she is pregnant?” Finally after asking this for about five minutes one woman finally understood the question and was like, “When a woman is pregnant her body becomes hot so if she breast feeds she will then transfer her fever to her child and he/she will become sick and die.” When I heard this I thought two things: A) I was happy I got a response as to why they do this practice and B) What The &%^#?!? Where and how do I even begin? Oh Lordy. I collected my thoughts and explained that that was not the case and that a woman should continue to breastfeed her child to avoid malnutrition. I then asked if they became pregnant while they were still breast feeding if they would continue to breast feed. They said no. I then asked, “Okay, if the head nurse at the clinic, not necessarily myself tells you the exact same thing that I just told you, who are you more apt to believe---the head nurse or the elders? The women were like, “Well regardless, we have to follow the elders because if we don’t and they child becomes sick they will tell us that is not their problem and that we are on our own. At this point, my finger nails started to dig into my thighs. Religion is also a big factor as why people do not practice family planning. Another factor is that having lots of kids as seen as having security/insurance for when the parents get old and cannot provide for themselves (they also need the children to work in the fields). One question raised by the one of the men during the sensibilizations was the following: “If specialists only recommended having 4 children (any more and the health risks to the mother increases—especially in lesser developed countries/rural areas), I have 4 girls and no boys. I want boys. What now?” We tried to explain that if they even if they have 4 girls they can take really good care of them and make sure they attend school/university and in the end the girls can take care of the parents just as well as having boys. Even though we may say this, it is not always well received because the status of women in Burkina doesn’t exist—they are seen as physically and mentally inferior. They do not have many rights. Also, the issue of family planning is complicated because men want their family name to continue. Girls are married off and are forced to live with the husband’s family—often times in a neighboring village. Without boys to continue on the family name in the family village, the legacy ends and it is assumed that people will forget about the family and their contribution to society. I once asked the head nurse at the clinic if a woman could be happy if she has so many kids that the family cannot provide for them? He replied that here children are seen as a gift from God and that even if they children are not provided for, the woman is still happy. I think a certain part of why people do not practice family planning is due to ignorance or the families think that they do not have the money to buy contraception. I get frustrated when people tell me they cannot afford family planning. The different methods of contraception are heavily subsidized here so that families can afford them. For example, the pill is about 20 cents a month, injection (every 3 months) is one dollar, the implant that can last up to 5 years is 5 dollars. It is not a lot of money. The frustrating part is that I see these same people buying dolo, the local beer, every day spending between 10-30 cents a day on it. I try to explain to them that I am not telling them to stop drinking dolo or buying snacks at the market, for example, but that if they normally buy 20 cents of dolo a day then maybe buy 10 cents of dolo. Hence, if you save little by little you can easily afford the contraception or even to send their sick child to the clinic. I tell them they need to think about the future and prioritize what is important to them. I also tell them good health is an investment and that if you practice it—whether it is buying soap or practice family planning—you will ultimately end up paying a lot less in hospital fees than if you don’t practice it. Even when it is explained to them, their response is still “We are too poor. We cannot afford it.”—that is most frustrating part. During my Etude de Milieu (my community analysis that I conducted when I first arrived at site) I would ask families why children die in the region and lots of people would respond “God wills it.” So I would try to explain that you can easily prevent them from dying by buying simple things like soap and they respond, “Nope, God willed it. We could not do anything to counter his will.” Also, when individuals just accept the deaths of their children because it was God’s will and they aren’t very concerned about the health of their children, one often wonders if children here are seen as property or individuals to be taken care of. I cannot answer that question. Family planning is a multi-faceted and complicated issue. I love my village and I love the people dearly. I just become disheartened because I do not know how to reach them. In the end, the bike-a-thon went well and I hope we reached at least some individuals.
A few weeks ago Ganga brought me to an animist funeral. It was quite the experience and very informative. It was like I was five years old again and asking “why, why, why?” It is a fascinating religion. I played “20 questions” the whole time we were there. The old man had died a few months back but normally people here wait until the cold season (December to February) to have festive funerals because they do not have money to throw a big party until after the harvest season has ended in December. But no worries. They do have a wake right after the person dies so the person does not have to wait to be buried. Anyhow, Ganga first shows me two elderly sitting on an animal hide pounding flat metal circular objects into the hide. I asked Ganga what was happening and he told me that the elders were looking for answers. I responded, “They are going to find answers by doing that?” Ganga replied yes and then told me while they do that ritual they seek out the spirits of their ancestors to explain why the person died. I then asked what sort of reasons the spirits would give as to explain why the person died. Ganga explained that sometimes the spirits say the person died of an illness, natural causes (old age), or that they upset the gods by transgressing. I probed him further and he explained that if a woman leaves her family compound to have sexual relations with a man whom she is not married to(whether she is married/single) that would be one cause. Another possibility would be if she received money for engaging in sex and with the money she received she bought beans or rice and fed it to a member of her family, which could be a reason her family member would die. Another explanation would be that if someone found money on the side of the ground they are either supposed to A) leave it there B) give it to the chief so they he can seek out the person who lost the money. If the person finds and keeps the money, they will die. I was like, “Ganga, the latter reasons do not even make sense. Do people actual believe those reasons or that the spirits talk to them?” He replied that it was their religion so they have to believe it—whether or not it makes sense. He also said that in Africa there are no autopsies so the majority of the time the people seek out answers through the spirits. I asked Ganga if the spirits ever directed the elders to kill an individual for committing a crime such as murder, rape, or theft. Ganga replied that the spirits never would make that decree but that the transgressor would be exiled from the community for ten years. However, for the case of rape, that is not forbidden or against the law according to the animists so the rapists go unpunished. By the way, the girl that was raped in one of my earlier blogs, there was no punishment for her rapist. The Chief (who happens to be animist) met with the two families and the rapist and his family asked the girl’s family to pardon him. The family did and so did the girl. So that was end of it. I told Ganga that I did not think the girl would have forgiven him and that she probably just said yes because that was expected of her. What was Ganga’s response? He suggested that he take me to her house so we could ask her if she forgave her rapist and why she did. I was “Ganga, no! We are not going to talk to the girl about her rape. She has been through enough without us bringing it up!” Sometimes it is hard to watch how culture, religion, and tradition conflict with the advancement of society or just things that seemed normal like rape 100, 500 years ago are still viewed in the same way. Instead of bringing in the gendarmerie (national police) to settle crimes/disputes most rural people have the Chief act as the judge. Anyhow, I have gotten off topic….after the funeral I asked Ganga what was the cause of the death of the man that had died. Ganga informed me that the spirits said the man had died of old age but that people should wary because a sorceress lives among them in the compound and will bring evil to her family. Hence, they should seek her out. At this point, I interrupt Ganga and am like, “Wait, Ganga. Wait. Everyone here says women are inferior and cannot live on their own/provide for themselves so how can the village exile the “sorceress” when they know she will die. Ganga concluded that it was her problem and not the village’s problem. However, if she or anyone else that had completed their ten year exile, they could return to their village and the villagers would welcome them with open arms.
My friend’s two daughters (ages 4 and 6) always tell me they want their mom to find them skin lightening cream so they can have white skin like mine. It breaks my heart when I hear them telling me this. In response I tell them that their ebony skin is so beautiful as it is and that my skin color is so boring. Upon hearing this the girls adamantely shake their heads and say that that is not true and that they still want white skin.
A few few weeks ago as I was waiting for my friend to finish preparing dinner I crossed my legs to get more comfortable in my seat. Seeing me do this her 4 year old daughter imitated me by crossing her legs as well. Masse, her mom, saw her do this and commented on it. I think to myself, “Oh, that is so sweet. She is copying me.” Masse then asks me if I know that crossing my legs when I sit is a totem (Burkinabé word for something that is strictly forbidden). She tells me that when I cross my legs it means my mom is going to die. I think to myself, “So basically I have been offending everyone since my arrival to Burkina. I was surprised this was the first time I had heard about it. I knew there were certain ways Burkinabé don’t sit e.g. Indian style because they consider it improper but I did not think it was a totem.” I was like okay even though sitting with my legs crossed is a like second nature to me I will try not to offend her and her family ( I doubt they would care though) and find a new position to sit. So I uncross my legs, rest my elbows on my knees, and rest my chin in my palms. I think to myself, “Good. This is a comfortable position. Probably won’t offend anyone.” Upon seeing this my friend tells me, “You know, that position is also forbidden. When you sit like that it means your dad is going to die.” I could not help but laugh because there must be so many gestures, movements, positions, that I do that are forbidden/improper here. I must be offending everybody! I know that the locals do not care how I sit or move; I think they just figure I am ignorant and let it slide.
A few weeks ago I attended a village event in Zabre commemorating the chief. There were hundreds and hundreds of people from Zabre and its surrounding communities there waiting to see the chief. However, those were not the only people in attendance. There were some men whose job was to keep the peace—not policemen but ordinary villagers. How did they "keep the peace", you ask? They would go around with long sticks yelling at villagers and flogging them. Granted I am not sure if flogging individuals, men and women alike, to get them out of the way or if they are not crouching down enough is the best people way to keep the peace but I suppose it works. If they were not there, there definitely would be risks of stampedes of people being injured or even worse. My friends and I arrived late to the event so we were all the way in the back. I wasn’t really all that worried because being the only whitey in the region does have its advantages. I (and other volunteers as well) am not sure if we are given special status because of being white or because the villagers view us as being a guest to their communities. The line is often blurred. Anyhow, there were two crowds at the events. There was one crowd immediately surrounding the chief and then there was another circle maybe 30 feet further back in a form of circle watching on. However, between the two circles there were the men “keeping the peace” with lots of flogging. We managed to get to the front of the second crowd but we were still quite far away. The “peace keepers” were yelling at the people that no one was allowed to cross them to join the other group. I was a bit disappointed because I wanted to take pictures of the ceremony. However, I was not disappointed for long because once one of the men passed me and saw that I was white he called out to me and said, “Nissara(whitey) you can pass the line but just you.” Camera in hand I happily joined the group. However, it meant that I was to be separated from my friends as they were not allowed to accompany me. Flash forward to after the ceremony of sacrificing chickens, the crowd was then instructed to head to another spot. So we all head over there. It was quite chaotic with everyone racing to get a good place to watch. About 5 minutes later I arrive at the new location. I arrived but was not in the immediate vicinity of the chief (that place is reserved for higher ups and people with special status). I was at the front of the line but I was not passed it. I was quietly and patiently waiting like a good villager. In the meantime the “peace keepers” were waving their sticks and yelling. All of a sudden out of the blue a man flogs me in the legs. The chaotic environment and surprise of being hit made me almost start to tear up. I do not think that the man had realized who he had hit because immediately afterward his friend said something in Bissa, the local language, to the effect of, “Great. Now, you’ve done it. You hit a whitey!” The man begged for forgiveness and told me to join the “special” crowd of about 20 people.
About two weeks ago I was walking home from the market and I saw Ganga arguing with my new neighbor (who was at the time building his new mud hut). It seemed like an intense conversation so I decided to not approach the two but to ask Ganga later on. The next day during my nutrition workshop I asked him what had happened the day prior. He had explained that a man had raped a girl from his village and he had come across her crying along the road. I assume he has found her somewhat soon after the rape had happened. I was shocked and then ask/told him that I assumed he was going to go the the gendamerie(national police) in Zabre to report the man. Ganga informed me that he was first going to have a meeting with the rapist and the village chief to decide what should be done. I was flabbergasted and responded, “What?!? You are not going to the police! The man raped a girl and the gendamerie needs to be involved to prosecute the man.” Ganga replied that first there would be a meeting with the Chief of the village because that was the African way—to handle conflict at the village level and not involve the government/police. That night I was eating dinner at my friends house and I told her teenage daughters what had happened and I asked what would happen to the man now. They informed me that the chief would probably have the man beaten and that the man would have to pay a fine to the victim’s family. Then they told me if the girl became pregnant she would then marry her rapist. I quickly became angry and irritated and felt sick to my stomache. I had read about situations like this going on in the Middle East in one of my political science classes but I naively thought it didn’t happen in Burkina. I then asked the girls why she would marry the man who had raped her and they said no one else would want her because now she was pregnant. I then asked what happens if she does not get pregnant, would she still have to marry her rapist. They told me yes because she was now tainted(not a virgin anymore). I wanted to ask more questions but I thought that I would ask Ganga because he would know more than anyone. I headed home and mid way through the night a horrible thought popped into my head—why was Ganga arguing with my new neighbor about the rape. Was my new neighbor the rapist? The next day I found Ganga and told him, “Ganga, please tell me the rapist is not my new neighbor who is building his mud hut 25 feet away from mine.” Ganga started to laugh and told me not to worry that the rapist was not my new neighbor; however, he did not explain why he was arguing with the man about the rape. He told me the rapist lived in Koma--another quartier of my village. However, he did tell me the man worked at the market mill. This mill happens to be about a 3 or 4 minute walk from my house. Hmm…I then told Ganga about what the girls had said and asked if it were true. He told me yes the girl normally marries her rapist if she becomes pregnant because no other man would want to raise another man’s child (abortion is illegal here, regardless of incest, rape etc.,). He told me if she did not become pregnant she would not have to marry him. I asked if virginity here was important. He told me that in his mom’s time that virginity had been really important and that the girl would most likely marry her rapist but that it wasn’t as important now. However, he did tell me that this happens today with a certain tribe in the south of Burkina who places a high priority on a girl’s virginity. By then I was livid and Ganga could tell. I was like, “Ganga, that is the most asinine thing I have ever heard! Don’t people realize that once the girl marries her rapist, every time they have sex it is like reliving the rape all over again.” Ganga replied, “Todara, that is just the way things are done in Africa—it is the African way.” A few days later I was having lunch with the mayor of Zabre and I told him about the situation and asked if it was true what they had said. Desire had told me that it was not true and that the man would go to jail. This, however, was dependent upon the girl or her family lodging a complaint against the man with the gendamerie. Desire then told me that often times they try to settle the issue at the village level because the Chiefs of the villages have problems with giving their power and authority over to the government and other officials(in the past before police it was the Chief that handed out the judgment). He also said this was corrupt because sometimes the Chief may be friends with the rapist’s family or he worked with the man and so he would let the rapist off easy. His words appeased me for the moment but then I thought who was I more likely to believe—the mayor, who is a rich functionaire/ a parliamentary member who doesn’t know much about village life/politics, or the locals who tell me something completely different but who live village politics day in and day out.
I'm a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, Africa. I graduated about a year ago from Emory in International Political Economy and Economics. I will posting pictures and stories about my adventures here.