Sep 26, 2011

Pobé Summer Reading Camp, Hanging Out with Twaregs....and Farewells!

In September I spent a wonderful week in Pobé-Mengao! The village library ran its first ever summer reading camp for CM1 (4th grade) students. I saw this not only as the perfect opportunity to participate and help run the camp but to say proper goodbyes to my Pobé-Mengao friends. Since June 2010, the region was closed off due to terrorist kidnapping threats, but I was thrilled when Peace Corps, after much begging and pleading, allowed me to go back. 

Reviewing the alphabet with a group of students

The week-long camp consisted of 25 4th graders (13 girls, 12 boys) randomly chosen from a class of 86. The camp’s goal was to help improve the students’ reading levels in a fun and welcoming environment. Sessions included reading activities, peer tutoring, storytelling, arts and crafts, song and dance, instruction, and discussions on health, HIV/AIDS, malaria and life skills. Overall, I was very happy with the camp. There were a couple decent readers but the rest were at an incredibly low-level. Five of the students could not read, write or recite the alphabet. We were shocked when one day we asked the students to write their names down on paper, and fifteen misspelled their own names. The camp was led by Dounko the FAVL animator, Hamidou the librarian, myself, an assistant and one of the primary school teachers. The teacher was awesome and really worked closely with the students. Each of his lessons reflected errors he witnessed the students making throughout the day. We conducted evaluations—individual reading tests before and after the camp—and during the last tests we could see much improvement in the students. It was hard not to get emotional when Daouda, with a huge smile on his face, proudly recited the entire alphabet without error for the first time. As happy as I was, it was frustrating. I only spent a total of about an hour or two with him individually, so that he understood the alphabet. It’s upsetting to think that at 12 years old, he’s been held back at has had such a disadvantage in school simply because no one took the one or two hours necessary to help him. 

There's always time for dancing!

Throughout the week we had frequent visitors: older students, parents, functionaries, the Mayor and the Prefect. All came to witness the camp and offer words of encouragement. It was obvious that the community was really happy with the camp and is determined for it to become an annual event.


 Arts and crafts: making masks; Dounko reading a story

While in Pobé, I ran into a student and good friend of mine named Ibrahim. Ibrahim is Twareg and back in 2009 he invited myself, my mother and several study-abroad students to visit his family. To our pleasure, this year he invited Dounko, Hamidou, Francois (FAVL driver) and myself to visit and learn about his family.
 Home of Ibrahim and his family
Ibrahim lives with his two parents and his ten brothers and sisters in an isolated area about 8 kilometers outside of Pobé. They are herders and own about 25 camels. Despite the fact that one camel can be sold at about 300,000 to 400,000 CFA, they live incredibly simply, in tents. They are nomadic and do not have many material possessions. Upon our arrival we were warmly welcomed and sat on small but comfortable goat-skin cushions inside their tent. They made us tea while we asked questions about their way of life. The family only speaks Tamasheq, so Ibrahim served as our French translator. Later they saddled up one of their camels, and Dounko and I were brave enough to go for a ride. We milked a camel and drank its deliciously warm and rich milk, in addition to receiving a huge bottle-full for us to take home. By the time we left we were nothing but smiles.

Dounko atop of a camel                                                                  Drinking camel milk...mmmm!

Today is bittersweet, as I bid farewell to Burkina Faso. My Peace Corps service is up, and I will be flying home tonight. After 3 years and 4 months, I am ready to come back home, settle down, and have a real salary! But it is still very hard to leave. Burkina has become like home for me. These past few weeks have been full of joy, visiting friends and sharing wonderful memories together. I say farewell, but I know that I plan to return to Burkina in 2 years. So, instead of goodbye, I will say: Wena kon Bilfu!
I would like to especially thank all those in Americaland who have supported me in so many different ways during my time in Burkina. From letters and carepackages to those who so generously helped support the establishment of the Pobe Mengao Village Library....THANK YOU! Believe me when I say, it never would have happened without you!

Aug 22, 2011

August = Good Times!

This past month of August has been a busy one, though definitely a fun one! I went to Quebec for two weeks to visit family. My time was well spent eating delicious homemade meals, visiting college friends, picnicking at a lake, occasional runs with the mom and getting lots in the streets of Montreal. I was also able to attend the wedding of one of my very good friends Christine. We played college basketball together so in addition to her, I saw several old teammates, which of course meant we had a good time!

 Back in Ouaga, I’ve been busy with FAVL work and preparations for my Peace Corps Close of Service, which is September 26th! Right now I’m a mix of emotions: sad, happy, anxious, excited, nervous….emotions which I’m sure will only increase as September comes along! I’ve already begun job searching which so far isn’t proving too successful. Hopefully in the coming weeks it’ll be more promising! Luckily, I have basketball to help me de-stress!
 For the past three months, I’ve been playing with a women’s basketball team here in Burkina. The team was put together last minute and no one really expected much from our team. Well, we made it all the way to the National Championship game! On the night of Aug.20th we played on live TV at the Palais des Sports in Ouaga 2000. The arena is like no other; even the Minister of Sports said (twice) that it felt like we were in another country. (Though the politics, the hour-long speeches by ministers and sponsor officials and the delay of game due to rain pouring onto the floor, quickly reminded me that we were indeed in Burkina Faso). Our team lost. Okay, we got our butts kicked by XX points. (Sorry but being embarrassed on national TV was enough for me…no need to put the final score up for all to see!). I was really pissed after the game but our wonderful coach quickly had us all laughing and enjoying the moment. Overall, the experience was great and definitely not something I was expecting when I decided to join Peace Corps! While it may have been my last time playing in Burkina, it has convinced me to find a women’s league to play in once I get back home.

Jul 7, 2011

A little R&R (or so we hoped) in Togo

Coco Beach, Togo

I recently returned from a 5-day trip down in Togo. It was a much-needed break where the only actions allowed were eating, drinking, swimming and reading. The words “email” and “work” were strictly prohibited. We stayed at a place called Coco Beach Chez Antoine, located in the small town of Avepozo, about 20K outside the capital of Lomé. For an incredibly cheap price, we had our own electrified bungalow right on the beach. There’s nothing quite like falling asleep and waking up to the sounds of waves crashing against the sands just a few feet away. Our days included lounging under a parasol on the beach, reading African biographies, swimming (more like getting tackled by the waves) and strolling around town. Everyday Emmanuel, one of the staff, would crack open fresh coconuts for us to sip from and chow down on.

While our camp ground was heavenly, the surrounding area was by no means touristic. We needed only to step out of Chez Antoine to be reminded that we were still in an impoverished country. While taking a lovely stroll along the sands, we’d cross paths with adults defecating on the beach in front of us. Old women cooked family meals outside of dilapidated homes. Barely 300 meters from where we stayed was an Ivoirian refugee camp. 

 We spent our last two days in Lomé. I think the biggest surprise for me was the lack of local businesses. The streets of Burkina are full of small boutiques and restaurants. In Lomé we’d walk 10 blocks trying to find a stand that sold coffee and bread. In Burkina I get easily annoyed with the young teens on the streets thrusting gum and phone credits in my face. In Togo I begged for someone to come sell me Kleenex tissues.
 Bus rides always offer added excitement to any trip. Driving from Ouaga to Lomé takes about 20 hours but when a plane ticket costs $500 versus a $30 bus ticket…that 20 hour trip doesn’t seem so bad. Our ride to Lomé was fine but we weren’t so lucky on the return trip.
On the bus, it was almost impossible to sleep at night as the driver thought it fit to play loud African music the entire time. At around 2 a.m. Togo police pulled over our bus and started screaming at everyone in local language. It ends up that during the night a bus had hit and killed a pedestrian and didn’t stop. About 7 different buses were all lined up in front and behind us. We stood outside while the police screamed at whoever was around them and scrutinized each bus. Finally the culprit was caught (fortunately, not our bus) and we were free to go.
At the border we had to check out with the Togo police before continuing on into Burkina. West Africans are free to travel throughout other W. African countries without any sort of fee, as long as they have proper ID. But right away the police demanded 500CFA from everyone in order for them to continue on. When his name was called, Elisée made the grave mistake of politely asking the police what the 500CFA was for. We were immediately told to sit off to the side and then had to wait until the entire line of people had filed through. A large policeman with a puffed out chest then started berating Elisée, screaming in his face about knowing when to keep his mouth shut and “talking back” to police. He threatened to beat Elisée for his lack of respect. We had to listen to this BS for about 10 minutes before he finally let us go (we never did end up paying). Maybe I should have been worried or frightened but while his spit sprayed our faces, all I could think about was how pathetic this corrupt man was; belittling others so that he could feel powerful behind the safety of his policeman status. We climbed back on the bus for the trip’s remaining 7 hours, where we watched horrible French-dubbed Nigerian soap operas followed by a video of Hulk Hogan and other ridiculous looking pro-wrestlers beating up on each other on TNA. (I will never understand pro wrestling. I watched female wrestlers compete where the looser was forced to strip on stage in front of the audience. When she “refused” the announcer was quick to respond “You HAVE to strip and entertain the audience. It’s in your contract. If you refuse to strip, you WILL be fired!” Funny to think I’m in Burkina as a Girls Education and Empowerment volunteer. We could still use some GEE in the United States).

Like I said, bus rides always make for added adventure.

Jun 13, 2011

Love and Basketball

I played basketball during most of my school-aged years: middle school through college. I knew that my bball days would go on hiatus during my PC service. Before leaving for Burkina, I imagined creating a basketball court at my future site. After arriving in Pobe, however, I quickly realized how expensive and, frankly, useless that would be. Now in Ouaga, I play once a week at the local International School, scrimmaging for a couple hours with some of the school dads and working expats. Never did I imagine playing in Burkina’s national championship tournament on the senior women’s team…but that’s exactly what I’m doing!
Long story short, my neighbor/landlord Mariam asked me if I’d play with her on a team coached by her husband.  I had no idea what to expect or what I was getting myself into but I figured, what the hell, why not. We’ve played 3 games now and are just several weeks into the tournament (lasts till August) but it has already proven to be quite the experience. A quick recap:

Game 1: We play our first game without having had a single practice or knowing who’s on the team. We lose by 30. Asides from maybe 3 baskets, Mariam scored all our points.  Despite my excitement in playing again, I couldn’t hide my 3 year hiatus. I scored zero points, had 3 fouls, and actually knocked a girl unconscious with my elbow (oops!).
Game 2: A vast improvement after several practices and actually knowing the names of our teammates, we win by 25. Mariam continues to shine on the court and the rest of the girls follow through and score some nice baskets. I myself also played well, enough that I had coaches and players from the opposing teams telling me to switch to their team.

Only in this country is it appropriate to cheer for a player by screaming "NASSARA!," which basically means, GO WHITE GIRL!
(sigh, I've given up trying to explain to Burkinabes that I'm biracial) 

Since then we’ve been improving, winning our third game and playing more and more as a team. While the talent doesn’t really compare to female players in the States, I have to say I’ve been impressed with some of the players in this tournament. A few could have easily played for a Division I or II college team back in the U.S. In a poor, underdeveloped, somewhat masochistic, soccer-loving country, I can’t imagine where or how these girls trained to become so good.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about: the tournament takes place in the second best court in Ouagadougou; an open-aired, cracked and bumpy concrete court. On one basket the rim is bent. On the opposite end, a large crack bisects the entire backboard which is so crooked that when you’re shooting free throws, you have to stand at the corner of the key in order to shoot straight.  Apparently there is a beautiful indoor court available in the rich part of the city but no team can afford the rent to practice or play so it remains empty and unused.
The best player on the court by far is my 36-year old, mother-of-two, neighbor Mariam. Needless to say, I was not surprised to learn that back in her playing days she was named the national player of the year several years in a row. I’m definitely loving being able to play again. Everyone is telling me to “just have fun out there” which, I know is true; I should be enjoying my time on the court. But my competitive side is starting to come back….the trash talking is returning, the elbows are coming out…dammit…I want to win!

The beautiful couple Meighan and Olivier

In village I went to a lot of weddings but on June 11th I attended my first wedding in Ouaga. It was a particularly special one for me, as my good friend and fellow volunteer Meighan married her Burkinabe fiancée Olivier. The day began with a civil ceremony at the local Mayor’s office, followed by a church service and ending with a reception at the home of Oli’s family. It was absolutely beautiful and I caught myself trying to stifle tears on a couple occasions. Somewhat similar to the idea of having bridesmaids’ dresses, here in Burkina the wedding guests can buy the wedding “pagne” chosen by the bride and have outfits made to wear at the wedding. As most of you know, I’ve become addicted to having my local seamstress make me dresses (a tailor-made dress for less than $8 bucks?…What’s not to love!) I knew I would probably never wear the dress again…so I went all out, opting for a one-shoulder dress decorated with white frills. Complete with the new hairdo…I was feeling like a diva!

Elisee and I rockin the pagnes

Asides from having my host sister braid my hair once during my first three months of training back in 2008, I had yet to get my hair done in this country. There are a lot of reasons for this, the main one probably being the fact that it’ freakin 100 degrees 365 days of the year, I sweat 24/7 and I could give a rat’s butt what my hair looks like. But I decided to use Meighan and Oli’s wedding as reason to try a style called “flastuce” that I frequently see and like on Burkinabe women. Sitting in the styling chair, I was nervous. So many factors made this experience horrific:
-The first words out of the stylist’s mouth are that she has never worked on a “white person” before and has no experience with my kind of hair.
- I have hair that comes down well below my shoulders but because she had never worked with my kind of hair, she tells me she can’t do the hair style without using hair extensions.
 - Hair extensions wouldn’t have been that big a deal except for the fact that the only color she had was black. In fact, looking at my choices, the lightest color of hair she had was called “midnight black.” Not so great when you have light brown/dirty blond hair.
-  I quickly discovered the color of the hair extensions wouldn’t matter, however, because she began to use about 1 lb of dark brown hair gel often used on black, African-American hair to ensure that the twists remained glued to my head. For the next two days, anytime I touched my hair, thick, dark brown globs of gel came off onto my fingers, staining everything from my clothes to my bed sheets. Fortunately/Unfortunately, she used so much of the dark-colored gel that you couldn’t even tell I had black extensions in my hair.
Add 3 black hair nets and about 30 bobby pins to the above, you can only expect the worst right? But ironically the end product looked really nice… even the hair stylist was surprised! I was worried about how long my hair would last with the heat + playing in the basketball games. But I only spent $7 and ends up, with the amount of gel she used….not even a nuclear bomb couldn’t destroy my hair do!