Dec 13, 2010

'Tis the Season

  I have to admit that during the past two Christmases I spent in Burkina, my holiday spirit was definitely lacking.
 Call me Scrooge, but it’s hard to get in that Christmas spirit when your sweating profusely in 95 degree weather, sand flying up your nose, not a tree in sight, camels passing by your house….not to mention living in a predominately Muslim community!

But this December has already proved different, that holiday cheer slowly creeping up on me. Last week while biking, Charley and I passed this tiny dilapidated stand selling tacky Christmas knick knacks, gaudy lights, the most fake looking plastic Christmas trees and faux sparkly garlands. 

First we gawked in disgust. Then we bought everything we could. 

 Riding home, we were so excited to decorate our little faux Christmas tree and put up our colorful lights. It took all of two minutes.


So now that our home was decorated, we wanted to have a get-together. At first we decided on a BBQ but quickly realized that neither Charley nor I could BBQ, let alone COOK, so we opted for a simpler option: A Holiday Brunch! Even the worst of cooks can whip up scrambled eggs! Never mind that neither of us ever hosted a brunch or had any idea of what we were doing. The holiday spirit would guide us into hosting a wonderful Sunday Brunch.We invited a few Ouaga friends, FAVL people, and PC volunteers in Ouaga. I have to admit the brunch went great. 

We cooked up cheesy scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes and merguez sausages. Guests brought fruit salad, cookies and a special guest just arriving from the States brought bagels and lox! Thanks to several care packages we made our brunch classy with green olives, crackers and pate. Charley playing Mariah Carey’s Christmas album all day only added to the class.

So, I’ve learned a couple of things in the past two weeks:  

1) If you want to raise your cooking self esteem, invite a bunch of food deprived PC volunteers who haven’t eaten a good meal in months
 2) I’ve learned to embrace the holiday season no matter where I am. The Christmas spirit is here, even if it comes in a one-foot tall plastic tree.





Happy Holidays Everyone!

Dec 7, 2010

Senegal

Dakar

Back from Senegal and all I can say is, WOW! Everything about the trip was amazing.

The conference itself was very well organized and informative. It is mandatory for all Peace Corps Senegal volunteers and is an opportunity for them to get together and learn about what other PCVs are doing. It is a huge event and Peace Corps Senegal invites other volunteers from across West Africa to give presentations. In addition to Burkina Faso there were volunteers from Mali, Togo, Gambia, and Cape Verde.


                                                  The infamous statue

I gave presentations on enriched bouillie (to fight malnutrition in village) and promoting literacy (focus on FAVL). I met a volunteer from Mali who was presenting on adult literacy so we worked together to combine our presentations. Overall it went really well and we got a lot of positive feedback.

When I wasn’t presenting I was attending other presentations such as Best Practices for Working with Youth and Conducting NGO Workshops; all very interesting and informative.

It was really cool to meet other volunteers from West Africa and hear how different their experiences were from my own, especially those from Cape Verde! Sarah, a second year pcv in Cape Verde, says she and five other volunteers live on an island and almost never see other pcvs. If for whatever reason they need medical help or need to leave the island they have to fly! She also described one of the volunteers living inside the crater of an ACTIVE volcano! Apparently the soil there is incredibly rich and the villagers there have a vineyard and make their own wine!

Praying 5 times a day is not so bad when you have an ocean view!

Although I was only in Senegal for 5 days I was still able to do a bit of touring around. I went to Dakar's downtown and meandered through the streets and along the beaches. Dakar is so much different than Ouagadougou, so much more developed! The streets were all smoothly paved, the main road was beautiful because it went all along the coastline, kind of reminded me of a mini Highway 1 in California. High-rises were everywhere, vendors with beautiful and colorful art work lined the streets. The food, especially compared to Burkina, was delicious. Fresh fish, delicious rice dishes, vegetables galore...I was in heaven!

We stopped at the Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, an infamous and controversial statue. They say an estimated $25 million was spent on it...money that could have gone toward health and education. Also, the statue is of a Muslim man, woman and baby. The woman is wearing a skirt so short it nearly rides up her crotch and her nipple is visible through her shirt.

In a poor and Muslim country where appropriate attire means covered tops and skirts below the knee....one can easily see why the Senegalese people find the statue so inappropriate.


I also went to Ile de Gore, an island just off of Dakar. It is small but incredibly beautiful. A number of people still live on the island and survive by selling beautiful and diverse artwork to tourists. There are no roads and no cars on the island; to get there one must take a ferry. Walking around the island I could not help but feel completely at ease and at peace. Eating lunch and sipping drinks at a little cafe right on the beach, I couldn’t help but think "Damn, life is good!"

I could go to these type of conferences any day!

Isle de Gore

Nov 25, 2010

Work

Like every other human being on this planet, there are days when I love and days when I hate my job. Tough days are when I wish I could be with people in village but instead spend hours in front of a computer screen, never stepping out of the office. Sometimes I wonder what I stayed in Burkina for; I could be doing the exact same thing, only in Americaland, and being PAID.
Luckily for me, the days when I think this are few. Overall, I'm thrilled with what I have been doing. My To Do list is never ending, but I like being busy: Grant writing, social networking, research studies, learning Adobe Illustrator and Photo Shop, event planning, organizing workshops, day-to-day management etc. All invaluable things that will help me no matter what career I choose in the future.

But with this particular job experience, there are certain perks that I know I am just damn lucky to have:

* In October my boss asked Charley and I if we could go help out two volunteer research assistants finish up some evaluations. We could help out and also visit the FAVL libraries. Where were these two volunteers and the FAVL libraries? Ghana!
Yup, the boss makes us go, all expenses paid, to Ghana. The horror!



 


working hard in Ghana

*Part of Charley and my work here is to get FAVL more exposure in Burkina: make more social connections/networking, branching out to other ngos, local government and expat communities. This led to FAVL being chosen as benefactors to a fundraising event called the Jungle Party. Basically its a party thrown in a park/forest in Ouaga with music and dancing, with all the money sold from raffle tickets going toward FAVL. It started at 9pm and lasted until 6 in the morning.

So, let's get this straight: Going to a party complete with music, dancing and alcohol; scmoozing with partygooers; staying out until 3 a.m. ...
and this is all technically "work."
Well allright!

*Most recently Ive been asked by Peace Corps to attend a PC Volunteer Conference : Best Practices from the Field. I will be making two presentations on promoting literacy and food security. This conference happens to be in SENEGAL! So on December 1st I get to fly down to Senegal for 5 days, all expenses paid. Pretty exciting!

So next time I'm brewing in my anger and resentment while staring at a boring computer screen....Ill just tell myself one word: SENEGAL!

Nov 8, 2010

An Official Ouagalaise

Since I am now Ouagalaise, as they say here, I've been living like a total city girl. I eat out several times a week, go to events like Waga Hip Hop and SIAO, regularly head out for drinks with friends, buy fabric material and have clothes made by my tailor, I even signed up at a local gym!

In other words.....Im broke!!

But how can I not be? This is Ouaga, the capital city! There are just too many fun  things to see and do....whats a girl to do?



                             At SIAO, Burkina's biennual arts and crafts fair

What's strange is that in the past couple months Ive done and spent money on things that I dont even necessarily like! Since September I have gone bowling FOUR times...which is probably more times than Ive gone in my entire life.


                      Charley and I (in one of my tailor-made dresses)

I grab celebrity magazines as if they're rare priceless jewlels, looking through them to find different styles of dresses or skirts that my new tailor friend can make me. In the States, I would rather have eaten a plate of maggots then step foot in anything related to a  shopping mall.
I've never been a beer drinker but apparently I am now. Every time I go out with friends I grab a beer...or two. And recenty Ive gotten into this habit of (warning to beer lovers: the following will make you cringe) mixing my beer with tonic or sprite to turn it into this cheap champagne-like concoction.

Sigh...so while these past couple months of enjoying what Ouaga has to offer have been fun, I vow
to put an end to my frivolous and expensive ways. Emilie Crofton is now hereby
on a budget.
New rules: I can only spend 1,500 CFA ($3) a day on food and I can only drink beer (or my champagne brew) once a week...okay twice a week.


                     Contemplating my last beer (or two) for the week

Why dont I just stop spending money on new outfits and other unnecessary items, you may ask?
Baby steps people....baby steps

We will see how long I last

Oct 3, 2010

Life in Ouaga

One month has passed since I’ve been working and living in Ouagadougou. It hasn’t been long, yet one phrase always seems to come to mind :
« Toto, I don’t think we’re in village anymore! »

In Pobé-Mengao, the way of life is so different. Its difficult for me to compare village to the U.S. because they are like living in two different worlds. In the capital city of Ouaga, it’s easier to compare. It’s strange because to me, Ouaga is in this weird time zone where they want to have all the technology and luxuries of developed nations, yet aspects of the city make me think of the United States…200 years behind:
You’ll see a state of the art cyber café complete with 25 computers, all hooked up with high speed internet, scanners and fax machines at your disposal. Right in front of the cyber, however, will be an old man sitting in front of his wooden table, struggling to make his living selling cola nuts for 20cents each. (Just the fact that I'm writing this blog post from home after buying a USB internet connection key yet still have to wash my clothes and dishes by hand...it's just wierd).
Or the one section of Ouaga where several major roads meet, so this huge, freeway-like concrete overpass was built…yet the vast majority of streets in Ouaga remain unpaved and unrepaired, with the dirt roads full of bumps and pot holes. The middle aged man in his 3-piece suit, waiting at a street light in his silver BMW, while next to him a young mom with a baby attached to her back sits on an old bike, using her feet to stop because there are no brakes. Or Ouaga’s ‘waste management’ system that includes having old women hunched over their backs all day with nothing but a handle-less broom, and the young man who goes from house to house collecting garbage…with his donkey cart. The huge three story mansions right next to the tiny mud brick houses with a family of 8 living inside. The juxtapositions go on forever.
It's not the extreme difference of the rich and poor that surprises me. It obviously exists in the U.S too. But in the States you have your rich neighborhoods and your ghettos and they are very much apart. Here, they live side by side.

While living in Ouaga is definitely a change and adjustment, I already enjoy it. Even as a volunteer I’m one of the lucky ones that can enjoy Ouaga’s luxuries. In village, spending hours under the hot sun with nothing to do were some of the worst parts of my PC experience. In Ouaga there are so many different things to do. Boredom doesn’t exist. Feel like eating out? How about French? Lebanese? Chinese food? I go running in a beautiful nearby park for the ridiculously cheap entry price of 20 cents. I can play pool at a bar where they play jazz music. I can go out dancing at a club, workout at a gym, play basketball, swim in a pool, I can even go bowling! So much to do...so little time

Where I live

























Our living room/dining room


Now that Charley and I finally have some furniture, I can describe where we live. We live in a neighborhood called ‘Wemtenga’ and I’ve already come to love it. The people are friendly, the area is quiet, and so far I haven’t gotten too many ridiculous “Nasarra prices” when I purchase things. In front of our house is a small maquis where we can sit down for drinks. We’re right around the corner from a big road where we can find nearly everything we need: street food, local stores, tailors, furniture makers, hardware store, etc.

























My room, Charley's is directly across the hall

Our house is luxurious compared to my previous home. Tiled floors, painted walls, furniture that includes a couch and dining room table. Charley and I bought painted masks to decorate the walls of the living room. Our bathroom is incredibly small but has a sink, mirror, toilet and shower. It may be tiny but the way I see it...in what bathroom in the States can you pee, shower and brush your teeth at the same time, without having to move? That's mutitasking at its finest!

Work has been busy and a bit chaotic but it's just a matter of me getting back into the work scene. A lot of interesting projects are comingup and if all goes well, Charley and I will be heading to Ghana next week to visit the FAVL libraries located in northern Ghana.

Sep 12, 2010

From village girl to city girl

I’m back in Burkina and my 3rd year with Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL) has already gotten to a busy and productive start.

I’ve been promoted from village girl and am now “livin it up” in the big ol' capital city of Ouagadougou. I live in a house (complete with electricity, running water and yes, a TOILET) that’s just a short bike ride from the FAVL office. I’m living with Charley who was located in a village up north but because of the Al Qaeda threat had to evacuate his site. Even though he’s still a 1st year volunteer, Peace Corps agreed to our living together and his working with me at FAVL.

Our house is nice but very empty. Every free time we’ve had has been spent running back and forth getting furniture made and buying much needed supplies. I’ll post pictures up and give more details on our living situation as soon as our house is furnished and set up.

For our first official week with FAVL, Charley and I went down to a village called Boni to help run one of FAVL’s summer reading camps in the village libraries. It felt so good to be back in the village setting, where things are calm, the people friendly, and 8 oclock bed time is the norm!

Overall the camp went well. No one can deny that Dounko, FAVL’s ‘animateur extraordinaire,’ is incredible with children. He’s energetic and loves to see kids having fun. (Unfortunately it’s not often in Burkina you see a grown man “lowering” himself to a child’s level, someone whose not afraid to look silly or poke fun of himself for the sake of children’s education.) With Dounko around, children always have a great time. He knows how to make learning fun.

Between the reading and art activities, games, songs and dance, the camp was an entertaining and busy week. Sadly, witnessing the children's reading levels was an eye opener to the realities of Burkina’s lousy education system.

The camp consisted of 26 boys and girls, all between 11 and 13. In the U.S. most children this age have a pretty good reading level, easily reading young adult novels.
But during this camp the vast majority had trouble reading simple children’s books. Some could slowly stumble through a sentence but when you asked them questions, you realized they had no concept or understanding of what they just read.
One experience struck me particularly hard. During an individual reading session I asked a young girl to read to me. She told me she couldn’t because her eyes hurt. After I sat down with her for a while she got more comfortable, and opened the book. It was soon clear, however, that it had nothing to do with her eyes, she simply couldn’t read. She couldn’t even write out the alphabet.
It was a reality check to the problems of schools in villages. When you have 100 ten year old students in one class it’s easy for them to be ignored and simply slip by.
When I shared my thoughts with Dounko, he said he thought the reading level of the students in Boni’s camp were higher than the other camps he'd run.
The experience was challenging but also gave Charley and I many ideas on ways to improve next year’s camps: Start at the basics; instead of focusing on reading, put more emphasis on teaching them HOW to read.

Aug 28, 2010

Visit Home

At the beach in Santa Cruz

Culture Shock
Two words I feared most about my return. Yeah, maybe the return was just a month-long visit but still, it seemed every PCV warned of this evil villain, Culture Shock, a villain who would make me loathe Americaland and all its capitalist and materialistic ideals. I would be disgusted by people who have three cars in their driveway, pay $50 for a shirt and complain because the waiter has taken more than 2 minutes to bring their drinks.
I don’t know, maybe despite my two years in Burkina I’m still one of these capitalist and materialistic people because frankly, I absolutely loved my visit home!

The month of August was wonderful. I spent a few days in a beautiful rental home right along the Russian River where I did nothing but swim, kayak, read and eat perfectly cooked steak.














Kayaking on the Russian River; Always representing Burkina, even from Cali!


I lunched with friends and laughed over margaritas, went to a jazz festival, shopped til I dropped, dressed up in heels and skirts (to feel like a woman again!). I went to the beach, I ran a 10k race. I went to the movies, I ate junk food….ahhh to be an American again!

I went to a spa in Calistoga with my mom and lounged in mineral pools. I had a one-hour massage and let me tell you, while this angel-from-heaven of a woman was tugging and rubbing, massaging and making me groan in ways only a man is supposed to…..not once did I think of Pobe.


Does that make me a bad person? What does that mean? Why was it so easy for me to return?

Of course there were some things….little things that immediately brought me back to the realities of America:

- On the way home from the airport all I could think of was sushi dinner….of course Friday night rush-hour traffic seemed to think I’d waited 2 years…what was another 2 hours.

- My first time back in a grocery store, I just walked slowly up and down the aisles, mouth half open in shock. My mom kept asking “Well what do you want!?” and all I could stumble out was “I….don’t….know!” A bit overwhelming.

- Or the time I started doing all the dinner dishes while my mom and Patrick were outside. Twenty minutes later I’m still sweating and scrubbing everything by hand when my mom walks in, sees me and says “Milie…why don’t you just use the dishwasher?” Oh yes, the dishwasher, a machine invented to wash dishes. Incredible!

While in Calistoga we stopped at a famous winery (the one from the movie Bottle Shock). It was very nice and probably the only time in my life I’ll ever taste $130 wine. But we were surrounded by nothing but yuppies and blond bimbos. You know the kind, the women with perfectly manicured fingernails and those huge perky, plastified bosoms, talking about their recent shopping trip in Paris. It was a Monday afternoon...don't these people work??

Obviously I thought frequently of Burkina and the people of Pobe. One weekend my family helped organize a party/fundraiser where we raised more than $500 for Pobe’s library!


I loved my visit home but to be honest I’m ready and excited to get back. I know that joining the Peace Corps is a once in a lifetime experience that not a lot of people have the courage to do, and I’m doing it. Before joining I was worried about 2 yrs being too long. But being here I’ve realized that nothing has really changed. Things are basically still the same. But I’M not the same. I’ve learned and experienced so much, more than I ever imagined. Recently I’ve heard the word “regret” from so many people, wishing they had done things differently, that they had not been afraid to try new or challenging things.

It made me realize, I have no regrets. My time in Pobe was challenging. At times I hated it, I thought of coming home, wondering why the hell I CHOSE to be there, my latrine became my little private crying room. But if I could go back and change things, change my decisions…. I wouldn’t.


I guess it’s a good thing I’m going back for a 3rd year!

Jul 29, 2010

My 2 years are up!

swearing in as a PC volunteer 2 yrs ago

Well, my 27 months have come to an end. Tonight I’m flying home to California after 2 wonderful years as a Girls Education and Empowerment volunteer in Pobe-Mengao. I return to Burkina in September to begin my 3rd year as a volunteer with Friends of African Village Libraries.

Overall, my experience in Pobe was amazing. I made some incredible relationships that I know will last for years and years. Through activities like girls’ clubs, girls’ camp, sensibilizations, AIDS formations, nutrition projects and the library project, I’m happy and satisfied of what my little-experienced-self was able to achieve.

Unfortunately my stay in village did not end like I would have liked. An emergency security situation forced me to evacuate Pobe without saying goodbye to my friends. But while this situation is unfortunate, I’m happy that I am extending a 3rd year. Hopefully in several months I’ll be able to return to Pobe and say my proper goodbyes.



Pobe-Mengao's famous Mamyou fertility statue

Tonight I return home for one month and the truth is that as excited as I am, I’m also partly petrified! I haven’t been home in over two years! I’ve been living in an African village in Burkina Faso, a country many Americans have never even heard of. Now I’m heading back to the fast-paced land of technology where time is money, where being in fashion doesn’t mean wearing bright multi-colored mismatched-patterned outfits; where my taking a 2 hour nap at noon time is not going to be acceptable.

I know I’ll feel out of touch. Who are the Jonas Brothers? Why are people so obsessed with Twilight? What the hell is Twitter? Is it true we have a Black president? (just kidding).

There are two things I am most excited about: 1) Seeing family and friends (obviously) and 2) Food! Everything from sushi to Mexican to my mom’s home cookin. I’ve already planned a major Costco run. I’m slobbering all over myself now just thinking about it.

Volunteers who have visited home already gave me good tips and warnings. For example, beware of my first grocery store experience….I’ll be in shock! (And wear a jacket…passing by the freezer section is like being in Antarctica!)

Overall though, I’m really excited. I am looking forward to relaxing, spending quality time and catching up with family and friends. For me, the fun begins right from the plane ride. Air France baby! Free champagne, free wine, free cheese. Is it sad that I’m actually looking forward to the meal served on the plane?
















May 26, 2010

bike race, computers and....extension?













Claiming my prizes; Amy and I before the race

After 2 years of bike parts constantly breaking, changing flat tires on a weekly basis and biking 25K just to buy vegetables….it’s safe to say that I truly hate biking. Ironically, I feel like it’s biking that I will be most known for in Pobe. It started with last year’s Women’s Day bike race. (It wasn’t until I won the race that people started calling me Emilie instead of Nassarra). And this month, apparently, I have “saved the name of Pobe” with another biking feat.


I participated in a bike race in Djibo organized by a big mining company. There was a 25K men’s race from Pobe to Djibo and a 5K women’s race in Djibo. When I said I wanted to sign up for the men’s race (It’s the exact course I bike for veggies anyway so why not?) I was told no. I flipped. “That’s ridiculous! I can bike 25K! WOMEN can bike 25K! I vowed to bike in the race no matter what. I imagined flying past tired sweaty men with a sign attached to my back reading “Vous venez d’être dépassé pars une femme!!” (You’ve just been passed by a girl!) I’m a GEE volunteer. This was going to be GEE at its prime.


Then I was told the winners of both the men’s and women’s races got big prizes including new bikes and lots of cash money.

I registered for the women’s race. (Add prizes and cash money to anything and any PCV turns into a competitive, money-hungry beast….I can always empower girls another day.)


I convinced the Roses and Thomas to also compete in the race, so we all got together in Djibo the night before. The race itself went very well, I won first place! I won a sweet biking jersey, a new bike and nearly $300 worth of CFA!! All because of a FIVE k race! The mining company was literally throwing money around, creating a big hoop-la over nothing. Ever participant had to wear a t-shirt that had the face of the Minister of Mining plastered on the front. Coincidence that all this occurred just a couple months before elections? I think not. It was kind of ridiculous, but I still gladly accepted the prizes. All the money went to the library (more books!) so at least it was for a good cause.


A big secondary project that Amy and Aaron Rose did was create a computer room in their village of Titao. After getting it up and running they decided to conduct a week-long IT camp to introduce computers and how they work to students and functionaries. Three other volunteers including myself spent the week helping them, teaching everything from the parts of a computer to how to make a power point presentation.


Now, those that know me know that I am one of the most computer incompetent people, so the idea of me helping out, showing others what to do was a little scary. But the camp went well (minus constant power cuts) and I probably learned as much as the students!


Emilie Crofton, computer guru?

This month, my time in Pobe has been strange emotionally. In village I have been really bored, lazy, frustrated, anxious and even somewhat anti-social. I realized I am going through what I like to call Africanized Senioritis. I’m nearly done with my projects and work in Pobe, ready to move on to other things. Although, unlike the majority of PCVs, I won’t be moving on too far away.


I remember a phone conversation that I had with my mom several months ago.

Mom: “I just read another volunteer’s blog about how they decided to extend their Peace Corps service for another year. Emilie, I want you to come home after 2 years. PROMISE me now you will not extend!”

Me: “Mom, believe me, I am coming home after my 2 years are up. There’s no way in hell I am extending, I PROMISE!”

Well, here I am announcing that I have officially extended my Peace Corps service (sorry mom).


A couple reasons why Ive decided to extend:


-I feel like it took me a full year before I was settled, felt integrated in the community, developed the trust of the people and did meaningful/sustainable activities that were actually needed. This second year has just flown by, there’s still a lot more that I can and want to do.

- I am interested and curious about working in the NGO world. I could go back home and work some lame desk job with some NGO, or I could stay here with an NGO and work directly in the field, learning skills and experiences that will truly help me see if this is what I want to do or not.

For my extension I will not be in Pobe-Mengao. While I will still be a Peace Corps volunteer, I will be “working” with Friends of African Village Libraries (the NGO that helped me with the library in Pobe.) Having worked extensively with them, I really like and respect what they do and believe they make big impacts in village communities. I think it would be wonderful to be apart of that. I would be splitting my time between their bureau in Ouaga and their village libraries (most of them being in the south-west part of Burkina)


Here are some of the projects/activities the director sees me working on:

- Speaking to Ministry, WB officials and other NGOs to get larger scale production of appropriate children’s materials

- Leading a workshop for 100 Maires on “Establishing a community library”

-Helping create a set of six workshops for improving library services

- Networking with cellphone/software engineers and cellphone companies to pilot web-interface for FAVL librarians to do their monthly reporting

-Helping create 25 illustrated children’s books for young readers

-Working with a local printer to produce children’s books

-Working on normal FAVL activities at the different libraries such as literacy camps, reading programs, etc.

-Helping in running/facilitating the study abroad program


While Im really excited for next year, I am honestly looking forward to my upcoming home leave. (If you extend, Peace Corps flies you home for one month). I will be home the month of August and am looking forward to seeing family and friends, eating good food, and not sweating 24/7. Amina!