May 28, 2011

masked men and birthday weekend

Since I’ve been in Burkina, I’ve loved writing about the hilarious/depressing/incredible/unexpected experiences that I’ve come across while living in this country. I just recently returned from a trip to different villages down south to help conduct a research study. I can genuinely say that what I experienced there was the most strange and downright ridiculous thing yet.

Upon arriving to the village of Bereba, which was our base during the study, we were warned that it was the “temps des masques.” Oh, I thought, a nice ceremony with dancing men and women donning beautiful handcrafted African masks? Ends up…not quite. I was explained that it’s a time when men from the village wear beautiful, handcrafted African masks, yes, but then they proceed to chase or sneak up on villagers, throwing stones and heavy branches at them and whipping whoever gets in their way.

At first I thought he was joking but then he pointed to a path about 200 meters from us. A man wearing a huge painted masked ran/danced along the path, throwing large rocks at nearby children who scampered away in fear. He pointed in the opposite direction where another masked man blocked the road, pelting innocent motorists. “Um….should we head back and stay at the regional town for the night?” I asked. No, I was told, if we stayed at the house, we’d have no problems. Ha ha..yeah right.
1st warning: When we arrived, Tenoko, the young woman in charge of caring for the house was there, grabbing hold of her left arm. She’s been whipped by a masked man on her walk over to the house. Well, I’m an outsider, so I assumed I’d be exempt from this weird and violent tradition. Nope. Children, the elderly and unfortunately for me even ignorant foreigners who don’t know any better aren’t spared. I proceeded to hear stories of children who couldn’t go to school because the men would block their path and beat them, an old man who was chased down, pushed to the ground and fractured his arm in the fall. Pity on whoever leaves any property outside their house as bikes, chairs or appliances will be destroyed. Apparently several years ago a Peace Corps volunteer living in a neighboring village was cut so bad he needed stitches. Uh, yeah, that last part definitely sparked my attention. That would be my second warning.
Example of a mask they would wear. 
What...u wanted a real picture of a masked man? I'm not that crazy!
Apparently the masked men are not allowed to enter any walled compound. That first night it was stifling hot (I’m too damn used to fans now and that electricity thing that I love so much). I debated whether or not to sleep outside but Elisee and our driver said no one would bother us, as the house was a good ways away from the center of village. Despite having two strong men sleeping near me, I was still nervous and literally slept with one eye open. At 10:30 I jumped awake after seeing three masked men staring at us from over the wall. We all jumped up but the masked men just sort of sauntered away. Now jittery, I had trouble falling back asleep. At 2:30 a.m. it was Elisee’s turn to jump up, and again we saw the three masked men staring at us from over the wall. “Why didn’t they throw anything at us?” I asked Elisee. “They are just warning us”, was his answer. Warning number 3. Well, that was enough warnings for me. I gathered up my things and slept the rest of the night inside, suffocating in the heat, drenched in a pool of my own sweat, but I’d take that over getting rocks and branches thrown at me any day!
This custom lasted two days…such a strange (and ridiculous) tradition. They say it’s an annual tradition to call for rain but in all honesty, it really just seems like an excuse for people to hide behind a mask and beat/hit whoever they don’t like or are jealous of.

Oh Burkina, you never get boring! 

Despite the whole mask situation we were able to do our research project. In short, we distributed solar-powered lanterns to 4th and 5th grade students in 9 different villages and plan to track their reading habits. During this particular trip down we explained the project to the students, randomly picked 80 participants per school, conducted a series of tests (written, oral, questionnaires) to evaluate their reading levels and habits, and then distributed out the lamps. More evaluations will be conducted over the coming months.

The study itself was really interesting. I participated in a similar study evaluating reading levels in Ghana and was pleasantly surprised by how much better the young readers were here in rural Burkina than in Ghana. But even though most could read, it was still sad to see how little the kids understood. For example, they could read a short paragraph just fine but ask them any questions about what they just read and they looked up at you with clueless expressions.

I’m also curious to see how the lamps are used. One would hope the students would use the lamps to read and study at night, but that’s just not realistic. Most likely the lamps will be used by entire families to help finish nightly chores.  

On May 27th I celebrated by 26th birthday. It was a lot of fun! We went to this kind of high class African restaurant. I left the restaurant groaning, grabbing my bulging belly, complaining of how much I ate. That’s when you know I loved the food.

 Happy Birthday to me :)