Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I think I know how to end this blog.

I was recently asked a pretty mundane question that actually got me thinking: “What is the thing you’re most proud of in life?”

It didn’t take me any time at all to answer, despite the fact that I hadn’t tried to answer that question even once since I got home. The answer was strange to say. I guess I expected that when I got home, I would break up my experience into little successes and failures, that I would be able to say how proud I was to build a library, or to have taught in French… But it's not.

The fact is, we judge what we're proud of doing based on what other people think. That sounds seedy, but what is pride if not satisfaction derived from what everyone else deems worthy? It IS one of the seven deadly sins.

When I tell people I was in the Peace Corps, that's enough for them to say "wow! Where were you?" and I tell them where, and if they ask what I did I say I was a science teacher. And after that they say "Holy crap, that's really cool. That's incredible." And it's not because I taught science. People aren't very much impressed by a science teacher (though, they should be). It's because I up and joined the f***ing Peace Corps. Cut and dry.

So, what am I most proud of? Simply joining the Peace Corps, and following through. For me, there were a lot of meaningful experiences, a lot of failures, a few successes...but no one but another Peace Corps volunteer has the context to evaluate them. And we're not a judgmental bunch anyways (we know how much of both our failures and our successes were out of our control). The details will fade into memory. Think about it this way: have you ever wondered how successful a veteran was in the field? I'm guessing no. You just respect what they did, because you can't possibly fathom what it was...

I'm thinking about my current work with the Red Cross. I'm glad to be writing, proud of the moments when readers have complemented me on it, but let's be serious--I think it's way cooler that I’ve eaten dog, that I can convert CFA to dollars with effortless ease, that someone once tried to sell me a monkey, and so do they. The Peace Corps will probably overshadow everything I'll ever do for the rest of my life. (And that kind of makes me tear up...only because it's over.)

I think that's a good note to end the blog on. Thanks to everyone who followed along for the past two and a half years. It's been pretty wild.


Friday, November 18, 2011

One way to sum it up...

I've been thinking quite a bit, for the last several months, about how I might sum up my experience; talk about what I learned. And, as with most things you sit on for this long, it's usually so obvious you don't acknowledge it's presence.

I acknowledged it when I read the story of another volunteer. Now, I don't know if this story will ring true with those who were never in the Peace Corps. Perhaps it's like humor: "You had to be there...", where a joke isn't funny when it's explained to you. Maybe it wont make any sense to you. But here it is nonetheless:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

That's a wrap.

I've been asked by a few friends and family members whether or not I'm going to write a final post. You know, something to wrap up my experience. I'm hesitant to do so--I fear I'd be putting it in a box, in a time capsule. I'd make it into something with a distinct start and finish, and I'd move onto the next thing, unfazed, unaffected by it.

The truth is, it's more complicated than that. While I am not physically in Burkina Faso anymore, my mind seems to have a hard time believing what's around it. I was a groomsman in a childhood friend's wedding last weekend, and all sorts of other things are different from when I left here to join the Peace Corps, but I'm floating through it all in a dream-like state. Not interacting so much with my surroundings as trying to absorb them, make sense of them. It's a strange feeling.

I had an actual dream early this morning, before finally pulling myself out of bed. I dreamed I was back in Thyou, with my sister. We drove our crappy little white Ford Focus there. In my dream logic, I though I should return to village one last time before shipping out for good.

My sister drops me off in my village, at the big boutique. I buy something and I start biking back to my house (don't ask where the bike came from), and then I think, "Oh, no! I don't have my keys! And I've already packed up and moved all my stuff! Though...I suppose there's enough stuff in there that I left for the next volunteer to survive for a few days. However, food-wise, I'll have to eat at a neighbor's. So, I'll just have to go to the Principal's house to get my key from him."

I continue biking, but then I get lost. How did I get lost in my own village!? Well, the thing is, it was all totally different--semi-developed... There was this big cement arc-shaped entrance-way, and a big flashing screen like the ones we have at the front of banks that tell you the temperature and time. My village looked like a weird mix between a high-tech colony on Mars and...well, my village. The village of my memory.

Of course, I'm lost, so I start to worry. Then my sister pulls around the corner in the car (the cavalry to save the day!). I get in (she's somehow picked up two white girls--friends of hers?--who are sitting in the back seats, but they're irrelevant to the outcome of this dream). Then we're driving and the car is beeping because it's dangerously low on gas. So I say to go over to the gas station (my village DID have one). We come up on a stop light. (Yep.) And then there's this girl who's sort of...biking with a cart rigged up to her bike, with a water drum in it. And she can't stop fast enough, so the water drum goes flying into the gutter on the side of the road, and she soon follows.

And then I wake up.

I'm trying to figure out if this dream means anything to me. Possibly, I'll never get back to Thyou again. That I know. And if I do, it will be too far in the future to be the same as I remember it. And it will develop, however slow. But I'm in a different world now, obviously. With cars and check-engine lights and flashing signs on banks that tell you the weather. And I guess my brain is trying to wrap itself around that. Though, smartphones did not make an appearance in my dream. I still can't believe those things exist.

Yes, my service in Burkina is over. But I haven't quite gotten over it. Perhaps I never will. Certainly, the experience has become an unshakable part of me. So, maybe there are a few blog posts yet to come as I get comfortable with the new world around me.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Library is Open!

It took a little longer than expected, of course, but my school and I were finally able to buy, catalogue, and organize all the books we bought, and open the resource center at my school. With sporadic school closures and striking across the country in the months of February, March and April, things took a lot longer to get started than expected. (For more info on the situation, check out: )

The first day that the library opened, I went around to each of the classes in the school with my school’s principal. We showed them some examples of the types of books and resources available—everything from comic books to novels to dictionaries and exercise practice books. We explained to them how the library would function, and how the books should be treated—don’t sleep on them, don’t sit on them, don’t write on the pages! Students are allowed to check out the books for one week at a time. We have also chosen among the school two students to act as librarians. They’re at the tops of their class—very capable, dynamic kids, quick learners, and passionate about the functionality of the library. Next year, students will pay a small resource fee (less than the price of the cheapest book!) so that the school will be able to purchase more books and provide even more for the hungry minds of our students.

In the days after the library opened, I taught class as normal. I’d be writing a math problem on the board, then turn around only to see kids with their noses in the books! I didn’t quite know what to do. “Faites attention!” I’d say. (Though, secretly, I was overjoyed that they were so eager to read that they didn’t even want to stop for class.)

A thousand thanks are not enough to all my friends and family who donated to this project. My school’s staff and students recognize your generosity, and assure me that the resource room will continue to grow and to benefit students for years to come.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Day in the Life

So, for the last few weeks, schools have been closed due to student striking. As a result, I’ve been in a bit of purgatory—I don’t quite know when school will start again, but I can’t go too far from home, because we could start up again any day now. Serendipitously, there was a nation-wide polio vaccination campaign going on at the time, so as soon as I found out, I stopped by the village hospital to ask how I could help. Psyched to have me, they sent me out with a vaccination team to go door to door, giving the oral vaccine to kids under five.

Vaccinating, I thought, is serious business. The goal was to vaccinate all kids under five in Thyou and its surrounding villages—about one thousand of them. We headed out on the first day on bikes with a cooler full of vaccine, sweet “Kick Polio OUT of Burkina!” apparel, and some forms to document the vaccination. The vaccination team I joined comprised one of my closer friends in village, a woman who makes millet beer and sells it at market. “It’s a shame it’s Friday,” she said, referring to the Muslim day of rest. “Otherwise we could quench our thirst.” The meaning of her statement didn’t quite register with me—it was hot, and I was thirsty too. Luckily, I’d brought water. We were very productive, able to vaccinate almost all the kids in our assigned area.

Well, the next day, Saturday, was market day. Market day is always huge. People come in from all over, they visit friends and cruise around the village on mopeds and bikes. All the while, we were trying our best to vaccinate.

7:00am: I arrive at the village hospital. As always, I’m the first person there. Even when I try to show up late (more than fashionably), I look the fool, and wait a half hour for others to start trickling in.

8:00am: Everyone’s finally in, we’re given our assignments and we head out to cover the ground we missed the day before.

8:15am: My team and I hop on our bikes and head out.

8:17am: First stop of the day. We walk into a big family’s courtyard. There’s a lot of kids running around, so I set down the cooler and set about checking to see if they’re vaccinated (we mark a fingernail with a permanent marker to avoid double-vaccinating). I soon realize that all these kids were vaccinated the day before. I ask my friend, “Oh, yes,” she says. “We got them all already. Here, have a seat.” She immediately passes me a calabash full of millet beer, and I realize the purpose of our visit. After a few good gulps, we move along. Onto vaccinating children.

8:45am: “Hold on, Monsieur, let’s stop here for a second and have a drink.” There’s a woman with a big blue barrel full of millet beer on a stool under a tree, a few early customers lounging about. And who am I to refuse? This is not my culture, and I can neither pass judgment nor change their plan. We have some more. We move along.

8:50-something am: We’re following through now. It’s getting hot. I can feel some sweat dripping down my back. I haven’t touched the water bottle in my backpack. We manage to find a few kids who weren’t at home yesterday. We give them vaccines; move around to a few other families. No worries.

9:30-something: “Monsieur, we should go to market now and see if we can’t find some children at market who’ve been skipped over.” Seems logical to me.

10-ish: “Hold on, let’s stop in the shade here and rest while we fill out the documentation.” We stop in the shade, go back through the numbers, cool down a little bit. Down the path, we see a woman and an older girl approaching, donkey in tow. In a cart strapped to the donkey, there’s another big blue barrel. She’s got the goods. “Hey!” the other woman on my team calls out. Says something in Moore. She pulls a calabash out of the cart and dips it in the barrel. Brings it over to us, balancing carefully—it’s filled to the brim.

10-ish, later: “Let’s get going.” I stand up and steady myself. The two women suppress a chuckle. I’m not used to this like they are. But I’m a coordinated young man. I hop on my bike and start following. Further down the road, we cross paths with a young man in vaccination apparel. They converse in Moore. I catch “going to market” something about “Monsieur”. The young man turns to me, “Will you go back out with me, Monsieur?” No objections. He’s going alone and could use the help.

Almost 11:00: “Are you thirsty?” he asks, stopping next to the second woman I saw today. “I am, will you join me?” Well, I don’t want to be culturally inappropriate… A few gulps, and we’re on our way. We hit a family courtyard that was having a funeral the day before, where it was inappropriate to come by vaccinating. A bunch of kids here. We shake hands with the older family members, give a few condolences. Vaccinate, mark their hands. Say thanks, God bless, God bring you health, God will help us, God will repair us. Amen, Amen, Amen. “Shall we continue, monsieur?”

Sometime before noon: I see we are approaching another tree with two millet beer vendors sitting underneath. Obviously, we can’t be biased towards one, so we taste it from both. A tipsy old lady challenges the white man to a foot race. He counts down in Moore (laughter), fakes injury (laughter). “Is your foot okay!?” “Oui, oui. I was faking.” (laughter).

Is it Saturday?: “Shall we continue to market, Monsieur” Well, I suppose so. We continue. We grab a few kids to check if they’ve received vaccines. “HEY!” we hear, cruising by. Something is said in Moore. “She’s offering us a drink, Monsieur”. It’s one of the vendors from before. When it’s offered, you don’t pay. Well, we’re not the types to turn down a free drink.

Sometime in March, some place in Africa: We’re walking through market. The young man I’m with calling out to every woman-with-child nearby. “Did your kid get medicine?” “Did your kid get medicine?” We stop in one of the dens. The young man offers me more. I’m trying to count how many times I’ve stopped to drink millet beer today—I’m totally lost on volume. “I’ve had a lot,” I say. “Well, I haven’t!” says the young man. He buys a calabash. The vendor doesn’t have change. He takes change in the form of another calabash.

Quelle heure es-( do you conjugate that?): “Let’s get back to the hospital, Monsieur. It’s about time to eat.” We start on the way back. He sees a large group of children. Turns out, they’re not vaccinated. But we’re out of medicine! We get the kids to follow us back to the hospital—about 20 of them in tow behind our bikes. We show up. The nurses are filling out paperwork. They find some extra vaccine for these kids. “Thanks Monsieur, you can head home. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Lunch time: This will be the first time I eat today. I need a nap.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

So, you say you want a revolution?

I hope the holidays are treating you well. I'm here in Ouagadougou, awaiting the much delayed (four days!) arrival of a friend from home.Even transportation here doesn't get delayed that long. Hundreds of flights into and out of Paris have been cancelled due to the wrath of the snow gods--if only Burkina could be so lucky.

We'll probably do the x-mas thing here. Eat things and drink drinks. Then run around the country a bit. See if we can't catch sight of a few elephants or feed a chicken to a crocodile before he flies back out after the new year.

As many of you know, I've been working for the larger part of my service here on starting a library at my school, to provide my students with some of the basic educational resources that my school lacks--workbooks, novels, maps, and textbooks. Lucky for us, our school already has a well-outfitted room for the occasion: Sturdy metal bookcases that close and lock are installed in the walls, where we can store the books, and allow students access to them during the day.

In light of this, I've been searching for resources to fill in some of this room's empty space. Without novels, for example, the students get little exposure to the french language--they lack, in large part, that most basic of educational needs: literacy. At the end of middle school and high school, these students have to take a national exam that will qualify them for higher paying jobs and allow them to continue their education. This test is given yearly, and since my school opened in 2000, less than 15 out of 150 or more students in the highest class have obained a passing note. Meaning that each year, less than 10% of the students eligible to take this exam actually pass, and earn the right to pursue higher education and better jobs.

Unfortunately, statistics like this are commonplace in Burkina Faso, and it's my job to try--in whatever way I can--to improve them. With books and access to study tools, my students will be better prepared for these exams. They can, with motivation, attain a better grasp on the french language and improve their capacity to learn.

So, alongside the school's faculty and teachers, I've researched the prices for a set of books and materials that will be a good foundation to start the library at my school. I hope that before the end of this school year, we can obtain these resources and put them to use. I plan to use my knowledge and experience to start this project off on the right path, so that it will be sustainable, so that it will grow, and so that it will continue to provide for my students' hungry minds even after I am gone.

In total, the resources we need will cost a little over two thousand dollars. Peace Corps has set up a website for me where I can receive donations for the project quickly and easily. When the amount is obtained, the funds will be released, and the library will begin. If you'd like to make a donation, however small, please visit the site below. There is a button on the right side of the screen which will allow you to do so:

The resources obtained through this project are, of course, a minimum. We would be overjoyed to recieve more resources to stuff the shelves of our library--french novels, workbooks, reference books. Even comic books or magazines. Things that kids are excited to look at and read about that set their curiosities alight. If you'd like to aid the project in this way, please contact me directly via email. We can certainly arrange it. Also, please feel free to forward this information to others. Though, please assure yourself that they have not already recieved it. I know I hate spam as much as anyone. (Though, fried up with a few onions and tomatoes and thrown on top of spaghetti, it can be rather tasty.)

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to all. See you soon.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Trimester Summary 2.1

WARNING: The content of the following post contains no humor, no tearjerking, and nothing at all out of the ordinary. Consider it a nod to how life on the third rock from the sun can be pretty much the same anywhere. Consider yourself warned.

The end of another trimester. The beginning of the school year is fun. Kids are excited to be back, interested in learning something new, but three months go by, and that all becomes mundane. Teachers and students lose motivation, lose interest. Need change. Students start to cause trouble, sleep in class, ignore their lessons…the break is coming up and it occupies their thoughts. Teachers want to get through material, but get fed up grading tests, writing lessons, teaching uninterested students.

Teaching, I realize, requires much more than having your material down. You’ve got to be able to explain it in simple words, convey complex ideas, and illustrate their importance. Make sure kids CARE about what they’re learning.

Often, I’ll try to play a game to revive zoning-out minds. Or I’ll switch to speaking English to see if anyone’s paying attention. Snap them to it. But what happens when students start expecting these games? Start asking for them in lieu of class? The tactful teacher uses these tools in moderation, keeping student minds sprite and ready, but it’s a subtle art. And I find, as the trimester moves along, that I become less capable, less forgiving, more short-fused. And I start looking for diversion to take my mind off of this monotony, to not take my frustration with uninterested students back out on them. To not create a vicious cycle.

I found myself having a drink and eating a whole chicken with a staff member of my school yesterday evening. Two faculty members from the primary school inspection in town came by and sat down with us. “The end of the trimester is great,” one said. “It makes me feel reborn, renewed.” We all chuckled for the truth in it.

Happy holidays to everyone.