Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pastoral scenes from rainy season

Some images from my final rainy season in Burkina.

Beginning of rainy season: huge dust storms precede each rain storm. Later in the season, there's enough moisture in the ground to hold down the dust, but it's quite dramatic in June. That thing that the girl is looking out is a gust of dust-wind. In case you were wondering why I complain about dust and how everything gets dirty all the time, now you see. Photo taken from my bush taxi window on the way out of Ouaga.

Later in rainy season, storm clouds rolling in from the east. Rain always comes from the east. I believe that I had just woken up and was going to go pump water when I saw these clouds coming. So I went back to bed. Photo taken over my courtyard wall.

A village courtyard in rainy season. I took the picture because I was excited by the amount of green in the background. From November to June, the only green thing that one would normally see in this picture is the plastic jug in the foreground. Photo taken in Tanwoko, a neighboring village only accessible from mine by canoe...

River crossing between my village and Tanwoko. This river dries up completely during dry season and you can just walk across. Rainy season has been a pain for my agriculture project because everyone that I'm working with is on the other side of the river. As it is, it costs between 100 and 500 francs to cross it in a canoe (depending on how many other people are in the canoe with you/how high the water level is/how good of a mood the guy on your canoe is in). Burkinabes are terrified of the canoes for some reason, and they always tell stories about canoes tipping over and people drowning. The thing is that the water really doesn't move that fast, and I don't think it's more than 6 or 7 feet deep at its deepest, whereas most of it is about 4 feet deep during peak rainy season.

That said, the canoes are not in terribly good condition. They always have a ton of water in the bottom. This guy was bailing water out of the canoe for the entire 10 minutes it took us to cross the river. Comforting.

Terrified Burkinabes crossing the river.

The donkey seemed more chilled out about the situation than the Burkinabes did. Last time I crossed the river, I saw another canoe with 15 goats in it. This is why I always need to carry a camera with me.

End of rainy season: Ami harvests her beans in early October. She started every morning around 5 am and stopped working by 8 or 9 am when it started to get too hot. I helped her and her 2 kids, and we finished the one field after a week. The rains weren't great this year. The season started late (it wasn't until the beginning of August that it really rained consistently enough for cultivating) and it ended early (rains effectively stopped by mid-September). Millet harvests are not good. Beans did pretty well, though. Also, everyone got really into cultivating sesame this year for some reason.

A solid bean harvest set out to dry in my friend Eric's courtyard. Once the pods are dry and brittle enough, they beat them with a stick to release the beans and then use wind to blow away the pods. If that technique seems like it would leave a lot of rocks and debris in the beans after extraction, well, yes, it does.

That's rainy season in village for you.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Professor Moses

Last March, near the end of the school year, I was told that we were getting 2 new professeurs at our village school. The Burkinabe government is weird like that--rather than sending teachers before the beginning of the school year, they just send them whenever they feel like it, even if it's only a month and a half before the end of the school year. Frankly, I wasn't that excited about it when I first heard. What if the new teachers were lame? I liked the teachers that we already had, and I enjoyed hanging out with them every afternoon into the evening under the neem trees by the teacher lodging at the school. I felt like 2 new teachers thrown into the mix were going to mess up whatever good dynamic we had going. 

I was pleasantly surprised, though. The state sent a new French teacher, Moïse (the Frenchified version of the name Moses) and a new English teacher, Benoît, and they both turned out to be some of the friendliest, most honest and likable people I've met since I've got here. Within a week of their arrival, it was hard to imagine ever having sat under the neem trees without them. Almost every evening, I found them there, a group of teachers chatting and laughing and complaining about misbehaving students, Benoît brewing tea (which is a long and elaborate process the way they do it here), and Moïse at the center, making everyone laugh and letting them know how much he liked them. Once a week or so, he prepared riz sauce arachide (rice with peanut sauce, a traditional burkinabe dish) and he always insisted on giving me a big portion. I never had the heart to tell him that the sauce was too heavy, and I ate it all anyway because he was so eager to share it and take care of me.

Professor Moses near Banfora
I saw Moïse and Benoît a couple of times during the summer, and we kept in regular contact. Moïse was anxious that we should hang out in Ouaga as much as possible before he went to his hometown of Banfora for the month of August. He met my friends Sophia and Athena when they came to visit, as well as several of my volunteer friends, and everyone was immediately charmed. Nobody could help liking him. He always asked for people's email addresses before they left so that he wouldn't risk losing contact with his new friends, even if they were probably never going to be in the same country again. Unlike almost any other male Burkinabe teacher, he was actually cheerful and positive about Burkina Faso, and equally rare, neither he nor Benoît ever tried to hit on me or any of my friends or act weirdly toward us for being women.

The last time I saw Moïse was a week and a half ago, when he was here for the school's administrative meeting to prepare for the October 1st school opening. He was his usual enthusiastic self, and he talked excitedly about all the things that were going to happen this school year. It was already like old times: he was telling me about how he wanted a girlfriend so he could fall in love and get married soon and was asking me to suggest promising candidates, and he kept throwing in random English phrases at the same time to try to improve his language skills. He was also going on about wanting to organize a dance party for the teachers that he was prepared to DJ whenever we were ready. Later, he said that as a teacher, he is only allowed to miss 10 days of school per year for personal reasons, but he told me that he was going to take a few of those days in December just for me so we could get beers in Ouaga one more time and so he could see me off at the airport when I leave. (It sounds like he was coming onto me, but he really wasn't, he was just that kind of person.) The day after the meeting, he went back to Ouaga to hang out with his friends and mother for a last two weeks before he had to come back to my village for the school year.

Fast forward to 8:00 this morning, when I got an odd phone call from Benoît. All he said was, "did you hear?" I said no, what? There was a long silence, which I thought was caused by a reception problem, and then he said that he would call me back, and hung up. It made me worried, but I tried to brush it off. An hour later, Yacouba, the other English teacher who lives next door to me, found me and told me.

Yesterday late morning Moïse went to visit his friend, a guard at a post office, which also functions as a small bank/safety deposit, in Ouaga. They were hanging out outside when a pair of braqueurs (robbers) came and held them up. Evidently the robbers hadn't even bothered to cover their faces, and they shot Moïse and his friend on their way in. Moïse was killed on the spot, and his friend is still in critical condition. The robbers took a little money out of the post office and left, and they still haven't been caught. They weren't even able to get that much money out of the whole operation. (Article in French about it here.)

I am so crushed. Everything about it is so wrong. It still hasn't really hit me that it actually happened, even after hearing about his burial this afternoon. He was only 28. Of all my friends here, he has to have been the most full of life and the most excited for what lay in the future. He only finished his Master's degree last year, and he hadn't even been paid a single franc yet for the teaching career that he just started. I can't even imagine how devastated his family must be. The worst part for me is thinking about how afraid he must have felt in the last moments when he saw the robbers pull up and take aim. And for what? The whole thing is totally meaningless. I can't shake the mental image of him lying bloody on the ground out of my mind. So upsetting.

How are we going to start classes is less than a week without him? He was supposed to come back here in 3 days. I can't imagine a gathering of teachers without him and his Bella ringtone that got stuck in my head all the time.

He's not the first person among my friends and family who has died, but he is the first to go so young and unexpectedly. I was sad about the others, but at least I could comfort myself knowing that it was a relief in its own way for them after having survived long lives/fights with illness. But this is just, nothing. Nothing but a loss, and an empty hole in all his friends' lives.

For some reason, ever since maybe a week or two into our friendship, he started saying to me "but I will miss you when you leave!" I thought that was a weird thing to say to someone who you've only become friends with recently and who you will be around for at least another 8 months (supposedly). He said it all the time though, at least once a week. In the end, though, I guess I was the one who should have been saying it. I wish I could be that kind of person who immediately liked and cared about everyone I met, and who wasn't afraid to tell people all the time how great I genuinely thought they were or how much they mattered to me. But that wasn't me, it was Moïse, and now it's gone forever. I feel so lucky that I got to be friends with him for the few months that we knew each other. I don't believe in afterlives or reincarnation or whatever, but I wish there was some chance to see each other one more time so I could say goodbye and tell him that I'll miss him too.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Saving the soils and more

As most of you know already, I've decided to stay in Burkina for an extra three months so that I'll have time to complete a project that I've started with community members from my village. The Burkinabe that I'm collaborating with the most on the project is a government-trained agricultural trainer named Eric. He approached me last fall asking if I could help him to finance a project that he proposed, and we started to carry out those activities last February.

The main part of the project involves teaching community members about soil preservation techniques. Burkina Faso is a serious subject to the problem of desertification, due in no small part to deforestation and excessive livestock grazing. Those two causes combine to vastly reduce the vegetation that would otherwise hold down the soil and its nutrients in times of wind and flood, leaving us with sand and thin dirt that can barely support the staple crops of corn, millet, sorghum, peanuts, and beans that they grow from June through October.

Most community members are aware that soil quality, and thus crop yields, have gone down over the years, but they only have vague ideas of the cause and they don't know what to do to stop it. Most of them assume that that's just the way that things are, but when you tell them that there are things they can do to stop the trend, they perk up and listen. That's where we come in; Eric helped to form an association of about 30 community members from Mane's satellite villages, and he is teaching them different techniques like compost, rock lines, zai holes, and tree planting to help reverse the effects of soil degradation.

Eric, our painfully skinny trainer, explains the principles of composting
We did a series of training sessions in February through April on those techniques and started 4 tree nurseries to plant over 500 trees. A cool thing was that Eric also came to my science club at the school and gave a talk on tree planting, which inspired one of my students, Larba, to plant his own tree nursery for profit. Larba now has several hundred trees growing in the nursery that he planted in his courtyard, and he told me that he will make over $200 when he sells them to the community members who pre-ordered them in April. Maybe that doesn't sound like that much, but that is a HUGE sum of money for a kid in a village like this. I could have cried, I was so pleased. He is so excited about the money that he'll make from it that he says he'll try to expand the business in the future, and he has also already started to train other people in the community about the care of trees also. If the only thing that I accomplished in my 2.5 years in Burkina was to get someone to start a thriving tree-planting business, I would be happy.

Rock lines and zai holes help to catch water and prevent erosion due to flooding
We got a little under $4000 of grant money from the West African Food Security Partnership (WAFSP), which gives grants to Peace Corps volunteers, to support us with the project. The money will go toward materials like pickaxes and shovels (necessary for digging zai holes), plus benches and tables for the construction of a training center, among other smaller items. The training center will be particularly useful in the future not only for further agricultural trainings that Eric carries out, but also for literacy classes. Eric teaches literacy in Moore in his village, so when the benches and tables aren't in use for agricultural purposes they'll double as a classroom for the community.

The second part of the project involves opening a garden for Eric's association. Most of the grant money is going toward the cost of fencing and gardening supplies, and the garden will be constructed in the next couple of months. Although almost everyone participates in the cultivation of staple crops during the rainy season, few people grow vegetables. Cabbage, eggplant, tomatoes, onions, and cucumbers all grow well in this area, and growing those crops is a lucrative dry-season activity. (They're generally watered by hand from well or pump water.) Eric will do training sessions how to manage a garden, and the association will then cooperate to grow vegetables to sell and to improve their own nutrition from November through May.

Seeing how skinny the residents of the targeted villages are, and how many of their babies suffer from acute malnutrition, it's easy to see how needed this project is. I hope that we'll be able to slow the trend of desertification for them at least a little, and maybe with time, those practices will spread to the whole community.


Regarding the Ebola outbreak in West Africa: Luckily, it has remained contained in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia thus far, none of which countries borders Burkina directly. The risk here is still quite low, so please don't worry about me. I refer you to this blog post by a volunteer who got evacuated from Guinea, as well as this Onion article (referenced in the aforementioned blog post).

For those who I haven't talked with about it yet, I'll be closing my service here on December 12th to arrive back in California on December 13th. I'll also be flying to Tanzania with my dad 3 weeks from today to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. So that's what's happening with me.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Emmanuel helps paint the border around the map. Standing on the same table, you can see the line of where I was straining to reach with the paintbrush. Oh, the things I could do if I were so tall.

Library books
I'm excited about how many students have been visiting the library. The books that the kids on the left are holding were donations from the NGO Darien Book Aid, who sent us a free box of books, and the picture dictionary on the right was a gift from my friend Pierre. We're off to a good start with the books, and you can see how much more room we have to add. (There are a lot more books off to the left, I promise...)

Finally, a NYT article about Africa by David Brooks that I appreciated. Happy weekend!