Monday, September 20, 2010

Who says you can't go home again?

I try not to be an introspective blogger. Amusing anecdotes, crazy mishaps, inadvertent cultural faux pas, those are acceptable to toss up on the internet for the world to see. I shoot for ‘comically stoic’ as a medium – skipping personal triumphs as self-aggrandizing and occasional heartbreak as Sally-Struthers-esque. All of which makes this post about Burkina particularly hard. I had done quite a bit of travel in the past 10 years, but these last two weeks have been the most personally intense. Burkina is both completely different and exactly the same. An African friend described the duality to the common Western confusion between modernization and development. Yes, there is electricity and cell phones and satellite dishes and flat screens and cars where there previously had not been. But there is still the same poverty of opportunity. Village mentalities and lives are largely unchanged, even if the ornamentation has improved.

I am not sure I completely agree. Some things in Burkina have gotten better. Cell phones are everywhere – even the fous seem to have them – and the road and transportation networks are markedly improved. There are banks and ATMs in most cities and even some large villages (there were actually more in my hotel than previously in the capital city). Clean water and basic health care are more widely available. The literacy rate is still among the worst in the world – but it is ten points higher than ten years ago. Pagne pants have fallen out of fashion – meaning that today’s Burkinabe male youth look substantially less ridicules than just seven years ago.

But even with all the new bright lights and big city of the new bar strip in Kwarma N'kruma, and the massive gosplan new ‘2000’ neighborhood of condos and ministry buildings, and a new rage for constructing overpasses (including a triple-decker on the Fada road), Ouaga still feels like Ouaga. The air still smells the same – of cooking smoke, dust, humidity, peanut sauce and raw sewage. You can still get a place of riz-sauce for 100 cfa, and a cooked chicken retails for 2000 cfa (though my trip to get a poulet legendaire at Boulougou’s was thwarted by a national cooking gas crisis.) 750 ml of beer are still less than a buck (though there has been a seismic shift in beer market. Not only have two new competitors entered the scene – Beaufort and Export33 – but Brakina, the previous green bottle swamp water, has been replaced with a new brown bottle formula that tastes, dare I say it, *better* the SoBBra). Peace Corps volunteers still stock up on American whiskey and canned goods at the Marina Market, but gone are the dusty shelves and past-due expiration dates. The new Marina Market is a Burkinabe Target, encompassing three floors and selling everything from bourgeois vegetables to home furnishings. The Ouaga marché has been rebuilt after the great fire of 2003 – it is still a shit show but no longer a death trap. Fonctionnaires still wear fonctionnaire suits but it seems they are now all legislated to carry laptop bags. Taxis are no longer glorified Flintstone cars – with the worst of the worst being taken off the street. Similarly there has been a massive crackdown on tomato cans kids – I only saw a handful the entire time (including one older than I was making me think that he was not a legitimate marabou follower but rather a fou with an old can). Peanut sauce still tastes damned good. There are still rocks in the rice.

And briefly for the former denizens of Yako – Chez Abel is still alive and kicking. The catfish guy is sadly not. Yako not only has a ‘cyber center’ but the lycée has a computer center and a blog ( The upper floor of the school is structurally unsound and condemned. There are paved basketball courts. The dirt track to Koudougou is now a straight up legit road. The vulture hotel is still there but oddly there are no more vultures. The painted the mosque and it actually looks really nice. Donkeys still wake up in the morning – and inevitably you will be hungover. The new volunteer has a robinet. My elephants are still on the wall in the old house.

And finally – my friends are still there. I had fallen out of touch with most of my old colleagues but still had one or two e-mail addresses. I was worried that no one would remember me – it’s been more than seven years. But I heard back from the two and they said they would invite some of the others for drinks. Fifteen people came. (Fortunately I remembered all but one or two.) It was incredible to see everyone. To hear how well they are doing. To hear about promotions, new jobs, wives, children (including a 7 year old named Kris!). To see that they not only remembered my “il faut partager” trick with reluctant drinkers but used it on me completely successfully. To talk about the crazy old days in Yako. To just be together again.

There, you see, I made it almost all the way to the end without getting sappy. But as long as the sentimental cherry has been popped – I love you Burkina Faso.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Genesis Story

People often ask me why I joined the Peace Corps. This question is asked in various tones of voice, from incredulous to honestly interested, but it has been a mainstay of almost every non-professional introductory conversation over the past ten years. My answers vary with the questioner. I usually say something along the lines of “I had been lucky in what I had all my life and thought it was time to give some back” and “I saw a Peace Corps commercial during Saturday morning cartoons in 1983 and it always stayed with me.” Both of which are true. I usually leave out the third reason. “Because I was living with my boyfriend in a shitty apartment in Queens, working in a job I didn’t like, and one day looked down the road and saw the path I was on.”

The next question people ask is usually “Did you like it?” I usually respond by asking them how they liked the time period from 2001 to 2003, just generally. It had its localized highs and lows, but yes, generally I did like it. And regardless of whether I liked it or not, the decision to join changed everything – going back to the old path just was no longer possible.

Of all the people and experiences from that time, the story of Mariam and Armella was perhaps the most influential. Mariam was my age and worked nights at the bar next to my house. As I (from time to time) could be found at the local bar at night, I got to know her a little bit. She was about my age (24), had two children on her own, Armella, age 7, and Aristide, age 3, plus she took care of Karim, age 5,the child of one of her relatives. Eventually I knew her well enough to offer to employ her at my house doing laundry and dishes and the like so that she didn’t have to work at the bar.

Mariam never impressed me with her decision making skills. She worked late with sleeping three year old tied on her back. She would come to my house and ask for money for medicine for the baby – with a brand new expensive hair weave. She completely drove me crazy with her lack of reliability in anything. But the kids I liked - particularly the oldest girl. Armella was sharp as whip. She knew to come by with a pack of her friends in the afternoon because I would give them lollipops. She also knew to come by alone with her primary school report card – class rank 5 out of 113 got a plate of bonafide American mac&cheese.

Mariam died a few months before I left. I worried about Armella. I brought by food and money once in awhile while I was still there. I sent some money back to a village elder. I wrote letters and sent them through people in the village. But eventually people moved and died, and I lost contact. I tried to find her over the years a few times through current serving Peace Corps volunteers, but never with any success.

Then a few months ago a request came into the division for technical assistance on a project in Burkina Faso. In hindsight I might have overplayed my hand a bit in trying to get it (after all Burkina generally isn’t high on Joe World Banker’s priority list) and if I end up sitting in Tchad or Guinea Bissau at some point I have no one but myself to blame. But I got it. And on Sunday September 5th at 3:30 pm, I landed in Ouagadougou for the first time since I left as a Peace Corps volunteer more than seven years ago. Burkina has and hasn’t changed over the years. (I promise to write another post next week on that.) And on Friday I took advantage of the end of Ramadan holiday to escape the office and head north to Yako.

Armella was still there - still living in the same compound. We drank Fanta and I found out she is 16 now and going into her 3eme exam year at school. (Less than 30 percent of Burkinabe children get that far in their education with the rate for girls being far lower.) She is a pretty happy kid who hates math, dissolves into giggles when we talk about all the silly games we used to play, and is excited for the school year to start. I will still worry about her – she is now also old enough to serve drinks at the same bar where her mother worked – but so far she is doing great.

I apologize for being sappy. This has been a really mixed up emotional week being back here - way more introspection that I am used to either experiencing or sharing with the world. I promise next week to have a more upbeat *oh those crazy Burkinabe* posting.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

What’s with all the Italians in the Mafia?

Mafia Island is about 130 miles southeast of Dar es Salaam (or about 35 minutes in a single engine prop).  It is part of the Zanzibar archipelago, sharing with it the tropical climes, beautiful reef, ancient culture, incredible cuisine, and a shit ton of Italian tourists.  I don’t know what it is about this handful of dots in the Indian Ocean that attracts them in droves, but hotel managers, dive shop operators and the like, all Italian.  They seem particularly well adapted to the “third class service, first class price” mantra of the leisure industry in Africa.
In any case, this was my first weekend off in three months and I was determined to enjoy it.  And as my 5 passenger flight touched down on the sand and shell runway, and I looked out over the small island and big reef, I knew I was right to leave my laptop locked in a desk drawer.  (I take sand and shell runways to be a good omen – like men with good jobs and large tattoos – it just shows a healthy sense of priorities.)  The guy that picked us up was driving a hot-wired 70s vintage Range Rover.  An hour later I was standing on a white sand beach with my book and an ice cold Kilimanjaro. 

Rather unfortunately for me, one of the quirks of diving Mafia is that the viz is crystal clear during high tide, and total murk at low tide.  This wouldn’t have been a big deal had high tide not been at 6 am that weekend – half hour before sunrise.  So each morning of my weekend started off with shivering on the beach at 5:45, watching the sky turn grey and waiting for the crew to finish loading the gear on the wooden dhow that would take us out to the reef.  The good thing was it doubled my time there, because I would be done a full day’s diving by lunch, leaving the afternoon to sleep on the beach and explore the coastal mangrove forest. 

Diving itself was pretty good – particularly on the early morning dives.  There were lots of little things (nudi-branches and colorful flat worms) and big things (like huge sting rays and giant grouper) and all their cousins in between.  My dive camera finally wheezed its last on this trip so the pictures aren’t great, but a new one is on the way next month should be a bit better. 

The off-gas day (you can’t dive then fly within 24 hours) was spent poking around ruins, teasing the huge numbers of fruit bats that live in the trees, and sleeping on the beach.  And arguing with Mafia’s Mafia - the over-chargin’ Italians at Mafia Island Lodge.