May God grant you safe travels, and may God bring you home safely*

In 12 hours I am officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). In 14 hours I’ll be leaving Burkina Faso.

I closed out my last month as a volunteer I helped organize and facilitate a camp for 50 students from 6 different villages. We worked together to learn about healthy relationships, gender based violence, the importance of education, and physical and sexual health. The last day was spent visiting the local natural attractions the Peaks of Sindou and the Cascades.

Slow packing and time with friends consumed my last few weeks in village. I took my time enjoying the harmonious rapid chatter of teenage boys, and the mesmerizing view of traditional tea being sloshed back and forth between cups to mix in the sugar.

In my last 3 days I was visited by my replacement. He will be taking over my teaching position and all my little projects. We met everyone who’s anyone, including my best friends.

The final morning my favorite student, and a village friend, helped us take all my things to the bush taxi. I had my final loaf of village bread, I took my last picture with my best friend Carass, clambered onto the bush taxi, and left village for good.

My Close of Service (COS) week has flown by. My paper work is done, my flight is booked, and I am officially done with my service. I’ll be spending a week in Morocco with a couple volunteers who are also COSing before meeting up with my dad in Egypt. Then I’m U.S. bound.

Thank you Burkina Faso, thank you to all my Burkinabe friends, thank you to all my students, thank you members of G32, and thank you to my ever supportive friends and family.

*Allah ka le mahn do, ni Allah ka le mahn sigi,

Ericka

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Page 2 of 2: The End of My Second Year of Teaching

The end of May meant the end of my second and final year of teaching. It has been such an incredible experience being a full time teacher for the past two years. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a job as simultaneously rewarding and demanding as teaching here.

Though in this academic year I have truly felt like I improved on my ability to support my students it didn’t stop teaching 162 students any easier than last year. Each group of students has their own group dynamic, and every student their own needs. I certainly commend anyone who has dedicated their entire lives to educating children.

I’m going to miss hearing the chorus of “Goodmorning Mrs” multiple mornings a week, joking around with my students, and coming up with interesting lessons. I’m going to miss my kids. 

Simply put, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know, and work with, a lot of kids in the past two years and I wish all of them the best.

The Fall of Let Girls Learn

In an unsurprising move from the Trump administration it has recently been reported that the Let Girls Learn (LGL) program, an initiative started by Michelle Obama to promote the education of girls in developing countries, will be discontinued. Though there is talk about some aspects of the program continuing it appears that the stand alone program will cease to exist.

This announcement has, for obvious reasons, caused some discontent among PC Burkina Faso Volunteers as the initiative provided training and grant funds specifically for girls- some of the most vulnerable people in developing communities.

Personally, my greatest accomplishment as a Peace Corps Volunteer came on the heels of a LGL training. The LGL training provided enough information and support to spark my fellow teacher (Lea) into starting up our Sexual Education Club, something I have frequently referenced here.

Most recently my partner Lea and I had a session with a group of girls about the menstrual cycle, and a follow up session where we made reusable pads out of scarp fabric.

In Burkina Faso sexual education in schools doesn’t start nearly as soon as it does in the United States and students have usually already started engaging in sexual activity, or started their cycles, before they are given any sort of formal education on the subject. In light of that, sometimes Peace Corps Volunteers are asked to fill that educational gap with the help of host country nationals. In the case of the menstrual cycle sessions I conducted with Lea, the girls we worked with were between the ages of 16 and 21. Plenty old enough to have started their cycles but not yet in the correct grade to have a sexual education class.

In this instance Lea, who was motivated to start this club with me after attending a LGL training, were able to help fill an immediate need for these girls. With any hope the girls will show others how to create the reusable pads and the start of their cycles wont spell the need to pay for expensive disposable menstrual products or the fear of bleeding through their school uniforms – these issues can often lead girls to abstain from coming to class or participating to the fullest.

These are the types of activities that Volunteers are able to run if they have access to training and funding through LGL, projects that can help girls in the daily lives.

Though I truly believe that Volunteers will continue to do this type of work even if there is no official LGL program I also hope that aspects of LGL will continue to live on, because if anyone needs and deserves a program that exists solely for them it’s these girls.

10 Comments (and counting) Only Heard By African American Volunteers Serving in Africa

As an African American who grew up in majority white spaces, and had also never set foot on the African continent, I had no knowledge of how I would be received or perceived once I started my service in Burkina Faso. So I search volunteer blogs and I read returned volunteers books, desperately trying to find out what to expect as a Black American in Africa. My Black family told me, “We [Black folks] don’t do this type of thing, they’ll be few of you, if you’re not the only one.” And my whites friend “coyly” said things like, “I bet you’ll be able to connect with them well, you know…just because.” Neither of which did much to help calm my anxiety toward how this major aspect of my person-hood would affect my service, though I can tell you that my parents were right and my friends were wrong.

However, from start to finish there is no doubt in my mind that being an African American volunteer has afforded me a uniquely challenging and rewarding Peace Corps experience. Now that I’m less than 2 months from completing my service I’m ready to share some of those experiences by summing them up in the following florilegia.

1. “This is stupid but I feel like it’s good you’re going there because you belong there more than someone like me, so I haven’t applied.”

Clearly my Blackness has been playing a role since the beginning, and would always play a role. Even before I stepped foot in Burkina Faso I was dealing with people thinking that my “place” was on the African continent, and that I had more of a right to be here than any non-Black person. Clearly this comment stuck with me even though I heard it over 2 years ago, and it has often made me stop and reflect on how others perceive me and my service.

2. “I can’t wait to see what you’ll do, I just know they’ll listen to you more than us.” 

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Blending in with my host family and other local kids

White volunteers are in just as much danger of making racially fraught comments as white non-volunteers. It’s ridiculous to think that any Burkinabé would be more likely to listen to me just because of the color of my skin. At the end of the day my ideals, customs, and opinions are just as American/Western as any white volunteers. Meaning that the chances that someone is going to follow my lead, or that I am going to get better results, just because we are all Black is sooo far from guaranteed seeing as I don’t share any of their customs or culture.

3. “What is this white person saying?”

I may have taken a few French classes in college in preparation for my service but I would have hardly been considered as good a speaker as some of my fellow volunteers who had been studying French for years. However, seeing as I was frequently the only Black person in a field of white I was pegged as the group translator, and was often addressed first or referred to if a Burkinabé decided they didn’t understand what a white volunteer was saying.

4.  “Why don’t you speak (insert local language here).”

If I wasn’t being used as the French “group translator” I was frequently addressed in one of the many local languages spoken in Burkina Faso. No matter what the local language I was expected to speak it (if I was in Mooré country surely I spoke Mooré, if I was in San country surely I spoke San, if I was in Djan country….). This was, of course, because I blended in to all the ethnic groups well enough that I people always thought I was one of them. Sometimes I’ve had to deal with people thinking I’m “refusing” to speak a local language because I think I’m “too good” for it, and only want to speak French- this usually requires some work to smooth over. However, blending in can also have its benefits as I was often given the “vrai prix” for items I was trying to pay for, unlike white volunteers.

5. “Okay, then where are you from in Africa? Senegal? Kenya? Ghana?” etc.

One of the many things that tipped people off that I wasn’t Burkinabe was my French accent. If my lilt didn’t match, then neither did I. Which inevitably lead to people asking me which African country I was from. To this date I have been if I’m from 6 different African countries, or if I’m from France.

6. “You can’t be American, you’re Black.”

Comments like this came from so many people. Be it the boutique owner in town, a fellow teacher, or a random stranger on public transport. Despite the popularity of public figures like President Barack Obama and 50 Cent, and despite the fact that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is covered in history classes, people don’t seem to put it together that it’s possible to be both Black and American at the same time. I have found myself in may discussions (and sometimes arguments) during my service where I’ve had to repeat numerous times that, “Yes, really, I’m an American,” and “No, seriously I’m not from Africa.” It can be frustrating to try to explain your nationality to everyone you meet, and occasionally having people say things like, “You may act like an American, but your skin says otherwise.”

7. “So are you mixed?”

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My older and younger brothers

Once I finally managed to maybe get across that I am indeed an American, people would automatically think that one of my parents had to be white (because obviously you can’t have two Black parents and be American at the same time- duh). Thankfully, I always carried around wallet sized family pictures- handy for whipping out and showing off my lovely Black mother, father, and brothers.

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My 2nd great-grandmother Winnie Buchannon

8. “Why don’t you know your ancestry?”

Once again, despite the fact that the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is taught in schools (see # 7) I often had to very thoroughly explain to people why I don’t know what country in Africa my ancestors came from, and how it’s very difficult to trace back through the

generations of my family when our names were forcibly changed, our culture and language were stripped from us, and we were violently separated from our ethic groups once brought into the slave trade.

9. “You’re a Black woman and you behave like this?” 

I was born with the big two. I’m Black and I’m a woman. More succinctly, I’m a Black woman, and this can cause some problems when there is a set cultural way that Black women are supposed to behave in Burkina Faso. While Peace Corps often talks about the “third gender” theory (the idea that white female volunteers are often treated as if they were Burkinabe men because they are white, despite being female in a strongly patriarchal society) this does not often apply to Black women who are serving. Unless you have already been identified as a foreigner you cannot expect to receive as much respect from men, or be greeted by men, or even acknowledged by men, and you certainly cannot behave like a typical “tubabu” (foreigner/ white person). Sometimes even if you have been identified as a foreigner you still won’t be respected by men, and are expected to behave appropriately, and treat men with the same amount of culturally appropriate reverence as Burkinabe women do.

10. “So is there still racism in America?”

My immediate response to this questions is simple, “Uh, yes.” However, I then have to take a couple minutes to explain systemic racism, recent incidents of violence, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Sometimes I get the occasional, “Oh yea, I saw in the news once that a police officer killed a Black man,” and all I can think is, “I wonder which person that was.”

11.  “I don’t know how you put up with all that stuff people say.”

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Selfie time with Rhania

If I’ve learned anything in my two years as a Black volunteer it’s that your race isn’t going to go unnoticed just because you’re going to blend into your community. Though Black volunteers don’t have to deal with the same racial issues as non-black volunteers (being harassed in the street, being stared at, having children burst into tears when they look at you, etc.) that doesn’t mean we don’t have a whole host of our own things to deal with. Sometimes we essentially have to be walking talking advertisements for diversity in America, or have to settle with the idea that some people will never be convinced of our simultaneous Blackness and American-ness. It can be tiring, and all around frustrating, but serving while Black can also be uniquely rewarding as it affords us an opportunity to talk and share about things that are uniquely American, uniquely African American, and also a little bit of both.

More comments may be added in the future

Animism and Benedictions

I think it’s safe to say that a highlight of any volunteers service, outside of the work we do, is getting to participate in cultural events. Volunteers flock to these type of events, if it’s culturally appropriate, and we spend as much time as possible feasting our eyes on the traditions; our minds teaming with questions such as: “Why did that person just do that?” or  “Where should I stand/ what should I do to be the most respectful in this situation?” and most importantly, “How inappropriate would it be if I pulled out my camera phone right now?”

Personally when I’m in these sort of situations I wish I could turn a sideways grace at another volunteer and see if they can shed some light on the situation, or at a minimum see if they are just as lost as I am. However, we often end up navigating these cultural faux pas riddled situations alone, but when we do have another volunteer it can make the event all the more interesting.

Several months ago I had an amazing opportunity while visiting another volunteer’s site. In her village, located in the South West region of Burkina, Animism is the predominant religion. As she has done such a thorough job of integrating into her community we were invited to participate in a traditional ceremony during my visit.

an·i·mism /ˈanəˌmizəm/

noun

1.the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena.

2.the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.

-Google

While sharing drinks and tales with Alanna’s close friends we started to hear a rhythmic drumming no too far off from the bar we were occupying. Curious as always, the drums peaked our interest- anyone who’s spent any time in Burkina knows that the sound of drums means some type of ceremony is going on and it could be quite interesting . (I, for one, have personally never been steered wrong by following the sounds of random drum beats to different corners of my village.)

Her friends told us that that particular day happened to be a big day for sacrificing in the village because the sacrifices were not for bringing blessings onto individuals or individual house holds but on the entire village. Since Alanna is seen as part of the fabric of the community she was encouraged to buy a sacrificial chicken; the chicken cost 2,000 CFA or about $3 USD.

After the purchase we were brought to a well shaded mango grove where the sacrificing and cooking was taking place. There we met the Chef du Village (The Village Chief) and lots of other men who were drinking dolo (a locally made alcoholic beverage), and snacking on cooked chicken.

We cut through the cooking area and were led to a courtyard behind someone house, which we discovered was the source of the drumming.

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Alanna gives the village a benediction
There we were asked to remove our shoes while we waited for Alanna’s turn. A younger boy tapped out a slow beat on his drum while the man before us crouched and spoke over the chicken being held in another mans hand (the Sacrificer), giving the village his blessing. The Sacrificer then took his knife and slit the throat of the squawking chicken and allowed the blood to drain into a bowl sized dug out in the earth; which was already so saturated with blood that the additional offering pooled thickly at his feet. Next, he wiped the blade on the chickens feathers and released it. Upon release, the injured animal flopped off into the nearby corn field where it slowly died.

Alanna was permitted to step up next. Her friend, Felix, told her she was to give a benediction to the village to help the village prosper. Alanna asked, “Can I give it in English?” Felix responded, “Sure, that works. Whatever language.”

Alanna then proceeded to crouch next to the Sacrificer, while the drummer tapped out his steady beat, and gave a hushed benediction. Again, the Sacrificer slit the bird’s throat, and wiped the blade on it’s feathers while its life spilled into the earthen bowl. The bird was then released, like the last, to die in the lush corn field.

After the sacrifice I asked Alanna what she wished for the village and she said she wished that, “Everyone would win the lottery,” and giggled, “I didn’t know what else to say!”

We were then taken over by the big cook fire to help defeather the chickens. Which we quickly discovered we were not very good at. By the time I managed to finish a single chicken, the men next to use were moving on to their seconds on thirds. Meanwhile, Alanna was still struggling with her first and eventually had it confiscated by her friend Augustan who quickly dispatched the bird. The oddest thing about defeathering birds by hand is feeling how warm they still are, and honestly I’d rather be buying my chickens already processed.

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The cook fire
After our failed attempt at defeathering, we were told our chicken would be cooked up on the roaring flames and delivered to Felix’s bar where we would be able to enjoy it with everyone, and in less than 30 minutes we were enjoying hot sacrificial chicken and another round of cold beers.

Note 1: Lots of chickens were harmed during the making of this post.
Note 2: We were given permission to take pictures of the event.

Closing Time: COS Conference

So this is it, now that Close of Service (COS) conference has happened it has started to really feel like we are approaching the end of service.

The prospect of leaving aside, COS conference was a major reunion for my service group (G32). Since G32 is strewn all over the country it’s been more than 6 months since I have seen certain members of this lovely little group.

So despite the fact that COS conference is really all about talking about your accomplishments during you service, how to say goodbye to all your village friends, and preparing you for the future; the volunteers are way more interested in catching up with each other and stuffing ourselves with as much good food as possible (only out of PC sessions of course).

Now even though the end is nigh I still have a couple months left in village before I take that final trip back to the States. In these next few months I will be: closing out the last trimester of teaching, fitting in another session or two with my sexual education club, trying to squeeze in a summer camp, and playing host to my dad who wants to get in a last minute visit. I’m also beginning to put a lot of thought into what I’m going to do with all the stuff I’ve managed to accumulate over the past 22 months, what I plan to do with myself after I leave Burkina, and how I’m going to say good bye to all my favorite students and friends! Considering that I’m trying to get approved for a July departure date, there really isn’t much time left at all.

So the next few months are going to be dedicated to keeping myself organized, and trying to make some crucial decisions- like who’s going to be my cats new parent.

Though this all sounds pretty hectic I think I’m already doing a decent job. I’ve planned out my lessons and tests for my students, I’ve been preparing Graduate school applications for months, I’m dropping hints to everyone in village that it’s almost time for me to leave, and I’m making tentative lists on how I plan to give my things to. Having a Type A personality can come in handy in times likes these. Nevertheless, wish my luck in my last 3ish months!

Taking in the Sites

 

I recently biked 34 kilometers round trip with two other volunteers to visit two of Burkina Faso’s natural attractions, the Domes Fabadougou and the Cascades.

I’m personally not a huge fan of biking and mostly trailed behind on the way out and back but it made a good opportunity for me to snap some action shots.

At the Domes of Fabadougou we had some good views of the surrounding area after taking a short climb. Though the Domes were nice, I’m still more partial to the peaks, with its sharper inclines and slightly more dangerous climbs, the domes still made for a good time.

A few kilometers later we took a dip in the Cascades. Down an entire mountain side the water tumbles and pools at irregular intervals. Some spots are deep enough to swim in, and plenty of tourist and Burkinabe alike take part.

Though the biking down and back was quite tiring the round drip was well worth it to see these natural attractions.

 

West (Afro)can Hair Care for Volunteers

If you are anything like me, aka a Black girl who loves her hair, you’re probably wondering what on earth you’re going to do to keep those luscious locks strong during your Peace Corps service.

Personally I searched the blog-o-sphere looking for post on Black hair care for quite some time, and was able to find a few good posts on the subject, and there are many Black female volunteers that are still adding to that wealth of knowledge. Though we all have our own routines and ideas about how to go about our hair care it can be a bit of a struggle to get your footing once you are settled in village. Taking care of your hair can be tough in the village environment but I think I’m safe to say that after more than year of service I have a routine that works well for me in my environment. Hopefully this routine will help you (Mr/Ms/Gender non-conforming Natural Volunteer) form your own routine.

The basics: I came into the Peace Corps with relaxed hair, and began transitioning without really planning to. I also came without any relaxer in my suitcases, so I guess the transition was inevitable. I live in the south west of Burkina Faso near the border of the Ivory Coast. The weather here swings from humid, to dry, to hot  over the course of year meaning I am in a constant battle to keep my hair hydrated. I do not have running water or easy access to hair care products that work for my transitioning, and now nearly 100% natural, hair.

Step 1: I typically wash my hair once every two weeks depending on the conditions, and what I’ve been up to that week. If it’s been a particularly windy and dusty week, or if I’ve done some traveling, I will wash my hair sooner rather than later. The night before a wash day I saturate my hair in coconut oil or argon oil before wrapping it in my trusty silk scarf.

Step 2: The next morning I take my ivation rechargeable portable, and my shampoo to my shower area outside along with a full bucket of water. I’m able to lather, rinse, and repeat 2-3 times with a single bucket of water. My preferred shampoo at the moment is Cantu cleansing cream shampoo with shea butter. After washing, I soak up some of the excess water with a pagne (soft cotton material that can be found all over Burkina and is great as a towel) and while my hair is still a bit damp I apply healthy amounts of Cantu leave-in conditioner to my hair in sections. This is also the time when I start the finger and wide-tooth comb detangling process, as the conditioner makes my hair more agreeable to letting the knots go.

Side note: I started using leave-in conditioner after about six months of using a conditioner that has to be washed out. Wash out conditioner  just required far too much water to get out thoroughly. This lack of deep conditioning means I have to pay extra attention to keeping my hair moisturized in other ways.

Step 3: While the conditioner dries I pass the time reading, washing clothes, catching up on things for school, or doing other random things around the house. It usually takes a couple of hours for my hair to be completely dry. After I’m all dry I grease my scalp with whatever I happen to have, right now that’s Palmer’s  hair food formula, and follow up by moisturize my hair with ORS moisturizing hair lotion.

Step 4: Before bed that day I seal my entire head with locally made shea butter I purchase at my village market- pretty sure its the best stuff on earth. I coat my hair in sections then twist each fat section into a twist before applying more shea butter to the ends. I then, once again, tie up my hair in my silk scarf. Due to the harshness of the sun, and my hair’s own (in)ability to retain moisture, I repeat this step 1-2 more times between washes to keep my hair from becoming dry and brittle.

Step 5: Once I’m all shea buttered up I once again wrap my hair in my silk scarf and turn in for the night. The following morning, I untwists the twists and style my hair using headbands, claw-clips, or by getting it braided in village.

Side notes: I have had all of the products I use sent to me from the United States. Despite this being a predominately Black country the conditions and acceptance of natural hair are the best. Shelves are typically stacked with shampoos and conditioners that contain drying parabens and straightening agents, along with the usual bottles of perm. In addition to keeping my hair well moisturized I take a daily vitamin, an iron supplement (provided by Peace Corps PCMOs), and a Vitamin E supplement. Last but not least, I drink the recommended three liters of water a day; which is necessary for the health of your skin, hair, and everything in between.

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The hair care section at the store
At the end of the (hot) day your hair health is on you. Though it can be an uphill battle through the heat, and the dust, and the dirt, it’s possible to find a routine that will keep your hair healthy in your new environment. 

 

The Sex Ed Club does 8 Mars right

International Women’s Day is: A global  holiday to recognize women’s achievements and to encourage gender parity.

International Women’s Day, or 8 Mars, is considered such a big deal in Burkina that everyone has the day off, thus making it a perfect day to round up the students and talk about gender equality, women’s empowerment, and in my case, how safe sex relates to it all.

Léa addresses the students like a boss
 


So a few weeks ago Léa and I decided that we were going to organize 4 teams of girls, between the public and private school, so they could play soccer (which is usually a male dominate sport in Burkina) and learn about family planning. 



Léa and I frequently preach the importance of using condoms to guard against unwanted pregnancy and sexual infection transmission, we even managed to talk about it during our menstrual health session, but today we mixed it up by tying in other contraceptive methods, and getting the students more involved in presentations. 

Two students show how to properly put on and take off a condom

Before and after a few rousing games of soccer students presented on all the methods of contraception, and talked about the benefits of family planning, and how safe sex and family planning can empower women.

Student presenter shows off an example of birth control pills

Ode to the Bush Taxi*

Oh bush taxi

With doors that don’t fully close, Windows that rattle, and seats that move like 4D rides at Disney


Oh bush taxi

Some bright, some white, and everywhere in sight

I love and hate your convenience

Your fine prices that attract the masses

And cram your isles so no one new passes

Oh bush taxi

Some so clean, others not so pristine

Fancy paint job

Not all the drivers mean.

Oh bush taxi

Roof stacked so high with things it’s defying gravity

So much so that foreigners think it a form of depravity

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How many men does it take to fix a bush taxi? All of them. 

Oh bush taxi

You’re filled with dust, people and animals alike.

That’s right

Don’t step on your neighbors chicken or you’ll get a kicken

Man leaning over my back row seat while his rear hangs out the back door

Oh bush taxi

You ferry me too and fro

How could I possibly be your foe

You bump, you bound, you’re everywhere to be found

Some painted, some white, some oh so bright

Oh bush taxi

Is that driver drinking beer?

Are those people hanging onto your rear? Without fear?

A double: back door open and a man hanging on the back

Oh bush taxi

When you break down you make me frown

But I’ll wait

I mean, since I paid for this date.

*Written for a bush taxi, on a bush taxi