So it’s official. As of June 8th I’ve been in Burkina Faso for a year. So instead of doing some odd reflection on the past year that will probably end up being far too disturbing and introspective, I’ve decided to honor this little anniversary by highlighting some of the Burkinabé behaviors that I believe are (some) of the most significant cultural differences between people from the West (or most specifically the United States) and Burkina that I have learned, and I have adjusted to in the past year.
- Right Hand Only
This is a right hand only environment. This means you have to eat only with your right hand, and take/give things to others with your right hand only.
This is because the left hand is traditionally (and still is) used to clean yourself after using the restroom, thus presenting your left hand to someone is considered rude and unsanitary.
- Nasal Cleaning
Nose picking? Perfectly acceptable. Chances are you are going to see everyone from toddlers to old people going knuckle deep in their nasal cavity. It can be pretty traumatizing at first, especially for people who grew up having their hands swatted by a parent for “going digging for gold.” However, according to a rather lovely, nearly finished, volunteer told me, “you’ll start doing it too! I do!” It’s bound to rub off on you.
Snot rockets, super gross right? Perfectly acceptable. Once again, everyone from toddlers to old people will do this without a second thought. Just try not to crinkle your nose in disgust, and eventually you’ll get used to it.
- Food Sharing
“Vous etez inviter,” or “You are invited,” is a phrase that is used to no end in Burkina. It’s meant as a formal invitation to share whatever food/drink that person is currently taking part in. Though it can be hard to tell if the person actually means for you to partake or is just acting on formality can be hard to decipher at times but one can usually follow the rule of thumb that; if you are there when the meal is first brought out you are 100% invited to eat, if you show up in the middle of the meal or the invitation is given while the person is eating at a restaurant it is best to turn down the offer politely with the phrase, “Bonne appetite.” However, if the person insists it is probably a real invitation and you can take part. It’s really a bit of a tricky judgement call.
- West African International Time
Everyone in Burkina knows the phrase, “time is money,” in relation to Americans. We love to be on time, and consider it rude when others are not.
Being on time is not apart of this environment, and that can be erg frustrating. If you eve attempt to set a meeting time it is a certainty that everyone will show up a minimum of 1 hour late.
According to Burkinabé that I’ve talked to this happens because they believe that what they are doing at home should come before whatever meeting they have outside of the home, so if the work at home isn’t finished they will stay and complete before they show up to the meeting. As well, Burkinabé in village don’t often wear watches and will use the position of the sun to tell time. Which of course can lead people to be late. Lastly, Butkinabé tend to schedule meetings by time of day and not an exact hour. For example, someone will say “lets meet tomorrow morning,” but this morning could be anywhere from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and they will show up when they have time.
The best way to deal with this is to just try to get them to set an exact time, show up on time yourself, and bring a book while you wait a good hour for them to show up as well.
- Modesty and Nudity
Small children running around all over the village completely naked? Women breast feeding in public? Completely acceptable.
Wearing a skirt above the knee? Wearing shorts in public? Putting on leggings without covering your butt with a long shirt? Completely unacceptable and culturally inappropriate.
Sometimes it can feel like the way the human body is viewed in Burkina can be a bit contradictory. In some cases so liberal and it others extremely conservative. It can be a little hard to navigate at times but as a foreigner it is always best to lean towards being more conservative if you want to gain people’s respect. So as a volunteer I tend to wear pants and skirts that reach past my knees, even when I sit down, and shirts with some form of sleeve at all times.
In Burkina it is perfectly acceptable to invite yourself over to someone else’s house, or simply show up without notice. People are always ready to invite you into your home, and offer you tons of food. You can just got over to say hello, or you can hang out for hours chatting, eating, and drinking tea.
Because it is possible to just show up at someone’s house without notice, it is equally possible for someone to show up at your house and hang out for hours.
In both situations there is no culturally appropriate way to ask someone to leave. No kidding. When someone comes to your house, or you go to theirs, you can pretty much stick around as long as you want because it’s considered rude to ask someone to leave, unless you have somewhere you have to go. So when someone shows up to your house, be ready for the long haul.
- Asking for Help
I can say with 100% confidence that one of the major things PCVs love about Burkina is how friendly and helpful Burkinabé are.
Struggling with your bags? They will I insist that they carry them.
Lost? They will put down what they are doing and lead you to your destination.
Never hesitate to ask for help if you need it, because chances are there is a Burkinabé that is willing to help.
- Public Services
I believe one of the things someone from the West will find the most frustrating about life in Burkina is dealing with public services, be in going to the post office or trying to get on a bus, this can be one of the most infuriating parts of living in Burkina.
Why? Because the idea of getting to an organized line is not apart of this culture.
If you aren’t careful you can easily find yourself being shoved to the back of the cluster of people trying to be served and you will never get what you need.
In cases like this it is time for you to pull out your in assertiveness and make your presence known. Don’t be afraid to tell people that you were there first and they need to go to the back of the line*, chances are they will be so embarrassed about being called out that they will back off.
*This is especially important for women because men will cut you in line like nobodies business.
Greeting someone is the first form of politeness that is absolutely required in Burkinabé society.
Whether you are walking into a room full of colleagues or strangers it is absolutely necessary to greet everyone, be it shaking everyone’s hands individually or doing a grand, “Good morning everyone.”
If you do not greet people when you walk into the room you will be seen as rude, and disrespectful.
Living in a foreign country is like being in the classroom on a continual basis, and I’ve learned a lot about Burkinabé culture in the past year. And here is to another 15 months of classes!