Burkina – The Return

I had always kind of wanted to return to Sideradougou, the village in southwest Burkina Faso where I had spent my Peace Corps service, but had never found myself back in West Africa or seriously pursuing the idea. Many other volunteers I knew had gone back in the intervening years, but the prohibitive cost of flights from the US combined with limited vacation days and an entire world to explore made the prospect look daunting. Once Christine and I moved to next door Benin for her work, however, my hand was forced – I had clearly run out of useful excuses and resolved to make a trip as soon as I could.

Given the paucity of flight connections within West Africa, air travel was nearly as expensive as if I was coming from Europe (one of the more reasonable itineraries had me flying from Benin to Morocco for a 20+ hour layover, just fly back down to Burkina), thus the whole thing would have to be done overland. That meant about 30 hours with four different transport changes, but hey at least that helped set the tone as I felt like a poor Peace Corps Volunteer again (or also made me wonder how I had progressed so little during the past 3,179 days since leaving village).

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la route

Other than the logistics of actually getting there, the other main issue was that I had fallen out of contact with everyone in my village during the past nine years. People’s cell phones numbers changed, while I moved around my fair bit as well. Prior to my arrival I tried to send a note via the taxi brousse system (literally having someone give a piece of paper to a driver plying the route to my village, who would then give it to someone there so they could locate the intended recipient – or if the driver was less inclined, he would just throw it out the window as he passed the town). While that may have been a somewhat effective means previously, the cell phone revolution appears to have killed off such obsolete forms of communication, and my message floundered in the dust unanswered.

Thus I was going in blind, just how I don’t really like it. It was my village after all though, surely the life-size statute of myself that I had built,  my crowning achievement during service, still resplendently stood on the main road, no? Plus, how many other volunteers since had brought a two-year supply of bacos with them, only to force feed it to the masses? My village must remember me, and this wouldn’t be awkward at all.

I more or less planned to just show up unannounced. While this seemed like a great idea at first – just surprise the whole village I figured, they’ll be thrilled! – I became increasingly nervous the further into the 30-hour journey I became. Maybe just showing up was not be the right way to go – maybe no one would remember me (which would have severe and lasting repercussions for my fragile psyche), maybe they would be angry I hadn’t come back with gold bullion bars from the streets of l’Amerique as I had promised, maybe the foreign volunteers in the village after me would’ve commanded such a strong cult of personality to erase any memory of my time there from the pages of village history (i.e. tearing down the statue), or perhaps everyone would just really remember how much I smelled and agonize over the thought of such odors returning to the village. A combination of such dynamics were likely to transpire I figure, but I was in too deep to turn back now.

Thus, as much as I had wanted to spend the night, I was hesitant about showing up after so long already, and searching for a place to stay would have been an added complication, so I resolved to just visit for the day this time. It would be nearly impossible to pull off such a feat and have meaningful time there via taxi brousse as well, so I rented a car & driver for the day in the nearby town of Banfora, representative of my newfound status as a ‘baller’ (aka anyone who is not a Peace Corps volunteer).

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Arriving in style

Thus at 10:00am on May 31st, 2016 I pulled into Sideradougou like it was 2006 all over again. Expect that upon arrival, I had no idea what to do. The driver of the car I had rented already thought I was a bit strange for wanting to go to Sidera for the day, despite my explanations. He was also primarily concerned by what he was going to do all day there. But I guess he figured that out quickly, as once getting there he essentially kicked me out of the car and said he’d see me at 4:00pm. Six hours in Sidera – what had I done??

My basic plan essentially involved all of the following – just start walking down the main road and hope someone (i.e. anyone) recognized me. It was a bit of an arrogant strategy, but lord knows how many names and faces I had forgotten over the intervening nine years. Even more arrogantly, I hadn’t even bothered to look through my extensive photo collection circa 2005-07 for a crash course of key figures in Sideradougou societal circles prior to arrival. At any rate, here I was now – not much more to do really.

I started walking and instantly a wave of trepidation came over me. Each passing second that no one called out my name only reinforced my recently formulated preconceived concerns that this was an utterly harebrained plan, and I was going to spend the next six hours in a valley of depression significantly deeper than any Larium-induced psychosis over the fact that the village I had poured my soul into for two years no longer maintained a reciprocal status with me.

I kept walking and began to wonder also – what if no one recognized me now? My face contained a few more hairs and my belly a few more pounds – I was likely the opposite of a shell of my former self. I probably should’ve shaved and dug up those scotch-taped, completely unaligned glasses I had worn throughout my service, along with a few of the rags I used as clothing and the tattered Redskins hat I never took off in two years – then people would recognize me. That must be it, nothing about the lack of impression that I give, simply a lack of recognition give my nine post-Sidera years of near bi-weekly hot showers. That must be it.

Finally, when I had given up all hope amongst the roller coaster of emotions I had experienced in my first 120 seconds back in village, some cried out almost incredulously “Omar? Omar???”

I was a made man! My plan had worked – I turned to see where the call was coming from and immediately recognized the face. Unfortunately I also immediately did not recognize the name, nor could formulate anything close. No matter, the man in question (who I will call Solo, as I later found that was indeed, and had always been, his name) was an old friend – perhaps not in my inner most circle which largely consisted of myself, a few of the talking lizards that lived on my walls, and my shortwave radio – but in the next tier. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my Sidera plan.

Solo was so surprised to see me – he looked essentially exactly the same, with a few additional gray hairs sprouting in his short hair. We chatted a bit, and then he offered to take me by my old house – I had hoped someone would be willing to sort of ‘chaperon’ me around at the beginning as I gathered my bearings again, so this worked out well. We went off on his moto (so liberating as this was technically not allowed during our Peace Corps service) and after getting off the main road I instantly remembered how to get there. Solo had warned me that no one was living there now, and the landlord has passed away and his son was re-doing the house, or something of the sort. Sure enough, the house was in a state of non-use and disrepair – the entire courtyard had been vacated long ago. I poked around a bit, trying to see if I could enter, but figured I wasn’t here to dwell on the past. Following that, Solo took me to see the house he is building now, and then to his place for an impromptu tea session.

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my old abode, in a state of non-use

 

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Tea time at Solo’s house – just like old times

Solo’s house in construction was actually just two ‘blocks’ down from my old house, on a road in which I remember there being basically nothing, save for an odd boutique perhaps. Now there were multiple boutiques and even a restaurant of sorts. Such developments count, as well developments – one of the main questions I had going in was how Sidera might be changing, and here was my first piece of real evidence.

I sat at Solo’s having tea for some time, happy to have a place to be. But then I realized that I really had only six hours in Sidera, as my driver was insistent on making the two-hour journey back on the dirt road to Banfora before nightfall. The short moto ride from the main road to Solo’s house had flooded back a wave of memories, and all of a sudden I felt I had to see everything. My mind instantly flipped from “what on earth am I going to do here for six hours,” to “oh my goodness, I only have six hours!”

Thus I wrapped up tea with Solo as quickly but politely as I could, still grateful that he happened to be on the main strip and recognized me right off the bat. I asked Solo to drop me off at Amara’s boutique, the place owned by one of my closest village friends. I was very nervous upon asking as it had been nine years and given the state of healthcare au village, I shouldn’t assume that everyone from 2007 was up and running (in fact on an incredible sad note, Solo had informed me right off the bat that my counterpart/one of closest friends in village had unfortunately passed away six years ago). Thankfully, Solo said Amara was doing well.

He dropped me off and I marched into Amara’s boutique as I had many an afternoons, as if nothing had changed. Amara’s jaw kind of dropped upon seeing me, and gasped something like “it is really you? I never thought we would meet again!”

I had always enjoyed hanging out at Amara’s boutique as I found him to be incredibly intelligent and well versed in current events, as he sat there and listed to RFI all day. We had great conversations about the world, and he taught me a lot about the local culture. His three-year old daughter at the time was also insane in a good way, and always excited when I came around, yelling various things in various non-French languages (I would typically write down my daily tasks for the day on my hand – not that there wasn’t paper, I just like the idea of ink seeping into my blood stream – anyways, she would always grab it instantly and pretend to read at a very high volume, shouting out pure gibberish).

Visiting Amara’s boutique was a primary motivation behind returning, and it was an incredibly touching moment. In some ways I felt ­­­­­­­­­­­disillusioned that his little boutique looked exactly as it had when I left – it was comforting in a way, but also meant that this brilliant and hardworking man was held back by a simple lack of opportunity predicated on the geographic chance of birth. On the other hand, Amara was doing quite well and had expanded his family by two, a clear sign of success in these parts. His previously rambunctious daughter was now a serene twelve year-old (but that mantle has been taken up by her new six-year old sister). I was nervous about expecting to recognize the kids I used to know, as they five-year olds would now be taller than me – but she had the same face of the little girl I had doted on.

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Amara’s boutique and daughter – at least one has grown significantly!

I spent the next three hours catching up with Amara on village developments, and other world events. As much as I didn’t want to, I tried to leave on multiple occasions given my time constraints, only to be drawn back in by hospitality demands that I be thoroughly well fed before my departure. At one point, I was surprised to see Amara’s other daughter holding up a set of battered playing cards – he said I had given them to the family when I left. I had no recollection of bequeathing these specific playing cards, but was happy they had endured, and reminded me how the littlest thing can have a lasting impact.

Finally around 3:15pm I left Amara’s house – I had no desire to, I could’ve spent all day there and been content. I cursed myself for not arranging to spend the night in Sidera somewhere, despite the practicality of the decision at the time. Next time, I’ll come and spend a few days I figured, and truly be able to have enough time to repeat all my experiences of nine years prior.

Amara had told me some Moringa plants I had started as part of a child malnutrition project were still being grown at the CSPS (local health center), and even being used. Solo himself had said “every time I see those plants, I think of Omar.” It wasn’t quite an imposing village statue of me, but it would do. I was even more surprised these were still standing than the playing cards, but figured I had to check it out. Time was of the essence, as the 4:00pm deadline to return was looming, so I quickly jotted off to the outskirts of town where the health center was located.

Unfortunately, while on my way, I passed by the local police station. The sight of a random bearded foreigner, running by himself with a backpack down the road in Sideradougou, where foreigners likely rarely ever run by themselves, ostensibly startled the officers hanging around outside the station. I was already cognizant of the changes in Burkina Faso due to the creeping threat of terrorism from northern Mali, punctuated by the January 2016 attacks in Ouagadougou. Identification checks along the roads were frequent now, at a rate unseen before. Nonetheless, while en brousse, I assumed this would stop.

No luck, as the officer began frantically whistling his whistle and waving for me to come over. I kind of ignored the first noises and friendly waved back as if to say hello, but his insistent nature informed me that it would be better to heed this request than to not. I approached nonchalantly but in a manner of feigned surprise to make it seem like it was routine for me to be here doing what I was doing, while he immediately asked for my identification. I took out my passport, and explained that I was just going to the CSPS to check on a project. I was a little curt, more than I ever should be with West African security officials, because time my time in Sidera was rapidly ticking down, and I had many other goals post-the CSPS Moringa run.

He handed me over to the police commissioner, and then I decided to expedite the process by explaining that I used to live here and had come back to visit right now. He poured over my passport and visa, and upon learning that this particular police commissioner had been installed here in 2010, I offered something presumptuously conceited to the effect of “well then, my ties to Sideradougou pre-date your own.” I stopped myself after that, and resolved to be a better detainee by chitchatting a bit about the village and how it’s changed. The commissioner seemed satisfied enough to let me continue on my regularly scheduled path after about 15 valuable minutes, and I immediately took off. Though I really couldn’t get too angry as they were just doing their job (and I looked suspicious enough to the point where I would’ve stopped myself).

I managed to make it to the CSPS and saw what I assumed were the plants (in reality, I had no idea). Luckily, as had been dominant theme of my plan throughout this village visit, an old friend popped up and confirmed that these were indeed the plants and they were being used. I had been a business volunteer, with grand designs to develop the local cotton-based economy into a thriving West African powerhouse, but I suppose I should still be happy if my lasting impact of two years of service is that little children were getting a bit more vitamins and nutrients than they used to.

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The Moringa trees still alive and kicking, to my surprise

I wanted to run up to the local high school to see if the world maps I had painted were still in effect, and just wander along the streets a bit more to take in other developments and hopefully run into some other old acquaintances, but it was already 4:15 by this point. My CSPS friend took me back to the center of town where my car was waiting, but luckily a few other friends had heard I was in town and gathered around to see me before I went off. Thus I was able to squeeze in a couple additional three-minute sessions aimed at catching up over the past nine years, and then left village with a high note. Of course, as soon as I entered the car to leave Sidera again for one last time, we drove six minutes to the outskirts of village and promptly broke down for an hour. But at least that allowed me to take in the experience I wasn’t ready to have end a bit more, even while the driver frantically worked to repair his vehicle in time so we wouldn’t have to travel at dark.

Overall, my nerves quickly subsided upon returning to village and it felt just like old times for a while. Though my time was short, I accomplished what I set out to do by finding out and catching up with a few old friends, reestablishing contact, and seeing how a near decade had changed or not changed things for a place as near and dear to me as anywhere else I’ve lived.

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Modibo – my old water guy who used to be constantly sick (often I was told by other villagers when I needed to find him as I had run out of water, not to bother as he would die that day), looking better than ever!

 

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This guy owned one of the bush taxis I used to travel on – I thought he was super old back then, but seems just the same now!

In some ways, Sideradougou had changed a lot – this biggest initiative being the advent of electricity about a year ago. I yearned for electricity during my time there, but eventually got every used to living without it, and as volunteers we always wondered how life might change if such modern amenities were introduced to our villages. The typical refrain is that it would help businesses (refrigerators, etc.) and households (nighttime lighting for kids to study), but in reality it might just mean more television watching and cell phone recharging. I can’t say I was able to determine the impact in the six short hours I was there, but it was telling that some residents, such as Amara who live one road removed from the main road, still hadn’t paid to have it installed just yet. Regardless, the introduction of a modern amenity considered standard in much of the rest of the world is a definite cause for celebration and a visible sign of progress – and considering when I arrived back in 2005 there was no cell phone reception or electricity, the introduction of both within a decade span I’d say is a decent indicator that things are overall trending upwards.

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electricity counter in action next to a latrine (perhaps indoor plumbing as a next step?)

In addition, Sidera had clearly grown. People talked of it more as a small town now, rather than a big village. I was quoted some population numbers I cannot recall, but signs of this were apparent throughout. Along with the increased number of stores and other businesses off the main road, the CSPS had actually been upgraded to a more regional health facility, replete with additional structures. I was told a number of new schools had also opened, both private and public. Two boulangeries (bakeries) had also opened in Sideradougou, and residents were clearly proud of the fact that they no longer had to import their baguettes. While I saw smart phones for sale as well, most people I interacted with still had most basic cellphones, though admittedly more advanced models than what I was used to carrying around stateside!

A gold mining project had also begun about 40km from Sidera, with some elements based in the town. In fact, on the ride to town we also saw independent prospectors, women digging through the dirt on the way into town. While it may be temporary as once the stores are exhausted the mining companies will leave, it does represent a new local industry, and makes me think I should’ve spent more time digging around in the dirt while I was there (more than my usual amount of course).

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gold prospecting – I could’ve been doing this for the past nine years

On the other hand, some things have definitely not changed, and may have even gotten worse. The dirt road from Banfora has gotten pretty bad, and the rainy season was just getting underway. The premature passing of my counterpart from ‘hypertension’ reveals the continued hazard of public health concerns considered much more easily treatable back home. And the numerous police checks underlie the overall increased risk of terrorism and spread of radical ideologies – something that was not an issue in the least in this region nine years ago.

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la route n’est pas bonne

Overall, the basic picture of the village and daily life is largely the same, with a few added amenities and hopefully some additional opportunities. Nine years is both a short and long time, but I kept finding myself wondering what Sideradougou will look like by the time Amara’s one-year old son is his age. There’s often a tendency to resort to a ‘nothing ever changes’ sort of attitude, but I can’t say that has been the case in Sideradougou, and hopefully will continue in that direction.

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Sideradougou village entrance, with electricity wires!

In this sense, despite all my nerves, the trip was a smashing success both from a personal standpoint and that of intellectual curiosity. The biggest added benefit, besides seeing many old friends doing well in their situations, was the reestablishment of contact so that I can confidently drop in from time to time when in the region. In some ways, I thought this visit might close that chapter of my life, as I would’ve gotten the village update I needed and been able to fully move on. But in reality, it did just the opposite and reminded what a unique experience I was lucky enough to participate in, and that the bonds developed and personal relations cultivated will continue to demand my presence from time to time – just hopefully the next visit will be sooner than nine years from now!

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Amara’s family has been growing – hopefully will be back soon to see check in again!

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The First Time in Burkina Faso I Almost Died (According to No One Except Me) – Fila

I immediately hit the deck, the deck being a red dirt dusty road. My bag of tomatoes got squished between my chest and the road, while I got a mouthful of dirt. As I had said, there was a 2/11th chance of perishing in Burkina Faso, but I was really hoping it wouldn’t be on my third day in village, the very first time I went out by myself (I had just gotten the place so clean!).

I was still on the ground unsure what to do – those three months of Peace Corps training had not really prepared me for this situation. Should I roll around and do some ‘manvouers’ (whatever those might be)? Should I get up and run zig-zagging in the other direction? Should I throw my tomatoes in his face and charge? Even if I got away now this was not that big a village, surely he would find me later. Would I have to spend the next two years dodging bows & arrows?

While calculating my next move, I began to hear a loud noise. A roar if you will. It was laughter, a ton and ton of laughter. I peaked my head up and saw that the entire town, everyone who had been sitting on either side of the road watching my every move, had continued to watch after I bought the tomatoes and now were laughing hysterically. This is an odd village I thought, how can what is happening be funnier than the Aw ni tile joke?

I was a bit confused so I looked up some more, to see if my tormentor was still there. To my surprise he was laughing as well. It didn’t seem like my life was in immediate danger anymore, so I slowly stood up. The man I thought was going to be the last I ever saw was standing there, dressed in complete rags. He had knotty hair, and in between laughing was trying to sing a song. He wasn’t very good. But when I inspected him further, I realized the bow was indeed still in his possession, but he didn’t have an arrow. And he likely never did.

Still a bit confused, I dusted myself off and tried to salvage what I could out of my tomatoes. A young man approached me, also laughing, but perhaps taking pity on me. “Il faut pas t’inquiéter, il est fou!” – or “Don’t worry, he is a crazy person!” That’s when I fully comprehended the situation. For whatever reason, just like dust and goats, many villages also have a crazy person – a fou (or sometimes a crazy women, a folle). The lack of mental health facilities probably doesn’t help, but they are harmless. Often they amble about, signing songs, telling tales – an almost jester sort of role at times. We had great moments with the one in our training village up north, actually he was quite an entertaining individual (he claimed he had asked the World Bank for 20,000 white people to build an international airport in his village of less than 200, and the four of us in training were the first to arrive – that meant he also considered himself to be our boss in a sort of way, and always carried around the hand-drawn blueprints of the prospective airport design to prove it).

However, they are also crazy. And they do crazy things. And for some reason in this village, someone had decided to give this crazy fou a bow. Luckily, however, they had the foresight not to give him the accompanying arrow. This was all unbeknownst to me, but I was getting a quick education in it now.

So I was alive, but my confidence completely shattered again, and no amount of tomatoes would bring it back. I meekly smiled and tried to say something to the fou. Of course he was laughing too hard and trying to sing when he wasn’t laughing, so it was tough to get anything through. Usually he made people laugh around the village, at least I was able to do the reverse to him. That and the entire village had finally stopped watching . . . no wait, that wasn’t true at all.

It was a bit of an awkward situation, the kind I was desperately trying to avoid, so I resigned myself to failure and walked away off the main road and back to my house tomato-less. There’s no way everyone saw that right, I reckoned to myself. No one would remember that, the fou has probably pulled that trick on plenty of people. This is going to be ok, I bet people in this village hate to laugh.

I spent the rest of that afternoon in my house, not leaving. My counterpart came over that afternoon, to recount the story of ‘The Fou and I,” that he had just heard. Oh well, looks like Day 4 was going to be another cleaning day!

The main drag of my torments

The main drag of my torments

The First Time in Burkina Faso I Almost Died (According to No One Except Me) – Keleng

Before I left to go to Burkina Faso with the Peace Corps, I figured there was a 2/11ths chance I might meet an untimely demise while there. This was based on absolutely no legitimate math or rational information whatsoever, as I had rarely met a fraction I could comprehend, but a number I kept in mind that was just low enough to avoid any justification to back out under concern for such pretexts.

Fast forward to three months later. I had completed our three month training program, and affecté (sent) to my site. I was replacing a married couple in the southwest of the country in a small town known as Sideradougou. However, that couple had left Burkina six months prior, and by the time I arrived in the house I was to be living at, the lack of cleaning over a the past half year in a place where things get very dirty, very quickly really showed. So I spent my first day entirely cleaning up the joint, and then again on the second. It was not exactly glamorous, nor involved saving babies from endemic cholera on an hourly basis as I had imagined, but it had to be done.

However, there was another reason I spent two days cleaning, two more days that I had ever cleaned anything in my entire life combined prior to that. After three months in Burkina, I had become somewhat accustomed to the culture and country. However, during training, which was located on the north side of the country far away from my current posting, I was always surrounded by other volunteers. We split off into small groups of 4-5 where we did language training all day, then came together every 10 days or so as a big group to do more technical training. It was easy to go around and explore with others by your side. Being dropped off in village and realizing you were all alone for the first time in three months was a daunting feeling.

So cleaning in some ways kept me occupied, and delayed the process of exploring my village on my own. However, I couldn’t handle a third day of cleaning, no matter how much I dreaded the first time leaving my house (in addition, given my lack of cleaning prowess and the rapid rate of dust resettlement in Burkina Faso, things were unlikely to get any cleaner. Ever). So on Day 3 I resolved to get out and explore. I didn’t really know what to do, but I figured maybe buying some vegetables would be a good way to ease in to village life. This was another first for me, as I had eaten about three total vegetables in my life to that point (two of them were potatoes). Between all this cleaning and vegetable shopping, Burkina Faso was domesticating me at a rapidly unexpected pace.

It wasn’t market day, but my neighbor told me there were a few stalls along the main road. So I quickly reviewed my local language (Dioula) greetings and headed out that way, my first big trip in little Sideradougou. I walked at a brisk pace and could feel everyone’s eyes on my every move. I was really the only foreigner around, and this was my first foray out – I’m sure everyone was curious as to what the new guy was going to do (I carried similar questions). I tried to greet a few people by but clearly messed it up. They politely tried not to laugh and responded, but I could tell (saying Aw ni tile [good afternoon] when it was instead time to say Aw ni sogoma [good morning] is apparently a classic Burkinabe joke). Oh well, at least I wasn’t cleaning.

After about 10 minutes I reached the main road. I thought there had been a lot of people I had passed already, but that was nothing compared to the amount hanging out on both sides of the road. And every single one of them was staring at me. Or so I felt.

I walked up slowly surveying the scene as I didn’t even know exactly what to do, and wanted to avoid looking awkward and confused (likely 14 years too late on that one), or at least minimize that as much as possible. Luckily I saw a lady by a stall selling tomatoes out of the corner of my eye. Perfect I thought, tomatoes are a vegetable, right? If I just do something normal and get me some tomatoes, then maybe everyone will see I am just like them, that I eat vegetables too. I approached the lady and attempted to ask how much they cost in local language, but quickly switched to French. I had no idea how much they should cost or how many tomatoes was a sufficient amount (since I had never really bought any ever in my life and I didn’t know even what I would use them for), so I just gave her some money and took what she allowed me to.

I felt pretty accomplished, I had just completed my first business transaction in my village (as a business volunteer, I had basically finished my job for the day). Growing more confident, I decided to walk down the main road and explore a bit more before heading back home. This was going to be all right I told myself, I was going to do well here.

I turned around to start walking away from the tomato stall. But what I saw I was not prepared for, and instantly shattered all my new found confidence. A man was standing in the middle of the road and aiming a bow and arrow right directly at my chest, about to launch what would certainly be a deadly strike.

to be continued . . . maybe

A place to buy tomatoes and many other exotic things I had never eaten

The place to buy tomatoes and many other exotic things I had never eaten

Rats in the BF (Part III)

I gagged and looked away. The smell was so strong now, but that couldn’t be the reason, could it? There is no way that a dead rat has been sitting in my utensil jar for two weeks now, rubbing up against the very utensils I use to eat, that I put in my mouth on a daily basis! I looked again and it was still there, as dead and rotting as ever. I couldn’t believe it, it all made sense now why every time I took a sip of ice tea it smelled like poo – the spoon that I had used to stir and then left in my cup inexplicably had been rubbing against this dead rat for some time. I was basically licking a dead rat for the past two weeks!

I came out of a semi state of shock, took the utensil jar outside of my house and dumped its contents in a garbage area of sorts (the previous dead rats, Dimanche had all picked up by hand and thrown over the wall of my house, as I had no plans on touching them). I didn’t know if I should tell Dimanche, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know if I was going to become seriously ill, but then I reasoned that I had basically been licking the dead rat everyday for the past two weeks and not gotten ill, so it must be ok (maybe even good for me?). I was going to call our PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) to ask her, but then I thought, how on earth am I going to explain this? It was probably best to not even try, they might just wackyvac (a Peace Corps slang term for someone who is sent home because they have gone ‘crazy’ to some extent, at least in the eyes of the administration) immediately, since it is pretty odd that I knowingly smelled rotten sewage all over my kitchen but didn’t do much about it.  No, I was still here, alive, and in Burkina Faso, if this was going to kill me, it would have happened by now.

So I did not call anyone or tell a single soul in my village, but spent the next few days on edge, constantly worried that I would fall violently ill. The fact that I didn’t is amazing in itself. I considered throwing away all my silverware immediately, but did not feel like buying new ones either (Peace Corps volunteers are known for being incredibly stingy, something I probably took to the max). So I spent the afternoon washing each of them with bleach, over and over. As soon as I had gotten rid of the rat there was no longer a smell in my kitchen, but that made it even harder to clean since I did not really know when to stop. So I didn’t, for a couple of hours at least.

At any rate, that was not the last time I encountered rodents that needed to be killed in my humble abode. However, that was the largest haul – in total it was five. After having seen four of them the day after we put out the poison, I figured that had been plenty and we got them all. I didn’t think much about it in the following two weeks, but given that the dead ones were spread out across the house, it had been highly likely there were others. I had considered the matter done, but that dead rat hadn’t. In fact, he ensured that he would get the last laugh. Unlike his brethren that laid down to die within a small radius of the poison, this punk rat stumbled onward, looked around for a suitable location, climbed up the table and crawled in my utensil jar to die. He wanted to ensure that his rotting carcass would continue haunt me, and that it did. Alas, though I did learn a valuable life lesson. To this day now, whenever my ice tea starts to smell like poop, I immediately stop drinking it and try to figure out the issue, instead of waiting until after the fact (who says you don’t learn any valuable life skills in the Peace Corps?).

THE END (at least I hope – I don’t think any rotting carcasses followed me back home . . . )

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The sacrifices we make for such goodness

Rats in the BF (Part II)

Fast forward to two weeks later. I had grown more confident in my surroundings after the demise of the rats, and often even left my mosquito net to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night now. It had been about six weeks in village, and I was starting to settle in. This particular day I had just come back from buying some bread along the main strip, and returned to make a sandwich. Another great prize from my care package was a jar of real American peanut butter, along with a jar of marshmallow fluff.  I was going to enjoy myself and make a fluffer nutter this fine afternoon, in addition to drinking some ice tea from a mix I had bought in my regional capital – middle class Sideradougou life was good.

I went into my kitchen to begin preparing, and noticed a really foul smell. It had been there for sometime actually, but smells come and go in these parts. I hadn’t paid too much attention, assuming it would go away eventually. It was definitely worse today though, but no matter – I had a mission and wasn’t going to let something like a putrid smell distract me.

I went over to the corner of my kitchen were my utensil jar was, and where the smell seemed strongest, and got out a knife to cut open my bread and spread the peanut butter, followed by the fluff (there are competing schools of thought on the right way to do it, but I’m a peanut butter first kind of guy). I grabbed another utensil to prepare my ice tea. As is typical, after stirring I left the spoon in the cup. I took both my sandwich and drink over to a table in my living room so to speak (I actually had a very large house by Burkina Peace Corps standards – as I had replaced a married couple, the village had ensured they received a big house since there was two of them). I began happily eating my sandwich and drinking my ice tea. Something was odd though – before the smell had been confined just to that corner of the kitchen. Now it seemed to have followed me (could it be I? yes probably, but it seemed there was also something in addition to that). My food in particular had a bit of an odor around it, and it was strong whenever I drank my ice tea. No matter, I was eating a fluffer nutter and drinking ice tea – life was good for the moment and I didn’t want a wretched stench to bring me down, I could deal with that later.

So I finished up my meal and decided maybe now was time to figure this all out. I brought my dishes back to my kitchen and started sniffing around, trying to figure out where the smell was coming from. It was definitely the back corner, where on a small table I had my water filter and utensil jar. As I sniffed around I noticed it was actually strongest right by the utensil jar. That’s odd I thought, I wash my utensils all the time, I wonder why they would be stinking so bad?

I sniffed around a bit more just to make sure it was the utensil jar and not something else, but it was definitely strongest there. It literally smelled like poo, something must’ve been rotting there for some reason. But what, metal spoons don’t typically rot do they?  I peered into my utensil jar, but as the married couple prior had left me with more knives, spoons, and forks than I could ever want, it was too crowded to see anything inside but blackness. I poked around a bit, but still nothing. I figured the smell must be something else, but thought I would do my due diligence and take out all the utensils for a better look.

As I was taking them out by the handful I saw something and froze. It could not be, no way! I took out some more and kept looking – then I almost puked. There were no more utensils remaining in my utensil jar, but there was a brown blob, similar to the one I had showered with two weeks ago . . . a dead, rotting rat was sitting in my utensil jar!

to be continued . . .

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If you were a dying rodent, where would you hide? (note: utensil jar on the shelf is already taken)

Rats in the BF (Part I)

This story is positively gross. If you plan on judging me, I suggest you avoid reading it (especially if you have food around you, or plan on consuming some at any point in the next 72 hours).

During the first few weeks at my house in the village of Sideradougou, Burkina Faso, where I lived for two years during my Peace Corps service, I spent a lot of time cleaning the place up. The volunteers before me, a married couple, had left nearly six months before I arrived, and the house had not really been kept up during that gap. It was actually quite in disarray, but at least it gave me a ‘project’ of sorts to concentrate on during the beginning when everything was weird and awkward in village, and I had no idea what I was doing there (not much of that really changed drastically later on anyways).  At any rate, after about a month I had finally gotten the place set up how I had wanted, cleaned it up with some help, made a few modifications, and got some new furniture – it was finally starting to feel like home.

However, there was a small, continuing problem. I had received a care package from my parents in the United States, with a Costco sized bag of Cheez-its as its main prize. I would leave them out on a recently constructed but very uneven shelf that I used as a pantry in my kitchen area. Overnight,  I often heard weird noises and shuffles around my house, but given my deathly fear of bugs at the time, I refused to get out of my impregnable mosquito net fortress (like hiding under the covers as a child, I assumed I was ‘safe’ in there). Yet one morning, I was looking over that beloved box of Cheez-its (as I typically did first thing every day), and saw some scratch marks towards the bottom. Someone, or something, seemed to have been trying to get into them – this was personal now. I told a friend of mine in village about it, and he quickly figure out the issue – some unwanted houseguests had remained even after the intensive clean up, and were now trying to sabotage the one thing making me happy.

In short, there were rats in my house. Not to worry my friend, Dimanche (Sunday in English, as he was born on a Sunday), told me. It was bound to happen and probably will again, but it’s fairly easy to get rid of them with a little poison and a lot of death.  Given closer inspection around my house, the prevailing notion was that instead of just a single newfound roommate, I had in fact a whole family of squatters. Thus we would need to put out a decent amount of poison, probably for multiple nights in a row, to make sure we got all of them.

While I am not a huge fan of genocide, even for rats, I am a huge fan of Cheez-its. If it came down to them versus my prized care package possession, well that was an easy choice. We went out and acquired the poison, placed it strategically right in front of the increasingly crooked pantry shelves (ironically that Dimanche, a builder by trade, had constructed), and mixed it amongst some food (peanut butter, and I even sacrificed a single Cheez-it in order to save the rest) to fool these silly rats into a delicious death. We left it there, and I went into my mosquito net fortress as usual, but with open ears to hopefully hear a sudden stop of all the shuffling in the middle of the night.

The next morning I awoke and went to check the poison area, but I did not have my glasses on. I didn’t see much and assumed it hadn’t worked. Oh well, I went to take a shower – unlike most volunteer houses in Burkina, I had an indoor shower. There was no running water of course, but it just meant there was a small dark room in my house with a tiny pipe leading outside (the type of pipe that various rodents could conceivably easily crawl the other way back in) where I could take a bucket shower indoors (it was the definition of middle class Sideradougou life).

While showering in this 2×2 closet sized room or sorts, I noticed something large near the pipe. I still didn’t have my glasses on and had already begun showering, so I continued, but attempted to stand near the entrance, and away from whatever that motionless thing was. I finished, got dressed, and put on my glasses. When I returned to inspect the brown blob that I had showered with, I was astonished to see that it was a dead rodent. It had worked! I soon walked around my house and saw another dead rodent in the hallway, and two in the kitchen. Never had I been so happy to see dead animals all over the place, my Cheez-its would be safe now! It may have been a bit weird to accidentally ritually cleanse yourself with the dead body of something you had just killed, but hey I was in Burkina Faso now, and a lot of things were a bit weird.

to be continued . . .

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The not-so straight pantry shelf that housed my prized care package possessions