Home Sweet Home
We walked in relative darkness along a dusty road for no more than 5 minutes before we came to a metal gate. When it was opened, I couldn’t see anything, and the sisters and Mme. Dioma led me (still with all my luggage) to a large, dimly lit building to our left. This was the refectory, and inside, still eating, were all of 52 adolescent girls who stopped everything they were doing and stared right at me as soon as I walked in. Yes, I could smell the hormones. It was like your worst nightmare in high school. I had to look down to double check that I wasn’t naked-but being fully clothed did nothing to stop my face from heating up. I was smelly, dirty, disoriented, and now I was on display. In front of teenagers. Who planned this, exactly?
A few of the girls set up a table and some chairs for us at the front of the room, and gradually they all went back to their dinners. Another nun, sister Jean Marie, petered slowly into the room and introduced herself to me. I sat stiffly in my seat until Sister Elizabeth got up from her chair and called the room to attention. In French, she pronounced:
“Did anyone notice that we have a guest here today?” The girls nodded tentatively. “Would anyone like to ask her who she is?” The room was silent. That’s fine, I prefer anonymity anyway. It adds to my air of mystery. Finally, one girl stood up and shyly asked my name. I took a deep breath and introduced myself in practiced, clear French. (I had plenty of time to rehearse on the 3 hour bush taxi). There was a rumble in the room and sister Elisabeth asked if anyone had understood what I said. Silence. Yes, it did do wonders to boost my confidence.
Sister Jean Marie stood up and called the girls to attention again. “You all have something prepared for our guest don’t you?” She called out. “One…two…three! The room broke into a harmonized chorus of “Soyez bien venue!” including a riveting grand finale that involved the first actual drum that I have seen in this country.
When the excitement of my arrival finally wore down I was allowed to go to my house to rest. It was about 9:45 (way past my bedtime), and one of the girls led me through the dark compound to a tiny courtyard that was attached to one of the girls’ dorms. The courtyard had a wall about waste high and a small shaded area close to the entrance. There were two doors: one for my bedroom and one for my kitchen, not attached from the inside. The bedroom, where I spent most of my time during the visit, way pleasantly furnished with a bed, desk and a cabinet for clothes, and housed both a bathroom and washroom. There is no running water or electricity in my house and a thin door separates me and about 25 adolescent girls. I went ahead and moved my desk in front of that door. I don’t think I’ll be opening it any time soon.
The next couple of days at site were a true test of my patience and language skills. Mme. Dioma and the nuns were convinced that I needed to rest most of the day, so I was largely left to my own devices for about 8 hours every day. Meanwhile, since I was living on the grounds of the center, I watched the girls go about their daily chores: Cooking three meals a day, cleaning, pumping water, attending various classes in French and Djula (one of the more widely spoken local languages) and a number of income generating activities including: Liquid and solid soap making, tailoring, animal husbandry, some modest gardening and most importantly, weaving traditional pagnes (colorful, patterned pieces of cloth worn throughout West Africa).
When the novelty of FINALLY being alone for a few hours wore down, I began to get antsy, and I couldn’t figure out how to insert myself into the daily activities of the center. I walked outside and did a detailed drawing of the center. Then I went back in my house. I walked outside and watched the girls weave. Then I walked back in my house. I walked outside and pumped some water for laundry. Then I walked back into my house. Then I walked outside of my house. And then back inside. I had the impression that this routine was going to get very boring very soon.
In the evening Mme Dioma came and picked me up in a barely running, tiny red car to introduce me to the who’s who in Solenzo: The Police, the Gensdarmes, the Commissioner, the Minister of Education and a host of other important people whose names and titles I forgot as soon as they told me. It was an odd contrast: Coming from a community of women to be introduced to the all-male staffs of various government functions in Solenzo. Mme. Dioma seemed to be the only woman among them.
Amassing for Mass
The next afternoon, after a full day of stepping in and out my house and a short walk around Solenzo, Mme Dioma came to get me and asked me if I wanted to “See how we worship.” I appreciated the way she asked the question: She had already asked me my faith and I had told her that I considered myself “spiritual,” and left it at that. She didn’t pry, she didn’t proselytize, she just nodded and moved on. When she invited me to church there wasn’t a hint of self-righteousness in her tone, and I felt honored to share in a piece of her life she considered very important.
The sun set as we collected in the churchyard, probably 200 people, and the pastor began reading from the bible in French accompanied by two people who were reading passages in Djula. After each passage the entire group would slowly migrate to a new location about 20 feet away from the previous one, so that we were doing a slow clockwork around the actual church. Excuse me-does anyone realize that there is a perfectly good house of worship right there? Am I the only one that sees it or does it smell or something? It took me about four location changes to realize that we were doing the stages of the cross, each one drawn and tacked up to a tree outside the church. Jesus falls, then gets up, falls again, and is helped to his feet by John and Mary etc…etc (please don’t quote me on accuracy here).
Call me a romantic but I have to find significance in everything. As we made our slow rotation I thought about how much I expected to struggle in the next two years, and how I hoped that I could, like Jesus, get up every time. Hopefully there is a happier ending for me than there was for the Son of God.
When church was over Mme. Dioma took me to her house to treat me to dinner. Again she treated me better than I felt I deserved. She heard I liked ginger juice, so she ordered some specially made for me had it brought before dinner. She heard I liked peanut butter, so she had her daughter prepare a special peanut sauce for me. She heard I liked salad, so guess what the first course was? I went to bed feeling spoiled.
I awoke the next morning and packed, ready for my departure that day to visit to the regional capital. I was wondering what I was going to have for breakfast, but as soon as I walked outside of my house there was Mme. Dioma, seated comfortably on a chair outside my courtyard with a little charcoal stove boiling water for coffee. She had brought me galletes, beignets made from pounded rice, and they were still hot. We shared a lovely breakfast together, chatted and laughed, and at the end I said, “I don’t know how to thank you enough for how good you have been to me.”
“There is no need,” she told me, “Here in Africa, it’s family.” This statement struck me. What she said fully sums up a huge part of this country: All of my deeply engrained ideas about give and take, merit, deservedness and even time don’t compute here. In Burkina Faso you give. There is a joy in it. There is a beauty in it. You don’t demand something anything in return. I’ll have to pay it forward.
Where to begin, dear readers? When last I left you, I was in the process of becoming a devout Muslim, so it will perplex many of you to learn that I have abruptly changed course in deciding to try Catholicism on for size. Pull out your Bibles, friends, and pray that mass doesn’t last longer than two hours this time.
Just as we Trainees were coming to the end of our collective rope, forgetting tenses in language class, throwing up to every night, falling off our bikes en route to the garden and missing the latrine hole, a respite came: Site Visit! We are the first stage to visit our own sites during training, and we were told to prepare for a one-week trip including a three day workshop with our respective counterparts in Ouaga. We over packed our bags and hastily bid our host families goodbye before exhaustively pedaling to the training center and boarding a air conditioned bus. Air conditioning? In Burkina Faso? Oh, how you spoil us, Peace Corps.
When we arrived in Ouagadougou back at the modest compound where we had stayed our first week in country, the contrast in people’s attitudes towards our lodging was stark. Look! There’s a toilet here! And it flushes! Showers? With water? And…ceiling fans? Again, we felt spoiled, caught between missing our host families and coveting the seemingly never ending supply of toilet paper in our temporary home. Amenities that seemed rustic at best when we had arrived in country suddenly felt like luxuries. Horray for integration.
The morning the counterpart workshops began we filed sleepily into a familiar classroom with about 40 Burkinabe who had come from all over the country. Next step: Peace Corps speed dating. We were told to go and find our counterpart and sit with them. I whipped my head around, determined to avoid what was sure to be an awkward situation, but before I had so much as forgotten how to say hello in French I felt a gentle hand on my arm, and Madam Monica Dioma gave me a wide, beautiful smile.
Over the next couple of days in Ouga I got to know this woman very well. Mme. Dioma is the eldest child of eleven and hails from the west of Burkina near Mali. She herself has five children (six if you count me), four girls and a boy between the ages of 20 and 32. She is a devout Catholic and missed taking her vows only because her husband swept her off her feet at the tender age of 20. As well as working with the nuns in Solenzo (my site), Mme. Dioma has devoted her life to fighting for women’s rights in West Africa, attending trainings, conferences, and holding classes for young women on the subject of women’s empowerment. She is truly is formidable woman.
Spitting Distance from Mali
The name of my site is Solenzo. It is a western city close to the border of Mali about 8 hours and two modes of transport away from Ouaga. When I say city, I hope you aren’t imagining skyscrapers and reliable electricity, because Solenzo has neither of those things. It has a population of about 12,000, a smattering of Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Animist inhabitants all living in harmony under one, dusty, sweltering sky.
I will be working with an organization run by four nuns called the Centre de Formation Feminin which has a small compound housing around 50 girls who are not in traditional schools. Although my role there is not yet crystal clear, it looks like I will be working with the girls to develop activities for petit commerce so that they have an alternative plan if they don’t go to university. Mme. Dioma has been working with the Center for decades and is very good friends with the nuns. I am lucky to have her as a counterpart because, while she is well versed in how the Center works, she also has her hands in multiple other projects in the community and is ready to connect me with other organizations.
The morning of February 18th, Ash Wednesday, I had narrowly avoided a 6am mass with Mme. Dioma and was waiting to depart for Solenzo. Something you have to understand about being here, no matter how good my French is, I am always only about 70% certain about what’s going on. Part of that is cultural, and part of it is about what gets lost in translation. The point is, I wasn’t sure what time we were leaving or, for that matter, where to find my lovely counterpart. But for the first of many times during that trip, Mme Dioma compensated for my lack of cultural (and linguistic) fluency, finding me with little trouble and (as always) with a smile to explain to me in slow, clear French exactly how our trip was going to unfold: After breakfast her brother would drive us the bus station where we would board a bus to Dedougou, the regional capital in the West, and then a bush taxi all the way to Solenzo. One of Mme Dioma’s daughters would treat us to lunch in Dedougou. It all sound perfect to me. After some Nescafe and stale bread, we were off.
When we arrived at the bus station, two men descended upon me and rid me of my backpack and my bicycle, which I was require to carry to site with me. They quickly butchered my bike by taking off both wheels and handing me various parts I didn’t know what to do with, then preceded to tell me that they couldn’t fit the bike on the bus. Before I could argue Mme Dioma ushered me onto the bus, assuring me it would follow on the next bus from Ouaga, and I have to say I wasn’t sad to leave the bag of bolts behind.
When we arrived in Dedougou Mme Dioma’s daughter met us at the bus station and walked us to her house a few minutes away. Her lodging was something of a mélange of village and city life: a large courtyard where all the cooking was done over a fire, an outdoor bathroom and shower and a sturdy, multi-roomed structure that was well furnished and even had electricity. Mme Dioma had informed her daughter that I liked fish, so she had grilled two large aquatic morsels with chopped vegetables in a mayonnaise sauce. All for me. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I ate them both.
Not an hour later we were at the side of the road again, and a rickety, dirty, fully occupied bush taxi pulled up to take us to Solenzo. I climbed over mommies, couples, sleeping men and young children to find a spot meant for one that would eventually accommodate three. I had made certain not to drink any water before this trip. The last thing I wanted to have to pee on a bush taxi. We women are not equipped with the machinery to discreetly urinate on long trips. The logistics are much more complicated.
We arrived in Solenzo at around 6pm, about 10 solid hours of travel in total. The first thing that had to happen of course, was church. Mme Dioma led me to the large, beautiful structure not far from the bus station where I waited outside for about an hour and a half for mass to finish. As I waited, the sun set, and I quickly realized that there were a lot more mosquitos in the West that in Leo. As mass ended, there was a mass exodus as the church emptied out, and I was approached by two nuns: Sister Agnes and Sister Elizabeth. They introduced themselves to me and then told me to gather my things.
“Are you ready to go to the Center?” Mme Dioma asked me. You mean, am I ready to see where I am going to be working and living for the next two years? …That’s a difficult question to answer… Can I phone a friend?