Sunday, July 24, 2005

tribes, scientology, and covetousness (thats not even a word)

Greetings from burkina. I’m in fada for the weekend decompressing from the past three weeks in village and searching out news of the world during my time on the dark side of the moon. Anyways, things are going well. I’ve had a couple visitors over the past few weeks (Cary, the volunteer from Matiakoali, the nearest volunteer from my stage, and Steve, my vsn rep). The visits were good. Cary and I hung out at the pool for the fourth of July and basically did a whole lot of nothing. Steve brought mail and packages (thanks everyone, especially erin for sending that behemoth of a package filled with food).

For the past few weeks I’ve been continuing with the reading and the hiking into the hills (I think I have been to most of them around kompienga) and the hanging out. Most days I go over to Salif’s boutique for a few hours. Salif has become by far my best friend here, and not just because he usually feeds me when I go over. For some reason it almost seems as though he’s the only person who approaches understanding of what it is like for the volunteers here. He’s upbeat and very talkative but at the same time he understands that sometimes you just don’t want to talk. Its nice.

As I said before, when ever I hang out at Salifs place I end up serving as the encyclopedia on all things western (an Encyclopedia Americana if you will). I’m going to use a couple of those conversations as the subject of my post for today. Sorry if it is crappy.

Alright, there’s another older guy who hangs out at salifs place as well who doesn’t speak that much French but has told salif that he is very interested in America and so whenever he comes over salif will ask a question for him and then translate the response. One day, salif asked me if everyone in America spoke English. Before I have explained to salif that there are people who speak every kind of language in the world in the big cities but that for the most part, everyone who lives in America, especially almost everyone who is an American citizen speaks English. He asked me again this time and again I responded that yes pretty much everyone speaks English. Then he asked me if even in the small cities they speak English.

And then I understood the confusion. French is the national language here. Naturally, most people do not speak French, especially in the small villages where the only speak the local language. When I was in Bassi I could probably count on my fingers and toes the number of people who spoke French well. This is a tribal culture. Africa is full of tribal cultures. You are defined by your tribe. Burkina is filled with the Mossi, the Jula (that’s the language, I’m not sure of the name of the ethnicity), the Gourma, the Fulani, the Peuhls (I think they are actually the same as the Fulani), and about 30 or 40 smaller groups. Each group has its own language and even within these ethnic groups the language varies greatly as any volunteer can tell you who has ever tried to learn the language from his or her villagers. There is a concept of being from a certain country, being part of a nation, being a citizen, but it is a new concept. At other times salif has asked me about my heritage and I explain to him that I am a European mutt like a lot of Americans but I also explained that heritage has very little importance in America (I was leaving the issue of skin color aside for the moment although I have gotten into it at other times). I explained that almost everyone’s ancestors are immigrants (I told him that most of the real natives are dead) and that when you move to America, you become an American. Salif thought it was a great idea. I thought it was an interesting view into the different concepts of identity in these two vastly different worlds.

Another day, another topic. This time it was the weather. Lately we have been getting a lot of rain and lightning. After one particularly heavy rain I was hanging out with salif and another friend (I hardly know the names of anyone here but this guy always tells me to shave my beard, I have a very grizzly beard by the way, because he says it makes me look like a peuhl and the mossi people hate the peuhls because they say the peuhls are violent, arrogant, bandits whose cows trample all over their fields – the mossi are the cultivators and the peuhls are the herders in Burkina) and the friend asked me if people in America are ever killed by the rain. I told him that if it floods people can die. Then salif asked me if we have lightning in America (again, you get a lot of questions about whether or not they have things like rice or corn in America). I told him of course and then he asked if people ever get killed by lightning. And I said yes. He said it happens here too but it is very mysterious. Lightning is used to punish thieves here. He explained to me that if the three of us were sleeping in a house with a thief the lightning could come in and take out the thief and kill him without even disturbing our sleep. He asked me if anything like that ever happens in the US. I told him about tornadoes that can take out one house on a block without disturbing the others. He said that sounded similar but then asked who causes it. I told him it was just bad luck. He said that over here, somebody makes it happen, a sorcerer with some sort of voodoo or gris gris.

Whenever we get into the realm of gris gris and magic I always end up surprised because it happens with everyone, no matter how educated here. I know I’m being culturally biased here and forgetting about belief in angels and things like that that exist in the west but whenever this happens I always get this feeling like I have just discovered that one of my good friends is a scientologist or something. I’m reminded of the time when one of our language teachers was discussing the old traditions that were being lost in modern times and he just casually mentioned rain-making. I had to consult with my fellow volunteers to make sure I had heard right but it is always a bit of shock to find out that even the very educated people here believe in things such as rain dances. You hear about this stuff before you come over, but it doesn’t seem real. I thought to myself, that stuff used to happen, but it doesn’t really happen anymore (this is what I thought about the teapot method before I got over here too). Expectations are no match for Africa. Oh well.

In other news, my desire for goodies from America grows greater everyday. I’m trying to reconcile my anger when I have people here ask me for things and my desire to ask for things from America, but I’ve decided to let this little bit of hypocrisy pass me by like so many others in Africa. Most important is just letters and emails. You have no idea how much those mean to volunteers here. Shortly down from that is sauce packets. If you send these though, be sure to look at what other ingredients are necessary and then remember that I am in Africa and I’m not going to be able to find brown sugar or anything like that. Next is books and magazines. Here are some more ideas – a college geology textbook (I’m going to teach this and I don’t know anything about it), pulp books and science fiction books including old Robert Jordan wheel of time books except for winters heart (I’ve read them all except for the prequel but I would read them again, especially the most recent one), this is crazy but books about law, specifically constitutional law (I find myself enthralled by constitutional law and especially epic supreme court cases and all the briefs, opinions, and arguments and analysis involved, this despite the fact that I really do not want to go to law school although it is probably bound to happen), the tao of pooh, man and superman, and the curious enlightment of professor caritat, and pretty much anything else. Finally a game boy advance and some games that will occupy a lot of time including Mario 3 and some golf game. That’s a joke (actually its joking on the square as al franken would say – send me a game boy, ha ha, but for real, send me a game boy – I fully intend to buy one if I go back to the states during my time here or to buy one from another volunteer here, there’s a few floating around). That’s about it. Please, just some write some letters.
Anyways, that’s about it for now. Again things are going good. Only one more month in village lockdown but I might be able to do some travelling during that time anyway. I’ve found instant oatmeal in fada so my culinary prayers have been answered. That’s all. Later.


Anonymous Dad said...

Great note Tyler. The H Potter book was mailed 7/18 so you should receive it soon. Mom and I both wrote, so their is other mail enroute. I will start sending you some more books. Love, DAD

11:24 PM  

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