Monday, August 22, 2005

on becoming burkinabe and on the near renaming of this web site tyleroutofafrica and on apologizing for ridiculously long titles - sorry

its been a while since of posted. i hope you'll forgive me. i am in africa after all.

anyways, great things are afoot. not really great, but things have been afoot, now they are over. i've taken my first peace corps vacation. which is against the rules to do during my first three months, but more on that later.

- legal disclaimer notice -
if any peace corps staff/CD/APCD reads these blogs, please inform me and the other volunteers as soon as possible and please stop right now. I don't know what the rules are for self-incrimination-by-blog but i am curious and i imagine the issue will come up sometime very soon if it has not already. i think of it as therapeutic, ie, the blog is my psychologist, so you can't use this against me. Whatever.

Anyways, a little more than a week ago, i went off to ouaga (interdit - this means against the rules or forbidden) in the hopes of meeting up with some other volunteers from my stage (interdit) for a few days (more than two days - interdit) of relaxation. Sadly the original plans generally fell through so i took it upon myself to head to Bobo (interdit - are you noticing a theme here, its called foreshadowing), have a few burgers (interdit - not really, but come on, where are you going to find a burger while you're locked down in village) and hope that my presence in bobo would attract my fellow new volunteers like burkinabes to a white person juggling (substitute like flies to honey for the horrible simile if you don't understand, but trust me, they really do like to see juggling whiteys). The plan was a success. But it took some time.

I spent the better part of a day in bobo by myself, spent the night at a crappy hotel after 2 others were discovered full, was constantly accosted by faux types (generally burkinabes with dreadlocks who want to be your guide, show you something really cool like the sacred fish - they are not really cool if you were wondering - and generally try to haggle money out of you, they're awesome, not really, but the french seem to love them - more on the french later), tried to see a movie (hostage with bruce willis, sadly i was the only one at the movie theater and they decided not to show it), and gorged myself on hamburgers and pizza (it had been over 2 months since i had eaten either of those 2 scrumptious delicacies, almost certainly the longest drought in my life) - my stomach tends to expand here whenever there is a chance for good food.

Another note on my stomach which the more faint-hearted might want to skip over. Seriously, its going to be really gross, i'll let you know when its safe to read again, but i feel this is something that has to be said. (to see it, you'll have to do something incredibly complicated, like highlight the blank space, i do this to protect your fragile minds)

Anyways, before i came to burkina, i remember having a discussion with someone about the uncleaniliness of the food and resulting problems. i said something like, you have to expect get diarrhea every once and a while. This is what i learned from my experience in china. However here, the expectations should honestly be a little different. You have to expect to have diarrhea, and not just every once and a while. There is a certain level of diarrhea with which you become 'comfortable' after a while and that level is amazingly higher than you would expect (story-time - at the end of stage when we were talking about the differences between life in village and life in the states, medical care came up - one stagiaire noted that in the states, when you start seeing blood in your bowel movements - or you just start seeing blood in your bowel movements and nothing else - you go to hospital as soon as possible where as here, you give it a few days, you have the wait and see approach). For me, this wasn't a great problem during stage (props to my host mom) but only during village time and during vacation. Before i go out of town (usually just to fada for a day or two) my stomach and i usually have a little dialogue that goes something like this

stomach - where you going tyler? you going out?
me - yeah, i'm just going to fada for a day, nothing to get really worked up about.
stomach - oh ... so thats how its going to be ... you weren't even going to let me know?
me - stomach, please, just calm down, i promise, i'll get you some pizza as soon as i get to ouaga, just work with me here ... please?
stomach - ... ... ... i hope you're bringing some extra underwear ...

Its never a good discussion. But it does lead me horribly into my next topic which seriously you should skip. its not pretty.

Story-time - 1. this comes from a volunteer who recently left - "I went to school, came back, crapped my pants... that was tuesday." 2. this comes from a volunteer from my stage who had the diarrhea tri-fecta - giardia, amoebic dysentary, and ecoli all at once - "Giardia tricked me. I had just gone to the bathroom and then had a drink of water and not five minutes later i could feel a fart coming on and i thought, there's no way i have anything to worry about, i just went..." Sadly he was mistaken. Advice we've received by volunteers in the know - "Never bet on a fart," "Never fart with your pants down," and finally, "any volunteer who says they haven't crapped their pants is a fucking liar!" By the way, i haven't crapped my pants yet. Seriously. No for real.

I am however in the tiny minority. They never advertised this in any brochures. The slogan did not say - How far will you go ... before you soil yourself. But thats what i get for being in the diarrhea capital of the peace corps, which has to put it up there for diarrhea capital of the world. This is the legacy of the teapot method.

So anyways, i was in bobo. Color me unimpressed, at least while none of my friends were there. After the friends showed up, the faux types were easier to avoid and we had a lot of fun. On tuesday, we found out that one of the volunteers, risa, had been the unfortunate recipient of an unannounced medical site visit (the medical pcmo's come to check out your site to see if you can possibly live healthily there). They keenly noticed that she was not there and this suspicion of her absence was increased when the villagers told them that risa was in bobo. The consensus on this turn of events was - 'they already know that you're gone, why rush back' and not 'hey, rush back and pretend you had only left for a couple of days.' So we decided to go to banfora the next day because we heard they had waterfalls and a mcdonalds (more on that later).

So we went to banfora, which is another couple hours south west of bobo which made me somewhere in the area of 13 hours away from village (thats travel time, the waiting around time would be another 24 hours). That night, we went out to eat at the Calypso. I had a steak, it was delicious. But then the problem arrived.

This leads me to the first subject of my title - on becoming burkinabe.

I have no intention of becoming a burkinabe. My skin color, upbringing, affluence, and culture all would prevent it. No volunteers really have a desire to become burkinabe. We come here to help, to experience, to grow up, to put off the rest of our lives. We aren't here to save the world (while the vast vast majority of volunteers are liberal to extremely liberal, they are not tree hugging hippies who constantly cry about how all the africans are being oppressed by the evil west) and we are not here to be tourists.

Anecdote time (i got tired using story-time) - After dinner we were scrounging through the check trying to gather up all the money everyone owes (the experience is no different in africa - it seems as though everyone always says that they put in more than they owe yet we always end up with less than we need ...) when we come upon a discrepancy in the bill. We call over the waiter and discuss it with him and the problem is quickly identified. It seems that we were under the impression that we would be charged whatever was on the menu, whereas he seemed to be under the impression that he could charge us whatever he wanted without telling us (i won't get into the specifics but it involved two people explicitly ordering the small fish from among a small and a large fish but being charged for the conspicuously absent-from-the-menu medium fish). One of the extreme causes of stress in burkina, in africa i assume, for a volunteer, is not to get screwed - meaning, not to get treated like a tourist. This is not to say that we particularly object to tourists getting screwed (one volunteer tells this story - "a swiss ngo group came to my village to do some work and as there was no restaurant they asked my friend if his wife could prepare them some food. They asked me what price they should pay, and i didn't know what to say because i wanted my friend to make out all right so i just waited until they gave me a price (this is a common burkinabe practice). They said, how about 10 mille (roughly 20 dollars, a real price would be something like $4). I said yeah thats fine. My friend took the money, gave half of it to his wife for the food and the cooking and took the other half and got drunk. He bought me a beer"). But we are not tourists. The sad thing is, it is very hard to convincingly convey that fact. There's no special sign you can make, no secret signal with which all burkinabes will recognize your non-tourist status. I can't tatoo 'peace corps' on my head. And even when I explain what i do, what i am here for, it is incredibly hard for them to understand. Its not because they're stupid. Its for the same reason that it is incredibly hard for people in america to understand - Why on hell would these stupid whities leave the greatest country on earth to come here and live in the bush to do a few good deeds? When they do understand, they inevitably stop trying to screw you out of money and they do appreciate you.

But its rare that someone will understand. And when they don't understand, tempers flare and confusion arises. You don't have to be burkinabe, but you have to understand what would a burkinabe do (its my little motto to avoid frustration - wwbd). What would a burkinabe do in this situation? Would he think that he was getting screwed? Would he think that this is normal? It is not always clear. What seems logical and common sensical to us does not necessarily apply to the burkinabe mindset. I'm not a cultural relativist, i think that logic generally tends to hold across all cultures, and i think that people around the world tend to be a lot more similar than they are different, but sometimes, there are just things you don't know that every burkinabe knows. Another story - some friends of mine were in a bar at bobo. After a night of long drinking they got there bill only to discover it was twice as much as they expected (this was not run of the mill screwing a tourist). It turns out that drinks cost twice as much when you buy a drink inside a bar as when you buy one outside the bar (even though there is no problem with bringing the drink into the bar after you have bought it). It turns out, all burkinabes know this (it turns out one of the volunteers knew this too but he was too drunk to remember at the time) and after a frustrating discussion with the manager they had to accede because this is what a burkinabe would do. They weren't being treated like tourists.

I'm going to have to finish this post later, hopefully tomorrow, but i want to finish with my own story of trying to straddle that middle ground between being a tourist and consequently getting screwed, and being treated like a burkinabe. When i got to bobo, i tried to get into contact with steph (she's the nearest volunteer from my stage to bobo) but since she does not have a telecenter in her village and she does not have cell phone coverage i had to try to send a message by transport. I ended up walking probably about 5 kms to the bush taxi station that goes to Padema (her village) and when i find the driver i ask him if he can take a message for me. He consents, i write the message and start to hand it to him when he says we have to discuss the price. Now normally, it would cost nothing to send a message by transport, but i know that i am going to have to pay at least a little on account of my skin color and the general all around foreigness so i ask him what he wants. He says 500 cfa (roughly a $1). Immediately all the burkinabes that have gathered around to stare at the toubab (thats jula for whitey) start cracking up. Everyone except the chauffer (the driver) who appears to be dead serious about it. Everyone knows its ridiculous to pay that much. Everyone knows that i know its ridiculous to pay that much. I know what you're thinking though - but Tyler, its only a dollar - To which i reply, harshly i concede, Shut up, you have no idea what you are talking about. You cannot possibly comprehend the intense desire not to be screwed felt by the peace corps volunteer. I also say, hey, i only get paid $8 a day. But i don't get to upset, i can't, not with everyone laughing at the ballsiness of the chauffer. I reply with an offer of 50 cfa figuring that we'll discuter a little and i'll probably end up paying 100. The man holds his ground again with a straight face. I cannot say the same of his friends, all of whom know that a burkinabe would never pay more than 50 cfa to send a message. So with them all laughing around me i raise my price to 100 cfa and the man still stands firm. I was shocked. Normally the burkinabe always bargain. But not this guy. I finally raise it to 200 cfa, i tell him this is my final offer and that there is no way i am paying 500 to send this tiny little piece of paper when it only costs 1500 to send a regular sized person. Again he stands firm, so i employ the ultimate bargaining move. I walk away. I get about 6 steps away when someone calls me back (one of the laughing guys, the chauffer is still successfully keeping a straight face) and agrees to take the message for 200.

I don't tell this story to display my excellent bargaining skills (i really should have paid no more than 100) but more to express the little progress i have made. I may have paid a little more, i may not be a burkinabe, i'll never be a burkinabe, but i'm not a tourist.

Oh yeah, it turns out we were getting screwed by the waiter and it wasn't just something that every burkinabe knows.



Anonymous Anonymous said...


I just read your post regarding the stomach and other related pleasantries, while sitting in an office chair at a law firm, and I did highlight the appropriate section. I am headed to your neck of the woods next month as a PCV. I laughed so hard my eyes teared, but I think maybe I should stop reading before I leave. Anyhow, I thought to let you know that I appreciated your blog.


6:11 PM  

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