Friday, December 30, 2005

the end of the trimester and the end of the plateau

i have now been in burkina for more than nine months, which is the longest I've ever spent out of america (this actually might not be true but its close enough). I can only describe the experience as surreal. America just seems too far away to exist and burkina generally does not make enough sense for me to believe in its physical reality either.
I have a few very good examples from my christmas trip to mali and from teaching and transport to show the surrealness of burkina in specific and africa in general. To get to mali (there were 4 of us going - Adam, adam's friend from college, malcolm and myself) we decided to take a bus that goes straight from ouaga to koro (a small malian town near the border where you get your guide). I had heard about the bus from another volunteer and I had read about it in the guidebook but just to be sure we of course called the bus station. 3 times. this is roughly how the calls went
- caller (myself twice, malcolm once): hi, do you guys have a bus that goes to koro?
- bus station guy: yes
- caller: what time does it leave?
- bsg: 10
We called twice the day before and then once the morning of our departure. To be extra sure, i arrived at the station 45 minutes early. The conversation went something like this:
- me: i'd like a ticket to koro.
- bus station women: the bus left at 6.
- me : §#£$¤!!!
Although I have to say that I was not very surprised. One must expect things like this in africa. Eventually we did make it onto a bus for mali, if only a day late - something which worked out to our benefit in the end as we ran into a couple of other volunteers who were heading to mali as well so we saved some money on the guide. But getting into (and out of) mali raises the second problem: do we need a visa?
Apparently the answer to this question is no. We had heard that you could get a visa at the border and that is what we planned to do as it would save us from hanging around ouaga a couple of days while they processed the visas which is what the other two volunteers we ran into had done. they also paid 40 bucks for the visas as well. But we had also heard that a lot of times peace corps volunteers do not even need visas. Functionnaires (government employees and other salaried workers) in west africa don't use visas to travel around west africa. They just hand over their identity card and that is enough. Many volunteers think that our status as pseudo-functionnaires should entitle us to the same privileges as well. We didn't plan on it, but we were at least willing to give it a shot. At every checkpoint we just handed over our peace corps ids. It worked. They said nothing about visas on the trip there or on the trip back. In itself, not very surprising. What was surprising was that the same thing happened for adam’s friend from the states who was not able to hand over a peace corps id but had to hand over his visa-less passport. As Malcolm said, worst border security ever. Not that I’m complaining.
Anyways, before I continue with my examples of the unreality of Burkina I feel I should say a few words about what I was doing in mali. Right now we are on our Christmas/winter break so pretty much all of the teachers are travelling. Of my stage, 6 people went to Ghana, 1 person met her family in paris, another person went all the way to the states, one brave soldier stayed in village, and then the other three (my group) went to mali, specifically to a place in mali called Dogon Country. Dogon Country is the home of the Dogon people. What makes them really interesting to go see is that in the past, they lived on the side of a long cliff (the bandiagara escarpment as the guidebooks like to say). Think mesa verde in arizona (or maybe its new mexico, I don’t really know). Anyways, its supposed to be one of the top ten sites to see in west Africa but it is not an easy place to see especially for those of Limited Financial Means. The transport there is quite frustrating (the roads are no better in mali – mali ranks one spot ahead of Burkina on the UN human development index at 174 out of 177. Kudos to those of you who can guess the two countries behind Burkina. Here’s a hint, they’re both in west Africa). Once you arrive, you have to get a guide (conceivably, you could do the trek without a guide, but you would almost certainly get lost once you got on top of the plateau) and then at dogon country itself you have to hike with your bags between all the villages (again, if you are not Financially Challenged, you can get SUVs to do all the manual labor). In keeping with my desire to go more than a year without wearing shoes or socks, I hiked in flip-flops.
Really though, the hiking is not that bad and the scenery, especially once you get on top of the escarpment is amazing. That’s where I was for Christmas. I recommend it and I had no major complaints. Check out adam’s blog for pictures –
Alright, now for my third tale surreality. For my highest level class, the troisieme class, they learn about the human body and all the systems within. We had just finished going over the nervous system when I got a question I just never ever would have thought to ask. Never. I can honestly say it never once occurred to me in my life. And the question is not so crazy or out of this world like questions about dragons or bullet-proof potions. It was about something as simple as sleep. I had just finished telling the class that the average person needs 8 hours of sleep to function normally. Right after I said this, one of my students raised his hand and asked – Is it possible for a person to sleep more than 8 hours? I didn’t know how to respond. The question isn’t so weird but it just never would have occurred to me or anyone I know. Luckily, other people in the class reacted to the question as though it were ridiculous. Somebody commented on how babies sleep a lot and sick people. But then I got the question again, but slightly different – Monsieur, is it possible for a healthy adult to sleep more than eight hours? The question made me realize how wonderful air-conditioning is.
Further notes on the end of the trimester. Again, there are no computers at the school. We have to do all the grading and all the calculating by hand and then we have to manually enter the grades into a grade book. For 370 students. It is not an entertaining aspect of my job here. That’s all I’ll say about that.
My fourth and final anecdote is something that simply astounded me. When I was heading to ouaga, the bus from fada broke down about 15 minutes after we took off. This is run of the mill. I’d say that on at least a third of my trips, the bus/taxi brousse breaks down or experiences some other major delay. Usually the chauffeur (driver) and the other workers get off the bus with various Hammers and Wrenches and bang away until it starts to ‘work’ again. This time was no different than any other except that it seemed to be taking a little longer than normal and then they just stopped banging. I had seen this happen before when they had to take a moto into town to get another part to fix the transmission (something which really impressed me with their mechanical ability). This time however, after almost two hours, I saw a guy biking down the road with a drive shaft strapped onto the end of his bike. My immediate reaction, and I quote – ‘You have got to be joking!’ But they did it. They replaced the entire drive shaft on a greyhound size bus on the side of the road in under three hours. What most impressed me was not that they did it; but that they even tried it. I’ve worked at a mechanics shop before. This just does not get attempted in America. But it worked and we got to Ouaga. As my friend corey would say - mad props to bush mechanics (that means good job).
Anyways, I'm heading back to village for new years eve. Its Salif's birthday today and I got him a Ronaldo jersey (however I think the jersey has the wrong number on it; salif will still appreciate it). Then I am preparing for the new trimester which begins on the 5th although the other teachers won't arrive until after Tabasci (a muslim holiday on the 11th - the burkinabés celebrate all religious holidays). What will I be teaching next trimester? Plant growth, insects, metamorphic rocks, volcanoes and earthquakes, and the digestive, circulatory, respiratory, and excretory systems. Wish me luck.
Happy holidays.


Anonymous corey said...

raise the roof!

happy january.

2:40 PM  
Anonymous DAD said...

Very interesting column Tyler! We checked out the pics on Adam's blog also. Showed them to Zach and Jim and Pat Fowden while we were visting in Houston. Hope you received our mail and packages.


10:11 AM  
Blogger OKeedokey said...

Hi Tyler,

Hope you had a good new years eve. I love reading your posts. Good luck with next semester.


2:03 PM  
Blogger lucyammons15571836 said...

Hey Meet Me Today I'm available in your area tonite GO HERE NOW!

4:05 AM  
Blogger Arkansas's Swiss Family Imholz said...

Wow, Tyler, no shoes for a year...? I like that!
Have a great semester, and remember to stay ahead of your class. They're getting smarter.

12:16 AM  

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