Wednesday, March 22, 2006

the year in review

at the six month point I wrote a post with a report card on my experience so far. I'm not going to do that this time. There is just no real way to quantify the experience and I'm not going to try. But before I get into my review of this most difficult and challenging year of my life, first general updates.

We just finished the second trimester at school. In general, more of the same. No big news on the teaching level. For the most part i feel like I've settled into it and it is becoming a bit routine which is both good and bad. Most of the time I feel entirely comfortable (psychologically, not physically - its ridiculously hot right now) in front of a class of 80 to a 125 kids from a vastly different culture teaching a subject I haven't studied since high school in a language I am still learning (I feel like I speak french now, although not fluently, not entirely comfortably - i compare it to trying to type with gloves on). So, not so bad for a years worth of work. The next trimester should be interesting as I will be teaching reproduction in three of the four classes and hopefully evolution in the other class. During the break I visited another volunteer - tyeliah - in bagaré (a tiny village that reminded me of my training village, bassi) and then my training group had a party in ouaga to celebrate a year in burkina (on the 16th) and then the group came down to my village for a couple nights. They got to see the pool and the monkeys in the hills so I think they were pleased. And now I am headed back into ouaga to do some work for school and then for another party celebrating the close of service for the other group of education volunteers.

So thats that.

Now, what the hell have I been doing here?

I like the blog, the idea of a blog, it gives me a good place to put up my thoughts, to organize them in some manner, more for me that for anybody else. But I procrastinate with it because it is not easy to organize anything here certainly not my thoughts and I have no easy way to put it ALL onto paper (really, a computer screen, a light matrix, or plasma for the big spenders). Anyways, enough emoting.

When I studied in China, I was walking in a park one day after having some tea (still the only place I ever drank tea) when I came around a corner and saw a little 2 year old boy pooing in the middle of the public park and then his father wiped him. And nobody seemed shocked. At that moment, I said to myself, 'nothing will ever shock me again.'

Obviously, I have had to revise that statement.

On Being Shocked:
I have been shocked in so many ways since I stepped off that plane a year ago. Here are just a few examples.
- the first entry on my ill-used diary - 'on my first night in burkina, the temperature is 100. Its midnight. This is just stupid.'
- my first taste of toh with my host family - imagine eating a crappy version of grits with your hands. You dip it into a sauce that usually has the consistency of snot. Its made of okra.
- I once asked my host family brother what his favorite food was, he said toh. I didn't know whether to be happy for him - he gets to eat his favorite food every night! - or incredibly sad - he has no idea about all the deliciousness out there. He's never eaten pizza! or tacos! or a hamburger!
- Bats flying out of latrine holes while you pee.
- Bulletproof potion. Everyone believes in it. The burkina army takes it. During the last training group, a villager was killed in one of the training villages because he drank a faulty potion and his friend shot him in the face. They went after the witch doctor. I know what your thinking, if the army is bulletproof, why aren't they the most powerful army ever. The response of a villager - 'they're not bombproof, stupid.'
- Daily seeing kids poo and pee on the side of the road . . . and having them wave at you while they do it.
- Being asked whether it is possible to sleep more than 8 hours a day (it just never would have occured to me to even think of that question)
- Holding down my best friend's wife for 45 minutes with 4 other grown men as she thrashed about and screamed in Moore. Medical explanation - meningytis. Real explanation - genies. I understand why.
- having a kid tell me that he is going to cry if I give him a zero on his test (he cheated). What really shocked me, my response - 'Start crying.'
- My best friend beginning a sentence, 'for exemple, when a man beats his wife . . .'
- a villager responding to my question about what happens in the next election when the president can't run again - 'Oh, he'll just change the law.'
- Seeing the driver of my bus replace the transmission on the side of the road
- Seeing the driver of my bus replace the drive shaft on the side of the road
- Osama shirts
- Faceless, veiled, women (its scary)
- Wallets with the american flag on one side and a bob marley symbol and a picture of saddam hussein on the other side (put in orders now)
- my neighbor, an educated, wealthy man using the teapot method
- Another teacher making the kids write 50 times: I am stupid. it was a volunteer!!!
- Being cold in 80 degree weather
- Burkinabes wearing parkas in 100 degree weather
- Being comfortable in 120 degree weather

Alright, thats all for that category, although I assure you there are more.

So I've been shocked. Is that what defines my experience? No, but it makes for a good story. So what is it then? How have I changed.
non serious ways
- I'm extremely well read: Tolstoy (War and Peace), Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse 5, Cats Cradle), Heller (Catch 22), Faulkner (Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I lay Dying), Shakespeare ( more than halfway through the complete works), the Bible (almost a fourth of the way through), Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamozov), Nabokov (Pale Fire), Melville (Moby Dick - pretentiously enough, my new favorite book), Plato (i'm working on the Republic), a college biology textbook, Joyce (Ulysses), Camus (The Stranger, in french no less) and many more.
- I have probably lost several years from my life span
- I'm tanner
- I have a beard
- when I see a child peeing, I wave back
- I can type on a french keyboard
- I play spades
- I watch soccer
- I can make some killer banana bread
serious ways
- I'm more confident. I just travelled to a tiny african village i had never been to before, by myself with very little direction from anybody just to surprise someone who I wasn't even sure would be there. I feel like I can go anywhere now.
- I'm more patient. You have to be here where 'tout de suite' means in 45 minutes (in french it means right away. you always here a collective groan among the volunteers when the waiter says tout de suite)
- I'm more away of my skin color. In america it was not a part of my identity at all and I didn't understand why it had to be a part of the identity of black people. Now I understand that you don't have a choice. Someday, there will be a longer post on that.
- I'm more understanding of africa. We always hear about poverty and misery in america, but I can assure you, for the most part, the burkinabes (third least developed country in the world) are not miserable. In many ways, they are happier, more content, more accepting of their place in life than most people in america. It makes you wonder, would they say they were poor if we hadn't told them they were a hundred times?

How have I not changed?
I'm still tyler. I still like the cardinals. I'm still somewhat of a smartass. I'm still stubborn. I still like to laugh. I'm still competitive.
I knew there was a lot about me that would stay the same. But, there was one thing I was worried I would lose.


From one of the many books I have read since I came here there was a quote about hope being the last, best thing to whisper out of pandora's box after all the plagues and chaos and misery. RFK has a quote about ripples of hope combining together to tear down the mightiest walls of oppression. Its something I take seriously and something that I had heard people who come face to face with Africa often lose.

Its still there. I can't tell you why. Whether its the faces of the few students who actually understand instead of memorize, or whether its the joyful cries of Too-Bah-Bou (dioula for whitey) I get from two little kids on my way to school (it feels like a cheer to me) or whether its my best friend, Salif, messaging me on his new cell phone (although the message was only this - ':' - he needs more practice) and inviting me to eat with him on holidays or for that matter any complete stranger on the bus inviting me to eat the little they have or whether its my french teacher at school inviting me to go to Niger with her or whether its just listening to the sounds of my town.

I don't know. But its still there. And for that I am grateful.


Blogger Arkansas's Swiss Family Imholz said...

Well, Tyler, that brought tears on the last part. Thanks for letting us see through your eyes vicariously.

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Kurt said...

Awesome post, Tyler.

Speaking of, the Cards just beat the Phillies in the season opener 13-5. Rolen had a grand slam, and Pujols hit two homers.

5:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Helloooooooo, leave your email,


5:29 AM  
Anonymous Brandi said...

Hi Tyler,

I will be joining you all in Burkina Faso! I was headed for Chad on 19 June, but sadly the program was suspended (I'm sure you've probably heard about it). Well, that means I'll be in Burkina Faso on 6 or 7 June!! I'm in the girls' empowerment/education program. I have read only this one post (which was, I think, a good way for me to be introduced to your journal), but will read more later.

Anyway, I look forward to meeting you and the other volunteers. Until then,

~ Brandi Church

1:45 AM  
Anonymous Brandi said...

Whoops, sorry! I'm silly. My email is

~ Brandi

1:21 AM  
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