Remarkable differences

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30 November 2011

FB: 7

Remarkable differences

It’s common knowledge that every Peace Corps trainee gets a host family. It’s less common knowledge (although I suppose it should be obvious, if you think about it) that not all host families are created equal. This is not to imply that one host family is “better” than another; quite the opposite. All are equally amazing and wonderful and supportive and loving, but not all show you quite the same side of Burkinabé culture.

For example, the average family here lives in a compound, with several other (probably related) families. The average family has many, many children. It is headed by a grandfather or father, who has lots of respect as well as the final say in familial disputes. In your average Burkinabé family, the women (polygamy is common here) are much more likely to do the majority of the manual labor: they cook, cleans, care for the children, sell things in the marché, do laundry, work in the fields, and handle the household finances. They are assisted by any daughters that may be part of the family – they usually have to work and go to school, and the frequently are forced to quit the latter early in order to help more with the former – and not at all by the men and boys. Their role, so far as I can tell, is to kill things, drink dolo, and work in the fields in certain seasonal roles.

That’s your typical Burkinabé family. I know this, because it has been described as such to me by other stageaires, and in many, many classes. However, I have more or less no experience with it first hand, because my family is nothing like that.

To begin with, my family is very small: my host father, my host mother, and a daughter-in-law and grandson who stay with us periodically. But size isn’t the only difference; the internal dynamic is also entirely contrary to what has been described to me. My host father works hard, every day, and my host mom is both more educated (she’s a functionnaire[1]) and has the more dominant personality. I’ve never seen  my host father drink – he’s a strict Catholic – and my host brother is made to do all kinds of chores (and boy, does he pout about it). Yes, we have domestiques[2], but that’s more a function of wealth and less a function family dynamics. Barring minor material differences that primarily involve plumbing, my life here really isn’t too terribly different from in the States. That’s just how different my family is.

And I guess that’s the thing that really strikes home to me: culture is so much more a function of education and income than we think. Yes, my family are very, very Mossi, and very, very Burkinabé, but at the same time, they wouldn’t especially stand out on a street in the US. The cultural differences are there, and they’re real, but they’re also muted by the common factors of education. When our classes turn around questions like “how to the women in your family act around men?”, I can’t speak up, because my answer (“more or less the same as they do in the States…?”) just doesn’t mesh with the general experience. I love that. I don’t feel nearly as fish-out-of-water as I feared I might, and I definitely like, respect, and will miss my family.

Because they’re remarkable. In every sense of the word.

[1] A civil servant. They make (relatively) large salaries, and more or less live western lifestyles.

[2] Servants. All female, and mostly under 15. I’m not too thrilled about being supported by what amounts to child labor, but short of leaving them a big tip (which I’m doing) and using as little water as possible (they haul it), I’m not really sure what I can do about it. They were here before I came, they’ll be here after I leave, and if I tried to improve their situation, I would probably just screw things up.

Apropos of nothing

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28 November 2011

FN: 5

Apropos of nothing

One of the odd things about service in Burkina Faso (and probably everywhere else, but I haven’t served everywhere else, so I can’t say) is that you simultaneously love and hate so many things about it. I tried to write a long post explaining this, but I had to bury it in so much cautionary language that I feel like my initial point was entirely lost. So I’m going to try something else instead: first, a list of pet peeves; then, a list of things I love and would miss immensely. Observe how many items are on both lists in some way or another:

Pet peeves

  • Chickens constantly interrupting class
  • The never-ending peeping of baby chickens
  • The perpetual taste of bleach in my water
  • 95 and sunny, every. single. day.
  • Rocks instead of grass
  • Not being able to close the windows against blowing dust or the smell of burning plastic
  • Flies buzzing around my butt when I poo in a hole
  • The worst customer service in history in one particular restaurant
  • Taking cold bucket baths 65 degree mornings

Things I love and will miss

  • Chasing chickens in my free time, and watching them squawk like crazy
  • How insanely cute baby chickens are
  • The pure delight of Lafi (quality bottled water)
  • Never having to deal with 45, raining, and dark at 5 pm
  • Not having to rake, mow, or do anything with the yard
  • Always having fresh air in my room, and never having that musty, headachy, over-air-conditioned feeling
  • Knowing that I don’t waste any water when I poo (flushing uses a LOT of water, you know)
  • Omelet sandwiches that are so delicious that you don’t mind the world’s worst service
  • Knowing that I use about 4 cups of water a day to bathe

Obviously, neither list is exhaustive, but I think my point stands: the things that you hate are simultaneously the things you love. Yes, the marché is appallingly dirty, but at the same time it has sooo much more character than Empty Wasteland of a Strip Mall #4712 in your town. How many crappy decrepit urban wastelands do you drive by every day, without even glancing at them? I bet if the whole town of Saponé turned out, they could clean their marché entirely in less than a day; can your strip mall say the same thing?

Nor is this just a cosmetic issue; it’s a genuine problem for each and every Peace Corps volunteer. One of the 3 main objectives of Peace Corps service – and ultimately the longest-lasting goal – is to expose Americans to greater first-hand knowledge about the host society. It’s a conundrum: on the one hand, if I don’t discuss the relative cosmetic and environmental differences between Burkina and the US, I’m not telling it like it is; on the other hand, if I only focus on the negative and never accentuate the very real positives, I’m doing both countries a disservice. “Where to draw the line” is a problematic issue, and I have no doubt that my answer to that question will change multiple times during the two years of my service.


More adventures en francais


26 November 2011

FN: 6

More adventures en français

I’m now past the point in my French studies where I find myself unable to communicate. I may not know individual words, I may forget small rules, and I may frequently screw up my verb tenses, but by and large I can make myself understood and I can understood what’s being said to me. If I continue improving at my current rate of progression, I estimate that by March I will be sufficiently accomplished to be more or less finished with the grammar part of my learning, and I will instead embark on the life-long process of honing, refining, and perfecting my grasp of the language. It’s a heady and daunting realization.

For example, just this morning, I had the following conversation with my host mom about her grandson’s Hep B vaccination today:

He’s 3 months old, he’s already had one Hep B shot, and the next one comes at 9 months. He’s also due for measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, Hep A, and a slew of other shots, but she doesn’t mind because he doesn’t cry when they stick him needles, so all those shots aren’t too difficult. She’s somewhat concerned about le Palu (malaria), because the treatment plan for infants (the most vulnerable group) won’t allow for medication until 2 years, so in the meantime she has to use lots of insect repellent, which she understandably isn’t too thrilled about. But at the same time, he’s a strong boy, so she thinks he’ll be fine.

We then discussed childhood vaccinations in the US, along with a couple of stories comparing the relative dimly-remembered agonies of chickenpox (varicella), for which there was no vaccine when we were children.

Now mind you, this entire conversation was en français. There was no translator. There were no uncomfortable pauses. I had to look up the word for measles (la rougeole), but otherwise no dictionaries or references were used. We both employed humor, there was a natural give-and-take flow to the conversation, and at no time did it feel especially different from a similar conversation en anglais. I. Can. Speak. French.

Holy Shit.

I think what really gets me is that it’s only been about 6 weeks since we arrived in country. 6. Weeks. This time two months ago, I had a loose idea of how to say je parle en peu de français, mais parlex-vous lentement, s’il vous plait. That was more or less it. Now, I’m carrying on technical conversations and looking forward to diving into complex literary works. It’s like I went from 200-level French to 600-level French in 6 weeks, not 6 semesters.

Happily, I also learned today that French can still throw me curveballs. During class today, we were discussing what we missed in the US, and we learned something a little odd: when you miss something, you don’t say you miss it, you say it misses you.

So for example, you wouldn’t say “ma petite amie me manque” (my girlfriend misses me), because that would mean that you miss your girlfriend (even though it says the exact opposite); instead, you would say “je manque ma petite amie” (I miss my girlfriend). It sounds absolutely insane to the English ear: look up “miss” in the dictionary, and you will get the reflexive verb se manquer. However, it’s probably more accurate to translate me manquer as “lacking to” rather than “miss”; literally, you say “I am lacking to my girlfriend” to say that she misses you, and vice versa. It’s really hard to remember, and you absolutely have to get it right or you say the exact opposite thing of what you meant to say.

So in my case, I said je manque les toilettes avec de l’eau courant. What I mean was “I miss flush toilets”. But what came out was “my toilet misses me”…

At least my teachers were amused.

A sad day

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25 November 2011

FN: 7

A sad day

I have been asked by Peace Corps to remove this post in order to protect the privacy of the person whom it discusses. Although it was posted at his request, I respect and understand Peace Corp’s reasoning in this situation, and so I have removed the problematic content. Thanks for your patience and understanding.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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24 November 2011

FN: 5

Happy Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving in the US, and as I write this I’m sure most or all of you are getting ready to eat turkey, watch football, and go about the serious business of digesting and getting ready to wake up at 4am for the Black Friday sales.

Here in Burkina Faso, it’s sunny, 99 degrees (but a very pleasant 99…we all agree that the weather is positively cool and fall-like), and more or less entirely unlike Thanksgiving, but we as a stage have decided to persevere anyway. We have had 3 turkeys slaughtered and brought to us, and a large group of stageaires have spent the day prepping and cooking the unfortunate critters for our evening delight. For dinner, we are going to have turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, corn bread, coke, beer, bissap, wine, and sangria. It may not feel like Thanksgiving, but by damn we’re going to make the most of what we have.

And that being said…today is not a day for being on a computer; it’s a day for being with friends. So I bid you all a happy turkey day, and I’m off to toss a football for awhile.


The hardest thing


22 November 2011

FN: 7

The hardest thing

Until now, life in Africa has been challenging, but it hasn’t been hard, per se. No, pooing in a hole isn’t as nice as using a toilet, but you get used to it quickly enough. Ditto with the heat, the food that doesn’t exactly ring your bell, the language barrier, and all the other minor differences that separate life here from life in the US. You may not like it at first, but you learn to make do, and in not very long at all, you just become used to it.

This week, life got hard.

About 2 weeks ago, the cat that hangs around my host family’s courtyard gave birth to two baby kittens. For whatever reason – cats just do this from time to time – she abandoned them after about a week, and refuses to nurse. My host family’s response has been to stick the kittens under a basket in the courtyard and wait for them to starve to death.

Now before you judge them, it’s important to remember: cats aren’t fixed here, orphaned kittens are a common problem, and they barely have the resources to feed the people, much less the kitties that nature doesn’t want. We’re grossly overpopulated with cats as it is, and whether they die of starvation here or they’re put down in a shelter in the States, in the end they’re equally dead. No, I don’t especially approve of starvation as the method of choice, but neither can I blame them for conserving precious resources. And if *I* don’t have what it takes to take a machete or hammer and end it, I can’t exactly blame them for that either, hm?

Nonetheless, it’s been hard. Every night, I go to bed to the sound of starving 2 week old kittens mewing for a mom who is present but won’t nurse, every morning I wake up to that sound, and it frequently follows me as I go about my morning routine of shaving, showering, etc. It’s a plaintive, haunting mew, that cuts through even the loudest music on your ipod, and seems to settle at the base of your skull and whisper guiltily in your ear.

I hate it.

A couple of days ago, I tried to ameliorate the problem by making kitten formula and feeding them. I looked up the recipe online, bought the ingredients (milk, egg yolk, oil, and vitamins), and tried to feed them. But they wouldn’t eat. Sometimes, kittens just won’t eat if they can’t nurse, and this is one of those times. So now I’m faced with a decision: kill them, or ignore them like my host family is doing.

I have to admit, I’m seriously tempted to kill them. But I just don’t think I can do it. Whatever method I use would necessarily entail brute force, and, well…they’re kittens. The epitome of weak and helpless. We even say weak as a day-old kitten to indicate someone who is especially infirm. I think if I do it, the feeling and memory of that blow will stay with me for life.

If anyone has any suggestions for what to do in this situation, I would love to hear them. I estimate I have 2 – 3 more days until they’re dead, but I suppose they could already be past some point of no return. If you know of a humane way to end it that doesn’t involve kitty blood quite literally on my hands, please let me know.


How to pass your free time

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20 November 2011

FN: 6

How to pass your free time

It may not sound like it, but one of the relative advantages of stage is that life is very structured and we don’t have much free time. Yes, we all complain about being worked endlessly, but at the same time, if we actually had to come up with a way to kill more time in Saponé we would doubtless be complaining even more about working more to shorten stage. The grass is always greener and all that.

Anyway, for good or for ill, tonight I finally had a chance to just sit back and relax and play some games with some other PCTs. We player hearts, Phase 10, and Settlers of Catan. No, it wasn’t especially exciting, but it was more or less exactly what I needed. I went home relaxed and refreshed.

As I was riding back, I realized: killing free time is actually a major occupation in the States. Each and every one of us spends thousands of dollars per year on movies, eating out, sporting events, video games, etc. – all in the name of killing time. So I thought you might like to have a better idea of how Burkinabé – who don’t have thousands of dollars a year to spend on such relative frivolities – pass their free time. Allow me to elucidate:

From what I have observed, most passage of free time is strictly divided by gender. Boys get together with other boys[1] and just walk around, or ride bikes. If there’s a large group, they play football (soccer). Men sit in the cabarets and drink dolo. Or they sit in the maquis and drink beer. Or they sit in the sports bar and drink dolo while listening to or watching football (soccer). Women gossip in the marché, or gossip while going to and from the well, or while cooking dinner. Actually women are always working, so they gossip over whatever work happens to be up for doing; the two kind of go hand in hand. I’m not sure what young girls do, since I don’t have a host sister and it would be culturally inappropriate for me to approach a group to ask[2].

By and large, the Burkinabé seem to have a lot of free time, but I suspect this is because I don’t always know how to recognize work. For example, someone walking slowly down the road might appear to be dawdling, until you realize that she is making trip 4 of 9 to haul two 50lb bidons of water back to her courtyard. Then, she’s working hard and being sensible. Ditto for that kid who just seems to be hanging out, until you see the sheep move and realize he’s actually carefully herding them. Every time I see a Burkinabé who seems to be doing nothing, I watch for a bit; 9 times out of 10, it turns out that they were actually doing something, but I just didn’t recognize it at first.

Speaking of free time…mine is up. It’s late and I need to go to bed. More to come on this topic at a later date.

[1] You tell who are close friends because they hold hands; it is a culturally unnerving thing to see two 20-something guys who look like they could whip their weight in police dogs walking through the marché holding hands.

[2] Or, there may be a way to do it, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it anyway.

Tech week fair summary



19 November 2011

FN: 9

Tech week fair summary

As I noted in my last post, this week has been the tech week portion of stage. It’s not really as fancy as it sounds – it’s just a spiffy way of saying “off campus every day, learning technical skills not really suited to a normal classroom”. I don’t know how useful all of it will be to me in the future, but it’s certainly interesting. I’ll provide a brief recap of the most interesting technical skills[1]. Multiply this by 5 hot days in 100 degree temps and you’ll have some idea of what my week has been like.

Making tofu

Tofu is surprisingly easy (if time consuming) to make. Given that protein is pretty scarce and suspect here, I may actually wind up making personal use of this technique, if I can get the soybeans (dubious…they’re more available in the south). I seriously doubt I will have the opportunity to introduce this as an IGA, but (redacted) may surprise me yet.

How to make tofu:

  1. Take your desired amount of soybeans, and soak them in 3 times their volume of water overnight. This makes the beans soft and ready for processing.
  2. Drain the beans and take them to a mill and get them ground into paste. I suppose you could do this by hand with a mortar and pestle, but I can’t imagine that you would get a good quality product this way.
  3. For every kilo of dry soybeans that you used, add 10 – 15 liters of water to the paste. Mix well. Then use a fine mesh or fabric to strain the paste; you’ll have to do this process twice. You’re actually keeping the water that comes off, and you feed the paste to the chickens[2].
  4. Boil the soy juice. When it thickens, it becomes soy milk and is ready for curdling. If you keep boiling it, you get soy yogurt.
  5. Add tamarind juice. It will curdle immediately. Strain out the curds, press in cheesecloth, and dry overnight.
  6. Enjoy your tofu.

Making cheese

Cheese is available in Burkina Faso, but it’s expensive. And unless you have a refrigerator (which I may…keep your fingers crossed), you have to eat or cook whatever you buy more or less immediately[3]. Obviously, we as Americans love cheese, and not having it in our diet is a more or less intolerable situation. But we love money too…so what to do?

Happily, there is an easy solution to this problem: make it!

How to make cheese (method 1)

  1. Go find a Fulfulde. These guys own all (and I do mean all) the cattle in West Africa. Buy milk. Alternately, go to a market/supermarket. Either way, you’ll be getting raw milk, so remember you’ll have to pasteurize it later or run the risk of getting TB.
  2. Go out to any field. Find some Sodom’s Apple. Cut off a few stalks. Strip the leaves, cut the stem into 6-inch sections, put it in a mortar, and smash the hell out of it.
  3. Put your milk in a nice big basin. Add the Sodom’s Apple. Stir. Watch it delight as the sap curdles the milk. Wait 10 or 15 minutes for the magic of chemistry to do its work.
  4. Plunk the curd into a fine strainer or some cheesecloth. Strain and press until more or less dry. Then wrap in cloth, squeeze out any remaining cheese, and finish with a nice large chunk of cheese.
  5. Boil that chunk for 20 minutes if you don’t want TB (and no matter what the raw milk junkies tell you, you don’t; treatment is 9 – 24 months of antibiotic treatments that are expensive and keep you permanently nauseous. Not fun.).
  6. Enjoy

How to make cheese (method 2)

  1. Go find a Fulfulde. Buy milk.
  2. Go to the marché. Buy some white vinegar.
  3. Milk + vinegar = curdled milk. Strain and press the curds.
  4. Spice liberally. Consume.

Note: method #2 is variable. You could also use lemon juice, tamarind juice, or any other acidic fluid to curdle the milk. The product is more or less paneer, although the taste will vary somewhat based on what you use for a curdling agent.

Making liquid soap

This isn’t a terribly useful process for the US, simply because liquid soap is so cheaply available. However, it’s kind of fun, so I’m including it purely for amusement. Kind of a chemistry FYI.

How to make liquid soap

  1. Get some sodium laureth sulfate from the store. It’s a foaming agent that is freely available here in the store.
  2. Pour it in a bucket and whip the hell out of it, until it’s the consistency of shaving cream. Minimum time: 5 minutes; recommended time: 15 minutes.
  3. Mix up a full bucket of fresh water and a full bucket of salt water. Mix them together slowly, with lots of stirring between adds. Alternate between fresh and salt water. Really beat the hell out of it at this point.
  4. Once you have a nice thick soapy mixture, allow to sit overnight.
  5. Add colorant and/or perfume. Bottle.

It’s really surprising how easy soap is to mix. We made hard soap as well, but it’s more caustic and less fun to use (it can burn you), so I’m not including directions. But this could be a fun weekend project in the States.

Making a shit mud stove

Mud stoves are nasty things. They’re equal parts clay, straw, and cow shit. But in a country with no baking, the mud stove could mean the difference between having bread and not having bread, so I guess you just have to make do.

How to make a shit mud stove

  1. Get a big pile of dried cow shit
  2. Get an equally big pile of straw
  3. Get a pile of clay about twice the size of the others
  4. Pound the clay and cow shit into a nice powder. Try not to breathe the shit powder though…your lungs object. Break the straw into 3 – 4 inch lengths. Try not to shove too much of it under your fingernails. That’s like torturing yourself for free.
  5. Make a nice volcano-shaped pile out of the clay. Dump a bunch of shit powder and straw in the hole. Add lots of water. Get barefoot and start stomping. Try not to think about walking barefoot in feces. Mmmm….feces.
  6. Repeat until you have a nicely moist pile that resembles a big fresh cow turd.
  7. Stick your hands in the turd pile, and shape it into a stove. Try not to wipe your copiously sweating brow with your shit-covered hands. Try not to drip shit onto your clothes.
  8. Leave the shit mud stove in the sun to dry.
  9. Figure out a way to wash the shit off of your hands and feet. Have fun.

So yeah, that’s it. Tech week was long and hot and exhausting, and we did a lot more than just what’s in this post. But these were the highlights. Enjoy trying them out at home.

[1] I’m leaving out some, like neem cream, because “add boiled neem leaves to melted soap” isn’t terribly complicated. Nor (since we don’t use neem in the US) is it very pertinent to my audience.

[2] Mmm…delicious protein-fed chickeny goodness for later…drool…

[3] When is the last time you wanted to chow down on that block of cheddar after it has been sitting out all day? In hundred degree temps? Yeah, me neither.

A short update

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16 November 2011

FN: 2

A short update

This week is the tech week of our training. That means that we will be out all day every day this week, learning such various and sundry skills as tofu making, cheese production, neem cream manufacture, mud stove design, and the fine art of teaching others to make liquid soap. It promises to be a busy, busy week, but unfortunately I’m not likely to have a huge amount of time to post. This will be all for now, but more will surely come when the week is over. See you then.

Jeter l’éponge


15 November 2011

FN: 5

Jeter l’éponge

One of the most frustrating things about learning a new language is getting a grasp of its idioms: those everyday phrases that frequently make no literal sense, but without which you’re never really fully immersed in the full linguistic experience. The problem with idioms is that they are born of a whole realm of common cultural references – references that an outsider can never really comprehend.

Take, for example, the huge slew of football and baseball idioms that we routinely use in American English. Questions come out of left field, someone taking a huge risk is going for a hail mary, criminals get three strikes, a politician who puts off dealing with a difficult issue is punting, a guy who tries to pick up a girl and fails strikes out, someone fields questions at a news conference, et cetera ad nauseum. We use them in the US without a second thought – our television shows are full of them, films use them endlessly, and they’re just a fundamental part of the American cultural landscape. In fact, they’re so prevalent in our popular culture that they are even used in Britain and Australia, where they really have no idea what a punt, a strike, or a hail mary play are[1].

Here in Burkina, we also deal with lots of French and local idioms. Some, like ça m’est égal (literally “it’s all the same to me”, but figuratively “I don’t care”) or jeter l’éponge (literally “to throw the sponge”, but figuratively “to throw in the towel”) are close enough to similar English idioms that you can more or less guess their meaning from context. However, most are not nearly so simple. Consider a few of the following and see if you can guess their figurative meaning:

  1. Avoir la moutarde qui monte jusqu’au nez (literally : to have a fly who is almost in your nose)
  2. Casser sa pipe (literally : to break his/her pipe)
  3. C’est la barbe (literally : it’s a beard)
  4. C’est la fin des haricots (literally : it’s the end of the beans)
  5. Entre chien et loup (literally : between dog and wolf)
  6. Faire tout un fromage (literally : to make everything a cheese)
  7. Mettre la beurre aux épinards (literally : to put butter on the spinach)
  8. Mon pied (literally : my foot)

Now look at the idiomatic meaning of these phrases. How many did you guess?

  1. To feel yourself getting angry
  2. To kick the bucket
  3. How boring
  4. That’s the straw that broke the camel’s back
  5. Twilight
  6. To make a big deal out of everything
  7. To come into good fortune/make it big
  8. That’s great

As you can see, idioms are, well…idiomatic. They make very little literal sense, and unless one is a truly accomplished speaker of the language, they will only serve to confuse the issue.

Which brings us to the problem of multi-language situations.

When, for example, someone whose first language is English is training a group of Mooré speakers on agricultural methods via a francophone interpreter, it’s important that everyone speak slowly and simply. Yes, everyone there speaks French. No, not everyone speaks very good French. And there’s a huge difference between “getting the gist of it” and “understanding exactly what’s being said”. Getting the gist is fine for nightly conversation with my host family; when specific details on a complicated procedure are being conveyed…not so much. And using very American idioms like “if any problems come out of left field, call me” is only going to serve to confuse both your interpreter and your audience.

So as I continue to memorize these freaking idioms, I will simultaneously remember to try to speak like the Simple English version of Wikipedia. After all, I would rather be understood the first time around and thought a poor speaker than be a pompous asshole who has to resimplify what he says five or six times before they get the message.


[1] Oddly, the converse doesn’t seem to apply. We maybe use sticky wicket on a rare occasion, but by and large cricket, soccer, and rugby terms don’t seem to have become quite as mainstream. I could speculate as to why, but that’s another post for another day…

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