Mail call!


31 October 2011

FN: 3

Mail call!

Today, we received our first letters and packages from the States. The letter I received (thank you very much, Ms. M!) was mailed from Cary the day after I left, so it would appear that it takes about 3 weeks for us to receive whatever is mailed to us.

That’s a happy coincidence, because after 3 weeks, I have a much better idea of what I would love to get. I also know how much it costs. So, here are some mailing instructions, as well as a list of things that I would be eternally grateful to receive.

My address:

My address will be subject to change once my training is completed, but until December 15 or so, it is:

Abraham Rash, PCT

S/C Corps dela Paix

01 B.P. 6031

Ouagadougou 01, Burkina Faso


Once my training is over and I move to my permanent site, I will have a new mailing address. However, even then packages mailed to the above will find their way to me.

Burkina Faso has a pretty reliable mail system, but if it’s a big package it still might help to write “EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS” on it in big letters, just for customs if nothing else.

How to mail:

Unless you’re sending me something pretty light, your best bet is probably going to be a flat-rate box from USPS. Yes, it’s $58 before you even put anything in it, but it is the best compromise in terms of space, availability, and weight allowance. You don’t have to send me anything, but if you do, I recommend sharing the cost out among 3 or 4 friends so that no one sends too much. Coordination will also prevent accidental duplicates, etc.

Things I need:

1. Shampoo – nothing too fancy, nothing too cheap; Pantene, Tresemme, something like that

2. Conditioner – ditto

3. Mentadent toothpaste – or nothing. I’m pretty particular, and my dentist assures me that it is far and away the best option for my teeth.

4. Gatorade drink powder – fruit punch or lemon-lime, please

5. Listerine mouthwash – the purple kind

6. AAA batteries – at least 12

7. A PedEgg – Africa is pretty brutal on your feet

Things that I want:

1. Granola, trail mix, delicious treats from the snacks section at Fresh Market. I love me some pecan pralines, maple nut goodies, and honey-roasted almonds.

2. Peanut or Peanut Butter M&M’s – after all, they’re the only chocolate that doesn’t melt, right?

3. Crystal Light or Kool-Aid. I *need* the Gatorade for rehydration, but our water tastes like ass and these would really help. I’m generally partial to Fruit Punch, Cherry, or other “red” flavors.

4. BEEF JERKY. You have NO idea how much we crave protein on a daily basis.

5. Protein powder. If you do this, I will love you forever. Please call Jason and ask him for the type. If you don’t know who Jason is, send me something else.

6. Anything delicious/homemade/magical. Cookies and brownies, maybe? Whatever it is, just be sure it can survive 3 weeks in a box in unrefrigerated conditions. I love milk, but not THAT much…

7. USB sticks loaded with new movies and music. If you don’t know how to *cough* download them, don’t worry. But please don’t send DVD’s or CD’s – they’re expensive, and I don’t have the equipment to use them.

8. USB sticks loaded with pictures and video of yourself, Raleigh, and life in general. The sweeter and more homelike, the better. Make me cry.

9. You! Come visit me (starting in March, at least)! If you can’t/don’t want to make it all the way here, well…I can’t really blame you. Get in touch with me, and maybe we can meet in Paris or something.


So there you have it. My ass is poor, stuck in a small village, and entirely lacking in the comforts of home. My one treat each day is a Coke. But even the thought of ice and a fountain drink makes me want to cry. Be good to me, and I promise to remember it.

Also, if you *do* send something, let me know when, so I loosely know when to expect it. This is especially important for anything sent after about November 15, since there will then be a chance of it arriving at my old address, and me not knowing it’s there waiting for me.

Thanks so much, and I love you all!


Sick (sort of)


30 October 2011

FN: 4

Sick (sort of)

Thus far, I’ve actually been pretty lucky: while other trainees have gotten diarrhea, gotten sick, gotten dehydrated, and generally been miserable, I’ve been more or less healthy. Knock on wood, but to date I haven’t had any of the above problems, nor have I had especial difficulties with the heat, the animals, or even the climate. I haven’t even had any allergic reactions to anything.

Unfortunately, I have had our group’s one really nasty reaction to the anti-malarial medication.

When we first arrived, I was put on Doxycycline, which is taken every day. Since I’m approximately the 3rd or 4th most forgetful person in the northern hemisphere, I requested to be changed to Mefloquine, which is taken once per week. I figure that (365 x 2 = 730 chances to fuck up and get malaria) < (52 x 2 = 104 chances to fuck up) every single time. It’s just basic math.

After some hemming and hawing, PC Medical approved me for the switch, and I started on the Mefloquine last weekend. At first, everything was fine: the major side effect is bad dreams, and I actually didn’t have those. I was happy.

But then I started getting dizzy every single time I stood up. Massive head rushes, general fatigue, and a feeling of vertigo got to be more or less constant. I thought it was dehydration, but when I contacted JL, the World’s Most Awesome PCMO, he said nope…it’s the Mefloquine. So now I have to spend a week coming back down from this miserable anti-high, and then I get to start the Doxy again. Yay.

In the meantime, I can barely do anything. I can’t walk, move, or ride my bike without feeling massively dizzy. I also can’t go on training field trips, and I really need to avoid direct sunlight whenever possible, as it makes things much worse.

Here’s to blogging, spending time on the internet, and hoping it doesn’t take too much longer for this stuff to work its way out of my system.

More tales of African life

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29 October 2011

FN: 9

More tales of African life

How to wash your clothes

Africans wash their clothes by hand. We’re in Africa, ergo we also wash our clothes by hand. However, while Africans have a lifetime’s experience at washing clothes by hand, we have something like 3 weeks worth of experience. Which really means once, because let’s be honest…how often do you wash your clothes?

We finally had a free day today – our first since we arrived in country – and so I finally had time to do my laundry. It’s actually surprisingly easy. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Get a large basin
  2. Fill said basin with water
  3. Get out your laundry soap
  4. Mix the soap and water in the basin
  5. Add your clothes
  6. Swill your clothes around incompetently for a few minutes
  7. Have your host mom get so exasperated with said incompetence that she makes you stop
  8. Watch your host mom wash your clothes quickly and expertly
  9. Hang your clothes to dry
  10. Take them in the next morning

How easy is that? It was totally awesome. On a side note, my host mom actually washed my clothes faster and better by hand than I could have with a machine. She used less water and soap, too. It’s probably harder on the clothes, but it was definitely better for the environment.

Now before you get all judgmental on me and start saying “But A…your host mom won’t be there forever. You need to learn how to do them yourself,” let me tell you right now: you’re absolutely right. And I will learn how to do them.

And then I’ll pay someone to do them for me anyway. And I won’t feel guilty about it. At all.

Kickin’ it Old Skool

I was a teenager in the 90’s, and I still remember hearing cars rumble through the neighborhood blasting some epic bass with an annoying counterpoint of buzzing trunk and hood. You know what I’m talking about: some crap car like an Escort or a Sentra, dropped down on $300 rims, with Wal-Mart window tinting, an oversized tailpipe, and the finest system that $200 could buy at Circuit City. And they always had the most inspired and original tastes in music, like DMX, DMX, and even DMX.

Happily, since the advent of the iPod, that phenomenon seems to have died off quite a bit. People still do it, but the sorts of suburban douchebags that used to act out via systems have instead moved on to acting out via YouTube and iPads. Real systems and real rides are reserved for people who know what they’re doing, and who will kick your lily ass if you even think of rolling by in that old Accord of your mom’s that you’ve blinged out. And to be honest, I think we can all agree that it’s for the best.

Unfortunately, local noise ordinances are one bit of western culture that have not yet really caught on in Western Africa. In addition to the chickens, donkeys, cows, dogs, pigs, and roosters, we also are forever listening to amazingly loud revivals, what I can only assume are authentic drum circles, parties, cars without mufflers, and yes, systems.

The other morning, I was riding to class a bit early when I encountered what has got to be hands down the most bling-tastic ride that I have ever beheld: a pimped-out donkey cart. Specifically, it was dropped, chopped, and sporting a massive system. I wish I could have gotten a picture. Sure, the paint was old and the donkey was straining and the speakers had been mercilessly blown out in 1997, but it was still pumping. I could hear it from a quarter-mile away, and it stayed with me for a quarter-mile down the road. I was actually impressed at the effort and ingenuity taken to spruce up what was otherwise a ubiquitous and humdrum ride.

Now if only they could listen to something other than Akon.

Carbohydrate delight

I think I’ve previously discussed that the food is less than we might otherwise wish. It’s bland, lacking in good flavor, and generally uninspiring. It also tends towards carbs, served with carbs, with a little carbs on the side, and a nice followup of carbs. A typical meal might be spaghetti with onions, bread, rice with tomato sauce, and boiled tubers. If you’re looking for meat, vegetables, or anything that doesn’t make you feel like a stiff, stuffed sock, you’re generally out of luck.

Or at least, we were out of luck.

The other day, my good buddy D stumbled across what is easily the most amazing discovery in the history of our stage: cookies. They’re prepackaged, made in Europe, and dripping with hydrogenated fats and fake peanut butter. But when eaten with real peanut butter, they are the perfect vector for all of those delicious fats and proteins that we miss so badly. And they’re cheap, too: only 100CFA (about $.20).

Good find, D…good find.

Note: I don’t use full names in this blog as a matter of common courtesy, but both D’s mom and grandmom read this blog and have commented on it. An update for you ladies:he blushed very prettily when I read your comments to him, and if he hasn’t called you again, he’s doing very well when he’s not being surly because he can’t swim. Don’t worry too much about him, his biggest challenge right now is not dying of boredom.

Here where the stars are strange

My host family and I eat dinner each night in our courtyard around 8pm. And when we’re done, we just sit back in our chairs and relax. It’s my favorite part of the day, because there’s nothing to do but digest and look at the stars.

And what stars they are.

First of all, you can see faaaar more stars here than you can in the States; the light pollution is next to nothing, the air is quite clean, and there are almost never any clouds. The Milky Way is clearly visible, as are the Pleides and the Andromeda Galaxy. You can even see nebulae, looking like indistinct patches of fog, hence the name in Greek. It’s truly a sight to behold.

It’s also worth seeing because the stars are a bit different. We can see Orion, but only just on the horizon. We can also see some other familiar constellations like Cassiopeia and Gemini. But others – most particularly the Big Dipper – are entirely absent. We’re just too far south.

I’ve tried to figure out if we can see stars that can’t be seen from the States – surely that must be the case – but I haven’t been able to figure out which constellations are strange and which aren’t. Happily, now that I have internet, I will be downloading a few good astronomy apps and figuring that out. More on that subject as the years go by.

But for now, it’s enough that there are stars, and that they are magnificent. It truly is one of the best parts of the African experience. And bathing and sleeping under those stars is even better.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my dinner is waiting…



Pentecostal revivals and Muslim baptisms


26 October 2011

FN: 7

Pentecostal revivals and Muslim baptisms

I don’t know if Saponé is an accurate sample or not, but if so, brother let me tell you: Africans love them some comically overboard religious revivals. For the past three hours, I’ve been listening to a non-stop mélange of yelling, singing, chanting, drumming, and what sounds like general good old-fashioned fashioned hellfire-and-brimstone evangelical preaching.

The noise is truly astonishing. If I yelled like that for four straight hours, I would be unable to talk for a week, to say nothing of carrying forward into a fifth hour. I suppose I should thank my blessings that it’s all taking place a mile or so away, so that it’s not right on top of me. Also, I’m probably glad it’s being conducted in Mooré, so instead of it being words that I understand and have to try and tune out, it’s instead like loud bad music and has no immediate meaning.

That being said, the state of religion here in Africa is truly fascinating. It’s an incredible mix of progress and ignorance, and I’m not at all sure what I make of it yet. On the one hand, you have Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, and animists all living side by side in mixed communities, with exactly zero conflict. They truly don’t care what religion you are, and while belief is extremely – I don’t think it’s a stretch to say overwhelmingly – important, they don’t define you by your religion at all. It’s easily the most liberal and open-minded religious environment that I’ve ever been in_. On the other hand…they have Muslim baptisms.

For those who are less theologically inclined, Christians baptize in order to signify their belief in salvation through Christ. The fine points can get complex, but in short it’s both a literal and figurative washing away of sin, and a rebirth of faith. It *requires* a belief in original sin; if you aren’t inherently sinful from the moment of your creation, why would you need to wash said sin away?

This is important because there is no concept of original sin in Islam. The whole *point* of Islam is the Five Pillars, by which men worship according to Allah’s wishes and guarantee their entry into Paradise. I’m no expert on Muslim theology, but I would describe it as a contract of sorts: do these things faithfully and well, get into Heaven; do them not, or do them in poor faith, and you pay the price. Also, this may be an overly fine point, but Muslims don’t believe in salvation through Christ. Why on Earth would they baptize??

I’m sure a sociologist would give you a different answer, but what my observations have led me to conclude (thus far) is that the Muslims here baptize for 3 reasons:

They’re really easy-going, and if it does no harm and is a justification for a good party, why not?
It’s kind of a good-luck spell, and the not-so-secret animist in everyone here will never turn down a good spell.
This place is a hotbed of proselytization, not a hotbed of theology. I’m pretty sure the folks doing the converting are willing to play a bit fast and loose with the rules at first to loop in maximum numbers, in the hopes that they can tighten the controls later on. They’re probably right.

Nor is this kind of hodgepodge strictly limited to Islam. My family are Catholic, but they have a shrine to Mary in the front yard, and the only word I can pick out clearly in their prayer services is “Mariam”, which comes approximately 4 times per minute. I’ve not once heard “Jesus”. “Isa”, “Dieu”, etc. Maybe they’re saying them and I’m missing them, but I’m suspecting this is an area where the Cult of Mary holds sway. Which is fine by me – believe what you want to believe – but it’s still theologically intriguing.

Ok, the revival has finally ended, and this post contains a lot of speculations and very few facts. Bed for now, and more to come on this topic when those proportions have reversed themselves somewhat.


25 October 2011

FN: 7

In case you were wondering, the food here in Africa is…not the best. I’m tempted to use much stronger terms, like awful, revolting, nauseating, and the most horrible thing I’ve ever eaten, but really that’s not fair: the ingredients are fine, it’s just what they do with them that is unorthodox. For example, my first night here in Saponé, we celebrated with a hearty feast of spaghetti and bananas, and my host mom is fond of drinking a 50/50 mix of orange Fanta and beer. It’s…eclectic.

But while tilapia and peanut butter or mutton cooked in coffee may seem like odd mixtures, they’re still pretty easy to imagine. It’s much harder to describe the national specialty of the cuisine here, a dish known throughout the country simply as Tô.

The base of Tô is millet. That can either be petit millet, which looks like a longer, skinnier corn on the cob and produces a grayish-white flour, or it can be millet rouge, which is larger, redder, and known in the US as sorghum. Whichever type is used, it is first beaten to a powder, then mixed with water and whipped until all positive flavor is gone from it. The result is a kind of…flubber is the best term I can think of to use…that tastes like a cross between ass and nothing and looks and feels about like grey cloudy jello. This is put into a large communal pot, and is grabbed by hand and used as a dipping base for various sauces. Kind of like chips and salsa, but much messier and vastly less yummy.

I suppose there are good Tô sauces out there, but to be honest I’m yet to have one. The most popular, which the PCVs commonly refer to as “the green snot sauce”, is a concoction of boiled puréed okra, water, and various other ingredients. It has the exact consistency of runny mucous, is almost impossible to remove cleanly from the bowl_, and tastes about the way it sounds. I have long thought that boiled okra (gumbo here, hence the name of the Cajun dish) is the most disgusting food substance known to man, but it is refined to an especial level of gross here. They truly have taken it to the next level.

So there you have it: the national dish of Burkina Faso is flubber, dipped in okra snot. Yummy. And my host family love it. They eat it all the time. And they pick on me for not liking it, even as they serve it. Africans are cruel.

Pity me.

Demyst in Banfora

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22 October 2011

FN: 7

Demyst in Banfora

For the next two days, we’re visiting two volunteers in southwest Burkina Faso for a process known as “demystification”, ie “tag along behind full volunteers and see what it is that we will be doing”. So far, it has been an incredible experience, and I’ve learned several very important facts:

The southwestern part of Burkina Faso is much prettier than the area around Saponé.
Volunteers don’t actually do all that much, but what they do do is *really* important.
It is in fact possible to have good food in Burkina Faso
It is in fact possible to want to sleep with a blanket in Burkina Faso

It’s truly amazing the degree to which this part of the country is so different from the area around Saponé, especially considering that they’re only about 400 miles apart from each other. Saponé is very much like the area around Laredo, TX: flat, dry, scrubby, none too clean, and generally sere, sparse, and a more than a little depressing. Banfora, on the other hand, is strongly reminiscent of inland Hawaii or Costa Rica: hilly, lush, tropical, and bursting with greenery. On the ride here, I was listening to some tropical music on my iPod, and it felt very appropriate for the setting; in fact, it was the first time since I arrived in Burkina that I have been able to listen to music that didn’t feel oddly…out of place. I’ll post some pictures when I get the chance, so you can see just how remarkable the difference is.

It’s also worth noting that, by American standards at least, volunteers don’t actually do all that much in a given day. They greet their neighbors, sit indoors during the heat of the day, and if they accomplish one or two concrete tasks, it’s considered a good day. For example, during the two days we’ve shadowed our hosts, they’ve had a sensibilisation on malnutrition that kind of got rescheduled, they’ve dug a (small) dry well, and they’ve shown some women how to make soap. That’s it. The rest of the time has been spent with showing us around, cooking, and generally socializing.

But that’s only on the surface. It’s important to remember that after just a year, they’re a known part of this village. Everyone stops them and greets them, and it’s not just superficial: they are an accepted part of the village now. That doesn’t sound like work, but it’s actually a huge accomplishment. They were only able to teach those ladies how to make soap because they are a known quantity. If they breezed in one afternoon in their Land Cruiser, whipped out a lesson on hygiene, then shot back to their air conditioned hotel in Bobo, they would be listened to out of courtesy, but they wouldn’t be followed. They still may not be followed. But they’ve got a much better chance, thanks to the invisible “work” of integration.

I think the most surprising thing about our visit has been seeing first hand just how long food preparation takes. Logically, I knew it was a massive part of the day, but on an emotional level I think my backbrain associates “living alone” with “primarily cooking out of a microwave”. Actually being forced to appreciate the lack of a microwave was a nice thing to see: I will be spending 2 – 4 hours a day cooking, or not eating cooked food at all. Given the heat here, I suspect I may tend towards the latter, with maybe fish for dinner. Time will tell.

I do have to say, the one thing about all of this that gives me the most hope is that fact that volunteers really do call their own shots. If you want to do a sensibilisation, you do one; if you want to dig wells or plant trees, you dig wells or plant trees; if you want to sit in your house all day learning how to play Redemption Song on the guitar…well, you can do it, but you’re be pigeonholing yourself something awful.
And that’s really nice, because I’ll be honest: if someone authoritatively told me that the rest of my service was going to be similar to how PST has been thus far, I would head home tomorrow. The training hasn’t been unbearable, but it doesn’t really have much to do with what I signed up for, and I don’t think spending two years being absolutely miserable in a professional context would really help me in the long run. This isn’t a complaint: I knew the training would be unpleasant, and it is. Banfora is a nice treat/break, and it also gives me a chance to step back and see the bigger picture. The volunteers all swear that PST is far and away the worst part of service, and that afterwards things really do start to improve. And seeing how our hosts go about their days, I’m inclined to believe them.

Oh, and one last note: as each day passes, I am more and more convinced of the truth that your service really is what you make of it. When we first flew into Ouaga, I would never have imagined that part of this country could be as beautiful as Banfora. And if I had left early (as a couple of folks have already done), I never would have known. That curiosity is a huge help right now.

And I have Banfora to thank for it.

Alphabet Soup

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21 October 2011

FN: 5

Alphabet Soup

What is the Peace Corps?

I got asked that question a lot before I left the States, and after months of trying to answer it, I kind of gave up. It’s a lot of things. It’s a humanitarian agency. It’s a diplomatic outreach program, under the aegis of the State Department. It’s the model on which other governments to base similar institutions. It’s fun. It’s an adventure.

But first and foremost, it’s a government agency. And the federal government, at that.

I think this fact comes as a bit of a shock to some trainees, at first. A lot of people seem to perceive the Peace Corps as some sort of especially venerable and revered NGO (non-governmental organization), rather than as just another government agency, with a budget, a bureaucracy, and a deep and abiding love for acronyms.

Especially the acronyms.

Peace Corps training involves a lot of things. How to prevent malaria. How to make soap from household ingredients. How to contact the Embassy when you get arrested for accidentally photographing a military installation. How to pay your taxes from Africa. How to start a girl’s club. Some of it is interesting, some of it is dead boring, and some of it we all hope we’ll never have to use.

But whether it is amazing and weltanschauung-changing, or just wow-how-mundane-I’ve-know-that-since-I-was-fourteen. It will almost certainly involve acronyms. And not just in English, either. We also get French acronyms, as well. What fun.

Personally, I despise acronyms, but to not use them in this blog would be to excise a fundamental part of the Peace Corps experience, so I’ve decided I have to include them. But before I do so, it’s only fair that I give you a guide, so that when I’m talking about that PCV who ET’d about 2 seconds before she got MedSep’d after Peeling Back the Onion with the CD and the PCMO, you’ll at least have some vague idea of what it is that I’m talking about. Also, if this seems like a lot, it isn’t: these are only the most pertinent and commonly-used acronyms, and this list is faaaaar from being exhaustive.

Commonly used Peace Corps acronyms:

PC – Peace Corps

BF – Burkina Faso

CD – Country director

AO – Administrative officer

PCMO – Peace Corps Medical Officer

PCV – Peace Corps volunteer

PCT – Peace Corps trainee

LCF – Language and Culture Facilitator, ie our trainers

HCN – Host country national

ET – Early termination, ie resigning and going home early

AdminSep – Administrative separation, ie got fired

MedSep – medical separation, ie you have developed medical issues that can only be properly treated in the states

There you have it. We may not get to eat alphabet soup, but boy do we have to deal with it on a daily basis. So from now on, when I use PC/CD/HCN/etc, you’ll be able to figure out what I’m talking about. And when my training is over and I once again have reasonable internet access (and can start doing things like posting photos again), I’ll take this post and trim out the acronym guide and make it a page linked to my front page so you can use it as a quick reference.

Now…off to tour a mango-drying factory!

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