A petite problem

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22 December 2011

FN: 7

A petit problem

Burkina Faso has a cash economy. Literally. I have never seen a single place where paying with a card was even remotely an option. There are a few ATMs at banks, but they all have armed guards and they frequently don’t work. They also don’t have any cash registers[1].

99 times out of 100 stores in Burkina are owner/operator type establishments. And if the owner isn’t the operator, it’s probably his brother/nephew/son/wife/niece/etc. There are both pros and cons to this arrangement. On the one hand, low overhead means low prices, and low here means way, way, WAY lower than anything Wal-Mart ever dreamed of. Also, the buck usually stops with the person in front of you; if you have a problem with the service, you can almost always take it up with the owner, because hey – the crappy service is *coming* from the owner. On the other hand, this also means that you have zero avenue for appeal in the case of poor service (what is he going to do, fire himself?). And, it means that they usually don’t have anything approaching account books and they make no attempt to differentiate between business income and personal money. It’s all one and the same to them.

This last bit is really the biggest problem in Burkina. It may not sound like it, but it is. See, the smallest bill in Burkina is 1000 CFA (about $2), and everything below that is petite monnaie (change). Most things cost between 25 – 500 CFA, so you can understand what I mean when I say that petite monnaie is seriously necessary here.

And no. place. has. it.

Let’s say you go to the corner boutique to buy a Coke. That Coke is a little pricey at 400 CFA (about the cost of a good meal in a restaurant), but who cares? It’s a touch of home, and besides – it’s cold. So you trot out your 1000 CFA note[2] and hand it to the guy.

And all you get is a blank look.

He looks as you. Then he looks at the 1000 CFA note. Then he looks back at you.

You hold the note out, expectantly; there is the Coke, here is the money. You’re thirsty. What’s the problem?

After a nice 10 – 30 second pause, he starts fishing around in his pocket, still with a blank look on his face. He pulls out about 275 in 10, 25, 50, and 100 CFA coins. He pokes at them in his hand for a second.

Then he looks at you and says «je n’ai pas la petite monnaie» (“I don’t have change”).

So what now? Are you just not supposed to buy the Coke? What about the next person who comes along? Will he turn them away too? No, dammit! There’s a principle here! You will have your Coke, and he will find change! It’s good for him!

Defiantly, you grab the Coke, open it with a decisive *whisshhhh* and grimly take a swig. You stare him in the eye, and silently double-dog dare him to crack his teeth. Yeah, that’s right; you took a drink; that Coke is yours; what now, bitch?

After a minute, he caves. With a little sigh, he wanders off to one of the other boutiques, to ask if they have change. Of course, they don’t, so he tries another. Then another. Pretty soon, he disappears into the night, leaving you alone with your Coke and your thoughts.

Fifteen minutes later, he finally returns with your change. In return, you hand him the now-empty Coke bottle and go your way.

That story isn’t exaggerated at all. It has happened to all of us, multiple times. The lack of change is a real problem here. Because stores doesn’t have cash registers, and because business owners don’t usually keep business and personal accounts separate, they don’t have change. Ever. I have literally stood at a boutique for 10 minutes, waiting on 100 CFA change for a 400 CFA Coke that I paid for with a 500 CFA coin. Yes, it’s only $.20, but I don’t care; there’s a principle involved. After all, if I tried to give him 350 CFA, he wouldn’t sell me the Coke, so why should I buy a 400 CFA Coke from him for 500 CFA?

I can’t figure it out. You would think that a cash economy would necessitate lots of change, but in fact no one has it. And I haven’t been here long enough to know why. Is it a by-product of a cultural sense of give-and-take, where no one but nasara asks for change? Is it hard to get change from banks? Is it just expected that I will have a giant stash of change at my house, and always bring exact change for purchases? Is it something else entirely? I just don’t know.

I do know that it’s equally frustrating for both sides of the equation: he’s human, so I can’t imagine that he enjoys hunting for change one whit more than I enjoy waiting for it. And I know that I hate waiting for it. So I guess that’s two things that I know.

At any rate, these first three months are supposed to be my etude de milieu, or time when I study the community. I’m supposed to map it, and meet people, and do needs evaluations, and the like. Hopefully, I’ll get all of that done. But as God is my witness, if I do nothing else, I *will* figure out why they never have change.

Count on it.

[1] Except for the extremely pricey Lebanese-run restaurants and grocery stores in Ouaga that primarily cater to expats. They have registers, because hey – say what you will about the Lebanese, but they’re fans of making a verifiable profit.

[2] Which you had to fight Peace Corps to get, because both they and the local banks really prefer to pay out in 5000 and 10000 CFA notes. And who can blame them? What would the teller at your bank say to you, if you told her you wanted your paycheck mostly in quarters and ones, and oh what the hell, you’ll save her some time and take some in fives as well?



Happy birthday to…me!


21 December 2011

FN: 5

Happy birthday to…me!

Today is my birthday. It’s also the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and a day of auspicious quality to any number of cultures and religions throughout the world. Unfortunately, it’s also 4 days before Christmas, which means it tends to get lost in the chaos of the holiday season. I never really had a lot of birthday parties as a kid – friends tended to be out of town visiting family – and I got more birthday/Christmas presents than I really like to remember[1]. In fact, after 34 years, I tend to do as little as possible for my birthday: it’s generally a LOT of work to even get a few friends together, and the effort of organizing the resulting dinner/drinks/etc tends to create just about as much stress as it relieves, so what’s the point? I know this sounds bitter, it really isn’t; I think that it has given me a nicely grounded sense of my relative importance in the world, and it helps to keep me humble.

It’s also incredibly useful at the moment.

I’ve been at site a grand total of 5 days. I know my homologue and about 6 other people. While they may become good friends in time, right now there’s no one within of a hundred miles of me that I have known for more than 5 days, and there’s no one in about 8,000 miles that I’ve known longer than two and a half months. If I were accustomed to week long birthday celebrations involving every family member, friend, acquaintance, neighbor, coworker, and general passer-by, I would probably be very sad. Instead, well…it’s just another day.

I kind of like that, actually.

Don’t get me wrong: I like a good slice of birthday cake as much as the next fellow, and presents are always appreciated, but instead of being hell-bent on making the day about ME, I instead use it to reflect on my place in things. Where was I this time last year? 5 years ago? 10? Where will I be this time next year? 5 years hence? Will I be married? Have kids? Still be doing my thing? Still be alive? Mortality is a rare and fragile thing, and I think it’s important to reflect on the miracle of our own life as quietly and introspectively as possible.

That being said, I do still miss my friends and family. For the first time since I came to Burkina, I genuinely wish I was home. If nothing else, my birthday is supposed to be cold; it’s 90 today, and it feels like August outside, not my birthday. I want to eat a good burger, drink a good beer, have a great dinner, and chat with friends over wine. I would give a lot to be able to do that. Or even just to go visit good friends in country. My best friend here is only about 2 hours away, but Peace Corps really doesn’t want us leaving site so soon, so I can’t even go do that. I just have to suck it up, and deal.

Thankfully, I have 34 years of practice at doing just that.

[1] Sorry, folks, but giving a kid a $20 and saying “$10 is for your birthday, and $10 is for Christmas” doesn’t really count as gift giving. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

Monday night football

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20 December 2011

FN: 5

Monday night football

As most of you probably know, last night was the Monday football game of the year, Steelers at 49ers, with lots of division title and playoff home advantage implications. The Steelers are perennial contenders, and the 49ers look like the real deal this year – one or both of these teams are going deep into the playoffs.

Since I don’t have TV here (I could, but it’s definitely not worth the cost; I didn’t come here to watch TV, hm?), I “watched” it instead via gamecast on the ESPN app on my phone. Not to sound crude, but this was as approximately satisfying as the difference between having great sex and hearing mediocre porn trickling through the wall from the apartment next door: it might sound similar, but trust me – it ain’t.

Still, all in all, I count myself lucky. After all, I at least got some sense of real-time participation; there are lots of volunteers here who couldn’t even find out if the game happened or not without going to Ouaga and using one of the computers in the IRC. And if my boss read this, she would surely note that when she was in the Peace Corps in the late 80’s, the only way she could have found out such a thing would have been by going to the embassy and digging a weeks-old US paper out of the library trash[1]. The times, they are a-changin’.

As I “watched” the game, I couldn’t help but notice: I wasn’t really all that sad to miss it. Yes, I love football, and yes, part of me would have given almost anything to be watching that game at Ruckus with a cold Dr. Pepper to hand and a giant plate of wings in front of me, but that part…can wait. I have the rest of my life to watch football and eat wings; I only have two years to be here and get to know Africa. We may think “OHMYGODTHISGAMEISSOIMPORTANTIHAVETOSEEIT”, but that’s just ESPN and the NFL trying to make money off of hype[2]. I mean, honestly: what was the MNF game of the year last year? Who won the Super Bowl in 2009? I love football, but it’s just a game. That’s all. A game.

So yeah, last night was a nice escape from reality (especially because I’m currently laid flat on my back in bed with a nasty head and chest cold that I don’t want to spread around), but that’s all it was: an escape. My reality is here, because I chose it, and I owe it to the people who worked hard to get me here to be here. If I’m always in my room (sickness aside), I’m really just staying in my bubble. Burkina is out there, and that’s where I need to be.

I’m still going to “watch” the Super Bowl though.

[1] But happily, she actually would have been able to read it; after the BC/AD changeover, they separated light from darkness, thus allowing people to read. If she had served just five years earlier…No, seriously: the Peace Corps is a hugely changed creature, thanks to technology: where she had a Chinese one-speed and limited (and expensive) land-line-only phone access, I have a *very* nice Trek, and a working iPhone. It’s not at all unfair to say that our service is almost entirely unrelated in nature.

[2] Admittedly, they’re very good at this. But my point remains.

A (Peace Corps) productive day

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19 December 2011

FN: 5

A (Peace Corps) productive day

Unlike most non-education Peace Corps volunteers, I have a regular day job. Whereas most volunteers (again, education excepted, because they live their lives according to the tyranny of the school year) lead highly unstructured lives, in which each day is a challenging just waiting to be filled, I have something approaching a normal 9 – 5 office job[1].

Unfortunately, I can’t actually start that office job until mid-January. I’m working with FAIJ, a government ministry, and their own internal rules won’t allow me to work with them until I’ve completed some training in Ouaga. Since said training won’t occur until mid-January at the earliest (in fact, it hasn’t even been scheduled yet), right now I’m kind of at odds for how to fill my days.

Which is not a complaint: after 9 straight weeks of having my day regulated for me, I LOVE the freedom of my current situation. In fact, I’m trying to make the most of it. Yesterday, in between day-long bouts of cleaning house, I went out and made a map of the community. Today, I followed that up with a trip to Ouahigouya, where I went to the bank[2], met with my supervisor, and toured the FAIJ office[3]. After that, I returned back to site, ate lunch, rode my bike all around the area, went and greeted the imam at the mosque behind my house, came home, cleaned, and got caught up on my blogging.

And it’s not even 5 o’clock.

This may sound to you like I spent the whole day not doing much at all – and in a sense, you would be right – but this in fact represents great progress. The pace of life is different here in Burkina (and in all of West Africa, really); people move slower, act slower, even think slower (but not less intelligently – they just don’t like to be rushed). If you come from a culture where a “productive” day means “I sat at the marché and chatted with friends all day”, then my day sounds like a frantic expenditure of energy. Especially since that’s energy that could be saved for doing real work, like building walls, or working in the fields. Running around in the sun on a bike all day, well…that’s just a crazy nasara for you.

Nor do I entirely disagree with them. If it looks like make-work, and smells like make-work, and sounds like make-work, it probably is make-work. But it’s helping me to learn the community, and it’s keeping me sane in the process, so I’ll take it anyway.

And that is the story of my first (Peace Corps) productive day.


[1] It’s more like 7-12, a 3 hour break, then 3-5, but you get the idea.

[2] This took an hour. Going to the bank in Burkina involves standing in very long, slow lines for inordinate amounts of time. It’s really frustrating.

[3] This was a very quick process. It’s one room, and the electric was out, so I couldn’t even review the computerized files we had discussed. But hey…that’s not MY fault.

More for the joy of…cleaning?

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17 December 2011

FN: 6

More for the joy of…cleaning?

My parents will probably die of shock when they read this, but I’m a huge fan of having an immaculate living space. And I don’t just mean tidy. I mean clean. Not floors-swept-and-trash-taken-out clean, no, I want everything-that-should-shine-does-shine-no-dust-floors-freshly-bleached-and-everything-smells-like-pine-oil[1] clean.

Unfortunately, my house was in no way close to that sort of clean when I first moved in. The walls of my shower were orangish with old dirt (the tile is white), the baseboards were all grimy with accumulated dust, and there were more spiders and cobwebs about that I really care to think about. This place is going to require a solid week’s work to get to the sort of clean that I prefer, and all the dust means that it is going to be 300% harder to keep that way. Oh well. At least it’s mine.

There are a couple of different strategies for cleaning. In the States, I start with the kitchen, and move on from there. I don’t have a kitchen here, so instead I decided to start with the glass and move inward. The glass took about 4 hours. I had to wash each window 3 times with soap and water to get all the dirt and spiders off, then I had to wash once with a vinegar solution to polish the mirroring, then I had a final rinse with clean water and polishing with a good rag. There are a LOT of windows. I don’t mind that at all, but it did take some time.

After that, I tackled the shower. That took another 4 hours. My shower is fairly small, but very dirty. It also has the world’s worst door on it (which I have since removed); from the number (upside down, and near the bottom), I deduce that it used to be the door for room 11 in some local hotel, now reassigned for more…domestic…duties. It was rusty, the paint was peeling off in huge drain-clogging flakes, and someone had drawn a large flowering tree in the dirt on the interior. Rather than try cleaning it, I just pulled it out. I wanted to burn it, but this isn’t my place; I’ll just stash it someplace.

That’s it for today. After 8 solid hours of elbow-grease and lots of soap, I’m beat. I’m going to scarf a little dinner, watch a movie on my computer, and go to bed. More to come tomorrow.


[1] Something I neglected to bring and very badly want. Someone want to drop some in a care package for me? And maybe toss in some Windex while you’re at it?

How to swear in to the Peace Corps

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15 December 2011

FN: 6

How to swear in to the Peace Corps (December Version)

  1. Wake up at 4:00. Unless you’re being decadent and sleeping in, then wake up at 5:30. No day in the Peace Corps is complete if it isn’t begun by 5:30 at the absolute latest. Regardless of how late you went to bed the night before. Swearing when you wake up and realize how little sleep you got is optional, but generally done.
  2. Since you’re going to be swearing in, Peace Corps is putting you up at a luxury hotel, featuring such hard-to-find amenities as shared toilets and showers with hot water knobs but no actual hot water. Once you’re at least half-awake, you stumble into your shared, mosquito-infested bathroom to take a lovely cold shower. Pay no mind to the fact that it’s 58 F outside. Or to the bitter chill that assails every inch of your exposed flesh when you turn that shower on. At least you’re awake now, right?
  3. Once you’re finished flirting with an early demise via hypothermia, you go back to your room and fish out the “special” clothes that you’ve set aside specifically for this event. A lot of stagaires had shirts or pants made from matching pagnes, but I’m not a big fan of the uniform look so I opted for a more traditional (but admittedly boring) shirt-and-tie-and-slacks approach.
  4. Put your special clothes on. Look at yourself in the mirror. Realize that those clothes are wrinkled to the point that you look like you’ve been sleeping in them. Since March. Swear some more, and go find an iron.
  5. Miraculously, you have found an iron. You can even use it. Sure, it comes with the world’s worst ironing board, but who cares? IRON.
  6. Iron the clothes of the 7 other stagaires who have come to the same sartorial realization slightly after you.
  7. Now that your clothes are nice and neat, it’s time to treat them well by piling into the back of a minivan with 10 other volunteers. Try not to sweat to death from the sun coming in through the windows.
  8. Ride to the ambassador’s house.
  9. Get out. Watch with amusement as the first few PCTs are ruthlessly screened to get into their own ceremony. Chuckle inwardly when embassy personnel finally realize how silly this is and just start letting us go in. Chuckle openly when you walk through the metal detector with keys, a cell phone, and a belt buckle, and it doesn’t go off (even though it did for the PCT two people in front of you).
  10. Shake the hand of every single person in the ambassador’s garden. All 36,496,578 of them. Go sit in a chair. Forget about the sun, and sit under the wrong side of the pavilion, so the sun begins to creep up on you.
  11. Fucking sun. Now you’re sweating again. Great.
  12. Watch some local musicians play some traditional music, of the drums/xylophone/singing variety. There’s also some dancing. And some truly…unique…outfits.
  13. Wait.
  14. Wait some more.
  15. Fucking sun. Will this waiting ever end?
  16. Just as every square inch of your left side is prickling with sweat, the Ambassador and the CD come in, and the ceremony begins. Apparently, their Burkinabé went to the embassy instead of the ambassador’s house, and was running late. But he’s genuinely apologetic, so it’s all good.
  17. Siaka (one of our LCFs) is serving as MC. He is stylin in a very expensive looking local suit. His opening remarks are brief and to the point: cell phones off please, hi, here’s who are going to be talking.
  18. Listen to the CD give the same speech she’s given about 5 times before. She still does a good job, even if she sounds a bit uncharacteristically nervous this morning.
  19. Be very thankful that you’re not one of the 5 PCTs who have to give brief speeches. The French wouldn’t be too bad, but the Mooré, Jula, Lobi, and Gourmanchema would be hell. They do a decent job though; no one breaks down weeping or wets themselves in terror, so all in all…good job. I’m not sure I could have done the same.
  20. Listen to the Ambassador give a brief speech. Then hold up your right hand and recite the oath of office with him. Try to ignore the fact that you could swear you heard someone repeat “I, state your name, do solemnly swear…” Also, is it possible to not solemnly swear? Is there an option “I, state your name, do frivolously and perspicaciously swear”? Can you uproariously swear?
  21. Sit through one last speech, by the Burkinabé minister who was a tad late. He’s a good guy. No grudges.
  22. Shake lots of hands again. Eat some congratulatory cake. Take endless photos.
  23. Get the hell out of dodge, and go party!


Today, at 11 o’clock in the morning, Stage G25 officially moved up two letters in the alphabet. Instead of being PCTs (that is, Peace Corps Trainees), we are all now officially PCVs (which is to say, Peace Corps Volunteers). It took 9 weeks, 3 ETs, and a whole lot more headaches than I care to count, but we. are. finished.

The ceremony itself was held at the ambassador’s house, on the lawn next to the pool. It was pretty straightforward, as such things go: Siaka (one of our LCFs) served as MC, and he made a brief speech. Then our CD spoke, followed by a group of PCTs, who gave a series of short speeches in French, Mooré, Jula, Lobi, and Gourmanchema. After that came the Ambassador, who also swore us in. Finally, one of the Burkinabé ministers[1] spoke, and everything was done. It may not have had much in the way of flash, but it more than made up for that with mercifully brief speeches[2].

One interesting note from the ceremony: the oath that we took is the same oath that is taken by all federal office holders (except the President, who takes a slightly modified oath), and by military personnel. I like the uniformity of the practice (and it’s required by the Constitution), but I can’t help but feel that the tone of the wording is more or less diametrically opposed to the spirit of the Peace Corps:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm[3]) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

While affirming my agreement with this oath, I couldn’t help but wonder how I can simultaneously be strictly forbidden the purchase, possession, or use of weapons (including, I think, machetes), but yet be required to support and defend the Constitution. I know you can support and defend verbally just as well as physically, but the perverse part of my nature can’t help but wonder if this is some sort of moral double-jeopardy. After all, how can one take an oath to defend while simultaneously dedicating oneself to a pacifistic purpose? Ah, the things that run through our minds…

At any rate, once all was said and done we ate some lovely cake (no really – it was the best cake I’ve ever had at an official event. It was surprisingly good, even), then walked directly across the street to the Rec Center, where we gorged on hors d’oeuvres, and swam in a shockingly cold (75 F) pool. After a couple of hours lounging about, we packed up and went our various ways about Ouaga for a night of fun.

And that’s how you swear in to the Peace Corps.

[1] I’d like to specify which one, but for the life of me I can’t remember his exact title right now, and I feel it’s better to go generic than to guess wrong. Apologies to him: he was a very nice man, and obviously very moved to be a part of the ceremony.

[2] Especially a problem when they’re in languages that you don’t understand, or when every speech is repeated two or three times in translation. Happily, we had neither of these issues to contend with.

[3] I affirm. Something about “let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no”…

Buying stuff

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14 December 2011

FN: 7

Buying stuff

Today is our day to buy everything we need to set up our houses. All but 2 of us are moving into entirely new places, so what this means is we’ve been handed 100,000 CFA (about $200) in cash, and turned loose to do our best against the marchands of Ouaga. We’ve also got another 177,000CFA in the bank, but hopefully most of us won’t need to tap more than 50,000 or so of that.

Personally, I’m going to try to spend no more than 200,000 (our actual move-in allowance; the 77,000 is our half-month’s pay) if I can possibly avoid it. I need a bed, some tables, a stove, a gas canister (with gas), kitchen stuff (pots, pans, plates, etc), cleaning stuff (buckets, broom, bleach, etc), bedroom stuff (sheets, pillows, a mattress), and some general things (water containers, a foot locker, etc). We have a price list for what things should cost, but the marchands think we’re tourists and fools, so they try to stiff us.

A recent exchange provides a good example:

Me: (remember, this whole conversation is in French) Hi! I need to buy a cantine (foot locker). What’s the price?

Marchand: Ah, bonjour! Yes, the large are 20, the medium 15, and the small 10.

Me: (knowing fair prices are more like 10, 7, and 3) Ha! Right. I’ll give you…oh…say 4,000 for a medium.

Marchand: (blank look) Um…you’ve got to be kidding. This is the highest quality here.

Me: It’s plain. And ugly. And worth 5,000 at most.

Marchand: Fine, fine…how about 12,000 for the medium?

Me: 6,000. Final offer.

Marchand: No, I’m sorry…that’s too low. Maybe 11?

Me: Have a good day. *starts to walk*

Marchand: No, no, wait. Ok, fine: 8,000.

Me: 6,500.

Marchand: (lots of hemming and hawing and dubious looks) 7,000.

Me: Sold.

And there you have it. I know the price, he knows the price, and we both agreed on the price. But it takes a bit of work to get there. Sometimes, you win – I was just checking prices on that hammer, but the marchand panicked and dropped his offer so low I couldn’t refuse – sometimes you lose – if you come after 5 other volunteers have all overpaid, you’re never going to get him to come down – and sometimes you walk.

I love it.

I don’t know why. I hate haggling in the US. Even when it could save me money, I just don’t want to do it. But there’s something about having to do it in French (or through a translator) that just gets my blood flowing. It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s challenging. And I get to do it all day long.

Wish me luck!

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