Office space

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31 Janvier 2012

FN: 8

Office space

Today, I get to write my first post from my erstwhile desk in my putative office at FAIJ headquarters in Ouaga. I say erstwhile and putative because it sounds better than “the long table I share with 5 data entry functionaries” and “the place I’m going this week because they don’t quite know what to do with me”. Everyone here is incredibly friendly, welcoming, and helpful, but it’s evident that they were in no way prepared for us and they don’t really have much of idea of what our “training” should consist of. I’m unsurprised but hopeful that we can make it work anyway.

Right now, none of us are working, because:

  1. The internet is down
  2. The bosses are all in a meeting
  3. It’s not even 9 yet, so why get too involved?

Given that, and given the fact that I can only track about 1 word in 10 of the very rapid and highly colloquial French that is being tossed about quite freely right now, I think this is the perfect time to get in a post on Burkinabé office life.

So what is life like in the headquarters office of a government agency in Burkina Faso? I would say it’s very similar to life in the office of any local insurance agent in the US. There’s AC (set 5 degrees too cold for comfort), reasonably new computers (running an…interesting…mélange of XP, Vista, & 7), printers[1] that everyone hates (but will still forever use for personal purposes), chairs that look comfortable (but aren’t), desks that look nice (but aren’t), fluorescent lights (that flicker subtly in the edge of my vision and make me sick), lots of stacked files (that no one ever uses), and even a mini-fridge (holding the standard blend of water, Coke, diet shakes, and someone’s forgotten lunch from 6 weeks ago).

And that’s just the physical side; the interpersonal dynamics are very similar as well. Just like in the US, the youngest workers get the crappy manual entry jobs, the older folks all have nicely appointed offices, there’s waaaay too much middle management, and at the end of the day the place is really run by 5 or 6 executive secretaries who have been here forever.

(In fact, right now one of said middle managers is taking advantage of the internet being down to hold an impromptu no-one-is-doing-anything-anyway team building exercise. Hooray for crappy training seminars everywhere!)   

That being said, there are some real differences between office life here and office life in the US. Some of them are subtle, but some of them are pretty damn remarkable. For example, it gets hotter than Hades here during the middle of the day[2], so the work day runs from 7 – 12, then from 3 – 5[3]. The interval from 12 – 3 is known as le repose (think the French equivalent to siesta), and it means just that: people everywhere just…take a nap. Offices empty out, businesses and banks close down, and if you go to a boutique you’re as likely to find the owner curled up on a bench asleep as you are to find someone ready to sell you something[4].

Another effect of the repose is that there are really two work days: a highly formal and productive one in the morning, and much less formal and productive one in the afternoon. In the mornings, they dress sharp and work hard, and in the afternoons they frequently change into more casual clothes and they tend to kick back and relax. This is similar to the US, wherein the after-lunch blues definitely kill productivity between 2 and 4, but it’s much more formalized.

Think about it: in the US, when you first get to the office you tend to get some coffee, start up your computer, check your email, the weather, and the news, and chat with your coworkers for a few minutes. Even in the middle of the hardest work schedule, there tends to be at least a 15 minute “settling in” period, wherein people gradually ease themselves into another long full work day. Here, people show up and immediately begin to work. But they can do that, because they know they can kill time in the afternoon when no one is expected to do much anyway.

Similarly, people in the US tend to dress well for work, but unless you’re bucking for management, you don’t dress sharp. It’s expensive, it takes time, and there’s not much point if you’re just going to be sitting at a desk compiling reports all day. You don’t want to look slovenly or anything (unless you’re IT, where you garner geek cred in inverse proportion to how neatly you dress), but you don’t want to spend $100 a week on dry cleaning either. Here though, you wear the nicest clothes you own, and you do everything you can to make them look good[5], because you know you’ll be able to change a few hours later. A 5 hour work day is faaaaar less demanding on your attire than the standard US 8 – 10 hour work day. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that I personally would dress a lot sharper in the mornings if I knew I could come back in the afternoons in business casual. But maybe that’s just me.

But that’s the big stuff. There are also some more subtle differences in the work place here that I can’t actually say I would recommend for the US[6]. For example, so far as I can tell the men have all of the best seats (ie, under the AC, by the windows, and at the larger desks) and all of the newer computers, and the women have what is left over. Similarly, the upper management appears to be 100% male, and the glass ceiling appears to be more like a concrete box. Women do have some higher roles here, but it doesn’t appear to be as prevalent in the US[7]. I can’t say for certain that this is an accurate observation – and I certainly can’t say that this applies everywhere – but if what I’m seeing is indicative of a national trend, I would say they’re about where the US was in the 80’s in terms of gender relations in the workplace. I hope I’m wrong.

Some other interesting notes:

  • One thing they don’t have here: the fire alarms, extinguishers, and exit maps that are ubiquitous in every US building. I’m guessing you don’t get out of work for fire drills very often here. But you just *might* get out of work more often for actual fires…
  • The pedagogy of technology training here appears to be like the pedagogy of everything: heavy emphasis on rote memorization and repetition, with little or no time spent on application of ideas or concepts. The folks in this room appear to be whizzes with Excel, but if something goes wrong they have no idea what to do. They just call IT. They don’t know how to alt+tab between pages, how to ctrl+c to copy, how to ctrl+v to paste, or even ctrl+alt+del to kill unresponsive programs. All they know how to do is reboot or call IT. I suspect this is a product of deliberate training, because they were shocked when I hopped on one of their computers, player around for a few minutes, and figured out exactly how to use their internal software. The response was “you’ve already been trained!”, not “well, if you know how to use Windows & Office, you know how to use this…have fun”.
  • Office phone ring tones here are this sort of high-pitched buzz than set my teeth on edge and make me want to go on a killing spree. Especially when they don’t answer their damn phone for whatever reason and the caller lets it ring 230 times anyway. Landlines need a silence button.
  • Every room has both AC and a ceiling fan. I am NOT looking forward to the hot season.
  • 99% of the non-local stuff in this country is a cheap Chinese product, whether it’s a hammer, a motorcycle, or a power cord. But not the computers. Nope – they use Dells, just like the rest of us.
  • Browsing large storage volumes in French is a bizarre experience.
  • As is reading SOPs. But they’re just as boring.
  • There are no elevators in the building, despite the fact that it has 5 stories. Chris started to complain about this, but when I asked “would you trust the elevator inspectors here”, he quickly agreed that maybe stairs would be for the best. Besides, it’s good exercise.
  • The windows are tinted with the same cheap do-it-yourself tinting that clueless poseur teenagers everywhere use to make their cars look more ‘thug’. And just like the Wal-Mart specials in the states, it bubbles and peels like crazy.
  • My office is carpeted. I think this is the first carpeting that I’ve seen in country. I’m yet to see a vacuum, so I’m wondering how they clean it…
  • Just like in the US, if you’re sitting at a computer typing in Word and there are bullet points visible, it’s assumed you’re doing work. But since we actually have internet now, I should probably stop pretending and get back to doing. SOPs in French! What fun[8]!

Hey…if nothing else, it helps me improve my business French, non?

[1] Not named after Star Wars characters, alas. I guess the IT guys here aren’t quite as dorky as they are in the US. Nothing tickles me quite so much as hearing a 50-something executive secretary complain that “Boba Fett is down, and I have to walk all the way down the hall to Lando Calrissian to get my prints; can you please map me to Obi Wan so I don’t have to walk so far?”

[2] It really does. Even in the cold season, it pushes at least 90 every day. From April – June, it can be 120+ every single day, and it never gets below 90, even at night. Right now, the hot part of the day just makes you sweat if you walk in the sun; in a month or two, there will never be a time when you aren’t sweating, even if you’re lucky enough to have fans and/or AC.

[3] Yes, that’s only 7 hours, for those of you playing along at home. They also get 6 weeks of mandatory vacation every year. Yes, the functionaries are something of a privileged class here, but it’s the standard European benefits package: work to live, not live to work. Je suis jaloux.

[4] Another reason the night life is so active here. Most Burkinabé only seem to sleep 4 – 6 hours a night, but that’s not so terrible when you also get a 2 – 3 hour nap every afternoon…

[5] I’m highly conscious of the fact that the best I have to wear right now are some slacks from Banana Republic, a polo, and some skechers. It’s not bad, but when the other guys are all wearing pressed $500 suits and shoes polished to mirrors, you feel a bit out of place.

[6] Note: I have been here all of two days. These are my observations and first impressions only, not an informed commentary on the subtleties of Burkinabé office life. Take any and everything I say here with a grain of salt.

[7] To say nothing of the fact that my female friends in the US assure me that we ourselves are far from being what they would consider balanced in that department…

[8] Actually, I quite literally can’t complain. I’m sitting at a desk, in AC, typing on a computer, with internet. This is amazing. It beats making stoves out of poo or planting trees in little plastic bags any day. Especially considering I rode here in my own chauffeured air-conditioned truck (I want that truck), and I have a toilet to poo in whenever I have the urge. Count your blessings. I know I do.


Life in Ouaga

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30 January 2012

FN: 6

Life in Ouaga

For those who don’t know, the capital of Burkina Faso is Ouagadougou[1]. It’s a largish city[2] of about 1.5 million[3] people located almost exactly in the dead center of the country, and it has almost all of the perqs of any capital, and almost all of the drawbacks that you would think of when imagining a rapidly growing city in a developing country.

There’s no way around it: by western standards, Ouaga is ugly. It’s dirty, dusty, drowning in trash, mostly unplanned, mostly unpaved[4], and teeming with poorly regulated air pollution motos. When we first landed here, it was more than a little intimidating, because the whole place looked like what my US-adjusted eyes would identify as “dangerous slum”. Until you get used to it, there’s literally almost no way to tell the difference between that delightful little maquis that serves amazing brochettes, and that slum dive of a dolo cabaret that is probably best not entered at night (or at all).

But that’s by western standards. By local standards, Ouaga is more like Carl Sandberg’s Chicago: a big, bustling, growing city that’s full of opportunity (and heartbreak), industry, and a burgeoning capitalist spirit. It’s a city where a boy can become a man, and that man can (if he hustles and gets lucky) make it big. Sure, the statistics say that 90% of them will live and die and penury and misery, but how is that any different from New York or Chicago in the 1890’s? In its current form Ouaga will never be classically pretty[5], but if you leave that aside there’s a lot to like about it.

I don’t like the cost of life in Ouaga (I can sometimes spend as much as twenty dollars (10,000 CFA) in a day, and who can afford that kind of luxury??), and I definitely don’t like the trash and the traffic, but you learn to live with that. Otherwise, I really like it here. I like the way that the people really are friendly, and there’s more or less no place I can go that I don’t feel safe. I love bickering with the taxi drivers for the cost of a fare, and I love how hilariously beat up the taxis are, once you finally get in. I love that feeling you get when you find some great restaurant that serves some food you’ve been craving for months, and the even better feeling you get after you’ve finally eaten said food[6]. I love walking though the markets and sharing good-natured insults with the guys trying to hawk me useless crap, and I like the way all the Muslim places stop and pray five times a day. It’s not a big or as old or as exotic as Cairo or Kandahar or Bangkok, but it has something of the same feel sometimes, it’s a lot safer, and I really enjoy it.

Oh, and I’m not going to lie: I also love the fact that I can get all of those little luxuries here that you just can’t get at site: frosted flakes, fan choco, air conditioning, and hot showers. I may bitch and complain about how much of a pain in the ass it is to get here (it’s annoying, but the volunteers en brousse have it far worse), and I may whine about how much I hate sleeping at the transit house (it’s loud, cold/hot, and swarming with mosquitoes), but to be honest, it’s not that bad. Or to put it another way, this is the only place in the country where I can be woken up by airplanes taking off, then be kept awake by the sound of traffic, then give up and go take a hot shower to wake up. It could be a lot worse.

Welcome to my life for the next week.

[1] Burkina Faso was once the French colony of Haut Volta (OH Volta), so local words are spelled using French orthography. If Burkina Faso had instead been the English colony of Upper Volta, the name of the capital would have been spelled Wagadugu (WAGA doo-goo). Either way, it would be pronounced the same, as it’s a Mooré word.

[2] By local standards, where 20 people is a village and 10,000 people is a city. Obviously, 1.5 million would be a bedroom community near New York City, and it would barely qualify as a neighborhood for some of the massively sprawling cities in India and China. But around here, it’s big.

[3] This is purely a guess, as there are no set addresses and no easy way to count heads. But the rough guesstimates say that Ouaga has doubled in population every decade since the 1950’s.

[4] Ie the immediate downtown and the main feeder routes are (sometimes poorly) paved, and all of the other streets are dirt. There are no elevated highways, bypasses, etc to speak of.

[5] If you want pretty, go to Bobo-Dioulasso (Bobo). It’s the second-largest city in the country, and the ancient capital of the southwest. They get things like rain there, so it’s cleaner, greener, more lush, and more classically “pretty” (although you still have to take local conditions into account).

[6] For example, did you know there’s this amazing coffee shop called Cappucino that’s the equal of any coffee shop I’ve ever been to? Sure, it costs a fortune by local standards, but in absolute terms it’s both cheaper and better than that Starbucks you go to every morning. And just down the street from it, there’s this great little Vietnamese place that serves – you get the idea.


Go go Gadget…language!

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29 January 2012

FN: 7

Go go gadget…language!

Pretty much everyone in Burkina Faso speaks at least a little French; whether it’s in the schools, in the mosque, or in the marché, if you use basic French, you can more or less count on finding someone who understands you.

However, more or less no one in Burkina speaks French as their only – or even their first – language. Instead, it’s everyone’s second (or third, or even fourth) language, a sort of literal lingua franca that allows people in a nation with 60 different tribal languages to readily intercommunicate. As a result, everyone uses French, but no one really loves or identifies with it; they save that for their local (tribal) language. In short, if you say bonjour to someone, you’ll probably get a polite nod or smile, but if you say “good morning” in their local language, you’ll inevitably get a HUGE smile, followed by an excited spate of said tongue, accompanied by lots of positive body language.

There’s nothing especially remarkable about this. It only makes sense. People like what they know, and what they know best is their native tongue. In fact, it’s a useful cultural trend: because people everywhere loooooove bring greeted in the local language, if you take just a little bit of time and effort to learn a smattering of that language, you can open doors, smooth relationships, and generally make life easier for yourself no matter where on the globe you might be.

Think about it: if you go to Paris and walk up to someone and blurt out “Do you speak English? Where is the Eiffel Tower?”, you’re quite likely to get a scowl and no response, right? But if you walk up and politely say « Pardonnez-moi, monsieur, mais je parle en peu de français. Vous excuse mon français terrible s’il vous plait. Ou est le Tour Eiffel ? », you’ll probably get an enthusiastic and helpful response in all but fluent English. Or if a Mexican laborer walks up to you in the street and says “Disculpé, como puedo llegar al centro de la cuidad?[1], are you more likely to respond positively or negatively than if he says “Excuse me, but how I get downtown?”

Like I said, it’s a useful cultural quirk. But it also has its drawbacks. The biggest of which derives from a combination of the obscurity of most tribal languages, and the relative scarcity of westerners who have even heard of them, much less speak them. Because of this, when you use a tribal language with locals, the results can be amazing. You can turn frowns into smiles, smiles into laughs, and 500 CFA purchases into 200 CFA purchases with a little free something thrown in besides.

Unfortunately, you can also turn yourself into something of a parrot.

All too often, when you use the local language, the dialogue resembles something like this:

You: Good morning!

Local: (surprised smile) Good morning! How are you doing today?

You: Very well, and you?

Local: Very well. And your family?

You: Good. And your family?

Local: Their health is good. Thank you for asking.

You: Thank you for asking.

So far, so good: the greetings seem a bit long and interminable to US ears, but they’re culturally necessary so you do it. Then comes the next bit, that isn’t universal, and can be very hard to deal with:

You: (about to ask about whatever business you’re there for)

Local: (to another local) Hey! Cousin! Check it out! This guy speaks our language!

You: Um…I only sort—

Cousin: OH. MY. GOD. GET OUT!! That is SO cool! Hey foreigner! Good morning!

You: Uh…good morning.

Cousin: And how is your family?

You: Good, but—

One of the rapidly gathering crowd: Ask him about his health!

Another one of the crowd: And if he’ll give us candy!

Cousin and Local together: Why haven’t you asked me/my cousin about his family? That’s rude.

You: (trying not to simultaneously kill yourself, someone else, and a stray goat, just for good measure) Sorry. How is your family?

Cousin: They’re good. Thank you for asking.

Local: Why are you mad?

You: I give up.

Sadly, that’s not as much of a comedic exaggeration as I wish it was. Pretty much every volunteer has this encounter at least once in their local language using career, and many of us have it many, many times. And it’s sad, because what starts out as a positive experience for all quickly becomes a very negative experience for you. You just want to buy some bread, but you wind up feeling like one of those “talking” toys with the pre-recorded soundtracks that are active by pulling a string:

*pull string* HellohowareyouIamverygoodthankshowisyourfamilythatisgoodtohe—

*pull string again* ­--arGodsblessingsonyourandyourhousethankyouforyourblessingsinreturn

Now please don’t misunderstand me. 99% of the time the Burkinabé are wonderful about your use of their language, and they’re incredibly enthusiastic and helpful. They help correct errors, they aren’t snobbish or rude about your abysmal accent, and they’re genuinely excited to see you trying.

It’s just that sometimes, they get so excited that it can be a bit overwhelming.

And then you feel like GO GO GADGET—LANGUAGE!!


[1] Credit to Jose (but not so much to Elena) for assistance with the Spanish. I personally don’t speak a word. Any errors are mine, not his.


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27 January 2012

FN: 5


Yesterday evening, I learned that I will finally be getting my FAIJ training in Ouaga so that I can actually begin doing the job that I am putatively here to do. This means I’ll be leaving for Ouaga Sunday afternoon, and I’ll be working and living there until the following weekend. I get a per diem, so the cost shouldn’t annihilate this month’s budget, and I stay at the transit house for free, so I don’t need to worry about that cost either. Hopefully, it will be a week of good work, good food, and fun.

However, what it may not be is a week of blogging. We have high speed internet at the transit house, but my days are going to be very full. I can’t accurately predict in advance if I will have the time or inclination to blog or not. Hopefully I’ll have both, but since the social schedule in Ouaga can be a bit hectic[1], consider this fair warning.

With that being said, I can’t describe how pleased I am to finally have real work. I know I’m supposed to be here for the community and that my “job” is really secondary to what I’m here for, but my town is large enough that making a go of it purely out of secondary projects has been daunting, to say the least. After next week, I should have a scheduled something to do each day (if I want it), and a scheduled place to go do it. That should really help me get out of the house and into the community in a less transitory manner.

One final note: my right tear duct is clogged, and the eye is all puffy and swollen. Effing dust. I can barely see right now, and to be honest I can barely think either. So apologies for what I know is a short and unusually disjointed post. I’ll try to be better next time.


[1] The transit house is basically like a small dorm: it’s nice, but people think nothing of staying up until 3 am chatting, playing soccer on the porch, what have you. There are many things to do at the transit house (including hot showers every morning!!), but getting 10 hours sleep a night is not one of them.

With apologies to Hemingway…

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26 January 2012

FN: 9

With apologies to Hemingway…

The waiting room of the commissariat was small and square and held only two desks. One was occupied by a young secretary who played solitaire on her computer. The other was occupied by a functionnaire who placed papers with great care into an ancient filing cabinet. Neither paid any attention to the three people who sat stiffly on the bench beneath the window.

The three who waited were very disparate. The man who sat closest to the secretary was very stout and wore the thin khaki uniform of the local police. He was sweating despite the coolness of the day and the armpits of his uniform blouse showed layer upon layer of salt rings that gave mute testimony to the frequency of his laundering habits. Despite the location and his uniform, the man played continually with his cell phone.

To his left sat a nasara in a white-striped shirt and jeans. His companions paid him little attention and he sat quietly, struggling to resist the all but continual nausea caused by his anti-malaria prophylaxis.

The last of the three was a self-possessed Gourounsi woman in her early thirties. She had a clubfoot and poor dentition but somehow managed to be pretty despite these shortcomings. She was the most composed of the three and she sat perfectly upright on the edge of her seat. She did not fidget with her cell phone. Instead, she looked on with visible disapproval at the secretary’s inappropriate use of time, but did not say anything.

After some minutes and for no discernable reason, the man in the police uniform stood and put his cell phone in his pocket. Then he began to compulsively wipe the palms of his hands on his pants and sway slightly in place as though dancing to a tune unheard by the others in the room. In the absence of other stimuli, the nasara watched him do this. He noticed that the back of the man’s pale khaki shirt was powder blue from where it had rubbed the wall. The nasara also noticed that the walls were only three quarters of the way painted. A dust-stained white band ringed the top of the room like a dirty bandage. It somehow seemed fitting. The woman ignored them both.

A metal door opened in the far wall and a dapper man in a business suit emerged. He was of medium height and build and his face was framed by a neatly trimmed goatee and mustache that were both flecked with grey. He had a calm demeanor and he greeted the three in the pleasantly modulated French of one who thinks in the language.

« Ah, bonjour, messieurs. Madame. Ca va ? »

The three had risen as one upon the door’s opening, but now they responded to this greeting in strict hierarchy : policeman, nasara, woman. The policeman accepted this as the natural order of things, as apparently did the woman. The nasara found this bemusing, for the woman had better French than either of the men and was certainly better paid.

« Bonjour, monsieur le haut commissariat. Je vais bien. Et vous ? »

The nasara spoke passable marché French but he suspected it would be entirely inadequate for this particular meeting. He had received high marks on his language tests the previous month but he knew that when one does not speak a language well, one speaks it much better in the presence of an emergency translator than in the absence of such a safeguard. Therefore, he resolved to speak as little as possible and to instead rely on a calm expression and considered nods to mask his extreme uncertainty. It would prove to be a successful strategy.

After the lengthy but necessary salutations were complete the haut commissaire ushered them into his office. The policeman and the woman responded with satisfaction at the luxury of the room. It was dominated by a mahogany desk that was fronted by three overstuffed couches. There were four pictures of Blaise Campaore, one for each wall. In plain sight were two computers, a photocopier, a small refrigerator, and a fax machine. A flat-screen television chattered quietly on a buffet. The nasara thought these arrangements too gaudy for a work space, but said nothing.

At a gesture from the haut commissaire, the three sat on the couches. The manner of their seating was reflective of their personality and station. The policeman sprawled as though in his home. The woman sat with rigid formality. The nasara leaned forward and tried to ignore the foam rubber stuffing that pushed hotly against the back of his knees. No one spoke, but from the general air of expectation the nasara derived that, despite all appearances to the contrary, they were not quite ready to begin. He did not know why.

Just then the door opened and three more men entered the room. The haut commissaire rose to greet them with the air of a man encountering old friends. They passed some seconds with small talk. Their host then introduced them as a representative of the mayor’s office, a gendarme, and an official whose title the nasara failed to understand. They were friendly but did not sit near the three. From the general bustle of the room, the nasara understood that these were the men they had been waiting for, and the meeting could now begin.

It was an interview. Despite the fact that the entirety of the interview’s content concerned the nasara, he was not asked any questions. It was not clear to him why this was the case. Instead, the haut commissaire asked many questions of the woman. What is the nasara’s name. Who does he work for. What does his employer do. Where does he live. How long will he live there. The woman answered these questions in a sing-song voice that hinted of much rote memorization. The haut commissaire wrote her answers on an unlined sheet of computer paper. At no time was the policeman spoken to. Nor the other officials. The nasara wondered why they were there.

When the haut commissaire asked « ou est son bureau, et quelle est son numéro de téléphone », the woman had no answer. The nasara knew this was because he had no office, either with or without a telephone.  Seeing that the woman was nonplussed, the nasara dared to interject « pardon, mais moi, je n’ai pas le bureau ».

Six people looked at him with astonishment. He was unsure if this was because he lacked so basic a thing as an office or if it was because he had the temerity to speak. In the absence of support from the woman, he again resorted to silence. It was the appropriate strategy. His hosts were clearly unsure of how to deal with so remarkable a creature as a talking nasara. After a moment the interview resumed. Soon it was finished.

At a signal from their host the woman and the nasara rose. The haut commissaire walked them out. He was very solicitous. In the outer room, the young secretary still played solitaire on her computer and the man still filed papers in the filing cabinet. The walls were still powder blue with a dirty white band near the top. As they passed through the door to emerge into the waiting African sun, the nasara knew his first official interview was complete.








The state of our union

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25 January 2012

FN: 9

The state of our union

Note: As an employee of the Department of State and an informal representative of the US government, it is neither appropriate nor permitted for me to comment in any official capacity on either our political process or our current government. The opinions and ideas discussed herein are entirely my own, and in no way represent any position of the US Peace Corps, the US Department of State, or the US Government.

Before I came to Burkina Faso, I considered the fact that I would be missing an entire presidential election cycle to be one of the definite perqs of the job. In fact, I even wrote a (now disturbingly) prescient post on the topic back in June, in which I discussed what it might be like to work for President Gingrich.

Now that I’m here, I’m less enthralled with the idea of missing out on the election entirely and more honored to be able to witness it from an entirely different perspective. Watching the various debates and scandals du jour unfold from the 3rd poorest country in the world is like reading a novel that has been rewritten from an ancillary character’s point of view: the plot is still the same, but the internal dialogue is entirely different.

This is especially true because the Burkinabé are in no way uninformed about what’s going on: they watch our politics like hawks, and while they may not entirely understand the full cultural subtext of Gingrich being a southerner while Romney is a quasi “liberal” from Massachusetts, they definitely know the entire cast of characters and have informed opinions on each.

Last night, we saw what was potentially the last State of the Union speech of President Obama’s political career[1]. By and large, it was the same forgettable political theater that it always is: expected statements and robotic clapping, accompanied by bland commentary and lots of shots of bored looking white men over 50. I neither saw nor heard anything especially out of the ordinary, and I seriously doubt that anyone but policy wonks got unduly excited by anything that transpired.

But what was different about this particular SOTU (at least for me) was that I was “watching” it[2] from the context of one of the poorest countries in the world. It sounds trite, but that really did change my perspective on so much of what was said and done.

I don’t think we in the US realize just how bloody rich we are. Sure, we have the largest debt in history, and sure, we have all sorts of financial problems from jobs being sent overseas to a whole underclass of folks with degrees and corresponding student loan debt who can’t get any better jobs than waiting tables, but historically speaking that’s all small change. Those are just problems, and problems can be solved. Burkina has disadvantages that at best can be ameliorated.

Take water for example. The US has a huge problem with water rights in the Phoenix and Colorado river valleys (hell, in the entire inter-mountain west), as well as in LA and San Diego. But all we have to do it is outlaw lawns and golf courses in those areas, and hey presto – more water for decades. Burkina, on the other hand, has no water. There are only 2 rivers in the country that run year round, and most people here are dependent on the rainy season for their livelihoods. If it doesn’t rain (as it more or less didn’t last year), people starve. No one in going to starve in Phoenix. Or at least their starvation won’t be because it didn’t rain.

Similarly, take the problem of health care. In the US, we don’t worry about providing health care (and we certainly don’t worry about providing adequate health care), we worry about how to pay for it. And our endemic problems aren’t unavoidable products of our environment, like malaria, dengue fever, and shistosomiasis, they’re instead by and large entirely preventable offshoots of our poor lifestyle choices: heart disease and diabetes from overeating fatty foods, lung cancer and emphysema from smoking, various major joints and tendons destroyed from aggressively risky sports and pastimes. If everyone in the US stopped smoking and drinking and took up exercise and safely healthy lifestyles, our national medical bill would drop by 2/3. Even if everyone in Burkina did exactly that, they would still have a stunning death rate from malaria. One is a problem, the other is a disadvantage.

I could go on like this for pages, but that would just belabor the point. Which you get. The US has problems, but they’re solvable. And being here makes that screamingly obvious.

So from the poor seats, let me just say: America, quit your whining, and step up to the plate.

Solve your problems.

[1] It seems unlikely, but it’s certainly possible. I’m no prognosticator par excellence (or I would be making a LOT more money than I am right now), but from where I’m sitting it looks like the GOP currently are running at a 30 – 40% chance of pulling off the upset. Feel free to correct me, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to classify them as the underdogs at the moment.

[2] ie reading live blogs of it and catching uploaded videos later. My internet isn’t fast enough to support live streaming. Alas.

Working out

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24 January 2012

FN: 8

Working out

One of the particular challenges of life in West Africa is that of maintaining your personal fitness. Sure, you can run and do pushups, crunches, and pull-ups, but we’re Americans: we want a gym, or a pool, or a regular league schedule. It’s hard to maintain any sense of enthusiasm about calisthenics, and while sure you can do your daily dozen to keep from getting fat, it just doesn’t give you that same fulfillment.

In the US, I’m fond of weight lifting. I’m no Olympic athlete, but I was usually in the gym 3 or 4 days a week and I’d like to think I was at the very least a bit stronger than your average guy on the street. However, weight bars, benches, and weights are among the many things that are not easily found in Burkina Faso[1] , so I’m learning to make do in other ways.

Here is a general overview of my current exercise regimen. Feel free to comment on it. All suggestions for improvement would be highly appreciated. Do recall that equipment is more or less right out.

Day A:

  • Stretching
  • Squats, 20 x 3, 50 lbs (1 full 20 liter bidon)
  • Pushups, 50 x 3
  • Burpees, 15 – down
  • Ab routine[2]

Day B:

  • Stretching
  • Squats, 20 x 3, 50 lbs (1 full 20 liter bidon)
  • Standing press, 20 x 3, 85 lbs
  • Cleans, 20 x 3, 85 lbs (bidon 2/3 full of rocks, the rest water)
  • Bench row, 20 x 3, 85 lbs
  • Ab routine

It’s a little challenging still, but the problem is I’m going to top out soon. I can’t increase the weight safely (until I get a bar), and even 20 reps are mind-numbingly boring. I could toss in some more resistance activity like wall squats, but that’s really an issue of boredom and hating the exercise. I’m debating the wisdom of trying overhead squats; it’s really hard to hang on to the bidon, but it would give me some more resistance.

Also: I hate running, I suck at it, and it’s hot as hell here, so my cardio comes from biking and burpees. I easily get in 20 minutes a day on my mountain bike, and it’s hilly here so I get a nice variance in the resistance. I also am disinterested in P-90X or any other canned workout scheme. I just don’t enjoy them.

That’s it for now. Thanks for your input!


[1] They do exist, but a bar and set of 300 lbs of weight runs about $300 in Ouaga, and I currently don’t have the cash to make a purchase that big. I’m saving, but it will take 6 months to a year to get there. Boo.

[2] Given to me by a collegiate swimmer whom I trust implicitly and who has far better abs than any of the rest of you will ever have, so I’m actually pretty confident on this one:

50 crunches, 50 bent-knee crunches, 100 slow bicycles, 30 second flutter kicks, 30 dolphin kicks, 50 straight leg crunches, 50 indian-style crunches, 45 second plank, 25 oblique crunches (each side). It hurts so good. And of course he doesn’t even feel it anymore…

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