Pictures from an IST

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21 Mars 2012

Pictures from an IST

Note: I spent the better part of the last three weeks participating in a 12-day training seminar known as Inter-Service Training or IST. Because IST consists of two six-day workweeks comprising 8 – 10 hour days, I didn’t have a lot of time to write regular posts. Today’s post is something of a catch-up.

Gardening without tools, cooking without ingredients

One of the greatest pleasures and challenges to working in Burkina Faso is the incredibly casual approach that the Burkinabé have towards planning and execution. They do both, but they just don’t have the same sense of urgency about them that we do in the US. As a result, even the best-laid plans frequently go awry. Sometimes it’s hilarious, and sometimes it makes you want to go on a killing spree.

Take yesterday, for example.

For two weeks, we’ve been training on various aspects of project design and management: how to identify particular projects, how to figure out if they’re feasible, how to marshal resources, and how to execute your plan. The culmination of this training was supposed to be two days of gardening and agricultural training, to help us prepare for the coming food crisis[1]: we had a garden plot chosen, we had the tools, we had the seeds, and all we needed to do was go out and put the three together.

Except we couldn’t.

Despite the careful planning of our trainers and our own best intentions, when the time came for the steel to hit the dirt, the tools were all locked up in a shed. And we couldn’t find the keys. After almost an hour of searching, someone remembered that our garden plot was on the grounds of a local high school; no one remembered to tell the kids responsible for the groundskeeping that we would be using the tools, so they had locked them up like they were supposed to. Then they went to class.

C’est la vie, non? After all, who could we blame? The trainers? They had let the staff know what we would be doing five hours in advance. The staff? They were just doing what they were supposed to – helping the kids develop vocational aptitudes. The kids? Get real. It was just one of those situations; as much as we wanted the catharsis of screaming at someone like you do in the US, there was nothing to do but suck it up, shrug, and make do.

And so we did; instead of all of us doing the work, a few of us traded out doing the work, and the rest of us observed. It worked just fine (if not quite as we had planned). Because that’s just how things go here.

But that doesn’t mean we didn’t take the opportunity for some good-natured needling of our trainers: “you know…a proper PCV project is planned to the last detail…

Lions, tigers, and org charts, oh my!

This just in: my job no longer exists. Or, more correctly, the job that I was recruited for no longer exists. Attend:

I was recruited under SED (Small Enterprise Development) as a small business development specialist. When we arrived in-country, we were told SED had been replaced by DABA (Developing Agricultural & Business Abilities), but that our jobs would remain more or less the same; they would just place more emphasis on jobs related to agriculture, since 85% of the population of Burkina is directly involved in subsistence agriculture at some level. Now, we’ve just been told that DABA is now Daba: The Environment Program, and the entirety of the small business program is being phased out. In a few years, I imagine PC Burkina will only have Environment, Education, and Health volunteers.

At first, this had me really bummed, because let’s be honest: I came here to help businessmen, not to plant trees. I even had a temporary crisis of conscience, in which I was debating returning home on moral grounds since I don’t think I could teach people to do a thing I know nothing about (planting trees). Happily, some good friends pointed out that I don’t actually need to know anything about planting trees, since my job is really more to find the people who need trees planted, find the people who know how to do the planting, and put the two groups in contact with each other. I’m a facilitator, not a doer, so my technical competence or lack thereof is really secondary to most projects.


So what does this mean for me on the ground?

Short answer: not much. Our stage is being grandfathered in a way, so our specializations won’t change, nor will our impacts on the community. All that will really change is how things are reported. For example, my coming project with intensive chicken farming will still be focused on the mechanics of raising and selling chickens, but instead of reporting it as a business growth project I will report it as a food security project. Same project, different reporting.

As for me and my house, we will farm chickens

For the past several days, we’ve been planning our first volunteer projects at site. It’s a fairly straightforward if time-intensive process of identifying a need, deciding if it can be feasibly met, calculating what resources will be needed, recruiting community support, making a plan, executing that plan, monitoring your results, reporting the outcome, and then repeating if needed.  Loosely speaking, this is the outline for all PCV projects, but there’s always a bit of hesitation when you do a thing for real for the first time.

My project should be fun. My homologue and I want to start a chicken farming collective. Right now, chickens here are mostly raised by the old fashioned method of “have 10 – 12 chickens, let them run around your yard, sell/kill one when you need money/food”. They’re also typically raised in the surrounding countryside, anywhere from 10 to 50 kilometers away. This system is effective in that you can always get chicken here, but it’s slipshod in that it keeps prices high and quality inconsistent. We want to fix that.

We also what to fix what any number of my site’s residents have identified as probably the biggest long-term threat to the area: a persistent brain-drain of youth to the larger opportunities and cultural spheres of Ouahigouya and Ouagadougou. Right now, most of the area’s youth between the ages of 19 & 25 have very little in the way of work or entertainment; as a result, they work whatever job they can until they save the money to move and then they’re gone, never to return. The result is an artificially aging area and an entirely needless economic and cultural stagnation. We want to fix that as well.

Our idea is to recruit 4 to 6 young eleveurs (animal cultivators) to participate in an intensive farming program. Basically, they’ll meet once a week with a local expert, they’ll meet once a week to learn basic business principles, they’ll meet once a week with a local veterinarian, and they’ll raise chickens. Lots and lots of chickens. Healthy, high quality chickens, with good meat, safe eggs, and lots of market potential. And when those chickens are ready full-grown, they’ll be sold in the local market and the money raised will be used to recruit more eleveurs to participate in the next program.

It’s an ambitious project, to say the least. We’ll need to find land for dedicated elevage, we’ll need to arrange meeting times, recruit our experts, and keep close tabs on everyone to make sure things don’t start off with a bang and end with a whimper. And since there’s definitely going to be a profit motive here, I’m going to need to be verrrry careful to avoid any conflicts of interest or accidentally causing market harm. The challenge of enticing people with potential profits, then immediately getting them to agree to waiving them for one or two cycles could be a fun one. But the people of the area are really kind of patriotic in their own way, so I honestly think it can be done.

So here’s to chickens! May they be healthy and fecund!

The best burger and music in Burkina

The second half of our IST is in Koudougou, the third largest city in Burkina and the capital of the country’s counterculture. Koudougou may not seem like much at first, but it has a relationship with the rest of Burkina that is approximately equivalent to that shared by San Francisco and the United States[2]. It’s a hotbed of film and music production, it’s the site of the most political unrest, and it’s home to any number of prominent writers, journalists, and opposition political leaders.

It also has what is for my money the best dining experience in the country.

There’s this restaurant called La Reunion that’s not too far from the convent where we’re staying. If you were fresh in from the States it probably wouldn’t look like much, but allow me to assure you it’s amazing. It’s clean, it’s well-run, it has a solid menu, and the music is maybe the best I’ve ever heard.


Whoever is responsible for their music has tastes that run to the likes of Joss Stone, Cee-Lo, Adele, and other similarly smooth artists, and they have an absolutely uncanny knack for making some of the most seamless playlists I’ve ever heard. We all were impressed, and we all asked for copies on USB keys so we could have them for ourselves.

And then there are the burgers.

Oh, my…the burgers.

First of all: La Reunion has burgers. This is in and of itself amazing. Second of all, they’re large, tasty, properly grilled, and served with fries and ketchup on buns that are actually proportional to the size of the patty. If you had one in the US, it might seem mediocre, but brother allow me to assure you: after 6 months in Burkina, they. are. divine.

And now I’m going to stop with writing and get back to eating.

Only 6 days left. How…odd

Well, IST is finally over. It was partly boring, partly fun, very long, and (much to my surprise) almost entirely useful. I learned a lot about myself, my homologue, my projects, and what the future of my service will look like. I can’t wait to get to my to site and start implementing some of the things we discussed.

But as much as I looking forward to the future, I’m also a little sad. IST is the last major training cycle of a PCV’s career; from here on out, it’s just me at site with whomever I happen to run into along the way. As such, IST is also one of the last times I’ll see everyone in my stage all together. We’ll have 3 days at our Mid-Service Conference (basically a coordinated set of dental exams and parasite removals), and another 3 days at our Close Of Service conference, but otherwise…this is it. After today, I may very well not see many of my fellow stageaires for another 6 – 9 months, and even then we may only have a week or so in company before we part ways for good.

I know this is how it should be: after all, we come here to serve alone at site, not to spend two years doing group work. But it’s still a sobering thought, and it leaves me more than a little introspective.

Here’s to an afternoon spent pondering the fragility of life and the inherently intangible nature of interpersonal connections…

Coda: how to get a free ride home (and a few days living in air conditioning)

After IST finished, some friends and I went out to an excellent local restaurant for some celebratory burgers and beer. Or, to put it more accurately, I had the burger, they had the beers. Because I wasn’t drinking, I got tired pretty quickly and was getting ready to call it a night when I had a more-or-less idiotic accident.

I was sitting in one of the cheap plastic chairs of the sort that are used in the US for lawn chairs and by pools. It’s hot here and the plastic isn’t of the best quality, so they have a distressing tendency to fracture, bend, splay, and otherwise become structurally unsound. This one was no exception, and after awhile the back left leg abruptly decided that it was through with unity and that breaking would be a better idea. And so it did.

And dumped me…


…and over a little decorative hedge…

…and BAM!

I landed right on my head, exactly on my surgical scar.

My memory of the next few minutes is a bit hazy, but apparently I was knocked out for about a minute. I felt fine afterwards, but several other volunteers had already called the PCMO as per procedure, so instead of going back to the hotel and resting like I wanted to I instead got bundled with all of my stuff into a mini-van and a driver took me and a friend[3] straight to the Peace Corps medical unit in Ouaga. It was a two-hour drive, so we got in just before midnight, and I immediately got a physical exam. After that, we were bundled off to the infirmary to spend the night in air-conditioned frigidity.

And that’s how I got a free ride back to Ouaga.

[1] West Africa lives for the rainy season. Because of the way the weather patterns work here, they get a year’s worth of rain in just three months. If the rains are good, life is good; if the rains are poor, people (mainly the very young and the very old) starve to death. Last year, the rains were very poor.

[2] Relatively speaking. In actual terms, Koudougou is nowhere near as free-wheeling as SF (for example, open homosexuality is non-existent here), but it’s definitely viewed by the locals as being young, liberal, politically restive, and strange. Think how Americans living deep in the red states view the Bay Area, and you’re on the right track.

[3] Drafted on the spot as a translator/spotter/assistant/luggage carrier/etc. It sucked

Being handicapped in Burkina Faso

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18 Mars 2012

Being handicapped in Burkina

It’s a common theme among PC Burkina blogs that life is incredibly difficult in Burkina Faso. And it’s true: in comparison to our lives in the US, we suffer hardships daily in quantity and degree that all but defy imagination. But it’s all relative: in the grand scheme of things, we’re all young, healthy, and possessing of direct and immediate access to the finest healthcare that the US government can provide. While we know much of discomfort, we don’t really know much at all when it comes to real struggle.

Nor can any healthy person, not really. No matter how rough or unpleasant your life is, it can always be worse. Are you a 40-something family man who just lost his job and is sweating feeding his kids and making the rent this month? Think how much more you would sweat it if you only had one leg and couldn’t get just any job. Are you a 20-something female who lives alone in a sketchy neighborhood and is worried about potential assault? How much more would you worry if you were blind? Handicaps don’t make you less of a person – if anything, they make you more – but they definitely remove capacity and add stress.

They also frequently involve social stigmas, even in situations where people should know better. Take wounded combat veterans as a prominent example. In the US, combat veterans with severe injuries are publicly venerated to an extent that sometimes approaches the absurd: every politician wants to pose with them, every townie wants to buy them a drink, and every hack journalist from Maine to Mexico wants to do a human interest piece on their struggle. But once the tumult and the shouting dies, the truth emerges: at the end of the day, they’re abnormal. Honorably abnormal, but still abnormal. Human nature being what it is, they’re almost inevitably subjected to covert stares, furtive whispers, hidden laughter, and even finger pointing[1]. Maybe no real harm is meant by this, but it still happens, and it still hurts. It’s no wonder that the suicide rate for wounded veterans is () times that of the general public.

Happily, Burkina Faso doesn’t have any wounded combat veterans to speak of. However, it does have its share of handicapped persons, and more than its share persons who have been left handicapped by preventable causes. For example, if you tear an ACL in the US, you get it fixed and you go on with life; if you tear an ACL en brousse in Burkina, you may just have to live with a limp for life. Similarly, crippling injuries due to midwife-induced birth defects, preventable diseases like polio, and treatable disorders like cataracts are all common here. You see handicapped persons at a much higher rate here than you do in the US, and you definitely don’t see handicap parking spots, wheelchair ramps, guide dogs, or little electric scooters anywhere. Ever.

In fact, I would have to say that the plight of the handicapped in Burkina is one of the most heartbreaking things about service here. My mom is an amputee, and I can assure you that her life is one of constant hardship and irritation. When you only have one leg, just getting up to get a drink is a hassle, to say nothing of using the restroom, running to the store to pick something up, or any of the ten thousand other little things we do each day without thought. Every part of her day has to be planned around her disability, and leaving the home is always a major and time-consuming undertaking.

I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have that same problem here. If it’s extreme tedium in the US, it must be pure hell en brousse.

Which is not to imply that they don’t get by. They do. Sometimes, they even make it look easy. For example, they have these nifty and ingenious hand-powered bicycles that let people get around[2], and the size of the families here makes it easy to assign kids to serve as guides and assistants. But if you don’t have a family to support you – and many elderly people do not – such treatment is the exception, rather than the rule. It’s all too common to see handicapped people (especially elderly handicapped people) begging on the streets, and by and large life for the handicapped in Burkina would appear to be nasty, brutish, and short.

But the struggles of PCVs are so hard. Honest.







[1] Please don’t confuse my contempt for the way wounded veterans are treated for contempt for the veterans themselves. I have friends who are wounded vets – one even lost both hands to an IED – and I have nothing but respect for them.

[2] And they go everywhere with them. You’ll see a person with no legs hand-pedaling their bike out on the goudronne 30k from the nearest town. It’s impressive what they can do.

What a PCV really does: Part Three

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17 Mars 2012

What a PCV really does: Part three

Note: today’s post is the final part in a series on the more technical aspects of Peace Corps work.

Yesterday, I presented you with a case study involving Mary Jo, and the problems she encounters at site. In case you’re too busy to scroll down and read what she encountered, here’s a brief summary:

  • People at her site are experiencing medical problems that are consistent with pesticide poisoning
  • There is evidence of improper pesticide use and disposal
  • Mary Jo has observed poor sanitation techniques that could provide a possible vector for introducing chemicals into the water supply

To combat this, Mary Jo has come up with a plan that involves:

  • Coming up with a better disposal system for used containers
  • Performing health screenings through the local clinic
  • Teaching the locals about the dangers of chemical fertilizers, the benefits of organics, and the need for careful disposal

Which is good, insofar as it goes. It’s a case study, so it has a nice clear-cut problem, and a nice clear-cut solution. Ideally, all PCVs would study this problem, and they would all come up with more or less the same solution.

The problem is, work in the field is nothing like that.

If this were a real-life situation, it would look more like this (presuppose the same site, with the same problems; the only difference is one of experience and viewpoint):

Case study

Mary Jo is a new volunteer assigned to Esperanza, a village in a remote rural part of Zomba province. The community has been very welcoming to her, despite the fact that she can’t hold a conversation in French and she can barely greet people in the local language. Her counterpart, Ezekiel, has been trained as a sympathetic listener, and Peace Corps hopes he’ll be able to ease her transition into the community. Unfortunately, he has started making suggestive comments and advances towards her, so Mary Jo isn’t very comfortable dealing with him. However, since she can’t easily communicate with anyone else in the community, her options are a little limited; except for the 4-6 hours a day when she makes a conscious effort to be out and about, she mostly just stays in her house and reads.

Nonetheless, she feels like she’s settling in nicely at her new site. She may have a few problems with her homologue, but she’s confident those will resolve themselves with time. Although it has only been four months since she affectated, she has already identified a French tutor and has met the mayor, the head of the local health clinic, and a couple of teachers from the lycee. She’s also made friends with a few of the younger women in the village, and she considers their daily conversations to be the highlight of her service. Yes, the food is a bit more rustic than she’s used to, but she’s been lucky: she’s only lost ten days so far to nausea and diarrhea.

Work is going well for her, if not at all in the ways that she expected. Her association – a women’s group that makes and sells neem cream – is welcoming, but they’re a little tied up with internal politics so not much is happening right now. To fill time, she also visits the local health clinic to offer what assistance she can. She has noticed that a lot of people seemed to be really sick. She tried to ask one of the nurses what might be causing it, but all she caught was something about water. She’s hoping she might be able to help out by doing a sensibilisation on sanitary techniques and the need to filter water whenever possible.  Even if that doesn’t work out, at least she’s winning hearts and minds by helping with the weekly baby weighing!

Mary Jo’s village is really en brousse, so the nearest marché is an 8k bike ride away and only meets every 4th day. She doesn’t get out to it as much as she would like, but on one of her visits a local woman that she has befriended points out a group of children gathered around a pump. They’re filling water into some absolutely filthy bidons, and the woman clearly disapproves of that. Mary Jo knows from training at her IST that these are a possible vector for introducing harmful pesticides and chemical fertilizers into the public water supply, but she’s unsure what to do about it immediately. Her language skills aren’t up to explaining the problem in detail, and the villagers are poor enough that they clearly can’t afford to replace the bidons. She makes a note of the problem for now and continues her shopping.

One evening a week or so later, she’s hiding in her house from her perv of a counterpart when the phone rings. It’s an older PCV from a village 20k away. She’s planning on doing a soap-making formation and is wondering if Mary Jo would like to help. Mary Jo isn’t really that interested – the older PCV can be a bit patronizing and more than a little annoying – but she knows her VRF is coming up in a few weeks, so she signs on anyway. What she would really like to do is work with youth, so she has been working with local kids to form an English club. If she plays her cards right, she can also work as a counselor at two summer camps, and if the timing works out she might be away from site for as long as three straight weeks!

Questions to consider:

–          How focused is Mary Jo on work right now?

–          Aside from the general effects of poverty, what specific problems can you see for Mary Jo to address?

–          What should Mary Jo do to answer the question “where are we now?”

Other questions:

–          How realistic is it to expect Mary Jo to be able to identify specific problems, given her level of community integration?

–          How dependent is Mary Jo on the village for her knowledge and abilities?

This is what life looks like for most beginning volunteers. It’s alien, it’s challenging, and it’s incredibly opaque. We all know there are real problems out there, but we don’t know enough about the community to know what they are. Even if we can do something about them – and by and large we actually can – we just don’t know enough yet to know they’re out there.

It’s easy to pick solutions out in case studies. That’s the point. But in real life, it’s a much harder proposition. Mary Jo hasn’t been trained to look for water problems, she’s been trained on High Fives and IGAs and how to mobilize her community to meet certain basic goals. She’s thinking paint a mural at the local school or teach the ladies in the marché to wash their hands, not on my God, the community’s poisoning its own water supply. Hopefully, she’ll find and solve this problem before her service is up, but for her to do this right off the bat like she does in the case study is highly unlikely, to say the least.

Let’s fast forward a year:

Part Two:

After 16 months at site, Mary Jo is really enjoying life as a PCV. Her language skills have improved dramatically, she has friends in all of her satellite villages, and she finally got that little misunderstanding resolved with her new homologue. She’s had a couple of successful projects, her last two grant proposals were approved without a hitch, and she just wrapped up a great summer camp that was attended by 23 girls!

Lately, however, she’s been a little troubled by comments that she’s overheard at the CSPS. The residents of Esperanza don’t like to talk about their health, but the ever-present stream of sick people has been getting even worse of late. She talked to the major about it, and things aren’t good: a lot of people are showing signs of pesticide poisoning, and the Ministry of Health is beginning to take interest.

In an effort to really make a lasting impact on her community before she leaves, Mary Jo decides to work with the CSPS in addressing the problem. She selects Salimata, a midwife, as a counterpart, and together they start interviewing the men and women who have showed the worst effects of pesticide poisoning. It’s slow going at first – everyone is embarrassed to talk to the nasara about their health – but gradually they begin to realize that all of the affected people use the same water pump.

Intrigued, Mary Jo contacts a British friend who is working with a mining company in the closest major town. Over drinks, she asks him who he would recommend talking with to find out how the pesticides might be getting into the local water supply. He recommends that she approach a contact he has at the Ministry of Natural Resources. She thanks him for the assist and goes to talk to the Ministry.

It takes her a week or two to get her meeting – the contact is on vacation in France – but Mary Jo is wise to the ways of West Africa; she uses that time to travel to the capital and research the problem in the IRC. She learns that the use of chemical fertilizers is a serious problem in Zomba, and when she discusses the problem with her LPT, she is unsurprised to find out that promotion of organic fertilizers and pesticides is one of the primary goals of the agriculture program.

Armed with this knowledge, Mary Jo returns to site to have her meeting. Because she knows her community, she is able to quickly recommend that the contact join her and the nurses to conduct a series of sensibilisations on the dangers of improper disposal of chemicals near potential water sources. The two of them also devise a simple system for marking chemical-only containers and water-only containers, so as to greatly reduce cross-contamination.

A few weeks later, they start the sensibilisations. Turn out in low at first, but when the families that paid the most attention start feeling better, people begin to notice. Soon, the marked containers are visible everywhere – everywhere but near the pump, that is. When Mary Jo checks in with the CSPS, she is happy to note that poisoning symptoms are declining, and the nurses seem satisfied with the results of the program.

Sadly, Mary Jo’s service is wrapping up now, so she can’t keep working on this problem. Instead, she makes a detailed series of notes for her successor, and gets ready to COS knowing that she may have actually made a real difference during her time in Esperanza.

Questions to consider:

–          What are the primary differences between Mary Jo’s first and second years?

–          What is Mary Jo’s role in addressing the community’s problems?

–          Do you agree with what she did? Do you think there’s a single solution to this problem?

Other questions:

–          What is the role of community integration is Mary Jo’s actions?

–          Could she have arrived at the solution that she did during her first year?

Final Discussion

The point of this “case study” isn’t to sound negative on the work of a PCV; quite the contrary. It’s to point out that serious problems aren’t necessarily obvious. And if you don’t know your community, you won’t know its problems. Because first year volunteers don’t really know their communities, because they don’t really know the language, because they aren’t familiar with available persons and resources, there’s only so much that they can do.

It’s also important to remember that this is still something of an idealized problem. For every volunteer who discovers a “big” issue like this, there are 10 who go through their entire service without ever encountering anything more serious than “routine” malnourishment, deforestation, poverty, etc. Also, even if a problem exists, it may be beyond the volunteer’s ability to address. For example, the local lake that is the sole source of water has dried up; a volunteer can improve the efficiency of water usage, but they can’t make it rain.

If Mary Jo had been a tad bit less integrated, if she had been a tad bit less lucky, she wouldn’t have been able to work effectively on this problem. If she hadn’t worked with the CSPS, she wouldn’t have realized the problem existed. If she hadn’t known someone who could put her in contact with the appropriate expert, she wouldn’t have known what to do.

And that’s just it: Peace Corps volunteers aren’t here to be experts. Our countries have their own experts. We’re here to get to know the communities, and to put the people who know what to do in contact with the people who need things done. We’re not doers (although we do pitch in and help whenever possible), we’re facilitators. We’re not leaders, we’re networkers.

And that’s what PCVs really do.


What a PCV really does: Part Two – Case study


16 Mars 2012

FN: 10

What a PCV really does: Part Two – Case Study

Note: Today’s post is part two in a three part series on the more technical aspects of the various projects that PCVs undertake.


Peace Corps work is rarely clear cut. PCVs are hired, trained, and placed in their communities, and after that it’s up to them to decide what to do and how to do it. As you might imagine, there are huge pros and cons to this system. On the one hand, it allows maximum flexibility in customizing solutions to a particular community’s problems. On the other, the absence of structure, clearly defined goals and objectives, or even just an on-site supervisor can be very stressful for a lot of volunteers.

It also creates the problem of making it very difficult to explain to friends and family back home just what it is we do. Yes, we’re working on a latrine-building project or participating in an anti-malarial campaign, but it can all seem very haphazard. From the US, through the prism of infrequent blog posts, phone calls, and occasional Facebook updates, it all too often looks like we’re just randomly bopping about our communities, doing whatever random easy job that comes our way.

We’re not.

PCVs are aid and development workers, and as such our work is necessarily part of a larger, planned aid and development plan. This plan is produced cooperatively by PC Burkina and the government of Burkina Faso, in collaboration with local government and community leaders. Communities go through a lot of effort just to get volunteers in the first place, and once one is placed with them, they definitely have plans and ideas for what they would like them to do.

But – and this but is one of the biggest catches to any PCV’s service…we don’t work for whatever organization that applied for us; we work for Peace Corps. And Peace Corps wants us to work for the community at large, not just for one part of it. So sometimes, our association or NGO may want us to do X, and we may think that it’s better to do Y. Then we have a choice to make. We can do X, or we can do Y, or we might compromise and do little bit of each, or we might do neither. It’s truly up to us.

It’s hard to explain exactly. Which is why I’m cheating and stealing one of our training case studies to use as something of an ideal example for how a PCV lives, works, and chooses projects. Read the following paragraphs for yourself and try to decide what you would do in Mary Jo’s shoes.

Case Study

Mary Jo was assigned to an environmental education project in a remote rural area of Zomba. The community she was assigned to, Esperanza, had two hundred families, a local shop with four classrooms (sometimes used as a center for community meetings and workshops after school hours), a small grocery store which provided basic necessities, a health center and a centralized well that provided potable water. However, many people still got their water out of a creek running along the back spine of the community. Esperanza was a farming community producing a variety of crops. Most families also had small gardens near their homes.

Staff at the health clinic in town had noticed a high incidence of symptoms associated with pesticide exposure and, sometimes, acute poisonings. It seemed that farmers were using more than the necessary doses of pesticides which they brought through one of the local farm product retailers in town. The agricultural extension agents also noted that some of the families mixed the chemicals in containers that at times were used, accidentally or unconsciously, by women and children to carry water to the house for household cooking and washing chores. The farmers also rinsed their pesticide containers in the stream. To address these issues, the Ministry of Agriculture requested that Peace Corps work with their extensionists to provide a training program on the uses and misuses of pesticides as well as promote organic farming techniques as a viable alternative.

Questions to consider:

  1. What should Mary Jo do to answer the question “where are we now?”
  2. Mary Jo has reviewed her project framework, and sees that she’ll likely do activities in her community that will allow her to report some change relating to this indicator:


Number of farmers who incorporate at least one new organic farming technique into their farming practices, out of the total number of farmers the PCV works with

What information will Mary Jo need in order to measure change relating to this indicator? In other words, what baseline data will Mary Jo need before implementing an activity?

Other questions:

–          What are the projected inputs, activities, and outputs of what Mary Jo is planning to do?

–          One possible outcome of the activities that Mary Jo has identified is the use of a pesticide disposal station. What other outcomes could she plan to measure?

Part Two

Mary Jo was aware of many of these issues from initial community interaction. Her counterparts helped her to systematically gather information from a number of sources, starting first with community leaders. Her health clinic counterpart escorted her house to house in order to determine if people used pesticides and, if so, who used them within each respective family. Had they suffered any health effects, to their knowledge? They asked question about where the pesticides were stored and mixed and if children had access to the containers. Were the containers left lying around, or were they properly disposed of? She also asked questions about who used the containers to collect water, and whether they collected the water from the well or from the stream. She learned that women were the ones who collected the water from streams for the household, and needed a large container to do this with. The farmers in the community were primarily men. She also pulled together statistics from the health center to see what the incidence of pesticide exposure and poisonings were, and if there were symptoms reported to health workers that were not directly attributable to diseases.

Mary Jo and her counterparts determined that a series of workshops would be needed, and they started thinking about the content and the participants. They would have to educate people on the dangers of pesticide exposure, viable alternatives to pesticides, such as organic and integrated pest management techniques, as well as proper use of existing pesticides. They would have to complement the workshops with both a series of lessons and activities in the schools and a public information campaign to disseminate key messages delivered in the workshops.

Mary Jo and her counterparts realized throughout the process, they would have to gauge people’s knowledge of the issues and determine if they were applying the practices learned in the workshops. However, the only way to know for sure if people were incorporating practices in their daily activities would be through direct observation of their actions. For example, if they set up a pesticide disposal station, would people use it and could this use be observed?

Questions to consider:

  1. What are the projected inputs, activities, and outputs of what Mary Jo is planning to do?
  2. One possible outcome of the activities that Mary Jo has identified is the use of a pesticide station. What other outcomes could she plan to measure?

Other questions:

Throughout the workshops, Mary Jo and her counterparts what to know (among other things):

–          If the container disposal station is being used

–          If farmers are using more organic farming practices

–          If there are fewer health problems related to pesticide use

Based on all you have read and discussed, what do you think Mary Jo’s monitoring and evaluation plan should look like?

Before the activity, what baseline data should she collect? What should she do to analyze it?

During the activity, how can she monitor inputs and record outputs?

After the activity, how can she measure outcomes? How should she evaluate effectiveness of the activity? How should she share results and with whom? When will she be able to measure and share outcomes? How can she ensure that her plan is participatory, developmental, and learning-focused?


As you can see, the problems are usually very real, but the solution that is clearest on paper is rarely the solution that works best in the community. Ostensibly, we’re changing minds, lifestyles, and community practices, but if we don’t do so with the greatest of care, we can actually make things worse than they were before. In fact, if there’s one real problem with the case-study above, it’s that everything is too clear cut; there’s not a PCV alive who wouldn’t beg to be put in Mary Jo’s shoes, because her site’s problems are so easily identified and addresses.

Tomorrow’s post will wrap up this series with an at-length discussion of what I personally think of Mary Jo and her choices, and what I would do differently in her shoes. I’ll also lay out my current community in the same fashion, and lay out the problems for you to think about. 

What a PCV really does: Part One

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14 Mars 2012

FN: 8

What a PCV really does: Part One

Note: Today’s post is the first of a three-part series showing in greater detail the more bureaucratic side of Peace Corps service. Although a lot of what we do involves hanging out and drinking with locals, a lot of what we do also resembles actual work. We don’t just do projects at random – we do actually do research and groundwork. There is a method to the madness.

In particular, we rely on reports and studies. A lot. Today’s post will examine why we do so. Tomorrow’s post will present a case study of the types of situations we frequently encounter. Friday’s post will discuss the actual reports produced by PCVs, and some of the pros and cons of the system.

As mentioned in my previous post, our stage is in Ouaga this week for IST. Although it hasn’t always been exciting, it has been useful. Among other things, we’ve learned more about writing grant applications, more about project planning, and in particular, more about project reporting.

In the US, we’re accustomed to thinking of reports as dry, boring, more-or-less useless paperwork (did you get the memo on the new cover sheets for the TPS reports? Yeah…). And in the US corporate context, that perception is usually correct. Unless you’re working in a health field or in high-powered finance, the reports that you deal with probably aren’t that critical[1].

However, because Peace Corps service is fundamentally a short-term thing, PCV project reports aren’t just important for PCVs, but necessary. Community problems are continual, but volunteer service is limited in duration; without accurate reporting, PCVs run a real risk of continually recreating the same work every two years. Even worse, they might find themselves in a situation where they think they’re making real progress when they’re really just treading water, and they’re the only person in the community who doesn’t know it. It’s hard to think of a scenario that would do more to undermine the credibility of the Peace Corps and all that it does.  In short, PCV reports aren’t necessary in the sense that nations will rise or fall based on the accuracy of the information, but they are necessary in the sense that everything we do is fundamentally based on them.

Given that, it’s unsurprising that PC spends a lot of time and energy training PCVs on how to generate and use field reports[2]. In addition to a week of training in IST, we also receive continual updates and feedback throughout our service. These reports are also compiled and sent to PC headquarters in DC, where they serve as raw data for the various reports that are distributed to Congress, the White House, and the American media and public.

So what do these reports look like? How are they produced?

To answer these questions, it’s first necessary to look at actual field work. This gives a better sense of how the action on the ground shapes the inevitable paperwork to follow. Tomorrow’s post will look at a case study, and will discuss what


[1] I know, I know…your reports are really important, and the entire business will shut down without them. Everyone feels that way about the work they’re made to do, but let’s be honest: we’re usually wrong.

[2] One way to tell how important these reports are is that they’re universally computerized, when almost nothing else in PC service (save the application) is.

Interpersonal differences

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13 Mars 2012

FN: 6

Interpersonal differences

One of the things that non-PCVs often ask us is “what’s your service like? What do PCVs do?” It’s an honest question, and it has a million and one answers. We organize the community. We work on public health projects. We sit in maquis and drink beer. We sit in our homes and cry.

Actually, the best thing about Peace Corps service is the degree which your service is yours. Yes, there’s a formal job description, but…let’s just say that the job description is a file in a computer in Washington, DC, and we’re sitting in huts and villages in the African bush. What Washington does and does not want is frequently a matter of speculation and side bets. You do what you want (within certain broad parameters), and then you figure out how to make what you’ve done fit to the description that DC has given you.

It’s interesting: the formal job that we do here is at once extremely organized and entirely chaotic. On a formal level, we have all of the things that any government job has. An org chart. A formal description. Multiple types of reports, and lots of accounting to be done. But at the same time, it’s an entirely organic system. We get up when we want, work how we want, and by large are held to zero real accounting.

You would think that with this much leeway, the system would be prone to massive abuse. But surprisingly enough, the two-year-vacation volunteer doesn’t really exist here. Maybe it’s just because life is in Burkina. For all I know, PC Tonga is nothing but a 2 year beach party. But it doesn’t seem like it. From what I can tell, the initial idealism of the PCVs tends to hold true throughout our service. Sure, people don’t always keep strict office hours, but they do go to work, and they work hard. They just work hard in their own way.

Take my site for example. There are 3 volunteers in our town, and there are 3 very different services taking place. One volunteer is learning Mooré at a ferocious rate. Another has dinner with the Burkinabé almost every night. And I’m getting to know more or less every businessman in town. Your service is just that: yours. You determine what you do, you decide how projects will be structured, and at the end of the day, you have to answer only to yourself for what you’ve done. If you don’t like crowds, you can work with individuals. If you really love kids, you can work with the local schools. It’s your call.

And I’m looking forward to answering it.


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12 Mars 2012

FN: 6


This week, my entire stage is reunited in Ouaga for the first of our 3 service conferences. Known as IST[1] (Inter-Service Training), this conference is basically a chance to share what we’ve learned at site, learn some new development techniques, and to get a walkthrough on the ins and outs of grant writing and project proposals. It’s a lot like stage in spirit, but it’s much more technical and more of its content is of immediate use.

On the human comforts side, it’s also a nice decompression from the dearth that we’re all accustomed to at site[2]. For the next two weeks, we’ll sleep in air conditioning, eat Ouaga food, take hot showers, have unlimited access to high-speed internet, and generally partake of the near-Western-standard life that the big city can provide. We’ll also be surrounded people we know and love, who speak fluent English, and who don’t continually present us with a potential minefield of cultural quirks and differences. We all love our sites, but we all love the chance to get away every now and then as well.

Personally speaking, I was dreading IST. I hate in-country travel, I like Yako, and one of my biggest personal goals is to avoid contact with the bureau whenever possible. Going to IST runs counter to all of those things.

However, professionally speaking, I’m pretty damn excited. IST means that stage is over, and we’re allowed to start developing and working on our own projects. And I definitely have a few in mind. During the next few months, I want to work on cheese production, commercializing briquettes (a kind of locally made fire log, a big deal in the tree-sparse north), egg incubation and chicken elevage, yaort formations, reforestation, and laying the groundwork for a sachet cleanup drive.  We’re on the cusp of being 100% full-fledged independent volunteers, and I for one can’t wait to get there.

Unfortunately, it also means an 8 – 5 classroom schedule, and a pretty active social calendar as well. In addition to long days, there are also busy nights. In the next two weeks, I’ll be eating dinner with the CD, making yaort, exploring town, looking for weights and benches, going drinking, and doing lots and lots and lots of hanging out and catching up. It’s a hectic and tiring time, and I may not have as much availability as I might like. I don’t think the regularity of my posts will suffer, but time will tell.

Actually, for the nonce I’m writing this in my door handle-less hotel room (it broke, so I removed the whole damn thing and took it down to the front desk so they would have to fix it)  and the keys to our new room have just arrived, so I’m going to call this a post and get busy moving. Besides, I only have 15 minutes until the next session.

More to come tomorrow!

[1] The 3 conferences are the Inter-Service Training (IST – 3 months in), Mid-Service Conference (MSC – 9 months in), and Close of Service conference (COS – 18 months in). They frame the service of all volunteers, and they serve as psychological waypoints to help you make it through the entirety of your two years.

[2] Yes, some of us experience less dearth than others. But even my relative luxuries tend to inflict at least a little stress from time to time.

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