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