The “real” Peace Corps

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30 avril 2012

The real Peace Corps

Note: Today’s post is in no way an official statement of Peace Corps policy. It is solely my own interpretation of observable facts.

What is the Peace Corps?

It’s a basic question, but it’s also a slightly trickier one than you might think. I’m pretty sure if you were to ask most Americans – and most Volunteers, for that matter – what the Peace Corps is, they would probably answer with something along the lines of “aid agency”. After all, volunteers travel to areas badly in need of aid, they receive training in aid techniques, and they spend two years performing work that is more or less identical to that done by the various NGOs and aid agencies – it has to be an aid agency, right?

Not quite.

While it’s true that Peace Corps volunteers do in fact perform aid work, any work they may or may not do[1] is entirely secondary to their real function: serving as the goodwill arm of the Department of State. The distinction is a subtle but real one, and it tends to color every minute of your service experience.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some evidence.

To start off with, let’s look at the Peace Corps’ polar opposite and ironic namesake, the Marine Corps (and by extension, the entire US military).  Whether you approve of war, whether you approve of the use of armed force in pursuit of political aims, whether you approve of the existence of any government agency so large and so enduring, it is an undeniable truth that, when it comes to doing its job, the Marine Corps os not only the best in the business, but it’s probably the best in history as well. If they absolutely positively have to be beaten, you would do worse than to send in the Marines.

And why is that? Simple. Because the US military is a consummately professional organization that rewards merit over birth, hard work over entitlement, and results over appearances. Yes, there are many lamentable exceptions to those trends, but by and large the US military attracts the run-of-the-mill and turns them into the best with a consistency and rapidity that is the envy of every other such organization on Earth. And they do it by the deceptively simple-looking formula of hard work, endless practice, stringently enforced standards, and an organization sense of pride and unity that is second to none.

But you don’t have to go to the military to find those qualities; the Marine Corps is just the easiest example. Look at many other government agencies: NSA. FBI. NASA. CDC. USGS. Like the Marines, each and every one of them is the class of the world, the innovator, the trend-setter, the founder of the techniques that everyone else follows. Regardless of your opinion of their practices or their raisons d’etre, you can’t deny their sheer success. These are professional organizations, with immensely competitive hiring, and they churn out brilliant career professionals time and time again. And they are all run by the US government.

That’s a pretty outstanding track record, you have to admit.

Now let’s look at the Peace Corps. On the surface, it has a lot of similarities to the military: it primarily recruits among the young, the training period is of similar length, and the time of service is shorter than any US enlistment, it’s on a par with that commonly found in European armies. However, the differences are glaring: volunteers have no obligation to serve, they receive no pay, they receive no veterans benefits, and instead of being consistently recruited to extended service, they are instead limited by law to five years with the agency.

This last point is especially telling; if you join the Army and you’re worth a damn, they’re going to do their damndest to hang onto you for life. They offer huge re-enlistment bonuses, they offer choice of duty postings, they offer promotions…they do everything but come over to your house and offer you your choice of sexual services, and sometimes you get the sense they’re even thinking about doing that. Peace Corps, on the other hand, kinda/sorta wants you to do a third year, but after that they’re really more about getting you the heck out. Fourth years are very rare, and five years is the legal limit.

So why is that? Why aren’t volunteers kept for longer service? Hell, why aren’t they at the very least bound to a 2 – 4 year enlistment like any raw Army recruit? Why are they only given relatively minimal training, and allowed to leave whenever they like? Why aren’t they at least bound to a contract, like many civilian contractors?

It’s simple: PCVs aren’t really aid workers, they’re goodwill ambassadors[2] who dabble at aid work. And you can’t really force someone to be a goodwill ambassador. If someone is angry and resentful and wants to go home, you really don’t want them representing you abroad, hmm? In fact, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say PCVs are more effective at their primary job when they don’t have to worry about that sort of thing. After all, this isn’t the military, it’s the Peace Corps – being here voluntarily is part of the gig.

Look: I’m not trying to knock either the Peace Corps or what it does. It’s a very effective agency that does much to promote peace and goodwill, and it manages to get some pretty effective aid work in as well. I’m just saying that aid work is not its first job[3]. After all, whatever its other flaws the US government attracts the best and makes them better. If the government of the United States was genuinely concerned about achieving quality results, it would train PCVs to the standard that it demands from its other professional branches and uniformed services. It would recruit, train, and keep career professionals. It would promote higher learning, offer incentives for graduate degrees and academic publication, and generally do all of the things that it routinely does in its other agencies.

But it doesn’t. At least not with Peace Corps.  But it does have an actual aid organization that does that. It’s called USAID.

Nor is any of this really a secret. If you go to the Peace Corps website and look at its own mission statement, it says:

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps to promote world peace and friendship.

Furthermore, it goes on to note that:

The Peace Corps’ mission has three simple goals”

  1. 1.       Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. 2.       Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. 3.       Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

You’ll note that, while these statements are big or vaguer terms like peace and friendship, nowhere in that list are included more concrete words like ‘aid’, ‘assistance’, ‘agency’, or any of their synonyms. Compare this to USAID, whose website says:

USAID works in over 100 countries to: promote broadly shared economic prosperity; strengthen democracy and good governance; improve global health, food security, environmental sustainability and education; help societies prevent and recover from conflicts; and provide humanitarian assistance in the wake of natural and man-made disasters.

That’s a far more exact and concrete description for a far more exact and concrete aid agency. PCVs render assistance in their host communities, but what they do (or don’t do) is entirely up to them; yes, they provide real and lasting aid, but that’s not really their job. Their job is to be young, American, and in love with their host country[4].

Everything else is just a fringe benefit.


[1] It’s a sad but real truth that the “two year vacation” PCV is far from unknown. We live in remote areas, with minimal supervision, and only ourselves to really answer to; if someone doesn’t want to work, they probably don’t have to. They may die of boredom, but it’s almost impossible to make them actually work…

[2] I hate this term. I really do. It evokes images of Angelina Jolie traveling to Kenya to talk about how bad land mines are, then adopting 373 children. But it’s a more efficient term than ‘paid to be here and be American’, so I use it.

[3] But aid work is still an important part of what Peace Corps does, and I’m sure if you asked most PCVs, they would say that it was the certainly the most important part to them.

[4] On a grand level. Practically speaking, if you do nothing and then try telling your CD that you’re just doing your job by existing, you might find yourself being chewed out. We definitely have jobs, and they definitely involve aid work, and I’m not trying to say that’s not the truth of things on the ground. I’m just saying that the strategic importance of our jobs is probably far greater as goodwill ambassadors than as relatively amateur aid workers.


So much junk

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27 avril 2012

So much junk

When you think of Africa, what do you envision?

If you’re like me, when you think Africa, the first image your brain brings up is probably one of nature: enormous herds of wildebeest roaming the Serengeti, or crocodiles devouring some poor creature in murky brown water, or a distant vista of snow-topped Kilimanjaro. Our societal view of places is inevitably formed by what we see in the media, and for the western media these days, Africa equals “nature shows”.

Unfortunately, that image is also an increasingly false one, a purely romantic byproduct inherited via a living memory of Victorian times, when Africa was still the Dark Continent, terra incognito, when there were still blank spots in the map and secret dreams of finding Prester John were still alive. It’s a seductive image, and one that is assiduously promoted by the tourism industry, but sadly that picture no more represents the real Africa than Disneyworld represents real castles.

The real Africa today is best described as occasional patches of primal bush, fully under siege by an explosively expanding sea of humanity, and intercut with the inevitable wastelands that are the unavoidable byproduct of fiery passions, greed, and an entirely short-term obsession with obtaining creature comforts. Read up on the miles-broad swaths of destruction wrought by the geometric growth of places like Nairobi, Brazzaville, Conakry, Lagos, Accra, Kinshasa, Khatoum, Abidjian, Dar es Salaam, Luanda, Kano, Ibadan, and a hundred other cities you’ve ever heard of. Look up how rapidly desertification is spreading, how the soil is being exhausted, and how the current population growth rates are entirely unsustainable[1].

This is especially evident here in West Africa. No matter how far you go en brousse, you’re never really free of the overwhelming impact of humanity on the environment. Because Burkina is the size of Colorado but supports 3 times the population, more or less every square inch of viable land is used for something[2]. 50 miles into the middle of nowhere, you see ruts in the ground from farming. And all of the trees are transplanted species (especially the Eucalyptus that is planted for firewood; it grows fast but is terrible for the soil). And every tree shows signs of coppicing for firewood. And there are sachets everywhere.

But what bothers me the most is that, instead of seeing it and trying to stem or halt or even reverse the damage being done, everyone is instead conspiring all the time to rachet the pace up a notch or two. Because they need money more than they need an empty landfill[3]. There’s money to be made in junk, and with an average family size of 6 kids, they need the money more than they need environmental scruples. And so it is that every day, truckload after truckload of useless crap comes here and never leaves.

Nor am I talking about the at least partially justifiable plastic packaging for food and drinks, or even things for the house; no, I’m talking about utterly useless garbage: Bart Simpson dolls[4]. Inflatable hammers. Fake TVs[5]. DVDs that no one can watch, because they’re in languages no one knows (like Dutch), and formatted for another region’s players. And all of it is plastic and will never biodegrade or go away. Practically speaking, it is here forever. So far as I can see, Africa is gradually turning into a massive landfill, with all the attendant consequences on the land, soil, animals, and people that you would expect. It’s heartbreaking, and even worse there’s not a thing anyone can do to stop it. So long as junk is more profitable than cleanliness, so long as vice is more entertaining than virtue, the problem will continue.

And so, as I sit here typing this and watching street kids play soccer with a severed Lisa Simpson doll head, I can only wonder: what will come of this land, and its junk? What will it look like, 200 years hence? And can anything I do really matter, in the face of such willing wholesale obliteration?

It’s a frightening thought.

[1] Then go read Thomas MalthusAn Essay on the Principle of Population and try to deny the inevitability of his mathematics. And try not to be depressed.

[2] And even some non-viable land. Because the soil is so poor here, farmers are frequently stuck with a choice between farming bad soil and starving slowly, or just doing nothing and starving a little faster. And still they keep having kids…

[3] Not that they have landfills here, but you get my point.

[4] Hardly anyone here has ever even heard of The Simpsons, much less seen an episode. What would they do with a life-sized Lisa Simpson doll? I have no idea…

[5] Not fake as in ‘Soony’ or ‘Sumsang’; no, I mean fake as in ‘does not work and was never intended to’. A toy TV.

Down in the dumps

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26 avril 2012

Down in the dumps

For the better part of the past week, I’ve felt uncharacteristically glum. Down, even. At first, I didn’t think too much of it: it’s the hot season, not a lot is going on, and my petite amie just returned to Canada. A little temporary depression is natural in those circumstances, right?

Then I started talking to other PCVs from my stage, and it seems that I’m not the only one having these kinds of down feelings. One friend punched a hole through his desk, another – who is normally irrepressibly perky – actually yelled at her homologue, and a couple of others have described feelings of hopelessness, uselessness, and malaise. More than one person mentioned the thought of going home early, and I can’t say that I disagreed with them as strongly as I might have in the past.

From this, I’ve concluded that this is one of those natural low points in a PCV’s emotional development; stage and IST are finished, the hot season is here, and there’s nothing to really look forward to for some months to come. This is it. All the hopes and dreams and fond imaginings are finished now, and the reality is upon on. And it’s a sometimes grim thing.

That sounds more cynical than I mean it to. I’m not trying to be negative, just honest: Peace Corps service is many things, and immensely boring is all too often one of them. It’s true. This is the time when we come to terms with the fact that, for all of the excitement of travel and seeing exotic places and new faces, at the end of the day we live in what would be very small towns in the US, and our lives are inherently constrained by that fact.

Think about it: if you moved to a hamlet of 800 souls in an intensely rural part of your state, how much of an outsider would you be? Everyone there knows each other, and each others’ mothers, brothers, cousins, friends, romantic histories, etc. Even without a language or culture barrier, it would be difficult. Now take away the language entirely, make 80% of those people farmers who work dawn to dusk daily, and ask yourself: how much of a social life are you going to have? Even with the best will in the world, you’re not exactly going to be recreating the Algonquin Round Table each night. Let’s just say there’s a reason most volunteers have computers, large movie collections, and ereaders.

It’s tough.

But that’s not to say that it’s a bad thing. In fact, upon mature reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is actually a good thing. There’s a reason that cities like Lagos, Mumbai, Manila, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City are experiencing absolutely massive population explosions right now: village life sucks. No matter how much of a good face you try to put on it, when you live in a village you have few creature comforts, a bland and monotonous diet, increased exposure to illnesses, and (most importantly, IMHO) absolutely nothing to do on Friday night. If you think life in a small town in the flyover states sucks, wait until you try village life en brousse[1]. It’s good for us to face this life, to hold it, taste it, and come to know it; it helps us to both appreciate what we have at home and to understand where the people here are coming from.

Besides…it’s not like we actually want to be home right now. Sure, AC, hot showers, good food, and a car would be nice, but after 2 or 3 weeks the routine would set in again. And then we would just be right back where we were before, working a job we don’t really love and dreaming of distant frontiers, strange marchés, impossible tongues, and the smell of unknown spices wafting on the evening breeze. We came here because we dreamed of something more than that, and to cut and run the first time it gets tough would be a defeat of the worst sort, a collapse of imagination and spirit in the face of adversity – and only relative adversity at that. It’s not like we have to live on $.50/day; if we do so, it’s because there’s nothing to spend our money on, not because we have no other choice.

And so it goes: we get down, we try to cheer ourselves up, we call friends and bitch, we go out and meet with the Burkinabé, we come back home, rinse, wash, repeat. It’s a daily cycle, and a sometimes vicious one, but also one that we will ultimately be glad we endured.

Or so I’m going to tell myself. Repeatedly.

Until I actually believe it.

[1] I really have no call to complain here; my site is downtown Manhattan compared to some PCV sites.

Every child deserves a 5th birthday

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25 avril 2012

Every child deserves a 5th birthday

Note: April 25th is World Malaria Day. Today’s post is part of a coordinated social media campaign on the part of USAID. Please, take the time to click the links, watch the videos, read the sources, and actually learn about this tragic and 100% preventable disease. It’s only for one day, and will only take a few extra minutes of your time.

Do you remember your fifth birthday?

I remember mine.

We had a big party for me and my friends at the local McDonald’s – this was more of a treat in the early 1980’s than it is today – complete with Ronald McDonald, free cookies, and all the time on the brand-new playground that we wanted. I got a He-Man sword and shield, and it was even the extra-cool sword that glowed in the dark. In some ways, this was the first birthday party I had ever had; my birthday is just four days before Christmas and my friends were always out of town for the holidays, so I had never had a real honest-to-God birthday party before. It was amazing. I remember going to bed that night thinking it had been the best. day. EVAR[1].

What I didn’t think, of course, what never even crossed my mind, was the thought that surely, somewhere in the world at that exact moment, were any number of children my age who were about to die needlessly – children who were just as bright and special and hopeful and deserving of a brilliant future as myself, but who would instead be struck down by an entirely preventable and tragic disease that preys disproportionately upon the very young. I didn’t think about it because I was a child, but even had I been older, even had I been an adult, I likely still would not have thought of it because it is all but unknown in the United States.

I’m talking of course about malaria.

Taking its name from the Italian mala’aria (literally: bad air) and originally believed to be caused by the malodorous gasses that seep out of marshes, malaria is something of a paradox for Americans: for all that it is surely the greatest killer in human history, it is also a disease about which most of us know nothing. As a society, we seem to have classified it as a traveler’s disease and perhaps as a source of tragedy in period movies and novels; we know it’s a real disease, and a deadly one at that, but it’s not a disease for us – it’s a disease for Other People, people who live in noisome shacks and shantytowns in places like Calcutta and Lagos and Rangoon.

In one sense, this perception is entirely accurate: thanks to advances in modern medicine, malaria is primarily confined to the equatorial regions of the world, where it does indeed strike down millions of the teeming masses of humanity that tend to aggregate in massive conurbations centered on rivers or seaports. However, in a broader sense, this perception is entirely wrong: malaria was once common in both western Europe and the United States, and if we aren’t careful, it could easily become so again.

Technically speaking, malaria is mosquito-borne infectious disease caused by eukaryotic protists of the genus Plasmodium. Although there are numerous species, only 5 affect humans: Plasmodium falciparum, Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium ovale, Plasmodium malariae, and Plasmodium knowlesi. Of these five, P. falciparum by far the largest killer, as it is the species that causes cerebral malaria. Of the remaining four, P. vivax is the most common, and if you have an aunt or a neighbor or a friend who came home from a vacation to southern Mexico with a fever and chills, they were probably dealing with P. vivax.

Currently, there exist a number of prophylaxis (preventives/suppressants) for malaria, as well as a number of treatments. The prophylaxis are drugs taken in advance to suppress the spread of the parasite in your system; the treatment is for curing active cases. The most common prophylaxis drugs are quinine, chloroquine, doxycycline, mefloquine, and Malarone. Quinine and chloroquine were for many years the most common form of prevention and treatment, but resistant strains have recently reduced both the effectiveness and utility of these drugs. The most common treatment is artemisinin and its derivatives.

(That’s the clinical description. In laymen’s terms, malaria is a blood parasite that is spread by mosquitoes. There are a couple of types, but the overwhelming majority of cases are accounted for by just two types. There are drugs that can treat it, but they’re becoming less effective over time. The only true cure is eradication, which is possible.)

So why should you care about malaria? After all, it’s here, you’re there, and you have zero intentions of ever heading this way, right? Why not just let the world do what it will and save your time, energy, and money for more local and pressing causes?

It’s a good question. And there are two excellent answers to it.

The first answer to that question is simple: self-interest. Malaria is commonly thought of as a disease that comes from mosquitoes, but that is in fact false: malaria is a disease that is spread by mosquitoes, but the reservoir, the source of the disease is actually humans. That means that, as long as one person in your area has malaria, you can get it too.

It’s a scary thought.

See, malaria has a long and complex life cycle, but simply put it goes like this: Infest one human — > grow in their liver — > spread to their bloodstream and brain — > get sucked up by a mosquito — > get spread to the next human. It doesn’t matter how rich, clean, Godly, pious, concerned, evil, filthy, poor, drunk, smart, or stupid you are: if your neighbor has malaria and there are mosquitoes in your area, the odds are, you will get it too. Right now, we don’t get it in the US and Europe because medications have managed to stay ahead of the disease[2], but eventually evolution has to win; if we don’t wipe the disease out, it will adapt to all of our cures, be it in fifty years, or a hundred, or five hundred. The only sure way to cure malaria is to kill it off everywhere, just as we have done at home.

But hey – maybe you don’t care about your great-great grandchildren’s health. After all, they’re then, and you’re now; who can say what might or might not happen between now and 2200? Why should you rob Peter today to pay Paul in some indeterminate and not at all guaranteed future?

Well then, maybe you will consider another argument: you can remember your fifth birthday.

Sound strange? Consider:

See, worldwide, there are something like 225 million cases of malaria each year[3]. Most of these cases aren’t too serious, so the death rate is only around 1 million or so, or 1/225th of the cases. However, 90% of those deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 60% of those deaths occur in children under five years of age. They die in such numbers partly because their bodies are young and unable to handle the stress, but also because they are least likely to get food, medicine, treatment, or access to preventatives like mosquito nets and prophylaxis drugs. Their families are usually very poor – malaria is in and of itself a major cause of poverty – and they have to make hard choices. And they choose to help those with the best chance of survival.

Look: I know I can be a cynical and hard-nosed bastard sometimes, but this isn’t an academic situation. Simple math tells me that something like 500,000 – 600,000 children die each year from an entirely preventable disease. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know if 500,000 – 600,000 children under age five died in my home state of North Carolina, that would be mourned as a tragedy nearly on a par with the Biblical plagues. In fact, that might very well account for the state’s entire preschool set. Consider that a “mere” 2,996 adults died in 9/11, or that the Oklahoma City bombing killed “just” 19 children under age 6, and you can see the scale that this disaster would be on.

Now imagine it wasn’t a one-time accident, but instead happened every. single. year. That’s what the region is dealing with, and they’re doing it with 1/100th of the resources of the US.

If malaria drugs quit working tomorrow and made an epic comeback, the US would still be better off than any of these countries are now. Sure, we would complain, but we would put up our screens. We would sleep beneath our mosquito nets. We would blast the ever-living bejeezus out of every winged-critter than even thought about sucking our blood. We might not kill the disease off, but by damn we would do our best to make sure that it didn’t kill one American more than was absolutely necessary, because that’s how we address problems. Because our kids deserve a fifth birthday, right?

So do everyone else’s.

Help a child in need reach their fifth birthday. Read up on malaria. Check out some of the links provided below, then go to Google and do some more research on your own. Take 30 minutes from your busy day and find some organization you agree with and do something. Donate, send a letter, make a prayer, whatever – just do it. Also, I never ask this, but…please, share this blog post if you can, and also any other similar messages as much as you can. If you’re willing and able, help us get the word out: every child deserves a 5th birthday.

Thank you for your time.

Some Links:

The American Red Cross – the Malaria Prevention Program

Stomp Out Malaria

The Malaria Consortium

The Malaria Atlas Project



[1] My mother couldn’t make it that day, because she was in the hospital getting an ovarian cyst removed. Ironically, it’s her absence that makes me remember the day so vividly, even though it was a source of real sadness at the time.

[2] Also, we killed off all of our Anopheles mosquitoes. But it’s only a matter of time until they make a comeback too. Evolution is slow, but inevitable.

[3] These numbers always have to be broad, because the standard of medical diagnosis and reporting is so variable in developing countries. For example, if you show up to a local clinic in Burkina with a cough, you have le palu (malaria); if you have a headache, you have le palu; if you have a fever, you have le palu. No, it’s not 100% certain that that is what you have, but that’s what they treat and report. So the numbers could be as low as 100 million cases a year or as high as 400 million; 225 seems a reasonable estimate to people who are far more expert on the matter than I.

Rumblings and grumblings

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24 avril 2012

Rumblings and grumblings

Burkina Faso is, as many of my readers have noticed, in West Africa. Some of them have also pointed out that West Africa is, on average, right up there with the Middle East for being one of the less politically stable places on the planet. Furthermore, the more geopolitically-inclined among you have observed that Burkina Faso shares borders with Cote D’Ivoire, Niger, and Mali, all of whom are currently undergoing revolutions or armed conflict to one degree or another. These are sapient observations, and I commend you for them.

However, I have to caution you not to draw the natural-seeming conclusion from all of this data that we here in Burkina Faso are somehow in danger or otherwise on the verge of a revolution ourselves. That’s simply not the case. While it’s true that we are naturally keeping a close eye on the various problems that surround us, it’s also quite true that, whatever its other faults may be, Burkina Faso is in no way unsafe or unstable at the moment, nor do we expect it to be so in the foreseeable future. Circumstantial evidence can be quite damning, but that doesn’t make it conclusive.

Nor is this me putting a good face on a tough situation; I assure you, if it weren’t for the BBC, internet access, and periodic security updates from the Peace Corps bureau, I would have no idea what was going on in any of those countries. Mali is a big place – somewhat bigger than France, in fact – and most of what is going on is happening in Bamako. That’s about a 20 hour bus ride from where I live. If there were problems in Denver, would those of you in NC or eastern Canada be worried? I doubt it.

So please don’t worry for me. I’m a long way from the troubles, they’re not expected to spread, the region is very pro-American, and even in the highly unlikely event of a societal breakdown, Peace Corps and the State Department are quite depressingly experienced at getting PCVs out of the country ASAP. I’m in no way worried, and you shouldn’t be either.

Instead, I strongly encourage you to turn this into a learning experience. West Africa is more or less terra incognita in the US, and it’s entirely probable that most of you reading this had to check a map to be just sure where Mali and Niger are in relation to Burkina Faso (which you also had to look up, when you heard I was coming here). Read up on the problems of the region; the situation in Mali is an interesting 4-way mélange of French post-colonial policies, the fall of Qaddafi, the rise of Al-Qaeda, and Tuareg nationalism. It is in no way a Cold War-type “revolution”, and the players are definitely more than the facelessly interchangeable terrorists that the American press all too often paints the inhabitants of the region as being.

I also encourage you to try different sources from the typical US press venues. Yes, Fox News, NPR, the NY Times, et al are all well and good, but try getting a parallax viewpoint: besides the aforementioned BBC, the Manchester Guardian, London Times, the Montreal Gazette, the Johannesburg Star, and the Sydney Morning Herald are all easily read in English[1], and Le Figaro, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and Bild all have English editions as well. That’s just the big names; branch out from there and look for Japanese, Russian, Swedish, Chinese, Korean, and Arabic sources, and you’ll get just as many viewpoints. Yes, Western media tends to dominate the reporting world, but it’s by no means a monopoly. Also, smaller papers frequently devote more attention to the actual facts of a situation, rather than just a quick headline blip.

Sadly, given my internet connection, right now the above is a case of do as I say, not as I do. At home, I read many, many news sources, but as slow as my connection is here, I have to limit myself to just a few.

Read up: maybe you’ll be able to teach me something.

[1] Sorry, but I flat-out refuse to reference rags like the Daily Fail. If you know it, you know what I’m talking about; if not, nevermind.

Getting the ball rolling

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23 avril 2012

Getting the ball rolling

It’s a common misperception that Peace Corps Volunteers are here to Do Good Works. That’s not true. Rather, we’re here to get others to Do Good Works, and to do so in a manner that is both beneficial for the community and sustainable. Sure, I can start a chicken farm and a truck garden tomorrow, if I so wish: I have the training, I have the resources, and I have the drive. But that farm and that garden won’t help anyone but myself, and once I leave they’ll cease to exist. If I want chickens to be farmed and vegetables to be grown in ways that are good for the area, I have to get others to do it instead.

As you might imagine, this leaves us in a situation where our ability to succeed depends on the cooperation of others. And since you can never really guarantee what others will do, we frequently fail and meet frustration. In essence, our job is continually leading horses to the stream, but never quite knowing if they’ll drink or not. We can point out the water, describe how good it tastes, splash it around, and show how we drink it ourselves, but we can’t actually make them drink it. And often, despite all of our cajolery, they don’t.

Take training, for example. You would think that, if an American comes all the way here to provide valuable technical training free of charge, the locals would be delighted to receive it.

You would be wrong.

Take the case of a fellow PCV here who is a licensed CPR trainer back in the States. This means that, in addition to being certified to give CPR himself, he’s licensed to teach others how to give it as well. He wants to train Burkinabé first responders, to help with the abysmal quality of the emergency medical system here. It’s a brilliant plan: he has the technical knowledge, he has the drive, he has identified the need, and since the primary cost for such programs is usually the trainer, everything is in place to begin teaching the CPR to the nurses in his community for almost nothing.

There’s only one problem: the Burkinabé expect to be paid to attend trainings.

That’s right: they expect you to pay them for their time, despite the fact that you came all the way here to freely give them what would be a very expensive class in the US. Not only would they not pay $300 to learn CPR, they expect you to pay them to do it. And the argument that the training will only benefit them, that they wouldn’t be doing anything else in the interim, and that they never count time as an expense here won’t get you anywhere; when it comes to training, that’s just how they are.

As you might imagine, it’s frustrating for him. Especially since Peace Corps won’t give us money to pay people to attend training (nor should they). So instead of really helping his community in an efficient, concrete, and inexpensive way, he’s being forced by local custom to sit on his hands and do nothing. Obviously, he’s going to continue to work on the problem, but for now there’s not much he can do. Hopefully that will change in the future.

Nor is local culture the only obstacle. We also have the seasons to contend with as well.

I’m currently trying to get a chicken farming association started, but there’s a real roadblock looming: the rains are coming in about six weeks. When they get here, everyone – and I do mean everyone – is going to be living and working out in the fields, planting crops and helping their families produce as much grain as possible during the all-too-brief growing season. Even the carpenters and the masons will be out there, for their brothers and nephews if not for themselves.

Consequently, if I want to get anything moving on my project, I need to get it done now, because it definitely won’t get done soon. But the Burkinabé don’t do things now. They do them when they get to them. Which may be this week, or may be next week, or may not be ever. It’s kind of like trying to get a teenager to do housework. And so I beg, and plead, and cajole, and wait, and try to keep believing that eventually, the ball will get rolling.

But it’s a lot of work, even if it doesn’t look like it.



Fun with faux types

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22 avril 2012

Fun with faux types

You encounter a lot of different personalities here in Burkina: the villageois, the fou, the chef, etc. All of them have approximate cultural parallels, but none of them is really something we find a direct counterpart to in the US.

One of the more annoying of these personalities is the faux type (FOH-teep). The direct translation is fake type, but a more accurate one might be con man. These guys (they’re almost universally male) are real sleazebags: they dress in tight, blinged-up clothes (think Jersey Shore), they hang out around places known to be frequented by foreigners, and they make a living by parting fools from their money. They’re people who want something for nothing, and they have no shame; once one latches on to you they absolutely will not give up. A typical exchange might run something like this:

*3 PCVs get out of a cab near the grand marché*

*a young man approaches, wearing bright purple jeans, a tight knock-off Dolce & Gabbana t-shirt, lots of fake gold jewelry, and a huge pair of sunglasses*

Faux type (in English): ‘allo! My friend! How are you doing?

PCV1: ignores him

FT: You are American, yes? I like President Obama very much! For how long are you visiting Burkina?

PCV3: ignores him

FT (switching to French): No English? You are French then? Ça va?

PCV2: ignores him

FT (switching back to English): You are Peace Corps, no? You want to find Marina Market? Let me show you the way.

PCV1: ignores him

This can and will continue for 30 or more minutes. And there’s almost nothing you can do about it. Sometimes, being hostile works, sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes being friendly and chatting in Mooré works, sometimes it just encourages them. Sometimes, a group runs them off, and sometimes it just brings them in droves[1]. In my experience, dressing shabbily[2] and quasi-native helps, but it can’t hide white skin[3], nor can you help being in certain parts of town unless you just don’t want to eat at some places.

Every volunteer has a different strategy for dealing with faux types; mine is simply to act as though they don’t exist. I don’t respond, I don’t make eye contact, I don’t allow breaks in conversation with friends, and I in no way acknowledge their existence. No, I’m not thrilled with pretending another human being doesn’t exist: everyone has a right to their dignity. But as I see it, in trying to talk me out of my money they’re waiving that right, and the quicker they realize they’re getting nothing out of me, the quicker they leave for another target. If I can extend that nothing to words, emotions, and eye contact, well…so much the better.

But I still don’t have to like it.

Or them.


[1] Or sucks or clings or whatever the group noun for faux types would be. I personally like scrapes, as in they’re very akin to something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe…

[2]Relatively speaking. As in, dress as you would in village, and not in sharp western clothes. Don’t ever wear torn or filthy clothing; that’s just disrespectful. But if I’m wearing cargoes and a tee shirt and a keffiyeh, I’m far less likely to get mobbed than if I’m wearing a Hugo Boss suit and $500 shoes, eh?

[3] This isn’t a racial categorization, but it is a more or less permanent sign announcing ‘I’m not from around here, and I had to have money to get here’. A (white) friend of mine whose parents are missionaries was more or less raised in West Africa and the Caribbean, and despite his immaculate French, deep and abiding love of football (soccer), and absolute comfort with the culture, he still gets called nasara and asked for money all the time. Faux types don’t care who you are; all they see is a target.

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