Tracking the money

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24 mai 2012

Tracking the money

If you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably seen more than your fair share of television commercials featuring poor children in Africa. You know the type: they feature a montage of big-eyed children with distended bellies, stick-thin arms, and flies in their open eyes, and a voice-over from some celebrity or another, whose silky smooth voice drips concern and literally begs you to give just a dollar a day.

I have to admit, I’ve always been cynical about commercials like that. The last time I checked, prime-time television ad space is bloody expensive, and even if it was donated out of the goodness of the television executives’ hearts (a proposition I deem unlikely in the extreme), how are the logisitics handled? How does my dollar get to the field, and who determines how to put it to use?

Well, now I’m on the other end of that equation. One of the major functions of Peace Corps Volunteers is to help local projects find and apply for grant funding for various projects. The grants we use all come from an embassy budget, and thus are ultimately funded by the US taxpayer. That means that I’m the one who is out in the field, and I’m the one who determines which Burkinabé get which US government dollars. It’s not a situation I really expected or planned for, but I find myself thrust into it nonetheless. And I’m determined to do my best with it.

So how does the grant cycle work?

Ideally, it starts with a locally –identified need[1]. For example, about a month ago, some local businessmen came to me and said that they wanted to start a modern chicken farm. Their reasoning was simple, they wanted to provide high-quality chicken to the local market at a more affordable price than what one currently finds, and they wanted to make a reasonable profit doing so. Their logic was impeccable: by raising the chickens close to town, and by doing so in a scientific manner, they would create jobs, provide a consistent product, and cut out the costs normally incurred by transportation from the countryside.

They wanted a grant so that they could buy strong chickens and roosters, as well as medicine and good feed. They had already put a surprisingly large amount of their own money into the project – on spec, no less – and had purchased land, built the henhouses, mangers, and watering troughs, as well as a granary and a hatchery for eggs. All they wanted was start-up capital, to buy the initial tranch of chickens and roosters, and to buy a better grade of feed than local economic conditions would normally permit. After the first season, they argued that they would be able to buy these things on their own from the profits that they would make; they only wanted a grant so that they could cut their market price in order to better assist the community.

This is where I came in. I’m really only here to plant trees, but I like to moonlight as a business advisor too[2], so they had approached me in the hopes that I might be able to help them. I hosted a meeting at my house, and after reading their business plan, I agreed to look things over.

I have to admit, it looked really good – on paper. But I’m a cynic, so I wasn’t immediately sold. I insisted on going to see their site, on reviewing their books, and on meeting with their expert[3]. Everything seemed legitimate, so I told them that if they wrote up a project proposal with an itemized budget I would submit it to Peace Corps for consideration. Much to my surprise, they not only complied, but they did so with amazing alacrity: a mere two weeks later, I had all of the papers that I had asked for sitting on my desk.

At that point, the work was all up to me: filling out Peace Corps’ internal grant application form, and translating all of the French into plain English. All PC grants are reviewed and approved by the main office in DC, and if I say I want 511,000 CFA ($1100) for poulet elevage[4], in particular for coqs of la bonne race, the accountants there will have no idea what I’m talking about. This is manifestly beyond the ability of the Burkinabé, and it is entirely meet and proper that I should do this part. Once I finished, I submitted the grant to the appropriate committee for review and approval, and from there it was all up to the higher powers in Burkina and DC.

And that’s it. That’s how your tax dollars are spent on foreign aid projects. Someone – hopefully someone you can trust – does actually look at things on the ground, and does actually watch out for the taxpayer. That same someone also initiates proceedings, but doesn’t make the final decision. There are layers of oversight and protection, and there’s actually surprisingly little waste. Which makes me glad, because while I’m definitely a proponent of soft power and diplomacy being cheaper at the price than armed suasion, I’m also a fan of not wasting my nation’s money. God knows, we do enough of that as is – I don’t think I could sleep at night if I thought I was contribution further to the problem.

So there you have it. I’m still a cynic, but now I’m an informed cynic, and I can tell you: it can be tricky, making sure that those dollars are properly spent in the right way. But we do our best, and I’d like to think we succeed. And at least when we mess up, the absolute amounts – usually far less than $1000 – are small enough that no permanent harm is done.

And that’s how we track money here in the Peace Corps.


[1] It can start with an idea from a PCV, but the project is more likely to succeed and be sustainable if it starts from someone who is actually going to spend the rest of their life in the community.

[2] This is an inside joke.

[3] There are PCVs reading this bit with a jaded and incredulous eye right now. You have to understand that most project proposals from locals are usually more along the lines of ‘I want to make a garden, but I don’t have any money. I hear you have money…can I have some to make a garden?’ Things like planning, budgets, and written proposals are about as alien to the villageois as the finer elements of microchip design or string theory are to the general American public.

[4] Elevage literally means ‘raising’ in French, and it is a term that I think is much more elegant than anything we use in English. I think it is far better to describe someone as a hog eleveur instead of a hog farmer, since the first very accurately describes what he does (one who raises hogs), while the second implies the vaguely ludicrous image of planting hogs in the ground and harvesting them in autumn when they’ve become fully ripe. I may very well make it my new life’s mission to introduce this word into the English language.

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Some days I feel like Ghandi, some days I feel like Eminem

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23 mai 2012

Some days I feel like Ghandi, some days I feel like Eminem

I could see the kid a hundred yards away, and we both knew what was coming. He had seen me round the corner, and when he did, his face lit up immediately. He stopped walking, he stared hungrily in my direction, and he all but bounced on his heels as he waited for me to draw near.

This kid was going to ask me for money.

Groaning inwardly, I stolidly kept my pace, hoping the combination of speed, sunglasses, and headphones would keep him from trying to approach me. Unfortunately, he was standing smack in the middle of the road I had to take, so there was no way to avoid him or go around.

And as I got close, sure enough, he stood his ground, shoved his hand directly at me, and blurted out cockily, ‘je demande argent!’

I don’t know why, but something in me snapped. Instead of saying ‘ayo’, or ‘non’, or just ignoring it, I stopped hard enough to kick up dust and dirt. Then I got off my bike, walked straight up to him and proceeded to spend the next five minutes berating the poor kid on his effrontery, arrogance, and lack of manners.

It was a bravura performance. My French was in high form that day, and I waxed eloquent as I listed the manifest defects in his approach. He was arrogant. He was impolite. He was uninformed. He was greedy. If there was a weakness to be exploited, I used it, and I did so in a voice that was loud enough to be heard clearly by the other kids lingering on the edge of the kill zone.

There was a strange exhilaration in tearing this kid a new one. As he wilted before my eyes, I found myself discovering turns of phrase that would do any drill sergeant proud, and it was only by an enormous feat of restraint that I didn’t bring his ancestry, personal grooming, ugly shirt, stupid dog, or licentious momma into it. Finally, he couldn’t bear to listen to me anymore, and he slumped off in defeat, with none of his previous jauntiness evident.

As I watched him walk away, I began to come down off of my previous emotional high, and I genuinely felt sorry for the kid; sure, he wasn’t going to ask me for money again, but he also was never going to be as open or as friendly, either.  I remounted my bike and continued on my way, pondering the emotional and intellectual traps of children, adults, and cultural differences.

So was that the right thing to do?

I genuinely don’t know.

It’s a frustrating situation. On the one hand, I’m here to help him, and I damn sure didn’t win any hearts or minds that afternoon. On the other hand, if I’m only seen as a walking hand-out machine it will be all but impossible for me to motivate anyone to help themselves.

Intellectually speaking, every multi-cultural encounter is an exercise in decision making: do you want to talk/not talk, be closed/friendly, express interest/disinterest, give money/not give money, etc etc. This is especially true in Burkina Faso, where every social interaction necessarily begins with a long (and to many Americans, interminable) series of platitudes and pleasantries, and where the idea of privacy is all but anathema. Every day, I face the same set of challenges: do I go outside and sweat under the tree with the ladies in my courtyard, or do I sit inside in the marginal comfort and solitude of my fans? Do I eat breakfast alone, or do I seek company that I don’t especially want? Et cetera ad nauseum.  

In this instance, I’m not especially pleased with the (admittedly, snap) decision that I made. That wasn’t a conscious effort to pursue one particular form of social interaction, it was the kind of explosion that has little or nothing to do with the person in front of you, and everything to do with circumstances entirely beyond your control. I didn’t decide to treat that kid in a certain way, I blew up on him. And while I might have gotten away with it from a nameless 12-year-old[1], if I ever did that in front of, say, the mayor to the haut commissariat, bad things would ensure.

Furthermore, I don’t like being like that. It’s not fair to the kid, it’s not fair to me, and I damn sure know how I would have felt if I had been on the receiving end. Yes, my yelling at him was marginally justified – he knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew that he was pushing the limits of good manners. It was a game, and it was supposed to be the sort of game that got him a sharp word at most, not a full-blown lecture. But I wasn’t yelling at him because it was justified, I was yelling at him because I could no more have stopped it from happening that I could have stopped breathing – it was an emotional outpouring that had to happen, and this twelve year boy was the randomly chosen victim of my subconscious[2].

If you had asked me a year ago who I wanted to pattern my behavior on during my service, I probably would have picked one of the great humanitarians: Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, etc. Sure, it would have been a little tongue-in-cheek, but there definitely would have been a kernel of truth in there. It’s hard to say ‘I want to be like Mother Theresa’ and still be a member of material society, but when you know you’re coming to a land of incredible hardship and struggle, it’s also hard not to aspire to be at least a little bit like someone like that. At least not if you want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror each morning[3].

Besides, nobody joins the Peace Corps thinking ‘A year from now, I’ll get to chew out some kid in his local language! Hot damn!’ We join the Peace Corps to help that kid grow up right, to be that cool older brother/mentor/friend, the person who gets it, who they can go to for help and consideration. Who wants to wake up and find themselves grousing that in their day, kids respected their elders, dammit[4]!

I certainly don’t.

I wanted to be that cool mentor. I wanted to be able to help out. And sometimes, I pull it off. One day, I stopped and helped three girls fix their bike, and their hesitant smiles of gratitude were all the thanks I needed. Another day, I rode 20k en brousse to help a fellow plan a chicken farm, and his simple handshake and thanks kept me going all the long ride home.

And that week, I definitely felt like Ghandi.

But after six months at site, I’m finding myself increasingly faced with the somewhat uncomfortable truth that most of us can’t always be one of the world’s great humanitarians. As much as I want to help others, I frequently find my energies being channeled to systemic problems, rather than those of individuals. I don’t get any satisfaction from handing out soup in soup kitchens, I just see the inefficiency of using so much labor to such a simple task. I don’t feel empathy when people ask me for money in the street, I just find myself being suspicious of their motives and their actual poverty[5]. I don’t feel pleasure when kids show interest in me, I just wonder where their parents are and why they aren’t making them behave.

In short, I have found that sometimes, I don’t feel very much like Ghandi at all; in fact, a lot of the time, not very far inside of me resides a seething, highly irritable misanthrope, who just wants to be left alone. He doesn’t always come out to play, but when he does…watch out for fireworks!

Just like Eminem[6].


[1] Whom I would very much like to apologize to. But sadly, it seems unlikely that I will ever have the chance or the language skills. Ugh.

[2] And the worst part was, the whole time I was yelling at him, there was a voice in the back of my head saying ‘Dude…what are you doing…This kid isn’t bad, and you’re just being a dick…Good job, asshole: you are now officially that older guy telling the kid to get off his lawn…Oh, for God’s sake, just give him the hundred CFA and go about your business…Too late, now you’ve done it – he is officially going to lob rocks at you every time he sees you, and you deserve it…You are a miserable excuse for a human being, and you should go home and feel bad.’

[3] Not that most PCVs in Burkina have mirrors (I actually have one, recently acquired, that is a massive 3 inches by 4 inches), but that’s beside the point…

[4] When I was a kid, we walked thirty five miles to school, uphill both ways, in a headwind, barefoot in the snow, fighting off bears and Injuns to get there. And when we got there, all we had was a lump of coal to eat, and brother we were glad to get it…

[5] Even though I know that many of the people here truly are in desperate straits.

[6] If you’ve never heard the song The Way I Am, go YouTube it. Even if you don’t like Eminem and don’t like to listen to people whining about being rich and famous (and I don’t especially), you should still be able to see what I was identifying with that song yesterday evening.

Work versus living arrangements

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21 mai 2012

Work vs living arrangements

I love my site. My house is lovely, my sitemates are amazing, I have the best homologue in the Peace Corps, and my town is just big enough to have everything a PCV could want, but not so big as to be overly expensive, crowded, or crime-ridden. I literally could not ask for more from my site.

My job, on the other hand, is somewhat lacking.

What do I mean by that?

Although PCVs are here to work with the community as a whole, we also have an institution or organization that we are assigned to work with. For example, PCVs who are here for education are here for the community, but they also teach at a particular school. Similarly, a PCV who is here for agriculture might work with a particular association or organization that promotes agriculture and farming in their region, or perhaps directly with a farmers’ collective. My organization is FAIJ, a government fund that provides low-interest small business loans to prospective entrepreneurs, as a means of boosting the local economy.

On the surface, this is an ideal assignment for me: FAIJ is a well-run organization, their goal is one that I agree with[1], the objectives for FAIJ PCVs are very clear-cut and easy to understand, and I like the work. The problem is, I just don’t have enough of it.

I know this sounds like an odd complaint: what do you mean, you don’t like not being super-slammed and stressed? That sounds like paradise! But it’s true.

Let me put it in context: because FAIJ is a somewhat understaffed organization, there are something like 200 borrowers for each FAIJ employee. This is a problem,  since a FAIJ employee is supposed (in theory) to meet with each borrower once per month to see how they’re doing/do they need any help/can they still make their payment/etc. It should be no surprise when I say that these meetings occur more like once every 3 months, and even then they’re very brief. It’s just simple math.

Peace Corps is supposed to be helping with that, by essentially providing free regional business consultants. We aren’t allowed to conduct collections activities (thankfully), but we are allowed to talk, assess, and assist as each borrower might want or need. There are a number of PCVs – all sited in regional capitals – fulfilling this role, and they all have a full plate of borrowers to work with.

Except for me.

My posting to a town that isn’t a regional capital is something of an experiment. Because the north is so spread out, the theory is that I can handle the southern part of the province and free up the overworked FAIJ office in Ouahigouya to focus on the more concentrated borrower population in the capital. It’s a great idea on paper, because it definitely saves my supervisor multiple long, hot, annoying trips per month, and doesn’t drown me in too much work.

The problem is, that’s on paper; on the ground, the reality is somewhat different.

To begin with, I don’t have motorized transport, which means I can only assist those borrowers who are within biking distance. I only have 17 borrowers at my site. To put this number in context, my fellow stagemate who works for FAIJ in the Bobo-Dioulasso region has something like 150 borrowers. And so do the other FAIJ PCVs. However, even If I had motorized transport, there are still only something like another 40-50 borrowers within my general area – a number that isn’t really all that high. It certainly isn’t high enough to give me anything approaching 6 – 8 hours work per day. I can meet with all 17 of my borrowers in something less than a week, and since none of them has any real problems or needs, I’m then sort of left to my own devices for the rest of the month.

Don’t get me wrong: I love my work, I love my borrowers, and I love FAIJ. I just don’t have enough of it. And I’m not entirely sure what to do about it.

I could ask for a site change, to someplace where I do in fact have more work, but I would be running a real risk of exchanging my otherwise highly satisfactory living arrangements for once that was considerably less salubrious and comes with the additional burden of a greatly increased workload. And so I have a choice: ask for a change from a perfectly enjoyable site to get more work, or rest content with my wonderful site, and have less in the way of formal employment. I’m honestly not sure what to do.

Ideally, I would be able to change sites to get more work AND I would like my new site as much as (or more than) I like my current one; however, experience with both the Peace Corps and Burkina Faso suggests that this is unlikely. I think it is probably much wiser to set my expectations low and allow circumstances to honestly surprise me. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to ask for a new site and then turn it down if I don’t like it as much as I like my current circumstances. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition.

And so I think, and weigh my work versus my living arrangements…


[1] Although I would do the work even if I didn’t. It’s called being professional. Agreeing with their mission just makes it easier and more fun.

The challenge of blogging from Africa

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22 mai 2012

The challenge of blogging from Africa

Blogging regularly from West Africa is more of a challenge than you might think, and I’m not just talking about the obvious technological hurdles that must be overcome. It’s hard to come up with new topics four or five days a week, and it’s frustrating that it should be so hard, because you’re surrounded by so much that is interesting, different, and new that it feels like you should be able to just sit down and whip something out.

But that’s not quite true. There’s a lot that is new and interesting in a ‘huh…check that out’ sort of way, but that would only work if you don’t mind reading 200 – 500 hundred word blog blurbs. I do vignette posts from time to time that are composed of brief insights like that, but by and large I don’t like writing short chunks, and judging from my readership numbers, you don’t really like reading them either.

So how do you figure out what to write about?

It’s more challenging than you might think.

I tend to take something of a dialectic tone in my blogs; I like to find a subject, an observation, or an experience, and use it as the basis for a societal discussion, an illustration of a general challenge facing Peace Corps Volunteers, or just as a springboard for identifying a broader cultural problem or trend. This makes for longer and (hopefully) for more thought-provoking posts, but it also means that a lot of stuff gets unaccounted for.

For example, pretty much all of the bikes here are crappy Chinese one speeds, or equally crappy Chinese “mountain bikes”[1].  There are some good bikes here, but by and large they’re not very well made, and they’re in a very poor state of repair[2].  The results of this combination can be somewhat bemusing to behold. Did you know it’s possible to own a bike whose chain slips off the front chain rink about every fifth stroke, and that it’s also possible to just coast, reach down, reattach said chain, and keep right on going? I didn’t.

I feel like this is a really fascinating cultural insight, and if I was feeling more mentally limber, I could probably parlay that into a broad post on Burkinabé habits of ownership and maintenance, but to be honest that just feels…forced. And so it doesn’t get blogged about, along with a zillion other minor details.

And that bothers me.

See, life in West Africa really is analogous to the philosophical problem of the pile of sand: the pile is more than the individual grains, but if you remove enough grains, there’s no more pile. Where do you draw the line between pile and grains? Where do you draw the line between the little individual experiences that so define your service (and yet are not your service), and your service as a whole? I feel like I have defined the pile very well, but in the process the grains have been mostly overlooked.

And so I think it’s time for a change. When I first started this blog, my goal was to try and document as much of the Peace Corps experience as was possible without being tedious, exhaustive, or pedantic. To date, I’m comfortable with the results of my efforts. However, now I think it’s time to shift metaphors and focus a little less on the forest and a little more on the trees.

I’m not sure what the results of this will be. It could be more, but shorter blogs. It could mean fewer, but longer, blogs – a shift to more vignette-type posts. I will still write dialectic-type articles as they seem fitting, but there will probably be less of that and more focus on the day to day experience. If my internet cooperates – always an iffy proposition – I might even include a few photos.

In the meantime, this blog is for you, the readers, as much as it is for myself as a writer. I know from the statistics that there are a surprisingly large number of you out there (and I thank you for your readership), so please: if something really works, or if something doesn’t work at all, let me know. Feedback is an essential part of a living column like this, and I would hate for anyone to just wander off because the content changed in a way that they didn’t care for.

Thanks.


[1] Think that super cheap Huffy or Murray you bought for your kid at Wal-Mart, but heavier, more cheaply made, and then beat all to hell and back by a brutal environment and an indifferent owner.

[2] But they’re always quite clean. In my experience, West Africans are quite conscientious about keeping their bikes and motos washed (despite the dust), even if they can’t afford to fix them.

Man, I suck at names

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17 mai 2012

Man, I suck at names

I am a bright guy. I remember more or less everything – especially little things.

Seriously.

I can tell you the name of my 6th grade science teacher without having to think about it (Mrs. Brinkely, 4th period), I can tell you that Uranus is the 7th planet, and I can tell you that Rutherford B. Hayes was the 19th President. I’m that guy that other people call when they’re stumped by crossword puzzles, and I’m that guy that no one wants to play in Trivial Pursuit.

Nor is it just trivia. I never had to study in high school, I only had to study in non-major classes in college,  and I never took notes in any class ever (except as a way to avoid falling asleep…I certainly never looked at them afterwards). Heck… I still remember my phone number from when I was 5 (762-6252)! It’s not anything special that I do, it just comes to me. If I hear or read something, I remember it.

Except for names. I can’t remember names to save my damn life.

Fact: it doesn’t matter how pretty, neat, awesome, cool, fun, old, or interesting you are, if I’ve met you within the last 5 days and you have told me your name, I have probably forgotten it. Even if you’ve told me 10 times, and we’ve hit it off from the first moment. Sometimes, it’s worse than that: we may have been working together for months, and I still am not quite sure of your name. It’s nothing personal, I just suck at them that badly.

And as much as I suck at them in the US, I suck at them 1000 times worse here.

In the US, if I meet someone, they probably have a fairly culturally familiar name, like Thomas or Sarah. And their last name is probably pretty ‘normal’, like McCullough or Jones or Baker. Even ‘strange’ last names like Wohorowitz and Schopenhauer and Viswanathan aren’t really that hard – we have a strongly multicultural society, and we’re used to a multiplicity of ethnic origins in our last names.

However, in Burkina, despite the fact that there seem to be only about 3 last names (of which two are Ouedraogo and Ouadraogo) and maybe 20 first names (19 of which seem to be variations of Mohammed), I can’t remember anyone’s name for anything. It’s so frustrating. I’ll go to a meeting, I’ll shake everyone’s hand (absolutely culturally necessary), and I’ll get everyone’s name, and five minutes later I won’t remember a one.

Part of that has to do with the fact that, to American ears, last names and first names are more or less indistinguishable. Consider these name pairs: Idrissa Yameogo, Idani Yassine, Compaore Agathe, Housmane Sanfo. Can you tell which name is the surname and which is not? I never can. Especially since the general cultural tendency here is to give last names first, but that tendency is irregularly kept with nasara, because they know we tend to introduce ourselves by our given names first.

Imagine this scenario: you accompany your homologue into a maquis. While he’s ordering drinks, every single person in the place stands up, makes a little genuflection towards you, and shakes your hand. Two or three come over to your table and introduce themselves:

« Bonjour…je m’appelle Idrissa Yameogo »

« Et moi, je m’appelle Housmane Sanfo »

« Ca va? Je suis Samfo Bamouni »

You smile politely, and they sit down. Your homologue returns with drinks, sees your tablemates, and delightedly greets this group of fellows that he clearly knows. After a moment, they all commence chatting in a rapid blend of French and Mooré that you’re delighted to be able to catch 90% of.

But then it dawns on you: you have no idea what to call anyone. Were those first names? Last? If you get it wrong, are you going to accidentally insult someone? Are you going to look like a total idiot for not knowing who is who?

And so you do what I do: you cleverly get through the entire conversation without ever actually using a name, hoping to pick up some cues along the way as to who is called what. Sometimes, you get lucky and it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t, and when you run into one of those fellows a day or two later you’re horribly at a loss for how to greet him. It’s a toss up.

Which is why I tend to call a lot of people ma soeur, mon ami¸ and monsieur.  Hopefully, the Burkinabé just think I’m super formal and/or polite…

Or maybe the just know I suck at names?

Romance in the Peace Corps

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16 mai 2012

Romance in the Peace Corps

Ah, the Peace Corps: the one occupation that lets you go to exotic lands, meet interesting people, see amazing sites, and fall madly in love while doing it. If you aren’t married or geriatric and the thought of romance in the Peace Corps isn’t one of your motivations for joining, you’re either: 1. lying 2. A stone 3. lying or 4. lying.

Well allow me to assure you: romance does in fact happen in the Peace Corps. It’s even common. Almost every PCV dates at least one person during their service (usually another PCV, but there are a healthy number of PCV/HCN relationships as well), and not a few wind up getting married. That can happen here (two PCVs got married last year and now live at site together), at home (I know several couples who are deemed sufficiently serious to have ‘a real chance’; I’m writing this post of the porch of one of them, while they do who knows what in the house), or even in an extended service (taking a third year together is fairly common too). Heck, I myself have met the eternal love of my life while serving in the Peace Corps (or something to that effect).

So what is romance like in the Peace Corps?

It’s an interesting question. I’m a realist, so I usually try to see the functional side of things: I automatically thought dating in the Peace Corps would be a lot like a long-distance relationship in college, but with fewer creature comforts, a LOT more free time, and pretty much nothing to do on a Friday night (except…*ahem*). However, judging by the search engine hits on my blog (‘romance in the Peace Corps’ is fourth, behind ‘sex in the Peace Corps’, ‘Peace Corps drugs’, and variations of ‘krokodil photos’ (I did a photo-heavy blog on krokodil last year)), a LOT of people out there are interested in the romantic possibilities of Peace Corps service. It’s a slow day, so let me lay it out for you.

First, some hard math: there are only so many of you to go around. Peace Corps Burkina has about 170 volunteers right now. Of those, only 50% (85 or so) are possible[1], and of those 50%, probably no more than 60% or 70% (50 or 60) are available at any given time[2]. But that still leaves 30 or 40 to choose from, right?

Sort of. You’re also not really going to know a significant chunk of your country’s PCVs, on account of the fact that: 1. they weren’t in your stage and 2. they live a long way away from you. But let’s say you’re highly social, and you know 45-55 of those potential 50 – 60. That is your potential dating pool, and you will get no other[3].

Those are the numbers, now come the realities associated with those numbers.

First, the bad news: you’re going to have something of a grab bag in the looks department. Peace Corps selects for competency, not looks, and while you can probably count on them being fairly young and healthy, that’s about it; even if they were stunningly gorgeous in the US, the weird diet and climate do odd things to figures here, so you may or may not have someone worth looking at. Also, you can’t afford to be picky with regards to where they live and how much free time they have, because housing is effectively assigned at random, vis-a-via dating potential[4]. You may meet someone amazing, and he or she may live in a regional capital, or they may live in a village in the absolute middle of nowhere, at the end of a 50k dirt road that is only accessible by mountain bike.

However, there’s also a considerable amount of good news to offset that: 45 – 55 may not sound like a lot of people, but you’re going to have a LOT in common with that particular set. Like the military, the Peace Corps is very mission-oriented, and as a result the inherent nature of the PC recruitment process tends to naturally select groups that are already like-minded. This means that most PCVs already share similar philosophies on religion, money, sex, organic food, politics and all those other little stumbling blocks that make dating such a guessing game in the US. You may bicker over the color of the wallpaper that you’re putting in the living room, but you likely won’t have issues with him refusing to respect your decision to only serve cruelty-free, tofu-fed, free-range, local, organic, plastic-free, self-empowered chicken.

That may sound like a joke, but it’s really not: you’re all about the same age, you’re all single, you’re all interested in dating, and you all have a lot in common. Looks are up for grabs, as are regional origin in the US, but otherwise the Peace Corps is actually a very successful dating pool. Many PCVs develop long-term relationships during their service[5], and a respectable number get married as well. To put it in context, there were 21 people in my stage at swear in. 2 were married, and 4 were dating people in the US. That left 15 single and searching souls in our group. To my knowledge (which is far from exhaustive), after just 6 months, at least 7 of those 15 have been in some form of relationship or another, myself included. Statistically speaking, almost all of us should be involved in something or another in the next 18 months, no?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but from my experience romance in the Peace Corps is quite nice. There’s less pressure, more freedom, and you have more in common. Admittedly, my petite amie isn’t a PCV – she worked with a local NGO instead – but I’m happier with her than I’ve ever been with anyone else at this stage of a relationship. And while that may sound gushy and suspiciously like TMI, my point is that life in the Peace Corps is intense. If simple daily acts like cooking and cleaning suddenly become memorable, imagine what that same intensity will do to your love life.

It has certainly surprised me.


[1]If you’re straight. If you’re looking for info on gay/bi/other romance in the PC, this will not be the blog for you. Sorry.

[2] There’s actually a pretty heavy skew towards women in PC Burkina right now. Something like 100 of the 170 PCVs are female. So, good news, guys! And sorry, ladies…

[3] I’m assuming that the exiting and entering stages will offset each other. That is, it’s unlikely that you will develop anything with someone from the stage leaving a few months after you arrive, and it’s also unlikely you’ll develop anything just before you leave yourself. Otherwise, the numbers stay about the same with each entering and departing stage, so the size of your pool stays pretty constant.

[4] It’s not random at all, but it’s very tough to predict in stage, and romance isn’t even on the list of things PC considers when they assign you to your site, so it may as well be. At least as far as dating is concerned.

[5] A lot just hook up too, but this is a post on romance, not casual sex. Sorry.

Technical difficulties

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15 mai 2012

Technical difficulties

One of the quirkiest things about life in Burkina is how they kinda/sorta have the same technologies that we have in the US. For example, you can buy the finest quality ‘Sumsang’ cell phones everywhere, pretty badass-looking ‘Zonda’ motorcycles, and even Soony TVs.

Nor does it stop with knock-offs. I have electricity in my home, but I just found out the other day that the whole place is powered through a single wall outlet set in the switchbox in my courtyard. And it’s not an especially insulated, protected, or otherwise beefy wall socket, either; it’s identical to those found in my house. That means that my entire house (3 ceiling fans, 6 florescent lights, 3 floor fans, 8 wall sockets, one fridge to come, and the surge protector power strip running my computer, speakers, phone charger, and iPad charger) is basically one giant daisy chain. Furthermore, all my windows are barred, and my front door locks with a key, so I have to leave the key in the door or run the very real risk of being trapped to burn to death when the inevitable power surge starts the inevitable electrical fire. Yep…my house is a death trap. And I love it.

Unfortunately, this same haphazard approach to life also permeates the utilities industries as well. This means I usually have running water for as many 3 randomly-chosen hours per day, my power normally only cuts out once every 6 hours or so, and my cell phone service is only slightly worse than horrific (admittedly still leaving it several steps above AT&T).

Today, for example, I randomly have no internet signal on my phone. I say randomly, because nothing appears to have changed: my phone didn’t get damaged, there wasn’t a storm or a big power outage, and my site mates’ internet keys (which work on the exact same SIM cards) still work. All I know for sure is the carrier name has changed on my phone for no reason, and I have no internet. There’s no one I can call, no customer service line to get help, and no real way to complain, either; I just rebooted my phone and removed and reinstalled the SIM card to make sure it wasn’t anything on my end, and now I wait.

And that’s the thing about problems here: they’re so ubiquitous that, instead of getting upset or angry or frantic, you just sort of get curious: huh…it doesn’t work today…typical…wonder when it will come back? It’s weirdly relieving in an odd sort of way, and I kind of like it. But I could just be saying that because I know I’ll be going to Ouaga tomorrow and can complain at the national headquarters of the phone company if nothing changes. It’s hard to say.

But in the interim, it appears all but 100% that you will not be reading this post today. Of course, my signal could also come back in the next 5 minutes. There’s no way to say for sure.

And that’s just how things roll here. 

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