How to Win a Holi War

Amongst the rich experiences I had on my two-week sojourn in India was the privilege of celebrating Holi, a very popular Hindu holiday. I had planned the trip so that Jeff and I would meet other recent return Peace Corps volunteers in Mathura, the supposed birthplace of the holiday. So, on March 12th, we found ourselves in a mediocre hotel on the eve of the most exciting day in the month-long celebration of color and music. I have asked Indians and foreigners alike what the origin of Holi is, and each has a different story. I did my best to understand the significance of the holiday, but every time I tried to lock down the meaning I found myself shooting at a moving target. At the end of the day, it seemed more important to Mathura’s locals that we participated in the festivities, which involve parades with rowdy music and throwing hand fulls of bright colored dust and water at anyone within range. Once you are out in the street, you are fair game.         

It is safe to say that we westerners were entirely unprepared for this celebration. Once Jeff and I were outside we quickly got caught in a group of jubilant men who gently smeared pink and green powder on our cheeks and decorated us both with yellow paint. They handed us cold cups of chai tea and demanded we dance to the live band. When we finally broke away, happily covered in celebration, we ducked into a narrow alleyway where an overwhelming parade gave us a taste of just how intense the celebration can get. Holi is a day where everyone, despite his or her age, has an equal right to participate. Groups of children darted around the streets with little color bombs in their hands aiming for any body part they could reach and then quickly disappearing. With no ammunition of our own Jeff and I were completely at the mercy of the color-wielders, but good-naturedly fielded every pigment added to our faces and clothes. When we arrived at the parade, one youngster carefully took aim and blasted me with pink powder right in the eyes.

Despite the madness, Jeff and I returned to our hotel excited for the following day when we planned to return fire. The next morning we gathered our small platoon of westerners, each picked colors, and went out excited to be part of Holi. The seven of us spent the morning running through Mathura’s narrow streets and coordinating our movements like we were players in a first person shooter game. There was friendly fire from above our heads, from store windows, and from sneaky groups of children rushing out of alleyways to ambush passers by. Dyed water from water balloons, super soakers and florescent foam from silly string cans joined the colored powder all over our bodies. The entire city was one giant game of color, and we got to be a part of it.

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And then someone grabbed my breast.

Suddenly, instead of being bombarded by friendly mobs looking to add to our bodily canvases of color, packs of men mobbed the four women in our group and aggressively jettisoned color into our faces ears and eyes, taking advantage of the confusion to put their hands wherever they wanted. In the blink of an eye Holi turned from a game into a war, and winning for us women was just a question of making it out in one piece. The three men that were with us tried their hardest to create physical barriers for us whenever they saw a group of men approaching, but there were too many to stop and I lost count of how many times I was grabbed. At one point, furious, I took the Holi powder in my hand and smacked one of the men so hard that he fell away in shock, fading off into a dust cloud of orange and pink. 

            Strangers approaching us calling out ‘Happy Holi!’ were enemy soldiers, and we started to think of the powder not as part of a game but as a smoke bomb that, if used properly, could give you just enough time to slip out of someone’s grasp. Men and boys alike, emboldened by what we soon realized was a holiday that only males celebrate in public, exorcised freely powers that are occasionally better policed. By the time we found our way out of the madness, the four of us female bodied folk were clutching our half empty bags of Holi powder to our chests like they were the only thing between us and the sea of searching hands. We didn’t go outside for the rest of the day, even when we were told Holi was over.

I am pleased to say that I consider this incident, like that of the Beach Bandit, a glaring exception when it comes to traveling in India. It made me think back to my first rickshaw ride in Mumbai when I had arrived in India. I wasn’t prepared for the way people drive on Indian streets, the constant games of chicken, the swerving, the sudden turns and the close calls that seem to happen every 30 seconds. The first few times I held for dear life onto the railing of the vehicle, grinning stupidly, and watching with amazement as Mumbai whizzed by me. This is what it is like to travel as a woman, flying around the world with your eyes so wide you’ve forgotten how to blink, awed by the beauty and the spectacle of the ride but smart enough to be holding on tightly with both hands.

Spilling Unnecessary (Digital) Ink

How do I possibly write about a place like India without sounding like a cliché? After promising myself for years that I’d go, it almost feels like I have no right to spill more ink about a place this complex when I only spent about 14 days there. This short two-week trip was but a toe-dip, a teaser, a mere tickle if you will. India’s size alone demands at least a month of travel to do it justice, but the diversity of cultures, landscapes, experiences and attitudes that can be found on the peninsula often attract ambitious travelers for several months at a time. I’ll be back.

            For now though, caught in between the Peace Corps and what some are trying to convince me is adulthood, I had to limit my journey to Mumbai, New Delhi, Mathura, Agra and Varanasi. I could write pages on each of these places, but I’d be hard pressed to say anything that people far more eloquent that I have not already said. As the volume of unshaven, dreamy-eyed foreigners clad in flowy, elephant-print pants can attest to, India is not the road less traveled. In fact, I was very pleased to find that Indians do quite a bit of tourism within their own country as well, and most sites I visited (with the exception of the Taj Mahal) was more populated with Indian tourists than foreign ones.

            Despite the fact that India is no stranger to tourism, I was surprised to find that Indians are not at all jaded when it comes to seeing Western folk. More than once my boyfriend and I were asked by locals if they could have a photo with us, and when we obliged we found ourselves immortalized in a smiling stranger’s smartphone looking like anonymous celebrities. Curiosity was everywhere. One man approached me to ask where I was from, and upon learning I was from the US he treated me to a lecture about the American author of a self-help book that he was shocked to learn I had never heard of.

 More than once I found that the combination of my dark skin and curly hair confused Indians, who see very few children of the African diaspora. One woman, utterly amazed by my appearance, exclaimed “Wow! How did you get your hair? Are you born with that?” I grinned at her and exclaimed proudly that I was, indeed, born like this. We then proceeded to go back and forth for a few minutes while I tried to explain to her that I was American and not South African, but by the end of the conversation I believe she had decided that I was simply wrong. Black people, we need to get out more.

By far my favorite experience was spending a few days in the city of Varanasi. Jeff and I stayed in a hotel overlooking the Ganges and witnessed what seemed to be a whole other level of spiritual existence. From the burning ghats to the pilgrims bathing to the omnipresence of lazy, interrupting cows, Varanasi operates on a plane that I have never experienced before.  I found myself completely terrified of the Ganges not just because it is home to thousands of years of corpses, but also because I felt that I had no right to touch it with my ignorant foreigners hands. As we walked around Varanasi, cautious and wide-eyed, no one stopped for us and no one slowed down. We felt like ghosts watching the world go by. This was a welcome respite after sticking out in Burkina like a crooked toe. But instead of trying to describe the experience, I’ll let it speak for itself in photographs.

 

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The Beach Bandit

As a young American, I suffer from that common form of Exceptionlism that effects most privileged people. It tends to manifest more violently in men but can affect women too, and is most dangerous when the patient also suffers from acute wanderlust. This garden-variety condition tells you that those things only happen to other people. Sometimes it’s benign: You shrug your shoulders at eating that street food that’s just a little cold. You sleep at the sketchy hotel even though those sheets may have bed bugs because nothing can stop you in your youthful quest to conquer world. Occasionally the condition can be terminal. Treatment is a healthy dose of caution followed up by 500 milligrams of realizing you’re not special. If this is ineffective however, the patient may need to be considered for a ‘reality check.’

Mine was never too a severe case, but living for two years in a place where I had become comfortable enough to navigate most social situations exacerbated the symptoms. I assumed that the ease with which I moved through Burkinabe society would translate when I started to travel elsewhere in Africa, and consequently I came down with a mild bout of overconfidence. My reality check was swift and effective. This is the story of The Beach Bandit.


My post Peace Corps trip had just started, and was going swimmingly. I was in Ghana, and a few Americans I had met invited me to a festival in a beach town about 6 hours away from Accra. When I reached the town adjacent to my destination, it was already evening, and with very little idea about where I was going I was completely at the mercy of any taxi driver that wanted to make an extra buck off me. I negotiated just like I’d learned how in Burkina until we settled on the slightly expensive price of 50 Ghanaian cedi. I sat in the front seat and we took off. We had only been driving for a few minutes when the driver picked up four other westerners going to the same place. The five of us chatted during the 30-minute ride, sharing experiences and complaining about US politics until we arrived in the quaint beach town where the festival was taking place. Immediately I saw some people I knew and asked the cab to pull over. What excellent luck. I got out and handed the driver 50 cedis as we had agreed upon, but as soon as the other Americans saw what was doing on they stopped me.

“Hold on,” one woman said, “are you paying for the whole car?”

“No,” I said confused, “just myself.” She shook her head indignantly.

“It’s 50 for the car,” she informed me “You pay ten and they pay ten each,” she said indicating the other westerners. “He’s trying to double dip.” Reinforced by two other American women, all of which had spent at least a year in Ghana at that point, she went to retrieve my money. Shockingly, the taxi driver wasn’t forthcoming in giving up what he had just been able to swindle me out of, and a heated argument ensued. The other westerners, finally smart to what was going on, each began to give me 10 cedis to make up for what I had paid. This made he driver even angrier, and voices got louder. I stepped back. Confrontation has never been my strong suit, and I recognized that I was out of my element here. I only started to get alarmed when more men showed up.

It was dark.  The other westerners faded away and there were four of us American women. I was removed from the action but heard things escalating. Suddenly the huddle exploded and one of the Americans charged towards me, furious.

“Don’t you touch me!” She screamed over her shoulder. Flanked by the other two, she grabbed my arm and started marching me away. We turned down a dark street. Too dark. It only took me a second to realize we were being followed. Five men cut us off, the taxi driver included. I panicked. One stepped forward and I could almost smell his fury. He was screaming at us, and his anger had nothing to do with the money.

The first blow hit me square in the jaw and it rang.  He was swinging something with a metal tip. A belt. The second one caught me across the collarbone, then on the shoulder and one on my forehead. I lurched backward, trying to understand what was happening. One of our group had already fled and I hoped she had gotten away safely. The Beach Bandit turned his attention towards the two remaining women, reigning blows down on one woman’s head and on another’s ribs. We broke away, but he followed us. I got one more blow to the back before we managed to get out of range. On my right, I saw a group of about 30 spectators that had watched the whole thing and done nothing.

We ran to the beach where we found other westerners. Shaken, we recounted our story, and some got fired up to go find the Beach Bandit. We managed to talk them out of it. The fury hadn’t come from anything to do with money, rather it was about our race and our gender. Women don’t get to tell men what to do, and entitled white ones like us should not dare to pretend our race allows us privileges that African women don’t have. As a minority, I understood that fury. It looked like we were trying to use our racial privilege to snub our Ghanaian counterparts. I could see how further confrontation might turn into an ‘us Vs. them’ situation. In the end, we were very lucky. Aside from a few bruises and a chipped tooth, none of us was seriously injured. The thing that suffered the most was our collective sense of security.


So that is the story of how I was cured of my Exceptionalism. Unfortunately, cure by ‘reality check’ can harbor some harsh but completely understandable side effects. Occasionally the patient may become over cautious or mistrusting of others to such a point that they are unable to have positive interactions or continue to venture out into the world. In this case, the patient should be treated with daily helpings of kindness and generosity of the variety that is found in plentiful supply everywhere in the world. This planet is stuffed full of good people, the kind that invite you into their house 5 minutes after meeting you, or the kind that drop everything and offer to show you something they think is wonderful about the place they live. I have been very lucky in my travels to meet scores of those people and avoid most of the Beach Bandits, and I am excited to continue to meet wonderful souls in my future adventures. I am happy to say that I came away from this incident side effect free, although I am still waiting for my chipped tooth to grow back.

 

South of the Border: New and Old Economies in Ghana

Although they share a border, Ghana and Burkina Faso are worlds away. The capital cities of these two West African nations reflect this reality: Where Burkina is dusty and wanting, Accra is clean and plentiful, furnished with a KFC, several sushi restaurants and grass.  Frequent neighborhoods like Osu and Labadi and you’ll forget entirely that you are on what Western world once called ‘dark continent.’ Tall, glittering buildings look out on an excitable coastline dotted with tourist-ready cabanas and fresh seafood. Find yourself in the right neighborhood and you’ll be able to peer into art galleries, organic teashops, high fashion boutiques and more. There is even a large mall where you can find everything from iPhones to traditional fabric that will blow your wallet in half. Wifi is becoming a pre-requisite in most establishments, and nothing but the ever-present traffic can slow Ghanaians down while driving on the capital’s perfectly paved roads and highways.

This is not to say that modernity is synonymous with Western comforts. Accra may have Starbucks, but you can’t fool yourself into thinking you’re living in the west. It has its very own, uniquely African heartbeat, and an economy that is solid enough to support a diverse array of both foreign and local businesses.

How did Burkina Faso get left so far behind?

To be entirely fair, my impressions of these two places are colored by the limitations I had in Burkina as a Peace Corps volunteer. My time in Ghana wasn’t spent lurking around the cheapest neighborhoods I could find trying to score a meal that would fit my meager budget. With a little more money to burn and the support of some locals, my visit to Accra gave me the opportunity to witness a very difference slice of West African life.

Freshly caught crabs ready for sale in Jamestown, once a port where slaves were shipped to the New World.

 My first host was a friend from my year at Swarthmore, let’s call him Jo, who lives about 40 minutes outside of Accra. When he picked me up in his car he gave me a big, American hug and grinned at me with a perfect set of teeth. I got to listen to him code switch throughout our drive from Pidgin to Twi to the slightly British-sounding English he had learned to get by with at Swarthmore. As we drove he told me about his life in Ghana, and I learned to my amazement that Jo had his hand in many different honey pots. Whether it is facilitating the sales of warehouses, managing his Ghana-US business, starting a school for girls or planning for two art shows at a time, Jo’s schedule is painfully full every day. Meeting his friends, some of them transplants and some of them natives, all of which attended a prestigious 4-year college in the US, I saw that Jo was not unique. These young men, living in spacious apartments with hardly any furniture and 24-inch flat screen TV’s, are carving their way into Ghana’s economy.

And what an economy it is.  My impression is that Ghana strikes a balance between the business efficiency of the United States and all of the advantages of the informal economies so prevalent in West Africa. This beautiful fusion results in a fertile space for ambitious young Ghanaians (and foreigners) to plant themselves in lucrative positions and reinforce the liveliness of an economy on the brink of a boom. They are looking to build solar power plants, hospitals, take over oil companies, connect US businesses with Ghanaian ones and much more. They are all under 30.

“Some Ghanaians are looking for steady jobs that pay,” Jo tells me on the way to meet with a gallery owner, “we are looking to close deals.” Later, sitting cross-legged on a clean tiled floor in an apartment that must be bigger than my family’s in New York, I’m wondering how I missed enrollment day on the ‘how to be successful’ class at Swarthmore.

Ghana has always been a place of interest when it comes to business. Today it’s warehouses and fabrics but 300 years ago, when Ghana was still the Gold Coast, its business was slaves. Unlike the United States, Ghana has made no effort to forget this period in its history that saw some of the most extreme human cruelty imaginable. The coastline is dotted with the well-maintained relics of the slave trade, castles, forts and ports that were used to ship human beings to the new world after being kept in dark rooms for 3 months, shoulder to shoulder, wallowing in excrement several feet high. I’m pleased to say that Africans and foreigners alike visit these slave relics and follow well-educated and passionate guides as they describe what took place in each room: how men were chained together and made to fight for the scraps of food that were dropped on their heads once a day, or how women that resisted being raped were kept in tiny dark cells until they were too weak to put up a fight. At one fort there was a church siting atop a cell that held 200 men for three months, a man-made heaven and hell. In the fort at Busua there was a British farmer living in what used to be the women’s cell.

“I come here about once a year,” he told our small group in a jolly tone, “I’m trying to turn this place into a guest house.”

“A guest house?” I asked in a barely metered tone.

“I just want people to be able to come and enjoy it,” he said grinning. My lip curled. The branding equipment that had been used to mark the slaves at this particular fort had been removed a few years back when this farmer had decided to make the place his summer home. Mustn’t scare the guests.

Neo colonialism notwithstanding, it seems that Ghana continues to be West Africa’s golden child. With gold, a coast line, respectable infrastructure and now oil, Ghana looks like it’s set up for rapid growth in the coming decades. At least, that’s my professional opinion. If young Ghanaians like Jo and his friends can find space to flourish in their home country, Ghana will not suffer from the brain drain that plague places like Burkina Faso. Maybe a little of that good energy will cross the northern border.

When Pigs Fly

Up until my last morning in Solenzo I still felt like I’d never leave the place. Each week seemed to crawl by like it was half asleep and dreaming, and though I cherished my time with the people I had spent the last two years with, my mind was ready for the next step. Strangely enough, my behavior came full circle. Just like my first few weeks in Solenzo when I didn’t know what to do with myself, I started walking in and out of my house in short intervals, forgetting whatever task I had set for myself, half-heartedly checking my phone for texts and then starting the whole process over.

            Not that there wasn’t anything to do. In fact, despite all of my useless bobbing in and out of my house I was remarkably productive. The week before I left we were finally able to realize one of the projects I have wanted to start since I came to Solenzo: having someone come and train the girls on how to make bags and purses out of the traditional fabric they weave. Watching the charismatic and very talented Madame Epema teach the girls a new skill and then watching the girls run with it reminded me why I joined Peace Corps. On top of that, Sister Mary and I made hibiscus flower soap for the first time, the Peace Corps visited twice, I finally helped to set up the drip irrigation system that has been collecting dust for the past year and a half, and I taught the girls how to make origami fish. I learned that another volunteer was replacing me, and I had the opportunity to show her around Solenzo and introduce her to my friends and projects. Sister Mary and I went to Bobo together to see about selling the Center’s soap and fabrics there. I turned 25. Maybe, ironically, it was all of this fast paced activity in the last month that made it seem like my day of departure would never come.

            But of course, it did. I bumped up against it awkwardly like a canoe that suddenly touches land unexpectedly. And all of a sudden I felt rushed. Americans put a tremendous amount of weight on goodbyes; we drag them out so that they can sometimes last for days. Burkinabe are not nearly as sentimental. The Tuesday before I left there was a small “surprise” goodbye ceremony during which the girls read out little notes of thanks they had collected for me. The nuns had killed one of our useless, bellicose sheep for the occasion, one less spindly-legged food-stealing beast to get into fights with my dogs. As far as I’m concerned, one less sheep is the greatest gift I’ve ever given the Center. Afterwards the girls and I danced to the sound of djembe, me wildly trying to imitate them as they performed dances they have known since childhood. My earnest attempts produced a lot of good-hearted laughter.  

            I had sectioned off my house, each pile designated for a certain person in the village. To my neighbors, a large bag of clothes and two hand powered flashlights. To my teenage friend who wants to be a doctor, a solar lamp and a calculator so he can study at night. To Rita, perfume. To my ‘grandmother,’ a messenger bag and well-worn pair of shoes. I felt like I was bequeathing the contents of my own will. But somehow I still had too much stuff to carry. This wasn’t helped by all the gifts I received: a set of clay cooking pots, 2 pagne, a kilo of peanuts that was supposed to survive my six week long post Peace Corps trip and make it home to my family. By the end of my rounds of goodbyes I felt weighted with emotion and trinkets.

Some of the goodbyes seemed practically perfunctory. This confused me until I thought about it a little harder. What does a three-minute hug and crying a little really get you? Will it change the way you feel about the person or the length of time that you’ll be apart? Will it alter your experience of the relationship or make it any more or less meaningful? In Burkina Faso, life goes on no matter what happens, if a relative dies, if the rains don’t come, if a friend leaves. You take a deep breath and you keep making tô. Why should I expect anything about that philosophy to change for me?

Despite my thorough understand of this idea, I still wanted to have a good last memory with my girls. To their utter confusion and slight annoyance, the day before my departure I had them pasting strips of paper covered in a mixture of perfectly good flower and water onto balloons I had taped in the shape of a pig. I was reminded repeatedly of the futility of the exercise until, the following night, I appeared with the paper machet pig under my arm and announced that it was filled with candy. I explained the rules of the piñata as I suspended my flying pig to a low hanging branch. I fixed a blindfold to the first intrepid swinger and spun her around three times. When the piñata hit the ground the frenzy made me step back in surprise and abject joy. Afterwards the girls came up to me to show me their handfuls of candy, uttering benedictions to me from smiling mouths filled with tamarind flavored treats. I’m glad that’s how I get to remember them.

             

On Being Deserving of Applause

Reflecting on the end of my Peace Corps Service

 

Coming to the end of your Peace Corps service is not unlike stepping onto a tightrope suspended over a pit of fire. Think of the tightrope as the clean, straight line you need to walk in order to sanely complete your service. All of your projects are in order, you’ve figured out who is getting what in your house, you’ve got your life back home all ready to receive you, and you’ve talked to all of your friends about your pending departure. The ‘pit of fire’ over which you precariously tiptoe is a seething, churning, contradictory mess of emotions ready to gobble you up as soon as you slip. If you are like me you are not walking but koala bear crawling under that tightrope, constantly being licked by the flames and hanging, it seems, as though by a single fingernail at some points.

So, what makes this period so emotional? Why can’t we just wrap up and be done? Besides the mental stress of preparing to move, there is the issue of leaving Burkina Faso behind and reflecting on your service as a whole. What have I really done in my time here? Washington could tell you in a story of numbers. Washington knows, for example, that I taught 40 girls how to start and maintain a garden. They know I have run a dozen sex Ed classes for probably up to 500 kids during my time here. They know that I have spoken to close to 400 mothers about the risks of malaria and they know that I have instructed approximately 100 young women on how to make tofu brochettes. Does that mean I contributed to the development of Burkina Faso? Your guess is as good as mine.

There are other numbers too, numbers that tell of my many failed attempts to carry out some great idea or how many times I accidently offended someone. There are numbers that might describe my false assumptions on coming here or how many times I changed someone’s mind about America (for better or worse). There’s a (small) number for how many words I know in Jula, and also one for how many times I broke down and cried at the prospect of leaving my house. But as lovely and clean as that all sounds to a bureaucrat’s ears, why is it so easy to fall off the tightrope at the end of your service? Why does it get so messy?

Obviously, numbers don’t really tell the whole story, and that’s why I kept this blog. So that, years later, I can understand why I suddenly got so emotional watching Rosine play with the soccer ball I tossed to her the other day, or why I got choked up when Christine crawled into my lap yesterday afternoon. The posts I’ve recorded about my time here serve to provide context for why I couldn’t handle myself last week when my counterpart smiled at me proudly, and why I became unreasonably appreciative when one of my girls went out of her way to greet me before Christmas. Numbers be damned, the weight of humanity in Burkina Faso is completely unquantifiable, and these connections are what my service has really been about. In two years I’ve taken on and given more love than I thought I was capable of and at the end of one’s service those beautiful little moments catch you completely off guard. They knock you off the tightrope.

Below: Moments in the last few months that made me so emotional that I 'fell off my tightrope' 

Sometimes, impatience gets you too. All the things you learned to deal with suddenly become unbearable knowing that you only have a little longer before your water, electricity, food and Wi-Fi comes on demand. Suddenly the fact that you can’t charge your computer is an injustice so great it must be contemplated from your bed for the rest of your day. The fact that your neighbor comments on your weight gain results in an angry tirade to your fellow volunteer about all of the faults of Burkinabe culture. The fact that your bucket bath is cold again means you indignantly decide not to wash your feet. Little punches that can make you stagger too.

It’s okay to wallow a little when you fall into the pit of fire. Everyone does it, and in some ways it’s necessary. It serves to remind you that your quantifiable work here is messy and tangled with human connections and that that’s kind of what makes it beautiful. So soldier on, my dear almost-Return-Peace-Corps-Volunteers. Whether you are doing backflips or kola-bearing like me, what matters is that, here at the end of your service, you still stepped bravely onto that tightrope and sought to give everyone a deserving finale. For that alone you deserve applause.

 

A Christmas Symphony in Nine Movements

Many in the United States have just had the joy of celebrating Christmas, a climactic holiday filled with the promise of friends, family, excessive consumerism, a dash of stress, and an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness for whatever collection of people you find around you. One more thing Christmas celebrations often have in excess is food, and Burkina Faso, while devoid of snowfall and dying foliage in the living room, has plenty to tempt the palate.

            On Christmas morning I rallied my energy and went to mass where I swayed and danced among the rows of my colorfully dressed and jubilant neighbors. Afterwards I mingled eagerly wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and not so subtly hoping I’d be invited to someone’s house for a Christmas meal. Every Burkinabe family prepares a special meal on holidays such as Christmas, often accompanied by one or two kinds of meat. Rice is most popular, and if you live in my neighborhood every meal is accompanied by popcorn, deep fried cookie tid-bits and (strangely) fried shrimp crackers. As is the Burkinabe way, families are always forthcoming with their generous hospitality and by the time I had finished my rounds, two families and the nuns had invited me to eat. I resolved to head back to my house and prepare my stomach for the pending gastronomic inundation.

        On my way home, I received yet another invitation from a neighbor, Arastide, who compelled me to the local cabaret to drink some honey infused millet beer. Honey dolo or ‘hydromiel’ is always a treat for me, but the invitation soon turned into a hostage situation where my neighbor, however polite and generous, refused to release me until I had visited all eight of the households he had in mind. Here is my Christmas symphony in nine (literal) movements.

A church choir sings at mass on Christmas Eve. Although this is not our church, it is a good example of what worship looks like in Solenzo. 

A church choir sings at mass on Christmas Eve. Although this is not our church, it is a good example of what worship looks like in Solenzo. 

Sister Elizabeth in a Christmas Eve conga line!  

Sister Elizabeth in a Christmas Eve conga line!  

First Movement: I’m two calabashes of hydriomiel deep. We are sitting on bamboo chairs surrounded by Arastide’s cousin and her eight children. A girl brings us a full platter of rice and peanut sauce with pork. I eat modestly, sharing the plate with Arastide and carefully guiding the food to my mouth using ‘God’s Fork’ (my right hand). I congratulate myself on how well I’ve paced my eating, and feel fully prepared for my next meal with the nuns.

Second Movement: Ah, okay, we’ve come to a second courtyard where there is…more food? I sit next to the carcass of a recently butchered cow and politely spoon more rice into my mouth. Someone offers me dolo. “No thanks, I’ll be needing to walk after this.”

Third Movement: After much effort, I manage to break away from Arastide and make it to the nuns’ place. This meal is in three courses accompanied by beer and French fries and dessert. I taste a little bit of everything and entertain all in presence by talking about Krampus, Santa Claus and my great uncle being thrown into a bag of coal as a child.

Fourth Movement: I had almost made it home this time before Arastide caught me. I am seated among several men who are several calabashes into their dolo consumption. Someone offers me hibiscus wine. “No, thank you- oh. You’re just going to put that in my glass? Okay.” More rice. More sauce. More meat.

Intermission: My feet are dragging, but Arastide still has a spring in his step. He ushers me into the next courtyard where, miraculously, I am handed not a plate but a beer. Politely I open it and feign enthusiastic sips. It’s warm and nearly flat.

Fifth Movement: I have given Arastide my beer and told him I won’t be drinking anymore. He seems perplexed by my inability to keep up. I tell him this is our last stop: I am expected at two other parties, but he only laughs and tells me jokingly that I am his hostage. Indeed. We enter the next courtyard. Couscous this time, with a side of salad and chicken legs.

Sixth Movement: I have thoroughly missed my other two rendez-vous. With abject defeat and mild Stockholm syndrome, I follow Arastide as he proudly leads me to his own courtyard where I will be eating rabbit head. My stomach at this point has gained so much mass that I believe it has taken on a separate personality. Then, a gift: Arastide leaves the room he has installed me in to eat. Alone, I quickly and discreetly replace the piles of food I have been given back into their respective pots. When he returns I am ‘hungrily’ chasing around the last grain of rice on my plate and nodding with approval at the tender nature of rabbit cheeks.

Seventh Movement: We walk across the street. It is getting dark, and I try, for the fourth time that day, to make an excuse to leave. Arastide brushes the aside and leads me into the courtyard of a smartly dressed family. I am given an orange soda and popcorn. I eat the popcorn. It’s popcorn. When we finally make our excuses to leave, I discreetly shove the orange soda under my chair as I get up.

Eighth Movement: Arastide has run out of houses to take me to. He tells me we are going to a local bar to have a drink and dance. Then he will let me go home and wash so I can come back out again and participate in more festivities. I am in no state to be among pleasant company: bloated beyond reason, slightly drunk and exhausted. I begin to plot my escape.

Eight Movement, Encore: Joshua, my new site mate who teaches at the high school, will be the key to my getaway. When he calls me asking if I’d like to meet him at the cabaret by my house, I spring into action with an all-too-eager sense of purpose. After I gulp down my Coca Cola, Arastide agrees to walk me back to my house where Joshua, with his valiant mountain bike-steed and with his mighty helmet, awaits to cause a distraction while I slip away.

The Ninth and Final Movement: I re-emerge from my house after resting for a few precious minutes. Despite my fatigue, I know there is one more celebration I must attend: my neighbor’s birthday party. I surprise her with a ripe papaya from one of my trees and half a liter of ginger juice. Frail yet festive solar light bulbs perched on trees sharpen the gyrating shadows of the dozen or so women dancing to a crackly speaker system. My neighbor, 22 today, squeals in excitement as she hurries away to reheat the meal she has been preparing all day.

I pause to take in everything around me: The dancing women, that giddy children, the groups of men with dolo calabashes teasing each other, the music, the lights, the joy. Suddenly, though a little homesick, I realize with content that I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas. My neighbor returns with full platters of rice, meat, sauce and dolo. Okay, once more. 

The Sisters of Solenzo

Nuns have a reputation for being strict. While the ‘Soeurs de la Providence’ of Solenzo have no interest in breaking that stereotype, these particular brides of Christ shatter just about every other presumption. Sisters Elizabeth, Jeanne Marie and Marie have played a pivotal role in my service as my mentors, colleagues, counterparts and teachers, and it is finally time for me to give them the attention they deserve in their very own blog post.

            Being a member of a religious society in Burkina Faso has many benefits, not the least of which is support from the religious apparatus. Nuns in Burkina Faso and, from what I can tell, Africa at large, are particularly empowered within society. A woman in Burkina Faso without formal schooling may fall prey to a host of complications and find herself uniquely disenfranchised, but becoming part of a religious order provides an education in and of itself. Apart from learning to read and write by way of the bible, nuns are called upon to serve wherever their congregation sends them, meaning that many nuns have what most Burkinabe don’t: a passport. Congregations support their members financially and often make sure they have very decent accommodations in larger towns so as to welcome travelers and support the local church. (When I was given my site assignment my section head assured me that I was lucky because nuns usually had refrigerators and, consequently, cheese). In Burkina Faso, nuns from different congregations independently run a host of businesses including restaurants, welcome centers and, of course, alternative education centers for girls.

Solenzo’s three dedicated nuns play an integral role within the community. Not only are they strong in reading, writing and speaking French, they also boast a plethora of technical aptitudes from computer skills to accounting and management. This is to say nothing of what they bring to the table in cooking, weaving, soap-making, animal husbandry, bike maintenance, farming, bible instruction and so on. They live together in a small complex with tiled floors and mostly reliable electricity a stone’s throw away from the church. On religious holidays, after congratulating myself for having sat through a four-hour mass, I always look forward to sharing an indulgent meal and one too many bottles of beer, wine or dolo in their comfortable living space. In Burkina Faso, Catholics like their alcohol, and the nuns are no exception. 

While the Sisters take their duties as religious mentors and shepherds very seriously, living a Christian life for them can mean many things. They make certain that the girls at the Center understand that all religions and systems of belief are welcome and respected, and they have never mandated any kind of religious activity. Though the Center celebrates, prays and worships in the way of Catholics, the nuns’ primary goal for the girls at the Center is to produce young women with skills to support themselves and a place to stay out of trouble. As for the spiritual enigma that is their blasphemous Peace Corps Volunteer, never once have I been scolded, pressured or encouraged to actually get up at 6am mass.  

This is what a nun looks like on a motorcycle 

This is what a nun looks like on a motorcycle 

Solenzo’s nuns are the kind that ride motorcycles, host dance parties, enjoy a cold beer and thank Christ for every good harvest season. They have always endorsed my insistence to teach sexual education and family planning at the Center and have supported me in all my crazy endeavors. They are strong examples of independent self-assured women that, while keeping the girls at the Center on a short leash, care deeply about their futures. Recently Sister Elizabeth, the primary manager of the Center, told me a story about one of her struggles with a girl that had attended the Center the previous year. Her uncle had tried to marry her off to a man who already had 3 wives, so the Sister intervened, got a social organization involved, and saved the girl from forced marriage. This year, that girl will be coming back to the Center to continue her education in traditional weaving and earn a little money by way of the commissions that the Center receives.

 I hope it’s clear by now just how lucky I got in Solenzo, and not just because my closest colleagues have a refrigerator with cold beers. One of the toughest things about serving in the Peace Corps can be finding motivated partners to work with. Not only did I come to a site with an already functioning organization, the three nuns and my counterpart, Madame Dioma, form something of a dream team when it comes to completing projects. Strong in French, worldly in their education and motivated in their pursuit to improve the lives of others, these four women have supported me despite how many times I’ve fallen on my face, put my foot in my mouth or simply failed to achieve what I had hoped. Despite the fact that I am not religious, I mean it with all my heart when I say may God bless them. 

From left, Sister Elizabeth, Marie, and Jeanne Marie

(White) Privilege

 

How many of you saw the title of this post and cringed a little? It’s all right to admit it, even if you’re even still silently hoping I won’t offend your sensibilities in the following paragraphs. But whether you are what America calls ‘white’ or ‘of color,’ whether you are comfortable, lavishly decorated in excess or struggle to make ends meet, this blog post won’t spare you in its scrutiny. Therefore, dear reader, tighten your belt and polish your silver spoon.

Privilege is a very difficult thing to talk about in America. We skate around it like well-trained ice dancers, performing impressive feats of denial all with our eyes tightly shut. Those of us that are willing to admit our privilege do it through gritted teeth and with an apologetic air. To escape our guilt some of us read avidly and learn niche phrases so that we can articulate injustice in more accurate euphemisms. Some of us donate to charity and some of us make sure we have a nice diverse group of friends and colleagues. Some of us join the Peace Corps. But however you deal (or not) with having privilege, there is no avoiding that America’s social ladder divides the have’s and the have-not’s largely by race. (And I beg you, don’t point out the cases of exceptionalism to me, I know we have a black president).

Because of how firmly race grips our economic, social, political and cultural systems in America, it has always been a central part of Americans’ identities, and if you don’t think that’s true, try having your race denied you by coming to Burkina Faso. Talking to Burkinabe at the village level, you will often find race boiled down to two, at most three, categories. That’s right, my Apache-Irish-Latino-Sephardic-Euro-Carribbean friend. For most Burkinabe, there are blacks (les noires) which is synonymous with Africans, and whites (les blanches), which is everyone else with the sometimes exception of anyone hailing from Asia. So, imagine my dismay when, upon coming to Solenzo, people started calling me la blanche or white woman.

I don’t need to tell most of you that my hair is kinky and my eyes so dark that you can’t see my pupils, or that I’ve got ‘Jackson 5 nostrils.’ In America, I am black, bi-racial if you want to get technical, and in America, being black means a whole mess of things. It means I had to ask my mom at the tender age of 5 why none of the Barbies in the commercials looked like me. It means I occasionally got followed in stores. It means I had to deal with my white friends asking me why I didn’t speak in Ebonics or identify with hop-hop culture, and meant choosing sides on the playground because even in the fourth grade, kids understood that American society is a study in tribalism. I also don’t need to tell most of you that despite being at the bottom of the racial totem poll, I enjoy a life style that many black Americans don’t have access to. Being adopted, I grew up in a white family and have reaped many of the privileges that come with that. I am caught in that awkward space between privilege and social handicap.

I’ve spent a good chunk of the last 4 years of my life intellectualizing my race and tying all of its intricacies into a carefully constructed web of thought and knowledge. Burkina Faso took that web from me and neatly crushed it into a very simple little answer: You’re white. And it isn’t because of the color of my skin, which is well within the melanin-rich spectrum of Burkina Faso, it’s because of my privilege. Suddenly I get to enjoy all the privileges of being white. Here, that means something more exaggerated than it means in America. In fact, it’s as though I’ve been transported back to the America of the 1960’s when we were still perfectly comfortable admitting that we believe being white means you deserved better treatment. I get put on the bus first sometimes, no matter where my name is on the list. I get to skip everyone in line and take the best seat at a show because I’m the only ‘white’ person. I get forgiven for things that Burkinabe would not be forgiven for.

At a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City

At a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City

However, by the same token, sometimes it means getting singled out in not so positive ways. My difference attracts attention that prompts random men to pursue me in the streets and people to stare at me in public or call out Tubabu (foreigner), as though just to remind me I am not one of them. Recently I was stopped for a traffic violation and made to pay a large sum of money that it was difficult for me to spare, and it was clear to me at the big intersection with over 100 Burkinabe as witnesses that the main motivation for the stop was for the traffic cops to make a scene.

Additionally, as an American I am seen as someone of promise who can provide and who has things to give away.  As far as Americans go, Peace Corps volunteers tend to be young, idealistic, liberal and not expressly heavy on cash flow. When I first understood the way the Burkinabe considered me, I resisted it firmly, saying that in America, I didn’t have any money or outlandish privileges, then launching into a long soapbox speech about racism and our broken higher education system. It took about a dozen pairs of glazed over Burkinabe eyes for me to realize that, though my privilege in America is relative, here it is explosively relative. So relative that that complex and colorful map of social hierarchy we’ve constructed in America makes absolutely no sense to your typical Burkinabe. Having the kinds of rights, access to resources and security that most Americans enjoy, whether black or white or anything in between, is still far ahead of what most people here can even dream of. From that great a distance, the picture of race that we have in America looses its resolution. I am white and I am one of the have’s, just like the rest of the Western world.

Being in Burkina Faso, my sense of what is fair has been twisted and turned on its head. It isn’t fair that 1 in 10 black men will end up in prison in America, or that anything that comes in ‘nude’ doesn’t match my skin tone. It isn’t fair that people of color are profiled and denied access to basic rights, and that black children are treated differently in the classroom, more likely to be shot and less likely to attend schools with enough funding to support them. It isn’t fair that little black girls grow up hating their hair, or that white people run our government. But the very fact that I have this idea of fairness comes from an inherent privilege that, until I came here, I forgot I had. I am completely and utterly entitled to think I deserve better from the world despite everything I already have, swaddled in the privilege that American society has purchased with that familiar currency of other peoples’ suffering. It is my responsibility to understand that, because when it comes to layers of privilege, this is the highest one. 

The Help

Ungrateful child!” I try to keep up with Rita as she stalks ahead of me with a distracted, hurried gate. “Who is ungrateful?” I ask gently, matching her stride. Rita has two children of her own, but with the liberal way the words ‘mother,’ ‘father’ and ‘child’ are used in Burkina Faso I know that she could be referring to any one of a dozen children.

“Badjah!” she says spitting the name out like a dry corn kernel. “My clients come to my salon for me! They would go elsewhere if it weren’t for the good service they get when they are chez Rita. But if I leave for 30 little minutes to run an errand and leave her in charge, she is lazy and rude to the women and they complain!” I know from experience that the words ‘lazy’ and ‘rude’ are also used liberally here. Most Burkinabe would be floored if they saw what kind of behavior it takes to label an adolescent either of those words in America. “Ungrateful!” Rita goes on, “I take her in as my own child, clothe her, feed her, try to teach her something, and look how she acts!”

The ungrateful child in question is a skinny, giggly, post-pubescent fourteen-year-old orphan girl with a bright, rare smile and a fascination with selfies. She is only one child soldier in the army of orphan girls raised as in-house help by Burkinabe women of a certain socio-economic status. Caught in the awkward space between daughters and servants, girls like Badjah often come from the natal village of the family they are adopted into after their birth parents die, and help their new mothers with anything from child-rearing to cooking to running hair salons.  

Badjah

The practice of taking in a young girl for extra help around the house is hardly unique to Burkina Faso, or even Africa-it is practiced in various forms all over the world. It is also not exclusively girls that end up in this situation. Never the less I was somewhat perplexed by Badjah’s role when I first met her. I asked Rita if she was her daughter, and it was explained to me that Rita had taken her in when Badjah was only ten. Her primary job was to care for Leandre, Rita’s youngest child. Unlike Rita’s well-groomed and well-educated eleven-year-old daughter, Badjah has never been to school and does not have much personal property. She, like all Burkinabe girls, is expected to help with household chores and child rearing, but her role and duties are amplified by her status as mother’s-helper. I know a few families with these ‘mother’s-helpers,’ typically around the age of nine or ten when they are adopted (though not officially). The recent addition to Madame Dioma’s family for example, Ouidjah, is nine, and may still be young enough for Madame Dioma to get her back into some kind of formal schooling. This, as per my understanding, is rare.

Though the idea of taking in a child merely for help with household chores can seem callous at first glace, the situation is too nuanced to judge quickly. The children that find themselves adopted by friends or relatives of their deceased or impoverished families often move to larger cities and towns and enjoy a level of food and personal security that would have been impossible in their villages. Often times they get access to some kind of education, whether formal or informal, and consequently they are prepared better for adulthood. In this way, families that are struggling to provide for themselves can send a child to a more affluent family that could use some extra help, and the situation becomes win-win. By the same token however, the quality of treatment that the girls face can vary. It is not hard to imagine what kinds of things can happen to a vulnerable young girl with no family and no resources.

Ouidjah, 9, who lives and works for Madme Dioma. 

 But Badjah and girls like her are lucky. Since she rode to Solenzo on the back of Rita’s moped four years ago, Rita has been grooming Bandjah in the ways of a beautician. Rita is keen on providing Badjah with a way to support herself when she one day leaves her care. This endeavor however, according to Rita, is fruitless. Badjah is (apparently) cantankerous, slow to respond to commands, talks back and displays insufferable laziness, just like any good fourteen-year-old. This perceived fact can draw considerable venom from Rita on occasion. 

However, none of this is to say that Badjah is treated badly. Rita is sharp with her but refuses to use any physical punishment, and though I have heard her threaten to send Badjah back to her village many times, Rita has never actually acted on this threat. She knows that Badjah would probably get pregnant within a year of going back. It is clear to me, spending time for them, that Rita feels more than a sense of responsibility for Badjah. I can tell because no matter how much Rita complains, she keeps trying with her. That, unequivocally, is a mother’s love.

Badjah does not have an easy road ahead. She cannot read or write and her French is very minimal. In addition, she’s at an age where she is very vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy. I have chatted with Rita multiple times about sitting Badjah down for a sexual education lesson, and though Rita has agreed I know it will be hard for me to communicate with Badjah in her mother tongue about such a sensitive issue. Especially when I break out the wooden penis. I am lucky however in that she trusts me. Her face brightens when she sees me and she sticks out her fist to initiate our secret handshake. We speak in broken French and Djula and she enjoys being tickled. One night, closing time at Rita’s salon, Badjah comes to sit next to me. She presses her body into mine and rests her head on my shoulder. I can tell that, though she is tired and worn from her chores, she is entirely content.

Badjah (left) and Kevine (right), Rita's daughter, on the day of Kevine's baptism.

 

 

Glamour

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word 'Africa?' Sun? Jungle? Zebra? Foufou? Dust? War? Starvation? Vacation? 

For me, that word is COLOR. Everywhere I have been on this great continent, I have found that the locals, especially women, reject the mundane and monotone for the multi chromatic and the brilliant, the bland for the bold and the simple for the elaborate. This is done with the help of what in Burkina Faso is called 'pagne,'  cloth of infinite patterns and colors that is sold by the yard and stitched into intricate outfits by armies of local tailors. Pagne can be found all over sub-saharan Africa, though most of it today is made and shipped from China. During market day in Solenzo, I can comb through the pagne stalls for hours, knowing that every week will bring new models and colors. 

Burkinabé women take this responsibility to color very seriously, especially during a special event. During a 'fête' in Solenzo, you may find yourself enveloped in a kaleidoscope of well dressed and coiffed women, their dresses, skirts and head wraps rivaled only by their jewelry and bright makeup. During the double Catholic whammy of Fall baptism and Assumption Day, I couldn't let so many magnificently dressed women go un-photographed. Perhaps after you see the array of photos below, you too will come to associate the words 'Africa' and 'color.' 

Masks

 

Burkina Faso, like many African countries, is a place of extremes. Omnipresent and ever-multiplying cell phone towers out in the bush belie the lack of clean drinking water. A sophisticated understanding of how the malaria parasite affects the body and a complete reliance on the magical curing powers of boiled leaves for treatment go hand in hand. A western style democracy and parliament still relies on the wisdom of the Naba or traditional chief, to help govern. All that is to say that no matter how quickly Burkina moves in the direction of western-defined, new age ‘modernity,’ they hold very tightly to aspects of their culture that predate colonialism.

One tradition for which Africa in general is perhaps best known is the appearance of masks during different events or distinct times of the year. Although masks are found throughout Africa from Mali to Zimbabwe, the way they function, appear, and what they represent varies greatly. Even within Burkina Faso, two neighboring villages can have completely distinct masks with difference behaviors associated with them. In Burkina Faso at least, ‘masks’ is a loosely used term. The costumed spirits that appear in villages, at funerals and in the height of hot season are not always clad in actual masks. Sometimes they are covered in local leaves or wrapped in fabric or reeds. Sometimes they take human form and sometimes they look like they have just accidentally crash landed on earth from some far away galaxy. Sometimes they dance by gyrating or shaking or spinning, sometimes they ignore onlookers and sometimes they chase, hit or embrace them. 

The few times I have asked Burkinabe about masks, there seems to be some kind of cognitive dissonance associated with how they fit into Burkinabe culture. There is no notion or mention of the young men that live inside the costumes, even though sometimes you can see their basketball shorts peaking out from between the grass skirts. There is no notion of controlling or limiting where the masks can go or what they are allowed to do, even though I have witnessed some masks injure children (though not badly). There is a fear and a wonder associated with the appearance of masks, and all Burkinabe, whether educated or not, flock to see them when they begin to dance.

In Burkina Faso, masks appear in the Western region in the Spring, generally between March and May. Every two years there is a masks festival in Dedougou, a larger Burkinabe town near Solenzo, where masks from all of over Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Mali and Senegal dance throughout the day and night in a giant stadium. Solenzo boasts a particularly menacing brand of masks. They usually come out in mid-May for about a week or so, and from 4pm to about 5:30 they terrorize the town with a band of young men and noisy instruments. Solenzo’s masks resemble faceless, freshly cut, angry Christmas trees. They are covered in local leaves held together with chords that make something of a plume on the top, and they carry with them long switches for hitting people. For this reason, they command more fear than wonder. I was visiting a friend during mask time and the length of our conversation found me biking home at night. Having heard that the masks were out that night, my friend hopped on her moped and said she’d escort me home to protect me. This has happened more than once.

During mask time, certain men in the community will also carry switches, suddenly drunk on the ability to chase their screaming family members and friends around Solenzo and threaten them with the flick of the wrist. This is always done in jest, of course, and though they do sometimes actually hit people it I’ve never seen anyone hurt. Meanwhile, the masks do laps around the town with their young escorts, stopping in a central location to dance and fling their own switches. Crowds of people trip over each other in an effort to get away from them when they charge, and occasionally parents will hand a young, screaming child to a mask to terrorize. This year, crammed between numerous Burkinabe while watching the masks dance, I am struck once again by the contrasts found within almost every aspect of Burkinabe culture: Laughter and screams mélange with the cries of distraught children, just as the men, women and children that surround me are both trying to protect me and use me as a human shield. Despite the fact that I can occasionally see one of the masks adjusting his leaves so he can see where he is charging, seeing masks has always filled me with energy. There is something pretty incredible and humbling about witnessing a tradition that has outlived wars, famine, colonialization, slavery, and Westernization. 

Every Last Unruly One

 

 

A few nights ago I witnessed something that upset me. I was sitting in near darkness with two women, one of which was somewhat forcefully restraining her daughter so that the other women, bent over her, could finish her work. The child, barely four, was wailing and screaming, trying desperately to escape the pair who's stone-set faces showed no acknowledgment of how much pain the girl was in. Occasionally the crying would stop, then start up again, conjuring sounds of frustration from her mother who would occasionally tisk and straighten her daughter's body. The other woman's hands worked expertly, quickly, but watching I knew that no amount of skill or agility could change how painful it was or how it wold hurt for days some come. But it was, both women insisted, entirely necessary that this be done. 

This child is not being excised. She is having her hair braided. For those of you that have never had an African woman braid your hair, whether corn rows or box braid, synthetic hair or not, I can tell you it is very painful, and it takes hours. They pull and twist and tighten each braid fiercely, as though you've done something to deserve it. Sleeping that first night it difficult, and the headache can last for up to two days. Needless to say, it isn't good for your hair either. 

It is extremely rare to see a woman in Burkina Faso elect to wear her hair natural. From the age of a couple of months old a girl's hair is either coiffed, in a state of being coiffed, or in the uncomfortable middle ground between coifs. By the time girl  hits 15, her hair line is already starting to recede and their natural hair is very thin, and by adulthood it is so  severely damaged that the false hair or 'mesh' that women have attached to their heads can barely hold on. Despite the fact that shea butter, coconut oil and jojoba can be found in abundance here, women would rather a harsh chemical treatment and a new weave every two or so weeks. When I talk about hair care, even to Rita who has been responsible for the fate of more heads than a guillotine during the Reign of Terror, I get a cross-eyed look. Natural hair is neither desired nor encouraged to grow to its full potential.

This fact has made my recent transformation a little awkward. For those of you that don't vigorously scrutinize my social media accounts for signs of elusive selfies, I have recently cut off most of hair. This was a big deal for me, since I have been growing my hair out for nearly a decade and a half now in hopes of someday reachinig that holy grail that is shoulder-length. It's been a steady battle, my weapons of choice the comb, copious hair product and bobby pins. Despite these tried and true methods, my efforts are sometimes inadequate against the thousands of tiny strands fighting guerrilla warfare all over my head with the singular goal of making me look like a mad scientist. So when I was about 13, I called in reinforcements: a chemical relaxer. I have been chemically treating my hair for 13 years, and December 26th, 2015 was the first time since adolescence that I've had to face this unfamiliar yet totally natural tangle of curls.

A little background: I am a biracial adopted child and I grew up in a family of stunning straight haired women. Despite my Russian ancestry,  my curls are nearly as tight as a West African's and just as uncooperative. As a child my mother learned to braid, corn row and twist, but nothing she did could ever slake my desire for long, straight hair. Through the years I struggled through different hair styles and levels of acceptance of my curls, finally reaching a happy medium with lose, chemically relaxed locks and enough daily product to drown a small herd of wholly mammoth.  

You might expect Burkina Faso to be the perfect place for a lost child of the African diaspora to find her 'roots.' Unfortunately, it turns out that rocking your fly fro with cokscrew curls so perfect they could open a bottle of wine is the least Burkinabe thing you can do. When I first got to country, women swooned over my long hair jealously, telling me that they wanted to twist braid and 'coif' it. I had reached a comfortable length with my hair, and the harsh climate was damaging enough without letting an African woman 'tame' my hair. The reception I received upon my drastic cut was less that warm. Some scowled. Some gasped. Others laughed. One of the nuns outright told me she didn't like the way I looked. But I held on to my natural black girl pride and assumed a vigorous care regime, determined not to loose any more of my fragile curls.  I resisted constant offers to be properly coiffed and smiled sadly at the girls when they offered, over and over again, to take a broken-toothed comb to my hair. Why was it so essential that I hide the way my hair grows out of my head naturally? 

Tiny tufts held together with plastic string. 

I am particularly interested in the question of hair because Burkina Faso is not unique in its hesitancy to embrace natural locks. In fact, I can draw an eerie parallel with how people reacted in Burkina after my cut and how it felt going natural in my hometown of New York. Despite the recent trend in the United States for black women to cut off their treated hair, a quick look at popular culture will tell you the Americans aren't loving natural black hair either. Look at Kerry Washington in Scandal, or Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek or even that paragon of black female power Beyoncé. In fact, ask yourself how often you see any black female icon regularly sport her natural hair, untreated and un-weaved. Tyra Banks once did a show where she asked black girls as young as 5 what kind of hair they'd like to have, and without fail they all selected the straight blond wig from the array of hair styles that sat mounted before them on mannequins. (In fact, one pointed at the Afro and explained that wearing your hair that way meant you were lower class). Having been not-so-subtly bombarded with the idea that long straight or wavy hair is what makes a woman beautiful, it was no surprise to me when I consciously felt men's eyes pass over me more readily when I went out to a bar after my cut. 

 

The negetive energy towards my hair in the States followed me to Africa. Burkina Faso is no exception when it comes to the damages colonialism left behind. They are economic and political but they are also social and aesthetic. Lighter skinned woman with straighter hair are considered more beautiful than their darker sisters, who always have the option of any one of the numerous skin bleach products that can be found in the market. Faux western style jewelry is preferred to African-made accessories and foundation doesn't come in the smooth dark chocolate color of the women here. But most importantly, coiffed hair seems to be a pre-requisite to beauty. There is an aversion I have seen women exhibit to being too much their natural selves, and despite the fact that many aspects of beauty here are uniquely African, the distaste for natural hair is no more Burkinabe than Donald Trump is presidential. My hair, with all it's natural flyness, is not good for my country or this one.  

When I finally did relent and let Rita twist golden mesh into my hair so that I had long, flowing twists, I was immediately aware of the difference. Men looked at me more. Women gasped and complimented me when I approached saying, 'now you are well coiffed!' The nun who doesn't like my hair exclaimed, 'I definitely like you better this way.' Upon my arrival at the Center one of the girls covered her open mouth with her hands and said 'Elena, you have become beautiful...' I don't know what that means, I wanted to say to her. Your perfect black skin and beautiful shoulders and the way you wear your pagne is beautiful. The way you carry 70 lbs of water on your head and swing your hips is stunning. Your dark eyes and tight curls and perfect bone structure should be immortalized in marble. Your natural curls are beautiful, every last unruly one. 

Woman of the Week: Mme Monique Dioma

Although I have written about my lovely counterpart before, I think that by the end of this post you will agree that she deserved some additional screen time. As you may know, Mme Dioma or 'Mamma' as even the nuns call her, has been my loyal guide in Solenzo since the fist day I set foot in this sleepy, cotton-filled town. Mme Dioma is a deeply spiritual woman, up at 6am every day for church kind of spiritual, and her devotion to Jesus is matched only by her devotion to her work. 

Mme Dioma is the mother of five grown children. Her four daughters, of which Rita is one, are scattered around Burkina Faso in various large cities emulating their mother with their high levels of education and success. Her son, three years my junior, is currently at university in Bobo studying law. Mme Dioma herself is the eldest of eleven children, the youngest of which is actually only a few years older than yours truly.

Having always been part of a big family, Mme Dioma considers everyone of the appropriate age her child and anyone else a brother or sister. She approaches people with a disarming familiarity and confidence that made it very easy for me to fall under her wing. She is, like my own mother, a Jill-of-all-trades, and can instruct you in anything from making tô sauce to how to best sell a promising product. This Renaissance quality she possess can only come, I imagine, from having to do everything  for her family after she was married. Her husband, who I will try not speak too much of, turned out to be less than devoted to his family when confronted with daughter after daughter before God gave him a son. But his infidelity and frequent absences brought him nothing but yet another daughter, this time out of wedlock, which Mme Dioma also ended up caring for. 

Despite having to face parenthood largely alone, Mme Dioma saw 4 out of her 5 children through university and 5 out of 5 on to successful careers, something almost unheard of for someone not living in a large city with a solidly middle class upbringing. But her motivation didn't stop at being an excellent parent. Mme Dioma still pushes herself to attain new professional and personal heights every day. About 8 years ago she saw an opportunity to be a salesperson for an American company based in Arizona and jumped at the opportunity to augment her income and build he business skills. She works with a women's association in Solenzo and sometimes can be heard on Solenzo's local radio talking about women's issues and women in the political sphere. When she comes to the Center to teach the girls French, she always incorporates women's issues into her lessons, determined to sensitize the girls about excision, unsafe sex and the consequences of early pregnancy. 

The gears in her head are always turning. Often, when we are in a training together, she will reach over and grip my arm and whisper into my ear 'ça me donne des idées!´ or 'this gives me ideas!' Afterwards, I will bitter sweetly watch my comrades bike off to the bar as Mme Dioma pulls me close to explain how she'll end female genital mutilation in Solenzo. 

her motivation, courage and dynamism are often what keeps me motivated to do my best, because she accepts nothing less. Just like a good mother, she pushes me and praises me, making sure I know when she appreciates me work. This is in and of itself is a huge reward for a Peace Corps Voluteer. Without her by my side to advocate for me and show me what can happen when a Burkinabe is truly motivated to work, I may have given up a long time ago. 

Woman of the Week: Mme. Genevieve

Mme Genevieve in her courtyard

Mme Genevieve in her courtyard

Yet another fine Monday and yet another fine lady. Our woman of the week today is Mme. Genevieve, one of my very close friends here in Solenzo. Genevieve or ‘Yaba’ as her grandchildren call her, is 76 years old and lives about a 5 minute bike ride away from yours truly. She is a deeply Catholic woman with a love for Jesus and all things fermented and liquid based. Though Genevieve is nearly blind, she welcomes me with a toothy smile when I get close enough for her to see me and offers me the best available chair in the courtyard. In moments one of her grand children is running off to the bar to pick us up a couple of cold beers over which we discuss women’s rights, American politics or Genevieve’s luck in the fields that year. If I'm lucky, she shows off by popping off the bottle cap with her teeth.

Genevieve is the only surviving child of her mother, who gave birth upwards of 5 times. Despite having lost her husband 8 years ago, Genevieve still works in the fields every year to produce corn and millet, a pursuit she engages in largely alone. She keeps pigs in her family courtyard, which she sells to augment her meager earnings off season. Genevieve was a primary school teacher in her youth, but after marrying, her husband quickly shut down her career and they started moving all over Burkina before settling in Solenzo. She has four children and many grand children, the youngest of which live in her courtyard and pay rent by perpetrating all kinds of mischief. These two youngsters, 10 and 8 years old, greet me peevishly when I come over and rush to take my bike so that they can ring the bell, change my gears, and  drain the batteries on my bike light.

Despite not having much money to speak of, Genevieve always presents me with a beer when I arrive, a gesture that I thought would wear off in the first couple of months of our friendship but seems to be a ritual now. Sometimes, she will call me to come over because her daughter is preparing a special meal or slaughtering a chicken that night. Once, she biked all over Solenzo looking for me so she could deliver about two kilos of sugared peanuts that she had made for me. Mme. Genevieve gets a shout out this week not just because her generosity is unbounded, but also because she never let her husband’s death slow her down or stop her from supporting herself and her family. At the age of 76 she toils in the fields for up to 7 hours a day during the wet season, and can only be found sitting down when she has guests over. She speaks 4 languages and asks no apologies for spending time in bars and cabarets, spaces traditionally occupied and dominated by men. When I am with her, I see all the strength for which she has never been lauded, and it makes me happy even to sit beside her in silence. 

Woman of the Week: Rita Dioma

Rita on 8 Mars

Rita on 8 Mars

Our woman of the week this fine Monday is Rita Dioma, one of my counterpart, Monique Dioma's, four daughters. Rita runs a local beauty salon in Solenzo where she takes care of everything from hair to nails to eyebrows and eye lashes. Rita works from about nine in the morning till past six at night every day, and during that time her fingers never stop moving. Whether it's braiding or nail-painting or eyelash application, Rita's salon is always full of glamorous, smiling women and a gaggle of children to boot. 

Rita and I became friends very slowly during my first year in Solenzo. Her salon was a place I could go and feel comfortable surrounded by the warm energy of women and lots of pretty things. I realized we were really becoming close one day when I pulled up on my bike in the afternoon and Rita gave me a big, unsolicited smile. "Welcome Elena," she said casually, "come sit." 

Rita's son, Leandre

Rita's son, Leandre

Rita and her daughter Kevine

Rita and her daughter Kevine

Rita is about 7 years my senior and the mother of two children, Kevine, 11, and Leandre, 4. Rita left school in the equivalent of 10th grade and sought to fulfill her childhood dream of opening a salon. Rita is probably the only person in Solenzo who understand's my American humor and is tickled rather than alienated by my strange habits. She goes out of her way to make me feel comfortable and relaxed every time I am around her in such a way that I almost forget we don't come from the same place. Her confidence, intelligence and the ease with which she balances her professional life, home life, and social life have always been striking and inspiring to me.

The father of Rita's two children is a nurse working outside of Bob-Dioulasso, so Rita is effectively working and living as a single parent right now. Even when she marries him later this year, Rita will likely carry on shouldering the burden of her work and her children largely independently. She does this, of course, without batting an eye and with unquestionable poise. Rita gets a shout out from me this week not only because she is there for me when I'm upset, giddy, when there is no one to help me celebrate my birthday or when I just need girl talk, but also because she is an example of a woman who supports herself in her ambitions and works to a achieve them. For all these reasons and more, I am proud to call Rita my friend. 

Happy International Women’s Day! Now get back in the kitchen.

I have decided it has been sufficiently long since my last feminist rant that I'm now justified in posting another. 

For 8 Mars, International Women’s Day, I resolved to float around Solenzo and partake in the various activities while saturating myself in the wonderfully consuming power of Burkinabe women. My mission took me to the church, where my colleagues and friends the nuns live, to the hair salon where my best friend works, to both of Solenzo’s clinics where mothers bring their children for checkups, and, of course, to the Center, where my girls were giddy at the idea of having the day off. Everywhere there was celebration in honor of women.

On the 7th, I taught my girls to make bracelets to help them track and understand their periods. Even broaching the subject was taboo at first, but I'm happy to say that today a hoard of them came to my courtyard with questions and giggles and a curiosity that can only have come from never having the opportunity to talk about this before.   

On the 7th, I taught my girls to make bracelets to help them track and understand their periods. Even broaching the subject was taboo at first, but I'm happy to say that today a hoard of them came to my courtyard with questions and giggles and a curiosity that can only have come from never having the opportunity to talk about this before.   

Now I must admit that I find this holiday a bit peculiar in Burkina Faso. Despite the fact that there are, in most places, no holds barred when it comes to the festivities, everything seems to be held very, very tightly in the hands of men. All things considered, sometimes this day can just seem like a gracious nod in the direction of the kitchen. This idea was reinforced for me when I was invited to a colleague’s house for lunch. When I arrived, his girlfriend was already there, washing fish and vegetables in preparation for a meal that she would be cooking for the next two hours. She gave me a demure nod but didn’t reward me with eye contact.

Over a couple of beers and two hours, my colleague, who is very well educated but very narrow minded in many ways, led me through a discussion of American politics, espionage, military mite, economics and of course, gender equality. With no shyness or apology he described to me why the structure of Burkinabe marriages forbid the woman to be equal to the man in the home, why educating women leads to divorce and why no man would accept a woman that made more money than he did. He explained why men couldn’t be seen washing clothes, cooking for the woman, or doing any other household chores. He explained that if women wanted recognition and respect, they had to work for it like men did. Poetically undermining his point was the young woman tirelessly buzzing around the house, cooking, cleaning, arranging and never stoping to be congratulated for he efforts. Work for it.

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I got through most of this conversation with a wry smile on my face and only the occasional spontaneous feminist combustion. Meanwhile, I did everything in my power to bring this young woman into the conversation. I asked for her take on what he was saying but she just smiled and me apologetically, glanced at her boyfriend, and then continued her business. When she served the meal, my colleague criticized her cooking. Slowly I watched him build his view of the world around her like a house-shaped pad-locked cage.

International Women’s day is an incredibly joyful celebration. In Solenzo, there was singing, dancing, women’s soccer matches and even some cross-dressing. For one glorious day out of the year, African women are celebrated for all that they are to the society. For the rest of the year we forget how much of the weight of society they actually bare. And we will go on forgetting until we begin to expand the definition of work to include the endless toil that starts for some women at 4 in the morning and ends never, every day, all year. We will go on forgetting until women are allowed to have the right to their own bodies, a right that men take for granted. We will go on forgetting until we stop telling girls that there is only one way to be a woman, and boys that there is only one way to be a man.

Look closely... 

Look closely... 

What bothered me most about my conversation with my colleague yesterday was not just that he would dare to spew such backwardness on a day when we are supposed to be celebrating women. What bothered me was the terrifying notion that I am wrong: That standing steadfast in the delicate mix of cultural relativity, there are no pillars labeled ‘universal values.’ Or, that even if such ideological pillars do exist, perhaps equal opportunity for both genders is not one of them. What if he is right? What if the future we are pushing towards in America isn’t one we should be promoting elsewhere in the world? If that is the case, where do we go from here?

I’m not a particularly dogmatic or self-righteous person, and I have traveled enough to know that my values are upside down and backwards in some places. I have given ground on many things since coming here, but this isn’t territory I’m willing to abandon. When my colleague suggested we ban African women from watching western television, it occurred to me that what was really going on was fear. He was terrified by the notion of women gaining more formal power, because where would that leave the men? Marriage had no meaning without the traditional dynamic. His fear is founded. He should be running for the hills. Here come the women, all coked up on empowerment and ready to argue with their husbands about how much money they spend on alcohol and how many children they want to have. And just to scare him a little more, this month I’ll be posting photos and profiles of the most incredible women I’ve met here, women who, with or without a man, are shaping African feminism with their own hands.

 

Be afraid. Be very afraid. 

 

Why Wonder Woman Wasn't Burkinabe

As many Americans are unaware, yesterday was International Women’s Day. (I suppose the word ‘international’ is used loosely here). Though we like to shove our problems of inequality under the gender rug in America, this holiday is a big deal all over Africa and is often celebrated with much fanfare, food, and sometimes even the appearance of masks. Men break out the marmites and try their hand at cooking while women dance and participate in contests and games. There is music and rice and sauce and friend things and fun to be had by all.

            Because I live in a constantly churning bath of young, impressionable estrogen, I have been excited to celebrate this day for some time now. On the 7th, the girls and I embarked on a menstrual journey to learn about our periods, what happens in our bodies during the cycle and why it is important to track them. With mediocre French and a rough drawing of a uterus on the blackboard, I tried to explain to my girls, for the 3rd time now, exactly what the menstrual cycle is. With sound effects and colorful chalk I traced the path of an egg as it leaves the ovaries and glides through the fallopian tubes to the womb and finally out of the body. I employed Oscar-worthy performance skills in depicting the symptoms of PMS. I abandoned my dignity with graphic motions aimed at my abdomen to try and illustrate what exactly I was talking about.

            They didn’t wake up until I broke out the beads and told them we’d be making menstrual bracelets. All of a sudden they were a rush of hands and concentrated faces, hoarding materials and getting cross-eyed trying to thread beads. Due to an unfortunate restriction in the color of the beads I was able to find, the colors ended up being red, white blue and gold. A bunch of Burkinabe running around with the American (or heaven forbid French) flag on their arms? I think not. Instead, I devised that these would be ‘Wonder Woman Menstrual Bracelets,’ and that I would tell them a little about the scantily clad, busty super hero who was supposed to be a paragon of female power in American culture. In the half an hour I searched on Google for images, I found exactly one image of this super hero with pants on, and exactly none where her breasts were not so perky they practically sat on her shoulders.

This is a about as vanilla as it gets.  

This is a about as vanilla as it gets.  

But so help me, I was going to make this work. I played them a slide show of images and tried to convey that Wonder Woman represented strong women who took charge of their bodies and futures. I’m not sure they heard me over their own gasps. When I set my computer down to keep talking, one of the girls politely asked me to close it so the slide show would stop playing. Message: received. You’re only powerful if you have large breasts and no leg fat. Thank you America. Suddenly the French flag didn’t sound so bad.

Rosine studiously threads her bracelets.  

Rosine studiously threads her bracelets.  

Quickly switching gears I pushed ahead with the menstrual bracelets. I taught them to separate each stage of the cycle by color: Menstruation, the follicular phase, ovulation (the fertile period), and the luteal phase. I taught them the significance of each, over and over, and still I don’t think they understood. In the end, I worked with almost every girl individually to explain the bracelets, but my words got lost in the colors, the tangle of the strings, and quiet hoarding of the (very expensive) beads so that they could sneak them onto longer and longer pieces of string. They listened earnestly, but something about what I was saying didn’t quite click, especially for the ones that didn’t speak French. I repeated the information and forced them to spit it back at me, and then at each other I various languages, resulting in little cracks in the wall of ignorance. Little itty biddy fractures. Hopefully I won’t need Wonder Woman’s strength (or leotard and firm buttocks) to break through the rest of the way. 

The finished product  

The finished product  

Girls rule.  

Girls rule.  

All Quiet on the West African Front

After a long holiday weekend of questions and nail bititing, the news finally came in: Peace Corps Burkina Faso is here to stay. There are, as you might imagine, a lot of mixed feelings about this decision. On the one hand, we as Peace Corps volunteers can breathe a sigh of relief that we don't have to pack up our beautiful lives, drop all of our friendships and projects and say goodbye to our pets. Many of our families do not feel the same way. News outlets and media sources constantly call us back and forth between believing this was an isolated incident and believing that this attack is start of something that should really concern us, and many are scraping for more information to justify their feelings in either direction.  

To those that are angry with this decision, remember that any Peace Corps Volunteer can take 'interrupted service' at any time and leave Burkina Faso with the full benefits of an RPCV. I, personally, am confident in the Peace Corps' decision to stay, not just because an evacuation would quickly reveal my lack of life plans beyond the drinking tea in Solenzo, but because I have faith in the collective decision making power of Washington, the US Embassy in Burkina, and Peace Corps.  Having to sit through endless safety trainings, wearing a bike helmet where no one has heard of one, texting two to three phones to get permission whenever we spend time away from site, harsh restrictions on where we are actually allowed to go in the country- all this has assured me that Peace Corps takes our safety very seriously, sometimes maybe even a little too seriously. 

The conversation is ongoing and the Peace Corps community remains vigilant. For now, I plan to continue fighting terrorism in my own way by doing everything in my power to support my community, because the Peace Corps does so much more than small development projects. 90% of my work here is about building relationships and exchanging culture so that the ugliness, hatred and misunderstanding of the West that breed these abhorrent acts of violence do not creep deeper into communities like this one. Believe it or not this is important work, and I intend to keep doing it for as long as I can. 

Bang Bang (I'm still okay)

As many of you have likely already heard, there was a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou last night. I won't go too deep into detail, head to BBC for a great article that does a splendid job of keeping us up to date, but I'll give a brief summary of what I understand amidst the shifting details: Last night around 8pm, 6 to 7 Al-Qaeda affiliated attackers (from the same group, AQIM, responsible for the attacks in Mali), ignited two car bombs in front of the Hotel Splendid in Ouaga, kicking off an attack that has taken at least 23 lives and caused many more injuries. The hotel and café next door where the attack took place are heavily trafficked by Westerners. As of this morning, the hostages they held during the night have been liberated and at least 4 of the attackers have been killed, but rumors of the remaining two still at large continues to test our collective sense of security. 

Every Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso (including yours truly) is safe, has a full belly, and is waiting with baited breath to hear news from Head Quarters. We are crowding cyberspace with our texts, keeping each other updated, checking up and checking in. It's a heavy question: After two incidences of political unrest, Ebola at our doorstep, trouble at our borders and a 2 week long consolidation, could these be the last days of Peace Corps Burkina Faso for the foreseeable future? Will the message come this afternoon, pack a bag and say goodbye? Or will we be told to lie low and continue enjoying life under our generous mango trees? 

Every Burkinabe I have talked to is confused. What is happening in the capital is so far from how they see their country it almost doesn't make sense. After working as hard as they have to create a free and fair democratic system, something tiny and poisonous has snuck in an robbed them of their well-earned political stability. Jeff Hudson said it best when he told me "It would be terrible if we had to evacuate, but what is really unfair is the fact that we'd have to leave all these people behind."

 

Again, I am safe, and will remain safe. Stay tuned.