According to the words I pronounced during the swearing in ceremony, I am now bound to protect the United States Constitution against terrorists. Don’t worry, I’m on it.
The last week has been nothing short of a whirlwind of formalities meaningful and otherwise. The heaviest of these events of course was saying goodbye to my host family in Zoro, but this was preceded by a slew of ‘final examinations’ including language tests, presentations, essays, trainings and personal interviews. Training rolled to a slow and grueling close, and by the end we trainees were burdened by exhaustion, boredom, and the inevitable battered egos that come with a week of scrutiny by higher-ups.
All of it had left me emotionally exhausted and completely unprepared for the last two days I had to spend with the family that has fed me, housed me, taught me, teased me and cared for me for the past two months. On Saturday morning, the day before we left for Ouaga, I woke up early and set about packing. My host mother helped me with my laundry and and stuffing things into my bag, saying periodically “Ma fille va laisser sa maman!” My daughter is going to leave her mother!
At three that afternoon (Burkina time, so more like 4:30), I finished packing my bags and headed out to the mango grove behind the mosque. Most of the other stagiaires living in Zoro were already there, and steadily the grove began to fill up with Peace Corps staff, children, animals, the elder Burkinabe men of the community and, finally, women.
Sexism exists everywhere in Burkina, especially in villages, but this ceremony provided a few prime examples of how low women’s status in the community is. The men occupied the inner circle seated on plastic chairs and looking stoic and important. The children, ever-present and always moving, rolled in the dust around the trees and found little gaps between their fathers knees so that they could see the goings-on. The women, arriving last, took their place about 15 feet outside of the circle and collected themselves under a large tree.
The ceremony began with speeches by the Peace Corps staff thanking the chief, praising the chief, honoring the chief, and compelling the chief, who is the sole person making the decision as to whether or not the villages will continue to accept Peace Corps trainees. The male heads of family nodded with each appraisal. My host father was no where to be seen, but presently my host mother peevishly snuck in during one of the speeches and, bless her soul, took a plastic chair for herself close to the men.
When the Peace Corps staff had finished their speeches they turned and asked us, the trainees, to say a few words. Oh… were we supposed to prepare something for this? Were we supposed to… well, you see we didn’t… I looked at my fellow trainees expecting the solidarity of confused and slightly amused looks but I was taken aback when I saw ten pairs of eyes staring at me expectantly. Damn you people. As the designated ‘chef du village,’ a mostly meaningless title that meant I was the point person for the trainees in the village, the other trainees took great joy in teasing me with necessary responsibilities and formalities, such as this one.
I chuckled as I stood up and spread my hands to address the small crowd. I thanked the families for their acceptance of us as strangers in their homes who, coming in, didn’t know the difference between to and rice (this got a chuckle from the Burkinabe). I tried to express our appreciation for their kindness, their acceptance of our strange habits, and their unwavering tolerance of our alien ways. I sat down and thought about what I had said. Yes, we are veritably aliens. We wash our clothes differently, carry our water differently, eat our food differently, listen to different music and draw conclusions from fundamentally different values. Hell, we even shit differently. The more I think about it the more our cultures diverge.
When the ceremony was over and we had all come up to give our host families certificates (the Burkinabe love certificates), several women brought huge vats of food for us all to share. Here’s the pecking order: The Americans, the older men, the older boys, the women and finally the little ones. The fifteen or so pounds of rice and chicken was gone in 30 minutes.
Then, as I had made my host mother promise, we started a dance circle. The women clapped and teased and sang, pulling us into the circle to try the traditional dance with each of them. They applauded us despite the fact that our renditions of their ethnic dance resembled freshly caught halibut fighting for their lives on the slippery deck of a fishing boat.
The next morning I was securing the last of my bags and various family members were drifting sadly in and out of my room when I heard the familiar “ko ko ko” that indicated the arrival of an important visitor. My host father, who never enters my house, stood outside waiting for me to greet him. Ziba Youssef is the father of over twenty children and the husband of four women. During my stay he treated me like one of the many women under his responsibility, doling out ridiculous curfews when I would go to visit friends in other families and needing to give approval before I took any action that wasn’t of a personal nature. But he has a sense of humor, and his tone with me was always soft and nurturing. He plays with the children and teases his wives, even indulging me when I engage in futile negations over my 9pm curfew. Personally, I fight between the part of me that resents him for not letting my host mother use the solar light I gifted the family and the part of me that sees a good husband, an attentive father and an essential pillar of this family’s structure.
When we had exchanged the necessary greetings my host father reached out and took my hand. “Leila,” he said, his eyes somber, “Je ne peux-je ne sais pas…” (his French is very limited). He righted himself and instead spoke a few words to me in Nuni, squeezing my hand gently. Then he nodded and slowly sauntered away. I didn’t need to understand what he said to know that he was grateful to me for the role I had played in his family.
I presented my gifts to my host family as they lay reclined under their hangar: two dish towels embroidered with scenes from new york city, two good-quality shopping bags, two multi-tool devices, some photographs I had taken during our time together and, for good measure, another solar lantern so that my host mother could cook at night. I had also bought Ousman a pair of new shoes at the market when the loss of his own pair prevented him from going to school. Finally, I had candy for the children. I felt like Santa Clause as I paraded around the various family compounds finding all of the children who had run to greet me and unburden me when I arrived home and fought for a chance to be tossed up in the air when I was in a particularly good mood. I knew them all by name and made sure each one received a piece.
As the women and children followed me back into my compound to help me take all of my things to the designated spot where the Peace Corps would pick them up, I finally got a chance to say goodbye to my host mother. When I approached her she looked at me and offered her hand for a half-hearted hand-shake, then she turned and walked back to the fire. This broke my heart. Later, one of the other trainees said they saw her crying.
There are a lot of things I will miss about Zoro. I will miss teasing my feisty host sister and I will miss the call to prayer. I will miss sitting with my host mother as she prepares dinner and I will miss my host grandmother complaining when I don’t greet her properly. I will miss my host mother calling out in the morning “Leila, tu laves pas?” and responding as always, “Oui mamman, j’arrive!” I will miss the kids, so much. I will miss their character and their childishness and their unexpected maturity. I will miss them rushing into my room when I open the door to be the first to depose whatever they had insisted I let them carry for me. I will miss warm bucket baths (I’m way too lazy to boil my own water at site), and I will miss the mystery of what I will have for dinner. I will miss the impromptu dance parties and, in some way, I will even miss being laughed at (which happened a lot). I felt genuinely integrated with my family in Zoro, and it wasn’t an easy feat. How on earth am I going to start the whole process over again in Solenzo?