It is truly amazing what packing before hand can do for your general relaxation and mental health the day of departure. Who could have guessed that stuffing, weighing and securing your baggage (two checked bags under 50 lbs, one carry on and one personal item) would eliminate the fits, panic attacks, and unnecessary last minute second-guessing? As I loafed into the elevator looking like a proper, over-excited Western person going to West Africa, not once did I think “Oh, I forgot to bring a light sweater!” (Which I did, in fact, forget), or “maybe I don’t need those 7 extra pairs of socks?” (Which I objectively don’t).
What I did need, and just barely remember to pack, were my social skills. Not long after I was dropped off at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Philadelphia and managed a teary goodbye to my parents, I was confronted by my first major challenge: Learning the names and various impressive life stories of the 40 other souls with whom I would spend the next 3+ months as a Peace Corps Trainee (PCT). Ready to confront my first challenge, I threw myself into the veritable social watering hole like I had my first day of college eager to find all the other like-minded beasts, sniff out the lions and cozy up to the elephants. But what do you know? It seemed like all of us Peace Corps folks came from the same kind of jungle. All 40 of us lovely animals rubbing noses for the first time and quickly establishing relationships and forgetting first names.
Staging was a bit of a marathon. In five hours it was the Peace Corps’ goal to train is to be ready for…more training. That evening they stuffed us full of information I have already forgotten, leaving me with the firm impression that I should have paid more attention to the reams of documents the Peace Corps sent me over the course of the past few months. Oops.
I’ll fast forward through the trip, suffice to say that it was full of confused time zones, debates between sleep and coffee, bad airplane food and layovers that were just too short and just not short enough. We landed in dusty Ouaga around 4 in the afternoon in a single runway airport with an unexplainable volleyball court casually propped up beside the tarmac. In the airport we were screened for fevers and fingerprinted before meeting the Country Director, Keith, who kindly got to know our names and faces before we even picked up our bags.
My first impression of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso was one involving dust. Almost as soon as we stepped outside of the airport and piled into 3 small vans I covered in a timid layer of fine red particles that seem to coat everything without discrimination during this season. We drove through the capital to the site where we would be staying for approximately a week before driving to Leo, a city on the border of Ghana where most of our training would take place. What do you know? More dust. But there were also fruit and vegetable vendors, tiny shacks or ‘boutiques’ where I observed everything from cell phone credit to yogurt, donkey carts, motor bikes, furniture salesmen, trucks piled too high with too many things, children running barefoot across the road and staring at our vans, and of course the perfect smells of a healthy West African market that made my mouth water. Thank goodness, I thought as we reached the gates of the compound, I made it!
A week later my left arm was tattooed with the tiny pinpricks of vaccinations and I had an enormous medical kit, 2 information packets, a notebook and countless other sheets of paper to figure out how to pack. Orientation week was beautifully overwhelming. Between getting used to the food, familiarizing myself with new faces, constantly hunting for toilet paper and devouring hours and hours of information a day, it’s not wonder I slept like a baby every night until the call to prayer and a persistent donkey roused me around 4:30 am. Our number had swelled to 42 since our arrival in Ouagadougou, all of us comprising the new group of Health and Community Economic Development Trainees that, upon swearing in, would comprise nearly 40% of the volunteers in Burkina Faso. I myself am a Community Economic Development (CED) Trainee. Does my degree in Fine Arts and Islamic Studies qualify me for that, you ask? You’re damned right it does.
On Friday we squeezed everything into our suitcases once again and piled onto the bus that would take us to Leo where we would meet our host families and begin the next two months of intense training. Our group of Trainees will spend 2 months in Leo, 3 months at our perspective sites and then return to Leo for 2 weeks to received additional technical training. Then and only then will we be sworn in as true Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV’s). I dozed unsuccessfully on the bus to Leo. The driver insisted on playing Bruce Almighty dubbed in French the whole ride there which I simply couldn’t keep from watching.
More likely however my inability to sleep came from the nervousness: As soon as we arrived in Leo, we would be take to our respective villages, Sanga, Mouna and Zoro, where were could be introduced to our host families with whom we would live for the next 2 months. We had been given several sessions on how to adjust to this new change but I had a feeling there was very little that would prepare me for living in a rural village with an African family without electricity, running water, or a western toilet. And with a language barrier to boot. I had been placed in Zoro with a dozen other CED volunteers with a family by the name of ‘Ziba.’ And I was so anxious to meet them.