We walked in relative darkness along a dusty road for no more than 5 minutes before we came to a metal gate. When it opened, I couldn’t see anything, and the sisters and Mme. Dioma led me (still with all my luggage) to a large, dimly lit building to our left. This was the refectory, and inside still eating, were 52 adolescent girls, who stopped everything they were doing and stared right at me as soon as I walked in. Yes, I could smell the hormones. It was like your worst nightmare in high school. I had to look down to double check that I wasn’t naked. Even though I was fully clothed, it did nothing to stop my face from heating up. I was smelly, dirty, disoriented, and now I was on display. In front of teenagers. Who planned this, exactly?
A few of the girls set up a table and some chairs for us at the front of the room, and gradually they all went back to their dinners. Another nun, sister Jean Marie, petered slowly into the room and introduced herself to me. I sat stiffly in my seat until Sister Elizabeth got up from her chair and called the room to attention. In French, she pronounced:
“Did anyone notice that we have a guest here today?” The girls nodded tentatively. “Would anyone like to ask her who she is?” The room was silent. That’s fine, I prefer anonymity anyway. It adds to my air of mystery. Finally, one girl stood up and shyly asked my name. I took a deep breath and introduced myself in practiced, clear French. (I had plenty of time to rehearse on the 3 hour bush taxi). There was a rumble in the room and sister Elisabeth asked if anyone had understood what I said. Silence. Yes, it did do wonders to boost my confidence.
Sister Jean Marie stood up and called the girls to attention again. “You all have something prepared for our guest don’t you?” She called out. “One…two…three!" The room broke into a harmonized chorus of “Soyez bien venue!” including a riveting grand finale that involved the first actual drum that I have seen in this country.
When the excitement of my arrival finally wore down, I was allowed to go to my house to rest. It was about 9:45 (way past my bedtime), and one of the girls led me through the dark compound to a tiny courtyard that was attached to one of the girls’ dorms. The courtyard had a wall about waist-high and a small shaded area close to the entrance. There were two doors: one for my bedroom and one for my kitchen, not attached from the inside. The bedroom, where I spent most of my time during the visit, was pleasantly furnished with a bed, desk, and a cabinet for clothes, and housed both a bathroom and washroom. There is no running water or electricity in my house and a thin door separates me and about 25 adolescent girls. I went ahead and moved my desk in front of that door. I don’t think I’ll be opening it any time soon.
The next couple of days at site were a true test of my patience and language skills. Mme. Dioma and the nuns were convinced that I needed to rest most of the day, so I was largely left to my own devices for about 8 hours every day. Meanwhile, since I was living on the grounds of the center, I watched the girls go about their daily chores: Cooking three meals a day, cleaning, pumping water, attending various classes in French and Djula (one of the more widely spoken local languages) and a number of income-generating activities including: Liquid and solid soap-making, tailoring, animal husbandry, some modest gardening, and most importantly, weaving traditional pagnes (colorful, patterned pieces of cloth worn throughout West Africa).
When the novelty of FINALLY being alone for a few hours wore down, I began to get antsy, and I couldn’t figure out how to insert myself into the daily activities of the center. I walked outside and did a detailed drawing of the center. Then I went back in my house. I walked outside and watched the girls weave. Then I walked back in my house. I walked outside and pumped some water for laundry. Then I walked back into my house. Then I walked outside of my house. And then back inside. I had the impression that this routine was going to get very boring very soon.
In the evening Mme Dioma came and picked me up in a barely running, tiny red car to introduce me to the who’s who in Solenzo: The Police, the Gendarmes, the Commissioner, the Minister of Education and a host of other important people whose names and titles I forgot as soon as they told me. It was an odd contrast: Coming from a community of women to be introduced to the all-male staffs of various government functions in Solenzo. Mme. Dioma seemed to be the only woman among them.
Amassing for Mass
The next afternoon, after a full day of stepping in and out my house and a short walk around Solenzo, Mme Dioma came to get me and asked me if I wanted to “see how we worship.” I appreciated the way she asked the question: She had already asked me my faith and I had told her that I considered myself “spiritual,” and left it at that. She didn’t pry, she didn’t proselytize, she just nodded and moved on. When she invited me to church there wasn’t a hint of self-righteousness in her tone, and I felt honored to share in a piece of her life she considered very important.
As the sun set, we collected in the churchyard. Probably 200 people and the pastor began reading from the bible in French accompanied by two people who were reading passages in Djula. After each passage the entire group would slowly migrate to a new location about 20 feet away from the previous one, so that we were doing a slow clockwork around the actual church. Excuse me--does anyone realize that there is a perfectly good house of worship right there? Am I the only one that sees it, or does it smell or something? It took me about four location changes to realize that we were doing the stages of the cross, each one drawn and tacked up to a tree outside the church. Jesus falls, then gets up, falls again, and is helped to his feet by John and Mary etc…etc (please don’t quote me on accuracy here).
Call me a romantic but I have to find significance in everything. As we made our slow rotation I thought about how much I expected to struggle in the next two years, and how I hoped that I could, like Jesus, get up every time. Hopefully there is a happier ending for me than there was for the Son of God.
When church was over Mme. Dioma took me to her house to treat me to dinner. Again she treated me better than I felt I deserved. She heard I liked ginger juice, so she ordered some specially made for me and had it brought before dinner. She heard I liked peanut butter, so she had her daughter prepare a special peanut sauce for me. She heard I liked salad, so guess what the first course was? I went to bed feeling spoiled.
I awoke the next morning and packed, ready for my departure that day to visit the regional capital. I was wondering what I was going to have for breakfast, but as soon as I walked outside of my house there was Mme. Dioma, seated comfortably on a chair outside my courtyard with a little charcoal stove boiling water for coffee. She had brought me galletes, beignets made from pounded rice, and they were still hot. We shared a lovely breakfast together, chatted and laughed, and at the end I said, “I don’t know how to thank you enough for how good you have been to me.”
“There is no need,” she told me, “Here in Africa, it’s family.” This statement struck me. What she said fully sums up a huge part of this country: All of my deeply engrained ideas about give and take, merit, deservedness and even time don’t compute here. In Burkina Faso you give. There is a joy in it. There is a beauty in it. You don’t demand something anything in return. I’ll have to pay it forward.