Where to begin, dear readers? When last I left you, I was in the process of becoming a devout Muslim, so it will perplex many of you to learn that I have abruptly changed course in deciding to try Catholicism on for size. Pull out your Bibles, friends, and pray that mass doesn’t last longer than two hours this time.
Just as we Trainees were coming to the end of our collective rope, forgetting tenses in language class, throwing up to every night, falling off our bikes en route to the garden and missing the latrine hole, a respite came: Site Visit! We are the first stage to visit our own sites during training, and we were told to prepare for a one-week trip including a three day workshop with our respective counterparts in Ouaga. We over packed our bags and hastily bid our host families goodbye before exhaustively pedaling to the training center and boarding a air conditioned bus. Air conditioning? In Burkina Faso? Oh, how you spoil us, Peace Corps.
When we arrived in Ouagadougou back at the modest compound where we had stayed our first week in country, the contrast in people’s attitudes towards our lodging was stark. Look! There’s a toilet here! And it flushes! Showers? With water? And…ceiling fans? Again, we felt spoiled, caught between missing our host families and coveting the seemingly never ending supply of toilet paper in our temporary home. Amenities that seemed rustic at best when we had arrived in country suddenly felt like luxuries. Horray for integration.
The morning the counterpart workshops began we filed sleepily into a familiar classroom with about 40 Burkinabe who had come from all over the country. Next step: Peace Corps speed dating. We were told to go and find our counterpart and sit with them. I whipped my head around, determined to avoid what was sure to be an awkward situation, but before I had so much as forgotten how to say hello in French I felt a gentle hand on my arm, and Madam Monica Dioma gave me a wide, beautiful smile.
Over the next couple of days in Ouga I got to know this woman very well. Mme. Dioma is the eldest child of eleven and hails from the west of Burkina near Mali. She herself has five children (six if you count me), four girls and a boy between the ages of 20 and 32. She is a devout Catholic and missed taking her vows only because her husband swept her off her feet at the tender age of 20. As well as working with the nuns in Solenzo (my site), Mme. Dioma has devoted her life to fighting for women’s rights in West Africa, attending trainings, conferences, and holding classes for young women on the subject of women’s empowerment. She is truly is formidable woman.
Spitting Distance from Mali
The name of my site is Solenzo. It is a western city close to the border of Mali about 8 hours and two modes of transport away from Ouaga. When I say city, I hope you aren’t imagining skyscrapers and reliable electricity, because Solenzo has neither of those things. It has a population of about 12,000, a smattering of Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Animist inhabitants all living in harmony under one, dusty, sweltering sky.
I will be working with an organization run by four nuns called the Centre de Formation Feminin which has a small compound housing around 50 girls who are not in traditional schools. Although my role there is not yet crystal clear, it looks like I will be working with the girls to develop activities for petit commerce so that they have an alternative plan if they don’t go to university. Mme. Dioma has been working with the Center for decades and is very good friends with the nuns. I am lucky to have her as a counterpart because, while she is well versed in how the Center works, she also has her hands in multiple other projects in the community and is ready to connect me with other organizations.
The morning of February 18th, Ash Wednesday, I had narrowly avoided a 6am mass with Mme. Dioma and was waiting to depart for Solenzo. Something you have to understand about being here, no matter how good my French is, I am always only about 70% certain about what’s going on. Part of that is cultural, and part of it is about what gets lost in translation. The point is, I wasn’t sure what time we were leaving or, for that matter, where to find my lovely counterpart. But for the first of many times during that trip, Mme Dioma compensated for my lack of cultural (and linguistic) fluency, finding me with little trouble and (as always) with a smile to explain to me in slow, clear French exactly how our trip was going to unfold: After breakfast her brother would drive us the bus station where we would board a bus to Dedougou, the regional capital in the West, and then a bush taxi all the way to Solenzo. One of Mme Dioma’s daughters would treat us to lunch in Dedougou. It all sound perfect to me. After some Nescafe and stale bread, we were off.
When we arrived at the bus station, two men descended upon me and rid me of my backpack and my bicycle, which I was require to carry to site with me. They quickly butchered my bike by taking off both wheels and handing me various parts I didn’t know what to do with, then preceded to tell me that they couldn’t fit the bike on the bus. Before I could argue Mme Dioma ushered me onto the bus, assuring me it would follow on the next bus from Ouaga, and I have to say I wasn’t sad to leave the bag of bolts behind.
When we arrived in Dedougou Mme Dioma’s daughter met us at the bus station and walked us to her house a few minutes away. Her lodging was something of a mélange of village and city life: a large courtyard where all the cooking was done over a fire, an outdoor bathroom and shower and a sturdy, multi-roomed structure that was well furnished and even had electricity. Mme Dioma had informed her daughter that I liked fish, so she had grilled two large aquatic morsels with chopped vegetables in a mayonnaise sauce. All for me. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I ate them both.
Not an hour later we were at the side of the road again, and a rickety, dirty, fully occupied bush taxi pulled up to take us to Solenzo. I climbed over mommies, couples, sleeping men and young children to find a spot meant for one that would eventually accommodate three. I had made certain not to drink any water before this trip. The last thing I wanted to have to pee on a bush taxi. We women are not equipped with the machinery to discreetly urinate on long trips. The logistics are much more complicated.
We arrived in Solenzo at around 6pm, about 10 solid hours of travel in total. The first thing that had to happen of course, was church. Mme Dioma led me to the large, beautiful structure not far from the bus station where I waited outside for about an hour and a half for mass to finish. As I waited, the sun set, and I quickly realized that there were a lot more mosquitos in the West that in Leo. As mass ended, there was a mass exodus as the church emptied out, and I was approached by two nuns: Sister Agnes and Sister Elizabeth. They introduced themselves to me and then told me to gather my things.
“Are you ready to go to the Center?” Mme Dioma asked me. You mean, am I ready to see where I am going to be working and living for the next two years? …That’s a difficult question to answer… Can I phone a friend?