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Friday, February 09, 2007

Is It Worth It?

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve written. It’s been a busy couple of months. Since the last time I wrote...

I attended a wedding party for my host sister and her fiancé. My good friend Jen came all the way over here to share Thanksgiving dinner with me. I killed the turkey. (Note for next time: Use a sharper machete...) We took a canoe out on a lake and saw hippos. I almost got gored by a bull. (Seriously, it was close. An old man who heard the story said the only reason the bull turned at the last second was that I was “in direct communication with God.”) I was stranded for 12 hours on the side of the road in the African bush when the driver of my bus could not produce his “papers” at a military checkpoint. I, for the first time since I began teaching in Burkina Faso almost 2 years ago, had to leave class in the middle of a lesson to take care of some very pressing “business.” (“Uh, I’m sorry class, but I forgot something at the office, and I need to go get it right now!” I don’t think I fooled anybody.) I had a Big Mac in Paris. I met up with my buddy Rob in Luxembourg. I ate kangaroo, emu, and crocodile in Germany. (All three dishes- better than sheep brains...) I connected with my brother Jeremy in London and met his girlfriend for the first time. Jeremy, Rob, and I saw every single tourist site in the city of London in 2 hours and 13 minutes. (We were a bit pressed for time...) Rob and I ate Christmas dinner in Paris a block from the Cathedral of Notre Dame. On the menu? Reheated Chinese food. I surprised my friend Erica (on her way to visit me in Burkina) in the airport in Paris. We hiked up, down, and along the beautiful cliff running through Dogon Country in Mali. I danced (uh, tried to dance) a traditional little jig accompanied by a chorus of djembe drums. I got peed on by a goat stuffed under my seat on public transport. I rang in the New Year with Erica on the roof of the Peace Corps house in the capital. First noteworthy event of 2007? On our way to dinner New Year’s Day, our truck ran out of gas in the middle of a busy intersection- not the best start to a new year I’ve ever had. (Though, to be fair, no the worst either...) I learned that while I was in Europe, the Burkina military basically declared war on the Burkina police. I said goodbye to my neighbor Dieudonné, one of my best friends in village (and captain of our neighborhood’s soccer team which he named- what else? - The Red Sox), who left for the Ivory Coast hoping to earn enough money there to be able to return to Bomborokuy and start his own business. I celebrated the birthday of my colleague and mentor, Bazie. I got sick from the wild rabbit meat Bazie prepared for said celebration. I held the 3-day-old baby daughter of a friend of mine in Nouna. I attended a horse festival in a neighboring village where over 50 horses and their riders competed for prizes and prestige. Oh yeah, and from time to time I taught math to my 200+ students (one of whom, after I scolded him for cheating on a test, apologized and wished me a long life).

Gobble Gobble Gobbaahk!

Just like I remember it

Jeremy and me being funny

The Mali Crew

So there you have it. Maybe you thought that was my blog entry for this time around. Actually, that was just my list of excuses for why it’s been so long since I’ve written. Now, for my actual entry...

Today was an amazing day. When I woke up this morning and started writing this blog entry, I was planning to reflect on a question that was posed to me a number of times by a few different people while I was in Europe: Is Peace Corps worth it? Am I wasting my expensive college education here in the African bush? Am I leaving thousands of dollars on the table- money that could go to help people in Burkina Faso if I were so inclined- by opting for a two-year volunteer gig instead of entering the workforce? I’ve thought a lot about those questions. And I had a really good plan for how I was going to lay out my argument in this blog entry for why Peace Corps is in fact worth it. It had to do with the three goals of the organization and how I believe we are better at achieving the second two goals (that other peoples learn about Americans and that Americans learn about other peoples) than we are the first (meeting the country’s need for trained men and women) but that’s ok because the second two goals are really important especially considering our increasingly interconnected world and the not-so-flattering image many in that world have of us as Americans. My argument was going to be phrased much more eloquently than that, and I was planning on breaking up that run-on sentence into at least 2 or 3 separate sentences. But then I had an amazing day today, and it entirely changed the way I now think about the question, “Is Peace Corps worth it?”

Last week, the father from the host family I lived with during my first 3 months of training gave me a call. We’ve stayed close ever since I was shipped off to begin my service in Bomborokuy; I’ve been back a number of times to visit, my host brother came out to my village to see me, we talk on the phone every now and then. My host dad was the one who gave me the name Wend Panga. So he called last week. He told me that Mama was very sick and that he could not afford the medicine she needed. I told him that I could come into the capital that weekend if he could meet me there. We made a plan to meet up in Ouagadougou.

I met with him this afternoon. We went out to lunch and talked about our families. He asked if my parents back in the States liked the gifts he sent them. I asked how his two little ones were faring in grade school. He asked about my time with my brother in London. I asked how his oldest son was doing at his new job. It was nice. Afterwards, we went back to the Peace Corps hostel to talk about what it would take to get Mama the exams and medicine she needed.

Papa was very uncomfortable asking for my help. He is very proud, and he seemed frustrated at himself for having to seek out help to care for his family. He showed me all the receipts for the different exams and medications Mama would need. As is the case with so many important goods and services in this country, while the costs were prohibitively high for my Papa, they were low when considered with a Western frame of reference. I gave him the money without a second thought.

I am not going to do a very good job capturing what happened after that. Papa tried to thank me, got choked up, and started crying. He kept trying to talk but couldn’t through his tears. I hugged him and started to tear up as well. When he could finally speak he thanked me and prayed for God to protect me always. I explained to him how small my gift to him was compared to all that he and his family had done for me during these two years. We each expressed how blest we were that God saw fit to put the other in our life. It was the most powerful moment I have experienced since arriving in Burkina Faso. It is not an exaggeration to say that it was one of the most powerful moments I have experienced in my life.

Is Peace Corps worth it? That gift to my host father would be called what, for many development workers, is a dirty word: unsustainable. It is a one-off gift that will hopefully help one family avoid one possible crisis this one time. But that money wasn’t what made today amazing. Today was amazing because I shared a moment I will never forget with a frail 60-year-old Burkinabe man who calls me son and who I call father. It was amazing because I felt like I caught a quick glimpse of a small part of God’s plan, and it overwhelmed me. I knew that my 2 years in Africa would have an effect on me. I never would’ve guessed that a single moment would touch me in such a powerful way.

So, yeah, this experience is worth it.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

First Day of School

Last year, before my first day of school, I scripted out word-for-word (in French) exactly what I was going to say during my first class. I wrote down questions I was going to ask my students and, though it’s funny to think back on this now, I made note of several possible things with which I might reply depending on the students’ response to said questions. Needless to say, I didn’t have much confidence in my ability to communicate with my students. When I wasn’t worrying about having to teach in French, I was daydreaming about how nice it would be if it had been the British who colonized Burkina Faso at the beginning of the 20th Century…

For the most part, my fears of going into a classroom filled with 120 students whom I could not understand and who could not understand me were never realized. I spent the first five minutes of my first class last year sticking to my carefully constructed script before I realized that maybe I didn’t need that crutch as much as I thought. Fortunately for my students, it turned out that the Peace Corps language teachers had worked some magic and were actually able to get through to this linguistically challenged English-speaker. What I had taken to be a flippant dismissal of very legitimate concerns (“Josh, would you just stop worrying?! Believe me, once you get up in front of the class, it will all come together for you…”) turned out to be an accurate description of exactly what took place that first day. And it just got easier from there.

This year, my first day of classes was decidedly less stressful and infinitely more fun. Our first day happened to fall on Columbus Day, and a good deal of my classes was spent discussing Columbus and all things American in a laid-back, unstructured Q-and-A-type setting. Every once in a while, I’ll have these moments here in Africa when I feel like I’m in some sappy, feel-good advertisement promoting the Peace Corps and the things for which it stands. These moments don’t happen all the time; for sure, if the Peace Corps wanted to make a promotional ad based on my time here, they would have to edit out quite a bit of boredom, tedium, and frustration. But my first day of classes this year was a good one- not much editing required.

In fact, that whole first week was pretty special. The day before school started was my birthday (thanks to all of you who sent cards and well-wishes). Weirdly enough, I share my birthday with my next-door neighbor, Dieudonne, one of my best friends in village and 15 years my elder. When we uncovered the coincidence last year, we immediately began making plans to celebrate the day together in 2006. While the Burkinabe are very much into celebrating religious and state holidays, birthdays generally pass by unrecognized. Many of my students do not even know what day their birthday is. Dieudonne hadn’t celebrated his birthday in over 10 years. We both decided that would change in 2006. The night of October 8, I cooked up a storm. Ok, well, actually, I added water to instant mashed potatoes, added water to instant stuffing, added water to instant gravy, heated up canned carrots, and, finally, added water to instant kool-aid. I made a trip to the butcher’s and picked up a couple of huge chunks of a freshly slaughtered sheep (electing to pass on the head and organs…). It was quite the feast and quite the party. Dieudonne brought his wife and newborn daughter, and I invited a couple of my coworkers from school to help us mark the occasion. After the meal, we talked soccer and baseball. Dieudonne is the coach of our neighborhood’s village-league soccer team. As coach, he got to name the team. His choice? The Red Sox.

About a month into the school year, the powers that be had yet to name the replacement of our school director who passed away earlier this year. As a second-year teacher, I was the second-most senior member of the school’s staff of 6 teachers. One of the frustrating aspects of the school system here is how often teachers and administrators are moved from school to school and from village to village. Another frustrating aspect is how most of the transfers of teachers from one school to their next assignment occur during the school year. The first two months of classes are characterized by current teachers and staff leaving and new ones arriving. The government would wait for the dust of all these transfers to settle before officially naming our new director.

Not that it mattered much to me. I had already childishly written off our new director as someone not as good as Marius Oueda, the man who served as our director last year before he passed away. Admittedly, this was not a very professional attitude to hold towards a man I had never met and who would soon become my boss. If I had entered into my relationship with my new boss carrying this chip on my shoulder, certainly I would become less effective as a member of the teaching staff in Bomborokuy and as a volunteer here in Burkina Faso. So it was quite a blessing (another one of those blessings that maybe I didn’t quite deserve) when the Minister named a man who was already a friend of mine, Noel Tienou, as our new director. Months earlier, I had randomly met Noel at a bar in Nouna and we had quickly become friends. He spoke English, and we ended up meeting a handful of times to hang out (he would speak English and I would reply in French). Noel is a good guy, and he’s a guy for whom I already have a great deal of respect. Bomborokuy will miss Marius Oueda. But I have little doubt that Noel Tienou will be able to serve our school in Bomborokuy with the same dedication and passion that Marius gave us when he was here.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Senior Year

Every year, Burkina Faso gets two new groups of Peace Corps trainees. Each of these groups serves two years. So at any given time there are usually four groups of volunteers in-country, each of which arrived on a different date. Every once in a while, you'll hear a volunteer make an analogy to the set-up in high school where you have freshmen just arriving up through seniors who are on their way out.

At Burkina Faso High, I just became a big, bad senior.

The group of volunteers who arrived immediately before me have begun to trickle out of country. Some are heading back to the US for grad school, others to France to continue working abroad. Some seem to have their post-Burkina lives all planned out, others aren't thinking much past the next few weeks when they will be able to reconnect with family and friends they haven't seen since leaving the States. As for me, I'm starting to struggle with the tricks that time has been playing on me. In Burkina Faso, life moves at a pace that suggests you have all the time in the world. Rarely is anyone in a hurry. Rarely do things need to happen by a specific date and time. Case in point: Classes begin next month. But what is the date of the first day of school? If any of you actually know the answer, please let me know immediately so I can inform the students, the other teachers, and the school administration. When do classes start? They'll start when they start.

And little by little, this culture where meetings are scheduled for a particular day, but not time, and where important events are scheduled for a particular season, but not day, little by little this culture has chipped away at my obsessive need to know exactly what I'll be doing when, to know exactly where I'm expected to be and how long it will take me to get there. I'm more patient. Time is less important. "In America, you have watches. In Africa, we have time." We have all the time in the world.

But I don't have all the time in the world. Time has flown by and that which I have left is a very definite amount that will be gone in just a handful of months. I don't want to be sitting around my house in America in 9 months thinking to myself, "Man, I wish I had done this or that while I was in Africa. I wish I had visited this person or I wish I had hung out more with that person." In sports, people talk about "leaving it all on the court." If you gave it your absolute all, it's not possible to regret the level of your effort, regardless of the outcome of the game. I don't want to leave here thinking that I held something back.

Anything that I may have accomplished already in my service was possible because of all the help and support I received from you guys back home. I am so lucky in that I could go on for pages and pages talking about everyone who has found ways to let me know of their prayers and support. But as I wrap up this post, I wanted to thank a few people in particular who have been and continue to be a huge part of the reason I am still here feeling good about my work and about life. Thank you to Fr. Mike, for your constant support as a priest and as a friend. To Mr. and Mrs. Kotredes for feeding me and keeping my bookshelves stocked. To Dick Carroll and Aunt Judy, for your incredible generosity which will make such a positive difference in my village. To Awa, for sharing your experiences and perspective with me (and for the offer to cook for me when I return!). To Eitan, Jen, Erica, and Rob, for finding ways to get to me (or bring me to you) during these two years. To all of Tessa's friends who brought French books to her birthday party (and to Tessa for such a great idea!). And of course, to my folks and my brothers and sisters, for everything.

Sorry this post got a bit sappy. To balance that out: My birthday is next week, and I would like a big flat-screen TV, a very expensive stereo system, and a brand new car. If that doesn't work for you, I guess I will also accept a card in the mail and your continued prayers. In fact, I appreciate those things just as much as I would a new car. Although, if you were to pray for me AND give me a car, well then...

God bless,


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Eitan's Great Adventure

The top 3 questions asked when I first told people that I was headed to Burkina Faso for my Peace Corps service:

3. “Uh... where, exactly?”

2. “Are you kidding?”

and the Number 1 Question:

1. “No, seriously, Josh. Where are you going?”

But when I mentioned my assignment to Eitan, a college buddy of mine, he had a very different question for me:

“Alright, dude. When’s the best time for me to come and visit?”

Despite his best efforts to convince me that he was serious about his plans to make his way out to West Africa, I was skeptical. And yet, a couple of false starts and scrapped itineraries later, at the end of July Eitan actually got on a plane bound for Ouagadougou (or, as many of you called it when I first got assigned here, “Oogabooga”) and eventually touched down in Burkina Faso. Did he know what he was getting himself into? Not a chance. Was he happy he made the trip? What do you think?

This is Eitan being happy he made the trip...
Check out the denominations on those bills.

Eitan’s visit spanned three countries in as many weeks. After arriving in Ouaga and taking a day to “plan” the rest of the trip, we hopped on bus. 24 hours (and many stops to pee and/or yell at the bus driver) later, we were in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. Unlike Ouagadougou, Accra is an actual, honest-to-goodness big city with tall buildings and many lanes of car traffic (as opposed to one lane of car traffic and 5 lanes for motorbikes...). Now, for you big-city folk back home, maybe this is no big deal for you, but, frankly, Accra was a bit overwhelming for me. We ended up spending most of the couple of days we had slated for Accra not actually in Accra but in its much calmer, more scenic outskirts. Highlights included a self-guided bike trip through the woods (we got lost), a pleasant stroll through a picturesque arboretum (that’s a place with a lot of trees), and a good-karma-building volunteer effort painting anthropomorphic healthy foods on the walls of a nutrition center in a Liberian refugee camp.

From there, we moved west, down the coast to the small tourist beach town of Busua. We stayed at Elizabeth’s house- Elizabeth being the very kind, hospitable Ghanaian woman who makes great pancakes. Our time in Busua was spent mainly on two activities; the first of which was significantly more fun and exciting than the second. First, we decided it would be fun to rent kayaks and paddle out to a little tropical island a couple kilometers off the beach. It appeared that the only inhabitants of this island were two palm trees and (we hoped) any number of beautiful hula girls with grass skirts and coconut bras. After struggling mightily to fight past the surf on the sandy beach (and, on the other end, being tossed mightily by the surf onto the rocky shores of the island), we discovered that, yes, there were two palm trees on the island. However, instead of hula girls ready to greet us with luaus and pina coladas there were sea urchins ready to impale us with their needle-like spines. How did we end up with so many sea urchin spines broken off in our feet (I had over 25; Eitan easily had double that)? Well, when the ridiculously powerful surf tosses you and your big, fat, plastic kayak back on the nice, sandy beach, that’s one thing. When the same surf repeatedly tosses you and that sorry excuse for a kayak back on a bed of slick rocks surrounded by submerged urchins... Let’s just say I’m lucky that I only got stuck in my foot...

That’s Urchin Island in the background.

So what was the second activity that occupied our time in Busua (and every single stop on the trip after that)? Using needles and razor blades and palm oil (don’t ask) to dig those stupid spines out of our feet.

After Busua, it was onto Kakum National Park where we walked the 40m high rainforest canopy walk , ate lunch next to a family of crocodiles , and met some cool Mormons. We discovered that there's a nasty rumor out there that Mormons are forbidden from having the floors carpetted in their houses. I am not making this up (I mean I didn't make up the fact that we discovered the rumor existed. The rumor itself is quite obviously made up. But not by me; by somebody else, I would assume). But please do not spread this awful rumor, because according to our new Mormon friends, it is far from the truth. Apparently, some Mormons even carpet certain rooms in their house with extra-plush carpetting. Go figure. *Editor's note: Paragraphs like this lead me to believe that Josh has been in Africa just a little too long...*

At this point, our time in Ghana had come to an end. Well, that’s what we thought. Technically, it was about 2 days and 8 different broken-down, sorry-looking cars/buses/tro-tros later that our time in Ghana really came to an end and we actually made it across the Burkina border. Once back in Ouagadougou, we connected with some other volunteers to begin the trek out to Bomborokuy. This trip was a very special one for me as it was the first and probably would be the last time any of my fellow volunteers would make it out to my village. When I was first assigned to my village and I saw how far out it was, I knew that it would take a little more than just an invitation to get my buddies from Peace Corps to come out and see my place. So I started planning a small themed party to encourage everyone to make at least one visit. This was that one visit. When we arrived at my house in Bomborokuy, the tree was up, the “snow” was falling, and the stockings were hung by the chimney with care... Everything was set for...

The First Only Annual Bomborokuy Christmas in July Party

Due to a scheduling error, the party actually took place in August, but we seemed to enjoy ourselves all the same. The neighborhood kids were thrilled by their new white visitors (I think they’re getting bored with me) and had a blast playing soccer and foursquare and some other games that I’m not very good at. We exchanged gifts and enjoyed a delicious, home-made (just add water!) Christmas dinner. We donned Santa caps while we sang carols and decorated the house and the tree. We got many strange looks from the neighbors.

The final leg of our adventure took us westward to Mali and the beautiful Dogon Country. The Dogon people are known for their artwork, their sculpture and masks, but also for their architecture. Many Dogon villages are located along a giant sandstone escarpment, or cliff, where the Dogon have built granaries and dwellings right into the cliff itself. We hiked along the bottom edge of the cliff for a couple days, and then on Day 3, we made our move up the cliff to the top ledge. Unfortunately, Day 3 was also the day some bad water I drank back on Day 1 finally caught up with me. Yet even being terribly sick with little to no support from my supposed “friend” (Eitan made fun of me and took pictures of me in pain...); even that didn’t stop me from appreciating how awesome the scene was from the top of that cliff.

Best part of the trip, though? We made a new friend in Ghana. Despite the fact that they are 10+ games out of first and all but mathematically eliminated from the wild card, he stills wears it proud...

Friday, July 14, 2006

I'm the Son of a Soul-Stealer

I figured once classes were over and the summer break got started I’d be able to do a lot better updating this thing. After a fun, tiring, exciting, disturbing, stressful, and emotionally charged roller coaster of a month, I realize that I figured wrong. This post will serve not only as an update to you all of what I’ve been up to, but also as a far-from-exhaustive list of excuses for why it’s taken me so long to get this post written. Let’s start things off with a feature of my blog that has been on the shelf collecting dust for some time now: Josh in Africa Trivia…

My parents visited me here in Burkina Faso for about 10 days last month. Which of the following near-disasters DID NOT take place while they were here?

a) We almost got into an accident while speeding along on a dirt road at night in a bus with no headlights.

b) We almost got roughed up by a gang of garden tool-wielding Burkina natives.

c) Dad almost got avian flu when he handled a live chicken in a country known to have infected birds.

d) Mom almost broke some bones when she fell off the camel she was riding.

e) Mom and Dad almost missed their flight back to the States which they thought left 3 hours later than it actually did.

A couple of these are actually pretty good stories, so I’ll go through them one by one:

a) This happened. Our bus from Dedougou to Nouna got a late start. The sun was starting to go down when we pulled out of the station in Dedougou. We spent the next hour flying down a dirt road in a headlight-less yellow school bus trying desperately to make it to Nouna before the night fell. It’s funny that the same Blue Bird yellow school bus that used to take me safely to and from kindergarten at St. Mary’s is now the same vehicle that is recklessly transporting me to and from small villages in the middle of West Africa. Who would have guessed?

b) This happened. We were down south near the town of Banfora, biking around visiting some neat sites: waterfalls, a hippo lake, and some cool rock formations that were a lot of fun to climb. On the way back into town, Mom stopped to take a few pictures of the sugar cane fields we were biking through. I was a ways up ahead, but I slowed down when I saw her stop. As I was watching her, I saw one of the men working in the fields slowing walking up towards the road. Some worries flashed through my head that I would later regret ignoring. The man held a daba- a cultivating tool with a wooden shaft and a metal blade on the end similar to the blade on a hoe. When he got to the road, he started pointing and yelling at Mom. I headed back towards them. Soon after I got there, a belligerent crowd of farmers armed with dabas had circled us. At one point, one of them reached over and grabbed Mom’s bike so she couldn’t leave.

So most of this was probably my fault. At one point during my training a year ago, I might have heard something about the importance of asking Burkinabé for permission before you take their picture. I’ve been here for a year and taken lots of pictures without incident. Most of the time, the subject of the photo is thrilled to be able to see himself on the digital display on the camera once you’ve taken the shot. This particular group did not seem so interested in seeing themselves on the camera display screen.

Instead, they were yelling at Mom, demanding that she hand over her camera and give them money for taking their pictures without permission. When I explained that I was the one who spoke French, the yelling turned to my direction. While I felt a bit nervous being in a situation like this with Mom and Dad there, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a little fun for me. My French gets a lot better when I’m worked up and yelling, and for at least the first few minutes, I couldn’t help but feel appreciative that I had been given a chance to show off a bit.

As with most arguments I have had with Burkinabé from touristy areas, this argument boiled down to money. One of the more even-headed gang members explained to me that it is their belief that if someone takes your picture, that person is stealing your soul. Once they realized that Mom was not giving up the camera, they demanded money for all of the dozen farmers present- apparently to compensate them for the souls we had stolen. A snippet from the negotiations:

Me: How much money do you want?
Him: I need money for all 13 of the workers out there.
Me: Ok, how much do you want?
Him: You have to ask permission to take our pictures.
Me: Ok, sorry. How much do you want?
Him: You have to ask permission to take our pictures.
Me: Yeah, sorry about that. She didn’t know. How much do you want?
Him: I need money for all 13 of the workers out there.

Some may say this guy did not understand my question. Some may say he was just being stubborn. I think he was a shrewd negotiator. One of the few things I did learn in my management classes in college was that the first side to make an offer in a negotiation is at a big disadvantage. The other thing I know about negotiations (one that I didn’t learn in college)? The side that is not holding the sharp, menacing garden tools- also at a big disadvantage. The manner in which the rest of the negotiations played out support this:

Me: Ok, fine. Here is 2 dollars.
Him: You stole our souls. 2 dollars is not enough.
Me: How much do you want?
Him: 10 dollars.
Me: I can give you 5.
Him: 10 dollars.
Me: I really only have 8.
Him: 10 dollars.
Me: Ok. Here is 10 dollars. Have a great day.

10 dollars for my family’s safety, a couple pictures, a great story, and 13 souls. Not bad.

c) This happened. Ok, so he didn’t almost get avian flu. While there are cases of bird die-offs in Burkina Faso from the disease, there have been no reports of bird to human transmission. And unless he started playing with the chicken’s droppings (which he didn’t to my knowledge), he would be absolutely fine. But he did handle the live chicken that was sent over to us as a gift from one of my village friends. He held it up for a picture and then had my neighbors do the killing, cleaning, and cooking.

d) This did not happen. There were no camel rides on this trip. Maybe next time.

e) This happened. For some reason, Mom thought it left at 11pm. At 5 or 6 that night, she decided to take one last look at the itinerary and verify the flight info. The plane was scheduled to leave at 8pm. As much as my parents enjoyed their stay in Africa, I don’t believe they were all that excited at the thought of extending that stay as the result of a missed flight. They made the flight with plenty of time to spare.

Having my parents here for that week and a half was great for a lot of reasons. Of course, after over a year apart, it was awesome just to see them again. I’m also really glad that they got to see where I’ve been living and working for the past year. All the stories that I have told and will tell them now have a context. So many times, I’ll get frustrated telling a story to someone back home- Many times, I just don’t have the words to be able to really explain the experience fully. My folks’ visit will help a lot with that. But what may be the most important consequence of their visit is the renewed sense of perspective they were able to give to me. There’s a tendency among Peace Corps volunteers to get overwhelmed with all the needs present in a country like this one. Many of us at times feel both powerless and useless. There are days when I feel like these people need so much more than I could ever give them- What is the point of me even trying? The following two quotes have always made sense to me, but it took my parents’ visit to remind me of just how important they are to keep at the front of my mind:

I am one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do. -Helen Keller

They say my work is just a drop in the ocean. I say the ocean is made up of drops. -Mother Theresa

One of the most satisfying parts of the visit was the time we spent with my host families in Nouna and Yako. I’ve always been amazed by the generosity and the kindness of the people of this country- In welcoming my family from the US, my families in Burkina Faso took this generosity to a new level. Not only did they open up their homes, but they shared with us all that they had; they truly opened up their hearts to us. I feel very blessed to have been the interpreter when my parents talked to my Burkinabé parents. I am the only one who really knows the beautiful things that both sides were saying to the other. There is no way that I was able to adequately translate what was being said. At first this frustrated me. Then I realized what a great problem this was to have to deal with- My French vocabulary was not nearly large enough to be able to express all the powerful things being said by all these people who love me. I’ll take that problem any day.

The day my parents flew out, something happened near my village that would make it necessary for me to strive for the kind of perspective embodied in those two quotes I just mentioned. About 15 miles from Bomborokuy, boundary disputes resulted in fighting between farmers from Mali and Burkina over farming land. The Malians killed at least 9 Burkinabé and kidnapped two others. Reports on the murders were gruesome and disturbing. As a precaution, the Peace Corps evacuated me from my site and kept me in the capital until things calmed down. For those of you especially prone to worrying about me, please believe me that while these events are sad and unfortunate, my safety is not in jeopardy as a result of them.

Hearing about events like this- people killing their neighbors over the small plots of farm land they need to feed their families- really forces you to think. For the past month, I had worked with another volunteer to organize a big party for a group of 15 volunteers who are ending their service and returning to the States this summer. It was a lot of work, and through most of it, I felt good about doing it. A well-planned, well-run party could go a long ways not only in thanking those volunteers who had served their 2 years, but also in giving the rest of us a chance to take a break and get reenergized as we continue our service. During the party itself last weekend, there were a handful of times when I stopped running around long enough to sit down, take a break, and just watch people enjoying themselves. At first, it was deeply satisfying- seeing all the volunteers having fun, most of whom aren’t what you would call the “partying type.” But with that satisfaction came a good deal of guilt. This past month, I’ve mourned the death of my Director alongside his family and our entire community. I’ve been told of horrible things happening near my village that are the result of a lack of land to grow food. And here I am, enjoying myself at a party I planned for a bunch of (relatively) well-off Americans. I’m no martyr. And I don’t feel like I need to deprive myself of every earthly pleasure in order to live a good life. But it’s hard for someone who has so much not to think about these things in a country where the people need so much.