Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Before and After Training Pictures of Peace Corps Burkina Faso, SE/GEE Stage 2009

I thought it’d be fun to put a before picture of us during June staging at our hotel in Philadelphia and our after picture of us during the August Swear-In Ceremony at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence. Note that there are a couple of us missing in these photos…but we started as 32 trainees and came out strong as 32 Peace Corps Volunteers!


June 9, 2009

Staging Event in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Peace Corps Burkina Faso Trainees 2009-2011


August 25, 2009

Swear-In Ceremony at the US Ambassador's Residence, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Peace Corps Burkina Faso Volunteers 2009-2011

The next group pictures? Mid-Service Conference in a year and after two years, our Close of Service group picture! Let's DO this!

"Congratulations, you are official Peace Corps volunteers!"

Who would’ve thought this day would finally come?! And so soon! We arrived in Ouaga this past Sunday and are now staying in a hotel with air conditioning, a toilet and a shower! Ah yes, the simple luxuries of life. Our last few days of training consisted of evaluations, final medical and technical training sessions, and taking our final Language Proficiency Interview/Exam (PS: I moved up a level to Advanced Low in French! Granted, it’s all relative but hey, it’s [at the very least] an ego-booster!).

In the days leading up to Ouaga, I had 3 things I had to do: get Chinese food (wonton soup, especially), shop at Marina Market, and go out for drinks (hard liquor, folks – none of this beer stuff, haha!). Almost immediately after arriving, half of our training group went out for Chinese food. Devin, Colette and I tried the other Chinese restaurant the last time we were in Ouaga but heard the one in centre-ville (downtown) was better. All told, I had wonton soup and lemon chicken…and I was pretty much on Cloud Nine until we all decided to get ice-cream at this really nice restaurant. At this same restaurant for the next couple of days, I got a legit cheeseburger with fries, a chocolate banana split and a shrimp scampi-like pizza (CPK, anyone?). Holy crap – amazing!!

Now the second thing on my mental checklist was going to Marina Market. These are only found in Ouaga and Bobo (the 2 biggest cities in BF) and it’s literally like a slice of America. They’re like your typical grocery stores back in the US but in a country like BF, they seem completely out of place. I literally stocked up on everything I could find once we received our Settling-In Allowance – toilet paper, cereal, canned fruits and vegetables, corned beef, spices, canned tuna, etc. etc. They even had Vietnamese pho soup mixes! Basically anything I can’t get at site, I got it at Marina Market. Of course, the price of everything there was ridiculously overpriced (probably tantamount to US prices) so while I went ‘crazy,’ I still had to budget a little. I bet everyone thought us Americans were insane for buying everything in excess.

The day of Swear-In Ceremony, all of us trainees were scheduled to have a tour of the US Embassy in Ouaga. It reminded me a lot of the US Embassy in the Philippines when we were stuck in the Philippines and had to get David’s passport renewed. My absolute favorite part was when we met the Chargé d’Affaires (2nd in charge after the Ambassador) and he started talking to us about a career with the Department of State/the Foreign Service – the ultra-competitive Foreign Service Exam, changing posts/countries every few years, 5 career tracks to choose from (political, consular, economic, etc.), meet and work with many different people, represent the US in diplomacy. Basically, a really lucrative career that I thought about following a long time ago and now am really considering it, especially after the Peace Corps and grad school! So send me those Foreign Service Exam prep books and copies of ‘The Economist’ – I got to get studying these next 2 years, haha! He also talked a lot about International Development and USAID, and that got me thinking more about careers in the international/global realm. And with the UN too! Endless, I tell you…

…but back to the situation at-hand, Swear-In Ceremony was later that evening at the US Ambassador’s Residence. Such a beautiful event – all of us were dressed so nice, most of us wearing traditional African/Burkinabè attire that we had custom-made at the tailor. Burkinabè government officials/ministers, US Embassy dignitaries, Peace Corps staff, current volunteers, and the media were all there. Some of us gave thank you speeches in local languages and in French, and we were made to do an official oath as representatives of the US – and to make us official Peace Corps volunteers! And we are the 2nd consecutive group of BF trainees to enter as 32 and swear-in as 32 official PC volunteers! There was wine, plates of hors d’oeuvres, cake, beer on tap and lots of photos taken!

What I call the 'Original Three.' Story goes like this: When I got my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps/Burkina Faso in January 2009, I posted it on my blog. found my blog and added it to their database. A few days after that, I received 2 Facebook friend requests: from Molly and Chris. From that point on until Staging in June, we chatted with each other on FB, etc. Great way to prep for leaving!

Emily and I. Bringing the traditional Mikey peace sign to Burkina Faso/Africa!

Steph and I in our traditional Burkinabe complets/outfits. This is the only one I could find where it shows my whole outfit...if you look at the bottom of the picture, I'm wearing these black, fake-leather sandals I found at the market. My actual outfit is called a 'boubou' which is traditional Burkinabe wear for men. It's usually much longer and looser but I asked that it be a little slimmer and shorter since I'm so thin!

Ahh yes...Colette, Devin and I with Zach, a PCVF (PCV that helps with training). I love us! (What's new, right?)

After the ceremony, a lot of us chilled at the hotel pool, and then headed to get some food in downtown Ouaga. I kid you not, there were at least 50-80 PC volunteers there – the longest table imaginable. And a few of us even went dancing!

I’ll probably say this time and again, but it’s completely true when they say the days seem like forever but the weeks and months fly by. It’s amazing to think we started as 32 people from all over the US, extremely different in personality and schooling/careers and now we’re at this point. Who would’ve thought some of us would get so close as friends; I can only imagine how these next 2 years (and beyond) will play out…

Friday, August 21, 2009

Farewell to the village life

Leaving a family that opened their doors to you and introduced you to their culture for 3 months is no easy task. I recently left my host family in village, meaning training is really coming to an end. Last Sunday, Kait (volunteer who stayed with my host family before me) came over and I tried to cook an ‘American’ meal with limited resources. So pasta it was with tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, onions and garlic. I think I slowly changed my host father’s conception of who cooks in the kitchen since he saw that I was slicing the tomatoes and boiling the noodles in the kitchen (with Kait’s help, of course!)…a man doing the work that traditional Burkinabè society dictates as a female task! In all, the mea was a way of saying thanks, and since sharing a meal with your loved ones is such a universal concept, I thought it was fitting. What I thought was interesting was that after the meal was done cooking, Kait ate with my host mom and I ate with my host dad…still divided by gender since in many traditional families, the two doesn’t eat with each other.

On Wednesday, we had our village closing ceremony and all our host families, the village chief, and others attended. All 4 of us in my village expressed our deep gratitude to our village for hosting us, but in particular, our host families for being our home base and rock during training. No matter how intense training got, I knew I’d be coming home to a family – my second family here in Burkina Faso.

All 4 of us with our LCF (Language and Cultural Facilitator) after our Closing-In Ceremony.

After when we returned to my family’s compound, I gave them some gifts: a Barack Obama tee for my host dad, a midnight blue-colored veil for my host mom, a Burkina soccer jersey for my host brother and a small bag of American candy for one of my host father’s Koran students who always helps me out.

It was really bittersweet but I know I’ll visit them at least once or twice before I end my 2 years of service here in Burkina Faso. C’est la vie!

My host dad, Mahmoudou and I during my last days in village. Gonna miss this guy!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Finally putting training to practice!

Earlier this week, all of us GEE volunteers had to do our Life Skills presentations at Model School. Leslie and I did our presentation on Gender Roles and their correlation to your sex (male/female) and how those gender roles vary by community/culture/society. We introduced ourselves and did a little ice-breaker, asking them to give us differences between the Burkinabè and Americans. Then we moved on to our activity...on the board, you divide it into three parts: masculin (male) on one side and féminin (female) on the other side with a space in the middle.

The part of the Life Skills activity where the students run to the board and put in their initial thought of a gender role they receive on a piece of paper.
Each student received a gender role or type of job (cleaning the house, taking care of the kids, power, beauty, doctor, tailor, etc.) that was face down. Once we said go, they had to flip over their gender role card, run to the board immediately and place the gender role under the column they felt best fit their gender role. By the end of the activity, you have a board filled with various gender roles in different categories and all the students were having some crazy debating.

You do the activity a second time but the instructions are a little give each student a gender role again, face-up and ask them to think before going up to the board. They have to ask themselves: "can a man, a woman or both physically do the gender role written on my card?"

The second time around was really interesting because everyone placed all of the gender roles in the middle category, meaning they applied to both male & female. On the féminin side was "pregnancy" and on the masculin side was "constructing/building a house." This is where it almost turned into a mini-riot because some students were arguing that women can build houses; it's just that here in BF, women normally do not while others argued that women don't have the power to physically build houses, nor have the money to fund them.

The whole point of this was to emphasize that gender roles are dictated by what the culture/society/community example being a Burkinabè girl and an American girl. While they both share the same sex, their gender roles differ due to where they grew up. Such a powerful and interactive game that's getting me more excited for some of the things I want to do while at site…and got me thinking about future careers after the Peace Corps (teaching /education policy, anyone ?) !

A pretty blurry picture of me teaching Life Skills. So much fun but definitely a lot of work! I have even more respect (if that's ever possible) for teachers in the U.S. and abroad.

Recap of a busy week/weekend

I didn't know how to appropriately end this blog entry since it's pretty much going to be a mélange of everything that's happened in the past week or so. Last Sunday was my 2nd to last Sunday at village so it basically consisted of me hanging around my courtyard all day, relaxing and chatting it up with everyone in my host family. As those of you that know me know, I'm not much of a cat person at all but the cutest kitten came by my courtyard and started playing around with some random piece of fabric. I had to take a picture because it was so damn cute and small...and am now convinced that I should get a cat as a pet instead of a dog while at site!

The cute cat that my host family owns. Awwwww...

Tuesday morning, I woke up to a rumbling's never felt this shitty before and I didn't know what to do. In the hour that it felt its worst, I ran to my latrine at least 7 times within that hour and had some pretty bad diarrhea. I decided to do a MIF kit (stool sample) and have it sent to the lab. Basically, I found out that I had some bacteria living inside of me but was given an antibiotic to kick it out of my system. It's safe to say I feel much better now! On top of that, a couple of days later, I had my first flat tire so it’s been an up-and-down week.

On a better note, later that day , I was just elected to represent my training group’s sector (GEE) for the VAC (Volunteer Advisory Committee) ! It sounds a lot like student government except you serve more as a liaison between your fellow volunteers and the Bureau (Peace Corps Burkina Faso admin/staff), relaying concerns to the Bureau and sending back important policy info to my fellow volunteers. I’ll be lucky enough to travel to Ouaga several times a year for meetings and it’ll be interesting to get the inside scoop on how the PC/BF office runs. I’ve already thought of ideas to keep everyone well informed and connected (a texting tree, monthly e-mail blasts, etc.). Hope it works for the best !!

On Wednesday, we did a cooking session in our village to better acquaint ourselves with cooking at site with limited resources. It had to be one of the best and most relaxing days of training, and there was a point in the day where all of us trainees in my village were sitting outside, reading, and a bunch of kids came over to watch us and talk. There was this one girl who we affectionately named Oprah and she had to be no older than 1.5 years old. She had this look of wisdom and had a really sassy but hilarious attitude. We had so much fun with them !

Our version of 'Oprah' is squatting with the blue dress. We love kids!!

This weekend will be our very last weekend in village so for my host family on Sunday, I’ll be cooking lunch for them as a little way of saying thanks. I’m thinking a really simple meal of spaghetti with lots of vegetables in the sauce. Kait (the volunteer who stayed with my host family last year) will be coming by too, so it should be lots of fun ! I’m planning to give my host dad a Barack Obama tee shirt I got from the States, my host mom a shawl, and giving these rest of my family little chocolates, San Francisco postcards, and some pictures that I took with them a while ago. AND we have our village closing ceremony next week with everyone in the village – chief included – and it’s definitely going to be bittersweet !

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The homestretch

In less than 3 weeks, we all officially become Peace Corps Volunteers and will soon be affectated to our sites all around Burkina Faso! To be completely honest, training has been drawn-out and long ever since we returned from our site really is the homestretch, and boy am I feeling it! And on top of that, it is damn hot. Hot, hot, hot! With flies everywhere...I hate those damn flies so much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Trust me, it was necessary to have that many exclamation points.) It's supposedly the rainy season, so temperatures have been a little cooler but apparently not enough. I guess this year, it hasn't rained much so for a country who depends mostly on subsistence farming, that's not a good sign at all.

We've all started on local languages now, and I think I'm starting to get a little confused. Whenever all of us trainees get together, we speak English. During our technical sessions, sometimes with our families, and if we go food shopping, we speak French. When we're greeting fellow Burkinabè or even in our families, we speak Mooré. My family is Peulh (another ethnic group in BF) so they speak Fulfulde (even if I can only understand a word or two). Since I'm heading to the Southwest of BF, I'm learning Dioula and will also be learning basic phrases for another language called Lobiri. Insane!! And none of these languages sound the same at no means do I think I'll be completely fluent in the last ones I listed, but all of them are starting to mix in my head a bit!

Back to training being the homestretch, we'll be conducting Life Skills sessions (decision-making, HIV/AIDS sensibilizations, etc.) at Model School next week and it's a little nerve-wracking but I'm still excited for it. We just got some practice doing radio shows and actually recorded our own radio program at the local station here in Ouahigouya. So hilarious! Doing a radio show is a possible secondary activity at site to sensibilize people on specific issues or whatnot. We're also talking more and more about the potential activities we can do at site from English clubs or girls' camps to building school gardens...literally, the list is endless!! On a more personal note, we're all really excited to break the confines of a rigid schedule everyday and live on our own terms while at site, most especially, cooking for ourselves. We got a cookbook of things to make with limited ingredients/resources and I'm excited to get started ASAP! I've been a little more pensive now and take my time on those bike rides back to village, soaking in the African landscape of northern Burkina.

As I mentioned before, in less than 3 weeks we become official Peace Corps Volunteers...our Swear-In Ceremony is set for August 25th at the US Ambassador's Residence in Ouagadougou and it's supposed to be this extravagant celebration with ministers from the Burkinabè government, dignitaries, PC staff and other PC Volunteers! A lot of us are getting complets (outfits) made -- including me! I've had a fabric and outfit in mind and am hoping it turns out the way I want it. I went to the marché to buy the dark blue, shiny fabric, went to the tailor to get my measurements and voilà! My blog entry on Swear-In will definitely have pictures.

On another note, it'll definitely be bittersweet leaving my host family. I'm trying to spend as much time in village as possible to enjoy my experience. It's interesting being plopped into a completely different culture and living with a host family. They've helped me in ways that are indescribable and am already thinking of possible gifts as a token of my appreciation. One really good example was when I did laundry after coming back from training one day and ended up having to hang my clothes outside overnight...unfortunately, the winds started to pick up and it was supposed to rain so I had to cram all my wet clothes inside my hut. The next morning, my host dad asks for my clothes to hang while I'm gone for the day...I come back home later that afternoon to find a row of my underwear hanging on a line in the middle of our family compound!

Abdulaziz and I with my line of underwear. Loves it.

Plus, I was thinking of bringing food from Ouahigouya one day and making a meal! My Mom and Dad sent me a pretty big package filled with goodies (chocolate, snacks (Goldfishes and Cheez-Its!!), other necessities) from the US so I feel a little spoiled everytime I eat some of them. But I figured it would be a good gift to give to my host family. Man, I'm going to miss them!

And on a completely unrelated note, I heard that on the show 'Jon and Kate Plus 8,' they split up...whaaat?! Kate is living with the kids and Jon is living in a bachelor's pad in NYC. MAN.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Site visit!

Last week, we spent most of our time at our sites…finally!! We had a couple of days of training with our counterparts (counterpart = a person in the community that is assigned to each of us to aid in integration, meeting key people in our communities, etc.) and took public transport all throughout BF to spend a couple of days at our sites.

I’m fortunate to live about 17km away from another fellow GEE trainee/volunteer (Jon -- special shout-out to his grandma who I've heard has been reading my blog!) so we headed together the whole way with our counterparts...who, by the way, are ridiculously hilarious! The further south we got, passing Ouaga and various other big towns, it got progressively greener and greener. We stayed the night at a hotel in Gaoua (our regional capital) and were able to explore the huge market. Gaoua is about 40+ km north of my site. The next day when we had to head back to the bus station, I was really thrown off because I saw a Japanese guy at the bus station. Seeing another Asian here in the middle of BF was quite a sight, and I’m almost certain he was a Japanese NGO worker.

After an hour bus ride from Gaoua, I finally arrived at my site! Because I’m closer to the Cote d’Ivoire border, it literally felt like I was in another country…and for several moments, I didn’t think I was in Burkina Faso. My site looks more like the Amazon or the tropical parts of the Philippines. Lush greenery everywhere and hills…absolutely incredible! So different from what I’m used to up in the north of BF. I began to slowly realize how lucky I am: next to the goudron (paved road) which makes all the difference when it comes to biking/transport; the last bus station stop coming from Ouaga; relatively close to a market and other small boutiques/stores; live next to fonctionnaires (civil servants/teachers); live right across from the primary school which is coincidentally next to a water pump…and did I mention lots of greenery and hills everywhere!!!!

To have my own house is a mixed blessing. Outside, I have two little gardens which the volunteer I’m replacing planted, a little storage area, an outdoor latrine and shower area, and an elevated porch. Inside, I have a big living room/kitchen area and two bedrooms…absolutely huge for someone like me that loves being around people all the time!

A picture of where I'll be living for the next 2 years in the southwest of Burkina Faso! Pictures don't really do the area any justice. More pictures to come when I decorate it and make it my own after training.

I was able to meet the local authorities (thanks to Jean, my counterpart and teacher at another primary school...I’m starting to see him less as a counterpart and more as a friend since we seem to be around the same age and relate to each other more.) but since I had a lot of time to myself, I realized that that loneliness will probably be my biggest obstacle since I have this whole house to myself. I’ll definitely get a dog or cat to keep me company. I'm more of a dog person but a cat seems like more of a practical option since they're really independent and can eat all the little lizards and spiders that are in my house...I just love dogs so much more so this is definitely a tough decision! It’s also a little comforting to know that I haven’t met everyone in my community since it’s rainy season/vacation time so people are either out cultivating or out of town. The Burkinabè down south are different from the ones I live with now – more independent, don’t care much for greetings/salutations, and are little more distant. Just another thing I’ll have to get used to but I’m hoping it won’t be too bad.

After staying for a couple of nights, I had to head back by myself on transport…with my bike. Public transport is great since I’m on the goudron but it sucks when I have to bring my bike because it’s such a hassle! After several hours of bus riding, I got to the Transit House in Ouaga with some other trainees…and we all treated ourselves to some pizza!! We headed back to Ouahigouya the next day to the training center and celebrated Devin’s birthday!

Colette, Devin and I at the training center in Ouahigouya. Note the cute flower thing one of our fellow trainees made for Devin's hair. Us three...I swear, we're attached to the hip but I love every moment with these two!!

The following day, we headed back to village…by that point, it had already been 11 days since I’ve seen my host family. I don’t think I’ve been so excited to see them and my host dad even hugged me out of happiness! It was a nice little welcoming and they gave me some tea. Sadly, my host grandfather had left for the rainy season and wouldn't be coming back until well after I'd left for my site. Even though he didn't speak any French, he was such a calming presence because he reminds me so much of my grandparents back home (who I miss terribly)! When I went to bed that night, it really hit me that I’m done with training in less than a month and will be moving to my site immediately after! Crazy! PS: keep commenting, please!