Saturday, September 12, 2009

The first two weeks at site = (one of the) hardest/most challenging

It was (and still is somewhat) difficult. Plainly put. As much as I’d like to paint a rosy, cheery picture of my first week, it’s best to be real. Not surprisingly, it was also expected, too. Thinking about my first week at site while I was still in the US or even during training, I knew it was going to be a challenge but really thought nothing of it. This definitely has to be one of the top 5 most difficult things I’ve had to do in my 22 years of living!

The day after Swear-In, I took a bus to Gaoua (my regional capital) and spent the night at a hotel while a PC vehicle brought down all my stuff, as well as the belongings of other new PCVs in my region. The next day, I did some quick shopping for the basics, ten headed to my site with Kyle (another PCV who’s in my area). Driving down was even more beautiful than I remember. When I got to my house, Ali and Armel (2 teenage neighbors of mine) helped me unload all of belongings into my house. I was so ready to make my house my own/get to cleaning that I didn’t even really notice the PC vehicle leave (unlike what I expected/heard). Ali, Armel and I cleaned everything – sweeping the floor, wiping clear the tables, removing the cobwebs on the ceiling, re-arranging the things that Clay left behind, etc. It was great to finally make this house comfortable for me to live in for the next 2 years!

It wasn’t until the third day that the novelty of living in a new place wore off…fast. It’s different for everyone (so I’ve heard) but for me, that feeling consumed me so quickly. I started getting antsy and for one of the first times while here in BF, questioned what I’d do in this new place, my reasons for doing the Peace Corps, and felt the loneliness/depression start to hit. Which is why I slipped into an immediate coping mechanism: eat a whole damn lot. I ate most of the candy in the care package I got from my parents a while ago, and binged on the majority of snacks I got at Marina Market. No doubt, a really hard day for me and I have even more respect (if that’s even possible) for those who move to a place completely different from their own and have to adapt to the new culture and language immediately – people like my Mom and Dad, Tito Vic and Tita Imelda, who all immigrated individually to the US in the early 80’s. I got a call from Mom and a surprise call from Mahmoudou (my host dad) which helped a little.

I woke up the next morning not feeling so well (emotionally) but forced myself to get out of the house and go to the church I heard was relatively close to my house…which, spiritually, really helped me center myself immensely. Plus, I was getting my face out there despite all the stares and giggles. After, I needed to get more water and for the first time in 3 days of arriving at site, I finally met some young girls and women at the pump (not too far from my house, right next to the school). Little side note: a lot of the people that hang around me have been Ali’s friends – all teenage boys – so I definitely got excited to meet new people! I ended up walking en ville (kind of like downtown)/to the goudron (paved road) with Ali to buy bread, onions, bananas and other food but also to again get my face out there instead of hiding within the confines of my house. Of course, there were the stares and yelling of ‘Chinois’ or ‘Japonais’ but I explained to a lot of them who I was, where I actually came from, that I’m an American volunteer for the Peace Corps, etc. Walking back home, I even saw a guy I met when I was on my site visit a couple months ago who helped me with my bike. Finally, a familiar face! In all honesty, a complete 180 from the day before.

Lesson learned: when I’m in a situation like this again, GET OUT OF THE HOUSE! Get over the initial fear of being seen as a stranger and force yourself to meet people. Give yourself a reason to get out – buy some food at the market. Go to church. Introduce yourself when people stare. Speak/greet in the local language despite the laughter. Yeah, it’s awkward but hell, this is your home for the next 2 years so you might as well get over all of the awkwardness now!

To go from a completely structured schedule with fellow Americans for 3 months to being dropped off at your site with no set structure (by yourself) is a sudden and dramatic change. So my strategy was to balance being at home and going out into the community. At home, I tried new things to cook and decorated my walls with pagnes (African-patterned fabric) to add some color to my house. I’ve been having lots of dreams of my family and close friends recently, so I made a little picture thing on the wall above my desk. I texted fellow new PC volunteers to see how everyone was doing (and plan the next time some of us would reunite!). I finally finished reading “Three Cups of Tea,” a gift from my friend Leslie and started reading Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” a farewell gift from my Uncle Stan. In the community, I went to the Grand Marché (big market day) every Tuesday, pumped more water and met more people just by introduced myself, in French or local language. Even just reading outside on my porch invites people over to causer (chat/talk). One example was when I was helping Ali take the weeds out of my courtyard and the lady cultivating in the filed next to my house came over, was entertained of the sight of a foreigner doing manual labor, and began speaking to me in Mooré. I used the little that I knew and it seemed to completely change her view of me. Another instance was when I was washing my dishes on the porch and my neighbors invited me to a Burkinabè tradition: drinking tea and causer.

Last Saturday, I biked to visit my closest PC neighbor, Jon, who lives less than 20 km north of me. Riding on bike, despite the little hills, made me appreciate more where I live. It was a good day trip/break from my site. While we talked about our 2 friends back home meeting for the first time (thanks to us!) and just about PC life thus far, there were 2 highlights. One was seeing the cutest line of puppies imaginable pass through Jon’s porch. I asked the kids if they were for sale and he said yes…so I think I’m pretty set on getting a dog instead of a cat. Yeah, they’re more dependent on you and take longer to train but if I’m going to be living here for 2 years, I want to be really happy! SO hopefully in the next few weeks, you’ll see pictures of me with my new friend/housemate! Second, Jon was telling me a story about something and mentioned the song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and it instantly reminded me of the last road I took with my friends since high school – Patrici, Mari and Gina – to Las Vegas and I just straight up laughed out loud. Amazing how a song can elicit such funny memories!

My second week at site so far has been really good and I’m slowly (but surely) meeting people and finding my niche. At the last Grand Marché on Tuesday, I heard several people call out my name which is a sign that I’m progressing little by little with community integration! Even while biking along the paved road, I’ll hear a couple of “Michael’s” instead of the equivalent of foreigner/stranger/white person/Chinese/Japanese. Coincidentally, I met the chef du village (village chief) who invited me over for tea and causer (talk/chat) in his courtyard. He’s Muslim so was fasting for Ramadan – and also invited me to join him and his family to break the fast that evening! I felt like such an honored guest, and the fact that I’m the first American he’s actually exchanged ideas with and genuinely talked to makes me even happier! On Tuesday, a few of us PCVs in our region met up in Gaoua (our regional capital) for a little day trip -- eating good food and shopping for things we can't necessarily get at our sites. It was just nice to speak English for a little bit and share our experiences. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, I got to check out the famed Lobi Museum, and even established our own PO Box (so you all can send me things to this address instead and I can check it on a weekly basis since it's only a short bus ride away!).

If there’s anything I could take from these first 2 weeks at site, it’s to really just force myself to break free from my timidity and just get out and meet people! To really cherish the small accomplishments of meeting a new person, learning a new word in French or the local language or whatnot. While I haven’t started any projects with the school (and won’t until January), it’s reassuring to know that the moment I arrived, I already started my ‘work’ – of changing people’s perceptions of Americans by simply living among the Burkinabè for 2 years of my life.

Currently, I’m in Ouagadougou for the next couple of days for a VAC committee meeting…running water for showeing, a toilet, electricity, Internet access. It’s living the privileged life for a couple of days before I return back to site. So I’m happy I’m able to post all these blogs I’ve been backed up with/been storing on my USB drive.

I’ll end with what the Burkinabè always say, regardless of a good or bad situation: “ça va aller!” (It’ll be all right!/That’s the way it goes!)…perhaps another mantra for my life?

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