Sunday, September 30, 2007

Culture Shock in Dakar

At the free hotel breakfast buffet, I sat in the restaurant surrounded by French tourists who were part of a bus tour group. They wore shorts and tank tops so much more skin revealed than the skin covering fashion of Senegal. Cloth protects you from the sun. How long will it take me to feel comfortable revealing skin again once I'm back in the states?

I walked into a HUGE supermarket, Wal-Mart and Target-like and was overwhelmed! So many choices food, housewares, so many products. I walked each aisle like it was a museum, an enjoyable way to spend out of the sun in air condition.

I bought cheese, ham, chocolate chip cookies, bread, and chips. It was so expensive, $12, but then I realized I had forgotten what supermarket prices are are like. I get $200 a month. Shopping in a supermarket is a luxury for special occasions. At least I didn't go on a shopping spree buying ALL of the temptations I could.

Maybe I won't binge when I get back to the states.

This small vacation away from village has given me a taste of the Western world: supermarkets, an all you can eat Korean buffet with raw fish, current movies, air conditioned hotel room, lots of merchandise to browse, lots of people watching, a favorite pastime of mine. Yet I am already tiring of it and am ready for the simple life au village.

Sticking out like a Sore Thumb

Customer service at restaurants, tailors, and cloth vendors has been exceptional. Having a friendly attitude rather than presenting a cold wall of don't talk to me facilitates a friendly exchange. Instead of thinking just sell me the merchandise, just serve me the food, I make small talk making the experience pleasant.

In contrast though out on the streets among the street vendors:

Don't make eye contact
Keep a poker face
Keep walking
Don't say anything
Don't open the door to be harassed and followed.

I feel like I don't get harassed that much maybe a total of 5 times per outing: hisses, Madame Chinoise, Japonese, Ni hao (at least they say it right here compared to in Guinea where it came out as hee haw).

Do I get harassed less because I'm Asian? There is a somewhat large population of Asians living here in Dakar, maybe the locals are use to Asians. Maybe it is because I wear African cloth and am conservatively clothed compared to those in shorts or tank tops. I don't have the air of a tourist. At one restaurant, the waiter correctly labeled me as Peace Corps. Maybe the lack of harassment is because I stay away from touristy spots or maybe I'm just really good at looking mean and unfriendly.

I'm just glad I've met friendly people and have not been harassed into an attitude of I hate this city. Downtown Ouaga in Burkina has that affect on me. I stay away from downtown, from the vendors who won't leave you alone. Take a bike so you can escape their clutches.

Here in Dakar, I'm happy exploring in peace.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


How do they bite me on my clothed butt?
I've got 20 mosquito bites on my ass.
There is no room for repellent anymore.
My ass would just burn from the chemicals coating infected sores.
Who puts insect repellent on their butts anyways?

Irritating bang, bang, bang
a ceaseless banging drives me from
my netted cot
to open the
aluminum door
to let the knocking frog free
from its quest to bang itself out of my latrine.

A Visit by the Big Whigs

September 19

The National Peace Corps Director is flying into Burkina bringing an entourage of 4 from Washington D.C.

I got a call from Peace Corps Burkina. He's coming to your village. Organize something.

I've been in country only 6 months, 2 of those basically on vacation. The village is empty. My farming community has gone to the fields. How the hell was I going to organize anything? Guinea taught me the difficulty of organizing anything. No one ever shows up for meetings or maybe I never waited long enough. The philosophy of time is totally opposite of our American idea that time is money.

Here time is leisure, is visits with friends, is waiting for the rain to stop, a lack of watches, time told by the sun. Time is waiting for people to show up. Time is patience.

The Burkina philosophy is Ca va allez. Things will work out.

You will only worry yourself sick if you are a control freak.

As the day approaches things are slowly coming together.

My house is coming together, a leaking window fixed. My straw covered porch is finally back up after falling down for 3rd time a month ago.

A 11 h meeting was postponed till 15 h so that the girls could do their laundry. I think they are ready to sing. The organizational meeting took a lot of patience from me. It wasn't crisp and clean. It was a caos of girls who were happy to be together socializing. Everything was in Moore until I tried to force decisions about what songs they wanted to sing. Leadership was lacking. I didn't want to be the leader. I can't speak Moore. Even though they speak French they are more comfortable in their mother tongue. Eventually after what seemed like hours of giggling and endless chatter, I hope we have something organized.

Speeches have been written, but one of the girls pulled out for a trip with her church. Surprisingly another speaker quickly replaced her.

A skit in English on girls' education has slowly come together even with the rains that cancel practices and the inevitable buisness that pulls people away from scheduled practices.

What I've learned during this frenzy of planning is that I've got friends who know how to work in the leisure time scale of Burkina who are willing to make the event happen, who know how to gather people who will participate, even if it means walking kilometers to everyone's house to spread meeting times. It is my friends who are really making this even happen.

It isn't about being on time, or being efficient, or productive in a short amount of time. It is about having fun even if it takes more time to get a final product.

I'm planning an event where nothing is definite. Anything and everything changes. It's kind of exciting not knowing what is going to happen but believing Ca va allez that it'll all work out in the end.

September 21

The visit to my village was an enormous success! Students showed up. Songs were sung. Speeches were given and my high energy speech about Peace Corps and its work in the village was received with high praise. I am just super glad that it is over.


September 19

They scale the fresh water fish and then dip it in a wok of oil heated by burning wood. Then we eat . I've started learning how to crunch on the heads, a favored part of the fried fish. The kids are sad coz they use to always get my uneaten fish heads. Frying the fish is a way of conserving the meat for a few days. How long does it take for flies to lay eggs that become larvae? I hate having almost finished a whole fish only to find wiggling white larvae in the meat.

Glorious Food

I am going to grow super fat when I get back to the states. One thing Africa has not taught me is self-control with respect to food. Africa forces self-control by depriving, by offering limited food choices: flour, rice, meat, okra, eggplant, onions, cabbage, pasta and beans.

I could try binging on bread or pancakes, but I get awfully tired of eating them.

Amongst cheese, cookies, candy, ice cream, chips, fast food, restaurants, and piles of fruit and vegetables, I am afraid I'm going to binge.

Choose your own Adventure

September 14

Today was a day in African hell where one keeps running into difficulties and roadblocks yet you never get upset having learned to just go with the flow. In the end everything tends to work out. My proof? a bacon and cheese quiche sitting beside me.

My troubles began at 6 am. The month of fasting has started and I could not find breakfast an essential for a 30 km bike ride. I had planned to taxi into Kaya to withdraw money from the bank and then bike back not wanting to wait around till 3 pm for the taxi to return home.

The ride to Kaya was fun sitting in a big cab of a truck slightly afraid of going through a windshield that was well cracked. We stopped at one village for a long time.

Do you?

A) Start worrying and panicking that the day is progressively getting hotter, each minute ticking to make a late arrival in Kaya resulting in a tortuously hot bike ride home or
B) enjoy the sights?

I enjoyed watching 3-6 women young, old, pregnant, some with babies tied to their backs, pull water from a well and lift heavy water-filled plastic bidons and locally made mud canisters above their heads to be balanced there as they walked off. The old women have lost a lot of their muscle yet they still pull, organizing their rope efficiently for repeat drops. I could tell that their strength was disappearing. Water was carried with a wobble instead of the centered stillness of the younger women.

I watched 5 young men lift a huge bull from a donkey cart onto the back of a big truck. It was to be sold for meat, a useless bull with a broken leg. We sat at that village a long time. The next thing I watched was a long argument about money. Fists were raised but we were soon on our way and I watched village tops roll by, their walls hidden by fields of corn.

I biked to the bank looking forward to later buying watermelon from the growing stacks of market day to send home with the truck. Instead I found the post closed. I needed money. I was down to my last $10 and I was flying to Dakar soon.

Do you?

A) Wait till 15h when it was rumored that the post would re-open thus missing the 15h transport back home then A1) bike back arriving at nightfall or A2) spend the night in Kaya or
B) Take a bus down to Ouaga, withdraw money and catch the 13h taxi back home?

It was only 8:30 am giving me plenty of time to take the 9 am bus down to Ouaga a 100 km ride on paved roads (about 2 hours). I bought my ticket when the sky suddenly turned red and a rainstorm hit us. We sat at the bus station forever waiting way past the scheduled departure time for the rain to stop. Would I make it to the bank before it closed for lunch?

Do you?

A) Ask for a refund and stay in Kaya hoping to withdraw money and if the bank never opened not having enough for a hotel. or
B) Continue to Ouaga where if the bank closed before you arrived you'd have to wait till it reopened at 15 h thus missing your taxi back home and thus having to stay in an expensive hotel?

I had the idea that the post closed at 11:45. We got into Ouaga at 11:30. They took forever to get my bike down from the top of the bus. At 11:50 I got my money and stamps with 10 minutes to spare. *whew* I got my money and even got to do some expensive shopping at a pastry shop and a grocery store full of Western food: raisins, powdered milk, cookies, baking powder, and a Mars bar. I caught my 13h taxi back home not getting any watermelon, yet still happy with my rare treat of a bacon and cheese quiche.

No matter how you choose your adventure in Africa, everything eventually works out.

September 14

I spent $16 on stamps today. 16 letters? No 10. It is hard to imagine spending $16 on stamps when I can live in village for a dollar a day.

September 12

One reason I decided to go to Africa was to escape from the stress of responsibility and deadlines.

My weight is directly proportional to my stress levels. Lately I'm feeling the pull to eat. Lucky for me there are no snacks here au village.

Not only am I teaching 18 hours a week, summer science and math classes, but now I'm helping put together a ceremony for a visit by the National Peace Corps director who is flying in from Washington: speeches, skits, and singing. As an American organizing a visit by an American to Burkina Faso is stressful. Working in a different culture with a different time scale is challenging.

When nothing is at stake, I'm stress free. Here in Burkina, I have learned to put aside my American need to have things start on time, to be overly prepared, and to feel in control. Bush taxis that break down have taught me a lesson that things work out in the end. I can relax for hours, waiting for repairs.

Why is it so hard to apply that philosophy to this visit?

I am stressed instead of relaxed! I am in an organizing, meetings galore frenzy. I'm tired. I just want to cook pancakes and to weed my garden. Instead I eat on the go, never at home. I'm bringing an American attitude to Burkina *sigh* Relax I keep telling myself. The visit will arrive and it will pass.

September 2

This morning as I was aggressively weeding the tedious vines of bean plants I heard something that scared me, a loud buzzing that seemed to get closer and closer. As it got louder, I finally stopped weeding and moved toward the house keeping my eye toward the sound ready to run inside if need be. From a distance I watched a swarm of bees take over a neighboring tree.

Tonight as the sun was setting filling the sky with pinks and oranges amongst the scattered grayness, I walked in my garden. The garden is beautiful at dusk. I felt proud finally understanding why dad would sweat so much for his garden. I never understood thinking he was a workaholic who couldn't take a break and retire. Still having a third of the bean patch to weed, I leisurely pulled up some. It was just an after thought as I was walking, not the goal oriented let's get this weeding done of earlier this morning. Through this relaxed state I found a secret. Don't pull and tug at the vines trying to find the weeds. Squat down, gently lift the vine patch, peer underneath and let your hand find the mauvais herbes, a much better strategy than this morning's frustrating tedious garden work.

September 1

Corn stalks hide people's homes. Mine are puny. I'm taller than them, yet amazingly they are growing corn. Crazy!

The problem with enjoying cooking is water. Washing dishes uses a lot of water, a lot of water that is because each drop is pumped, biked and carried to the kitchen doorstep.

I should really stop eating the frozen fish flown in from Senegal that is deep fried, unless it is freshly fried. I am done with eating day old fish full of near invisible fly larvae.
Mosquitoes are so beautiful. They are so delicate, with such a beautiful pose. I could observe it forever, against the backdrop of my skin a desire to capture its figure in my sketchbook.

But my tattooed body that so obviously bears the beauty's mark- almost every Burkinabe comments on my blemished skin- swings and misses. Who knew such a delicate thing could fly so fast, just like those monstrosities called flies.
I have spent a lifetime doing math problems and science problems. I can hardly believe that 10th grade physics, chemistry, and math problems are easily solved in a matter of a minute.

I remember my younger years, years of struggle never believing a page long math problem would become as easy as 1+1=2.

I wonder would my graduate school problem sets ever turn into 1+1?

A Protestant

Aaaaeemen! Aaaeeemen! Aaaeemen! Amen! Amen!

Holding summer school for 2 students who have already starting preparing for the end of the year national 10th grade test, my focus on the circuit problems strayed as the sound of a familiar song swept into the empty classroom. Shouted at the top of his voice a young shepherd, a kid was pushing his flock home with a song. Our class grinned.


It is raining. The sun is setting and I am making pancakes without syrup, just a little margarine and grainy sugar.

Baking always seemed such a hassle in the US, all of the dishes and mess. Here it seems so much simpler. I wonder why.

It could be a new time scale, where taking an unknown amount of time doesn't feel like sacrificing anything. I have nothing else to do except to use up time. It could be that I only dirtied 1 spoon, 1 cup, 1 bowl, and a frying pan to make the pancakes, hardly any dishes at all. My wash basin is sitting outside filling with rain water.
The walls of my house are ugly.
They need to be painted!
I live at my desk.
My desk is usable, big enough to host a library, an artist's workspace, and a bucket water filter.
I appreciate my desk.
It doesn't need to be painted.


August 29

Flies are horrible, pesky little creatures. The ones in my latrine are huge. Their wings audibly buzz at a frequency that tells me as soon as I lift the lid I'll be swarmed, my parts all of them attacked. Why must I pee? At least my friends the ants are trying to help, removing the eggs the flies lay. And today I saw 4 ants attacking one of the the hundreds, the ants being dragged from here to there by the giant.

The smaller ones are just as annoying. Their legs must be huge because not a one goes unnoticed as they land. While bent over doing laundry today, I had to keep a steady march in place to keep the 20 flies from making my ankles and feet a place to linger.

August 28

"Look to the clock on the wall, hands hardly moving at all. Oh Lord, What can I say? I'm so sad since you went away. Time, time, ticking on me. Alone is the last place I wanted to be."

Brandi Carlie's song "What can I say?" is beautiful. In my restless state tonight, unable to focus on writing a letter, I've been singing along with Brandi in repeat for the past 30 minutes.

I completely understand how time stops with solitude.
But why am I not sad being alone?

Even tonight with my restlessness, with a desire to sleep- it's too early to blow out the lamp, only 8 pm- I do not feel sad or lonely. I feel a smile, a sense of love for my house, the outside darkness, the desk I write at, the dim light. The atmosphere makes me smile, happy. A lovely presence keeps me company on the walls of brightly painted pastels. The cool wind through the screen door caresses my warm body.

I love the state I am in.

I am alone, silent, and free.

It takes a village...

My neighbors are a courtyard of females. I don't know where the men are, maybe deceased. The women leave in the morning to walk 3 km to their fields. Left behind are two little girls 5 and 4 whom I often feed. The women return as the sun sets.

Am I part of the village babysitting network?


I never realized how tasty okra is. It is a beautiful green with entertaining yummy white seeds that pop. Boiled, it is slimy and gooey. Stir-fried it is crispy goodness. Try it with onions, salt, basil, and oil.

Here okra is boiled into a stringy sauce. Like how we manipulate stress balls, millet toe, a more solid form of grits, is formed into a ball and dipped into an okra sauce. Toe doesn't really have a taste. It is the texture people find hard. For me it is the sauce that makes or breaks toe.

Knee Deep

August 26

I am somewhat concerned that the square cement floor covering a square pit hanging on by its edges over a live smelly mess, made personally by yours truly will cave in. Rain is slowly eating away at the crumbling edges.

My nearest Peace Corps neighbor is a comedian, "I'd get a picture and then help you out."

August 23

Today's taxi ride from Ouaga back to the village reminded me why in Guinea I preferred biking 68 km for five hours rather than riding in a 15 passenger van crammed with 24.

I've been happy with Burkina's transportation. The roads are better. Buses leave on time. There are more runs per route making the bus less crowded.

Today though may have pushed me to start biking the 100 km. The only problem is I like starting at 5 am. I'm not sure the canoes used to cross a river 3 km from my village on the way to Ouaga are operating that early. Plus it would be kind of scary crossing a river in the dark. If I don't leave early for Ouaga though the sun will get me.