Believe it or not, 2 years have gone by since I have started writing this blog about my adventures in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso. In those 2 years I have had many ups and downs and have learned more than I thought imaginable. I have laughed. I have cried. I have been the teacher. I have been taught. I have had the experience of a lifetime that I wish more people would be open to doing. These last two years have flown by. However, at times I never thought they would end. But, here they are. I will try to explain to you a few of the things that I have learned. There is no way I can possible write everything because I myself possibly have not even realized all that I have learned. But for the time being, I have written a few of the big things that I will carry on with me for the rest of my life.
#1. Patience! Ever since I was a kid, I can remember people saying, “Patience is a virtue”. And Americans SAY this all of the time, but they don’t actually LIVE it. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to wait, and while sitting there, wondering, “God, is this a test? Is this you teaching me patience?” Being patience also means slowing down. Here in Burkina TIME ≠ MONEY. Things happen when they are supposed to happen or when everyone is there. That being said, many times, I can arrive to something early and find no one there. I can even arrive “late” (after the said arrival time) and still be the first person there! So, what do you do…? WAIT! Because I am waiting, I can never be in a hurry. If I were in a hurry I would go crazy waiting. The one really really REALLY good example that I can give of my patience being tested is a day when I wanted to return back to village.
My transport to and from village by bus was limited to 2 days a week. To village were Sundays and Wednesdays at 8 am and to the capital was Mondays and Thursdays at 8 am. Not a whole lot of options, but we made it work for 2 years. One day, I show up a bit early knowing that we never leave at 8 am exactly, but usually by 9 we are on the road. I left the Transit House by 7 and was at the bus station by 7:30. This particular day, I could just tell that my bus driver was not in a hurry (more laid back that normal). Nine o’clock arrived and they all kind of gathered around the bus and kind of decided to leave. I already knew something was up, but had yet to find out. Normally, leaving the bus station we turn right and head north. This day, we turned left and headed south. Initially, I was not concerned. I knew that often times we would pass by other places and pick up other things being commissioned by villagers to bring to village. I noticed we were driving around and heard the bus driver start yelling at another guy about where we were going because he could not find the place. Again I wasn’t alarmed, it’s normal. We arrive at the destination, still in the capital, but in the other direction of our final destination. At this point its about 10 am, 2 hours behind schedule. But still, no worries. The driver and his staff get off the bus and pretty much say to me, “It’s going to be a little while”. I have learned that this does not mean what most Americans would mean if they were to say it. Here in Burkina “a little while” can mean 30 min, 2 hours or 4 hours. You never know. So, I waited. I was in no rush to get back because usually we would get back around noon, and it was hot and a cloudless sky filled with sun that made my pale skin turn red just thinking about going outside. Knowing that we were waiting a bit would get us back a little bit later in the afternoon, and I was OK with that. So I waited. And, I waited. Got some street food that I found next to where we were. A little while later, I grabbed a beer to pass the time. By this time, it is noon. 2 hours of waiting and they are still saying, “It’s going to be a while”. Finally at 1 pm a bus full of people shows up from the Ivory Coast. Several of these passengers head straight for our bus. Oh, but these people didn’t travel lightly. Most people go to the Ivory Coast to look for work, so when they come back, they have a bit of money and of course gifts and necessary things to bring back to the family. So, of course, we had to wait for the arrival bus to unload all of the baggage, then our bus had to load all of it back on. Not a simple or quick task by any means for the amount of people we had. Now it is 2 pm and we are about ready to move. By this time I was getting a bit antsy, but knew the bus ride was about 3 hours, so I still was not worried. It gets dark at 6:30. We would be home by 5. We pass by the original bus station and not to far past that… we stop again. We add some more things (completely unrelated to the people we just picked up from the Ivory Coast). Now, I am a bit perturbed. Why did we not do this while we were waiting for how many hours for these people?!!?! Now we could be on our way!!! That takes a bit more time and now it’s about 2:30-45ish and I’m tired. We finally move and we make it to Tougo at 6 pm as its getting dark. I jump on my trusty bike and pedal my 5k home to Rassomdé. By 6:30 I am home. Remember, I left at 7 am for a bus ride that only takes about 3 hours. It took me almost 12 to get home! Talk about patience!
#2. Gift Giving. In the U.S. we have many holidays where we give gifts to people. Why do we give gifts? I believe its because it is expected of us. If its my friends birthday and I don’t bring him/her a gift or do something “special” for said birthday person, it is possible that the person will believe that I do not think of them as a true friend because I didn’t buy anything for them. (Yes, this is not true for everyone. Just an example that can be true from time to time.) I know that the holidays are just around the corner. What does everyone do the day after Thanksgiving? Which is now becoming the day of. But that’s a different story) People go out and shop for Christmas gifts. Why do we buy people Christmas gifts? Because people expect them. How many times have you bought a gift with a gift receipt, just in case they don’t like it? How many times have you wondered, “What can I buy for this person? Will they like it?” We come from the land of plenty, where people can be more choosy in their possessions.
I have lived the last 2 years in one of the poorest countries in the world (Burkina is in the bottom 10). I have lived in relative poverty with this people. By no means can I compare my living standards to my villagers, but I have seen it and lived it with my own eyes. What have I learned? I have learned the joy of gift giving. To see the joy on people’s faces when you give them a gift and they TRULY appreciate it, is amazing. Not saying that people don’t appreciate gifts in the U.S., but there is definitely a difference between the haves and the have nots. Just recently, I was on my way to the market and I cam across a woman from my courtyard. It was early in the morning and had already been to Tougo and was on her way home. She had gone to the health clinic and wanted to go to the market as well, but at that hour not many people were there yet. She asked me if she gave me money if I could buy her daughter some shorts. Of course I said yes, however feeling a little daunted at the task of having to pick something out for someone else (the American in me). Later that day I venture into the market on the search for some shorts for the little girl. I find a vender who is nice and start to ask prices. I find a few pairs for 300 cfa (25 cents). The woman asked me to buy just one pair and to return with the change. I decided that I would do as she asked, but also use my money to add a second pair of shorts knowing that money was limited for them and clothes for kids are not priority. (Also this little girl was one of my absolute favorites). I come home and find the woman anxiously awaiting the shorts. I handed her the bag with 2 pairs and she looked at me with anger in her eyes. Before I could explain that I paid for one, she assumed that I bought the 2 with her money. So, in my broken Mooré, I explained that there was 700 cfa change for one pair and that I added another with my own money. He anger quickly disappeared into appreciation and amazement that I would do something like that. The next morning she thanked me profusely along with the other women in the courtyard that had heard what I had done for the child. After this the little girl came to me and asked me if it was true that I had bought her the shorts (she had already put them on). I said yes, that I had wanted her to have 2 pairs of shorts and she replied with, “BARKA! Wend na reegay!” Which means, “Thank you, may God see what you have done”. This little girl is about 4 years old and even though I had given her a simple pair of shorts, you would have thought I had given her the world.
When people have so little, the smallest gifts mean the most. The joy that filled my heart at that moment cannot begin to be put into words. I have felt that many times here when I have been able to help someone and their appreciation has been more than genuine. It is a feeling that you do not get from your everyday gift giving and that most Americans have never experienced, that I had never experienced before. This is definitely something that I will bring back home and never forget. Open up your hearts (not just for the holiday season) to those that do not have much. It might burden you until your next paycheck, but the joy that you will receive will be worth spending those few extra $$ on someone else. You do not have to buy them the world, but it will mean the world to them.
#3. You cannot force people to change. Again, this one seems obvious. But from the eyes of development work it is the first thing that everyone must learn. The problem here in Burkina is that everyone has been doing the same thing for generations upon generations. They do not know another life. What they do know is what they currently do barely gets them by, but it works. What they do not understand is that this situation can change, if only they are willing to take the risk and break the cycle of what has been done for many years. One of the things (obvious) that will break the cycle of poverty is an education. For many people in village and certain ethnic groups here in Burkina, girls do not go to school. The girls are seen as an expense and not someone that can be a “breadwinner” for their family or someone that can contribute later in life. So, money spent on a girl’s education is money wasted. It is highly unfortunate, however, in my courtyard almost all of the girls go to school, one of them having been 3rd in her class last year! The biggest challenge that I ran into though was my work with my assigned women’s association. If you have never been to school, how can you appreciate learning something new and the transfer of knowledge? It is difficult. Why learn something knew, when you know what you are doing is getting you by some of the time? Why take that risk to change from what works some of the time to what could possibly fail and work none of the time? When you are poor, you don’t always want to take that risk. However, in my eyes, it is those risk takers who can break the cycle. Obviously, what is being done here has been done for years and it isn’t working. Something needs to change. This is where Peace Corps comes in. This is our job as volunteers to help those willing to change and motivated to better their lives. I struggled to organize my association to even meet with me because they often told me they didn’t have time to work with me because they had to go out to the fields. They were afraid to leave that work for an hour or two to come and learn something from me that might or might not work to make them money, when they know that those tomatoes out in the field will make them some money. Unfortunately, in my two years I never found the right incentive for them to give me a few minutes of their time to teach them some things and hopefully make them some money. They were more looking for handouts of money (as they specifically asked me for money on several occasions). It was definitely frustrating, as I could see the value of teaching them something new, but could not make them see it or convince them to take a small risk of not going out to the fields for an hour or two and coming to learn something from me. Maybe it was a character flaw on my part, but either way, it was a failure! I tried several times to explain to community members ideas that I had and explain that I wouldn’t take a whole lot of time, but they always told me, “We are poor. Sorry, we do not have time to work with you because we are poor.” You can’t make them change, they have to want it and be willing to learn and take small risks.
#4. Failure is OK. We often say “Learn from your mistakes”. Well in the Peace Corps we can learn from our failures and it is perfectly ok to say, “I HAVE FAILED!” In America we don’t like to think of failing. It’s the worst. The end. Failing means that you are the looser. Not only admit your mistakes, but also it is ok to fail. It means at least you tried. I would by no means say that my Peace Corps service was a failure, but I have done things that I have failed at. There is an emotional depth and learning that comes when you say, “I have failed” “I have not accomplished grandiose things” “I didn’t do what I expected I would do”. But it doesn’t even have to be the extent of failing. In Burkina and West Africa when you ask people how their work is going, or their family is they will tell you its going “little by little” or “slowly its coming along”. They are honest that their life is not measured by huge accomplishments. The one thing that I have learned is that I have grown as a person because of the struggles and difficulties and yes failures that I have encountered in the Peace Corps.
Those are 4 of the take home messages/lessons learned in the last two years. I can feel that I have changed and grown as a person. I have learned patience, confidence and to enjoy and live life one day at a time. Last week I did one of the hardest things in the world. I said good bye to my village. I never thought that these people would find their way deep into my heart and make a cozy little home, but they did. They are there. I know that one day I will go back and visit, but who knows if that will be 5 years from now or more? I told them that I will come back one day, but the first volunteer has been gone for about 3 years now and all they say is: Look! She hasn’t come back yet! One day. One day I will return and see my little children and how they have grown and visit all of the women. But for now, I have to say good bye not knowing when I will be back. I would love to bring them all with me, but that’s in line right after impossible. So, for now, I will keep them in my heart, look at their pictures, and remember fondly of all of the good times we had together.
Two Years. If you are willing, a lot can be learned in two years.
You could learn a lot in 2 years as well. Anyone can do Peace Corps. I highly recommend it. Its tough. Its hard. But you gain so much from it all in the end. You can’t put a dollar amount on growing as a person, but its worth the two years of being a volunteer.