November 25, 2012


I left village.
Even typing those words doesn’t quite make it real.

A tiny part of me still thinks I’ll be going back; that this is just another break in Ouaga. I am wondering when it’s going to sink in that David will never run to me with his little chubby two-year old arms, I will never shake hands with all those old women at the market anymore, I may never see the stars from Alima’s house as we chat about life, and that I … left village.

It was difficult. It was frustrating. It was joyful. It was exciting. It was sad.

It had drama and expectations. It had laughter and love. It had people who had gotten to know and accept me. It had people who never really liked me but pretended to. It had sunsets and sunrises. It had adorable children who didn’t understand yet. It had old women who understood too well. It had unexpected gifts and expected giving. It had a few quickly hidden tears by close friends. It had a few not quickly enough hidden tears by me. It had a night of my best friend in village reminding me of all the real reasons I had to go home because she knew. It had long days of me convincing everyone I wasn’t leaving because I didn’t care, but in spite of the fact that I still cared deeply. It had Burkinabe left hand shakes, French kisses on the cheek and people surprised by American hugs. It had good bye.

It was just… full. 

November 23, 2012

You go to america why?

These last few weeks have been full of explaining over and over again why I can’t stay in my village. People are sweet and have been insisting I stay at least one more year. They like me, they say. They finally know me. I finally know Moore. Why do I have to go? Stay! Stay! Stay! Stay! they say. 

I thought you all might enjoy the reasons my villagers would accept as “good enough” for me to leave them and their usual responses. So here are my direct translations (from Moore, least to most convincing) of the reasons I gave for leaving:

1) My work is finished. Our work is only two years here.  You know Mariam, the first foreigner? She only stayed two years, too. When I came they told me, you can come, but you can only stay two years. (Response: oh.)

2) I have to go find a job. I can get a good job in America to make money. (Response: And then you can come back here and share! May God give you lots and lots of money!) 

3) I will look for a husband. 
(Automatic responses: We have men here!; You can marry our husband!; Here is my brother. He says you’re pretty. Stay now.)
All of the men here want lots of women! For my people it is one man and only one woman. If you can find a man who only wants one wife truest true-- he can't change his mind like, sure I want one wife, but two years later he sees another woman he wants-- and he speaks english, you tell me and we'll chat. 
(New response: May God give you a nice/helpful husband!; We will come to your wedding.; Bring your children to see us!)

4) My grandparent, my mother's mother, wants to see me. She said two years is long enough and I should come home now. I also want to see my family and the people in my father's village. 
(Response: Your mothers mother is lasting!? Oh, yes, you must go see her. But then come back. She could come live here with you?) 
No, she can’t come here. 
(Oh. Well, it is good [for you] to go see her. Greet her for us.)
(Response 2: May God bless your parents for giving birth to you. Are the old man and woman well? Good. We are glad they came to see us all the way here. Tell them thank you for sending you. )

Hopefully that translated OK and made you smile a bit. I know it does me. I love these people!

November 17, 2012

Tough Skin

"My hands don't bleed anymore."

When they asked what in my service I was most proud of, that's the answer that come out. Which, of course, took some explaining.

I went to my friend Alima's mother-in-law's house the other day. Alima and her husband had been there harvesting, and I hadn't seen them for a while. So, in true Burkina fashion, I invited myself over. 

The morning I left for the visit, my bike had a flat. I went to the bike-repair-man to get it fixed, but of course he was in his fields harvesting like everyone else. So I walked.
I didn't get there til late morning. They made a big deal that I'd walked "all that way" and seemed pleased that I'd come to see them. 

I'd helped this family harvest once before, last season, and several of Alima's relatives I knew from the rice place or the health clinic. So I felt pretty at home and decided to stay a bit. I wasn’t about to just sit there while they worked, so I asked to help. They offered me some cooked beans to eat. I offered to help again, and they told me to rest under a tree. I asked a third time, and they finally went to go find a knife I could use.

Harvesting millet involves several steps. After cutting down the millet stalks, you cut of the top of the millet and put it in large bowls. These bowls are carried on the head to a large wooden pallet where they are all put on one gigantic pile. They are kept there until the millet seeds can be removed and placed in storage or ground into flour and then stored. I helped cutting off the tops of millet plants. A lot of millet plants. Because the harvest has to last a family the whole year, there is a huge amount to be done.

After a little bit of time working, it suddenly made sense to me why, even though it wasn’t hot season, everyone started harvest around 5 am. At noon in the sun in Burkina, it’s always hot.

There were four of us working in the same area. The work was routine and most of the time was spent chatting and bending over to work. Most women here live their lives like this: forever bending over to do something or another and gossiping with the woman next to them. I felt pleased to be included, glad that I could pick up on some of what they were saying. Occasionally since they knew I was leaving soon, someone would ask me something about America (is it true that some families have two cars?), but mostly I just listened.

Too often for my liking, Alima would ask me if I was ready to rest yet. After a while of this, I chided her for treating me like an old woman. She was so worried I’d get hurt. Her friends laughed and she stopped pestering me. But as we went back to work, she also explained to me that she was worried working in the sun like this would give me malaria again (a common folk belief). Then I tried to explain to her that you can only get malaria by mosquito bites. I’m not sure I convinced her, but who knows.

When I finally sat down to rest, the women were impressed, despite the fact that they had and would work for 5 times as long every day for several months. I had brought my camera, and I brought it out to take some pictures of the women harvesting. They loved it, and on request they posed like pros (with the baby, all together now, cutting millet). I ate the beans I was offered once again. Then I said my good-byes and told the women I would be back soon.

Two days later I made the track back, this time in late afternoon. It wasn’t nearly as hot. Alima fussed over me a bit, concerned the harvesting had been too hard on my hands. She seemed satisfied only when I let her examine them. I had cut one finger but it had been protected by the skin and hadn’t bled at all. I didn’t have any blisters. She seemed satisfied. “Well” she said in Moore, “I just wanted to be sure. Last year you had bad problems with your hands. Your hands bled and we had to wrap one in fabric. Remember?”

I had completely forgotten, but as she spoke, I did remember. After much less work the last year, I’d had bad blisters and bled through a piece of cloth I’d tied on my hand to keep working. As I remembered and it dawned on me how much had changed in a year. I took a moment too long in responding; to cover it, I made a joke. I said that clearly my hands had become strong and Mossi; I was sure they’d turn as dark as hers any day now. She laughed and went back to what she’d been doing.

I couldn’t get that conversation out of my head though. I started to realize that my hands were a bit more calloused, that they didn’t bleed anymore when I scrubbed my clothes clean, and that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a blister. I remembered them playing with children, hauling water, holding the hands of sick people, greeting everyone a billion times a day by shaking their hand, sweeping my courtyard ... doing small things that all added up to tougher skin.

“My hands don’t bleed anymore”

You see, I explained, I came to this country with hands that knew a pen and a key board pretty well, but they didn’t know the first thing about a how to use a hoe or hold a newborn. My hands will always be those of a privileged person. They come from and will go back to a land of opportunities. But they have changed. So much so, that they don’t really bleed anymore.

I’ve said before, a Burkinabe’s hands tell the stories of their heart. I like to think that now mine do a little bit, too.