Sunday, April 28, 2002
Dear Students at Clark Magnet High School,
I was very excited to receive your letters. I enjoyed reading all of them and learning a bit about your lives in Glendale, California. What an interesting and intelligent bunch you are! Thanks for asking so many thoughtful questions about Peace Corps and my life here in Burkina Faso. I have tried to answer all your questions in this letter. At the end, there are questions for each and every one of you, so I look forward to your next letters!
You may be surprised that I am using a computer to reply to your letters, so I must tell you that I write this letter at the Peace Corps headquarters in Ouagadougou, the capitol city of Burkina Faso, where there are several computers available for volunteers to use. The challenge for Peace Corps volunteers is getting to the headquarters; for some Peace Corps volunteers, it's a two-day journey!
I have divided your questions into broad categories: 1) The Peace Corps/Joining the Peace Corps, 2) Burkina Faso People and Culture, 3) Burkina Faso Politics and History, 4) Other Questions About Burkina Faso, 5) Living in Burkina Faso, 6) Adjusting to Burkina Faso/ Language, 7) My work in Health Education, 8) Personal Questions. Enjoy!
1) The Peace Corps/Joining the Peace Corps
Many of you asked about the Peace Corps in general and how one joins the Peace Corps. Peace Corps is a U.S. government agency created during the John F. Kennedy administration in 1961 with three aims: 1) To promote world peace and friendship by providing volunteers who contribute to the social, economic, and human development of interested countries; 2) to promote a better understanding of U.S. Americans among the people whom volunteers serve; 3) to strengthen U.S. Americans' understanding about the world and its peoples. Since its inception, more than 150,000 people have served as Peace Corps volunteers abroad.
Today, Peace Corps volunteers serve in more than eighty countries around the world (including Jordan in the Middle East, Patrick D., and Armenia too) in six broad programs: education (teaching); business, government, and N.G.O. (non-governmental organization) development; environmental education and protection; agriculture development; public health; and community development. In Burkina Faso, there are more than seventy volunteers working in two programs: education and public health. I work in public health as a health educator.
Peace Corps volunteers are not paid for their service. Instead, we receive a monthly stipend to cover our basic necessities. This stipend varies in amount from country to country; it is calculated to allow a volunteer to live at the same level as the local community. In actuality, my monthly stipend of almost $200 is much higher than the average monthly income of the people in the village of Kiembara where I live and work. Many families there subsist on less than fifteen dollars a month!
Although there is no salary for Peace Corps volunteers, there are plenty of benefits for volunteers both during and after our Peace Corps service. Our travel to and from the host country is provided. There are 48 vacation days during the two years of service when one can travel and explore. We receive free language tutoring. We receive free exemplary medical and dental care (and during training we learn how to take care of ourselves, so I don't worry about catching a disease, Raphael). At the end of our two years of service, we receive a readjustment allowance of about $6000. In some cases, academic credit is given for Peace Corps training and service. Over 50 colleges and universities offer scholarships and assistantships for returned Peace Corps volunteers. Returned volunteers also have an advantage in applying for certain government jobs.
There are three minimum requirements for serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. First, applicants must be at least 18 years old to serve. (So no, Carolyne, I cannot recommend someone your age to apply. You must wait a few years.) There is no upper age limit to serving in the Peace Corps. Former Jimmy Carter's mother served in India when she was in her eighties, I believe! The majority of volunteers are in the early twenties. Second, an applicant must be in good health. Working in an underdeveloped nation can oftentimes be a physical as well as a mental challenge. Third, the application must be a U.S. citizen.
Applications for Peace Corps service are available at Peace Corps recruiting offices or on the World Wide Web. Once an application is received by the Peace Corps, a Peace Corps recruiting officer is assigned to work with the applicant to see what programs he or she is qualified for. There is an interview and then more paperwork. Then, the applicant must receive medical and dental clearance, as well as legal clearance. The entire process can take several months.
Why did I choose to serve in the Peace Corps? I have always had a strong interest in serving abroad. I have had several friends serve in Peace Corps over the past fifteen years, and so I was familiar with the organization. I did investigate several other organizations that have service opportunities abroad, but Peace Corps seemed to match my needs best. And John Y., my parents didn't make me go. I'm 34 years old so it's been a long time since my parents made me do anything!
Meg asked what sacrifices I made to join the Peace Corps. First and foremost is time away from my family and friends. The second major sacrifice is financial, as I am not making a salary that I would have been if I had stayed in the U.S. working. The third is personal comfort. I have to live without electricity, running water, phone, computer, supermarkets, movie theaters, and more. I don't consider the time spent in Peace Corps to be a sacrifice, because I am living an interesting and fascinating life right now!
How did I end up in Burkina Faso? Well, I personally asked for West Africa during the application process and they had programs there that I qualified for. Why West Africa? Well, I had not yet been to Africa, so that is one reason. (I have done extensive travel in Asia and Europe.) Another reason is because of the strong historical ties the U.S. has with the region, in there are many African-Americans with ancestral roots in West Africa. Third, I wanted to become fluent in French, which I had studied in high school and a little bit in college. The program in Burkina Faso began at the time when I wanted to begin my service, so that's how I got chosen for that specific country.
A few of you asked how Peace Corps prepared me for service. All volunteers go through a minimum three-month in-country training before being officially sworn in and send to posts. In June 2001, I went through training with 37 other trainees in Bobo-Dioulasso, the second-largest city of Burkina Faso located in the south. There was technical training, language training, and cultural education. We lived in pairs with local host families. My host family was exceptionally nice and hospitable. I still go back to visit them sometimes. They were a "middle-class" family by Burkinabe standards, so there were some "luxuries" like a car, electricity, and telephone. Water was available from one faucet in the courtyard and so all cleaning (showers, laundry, dishes) was done in buckets and basins. The toilet was a cement-covered outdoor latrine. My host family was small by Burkinabe standards: only five children! Many families here have ten!
After training, the Peace Corps term of service is two years. Some volunteers use vacation time to return to the U.S. for a visit, while others go through their entire two years of service without returning to the U.S. I wasn't planning to return to the U.S. during my Peace Corps service, but I will go to Chicago for a month this summer to attend the wedding of two very close friends.
Stephen B. asked if the Peace Corps is difficult. It can be. In the words of one of my fellow volunteer: "It is true that this is not an easy experience. You will be frustrated, angry, sad, and bored some of the time. However, the joy, excitement, passion, and personal satisfaction that you will find will be all the sweeter." Personally, I am finding the Peace Corps experience easier than I expected, but I know that I am the exception rather than the rule.
What happens if something happens and I have to come back? Peace Corps will pay for your flight back to the U.S. for family emergencies/tragedies, or for personal health problems that can only be solved by medical care available in the U.S. You can return to Peace Corps service (at Peace Corps expense) if the U.S. stay doesn't extend longer than 40 days. Sometimes volunteers quit the Peace Corps for personal reasons and return to the U.S. without finishing their two years of service. A volunteer can apply for a one- year extension at the end of the two years of service. One can ask to continue at one's site or one can ask to work in a different site or even in a different country! I know one second-year volunteer here in Burkina Faso who has applied to be a part of the new Peace Corps program in East Timor, our world's latest nation. Also, one can apply to be a Peace Corps volunteer again after one has returned to the U.S. if one wants to.
2) Burkina Faso People and Culture
Burkina Faso means "the country of honorable people," and for the most part, the description rings true. Burkinabes are generally friendly, open-hearted, and kind despite living in one of the poorest nations in the world. The vast majority of Burkinabe live in small villages spread throughout the country, working as farmers or breeders.
There are more than sixty ethnic groups in Burkina Faso, with the largest group, the Mossi, constituting about half the population. About 40% of the population are Moslem, about 40% are animist, and about 20% are Christian. Surprisingly, there is little ethnic or religious strife that one sees in many countries around the world, perhaps because no one single group is perceived as being more privileged than the others. The ethnic and religious groups often live together harmoniously in the same villages, though sometimes in different districts (by choice, not by decree). While there is little or no ethnic or religious discrimination, there is much discrimination against women, the physically challenged, and sexual minorities.
Matt T. asked about the literacy rate here in Burkina Faso. Only about a third of the men and a tenth of the women are literate. Many Burkinabe children cannot afford to go to school, and for those that can, sometimes the nearest school is a ten to twenty mile walk away! That school may not have enough teachers. For sure, it is barely stocked with educational materials. It might not have enough room for all students, and so sometimes students have to stay at home and wait until the following year to enter. Classes are large, ranging from fifty to more than a hundred kids in one classroom; these classrooms are no bigger than the ones in the U.S.! Officially school is free and compulsory, but the reality is obviously quite different! Only about 40 percent of children attend primary school, with just nine percent continuing through secondary school. Most of them are boys, as girls are often must stay at home to help with housework.
National school requirements, based on the French educational system are fairly rigid. The same curriculum is taught in all the schools around the country on the same timetable. Subjects include French, English (for upper levels), mathematics, science, history, and physical education.
Armen asked how one lives on so little a year ($250-$300 per capita income). Well, one tries to make or grow everything that one needs for living. Water can be fetched from wells, food can be grown in fields, houses can be built out of mud and wood. Clothes are rarely bought new and if ripped or torn, are patched and sewn until nearly worn out. Kids are often go shoeless. In the villages like Kiembara, entertainment for kids is usually playing soccer (often with a ball of cloth), braiding hair (for girls), and learning dances; for men, it's usually drinking tea or dolo (local beer) with friends; women here seem to work all the time and have little time for any entertainment at all! In Kiembara, there is one "videocenter" where villagers can watch t.v. and sometimes a movie on video late in the evening for about 17 cents.
There are some other leisure activities as well. Every three weeks, when Market Day falls on a Friday, there is a village dance (bal populaire) at night that is well attended. Sometimes, local dance or theater groups will do a performance for the village. During the dry season, traditional wrestling matches are popular to watch in the village. Burkinabe traditional art forms include body decoration, jewelry, textiles, pottery, mask-making, and folk tales.
Africans place a high value on families, and large families of six to twelve children are the norm. Parents don't lavish enormous amounts of time on their children. They are expected to complete their chores obediently and then play on their own. The children are taught to respect all adults, and all adults in a village take responsibility for correcting the misbehavior of any children in the village.
Edmond and Milena asked what teenagers in Burkina Faso are interested in. Interests tend to be popular music, sports (mostly for boys only), dancing, and romance. By far, the mostly popular sport in the country is football, which outside of the U.S. means soccer. Boxing, basketball, wrestling, and handball are played too, but mostly only in the larger cities.
Alfred asked about the gang situation here in Burkina Faso. Gangs exist in the largest cities, but they're more like social street clubs than the organized entities that you see in L.A. They're not feared here; mostly they're just neighborhood boys who like to hang out together in their neighborhoods. Graffiti is generally a rare sight, perhaps because spraypaint is incredibly expensive for most Burkinabe!
Arin and Phillip K. asked about the level of technology in Burkina Faso and if it is like a typical third world country or capable to the U.S. the level of technology available to the vast majority of the population is extremely limited. Outside the large cities, few own televisions, telephones, or electricity; not a surprise considering that most villages don't have running electricity. I think the level of technology is comparable to the U.S. during the first couple decades of the twentieth century. Inside the larger cities, technology is a little bit more available. Computer/internet centers are springing up and most households have t.v.'s and telephones. Indoor plumbing, VCR's, and personal computers are still luxuries outside the means of most families though.
David S. asked if U.S. television (like the Discovery Channel) accurately depicts life in Burkina Faso. I can't answer that because I don't think I have ever seen anything on Burkina Faso ever portrayed on U.S. television except in history documentaries on the Middle Passage. Let me know if you see anything!
3) Burkina Faso Politics and Justice
Iveta and John C. asked me if Burkina Faso is democratic or not. Although there are elections here, Burkina Faso cannot be considered a true democracy. Opposition parties are weak after many years of suppression by the government. In 1998, President Compaore ran unopposed because no one dared run against him and many opposition groups boycotted the election. He has been the head of the government since 1987, when he came to power through a coup. The next parliamentary elections are in May 2002. There are many candidates from many parties running for office, though several parties are little-known. Recent elections have been relatively free and fair, and the May elections are expected to be as well.
Many of you asked about the treatment of women here in Burkina Faso. Women do have many rights here and do not suffer much official discrimination, but unfortunately, gender inequity is embedded in the West African history and culture and is therefore difficult to address. Women are allowed to vote, own property, run businesses, run for office, etc., but if they are not educated, how can they do these things? Peace Corps volunteers make an effort to address these problems through its Gender and Development Committee (of which I am vice-president). We sponsor Burkinabe girls in their education and fund Peace Corps projects that promote gender equity. Still, the challenge is much greater than what Peace Corps can do and will take many decades to correct. Look at the United States! It wasn't until the twentieth century that women won the right to vote, and that battle was a long and difficult one. Culturally, the role of women in West African traditional society is one of marriage, motherhood, and caretaker of the home. Wife-beating is common when there is dissension between the husband and wife, though less so among those (men and women) who are educated. Usually, the beating is in the form of slaps across the face or the hitting on the arms with short sticks. It's an ugly problem and is very difficult to witness. Women here have very few resources available to them if their husband beat them, though some do return to their families if their fathers are sympathetic to their cause.
John C. asked if there is a death penalty in Burkina Faso. Although the death penalty is still officially on the books, Amnesty International has categorized Burkina Faso as a country that does not practice capital punishment. Carlo-Andre asked if there are flaws in the legal system. The legal system is based on French civil law system. Its most visible flaw is the prevalence of vigilante justice in some of the larger cities. Sometimes, if a thief is seen and caught by people in a village, he will be beaten and killed. 4) Other Questions About Burkina Faso
Peter S. asked if there are cities with huge buildings. The largest city is the capitol of Ouagadougou, with a population of about a million people. There are no skyscrapers, but there are modern buildings that are twenty stories high. In Ouagadougou, about half the streets are paved and the larger ones have streetlights.
Vanui asked if Burkina Faso is how I imagined it or totally different. Actually, it is pretty close to what I imagined it would be, but that's only because I have done some previous travels to poor, underdeveloped countries. Also, I did extensive personal research on West Africa before my arrival here so I pretty much knew what to expect.
A few of you asked about the weather here. There are three basic seasons here: a rainy hot season from June to October with temperatures in mostly the 90's; a dry warm season from October to February with highs in the eighties; and a dry hot hot season from March to May when highs can hit the 110's. There are some similarities to L.A. in that there is distinct dry and wet seasons. Also, while you have the Santa Ana winds, here we have the Harmattan winds during the dry warm season which blows dust everywhere, even into your underwear! People aren't generally harmed by the weather except for years when there is a drought. Since almost 90% of the populations are subsistence farmers, a drought can wreak economic havoc in Burkina Faso.
Lusine C. asked what Burkina Faso needs the most from Peace Corps. Peace Corps' greatest strength is in sending volunteers to work and live among the people whom they serve. That way, the volunteers can work together with the community to solve its problems.
5) Living in Burkina Faso
Many of you asked if I like it here in Burkina Faso and if I am enjoying my time here. The answer to both questions is an unqualified YES! I find my work and my life here fascinating and interesting, never boring or tiring. I have enjoyed the many challenges of living in Burkina Faso.
As mentioned earlier, I live now without many luxuries that in the U.S. we would consider necessities. I live alone in a small three-room concrete house with an aluminum roof at the outskirts of Kiembara, a village of 4500 inhabitants in the north of the country.
Like most houses in the village, it has its own courtyard; a five-foot high mud wall surrounds it. There is no running water my house, or in the village for that matter; all water is drawn from wells, pumps, or from the local reservoir (which dries up in the dry season). There is no electricity either except for a few places (school, village administrative building, medical center) which have solar plaques. There are telephones at these places too, as well as a couple public pay "telecenters" in town. No one has a telephone in their home.
I arrived in Kiembara in September 2002 after three months of training with about thirty-seven other volunteers down in Bobo-Dioulasso. Eileen, I have completed eight months of my twenty-four month service. David, I would not come back earlier if I could; the two-year length is ideal for the types of projects that Peace Corps is involved with. If I came back earlier, I would not see several of my projects come to fruition.
Most of the inhabitants of Kiembara are farmers who grow sorghum, mille, corn, peanuts, and sesame. The second most popular profession in Kiembara, like the rest of the country, is breeding, primarily cows, pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, and guinea; fowl. In Kiembara, there are three primary ethnic groups: Mossi, Samo, and Peui who live together harmoniously.
A typical day in village for me begins just before daybreak for me with roosters crowing. I wake up, put away my bedding and mosquito net and eat breakfast, usually oatmeal that I mix with powdered milk and sometimes Nesquik chocolate. Then I feed my chickens and water the plants in my courtyard. If I don't have a morning meeting and if it isn't raining, then I like to take a daybreak bike ride in the morning cool air to a large Banyan tree five miles away. I then return to my house and sweep its floors, especially during the windy, dusty season from November to March, before beginning my work. Where I work depends on what project I am working on that day. Sometimes I'm at the local medical center; sometimes I'm out in the field talking to villagers, sometimes I'm reading or writing at home. I usually work from 8 until noon when I stop to cook food for lunch and dinner. Every three days is Market Day in Kiembara, so I usually take a break from my routine at mid-morning on those days to buy vegetables, fruit, and bread. After eating lunch, I usually relax until 2 or so and then work until 5 or 6. Evening hours are generally my free time when I read, write letters (and read them!), study French, listen to music, and visit with my friends in the village. On my days off from work, I also like to make home improvements and bicycle. Bedtime is usually around 10pm for me.
Jeff asked me what I have. Let me name some of the most important things in my possession. From Peace Corps, I was issued several items when I was sent to live in Kiembara: a large water purification filtering system, a mountain bike, a large mosquito net, and a medical kit. They also gave me a settling-in allowance that allowed me to buy necessities like a gas camping stove, kerosene lamps, basic furniture (table, chair, bed, shelves), mats, buckets, wash basins, a large plastic water barrel, and trunks. There is a resource center at the Peace Corps headquarters in Ouaga where I have checked out several books and other professional resources. Books for leisure reading are also available at regional Peace Corps hostels that are set up in four major cities and so I have a small collection of those. (The nearest one to me is 30 miles away in Ouahigouya where I also get my mail.)
Volunteers are allowed to bring 80 pounds of baggage with them from the U.S. to Burkina Faso. The most important items that I brought with me from home are: a solar-powered short-wave radio, a solar-powered battery recharger, cassettes and a walkman, a camera, a Visor P.D.A., and of course, clothes.
I have bought additional items since moving to Kiembara to increase a little my level of comfort in my home. I bought a car battery and a florescent light that can be attached to it so that I can read and work at night. I also bought a small used stereo boombox from a volunteer so that I can listen to music easily in my house. The villagers in Kiembara make decent hand-woven baskets and so I have bought several of those to hold laundry, magazines, and fruits and vegetables.
6) Adjusting to Burkina Faso/Language
Several of you asked how my life and lifestyle has changed. In some ways, my life has not changed much at all. I still spend time with friends, cook meals and enjoy food, shop, read, workout, clean, and work, although how I do these things has changed somewhat. For example, instead of going to a supermarket or mall, my shopping is done at tiny one-room stores or at the local village market every third day. (The village market resembles a flea market.) Another example is that I must clean dishes, do laundry, and wash myself using buckets and basins. In other ways, my life in Kiembara has changed a lot, especially in terms of living without things we take for granted in the U.S., like going to the movies, using a computer, telephoning a friend, blow-drying one's hair, and having paved roads. Because of the lack of refrigeration, I must prepare only so much as I will eat that day because one can't keep leftovers.
How have I changed? Not sure that I've changed much myself, except that I am living healthier that I was in the U.S. Here, I must bicycle everywhere so I am constantly getting exercise. Also, I don't eat American junkfood—it's simply not available here, so I have lost a bit of weight.
Was it hard to adjust to living here? Surprisingly not, but then I have had a lot of experience living and working in and with different cultures. I am having fun being here and I am learning much about West Africans. Pouya, you asked if I adapted to city life, but I live in a village. Living in a village is actually a more difficult transition, but I have managed it easily enough. Caroline T. asked if I feel restricted living without freedoms in Burkina Faso, but I still retain the freedoms that I have in the U.S. except for those that Peace Corps limits for security, safety, and ethical reasons, i.e. no involvement with local politics, no profit-making on projects, no motorcycle-riding, keeping the Peace Corps headquarters informed as to one's location at all times. None of these have been too difficult to comply with.
The greatest challenge for me has been language. There are more than sixty local languages in Burkina Faso; the most dominant being Moore, spoken by almost half the population, and Djula, which is also spoken in parts of neighboring countries Mali and Ivory Coast. The official language in Burkina Faso is French, but only about 15% of the Burkinabe speak it, mostly those with education. In Kiembara, most of the villagers are Samo and so they speak Samo. Yet, the surrounding region is primarily Mossi, who speak Moore. I speak French with some fluency, and so I can speak to "white-collared" workers (teachers, government officials, medical center staff) pretty well. I have picked up some basic Moore and scant Samo since I have arrived in village. (I find it difficult, Carolyne 0., to learn new languages quickly.) It can be frustrating at times, but also it can be amusing to try to communicate with such limited vocabulary. The Burkinabe are used to it, as people from different ethnic groups are not usually fluent in each other's language.
Many of you asked if I am accepted or treated as an outsider. I guess the answer to that is that I am accepted, but am still seen as an outsider because I haven't mastered either of the two dominant local languages. I feel respected and trusted by the local community and I pretty much get along with everyone. Artia asked if people take care of me. Well, I'm very independent so I require very little care, but I do have good friends in village that I know I can depend on when I need help.
Stephen B. asked if it is hard to see people in poverty. Sure it's difficult, especially when people are suffering, and particularly if one has developed interpersonal relationships with them by living and working with them.
A few of you asked if I get lonely or homesick. Loneliness and homesickness is a common problem among many Peace Corps volunteers, but I have been blessed in that I was able to find some good Burkinabe friends in Kiembara pretty quickly. I am also used to living on my own without roommates; I find myself pretty good company. If I want U.S. American companionship, there are other Peace Corps volunteers who live fairly close to me, including one in my own village.
Of course I miss my family and good friends back in the U.S., but since I have family and friends all over the U.S., I have gotten used to not being in the same location as most of them. The important thing is to keep communicating, which in my case here in Burkina Faso means letter-writing with friends and communicating by e-mail with my family (when I can get to Ouagadougou). I do miss playing music with friends, which is one of my favorite activities back in the U.S. (I play cello, electric bass, and harmonica.)
Volunteers miss the comforts of the U.S. at times. Luckily, a trip to the capitol city of Ouagadougou can help. There (or rather here since I am writing this in Ouagadougou), I can take a hot shower, eat at decent restaurants with international fare (Chinese, Italian, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Indian), and hang out at the American Rec Center. The American Rec Center, located next the U.S. Embassy has a swimming pool, a T.V./VCR unit with a library of Hollywood movies, a tennis court, a basketball court, and a restaurant where one can buy a bacon double-cheese burger with fries and other American fast food fare. The one thing I miss the most (to answer Vivian C.'s question) is having a computer. I don't miss having other electronic devices so much for entertainment because I am an avid reader.
Armen, Bo, and Andrew M. asked about the food here. Food here is good, but not very diverse. I'm not too fond of the national dish to, a stiff white porridge made from millet, sorghum, or maize flour eaten with sauce, but I can get rice, pasta, and basic loaves of French-style white bread in my village. Meat is a luxury item for villagers; most of them get their protein from eggs and fish. I don't generally buy meat in the village because the meat isn't often inspected and is sometimes spoiled. In village, I usually eat canned meat that I buy in Ouahigouya or Ouagadougou. Fruits and vegetables largely depend on growing seasons. Throughout the course of the year, I will see all the following fruits and vegetables appear at the Kiembara Market at times, but generally only a few at a time: onions, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, green beans, lettuce, eggplant, green peppers, mangoes, bananas, watermelon, and oranges. In the larger cities, the selection is somewhat greater and includes imports like apples, strawberries, and pineapples.
7) My Work in Health Education
Cristina F., Edmond, and Nicole P. asked why I chose the health education program. I chose it I wanted to teach, but outside the classroom environment. Also, there is such a strong need for health educators in West Africa. Life expectancy here is low (about 50 years) because health conditions here are so difficult. So far, I love my work here.
I work with the staff of a small Medical Center at Kiembara. The Medical Center administrates to Kiembara and seven other smaller surrounding villages. I help create health awareness programs on topics like: malaria, AIDS, hygiene. Guinea Worm disease, nutrition, excision (female circumcision), vaccinations, and prenatal/postnatal care. Some of my recent projects include: training locals in doing door-to-door health talks on Guinea Worm disease, forming a local theater group to do health skits, and writing health activities on hygiene, nutrition (which is one of our major problems here, Liya), and AIDS education for teachers to use in the primary schools.
Arthur N. asked what my skills are. The skills I use the most are organizational and interpersonal. The work isn't very hard, but I work hard because the work is very important and always fulfilling. I set my own hours so sometimes I work ten to twelve hours a day, especially if I have several projects going on at the same time (which I often do). The villagers are generally very eager to learn how they can improve their health because they haven't received much prior health education, but it can be difficult to change actual behaviors. (Just like the U.S., i.e. we know we should exercise more, or not smoke, etc. but it's hard to change.) William B. asked if it is difficult to work with illiterate populations. I would say no, though one needs to be aware of that fact and rely primarily on spoken communications and visual aids without writing. Christian asked if I save lives. I think I do because some of the health education programs that I create are focused on preventing possibly fatal diseases, like malaria and AIDS. Tadeh A. asked how it feels to save lives. I can tell you that it feels great!
Jeff asked if AIDS is a problem and what prevention programs are promoted. AIDS is definitely a major problem in sub-Saharan Africa. It is estimated that between 8-14% of the Burkinabe population is infected. There are several organizations, including Peace Corps, that are working with the Burkinabe Faso Health Ministry to promote prevention programs. One event that drew a lot of attention occurred last December when Peace Corps, the Health Ministry, and Promoco (a non-profit group that makes and distributes low-cost condoms) teamed up for an AIDS bike-a-thon. About forty Peace Corps volunteers (including me) biked an average of 150 miles over the course of a week along three major routes in the country, helping Promoco staff with awareness campaigns at every village along the way.
Caroline T. asked if medicine is well-practiced. Medical staff at medical centers are generally well-trained, but facilities tend to be lacking in supplies and equipment. Medical centers are spread out throughout the country, but there are not enough of them. One of our satellite villages is almost ten miles away inaccessible by car, which is quite a distance of you're sick and don't even have a bicycle. There are local health agents in every village, but most of them lack training and supplies.
Silvana asked me to describe the most serious conflict that I had to deal with here. Back in January, I was planning a large-scale awareness campaign on Guinea Worm disease in one of our satellite villages. The head nurse of the Kiembara Medical Center was supposed to help me with the organization and coordination of the awareness campaign, but he was very busy with a large Meningitis outbreak. Unfortunately, when he gets very busy, he forgets professional courtesy and becomes quite rude. It was very difficult to work with him during this time period. But he hasn't been busy like that since then and our relationship has become cordial again.
8) Personal Questions
Alex asked what nationality I am and if people in Africa are comfortable with it. I am second-generation Asian-American; my parents emigrated from Taiwan in the 1950's and I was born in Chicago in 1967. Of course my physical characteristics are Asian and many Africans initially mistaken me for someone Chinese or Japanese. I'm proud to show them that Americans are a diverse people with many different ethnic backgrounds. Africans don't have a problem with that. They are a bit shocked that I am not married (which answers a question by Jin Woo), especially since I am 34 years old. Almost all adults here are married by their late twenties.
Arin A. asked what movies I like to watch. I do like old Hollywood classics, especially Hitchcock thrillers. I am also a big fan of French New Wave movies (from the 1960's), Chinese "Third-Wave" movies, "independent" films, and sci-fi cyber-films such as Blade Runner and Biazll. My favorite current Hollywood director is David Lynch, who recently did the critically acclaimed Mullholland Drive.
Mitra and Zeba asked how I deal with people and their differences. I try to deal with everyone with respect and tolerance. Since I have a strong interest in cultures, I am generally fascinated with people, their differences, and their similarities. And that is the best part of Peace Corps (to answer Anna B.'s question): I have this incredible opportunity to live among a people of a different culture, learning from them about them, and about me.
Several of you asked what kinds of things, techniques, or ideas I have learned in Burkina Faso. Wow. So much. I have learned Burkina Faso history and culture. I have learned how the health system works and how to create programs to address health problems. I have learned French and am trying to learn some local languages as well. I have learned to live happily in a West African village!
Danielle asked how 9/11 affected me in a different country. Well, considering that I was in a small village without electricity, the most difficult thing for me and my fellow volunteers was to get news. I found out the devastating news listening to a Voice of America broadcast on my short-wave radio. The events of September 11th were of course incredibly difficult for us, especially because so many of us had loved ones in New York City and Washington D.C. and it was such a challenge to get detailed news on victims. Americans abroad were put on special alert as to be possible targets for future terrorist attacks, but so far in Burkina Faso, we haven't had a problems with the local population. In fact, most of the general population has been incredibly supportive of us.
September 11th happened less than two weeks after I was posted to Kiembara. I later wrote a haiku about it:
As I was home making here
Planes crashed my home there
Jin Woo and Paul asked if I ever regret doing the Peace Corps. The answer is an emphatic NO!
Carolyne asked if I still keep in touch with people and if I still go back and visit. I do keep in touch with friends through letters. I keep in touch with my family through e-mail even though it is expensive. Phone calls are prohibitively too expensive for me. I will return to the U.S. this summer for a brief visit, but only to the Chicago area where I grew up to attend the wedding of friends. I have friends and family all over the United States and I look forward to seeing all of them when I come back in 2003.
After Peace Corps, I will return to the U.S. and return to graduate school. I will enter a program that will enable me to continue with professional goal of pursuing educational reform in California. Eventually, I will return to my first career love, which is teaching.
I hope I have been able to answer all your questions in this letter.
-- Peace and joy, E. "Kiembara Karl" Shang