Thursday, June 13, 2013


An artificial sunrise penetrates an otherwise dark night, competing with the moon as the light source of the village. It creeps up on the mango trees and fans its rays behind the pointed straw roofs of the circular mud huts. The children run to the nearby railroad tracks to wave hello to the passengers as they fly by.

The train doesn’t stop here anymore, it just whizzes past, offering a glimpse of the high speed world outside the village. It interrupts the tranquility of the night for a brief moment.

I am reminded of the world that I come from—the world that I will soon return to. I am reminded that I, too, am a fleeting presence in this village, just like the passengers on the train. The train passes through for 1 minute each day; I passed through for two years, a brief amount of time when viewed in the context of a lifetime.

I hope that in those quick two years that I passed through Diarabakoko I looked out the window and away from what I was doing often enough and purposefully enough to learn something from the people who stood at the tracks waving to me: about their culture, their hospitality, and our common humanity. I hope that I wasn’t so eager to get to my destination that I forgot to wave back to them and to enjoy the ride.

I hope that the brief moment of light that I brought inspired hope and not fear. I hope that they learned something about me, even if our perspectives were as different as dark and light, still and moving.

I hope that, when I get to my destination, I can tell others about what I witnessed on my journey.

Selfishly, I hope that my light is not quickly forgotten. I hope that, after I have passed the village, the people stand by the tracks lingering, if only for a few seconds.

I hope that the light of the volunteer after me is met with even more enthusiasm and hope.

I hope that I recognize my own limitations in the knowledge I could have possibly gained by momentarily peeking out a window (not being privy to the underpinnings and subtleties of an entire culture) while still recognizing the value and inherent worth of what I did learn.

So as I pass the last sign in my village before continuing on my journey, I give one last look out the window to my adopted family, friends, colleagues, and children who, as every returning Peace Corps volunteer knows, have given me so much more than I could have possibly given them.
Train passing through Diarabakoko from Cote d'Ivoire

THANK YOU to all of you who have supported me throughout this journey—I simply could not have done it without you. Thanks to my amazing and supportive family, who called me every Sunday (and then some) without fail and who made the trip over to experience my life here firsthand. Thanks to my mom who has become a package pro and who, on my visit home, made every meal I was craving. Thank you to the friends and family who wrote to me and sent me packages: Jasmin White, Liz Alarcon, Brian Roberts, Zach Jobin, Jessica Zucker, nana, grandma, and Auntie Anne. When you’re living a world away, these gifts and words of encouragement seem to shorten the distance, at least temporarily. Thank you to my fellow volunteers, the most amazing and diverse group of people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. More specifically, thank you to McKenna Radunzel, Ashley Geesman, Rachel Taylor, and Sam Gradess. Thanks for sharing in my sadness, laughter, and, let’s be honest, confusion throughout the past two years. I will leave Burkina sharing memories, understanding, and a convenient secret language, with all of you. Thank you to the French classroom in North Carolina who I corresponded with—I loved your questions and enthusiasm! Thank you to the professors and former employers who helped me with recommendation letters as I prepared for my next journey, law school, despite the distance and difficulty involved and my constant harassment through email: Dr. Evnine, Jeff Hensley, Jill Zarchin, Karla Fuentes, and Scott Woodcock. Lastly, but certainly not least, thank you to all of you who have followed this blog and/or kept in touch me with me through Facebook. A big part of my job as a volunteer is to bring this experience back home and help educate Americans about Burkinabe culture—I hope I have been able to do that effectively and honestly through this blog and this part of my job is really just beginning as I make the trip home to America.

See you in England August 3rd and in America August 11th!


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reflecting on the Peace Corps: Would I do it all over again?

Recently, Peace Corps volunteers all over the world took an extensive online survey which measured work life and personal life satisfaction, areas for improvement, and that revealing question: if you could do it all over again, would you have still made the decision to join the Peace Corps? 90% of volunteers in Burkina Faso, which is notably the poorest country that the Peace Corps serves in, said yes. Including me.

People join the Peace Corps for a lot of reasons. I won’t rehash my own reasons for joining, but if you’re interested you can read the first post of this blog. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Peace Corps volunteers are not slackers on a free vacation. Most are highly ambitious, type-A people (you’d have to be to get through the medical section of the application alone). No one joins for solely selfless reasons; we all seek to gain something personally, professionally, or both from committing two years of our lives to a developing country. At the end of their service, most volunteers feel that they’ve gained much more than they’ve given to their host country.

I’ve been living in Burkina for 23 months now and will be coming home late this summer. Although my service is not yet over, and I’m sure a lot of reflection will necessarily take place when I return to America, I can already witness the personal growth engendered by this experience. I’ve gained patience and perspective that I believe I could not have possibly gained through continued schooling or entering the workforce or starting a family. I understand better what’s important and what’s not. Overcoming the daily challenges of living in a culture so fundamentally different from my own has also instilled in me incredible self-confidence. Just being exposed to a new way of life has made me aware of how my own culture has shaped me, in both positive and negative ways. I’ve learned to keep going even when I fail miserably, because even when I fail I wake up every day knowing that this is an incredible opportunity: to be someone’s first American friend, to help a student who is struggling at school, to advise a mother on how to best nourish her baby. What we do does make a difference, albeit on an individual level which is difficult to measure. I’ve learned to just be with people, without a work-related motive, without any purpose at all.

If this sounds rosy, I’ve witnessed horrific things, too: a woman who was beaten to death by her husband buried while her three-month-old looked on, my own best friend abused by her husband, violence against children in schools, mothers and babies dying due to inadequate healthcare, and forced marriages. But I’ve also witnessed kindness and hope beyond measure: families sharing food with those in need, teachers going out of their way to make sure students succeed, fathers encouraging their daughters to do well in school, and mothers working strenuously to build a better future for themselves and their children. Through all of this, good and bad, I’ve come to the realization that all Peace Corps volunteers come to: people everywhere across countries, cultures, and socioeconomic differences, want the same thing. It sounds simple and it is, but it takes being submerged in another culture to honestly believe it.

I don’t know where else life will take me but I know that Peace Corps was an invaluable stop along the way because it prepared me for everything else that will follow. It has made me more adaptable, mature, self-aware and confident in my abilities. And I have a greater understanding of the world at large than most can claim at 23 years old.

Professionally, the benefits of the Peace Corps might not be so clear. Of course, most employers rightly view returned PCV’s as adaptable and highly motivated. But in terms of having a professional, functioning work environment during their two years abroad many volunteers are disillusioned. Those volunteers who are allied with associations or schools may have more guidance and resources at their disposal, but some work sectors necessitate that volunteers essentially create their own job. This can be difficult when community motivation is lacking and/or community members do not understand the role of the Peace Corps and its participatory development philosophy (the Peace Corps is unlike many other development organizations in that it provides human resources and capacity building, rather than financial and material resources).

Despite these challenges, many volunteers come to enjoy the flexibility of creating their own job and learn to thrive in a cross-cultural work setting. Although they may sometimes fret that the work they are doing is not truly sustainable, they inevitably have a positive impact on at least a few of their host country colleagues. Positive influences such as these should not be discounted when analyzing the effect that volunteers have on local development efforts. These relationships also explain why many volunteers would choose to do the Peace Corps again if they could do it over.

I’ve experienced more failure in my two years here than I have in all of the other years of my life combined; accepting failure is also the best lesson I’ve ever learned. Many of my projects are unsustainable—in a village of only 1,000 people and zero adults with more than a middle school education, the majority of whom are also illiterate and/or don’t speak French, I did a lot of work on my own without the help of a counterpart. For example, my life skills club which taught boys and girls about disease prevention, gender equality, and reproductive health, will not continue when I leave. But after only two years, I’ve witnessed the positive effects that these skills and knowledge have had on the individual lives of my students. Ultimately, the decisions that they make will change their own lives and the lives of their future children, and that is no small feat.

Overall, I feel satisfied personally and professionally and I think many of the hardships are necessary in order to attain the delayed satisfaction which characterizes being a PCV. I also feel that I’ve contributed meaningfully to the development of Burkina and that I’ve served my own country in an important way—by fostering positive American sentiment.

My advice to those considering the Peace Corps: do it. But keep in mind that what you get out of this experience is directly proportional to what you put in. If you feel yourself withdrawing, make a conscious effort to get back out there. Walk around your village and just say hi to your neighbors—you’ll be quickly reminded how much your presence means to them. Two-thirds of our job as volunteers is to engage in cross cultural exchange. This is also the most rewarding aspect of the job, in my own experience. You might be the first, or only, American that someone interacts with so make a positive impression. You’re not missing out on anything at home—trust me. If you visit home this will be confirmed by seeing your friends who are working the same jobs, hanging out with the same people, and doing the same things they were when you left. True friends will keep in touch with you and you will find an incredible support system in your fellow volunteers. Have an open mind. Be aware that, at the end of the day, it will be the meaningful relationships you forge which define your service, not the number of successful projects.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Men As Partners

First of all, thank you to those who have expressed concern about the recent events in Mali. We are safe here in Burkina, although some volunteers in the North of the country have been offered site changes due to the increasing influence of Al Qaeda and the influx of refugees. The American embassy continues to have regular security briefings and is keeping us updated on the situation.
Throughout my service in Burkina Faso, the issue that resurfaces daily as one of the biggest development challenges is the severe level of inequality between men and women. It is so deeply rooted in the culture that even talking about making changes in this area is taboo. And the longer I live and work here, the more I believe that this is not merely a peripheral issue. Rather, it is through solving this problem that we will realize greater economic prosperity, educational results, and health outcomes not just in Burkina Faso but in sub-Saharan Africa more generally.
UN studies and global news headlines echo this conclusion. For example, studies have demonstrated over and over again that educated women have fewer, healthier, and better educated children. One of the most effective tools we have for lowering the rate of both infant mortality and maternal mortality is educating our girls. In terms of economic development, women represent more than 50% of a country’s population and are therefore crucial to making a country competitive. And when women do have their own income they spend, on average, 80 cents per dollar that they earn on their family (men put 30 cents towards the family on average).

But most development approaches which aim to foster gender equality ignore the key demographic essential to this effort—men.

In Burkinabe culture, men are the decision makers. The change in women’s status necessitates male involvement because men possess great influence as the heads of their households and communities. It is with this idea in mind that Peace Corps sponsors a “Men as Partners” conference where interested volunteers bring motivated male counterparts from their villages to discuss women’s empowerment.

Over the course of four days, we discussed some of the controversial issues relating to gender equality in Burkina Faso including the spectrum of violence (sexual, physical, psychological, and economic), family planning, and the division of labor in the household. Many of the topics were sensitive, such as “dry” sex as a form of sexual violence and whether or not rape was possible within a marriage. The Burkinabe homologues will bring the importance of gender equality back to their sites and educate their community members on this issue in both formal and informal settings.

To demonstrate women’s heavy domestic burden, we had a relay race with a men’s team and a women’s team. One person from each team had to run over and grab an item that represented a task that their particular gender was responsible for (a cooking pot, bucket, and spoon for the women and a beer bottle and agricultural tool for the men). The members of the women’s team also had to do the entire race with a skirt attached.


Acting out a skit for the rest of the group. Here, we acted out the scenario using aggressive communication, as opposed to passive or assertive.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


As many of you already know, I went home in October. I spent two glorious weeks enjoying family and friends in Florida and then 3 days in New York City happily accepting the UN Leo Nevas Human Rights Youth Advocate Award.

Visiting America after 18 months of living abroad was difficult, strange, and exciting. The aspects of America that I was most in awe of were not, as one might expect, amenities such as running water and electricity or even relative luxuries such as Mexican food (okay, maybe a little bit). Mostly, I was experiencing first-hand the adage about travel transforming us in ways that aren’t always apparent until we return home. I remembered what it feels like to live in my own culture, to speak my own language, to completely understand social situations (although I was lacking some cultural references from the past year or so… gangnam style?). People who haven’t lived abroad don’t know how daunting simple tasks can be in a culture that isn’t your own. Everything seemed so easy, so efficient, so effortless. More importantly, I felt like I could truly be myself because I could express myself and people understood me. I felt at home in an Anglophone dream world of punctuality, friendliness, and rationality. 

Coming back to Africa after a trip like this is hard. If I wasn’t asking myself “what am I doing here?” beforehand, now I definitely was. I had to stop and seriously think about what I was getting out of my service- socially, personally, professionally. These are difficult, yet necessary, questions to ask.

In truth, I’ve gotten most of what I wanted to get out my service professionally. I’m experiencing development work from a grassroots level, learning new languages, etc.

I’ve experienced a lot of personal growth as well- in how I relate to other people, how I define success, how I respond to failure.

So, if I’ve already accomplished what I set out to accomplish, what do I do for the final 8 months of my service?...

I have absolutely no doubt that every Peace Corps volunteer feels this way at some point during their service. This is why we have countdowns and obsess over our futures after Peace Corps and our close-of-service trips. In a sense, we withdraw from the present as a way to avoid this terrifying question. We seek out our fellow volunteers who can give us advice, project ideas, inspiration. Yet, at the end of the day, we still feel that there is something missing from our service. The feeling that all the hassles and frustration are worth it, the feeling of self-worth and accomplishment, is no longer intact.

Getting over humps like these is something that I don’t think Peace Corps administration addresses enough. It’s almost taboo to talk about it, even though everyone experiences it. I think that understanding why the humps happen is the first step to getting over them. I think that the humps happen because we undergo the most personal growth during the beginning of service- going through training, becoming integrated in our communities, overcoming cultural and linguistic hurdles, witness our projects succeed and fail, making host country national friends, strengthening bonds with fellow volunteers, etc. All of these experiences contribute the greatest amount of challenge to a new volunteer, and therefore the greatest amount of the self-confidence which is the natural offspring of that challenge.

Although I’m still learning and growing 18 months into my service, the change is less radical than it was in the beginning. Everyday activities are not as much of a challenge. Chatting with people in village and attending events used to qualify as adventures, but now they are just day to day normal activities.

But just because the newness has worn off doesn’t mean that we can’t get any more out of the experience. There exists a certain Peace Corps ethos that demands a quest for one’s outer limits and accepts no excuse for not trying. With this philosophy in mind, it is true that, to a certain extent, you experience what you open yourself up to experience; the trick is to never stop looking for adventure, never convince yourself that you’ve learned all there is to learn, never stop challenging yourself.  

When I got back to village, the rainy season was coming to an end. Rainy season is my favorite because I love the solitude of reading in my house and listening to the storm make music on my tin roof. I liked feeling cut off from village life, even if only for a short time, to reflect on my own. I was upset that this season, my last full one in country, was over.

Then, sitting on my hammock one night, I saw what I thought was a flash of lightning out of the corner of my eye. It was a firefly. I had forgotten about these insects that light up my village once cold season starts. The fireflies weren’t the only harbingers of a new season: with no storm clouds to impede the view, I could see hundreds of stars in the sky. I was reminded that soon the nights would get cold and the market would be full of vegetables. The harmattan would bring a breeze during the day; the end of the harvest would free up my neighbors to drink tea in the afternoon under the giant mango tree; the marriage season would bring the sounds of the balafon to the village every night. But, before all of these wonderful things arrive, there is an uncomfortable “mini hot-season”.

I realized that volunteers, like seasons, sometimes go through these changes. We, too, have to push ourselves through the uncomfortable periods of doubt, of changing focus, before being revitalized again.

Since this epiphany, I’ve opened myself up to new challenges. I’ve started a girls’ life skills club at a primary school in a village 10km out in the brush. There, early marriage rates are high and they had never seen a foreigner until me. Once a week I cross this rickety bridge to get there. Sometimes, I feel that just crossing this bridge is enough adventure for my whole Peace Corps service.


I’m co-teaching a kindergarten class to help introduce non-violent classroom management techniques and positive reinforcement. I’m also helping to bring Camp G2LOW to my regional capital. I’m spending time with my extraordinary Peace Corps friends- amazing people who understand me as only another volunteer could.

I know that there will be plenty of time afterwards to reflect on my service in solitude, but I have a lot to see, feel, learn, accomplish, and DO before then. Until next rainy season, when I will head home for good, I’m finding inspiration in fireflies, stars, and balafons playing off in the distance.   

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Polygamy and Domestic Abuse in the Burkinabe Culture

“Women aged 15-44 are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.” –Half the Sky

Cultural norms are one thing when observed and appreciated from afar for their anthropological novelty. From that perspective, it’s easy to say that everything is morally relative. It’s much harder, if not impossible, to accept culturally-related behavior that negatively affects you or the people you care about directly.

One cultural norm that is practiced in my village by people of all religions, sects, and ethnicities, is polygamy. How many wives you have, like how many children you have, is a status symbol. I had never been offended by it. I happen to come from a place where the concept of love and romance are confounded to the point where one can hardly decipher between the two. Where I come from, love is about individuals and personal choice, so much so that if you decide you don’t love someone anymore you can divorce them. However, in Burkina, marriage is about uniting two families, producing children, and division of labor (for the vast, vast majority). I had always accepted this aspect of Burkinabe family life and observed with curiosity how the “sinomusos” (co-wives) dealt with each other and their husbands. I was always looking for subtle clues as to whether they were all treated equally and who had the most power. I found to my surprise that many women were enthusiastic about having a co-wife since it meant a lightening of their own heavy domestic burden.

I accepted polygamy until it happened in my adopted family. I had always thought of Moussa and Alimatou as an exception to the rule (many rules, really, but polygamy as well). As far as I could tell they were madly in love- they joked around with each other and always treated each other with kindness, if not as complete equals (I still live in Burkina Faso where men are the chiefs of their households and women are subservient). They’re also wonderful parents to three beautiful girls.

One day, I went over to their house as usual for midday tea to find him sitting with a woman I’d never seen before. I figured this was a relative from out of town. After he introduced her as his fiancée, I asked if he was serious. In hindsight, it was weird of me to say but African men are always joking about their new “wives”. He told me that he wasn’t kidding and that they might be getting married next year during wedding season “insha allah” (god willing).

I was in shock. I immediately thought of Alima- was this news to her, too? We finished our tea and I said I had somewhere to be. Really, I just needed to process this. At this moment I wasn’t upset or angry, just very surprised.

Later that night Moussa went out with his fiancée, Bintou, and Alima stayed home with the kids. When he came back he slept with his fiancée in the bedroom while Alima slept in the kitchen. She cooks for them and in the morning she has to bring them both water to bathe. Apparently, this is normal during the courting process.

I tried to picture any American woman I know being okay with this kind of situation: being relegated to sleep in the kitchen after living with your husband for ten years because he wants to sleep with a new woman and then bringing them both food and water when they’re done. Needless to say, I was infuriated. I needed to find out how Alima was feeling.

When Alima and I had our usual nightly chat, she showed a little animosity towards the girl (I use the word girl because she is maybe seventeen years old) but not much. She quickly talked about other things and was even laughing. I felt like an idiot. Everything was fine. The only person who felt awkward was me. As long as my friends are happy, then I’m happy for them. Things are just different here, I thought.

The next morning, after I finished my classes, I went to visit her. I knew that Moussa had probably gone out again with Bintou. For as long as she was visiting, it seemed like this is how things would be. Alima and I chatted a bit and she started complaining about being angry at Moussa for some reason (a reason so silly I can’t even remember it now). All of a sudden I noticed that she had tears in her eyes. My heart sank. People don’t cry in this culture… ever! This is a woman who gave birth on her own on her kitchen floor and didn’t cry. I kept thinking about how much pain she must be in. Even though she now had more power as the first wife, the new wife would be his favorite, at least for a little while. I didn’t know how to comfort her. My culture was telling me to give her a hug and ask her why she was really upset, so we could talk out her feelings. But somehow I thought that this would make her feel pitied and I don’t pity her. She is an extremely strong person and once the situation settles she will take it in stride and carry on, even though its clearly against her wishes. Women do this every day all over the world for the sake of their children. I was furious with Moussa, and any man the world over for that matter, who could completely disregard his wife’s feelings in this way. There is simply no justification- religious, cultural, or otherwise.

I’m not saying that polygamy can never work. I just think that everyone should consent to it first. You can’t ignore the wishes of the mother of your children just because you want to parade around with and sleep with some new woman.

But this isn’t the end of the story, it’s the beginning. Jump forward to a few months later when Bintou is now living in the courtyard full-time acting as a wife even though they are not actually married yet. Bintou is now working with Alima to do both household work and work in the fields. Alima shared her shea nuts with Bintou so that she could sell them for money during the rainy season which I saw as a nice gesture and a sign that things have improved. It turns out you can never truly know how a woman is feeling in a culture where she is consistently told that to be a good wife and mother she must subvert her own opinions and neglect her feelings in favor of her husband’s…

It started with a few misunderstandings and miscommunications and ended in violence. She didn’t bring him lunch in the fields one day, she took the toothbrush cup to go get coffee, she served him his food without water, etc. Result: he chased her out of the courtyard and whipped her neck with a stick. She wasn’t able to turn her head for almost a week. Bintou and Moussa’s uncle had shunned her to sit and be by herself all day. I invited her to have tea with me on my porch and sleep in my courtyard if she felt more comfortable, which she did.

Like all issues in Burkina, the problem was “third-partied” (having another relative or friend step in and ask for forgiveness/mediate on your behalf). The relatively rich uncle who was in town told them both to apologize and move on, while Moussa also asked me to third-party on his behalf for Alima. I politely told him that whatever marital problems they had were between him and Alima, but that I could not and would not be his friend anymore because to do so would be to tacitly condone violence against women. What can I say? I’m still an American woman with all of the connotations and beliefs that come with that and this is one aspect of the culture that I will never, never accept.

Some will contend that, when I mention violence, I’m no longer talking about a “cultural norm”. Some will say that violence is not inherently part of the Burkinabe culture in the same way that misogyny is not part of the Islamic religion. However, I would argue that violence, widespread in the school system, in the domestic realm, and in traditional practices such as female genital mutilation is in fact part of the Burkinabe culture. When you consider that violence is the Burkinabe parenting style, a form of pedagogy for teachers, and the means with which men continue to render their wives submissive, at what point can one say that violence is part of Burkinabe culture, even if it isn’t politically correct to do so? What else is culture if not the sea we swim in, so pervasive that it affects how we approach all aspects of our day to day lives? Burkinabe families and institutions are so entrenched with violence that they’re dripping with it.

. Alima says it doesn’t matter if he asked for forgiveness, she will never truly forgive him and things will never be the same. She says that the men here are not good- as soon as they get a second wife they don’t want you anymore. She says that if it wasn’t for the kids she’d leave (In Burkina, men almost always have the right to custody of their children in the case of a divorce). She was so angry that she didn’t eat for almost two days.  

Mostly, I don’t understand why an intelligent man who had always been so persuasive with his words and so loving towards his wife and children needed to resort to violence. I think it’s largely due to the social pressure to be a “good Muslim” or an “African man”. It’s the same reason why Moussa won’t fetch his own bath water, because he says the men in the village would find out and laugh at him for not being a real man. It’s the same reason why whenever I suggest to men to share domestic tasks with their wives they say “C’est l’Afrique, ce n’est pas comme ca ici.” Apparently, beating your wife makes you more of a man, too.

As long as Africans maintain this kind of abuse against women under the facade of tradition and the status quo, they will never develop economically or socially. Without uplifting their women, they have absolutely no chance of achieving the democratic institutions or material wealth that they tell me they desire on a daily basis.

One of the hardest parts of being a Peace Corps volunteer is trying to reconcile our innermost beliefs, what makes us “us”, with the beliefs present in our host country culture. This can sometimes cause a loss of identity since our beliefs are a huge part of who we are. A lot of the time, we are walking on eggshells to remain culturally sensitive. We are told that we will find the answers to problems within the culture. I think the existential crises arise when one realizes that it’s the culture itself which is creating a lot of the problems.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hygiene and Sanitation Project

17.6% of children born in Burkina Faso do not live to reach the age of 5, according to the UNICEF statistics for 2010. Burkina has the 3rd highest under-5 mortality rate in the world. High infant mortality rates directly influence family planning, since it is part of the reason why so many Burkinabe women decide to give birth to more children than they expect to care for in the long-term. In short, it is assumed that at least one of their children will die young.

Many people know that malaria is one of the leading causes of death for small children in developing countries. However, many do not attribute infant mortality to diarrhea. Did you know that, worldwide, more children die of diarrhea than of malaria, AIDS, and the measles combined? Or that 1.5 million children in Africa die from diarrhea every year?

The statistics are scary, but also hopeful when you consider that diarrhea is largely preventable if food preparers take necessary precautions and children learn healthy habits at a young age, namely hand-washing.

In the Western world, diarrhea is inconvenient and even amusing at times, inspiring funny jingles like the Pepto-Bismol song. In developing countries, diarrhea can be serious and fatal if not properly treated, especially among children under the age of five.

During my feasibility study, I noticed that none of the small children in my village defecated in latrines, even if there was one available in the courtyard. When I asked people about it, they said that children just weren’t used to them. When small children have to use the bathroom, they just squat and go wherever they please. Also, although people washed their hands before every meal, they did it in a communal bowl and without soap. Most people in my village do not have a primary school education and therefore do not understand germs or disease transmission, ideas that are drilled into us from a very young age in the United States. If you don’t know what a germ is, it’s hard to make the connection between these kinds of behaviors and getting sick. Furthermore, proper hygiene is even more important here where modern means of dealing with human waste are non-existent and farm animals are always in close proximity.

Donc, I set out to try to instill some healthy habits and some simple infrastructure in my community to make it a healthier place for children and their families.

The first step was finding and motivating some counterparts, so I brought two masons from my village with me to a USAID training on latrine construction and hygiene. We learned how to build latrines from start to finish and how to educate others on healthy hygiene practices. I applied for a USAID grant to build private latrines in my community and, as a result of the training, Peace Corps also gave us some additional USAID funds to make hand-washing stations and a model latrine which is currently being constructed at the community health center. Afterwards, health center employees will be educated on the importance of latrine usage and hand washing as a means of disease prevention.

The infrastructure component of the project, which provided a latrine for each of six different courtyards in six different neighborhoods in my village, is now finished. The grant paid for cement, rebar, wire, the mason’s labor and transport of materials. My village contributed the gravel, the sand, the water, the labor to dig the pits, and hygiene presentations to each of the families receiving a latrine (conducted by the two masons).

The education aspect of the project specifically targeted the primary school students since younger children are more likely to adopt behavior change and also the most vulnerable to death as a result of dehydration from diarrhea. Fortunately, the primary school closest to my house recently had latrines built by an NGO, but many students still weren’t using them and definitely weren’t washing their hands afterwards. So I put together three hand-washing stations with recycled oil jugs donated by the parents’ association of the school. All that was required was a small tap, a washer, and a hot iron rod to get the job done. There are 6 classes, the equivalent of kindergarten through 5th grade, with two classes sharing each hand-washing station. The students take turns filling the containers with water and making sure that there is soap (donated by the parents’ association). I went into each class and talked with the students about why it’s important to wash our hands after using the latrine. The kindergarten-aged students were very enthusiastic and really loved the hand-washing song in Jula, their local language. Since the very little ones don’t speak much French yet, I had my neighbor Yakouba with me to translate into Gouin and the director of the school translated into Jula. When I asked the kids what they do after they finish in the latrine, one kid yelled (in Jula) “I poop!” Everyone started cracking up and then I clarified and said “Yes, but after you poop?” He stood up and yelled again, “I leave!” It was funny and also very true. I asked them to raise their hand if they had ever had diarrhea or a stomach ache and everyone raised their hand. I asked them if they liked diarrhea and everyone shook their head no. Then we explained that if you wash your hands you won’t get diarrhea. We also told them to be responsible for one another and to remind others nicely if they forget to wash their hands. With the older kids, we incorporated a science lesson about germs, what they are and how they spread. This was really helpful because they understood the reason behind washing their hands, and also the importance of using soap and running water. Since we set up the hand-washing stations, I’ve been visiting the school during class hours to observe. If I see a kid properly wash his or her hands, I give them a little sticker. The teachers and director have been great at follow up as well so I’m confident in the sustainability of the project. Also, since the masons live in the village, they can meet the demand for new latrines.

The evaluation of the project will involve interviews with each beneficiary family to figure out just how many men, women, and children are using the latrines. Also, six months from now we will look at the health center statistics to see if there has been a reduction in the number of patients who come in diagnosed with a serious case of diarrhea. Just one example of how small behavior change can lead to a huge difference in the lives of individuals and the well-being of a community!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Camp G2LOW

Hey all,

So right now we education volunteers are in what we call “les vacances” although most of us have been doing anything but relaxing. Camps and Peace Corps conferences have been non-stop and, as always, the time is flying by.

In July I participated in Camp G2LOW (Girls and Guys Leading Our World) in Dédougou, one of the four cities around the country where the camp was held this year. Camp GLOW (originally just Girls Leading Our World) was started by Peace Corps volunteers in Romania who wanted to promote gender equality and healthy lifestyles. This is the second year that the camp has been held in Burkina Faso and we were able to reach a total of 480 male and female students from all over the country to participate. The 3 goals of Camp G2LOW in Burkina Faso are the following:

1.       Healthy lifestyles (this includes health topics such as family planning, malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention, and sexual education among others)

2.       Empowering students (this includes goal-setting for the future and good decision-making skills)

3.       Promoting gender equality
All 120 campers with Burkinabe and American staff

Every session was co-planned and co-taught with the help of a Burkinabé counterpart in order to ensure sustainability for the camp. I even got to bring 3 girls and 3 boys from Diarabakoko with me!

The camp started out with a 3-day “training of trainers” in which Peace Corps volunteers working the camp led various sessions for the 15 Burkinabe counterparts- mostly teachers and those who work in the department of youth activities who were donating their time . For the training of trainers, I led sessions on active listening and how to create a comfortable and professional environment when discussing sexual education.

Once the 120 students arrived in Dédougou, we all really got down to business. Just the logistics of transport, lodging, and meals for around 160 people is a lot of work, let alone the lesson preparation and evaluation activities that needed to take place. I was a counselor working with my own group of 10 students who decided to call themselves the “gladiateurs,” or gladiators. In addition to leading sessions on gender equality, hygiene, and how to maintain good relationships, I was the financial director for the camp, responsible for a US$7,000 budget, so I was a very busy girl!

Students working in their manuals

The Gladiateurs

Two students acting a theater piece on the diagnosis of malaria

Of course, it was a camp so there were plenty of camp activities like sports and a campfire and songs. I will never forget walking into the cafeteria one night, completely exhausted after having logged receipts into an excel spreadsheet for hours, to find a room full of 120 boys and girls singing about Camp G2LOW in unison and led by one of our truly phenomenal Burkinabe counterparts, Theodora. It was one of the proudest moments of my service to date and it made all of the hard work up to that point more than worth the reward. Thanks to all of you who donated through the Peace Corps Partnership Program- you should be getting a newsletter with photos and a thank you letter from one of the participants in the mail!
Some of the girls after playing soccer

After all of the Camp G2LOW festivities were over, my stage had to head over to Ouaga for our Mid-Service Conference, or MSC. The conference consisted of medical check-ups, dental cleaning, and too many stool samples. Luckily, I’m actually in better health than when I arrived in Burkina a year ago- 25 pounds lighter and with a resting heartbeat of 62 (down from 90!). Excited to have reached the midway point of our service, we celebrated with a prom, a G24 tradition of sorts, at a local bar.

I headed back to village for a week or so but, alas, am back in Ouaga again to work with the new volunteers during their training again. I’m looking forward to being able to settle back into a routine in village in a few weeks, but until then I’m enjoying speaking English and eating good food. Besides, there was a little bit of a domestic disturbance with some of my closest friends in village which was a bit shocking to say the least, so I’m welcoming a little time away from village to process that situation. I may write a big long post about the whole story at some point, since it deals with one of the hardest things about being a Peace Corps volunteer, namely balancing your personal beliefs with the culture and convictions of those you work and live with in your host country. However, I think some reflection would definitely clarify my conclusions on the matter and probably make a more interesting story to read, too.

The sun setting on Camp G2LOW Dedougou.