My village is mostly animist but my adopted family is Muslim. I started going to mosque with Moussa, like my big brother in village, to learn about the religion, but I kept going because I found that Muslim prayer had a soothing, peaceful quality that I really enjoyed, even as someone who isn't religious.
I made a lot of friends at mosque, mainly women because we're kept separate, but also with the imam (kind of like the priest for Muslims) and the Pakistani missionary for the region. The missionary loves volunteers and I've been to his house to eat delicious dinner with his family. He also took us to the waterfalls and he gives me books on Islam translated into English. Because of our friendship, he invites me some of the most important events in the region.
Most recently, he invited me to the opening of a mosque in a village about 10 kilometers away. I always debate going to these things since I don't want to offend and I'm not Muslim, but I always end up going to support my Muslim friends in village. So Friday, which is the Muslim holy day, I put on my best pagne wrap skirt and a shawl which covers my chest, neck, shoulders, and hair (Allah said a woman's beauty is in her hair). I biked with Moussa and Abu to the village and, when we arrived, quietly walked to the closed-off area in the back for women as my friends took their seats in the front with the men. The women don't have chairs, just mats which they share. I took off my shoes and greeted the women in Jula and Gouin. They were very surprised and happy to have me with them. We chatted for a few minutes and just when I was starting to make new friends the imam came to get me. He said I was a special guest and so I would be sitting right behind the podium with the mayor, the prefect, the missionaries, etc. This isn't the first time that something like this has happened but it's always a reminder that even before I'm a woman, I'm a foreigner. An American.
Times like this are the most poignant example of how I occupy the role of the "third sex" here in Burkina Faso. That is to say, I'm not respected as if I were a man (I've visited enough male volunteers in their villages to witness the differences), but I'm also not treated like an African woman, expected to cook and pump my own water and always subvert my own opinion in favor of my husbands. Most women here don't graduate primary school, let alone university. I occupy some weird space in the middle which has been referred to by one Burkinabe man as "femme-garcon" - woman boy. Honestly, I think a lot of women feel sorry for me because I don't have a husband or any children and this is what determines your social status in the village. They're always pinching my boobs saying I'm ready!
Anyway, back to the story. I sat up on the makeshift stage as they recited in Arabic from the Koran. Me, a young, single, white American female looking out at 100 older, married, African men. I could tell that some weren't pleased that I was contaminating the men's area with my lack of a Y-chromosome. But what was I to do? I was instructed to sit here. During the first prayer, I was relegated back to the role of woman. We couldn't enter the mosque so we just sat on mats outside. I've pretty much memorized how to do Muslim prayer by now so that wasn't a problem. At least I felt more comfortable over with the women who were much friendlier to me. Men would come up after prayer and shake hands with the men to my left and right but not even make eye contact with me. This is very awkward and something I don't think I'll ever be able to interpret as anything other than extremely rude and sexist (from the perspective of my own culture, of course). They've explained to me the reasons why, but it still makes me feel like I'm just not worthy of consideration.
However, being a member of the third sex has its advantages, too. The women in village would never allow me to seriously pump my own water, maybe for a minute just for a laugh, but that's it. Also, if I'm ever caught doing housework (which weirdly enough I enjoy), they run over to help and tell me to reposer- relax. Most women have to give up their chair if a man enters, but not me. In fact, men will most often give up their chair to me. When I visit someone's house they become very concerned that I sit immediately in the best chair that they have. Merci!