Archive for August 2016

becoming nassara

Nassara, nassara 

“It means white person in Moore,” Sabrina explained to me in Ouaga, when we first got in country.

“Foreigner,” our country director specified.

Nassara, nassara 

Either way, it’s my name.

It’s what all the children in my neighborhood chant as I bike by, a chorus of excited shrieks following me to the center. It’s the only recognizable word that fills a room whenever I walk in. It’s what the man hissed directly in my face as I walked by him at the market. It felt like acid in that moment.

Nassara, nassara 

It’s strange to be in a place where it is socially acceptable for children to run down the street chasing after you yelling “Foreigner!”. We all deal with it in different ways. Brady and a couple others have started yelling back “Petit enfant!” at the little ones, much to their confusion. Most of us ignore it and pretend that it’s not happening, but it’s still exhausting to be constantly called a foreigner in the place we are to call home for the next two years.

I’m used to being an outsider. As a Taiwanese-American woman that has lived abroad, I’m used to being the perpetual foreigner, even when I’m home. Like many minority children, my childhood was spent trying to erase my origins, wanting more than anything to fit in with my white classmates. It has taken me a long time to get to this point, but my difference since has become an identity marker that I wear like a weapon, a reappropriated tool of oppression. I’ve grown to be fiercely proud of my heritage. From birth, I have had a claim on two different cultures and three languages. What do you have? One language? A muddy European mutt genealogy? Ha!

In France, I found myself secretly relishing when some fool would call me Japanese and Chinese, evaluating my appearances without even bothering to listen to my heavy American accent. I looked forward to challenging their casual racism and throwing their stereotypes back at them.

Nassara, nassara 

But in Burkina Faso, I feel like I’ve been stripped of half of my identity. I’m identified immediately as “nassara”, grouped with the mostly white Peace Corps trainees. I feel flattened, indignant, confused. Wasn’t this all I wanted growing up? To fit in with the white people? To not have to put in any effort to prove my American-ness? Be careful what you wish for.

Once, in the market, someone asked me if I was Japanese, and my knee-jerk instinct was to aggressively assert my American identity, as I used to do. In that moment, I wasn’t sure if I was more relieved or disappointed that my Asian identity was not entirely erased here, that being American wasn’t enough.

To be the daughter of two cultures is to fully belong in neither—or any, for that matter.

Nassara, nassara 

It’s Jerome, the bartender at our favorite bar. “Nassara! Ne y zaabre?” he greets me in Moore as he clasps his large hands to mine, a huge grin spreading across his face. I laugh at his greeting.

I like that, from him, the hated term of unbelonging transforms into something almost like a term of endearment. For once, I can take it without completely overthinking the socioracial implications. It doesn’t matter right now.

Jerome hands me a cold Brakina and I brush aside any lingering thoughts about being a nassara as I sit down with my friends for a drink.

site visit

At the end of our first week in country, we piled into buses with our belongings to make the trip to Léo for PST. During this trip, our LCFs handed us slim manila folders labeled with our names and a village name. Our site assignments. We anxiously leafed through the sparse packets and unfolded oversized maps, trying desperately to glean information about our home for the next two years. Is it a new site? Am I replacing a volunteer? Who’s near me? What’s the local language? Where the fuck is it on these damned maps? 

Our answers were answered a month into PST when the Education volunteers left Léo to go on our site visits. We returned to Ouaga for a three-day counterpart workshop where we met the professional counterpart our community chose for us to work with.

Mine is a tall, regal Lobi man named Sami that works in the middle school I’ll be teaching at. Bearded. Animated. Open. A laugh that crackles like the dry leaves of autumn. He reminds me of my father, in his uncontainable (sometimes annoying, but mostly endearing) outbursts and commentaries in large social situations. I am caught between rolling my eyes and laughing along with him when I sit next to him during presentations.

Finally, the morning of the site visit, we left at six in the morning to catch a cab to the bus station on the other side of Ouaga. Burkinabé bus stations bear little resemblance to any that I’ve been to in my life. They’re much smaller than American or European ones, but with all the chaos of a station five times its size. It’s a concentrated cacophony of constant activity where men pack their motorcycles safely in cardboard; women sell tall piles of travel snacks balanced impossibly on their heads; children with boxes of basic toiletries scramble underfoot, hawking their wares. Buses are always late, ticket vendors never have enough change, bikes and motos end up on the wrong buses sometimes, buses break down constantly.

Buses are child’s play compared to bush taxis though. Bush taxis are small vans that service practically every inch of Burkina Faso. They pick up anyone and anything off the side of the road for less than a dollar. They squeeze more human bodies in the van than humanly possible and our possessions are either stuffed into the vehicle with us or piled precariously on top. I am not exaggerating when I say they literally take anything. Suitcases, bikes, motorcycles, chickens, goats, furniture—everything is thrown on top of the bush taxi and tied down. During my first bush taxi ride, I was crammed rather unceremoniously against a window with my knees tucked against my chest to fit on top of giant bags of sugar a shopkeeper was transporting to his store. I’m half convinced that if a murderer rolled up to a bush taxi with a cadaver, the bush taxi lackeys would not bat an eyelash before grabbing the body and fitting it carefully on top between a goat and a couple of cardboard boxes.

But it’s all ultimately a very controlled chaos, as such things are in most developing countries, where despite all the inevitable snags, the transport system works. You may get there four hours later than expected, but you (almost always) get to your destination eventually. The Germans would absolutely hate traveling in Burkina Faso.

After a long bus ride and a bush taxi, Sami and I finally arrived at my site in the late afternoon. I’m lucky because I’m located right off a main paved road (goudron in local French) and transport is easily accessible. A wonder, considering that my village is one of the smaller ones, with a population of 600. It’s deep in the lush southwest, closer to Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire than any major Burkinabé city.

In that patch of the southwest live the Lobi people, a fiercely independent animist ethnic group. A matrilineal warrior society without a central political structure, they were among the first settlers in Burkina Faso well known for their animist totems, fortress-like houses, archery traditions, and intense initiation ceremonies. But who knows if any of this information is still relevant; I read it all in a Burkina Faso guidebook I borrowed from another trainee, so we’ll see what living among the Lobi will show to be the truth.

Sami and I arrived on a bustling market day, and we set off in the market to track down the man that had the keys of my house. It was close to closing time, but the market was still buzzing with energy. My eyes greedily devour every detail. Setting sun, long shadows, a larger area to the right made up of rickety stall after stall of vendors packed tightly together. Battered cabbages, neat little mountains of beans and grains on straw mats, piles of mysterious dried goods. Globs of unctuous dough spit stutter sizzle in shallow pans of oil, gently frying up to form beignets. Smoky sunlight illuminates the ribcage of a large animal being butchered on a large table. Women near the center of the market stir massive bubbling vats of dolo—a local drink that is similar to cider—before serving it up in a hollowed-out gourd called a calabash.

After a couple rounds in the market and of beers, we finally found my keymaster and head to my home, a little fortress of a house, made up of two empty concrete rooms and small windows. It has a little courtyard with low walls and a private latrine in the back. No electricity or running water. It’s not much, but it’s mine. After close to a year of living as a guest in another’s household, that feels significant. Not to mention it’s the biggest space I’ve ever had to myself. There’s space to fill, walls to paint, a garden to make, perhaps.

I feel the same excitement and sense of possibility when I think of my job. I’ll be the only English teacher for the middle school in Tioyo. Burkina Faso follows the French system where middle school runs from 6th grade to 9th grade. However, the middle school in my village has only been existence for the past two years, so there were only two grades this past academic year. In fact, there’s not even a real building for the middle school yet. One of the classes is in an unused classroom of the elementary school and another is held in an empty warehouse building. But that’s all in the process of changing. If all goes according to plan, a middle school will be constructed and all four grades will be running by the time I leave. It’s extremely exciting to have such a tangible, physical project that I’ll be working on.

The next few days at site, Sami took me around to meet the chief, the president of the PTA, religious leaders, the mayor, the chief of police, the prefect—basically any significant person in a 15km circumference. There were countless confusing conversations in Lobiri where I barely managed to stumble through basic greetings before maxing out on my language skills. Ali, my kind Muslim butcher neighbor, gave me ample meals and bands of children led me around the village after Sami left. Every night, I fell asleep in my courtyard, watching the Milky Way— brighter than I’ve ever seen it—rise slowly through the mesh of my bughut.

One more month of PST and I’ll be back there to stay for good. There’s a lot to love in the southwest and I cannot wait to discover more.