Archive for July 2016

Léo



Coming to Léo was our first exposure to the reality of our lives for the next two years and to Burkinabé culture. The first week at Ouagadougou passed by at a glacial rate within a carefully constructed Peace Corps bubble where we had showers, flushing toilets, an air conditioned amphitheater, and the only Burkinabe we were interacting with were our Language and Culture Facilitators (LCFs), trained staff members that spoke French very slowly and never broke into Moore unless they were teaching it. Our Ouaga bubble feels like a distant past as we’re bombarded by new changes here in Léo.

Léo is a city in the south of Burkina Faso, right on the border of Ghana. We’re based here for Pre-Service Training (PST), a period of time well known in Peace Corps circles as one of the most difficult parts of service. The three months leading up to swear-in consist of French/Moore language classes with small groups, sector specific technical sessions, and general medical and logistics sessions. At the end of exhausting day-long trainings, we go home to our host families.

I live around the corner from the training center with a family of five. There’s Madame, the large boisterous matriarch of the family. Then Monsieur, the kind bearded teacher and farmer. Falila, the eldest sister, is a bright high schooler who’s studying in Koudougou and responsible for most household duties. Then there’s Charif, the sleepy-eyed preteen boy that is endlessly patient and understanding with me. And, of course, there’s Leila, a spunky 6-year-old that clings to my body like the omnipresent wet heat. We live in a house that opens to a courtyard filled with chickens, turkeys, and the occasional goat or pig that wanders in.

We eat with slimy okra sauce, benga with atieke, piping hot beignets, and—my favorite—rice with peanut sauce. The television is on most hours of the day blasting some foreign telenovela or African music videos. I dance with Leila in the living room and stumble through basic Moore with her. There have been long bike rides to the fields, a lively wedding reception, henna with my sisters, and evening cooking lessons. Some nights, the power cuts out and we sit on the porch and talk in the darkness as heat lightning from Ghana flashes on the horizon.

Some parts are harder than others. We’ve had three people go home already. Instead of flushing toilets, we have latrines, which are basically just deep pits in the ground. I take bucket baths now instead of showers, pouring bowl after bowl of water from a bucket over my body. The cries of roosters, goats, and donkeys occasionally wake me in up in the dead of night. I’ve had to grapple with mice, roaches, and other critters in my room. The family mostly speaks in Moore, which I’m still struggling with, and they switch over to French only when addressing me. I spend a lot of time observing, rather than participating.

The physical changes scarcely faze me now that we’re a month in—I’ve always been astounded by how adaptable human bodies are. In most cases, we readily adjust to changes over time, no matter how extreme. I have come to love my bucket baths so much. Often, I take them as the sun sets, streaks of soft pink, gold, orange stretched above my head and cool water caressing my naked body. Sometimes, if I wait until it gets dark, I bathe by moonlight and the sky above me feels like it is about to burst underneath the weight of starlight.

Biking has ceased to terrify me. My confidence on the bike grows daily and I feel incredibly free flying down the dirt roads, singing with wild abandon along to the music playing from the iPhone stuffed in my bra. I share the road with a motley collection of bikes, donkey carts, motorcycles, the occasional truck piled high with screaming goats on their way to the slaughter. I feel myself growing stronger each day as I bike distances that would’ve been unimaginable to me just a few weeks ago.

I’m going to miss this, I caught myself thinking last weekend as Abbey and I raced down the dirt road to Zoro. She jumped over pits with a steadiness I’ve yet to achieve on my bike and I yelped in surprise every time she did so. I laughed and sang loudly as clouds of red dust billowed out behind us.

But I don’t have to miss any of it, I realized, not yet. The idea of permanence hasn’t quite set in yet. It still feels like this is all some strange dream most days. Sometimes, I wonder if it always will.

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mirror, mirror



I was walking through the market last week and I caught a muddy glimpse of myself in the reflection of a dirty storefront.

Hello, stranger.

A messy high ponytail, errant wisps framing my head in a stringy, sticky halo. Surprised eyes. Darker skin than I remembered. But still me, in some alien way.

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I haven’t seen a full length mirror or put on makeup since Philadelphia.

In Ouaga, our only mirrors were hanging above the sinks in the shared bathroom. A light film of dust and grime on the surface. One half broken because Rachel tried to kill a mosquito on it.

In Leo, there are no mirrors. I pull my hair into a ponytail, put semi-clean clothes onto my body, and bike to class.

I feel lighter living like this. I scarcely remember what I look like. My weight is the last thing on my mind. I think often of my Parisian self, who rarely left the péniche without a flick of winged eyeliner and a smear of red lipstick. She seems like a different woman sometimes. Was that really just a few months ago?

Any vanity I once had has been worn away here, not wholly by choice, but by the shifting norms of femininity of my new home.

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My notions of femininity growing up were shaped by my mother, a woman that was slightly more glamorous in her youth, but in motherhood, disliked makeup, never shaved, and dressed in mostly jeans and t-shirts. A blessedly uncomplicated upbringing until middle school when other girls started to buy makeup and designer bags, shave their legs and date boys. As a girl, I struggled to come to terms with that particular version of femininity.

Paris was a transformative experience in many ways. I was on the brink of adulthood, an ocean away from who I used to be. Everywhere, I saw effortlessly elegant women that I yearned to be. I started dating, bought makeup for the first time, started dressing differently to adapt my appearances and behaviors to my new surroundings.

Here, Burkinabé women are feminine and physically strong. Yet restricted in many ways. Coming here as American women, we have become a third gender. We’re not expected to fall into the restrictive gender norms of females here, and we gain some of the social power that men possess. It’s a strange liminal space that we’re just starting to discover. In a certain respect, we have an advantage over the male volunteers, as we are able to traverse both the world of men and women, whereas often the men are restricted to the male side. Despite the relative freedoms we are allowed as foreigners, the fear of sexual assault is perpetually present in my social interactions with men—vestigial instincts from growing up in rape culture. It’s a strange experience to be so acutely aware of my place in society as a woman, yet not have the constant awareness of my physical appearance.

It feels like a return to the femininity that I was accustomed to as a young girl, a version that is stripped of the material trappings of womanhood that are impractical in this new setting.