Friday, December 29, 2006

A Ouaga newpaper called « L’Evenement » just published the list of all the convicts that broke out of prison on December 20. 537 names, along with date of birth and the names of their parents. I guess that’s a good way to help track them down, but it seems kind of hard on the poor parents! Their various crimes are also reported: plenty of robbery, murder and rape, with the occasional woman accused of excision/FGM. L’Evenement is one of the few papers here that is writing about what happened last week. They also have reported that their journalists have been harassed and had their cameras broken by the police when they tried to investigate the damage at the MACO prison and at the CRS camps. One female journalist was beaten. Where’s Reporters Without Borders when you need them?

Why did the army break open the prison that night? I’ve had a few people write and ask. (Hi Lyn and Andy!) Here’s the situation, as far as I understand it: Blaise (the president of Burkina) fears his own military. The only way he will ever leave power is through a coup and the military is the only force with any hope of pulling one off. And Blaise knows just what he’s up against. He came into power in the country’s bloodiest coup ever. And winning hasn’t improved him. Human rights organisations have recorded the highest ever number of political assassinations, hit squads and "disappearances" under his regime; one study puts the number of assassinations at about twenty.
Luckily, amazingly, and wonderfully, the Burkinabé are very mellow people. Even though their government treats them so very badly, they are in no rush for some kind of crazy upheaval. But still, certain military leaders do become popular with their troops and the possibility always raises its head: will this be the man to lead them against Blaise? I met one of the top candidates a couple of years ago. I was at friend’s house (all names changed or omitted, just to be safe) and there was a guy there lounging around eating peanuts. His suit was nice and he had a very small cell phone, but he still had the general air of one of the many slackers and hangers-ons that are always over at M’s place. After we left, JP told me that the fellow was General L. He was hugely popular and rumor said that he could lead a coup against Blaise any time he wished, but the Winyé are” too lazy”. - General L didn’t want the hassle. So they (mostly the Mossi) say. At least he managed to stay out of jail (Some of his supporters were not so lucky, though) Others suspected of being popular, but known to be more ambitious, have been thrown into prison, along with their supporters. It was a group of these accused coup organizers that the soldiers hoped to release from the MACO. They didn’t manage it. A large part of the general population escaped, but not the political detainees.

I don't usually get so polical in my blog. I don't want to get emails from wierdos and writing on politics is the best way to have that happen. There is also the off chance that Blaise has the media monitored here and one day the guys in black Land Cruisers come and take me away for a nice visit with the Presidential Guard. They do have a certain rep for that kind of thing....

Oh, BTW! To the wierdo that has already written to me: I am a heartless neo-colonialist gawking at the misfortune of others. I just wanted you to know that. Now go away.

Jeez. I hope I don't have to lock down my blog. I have "met" some very cool people that have stumbled fortuitously onto my musings. We shall see.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I finally have my computer back! At least for a few minutes. I'll have to write fast. On the rare occasions that I am at home with a moment to spare for blogging, there always seems to be one of the kids playing Zoo Tycoon, Roller Coaster Tycoon, or another new acquisition. These games are pretty fascinating. I make it a point to check them out, so I know what my kids are doing. ( BTW: did you know that in Zoo Tycoon you can make a Tyranosaur enclosure, then break down the gate and let the dinosaurs lose to eat all the zoo patrons? This works best if you block off all the exits.)

Our Christmas was good. Calm. No guns firing. But I did have to make food for nearly 20 people. Which, incidentally, did make me want to shoot myself at certain points. Luckily, Valentine was a great help and we managed a Christmas feast, American Style, for several of our Burkinabé friends. They weren’t quite sure what to make of the stuffing, but the turkey went down very well, as did the various pies and cakes.

Right now I am working lots for Papiers. The new workshop is nearly built and we’ll be moving soon. I’ve also been preparing samples and a catalogue for a big exposition in Los Angeles! I am really excited that Papiers has been invited. Too bad that we don’t get to go along with our paper samples! But it’s a VAO manager that makes the trip and takes the orders.

Today at Papiers, one of our newest big clients passed by. She’s a French jewlery maker that spends a lot of her time in Africa getting materials. She told me she needed to pick up her latest order a few weeks ahead of schedule (?!!) because she is catching a plane out a month earlier than planned! It seems that she was completely traumatised by the events of last week and doesn’t want to be in Burkina any longer. She was quite shocked at how suddenly life went from normality to terror. “I am an artist. I go by my feelings. And my feelings about all of this are very, very bad. I feel like anything could happen here.” She added that she plans to never return to Burkina. And I thought I was a Drama Queen. Geez.
Her reaction was very, errrr... extreme. Even when the fighting was bad on last Wednesday night, I never thought of calling Air France for reservations. I find that daily life in Burkina has such an ambiance of goodwill and peace that any variation from this can only seem temporary. (Now just watch them stage a bloody coup d’etat and make me eat my words while packing our suitcases.)

My main indulgence these days is to watch a few episodes of "LOST" every night! Yes, a local video club now has the first two seasons for rent! I am enjoying it, despite it’s obvious flaws. It’s amazing how all the crash survivors happen to be exceptionally attractive people between the ages of 20 and 27. They also manage to stay astoundingly well groomed considering that they spend months sleeping outdoors on the beach among the wreckage of a downed jumbo jet. And I can't imagine how they propose to eventually tie the "plot" together.....

Friday, December 22, 2006

Things here are quite calm. As I wrote to a friend earlier today: “you can unbate your breath now”.
Yesterday the curfew went into effect and the city shut down. The first things to close were all the gas stations, so lots of people got stuck without a means of transport. And a taxi ride that normally cost 30 cents cost $1.60, a huge price for the average Burkinabé that lives on a dollar or day.
But the curfew was lifted early this morning and the gas stations reopened. So, I went out on my day’s errands. My first stop was out in the shanty town at the east end of Ouaga. I visited my friend Yvonne there. I mentioned her a bit before in this post. She is a parapelegic widow with three small children. She is a really interesting person and amazingly cheerful in the face of her very difficult life. I stopped by to bring her a few things for Christmas. Last Christmas, all she could give her son as a gift was a bottle of orange soda. Kevin was really happy, as that’s a special treat to him. But when you think about the shower of gifts so many wealthier children get……..Anyway, thanks go out to my father and my pal Barb for their contributions. I was able to give Yvonne some fabric, a few toys for the children, some money and a bag of candy. I also had a sack of rice for them. Seven year old Kevin got the biggest smile on his face. It still amazes me to see a child get so happy about a bag of rice. It brings home so clearly how well they know what it is to be hungry.
In asked Yvonne how things had been in her neighbourhood during the attacks. She said that they hadn’t heard a thing, as they are so far from any police station or public building. But many of the escaped prisoners came to the area, hoping to hide and steal from easy marks. As the homes are just flimsy huts and there are no electric lights, the population is very vulnerable to crime. Yvonne was very worried, as she is alone, can’t walk and has young children. If you are the praying type , please pray for her and especially her younger son (just 1 year old), Jacob, who is ill. If you don’t pray, just send generic positive vibes. Can’t hurt.
Then I went to the VAO to check on things and then on to the Papiers workshop. Business taken care of, I went downtown. I got some food shopping done without the place being evacuated, so that was a nice change of pace!! But the normal food shipments have been delayed, so the shelves were pretty empty and many things are scarce. There's not much in the way of dairy products around, for example. I did manage to get some butter and sour cream, which was quite a coup.
But we still have a problem here in Ouaga. All the police have gone into hiding. I did not see a single cop the whole time I was out. What I did see (and feel, unfortunately) was huge traffic jams. And even worse, there is also that problem of those 600 prisoners lose on the streets. The word is out to be on the alert, as crime is exploding. Many motor bikes have been stolen and houses robbed, as my friend Yvonne mentioned. It hasn't been too bad here in the Zone du Bois, though. I guess it's harder to steal from rich folks that have cement walls, guardians and
electric lights in the street. The criminals prefer to steal the cooking pots and meager pagnes of the poor, as it’s less risky.

Just about an hour ago, I heard a series of loud bangs and ran out of the house with my heart pounding. “They started again??!!” I thought to myself. I listened and the sound repeated. Fireworks. Who on earth wants fireworks now?? I would have thought we were all fed up with explosions by now. I heard enough to last me a lifetime. I guess I have a mini-post traumatic stress thingy. Loud noises make me very jumpy today..... I am NOT looking forward to New Years’ Eve this year, when the Burkinabé love to light firecrackers. Luckily, they are too poor to afford many!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The gunfire died down this morning and after a couple hours of quiet, I went out to have a look. I drove over to the prison to see what the damage was. The main gate was broken, but everything seemed quite calm. I didn't quite dare drive over to the CRS camp. I'm not that imprudent and/or curious.
As everything seemed "business as usual", I decided to go into town and run some errands. I could see that the Bank of Africa was closed. And several other businesses hadn't opened. I continued right over to Marina Market to buy a few groceries. But as I tried to enter, they started evacuating the store. All those shoppers eager to part with their francs cfa had to leave, pronto. The guards doing the directing and prodding told me that things were heating up again near the downtown police station.
I got home and started preparing for Severin’s birthday party. Not the ideal day, admittedly, but the invitations went out a week ago. Unfortunately, the location was specified as the Rec Center and the place has just been closed down until after Christmas. (Last night Severin’s pal Samuel called and asked ” Since there’s a war, is Severin’s birthday cancelled?) No, not cancelled, but the venue changed. I called everyone and told them to come to our house. Only half dared venture out. Then, at 3:30, a curfew was announced. Beginning at 4pm all persons needed to be off the streets until tomorrow morning…..So, I had to call parents to come and get their kids before the curfew trapped them all at our place. It was a sort of abbreviated celebration.
Here’s the latest from the Embassy, from before the curfew:
U.S. Embassy - Ouagadougou
December 21, 2006 - 3pm
Due to the security situation in Ouagadougou, Americans in the city
should continue to remain indoors and avoid all unnecessary travel.
Although some areas of Ouagadougou appear to be calm at the moment,
there is concern that the conflict could flare up again, particularly
after nightfall.
According to reports from private sources and local authorities, the
conflict between the local police and the military has not yet been
resolved. Reports indicate at least four of Ouagadougou's eight police
commissariats were attacked last night and that approximately 600
prisoners were released from a jail in the Zone du Bois area of
Ouagadougou. At the present time, the airport is continuing to operate;
however, we have received reports that some stores and gas stations in
Ouagadougou have closed for the day.
U.S. citizens should carry a copy of the bio-data (picture) page of
their passport with them at all times, as local authorities have
increased identification checks within town. In the past, persons
holding no form of identification have been held in jail overnight.

We are all fine. No more gunfire to report. Those 600 prisoners have a little worried, though. Zone du Bois is OUR neighborhood!
Finally some news about the goings on here. It's not entirely accurate and the English is a little strange...
The intense fighting stopped around 11 pm last night. And it was just then that the US Embassy “sprung into action” somewhat after the fact, ordering me to call my citizens’ list and tell them to “stay indoors”. Gee, thanks for telling us.
There was sporadic gunfire at least until I fell asleep at midnight. Before I went to bed, I checked on our guardians. They were moving their chairs inside the courtyard, in violation of normal guardian procedure. Looked like a good idea to me
This morning at six we awoke to more shooting. After a particularly nasty bout of machine gun fire, JP turned on the radio to RFI to see if the story was in the news yet. There was a story “Calm has returned to Ouagadugou”, it began.
“Wow. Calm is so much noisier than I remember.” I commented to JP.
…..H is on the phone now to Isseuf. Their family is ok. The CRS camp is on fire, though. It seems that all the police stations in Ouaga were attacked last night….

Now I have the explanation for why the fighting seemed so nearby last night. The MACO (the national prison of Burkina) was attacked by military forces and 200 prisoners were freed. The back wall of the MACO is about a five minute walk from our house. No wonder the shots sounded so close.
The military is greatly feared by the president of Burkina, as a military coup is the only way he will ever leave office. Periodically, he shoves a bunch of officers into prison, accusing them of planning to overthrow him. Last night’s attack on the Maco was almost certainly aimed at freeing some of these political prisoners.

The electricity is off. And it seems impossible to get online. The phones are still working, so far.

In the midst of this chaos, I am somewhat busy patting myself on the back. I am in possession of no less than two turkeys (already dead and cleaned) and 30 eggs (The eggs are a big deal - very hard to get here. Weeks go by when you can’t buy any eggs at all!) I also have a good supply of flour, oil, pasta, sugar and other basics. Not to mention all the US cake mixes and frosting sent by my Dad in Nebraska. We WILL have Christmas dinner, even if we can’t leave the house! I just hope the power comes back so I don’t have to cook up both of those turkeys today.

I guess I won’t have to go work at the VAO or the exposition at the hotel
The latter is being held by the Lion’s Club at one of the smart hotels downtown, the Independance. Papiers was selected as a featured artisan and we managed to sell quite a bit over the last two days. But I doubt that “last minute Christmas shopping” counts as “necessary travel” for most people. I expect that shoppers will stay home today.

Our guardian says that there were people running by on our street all night. I guess old Moussa must have got up his courage in the night and peeked over the gate out into the road. . He thinks they were escaped prisoners.

I am going to try again to get online, post this and look for better news sources.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

You know those serious blogs? The ones that actually give you useful or interesting information? Well, this is generally not one of them. But today I DO have some breaking news that is nowhere to be seen on the Web yet. There’s crazy stuff going on here and nothing at all about it even on radio news. The schools have all been closed and everyone is waiting to see what is going to happen next. I don’t have lots of info, but here’s the basics: Last night a member of the CRS (the Burkinabe riot police) and a soldier got into an altercation and the “militaire” was killed. The two groups hate each other and this was just the excuse needed for their feud to escalate. This morning, a group of soldiers murdered a police officer in retaliation……No rioting has been reported, but there are big groups of pissed off, armed soldiers and riot police stomping around the middle of town, hating on each other. Sounds like a good place to steer clear of. The French Embassy has warned it’s citizens to keep a low profile (eg. stay home). Strangely enough, no word from the US Embassy. I’m a warden and I am supposed to get notice of this kind of thing so I can contact all the citizens on my list….
I will probably venture out, despite warnings to the contrary. I have Papiers stuff to take care of. If I see anything interesting, I’ll be sure and post again today. If I get hit by a stray bullet, Ill get JP to post for me.
On a happier note, today is Severin’s 11th birthday! His grandparents sent him a Star Wars Lego set that must have cost over $100 and have over four billion pieces. He’ll probably have it assembled in less than an hour.

......Ok, here I am, back again seven hours later. This is really NOT even mildly amusing anymore. AT all.
I couldn't get online to post my blog before, so I headed out downtown. I didn't see anything unusual. I was lucky. Shooting started up again late this afternoon, not far from the US Embassy. They had to evacuate the Rec Center.
Email that I just received from the US Embassy:
The Embassy of the United States of America would like to alert U.S.
citizens in Burkina Faso to avoid downtown Ouagadougou in the vicinity
of the Central Police Station due to an ongoing conflict between the
police and contingents of the armed forces. Although details and the
origin of the conflict are still unclear, gunfire in the vicinity of the
Central Police station was reported around 11 or 11:30 a.m. today,
December 19 2006. The situation is currently under control, but there
could be the potential for more violence.

We just heard three low, loud explosions. Mortar fire. JP called a Burkinabe friend that lives near the riot police headquarters. Isseuf says the police are under attack from military forces concealed in a park across from the camp.
The gun shots are getting louder and closer right now. We are really worried for Isseuf and his wife and kids. They live about 50 meters away from the police camp.

It is REALLY getting bad now. LOTS of machine gun fire. It's pretty near. The CRS camp is less than a mile from our house. I am a tad bit worried for us now.

JP has heard that the President isn't going to step in and stop this. The risk of it turning into a coup d'etat is too great.

There is SO much shooting going on. Unless they are really bad shots, there are going to be a lot of dead and injured.

NOTHING on the local news now. Nothing.

The gunfire is almost constant now.

The kids are pretty calm. Except Mallory is getting a little scared.
JP is trying to explain it all. Who can explain one group of people wanting to kill another group? There's no explanation.

What a Christmas this will be. Peace on Earth?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

I think the « worst » is over. Not that I’ve been miserable the last week or so. Far from it. I’ve been very busy, but it’s been fun, in a strange, tiring way. My days since I last blogged have mostly been filled up by work at the VAO. I’ve been working there nearly every day from 8 until 3. Then I rush home to do all the computer stuff for the project: print labels and bills and keep up with the emails. My own computer stuff ( most notably: the writing of blog entries) kind of fell by the wayside. Actually, some people find it’s amazing that I blog at all. When I casually mentioned to friends in the USA that I have a dial-up connection here at home, they found it oddly quaint. “Wow, Beth!” they exclaimed. “We did not know you were Amish, shunning all modern conveniences. Do you card wool in your spare time?”
I admit that it does take about five minutes to open a single web page, but on the upside, it does give me lots of time to read while I wait.

There were also extra singing rehearsals in the evenings, not to mention the hoemwork to supervise and the dinner to get on the table.
I did take last Wednesday off from the VAO, though. The French Embassy closed the kids’ school, as it was the anniversary of the murder of Norbert Zongo and they feared demonstrations in the center of town. I remember when we arrived here in 1999, that December 13 was the one year anniversary of the event. It was chaos for weeks here- mobs were burning cars in the streets and public services, like water and electricity were cut off for days at a time. By New Years’ Day I was ready to leave the country, or at least to buy a gas-powered generator. Things calmed down by the summer, but heated up again the following December. The government here has learned to be cautious. Their first line of defence is to start the University holiday before the 13th.- that way the students are dispersed back to their home villages and protests are less likely to start. It seems to have worked, things were very quiet this year- just a few, rather quiet gatherings.
I used my free Wednesday with the kids to make Christmas cookies with them and a few of their friends. We also went to pick up two new family member: baby guinea pigs. Mallory’s is called “Bubbles” and Alexa’s “Patches”, aka “Albert”. They squeak a lot, as guinea pigs are prone to do. Their arrival has brought lots of opportunities for me to gross-out the kids with stories of how I was constantly served those small, noisy creatures as a main course at meals when I worked in Peru years ago. Not that I ate any, mind you.
What else? There was Christmas carolling at the US Ambassador’s residence on Friday night. Later that night, my small (only 8 people!!) choral group gave a small concert for family and friends.
Yesterday, our church held an early “Noël” mass, as so many members travel during the holidays. Then we went out to diner at the Verdoyant with friends.
I am fighting off a dreadful cold since about one week. I think I am loosing, as it is segueing into an uncomfortable cough.
Today, I am NOT working at the VAO!! I got down the box of Christmas dress-up close and the kids and their friends put on a very entertaining re-enactment of the Nativity. My camera conked out at the beginning, so I only have one, not very good, picture that Blogger won't even let me publish. Sorry. At least there was no fight over who got to be Mary, as might happen in other households. Luckily, Mallory always wants to be the animal in any pretend play the kids do. If there’s no animal in the story, they add one for Mallory. (Recently overheard: “And the secret agents have a rabbit, ok Mal? And she has x-ray vision and can bite people!” ) So, Mallory latched right onto the coveted donkey role. She sported unusually small ears. Maybe a result of that genetic engineering that we are always hearing about?
The nativity play went pretty well until Valentine, dressed as a shepherd, ran off with the Christ Child in her arms, yelling “And THEN Baby Jesus was kidnapped by an ambitious, unscrupulous shepherd who wanted to get his hands on the treasure of the Three Kings! Hand over the Myrrh or the baby gets it!!” Screaming bloody murder, the Angel, Joseph, Mary, King and the Donkey chased the Evil Shepherd into my office where I was TRYING to write this. No wonder I never get anything done.
That’s it. I need to go make chocolate mint pinwheel cookies and get ready for another church service this afternoon. We’re going to the Christmas worship being held by several missionary families. The kids aren’t too pleased to go to church again this weekend, but I promised them that the music and snacks will be excellent, so they are going without too much protest.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Severin was on the phone last night when I got home from teaching Catechism. "Can Samuel sleep over tomorrow?" "Yes! Wonderful" I replied with alacrity. This was the fist sign of a school friend since the year began. Severin is somewhat of a loner. Not the gun-in-the-belltower kind (I think!!!!), but more of a reading/contemplating/creating kind of guy. And I think he finds it hard to fit in with other boys at school. And he's certainly influenced by the presence of no less than three sisters....
Samuel, a little French boy, came over yesterday. I stress the "little" - he's Severin's age, but comes up to about mid-bicep on Severin heightwise. They had dinner, worked on their school project and then decided to watch a dvd. "Let's watch "Star Wars!!! Severin put on the disk and asked his guest: "So, which princess do you like better: Padmé or Leia?"
Samuel's face took on the blankest expression I have ever seen on a human face.
"Huh?" (subtext: what the HECK are you talking about?)
"Which princess? Anakin's wife or Luke's sister?"
"Who?" Samuel said coldly. Any colder and he could have given the Titanic a hard knock and drowned Leonardo Dicaprio.
No! I wanted to shout to Severin, Just LET IT GO !
"You know, in the movies." he continued. "I like Padmé"
"Whatever. Are you going to play it, or what?"
Severin gets along much better with his few American friends. They are all missionary kids, very sweet and polite. Even if they might be suprised to be asked which princess they like, they could at least summon a coherent answer.

Seen shopping: A plastic sack full of balloons and party hats. All the writing on it was in Chinese, except for the main label, which read: "Mao's Party Fun Pack". Wow! Nothing says "fun" like the name "Mao"! What a clever marketing strategy. My kids have a Playstation 2 game called "Dance Dance Revolution". Why shouldn't there be Mao Zedong's "Great Proletarian Cultural Cultural Revolution" ? For a Great Leap Forward, just press X and export all your food.

We're selling at the VAO!! December IS magic! The tour buses are coming through daily. Dazed, dusty people stumble out of the big white behemoths, ready for precisely 1.5 hours of "shopping: local crafts". Then, it's back on the bus and on to Niger, or Ghana, or wherever. I do feel sorry for them. The Americans seem to suffer the most from the language barrier. If you don't speak any French, West Africa can be tough, even with a tour guide.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Here, at last, is a pic of the fabled Thanksgiving cake. Valentine's first comment upon seeing it was: "Well, as long as it's not turkey flavored, I'm ok with it."
I haven't been blogging the last few days because I knew that if I sat down to write, I would only rant about my car. This last month it has spent more time at the repair garage than at home. I am now beginning to suspect that is is possessed by demons. When I add oil,which is often, the car just kind of rinses its mouth with it and delicately spits it back out. Huge, expensive pieces of metal in the engine keep breaking off. It's grim. Add to this the fact that I keep getting stranded all over town and have to flag down "green taxis". These are unmetered, barely road-worthy taxis driven by men notorious for gouging tourists. This is a rather fatiguing, as it usually takes a while to make the driver understand that I am not going to pay 10 times the normal fare. It's sometimes hard to keep cool. "I'm not a tourist!" I want to shriek, "Look at me! Am I wearing brand-new safari clothes head to toe? Am I wearing socks with my sandals? A giant sunhat? Shorts? It should be obvious that I'm not going to pay 1500 cfa for a 150 cfa taxi ride!"
On the other hand, things at the VAO are going great. We are set up over there and starting to sell a bit. It's a bit slow, but the other vendors assure me that things pick up in December. That's tomorrow!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Well, the turkey décor cake astounded and delighted everyone yesterday. Not like there was that much competition in the astonishment department. We had Thanksgiving dinner with a whole bunch of Southern Baptist missionaries. They make great cornbread stuffing, but are not very full of surprises. None of that disturbing political talk that mars so many holiday meals. The main topic of conversation was: “God: How Great is He Anyway? Extremely or Profoundly? Discuss.” Which is a perfectly excellent topic for Thanksgiving Day chatter. Certainly better than getting all worked up over Iraq, risking poor digestion and getting depressed.
I doubt much could lower my spirits today, though. We are in at the VAO!!!! Yes, it’s true. Eugenie signed the papers this morning and they handed over the keys. Papiers du Sahel Recycled Paper Women’s Cooperative is now a tenant of the Village Artisanale of Ouagadougou! I can’t believe that it happened so fast. I figured it would drag on into January. And here we are scrambling to get shelves built and concrete poured. Yes, we have lots of work ahead. The “boutique” part of the place is there, we just have to furnish it. But we need to install our own workshop area behind the main building. Luckily, it happens that we have about a million cfa at our disposal to take care of this, but it’s still quite a job to figure out what we want and how to do it…… But that will all get settled pretty quickly. The main thing is that we can set up and be selling for the holiday season!!!
BTW-I am having trouble with my camera, so I have no pictures to offer of my cake masterpiece or our space at the VAO.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

As soon as the SIAO finished, I embarked on a program of household improvement, to make up for the month or so of neglect. First of all, I had the house fumigated. (Fewer bugs is definitely an improvement, don't you agree?). The problem was ants. Previously, they hung out in the kitchen. I was ok with that. But recently, they started venturing out into the livingroom. Onto the sofa, even. I think they were just hoping to have good seats if the kids put on that Bug's Life video again, but that's no excuse. Anyway, filling the house with poison meant we had to go live in the house of our kind neighbors for three days. They are in Germany right now and said their casa was our casa. Not to say that it was stress free - I spent the whole time lunging at the kids shrieking "DON'T play with/touch/use/look at/breathe on that! This is not our house!". Few things kill a friendship faster than having your home destroyed. (Don't worry, Tony and Kirsten. Your house is still standing) We ended up staying about a week, as I had our place repainted immediately after. Then a mason joined in the fun, as there was a hole in the wall to repair and new tile to install. Then the water heater had to be replaced...It often seemed overpopuated around here, what with my three household help women, six painters, a mason , two air-con installers, the carpenter, the plumber, the gardener, the security guard and the driver...not to mention the four kids, their pals and a partridge in a pear tree.
No wait- that's next month.
The house is taking forever to finish. My car has been breaking down every two days. Alexa has a cold. Mallory has headice. Again. And gave them to ME, which I figured out at about two in the morning, which caused me to LEAP out of bed as though I'd received a severe electric shock via a cattle prod to my pancreas. I spent the next four hours shampooing my hair with lethal poison and combing it with a tiny, sadistic comb. Yeah, lice. I am about ready to set off a thermonuclear device on top of my head. I figure the residual radiation would kill off any lice left on the kids. Damn I hate these things. It's roaches for hair! How messed up is THAT? A good (?) pal of mine just wrote:
"I guess that the shortcut of locking Mallory in the house whilst it was being fumigated didn't occur to you, did it? You should consult with me on these things." Always one step ahead of me, that Barb!

Anyway, what with all the running (and riding) around for Papiers, organizing the house and keeping up with life in general, I have been getting a tad exhausted. My solution? Take eight children camping in the African wilderness! Of course! The kids rode bikes, rode horses, played baseball and re-enacted all six StarWars films. I got no sleep. The four younger girls, who I had thought would chatter all night, promptly fell asleep, while the three boys howled like maniacs until about 3am, at which point I unleashed my flying monkeys.
I am still not feeling very perky, but life goes on. The car is still not fit to drive, so I am home today, blogging, answering emails for Papiers and making a giant cake shaped like a turkey. Don't ask.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

On Tuesday morning, I had an early meeting with the head of a major French NGO here in Ouaga. She was interested in ordering Xmas cards for the organization. She’d seen Papiers at SIAO and asked us to work on a special design for her. None of our usual designs would do. We have 30 different ones, but they weren’t quite right. So, Valentine and I spent Monday afternoon working up four new designs for her. The new designs were good, but she ended up choosing one of our old ones…And she only ordering 100 cards, rather than the 200 she had mentioned. And she is being very fussy about the colors (we have to mix special ones and she has to approve them) and bargained the women down to their lowest price. I find it is typical that the smallest clients are the biggest pains in the rear.
(Contrast that to this morning, when I met with the head of the Swiss Cooperation and she ordered 200 cards withou any fuss. She even accepted the first price we quoted her. Nice doing business with you!)
Anyway, after Tuesday’s first meeting, the project cell phone rang. It was the Village Artisanale of Ouagadougou (VAO)! They said that the jury would be passing for a site visit sometime between 9:30 and noon. We were very excited. Maybe it’s really going to happen!! We’ll really get a place at the VAO!
We settled down and got to work on greeting cards for a normal client ( not Ms. Hard to Please) Right then, a small film crew showed up. A Burkinabé NGO in information technology is making short digital films about local projects of interest. We had been recommended as real showcase of Burkinabé creativity! We thought it would be fun and useful- we’ll get a free copy of the film to copy and distribute as we please to potential clients. So, we all worked gluing paper camels onto their dunes and got interviewed.
Time passed and soon it was noon! The VAO hadn’t come and I needed to pick up the kids at school and run to the grocery shop. I was already late. Well, it’s not like I’m indispensable. I had wanted to be there, as it was going to be a historic moment for the project, but the women don’t need me. They are perfectly capable of showing off the project to a jury…. Besides, I figured that the the VAO had too many site visits planned and would put us off until another day.
Well, I was just in front of the US Embassy when Awa called my cell phone in a panic. “They’re here!! I showed them around, but they insist that they have to see you! Please hurry! They say they have to leave soon!”
I told the driver to turn around and head back. We were back at the project in about ten minutes, but there was no sign of any vehicles parked outside our site.
“They left!” Awa wailed. “They said you should go to the VAO right away and wait for them.”
I was pretty angry, which made it hard to think fast. I grabbed a scrap of recycled paper and made a quick grocery list. I gave my driver all the money I had (only about $10) and told him to get the kids and take them shopping. Arouna left.
Then I realized that I should have gone with him in order to get dropped off at a main road. There was no chance of getting a taxi in the quiet neighborhood where the project is. Plus, I had no money now. Right. I asked the women to lend me a bit of money out of the cash box. They figured I was good for it.
Then I called for a taxi. None available. At all.
I started walking. It was pretty hot. I stopped in at the restaurant over at the orphanage just down the road. I greeted everyone there and asked advice on getting a taxi fast. The orphan girls that run the restaurant had no clue. Guess they don’t take many taxi rides. But I was overheard by a very good-looking young guy with a very new, good-looking motorscooter.
“I’d be happy to take you out there to the VAO” he said “but I haven’t much gas left.”
Luckily, I had the 500cfa the women had lent me and we had a deal! I jumped on the back and we sped off.. Taking back roads, we got to the VAO faster than I ever have. Let me add here that there is an art to riding on a scooter while wearing a pagne. It's easy to end up with bared thighs. But as a seasoned Burkina resident, I managed to keep my clothing intact, even at high speeds.
Fifteen minutes later, we had arrived. I thanked my hero profusely and ran into the admin building.
The jury wasn’t there.
I ended up reading old newspapers for half an hour. They finally showed up in huge black four wheel drives.
We all went into an air-conditioned office and I was asked to give a short explanation of why Papiers should be at the VAO.
I was puzzled. I raced here like a crazy woman for this? Why did it HAVE to be me? Awa is the Vice-President of the group and speaks perfectly good French… I guess she can be a bit shy around groups of “impressive” people, but the only way to get over that is by taking on the challenge. Anyway, I did my best and think/hope that I was very convincing.
They said we would hear from them “soon”.
After all that I went through, the answer had better be "yes"!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Recently, Valentine was looking at an old catalogue with a picture of a button in it that said « You are looking at a Winner ». She remarked: “I remember that I showed this to you a couple of years ago and you told me ‘My child, here are words of wisdom from Mom: Anybody who would wear that is a LOSER!’”
So, I guess I can’t very well get a button or have a t-shirts printed up. My daughter would think I’d lost my mind. But I am feeling VERY much like a winner these days (despite the fact that I am a negligent blogger). Though my previous blog entries had endless complaints about it, the SIAO turned out great! Wonderful! In fact, for the first time ever, Papiers du Sahel won an award at the event! The project got the Celtel Award for Excellence in Recycled Products !!! When I arrived on Saturday morning (the 4 of November) Eugenie gave me the news! A 1,000,000 fcfa ($2000) prize for us! I was pretty astounded. I feel like the paper project is amazing and the women are so deserving, yet big-time recognition had always escaped us. And it finally came!! A huge awards ceremony was scheduled for that night. We were only allowed one entry ticket to the event, though, which was kind of odd. I went up to the Awards Office to beg a couple more tickets, explaining that we are a cooperative and the credit for our work goes to many people. Plus, I figured it would be depressing to go to such an event all alone. But they were unconvinced. So, we just had the one ticket. I thought that Eugenie (as the president of the cooperative) should go. But she said her health was not good and she’d prefer to forgo it. We had a group meeting and the women insisted that I go. It was very sweet of them. I think it was considered as my part of the award, as they know that none of the money will go to me, of course.
So, after working from 8 to 4 at the SIAO, I rushed home and got the kids ready for church. ( I had to lead the singing, but hadn’t rehearsed with the choir, as I had been so busy with SIAO. God did not let me humiliate myself too badly, I’m happy to report) We hurried home afterwards, I quickly changed and jumped in the car. As I pulled up in front of the Officers’ Mess, I could see it was a huge event. There were hundreds of people seated at tables in front of a big stage. I showed my invitation card and tried to find a place to sit. That’s when my shoe broke. Yes, my platform shoe no longer had a platform. At that point, I definitely felt like a “You are looking at a Loser” button was in order. There was no way to repair the shoe. Should I just go barefoot? Maybe not - the Burkinabé put a great store by in being properly dressed. These things always start late, anyway. I jumped in the car, drove across town and threw two pairs of shoes in the backseat. (An extra pair, just in case.) I got back at 9 pm, just as they started the ceremony. The first thing they did was start announcing the awards! Ours was about the fourth one announced. There was lots of press there and I smiled in front of the blinding lights, secure in the fact that I had two intact shoes on my feet.
After that was done, they started into the “Miss SIAO” contest. Extremely nervous girls explained why they wanted to be elected “Miss SIAO”. “Because I really, really, really like African arts and crafts” was the standard, if uninspired answer in all cases. After the first round of the competition, the buffet was opened. Instead of heading for the food, I made for the door. My work there was done. I had the check in hand and hadn’t embarrassed my co-workers by falling on my face. I figured I’d better quit while I was ahead.
Part of the ceremony was on local television Sunday night. I’ve had a few people tell me they saw me on the RTB news. The announcement of the awards has also been in many of the local papers over the last week.
Monday we took down our stand at SIAO. We were all tired, but happy. We were also all sick, I should add. The terrible dust and heat in the stands has made many of the exhibitors fall ill- lots of bronchitis and sinusitis. It certainly triggered my asthma. Eugenie isn’t well at all and has missed three days of work this week…..
But things will hopefully soon be back to normal. Right now, we are waiting for a visit from the directors of the Village Artisanale. For those of you that don’t know it, it is a sort of arts and crafts shopping mall here in Ouaga. It is a huge center, sponsored by the European Union and is one of the few things here that really works. There are dozens of nice workspace/shops for selected local artisans. It’s very organized, pleasant and is on every tourist itinerary, as it is one-stop, hassle-free souvenir shopping- a rarity in West Africa. Now that we have won the Celtel prize, the Village is interested in giving us a place! We’d put in an application last September, but we were just one among hundreds of demands for the mere 12 new slots available! But now we stand out from the crowd and have a real chance!
I guess this post is long enough! I am just so very happy!!!! The Papiers women and I are all wearing invisible "You are looking at a Winner" buttons. I guess that's the only cool kind.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The winner of the Ouaga Rec Center Halloween Costume Contest was Mallory in her geisha outfit!! The winner of the pumpkin carving contest was Valentine. Severin took second place. (I hasten to add that there were MANY kids at the party, not just Jacob progeny)
There was Trick or Treat at the US Embassy. The kids went from office to office getting goodies and being made much of.
There were plenty of fairies and princesses. Alexa decided that she was sick of that kind of boring stuff and decided to be a Vampire Girl. Note the rubber boots. That's what vampires wear so they don't ruin their good shoes with blood. Imaginative, that child.
Severin and his two best pals had decided back in September that they were going to be the Theree Musketeers. I designed the costumes and had them sewn here....
BTW-there have been major problems at Blogger (the site where I write these posts). Everyone has been prevented from publshing for days. I have been wanting to publish SIAO updates, but it has been impossible. Hopefully, the problems are over now....
Also- check the Photobucket album for more Halloween pics, if you like that kind of thing.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

I was hoping to post a picture of our stand at SIAO. But, as is frequently the case, Blogspot is having problems and it is impossible to add pics today.
It was NOT easy to get that stand installed, I assure you! I arrived at SIAO early Friday morning, but nothing went right. Valentine, Eugenie and I searched for an hour, but couldn't find a stand assigned to Papiers du Sahel. Then I began networking with the other vendors. The word was out that lots of the stands were being "hijacked". Artisans who hadn't paid the hugely expensive fee were tearing the names off stands and taking them over. One vendor told me to give up looking for our "official" stand and just take over an empty one. But this seemed unreasonable. We had paid 600$ US for a proper stand and setting up in one that belonged to someone else seemed like a stupid move. So, I spent hours finding the site manager and then following him around demanding something be done. And I wasn't the only one. There were many VERY irate artisans from all over Africa all demanding answers. They were from a multitude of ethnic groups, some even traditional enemies, but all were united in their hatred of the SIAO administration. Valuable hours were passing and many people had nowhere to set up. I tried to convince the manager just to provide us with a keyed map. We could then each find our own stand and politely evict any interlopers. I was informed that this was impossible, as none of the computers were working. No maps could be printed.
Why didn't the computers work? Because all of the electricity in the admin building was shut down.
Why was the electricity off? Because a huge show was being put on for the First Minister and other VIPs in the central courtyard. To run the PA system, lights, etc, all power had to be off elsewhere on the site.
So, nothing at all could be done until noon, when the bigshots would leave.
Once I understood all this, I really lost my temper. Why is there money for this stupid song and dance show, but none to pay someone to oversee the artisans as they install their stands? A whole day is being wasted so that the elites can be entertained. Meanwhile, we are wondering how we will ever sell enough to pay for the stand and still make a profit....
We finally found our site by ourselves, as we got no help. Some Malians had halfheartedly piled up a few bags in it and hidden our name under a piece of cloth. But I very politely pointed out their mistake and they left for easier pickings. Some venders were not as lucky and ended up in fistfights with the interlopers.
Of course, the official discourse that we hear daily on the radio says that SIAO is going splendidly.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The SIAO is a huge event here in Ouaga and will consume my life for the next ten days.
It happens every even numbered year here in Burkina and as it's been going on for 20 years now, you wouldn't think it would catch anyone by surprise. But somehow it does. When I went to pick up the ID badges for us Papiers du Sahel folks, I saw trouble looming on the horizon. Only three days left before the big event and NOTHING was ready. The workers looked very relaxed and leisurely, but even I could see that the pace would need to pick up dramatically to be ready for the vendors to set up on Thursday....And, as I predicted, NOTHING was ready today. I knew better than to show up this morning, but in a fit of optimism, I loaded up the truck (with lots of help, of course). The Land Cruiser was loaded to the roof rack with shelves, boxes and metal chests full of recycled paper. But it was a waste of time. At 4pm half the stands weren't even built yet and the ones that were ready weren't numbered yet. So, soldiers guarded the doors and the crowd in the courtyard grew and grew as arrivals from all over Africa tried to access the site. I waited for about two and a half hours and there was no sign of progress. I finally lugged everything back home, feeling even more sorry for all the vendors stuck out there. There were hundreds of people camped outside on piles of masks, bronzes, fabrics, beads....It was quite a sight. Most of them have nowhere in Ouaga to store all the stuff, or even a means to transport it if they did. (Most arrived by bus) They will have to stay there all night, guarding their goods.
I plan to get an early start tomorrow. With Valentine helping out, Eugenie and I should be able to get the stand looking good in a few hours. I will be sure and post some pictures.
It really is an amazing event. Wish you were here!

Monday, October 23, 2006

What’s worse than getting malaria ? Getting malaria PLUS typhoid fever, that’s what. Take it from one who knows.
Last Sunday, I was happy checking my emails and contemplating writing a new blog entry, when I began feeling funny. Then I felt funnier. I laid down on the couch to watch a dvd with Severin with the idea that I’d just wait it out. Chills, severe stomach pain, lightheadedness…..something I ate? Anyway, I was convinced that watching Tom Cruise frown his way through the end of the world was going to cure me. You will no doubt be shocked to learn that it didn’t. JP came home from work (yes, the man works Sunday mornings) and found me decidedly feverish and pain-ridden. I still didn’t want to go to the doctor, but he insisted.
I wasn’t happy. The emergency room on a Sunday morning? Much too dramatic for me. Such a bother for the doctor. And there was nothing wrong with me that a bit of rest wouldn’t cure. Right? Wrong. I was pretty quickly diagnosed with two major illnesses, was given an IV full of quinine and antibiotics and a private hospital room.
This was at Clinique Les Genets, the smartest private clinic in all of Burkina. No cracked vinyl mattresses there. I had air con, a private bath and satellite tv, not that I did much tv viewing. I slept almost constantly for three days. My room was the Milou Room (Tintin’s little dog, for those of you that don’t read Belgian comic books.) It’s mainly a pediatric/maternity hospital, so all the rooms are called after cartoon characters. The Milou room is right between Snow White and The Little Mermaid. Actually, it’s the same room I had last January when I spent a week hospitalized with malaria. They should probably just go ahead and put my name on the door. I’ll probably be back, with my luck.
So, there I was. Not delirious, but definitely out of it. The door to my room opened and a swarthy, round, very short middle-aged man popped his head through the door. Definitely not my Burkinabé doctor or nurse. He excused himself and explained that he was visiting a friend next door and had mixed up the rooms. Fine. Go away.
A few hours later, the nurse escorted this same fellow back into my room. He introduced himself, inquired after my health and offered to do anything he could for my comfort. “I am at your service”. At first, I thought I was hallucinating. But he was real enough.
“No. I’m fine. I just need to rest.” Hint, hint.
“Yes, yes. I will be leaving you now then. But if there is anything, you have only to ask.”
OK. Weird, but nice enough. Whatever. Glad that’s over.
Well, guess who showed up in my room the next day? First the nurse came in, followed by my short pal plus a new guy in a very elegant suit. He introduced himself as the Libyan ambassador. He was delighted to meet me. He was ready to do anything to promote my health and happiness. “Is there some food you would like? Some reading materials? Anything at all? You have only to say” This was beyond strange. Until recently, US citizens weren’t even allowed into the frighteningly elegant Hotel Libya, an imposing edifice paid for by Colonel al-Qaddafi himself. (For your entertainment, here’s a quote from one of the Great Man’s speeches: " Now, America is stepping all over the world with its shoes. It is not afraid or ashamed and has no conscience. It scares everyone, and they fire missiles while they are drunk, and it sets the price of bread in the world. It orders the World Bank and the IMF to set the price of bread in Jordan. It tells them to raise it by 300 percent, and that happens.[passage omitted: more on US dominance over world economy]” I like the bit about the shoes. Question: Would it be better or worse if we stepped on the world barefoot?)
I vaguely wondered if the Ambassador had mistaken me for one of his compatriots in distress. “Do I look Libyan when I’m sick?” I thought to myself. Or maybe I look Swedish. Everybody likes Swedes.
“No, I’m fine. Thank you so much. My husband will be here soon with everything I need.”
They finally left and I had the presence of mind to tell the nurse to PLEASE quit bringing random people into my room.
As I got better, I thought more about my visitors. I became convinced that my Libyan friends had thought that I was a friendless, elderly lady that had been left alone to fend for herself in a foreign hospital. Have I mentioned that getting malaria and typhoid makes you look really hideous? ( Just yesterday I had a visitor here at home who said to me, and I quote: “Oh my! You look terrible!” )
When I told JP my strange story, though, he was convinced that the gentlemen had been smitten by my charms. Only a man who truly loves me could think such a thing. He also pointed out that it was a shame that I hadn’t mentioned to the Ambassador that we could really use a new car. Sadly, I was drugged out of my mind and not thinking very fast. I also have to admit that, charming as my dear spouse may find me, I think the most I could have gotten out of the deal was probably a slightly-used copy of Paris Match.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

My mildy amusing blog is taking a sharp turn in another direction today. I just don’t feel all that amused. In fact I’m completely disgusted. So, today’s topic is: “Why Does Africa Suck and Who Are the REAL Racists?” . Quite a change from “My Adventures with Lizard Poop”, but there you go. Just call me thrillingly unpredictable.
Africa is mostly poor. Burkina is extremely poor. I went into that a few weeks ago in a blog entry. It’s the third worst place in the world: Public schools here so crowded that there are sometimes 300 kids in a single classroom. Most people have no access to health care and live on less than 1$ per day. 30% of all children under age 4 are clinically malnourished…..
The West sends aid. There are hundreds of NGO’s in Ouaga alone. You can’t cross the street without nearly getting hit by a big shiny Toyota Landcruiser full of “experts”. The money pours in. Where does it go? Well, but the truth is that the aid doesn’t all go where it’s supposed to. .You know, as far as I can tell, sub-Saharan Africa is the only region of the world that has been left out of the worldwide rise in prosperity over the past few decades. And smarter folks than me (like this guy)have homed in on the problem: state failure in general, and the failure of African leadership in particular. It’s the African elite. The best and brightest that were supposed to lead everybody OUT of this goddamned mess.
Let me give a couple of examples, so nobody thinks I'm ranting with no basis in fact. When I first arrived in Burkina, I had a friend who was a doctor for the US government, working on the polio immunization campaign here. High government officials told him that the project “needed” to have T-SHIRTS printed up. This work would be done at a high price by a business owned by the wife of one of the ministers: all to be paid for by project money intended to buy vaccines for Burkinabé children and get the vaccines out to the isolated villages. My friend is an upright guy and wouldn’t bend to the pressure. His tires were slashed. He received threats. The Burkinabé government complained that he was “hard to work with”. He was not supported by the USA. The elites wanted somebody who would “get along” with the local power structure. My friend was sent back to the US.
Another story: I spent a lot of time working with malnourished children at Yalgado National Hospital. The pediatric unit is a series of low, metal-roofed sheds where the children lie on cracked vinyl mattresses. The lucky ones are in there. The others sleep outside on plastic mats on the cement. Shade and protection from rain is provided by sheets of metal set up on poles. So, when I say “hospital”, it’s probably not the kind of hospital you are thinking of…Now, in a Burkinabé hospital, food is not included. If you want to eat during your stay, you have to have someone bring it to you from outside. Fortunately, at Yalgado, they do have a CREN unit- it’s a center that makes and gives food to malnourished children staying in the hospital. I got to be good friends with the head nurse of the CREN. As I watched their work, I couldn’t help but ask why there was not often oil in the food for the children. Fat is the main nutrient missing in their diets. I was told that groups like USAID send oil, but it is siphoned off by people in some Ministry and sold to line pockets.
So, right here we have: 1. Rich people that want to obtain money meant to buy polio vaccine for poor children and 2. Rich people that steal food meant for starving babies. These are the people in charge. Think about it.
I OFTEN think about this sickening, destructive African elite behaviour. Through more than seven years of observation, I have come to this conclusion: in a world of massive global inequalities the elites have (I’m going to generalize like mad from here on out. Of course there are exceptions, just not many) been much more concerned with getting hyper-luxurious western material standards of living and consumption for themselves than with undertaking the difficult and frustrating long term task of effectively overseeing the development of their countries. What gets called 'corruption' (which usually means looting the public founding in one way or another) is just a quick short cut to providing for a few what would otherwise take decades, or even centuries, to even approximate for the many. This short-cut seems perfectly legit to the elites: the colonial past and trashy tv have exposed African people to "capitalism as a mode of consumption" but not as a mode of production". They ended up learning tons about the consumer goodies of capitalist enterprise ( bring on the Hummers!) and not so much about the organizational requirements and the hard work involved.
The answer SO obvious, right? Just kick them out! And get the donors to stop pumping in the money! Get the donors to supervise more closely the uses the money is put to. But none of this will happen. Why? Racism.
Just yesterday, I was complaining to someone about the Burkinabé elite- how the President and his cronies live in luxury while the vast majority of people here lack clean water, electricity, and health care. The man I was speaking to is the spouse of a woman prominent in some Bretton Woods institution. This will blow your mind: He was defending the Burkinabé elites! They are all fine people doing a great job! Why, they spend LOTS of money on education. If there are 300 kids in a class, well, that just means that these darn people have too many kids (I SWEAR he said that! I am NOT making this up!!!) I mildly pointed out that the President just built himself an extravagant new palace outside of town. Maybe the head of such a desperately poor country should be less ostentatious? He told me that the Burkinabé people need to have pride in their President! He is a symbol of their country and he needs to have a nice house!!!. ( Right. I have noticed all those groups of starving beggars touring the elite neighbourhoods with smiles on their faces, because they are so darn happy that the government big-shots all have REALLY nice three-story homes to live in. Too bad they don’t let the folks in to have a good look at the pool and watch some satellite TV. At any rate, it sure seems to cheer them up. They may be hungry, but they are chock-full of national pride.) I tried to tell this guy what I’ve seen in my many years here working with the average (read: poor) Burkinabé. But he’s been here two years, going to elegant dinner parties with the rich and famous, and knows it all. The elites TELL him they are nice people and have the best interests of the poor at heart. And he believes them. Because they said so. Hmmmm ….He likes these folks because they are nice to him (VERY nice, his wife is a bigshot in the cooperation world remember?) and they have very good champagne from France. What’s not to like? And don’t forget, they are convincing. Above all, they are politicians at heart. Facts mean nothing and they will say anything to convince you that they are in the right.
And you know what? You can find plenty of (I’m gonna say it) white donors that swallow all the crap. Why? Racism.
Think about this: When I complain to Mr Bretton Woods about President Bush, that’s fine. And I’ll tell you, I am viscous about the man and his fat-cat cronies. I’ll say even meaner things about them than I do about the Burkinabé government. I don’t think Bush gives a damn about poor Americans…..and if I go on about what I think of him, this blog entry will NEVER end! The point is, you can complain that US or European elites have no care for the general welfare of the people, and that’s perfectly OK. But the minute you criticize African elites, you get a bunch of people jumping down your throat, saying that they are saints. White people are corrupt and evil, but never black ones. It’s crazy and completely racist. What is racism? When you judge people outside of your own group using different (usually lower) standards, right? Well, that seems like exactly what many of the donors from the developed world do. They do not hold these people up to the same standards as they would white leaders. Racism.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

When I first moved to Burkina, I expected to be surrounded by bugs: mosquitos, spiders and, above all, huge cockroaches. All of these creatures figured greatly in my short stay in Burkina in 1994, so I was braced for more of the same.
But it turned out that these creatures would be the least of my worries. The houses here are all infested by geckos. Perhaps you know these creatures from the much-admired US insurance company ads? They are pale, gummy-looking things with sticky, splayed feet. They spend all day hiding under picture frames and behind the furniture, defecating on the walls. Then they emerge at night to make bizarre clicking sounds and eat their weight in bugs.
After we’d lived in our house here for a few days, I told JP that we’d have to move. “They can have the house”, I said. “They were here first and are welcome to it.” I was seriously creeped out. Every time I inadvertently disturbed one during the day, I’d do a little hop and shriek dance. I had constant visions of them sneaking under the mosquito net covering the twins’ bed and crawling all over my sweet little babies. Lizards are SO not supposed to live in peoples’ houses.
JP pointed out that ALL the houses here had geckos, making it useless to move. So, I tried to solve the problem. Just so you know, do NOT get an exterminator to come and fumigate your geckos. The beasts will crawl into inaccessible spaces in your home, die and then decompose over the period of about a month (depending if it’s dry or rainy season) This does not smell good. Just telling you.
Gradually, I came to accept the geckos and even appreciate them. This came about due to several factors: 1.Geckos have absolutely no interest in crawling on human babies. Unless the babies are covered in bugs, in which case geckos are probably the least of your problems. 2. I am not in charge of cleaning gecko poo off the walls. Plus, it is rather dry, crumbly stuff that isn’t smelly or all that messy, once you get right down to it. 3. They EAT mosquitos (that give you deadly malaria), flies (that spread filth) and cockroaches (that I hate beyond anything). This is all good! 4. Their little faces are actually kind of cute.
I grew to eventually even LIKE geckos.
Then, one day, Valentine found a little abandoned kitten in a shed behind our house. She bottle fed him and he grew into a big, macho, hunting-oriented cat. The kind of cat that would hang out in the garage with you and drink a can of Budweiser, if you were interested in that sort of thing. Suddenly, after four years in Ouaga, we had hardly any geckos in the house- just a few in the bedrooms where the cat wasn’t allowed. The cat also turned out to be a hunter of cockroaches. Venturing into the kitchen at night, I was always sure to have either a can of Raid or the cat with me as protection. And Gaspar Kitty also rid the yard of the giant rats that roam the neighbourhood at night. He even left a decapitated one in the middle of the garden path one morning, just to show he was on the job.
When a little stray momma cat and her baby showed up here a year ago, I felt so sorry for her. JP wanted none of it-said there were already too many animals around here, what with the turtles and rabbits. But cats are useful! So now we have two patrolling the house and property, keeping us safe from the creepier local fauna.

Friday, October 06, 2006

As you may or may not know, Valentine has her own blog. In one recent post, she ridiculed (very gently) the sub-par English of her English teacher at the French school. A friend then pointed out to me that the English that Valentine writes in her blog is, well, a tad unusual. It may seem strange, as she learned English from me, starting in infancy. Though we lived in Switzerland when she was born and then later moved to France, I always spoke to her in English. No way was I talking to my baby in a foreign language! But that led to a huge battle when it was time to put her in nursery school. In France, free public pre-school begins at age 3. But Valentine didn’t speak all that much French. It was ok, but her English was WAY better. (When she was that age, she got car sick a lot. Once when we were on a mountain road, I handed her a bag to throw up in. She said : “Ooh- a transparent bag! What a bad idea!” Showing both a good vocabulary and a refined sense of aesthetics.) I ended up in a big argument with the principal of the school, who said that I should stop speaking English to my child and switch to French only. That sounded like about the dumbest thing I ever heard and I said so. And so it went. Suffice it to say, that I ignored her and did it my way. As a result Valentine and the other three kids are perfectly at home in both French and English.
But it’s true that their English is a tiny bit odd. I think it’s the result of French influencing their English. When Valentine writes “ I proposed Zoe a doll” , that is a too literal translation of the French verb “proposer” (to offer).
Severin came to me a few days ago and asked “Is it possible that we go pick up Daniel?” It seems to me that a “normal” nine year old boy would just say “Can we go pick up Daniel?”
At lunch yesterday, Mallory said “He scares me. I don’t wish to approach him”.
Examples abound. The thing is, I don’t often correct the kids’ English unless it is obviously wrong. I find their rather original verbal constructions have a charm and dignity to them.
Then there are all the expressions that they pick up from me. They don’t have many English-speakers around them, and no tv shows to sway them. So, they are mainly influenced by me.
“That’s disturbing” Severin says.
“Oh my goodness!” Mallory exclaims “You are acting like a crazy nut!”
“Everybody scramble into the car!” Alexa exhorts.
All trademark Beth phrases.
They don’t sound like they grew up in Nebraska. I think the many years abroad have pretty much ironed the Great Plains out of my accent, so they sound pretty neutral. Except for Alexa, who my mom SWEARS sounds just like Leslie Caron.
The kids have ended up with excellent French, despite the major misgivings of Valentine’s first principal. People that speak French with them never guess that English is their first language. (But they do speak like French kids raised in Africa)
They switch easily between the two languages and read equally well in both. Writing is a bit harder in English, but Valentine actually prefers it. She’s even writing a novel! She’s been working on it for months, but won’t let anyone read it yet. I think she has about 200 pages now!!! Is that amazing, or what?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Say that you’re in charge of staffing a US Embassy in a far-away country.. You’d want adventurous people, open to change and ready for new experiences, right? Or would you staff it with people that can’t even bear to use “foreign” toilet paper? Doesn’t seem like a tough choice, does it? It seems obvious that in a logical world, you’d opt for the first kind of person. Instead, the US government seems to select people that like foreign countries only when there are extensive buffers in place… .
They come over with huge containers of stuff: cleaning products, Kleenex, toilet paper, office supplies, not to mention all those familiar US foods, especially breakfast cereal. When they run out, they order more through the diplomatic pouch, so they never pay overseas postage charges or customs fees. I assure you that there are locally produced, low-cost cleaning products, facial tissues and food here. There is also a wealth of French and Lebanese products available. It’s just not what you’d get back in the USA.
Now, in a way, I understand the attraction. When I get a hold of a blue box of Kraft Mac and cheese, my heart gives a little jolt at sight of this relic of “home”. Ranch salad dressing positively gives me palpitations. The thing is, I’m not sure it is good to be here if you are the kind of person that constantly needs to be surrounded by these kind of reminders of the comforts of the USA. I imagine that it is reassuring to have a storeroom stocked with all the products you grew up with, even though you are 4000 miles away from your homeland. But if you need that, why did you ever go? Are you leaving room for anywhere else to become at least “homelike”? Isn’t being an expat all about seeing how other people live? And if you don’t try to actually get out and live some of it yourself, you may as well stay Stateside and watch Discovery Channel. One part of living the adventure is shopping in the market and getting used to “strange” food. “Odd” tastes become familiar, “clashing” colors start to look good together, “pointless” customs start to make sense. It’s what it’s all about, living here.
But, in fact, the Embassy staff don’t even breathe the same air as the rest of us. Their electricity is directly paid by the government- they don’t ever even see the bills.. This encourages them to think like real upper-class Americans and leave on the air-con at home 24/7. They can go straight from home, to car to Embassy and back again without having to experience the local climate. Sounds incredibly comfortable, but very isolating.
Understand, I’m not hating on US Embassy staff. The ones I’ve met over the last seven years, I’ve liked well enough. I am just not understanding the logic behind how the US Government has them living overseas. The conditions are excessively sheltered and the postings are too short - on average 2 years. And I know from experience that it takes two years just to begin to feel at home in a new country. The brevity of the stay and the cultural isolation encouraged make me suspect the motives of the powers that be. My theory is that they don’t want to attract the type of person that can immerse themselves in another culture. They want Americans who are going to stay “American”. They don’t want the kind of people who can live without White Cloud toilet paper for two years. They want folks that run no risk of finding anything in a foreign country to be as good as what they have back home. Are they afraid of them “going native?” Got me.
Alternative viewpoints are welcome in the comments section below. If anybody thinks they can make me understand the logic behind all this, please do.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

When I lived in Chicago, I loved reading « News of the Weird » in The Reader. I don’t know if this latest news from me is “weird”, but isn’t normal, at any rate.
1.) Say you are in Burkina and you want to phone a pal in Benin, Togo, or maybe Mali. If you dial directly, you will try and try and try and try. Only a benevolent intercession by a deity will get you a line through. BUT, you CAN get a line to the USA, usually. Weird, right?. Even stranger, if you have a call back system, you can ring a computer in the US that will phone you back and allow you to make outgoing calls on US lines. To make a long story comprehensible: to call Mali, you call Florida and Florida calls Bamako, Mali. It makes NO sense. It’s like a person in Nebraska not being able to phone to Iowa, unless they call through Moscow.
2.) Lumbago: weird, or what? I thought is was what old people discussed at nursing homes when digestive problems got boring. I thought I had many happy lumbago-discussion-free years ahead of me. But no, it’s on the conversational radar now.
Monday, I got a call from Mali (JP is there for work) and JP’s co-worker told me that his back was hurt and JP couldn’t walk. This was a very bad, non-Florida line, so I couldn’t understand half of what she said. That call left lots to the imagination…..polio? car accident? trampled by rabid camels? I spent ages trying to call JP. When I finally got through, he told me he’d thrown his back out. The dreaded "L"-word was mentioned and something about displaced vertebrae.
Now, several injections later, I am happy to report that he can walk a bit and will be home on Friday.
3.)Inter-racial fashion-tips. Just say “no”. Valentine was rushing off to school this morning . She flew past me to look in the hall mirror before going out to the bus. She looked a bit puzzled as she inspected her white pants.
“Umm, Honey? Are you wearing black underwear?” I asked cautiously.
“Well, yeah. Dorine told me that if you don’t want your underwear to show, you wear black ones.”
All became clear. Valentine’s best friend Dorine is black. And I then understood why Valentine was under the impression that purple eye shadow looks “natural” and a host of other puzzles. My glow-in–the–dark white teenager has been getting fashion tips from her black friends and African fashion magazines. And it’s not like I have been a resource of info on makeup and such. I did share with her the idea of matching the skin tone, though, so we got the undergarment situation under control.
4.)This is weird in a very bad way. Alizeta is in a lot of danger from her crazy husband. She came in to work on Monday and told me that her he has been threatening her with a knife. He stands outside the gates of her brother’s house (where she is living now) and threatens to kill her when he gets a chance. He blames her for Safie’s death. Fortunately, her family is trying to protect her. But things could easily go badly.
The file is not yet finished, so it's not at the Palais de Justice (courthouse) yet. Safie’s death is still being investigated.......

Friday, September 22, 2006

According to the United Nations' Human Development index, I live in the third "least livable" country on the planet (2005 rankings). Only Niger and Sierra Leone rank lower. Since I moved here in 1999, Burkina has held the spot. I spent the day trying to "do good".....but it's really just a proverbial drop in the bucket. And the bucket has holes.
Today I distributed school supplies to nearly 50 children. The catechism classes at our church had given a donation last spring and I kept it for the upcoming school year. Each child got a notebook, three pencils, two pens, an eraser, a ruler and a little box of colored pencils. I know that there are poor people in the US and Europe, but I still can't imagine that their children would get too excited over some yellow pencils and a plastic ruler. But these kids today were over the moon. They treasured this stuff and were all excited about going to school.
I had also done some fundraising last year to put some girls in school. I got sponsors willing to commit for at least four years. JP and I sponsor a few kids, as well. I make a special effort for the girls, as so few go to school here. Only about 8 percent of all adult women can even read. The figure is close to 20 percent for men.

I have no news from Alizeta about her court case. I am hoping she'll be at the project Monday. I doubt I'll see her daughter. Her second oldest was helping out at the project and bringing news from home, but Alizeta's husband came by last week. He told the girl she had to stay home from now on. There's no reason why...he is just an abusive, stupid man. (Alizeta moved out with the children two years ago) But he still has authority over the kids, so she had to leave. it's all very messed up.

The soap for Tess is all done, as well as the 50 boxes!! She finally came today to pick them up today, but wasn't happy! Some of the soap tags were on colored paper, rather than natural. She hadn't specified at the time of her order, so I had printed up a normal batch. Between her confusion on the pickup date and this, I am not feeling so kindly towards her as I did in my previous post on the subject. I gritted my teeth and offered to reprint the labels and have the soap re-tagged. The customer is always right, even when she is a pain in the butt.
Luckily, the work doesn't have to be finished quickly. Tess' truck is completely broken down and she'll have to buy a new one before she can leave for Agadez!
Ok- I admit it. I paid a Winyé Earth Priest to put a curse on her Jeep. She deserved it.
Should give us plenty of time to finish up the order. Heh, heh!

BTW- I'm going to a goodbye party on Saturday for a German friend. She's moving to Niger! The worst place in the world!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I went to pick up the children at school today. The crowd was milling around outside the front gates of St Exupery. I thought maybe I should hide in the car, so I wouldn’t humiliate my kids.
Well, there were the Burkinabé moms, dressed to the nines in tailored outfits of bright colors. The skirts are ankle-length and the tops very form-fitting. They often have long sleeves, but these women don’t seem to sweat. In fact, they look supernaturally clean, as though they were just sanded down and freshly painted. They invariably wear very high heeled, viciously pointy shoes, impressive hair extensions and designer sunglasses. The fingernails tend toward red and talon-like. No simple pagne wrap-skirts for these ladies. That’s strictly the uniform of the lower classes.
There were the French moms: cropped, perfectly coiffed hair, pink manicured nails and painfully thin physiques. They carry tiny handbags the size of a guinea pig. How they manage, I have no earthly idea. I carry a huge purse full of bandaids, sunscreen, kleenex, pocket knife, glue....ok, maybe I'm a little over the top. But still. They never wear local-style clothes. The fashion tends towards very short shift dresses. I imagine that they look perfectly chic in Paris, but in Burkina something that short is called a “tunic” and you wear it with pants.
The French and Burkinabé look odd together-the French women barely dressed and wilting in the heat alongside the Burkinabé women covered neck to toe, but looking cool and crisp.
There were the Lebanese moms, too: tight jeans and even tighter shirts, lots of gold and lots of makeup. They have teeny-tiny cell phones that they use continuously, even while deep in conversation with people actually standing in front of them. Real multi-taskers.
There was also the battalion of nounous (nannies), all ready to pick up their young charges. The uniform of the nounou is a gingham-checked, loose-fitting tunic and pants, usually pastel-colored. The few wearing a pagne and t-shirt are probably the employees of new arrivals that haven’t had uniforms sewn yet. (NB: I have my workers choose their own fabric for work clothes. They always choose flowers, never gingham checks)
Then there was me. My pagne was wrinkled and my t-shirt covered with fuzzy scraps of paper from working at Papiers all morning. I started picking the biggest bits off, but as I bent my head, more paper fell out of my hair. Oh dear. And my fingers were tacky with glue and blue with dye from the paper, my sandals far more comfy than stylish. And don’t get me started on my hair. In the rainy season humidity it is sticking out in demented curls. As for makeup, does lip balm count?
Maybe I’m a clueless looser, but I just don’t get it. Even the nounous look better than I do. Do all these women spend hours each morning showering, fixing their hair and putting on makeup? How do they stay pristine? Don’t they work? Even when I do make a bit of an effort in the morning, by noon I am a wreck. (Note to self: look into getting laminated)
It just doesn’t seem worth the effort. But then I go to the school, and I feel kind of bad. Not that the kids make a fuss, bless their hearts. Their only request is that I quit getting super-short, G. I. Jane haircuts. Which I have done. But now I have a huge blonde afro and my husband calls me “Sheep”. Not good.

The only way I see to solve this problem is to leave work early, rush home, clean up, change and then drive over to the school. Seems like a painful waste of time. Oh well, I’m always telling my girls “You go to school to learn-it’s not a fashion show”.
(BTW: Do you remember that Will Smith song “Parents Just Don’t Understand”? It features a mother saying exactly that same thing, as she forces her son to wear polyester pants to school. The first time my kids heard it, just a few months ago, they howled with laughter. “That’s you, Mom! You always say that!”)
To be fair, I should admit that I never spend more than 10$ on an item of clothing and that could have something to do with why I don't have that chic je ne sais quoi.
As you may guess, I fit in just fine among the women I work with in the poor neighborhoods. I get lots of compliments on my outfits, even! It's just when I get among the upper classes that I feel conspicuous and that I'm ruining the social cred of my kids.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Why no posts since Thursday ? Because on Friday morning I got a phone call.
“Hi Beth, This is Tess. How are you?”
“Hi. Fine. You?” I couldn’t talk in complete sentences, as I was thinking too hard. My mind raced: Is she calling from Sweden? No, the connection is too clear. Sounds like she’s in Ouaga, but that’s IMPOSSIBLE. Her last email said she wouldn't be here until October…...
“I’m fine. How’s the soap? Can I pick it up?
The soap. The SOAP!?! In July, Tess had ordered 400 bars of handmade shea butter soap in a custom recycled paper wrap from Papiers du Sahel (the women’s group I work with). The delivery date was supposed to be the 1st of September. But in late August, Tess had sent an email from Sweden saying that she’d be picking up the order in early October.
“The soap is ready, Tess” (Thank GOD!) “But it’s not wrapped. Your email said October 11 and we had some orders to get ready for the USA …..”
“Oh, no! I’m sure I said September”
“Well, you wrote October in the email you sent me. I thought you'd had a change of plans.”
She was sorry, she had made a mistake- but the fact remained that she needed that soap wrapped, beaded and tagged by Monday. She would be driving her truck up to her hotel in Agadez, Niger (It is gorgeous! Have a look here and here)and the soap, plus the 50 boxes for shower caps needed to be ready to roll.
Tess is a nice lady and a good customer, so I assured her we’d figure something out.
I rushed over to the project. (The project phone is broken, so I couldn’t just call).
Eugenie (the project president) and I cautiously opened the metal chest that had been holding the drying soap for the last two months. The mice hadn’t gotten at it, by some miracle. The women started wrapping, a couple went off on bikes to buy cotton string to tie on the tags. I rushed home to design and print up 400 soap tags. Then I rushed back to help wrap.
By Saturday night, all 400 were done. But not the 50 boxes. That night, Tess called with the news that she’d be leaving on Wednesday, not Monday. Joy!
I went to the project this morning, expecting to se at least a few finished boxes ready. Nope. We hadn’t made any since last January and the women had completely forgotten how. Isabelle had unfolded one and was trying to figure it out, not having much luck. Fortunately, I vaguely remembered the technique and we got into gear. When I left the project at noon today, half the boxes were finished.
So, the whole order will definitely be done by Wednesday morning.
And what did I do over the weekend when I wasn’t wrapping, printing and folding?
I made a My Little Pony birthday cake and got PAID! Yes! I will not post a photo, as its bright pink and blue splendour would doubtless blind you, my reading public (or perhaps make you want to claw your eyes out, depending on your level of kitsch tolerance.)
I took the twins for a riding lesson at the Oasis du Cheval, one of our three riding clubs here in Ouaga. I will doubtless do a whole post about the place, one of these days.
I went to a VERY boring school bus cooperative meeting. JP wouldn’t go, the coward. There were about 18 of us there. “Do you want some water?” the hostess politely asked. “No. No thank you.” I answered. With the silent subtext “Start the meeting NOW! I want to leave! I do not need snacks. Really.”) Unfortunately, everybody else said “Yes”, god help us. They don’t have water at HOME, these people? How long are they planning on BEING here???? They sent the hostess scrambling for bottles of mineral water and 18 glasses. 15 minutes. I timed it. Then, once we were into the meeting, were repeatedly stalled by one concerned mom that wanted to know why the bus couldn’t stop in front of her house. “It rains, sometimes”, she said. It was politely pointed out to her that it rains on ALL the children, but the bus cannot possibly stop at all the houses. I thought about cluing her in to that great modern invention, the UMBRELLA, but I just wanted it all to be OVER.
That night, I went to see “The DaVinci Code”. How could you make a trashy thriller about the Holy Grail into a boring movie? That seems impossible, yet Ron Howard managed. The presence of Tom Hanks was a constant distraction. Why doesn’t he wash his hair? Cut it? Am I really supposed to believe he is a university professor/genius-level puzzle-solver kind of guy? Could there be any less attraction between him and our heroine, Audrey Tatou? She’s so cute, in that deer-in-the-headlights kind of way, and yet you’d get more chemistry out of two teaspoons of baking soda in a glass of water.
And that’s basically it for the weekend. Just throw in a swim at the Rec Center, a reorganization of the kids’ toys, browbeating Severin into practising his piano lesson….Extremely busy and very boring.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

My Summer Vacation, Part 2
As I mentioned in a previous post, we rented an old farmhouse while we were in the north of France near my MIL. We stayed there two years ago and it was lovely. Whenever I’m in Petit Xivry, I fantasize about buying a farm in Lorraine and raising a herd of sweet-faced dairy cows. The fact that I know nothing about farming or cattle doesn’t stand in my way. In my imagination they are fly and manure-free. They mostly just eat grass and look pictuesque.
For those two weeks, we visited my MIL every lunch time and stayed until the night.
She lives alone in a small rose-covered house in the village of Saulnes. It’s the house my FIL grew up in with his two brothers and a sister, but it must have been a tight fit. When JP and I arrive there with our four kids, the place seems to shrink to the size of a shoebox. So, in the interests of everyone’s sanity, we never stay there. Not that I don’t get along with my MIL. Au contraire, she thinks I’m fabulous. When JP and I got married, he was 40 years old. She had long before given up all hope of ever seeing him wed and getting a few grandbabies out of the deal. Imagine her surprise and delight at JP bringing me home: I turned out cute babies like nobody’s business AND I drive, a big plus. My MIL doesn’t drive, but loves to shop. When my FIL was alive, he took her shopping every week, but now she depends on friends or her grandson that lives nearby. So, one of my jobs while we visited was SHOPPING. Which was just fine by me. I spent hours hypnotised by the French “hypermarchés”. All that STUFF!
The kids had a great time. They spent their mornings on the farm, running after the cat and jumping off hay bales. In the afternoon, they played with the children that live on my MIL’s street. The first day it looked like there was going to be a problem. The twins and Severin came in the house, saying that kids were throwing rocks at them and insulting them when they went in the front garden. I think being called “Americans” was the principle insult of choice. Instead of going out to tell them off, I went out and said “Hi! We’re here visiting from Africa”. As I predicted, they weren’t rotten kids, just bored. They were thrilled to have “Africans” to play with and question rigorously (“Do you have any food there? Why aren’t you black?, et al) The kids ended up being great friends and did lots together.
Mallory’s favourite activity was going up to the park and riding the fat pony in residence there. Lulu was a spoiled little thing that could barely be coaxed into a trot, but Mallory adored her. (Valentine took some fabulous pictures of the two of them. Do check out the Photobucket Album link at right and go to the French Vacation sub-album)
When I wasn’t shopping for groceries, school clothes, Xmas gifts, etc, I was cleaning house. My MIL is getting near to 80 now and her hip replacement had about worn out. The whole place needed a thorough scrubbing. I cannot describe the state of the shower, oven, walls, etc. I spent lots of time trying out miracle cleaning products. It was entertaining (in a sick way), as all we have in Burkina is plain old bleach, soap and Ajax powdered cleanser, if you’re lucky. In France, you can find a cleaning spray called “Cillit Bang”. Is that a cool name, or what? I think it really resonates to the fact that after two weeks of constant housecleaning, you just want to blow the whole damn place up.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What I Did On My Summer Vacation, Part 1
(I haven’t done one of these since I was in primary school. What fun!)
We arrived in Paris early in the morning on the 15th of July and rolled our mountain of baggage over to a café in the terminal. We were starved. The breakfast on the Air France flight had looked kind of nasty - the so-called madeleine had looked suspiciously like a fruitcake and the kids hate the watery pseudo-hot chocolate they serve. So, we ordered REAL hot chocolates, pain au chocolat, chaussons aux pommes, pain cremes... everything the kids’ hearts desired. When it was time to order for myself, I thought: This is decision time! A fresh French pastry or that shiny Granny Smith apple over there in that fuit basket? This choice would determine the course of this vacation! Would this be the Summer of Healthy Eating, or a Pack-on-the-Pounds Estivale Extravaganza?
I chose....THE APPLE!!!!!
Did it make a damn bit of difference in the end? For my end?
Anyway, we finished up breakfast and with great difficulty managed to find the 12 year old child that was supposed to drive us over to the car rental lot. ( I know I’m exaggerating. Everybody looks so young to me now. He was probably really 14.)
The rental lot was a zoo when we got there. I finally found someone to start helping us out, but he kept referring to us as “The Americans” in a very loud voice. “Hey, Fabrice! You got the car for The AMERICANS yet?” and “Is that paperwork for The AMERICANS done yet?”
I wasn’t sure if he meant it in a good way, like: “Look at me helping the exotic foreigners!” or in a less good way, as in: “Look over here at the imperialist scum that ride rough-shod over the rest of the world!” He was hard to read.
I couldn’t figure out a subtle way to inform the staring crowd that our family is actually FRENCH, not just American. I just quietly told the kids to stand straight and try to look angelic. “You’re representing all of the USA” I whispered inspiringly. “ If you behave like deranged lunatics, as you so often do, they’ll think that all Americans are deranged lunatics”.
That was good for about two hours of exemplary behaviour, long enough to get two cars rented and packed.
Then, there I was- ready to hit the open road. The car was loaded, Valentine riding shotgun. JP was ahead of me in a grey Kangoo (a kind of über-nerdy French mini-van) with the three other kids. Yeah, all ready to go. Ready to drive out of Paris and race five hours down a superhighway to my mother-in-law’s house near the Luxembourg border. Have I mentioned that I only learned to drive a manual transmission about one year ago and I had NEVER driven on the highway with one? I’d never even been into 5th gear!! I’d only driven around Ouagadougou, which is a big town, but it ain’t Paris. I was a wee bit stressed, as you may conjecture.
Valentine saved me. She has a soothing presence and she gamely stayed awake, chatting and keeping good music going in the Clio's cd player.
By the time we pulled up in front of my MIL’s house, I was feeling very confident, which was good, as we did a lot of highway driving during the holiday. The house we rented was a half-hour drive away from my MIL’s place and that had to be driven round trip at least once a day. So, I got lots of driving practice. But driving in France has nothing in common with driving in Ouaga. It’s crazy here. You share the road with hoards of scooters and bicycles, as well as donkey carts, hand carts, camels, and horses. It’s interesting to watch this melange of traffic, but it’s not fun to drive in.
Coming soon: Part 2