Tuesday, June 27, 2006

SONABEL. The hours you spend in line there waiting to pay your electric bill leave you plenty of time to dream up creative new meanings for the acronym. Officially, it stands for: Societè Nationale Burkinabé de l’Electricité. I prefer “Superfluous Narcissists Buttressing Eccentricity”, or, more to the point, “Sorry Natives Bungling Electricity.
The headquarters of the national electric company is in a large office downtown, completely without any sign to indicate what it is. You walk through the big metal doors straight into chaos. The dilapidated waiting room is much too small for the seventy or so poor souls milling around inside. A pair of tragically tiny air conditioners puff out bursts of tepid air, adding to the general discomfort of the “clients” who, to judge by the suffering on their faces, have all been waiting there since the Early Paleolithic. They make pathetic rattling noises, like toasters about to die a painful appliance death. The AC units, not the people.
The “décor” contributes equally to the general air of hopelessness. Where the khaki paint on the walls isn’t peeling off, it is filthy. For the seating comfort of all 70 people there are exactly two unsteady benches covered in cracked black vinyl. Ragged, yellowed posters are taped up on the windows, exhorting us all to buy the new Cashpower 2000. They don’t give a clue as to what a Cashpower 2000 is. But it clearly must be a huge advance over the old Cashpower 1999, so sign me up!.
There are also posters telling us not to pirate electricity from out neighbors. I hope all the criminals in there read that and have changed their wicked ways! ( Just a few thoughts here: A. If you are stealing electricity, you are poor. Poor people here cannot read. And B. If you are STEALING electricity, why the heck would you be hanging around the BILLING office at the Sonabel? You’d be at home watching a World Cup soccer match on your stolen TV).
The electrical installations in the waiting room are truly remarkable, even for Burkina. Exposed wiring hangs down everywhere. And it is obviously not a work in progress. I’m talking dust-covered exposed wiring hanging down like evil Christmas garlands.
I had plenty of time to take this all in, as I was far to the back of the “line” for the window marked “Resiliation”. I put the word “line” in quotes, as it has a different meaning here in Africa. In Burkina, the term refers to a huge mass of people who seem to all want to do the same thing, preferably at exactly the same time. Despite the apparently chaotic nature of the “line”, everyone involved is actually acutely aware of what order they arrived in and whose turn it is next.
I was there to pay a bill, of course, but I also vaguely entertained the thought of asking them NOT TO SET MY HOME ON FIRE. Just a thought. You see, the Sonabel typically provides either NO electricity (in the form of frequent, long blackouts during the day) or scarily uneven electricity that sends huge lightening-like surges through your home. Light bulbs explode and appliances fry. Surge protectors are a must. Ours worked fine during the last major surges we had. It caught on fire, but it did manage to protect the TV, VCR and DVD player. And it’s not cheap at all.
“The food is bad and the portions are so small”, as the old punch-line goes. I guess I’d have to say that the same holds true for Burkinabé electricity.
Late-breaking news: I just checked my email and there was a message from my internet provider here. The internet problems experienced by clients yesterday was caused by a fire started by an ELECTRICAL SURGE!!!!

Monday, June 19, 2006

Because of the nature of my blog entries, most readers probably have the idea that I spend my days making pink birthday cakes, singing and fussing over my cat. This is far from true. I also go to mask festivals and lock myself into hotel rooms. But when I am not busy with these activities, I have plenty of other things to fill my time.
Most mornings I go to the Papiers du Sahel workshop. And I spend many afternoons doing work for the project at home- answering e-mails, printing out labels, making phone calls, taking pictures of products, and lots of other things.
It’s a particularly busy time right now, as the rent on our workspace as gone up by 100%! We need to move- preferably to a better location. I am currently trying to get a grant to buy land and at the same time trying to get a place in the national craft center here (the Village Artisanale). We’ll just see what works out best.
The women at the project are very busy, too. They are currently making 6000 gift envelopes and 500 Christmas tree ornaments for a client in France.
I also work with a small group of women that make soap. A friend in Switzerland did fund-raising and got me some money to start up a project making liquid soap and bars of shea butter soap. It has been running for two years now. The women of “Savons du Sahel” are very busy right now as well, making 400 bars of soap for a client in Niger that has a small gift shop.
If you are curious, do follow the link for Papiers at right. It is in English and we are going to be updating it this September. It gives a little history of the paper group, a short biography of each woman and some photos of some of the things we make.
There are also Papiers pictures in the Photo Album. At the top of this post you can see a photo of Alizeta making Christmas tree ornaments.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

You are just lucky that I forgot my camera on Tuesday morning. That’s the morning that I spent in a hotel room watching our cat get spayed. I did, however, remember the camera later that day, for Valentine’s birthday party. So, instead of getting treated to a picture of a cat’s uterus, you get a nice picture of a birthday cake. I do spoil you all so!
But first, the fire. Some of you have expressed concern and want details, details, details! The thing is, it was a very tiny fire, hardly worthy of the name. There we were, watching “Fawlty Towers” when there was a rather loud bang and flames shot out of the top of the extension cord. They flared up about 8 inches or so.
“Back off everybody!” I said forcefully, while thinking to myself: “Oh hell! I forgot to buy a fire extinguisher.”
The kids, of course, rushed right over like it was a campfire and they had some important business with some marshmallows. Fortunately, the flames died down on their own and nothing flammable was nearby. I threw out the charred cord and got the surge protector tested. It had done the job and protected the TV and dvd player, at least. I also had an instructive talk with the kids about what we do when Mom says things like: “Fire! Run away!” or “Axe Murderer! Hide!”
Speaking of blade-wielding persons, that brings me to the vet. Dr. Julie. She was very kind, clever and helpful, though. Not at all like an axe murderer, except for the sharp-implements.
She had come up from Accra, Ghana just for a few days, at the request of some expats in Ouaga. Many of us are fond pet-owners, but the veterinary care here leaves to desired. They are good with chickens and sheep, but they just don’t get many demands to spay a cat or cure an ailing dog. Farm animals are important to the Burkinabé, but they don’t “do” pets. Dogs and cats are for keeping vermin down, and are not treasured family members.
So, Dr. Julie was recruited from her practice in Ghana to come up for a few days and work for us. At the head of the effort to bring her was Paulina, the owner of a small, charming hotel here, the Hotel Ricardo. So, Dr Julie was installed at the Ricardo and went to work. I showed up on Sunday for my cat’s appointment. With Cleo draped on my shoulder, I asked the receptionist where the vet was. I was led upstairs. To a hotel room. I though maybe they had found a space for her in some outbulding. But no-open the door and there was an attractively decorated room with a double bed, a TV, a small operating table and about 7 people, most of them clutching an animal. This was the operating room.
Dr. Julie picked up Cleo, who purred. It was determined that Cleo’s operation would have to wait, as the kittens had not been weaned long enough and there was still too much tissue in the way. When I brought Cleo back a few days later, she was the only patient. There was lots more room and Dr. Julie said I was welcome to watch the procedure. If I felt faint at the “oozy” bits, I could just have a seat on the bed. Cleo got her anaesthesia and Dr. Julie went to work. It was extremely interesting and I didn’t feel the tiniest bit queasy. Maybe I missed a great career as a surgeon! The mammary tissue looked a lot like raw chicken breast as she cut through it, except it oozed milk. Very wierd. The internal organs seemed strangely mobile. I had no idea you could squish around like that inside a living being, shoving bits out of the way and dragging others right out of the body. The problem is, apparently, that they dry out, so it’s best to leave them inside, or at least covered. A good policy in general, in my opinion.
Finally, she got the uterus pulled out. It was really quite small, a Y-shaped scrap of fiber. She carefully clamped, sewed and then clipped. The little scrap of a uterus was laid in a Tupperware lid and the hard part was done. Dr. Julie neatly sewed Cleo up and that was it.
I bet you are all very sorry that I forgot my camera.
Valentine also had her 13th birthday party that day at the Rec Center. It wasn’t exactly less interesting than seeing a cat get spayed, but it was less remarkable. They swam, ate cake and had fun. Click on the right to see more pictures at Photobucket !

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Part III: At Last, the Long-awaited Final Installment of AHOTFL:AIKAFI

It’s taken me a while to get to this for various reasons. For example, I have been to two parties this week and one concert. I have made a birthday cake in the form of a pink fairy-tale castle. I have searched five different marketplaces for a polka-dotted shirt for JP - only 800cfa!
Also, there was the fire.
So, I have been distracted.

VIII. Culture Shock vs Fatal Culture Electrocution
I wasn’t too worried about moving to Burkina. I spoke the language. Right. As we got off the plane, the air hit me like a hot, damp towel. We lined up with all the other moist, miserable people waiting to get into the terminal building. I was holding Alexa- still asleep, but already showing signs of the heat rash that would plague her for the first years here. JP was holding Mallory and trying to convince three year old Severin not to lay down in the red dirt for a rest. JP and I were both also juggling enormous carry-ons full of baby-gear and feeling destroyed after the all-night flight with four small children in tow. It was 4am. In the terminal, all the voices seemed blurred into an incomprehensible mass. As soon as I reached the customs desk, I realized that it was not an illusion- I really couldn’t understand but a fraction of what was said to me! Oh no! Maybe the oxygen supply on the plane had been compromised and I had brain damage. But no, it was just that my hard-won French was virtually useless. I had to start learning to speak “Burkinabé”. It’s not just an accent, but also a whole host of words and expressions. Add to that a whole new culture and the possibilities for confusion are endless.

IX. A Few Examples
It took a few weeks to sort out the accent, but much longer to catch on to the vocabulary.
A “maquis” in French is the wilderness areas in the south of France where the Resistance hid . But in Burkina, people go to the maquis every weekend. It means a small bar where you can knock back a few “Flagettes” (small local beers).

People often “chosiner” here. It is a verb verb: “to thingy”.
“I’m going to go thingy. Is that ok?” Sure, what ever. You go and “thing” all you like. It is a funny, all purpose verb that means “to do something”.

When someone told me: "Ma moteur est gaté”, I thought, hmmm…his motor is spoiled. “Gaté” is the word the French used for turned milk and badly-behaved children. Spoiled… Did he leave his motor in the sun too long? Did he give it candy whenever it cried?
No--his motorbike was broken.

And watch out if someone says “ça va un peu”. (It goes a little) Actually it means that it everything is going very badly indeed.

X. Bat Salad
We moved into a house in a relatively shady, calm neighborhood It came equipped with a locally made swing-set, a small swimming pool and one cheerful, elderly guardian called Salif. Salif had worked as a guardian at the house for many years, but somehow never picked up much French. And I was struggling so hard with the Burkinabé French, that I was not learning Mooré at all. But Salif was very friendly, always doing his best to communicate with me and showing me interesting things. One day, it was a bat. A dead bat he had found in the garden.
“It is a bald-mouse?” I ventured. “Bat” is “chauve souris” in French. I knew what I was saying, but nobody seemed to understand my American-accented French very well, so I was taking it slow.
“Yes, it is bat” responded Salif. “It is good. I like it !”
He waited, looking at me expectantly.
“Good?” Well, ok. “Yes. They eat insects, don’t they?” I said, trying to keep up my end of this somewhat mystifying conversation.
He gave me a quizzical look. And launched into a positive torrent of French. “I can have bat? I like bat. All Burkina eat bat. Many bats in salad. Very good. I can have?
My mind raced. He eats bats? Bats in a SALAD?? With Ranch dressing, or just a light vinaigrette? Or is it bat salad sandwiches? No. No. No. I must have misunderstood.
“Salfo, I’m sorry. I don’t understand. You like to eat bats? Bats in salad?”
He started to laugh uproariously.
Oh good, so they don’t eat bats.
He stopped laughing long enough to say “ No! No! Bat not good in salad!!! Soup! Soup! Bat soup very good!. I can have?”
I hastened to assure him that I am not that greedy kind of person that selfishly claims every bat that falls in her yard. No, I selflessly give away every dead bat on my property. That’s just the kind of generous, saint-like person that I am.

XI. The Long Hello
The most important thing is to greet people correctly. The workhorse of this exchange is "Ca va" (It goes) You just change the inflection and you have both the question and the answer: "It goes?" "It goes."
But it doesn't stop there. Oh no. Once you have established that it is going for you personally, THEN you figure out how it goes for the spouse and offspring. The extended family. The folks back in the village. At work. No aspect of life escapes.
and don't be impatient. You have to keep going at this until the ça va's naturally die down and everyone agrees implicitly that you can get down to business. But don't get impatient and try any short-cuts.
And also, as I indicated above , if "ça va un peu" ( It goes a little), someting mega-bad is going on. I didn't catch that nuance at first. I thought that when things were going a little, that was pretty much business as usual. But it really means that little Abibou has brain cancer and their donkey has been hit by a car and you are missing MAJOR social cues if you don't ask why "ça va un peu".

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

My account of my problems with the lovely, yet still somehow vicious French language take a backseat today to other matters. We had a very busy weekend and I have gotten a number of emails (Well, three. But that seems like a lot to me.) asking what we were up to the last few days.
Saturday morning was spent sweltering in the outdoor theater at the French Cultural Center. The children at the French school put on a show there every year, show-casing all the activities of the “parascolaire”groups. There is ballet, hip-hop, theater, more hip hop, modern dance, still more hip hop, etc. Obviously, some of the groups don’t perform at the show. The pottery group, for example, contents itself with a displaying a few lopsided elephants over at the school.
The rehearsal in the morning was very long- from about 8am to 1pm.
Then we rushed home for lunch and I hurried over to Papiers du Sahel to pick up items for the big sale that afternoon. By 3:30, we were at the Etrier riding club, installing our display table. The project women sold paper during the annual equestrian show that is held there.
The children and I had to leave before the end, of course, as we had to get our performers dressed. Severin had to be dressed up as a lion for his theater piece and Valentine wore black for her hip hop dance number.
Severin's few lines of dialogue were a real highlight: "Who dares disturb my repose? The Sacred Bird has been disturbed and you shall pay dearly!" How cool is that?
Due to all the crazy lighting effects, I didn’t get one decent picture from the show. All I have is a single picture of Mallory that I took right afterwards. (Is she lovely, or what?)
The next morning we went to a good-bye brunch for some departing American friends, followed immediately by a First Communion party for the children of a Burkinabé pal.
The two parties were very different. A few points of comparison-
USA brunch:
1. Very casual dress
2. Limited guest list
3. Asked to bring a dish to share
4. Swimming for the kids
5. Only Burkinabé present were household staff serving at the party
6. No music

Burkinabé Party:
1. Dress in your best to show respect.
2. The whole neighborhood is invited! A party is for everybody!
3. No Burkinabé would EVER ask you to bring food to a party! It’s
unthinkable. The whole point of a party is that the hosts feed the guests. Distant relatives show up from the village, all looking forward to party food!
4. Parties are for adults, not kids. How kids keep amused is not the domain of grown-ups. How refreshing!
5. Plenty of Burkinabé, of course. We were the only white people in sight.
6. Extremely loud music played over the sound system rented for the event. It has to be VERY loud, otherwise you are not having fun!

Thursday, June 01, 2006

"A History of the French Language, As I Know And Fear It: Part Two" by Beth

IV. Yet Further Humiliation
The language course ended. We got the great idea that I could now attend the University of Geneva as a grad student in archaeology.
How’s that for delusional?
I won’t go into details, but the initial learning curve on that one was steep. Pretty much vertical. It was only at about the end of November that I started to really understand what was going on in my classes. One of the many things I discovered at this point was that a major research paper had been assigned to each of us at the start of the semester. It was due by spring break. So that’s why everybody around here looks so darn busy al the time! Imagine that.
It was rather a shock, but at least I had finally reached a breakthrough. I could sit in a graduate-level class and understand what was going on!

That’s not to say there still weren’t problems with the basics. There was all that vocabulary to learn. As Steve Martin once said (in outraged tones): “French. It has a different word for EVERYTHING!!!”
On a wide Geneva boulevard lined with linden trees, I was strolling with my non-short, non-snobby, non-weird French fiancé. It was a lovely day. Jean-Pierre was telling me about an acquaintance that had just thrown himself off a building to commit suicide, but had failed and was now a paraplegic. Just the topic for a romantic walk. He spoke in his native language, of course, as part of the effort to improve my command of my decidedly unruly French.
After hearing the story, I bravely prepared a response to keep the conversational ball rolling.
I said "Tant pis"
Jean-Pierre looked over at me with a startled, yet somehow calculating look on his face. I now believe that he was mentally estimating the price of a plane ticket back to the US for me and the probability of getting the engagement ring back.
With amazing fortitude, he rallied.
Patiently, in English, he asked “Beth, what do you think that means?”
“Well-it means what a shame, right? That’s such a sad story. His whole life is ruined because of depression. You know, often it’s a brain chemistry thing. They have drugs for that.... ”
Well, no, actually. "Tant pis" means "Too bad", but not in a nice way. The nuances of meaning include, but are not limited to: tough luck, too bad for him. It’s his own fault, the idiot. Some people. Geez. Get a life.
Trust me, it was NOT an appropriate response.

V. Obscene Vermin, That’s Me!
I learned more French over time and still somehow made mistakes.
Once we were at a posh shop looking at furnishings. Part of it was under construction and it was hard to get at some of the pieces, because of piles of wood and metal beams. The saleswoman was very chic, as all French women are required by law to be. When we’d arrived, she’d given us the standard look that all French salespersons give you: the look that says “Oh look. Cockroaches. But perhaps they are cockroaches with money. Perhaps I will speak to them. Eventually.”
She finally decided to come over and see exactly what species we were.
“May I help you?”
I jumped right in, a tragic act of linguistic hubris on my part. “Yes, thank you. We wanted to look at those tiles over there, but there is rather a mess and we can’t get to them.” The word I used for mess was “bordel”
I smiled.
The saleslady did not smile. In fact, I got the cockroach look again.
Jean-Pierre just looked slightly pained.
She said she’d go check on getting the tile samples and left. I think she was really going for her can of Raid.
"OK. What did I say this time?"
The problem was that "bordel" I threw in there like I knew what I was doing. Actually, it turns out that it is the origin of the word "bordello" in English and means exactly the same thing. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that it is a word that is only used in very casual conversation with friends or by very vulgar, clueless people in other situations.
My dictionary defines the phrase as : "What a goddamned shambles”
As I don’t curse when I speak English (unless my car won’t start), I certainly had no desire to prance around France sounding like I needed my mouth washed out with "savon"!

VII. Mary Poppins Goes Postal
A while after that, I was driving up to the village with a car-full of French pre-schoolers. I was taking Valentine and a few of her sweet little friends to a party! How delightful! They were all very excited and bouncing around as much as their car-seats would permit. I asked them to please settle down. For all the good that did. Next, two of them managed to stretch their seat belts and lean far forward off their booster seats. Their little faces peeked over my armrest.
I was a bit angry, as it was so unsafe and my voice was a bit severe as I said “Sit back right now or you’ll get hurt!”
For get hurt, I used the phrase “Casser la gueule”. Technically, word for word, it means break your face. But all I vaguely remembered was that it meant getting hurt.
Their eyes grew wide. Total silence in the car. The culprits slowly back away.
Then Mattieu, the oldest of the bunch spoke up. “ You said a BAD word! I can’t believe you said that BAD word! I’m going to tell my mommy about that BAD word!”
You guessed it. The dictionary says that the phrase means: To get your face smashed in or to knock somebody’s block off.” It’s not very nice.
My bad, in all senses of the phrase. Imagine it- Beth driving down the lane, shouting vulgarities at tiny children. It’s really not me. If I didn’t start to watch out, French was going to give me a scary new personality, whether I liked it or not.

In Part Three, we’ll head to Africa, where I’ll get even MORE confused. Bet you can’t wait!