Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The kids are on holiday for two weeks. So, while I have no shortage of things to blog about, time is the problem. I have been keeping busy.
One project has been to teach my girls the basics of sewing. I got out the old machine my mother in law gave me years back and we went at it, producing a couple of dresses for the twins' favorite toys:

Those were just made from scraps, but I have been spending lots of time in fabric shops, getting material for various projects.
Here's the costume I designed for the twin's dance recital coming up next month. I didn't sew it myself, as there are great local tailors that can do it lots faster than I can. They will be made in five different colors and worn at the big show at the CCF

And here's another design. Valentine wanted a Renaissance Fair costume. (Yes, they are catching on in France!) We had a tailor sew most of the costume, but I did some modifications at home.

Best of all, thanks to support from my friends and family back in the USA, I have been able to help my handicapped friend Yvonne improve her simple home. The mud brick walls were caving in, making it dangerous for her and her children. Now they have a cement brick wall!
And the new gate is wider, making it much easier for her to get her wheelchair through. Here's the before and after:

Monday, April 28, 2008

In the previous session, we went over the general history of the pagne and how to wear it. Now I’d like to go into more detail on its many other uses.

1 Baby carrier- The normal position for a baby is tied firmly to her mother’s back with a pagne. Even a newborn is easily carried this way- or at least, the ladies here make it look easy. It takes years of practise to do it really well and girls here start practising early on. You often see toddlers walking around with a corn cob or stick tied onto their back as a makeshift doll. They grow up to be quite skilful, able to do all kinds of tasks with a baby on board.

The child is balanced on the mom’s back and then the pagne is tied or tucked in at the top and bottom corners . From the front, all you see is the pagne covering the mom’s front and a little foot sticking out over each of her hips.

I can attest that it’s quite comfortable for the mom and the children get used to it pretty quickly.

Babies get their arms tucked inside the cloth, so it works like swaddling and , indeed, they do seem to find it soothing. Toddlers get tied on with their arms out. Watch out for hair-pulling, is my advice on that.

2. Gift- The pagne is a great, much appreciated gift in any social setting! If you are invited to a local wedding, you can’t go wrong bringing a set of three pagnes. Ot two or three sets, according to your budget. And as pagnes vary in price from two dollars each to more than 14 dollars each, there really is a lot of choice. Hint: Super Wax Hollandais is THE big name in pagne-dom and expect to pay big bucks. 50 dollars for three pagnes is a common starting point for haggling. If you get down to about 38, you've done well

3. Sunshade- The infrastructure, such as there is, is not really set up for anyone’s comfort. Yes, there are nice, cheap public buses, but the bus stops are often just a metal sign out in the middle of a dusty plain. Not a bench or a stick of shade in sight. In this situation, and the many others that resemble it, a bit of portable shape is very useful.

4. Sand storm protection- The winds of February bring the Harmattan- a strong gale that carries a huge load of Saharan sand. Visibility goes down to nearly zero. Everybody heads for cover. If you are out when it hits, it’s nice to have something to wrap around your head to keep the worst of the dust out.

5. Seating adjustment- wooden benches are always locally made and often boast problematic nails and splinters. And even when they are not frankly dangerous, they are often dirty. And even the clean ones can be uncomfortable, especially if you are a nassara (foreigner) with a bony behind. Having a nice, thick, folded square of cloth to sit on can be a great help- especially if you are invited to a formal event ( wedding, mask festival, etc) where you may be expected to sit for long periods of time.

These are the main uses that a typical expat will find for their pagne. Of course, they are also good for padding the top of your head when you carry a heavy object- but that’s really not to be attempted by the novice.

The final and most sophisticated use of a pagne:

6. Communication!!

Yes, the pattern you wear can send a message! Many pagnes are designed every year. Some of them die out, but some of the patterns become very popular. They even get a name. It might be a simple descriptive word like Ventilateur (for a pagne depicting fans) , L'ordinateur (computer) ot telephone-portables (cell phones!).
Others are much more abstract and complicated. They are phrases like: Si tu sors, je sors. (If you go out, I'm going out), Ton pied ,mon pied. (your foot, my foot) Mon mari est capable (My husband is capable). Maîtresse, laisse-moi mon mari.(Mistress, leave my husband alone) Six bougies (six candles), Gombo-noir (Black Gumbo), Tais-toi-jaloux (Shut up, jealous one!) Dévaluation, Stop-SIDA (Stop HIV/AIDS), Je-cours-plus-vite-que-ma-rivale (I run faster than my rival)..... These are instantly recognisable classics that send a message. If you wear "Mon mari est capable", it is a compliment to your husband's abilities as a provider. But 'Ton Pied, Mon Pied" is a warning to a spouse that if he keeps being unfaithful, his wife will "follow in his footsteps" and cheat, too. So, by choosing one of these patterns to wear, a woman "talks" to her husband, co-wives, her husband's mistresses and her neighbors.

This one is called "The eye of my co-wife" It's all very fascinating and probably seems a bit tricky to navigate. But don't worry that you'll get into trouble for wearing the "wrong" pagne. Just ask if the pagne has a name when you buy it. Most of them don't, especially the less expensive ones.

And that's pretty much what I know about pagnes. Sorry I didn't post it yesterday. I was busy with several projects, which will be the subject of tomorrow's post.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pagnes 101

“Pagne” is a French word that is used in West Africa to refer to a rectangle of cotton cloth measuring approximately 45 inches wide and 67 inches long (about 1 metre by 2 metres). Here in Burkina, they exist in two main forms: a heavy fabric handwoven on a narrow loom and colored with indigo dyes or a manufactured wax print. The second variety is far more popular despite the fact that it is a relatively recent tradition.

About 150 years ago, Dutch traders were looking to do business with the people of the Gold Coast (now called Ghana) for reasons apparent in the name. At first, they tried trading cheap printed fabrics from Indonesia, but these were rejected by the Africans as too flimsy and unattractive. So, the Dutch developed a cloth adapted specifically to the tastes of West African market - the Wax Pagne was born! It was a heavier grade of cotton and printed with bold, colourful designs. It caught on and quickly became a traditional favourite throughout the sub-continent.

Today, the so-called “Holland Wax” and its imitations are made throughout West Africa. Senegal is a major supplier, but even here in Burkina there is Fasotex making local patterns. They used to be known as Faso Fani, but were notorious for the low quality their fabrics. And African women are VERY picky about the quality of their pagnes and accept nothing shoddy! So, the factory was sold and re-fitted and the new fabrics seem to be acceptable to the local ladies

The patterns of pagnes are amazing. There are geometrics, florals and even designs based on household objects like brooms , fans, and cell phones! There are political pagnes printed with the face and name of local candidates and special event pagnes printed up with the logo and date of conferences and festivals. Even better, you can easily have pagnes custom-printed! Wealthier people often do this for a funeral, having pagnes printed with the photo and name of the deceased. Everyone going to the funeral will purchase (if they can possibly afford it) some of the fabric and have funeral garb made from it!

Above is a special pagne that was printed for a school.

If they can’t afford to have a special motif printed for their event, the folks here love to choose a pagne pattern for their wedding or special event and then have everyone attending buy some of the fabric, so that everyone can have matching outfits. This is considered very, very cool.

But the pagne isn’t just for special events. It’s the workhorse of West Africa!

First of all, it is a basic wrap skirt. Every woman, rich or poor, owns at least one simple rectangle of this cloth. Most own two. You need one to form the basic skirt . The second is used as a baby carrier, sunshade, dust protection, cushion when you carry stuff on top of your head, and when not in use, it serves as a second modest covering over your hip to knee area.

The wealthier woman buys three pagnes (measures) of the same cloth at a time. Then she will have a tailor sew her a “complet”. This means a long skirt, often lined, with a matching top. One pagne is left as rectangle and hemmed at the edges. This “extra” pagne serves as an additional layer OVER the stomach to thigh area of the outfit. This is often called a “petite pagne” and is vital for ladies in a position of respect. A teacher, for example, would definitely wear an extra layer over her tailored skirt or pagne. (NB: As I’ve said several times in this blog, it’s important to keep the hip to knee area well-covered. It’s vital for women, but it also goes for men. Please, please, please don’t come to this country and wander around the streets in your shorts or short skirts. It is SO disrespectful and the Burkinabé are so kind. Please don’t.)

The West African complet can be a hard outfit for the non-African to pull off. It can feel hot and confining, as it is usually lined and often tightly cut to show off womanly curves. There are looser styles, but they often look and feel like pajamas or maternity wear, IMO. I think the easiest and most fun way to wear a pagne is the most common way- as a wrap skirt. Once you get the hang of it, it’s very simple and comfortable. Plus it will get you lots of compliments and make it easy to stike up conversations with people other than street vendors trying to sell you tourist junk.

How does it work? It’s best if you ask a Burkinabé lady to help you. You’ll giggle a lot and have a good time as she gives you pointers on how to make it come out even and not fall off of you in public.

But here are some vital basic hints:

  1. Hold one of the short ends to the RIGHT side of your body, haul the fabric around your back and overlap it over the front. The loose front end will be on your LEFT hip. Do NOT do this the opposite way, or people will mock you. Nicely. But still.
  2. The top of the pagne is then rolled down. Very thin people can tie the two top corners together. But most women just tuck it under. If you watch women here, you will see that readjusting the pagne is a common, frequent gesture. They are re-tucking and tightening. This is normal- fussing with your pagne is not a sign the you're doing it wrong.

  1. Get the two raw ends of the pagne sewn so they don’t unravel over time. It will cost maybe 25 cents to have this done by a tailor, depending on where you live. The long edges of the fabric are already finished and should NOT be hemmed. There is usually writing on these edges denoting the manufacturer. This is considered good and should not be hidden.

  1. I recommend that novices, those easily scared and the accident prone get two long strings sewn onto the to the top two corners of the pagne. You wrap, tie and then fold the top over to hide the strings. This is a very secure system and you can’t go wrong.

  1. If you are going to be riding a bike or motor scooter while wearing this, you will need TWO pagnes (or a pair of bike shorts or a slip underneath) To prevent your top flap from flying open too far, you’ll want to wrap a second pagne around your tummy to thigh area. You just fold the second pagne in half, so it’s only knee length and you wrap it like the basic pagne. Women that can't afford a second pagne, or are using it to hold a baby ride their bikes with one hand. The other hand clutches the front of the skirt closed. They are good at it. (NB: Frankly, for bike riding, I go with capri pants and a tunic that hits me mid-thigh. It's modest and so much easier. But if you will be teaching out in a village, for example, this might not be the best solution for you. It would probably be better to wear a pagne and develop your skills...........There's lots more to say...... So, tomorrow our course in Basic Pagneology will continue!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Have you smacked a mosquito today?

It’s World Malaria Day and as we STILL don’t have a vaccine, I guess us non-scientists can contribute to the fight by whacking a few of the disgusting little wretches.

Don’t get me wrong- I am really glad that this deadly parasitic disease is getting more attention. Half a billion people catch it every year. It kills a child (most likely an African child) every 30 seconds. Considering the fact that there’s a whole week devoted to Homeopathy Awareness (?), I guess we can give malaria at least one day. It has put me in the hospital three times and I am a relatively wealthy, lucky and educated person. Here in Burkina, it’s responsible for thousands of deaths every year and many lost days of work and school for those that survive it.

We are being told that a malaria vaccine will probably be ready by 2010. The good scientists at the Malaria Vaccine Initiative seem to be working hard on it. But they don’t have the kind of resources that, for example, Pfizer poured into making those little blue Viagra pills that have been on the market for 10 years now and that last year alone made them 1.7 billion dollars.
And given the way the world works, I think everybody knows that saving the lives of millions third-world people will never garner the same huge cash profits as perking up the wilting manly-bits of the wealthy.

Don't call me bitter- just call me frustrated. Malaria deaths are preventable tragedies.
And until we can make sure that fewer children die, efforts here at family planning and improving quality of life are severely hampered. It's hard to tell a couple out in an isolated village, far from decent medical care, that they should limit their family size. These people know from hard experience that deadly diseases strike hardest at small children.
With an effective and safe malaria vaccine available to everyone on the world, that would mean one less killer on the loose. And that's one less element contributing to poverty and hopelessness.

Coming up this weekend on this very blog : The Pagne Primer: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About West-African Wrap-skirts, But Were Afraid to Ask.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

This has been a good day! Got lots done- the moving contract is signed, invitations are going out, I'm selling my furniture, and my efforts at costume design have the twins' dance teacher in raptures. Of course, the day would have been even nicer if the electricity hadn't cut out for the whole afternoon. ..

And now it's the evening and about time for choir rehearsal. My house at 7:30 every Thurday night until 9pm, we sing!!
I am off to eat a quick dinner before everyone arrives.

As I'm short on time, I'll just post the next few items of the "What to bring/not bring when you move to Ouaga" list:

1. Batteries : Yes
Batteries are elusive and expensive. Your friendly neighbourhood kiosk will probably have some dubious C cells in stock that cost far more than some nice, non-corroded Energisers back in North America or Europe. So, battery hunting almost always involves a trip into the center of town. With lots of hunting, you will probably find what you need, but incredibly high prices. I just had to get a battery for my daughter’s little plastic Timex watch. The battery for it cost about 15 dollars- which is about what the whole watch cost back in the USA.
For your cameras, watches, etc, bring batteries. It’s just easier.

2. Shortwave Radio: No
Unless you are some kind of mad ham radio hobbyist, it will serve no purpose. While Ouaga lacks the polish (and regular electricity) of many of the world’s cities, it’s not the wild frontier. We listen to FM radio and communicate with cell phones, like normal people.

3. Cell Phone : yes and no
Over the nine years we have been here, I have seen cell phones proliferate like bunnies. I’m talking really bored Catholic bunnies. Suddenly, they are everywhere. And cheap! At the one of the big service providers, you can get a little phone and everything you need for it for about 30 dollars US. And this is probably a far better option than bringing your cell phone from North America to use here. Remember- over here the current is 220 and not 110. If you bring over a 110v phone from elsewhere, you won’t be able to recharge anywhere but at home, where you have your step-down transformer (you brought that, right?). You won’t be able to plug it in when staying with friends, staying at hotels or when at work…. just seems a bit silly.
Of course, coming from Europe, it’s a different story. There’s no difference in current to worry about. You probably should bring a phone from Europe. Just don’t bring anything too nice- that you can’t bear to lose. Cell phone theft is rampant here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Having only one estimate for the Big Move seemed unwise. Ouagadougou to the French Alps is a looong way and lot of money. So, on the recommendation of friends over at the French Embassy ( Yeah, I move in exalted circles. Peel me a grape and pass the escargot.) , I had another company come over yesterday and look at my jam-packed House o'Stuff.
Company Number Two today produced an estimate proposing the EXACT same size of container as Company Number One, but costing over $1000 more. But they probably charge more because they have superhuman powers over matter at the quantum level that allow them to fit far more into their containers than any other company. Cool, huh? At least, that's all I can figure out, because they SWEAR that the armoire, buffet, dresser, bookshelves, etc, will all fit in a 20 foot container. This is in direct contrast to Company Number One who seemed to think that a 20 footer would nearly be filled by just my books and the twins' extensive Barbie collection .

Besides the above concerns, there is also the twins' First Holy Communion party to plan.
The invitations are going out this week. They are made with Papiers du Sahel recycled paper and feature this very adorable picture that I took this morning:

Monday, April 21, 2008

Do you have friends that end up in strange places? That send you e-mails from locations that make you scramble for the nearest world atlas, feeling like a grade-A ignoramus?

Yeah-me, too. For me, it's my friend MLW that tends to make me Wiki for my life in an effort (probably a completely useless one. Who am I trying to kid?) not to seem like an idiot.
She's in Aceh right now.


Not that I'm saying that I think you need this link. You probably all know the population of and major exports of this special territory at the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. You are probably capable of pronouncing and even spelling its full name correctly with no outside prompting. ( BTW: it's Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam)

Anyway, there's our dear friend wandering around in the Sumatran jungle and pretty much all I know about the place is what I've read in a Sherlock Holmes mystery: "It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared"
Quite ominous, you have to admit.
I worry for her, but from the two emails I have received, it is clear that she hasn't run into any fearsomely huge rats and that most of the problems that she does face can be dealt with using a large square of African cloth.

MLW, as a seasoned adventurer, has visited me twice here in Burkina and she quickly adapted to Burkina-style dress. But even after she left, she found that the cloth used for local wrap skirts are very, very versatile. Indeed, if the author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy had known about pagnes, we never would have heard so much about towels. Imagine Ford Prefect announcing: "If you want to survive out here, you have to know where your pagne is!"

Here's what MLW has to say about the superiority of the pagne:

"Ode to a Pagne from Aceh."
After a week in Aceh, the blue and orange pagne (with the sort of atomic design) I bought in Ouaga has had more lives than 1000 cats. Some of its incarnations:

-- Lying under the thin blanket in a chilly bungalow near the Alas River, in the heart of the Acehnese rain forest, the pagne adds the perfect layer of warmth for the night.

-- Bumping on a minibus over the horrid Sumatran roads, the pagne is a needed cushion for the bum.

-- Philosophical question: if a tree falls in the forest, blocking the only road across the province,
taking down a live power line with it, how long does Mary Lynne sit on her pagne on the roadside waiting for the chain saw to arrive to cut the tree?
Answer: long enough to watch yet another, bigger tree fall and
block the road as well.

--The skies open as we stand on the side of the road at the hamlet of Ise Ise, and the pagne becomes a raincoat.

-- For the first time, the bendy bendy roads become too much, even with a double dose of motion sick pills. After throwing up out the window, a corner of the pagne cleans my face.

-- After a slippery, muddy trek through dense jungle of the Gunung Leuser wilderness area, we emerge to find two hilltop Gayo farmers, who of course provide us with rice from their hut (starved as I am, I just have a polite bite). The sun grows strong as the men sit and
smoke--Indonesian men giving Burkinabe men a run for their money in the sitting around department--and the pagne becomes a sunshade).

-- At the mountain stream, pagne is, of course, the perfect bathing sarong as the sun sets.

-- Emerge from the mountains to cosmopolitan (in comparison!) Banda Aceh. Sitting at the lovely night market eating rice and rendaang, I spill bandrek--a pink drink of warm spices--on my long sleeved shirt (a tropical climate, but sharia law...). Pagne to the mop-up rescue!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

At about 7:45 on Saturday morning we were headed over to the convent of the nuns of Our Lady of Consolation. The twins were in the backseat with their little friend L, who had spent the night. They were busy chatting away about the great time they were going to have spending all day with the Sisters. The kids had apparently been promised lots of art projects and coloring. Very Vatican II.
But they were distracted, as we all were, by the huge crowd gathered along the Charles de G Boulevard at the Babanguida road intersection. There were plenty of police and a few stopped vehicles almost blocking the road.
I knew it was probably an accident, and from the quiet gravity of the crowd, I was guessing it was a fatal one.

Sadly, really terrible accidents are a daily fact of life in Ouagadougou. Bicyles, handcarts, donkey carts, motorscooters, pedestrians and cars are all competing for the same roadspace and it just doesn't work out well. Add to that no helmets and little respect for and/or knowledge of traffic rules and it all combines into one big, deadly mess.

My children, of course, spend their days in school, not tooling around the roads of Ouaga. I, on the other hand, do lots of errand running and have passed by many serious accidents. And I have learned not to look. I say a prayer for the people involved, but I don't look.

How do I know the accidents were serious? Our driver, Mahama, told me. He is a serious rubber-necker. Even when he's driving, he can't resist looking. Even when I tell him to pay attention to the freaking road so WE don't end up in a bad way.
So, there I was, once again telling the driver to please keep his eyes on the road and not rear-end the folks in front of us.
And then I hear Mallory say in a horrified whisper "He's dead! There's blood around his head!"

I was pretty horrified myself. The crowd was SO big, I had figured that any possible view of the actual accident would be hidden. But I guess people had left a large clear space around the body as they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

"Somebody put a handkerchief on his face. His bicycle is by him. He was hit by a car."

Oh boy.

A block further on, we had turned left towards the convent. I reached back and held Mallory's hand and we all had a talk about the difference between stopping to help someone and slowing down to gawk at misfortune -the latter being a very common human reaction. We are curious to see what hideous fate that we have been lucky enough to avoid. But when there's already a crowd of people helping out, there's NO reason to slow down for a look.
The girls understood -now if only I could get our driver to understand, too.

Mal and the other two girls sat quietly as we pulled up the the high convent gates. As we got out of the car, she asked if she should ask Sister Perpetua to have all the children pray for the man.

I told her it was a brilliant idea, gave her a hug and sent her off.

She seems to have dealt with it all pretty well. This morning, she was awake early and all ready to go on an outing. We were going to vist the new house of Aisha and her family. Thanks to help from MLW, Babzee and my father, they now have a little home out in the suburb/village of Saaba. (Thanks again! ) . This was a project I'd had in mind for some time and I'm SO pleased that it has really happened. Aisha is now 20 years old and supporting two sisters, a brother and their mentally ill mother. Owning a home will get them out from under paying rent and worrying about being homeless. The money she earns from sewing can go right to paying for food, water and school for the three younger ones.
It's a simple one-room mud-brick home, but they are thrilled.

In the photo, Aisha is the smaller one. Her sister Mariam is 12, but much taller. And of course, there's Mally in front.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Severin is home this morning after an all-night party with the youth group from church. They were celebrating the end of a 30 hour fast. The idea was that they get an inkling of how it feels not to eat – which is a not-uncommon problem here in Burkina- and they would raise funds by asking for sponsors to pay them for completing the 30 hours. All the money will be used to buy sacks of rice for needy families. As rice prices are at an all-time high, it will be an especially welcome help for many families.

Of course, this well-nourished bunch of teenagers didn’t even get all that hungry. So, Severin and I did discuss the difference between a wealthy person going without food for a couple of days (and being allowed all the orange juice they want!) and someone who suffers chronic underfeeding because they can’t afford enough food. Big diff. But it was a great gesture and the kids raised a good amount of money that will ALL be spent on direct aid to very needy people.

Tonight is the “Town Hall Meeting” at the US Ambassador’s residence. I have to admit that, even though I am a Warden for the Embassy, I have never been to one of the meetings. Between one thing and another, it just never worked out. But I’ll be going tonight and hoping that it is interesting enough to get at least one blog post out of it! I figure that this is my last chance to go to one of these things. I doubt I’ll have much contact with the US Embassy in Paris. I doubt they’ll be inviting me to parties, anyway.

Tomorrow the twins will spend the day with nuns. Yes, Mally and Aly will be at the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Consolation (see photo above) as a preparation for their First Holy Communion, which is coming up next month.

And today? Right. I need to : buy plane tickets for France. Find about about bringing our two cats to France. Order contact lenses to replace the ones I managed to rip in half. Go to Papiers du Sahel to pick up the materials for making the First Communion invitations. Buy additional fabric for dance recital costumes. Go to the Hospital pharmacy to get Alexa’s meds. Rent three tables for the ISO Jumble sale. And if I have time, go rent the next Star Trek film!! Though it probably won’t measure up to ST IV, which we watched last weekend. I know some people think that the Star Trek film franchise jumped the shark with this one. But I thought it was a GREAT family film - just as funny and enjoyable as when I first saw it back in 1986.

And here’s some good news (and thanks to all of you who were so kind as to email me and ask how it was going): Yes, my French/European Union passport has come!!! I am SO pleased that you can’t imagine. It was stolen about four years ago and it has taken this long to get it replaced, so it really does seem miraculous to get it.

A final note: If you are reading this blog and you are moving to or currently living in Burkina, you may be interested to know that we are selling most of our furniture, and all of our appliances and kitchen goods. And our car.

It turns out that a large 40 foot container is WAY too expensive for our moving budget, so we’re going with a 20 footer. That means we have to cut way down.

So, please email me (go to my profile for the address) and tell me what you are looking for. I have one blog friend already who is interested, but as we are a family of six, we have LOTS of stuff.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

At 8am this morning I was forced into a confrontation with a hard truth. Luckily, I’d had my coffee already, so I could take it like a woman, but it was still grim. The fact is that within three months everything in our house will have to either be sold or be packed into a huge metal box and sent to France on a big boat. And no matter how hard I wish, kindly bush fairies are not going to materialise and do it all for me.

However, it probably wouldn’t hurt to give some extra food to JP’s Fetish that lurks in our closet. I figure it could only improve the possibility of some supernatural aid...

No, no that kind of fetish. Quit giggling and get your minds out of the gutter, you lot. I am referring to the kind defined in my 1930 Little Oxford Dictionary as an "inanimate object worshipped by savages". (Many of the definitions this little gem are so racist and biased they are hilarious, in a sad sort of way.)

So, perhaps I have never before mentioned that a Winyé Earth Priest long ago presented my husband with his own Fetish, which he keeps in a metal box in our bedroom closet?

Well, it's true.

As fetishes go, it’s not a big one- about 18cm. From what I can see, it consists of a bundle of animal hair plastered with mud around one end. Not like I’m allowed to feed it or even touch it, being a girl and all.

It was presented to JP about 15 years ago and has been quite a responsibility.

Trust me when I say that you don’t want one.

First of all, it has to eat. You can’t just dump it in a box in the basement and forget about it. You have to care for it. It prefers chicken blood, but is ok with eggs. You just sort of smear the egg yolk all over the dried mud end.
Which brings us to the second problem with having an African Fetish around the house:

It just might get invaded by a colony of ants (Why? See Fetish eating habits outlined above) and turn your closet into one of those 1970’s eco-horror movies whose title consists of a noun and an exclamation point, such as Locusts! or, more to the point: Ants! The insects in these films are always angry and numerous. And they don’t care that you compost religiously and recycle your old magazines because you Respect the Earth. They are just mad and swarmy and then you have to spray poison all over them. Then you feel guilty. And furthermore, is it doctrinally ok to spray Raid all over an African fetish?

Oh great. Now you’ve made the Fetish mad.


And yes, this really did actually happen to us back in France. Thank you for asking.

BTW - there was a film called Ants! that came out in about 1977 . And those ants were mean, as I recall. They ate poor Myrna Loy's wheelchair. (A wooden wheelchair, though? Major plot contrivance there. It would have been better if the ants had mutated to possess aluminium-crunching jaws. JMHO. )

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Yet another electricity-free morning in sunny, stifling Ouagadougou. It wouldn’t be so bad if I was some sort of Person of Leisure who could spend her morning, say, at the pool or in fancy, air-conditioned shops. But I have stuff to DO! We are leaving Africa in about three months. Which is scary. So, I thought I’d better do something useful this morning. I ended up sitting on the cool tile floor of our back hallway, sorting out books to give away. It’s a bit dark, but it’s definitely the best spot in the house when the power is down. And it was a job that had to be tackled. I dusted, sorted and asked myself hard questions like: What woman needs TWO copies of every volume of the entire Tad Williams Otherworld series? I love me some science fiction, but enough is enough.

That was the exception, though- I mostly threw out forgettable mysteries that had found their way onto my shelves -plus a book on candle making and one small volume by a British lady that is all about drawing dogs, in an unhealthy, probably-can’t-interact-with-humans kind of way.

They aren't really being thrown away, of course. They are going to a new home over at the Rec Center library.

So, what is on that back hallway shelf that has been deemed worthy of being shipped back to France? Well, mostly it’s science fiction and fantasy. I keep it a bit hidden away on purpose so that I don’t frighten people. I like to let folks get to know me before they realize that I’m a complete an unredeemed geek.

But you all already know I’m a geek (the Star Trek film festivals were a dead giveaway, no doubt) I’ll confess that I own nearly everything written by: Greg Bear (Darwin's Radio I so recommend.) David Brin, George R. R. Martin, Brian Jacques, Sheri Tepper, Philip Kerr,Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan and Jean Auel.

My mom is definitely responsible for my bookwormy, geekish tendencies (Thanks, Mom! ) She started reading sci fi back in the day when no females read the stuff (at least not that they would admit) and if they wrote it, it was done quietly under a male pseudonym.
So, I was raised on Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein. I watched Star Trek when it first aired on television in the late sixties. I was a toddler, but I knew it was cool! And I eventually developed a mad crush on Mr. Spock, which is probably weird, but there you go. I just yesterday read a blog post where a fellow forty-something mom admitted to having the hots for Scotty. Scotty? Mr. “ Cap’in!
The engines canna take nae more!” Scotty? Hotness quotient in the basement, srsly.

Hey- did you know that a NEW Star Trek film is coming out in May 2009????

Monday, April 14, 2008

I’m not one to go getting all technical on people. My own grasp of this blogging stuff is laughable. Frankly, I don’t even see how the Internet is possible. In fact, if you told me that the worldwide data information flow works thanks to magic spells carried out using Fairy Dust and the blood of kittens sacrificed during a full moon, I would probably believe you.

But I do feel like some of you may have, perhaps, noticed that the nifty NeoWorx counter with all the adorable, tiny flags is gone. It sort of disappeared one day with no warning. If I were the kind of person that makes frown-y faces with punctuation marks, I would insert one here _____

The flag counter was supposed to be a free feature, but maybe there was some fine print I missed there. At any rate, it’s gone and I don’t trust them enough to try again. So, at right you will note a small, tidy counter that will do the job and not just wander off one day, never to be seen again.

When adding the new counter, I took the opportunity to correct a mistake I made back in 2006. In November of that month, I changed counters from the very simple one I was using and put up the fancy (and ultimately cruel and fickle) one with flags. At that point, I had welcomed 6847 visitors to my blog. But when I changed over, I didn’t realise that you didn’t have to start from zero again. (Yes, that IS how dumb I am. Thank you for asking). So, I started at zero and over the following 16 months, the new NeoWorx counter crept up past 6500 visitors.

So, when put up the new counter today, I added in the visits from before November 2006.

I just didn’t want anyone thinking that I had some obscure, particularly pathetic mental illness that involves aggrandising oneself via blog counters.

And this is were you all write in to the comments section saying: “ What ARE you nattering on about? I never even noticed that there had been any change. Sheesh. What a fuss over nothing."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Severin Jacob: a mystery wrapped in an enigma and decorated with an attractive ribbon of deepest secrecy. Will this shadowy figure ever emerge from the obscuring mist and be revealed?

In short- who is he and what the heck does he look like?

It has come to BurkinaMom’s attention that there is dearth of pictorial evidence that her son even exists! While her charming female offspring appear with great regularity throughout this blog, Severin only appears fleetingly in the early years and then sort of disappears.

I hasten to assure the public that Severin is still with us and doing well. But you have to realize that the adolescent male is an elusive creature, not easy to photograph in his natural habitat. He boasts sophisticated camouflage techniques. For example, when Severin sits down in front of the television to enjoy a few hours of Kingdom Hearts on Playstation II he actually changes color, chameleon-like, to blend in with tone and pattern of the living-room rug. This prevents him from being interrupted at a critical point in his game. Isn’t nature amazing? And to think some folks don’t believe in evolution!

But here we have a rare photo of Severin taken just last month. In a break with his usual habits, he is clearly visible and taking time out to pass on vital mad Playstation skillz to the next generation of boy-kind.

But Severin realizes that there is a place for reading and literature in today’s hectic, electronics-obsessed world.

Small children are not the only creatures drawn by Severin's charm. Domestic animals are also susceptible, as we see in this recent photo.

And finally, here he is with his face fully visible. This particular portrait, taken at Easter, gives an accurate impression of the essence of Severin-ness: a deep-in-thought, sort of vaguely worried air. And his shirt is buttoned up wrong.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

You know you have lived in Ouagadougou too long when:
  1. The temperature is 85° F and you agree with your Burkinabé friends that it's really cold.
  2. Your medicine cabinet is full of chloroquinine, Coartem and Quinimax because somebody at your house always has malaria. Plus, you know what mebendazole and metronidazole are and aren't afraid to use them.
  3. You really like tô
  4. The only closed shoes you own are your sport shoes. Everything else is sandals. In fact, you think that a new pair of "tapettes" constitutes formalwear.
  5. You can drink Orange Fanta without gagging, even if it’s slightly warm.
  6. You think that people that speak only one language are odd
  7. You are completely out of gift ideas for your family back in your home country: leather, batik, bronze, carvings, embroidered table cloths, Tuareg silver…you have exhausted every possible type of craft in Burkina.
  8. You would never phone anyone between noon and 3 pm. That’s “la sieste” time.
  9. You are easily impressed by imported foods. Pie made with fresh pumpkin, for example, pales in comparison compared to one made with the canned variety.
  10. Most of the street vendors know you by name and don’t bother hassling you to buy souvenirs.
  11. You throw a pagne (a wrap-skirt made out of local cloth) on over your sweatpants when you go to answer the door, so that you look “decent”. (This one is only for the ladies, obviously. If you are a guy wearing a skirt, you probably have issues that go beyond my capacity to advise you.)
  12. You’ve had to explain to your kids what mittens are. They’ve never owned a pair
  13. If you see even one more woodcarving or bronze statue of Princess Yenenga and her horse, a mother and child, a baobab tree, a mask or an African mammal of any description, you will grab said statue and, gibbering and foaming at the mouth, beat yourself on the head with it until you are unconscious, just so you don't have to look at it anymore.
  14. You own a herd of goats
  15. You think it’s normal for perfect strangers to ask after the health and well-being of your “old ones back in the home village”.
  16. You will, with no embarrassment whatsoever, discuss every aspect of your own and everyone else’s latest illnesses, up to and including severe diarrhoea, sparing no details.
  17. You have eaten every item on the Rec Center menu at least once.

And finally, the most serious warning sign that you have been in Ouagadougou far too long:

  1. You not only wear a pagne, you carry vital personal items in the top folds of it! A few days ago, I was getting undressed and a Kleenex, a key and some money fell out of the top folds of my local-style wrap skirt. I suddenly realised that I have completely, unconsciously learned to emulate the Burkinabé women that I work with. Really poor women don’t own purses, of course. They carry their money and small items secreted in the top, rolled-over portion of their wrap skirts. I didn’t even really notice I was doing it, but when I thought it over, I realised that while I do have a purse that I carry when I go somewhere in my car, most of the time I don’t carry one. If I’m popping down to the corner shop, I just grab a few coins and fold them into the top of my skirt, along with a couple of Kleenexes for my allergy. I guess you could say purses are a sort of symbol of prosperity and modernity here. It’s something that middle-class women carry and poor women do not.

But here I am- I’m far from poor and I do own a purse. I have more than one, even. But I somehow find it more comfortable to fold up my money in my pagne. It’s strange and probably a sign that I need to go back home and get “Frenchified” again.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I got the French friends safely to the airport last night, in plenty of time for their flight. Not that it was easy. About five minutes down the road, I got a flat tire. It's the fifth one in the last five weeks. ("Gee Beth. Does the Car God hate you?" "Why, yes, He does. Thank you for asking.")
I stopped the car immediately, but it was SO freaking dark we couldn't see a thing. Ouagadougou is not rich in street lamps. I was forced to drive on a bit to get in front of a lighted building.
Luckily, my French dudes are do-it-yourself marvels. M. mostly built his own house back in France- and it's a really nice house! While staying at my house, L. fixed the plumbing in his spare time. I am not kidding.

So, these guys had the tire changed in about ten minutes, which was amazing, considering that all their baggage had to be unloaded so they could get at the spare. And while we had positioned ourselves to get some light, it was still pretty dim. This was a problem, as I have no flashlight in my car. Maybe that seems like a basic safety thing to people living elsewhere in the world, but it is impossible to manage here. I have put flashlights into my car three times while we've lived here. After a few months, the flashlight is gone and NOBODY has a clue as to where it could possibly be. They are obviously being stolen and after the third one, I gave up. )
But the guys were brilliant and had the tire changed in a jiff. We got to the airport in plenty of time. Goodbyes were't too sad, as they are our neighbors back in the village of Saint André and we're moving back there in July. I'll be seeing them again soon.

I have a few more responses to the comments section. Again, I'm posting them here, as they could be useful or interesting to others.

1. Yesterday, in my enthusiasm for lower-body coverings I completely forgot to mention the whole shirt issue. So, here it is: It's hard for women to go wrong with upper body clothing here. If you went topless in a village, you'd draw a crowd- but it would be because you are a foreigner, not because they are amazed/shocked/excited/offended/freaked out to see a (gasp!) breast or two. It's an attitude that I find very sensible and think should be emulated world-wide.

But the average non-Burkinabe is not going to be at ease waltzing around the countryside topless, so let's move on.

T-shirts are always good. Can't go wrong.
Tank tops, sleeveless, form-fitting, lowcut, are all perfectly acceptable, when paired with a modest lower-body covering. No problem. Even visible bra straps are not an eyebrow-raiser.

The only exception would be for people working with local Protestant groups: missions, churches, aid associations linked to churches. I have found that these people are more in tune with conservative western standards of dress. It's better to cover the shoulders and go with a full-coverage neckline.

Bear in mind that all this is my guidelines for having good, easy contact with people at ALL levels of society here. If you are only going to hang with wealthy people and expats, of course your normal developed-world dress-sense is fine. But if you are a researcher that wants to be out in a village, talking to people about health care practices, or whatever, the contact will go easier if you make an effort with the clothes.
For toursts/visitors/adventurers it is a good way to show that you respect local norms and want to make contact with "average folks"- which is sort of the point of coming, isn't it?

2. The other question I got recently went as follows:
"I was wondering about the effect of seeing so many foreigners stay for a while and then leave their country. Does it make the average Burkinabé somewhat indifferent to the strange white couple next door? Is it possible to make local acquaintances or are there too many social barriers?"

I'd say that this is FAR, FAR from the situation here. I predict that when you move here, nearly EVERYONE in your neighborhood is going to want to be your best pal. Even if you are only staying a few months. Even if you dress weird.
People here are, on the whole, very kind and welcoming and it would not occur to them to reject you because you weren't a long-term fixture. In fact, they are very interested in pen pals outside of Burkina and will keep contact with you long after you are gone.

That said, it's kind of complicated because, well, you (expat person) have "lots" of money and your neighbors probably don't.
Sure, if you live in Ouaga 2000, the very chic neighborhood, you'll find you are surrounded by only wealthy families. But all other neighborhoods are very mixed. Wealthy expats live right next door to local families that are just as wealthy or middle class or very poor.
It works out, but can very stressful.

Here's what one expat family wrote in their blog (I got this from one of John's great articles):

"After living in a place for two years, you want to feel comfortable and that you're being accepted as an equal and not just seen as a wallet with legs. But you can never be that. All I want is to be in a culture where I'm normal again. I came here wanting to drink millet beer, eat tô, and get to know Burkinabe. Now, all I want is an Anchor Steam, some Taco Bell, and to blend in."

I think it was very brave of them to articulate this so clearly. It hurts, but it's very honest and very reflective of a major aspect of life here. Burkinabe people will ask you, a foreign person, for money. Frequently. It's a big part of life. Needy people will ask you for money for food or medical care. Better off folks want money to buy a motorscooter or school fees. Everybody needs something and they hope that you are going to pay for it.

For people coming from the developed world, this can be hard to swallow. We tend to avoid mixing money and friendship at all costs. It can kind of ruin things for us, making us a little bitter and suspicious.
But in Burkina, money is part of the whole package of friendship. You have to figure out how to handle it. Which can be hard....

So, far from being met with indifference, as a new arrival in your neighborhood you will be the subject of much interest and friendly interaction. You will get invited to wedding and funerals. You will be hit up for money on a daily basis.

And, yes, it's one part of life here that I will NOT miss.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The strike has turned into a gentle respite from the pressures of daily life. Lots of folks are home from work, but there are still enough small shops and stands open that you can find pretty much everything you need. The streets are not clogged with traffic and everything is very quiet, but not creepily so.
But I do hope that measures will be taken by the government to help their citizens face the current economic crisis. Just because the people aren't burning down the President's palace out in Ouaga 2000 doesn't mean they don't need or deserve help. JMHO, of course.

I am keeping busy with some friends visiting from France. Two guys from our home village in the Haute Savoie have been here doing a school-aid project and a training session with a bronze-maker. They've been running around Burkina for two weeks, travelling, exploring and making lumpy bronze things. Happily, they realize that their bronzes are NOT going to count as gifts for the womenfolk left back home in France, so I've had the guys out souvenir shopping for the last two days. They seem to have found what they wanted, which is good, as they leave tonight on the 3am Royal Air Morocco flight. Better them than me. The only place I want to go at 3am is bed. Luckily, they can check in at midnight, so I'll drive them over to the airport about that time tonight.
Never a dull moment around here.

I did get a comment on the blog today asking about wearing capri pants in Burkina. I'll go ahead and respond/pontificate here, as it's more comfy than over in the cramped "comments" window:

I think that capri pants and pants in general are perfectly ok for women to wear here. But I recommend that you wear them with a tunic/long shirt. The idea is to cover the bun/haunch area. Covered to mid-thigh is good. Dressed like that, you don't risk offending any of the more traditional-type people that you might want to interact with.

Now, when you arrive in Ouaga, you will occasionally see young women wearing tight pants and no tunic-type cover-up. Bear in mind that the elite Burkinabé are used to western dress. And lots of expats have no desire to fit in with the locals, so wear whatever they would wear back in France.
Also, Burkinabé protitutes dress this way.
So, if you are working with middle to lower class Burkinabé, it's much better not to set off these negative connotations of great wealth, out-of-touch foreigness or prostitution.

Certainly once you are out of Ouaga, you will have MUCH better contact with the villagers if you wear the tunic/pant combo, or even better a longish skirt. Or best of all, a pagne. It will cost you about 5 dollars and be SO worth it. I can't tell you the amount of positive contact I have with Burkinabe people, just by wearing this basic element of local dress. So think about it.

But if your job is really active or you just hate skirts, the capris will work out fine, if they are done right.

Now what you should REALLY do, everyone, is check out the latest post by Valentine. She riffs on art class and displays some of her latest work, which is FABULOUS!
I'm just saying.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Things in Ouaga seem to be calm this morning. I'll be going into the city center in about an hour, so I'll have a look and see what's up. The government seems to be expecting a large, peaceful demonstration.

So, as I have nothing to add in the way of news, I will comment on the latest faddish craze sweeping the globe:

Everybody is moving to Burkina Faso !!

OK. Maybe there are three or four of you staying behind in North America and Europe to keep things going, so ice hockey and the Louvre don’t disappear from the face of the earth. But everybody else seems to be headed for West Africa.

I sort of feel that way lately. I’ve gotten so many e-mails the last few months from people getting ready to move to, or at least visit, Burkina Faso!

Of course, I think it’s great and I am very happy to share what little wisdom I have garnered over the last nine years or so. In fact, it makes me deeply happy to think that my advice might help make someone’s move here easier than my own was, so many years ago.
Actually, my first stay in Burkina was in 1994 and it was a complete disaster. I was supposed to stay for two months and I barely lasted two weeks. It was so mind-bendingly horrific that I’m sure I will eventually write a long, extremely humorous novel about it. Or at least an interesting blog post.

But we don’t have time for pointless digressions- we need to get down to business.

I started writing Part II of my list of what to bring to Burkina and quickly discovered that I have a lot to say on the subject. A whole lot. So, I’ll have to break up the list, publishing it here a little at a time.

Toothpaste : Don’t bring

At Marina Market a couple of days ago, I did an informal toothpaste survey. A close look at the shelves revealed over 13 different kinds of Colgate toothpaste. There is whitening formula, breath-freshening formula, sensitive gum formula and, in short, everything except a special formula for demented expat mothers of four who stand around for ten minutes in Marina Market staring at the toothpaste.

They also have four kinds of Crest, a wide variety of AquaFresh (pump and tube! Woo!) and Signal. They even have entertaining (in a disturbing way) French brands of toothpaste that taste like grass.

There is a heck of a lot of toothpaste at Marina Market, even in this time of shortages.

Scimas Market has lots of different types of Signal and AquaFresh. They also have various varieties of Close-Up.

Close-Up is the brand you are likely to find in the small local shops and stands outside of the city center. You can depend on finding your choice of red or green Close-Up. These places also tend to carry odd brands of toothpaste labelled in Chinese characters, with the stray bit of English thrown in to add glamour and exoticism.

They are quite cheap. I think that this is because they are mainly composed of plaster, powdered human bone and arsenic. Just a guess.

Stick with the Close-Up.

One exception: If you are bringing a huge container over and have extra space, you could bring along a case of good, cheap toothpaste. It might end up costing the same as, or less than buying it here.

But if packing space is limited, don’t waste space on it.

Battery operated (or rechargeable) fan: Bring

This is an item that you will only need (probably) three months out of the year. But you will be very glad you have it when it’s 10pm, 100°F, the power is off and you need to get to sleep. Or even worse, you have kids tossing miserably under their mosquito nets.

Our first years here, we used our personal fans a lot at night during power cut
But over the years, we got used to the heat.
Related anecdote: Last weekend, Valentine and I brought a visitor from England to see the Village Artisanal craft center. As we walked along, our visitor asked “So, how do you handle this heat?”

Valentine and I were shocked.

“But..this is NICE weather!” my daughter protested.

“Yes! It’s VERY cool today! Lovely!” I added.

The English Rose smiled and said “Well, I guess that answers my question.”

So, eventually you get so acclimatised that you don’t even know you are acclimatised. If that makes sense.

I have found that when I feel that it’s “too” hot here, I take the two-pronged Burkinabe approach:

1. complain a bit (they call it “venting” for a reason)

2. move very, very slowly

But the first few years, the fans came in handy.