A handshake for all

February 3, 2014 | Valerie, DVM, WUSC, Burkina Faso, REVS +

A handshake for all

This will sound trite, but the first month has gone by relatively quickly. I am presently living in Dédougou, about 250 kms away from the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou.  The population is about 30,000 people, though it is difficult to say since I’m not sure when the last census has been done. Even though it is a relatively small village, it is hard to find you’re way around at first, as there is no map! I’m not sure how the village is managed, but people here just have an inherent knowledge of where things are. By the fourth week, I’ve managed to locate the main things such as the market, and the hotel, which is one of the few places of which I can access the Internet.

My disconnection with my networks back home has in turn benefited my ease of my integration within the Burkinabé culture and the people. Their warm welcomes make salutations important whenever running or meeting someone. A handshake is always exchanged between a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger. If the conversation is congenial to one’s delight, up to four handshakes can be exchanged within a short ten-minute chat.  The confabulations always involve loud verbalization, comical facial expressions including raised eyebrows and lips smacked together creating that ‘duck face’ and in some cases, very strong emotion. People are remarkably engaged in their community, social networks and in the politics of their country. As a woman, I only usually partake in the women’s circle of conversations, as the segregation between both sexes is prominent; at any kind of event I attended including weddings, birthdays and baptisms seldom did I see the presence of men. On that note, the conversation that is frequently discussed is the topic of the opposite sex. I am often asked whether it was the same in Canada, where men have numerous wives – they are sometimes surprised to hear of these monogamous relationships that we Occidentals have, and often laugh when I say that I would never accept to be a co-spouse. It has also happened on a couple of occasions where I was asked whether I wanted to be part of the requestor’s polygamous relationship. I’m told that polygamy is just the way things are over here, and it’s often practiced because apparently there are more women than men (I’m not sure whether this has been statistically proven). Overall, the dynamics of relationships is hard to decipher - you don’t usually see couples being very affectionate. Whenever my host father comes home he shakes both my hand and his wife’s; to my knowledge, marriage over here is more for convenience.

My living with a host family has also allowed me to perceive the reality of how the average family lives like. I live in a relatively comfortable home. There is a courtyard with a main house where the family of four sleeps in (the parents and their two sons aged 5 and 16) and there is an outhouse where I sleep in which it has two rooms separated by a cement wall. Usually, families will build a separate house from the main house either for their parents or for the son, should he decide to continue to live at home with a future wife. The toilet facilities are what you would expect to have in a village – a hole in the ground to which I still have yet to perfect the art of squatting, and an area right next to it for a refreshing bucket shower under the hot African sun.

Our meals are shared together, with the exception of breakfast where I will eat something lighter than leftovers from the previous night’s supper. My host mother prepares two meals a day. The variety in food ranges from “riz gras”, which can be compared to a stir fried rice with tomato sauce and few pieces of meat, “tôt” which are milled millet or corn that is boiled and then becomes this silicone texture accompanied with a sauce that is either made from leaves of a tree such as a baobab, or the leaves of potatoes and sometimes a peanut sauce with fish or meat. Salads are also common, though the Burkinabé love copious amounts of mayonnaise for flavour, which is not so appetizing to my taste. And for dessert, it is usually fried flour with sugar. You’ll find a lot of fried snacks with the oil seeping through the plastic bags when they serve it to you in the streets. The variety in food unfortunately is quite limited, and as we’re not in one of the major cities in Burkina Faso, food is quite expensive. The only fruits you will find are bananas and papayas, though I am anticipating the season of mangoes in a couple of months! And the choice in vegetables is not grand either.  The food overall does not have that taste that I will ever crave, I often find myself wanting pizza, ice cream and any other good dairy product!  Thankfully, work often keeps me distracted from all of these cravings.

My work schedule with the REVS+ Association (fight against HIV/AIDS) is from Monday to Friday from 8 am to 2 pm, which is pretty great – I have the rest of the day to myself. My main mode of transportation is my bike, which I am grateful for since there are no means of public transportation, not even taxis. The bike to work is always great in the morning when the air still crisp, but in the afternoon, it becomes more of a task when the persisting sun multiplies the beads of sweat trickling down your back and the red dust of the unpaved roads hindering your vision and the inevitable inhalation of dirt from the cars that create a storm with their vehement speed.

Work on the other hand is of an interesting learning experience. It has tested the virtue of patience and has taught me how to be resourceful. Within the first two weeks, introductions were mostly made with important authorities within the village (including the Mayor and the Chief of the Village) and as previously mentioned, salutations are important, especially if there is a foreigner staying within their village. After all the meet and greets, things were moving slowly at work, the women who themselves are volunteers are hard workers, however they do not have the necessary tools to assert their credibility. There are fortunately two functioning computers, but the basic knowledge in the use of basic Microsoft Office is limited, and much of the work is done by manuscript. Coming from a generation where everything is electronic, this definitely posed as a challenge to my working habits. I am still trying to adapt to their working environment, but it is difficult to concentrate, as children of mothers become a distraction, and when I say that the office is open at 8, people really start coming in at 9.

I must say that my first couple of weeks were difficult. It first started with not having my luggage, which I managed to deal without for the first week as I packed some extra things in case of this exact situation. Afterwards, my laptop had the worst timing and place of where it decided to stop working. As my dependency heavily relies on my laptop to get work done, and to connect with people from home, I felt quite isolated without it. Also, having digestive problems and having to use my little strength in my thighs to keep a squatting position really pushed me out of my comfort zone, which is exactly what I wanted coming into this adventure, I just didn’t predict it would be this stressful. But I remain optimistic, as I will soon be receiving a new laptop and things at work are finally starting to pick up.  I am most certainly excited to reinvigorate the new month of February with more positivity!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.