Friday, August 01, 2008

Like, Au Revoir!

Today is The Day. In a few hours I catch my flight out of Ouagadougou, and in twenty-four more or so after that I will find myself back in the United States of America. Yes, it is true, as of today I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer (or PCV). I am now a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (or RPCV)! I can tell you this much: I am not going to miss our government's inane love affair with acronyms. And after all the anticipation of this day arriving in the last few months, I caught myself wondering late last night, Do I really want to go back? I was stunned that these words had actually crossed my mind. But what I think my sudden case of cold feet comes down to is this: for over two years now, I have redefined my identity, forging it around the experiences, frustrations, and relationships that were all part and parcel of service in the Peace Corps. Now to return to the United States for good, to pick up where I left off... as I observed in a previous post, it often seems like in some ways I am standing still, and, from way out here in West Africa, looking back at my friends and family in America, it often seems as though life sped up for them after I left. I am scared of reaching out to old friends and discovering that we have become different people since I left, and are now little more than strangers with a strong sense of déjà vu.

Still, I cannot pretend that I am not ready to leave Burkina Faso. I will be back, I have no doubt, in the following years to visit the various friends I made here, but right now I am ready for a looong break. The last several weeks, most of my possessions have been breaking or tearing, prices have been rising, my tolerance for African harrasment has been plummeting; everything these days points to the simple fact, "It is time to leave Burkina." And now that I am finally at that moment where I can look back and attempt to encapsulate my Peace Corps experience in a few sentences, I can say that, as exasperating as I regularly found my life here to be, with all the disappointments, heart-ache, and minor breakdowns, I do not regret signing two years of my life away to the Corps. I am glad I did it, and I would recommend it to anyone.

And thank you, Dear Readers, for walking some of this journey with me, if only on the nebulous paths of cyberspace. I am uncertain as to whether this blog helped keep me sane or only encouraged my existing insanity, but it meant a great deal for me to be able to share my thoughts and experiences with you. I hope at least a few of you gained something worthwhile from it in return. I leave you now, to seek out the final signatures and stamps that will release me from service, as well as the plane ticket that will deliver me back from whence I came. It has been illuminating... with a sprinkling of the absurd.

Here endeth The Burkina Files. The Burkina Files are dead. Long live the Dabbler's Diary.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

28 Years Later.

It is my birthday today. It is also in exactly twenty-two days, to the day, that I shall depart Ouagadougou by airplane, bound for the Home of the Free and the Bush. I have thus far observed the passing of three birthdays here in Burkina Faso, and am quite ready to celebrate my next one in my homeland.

All right, I will admit it: this post is more for me than it is for you. I have found that very few Americans, when I tell them that I am serving in the Peace Corps, understand what that entails, particularly when it comes to how long that service lasts. Not that I blame them—it is not exactly an easy job to explain. I would like to clarify this much, at least: this is not a job you do until you feel like you have had enough, and then you just quit. Okay, I take that back: it can be exactly that, but, technically, each and every Peace Corps volunteer signs a contract that states they will serve at least two years in their assigned country. And I would like to give my friends and family an advance heads-up that, in just a few weeks, I will finally be back among them, no longer a cyber-ghost:

"Where's Dabbler?"
"Somewhere in Africa, I think."
Yes, well... no longer, Dear Readers.

My imminent return to America is something I have been looking forward to for quite some time. And yet, as the day itself approaches, I find myself more and more intimidated by the prospect of this homecoming. For starters, as I have mentioned before, I no longer know where "home" is; my old apartment is long-gone, leased to someone else; the social network I relied on to further my career in the entertainment industry is dead, having been neglected for ages; and I do not even know what city I will settle in, or what job to now pursue. It is also difficult to accept that many of my friends have gone on with their lives during the time that I have spent here in Burkina Faso, that we cannot all just pick up where we left off two years ago.

This is not to say that I do not want to come back. Believe you me, I am more than ready! I'm just feeling... a little displaced, I suppose. But I wanted to let people know, once and for all, that YES, I am coming back, and NO, I did not turn hippie. I'm still the same me, the same Dabbler, albeit with a few more stories to tell, a few more scars to show off, and a lovely new mail order bride. (Okay, that last part isn't true. She said no.) And this is not my last post in The Burkina Files... I have something else entirely planned to close out this pseudo-journalistic experience. This is just my friendly way of telling you all, back in the Western World, that I am finally coming back home—once I figure out where that is, of course.

Be prepared. Be very prepared.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Breaking News: Peter Pan OD's on Pixie Dust.

At last, concerned parents can stop locking their children's windows in fear each night. The tiny titan, demagogue of disobedience, has fallen. Officials on the tragic scene refused to comment, but one unnamed member of the infamous gang styling themselves "The Lost Boys" tearfully declared: "Poor Peter. He just kept saying he never wanted to grow up, he just wanted to get higher and higher, you know, to fly away from it all." And so he has, his last hit of pixie dust his final one. Pixie dust, merely one of many names for a notoriously intoxicating and addictive substance, has been suspect in the early demises of many rising artists, including the likes of Oscar Wilde, James Dean, Jim Morrison, and, most recently, Heath Ledger. Nearly all of the mentioned deceased had been heard to say, "I want to live life to its fullest," shortly before shooting for the stars (second one to the left, and straight on till morning, so an anonymous source tipped this reporter). Mr. Pan's alleged supplier, one Tinkerbell, rumored to be a "fairy" dealing exclusively to male minors, has been unreachable for comment, and his long-time nemesis, a Captain James Hook, had only this to say: "Crow now, you little [expletive deleted]."

I do my best to amuse. My apologies for the lapse in correspondence. Truth be told, for the past several months I have not been happy here in Burkina Faso. I have been restless, eager to move on. This has always been my way, or at least as far back as I care to remember: the way of the Dabbler. But my interest in my work, and my reasons for being here, have recently been reinvigorated. I now find myself in a position of justifying my projects to my superiors, and to fighting for the right of "my" village to host another American volunteer after my departure. I do not know if it is a battle I will win. But in my efforts I have re-discovered my convictions for why I came, and why I stayed, and I am starting to learn how my experiences in West Africa have changed me.

A person whose opinions I value recently suggested that my frustration of feeling that I was not a "good" volunteer came from my inability to decide exactly what kind of volunteer I wanted to be. Was I the well-integrated stranger, the spoiled expat, the worldly writer, or the Peace Corps party socialite? They all seemed attractive choices to me, and so I tried to be all of them at once, or each of them during different phases of my service. I didn't come to Burkina Faso to significantly change anything. I came for the arguably selfish reason to learn, believing it to be the height of arrogance to try to "save" someone without understanding them, but I got caught up in the excitement and peer pressure of my more idealistic colleagues, and in my rush to prove myself I made some incredibly naïve mistakes. In my second year I calmed down, and I tried to focus on organizing activities that would be productively beneficial to my village rather than earn me a mark that I could show off as a badge of my competence. (Please note that I am not accusing all of my fellow volunteers of the same fallacy; many of them have done remarkable work.) Today, only a handful of weeks remain before I take my leave of Burkina Faso and return to the United States. All of my personal goals for joining Peace Corps have been accomplished; what remains is the consuming need to fulfill my part of the bargain—not to Peace Corps, but to the people who have been my neighbors and friends for nearly two years. How can I repay them for the things that I learned from them, that they shared with me? This isn't guilt, nor is it charity, that I'm talking about. It is a sense of responsibility.

And here is where I have changed. I have always been reluctant to commit—to people, jobs, locations, anything—for the fear that I might miss something better. Imagine the future as a jarful of candy: you stare at it longingly, but delay approaching it because you're not certain of what sweet you want, while everyone around you is plunging their hands in; you panic, seeing this choice piece get snatched up, then that one, but you remain motionless, so terrified of making a wrong choice that you don't make any at all. As a result of my phobia, I feel like I am standing still, watching everyone I know moving onward, building foundations, and growing up. And, in spite of my best efforts to prevent it, I too am growing up. The Peter Pan life I have devoted myself to, flying from one place to another without direction, must come to an end. I see my friends who are settling down: they're getting careers, they're getting 401Ks, IRAs, mortgages... they're getting married. I observe the stability they are attaining, and I covet it. And yet... if I stay in one place too long, will I grow stagnant? The structure I choose to build, will it climb up into a spire of distinction, or will the ground I settle on turn out to be a mire of mediocrity, in which I will stay stuck? I want to settle without settling, if you can see the difference. I want to go home, but I do not know where home is.

Being a Dabbler, I believe, is not a choice, but a calling. You find yourself intrigued by a multitude of possible paths, and instead of choosing you wander several steps down one, before abruptly breaking off to skip down another, and then another, sampling this and that, promising yourself (and others) that eventually you will find the "right" one. It makes for many amusing stories and treasured memories. And then sometime, perhaps years later, you find that you have arrived back at your exact original starting point. The thirst for experience can be intoxicating, consuming... but at the end of this binge lies the inevitable hangover: who, and what, are you? Is this all there is to life? A series of photographs and accomplishments you can tack up on some wall somewhere?

Perhaps I am making something out of nothing, you think. It is possible that these words are the self-obsessive ravings of a scattered individual who is mere weeks away from officially crossing the chasm between his mid- and late-20s. But I know that at least one reader out there, maybe more, is wrestling with the same damnable Rubik's Cube of a problem: how can one remain forever youthful, if not young, and become venerated without sacrificing vigor? And not that I'm equating myself with the late great Jim Morrison (my record deal is still pending), but I am trying to make a point, of the danger of seeking experience for its own sake, without keeping an eye toward the future, towards advancement, growth. I'll tell you now, I have no intention of giving up dabbling, for when I ask myself that crucial question "What do you want?", I find—to my glee and gloom—that I still do not know. The pixie dust is still surging strong through my system. But when I get back to the States, I am looking forward to starting to move forward, instead of eternally sideways. Simply put: I have found, if you must dabble, dabble responsibly.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Just for the Record, Paul Theroux Is Better than You.

…And he really wants you to know that. In his Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Townpart history book, travel guide, and adventure memoir—Mr. Theroux gleefully points out the idiocies and self-indulgences of American and European travelers in Africa, all the while cleverly disguised as one of them. In a impressive show of stamina, after all his sneering at the banal conversation of rich, khaki-clad safari vacationers, he still manages to find time to turn around and blast those annoyingly energetic, clueless, penny-pinching backpackers. The only fortunate souls the great Theroux magnanimously spares from his merciless pen are the Africans themselves, whom he knows to be generous and wise, exploited and patronized, and tragically misunderstood… unless they happen to piss him off, and then fuck ‘em, the miserable, ignorant freeloaders. Readers, take note: this Mr. T pities NO fool.

Yes, he is intelligent, and worldly, too. But neither of these qualities eliminate the fact that Mr. Theroux is a smug, arrogant, self-righteous, obnoxious, crotchety snob. And I say this as someone who admires him. Dark Star Safari, as the full title indicates, is an account of his trek from the northern tip of Egypt all the way down to the Atlantic coast of Africa’s southernmost nation, all by road, rail, or water (with the exception of one short flight to Sudan’s capital, due to that nation’s continuing land border complications). During his travels, nothing appears to afford Mr. Theroux more pleasure than to judge anyone and everyone, and to find them lacking. Apparently no one except clever old Paul gets it, whatever the hell “it” is. In his contempt for the unwashed (and washed) masses, he alternately praises or scorns Africans and their customs, depending on whether he wants to belittle his fellow Westerners or to simply place himself on a pedestal above the rest of mankind. I suppose this is one of the hazards of living purely as an observer and not a participant: you may forget from time to time that you, too, are human. On the other hand, it is refreshing (for me) to read the prose of a former Peace Corps volunteer (Mr. Theroux served in Malawi from 1963 to 1965) that does not gush about the magic of Africa nor the innocent nobility of the people there. Mr. Theroux is obviously fond of the continent and its inhabitants, but he does not do them the disservice of over-romanticizing them.

Although his initial goal is to travel through Africa to satisfy his own curiosity on how the place has changed in the 30+ years since he last lived there, over the course of several months his trip becomes more and more a critical examination of development and aid efforts in Africa, both foreign and domestic, assessing them on their concrete effectiveness instead of their ethereal intentions. His findings are disturbing: rather than eliminating Africa’s endemic problems, over the years many aid organizations have become entrenched, more devoted to maintaining their budgets and presence than to combating the dilemmas they are supposed to be solving. In general, Mr. Theroux has a low opinion of the aid workers (or “agents of virtue”, as he derisively labels them) he observed on his voyage. In his words, “they were, in general, oafish self-dramatizing prigs, and often complete bastards.”* He comes to the conclusion that foreign development groups can, in some cases, even hurt development efforts, fostering a sense of entitled helplessness in a country’s population while engaging in projects that should be their government’s responsibility, relieving it of most obligations and thus encouraging (or at least accommodating) corruption and waste of resources on a monumental scale. He is not alone in his thinking, as many Africans he interviews in the course of his trip complain that such groups drain local talent from the public sector and often have no idea what the true needs of the people they claim to help actually are. Even more discouraging, he comments on how the agents of virtue he encounters are pursuing development agendas identical to those of their predecessors from 40 years ago, with few positive results to show for their efforts. To boil it down, more and more money is being thrown at a problem, in a manner proven not to work, with little to no variation in strategy.

As caustic and cynical as Mr. Theroux tends to be, I find the majority of his criticisms—from development efforts to the idiocy of tourists wearing shorts with knee socks—to be right on the money. I could even see myself turning into this guy in 30 years’ time: cantankerous, sarcastic, and dismissive of others’ efforts to change the world for the better. (Wait—in 30 years? Hell, that’s me now.) My real problem with Paul Theroux is his casual hypocrisy, ridiculing other travelers for their actions, but then later partaking in the same doings himself. He makes fun of those who don’t take local transport, but by the end of his trip eschews all rides that are not luxury bus or via first-class train compartment; likewise, he takes great pride in being the anti-tourist, but makes a prolonged stop at a high-class wild game reserve, where he sips fine wine in a ritzy lodge in between animal sightings. It may come as no surprise, as Mr. Theroux undertook his transcontinental safari on the eve of a milestone birthday, that he appears to resent younger travelers, backpackers especially. He never misses an opportunity to mock their attire, their tendencies towards caution and budgeting, their ignorance of obscure local customs, and even their musical preferences.

Dark Star Safari is not all doom and foreboding future. Time and again, Mr. Theroux notes examples of the resilience of Africans, and their ability to steadily survive anything, from power-mad dictators, to collapsing currencies, to well-intentioned but uninspired missionaries. He even notes signs of progress in some countries, such as Uganda, where parents are now encouraging their children to stay and build in their homeland. All the same, speaking as someone who has been trying to work in Africa for some time now, I for one would appreciate it if, now and then, Mr. Theroux ceased his jeering and offered some constructive criticism... the operative word here, Paul, being "constructive." For some real kicks, read this book simultaneously with Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty, another book concerned in part with the issues facing developing African nations. Both authors are insufferably arrogant know-it-alls, but on opposite ends of the spectrum, Theroux being the cynic and Sachs the optimist when it comes to foreign aid. In the end, you may be surprised by how much the two men agree on the problems with the development industry as it stands now… starting with the fact that it is an industry.

* Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town (New York: Mariner Books, 2004) 146.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Notes from the Undergrowth.

From the Dabbler's In-Village Diary, February 6, 2008...

People keep pissing on my house. It really bothers me, but I have no idea if that action is as much a cultural taboo here as it is in America, so thus far I have not made a big deal of it. The first time it happened (to my knowledge), a couple weeks ago, the guy chose a spot right next to my back window. I happened to be inside at the time, and when I heard the familiar pattering of liquid hitting a surface I looked out and there he was, not two feet away from me, relieving himself on my wall. I was so surprised at his brazenness that I said nothing for a while, merely stared at him, slightly embarrassed for violating his privacy, but simultaneously outraged that he was exercising said privacy against my wall. When he had finished, I almost apologetically accosted him, speaking to him from my window (again, not two feet away). There was no anger in my voice, and I bashfully requested that "next time" would he please find another spot? The man glared at me in sullen irritation, whether from the disrespect of my demand or the fact that he understood no word of the French I was speaking, I cannot say. I should add that I am the frequent witness of people—usually children, but not always—urinating in front of and all around my mud-brick home (among other public areas); my issue with this guy is why did he have take the trouble to do it directly on my house?

Anyway, it just happened again. I was bunking down for an afternoon nap, finishing a book, when I again heard the memorable sound of water flowing from a hose, directly outside my bedroom window. But I'm learning: I didn't bother to stare this time, just let him do his thing (yes, I am assuming it was a guy... or at least hoping), sparing us both a good deal of confusion and awkwardness. I have so many cultural questions now, and no one to ask. Is it socially acceptable to relieve oneself on a person's house? And, if so, even if the resident is witness to it? If I do not enjoy this custom, how might I politely indicate my disapproval to the perpetrator? And, perhaps most importantly, why the HELL do you always have to do it right outside the window of the room I'm currently occupying?!

Is this some sort of symbolic gesture, a middle finger of defiance extended by the African man to the Western system that routinely pisses on him? I doubt it. In my experience, it is the American that is more likely given to passive-aggressive, abstract gestures. No, I would wager a guess that these individuals simply have the need to "go"... and apparently, my house is ideally situated in the village for that need.

On Pins and Needles.

Shortly after the arrival of the New Year, I embarked on a pilgrimage of sorts, through the countries of Togo and Benin, Burkina Faso's neighbors to the south. The purpose of this journey was twofold: to attend the annual Voodoo Festival in Ouidah, a small city on the coast of Benin; and to undertake a substantial voyage on my own for the first time ever. Some handy background information on Voodoo: the Beninese government recognizes Voodoo (or Vodun, as some call it) as a legitimate religion, and over 60% of that nation's population are practitioners of the faith; Ouidah, once a major center in the colonial slave trade, played host to the various ethnic and religious groups who eventually combined their beliefs into one system—Voodoo—which was subsequently exported (along with its unfortunate founders) to places like Haiti and New Orleans. As such, Ouidah is held by many to be the international capital of the religion, a sort of Voodoo version of the Vatican.

On my way to the event, I passed through Togo, wanting to check out a country often overlooked by Burkina Faso's Peace Corps volunteers, passed over in favor of Ghana or Mali for their international explorations. I pause here in my tale to acknowledge the Peace Corps volunteers of Togo, whom I found to be genial, generous people. They helped me plan my route, included me in their outings, welcomed me into their homes... and are probably all going to Hell for their irreverent senses of humor. (I will see them there, naturally.) While in Lomé, Togo's capital, I decided to start my Voodoo education early, by visiting the famous fetish market on the outskirts of town. For the curious (and the perverted), allow me to explain the significance of a "fetish" here in West Africa: it is a magical charm, varying in size and shape, which may alternately protect its owner or harm others. The African spiritual tradition of Animism relies heavily on the belief in and use of these fetishes. I won't go much further into the details here, for while it is a subject that fascinates me, its secrets are notoriously well-guarded, and I do not wish to misrepresent it. I will add, however, that it is from this general tradition that the more organized practice of Voodoo evolved.

My visit to the fetish market marked my only real negative experience in Togo, and it was entirely my fault. Simply put, I acted like an American fresh off the airplane, and got taken big time by the savvy market sharks. The set-up there is an impressive sight: tables and urns overflowing with crocodile and monkey skulls, mummified snakes, antelope horns, beaks of dozens of bird species, elephant tusks—wait, did I say elephant tusks? I meant horse hooves, of course, because everyone knows elephants are a protected endangered species. Anyway, there were enough exotic Voodoo ingredients present to fill a dozen safari snuff films. (And yes, there were also the requisite pincushion dolls, a must-have for every self-respecting bush sorcerer.) I arrived with the attention of buying nothing beyond a camera permit, and left with two Voodoo fetishes for which I'm pretty sure I paid at least five times the real price. It happened like this: my self-appointed guide took me to meet the market's féticheur (the person who constructs the fetishes and communes with the spirit world—again, not to be confused with "fetishist"), who demonstrated various items and detailed their significance. I was well aware that most of the lesson was tourist bullshit, my skepticism compounded by the fact that whenever he explained something, the gang of kids hanging out nearby would burst into laughter, obviously amused by the story he was making up on the spot. Then the féticheur pointed out a few pieces that had been "made for" me, offering them, along with his blessing, for... well, for a lot of money. I didn't have that sum on me, but I didn't dare refuse him a slightly less exorbitant tribute. The bottom line is that I was wary of offending someone so deeply involved in Voodoo; I had been cursed in both Mali and Ghana (that trip as of yet unreported here), and I did not want to be hexed again, particularly in such circumstances. (Also, in one of the nearby villages, several people had recently been murdered and decapitated, their heads supposedly taken for sinister ceremonies... and who knew in which market they may have ended up?) Out of the somewhat extortionary deal I received a cowry shell pouch to be worn around the neck (don't ask what's in it), and a diminutive figurine I was supposed to occasionally feed cigarettes and booze. I concluded the two of us would get along great, but over the course of my travels the little guy fell apart on me. Literally. Perhaps I was a bit hasty in fearing the power of this particular witch doctor.

And now, on to the main event! Ouidah was an easy bush taxi ride over the border, and was, as could be expected, ridiculously touristy. Everywhere you went you had to pay a fee, because it was "sacred". I'm almost surprised they didn't try to charge me for breathing the holy air. My host, a colonel in the Beninese army (a friend of a friend of a—you get the idea, yes?), arranged for me to stay in his opulent-yet-unfinished villa. My first night in town, I was the sole occupant, unless you count the compound's security guard. The Colonel, still absent, also commissioned a guide to show me around Ouidah. For some reason the guy, Franck, really grated on my nerves. He was attentive, but annoyingly so; he talked nonstop, and had an exasperating habit of demanding "You understand?" every three minutes (I didn't, because he mumbled and slurred his words together, but I lied and said I did in the hope that he would shut up); and he kept dragging me to tacky tourist spots where I had to fork over handfuls of cash. He brought me to Ouidah's sacred forest (entry fee, camera tax, guide charge... but free air), in reality an enclosed grove home to dozens of plaster statues built to cater to visiting vacationers, and where I was expected to pay off a tree—it was really a transformed king, you understand. After I placed a grudging donation at the base of the royal roots, Franck did the same, but then had the brass, hours later, to tell me to reimburse him. Our last couple hours together, he kept clumsily hinting about how "all" his American friends give him gifts; I bought him dinner, and he expected beer as well. I finally gave him 3000 West African francs to screw off, and managed to evade the dubious pleasure of his company for the rest of my stay, choosing instead to wander the streets of Ouidah in peaceful solitude.

Enter the Colonel. Upon meeting this man I was introduced to a side of African life I had not yet experienced... that of luxury. During the Festival, I lunched with my patron and his family at the mayor's house, just off the beach; we were then chauffeured, by soldiers in Land Rovers, to several Voodoo ceremonies around town, where we were always seated in the VIP section; and we still made it back to the Colonel's villa in time for champagne and escargot. Mind you, I don't eat snails, but in deference to my hosts I managed to choke a few down with the aid of generous chasings of seven-year-old French red wine.

As for the Voodoo Festival itself: it was flamboyant and colorful, but I couldn't help but feel that most of it was arranged for the benefit of foreigners like me, rather than being a genuine celebration of the religion. (This suspicion was validated a few days later in the city of Cotonou, during lunch with an expert on Voodoo, who better illuminated the subject for me.) All the same, the whirling dances of the revenants—performers gaudily dressed and masked as returned spirits—were enthralling. At times a dancer would break away in a swooping attempt to seemingly attack onlookers, but they were always held at bay by their guardians, serious young men who brandished long sticks at the capricious spirits. Documenting the events with photography was an exercise in frustration, as my friends would encourage me to take a picture, and then, just as I focused the shot, they would urgently hiss at me, "No, not now!", causing me to nearly drop the camera in my effort not to offend the practitioners. I finally gave up my attempts altogether, realizing I stood more to enjoy and learn by simply watching, instead of stressing over creating the perfect digital photo album.

The day following the Festival, the Colonel himself drove us to Cotonou, Benin's largest city (and capital in all but name), where I cooled my heels for a few days in the swank apartment of an American expatriate (friend of a friend of a...) while waiting for my onward travel visa to clear. An enforced period of calm, to be sure, but a much-needed one after over a week of frenetic movement. I made the most of my being grounded, visiting neighboring villages, sampling palm wine, meeting with the afore-mentioned Voodoo expert, and enjoying the incomparable cooking of my American friend's full-time chef. Then it was onto an overnight bus up to the border of Burkina, some more visa stampings, and a jump off as my ride passed the great eastern Burkinabé city of Fada N'Gourma. I had observed the famed Voodoo Festival, lounged in the seductive embrace of privilege, and met dozens of intriguing characters... all without a traveling companion holding my hand through the process (or angrily threatening to abandon me in the middle of nowhere). Just yours truly, in a deft demonstration of determinedly dauntless, day-to-day dabbling. Walla-walla, bing... bang.

Thursday, January 03, 2008


Does anyone else notice the irony in the Peace Corps' insistence that all cultures are legitimate and should be respected, while at the same time endeavoring to change fundamental cultural aspects of the countries in which they operate? Of course, Peace Corps is a program under the jurisdiction of the US government, which makes no pretense at valuing other cultures while trying to replace them. A hundred years ago, for example, Americans used to comment on the "barbaric" practices of Arabs, but were content to coexist with a live-and-let-live policy. Nowadays, while we go on and on about respecting the human rights and sovereignty of certain occupied territories, we are also trying to force American-style democracy and capitalism on regions where they have not developed naturally. It's like trying to wedge a square-shaped puzzle piece into a circular hole; with enough force it might stick for a time, but it will never properly fit. How hard can it be to take a step back to learn how the current culture came to be, respecting (or at least understanding) the differences?

Take my assignment here in Burkina Faso: as an agent of Girls' Education and Empowerment, I am supposed to spread a Western concept of female liberation in an area where a traditional division of gender roles has been practiced for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. If I come barreling in now, loudly declaiming that the genders are equal, polygamy is demeaning to women, men should fetch water and cook for their wives, and girls should have career options beyond motherhood, I'm going to get nowhere. I might provoke a few arguments, but most of my neighbors will smile and agree with me—because civility to strangers is another tradition here—and then continue going about their daily business. As a large part of why I signed up for the Peace Corps was my desire to learn about another culture, I try to start each project by doing just that: I listen and watch, interjecting now and then how we do something differently in America, but striving to do so without implying judgment. The only way I am going to convince a Burkinabé to change his ways is by demonstrating the benefits of another option. With respect to gender equity, I don't start with the argument that men and women are equal; that needs to be the end result. Ideally, my neighbors will eventually come to that conclusion on their own, after seeing that they are capable of the same accomplishments and that breaking down gender barriers will help the community. As any historian back in the US can tell you, Women's Lib wasn't built in a day... or even a century.

I would like to take this opportunity to point out that not every instance of the subjugation of women in Burkina is perpetrated by The Man. Let's examine Africa's most abhorred (by the West) action against women, female genital cutting (FGC), the partial or complete removal of the clitoris: in Burkina Faso it is an honored tradition, performed on nearly every girl. And it is carried out by women, old matriarchs cutting their granddaughters. Now, because of Western pressure, the government has officially condemned FGC, but making it illegal has merely forced its practitioners underground, inducting girls of younger and younger ages, in even less sanitary conditions. There you have it: not only is this mutilation of women a treasured cultural ritual, but it is carried out by its own assumed victims. Before my feminist readers come at me with accusations of indifference or complicity, let me ask: how do you prevent women from oppressing themselves? You can tell them it's wrong, but that's subjective, just one society judging another. You can tell them it's unhealthy, but is that enough to counter the prevailing belief that it is an important rite to womanhood?* They could easily ask us why many white people intentionally tan themselves on the beach, courting a future with skin cancer. Is it possible that a large part of why we believe FGC to be wrong is because we were brought up to believe it, molded by our culture in the same way Burkinabé are molded by theirs?

But what gives us the right to impose our ideals and rules on another society? (Aside from military and economic clout, I mean. Or is that all that is required?) Are we trying to change the world to make it better, or just better for us? The Peace Corps will be celebrating its 47th anniversary in the coming year; personally, I don't think you should be too proud of the fact that you went into a country to help raise its standard of living, and now, over four decades later, you're still there! Not only that, but in many cases the living standards are now lower than it was when you first got there. In my book, this would be something to be embarrassed about. Not that I am suggesting Peace Corps is a useless institution; it is invaluable in exposing Americans to alternate sets of values and styles of life. I think if more people went through this kind of in-depth international experience, we would suffer less conflict with the rest of the world, because we would be better equipped to deal with cultural differences. In fact, it is this intercultural perspective Peace Corps has afforded me that now enables me to criticize the development industry as a whole.

So, what is the reason for our continued presence in countries like Burkina Faso? You could blame all sorts of factors: corruption, terrorism, lack of infrastructure, lack of education, etc. I would like to suggest another one: lack of compatibility with Western social mores. We need a new approach to development; the current model promotes as its goal a Euro-American style of life which will simply not work in a society that emphasizes the community over the individual, upholds polygamy, contains over 60 languages, and maintains strong ties with its Animist roots. Either the model fails, or we systematically destroy that which makes the target country unique, effectively turning it into a mini-America (complete with a Starbucks hut in each and every village), its proud heritage reduced to a stop on "Africa!" the politically correct Disney theme park ride. It all depends on where our priorities lie, what kind of a global community we are trying to build. Sometimes it seems like our efforts are going into creating a fast food democracy: yes, it will have all the seasonings of a tasty society, but God help you if you find out what the meat's made of.


* I should add, to be fair, that FGC is considered an important rite to womanhood at least in part because it is widely believed in many African cultures that a woman who has been "cut" will make a more obedient and faithful wife. This nautrally predisposes men to support the practice, putting pressure on women to continue it.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Children of the Millet.

They materialize suddenly from the maze of millet fields, stumbling after you, eyes glazed, hands outstretched, moaning over and over, “bonbon, bonbon.” They are bonbon zombies, and they are five years old. Welcome to Dogon country, Mali.

Several weeks ago, I went on vacation in this region with a couple other Americans, to hike part of the famous Bandiagara Escarpment, a series of high crags once home to the cliff-dwelling Tellem tribes, who built their structures into the very sides of these looming precipices. Although located in the middle of the arid Sahel Desert—a short camel caravan away from the fabled city of Timbuktu—the valleys hidden among the towering rock formations were surprisingly lush, with flourishing gardens and waterfalls. Even during the West African hot season, when temperatures often rise above 110ºF, there are water pockets here that never go dry—no mean feat, I’ve learned after living a year in Burkina Faso.

As may be guessed from the name, the current primary residents of this region are the Dogon, and it was through their villages my companions and I backpacked, following a guide down mud streets and through familial courtyards literally perched on the jagged cliff edges. In the last few decades, Dogon country has become quite the sightseer hotspot, and while they have certainly benefited from the money now flowing through their land, the people have been irrevocably changed by tourism. Examples of foreign funding by wealthy, well-intentioned visitors abound. Our guide steered us through villages with "That's Italian, that's Japanese," pointing out schools and other buildings, all soundly made, all brand-new. But with few exceptions, these structures stood on the outside of communities, pristine yet alien, neglected by the Dogon in favor of the crumbling mud-brick houses to which they were used.

Once I grudgingly admitted to myself that in this situation I was indeed a tourist (Peace Corps volunteers generally hate being grouped in with travelers-for-pleasure), I grasped the sad relationship I was to have with the Dogon villagers during my stay: for us, they were merely part of an exotic landscape to be observed and photographed, unapproachable, inscrutable but for the insights offered by our guide; and for them, we were outsiders wandering through their streets and homes, possibly bearing gifts (from bonbons or kola nuts to straightforward, hard cash) as toll for our intrusion. To neither group was the other completely human, more like strange ghosts drifting through each other’s lives.

Of course, it would be hypocritical for me to completely bemoan the touristization of Dogon country, because it is exactly this system that allowed me to visit this beautiful, fascinating region. I just wish there were a way to see it without getting stared back at, feeling judged (sometimes envied, even disliked) for being a foreigner... a large part of the reason I joined the Peace Corps in the first place. The lesson learned here: if you want to play the tourist game, you're going to have to wear the neon tourist nametag as well; grit your teeth, get used to the idea... then go take a look at that fascinating little hard-carved, locally-made, genuine, authentically-African trinket that would look absolutely splendid in the living room!