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Karl Shang Shang's first months in Burkina Faso
Karl Shang Shang's first months in Burkina Faso
October 3, 2002
Dear Clark Magnet Humanities students:
Greetings from Burkina Faso. I hope you all have had a good start to the school-year and are enjoying your new classes. For those of you new to the Humanities class, it looks like you have some fun and engaging learning ahead of you, from what I see looking at your course outline on the Humanities website. I look forward to corresponding with you this year!
For those of you who were in the Humanities class last year, I want to let you know that I enjoyed your second set of letters that you sent at the end of the year. I was working on a reply, but then I got very sick several weeks ago and had to be med-evac'ed. That means that I was sent to Abidjan, in the neighboring country of Cote D'Ivoire, where there are modern medical facilities and specialists who can diagnose my case and cure me. Unfortunately, while I was getting treated there, a coup attempt happened and so I had to be evacuated to Dakar, Senegal (which has health care available at about the same level as Abidjan). I am still in Dakar, slowly but surely getting well. Basically, I got a bacterical infection that somehow spread into my lungs and then into my left clavicle (collarbone) causing debilitating pain in my shoulder and neck areas, among other symptoms. But, as I said, I am getting better. The Peace Corps doctors here think that I will be able to return to Burkina Faso early next week. That would be good because I am anxious to get back to my Peace Corps adventure!
-- Peace and joy, E. "Kiembara Karl" Shang
Following is an account of Mr. Shang's first months in Burkina Faso:
Chapter One, “Peace Corps Training,” of Peace Corps
Chronicles by E. “Kiembara Karl” Shang
On June 11, 2001, I left Chicago for pre-training “staging” in Philadelphia. Here I met the 38 other volunteers who were going to be serving in Burkina Faso. Well, officially we were not yet volunteers; we were “trainees.” I was struck by how bright, enthusiastic, and young everyone was. Because the two Peace Corps programs (Health Education and Education, i.e. teaching) in Burkina Faso did not require much work experience, most of the trainees here had just recently finished with college. (For more information on these programs, see http://www.peacecorps.gov/countries/burkinafaso/index.cfm.) I was the oldest of the bunch, though there were a couple of others who were also in their early thirties. Despite the relative youth of the group, most had some experience living or traveling extensively abroad. There were even a few who were born in other countries: Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and England. There were others who had done study abroad programs in the African countries of Senegal and Kenya.
We had some ethnic diversity in our group: three Asian-Americans (all male), two African-Americans, two who were bi-racial, and two of Latin American backgrounds. Religiously, we were not very diverse at all; I only knew of one Muslim, a few Catholics, one Jew, and one Buddhist in the group. Everyone else did not seem to actively practice a faith. Gender-wise, we were ¾ female and ¼ male, to the chagrin of most of the females. There were only a couple of trainees who identified themselves as sexual minorities.
“Staging” consisted of two and a half days of getting-to-know-each-other activities, logistics sessions, and last-minute medical stuff, like final vaccinations. It was also a time filled with anticipation and trepidation as we realized that our lives were going to be changing dramatically in a very short time. On June 15th, we were bussed to J.F.K. Airport in New York. From there we flew to Paris where we had a lengthy layover and a change of planes; then to Bamako, capitol of Mali, for another short layover; and finally, after more than 20 hours of travel, we landed at Ouagadougou (affectionately known as “Ouaga”), the capitol of Burkina. (A decent map of Burkina Faso can be found at http://www.lonelyplanet.com/mapshells/africa/burkina_faso/burkina_faso.htm).
The first things I noticed upon exiting the plane was the intense weltering heat of the late afternoon sun and the small faded green trees in the burnt red soil next to the tarmac. No buildings were visible beyond the dilapidated terminal building and the airport seemed strangely quiet. Nonetheless, our spirits were high as we descended from the airplane. We had finally arrived!
The hustle and bustle inside the terminal was a contrast to the quiet emptiness of the tarmac. Our group quickly picked up our baggage and was whisked outside without formality to the cheers of waiting Peace Corps volunteers (who were currently in the middle or at the end of their service in Burkina Faso). But I didn’t see that fanfare. One of my suitcases didn’t arrive with me and so I wasstuck in the Baggage Claims Office for a long time trying to describe my luggage in broken French to the official there.
We spent three days in Ouaga at SIL, a comfortable conference center on the west side of the city. We got a small tour of the city, got introduced to the staff at the Peace Corps headquarters, and had a few sessions to prepare us for our Peace Corps training. My lost suitcase did finally make it to Ouaga, just in time for me to pick it up before our group took the five hour bus ride to Bobo-Dioulasso (affectionately known as “Bobo”), the southern-eastern city where our 3-months Peace Corps training would take place.
During our Peace Corps training, we would stay with Burkinabé host families. I was paired up with Damon Roberts, an Education Program trainee from Ohio, to stay with the friendly Bamouni family. (Go to website: http://photos.yahoo.com/cyberex11 and click on folder:
“PC01 – Peace Corps Training.”* See photos PC1-1 to PC1-5.) The Bamouni family was small by African standards: only 5 children. The norm is 8-10! Three girls, ages 20, 12, and 2; two boys, ages 17 and 6. Mrs. Assita Bamouni knows about the value of child spacing! It was fascinating to live with this family with its wide variance of ages.
The Bamouni family lived in one of several walled compounds on a dirt (often muddy during the rainy season!) street on the north end of Bobo. Most Burkina cities were organized this way. Within a compound would live anywhere from one to several families. In the Bamouni compound there was a main large house where most of the family lived and three side houses. Oboo, the 17-year-old son lived in one; Damon and I lived in a second; and half of another family (a mom and two of her daughters) rented the third. In the compound also were a small kitchen shed where most of the meal-preparation would take place, a latrine, a bathing area (bucket baths), and a water pump that was connected to the city water lines. The water pump was the only water source in the compound. During the day, the compound gate was open and neighbors and their kids would wander in and out. At night, the compound gate was closed and locked to keep out thieves.
Jacques Bamouni, the father, worked at the railroad office in town. There is only one railroad in Burkina Faso and it goes from Ouagadougou through Bobo-Dioulasso to the Atlantic Ocean port at Abidjan in Cote D’Ivoire. Bobo is the economic hub of Burkina Faso and the railroad was vital to its development. Assita worked part-time as a plastics (buckets, tableware, etc.) vendor at the local market; otherwise, she ran the Bamouni household. Damon and I enjoyed spending our evenings with them discussing our days and chatting about life in the U.S. and life in Burkina Faso.
Our days were spent at the training site where we alternated between cross-cultural sessions, small group French (and later, local language) classes, personal health sessions (where we learned how we could stay mentally and physically fit living in Burkina Faso villages), and technical classes to prepare us for our working in our programs (see photos PC1-6 to PC1-9*). Training each day was long and intense, but usually instructive and engaging. We were given a lot of information during the day and had a lot of homework at night. After only two weeks, we had our first E.T. E.T. stands for Emergency Termination, the official Peace Corps designation for someone who quits. Dan, a Health Education trainee just out of college, was just not ready for the rigors of Peace Corps.
Since there were two Peace Corps programs in Burkina Faso, our group was split up about half the time for the technical sessions. The Education Program trainees had to learn how to lesson plan, grade papers, and teach within the education system based on the rigid French model. Only Damon had had any teaching experience at all (6 months as a long-term sub); many of the Education Program trainees were nearly right out of college. I was reminded of many of my own challenges during student-teaching back during my U.C.L.A. days as I watched many of these trainees struggle through Model School, a summer school-like program where the trainees could practice their teaching on real African school-kids.
The Health Education Program was more varied. First, we had classes where we learned the background and structure of the national health system in Burkina Faso. Then we were given “tools” on how to work with our local health posts and local communities to create health education programs (called in French: “sensibilisations”). Next, we were sent off in groups of three on five overnight visits (over the course of six weeks) to nearby villages to see how local health posts work first-hand and we were given the chance to work with the local communities. Felecia, Kristie, and I were sent to Satiri, a beautiful little village twenty kilometers northeast of Bobo, where we worked closely with the local women’s association and the local medical administrative board on ways they could approach the major health problems within the village (see photos PC1-10 to PC1-14*).
The latter part of July was an exciting time for us trainees. First, we were given the exciting news of where each of us would be posted. I learned that I would be in Kiembara, a village of about 5000 inhabitants in the northeast of the country midway between the cities of Tougan and Ouahigouya (see country map at http://www.lonelyplanet.com/mapshells/africa/burkina_faso/burkina_faso.htm). Then we attended a two-day counterpart workshop. Here each of us was able to meet a colleague from our post (our “counterpart”) with whom we would work closely during our Peace Corps service. Joseph Kabore, the head nurse of the Kiembara Medical Center came down to meet me and take part in the workshop. Afterwards, each of us went back with our counterparts for a weeklong visit to our future sites. This was an opportunity for us to get acquainted with our future communities, see our future homes, and get a taste of what our lives would be like for the next two years (see photos PC1-15 to PC1-18*).
After site-visits, we Health Education trainees embarked on the final unit of our technical program: working in small groups with local (Bobo) community groups to create a health education animation project. (An animation project is basically a way to animate, or bring to life, health education ideas.) My group worked with several enthusiastic local high school students to create a skit and song on family planning (see photos PC1-19 to PC1-20*).
Despite the relative intensity of our training, we trainees did take several opportunities to relax and blow off stress during our three months in Bobo. On July 4th, we had our own “Independence Day Olympics” with traditional U.S. events like the 3-legged race combined with Burkinabé creations like the race where contestants had to carry buckets of water on their heads and a baby doll on their backs. We also did a fashion show with our host families where we modeled both American and Burkinabé fashions (see photos PC1-21 to PC1-23*). Two of our more risqué trainees dressed up in drag. The response from the American trainees was rambunctious; the response of the Burkinabé families in the audience was notably muted. They didn’t quite understand why anyone would dress up in drag!
One August Saturday, we took a field trip to the scenic region of Banfora, about 60 miles southeast of Bobo. Here we visited the “Domes,” strange rock formations that towered high over cultivated fields below (see photos PC1-24 to PC1-26*). They were strange to see in Burkina Faso, a country noted for its relative flatness. Another August Saturday saw us celebrating the birthdays of four volunteers at One Love Pool Club, a Bobo dance bar and restaurant with a swimming pool (see photos PC1-27 to PC1-28*).
The end of August was the end of our training, three initial exhausting and exhilarating months in Burkina Faso. This ending was an emotional time for us. It was a time of sadness and nostalgia as we prepared to bid farewells to our host families, our Peace Corps teachers, and each other. This was also a time of celebration as we realized how much we had learned and achieved in our short time in country. Finally, it was also a time of nervousness and excitement as we looked ahead towards our two years of service in villages all around Burkina Faso. We held an end-of-training party at Club Sonabel (another Bobo bar and restaurant) that was attended by our host families and the entire Peace Corps training staff (see photos PC1-29 to PC1-31*).
On August 31st, 2001, we were officially sworn-in as Peace Corps volunteers in a formal televised ceremony held in Ouagadougou at the beautiful home of Jimmy Kolker, the U.S Ambassador to Burkina Faso. Most of us wore traditional West African outfits to celebrate our upcoming new lives in West Africa. Speeches were given by the ambassador, the Peace Corps country director, and by select volunteers in French and various local languages. Guests included government dignitaries and officials. Afterwards there was a wonderful reception and a party at the American Recreation Club. We were now officially Peace Corps volunteers! (See photos PC1-32 to PC1-34.)
*For photos of “Peace Corps Training,” go to website:
http://photos.yahoo.com/cyberex11 and click on folder:
“PC01 – Peace Corps Training.”
**For more photos of Bobo-Dioulasso, check out
End of Chapter One, “Peace Corps Training,” of Peace Corps
Chronicles by E. K. “Kiembara Karl” Shang
Coming soon: Chapter Two, “Kiembara.”
Send letters to: E. Karl Shang, Corps de la Paix,
01 B.P. 392, Ouahigouya 01, Burkina Faso, West Africa
Send packages to: E. Karl Shang, Corps de la Paix,
01 B.P. 6031, Ouagadougou 01, Burkina Faso, West Africa