May 26, 2003 - Personal Web Site: From 1979 to 1981, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso

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From 1979 to 1981, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso

From 1979 to 1981, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso

From 1979 to 1981, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso in West Africa. Back in those days, it was called La Haute Volta, or Upper Volta. I lived in the town of Ouahigouya in the far north of the country.

My official job was to be a rural extension agent working with several young farmers' schools. I did this (a little) but also ended up doing a series of other projects including vacination campaigns for chickens, goats, and sheep as well as supervising the construction and equiping of a series of chicken farms (without particular success).

This web site includes pictures I took during those years as well as bits and pieces of cultural explanation.

Much of Ouahigouya is low and flat. Most buildings are made of banco, or mud brick. The earth is red, hard, and difficult to work.

In the center of the old town, there is a monument put up during colonial times. There is also an ancient, Sudanic style mosque (seen here in the background). The town center is really an artifact of colonial days. I never saw anyone using this park. The real town center is the marketplace.

More of that later.

This gives you a feel for some of the colors and textures of the streets in Ouahigouya.

Boabab trees are a frequent feature of the landscape.

Here is the road out of town. My house was actually about a mile and a half out of this town and I traveled this way to and from town every day.

Most of the time, the barrier was put down when there were heavy rains and the road was closed.

When, in 1980, there was a coup d'etat, there were soldiers with sub-machine guns stationed here and the roads were closed for other reasons.

Here's a picture of my house (during the rainy season). It is a very unusual place for Burkina. It was built, perhaps in the 60s, as a residence for the keeper of an experimental farm and stood by itself on a large piece of land. Burkinabe, however, do not generally like to live alone and many people in town believed that, at night, ghosts traveled down a road that went just by the house. The result was that only crazy foreigners like myself would live there.

Furthermore, I kept the area around the house green. Burkinabe would be very unlikely to do that because of the animal life it attracts. I never saw any of the ghosts (my local friends insisted that it was because they were black ghosts and only appeared to black people). I did, however, have all sorts of interesting (and frequently unpleasant) animal life in my house.

More sensible people have houses and courtyards that look much more like this. This is the courtyard of a school instructor who lived south of Ouahigouya. You'll notice the pots in the back for cooking and for water. You'll also notice that there is no trace of green. The living area is pounded earth. That makes much more sense if you want to keep the bugs, rodents, reptiles...under control.

Here's another courtyard. This one is more urban and you can see that instead of clay pots, this family has metal and plastic.

There is one thing unusual about this picture: a younger child is sitting while older children and adults stand. That is a bit strange since in Burkina age almost always takes precedence. People almost always defer to the elders.

Traditionally, women's work in Burkina was extraordinarily grueling. The main staple dish in much of rural Burkina is called sagabo. It is millet paste with various sauces. One of women's principle jobs was grinding millet into flour by hand.

Grinding stones are often set into large mud-brick tables like this one so that many women can stand and grind millet together.

I'm sure you can still find grinding tables like this in many villages in rural Burkina, but relatively inexpensive diesel powered mills have become much more available and now most people probably have their millet ground for them.

Of course, men's work is no cinch either. One of the men's main jobs was (and remains) preparing and planting the fields. The fields are usually worked with a short handled hoe called a daba. Planting with a daba, as these folks are doing here, is back breaking work.

Building houses is another male activity.

Houses are built and repaired during the dry season (for obvious reasons).

Traditional mud-brick houses work well in the Burkina climate. They hold some of the cool of the evening throughout the heat of the day and some of that heat during the cool of the evening.

Of course, that only works when the weather is moderate. During the hot season (March-June), it is well over 100 almost every day. Then, there really isn't any way to get cool.

Another male occupation is blacksmithing. Wives of blacksmiths are often potters making large clay jars for cooking and for storing water.

In the top picture, a group of smiths sits around chatting. The two skin covered drums at the front right of the picture are a set of bellows.

In the bottom picture, a Peace Corps volunteer takes a shot at working the bellows.

Ouahigouya is widely known as a market town. Here's the market as seen from the top of the Hotel du Nord. As you can see, it is a warren of corrugated steel sheds. You can buy just about anything you could want in there, if you know where to look.

For me, the market was just about the most interesting thing about Ouahigouya. Whenever I got bored (which was pretty often) I would go wandering around the market. I'd always find interesting things to see and people to talk to.

In the market, the more prosperous merchants have sheds. Here's a merchant who sells large cooking pots and other metal ware.

Here is a dry goods merchant in his store. He's a bit hard to see, but you do get a good view of some of the stuff people commonly sell. The blue boxes in the center, for example, are one kilo boxes of sugar cubes. The white paper covered boxes to their right are matches. Further to the right there are cellophane packets of pasta. In front of those, cans of tomato paste. Move a little to the left and you have cans of sardines. There are also bullion cubes, powdered milk, bleach, Nescafe instant coffee, and various hair and skin products.

Of course, not everyone in the market is as prosperous as the last two merchants. In fact, most people buying and selling probably do not have their own shed. They just have a place where they sit.

Many of the people selling are women, but in Ouahigouya, they are almost always confined to trading in locally grown food and spices. This woman, again hard to see, is a spice vendor. By the way, people don't usually wear such unusual hats in the market. I usually bought my spices from this lady and we spoke together most days. When she saw me coming with my camera, the basin of spices on her head and called for me to take her picture.

There are many people who cannot afford a place inside the market itself. Again, these are mostly women who sit around the market next to the road. Most of them sell fresh fruit or vegetables. They may grow these themselves or buy them from gardeners.

At night, men and women set up booths in this location and sell prepared foods: grilled meat, roasted peanuts, termites (in season), salad, coffee, and other goodies.

You find other folks around the market place as well.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I was issued a moped. These were the guys who kept it running.

That engine was taken apart more times than I would care to remember.

I was so fascinated with the market during the years I spent in Ouahigouya that it seemed natural, when I went to grad school, to choose the market as my area of study.

I left Ouahigouya in 1981 and started grad school. But, by 1994-1995, when I was ready to do my fieldwork, the political situation in Burkina was no longer good for Americans. So, instead of going back to Ouahigouya to study the market, I went to Sikasso, in Mali.

But that is another essay.

Oh yes, and what did I look like back in those days?

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anthro page

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Story Source: Personal Web Site

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Burkina Faso; Anthropology; Photography - Burkina Faso



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