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Another Letter from Burkina Faso from PCV E. "Kiembara Karl" Shang
Another Letter from Burkina Faso from PCV E. "Kiembara Karl" Shang
Saturday, February 8th, 2003
Dear Students of Clark Magnet High School:
Enclosed in this letter are the answers to the questions that you asked in the letters you wrote last October. At last! I have also included two essays that I had to write for my Peace Corps application as several of you asked why I joined the Peace Corps.
Before I get into answering your questions, let me first tell you how much I enjoyed reading all of your letters. It was fascinating to read about your lives in southern California. Some of what you told me was familiar (like hearing about the L.A. Lakers or playing paintball), but some of it was strange (such as new videogames and movies that came out after I left the U.S.). I was much impressed with the group research projects that you did last fall on different countries in Africa. Many of you had some interesting insights as a result of your research and your questions to me reflected that.
Some of you asked questions that I answered in letters sent before. In interest of time (my time, that is), I ask you to find answers to those questions there. I'm sure your teachers can help you find them. If you don't see the answer to your question(s) in this letter, then that is probably why. A few additional questions weren't addressed also because they were vague and too general. Questions like these include: "What are their traditions?" and "What are the living conditions?" Instead, ask me about specific traditions (like funerals), specific living conditions (like how a family prepares food), etc.
O.K. On to the questions (and the answers)! I apologize if I misspell anyone's name. Sometimes, it was difficult to read your signatures!
1) QUESTIONS ABOUT AFRICA IN GENERAL
Mimi K. and Zaven 0. asked if Africa really is in as bad shape as reported? The answer to that is a bit complicated. Certainly, sub-Saharan Africa as a whole faces many grave challenges, including civil unrest, unstable governments, exploitation by developed nations and multinationals (corporations), poverty, famine, and sickness (especially malaria and AIDS), but that doesn't mean that everyone is helpless and depressed. The human spirit is resilient and even despite the massive problems going on, people continue to live their lives as best they can.
Also, the news reporting generally focuses on the worst of the worst (like when there are major famines and major civil wars resulting in mass deaths). It is not like that everywhere, only in pockets, but still the general problems are quite formidable. Alex H. mentioned that people will die quickly without water or food, but the problem generally isn't the total lack of water or food, but the limited and poor quality of them resulting in malnutrition, dehydration, and overall poor health (which can make one much more susceptible to diseases).
Gary A. asked if there is any hope. Most assuredly there is hope to find solutions to all of Africa's problems (all of which aren't confined to Africa but can be found around the glove), although it is easy to slip into feeling helpless as because the task of solving Africa's problems are so immense. Grikor 0., Sevada I./ Mauouk M. wondered how Africa is being helped besides Peace Corps. In fact, there are hundreds of programs from all over the world involved in Africa. There are governmental financial assistance programs where governments simply donate money directly to another government. There are also government-sponsored programs like the Peace Corps - France, Switzerland, and Japan all have programs similar to Peace Corps. There are N.G.O.'s (non-governmental organizations) too that operate in Africa like Habitat for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, and Catholic Relief Services. There are also international economic organizations like the World Bank and the I.M.F. and international political organizations like the United Nations involved in Africa. Actually, it would be a good research project to learn about all these different aid groups.
Grikor 0. asked if there is still racism between whites and blacks. Race relations differs in every country depending on its history and current situation. Your class studied South Africa, which had some of the most atrocious race relations in African history, but it also now has some of the most ambitious programs to combat racism and promote racial healing. So it is doing stuff to help people, Wisam-Niole E. (In Burkina Faso, race relations are quite good, possibly because France had a fairly hands-off policy towards Burkina Faso during the time when it was Burkina Faso's colonial ruler.)
Joshua S. wondered why most African countries have unstable governments/economies and how is the U.S. different? Part of the reason was that most of them are so new, relatively speaking. Even the U.S. had its share of growing pains as a new country in the late 1700's and early 1800's. A few major advantages that the U.S. had in its development were its vast natural resources and its relative isolation from the rest of the world (resulting in less exploitation by other peoples). One major disadvantage for African nations is that their borders were created by European colonial powers without much regard to natural features or any regard at all to local peoples. Oftentimes, the borders split ethnic groups in two, which caused interethnic rivalries and power struggles.
Seo K./ Gayane T./ Varton G. asked how dark Magnet School students can help. First of all is to do what you all are doing this year, which is to become educated on Africa. Second of all, one can support groups that are doing aid work in Africa, either by donating funds or by donating materials. Thirdly, one can petition our own U.S. government to do more in helping Africa. Students are often under the misconception that we need to choose between doing more to alleviate inequity and poverty in the U.S. and doing more to help abroad, but there is no reason why we can't be doing more both at home and abroad. Lastly, you can work more directly with me in aid projects such as the Kiembara high school library project.
2) QUESTIONS COMPARING BURKINA FASO TO AFRICA
Ani A./ Melissa D./ Ofelia P., and Ellizza L. asked about apartheid and segregation in Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso never had an official policy of apartheid and segregation. Unlike South Africa, Burkina Faso does not have a substantial population of whites. Ryan S. asked if there is civil war. The answer is no, though neighboring Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have had their shares of civil wars in recent years. Mannuel G. and Francis C. asked what major problems Burkina Faso faces. And how is it different from other poor and corrupt countries?
The major problems that I mentioned in the section above are fairly prevalent in Burkina Faso/ though times aren't dire right now as the government is fairly stable and the recent harvests decent. Burkina Faso's main difficulty is in its poverty; it simply has a major lack of valuable natural resources.
3) BURKINA FASO GOVERNMENT/POLITICS
Andy Stichar asked how big a role the government plays in the daily life of the Burkinabe. The answer is that it doesn't, which is very different from the U.S., where the activities of the government are part of almost aspect of our lives (think sales tax, local zoning laws, safety labeling). Maral M. and Mauouk M. asked why the government is weak? And is there an apartheid law in BF and other African nations? If by weak, you mean that its role is small, the answer is poverty. The government simply does not have means to spend money on many projects. Even basic programs like health care and education are not well-funded. Official apartheid policy does not exist on Africa today, as far as I know, although segregation exists in varying degrees depending on country.
Ryan S. asked if the government is corrupt and abusive. Certainly, there are elements within the government that are corrupt and abusive, but in general government agencies generally are perceived as even-handed, though some degree of favoritism seems to be the norm.
Maral M. and Manuel G. asked about equality of citizens. It seems that the vast majority of people in Burkina Faso are equal... equally impoverished! There is a class of civil servants (state employees like teachers, nurses, police forces, government officials, etc.) that are better paid and better educated and so are perceived as "above" the general population.
4) BURKINA FASO YOUTH
I discussed this topic some in earlier letters, but Andy Stichar asked an interesting question: "Are they rushed into adulthood early?" I think so. Part of it is because few finish high school and even fewer go to college. So most Burkinabe are working by their late teens. Then they get married and start having children early, usually by their early 20's. Maral M. and Gayane T. asked if the Burkinabe receive a good education and how much. Schools here often are overcrowded, lack basic materials, and don't have qualified teachers for all classes. So I would say that it is difficult to get a good education. For a select few (and few means generally less than five per high school) that do well on tests given at the end of high school, college scholarships are available me even go on to study in universities in France and Switzerland.
Vostank M. asked of there are lots of homework. There is homework and I suspect that like everywhere else in the world, it is considered a lot by the students. Ellizza L. asked if women get education. Yes, some do, but few beyond primary school. For example, the 3eme class at the local high school (equal to 10th grade in the states) has 14 girls in it out of a total of almost 70 students.
5) BURKINA FASO GEOGRAPHY
Paul Kim asked if the land has a lot of green areas or is it mostly desert. And how is the air there? To quote from the Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa, "Landlocked Burkina Faso has a variety of landscapes. The harsh desert and semidesert of the north resembles the terrain of its neighbors, Mali and Niger. But Burkina is only in part a country of the Sahel. Its dominant feature is the vast central laterite plateau, where hardy trees and bushes thrive, which gives way to woodland and savanna further south. In the south-west.. .the rainfall is heavier and there are forests as well as irrigated sugar-cane and rice fields." Because of the lack of industry, the air is very clean except during the season of Harmattan winds (Nov.- Feb.) when the air is often full of dust.
Zaven 0. wondered if I like the scenery here. For the most part, the scenery is not spectacular, but there are features I like, such as the red earth, the old Baobab trees, and the stunning night sky. Ken C., Maral M./ and Gayabe T. asked about environmental problems. The greatest environmental problem is deforestation (because firewood supplies 95 of the energy needs of the population) and soil erosion, such that the Sahara desert creeps southward each year. There are several NGO-supported local projects that are addressing these problems (though not currently the Peace Corps at this time).
6) OTHER GENERAL QUESTIONS ABOUT BURKINA FASO
Grikor 0. asked what are the thoughts of the Burkinabe? Well, first of all I am not a mind-reader, but I would guess that their thoughts would be as wide-ranging as Americans. David A., Stacy R./ Norma A., Argine S./ Christ H./ Liiit V./ and Ann J. asked how the people are different. And what is their lifestyle? Is everyone starving and have no clothes to wear? What is the country like? No, not everyone is starving and naked, though adequate food and quality clothing is not abundant. People generally have only a few pieces of clothing to wear and little variety to eat. Of course, there are many other differences too, including food, language, culture, religion, economics, etc. What specific differences would you like to know? Questions vague like "What is their lifestyle and what is the country like are difficult to answer because really the answers to those questions can be entire books. I guess one thing I can share is that the biggest thing that affects their lifestyle is the fact that the vast majority of adults (and many children) work in the fields as farmers. So, Annie A./ it is true that the economy is based on agriculture.
Anna S. and Zaven 0. asked if the Burkinabe are well-educated and friendly? Although there are a few well-educated Burkinabe/ the vast majority of them are not. However, the Burkinabe are well-known for their friendliness and hospitality. Annie A. asked about TV's, game systems, and malls. Generally, televisions only exist on the cities and larger villages. In Kiembara, there are a few people who own television; most villagers go to the local "video club" to watch t.v. programs and occasionally videos. I have not seen a game system here and there are not malls at all like we have in the states. (I did see shopping malls in the capitol cities of Ivory Coast and Senegal.)
Artur M. asked about child abuse, women abuse, and polluted water. Child abuse within families seems to be rare, based on what I see. Sometimes though, children are sent to live with distant relatives or are recruited to work on larger plantations in neighboring countries and they work as virtual slaves. Women are sometimes beaten by their husbands and this is a problem, especially in the rural regions where women tend to be uneducated. Water tends not to be polluted (as there isn't much industry here), just dirty as it comes up from wells. Pumps tend to go deeper in the earth (a natural filter) and so they bring up clearer water.
Peter L asked if Burkina Faso was what I expected. The answer is yes. I have had previous travel experience in poor, undeveloped countries, so the poverty and lack of technology didn't shock me. Hovik asked how dramatically the lives of Burkinabe would change if they came to America? In a word: lots.
Annie A. asked about the music here. Well, you have sampled some of the modern sounds of Burkina Faso through the tape that I sent. Traditional music is performed regularly as well, especially in the rural areas where there isn't electricity. (You need to electricity to play amplified music.) You probably can find some traditional West African music at your local library.
7) MY WORK
I have described extensively my work in previous letters, so I will simply give an update here. Most of what I have been up to lately is helping to find and facilitate funding for a variety of local educational and health projects. (I don't teach about agriculture, Tarek K.) One is to fund the construction of wells and latrines and a nearby local school. Another is financing the purchase of educational materials for those 14 girls of 3eme that I mentioned earlier. I am also facilitating the training of AIDS educators in the nearby village of Dio who will do AIDS educational programs in the Dio region. Recently, I helped health district officials to write up a proposal to gain money for Guinea Worm educational programs in Gorgare, a Guinea Worm endemic village near Kiembara. I still very much enjoy my work and find it satisfying, not too difficult and not easy either, to answer the questions of Narek D., Andrew A., Michael C./ Dar I./ Armond G./ Austin F./ Francis C., Garen K./ Alan M./ and John S.
Ann J. asked: "As a teacher, what kind of experiences have you had with your students?" Well, although I am an educator here, I am not a formal classroom teacher (though I was in the U.S.), so my experiences with students here have been limited to the health and gender development projects I have been involved with at the schools. Liiit V. asked me about the people I work with. These tend to be nurses and health officials. Sometimes I collaborate with other Peace Corps volunteers, like on the AIDS Bike-a-thon that I participated in last December. In those situations, I travel with a group, Nare S. Other times, I travel alone, like if I was heading to Tougan, the health district capital, or to Ouagadougou to meet with health officials.
Salby N., Srbouhi, and Arfan S. wanted to know: "Do you ever feel sad for someone you don't know? Don't you get depressed when you see sick children/suffering people?" Of course it is difficult sometimes to see tragedy up close, but that also motivates me to work more at trying to alleviate the conditions that cause such tragedy.
8) MY LIFE HERE
Artur M. and Mariana A. wondered if I like Burkina Faso or would I rather be elsewhere? I like Burkina Faso well enough for two years of Peace Corps service. There are other places in the world that would also have been fascinating to work in, but I am pleased that I chose to work here. Andy C. wanted to know if people look at me strangely. Well, in my village itself, not at all because they all know me now, though the village children still like to cry out "Nasara, Nasara!" when I pass by them. ("Nasara" means stranger in Moore, a local language.) In Burkina Faso in general, I do garner inquisitive and curious looks (and comments) often. Gayane T. and Ann J. asked if anything has gone wrong so far. Not really except for recent struggles with my health, which you have heard about. Ann J. also asked about clothes I wear. I did bring a few pairs of clothing from the U.S., but since custom-made tailoring here very inexpensive, I have also had several outfits made from local cloth. I have also inherited some "hand-me-downs" from Peace Corps volunteers who have left.
Joshua S. wanted to know about life without electricity. I do have two car batteries that I connect to a boombox and a florescent light to use. With judicial use, they last the ten days before the day assigned to me when I can recharge them with Kiembara Medical Center solar plaques. (There are other health personnel who charge their batteries the other nine days.) I also often use kerosene lamps, candles, and flashlights at night too. John R. asked an interesting question: "In your time in Burkina Faso, do you feel that there is something that you feel the need to change, but that is beyond the scope of your reach? " Well, I know that individually I can only make a small contribution during my time here in the solving the immense problems of Africa, but I also do know that my little contribution does help.
Ellizza L. asked if I have witnessed death or human rights violations. I have seen occasional death, mostly as a result of illness. The right that I have seen denied most frequently is the right of children to have a basic education. Christ H. wondered how I balance between the lifestyle here and in the U.S. Like in any immigrant culture, one mixes the old and the new. So I will make some American style dishes like tuna casserole, but mixed with locally-made curry.
Ani N. wanted to know if the Burkinabe like me, hate me, or are envious of me. I think (and hope) that for the most part I am well-liked in Kiembara. Of course, I think there must be a certain amount of envy, just like if someone who grew up in Beverly Hills came to live temporarily in your community. Joshua S. asked if I have had my life threatened? The answer is not at all.
9) LANGUAGE AND ADJUSTMENT
I have already described in previous letters the cultural adjustment that I had to go through after my arrival. At this point in my Peace Corps service, I feel very comfortable in my life here. Oh, still I have communication difficulties as I haven't really become fluent in any local languages (preferring to concentrate on my French), but other than that, I don't have any adjustment problems to cultural norms and traditions. (French is widely spoken in the cities and larger villages. I have a harder time when I go to smaller villages where I must find a translator, to answer the question of Argine S./ Armen S./ and Carol C.) I do find it easier to learn French here where I have to use it everyday than when I studied it back home, Tarek K. At this point, I think I can only say that I speak English and French fluently, Joshua S. I do miss my lifestyle back home and am looking forward to my return later this year to the middle-class American world of convenient and comfortable living. I do wonder how life has changed in the U.S., Dar I. I am looking forward to finding out!
Maria M. asked me some questions about my health, such as if I have felt threatened by AIDS and if so, how was I treated? I myself haven't felt threatened by AIDS, although one volunteer was given an emergency drug as a precaution because she was splashed by afterbirth while assisting with a childbirth. Maria M. also wondered if I have a nice home and good drinking water? The answer to both is yes. My house is nice by Burkinabe standards and I get clear pump water which I then filter using a filter system that Peace Corps provided me. So that is how clean drinking water can be found, Zaven 0. and Eric V. "How are common diseases treated?" asked Eric V. and Karina N. Home remedies are often used for common diseases, some of them have medical backing, others do not. If the illness is serious, the villager goes to the nearest government medical post where they can see a nurse and buy medicine. Karan A. wanted to know how volunteers are medically treated.
There are two full-time nurses who work for the Peace Corps. They have a good stock of medications and treatments available comparable to what can be found in the U.S. They also pay for us to see specialists in Ouagadougou or in Dakar, Senegal if needed. Michelle B. asked me what disease I had and how is my health now. The Peace Corps medical staff is still investigating the cause of the disease that I had.
One suspicion is that I have an illness called Rheumatoid Arthritis, which can strike younger adults. But we are still not totally sure. Lastly, Jinny Shim asked if it is true that there are 2.5 million dying and 250000 living with AIDS/HIV in Africa. I don't know the exact numbers, but I know that in some sub-Saharan countries, the infection rate is up to 35. Here in Burkina Faso/ the infection rate is between 9-15 of the population.
11) QUESTIONS ABOUT PEACE CORPS
Sevag A./ Marilyn Y., Kristine E./ Alain B./ Arpine T./ Emin K./ Melissa D./ and David A. asked if I recommend the Peace Corps. Also, how does one know it is right for them and what resources about Peace Corps are there? I do recommend the Peace Corps whole-heartedly, but I also know that it's not for everyone. The best way to find out more about the Peace Corps is to research the service on the internet at its website (www.peacecorps.gov) and to talk to a Peace Corps recruiter. There are also Peace Cors discussion groups on the web and occasional news reports on Peace Corps in the press. "How is it to travel and see how people live in each country?" wondered Ani A. Fascinating! And there is no better way to see a country than to live there for a time, I think! Eusebio T. wondered who chooses the country of assignment. The Peace Corps chooses the country of assignment, but you can request regions and they will honor your requests if they can.
Henrik G. asked if there are any sports/athletics in the Peace Corps? There are definitely Peace Corps programs that involve sports/athletics. Youth Development and Community Development in particular. Many volunteers involve sports and athletics within their local projects. For example, I know a couple educational volunteers that have started girls' soccer programs at their schools. Carol C. asked at what age can one start getting involved with the UN? I think Carol meant to ask about the Peace Corps, where the age minimum is 18. If she really wants to know about how to get involved with the U.N./1 know that there are programs for youth including Model United Nations. Ask your teachers about them.
Andrew A. wanted to know how volunteers stay motivated? I think a combination of factors are involved in keeping volunteers motivated. One is the intrinsic satisfaction that comes from helping others. Also, working with people we like and respect contributes to staying focused and motivated. Lastly, having the support of friends and family is almost imperative to staying motivated.
12) OTHER QUESTIONS
Anna S./ Sareen K., Kevin W./ Roman K., and Jenny L. asked if it was hard to leave my whole life behind and live under PC conditions and if I thought it was worth it. The answer to both these questions are yes, yes! Of course, any change in life is a challenge, and the Peace Corps experience is definitely a big change. But it definitely has been worth it for me to live and work here for two years. Joshua S./ Michelle B./ Karina N./ Vosstank M./ and Anna S. asked if I will treasure this experience or have regrets, and if I plan to apply for an extended third year. The answers is that I have no regrets at all and that I will treasure much of what I have experienced. I don't plan to stay a third year, though. It's time to come back home. I miss my family. If I wanted to continue with Peace Corps somewhere else though, I would choose a place in the Pacific Islands, Niyiri M. Armen K. wanted to know what I don't take for granted in the U.S. now. I would have to say basic luxuries like running water, electricity, and telephone lines.
Armen S./ Jason K./ and Arthur F. asked about souvenirs and photos. Tourists that come to Burkina Faso usually leave with carved objects such as masks, decorated fabrics such as batiks, jewelry, and music such as the tape that I sent to you. I hope you enjoyed the photos that I sent. I will try to send you more or you can check out more at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/KiembaraKarl/. (You will have to register with Yahoo if you don't already have a Yahoo ID.) I haven't updated the website recently though...
O.K. That's it this time! I think you will have to ask me fewer questions next time so that it won't take me so long to answer them. Maybe decide together as a class what questions you want to ask. Also, remember, specific questions are much better than vague ones, especially those general ones that you can find out yourselves from the library or the internet.
E. "Kiembara" Shang