Sunday, June 22, 2014

Keep on keeping on

June 22, 2014,
Wow! Been here for just over a month now! Seems hard to believe but, c'est la verite.  Sorry for no blog post last week, I know some of you were crushed... ;-)  In fact, last weekend, I got to get out of the city for the first time, my housemate organized for a large group of people an outing to Nazinga Game Reserve which is by the Ghanaian border. This is a game reserve, meaning folks can hunt as well as just be camera tourists. I had never been to any game park in West Africa so, it was interesting. Certainly, the number of animals and the diversity of bigger animals cannot be compared to East or Southern Africa but, one thing that was really nice is that it is a much more relaxed, low-key park so I think we only saw a total of 3 other vehicles while w were there-also, this is not peak season which also helps.  Nazinga is best known for its elephants, of which it has approximately 800.  We were at the park for about exactly 24 hours and the first afternoon/evening, we didn't see any elephants, but the next morning, we got to see 2 different groups of elephants which was cool. There were some young elephants in the group and one of the mama elephants was not too pleased to have us around so she half-charged us a couple times, enough the one time to get us to speed away in the pickup. Anyway, it was really nice to get out of Ouagadougou and see a bit of the countryside. Burkina Faso, particularly now in the rainy season, is way more green and lush than I ever thought it would be. Really beautiful to be honest, lots of great Baobob trees which are just amazing to see, and during this time of the year they even have their leaves, though their fruit is pretty much done "pain de singe" is what they call the fruit here, make it also into a delicious drink, which people in Senegal also drank.

This weekend has also been a good time. Friday, after work, we had a cocktail event to honor one of the Embassy senior members and it was a really fun event.  Got to meet a lot of Burbinabe in various different positions here and had some scintillating conversation about politics here in the African continent.  In particular, we discussed the challenges faced by countries such as Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Algeria and what the futures of these places might hold.  It was really interesting to get their insight, as well as the insight of some of the other expatriates that were in attendance.  I also found out that an individual from the EU delegation went to HKS so it was fun to chat about Boston a bit with that person. Overall, a really good evening. The man who we were celebrating is on the defense side of the embassy and it was humbling to see how appreciated he was by the Burkinabe in attendance; so many compliments on what he's done and how he treats people. In his concluding speech, I really appreciated that he started it by thanking the Burkinabe for their work with him and he did it in French. That may not sound like a huge effort, but it really is and you can tell that it's things like that which have made him be such a loved member of the community here in Burkina Faso.

Saturday night, one of the Americans hosted a really lovely barbecue at their house so that was a blast to go hang out, eat some delicious foods and just chill. I was there for about 3 or so hours and then I went to la Fete de la Musique. I guess that all across the francophone world, this is a thing. I didn't hear every single artist as the concert had started at "6 pm" which means it likely started around 6:40 or so. but, I did get to hear Akilignouma, which is a really high-paced band with 2 koras, dancers who were really great. Then, I also got to hear Mariam Kone who you are most likely to have heard of as she is a very well-known Malian artist. Coolest thing about this was I got to meet her after the concert and then at the afterparty concert which took place at Bar K, we just sat next to her and her drummer as different bands took turns jamming out! It was pretty darn awesome. To me, the true star of the night was the band Ibrahim Keita (le groupe Nankama), man, they were really awesome. also had several koras and just had amazing energy as a group. There were 3 different percussionists and I, along with the hundreds of others in attenendance got our dance one. Twas really fun and I definitely encourage you to listen to them/buy them on itunes even if you don't listen to any of these others!  Finally, the start for most burkinabe was Alif Naaba. He received the biggest Burkinabe award for a musician, the Kunde d'Or this year and he is a pretty big star around these parts; everyone knew all the words.  He was good, but I will stick to saying that I liked Ibrahim Keita group better. One thing that was cool was that throughout the whole night, all the groups appealed for peace, challenged usto make Africa develop itself. There was a really cool song by Alif Naaba which talked about the brothers, cousins etc. who had gone off to Europe or elsewhere to make dreams come true but have not yet returned, either because they had died or more commonly because they found that dream more elusive than they had hoped.  It really was cool.  Definitely in terms of music and just plumb having fun, this was among the best, I'd say even the best, evening so far. I got home round 3, very happy to have listened to great music at two venues, eaten at a lovely barbecue while chatting with lots of the American staff and having got my dance on throughout the night. What more can you really ask for in life! :-)

My work continues to go well.  I feel like I am starting to remember little details of this job that are shockingly very important to people/systems: left margin vs. justified for some types of papers I write, justified with 1.5 indentation for others, this type of embossed paper for some letters, double spaces for colons, but not for semi-colons, single space vs. 1.5 vs. 2.0..... who gets copied on what etc.  What all these details mean when you're new and don't go through training in D.C. at all is that, I make/have made a good number of errors which my supervisors then fix. BUT, I do think that I'm helping the office as they really are short-handed so even if they have to fix things, I can at least get pretty strong drafts into the system for them.  I also found out that the other officer, to whom I report, will be leaving post at the end of July which means that while the new Political officer arrives, we will be short anyone who has experience here for a little time.  Luckily our Burkinabe staff are great, embassies have all sorts of systems to make up for this etc. but, what that means is that I'll be covering for 1.5 positions for a bit while the new officer situates herself.  I'm incredibly lucky, really, cause I'm getting to do some interesting work and I get to interact with just about everyone.

Okay, off for now, going to eat, take a short nap (yes, cause I've worked that hard) and then do a bit of research, cause I didn't put my hours in this week that I was hoping too! Have a great day/night wherever you are!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Learning Curve-Our friends at Webster define it this way: the rate at which someone learns something new.

This week has felt mostly like the very beginning part of the graph below.

The greatest thing you can ask for in an internship is the gift of high expectation and no patience for poor quality work yet people who are very supportive. I am very grateful to have those expectations right now. I am surrounded by US diplomats and Burkinabe experts who are incredibly patient with what seems my awful French writing (considering corrections) and supervising officers who politely help me understand why the style is written in a particular why or correct what seems to be one of the million particularities required. Every day I try to be at the desk at 7:30, hopefully already with a cup of coffee but if not, I can get that later. Generally by 7:45, I feel like I've already missed something but... c'est la vie! Everyone from the top brass to the "lowest" member of the staff have been truly welcoming to me, whether it's showing something on the computer or whether it's telling me about the school their kid goes to and how much they have poured into making sure their kids succeed in school. I've pulled a decent amount of 11 hour days and even a couple 12, 13+ but I am learning so much and I feel so grateful. Plus, sometimes, work consists of going to lunch, getting to tag along to very interesting meetings or this week, I had to represent the embassy at the French Cultural Centre's Free Rights Film festival as they were showing a film called: Dreams are colder than Death, which was a really interesting depiction on race and "the state of civil rights" in the US today. Definitely worth a watch to anyone who appreciates perspectives that I don't believe are always well represented in US media.

Outside of work, I think I am slowly finding a rhythm. During week days, I mostly go to work, then go home, eat and dawdle a bit on the internet before passing out, if I'm lucky do some fun reading. On weekends, I try to go out every evening. This weekend, I was lucky to be able to go out with other folks. Friday, I went out with a few folks from the Embassy and then joined up with some young French volunteers I met last weekend and we went to an outdoor concert with various Burkinabe and other African singers and then an Ivorian humorist named Amadou Dahico, who was really quite funny. Although I missed some jokes due to lack of regional contexts and culture, he was really funny and if you know French, definitely worth a watch. Also, Jeune Afrique just did an interview with him, which I'll provide for your interest sake: . Twas a lot of fun. Saturday I spent the morning sleeping off having gotten home at 4 am... In short, after the concert, we jumped in a car and ended up at the 50-something birthday of an executive in the city who was hosting a party at his house and one of the Burkinabe we were with knew the guards. Twas a great time, and an unbelievable house. We never actually entered but it was three stories of verandas, a huge pool, good music and a wide variety of drinks. Gotta love just having adventures! :-)

Despite Saturday fatigue, well worth the time and investment but... cansado I was. That meant Saturday started a bit tardy, but ended up going in the late afternoon to watch 2 films at the French Film festival with my host (whose birthday it was also) and then hopping a few places to get a drink, met up with a really nice Brit at a local jardin (outside cafe/bar). Then, it was our plan to go to listen to some live music but then something funny happened. We got a note from a waiter that "someone wanted you to have this". "this" ended up being the phone numbers of two women. We looked around and saw a big group of French girls (and a couple burkinabe it seemed). A few of these individuals were fairly attractive and we saw no other women in the area who were alone, all others were with a man, or a group. Names were French and we thought, well, we only live once so we proposed to said numbers to go to another bar in the area. They texted back that they were interested. Great news! :-) So, we finish up our drinks-just so no one judges/assumes, I was strictly on cokes Saturday-and we get up to leave. Right when we're leaving the big group of French(ish) girls leave. We are feeling pretty da** good right now. We get outside and we flag a taxi, getting ready for what could be epicly great or a complete disaster. Right when we get a taxi, two girls come up to us and say, "are you going to ____ bar". You may have guessed it, it wasn't the French girls.... no, rather it was two young women, who were indeed very pretty but, also pretty evident to both my housemate and I, looking for paid adventure.... Sigh... that is how my 2nd Saturday night in a row ended up with being directly approached by those who practice one of the world's "oldest professions". At that point, my housemate and I had to have a somewhat painfully staged "conversation" about whether we wanted to continue our evening and in the end, in the most apologetic French I could muster, we apologized that we were actually so tired that we needed to go home, decently embarrassed and now very much ready to go to sleep.

While, for me, this became a relatively benign, even if slightly embarrassing, story but, as anyone who lives or has lived in places of poverty and desperation, it also reflects the challenges faced by so many people here. To these two young, lovely women, my host and I seemed like men "out to have fun" and with sufficient $ to pay some bills. They didn't know us or probably care to really chat with us in any depth. To me, I struggle to imagine the revulsion one must have to feel going through all the small talk and game with someone who really is going to pay for that night. They may well have a boyfriend, a husband, kids, but they almost certainly have siblings and parents. How difficult must it be for them, who are likely as smart and as hard-working as I, to do a job where I fear many customers see them as little more than objects, and at worse, may treat them as objects for use and discarding. I don't know them, I likely never will, and I know that some argue that a profession like that is a choice which some choose willingly. Maybe it is... maybe it is,but somehow I don't think for these two women it's probably what they hoped to do in their early 20s. I hope to God that there is a day when no one, in the world, has to do jobs like this (among a good number of others) or at least that they can do it out of choice and get paid very richly for it, instead of about $50/night which is what I was told a "good" hooker will cost you....

A recent report in B.F. said that well over 1/3 of prostitutes in the town of Bobo know that they are HIV+; this compares to a national statistic of Burkinabe is right around 2% (estimate is Ouaga rate is similar). We need more men like a 35 year-old I met last week, who works a low-brow job of security guard. While chatting with him and another friend (for over 2 hours after a 12 hour work-day), his friend joked that this guy, all he does is work and be with his family with one of his girls in his arms. He spends over 50% of his income paying for his 3 daughters to go to a good, private school. He said that sometimes, the girls are embarassed because lots of their friends get picked up by chauffeurs and live in fancy quartiers. I told him that at the end of school, they each have the same degree. He said, yes, and that he would spend even more than that to make sure they get the best education possible. He said that he is going to do all he can to make sure his girls learn english, get to Ghana for high school and maybe go to the US or Canada for college. I told him to look into Australia as well. I don't know for sure if his girls will get to go to a Western college (though I know he's going to do everything possible to try) but I know that the world would be a lot better if rich, poor and middle class parents loved their kids as much as he does. Man, to make it more personal, I hope that if I am ever a dad, that I can come close to pouring my love, my resources and my time into my kids.

As we say at Green Street UMC in Winston-Salem: God is good, all the time, God is good....  But, as a personal addendum, seems pretty clear we human -f things up a good amount.... Thank you all, wherever you are, for reading, hope you are well, and I'll try to have some photos for next time. Going to be a good, busy work week, and hopefully another great week in general!