I visited Burkina Faso last week. Although I was traveling from a fairly well developed African country to one of the poorest countries in the world, I was also traveling from a village to a country's capital city. While I was impressed with the water conservation efforts, even during dry season, I was most impressed with the quality of cheese on my pizza.
This trip began, as any visit to a foreign country really should, by emailing a friend who studied the official language for 12 years to inform her that within 24 hours I had mastered French. Monique, who knew my friend Louise well from having worked with her for FAVL's Reading West Africa Program, helped me to write perfect French to complete the ruse.
On Saturday, Monique, Lucas and I visited the Bougounam library. The library was impressively decorated. The walls covered in murals of village scenes and portraits of important people in Burkina painted by the librarian. The small library had two tables, one for adults and another for children. When we arrived at the library around 10 a.m., there were already a few people working at the tables. Throughout our visit, more people showed up. The books were very neatly organized. They were divided into sections for French, English and African literature as well as school and reference books and children's books. After touring the village and over a much appreciated cold drink, we discussed how the library has been running. The librarian's biggest concern was the lack of books by African authors, as the selection is very small despite their high demand. He also commented on children's need for puzzles and games, so they can use the library as a general learning center.
As we began to head back, Monique started talking to a man who was also visiting from Ouagadougou to report on the school opening in the area. We were invited to join the reception, where local and national dignitaries, including the educational director, local chief and patriarch celebrated the importance of making a solid investment in education. Monique was invited to speak about the role of the libraries and reading in improving education in Burkina Faso. My own speeches were thankfully limited to repeated thanks as we were leaving, since my French really consists of stammered greetings and Italian slurred into what I imagine to be a French accent.
Sunday was also a special day. It was Lucas's birthday, which I found out by looking at his passport. I was shocked that he hadn't mentioned it, since I start my birthday countdown a good month in advance. Lucas planned to head home on Sunday to be in the office on Monday, but before he left we insisted on celebrating. When Monique found out it was Lucas's birthday, she quickly took the lead. She and I hurried to pick up supplies. We found a cake shop, and the baker wrote "Joyeux Anniversaire Lucas" on the cake. We returned home with the cake, some Burkina beers, and big smiles - in other words the ingredients to a birthday party. With a candle in the cake, we walked in singing, to Lucas's surprise. He was excited to cut the cake and so impressed to find his name there. We toasted Lucas's birthday, and quickly reached our sugar quota from the cake's icing. All in all, it was a great celebration.
The next few days were a pleasant taste of life in Ouaga. I tried to keep up with some of my work and take advantage of the comparatively fast internet, but I also spent a lot of time just visiting the city. Krystle, FAVL's PCV, took me around to the Artisan Village, where I had to face the reality of being a volunteer instead of an independently wealthy patron of the arts. The artwork and craftsmanship was amazing, especially the bronze and wood sculptures. Later in the evening, I was joined by Melinda and Tim, two researchers from Johns Hopkins who were also staying at the guest house. Together we were able to explore some live music and meat vendors. Our best find was a percussion band of 3 drums and 2 xylophones accompanied by three dancers of dramatically varying abilities.
The trip was a very pleasant visit of a country that is really less than an hour away from where I am living, but still dramatically different in many respects. Besides the obvious difference in language and cuisine of a Francophone culture, there were also more subtle but broadly reflective differences, like the use of metal tables in Burkina instead of wood or plastic, materials that are much scarcer. Monique, Krystle and Salimata were such fantastic hosts, I was sad to say goodbye, but luckily Krystle will be coming to visit us in Sumbrungu and see how the health literacy classes are getting on.
No matter how good a trip or vacation is, there is a sense of relief in coming home. And by home, I most definitely mean the Sumbrungu Women's Center where I have been staying. Upon coming to my town and my home, I was welcomed by my good friends, who I had missed while away. That is really the best ending to a trip anyone can have.