Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Food Project

I had started this blog about a year and a half ago, as a way to share the 'GEP' experience with friends and family. For a little over six months, Kathrin and I lived in Dori, Burkina Faso, working as interns for the UN World Food Programme. This blog will barely have whispered (irregular) hints of our experiences, but, in my defense, it was a first dabble with this modern medium.

I've now been back living in The Netherlands for over six months, and left the blog hanging, never sharing any stories of our holidays in the last two weeks, during which we visited the south of the country, really concluding generally - partly because I've been very busy and haven't taken the time, partly because I don't really want to try to find the words - it was simply an invaluable life and professional experience, and a time that I treasure.

Today I don't really have to 'conclude' anymore, because, mainly inspired by living and working in Dori, Kathrin and I have a new project - instead of a conclusion, this is thus a new beginning! Allow me, then, to redirect you to our new website in order to find out more... A hint? West Africa + food + Kathrin + Alix = The Food Project!

For this project, we've entered a competition to get funding. We will try to realize this project irrespective of whether we win this particular contest, but it would of course be of great help as we could win up to 5.000€ (after the project is realised, profits will be donated).

In the first round the projects with the most votes will be selected - we need as MANY votes as possible before January 8th to make it to the second round (handing in a detailed project proposal, a bit like a business plan, and a jury decides on the 5 winners), so please visit our website, vote, and send it around!

In the spirit of The Food Project, a plate of (boiled maize/sorghum/millet flour), with sauce feuille (sorrel/roselle or manioc leaves), and a glass of bissap (roselle/hibiscus flower tea), which we had in a very small maquis in the centre of Dori.

See you soon for The Food Project!

(dressed up in our tuareg scarves)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

New pictures!

Check out Kath's album for pictures of our January 'post distribution monitoring' mission in school canteens. We'll add the captions tomorrow. By some miracle I am able to upload two of them on here.

We were surprised by these children's very different (and beautiful) complexion in the school of Tin Idjar (in Oudalan, the northernmost province of Burkina); they are kel-Tamashek.

Sporting our cool new WFP gear, Kath's christmas present to us :) (mine has yet to arrive, even after they corrected the country name..)

Monday, February 9, 2009

And then, we went to a concert

We had seen the poster taped on the doors of the store, the bakery, and the restaurant. Black and white printed on an A4 sheet of paper, it announced Bonsa in concert in Dori for the first time, this Saturday night at ‘Séno Ambiance’, the maquis to be for dancing in Dori. The poster said nine o’clock, we left the house about half an hour later, wondering whether it would have started already or if concert times also fall in the category of relaxed African schedules.

As it turns out, this was actually not a case of relaxed African schedule- no, this was very, very relaxed, as we had to wait three hours before the DJ, apologizing for ‘ce tout petit retard’, introduced Bonsa onto the floor. But considering our relaxed African spirit, this was no problem. We drank Malta Guinness (non-alcoholic malt beer, much too sweet) and watched the dance floor fill up to the sound of coupé decalé- before joining it ourselves, of course!

It is past midnight already when the music stops and people take their seats. We wait. The loudspeakers play the familiar Windows-computer-starting-up jingle. Followed by the USB-stick-has-been-plugged-in sound. Finally the DJ (whose baby is one of the few in the crowd tonight by the way- ‘his mother wanted to come to the concert too, so we had to take him with us’- the adorable boy spent the whole time sleeping despite the loud music) enthusiastically introduces Bonsa to the lukewarm crowd. Bonsa runs up to the dance floor like a boxer entering the ring, and, after introducing himself, casually lets us know that the concert will be in playback.

Indeed, after singing a few lines a capella (to prove that he can actually sing?), he announces his first song, which starts playing on the loudspeakers. He clutches onto his mike and passionately mouths along the song. He is wearing a brown ‘boubou’ (traditional African dress), completely clashing with the gangsta style, flat-rimmed, red cap on his head, and he accompanies his fake singing with energetic Usher-meets-Westlife dance moves. The entire scene is incredible. Even more so when, as he introduces his second song, the same song he just ‘performed’ starts again. A few seconds into it they realize the mistake and switch to the next one. Frederic, the Burkinabe friend with us that evening, is not surprised- apparently, the majority of concerts in Burkina are done in playback. I don’t know about the other concerts, but, in all honesty, this was simply ridiculous!

After the third song, for some reason, Bonsa takes a break. To keep the crowd entertained, the DJ invites some guy sporting a Nokia t-shirt onto the dance floor for the ‘danse de la bouteille’, i.e. to dance while balancing an empty beer bottle on his head. To the crowd’s delight he moves his hips (very suggestively, as is most coupé decalé dancing) to the music, bottle steadily standing on his head, for a good ten minutes. Though it verges on the circus act when the DJ keeps telling him to get down and back up again and back down, it’s quite impressive. Clearly, the guy has been practicing (and if he’s anything like Thierno, that probably means hours of mirrors!), and for good reason as people, including Frederic, seem to love it. In fact they seem to like it a lot more than Bonsa, who barely receives a few claps as he takes the stage again. Two songs later, it’s enough laughing for one night. Kath and I get on our motorbike and ride home under the bright bright moon.

ps- apologies for the text/pictures imbalance, but the internet is too slow to upload any pictures on the blog these days

**edit many months later: Bonsa actually performed at the Festival Mundial in Tilburg (The Netherlands)this summer, and I went to see him, waving a Burkinabe flag of course. He was apparently voted best Burkinabe artist in 2008! Though that made me curious considering his Dori performance, I mainly went to regain some missed Burkinabe feel after being back in Europe for a few months.

Accompanied by a band playing traditional instruments, himself on a string one I think, Bonsa's performance was much better than the playback one in Dori. The traditional music also seemed more suited than his pop/r'n'b attempt, although when he saw there were a few Burkina(be) enthusiasts in the crowd he led his band to playing some coupe decale-ish songs with the traditional instruments, and that worked quite well- it actually ended up in two Burkinabes jumping on the small stage to dance!

‘Rosier than a communist propaganda poster’

This is how my good friend Alex describes my blog. It is true, I love it here and this is, as cliché as it sounds, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and so this is how I present it. But, of course, there are also less ‘rosy’ sides worth mentioning. Amongst others, I think I should include a few lines on health and safety. This especially goes out to next year’s GEPers (applications are open by the way) and other future adventurers (like my brothers, who I already imagine on exciting travels in a few years, and already worry about, sister goose that I am).

I’ve been talking about great foods, motorbikes, traveling- you should know that we really are careful about a number of things, and though I don’t advise unnecessarily paranoid stress, I do recommend taking health and safety seriously. For example:

-Food safety: we don’t eat unpeeled raw fruits and vegetables (salad, tomatoes, cucumbers, apples) in small restaurants or from street food vendors. At home we do, after washing them with soap. We might eat meat from street vendors but it must be well cooked and still hot/just off the fire. And we only drink bottled water (or from branded bags- unbranded ones are just tap water) or water that has been boiled.

-Traveling: we don’t travel between cities after dark (by bus or motorbike- and it’s forbidden by WFP car too). I would never have gotten on the motorbike if Kath wasn’t so careful and didn’t have years of experience. Other things to consider are the large zones without telephone network and the possibility of robber ambushes.

-Health: there are pros and cons to preventive anti-malaria medicine, but with or without it’s still important to be protected against mosquitoes (mosquito net, long sleeves and closed shoes in the evening, anti-mosquito spray) and to check for malaria as soon as there are signs (as proven by Kath’s recent malaria- unpleasant, to say the least). We have a great book, ‘Where there is no doctor’, for advice on health matters, from nutrition to fever to tropical diseases to antibiotics. It’s a very useful reference even where there are doctors and can be downloaded for free at The Hesperian Foundation.

These are just a few examples. Some risks are unavoidable, but it’s about minimizing those that are and being conscious of those that aren’t. I’m not writing this to scare anyone (in fact I do generally feel safe, in part precisely because we are prepared), but just to emphasise that it’s important to think about these things too.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

J'ai dit oh!

Lucky for me, Quentin beat me to the writing of this unmissable post, so I can be lazy and just forward you to his account of... Burkinabé French! It's only relevant to French-speakers I guess and, even then, it's really something that has to be lived rather than explained, but still.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

No comment

'Due to an error with our shipping software (it marked your package as going to Upper Volta, which is highly embarrassing, and has since been fixed), your package was returned to us, we are going to resend it today and it should be there shortly.'

Monday, January 19, 2009

Teachers, nurses and the next Blaise

-What do you want to be when you grow up?

The children, about ten to twelve years old, smile, look at each other, mumble. We pick a girl.

-You, what is your name?

She giggles and whispers her name.

-Louder, we can't hear you
-Fatimata
-Fatimata, what do you want to be when you grow up?
-A nurse.

This first reply encourages the others.

-I want to be a teacher
-Teacher
-School principal
-Nurse
-Teacher
-Doctor

The replies are not very varied. It is after talking with some American Peace Corps volunteers that I first got an impression of Burkinabè schoolchildren, and after talking with them myself their stories were partly confirmed. Burkinabè primary school education does not encourage spontaneity or individuality. Children study by learning texts by heart, then recite answers accordingly, rather than putting the material in their own words.

In one way I think it's a real pity, in another I am glad that they are at least going to school. And in the middle of all the nurses and teachers, we do get an enthusiastic pilot, an eager surgeon, a few ambitious ministers (unspecified ministry), and even a couple of 'président du Faso'! Blaise (often referred to by his first name) is in for a challenge with those cheeky ones! (Speaking of which, as an example of recited answers: we ask them who the current president is, they all raise their hands and click their fingers (this is the way you ask to speak here), and the one we pick mechanically recites, 'Blaise Compaoré is the president of Burkina Faso and his wife is Chantal Compaoré.')

I tell them I am surprised there is no future football player amongst them, half the boys' hands shoot up, including the surgeon-to-be. 'So you're still hesitating between the two, aren't you?' He happily agrees. My colleague asks why no one wants to be a farmer, they ask her, 'why would we go to school then?' A revealing answer...

We also asked some of them if they wanted to get married- they all do, one girl once she gets a job, one boy at twenty years old. The same boy wants five kids, he assures us it's not too much.

Besides future prospects, we ask the children about the school canteen. Do they like the couscous? Is it well cooked, is it enough? Do they eat it alone or share it with siblings? The WFP supplies 598 schools of the Sahel region with lunch, as part of the country programme first objective: supporting basic education (primary school and adult alphabetisation). Lunch (and ideally breakfast, but not this year for lack of resources) is supposed to both encourage parents to send their children to school, and to allow them to concentrate better in class (because they are not hungry). As special encouragement, girls in the last two years of primary schools also get a take-home ration. The children first agree immediately; yes, it is enough, yes, it is well cooked. We insist, 'is there enough oil, it's not too dry?' Some admit it is a bit too dry. They also tell us that some go home for lunch and share with their siblings. Others don't because they live too far away, of because they use the lunch break to study. For them receiving lunch at school is particularly good.

Our mission this week was a mini-mission, two days, and quite relaxed, which is how we got to spend some more time with the children (more difficult under normal tight mission schedules)- a colleague based in Ouaga wanted to visit schools and health centers that WFP supports in order to see how it works in the actual field. As field experts thanks to our missions ;) we accompanied her to Bani (40 km from Dori), Gangaol (20 km) and in Dori itself, visiting each village's school and health center. After talking with teachers and nurses in each, and with kids in the schools, we also took the opportunity to take a few pictures- they are uploaded in a public album (see link on the side).

Tomorrow we are leaving on a 10-day ‘real’ mission, which will be intense in terms of distances to cover in a relatively short period of time, as we will be visiting all four provinces of the Sahel region. It is a ‘post distribution monitoring’ of school canteens mission. Pairs of interviewers will visit 58 schools in the Sahel (the only region in Burkina where WFP supplies school canteens, Dori is its ‘capital’). This week we trained them on how to do the interviews (based on questionnaires) with pupils, parents, teachers and cooks in each school. The goal is to see how the school canteen program is being implemented, how the goods are being used, whether the kids, parents, teachers and cooks are satisfied, what can be improved, etc. It is thus a follow-up mission, and our own mission is to follow up on the follow-up mission!