Sam Gradess chronicles his time in Burkina Faso as a development volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps. His observations show an experience different from anything he has come across in the past - Burkinabés have their own way of doing things and it works.
I have unfortunate skin on the bridge of my nose due to the plastic frames that sit on my face daily. I longed so greatly to use contacts that I visited an ophthalmologist in order not to renew my eyeglass prescription, but to order contacts. I have two ruddy dots on either side of my nose that act as quotidian reminders that friction mixed with perspiration form quite the anti-aesthetic. Additionally, this is the first climate hot and humid enough that insects actually desire to rest on my lenses, creating a weird National Geographic-esque discovery experience. Already this is an overwrought, passive-aggressive attack on a few pieces of plastic and glass that separate me from my fellow villagers.
Whenever I lead une sensibilisation – awareness campaign – in my school, which lacks electricity, the students close the window shutters swiftly and with a nails-on-a-chalkboard resonance that I desperately crave. Rendered legally blind again, I asked my students why they choose such an ambiance for writing their notes. It turns out the lower light levels coming from the outside makes the contrast between the blackboard and white chalk more legible. Fascinatingly counterintuitive to me, I began to think about students’ abilities within the confines of our eight by twelve meter classroom – capable of holding students in the triple digits, mind you.
There is no way for me, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, to provide a complete, holistic analysis of the difficulties facing the education system of Burkina Faso. Maybe the first identifiable problem is the aberrant learning style of rote memorization in which students literally recite passages of information when all I asked for was the name of the protagonist. The draconian teaching style using corporal punishment as a means to exercise functionary power certainly helps no one. Perhaps the dearth of resources, from textbooks to pens to other didactic tools, is the single greatest indicator of an achievement gap. These problems are common ground across many primary schools in Burkina Faso. As a volunteer, I am aching with a sense of urgency to tackle these issues. I just have a few loaded questions. How do I know that the child sitting in the front of the classroom is not just nearsighted? Given my training, would I ever be able to help more than superficially a child who, in the United States, would be labeled as learning disabled. What if a child suffered from myopia?
Now that you have all taken a quick breather to look up myopia, let me just qualify the above questions by saying most of the work I do, and what can be analyzed fruitfully from my work experience as a Non-Formal Education Volunteer, is done without unraveling the medical definition of myopia, but rather the colloquial one.
Burkinabè in positions of authority are, by their very nature, incredibly myopic. The lack of foresight mixed with a ça va aller (it will all work out) optimism teetering on blatant procrastination is an unexpected obstacle for any long-term volunteer. One of the ways that I assert the Senegalese proverb “le bois dans la fleuve ne devient jamais une crocodile » (the log in the water never becomes a crocodile, i.e. I will never become African) is in my manner to be both timely and prescient in the work that I do. I began planning my two-week leadership camp for boys and girls in the region approximately nine months, a full human gestation period, in advance. When did my counterparts officially commit to the notion of empowering girls and boys to be the leaders of tomorrow via a summer camp? Approximately eight months and one week following. When did my counterpart plan the women’s professional panel for the girls? Approximately twelve hours before the tables and chairs were placed before the students. This level of professional certitude that it will all work out belies every custom and work ethic I have been trying to harness for the better part of my youth.
This simple cultural schism makes my few accomplishments seem trivial and yet herein lies the very basic tenet of sustainable development that has been ingrained by Burkinabè technical trainers since my first day of training. We do not work for the citizens of Burkina Faso, but rather with them. When I reflect on this straightforward principle, ten pounds are lifted from my shoulders as a volunteer because I recall that this “toughest job I will ever love” is tough for a reason, and I remember that I actually do admire the Burkinabè’s cultural gift of truly living in the present. The HIV/AIDS population is remarkably low in Burkina, equal in percentage to the United States and lower in population density than Washington D.C. More people die yearly from motorcycle accidents-a comparatively more sudden way of dying. It is not the least bit surprising that they would opt to live more in the present. Their engagement in the moment is matched by their bafflingly high-level of patience.
|Sam Gradess (kneeling in the middle of the photo) at the "Doorways Conference,"|
a USAID initiative to provide teaching manuals for professors, community counselors, and students
on how to end violence, namely gender-based violence, in schools.
While many Americans would become restive in transit over a flat tire, fallen livestock, or a boiling engine, Burkinabè take it all in stride with a patient prowess that is both admirable and downright enviable. It is practically a miracle that volunteers have any legitimacy among authority figures given the amount of cultural protocol that is – accidentally – transgressed, trying to see visible results in the short term. My anglophone Burkinabè peers have a joke about how work progresses in West Africa. I am simply an American living on West African International Time (W.A.I.T.). I will continue to work with the Burkinabè always, and hope that they see some things differently. Perhaps like an ophthalmologist I will help them to see certain concepts clearer. They certainly have helped me over the past year.
For my remaining tenure in Burkina Faso, I will be reporting on what development means to me in the grassroots context of the Peace Corps, and I promise to focus on the amazing, multifarious culture in which I surround myself, full to the brim with tolerance that I could never hope to universally find in America. From the biennial, pan-African film festival around the corner to the incredible artisan village that will take over Burkina Faso in a month and a half, I am here to share. Soyez la bienvenue!
Samuel Gradess is a United States Peace Corps Education Volunteer living in Burkina Faso. He is a graduate of St. Lawrence University where he earned a B.S. in Psychology and Francophone Studies. The contents of his articles are his personal opinion and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.
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