Whenever one is removed from what is familiar there is the opportunity for personal growth. This summer I spent just over a month living in Burkina Faso, West Africa, which is by any standard foreign. Burkina, one of the world's poorest nations, is composed of over sixty ethno-linguistic groups. During my stay, I was immersed in foreign languages and foreign cultures. Each town and village contained its own unique traditions. Burkina Faso provided a rich tapestry of culture that adorned a nearly desolate landscape. In this setting, I was able to look, listen, and grow.
The lessons I learned range from those that are trivial to those with global implications and they were both personal and cultural. The first lesson I had to learn was how to use the restroom. While this may sound easy to someone who has used a flush toilet all one's life, except for the occasional outhouse on vacation, let me assure you it is not. Going to the bathroom in "third world" country brings with it a whole new set of complications; When in a big city (in Burkina there are exactly two locations that may be considered cities) you may be lucky enough to find a standard western-style toilet and if you're lucky enough the water will be working that day and you can even flush. Outside the ritziest of locales, however, that is not standard even for the big city. Often what you will find instead is a version of the Turkish toilet, a hole in the ground with two slightly raised parts indicating where you should place your feet. There is also a pull-cord which is used to flush out the area when you have finished. More common still is the regular hole-in-the-ground. As the name may indicate, this is quite simply a hole about six inches in diameter. It is outside, walled-off and usually with a cover to keep away bugs.
This type of accommodation can be found in most middle-class Burkinabe Homes. When the hole-in-the-ground is not available, you may find the cement room. The cement room is an outdoor facility that usually has three walls, and hopefully a door, and a cement floor. The room is totally devoid of any other distinguishing feature save for a brick on which you may stand. Barring any of these luxuries, there is always the isolated spot approach (as in "I don't see anyone around right now"). After mastering, my restroom technique (which I have heard is just as difficult for males), I learned a second very important lesson: Never go anywhere without a pocket-size packet of tissue!
My excursions to the restroom were adventurous and even fun, but the poverty that I saw and lived with on a day-to-day basis was serious. During the time I spent living in the village of Gourcy, I watched the meager vegetable supply at the market dwindle down to just onions. The red and green peppers, eggplant, and other assorted options that had been stored since harvest season simply ran out. The cultivators were desperately seeking the rains which were over a month late and had left Gourcy unable to begin its planting season. For the villagers who depend on what they can grow to provide food for the next year, the rains were of the utmost urgency. The people in Burkina openly acknowledged and expressed that life was difficult, yet they did not face life with an attitude of drudgery. They laughed and sang and danced, celebrated every possible occasion side by side with their neighbors, and continued to work. While I would not describe the Burkinabe I met as abundantly optimistic, they were a powerful example of how to accept that which one cannot change.
The Burkinabe people were extremely friendly and welcoming, yet for most villagers, I was one of just a handful of white people whom they had ever met. I rarely felt individually judged, yet I often felt the expectations of white women created by the media and rumors of European actions. White women were strongly associated with sex and promiscuity. Both in reality, and in posters imported from Nigeria or other media, white women often appear wearing much less than is culturally appropriate. As an obviously white woman, I was treated both with the respect accorded to a foreigner with different ways and as a representative of a morally ambiguous society. I had to learn that while the manner in which I conducted myself was inline with Burkinabe standards, any
slight miscue on my part could trigger men to take liberties they would not attempt with Burkinabe women.
The role of women in Burkina is to be highly subservient. As an adult, the woman's role is to cook, clean, provide children, and otherwise care for her husband. As a girl, her role is to help with her mother's tasks, learn how to make traditional foods, arid prepare herself for marriage. A young girl must obey her father and mother, and any other superior. It is only as an older woman that village females gain respect. All elders are revered by society as are those whose jobs grant them special prestige. The wife of a chief or the head of a school may be accorded more respect by the village than the wife of a peasant.
Educating women has been shown to improve women's health, provide job opportunities for women, and help create opportunities for advancement for women worldwide. To many it seems as though education is a simple answer for the women of Burkina. Yet in Burkina I learned there are no easy answers. Schools obtain revenue by charging each student an admission fee. Most families can not even scrape up enough money to send one child to school, yet alone all. In such a system, a man has rid opportunities without education, while a woman still has a chance to marry well.
Therefore, it is an economically sound decision to send male children to school before female children. Economics aside, there are other reasons why woman may not attend school or drop out after their younger years. The United States Ambassador to Burkina Faso informed me that while he always requests that villagers give their daughters the opportunity to attend school when he speaks on education, he has recently been questioning the value of that advice. It seems that the subservient position of young
female students has given rise to an extremely frightening scenario: elementary school girls are being sexually abused by their male professors. It is impossible to know how
frequently this type of abuse is occurring as Burkinabe society does riot give a young girl
much of a recourse. Even if she informs her father, there is very little he would be able to
do. Undoubtedly this type of horrific experience would not encourage a girl to stay in school.
There is a dark side to the Burkina way of life, but the positives are far more striking. The Burkinabe espouse a philosophy that values sharing and acceptance. Everything that one has is to be shared. In daily life this meant that anytime I walked by
someone who was eating I was offered a bite. TVs and other luxury, items are nearly communal. During the World Cup Games anyone who owned a TV would drag it out to
a public space so that as many people as possible could crowd around and watch the game. Gifts are frequently given and any joyous occasion is shared by all. The Muslim
holiday celebrating Mohammed's birthday was reported by Muslims, Christians, arid Animists alike. There is no triumph not worth sharing and celebrating.
From my standpoint. Having Been raised with an American value system, some parts of Burkina culture seemed better or worse than what I am used to, but some parts
were just different. For example, one must always shake hands, eat, arid pass or receive objects with the right hand. The left hand is used only for dirty business (return to my lesson about carrying tissue, if this is unclear). It is also a faux-pas to ask a woman how
many children she has because G-d might take one away. Another difference is that any
question or interaction must begin with a long salutation. If I wanted to ask a merchant
how much a hat he was selling cost, I must first say hello, then inquire about his health,
his family, and sometimes even his work and his family's health. In the morning another
common question is "Did you sleep well?"
My short time in Burkina Faso taught me these lessons and more. I was left with many questions and few concrete answers. My foreign travel experience exposed me to a
society quite different from my own, allowing me to evaluate both myself and my culture. While I will not be returning to Burkina Faso any time in the near future, it has
taught me valuable lessons that will stay with me for a long time.