4 December 2014

Burkina Faso's Revolution. Or the day mama jumped in the pool fully clothed.

I'm afraid this might be a long one. Adam has warned me that no one likes long blog posts. Sorry, Adam and other people who do not like long blog posts...

It's taken us a bit of time to process Burkina Faso's recent uprising, or revolution, or coup, or junta, or whatever you want to call it. Granted we're not Burkinabé nor were we anywhere near the front lines, but our expat lives were a bit shaken up. I mean, we're not in Congo anymore so life should be easy peasy for goodness sake.

In short, Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso's longtime president of 27 years, decided he wanted to change the constitution to extend term limits. But folks had another idea. As in, on the day of the vote thousands of people mobilized to stop it.

Downtown Ouagadougou. October 30.

On that morning, we planned to introduce the director of our organization (who was visiting from the States - perfect timing) to participants we work with at the prison. No big deal, Adam would take him in the morning before the vote results were announced. I'd stay back in the office and hold down the fort. Of course no one else was dumb enough to come to work that day. So there I sat alone while they headed off to the prison.

About the time they arrived at the prison, the city exploded. Tens of thousands of people protested and then attacked the parliament building setting it on fire. There was gunfire, then helicopters dropped tear gas. I spent the morning pacing up and down the office hallway. Convincing myself my eyes were burning from really intense dust and not tear gas. I also sent messages to Jill because how can this be happening and I have no one to talk to?!

I won't mention how many paces it took me to remember my children playing outside a few blocks away. But I did eventually call Anastasie and ask her to take the girls inside and close the windows. Clearly she had already done this. Because tear gas.

Meanwhile at the prison, a mob had gathered outside and began banging on the doors, so needless to say, Adam and our director were stuck inside. I'll keep this exciting part about Adam short due to his issue with reading long posts and all: Prison guards quickly change into military uniforms. Everyone running. Adam stuck inside. Me thinking it's slightly funny he's got himself and our director trapped in a prison during a coup. Me waiting a long time, not thinking it's so funny anymore. Crowds getting bigger. Me making lots of phone calls and driving back and forth through protestors to attempt to free them from prison. They eventually escape with zero help from me. 30 minutes later factory across from the prison is looted and burned. Revolt later that day in the prison and 3 people killed. Us breathing sigh of relief.

Parliament. The day after. (Photo Credit: MCC Service Worker Loralee Williams who was smart enough to not consult us before venturing downtown.)

Cars in parliament parking lot. Photo Credit: Loralee.

The stuck in prison situation is the kind of experience I'm happy to have had when it's over. It was equal parts tense and exciting and it makes for a good story. All's well that ends well. We are safe and sound at home. Boy was that crazy! So glad this whole revolution thing is over. I put up a semi-clever post on Facebook with a synopsis of the day. We're proud of ourselves for distracting our children from the gunfire. They didn't even notice! We're so cool. Goodnight.

Compaoré resigned the next morning and left the country in a heavily armored motorcade. A general in the military was then named interim leader. Turns out this guy was not so popular and the city erupted once again. Oh wait, this revolution thing isn't over yet?

A tactic that proved quite effective the day before was the burning and looting of former Compaoré government official's houses along with those of his relatives and friends. A house a few blocks in front of our's was burned as well as another house behind us. We got word that our next door neighbor's house, with whom we share a wall, was next on the loot and burn list. A mob was on its way. Our neighbor on the other side yelled for us to quick get out of our house.

Destruction at the Azalai hotel, next door to parliament where some members were staying the night before the vote. Photo credit: Loralee Williams.

It's safe to say this was not my calmest moment in motherhood. I went into full panic mode and ushered my children next door - to the safe neighbor's house. We've been down this leave-the-house-and-all-of-your-belongings road before in Congo, so I grabbed their growth chart off the wall, the baby quilt and the princess dresses. Because I can hide from our children the fact that our house has been burned to the ground, but they're definitely going to notice if their princess dresses are missing.

We took shelter next door. And again the pacing sets in. At this point we crossed a line we had never crossed before. Our children were scared and crying and asking what was going on. Guards were gathered in the road. And everyone was just waiting for the inevitable to happen. It didn't ease our minds that a document had been looted from the president's brother's house, photocopied in mass and distributed throughout the city listing the addresses of houses that the president had bought for his friends. Our neighbor's house number was #2 on the list.

I kind of just wanted the looters and burners to show up so it could just happen and be over. Someone suggested I call the embassy. After 6 years in Congo, I have their emergency number on speed dial. I don't know how many times in Kinshasa I had to call an annoyed 18-year-old Marine and explain how we got our car booted in the middle of the road again.

Here in Ouagadougou it's a kind woman named Kristin, who bless her heart, must have been a 911 operator or worked at a suicide prevention hotline in a previous life. She was so sweet and encouraging and for the first time since this whole ordeal began, I was talking with someone to whom I didn't need to show a brave face. I started to tear up, so I took myself into my neighbor's garage and had a good cry with dear, sweet Kristin. (Kristin, I hope you never read this. I would like to remain the anonymous, unstable expat caller.)

For whatever reason the mob had yet to come and it's clear that pacing at our neighbor's house all day was not a good plan for anyone. So we scurried across the street to distract our children and let them swim at the pool of our neighborhood French compound.

And folks, I kid you not. Those Frenchies were smoking and drinking and having a grand old time behind their wall, not 20 feet away from our panic attack across the street.

Our girls soon forgot their trauma and swam and joined in the carefree French time. Meanwhile, Adam and I were poolside sending emails and making hurried phone calls to our organization's headquarters in the States, all the while keeping an ear out for approaching angry mobs.

At this point, as if our world had not stopped already, I glanced in the pool and Ani was bobbing and gasping for air in the deep end. So naturally, I jump in the pool, in front of all those relaxed French folk - fully clothed, leather clogs and all - to pull that poor girl out.

I swear to you, at this moment another military plane buzzed overhead and after the near-burning of our house and the near-drowning of my child, I took a moment to tread water and have a mini breakdown right there in the pool. I'll never forget Adam and our director looking down at me, offering hands to help me out. But I just stayed. And treaded water. And cried.

And then my loving husband said, "That was crazy. It was kind of embarrassing that you had to jump in the pool like that to save her, but none of these French people even noticed. No one turned their heads. How are they so cool about everything?!"

I spent the rest of the day sitting by the pool. Sopping wet. You know, because of no spare clothes due to being evacuated from my house and all. Then after the curfew set in (which is announced in the curious way of police going through the streets and shooting in the air) our house was still standing and it was deemed safe to go home.

Our neighbors in question had rallied their burliest male relatives to set up camp outside their house to protect it. We managed to fall asleep that night, but it's practically impossible to distinguish between the noises of a mob of men guarding a house and a mob of men attacking a house.    

We debriefed with the girls and asked them how they felt when we had to leave our house and run next door. Because afterall, they were upset and scared and I don't want that coming back at us in adolescence.

They didn't really seem to remember it, so we didn't press it. They were too distracted and confused about why mama jumped and cried in the pool. "No really, why were you crying in the pool?" they asked, "And why didn't you put on your bathing suit first?" A full month later, they are still talking about this. "Hey! Remember that time mama jumped in the pool with her clothes on?!"

Thank the lord they're not asking, "Remember that time we ran screaming from our house because we thought it was going to burn down?"

"Blaise Get Out." Walking around our neighborhood for the first time.

For a while after that terrible day I didn't want to talk about it or even more remarkably, joke about it. I have no interest in ever seeing my children that scared again.
But after it's all said and done we're proud to live in a country that organized such a relatively peaceful and respectful revolution. Amazing things happened here.

Parliament was torched, but small shops beside it were untouched. I drove through crowds that day and as riled up and angry as everyone was, not a single person bothered me. They actually moved aside to let me through. Good people, these Burkinabé.  

One of the main groups that organized the demonstrations, Le Balai Citoyen (or Citizen's Broom) used a broom as their symbol. After the revolution they issued a statement saying that now that they had used their brooms to "clean up" the government, they needed to use their brooms to clean up the mess they made in the streets. So men, women and children came out to clean the city. Remarkable.

Clean up photo by Loralee.

From Burkina 24.

The transition has had some bumps, but folks are proud of themselves. The uprising wasn't a youth thing, or a Muslim thing, or a Christian thing. It was an everybody thing. For a country that had one president for 27 years, they had 3 in the course of 24 hours and are now on their 4th one.

I honestly cannot imagine another country pulling this off.

I am still thankful for my new best friend at the American embassy, Kristin who called me back later that night and again the next morning to make sure we were okay.

We got to be friends with our neighbor's extended family/protective mob as they stayed for the rest of the week in front of our houses. Lots of tea and laughs were shared over the experience.

I now have a Bonnie Raitt shock of gray hair that did not exist on the morning of October 30. I call it my souvenir de la révolution.

And lastly, my house was not burned down and my daughter did not drown. We're going to be alright.

25 October 2014

Why We're Here - In Photos

Here's a look at some of the things we're doing here with Mennonite Central Committee Burkina Faso...

A few weeks ago we went to visit one of the projects we work with that among other great things, sends kids to school and makes sure they have awesome backpacks to carry their stuff. 


With no warning, Adam was called up to present certificates to all the participants. Of course this included pronouncing all their names on the spot. I almost died laughing (and so did the kids)...

...until it was my turn to call out their names and give them their backpacks. Clearly I messed up with this sweet girl.


They also get sacks of rice, which they have to help their mothers carry home. (Adjaratou and her mom.)

And help their mothers tie them to bicycles. (Proof adolescent boys, the world over, give their mothers attitude.)

Ani put her sunglasses on for a close-up, then this cherub stepped in.

We also work with farmers outside the city...


Me in a field, with head-to-toe sun protection. Pretty sure this was the moment Adam chose to tell me my SPF hat actually looks like a pith helmet. Risk melanoma for cultural sensitivity? Jury's still out.

This farmer, Gnini, is showing the difference between the sorghum planted from seeds MCC helped them get and their local seeds. (MCC seeds win.) He planted the fields with his 6 children over their school break. Since it was a thousand degrees outside, I asked him how his kids felt about helping. He said, "Well of course they grumble the whole time, but they have no choice if they want to go back to school."

Bigger and better beans than ever before.

These ladies really seemed to be having a fun gossip session in the fields. It almost made me wish I was part of it. Then Adam reminded me natural selection would have done me in generations ago. The gossip I can do, but hot, hard work in the sun? Carrying heavy loads on my head? These women are amazing. 

There's nothing quite like a community meeting under a tree.


Next up, moringa! Remember ages ago when Jill posted about the magic of moringa? It's here in Burkina too. I think this might be the next super food to sweep the western world. This stuff is incredible.

Leontine tending the moringa wonder-plant.

These tiny leaves have 7 times the Vitamin C of oranges, 4 times the Vitamin A of carrots, 4 times the calcium of milk, 3 times the potassium of bananas, and 2 times the protein of yogurt. (And even more than that in their dried form, which is how many eat it here.)

Sorghum, almost ready for harvest.

Adam loved this farmer, Rassmane, and thus begins his photo session...


I mean, c'mon. That smile.

'Twas a good year for beans.

Tinga told us how he started off only being able to afford this sorry excuse for a bicycle to take his harvest to the market to sell.

The next year, his crops were a success and he bought a motorcycle to go back and forth.

Now he's upgraded to this moto-cart to help with farm production. He can afford to pay tuition for all of his - wait for it - 16 children to go to school.

That's a lot of hard work.

And lastly, when we start to grumble about the heat, the dust, the patisseries on every corner. Well, we remember we're here working for people like this guy who started a project to help boys sentenced to prison.

When boys are convicted of petty crimes (bicycle theft, purse snatching) and sentenced to prison with more serious adult offenders, Pegue (above right) convinces the judicial system to let the boys serve part of their time with him. He matches them up with apprenticeships so they can learn a trade and make a living.

Pascal and his carpentry apprenticeship. (Contrary to the photo, he's also learned safety skills.)

Shameless plug: Are you or someone you know between the ages of 18 and 20-something? Do you know anything about welding, carpentry, auto-repair, plumbing, masonry, or something else you could teach these boys? Come work with us and Pegue and these kids! 

(More info here: MCC/SALT position.)

There you have it. That's just a few of our partners who keep us busy. It's great work, but somebody's gotta do it.

16 October 2014

I'm Never Leaving Burkina Faso...and not because I like it.

This is the third international move for Adam and me, and let me tell you, that does not make it easier. (Remember last month's jubilous declaration that we'd returned to blogging...and then no more posts until now. Transition is a royal pain in the rear.)

I wish we could have stepped off the plane, unpacked the suitcases and called it a day. But here we are, two months later, still arguing over where to hang the pictures. This is not a joke, I had to give myself a timeout last weekend after Adam spaced pictures on the wall in a way I would have never, ever approved. 

"No, Adam, they're fine. I'm just always going to look at that awkward space between them and grit my teeth, but whatever. It's fine. I'm letting go. I need to leave the room now."  

This, of course, if after he's cursed up a blue streak hammering concrete nails into the wall, which crumble the wall away if you're not careful. He was careful, but he still took out a good chunk of wall. You can't see it, but I know it's there, hidden behind the pictures that are spaced all wrong. 

American drywall, I miss you. Always have.

Remember this photo from the time I gave sage advice for How to settle after your move abroad? "All you need are concrete nails and a good attitude!" Yeah, easy for me to say during my 6th year in Congo. In retrospect, transition is a bit like childbirth. The only reason you think you're ready to do it again, is because you've forgotten the pain.
Sidenote, check out those beautifully spaced photos from the wall of our home in Kinshasa. These are the very ones that caused marital dispute #2,648 during our current transition. 

So somewhere between hanging pictures on crumbling concrete walls, scrubbing previous renters' filth from my bathroom so I can replace it with my own filth, and rearranging our furniture over and over and still not getting the feng shui right, I declared, "Welp, that's it. We can never leave Burkina Faso, cause I ain't doing all this again." No siree, this is it. We're never leaving.

I want a real life and a routine again. I don't want to have to leave work to micromanage the plumber because I'm convinced I know more about hooking up a washing machine than he does. 

We have become obsessive and compulsive expats in transition.

But we've been here before. I know the obsession over the tedium and the trivia is an attempt to control our lives because there's so much going on out there that we can't control. And by "out there" that I mean the culture out there. 

We are still at the cultural transition stage where it drives me absolutely nuts that I am expected to return greetings to each and every single person I pass on my bike on the way to work. I'm on a bike, for Pete's sake. In the seconds that I whiz by, I can't possibly answer how I'm doing and then also ask you how you're doing. And repeat that exchange dozens more times all the way down the street. I am a grumpy American in transition, leave me alone friendly people. 

And so, what we cannot control on the street, we attempt to control at home.

Exhibit A: We have two very lovely people who work at our house everyday. Anastasie takes wonderful, loving care of our children and Mamadou, bless his soul, cooks and cleans for us. Let me preface by saying, we are more grateful to these two than anyone else in this entire country.

However. Each morning when they arrive we are culturally obligated to engage in pleasantries answering and asking1. How our evening/weekend/time since we last saw them has been. 2. How our morning thus far has transpired. 3. A report on the state of our family here and at home. And 4. An inquiry about our own health. All in French, mind you.

Because we are ugly Americans in transition, we merely endure the exchange. Adam put his finger on it during breakfast last week, "They show up right when we've reached peak momentum getting the kids ready with the tooth brushing, the hair brushing, the potty routines. Then I have to stop and deliver a report. In a second language. I can't do culture before I've had coffee."

There's also handshaking involved and I can't touch anyone that early.

We thought of asking them to come a bit later, after the morning routine, just so we could preserve the momentum and respect the exchange afterward. But then Adam wouldn't get his breakfast baguette on time from Mamadou (bless his soul) who picks it up fresh on his way to work.

These are the serious dilemmas one has to work through when adapting to a new culture.

The solution to this completely imagined quandary - which would not bother us if we weren't crazy people right now - is to exert control where we can, for example in our own home over those within our impatient reach.

So Adam worked out a plan for the night guard to go get the baguette from the bakery each morning. He leaves it on our porch without looking us in the eye. Then Mamadou passes by the bakery, a bit later, on his way to work and pays for it. Done. Adam gets baguette, we manipulate, postpone and control the morning greeting routine. I tie the girls' pigtails up in peace. We don't have to touch, talk or be grumpy with anyone until we have finished doing those things with each other.

I promise we love it here. The people are helpful and understanding, despite our angst. We're slowly crawling out of hole of transition. I've started waving and smiling more on my way to work. And it's only partially because I imagine getting hit by a car and everyone standing around saying, "Serves her right, she's the white lady who never responded to ça va." 

We will soon release control over the little things. We will trust the plumber and gladly shake all the hands. For now we fight about hanging pictures and trust that the day we take them down we'll forget who knocked the hole in the wall behind them. (Except, not really. It was Adam.)

23 September 2014

Back-to-School (Back to Blogging)

Hello Mama Congo readers. We know. It's been a while. Who knew switching careers and countries would take up so much of our time? Funny that.

Jill and I would like to mark our semi-settlement in our new lives with a comparative look at back-to-school in New York City and in the New York City of Africa - Ouagadougou. (Ha!)

Our back to school journey in Ouaga began by translating and deciphering the school supply list. (Not all that different from the girls' crazy supply list in Congo. Remember that?) Here in Ouaga we just handed it over to the neighborhood Papeterie guy and he picked everything out for us.

Feigning excitement over pink notebook protectors. 

Les listes.

No need to go behind the counter. Mr. Papeterie is full service. 

Each day before school Mamadou (our house-helper extraordinaire) delivers the fresh, morning baguette. I consider my greatest accomplishment in Burkina thus far to be never trying the morning baguette.  I once tried stale, evening baguette, which confirmed my suspicion that one bite of fresh baguette would be my gateway drug to a habit of 5 whole loaves a day.

Best torn. Not sliced. 

Some time during breakfast, Anastasie, our new nanny arrives.

A note about Anastasie: Although she is our new "Mama" so to speak, mentions and memories of Mamicho and Mama Youyou bubble up each day. More often than not, those are accompanied by sentimental tears - on my part, but I run away and hide before anyone notices. Because the key to successful transitioning is hiding emotion, right?

After breakfast, the girls travel just a few blocks on a mostly washed out dirt road to maternelle.

Charlotte's teacher, who speaks beautiful French and makes fun of Adam's. Love her already.

This is the look of discovering we have bought the wrong-sized notebook. 1/2 inch too narrow.
Back to the Papeterie we go. 

After sorting the rejected school supplies from the approved ones, Adam and I waited around until the girls felt comfortable. They never got comfortable, so we left and they wailed. Charlotte tried to hold back her tears, but then made a last minute decision to run screaming for the door. Luckily her teacher clotheslined her and snatched her up. Good work teacher. It'll be a great year.

Per Loulou's request, a close-up of Char. (Taken before her tragic abandonment at school.) 

Stay tuned for a look at Jill's back-to-school routine in NYC. Which is sure to include better roads, but the jury's still out on their baguette.

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