After just two weeks at site, I left for Ouagadougou for what was supposed to have been a one-week training at FAIJ headquarters. It turned out to be a three week stay where I worked 40+ hour weeks in an office and even wore a tie most days. It was a great introduction to office life in the capital and was exciting to get started on actual work. But at the same time it was bizarre. Here I am in the Peace Corps, in one of the poorest countries in the world, yet I’m taking taxis to work while suited up and working on Access databases all day in an air conditioned office.
The main task that I’ll be working on for the next few months will be designing and implementing a database in MS Access to track all of the applicants and borrowers as well as generating reporting documentation and other analytics. The current method of tracking all of the information is very manual, but thorough, so I have quite a bit to work with. Plus my colleagues are already used to working in Excel in at least a limited manner. It appears that a good portion of my job will entail training them how to use and implement the database in their current workflows. Now I’ll have to learn how to use Access and Excel in French. For example, did you know that VLOOKUP = RECHERCHEV? I don’t even want to think about talking about linking fields and groupby in Access. The ministry gave me a nice laptop, a cell phone, and the promise of a usb cell modem to use to get online while not in Ouaga. A pretty nice setup for a PCV.
The big surprise to me was that office life in a Burkinabe government office is actually quite similar to that in the states. Everyone had a desk with a computer, there were filing systems, a water cooler, and coffee. One main difference is the siesta from 12:30 to 15:00. However, since the office was a bit far from where I was staying it was too much of a pain to eat lunch, taxi home, rest, and taxi back. So instead we would either just relax at a restaurant for a couple of hours, or we would take walks around downtown Ouaga. It turned out to be a great way to get to know the city, and I’m happy that I was in town during the cold season – I can’t imagine I’d want to take lunchtime walks during March/April.
During my time in Ouaga I stayed at the Transit House, a Peace Corps owned house that functions as a sort of hotel for PCVs – though I’d probably liken it more to a bit of a frat house. It was a great way to meet many of the volunteers who have been around longer than I have, and for the most part I had a great time staying there. After a while, the lack of personal space and sharing bedrooms/bathrooms gets a little old, but the amenities were amazing – couches, wi-fi, real mattresses, and my very first hot showers in-country!
I loved exploring, and tried to go out every night to one of the many downright first-world restaurants available. Plus on the weekends I took a few multi hour bike rides around town. I was able to sample an amazing variety of cuisine, including Austrian, Chinese, Lebanese, and of course American. I found real Kentucky bourbon (Wild Turkey to be exact), legit nice fabric to be made into dress pants at Eurotext, and even went to an amazing concert at the French Cultural Center.
Suffice to say, I’m going to miss Ouaga. I kept busy with work, and there were always things to do in the evenings and on weekends. Thankfully, work and other activities will bring me back quite often it appears. I’ll need to come back to update headquarters on my database progress and work with them on requests over the next couple of months. I’ll also need to run occasional trainings on MS Access and Excel. Plus, the director told me that a lot of the ideas I had for site can be implemented on a more national level and hopefully be more impactful in Ouaga. And of course there are always cultural events, like the upcoming FESPACO film festival and Peace Corps trainings that will bring me into the capital from time to time.
After all of the work and social events, coming back to my apartment at site was a little depressing. No more friends around all of the time, downgraded food options, and dust everywhere. And at this point, I’ve actually spent more time in Ouaga than at site so everything is still pretty new. But it’s nice to get back into the swing of things again, and thankfully I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say I don’t have things to keep me busy.
This week I have a Peace Corps supplied French tutor in town so will be doing a lot of language training for the next few days and less on the database front. This is good as I spent two days last week in meetings where I didn’t understand a lot. My tutor is really awesome and we basically just go around town and chat all day. He tells me he’s really impressed by my French, but I think that’s just because I was a functioning mute during training, so any progress to him is probably amazing. I really need to get back on the language train…. For the other French speakers out there, my big breakthrough so far this week is that I finally learned how to use the inversion to ask questions!