Posts Tagged ‘Thoughts


One Year Checkup

Friday marked my training group’s one year anniversary for arriving in Burkina Faso, and as such calls for a bit of reflection.

Burkina Faso is unlike any other place I have been. Upon first arrival I was shocked or surprised by many things – abject poverty, heat, the multitude of unaccustomed sounds (lots of languages, motorbikes, and the muslim call to prayer, for example). One year later, these things have become a part of my daily life, and while I’m still discovering new things all the time, I’ve become familiar enough with the life and culture here that many previously shocking things have become to seem normal.

Work Progress

While I’m proud of some of the successes I have had, at the same time I feel like I’ve hardly accomplished anything thus far. The good news is that seems to be normal, as it is often said that most volunteers don’t really become particularly effective until year two of their service (I still have another two months before I’m on the downhill stretch). I also feel better when I start to look at it through the lens of how much time I’ve actually spent working. When one adds up the three months of Peace Corps trainings, more than one month of my association’s trainings/meetings, another month of evacuations related to earlier military actions and a month of vacation, it quickly becomes evident that I’ve spent about half of my service in Burkina Faso not directly working on projects.

Going forward, I’m currently on the verge of starting two big projects that will be taking the majority of the rest of my service, my database/GPS map implementation project I’ve written about before (here and here) looks to be going nationwide, as well as working to bring solar lights to Burkina Faso with Unite to Light. Both projects are in the advanced planning stages and I’m currently dealing with logistics of touring around the country as well as international shipping/customs issues. Hopefully I will be posting soon with all of the details.

In addition, ongoing individual consulting projects with borrowers, computer trainings, and appearances with a local English club will likely round out the rest of my free time. Though I’d like to revive interest in making/selling mango jam this coming spring as well as participating in next year’s version of the bike tour as well.

Life and Happiness

Overall, I’d say I’m generally happy, though my usual emotional stoicism is rocked a bit higher or lower than usual every now and then. When I’m busy and accomplishing things I feel amazing, but when I have down time I feel like I’m wasting time. And while downtime is nice sometimes, I on occasion feel like I’m shortchanging my experience here by reverting back to my old American self. I’m online more than I care to admit, and when socializing I’m often hanging out with other expats (Americans, Canadians, French, etc) rather than Burkinabé.

Thankfully, it looks like the majority of the rest of my service is already planned out and I will be incredibly busy for at least the next five months, so that should help me feel happier more often. I’ll have a set schedule and won’t be able to simply vanish inside my house for the evening.

I’m also doing a little planning for the future. My next vacation plans will be tagging along with my folks on a South Africa/Botswana/Namibia trip next summer and hopefully convincing them (or at least guilting them) into to coming to Burkina and perhaps a side trip to Mali.

I’m also thinking more and more about post Peace Corps opportunities. Travel will certainly be a large part of it, but then what? The development field has been interesting, though I’m not sure if I want to be in it for a career. I’m also thinking about grad school, scholarship opportunities, and language study.

In short, things are good. I’ve created a role here for myself, and I enjoy the work that I’m doing and generally the life that I’m leading. I want to change up a few things about my routine (exercise more, less computer time), but for the most part I’m happy with where I am and for where I am going – even if I don’t know exactly where that is sometimes.


On Steve Jobs

Normally I wouldn’t be one to write something about the death of a celebrity or someone I’ve never met, but I can’t let today’s news of Steve Jobs’ death go by without mention. The visionary tech leader engaged in his profession with such passion that one couldn’t help but be drawn in. My hobby interest in technology and subsequent interest in business led me to follow every movement (and rumor) of Apple for the past 10 years while at the same time inspiring me to something great myself.

It was through Apple that I became thoughtful about the details of life. After using its products, one can’t help but look at other items in our daily lives and wonder why they aren’t better or different somehow. When I buy something, no matter how unimportant, I can’t help but think about the design considerations that did or didn’t go into the product and it’s materials. The font of a website, the shape of and the feel of the plastic handle of a tea kettle, or the way something is worded – they all matter. This attention to detail has infused itself into my conscious, and it’s that philosophy that permeates much of my life and work today. I’ll often put as just as much thought into the design aspect of my work as I do on the content (the info window for my map project, for example). Though somehow, at the same time, he was able to be a big picture guy. He had an uncanny ability to enter certain industries at the right time (while not choosing others) and delivering products that we never knew we wanted or thought possible.

Jobs also uniquely introduced the voice of the 1960’s for many in my generation who would of otherwise missed much of the thought from that era. And it was his constant thoughtfulness that always stood out to me as uniquely Steve, even in his famous one-line emails. I look forward to reading his upcoming authorized biography – hopefully it does his legacy justice. For now, I’m going to re-watch this:


Zidisha: True P2P Microfinancing

There’s a new(ish) mircrofinance website out there these days, called Zidisha. It’s similar to Kiva, but a key difference is that Zidisha is the first to have no intermediaries between borrowers and lenders. This way, the borrowers receives the funds directly and does not deal with a local MFI (microfinance institution). By doing this, Zidisha has gotten rid of the overhead associated with MFIs (loan officers, buildings, etc) and can offer low interest rates. Typical rates are about 8% compared to the global average of 35%.

For lenders, the idea isn’t really to make money (though you certainly can), but instead to have a philanthropic bent to simply make capital available to motivated borrowers, and then be paid back. Borrowers propose interest rates and lenders can choose agree to the same rate or propose a different rate (even 0%), though there is a service charge of 5% and one-time sign-up fee for borrowers. Zidisha is quick to point out that it won’t be like US banks during the housing bubble who simply originated loan after loan to shaky borrowers, as the fees are:

…used to cover operating expenses only… This is deducted from borrower repayments, rather than from loan disbursements. Linking fee income to repayments means that Zidisha’s financial interest is in facilitating the financing of quality loans to small business entrepreneurs who are capable of repayment, not in maximizing lending volume at the expense of quality.

Just last week Zidisha has added their first borrower in Burkina Faso, a man starting up a restaurant near the entrance to the waterfalls I visited in the south-west a few months back. My good friend James, another PCV, is working closely with him and is actually acting as a guarantor in this situation because it is the first loan in-country.

I encourage you to take a look at the site, sign up, and make a loan. Even a small loan can go a long way here, and the current repayment rate is 100%. Plus, if you loan to the Burkinabé borrower I mentioned, there’s an incredibly capable PCV working alongside him. I just signed up myself and made a small loan at a 3% interest rate (he’s currently 70% funded for his $1,128 loan —July 21st update: the loan is now 100% funded). For more information, check out the Zidisha FAQ.


Thoughts on Development and Sustainability

Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

-Lawrence J. Peter*

Lawrence almost assuredly wasn’t speaking about development and sustainability, but he eloquently states my uncertain position as to the pros/cons in the development and aid industries that I’ve been initiated into with Peace Corps.

A post over at Waylaid Dialectic describes the three roles for aid out there today and discusses the on-the-ground realities:

  1. Development aid – the ideal, sustainably transforming countries
  2. Band-aid aid –  improving people’s welfare in the absence of systematic change, makes no pretence at changing societies
  3. Keeping it together aid – tries to keep states together and functioning even if it’s not transforming them
The Peace Corps development philosophy focuses squarely on type one aid by teaching the PACA approach (Participatory Analysis for Community Action). In other words, to assist the community in selecting projects that they themselves feel are priorities will be able to continue on their own. I agree with this philosophy whole-heartedly, though of course true sustainability is incredibly hard to get right. Our advantage as Peace Corps Volunteers, is our ability to fully integrate into our communities and our long time horizon.
Waylaid Dialectic’s post says this regarding type one aid:
…it’s [the] aid that most aid agencies and politicians talk about. This is also aid that rarely, I think, succeeds on its own terms. It turns out that development is too complicated, aid too cumbersome, and the ability of external agents to effect change too weak, for this type of aid to succeed often. Not often isn’t the same as never – it probably sometimes works. But success is less common than one would think from the rhetoric of aid. And I think we kid ourselves much of the time regarding the potential for[this type of] aid to work, and end up wasting money.
I myself have been conflicted lately on a few projects where I don’t believe I’m really doing sustainable development, and may be drifting into type two aid. One example: my organization has a lot of data, but organizes it inefficiently. With my background in MS Access, I’ve been working on making a database to enter and track borrower data. And while I don’t anticipate having any problems teaching my colleagues how to use the system, teaching them how to make the actual tables/queries/tables and their interactions might be a little out of their league. But I’ve decided to make it anyway. If I were in the US I’d most likely run into the same problem. Users wouldn’t know how to make the database (or the website or almost anything else), but they’d know how to use it, and that’s what counts. The key will be to fully train my colleagues on the concepts of the system, but not worry about making them all IT professionals.
Waylaid Dialectic’s post continues:
I’m a big fan of the second type of aid. This, I think, can work — and it’s probably where aid has had its most major success in improving welfare. The main argument against it is that you have to give it in perpetuity, or at least for a long time. But, hey that’s what we do with our own welfare state. No one in New Zealand says “we’re funding a health service now so that one day we won’t have to have one”. I’m comfortable with aid as a global social safety net, as part of a global social contact of sorts.

And while I agree type one aid is the ideal, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong or evil about type two aid when done right. So while I will always strive for true sustainable development, I am open to the idea that bringing in outside aid and/or expertise that is potentially only sustainable for the short to medium term can still be a good thing. What do you think?


* If this and his other quotes are any indication, I think Lawrence and I would have been friends.


French Progress Checkup

One of my biggest concerns before joining the Peace Corps in a French speaking country was simply my ability (or lack thereof) to pick up the language. I had just a handful of introductory French classes, plus a few hours here and there on Rosetta Stone before arriving, and I would not consider myself a language person. About half of the time in the first nine weeks of PC training in country is dedicated towards language study, and while I made the minimum standards to swear-in as  a PCV, I only just made it. So seven months plus in, how is my French?

Well, amazingly enough it’s fine. Not great mind you, I make grammatical mistakes practically every sentence and my listening comprehension is still worse than I’d like. But the bottom line is that even with all of the time I’ve spent with Americans due to the security situation and living in a regional capital with other volunteers and where others like to visit to resupply, I speak sufficiently well enough to express just about anything I need to express. I’m not having thrilling conversations, but I’m getting all of my needs met, and generally know what’s going on (though miss plenty of detail).

Saliou, my French tutor during training.

And I’ve gotten to this point without a lot of serious study (post Peace Corps training at least). Now that I’ve given the natural technique some time, I have a new plan of attack to use rosetta stone, a local tutor, and make a better attempt to read in French to really get it down. I just found a copy of my favorite book, The Count of Monte Cristo in French. And while it’ll probably take me a few months to get through, and a dictionary constantly in hand, I’m determined to not leave this country without being able to read it. While I am getting more and more comfortable speaking French, my written French is terrible – it’s so laughably bad that at the bank I often cash checks for certain amounts just because I know how to spell soixante-dix (seventy) but not quatre-vingts (eighty) for example (though now that I’ve looked up this example for this post I think I’m good on that one now).

One main obstacle in getting really good at French is the fact that the French spoken here isn’t like the French one would learn in France. In fact, if the person can even speak French, it’s probably their third or fourth language. Thus, there are a lot of shortcuts – few tenses are used, and many colloquialisms that probably wouldn’t get me very far in Paris, such as saying il y a quoi et quoi (literally, “there is what and what”instead of  the more normal Qu’est-que vous avez (“What do you have”) when asking a waiter what’s on the menu today.

Other times, I’m not sure whether some uses are strange because I’m in Burkina, or if it’s just French generally. For example, no one really uses the nous (we) form, and instead use on (one). So for example, people say, on-voudrait aller a la marché (one would like to go to the market). It makes conjugating easier, but took me a couple of months to figure out that nous and on were used interchangeably. Also, many common expressions here would be considered rude in more classical French, such as saying il fait faire quelque chose (you must do something) instead of pouvez-vous faire quelque chose (can you do something) or je te demande le bidon (I ask for your bottle) instead of puis-je avoir ton bouteille (can I have your bottle).

Grammatical quirks and vocabulary non-withstanding, I am just excited to be able to function in a non-English speaking society (and it’s pretty rare to find English speakers at all). And while I don’t think I’ll ever be able to achieve fluency here, I will be able to speak well enough to confidently navigate life and work. I’m happy to have the chance to learn a language that I can continue to use post Peace Corps, and hope to spend some quality time in France later on to continue my learning.

My French progress was tested once again by the Peace Corps this month during a training, and I was happy to receive a score of “Intermediate-High”, one level above the score I received a few months back. Progress=good.

No matter how well I learn French though, people love it when you speak to them in their local language, and here in the east it’s either Mooré or Gourmanchema. I’ve started to make more of an effort with my greetings, and there’s no better feeling than running through a series of salutations (i.e. Good morning, how’s it going? How’s the family? And your work?) and getting lots of surprised reactions and smiles. Next up is learning to order food.

And as an aside I caught this neat infographic (and I love infographics) on business languages in Africa. So even if you’re a real language-phobe, there are plenty of English speaking countries to visit. Though be warned, I met someone from Ghana the other day and it took me a minute to realize he was actually speaking to me in English!


Peace Corps Packing – What Not to Bring

I previously detailed the essential items I brought to Burkina Faso, and now as a follow-up I’ve detailed a few things that you should definitely NOT bring.  Pro tip: if you aren’t sure about some things, set them aside and give a bag to a friend or family member who can send it over later if you decide you really want it. I did this and found that a number of the things I thought would be essential were in fact not necessary once I got here.


  • As many shirts as you think – I brought a ton of shirts, but only wear these: five casual button ups, four polos, and three t-shirts (and two of those shirts were made/bought here). And as a cultural aside, plenty of Burkinabe wear the same outfit two days in a row. Embrace this.
  • As many pants as you think – I brought too many of these as well, but only wear two quickdry pants, one pair of khakis and a pair of jeans.
  • >1 Sweatshirt/Fleece – I’m one of those people who are perennially warm, so take this with a grain of salt, but I brought one light fleece, and that has been plenty for me even on the coldest nights during “cold season.”
  • >3 shoes – Bring a good pair of sandals, one pair of dressier shoes, and running shoes if you run. That’s it. Sneakers, additional dress shoes, and simple shower sandals are everywhere here. I brought a couple pairs of sandals, plus a couple pairs of casual shoes and they just sit unused.
  • Shorts – By shorts, I mean shorts that you plan on wearing outside of your house/courtyard as they’re culturally a no go. But do bring a couple pairs of running or lounge shorts to hang out in when you’re at home. And do bring a bathing suit (who knew you’d swim in Burkina Faso?)
  • Sewing kit – Every Peace Corps packing guide includes one of these, but one out of every five business I pass by is a tailoring shop. So unless you really like to sew, you can avoid this one. If something rips or tears, just swing it by the shop and have it fixed on the cheap. Plus, practice your language skills.


  • Power converters – I found that all of my electronics’ (and I brought a lot) power adapters were already dual voltage and will work just fine with simple (and cheap!) power adapters. It’s unlikely you’ll need one of those expensive converters unless you plan on bringing your hair-dryer (and in that case we’ll need to talk). Check out your gear and see if you need one before assuming you need one.


Outdoor Items

  • Too much “backpacking stuff” – Yes, you’ll probably be living in a small village in Africa, but no matter how remote your village things are more normal here than you’d think. Don’t get too crazy with the gear. There’s no need for expensive, heavy duty backpacking backpacks, UV water filters, fancy watches, or tools (besides a knife or leatherman). And while I’m a full supporter of quickdry type clothing, get the those that won’t make you look like you’re on a safari. The manner of dress here is much more western than you’d think.


  • Most over the counter medications – your Peace Corps medical kit will have most everything you could want (and will be so full that you won’t be able to re-close it). Obviously bring your prescription stuff if you’re supposed to, but no need to bring pepto, immodium, asprin, daily vitamins, band-aids, hand sanitizer, condoms, lip balm, etc.
  • Too many toiletries – training is in a large regional capital (Koudougou), so you’ll be able to find things like toothpaste, soap, q-tips, etc. Bring enough to get you through training, but no more unless you just can’t live without something.
  • Hair product – basically a total waste with the combination of your bike helmet and lots of sweat.


  • Don’t waste precious packing space with food besides a few granola bars and some Gatorade mix. Mail yourself a box with some snacks before you go.


  • Small US denomination currency – Want to bring some US currency just in case? A good idea actually, but don’t bring small bills. Money exchangers don’t like anything less than a twenty.

Modern Life in the Peace Corps

I sometimes feel like I’m missing out on the “traditional Peace Corps experience” even here in Burkina Faso where it is still actually possible to have one. I live in a regional capital, travel to the capital often both for work and fun, have a computer with internet access, and am pondering a refrigerator purchase. I also work for a fairly high level government organization and spend my days working in and teaching Access/Excel and tracking GPS coordinates. Virtually all of my communication is in French rather than a local language such as Mooré, Jula, or Gourmanchéma. And while I could be (and most volunteers here do) farming in the fields, learning an obscure language, or eating tô for every meal, my specific work and location doesn’t necessitate it. Of course, life certainly isn’t easy, and I deal with a lot of change and differences, but because it’s easier for me than most of what I see, I feel relatively privileged. And I don’t feel like I’m suffering. Shouldn’t I be?

In the wake of Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary and some surprised reactions to my packing list post where I detail a lot of the technological products I have here, I’ve realized that the modern volunteer experience differs from the iconic Peace Corps life of the past mostly due to the transformational powers of technology. No longer are the majority of volunteers cut-off from the outside world, or even some amenities. Burkina Faso is amongst the poorest countries Peace Corps serves worldwide, and with the recent closing of the Peace Corps program in Niger, perhaps is now the the poorest (though there are many ways to measure such things). And while I’d argue that a traditional experience is actually had by many volunteers here, all PCVs have cell phones (though not everyone has service directly in their village), and we are expected to check our email every couple of weeks for Peace Corps communications. Most of us have computers. A few of us, like me, even splurge on USB cellular modems and have net access at our leisure.  Even though you can still have a traditional experience here in Burkina, PCVs still straddle the past and the modern. Of course, compared to most other Peace Corps countries, our experience is still amenity-poor. Google “Posh Corps” to see that not everyone is roughing it these days, and that  even my idealic setup here in Burkina pales in comparison to those in most other countries (TVs/DVD players/Microwaves/Washing Machines oh my!)

But do you need to feel like you’re suffering to be a good volunteer? I know that in my situation I am being more impactful than I would be otherwise. Technology perhaps provides comforts, but it also makes me much more resourceful in my job. Almost everything that I’m doing would not have been possible just a decade ago, and maybe not even two years ago in some cases. Instead of just helping a handful of people make a slightly better living, I can now (hopefully) enable an entire agency to better impact almost two thousand Burkinabé. Of course, the additional amenities make me happy, but being happy helps me be a good PCV too.

In the end, semantics and sentiments aren’t important. I’m doing exactly what I should be here. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t think about and occasionally yearn for a more disconnected experience. Thankfully those types of situations are just a short bike ride away. I’m thinking a few excursions to meet up with other PCVs living en brusee are in order. And don’t worry, I still poop in a hole. That brings me back down to earth.


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The opinions on this blog are only those of the author, and and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.