On honesty, hospitals and hair

This will have to be several blogs rolled into one. I’ve been having major communications issues due to a broken phone that’s proving surprisingly difficult to repair. The problem is the electricity here- while I’m very grateful it exists for at least 90% of the time, the power surges absolutely destroy the batteries in phones and computers. Just trying to charge my laptop turns it into a live electrical hazard, and I can’t count how many times I’ve been electrocuted by the USB ports.

Firstly then, what has been happening here? Well, we said goodbye to our first cohort in mid-September. I can’t tell you how immensely proud I am of them all. Not just for the work they did on the project, but also (possibly mostly) for how much they have all grown as people. I can’t deny I had a fantastic team who were all wonderful from the moment they arrived; but looking at the people leaving ten weeks later, the difference was hard to believe. Want your children to grow up and become outgoing, independent and confident young adults? Send them on ICS.

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As soon as the last flight had left I finally admitted I’d been quite ill for a while and went to hospital. Turns out my 11 day-long mystery fever was caused by pyelonephritis, which was disappointingly untropical. Don’t feel too sorry for me though- I got to spend four days in hospital hooked up to a drip and forced to limit my activities to sleeping and reading. And the food there is fantastic. I also had a CT scan and got to keep the images- the geek in me is already planning how to display these in my future house.

Since then the other team leaders and I have been resting before the next cohort arrives. We were treated by International Service to a two day trip to Nazinga national park near the Ghanaian border- after 13 weeks in my tiny village even the car journey was exciting, and the park was breathtaking. It was so good just to see hills and a vast expanse of green.

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Now we’ve just got a few days to wait before the next cohort arrives. It will be strange to start all over again, but at least I feel like I know what I’m doing now. Sorry Cohort 1, but I think you always knew you were the practice run!

In the meantime, I’ve been wanting to write about what it’s really like living here, at the approximate half way point. After all, the real interest of this blog is what happens when you take a relatively sheltered British girl and leave her in the fourth least developed county for six months. Well, here it is: a balls-out honest account of how that’s going.

1. The things you think are strange at the beginning quickly become normal. I don’t notice any more if I’m cycling on a “road” that’s actually just a rocky path without grass. This to me now this is just how you get to somebody’s house. My cycling skills have improved exponentially. The long drop toilets are normal to the point that I miss them if I’m staying somewhere with a “Western toilet”. And if I go into a building with glass windows I do a double take and wonder why somebody went to such expense.

2. The food. The food has been a struggle. There’s clearly nothing wrong with the food, as approximately 16 million people eat it on a daily basis. But unfortunately I happen to think almost every seasoning used here is completely unpalatable, and 15 weeks of trying to overcome this have been unsuccessful. I’m not a fussy eater, I just disagree that “sumbala can be compared to miso paste”, as Wikipedia claims. My host family are very accommodating, and there are some dishes I genuinely enjoy. They’re just few and far between.

3. I’ve had to learn not to judge people by my own standards. The hardest thing about living and working in a new culture is remembering that people don’t act with the same rationale as you do. I’ll give you an example. In the first of several road accidents I’ve witnessed here I was shocked at the enormous crowd that gathered around the ambulance. Thinking people were just being nosy, I felt genuinely uncomfortable standing in the crowd with my colleague. Until he explained that people were just showing the injured person that they cared, and were there in solidarity. Today I saw a woman crash her motorcycle and a crowd quickly gathered. The kindness shown as people helped her stand, dressed her wounds, dusted off her vehicle and found her a tree to rest under was truly moving.

4. I haven’t shaved my legs for two months. And nobody cares. Getting used to a new set of beauty standards has been odd but very refreshing. I’ve been told twice that my arm hair is beautiful, and I’ve learned that it’s a compliment if somebody says you’ve put on weight. Mention shaving and people will look at you like you’re not all there. I must tell you, the feeling of cycling with the wind in your leg hair is both novel and liberating.

5. Gender equality is a distant dream here, and that’s something I struggle with. Mostly I complain about things that are a personal inconvenience: I can’t go to a café on my own; I can’t go to a bar to watch the football; if I go out alone after dark and get attacked it would be 100% my fault. The list goes on. But my complaints are trivial compared to the women who live here, who predictably have jobs plus childcare plus every household chore to juggle. It’s the same story: women are less likely to be educated; the teenage pregnancy rate is 13%; the chance of finding a woman in a managerial position is basically zero. More than one man here has paid lip service to the idea of feminism, and then told me that women don’t want equality; they’ve never heard a woman complain about her lot. When I ask what would happen to a women who demanded equality in her household or job, they fall strangely silent.

6. You really can get anything on a moped. I know I’ve written this before but it still amazes me. 50 chickens? No problem. 10 goats? Seems reasonable. Two adults, a child, and 3 garden chairs? It’s certainly worth a try.

7. The hardest lessons I’ve learned have been about myself. There’s a big difference between “travelling” and arriving in a country knowing you’re here for 26 weeks. There have been lots of happy times but there have also been some very low points. Many of you will know that my mental health isn’t always bulletproof. One of the disadvantages of the ICS system is that as a team leader you are left in an isolated village where your primary support is your randomly allocated counterpart. I have been exceptionally lucky to work with Dramane, who is not only a great colleague but should be a mental health professional. At my worst he’s literally picked me up off the floor, and he’s helped me see my illness in the much more relaxed context of the Burkinabe outlook on life. While I’m certain that depression is a disease that can affect absolutely anyone, I also believe that the way it manifests is partly cultural. And if nothing else, my time here has given me some new tools to deal with my own shitty brain chemistry.

And on that note I will go back to village life. The mood is a bit suppressed as Burkina just lost 3-1 to South Africa in the World Cup Qualifiers. There are some things that don’t change no matter where you are in the world.

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