Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"A History of the French Language, As I Know And Fear It: Part One" by Beth

I. The Bad Place
I hated France, the French language and French people. Not like I knew anything about any of them. This early intense animosity was likely fueled by the fact that I had a cousin that went to France as an exchange student and hated it. Not like I trusted her judgment in many matters, but she seemed pretty adamant about the fact that France was worthless and she was the only person I knew that had ever been there. The food was a particular subject of complaint. Examples: They made weird pancakes (crepes, presumably) They didn't have real bread, just weird kinds (no pre-sliced, cottony Wonder Bread, merely those baguette things). The people were snobby and weird. The TV programs were boring and weird. The local teens' manner of dress was ugly and weird... Are you sensing a theme here?
Is it any surprise that when it came time to chose a foreign language at school, I opted for Spanish?
My best friend, Lyn, took French. The hard language. She bravely struggled with it, but abandoned the linguistic ship when a new teacher from West Africa got on board. She couldn't understand a word he said, due to the accent. (Much more on this subject in Part Three)

When I graduated from HS, I got the Spanish Award for being the top student. I studied it at University. I patted myself on the back for knowing a useful language. I went to Peru to do archaeology.
I wouldn't touch French with a ten foot long pole duct-taped to a SECOND ten foot long pole.
So there.

II. True Love
Jean-Pierre is so TALL! I saw him in that anthropology seminar and never guessed he was a citizen of the dreaded, detestable, snobby, and very weird nation. French guys are all short, right? Like Napoleon. Not only was JP tall, he was VERY friendly. We got engaged and he asked me to move to Switzerland. Geneva. Where they speak FRENCH. Ummm- right.

III. French Immersion, Submersion and Drowning
I took my first-ever French lessons in a commercial college in Geneva. The lights in the restrooms were all blue. This made it really hard to touch up one'’s make-up and was pretty strange. Oh no! I'm not even in France yet and the weirdness has begun!! It was only much later that I spoke enough French to understand the explanation: blue light makes it hard to see your veins and shoot up heroin. It expained a lot about some of the students.
My first French teacher there was a painfully elegant fifty-something woman from Lyon. She taught every class in a different impeccably tailored ensemble and coordinating silk scarf. Madame spoke several languages, but refused to speak any of them but French unless it was an absolute emergency. Our definitions of "emergency" were very different. Only that guy apparently in heroin withdrawal out in the hallway one morning qualified. Everything else was dealt with "en Français, s'il vous plait!"
Madame had a tough job. None of us spoke a word of French and we came from all over the world, in various stages of coherency, as you may have gathered. Already knowing Spanish gave me a huge advantage. The two languages, I quickly realized, are very similar. Gasp! Speak Spanish without pronouncing the ending syllable of each word and you are halfway to speaking French. By George, I think she's got it! Maybe this French stuff isn't so bad!
There were the inevitable misunderstandings, of course. For example: Madame was VERY proud of her native city and as soon as we could understand a bit more than "“Where is Jean’s pen?" "“Here is Jean's pen."”, she treated us to a long lecture on the delights of Lyon. I was quite astonished to learn that Lyon is well known for astronomy and Kleenex. Wow! You learn something every day!
Imagine my surprise after class when a fellow student (a girl from Ecuador) told me it was "gastronomie et tissus". Fine food and fabrics. Oh. Well , I guess that makes sense. They don’t usually put those big observatory telescopes in the middle of major urban centers, now that I think about it.
But I soldiered on, reading Tintin and Milou comic books to further aid my progress. I liked that better than my school books that demanded that I repeat phrases like: "Hi! I’m called Abdoulaye Mohammed. I am from Senegal!"
In Tintin comics, you get phrases like: "The dynamite has disappeared!" SO much more useful and entertaining!
The second semester, I had a new teacher, Romaine. She was Swiss and had large blonde hair that occupied much of her time. She lacked Madame's rigor, but made up for it in entertainment value. She liked joking around, but in the end, the joke was on us. She wasn't teaching us French. She was teaching us SWISS! I didn't know it , but my small store of American-accented French was getting infected by a dorky Genevan accent and dorky Genevan words!!! Examples: In real French, the number ninety is "quatre-vingt-dix". In Geneva, it's "nonente". To the French, the latter sounds rather like baby-talk.
In a café in Geneva, you order an overpriced "ristretto". In France, the garçon will look at you like you are a crazed, though perhaps thirsty, axe-murderer if you use this word. What you want is a "café au lait" to perk you up so that you can carry on your busy day of dismembering people! Of course!

Soon to come...........IV. Yet More Humiliation

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The new US Ambassador to Burkina owns the two fattest Siamese cats that I have ever seen in my life. They look like two prize-winning watermelons that have been covered with beige fur and given slanted green eyes. Not like that’s an activity that a lot of people have as a hobby - disguising fruits and vegetables as household pets. Though it could catch on.
Mallory’s comment upon seeing them was “The Ambassador must love her kitties SO much! She gives them LOTS of food!” Mallory got to meet Panda and Chewy last night, as we were over at Ambassador Jackson’s house for the big concert.
We showed up at 6:30 with Ranch dip and veggie platter in hand, as well as a pitcher of sugar-free Kool-aid. We were all supposed to bring refreshments and I had broken out some U.S. treats in honor of the occasion. The food there all looked great. Somebody made sushi! Don’t get much of that in Burkina.
We did our warm up exercises and waited for 7:00, the scheduled starting time. At first, I thought that no one was going to come and we’d end up singing in front of the small group of children and spouses that had come early. But by 7:15 there were over 80 people in the room and some had to stand, as there were no more chairs to be had. The melon-shaped Siamese cats peered out suspiciously from the hallway. They didn’t look happy to see so many strangers in their home, but I figured they’d get over it when they saw all the food, particularly the sushi platter.
Most of the expat community of Ouaga was there- American, German, French, Belgian, Danish, Dutch, Swiss, Taiwanese, Canadian, etc. Guests were by invitation only and each choir member was allowed to invite 4 adults. Luckily, kids didn’t count, otherwise I couldn’t have invited a single friend! As it was, I invited Sylvain (my guitar-playing pal from the church chorale) and his wife Julie, Rozenn (my fellow song leader from church) and Christine, an American friend. Most notable was the painful lack of my spouse, still traveling in Europe. Come to think of it, J.P. also missed our Christmas concert. And he didn’t hear me sing at the first communion mass. He claims to like my singing, but I don’t know….
The program:
“Tourdion” -In French. A medieval drinking song
“Tiebie Paiom” -In Latin. A Russian liturgical piece
“Die Meere” -In German. By J. Brahms. Very lyrical

Three pieces by a chamber music quartet. Two by Telemann and one by Franz Krommer

“The Silver Swan” - A fairly tricky 4 voice madrigal by Gibbons.
“Now is the Month of Maying” -Fun madrigal by Morley

Flute and piano duets. Two pieces by Fauré

“Aye Na Oh” -in Djoula. A traditional party song
“How Can I Keep From Singing” -Quaker song
“Tuxedo Junction” -A capella. Very cool.
“He Has Done Marvelous Things” –Gospel

The two madrigals were sung by a smaller group consisting of me, Ambassador Jackson (aka Janine), Keri, Dana and Ara. It was lots of fun to get back to singing Renaissance music! I haven’t done much since high school and that was a loooong time ago.

After the concert, the chamber music ensemble asked if I want to prepare some pieces with them for a future concert! If I would have asked that 20 years ago, I probably would have refused, saying that I’m not good enough. But I am older, wiser and braver now. I know I’m not the best, but I’m a fairly good singer and able to work hard, the latter being a basic requirement for any difficult task. When I was younger, I thought that performing must be easy for really talented people. And maybe it is. But for SOMEWHAT talented people, hard work can do wonders.
So, I fed Panda bits of sushi and we talked about what pieces we could perform. I talked to Natasha and Dana, I mean, not the cat. And yes, I know, I was enabling Panda’s compulsive eating syndrome. But he had been very sweet and let Mallory pet his tummy, so he needed a reward.

Valentine took several pictures at the concert. Have a look at the menu at right and click on Photo Album. Once there, choose the May 06 Sub-album. There are pictures of the performance, as well as some of the kids bowling, doing gymnastics, laying around the house, etc.
In the picture at the top, that's me on the left end in the bright pink shirt.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Once again, my public makes their wishes known. You are an inquisitive lot!
Here it is- the FAQ for yesterday’s entry.

Q: What songs did you sing? Hymns? Folksongs?
A: Well, yes, sort of. They were almost all in French and were modern Catholic worship songs. When I say “modern”, I don’t mean like US Evangelist music (The Newsboys, Rebecca St James and their rocking-out brethren ). The best description is: I sounded like the Singing Nun. You remember that “Dominique-nique-nique” song and the nun strumming her guitar? It sounded like that. Not terribly “cool”, I have to admit. Luckily, I am unconcerned by “cool”, as my eldest daughter so often informs me. (BTW-I just asked a 40-something American friend if she remembered the Singing Nun. She said "Yes! I LOVED her! Sally Field, right?" No dear, that was the FLYING nun. It's different.)
The final song was partly in some Zairian language. Translated into French, it meant in part: “We are all the children of the same Father. We will one day see the glory of God.” That's what I was told, anyway. It COULD have been about dead puppies and satanic rituals, set to a perky arrangement.

Q. What kind of back-up did you have?
A. There was an electric piano, a guitarist (acoustic, to get the full Singing Nun-effect going) and a djembé player. The University chorale sang on some of the songs.
One number was a duet with Sylvain, the guitarist.

Q. What did you wear?
A. I wore bright turquoise capri pants with a long gauze tunic over them. The tunic was also turquoise and embroidered with gold threads and sequins. No doubt it sounds a bit flashy for a church where you are, but here I fit it pretty well.
What people wear to church here is rather interesting. You can divide nearly everyone up into three basic groups:
1. The Europeans: Very dull bunch. They will wear old, everyday clothes. Not jeans, of course, but dull colored, loose linen dresses are common. The men dress nicely- no t-shirts, but no suits, either, even on big occasions. Boring.
2. The Africans: The dress as nicely as they can afford. The men are in suits, or bright-colored shirts. The women dress to the nines in impeccably tailored outfits in eye-popping patterns. There is always a matching headscarf or shawl. Very uncomfortable-looking shoes are required for both men and women.
3. The Lebanese: The women are always dressed for the evening- even to pick up the kids at school. So, no surprise that they really go over the top for big events. The clothes are very tight and very sparkly. Gold accessories and plenty of them is typical. The men are more middle of the road. Not as showy as the African men, but less sloppy than the Europeans.
Then there’s me- as ever, the odd one out. I am French by marriage, of course, but the clothes are just too boring. So I have a sort of hybrid Euro-Africo-Lebano-American style that I have developed. It consists of:
Bright colors
Glitter, beading, etc. are acceptable
No skirts that bare the knee (inappropriate by local standards),
No pants unless covered by a tunic,
Comfortable shoes (that’s the American part)

Q. Were you any good?
A. I guess I didn’t humiliate myself. At the end of the service there was a “special thank-you” to Beth Jacob, our soloist. A couple of friends came over afterwards to say nice things, but my biggest fan was Mallory. She thought I was fabulous.
I know I could have done better, but that’s how it always goes….. The President did not come by to congratulate me, but I can live with that.

Q. Has the service been on the news yet?
A. No word on that front. We don’t have out TV hooked up, so I never see the news. If no news really is good news, I get plenty of it. No wonder I'm such a happy person!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

This morning I sang in front of more than 400 people, including the President of Burkina Faso and his entire family. It didn’t quite hit me until I got onto the stage in front of the microphone. All I can say is, if I would have known what was coming, I would have practiced much more.
It started out very innocuously. I have been singing with the choral group of the University of Ouagadougou. They sing for all the masses at the La Rotonde Church. It’s so interesting to hang around with the students. University of Nebraska, it’s not. The campus is large, but there is not a blade of grass and the buildings are huge cinderblock constructions with metal roofs. The noise when it rains is deafening! There are motor-scooters and bicycles everywhere, as are little metal Nescafé stands. Those who can afford it smoke and fiddle incessantly ,with their cell phones, but most of the students are not that wealthy. Anybody with any money sends their children elsewhere for university. It’s Senegal or Ghana for many of them and France or the United States for a very lucky few.
It’s great singing with the students and getting to know a different facet of Burkinabé society. I have to be careful not to overdo the Nescafé, though. The students stay up all night studying, while those days are long past for me.
Anyway, one of the tasks I’ve taken on with the chorale is “leading”some of the songs during the service. I don’t really enjoy doing it. I love to sing, but I get a bit nervous up in front beside the altar with a microphone in my hand. And my directing method leaves to be desired. I try to look like I know what I’m doing, but I am pretty sure I look like Henry the Octopus on the kids’ old Wiggles videos as I wave my feeble tentacle……umm, I mean hand. The thing is, nobody else really wants to do it either. So, Rozenn and I do most of it. We are both a lot older that the students and apparently less susceptible to humiliation.

As you may have gathered, there was a mass this morning. It was a special one- first communion for 18 children. I was looking forward to it, as it was students from the second catechism class that I ever taught. I tried to get there early, as I wanted a little rehearsal time with the chorale, but there were soldiers everywhere and they wouldn’t let anyone turn onto the street where the church is located. We ended up parking several blocks away and walking past the long line of machine-gun wielding soldiers. For the life of me, I could not figure out what kind of trouble the government was expecting from a bunch of people intent on going to church on Sunday morning.
La Rotonde is big, but not very luxurious. It holds 400 seats and has a high metal roof. (Very bad acoustics!). There are a few ceiling fans to take the edge off the heat, but the edge of it is only a small part of the problem.
It was packed. I could see that every seat was going to be filled. The rest of the chorale arrived and I ran up on stage to make a sound check on the mic. That was when President Compaoré and his retinue came down the center aisle and made there way to the front of the church. There were two large armchairs set up front and center and he and the First Lady settled in as their bodyguards dispersed. As I looked around, I recognized Blaise’s brother, his mother in law and other family members. It was then that I remembered that Imani was part of this communion group. I wrote about her family in one of my March entries. Once again, I forgot that her dad is the president of this country.
Soon enough, it was time to begin. I had to get back on the stage and start my solo. It was really only then that I realized that I was singing in front of over 400 people, including a head of state and his family. It didn’t make my voice crack, but I will admit to being a tad nervous.
In all, I had 5 songs to get through. After the first time, I found that I was much less nervous and managed pretty well.
The photographers and cameramen had to be seen to be believed, though. I think every family must have hired their own. And the Burkina National Television crew was there, as well. I figure that this will be on the evening news tonight. I really regret that I forgot my own camera. I really had wanted to get a picture to put on the blog here. I knew that it would be very crowded and the photographers would be jostling for position like sharks facing a limited amount of exceptionally tasty chum. I knew I could get a couple of fun shots of that. But in the rush of getting all five of us ready to go, I forgot my camera. Sorry. But I have added a picture of Blaise.
That’s it. No more time to blog. I have to get to yet another rehearsal tonight. The concert for the International Choral Group is on Wednesday at the US Ambassador’s house. I will TRY not to forget my camera then!

Monday, May 15, 2006

The high school talent show is not an institution that one associates with Sub-Saharan Africa. Mask dances, diviner initiations, chicken sacrifices and the like are all everyday business here, but a talent show is what’s really exotic. So, in the true spirit of scientific inquiry harnessed to the desperate spirit of major boredom on a Saturday night with seven kids in tow, we went off to the high school talent show over at the ISO. (That’s the International School of Ouagadougou, BTW. The one that is near my house, but much too expensive for my kids to attend.)
It had been a busy day since the early morning. The annual ISO Yard sale had been held that morning and I was busy from
6:30 am until noon, finding new homes for all of our old junk. The battered Lion King bike helmet that is “too humiliating” went on to a better place. The partially-used tube of fake-Avon skin cream that I hated even sold! True! Somebody bought that! 40 cents! The silver high-heeled sandals I wore twice went to a masochistic Burkinabé lady for a dollar. Life is too short to wear uncomfortable shoes.
Suffice it to say, it was a busy morning and a good time was had by all.
But by later that day, I had somehow accumulated 7 children at my house. They were no trouble at all- they all played while I did some scrapbooking (my not so secret vice). But they were SO good that I kind of forgot about them until it was time to eat dinner and get over to the show. I desperately rummaged for leftovers and threw them into the microwave.
It was a white starch-themed meal that lost me any credibility I have built up in the good-mom department since the horrifying incident last month (see blog of April 20).
The kids ate in about 10 minutes. Mashed potatoes and rice go down fast.
Then, I sprayed a generous mist of Deep Woods Off for Sportsmen over everybody and off we went. We were at the school in five minutes. It took the show a long while to get started, though, and we sat outside in the dark for quite a spell.
When it finally got going, it was lots of fun. Perhaps lacking in variety, but we aren’t too demanding in the entertainment department around here. No juggling, magic tricks or accordeon-playing. You could divide the performers into two main groups: girls singing along to a Desiny’s Child-type song and kids dancing in a Michael Jackson-heyday manner. The most fun were the Destiny’s Child wannabes. One person in each group gets to be the “Beyoncé” . How do they determine this, I wondered. Obviously not by singing ability, as far as my ears could tell. Do they draw straws for the Beyoncé spot? Arm wrestle? I couldn’t figure it out.
Some of the dancing was actually really excellent. Most tended to a hip-hop style, though one group of four girls did an African dance-club style routine. That was my favorite.
At the intermission, they announced that a “Dance Battle” would be held after the main part of the talent competition. The DJ would put on some music and the public would vote for their favorites.
"You take dance lessons and you're a great dancer, Alexa. You should do it." I said to my youngest.
"I don't know....." She gave me a sort of surprised, pained and nervous look. Gee.
"Well, don't do it if it makes you too nervous, Sweetie. It's probably just for big kids, anyway." I told her
Just as the big contest was about to begin, I looked around and said, "Hey Mal, where's Ally?"
"Well, she went to be in the dance contest. " Mallory said this very matter-of-factly.
I was somewhat more surprised.
Maybe the "big kids" comment had needled, rather than soothed her.
I ran over to where a large group of middle-school and high-school age kids were milling around. They’d been divided into age groups andat the far right I spotted Alexa, hanging out with a group of three other young girls. One was older-maybe 10 or so, but the other two looked to be about 8, like Alexa.
“Wow! That’s great Alexa! I know you’ll do a great job!” I tried to seem encouraging, and supportive and at the same time matter-of-fact. Not an easy mix, when I was kind of just reeling from shock.
She looked like she was having fun with the other girls, so I went back to my seat like a good, non-hovering mom.
They started with the oldest kids. There were five of them and they were all really good. Voting was done in the time-honored manner of the host putting his hand over the head of the contestant. Audience screams, howls and applause decide the winner. Each of the next two groups went through the process. Then the little girls came out, Alexa looking very thin and pale. The music came on and for a minute, I didn’t think she was going to move at all. But then she went right into her dance routine from her hip-hop class. She looked GOOD! She was nervous, I could tell, but she kept at it. Her on the floor move, when she sweeps her leg around in circles got everyone really applauding.
Despite the fact that she doesn’t even go to that school (thus lacks that home team advantage) she won!! Her face just lit up when she heard everyone shouting for her! She went offstage and was only there a moment when they announced the FINALS! Yes, that had been the preliminaries. Now all the winners were supposed to have a dance-off. Poor Alexa. There she was, all 45 pounds of her, right next to the 6 foot tall, 18 year old boy. The other three contestants weren’t that tall, but all much bigger than Alexa. And much more experienced dancers. She looked nervous, but game. The music started and all the dancers brought out their best moves. Alexa tried, but nearly got trod on by one girl. Then a boy smashed into her. All this despite the fact that she was at the back of the stage, just trying to keep out of the way. Finally, the emcee brought Alexa to the front of the stage and told the others to be more careful. But there was Alexa now. All alone, front and center. She froze. Then she rallied and did a backbend. Ok. Let’s just say it was a little uneven from that point on. But the music soon stopped.
The hand went over her head. There was much wild applause and yelling. (I will admit to having a slightly sore throat the next day.) She was so cute ! But she was up against the best dancers in the school and these older kids were really excellent. It was close, but a 15 year old girl won.
I ran around to the side of the stage. Alexa was there, putting on her sandals and weeping piteously. She had been really determined to win the whole contest and was miserable.
“But you won against the kids of your own age! That’s great! I think it’s so amazing that you did the contest at all. You are so brave and so incredible! I am really proud of you and you should be proud, too!” I said lots more and managed to convince her that she was a true winner. Astonishingly, she is determined to go back and win the whole thing one day. And it’s not just because she wants the coupons for free bowling. She has a will of iron, that child.
BTW, later that night I talked to a teenager I know that had been at the show.
"Alexa was great!" Keri said "She's so little, but she dances so well. Plus she showed that it's not only black people that can dance well!"
It was only then that I realized that Alexa had been the ONLY white contestant in the competition! In fact, no white kids had danced at all the whole night.
I think that living here really has made me become as close to colorblind as a person can get. Skin color is not the first or even second thing I notice about someone. It's really a gift, this realization that I don't see black kids and white kids anymore. I just see kids.
NB: I did not have my camera with me, so no pics on this one, sorry.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Here it finally is: the third and final episode of my not terribly thrilling adventures in Boromo.
After I was rescued from the exceptionally sturdy Hut of Doom, I was shown to an alternative room on the other side of the compound. It was a small duplex and one side had an air-conditioner. Guess which side I got. But as I am acutely aware that life is basically unfair, I settled into my own hot little cubicle.
Actually, I think I was to ill to complain about much of anything. As soon as I got to bed, I realized that I’d never be able to sleep. I was coughing, blowing my nose unceasingly and feeling very feverish. I didn’t sleep all night. And I don’t mean that I woke up frequently to toss and turn. I mean that it was torture to lie down, so I had to stay awake all night.
As I was too unwell to read, I didn’t have much to do except listen to my next-door neighbors have loud, air-conditioned sex.
Finally at midnight, I went to sit outside. I could barely get the door open. There was an enormous, gleaming motorcycle parked right between the two doors of the duplex. Within a few minutes, one of my neighbors emerged. He was shirtless, with his pants unfastened and he was smoking a cigarette. I considered immediately bolting back to my room, but I didn’t have the energy.
He greeted me politely and told me he ran the gas station at Koudougou (a town not far from Boromo) Then he said, “You sound really sick.. Do you need to go to the hospital? I could get you something from a pharmacy.”
I felt very ashamed of myself. Here I had been thinking that he was some half-naked, smoking, prostitute-frequenting scumbag and he’s offering to go get me some medicine.
Maybe that’s his wife in there and they’ve come for a second honeymoon…
Somehow, I didn’t think so.
I said I’d be fine and headed back towards my room.
“Wait-you’re American, right? I love America!”
“Oh, you’ve been there?”
“No, but I’ve seen movies! I love your country!”

“Well, that’s nice." is what I said. What I thought was "I am sure that repeated viewings of "The Fast and the Furious 2" have given you a really interesting view of the USA. "
" I don’t feel so well, I’d better go rest now.” I added.
“Wait! Wouldn’t you like to go for a motorcycle ride with me? I’m going right now! I invite you!“
“No thanks. Goodnight.”
As I closed my door, he was right behind me asking for my phone number.
So then I was trapped in my room. It was very hot and very boring and I felt very miserable. I would have preferred sitting outside, but that was not an option.
But at 2 am I heard voices outside and the engine of the flashy motorbike started up.
They were leaving!
I got dressed, packed everything and left my room. Dragging my suitcase, I crossed the compound to the huts of my friends. I sat down to wait for morning. There was nothing else to do. The hotel was far from town and everything in Boromo would be closed anyway.
People finally started stirring at 6:30. I really don’t exactly remember what I did from 2 to 6:30. I saw lots of goats and sheep pass by. A few insomniac chickens came around.
It was a long, long wait.
As soon as the hotel staff arrived, I “organized” coffee. As you may have gathered, there were not many amenities and breakfast was not one of them. But I knew I could get everyone moving a lot faster with the help of some Nescafé. The water had to be boiled over a wood fire, somebody had to ride into town to buy some packets of powdered coffee, cups had to be found and washed, etc. Few things are easy in Africa/
Within an hour, I was sitting in Jennifer’s air-conditioned, comfortable Toyota. It was Paradise. I got my hands on the ipod and put on some jazz. In two hours we were back in Ouaga.
Upon entering my house, I laid down on the couch and did not move for two days. And here’s the thing: I’m STILL SICK!!!!!!! The virulent mask festival microbes are still with me and will not go away. And the doctor says all the dust worsened my asthma, So, I have a new inhaler now and tons of other medications to take.
So, was I cursed by vengeful, honey-deprived fairies or am I just a dreadful whiner?
Probably both.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Due to the high volume of e-mail generated by my last post, today’s blog entry will be an FAQ. Little did I know that my detailed description of being locked in a thatched hut for one hour would be the subject of so much interest. I feel like a celebrity, with multitudes of people dying to know the banal details of my daily life. Thanks everyone!
BTW- the photo today is not of THE HUT, but it is very similar.
Also, folks wishing to see more mask pics can look in the album in the link on the right. There is a new sub-album where I am loading about 9 pictures. I didn't take a lot, as I felt so unwell.

Q. What was the hut made of?
A. A careful reading of the text shows that I mention that it is a STONE hut. This is quite unusual. The typical Burkinabe hut is made of sun-dried mud bricks and does not have very thick walls. Indeed, I could have kicked my way out of a normal hut in 5 minutes. But these special “hotel” huts were constricted out of a local, red-colored stone and cement mortar. The walls were about 1 foot thick and would have been hard to get through.

Q. Could you have got out a window?
A. Again, careful reading reveals that I described the hut as “windowless”. The only ventilation was provided by a series of perforated cement bricks near the top of the wall.

Q. Were the hut originally made as prisons, grain storage bins, or what? Why the lack of windows?
A. No, the whole place was built two years ago specifically as a hotel. I think that they made the buildings windowless to keep the heat out. But it doesn’t seem to be working out that way, as far as I can tell.

Q. Did it have a dirt floor? Could you have tunneled out?
A. Though normal huts do have packed earth floors, this one had cement. The only way out would have been with a jackhammer and much diligent digging. Not an option.

Q. What about the thatched roof? Did you think about going that way?
A. The thatched roofs here are not just a few wisps of straw tied down with twine. They are generally about a foot thick and attached tightly with wire. I certainly inspected the underside of the roof very intently. I determined that I could reach the bottom edge of it by pushing the bed against the wall, putting the chair on top of that and then scrambling up from there onto the top of the partition wall of the shower ( shower= hole in cement floor+ bucket) From the top of that wall, I figured I could use the saw on my swiss army knife to cut through the straw. If the guys on the outside could get up there and work from their side, I thought that I could escape that way if necessary..

Q. Did you feel claustrophobic?
A. My rescuers asked me this several times and the answer is “no”. The hut was pretty large- about 12 ft in diameter. The ceiling was also quite high- a conical shape about 15 feet up at the center. So it was quite spacious. I would not care to be shut into a small closet for a long period, but one hour in a big hut created no discernable psychological trauma.

Q. Why does such weird stuff happen to you?
A. I have no freaking idea.

Q. Were there lots of bugs in the hut?
A. I am sure there were, but they all kindly stayed hidden in the shower drain, bless their tiny hearts. I really cannot bear roaches, despite my many years in Africa. If they had decided to come out and investigate the fuss, I might have gone ahead and had a nice, long panic.

Q. Do you have the phone number for that hotel? Sounds like fun!
A. If you read the rest of the story tomorrow and still want it, I’ll give it to you.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Dust, dirt, and impurities are kind of a theme of Winyé masks. The masks are agents of purification, often associated with funeral ceremonies. As a result, one of their main duties is to stir-up, roll in and generally kick around in the dust. This can present problems for your average allergic, asthmatic mask enthusiast. That would be me.
We had great seats for the second half of the day’s dancing- cushy armchairs front and center. As a mark of honor, masks often end their dance with a jump that lands them directly at the feet of an audience member. We were made welcome this way several times, especially after the master of ceremonies made a speech thanking “Madame Jacob” for bringing “special guests” from Ouagadougou. It was so sweet, but it got the masks rather excited.
The dancing was great in the afternoon. The griots (men from the special musicians’ caste) played rhythms on their drums- each pattern specific to a certain type of mask. Each mask has a specific dance that accompanies the music and is under a lot of pressure to do it correctly. If the mask dancer does not know his moves well, the griots quickly change the music, inviting someone else to take his place.
Back to the dust. There they were, kicking up giants clouds of it, as I began to feel sicker and sicker. Sinuses, lungs, and just general bad feelings…..I went through all my kleenex and then on to Jennifer’s package. I took some medications, to no avail. But Jan offered me her small stash of Nyquil caps, so I figured I would at least sleep well.
After the dance ended at 5:30, we went to our hotel to get washed up for dinner. At the “hotel”, we each had our own small, windowless hut with a straw roof and no running water. Amenities included a slightly hole-festooned mosquito net and a small, yet curiously deafening electric fan. We each got our very own bucket of water to wash with and at that point, it seemed like a great luxury.
We had dinner with JP at 7 at a new outdoor night-club/restaurant. How could we tell it was supposed to be a nightclub? Well, it was very, very dark and the scratchy sound-system had the music turned up very, very loud.
Here is the menu, as related to us by the young waitress: peas, rice, spaghetti and french fries. We can say that this is not a good country for doing the Atkins diet.
I was too ill to eat anything, but I took the Nyquil. We didn’t linger too long over dinner, but JP and Tim decided to go on to a screening of some footage from previous festivals. The rest of us just wanted to get back and go to bed.
I guided Jennifer as she drove us through the dark maze of streets and back towards our hotel at the edge of town. We were quickly back and ready to sleep. I unlocked the metal door of my hut and said goodnight to Jen and Cynthia. It closed behind me and I turned to open it again, as the hut was so hot. But it wouldn’t budge- must be that stupid key stuck in the outside of the lock. I called out to Cynthia in the hut next door., “Hey, could you open this dumb door? It locked me in;” Well, she gave it a few turns and it quickly became evident that the lock was working fine. It was the door latch that was broken. I poked at it intently from my side with my swiss army knife blade. Jennifer got out her impressive tool kit and went to work on the outside. Cynthia gamely held the flashlight. After a while, they gave up. “We’re going to get the caretakers. Don’t panic! Do you need one of us to stay with you? Are you panicking?” Well, no. I didn’t even know panic was an option. How interesting. Are there really people who would freak out after being locked in a hut for a little while? I should hope I am made of sterner stuff than that. I knew that I would NOT spend the rest of my lifespan in a thatched hut in Burkina Faso, so why worry?
The hotel caretakers came along with local agricultural implements and started prying at the thick metal door. It was slow going. They alternated with Jen, who had got the plate off the door latch area and was trying to force the metal bar to move back out of the stone wall. Finally, she gave up and just let the guys pound away at the door. It caved in after about another half an hour of prying and hammering.
Many thanks to Jen and Cynthia. They stood by the whole time, even after I told them to go on to bed and get some rest.
The photo at the top is an old and powerful Viper mask. The two blades on it are NOT bunny ears!
Tomorrow you will get to learn about the motorcycle and the prostitute and the rest of my very long night in Boromo…..

Thursday, May 04, 2006

We didn’t put any honey on our tires. That was the first problem, right there. What was I thinking? Our trip was doomed from the start. To be fair, I should admit that vengeful Winyé bush fairies are usually only held responsible for road accidents. But I now suspect that they were bitter that I didn’t make sure they got their traditional honey offering and so they conspired to make me as miserable as possible.
The idea was for me to escort a small group of people out to see the mask festival in the region where JP works. In fact, he’s the person that began the whole thing five years ago and is still the main organizer. So, it’s fun for people to come out to see it and learn about the masks from someone who has worked in the area for nearly 30 years. I had a couple of US Embassy people with me, as well as a World Bank buddy. JP was already in Boromo getting things ready.
Everything seemed great as we sped down Burkina’s main east-west highway. Up in front they had Jennifer’s I-pod hooked up and we had a very intense “Bohemian Rhapsody” sing-along, complete with excellent air-guitar by Tim.
We got to the little village of Siby by 10 and no masks were in sight. I’d counted on too much travel time. Jennifer drives faster than I let my chauffeur go on the roads here. Plus, I usually get a flat tire, then one of the kids has to throw up, then the motor makes “funny” noises that have to be investigated. In short, it takes me abnormal amounts of time to get anywhere. As a result, we were early for the mask dance. But after just a few minutes, JP and his crew showed up. So, we all settled down to wait. The theory is that if “important” guests are waiting, it speeds up the process. Right. Due to unspecified problems, it didn’t start until 12:30.
It was desperately hot, but we had kindly been given comfy armchairs in the shade. I think the guests had a good time asking JP all kinds of questions about what they would be seeing. But I was very relieved to finally hear the distant drumming and flutes that mean that the mask dancers are approaching the dance floor. They have to put on their costumes out in the bush and must walk about a mile to get into the village.
As the masks enter the large, dusty dance floor, they look amazing. The masks are very big and bold, most featuring strong geometric designs of back, white and red. The costumes cover the dancers from head to foot with bushy hibiscus plant fibers. It looks strangely like fur and gives their bodies a sort of eerie volume. When they first arrive, the masks circle the dance floor slowly. You start to forget that there are people inside there.
Soon, they settle into position at the edge of the dance floor. Mostly they sit, but some of the larger masks lay down to rest themselves . The masks tend to be very heavy and the costumes are stifling, so they have to conserve their strength. Some will sit there for one or two hours, waiting for their dance rhythm to be played by the drummers.
The youngest dancers are usually called out to dance first. So, as you can predict, the first section of the dance was pretty weak. But it only lasted an hour and it was already time for lunch. JP had warned me that there were lots of VIPs present, so we might not get invited to the official lunch over at the schoolhouse. I thought that not getting invited sounded great! I was looking forward to going over to the hotel in Boromo, having a shower, and then spending about an hour in front of a fast-moving fan. It was too hot to eat, anyway. But no such luck. We were duly escorted into the oven-like one-room schoolhouse. We sat on benches, baking nicely under its metal roof. I skipped the meal of rice and tô (the national dish of Burkina) but I did have some dolo in a little gourd bowl. The traditional millet beer is a “must” at all village events in Burkina and it’s good form to accept it if offered. It’s always warm and a bit sour, but not as bad as you might think.

And now you will have to wait a day or two for Part II of my story. So, far this just seems like a nice, uneventful trip to the village. Surprises are in store.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.
I think that sums it up pretty well. I am just here recovering from the Winyé Mask Festival and the following abject misery brought about by the Mega-Virus of Doom. I don't think that's what the doctor calls what I've got, but believe me, it fits.
This is my first day up and about since Saturday night, so I am desperately trying to catch up on all fronts. Fanta (our household helper) has malaria. Alexa has an evil infected throat. JP just left for a month-long stay in Europe and his brand new, first-time-ever-in-Ouaga research assistant is staying at our house for the week. I have had a three man film editting crew working in the kids' playroom for the last two months. (No, they are NOT doing stop-action animation with the Barbies. They are working on an anthropological film for JP) In short, I have a few things going on around here and a long blog entry is not in the cards today. But the next few entries will no doubt be about my various mishaps on my short, yet eventful trip.
I even have pictures I'll be posting. Of the mask festival, not of me being ill in a hut in Boromo.
Stay tuned.....