Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The First Communion Saga Winds to a Close, Sort of...

Last Saturday’s festivities went perfectly. Bells were rung, water was splashed about, wafers were distributed and responses were sung. In less than two hours, the Mass was over and it was time to head over to the restaurant.

The twins were anxious to change from their simple white robes and into their party dresses that we bought last summer in USA. The girls looked lovely in their fancy white dresses and matching diamond crosses from their grandparents in America. They greeted the guests, accepted many gifts, envelopes and good wishes.

The meal was nice and lively, the guests a real mixture of nationalities: Burkinabé, Malian, American, French, Italian, Swiss, and Taiwanese.

At about 9:30 pm, there was a pause as the nuns sang Ave Maria. Afterwards, the twins and their friends danced around under the stars in the courtyard garden under the sleepy, sweet marble gaze of Saint Mary in the niche in the back wall.

The party ended too soon. We made our way home and went to our well deserved rest. And we’d need it- Sunday would also be a very busy day.

Sunday morning was relatively calm. I spent it cooking, getting ready for that night’s American Idol party. But by noon we had to be out the door and on our way to the First Communion meal of the daughter of some friends. Lots of families decided to have a Sunday lunch, rather than a more formal evening party.

These friends live in a chic, huge house out in the swankiest neighbourhood of the city- Ouaga 2000. But the party was very casual and Burkina-style. In some ways, this was very, very bad, as the day was very, very hot and the party was outdoors. There were big tents for shade, but it was quite hot under them. And there were almost no tables (only two that I saw) and not enough chairs for all the guests. There were about 150 guests and it was a bit of a crush. Especially when it came time to line up at the buffet. Everyone was anxious to get at the grilled wart hog and the tripe soup.

Oh yeah.

As you may have guessed by now, I was NOT one of the masses lined up with a plate in hand.

There were also “normal” items on offer- Valentine had salad and Severin had some grilled guinea fowl. But I figured that I’d better save my appetite, anyway. After this , we’d be going to yet another post-Communion ceremony meal and it would be bad if all of us were too full to eat. That can really be seen as bad manners around here.

So, the twins swam in borrowed swimsuits. I chatted a while with a visitor from Paris who wanted to practise his English. JP ate tripe and warthog. He said it was really good.

Finally, we said goodbye. We got little tulle bags of pastel-coloured sugared almond from the hostess as favors. In the car, I opened mine and dug in ravenously. As we drove, Mallory happily enumerated how much more she liked HER party than her friend’s. The list of superior attributes included: tables and chairs, air-conditioning, the lack of cow organs and the fact that an evening party is just more “elegant”.

The next party was on the far northern edge of town. It was being held by another French/Burkinabé couple , people much less wealthy than the Ouaga 2000 crowd. The party was very simple and would have been quiet, if not for the hip-hop music being played by the teenagers. The girls ran around with their friends, having fun with the monkeys (3!) and the horses (8!).

I finally had some lunch, upholding the family honor. JP had eaten far too much wart hog and tripe to even make an attempt. First of all, I had some Babenda. It was so tasty that I took seconds, which is suprising, considering that “babenda means “dog’s underpants” in Mooré. (No, I’m NOT making this up. If I were, don’t you think I’d invent something less outlandish?) It’s actually a very delicious and healthy mixture of whole millet and spinach.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Here's what the people of Burkina Faso eat as a last resort: Neere powder cakes. I mentioned it a post or two back and some people that read about it were very curious.
The neere tree(or Locust Bean tree in English) seedpods are gathered and opened. Inside are the small black seeds that are saved and fermented to make the popular soumbala seasoning that goes in almost every Burkinabé sauce. But surrounding these seeds is is a sweetish yellow powder. This is removed, crumbled and pressed firmly into a half a gourd. Then it is popped out of the mold, retaining the dome shape. There's no other ingredients to these "cakes"- not even water and there's no cooking involved. The powder is said to be rich in vitamins A, B and C. I certainly hope it is, because a lot of people are using this a filler in their diet these days. Rice and other grains have gotten so expensive, even city folks are going back to the "wild" foods from out in the villages.

One "cake" costs about 6 cents US (25 fcfa)- quite a good value if you are really hungry

How does it taste? I kind of like it. I think it tastes vaguely like chestnut flour. The texture is a bit creepy, though. Kind of like biting into sandy styrofoam. Valentine spit it right out. Lucky we can still afford rice!

Anything interesting happening soon-ish? Funny you should ask. Yes! It's once again time for the Winyé Mask Festival! I will be taking off on Saturday morning for Boromo and coming back Sunday. Knowing me, I'll manage to pack lots of adventure (more like disaster, but hope springs eternal..) into my short stay. The kids will be coming along for the fun, as will neighbour Tony, his daughter, a friend of Valentine's and some of my pals from the US Embassy, including the Ambassador and her husband. Should be fun!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Last night we FINALLY watched the American Idol saga wrap up. It has been my little oasis of the USA every Sunday night for the last couple of months.

I'm not sure what to make of it all. It took a few hours of stewing, but think I have finally determined that I actually wanted David A. to win. It took me a while to figure out because I had been under the impression that I didn't like him that much. 'The Squinting Marshmallow' was my nickname for him. (David Cook was 'The Smirking Wisp Boy). But in the end, The SM's perfect angel voice kind of won me over. And the way Simon slathered on the compliments during the final sing-off, young SM HAD to have thought the Idol crown would be his. And I hate to see cute little children disappointed. The SWB is a big boy and could have handled second place without a blink- and then gone on to be rich and famous like Chris Daughtry. But the poor little SM looked all sad around the eyes. He was smiling, but I could tell…

Plus, can you imagine the SWB doing ads for Disneyland attractions, à la Jordin?

I didn't think so. His Alt-Rocker cred would be right out the window and then where would he be? Out driving around in his new Ford Escape Hybrid, humming along with Daughtry tunes, I guess.

And as for the Ford Motor Company, I think they could have been far more generous with that car give-away. A Hybrid Escape each for David and David? TWO measly cars?

.Now, I never completely saw any of the famous ads that were aired, featuring AI contestants. The African channel that we tape the show off of chops out the US ads and replaces them with trailers for crazy Ghanaian soap operas (think witchcraft and fetishes) and African Idol (which looks astounding in many, many bad ways). But I did see a few clips from the ads, and all I can say is: Matador outfits? Puh-lease! For submitting to that humiliation alone they each deserved a nice car.
Ford = Cheapskate. Go for the big gesture, people.

And Fantasia’s guest ‘performance’?. Ummm… what WAS that? Her frenetic screaming and writhing and hopping was positively alarming. Has she been digging into Paula’s stash of crack cocaine?
Just asking.

How any of this really fits into a West African reality is beyond me. The aforementioned ‘African Idol’ takes place in South Africa, a place SO different from Burkina that it may as well be on another continent. And American Idol may as well take place on another planet in a distant solar system.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

This morning, we sat around watching the rain fall. “West African television” I call it as we sit in our locally made (out of sticks and goat hide) garden chairs out on the covered terrace.
The trees whip around and the rain pours down in sheets. It’s violent, but not really vicious like a bad storm back in Nebraska. And it makes good watching from a nice, relatively dry terrace.

The power was cut, so there was nothing much to do but sit and watch the rain come down. It was a nice way to spend a Sunday morning.

It’s 1 pm now and still raining, but much more gently. I bet the farmers are really thrilled. Everyone is so anxious to get the crops in this year. Belts have gotten beyond tight to crushingly constricting as the price of food here (and worldwide) has risen so dramatically over the last months. These days I notice women walking the dirt roads of Ouaga, selling pale yellow cakes from baskets balanced on their heads. These cakes are made of neere powder (from neere tree pods). It’s considered “famine food”- cheap and not very tasty. It’s what you eat when there’s nothing else. This it’s the first time I’ve seen it being sold in the streets of the capital city.

So, everyone is waiting for the rains and the new crops to start growing. And certainly the rain will be a good boost for the local market gardens. It’s been weeks since there was any cauliflower and the green beans are very tough and stringy. Tomatoes have gotten super-expensive.

I was writing up the household menu this morning. I plan it four weeks at a time on a big calendar and then post it on the side of the fridge. A month of salads (lettuce or beets or leeks or whatever), a main dish, sides and desert. I never dreamed that I’d be so organised, but it’s the only way to manage a household here really well. It allows you to order your meat and fish ahead of time and hunt down all the ingredients that you need. Anyway, as I did the menu for June, I was struck by all the stuff that we don’t have right now (like broccoli, cauliflower, decent green beans, etc) and things that have gotten really dear. Cabbage is still a good value. But it’s hard to build your menu around cabbage day after day.

I am SO going to love living in France again and having constant access to all kinds of good food for my family. One of the things I really adore about living there is going into the village of Boege on Tuesday morning. That’s market day and the stands are full of gorgeous seasonal vegetables and fruit. Our neighbours two houses down from us have a stand and they are always sure to clue me in on what is good and hold back choice things for me. Raspberries, endive, asparagus, plums. Heavenly!

Here in Ouaga, we have mangos. At least there’s that. In our yard, we have two trees full- plenty for us and our workers. There’s even enough for the guinea pigs and the turtles, all of whom adore the fruit. The vitamin C is good for the piggies and the turtles seem to find it a tasty change from lettuce.

Speaking of animals, Cleo the Cat is definitely going back to France with us. She’ll get her blood test this weekend and then get her ID tattoo. Lucky girl!

The twins are spending this afternoon making passports for their favourite stuffed animals. Valentine is helping them make visa stamps. It's all looking very authentic.

More on the 1st Communion tomorrow…

Friday, May 23, 2008

Today the saga of The Jacob Twins’ First Holy Communion continues for yet another installment.

But in case you've wondered- no, my life hasn’t stopped just because I write slowly. New stuff has been happening, keeping me busier than a person really needs to be.
Yesterday, besides editing the film, I had to make this big baby shower cake for a party that was held this morning. It was for two little Burkinabé girls that have been adopted by US families. Yes, one of them IS the little toddler from the orphanage that I wrote about here! Her adoption came through (finally!) and now she has two parents, plus a big brother and sister, as well! I’m SO happy for all of them!

To add to the fun this morning, not only was there the double baby shower event, there was also the "fun" fair at the twins' school. The word fun earned the Quotation Marks of Irony by being agonizingly boring, loud and hot. Very, very hot. And they ran out of water. I am not kidding. Even the drinking fountain ran dry. So, heat exhaustion was setting in as the girls and I walked over to the Hotel Independance from the school. Why would we be walking the streets at 11 am in 110°F weather? Because my car refused to start this morning, of course. (The battery had to be replaced - 200 dollars US. The cost of living has indeed gone way, way up lately) Anyway, we staggered over to the hotel, hoping to find a taxi. We did, but it was a sad old Nissan with no air-con.
It was quite a morning, is all I can say.

But back to the twin-centric plot. (BTW- if you don't know what's going on, because you just tuned in, go back here for the start of the story.)

Next came the obligatory family photo session out in the garden. Well, the session was obligatory for all family members who were NOT dressed in ancient, ratty, school-bus yellow shorts. This meant that, yet again, JP missed out on an opportunity to take a Family Portrait- an object greatly desired by my mother-in-law. She’s a pretty undemanding person, really. All she wants in life is a reasonably recent photo of her only son, his wife and her four grandchildren, all dressed up for some big event. And though JP and I have had four children for over 10 years now, the Family Portraits are very scarce. There’s always someone missing and the MIL always complains. And I don’t blame her. It seems like a simple request and it wouldn’t be hard to comply with, if certain people would cooperate. Not that I’m going to be petty and start naming names…but it seems like I get a lot of heat from the MIL when she should really be lighting a fire under somebody else’s behind (possibly setting fire to a really ugly pair of shorts).

The garden photo session ended and I got the twins in the car and over to the church. Soon, everything was in place and all 24 children were lined up by height and ready for the procession. Pierre the Photographer was there, busily snapping away. The photos ended up looking a little odd, though. The children all look positively angelic, but it appears that they are having their sacrament in some bombed-out ruins in Kosovo, with big piles of broken cement, brick, metal and tile scattered everywhere.

The old wall surrounding the church ground had been completely torn down, but the rubble hadn’t been hauled away yet. And it looked like there were no immediate plans to do so.

We’d all better start praying nobody trips in the dark and impales themselves on some rusty rebar- was my first thought. Life-threatening injuries put such a damper on festive events.

The church slowly filled up as people carefully picked their way past the debris. I found a seat near the middle and held a few places for JP, the other kids and our many friends who would be attending the event.

Soon, everyone arrived and the mass began. It lasted about two hours and was not too boring, considering.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Finally!! Here’s one of the hundreds of photos of the big day last Saturday night.

And it should be a snap to blog about it, right? The details are VERY fresh in my mind, as I spent yesterday seeing every single moment of it over and over and over and OVER again.

You see, though we spent good money to have someone ‘professional’ actually film and edit the event, it just wasn’t shaping up into something viewable. I went over to the Studio Magic/Magix Photo Plus place yesterday to approve the final cut of the proposed dvd.

It’s a simple, rather run-down little building. As I got out of the car, a fat white hen ran across my foot. Maybe the "Plus" in the name of the place meant plus poultry?

Almost immediately, a small group of curious neighbourhood children showed up. They were pretty shy, but very polite- each shaking my hand, the girls adding a little bouncy mini-curtsey. None of them had pants on.
But then, it was pretty darn hot. I kind of envied them.

I sat in a plastic garden chair (best seat in the house) and watched the film. TWO hours long. Nothing was left out. I think that Pierre (the proud owner of the SMPP) is used to clients that are happy with sheer volume. If you pay 100 dollars, you want a BIG film! But I am one of those ADD adults you hear so much about, I guess. Just can’t sit through a two-hour long Burkina-style dvd. Too much Sesame Street as a tot, perhaps. All those catchy songs and changes of scenery.

But honestly- there were three adult baptisms right in the middle of the service. It was ALL in our film and I don’t even know any of the people.

“Do you have some time?” I asked Pierre. “We need to sit down and change a few little things…”

We worked for two hours and then broke for lunch.

“Have you ever had a client do this before?” I asked. “Edit the film with you?”


But he’s a great guy and seems to be taking it very well. Maybe he calls me The Client from Hell behind my back, but that would only be just and well-deserved.

He seems to want us to be happy with the film. And we almost are.

We’ve spent fours hours on it so far. But just a bit more work tomorrow morning and it should be done.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Valentine stood behind Alexa, touching up her sister's blonde ringlets with the curling iron. Pierre the Photographer and his trusty young assistant crowded into the bedroom doorway, filming and snapping pictures.

For the next seven hours on that Saturday the Jacob family would make no move not documented by our own personal paparazzi.
I hired these fellows on recommendation from a Burkinabé friend.

Studio Magix Photo Plus, it’s called. “Plus what?” you may be asking. Well, let me tell you - Pierre gave me a sample film to watch and it was “plus” every single special effect in his editing software. The image of the newlyweds exchanging vows went heart-shaped, folded over into a box and then turned into a butterfly and fluttered off into an aquarium full of virtual fish. And that was just the first 30 seconds.

Our whole family watched, completely enthralled. It was fascinatingly bad. JP remarked that it should be aired at Cannes and then said, quite seriously, that we HAD to buy a copy of it to show to a film-making pal of ours in Switzerland.

Strange coincidence: the film featured a marriage that JP and I were invited to last February! It was the wedding of a young French researcher where JP works and a Burkinabé student. As we were pretty busy and I didn’t even know Elodie to say “Bonjour” to in the street, we declined. But if we had made a bit of effort, we too could have been in the amazing wedding video!

There was no question about it. We NEEDED a cool Burkina-style video of the twins’ big day!

Digital, 35mm and video. The guys juggled cameras and followed us gamely into the garden for some portraits. Then it was time to get the twins to the church.

Have I mentioned yet that it was hot? It was hot. I think my confident citing of predictions for cooler weather for the weekend jinxed the whole thing. It was especially hot if you happened to be wearing a floor-length, long sleeved, high-necked robe, as in the case of the twins and their little friends.

Our church members include people of very different economic means. There are very wealthy families alongside people that don’t even own a bicycle. That means that some of the girls can fly to Paris and buy magnificent dresses for their First Communion. Others are not so lucky. So, the tradition at our church is that all the children wear white robes lent out by the church. If you have a fancy dress, you have to save it for your party afterwards. I think it’s a great rule, even though the robes are hot in the Burkina spring temperatures.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Was this nun being mean to me? I would swear she was being mean.

“It is not possible. We serve lunch until 3:30. Then we rest. Then we clean up and set up the tables at 6pm.” That was her story and she was sticking to it, but it meant bad news for me.

“But Mass starts at six, Sister R. That means I won’t be able to see the ceremony. I’ll have to be here arranging things”. This was the third time I’d said it - don’t know why I bothered.

It was Thursday night and we were ironing out the final details of the post-communion dinner to be held at the locally famous Eau Vive restaurant. It’s run by a small group of nuns and is famous for its good food and the “Ave Maria” sung at 9pm every night in the dining room. It’s the prime venue for a nice party after a Catholic event and through clever planning ( being organized months ahead of time, anyway-which is pretty clever, IMHO) I managed to reserve the main dining room for our big event.

It was going to be a big, formal dinner for about 60 people and there would be a lot to organize. I had been hoping to be able to come help set up the tables at 3pm on Saturday, but Sister R, the woman in charge, was having none of it. If I missed my twin daughters’ First Communion ceremony, it was strictly NOT her problem.

A mean nun. Who knew? I’m not Catholic and only started hanging around nuns since I moved to Africa. Most of them have fulfilled every stereotype I had in my head concerning them. (Hey-I’ve seen The Sound of Music approximately one billion times. I know from nuns). Invariably, the nuns I’ve met and worked with here are so darn kind, nice and spiritual that it doesn’t seem possible. But Sister R was a different matter.

“Well, could I at least drop a few things off in the afternoon?” I ventured, trying for a compromise position.

Well- ok. As long as I didn’t disturb the other clients.
Well, normally I go around with a tame ocelot on a leash, singing songs from Okalahoma! at the top of my lungs. But I'd make and effort and leave my pet at home on Saturday. Also, I would try only humming the showtunes under my breath.

See? I can do non-disturbing.

In the end , I got her to agree that I could not only come at 3:30 and drop things off (in a non-disturbing way), but I could ALSO have a small table so that I could set up the cake! This would be quite a process, as the cake would be transported unassembled and then the four layers would have to be put back up with their pillars and the decorations re-attached. Maybe this is no big deal for a caterer, but I’m strictly amateur and this was my biggest cake ever. Over five pounds of frosting and five boxes of cake mix.

I would still have to leave the ceremony to set up place cards, flowers, etc, but it wouldn’t take more than an hour at most. At least I’d be able to see the beginning and end of the big event at the church.

So, at 3pm on Saturday afternoon, Mallory and Valentine helped me load up the car and just before 3:30 we arrived at the restaurant. I carried the bottom two tiers of the cake like they were highly explosive, sure that I was going to drop the whole thing. I had vivid visions of the dramatic fall, the shattered cake and fondant roses rolling around in the dirt like tiny albino severed heads.

And I almost did drop the thing out of sheer shock as I entered the dining room. There was no sign of Sister R. Instead, there was a very energetic Vietnamese sister bustling about the deserted room, removing plates and linens from the tables - tables that were ALREADY set in position for our party! She told me that Sister R was off-duty until 6 and that she herself was in charge of the afternoon shift. And she preferred to Get Things Done, rather than wait around. I imagine she had a lot of other stuff she could have been doing, like resting or praying, for example, but she chose to start getting our party venue organised! This woman was my new best friend! And it turned out to be fun working with her. Valentuine, Mallory and I helped put away clean dishes and cutlery, take dirty linens to the laundry and put away clean ones. We got to see the inside of their kitchen, which is one of the largest, best-equipped and certainly cleanest in the whole country. My girls and I marvelled at the big walk-in refrigerator rooms- one for meat, one for drinks, one for fruit and veg! It was fun getting an insiders view of the place.

Soon, another sister came to help and the five of us quickly had everything done. White linens on the tables, place settings for 60, place cards arranged, flowers in place, cake set up and positioned near and air-conditioner and everything was finished. I wouldn’t need to come back during the ceremony! Everything was ready for the guests to arrive and all I had to do was get home and get the girls dressed. They needed to be at the church by 5pm and it was already past 4:00!

More tomorrow, if the internet isn't down again. It's off and on, depending on the day, as is the electricity. I am SO ready to live in France again!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Well, it's 8:30 on Sunday morning and here I am already with the report on last night's festivities. It really is amazing, considering that it involved a two-hour long ceremony in an nice warm (ok, stifling hot) church followed by a formal dinner for 60 people. The fact that I did it and lived to blog the tale this morning probably owes a lot to the fact that while I served lots of wine and VERY nice French champagne to other people, I didn't drink any myself.

As for the ceremony- it was pretty much as depicted at left, right down to the angels. OK- there weren't actual angels. But my adorable twin daughters DID look positively ethereal. I hope to have some pictures to post tomorrow and then I'll let you be the judge.

Yesterday began before seven am, as I had to drive Severin to a church youth group event. The kids were going out to a village to distribute the grain purchased with the funds they raised last month. They bought in bulk and had to bag the corn themselves. It was a long, hot morning of work for all the teenagers, but they were really proud to have raised nearly 10,000 US dollars!!! They helped out a lot of needy families with this huge sum!!

Next, I got the girls and we headed off to the beauty salon. I had made appointments for the four of us two weeks ago. But somehow they managed to overschedule their morning at Ananda Beauty and I felt more frazzled than beautiful as the minusule salon filled up with NINE other clients, most of them looking rather of annoyed as service was so slow and spoadic, with only two stylists on duty.
But the Jacobs had precedence and Alexa had her heart set on a head full of curls. Mallory went for curls as well, but it was no use. We tried lots of hairspray, but what we needed was an Act of God. The second we got home, those corkscrew curls went as flat as....well, something that is REALLY flat. Whatever else Mallory may have gotten from me (stubborness? Warped sense of humour?) she did NOT get my hair. Of course, no one would actually want my hair, but it does hold a curl and mostly does what it is told, if told authoritatively enough.
So, it was with a sliver of actual hope in my heart that I gave the hairstylist a small picture of Marilyn Monroe. (Once, years ago in Chicago, a modeling agent told me I had the look of "a young Marilyn Monroe". I think it was a polite way of telling me to brush my hair and get my eyebrows professionally waxed )
Anyway, I thought the older, polished Marilyn look could work-big, loose curls up off the forehead. It was an idea, anyway. Gael (my hair guy) peered at the little picture and got to work.

He pulled on my hair and brushed on it and my three girls (who were all done and looking gorgeous) stood there looking at me with very concerned, frowny expressions.
"Maybe you're flattening out the top too much" I ventured.
"No! Trust me! It's going to be great!"
More brushing.
More frowning on the part of the Jacob Style Patrol. Slight head shake from Valentine- the JSP commander.
"Maybe you're flattening out the sides too much?" I said, vainly trying to push it all back up into a semblance of Marilyn-ishness.
"No! It's looking great!" he insisted.
I tried squinting. Nope. Still didn't look great. In fact, although I would swear that I'd shown him a picture of Marilyn Monroe, he'd apparently modelled my hairstyle on that of Bozo the Clown instead. Now, he is a style icon in his own way, but not one that I, personally, wanted to ressemble.

Instead of saucy, smooth, face-framing curls, my hair was flattened down over the top and down the sides. Then at ear-level it exploded into a bunch of fuzz.
It was the Anti-Marilyn of all hairdos and it was all mine.

'Yikes!' didn't quite cover it. And the more Gael touched it, the worse it got.
I finally just told him to Leave It Alone.
I considered using the blue plastic cape across my shoulders as a makeshift hood so I could get out to the car without anyone seeing me. In fact, maybe I'd wear it for the actual event that evening. It figured it would be easier to explain why I had a beauty-salon cape on my head than it would be to explain why I had Circus Hair.

Once I was safely at home, I pushed, prodded and pinned my hair until it looked like something that a female human might possibly want on top of her head. In fact, it looked kind of nice. It didn't have anything even vaguely Marilyn-ish about it, but at that point I was just glad not to be a hideous freak.

Mallory decided to quit fighting a hopeless battle and opt for a straight-haired look. Pulled back with a blingy tiara, it looked really sweet.

But we didn't have much time to fuss over hair. It was soon time to head over to the restaurant to assemble the cake, set up the tables, arrange the flowers, etc. Valentine and Mallory were a huge help. It would have taken me all afternoon without them and instead it was done in less than one hour!

More tomorrow!

Friday, May 16, 2008

I'm back online! The pain-in-the-neck server problem over at Liptinfor is fixed, so I once again have internet and email, effectively rejoining the 21st century.

Not like I have lots of time to blog- For example, I spent the morning making this cake for tomorrow's big party. In case you were wondering: yes, it does take huge amounts of time and patience to make 50 roses out of icing.

Now I'm dealing with other tasks- placecards, seating chart, etc.

I probably won't post again here until the big event is over.
Wish us luck!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ouaga weather has been great lately- unusually cool. By that I mean that some days it doesn't go up over the 100°F mark, so it's all relative. But the hottest month is behind us and May is feeling pretty good. Plus the forecasts call for a pretty cool weekend, just in time for the twins' First Communion festivities this Saturday!
Thrillingly, the relatively cooler weather has meant less stress on the electric plant in Ouaga- which has meant fewer blackouts for us! In the last two weeks, we only had three power cuts, which was brilliant! And I'm expecting even fewer with the advent of the rainy season.

Not so brilliant is the fact that my internet connection at home once again has serious problems. I haven't been able to get online for over two days (since my last blog post). To add to my problems, there seems to be a further problem with my email. I'm posting this from an internet café after attempting to open my mailbox. It seems to be a problem with Liptinfor. It's very frustrating as I know there are emails from lots of you. I am trying to fix this problem. But if it's really important, please call me. Moderately important stuff can go to the comments section of this blog. As I have an "approval before posting" system, I can read the messages and then delete them.

Ouaga is on the last day of a three day long general strike. Maybe it sounds impressive, but it hasn't been that big of a deal -which is sort of NOT the point of a strike, people! But most people say that they can't afford to stop working for even one day. So, the only things closed have been a few public services like the post office and the courthouse. The buses are running, supermarkets open and schools in session. Somehow, I don't think this strike is going to make the government cave in to the demand for 25% salary increases.

Our household is curently focused on the upcoming party this Saturday. Valentine is making the calligraphy placecards for the 60 guests. JP and I puzzle over the seating arrangements (ie: where to seat the US Ambassador, the Vice-President of the Burkina Faso legislature, the ex-Minister of the Interior of Burkina, and a priest. They all need to go at the head table, but in what order???) I am also starting the cake today, which I have big plans for.

As for my friend S. from yesterday's post. She believed me (and the pharmacist) and will stick with her generic supplements. But she (like me!) was pretty bewildered at why a doctor would try to make her spend nearly half her monthly income on a medication that can be bought at a fraction of the price.
Also- thanks to my kind neighbors T. and K., I was able to give S. a bag full of lovely and practical baby clothes!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I’ve puzzled over what to call this blog entry. “Could Anyone Explain This, Please?”, “What’s WRONG With These People?” and “WTF” (short, to the point and my current favourite) were all candidates.

But I’ll just tell the story as I see it and let you figure it out.

This morning I faced a situation that I’ve dealt with hundreds of time here in Burkina Faso. A Burkinabé of modest means came to me for help buying a medication prescribed after a recent medical visit. S. is pregnant with her third child (she has two girls, but her husband wants a boy. Don’t even get me started on that one). She is following her well-baby visits and has been taking her iron/folic acid supplement regularly. A month’s worth of generic tablets costs a little over one US dollar. It’s affordable (barely) for someone like S. that works at odd jobs and makes about 16 dollars in cash each month, on average.

But the doctor at the clinic recently gave S. a new prescription to replace her generic iron tablets. It was for a brand-name iron supplement made by a big pharmaceutical company. S. was quite worried as she spoke to me and asked if I knew any way to get her this important medication that the had doctor said she needed. She’d just been to the pharmacy and seen how expensive it is- over TEN times the price of her current iron pills! And it’s just that. Iron. Nothing fancy. No secret ingredient. It’s just iron like she’s already taking. But it’s super-expensive iron in a pretty box.

Sadly- frustratingly- crazy-makingly, this is not a rare situation here in Burkina. Doctors working in clinics that serve poor people here in the second poorest country in the entire world frequently prescribe expensive brand-name medications rather than affordable generics. And most patients haven’t the knowledge to question this. They think that the doctor has their best interest at heart and the families scramble to find the money, borrowing, if they can, or quite simply doing without other things like food or clean water.

I was recently talking with a pharmacist here in our neighbourhood, trying to figure out what the hell these doctors are thinking. (I did, about five years back, try to talk to a Burkinabé doctor about this issue, which was a big mistake. I’d asked my question in the politest possible terms, but he still took it as an unforgivable presumption on my part in questioning the Doctor-God.)
This pharmacist, though, is a lovely person and just as mystified and frustrated as I am. He pointed out that people often won’t even listen to him when he suggests that they substitute a generic for a name-brand. (I run into this, too. But as I’m not a health-care professional, it makes more sense that people might discount my input) He sees very poor families that have obviously scraped up their last few resources to buy, for example, the frequently prescribed effervescent medication called Efferalgan. All it is is a fancy delivery system for paracetamol, which can be bought for a few cents in generic form. But most people just ignore his kindly meant advice with polite smiles and trust their doctor. They pay for the over-priced brand-name product and then often don’t have enough left to buy any of the other medications on the prescription. So, they go home with a pain killer/fever reducer but don’t have the antibiotic to treat the infection or the chloroquinine to treat the malaria, or whatever… This is not a trivial problem- these doctors are indirectly causing many needless deaths.

Why are doctors doing this? Are they really that addicted to the gifts and incentives of the pharmaceutical companies. I just don’t understand.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The men in our family are holding out against the African Doom Virus. The girls and I, on the other hand, are hacking away and the house sounds like a TB ward on a particularly bad day.

Yes, I know that people the world over get colds and flu. But at least if I have a bad cold in the US of A, I have the choice between several fluffy and soft brands of tissue, some with soothing lotions. Here in Burkina we only have what is apparently very thin sandpaper , cut to size, shoved in a box and marketed as a Kleenex-substitute.

And of course, there aren’t all the great medications to keep you up and running and then put you to sleep. I know that I always say DON’T bring medications to Burkina when you come, but I lied. There’s an exception: DO bring Nyquil or whatever brand of cold remedy that you swear by. There is only one kind of cold medicine sold here (Fervex) and it is as nothing compared to the might of Nyquil.

Also, there’s the fact that it’s just so darn NOT comfy here. Burkina is a nice enough place, in it’s way…but it is NOT a place of comfort and rest for a body, especially a sick body. The heat and dust wear you down. And even if you are wealthy enough to have a home with glass windows and electricity, you will be foiled in your efforts at comfort by the constant power cuts.
And those of you arriving soon don’t have any improvements to look forward to. On the contrary, far from getting better, the power cuts will be a fact of life. The official word is that Sonabel has scheduled rolling blackouts daily into 2009. Yup. They even have a published schedule so you can know which neighbourhoods will get cut if the city demand for power gets too high on a given day.

Anyway, this cold has four out of six of us down. Not like we’re really able to rest. Yesterday we were forced to drag ourselves out bright and early to get ready for the big ISO Garage Sale. We were onsite by 6/30 am, organizing the mountain of junk I wanted to sell. Hey, like they say- “one person’s cumbersome eyesore is another person’s bliss”, and I was betting a 25 dollar table rental fee that this was true.

It took us over an hour to get even half the stuff out on the six tables. There wasn’t even nearly enough room for all the old Barbies, baby board books, half-use bottles of perfume, old clothes, etc. The crowd surged in at 8am and we stood, coughing and astounded, watching the wave engulf the ISO basketball court. The Garage Sale is an annual event, well-known in the Burkinabé community. American expats, in particular, are known for having amazing amounts of stuff for low prices. I was no exception (even though I’m French, too).

The crowd was huge. I’m so lucky that I had all four of my kids helping out. There’s no way I could have managed otherwise, because of course, even though the prices were clearly marked in magic marker on masking tape labels, haggling was inevitable. Even the little toys in the basket marked “100 fcfa each”(25 cents) were not exempt, as people would ask if we couldn’t sell them for 50 cfa each instead.

It was more than a little crazy-making, as no transaction with a Burkinabé was ever a simple “look at the price tag and hand over the money” type of thing. I can usually face this fact of life here, but my fever of 4O° C and miserable cough made me feel unusually unable to deal.

But deal I did- we sold a mountain of stuff and made quite a bit of cash. On the other hand, it was hard-earned, as we sold no big-ticket items. The most expensive thing sold was for 10,000 fcfa. Most of the money we made was in increments of 500 cfa or less- so it was many, many transactions and tough, tough going.

I let the kids keep the money from any of their own toys they sold, so they’re all feeling quite wealthy. And JP and I made some money and got rid of a bunch of stuff that did not need an all-expenses paid trip to France.

After the sale, Valentine and I came home and slept a few hours. The twins, apparently made of sterner stuff, were quite perky. Mallory even persuaded her Papa to take her and her beloved pet goat Aslan for a walk in the park. Report has it that a good time was had by all.

But while Aslan has a fun day yesterday, today was another story. There was a particularly bad dust storm at lunchtime today. Rain threatened and there was some thunder and all three goats were terrified. Mallory and I had to go back and talk to them. They were so relieved to see us and quieted right down. But, of course, they didn’t want to stay outside and made it clear that they thought the kitchen would be the best place for them to ride out the spell of inclement weather.

But the storm died down and right now it is relatively cool and pleasant outside!!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

I'm still down with a rotten cold and not up for much blogging. So, today you get to see my son's art project. He was assigned to create a piece of art to convey the idea of a "nuit blanche" (sleepless night). He came up with this idea of a box, painted black outside. The interior is white and through the window cut in the box, you can see the tiny figure of a sad little clay man sitting on his bed. The interior is lit with a strong light.
My photos isn't the best, as it was kind of hard to get the view and lighting right, but it gives an idea.
I think it is really expressive and his teacher agreed, as it was given the best grade in the class. (Would I like a side of brag with that boast? Why yes, thank you!)

Besides that, my cat needs a hernia operation and we STILL have no furniture in the living room. Like hippies forgotten by time, we squat on the floor on brightly colored cushions. If this goes on much longer, we're going to be putting on sitar music and experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs.
I guess I haven't mentioned that I had the rattan living room furniture sent away for some slight repairs and revarnishing. It all went off about a week ago and it's still not done!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

JP, who is always alert to any chance to keep me entertained, brought home this page from the Air France in-flight magazine.

It’s an ad for L’Occitane (expensive skin care product makers) that is thinly disguised as a piece of journalism.

Too bad it's so silly.

Reading the caption would lead anyone to think that the woman in the picture must be happily watering her lucrative crop of shea-plants. But a quick look reveals that she is tending her cabbages.

A shea nut tree looks like this:

Not much like a cabbage, is it?

Why they depicted this lady out in her garden, I have not clue.

And the caption is even worse in French, as it says that the gathering of shea nuts is what makes money for these women. Ad the accompanying article (not reproduced here- no room) makes that point again.

Here's a few things about shea trees, nuts and butter:

They are trees that must grow for 15 years before they start producing nuts. Each tree produces only about 45 pounds of nuts per year.

When the nuts are ripe, they fall to the ground. So, gathering them is really not labour intensive. What IS very intensive is the amount of labour required to make butter out of the raw nuts. This labour is done exclusively by women.

It involves taking off the pulp, breaking the inner shell, roasting the nuts, then grinding and mixing the paste by hand. It is lots of work, and like many things done by women here, it doesn’t pay that much.

But the while article talks a lot about the “cultivation of shea butter nuts”, there's not one word about the labor actually involved. It is invisible.

Meanwhile, here in Burkina, more and more women are forming cooperatives for shea butter production and sales. Some of the bigger groups are even able to buy simple machines that make the work less backbreaking. So, I have been heartened by the increased use of shea butter in various beauty products. And I guess it’s nice to see West Africa in the media, but I wish they’d get it right. Especially if they want us to buy their over-priced products.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

A big dust storm just blew in about an hour ago.
Strong winds whipped the fine Saharan grit around and made breathing difficult for anyone unlucky enough left outside.
After we rushed around closing all the windows, something possessed me to go outside and take a few pictures.
The asthma that I developed since moving to Ouaga didn't allow me to go far or stay out long. These are just a few snaps from off of our front terrace.

After a while, a bit of rain fell, but it was so sparse and blown so hard by the wind that it barely dampened the ground.
It's past normal Harmattan season, but not yet rainy season either - just a freaky little storm, I guess...
JP arrived on the Air France flight last night. So, I have a husband again!
He was greeted at home by this very flashy poster masterminded by Mal. She and Al laboured over it for days. The animals are cut from cardboard and based on patterns from a craft book. The girls did a fabulous job. (I didn't help them at all with it.)

After two months in Geneva, JP seems pretty happy to be back home in Ouaga. This morning, he's wandering about the house and garden adjusting, moving, or throwing out assorted items. I guess it's his way of re-asserting his territory. If he were a dog, he'd be peeing on all the trees.
He has decided that the turtles would be happier over in the goat pen. I'd say they look a little confused, but not traumatized.
Hopefully he'll get tired out before he does anything too crazy.

Tonight is American Idol night for us! Every Sunday night, I get the tapes recorded by some friends that have sattelite TV. Then some other TV-less pals come over, we watch AI and eat pizza.
The thing is, as I mentioned in a previous post, we are several episodes behind. We are getting the show off an African channel. So, we are still at the final 10. We haven't even seen "Idol Gives Back', which was aired in the US on April 9 (I think). So, I have to keep very alert when online, so as not to stumble across any AI news. I try to stick to my customised iGoogle newspage. I have BBC, Reuters and NYTimes only...all pretty unlikely to put AI news in the headlines.

What am I reading lately? Classic Andre Norton sci fi!! Great stuff. She wrote 182 books in her life and quite a few of them are here in Ouagadougou. How weird is that? A few years back, someone donated her father's sci fi collection to the Rec Center library. Some of it is kind of valuable, as well as being a good read. One of the items is a first edition paperback of Norton's Sorceress of the Witch World from 1968. I just looked it up online and found other copies for sale from $20 to $45 US, depending on the condition!

Saturday, May 03, 2008