Over the past year as we communicated with our Peace Corp son via email, Facebook and phone I had begun to develop an image in my mind of where he lived and his day to day activities. And yet there were large holes in my imagination as far as really being able to see him settled in Burkina Faso. I needed to see it for myself.
Of all the things we saw and did during our three week visit to Burkina, by far the best thing was the four days we spent in Erik’s village of Nakaba. We loved it.
Don’t get me wrong – it was also the hardest four days. Our son lives in a small
concrete building with no electricity or running water. There is a latrine and you shower with a bucket. Water is hauled to his house from about a half a mile away. When it gets dark at night, you go to bed. When you go to bed, it’s on the floor. While you sleep you hear lizards running around the walls and you wrap yourself in mosquito netting for protection from those malaria-carrying pests.
This is how he lives everyday. This is how we lived for four days. Essentially camping.
The worst part about it honestly was that I came down with a really bad cold and
spent the nights coughing and blowing my nose, adding to the difficult living circumstances.
But the best part was seeing Erik in his element. He cooked for us on his propane stove. He toted water for us from the well on his bicycle. He built bon fire for us to sit around in the evening.
We arrived late in the afternoon on Wednesday December 23rd by a hired car that delivered us to Erik’s door. I was surprised to find Erik’s house separate and removed from the more populated part of the village. He lives within the medical compound where all the staff for the health facility live. On arrival we spent some time getting organized and figuring out how we were going to sleep. Then a welcome party arrived from the village, about 12 people came to greet us and welcome us. It was a great way to start our visit. As the sun was setting they greeted us in French, English and Moore (the local language).
Later we walked in the dark to the more populated part of the village to the “soup lady” restaurant. It’s not a restaurant in the sense we think of, more of an open covered area with dirt floor where the cooking is done over an open fire. According to Erik most people are referred to by a title of some sort, not a name. The “soup lady” is known for her delicious chicken soup, which sounded really good to me since I had come down with a bad cold. We met all the staff from the health care facility for soup and we sat together and laughed and got to know each other. They spoke very few words of English but Erik translated for us and we had an enjoyable time.
Waking up on Christmas Eve day to a bright but windy day. Wind creates a lot of dust and we had left our laundry on the line overnight so we jumped up to bring it in. Too late, it was already dusty…by the end of the three weeks we would learn to live with dust as part of the daily routine.
We test drove the bucket shower system and got ready for the day. Our first visitor arrived mid morning – a lady on a bike bringing several pounds of peanuts as a welcome gift. She lives on the far side of the village. She greeted our son Erik by his local name “Samnaaba” which means Chief of Strangers.
We strolled to the marche to get a feel for the village and to pick up some things for dinner but we found it nearly deserted because of the holiday. Although the country is 75% Muslim and 25% Catholic, most of Nakaba is Catholic and celebrates Christmas.
We did find plenty of people however gathered at the local “watering hole” where the local fermented “beer” called Dolo was being served. We joined the party. Dolo is made from millet, an abundant local grain. You might be familiar with it as birdseed in the United States but it is a staple food in Burkina. The millet is crushed and then fermented with water. It is ready to serve the same day and has a sour taste. Always served in a calabash bowl. The female server kneels to serve you and takes a sip from the bowl before
presenting it to you.
After spending nearly an hour in this Dolo “bar” (not a building but a canopy made of sticks) Samnaaba said we should move to the adjacent canopy Dolo bar so we could give them some business too. As we moved the 15 feet to the next place, most of the customers moved with us as we continued to provide a source of entertainment.
At the second place we began to receive gifts of Dolo in liter containers. In a short amount of time we had five liter’s of Dolo. Samnaaba said we should share it so I
served Dolo to everyone who had a calabash bowl. Both the men and women got a big kick out of me serving the Dolo.
By this time we had our fill of Dolo so we thanked everyone and headed on our way. Our next stop was at the home of the “weaving women” where I was presented with the traditional fu-poko the women’s woven skirt and head dress. Our son had special ordered this for me as a Christmas gift. The beautiful woman who weaves the fabric was so gracious and happy to present it to me. She showed us how she weaves and it was a very special gift.
We left the weaving women and walked on to the tailor. Erik had already brought fabric to the tailor that matched my fu-poko for the tailor to construct fu-ereogo, the traditional male shirt for my husband and my other son. The tailor was a jovial man who welcomed us graciously to his home and showed us where he did his sewing on an old foot pedal singer sewing machine just like the one my mother had when I was a child. We thanked him and thanked him and then he presented us with a live chicken as a welcome gift.
We headed back to Samnaaba’s compound as the sun was setting on Christmas Eve. On the way there we were met by a boy on a bike. He is one of Samnaaba’s English students and he was bringing us a chicken as a gift from his father who welcomed us to Nakaba. Chicken number two. We named them Bona and Lisa and tied them up in our courtyard.
That evening we spent Christmas Eve around a bon fire in Samnaaba’s courtyard eating boxed macaroni and cheese we had brought to Erik from home. I recited The Night Before Christmas just like I used to do when our kids were little. It was a memorable Christmas Eve.
I woke up Christmas morning sick as a dog. But damn it I wasn’t gonna miss this day. I was coughing, my nose was running and my eyes were crusted shut. I took every pill and potion I could get my hands on and dragged myself up ready for this day.
We dressed in our new and beautiful traditional Burkinabe clothing. We exchanged a few tiny gifts I had brought but this holiday wasn’t really about gifts. We then headed off for a day in the village.
Our first stop was at the home of the Chief. We had already met the Chief earlier, but we were invited to visit is home on Christmas. The gift giving exchange is very different in Burkina. You do not directly offer a gift. Rather it is presented by a mediator who explains it and describes it and offers it to you while the giftor looks on. On this morning the Chief was in his courtyard with most of his assistant chiefs sitting and talking together. As honored guests we were offered chairs, while everyone else was seated on the ground. We brought a gift for the Chief of Smoked Salmon from home. We had to explain what it was and that it need not be cooked.
Next we made a gift presentation for the entire village. Thanks to a Go Fund Me campaign we did before leaving home, and the very generous donations of many of our friends and family, we were able to present to the village several gifts. First we presented school supplies for the newly opened pre-school. The school, which Samnaaba is working on, has 90 students, nearly twice what was expected on the first day. With the money we had raised we purchased slates and colored pencils, crayons and reading material. All the Chiefs were surprised and grateful.
Finally we told the Chief that our final gift would be paying for all the children in the pre-school to have breakfast at school for the remaining six months of the school year. The Chief’s were very happy. We were very happy. A very Merry
We then ate the first of several feasts of the day in the Chief’s home before I was then presented a gift from the Chief’s wife – another beautiful fu-poko made in the Nakaba traditional color of midnight blue. I was very flattered and surprised.
Our next stop of the day was at the home of Emmanuel one of Erik’s good friends in the village and one of the nicest people we met. His wife had prepared a huge feast and there were many people around the table joining the feast. I never did figure out exactly who all the dignitaries were who were dining with us but it was a special
meal that included chicken, guinea fowl, muton, and much more. The b part best part of this party was we were entertained by a wonderful troop of dancers. Both my son’s and myself took part in the dancing and it was really fun. During the feast my husband took a moment to speak. This is really not like him at all, but he made a beautiful speech thanking everyone for their warm welcome, for their kindness and love they have shown our son Samnaaba and for helping us see what a great place he is in.
I had carefully packed 200 candy canes and managed to get them to Nakaba from
home and throughout the day I was able to give the out to children in the village. This turned out to be an even better idea than I had hoped. The kids were all so courteous and patient and it was so fun to be able to share something simple and yet very American with all of the children.
Third feast. We headed back to the health compound where Samnaaba lives to the home of Pascal. Pascal is the Major of the health facility – basically the Director. Erik works with him. We had met Pascal the first night when we had chicken soup. It was very kind of him to invite us into his home. He has one of the nicest homes we saw in the village, with electricity and running water. He has a lovely family and his wife prepared a very nice meal for us that was delicious. Additional special guests
at this feast included two of Pascal’s counterparts from neighboring villages.
We then headed back to the village with Samnaaba stopping to greet people and introduce us every step of the way. The social interaction is very important amongst the people, not just on Christmas but everyday. A kind handshake, asking about your health and family, and shaking hands again before departing. Everyone wanted to meet us, so anywhere we were going took twice as long. But it was fun.
Next we went to the home of Patrice, Samnaaba’s friend and his Peace Corp Counterpart. Patrice serves as guide for any Peace Corp volunteer who comes to Nakaba and he also represents the village to the Health Center where Erik works. He welcomed us to his home and we enjoyed some Dolo before then walking the short distance back to the Soup Lady’s for one final feast of the day.
By this time my cold medicines had worn off and I was dragging. What an amazingly incredible Christmas it was. I can’t imagine ever having another Christmas this unique. I am so happy that my family was all-together to experience this. So very special.
The next morning was our last day in Nakaba. We walked to the far reaches of the village and enjoyed the views before stopping to visit with another one of the assistant chiefs at his home on the edge of the village. He was so happy to have us visit that he gave us….you guessed it…a chicken. Number three.
As we walked back through the village we were greeted by another family as we passed by their home and welcomed and sat and talked and were honored by….you guessed it…another chicken. Number four.
The people of Nakaba don’t have a lot, but what they do have they share. They are kind, generous, hospitable and loving. They are caring, thoughtful, welcoming and sincere. They love my son and he loves them. Samnaaba is their friend and he theirs and in turn Samnaaba’s parents could not have been more warmly embraced by this quiet little village in the little known country of Burkina Faso.
What a Christmas blessing we were given.