Sunday, February 3, 2013

VRF that!

Every 3 months, volunteers must send in a computer report known as the VRF, or Volunteer Reporting File. In this computer file, we record all the activities we have done during the previous 3 months, how many people participated, how much it cost, what goals/objectives were achieved, how progress/success was observed and measured, paragraph responses to a series of prompting questions (such as "What are your current challenges?"), and any other comments, suggestions, complaints, or concerns we might have.

Most volunteers hate the VRF.  While it's not overly difficult or time-consuming (if one's focused, it can be thoroughly completed within 3-5 hours, depending on how busy -- or not -- the volunteer is at site), the VRF is still a pain in the butt.  There are a lot of buttons to click on, various squares where numerical data needs to be entered (i.e. how many females participated ages 15-24? males? under 15? how many succeeded? etc.), and the computer program itself may be prejudice towards you and for whatever reason not cooperate with your computer causing the computer to randomly freeze or not save all the data you worked so hard to enter.  Thus, most of us really despise the VRF and put it off for as long as possible, though we could easily be working on it on a regular basis, i.e. typing the data for a project immediately after the project is finished, rather than waiting until the day before the VRF is due and trying to remember everything that happened the last months and on what dates and how many people were there….

Well, for once I have not procrastinated too horribly and my VRF is finished – it’s not even due for another couple of weeks!   I won’t say that it’s the best VRF I’ve ever written, nor is it quality reading material, but I did respond to the open-ended questions with a lot of random topics that you might be interested in.  So below, as follows, is a portion of my VRF responses for the months of October 2012 – January 2013.

Community Integration:  How integrated do you feel in your community?  How is your language?  What have you learned about cross-cultural integration?

My level of community integration continues to improve, as always.  But at the same, I think it has decreased in some aspects due to the fact that because I am so comfortable with my village and they so used to seeing me, I’m not always invited to as many things because they know I’m busy with school or have already seen a wedding.  Also, I’ve noticed more recently that it’s a little more difficult to strike up conversations and keep them going for an extended amount of time.  This is because I don’t have nearly as many things to talk/ask about, compared to last year when everything was new and foreign. I have seen many things throughout the past year and often already understand what is happening or what certain things mean when I now encounter them, and so I don’t have to ask. 

Also, new integration efforts with those I don’t know or who have newly arrived have been minimal, and I really need to try and address this.  It’s very weird when I’m the one explaining something to a Burkinabe (i.e. where the marché is or if the boutique sells a certain thing…)  I feel proud when I know things and can help Burkinabe, but it usually stops at that.  Sometimes I forget to tell people my name and what I do, because I’ve gotten used to pretty much everyone in village knowing who I am.

Challenges:  What challenges have you faced in your projects or in other areas of your Peace Corps experience?

While the beginning of the school year started off wonderfully (I had just gotten back from a 2-week vacation to Italy!), it quickly was full of challenges.  From struggles to getting a wall around my house to not have a director at the CEG, I’ve encountered plenty of problems and challenging situations the previous three months.  One of the most irritating challenges has been dealing with a lack of communication at the CEG.  Due to the uncertain situation with the director, teachers covering for the director, the secretary hardly present since she had just had a baby, and then the elections, there has definitely been a lack of communication this school year compared to last year, despite my language skills being a THOUSAND times better than they were at this time last year.  No one tells me anything unless I ask about it (but if I don’t “know” about it, I can’t ask…) and even if I do get some information, it generally is brief and unhelpful.  Many of the responses I’ve received have been “Je ne sais pas,” or “well, you should ask the director, but since there’s no director right now, you’ll just have to wait.”  I hate showing up to school only to find there’s randomly no school (my homologue’s response: oh, I forgot to tell you not to go to school today.), or instead of normal classes a presentation or speaker is being held.  I’m experiencing a similar situation with the mayor right now – he hasn’t been present for almost 2 months, and everyone insists there’s no one else who I can talk to in the office for my library project, and really, they’re correct, because I need official approval from the mayor and no one else can do that…  It’s extremely frustrating.

An additional challenge has been working with my groups/schools on our projects and grants.  For whatever reason, everyone’s train of thought seems to have turned and is now focused on getting as much money from me as possible for the least amount of work, even though they KNOW that for most the things we’re working on, there is NO money involved (for them, i.e. per diem or paid hours for volunteering).  I was/am interested in helping my CEG get a new latrine, to be used primarily by teachers and visitors, as well as the older 3eme students, but what started as a very organized project with everyone doing his task for researching latrines and talking to various organizations to gain verbal agreement for a community contribution has turned into a project that I am not going to support and we will probably not do unless something changes very quickly.  I gave deadlines, they weren’t met.  Or things were given to be half-finished at the very last minute.  I asked for a budget and list of specific materials/prices/quantities, I was handed a list that was questionable (literally, it was full of question marks: bags of cement 10 or 20?) and didn’t have a single price.  They told me that I could do that when I went to Ouaga, even though I told them I would not be researching any prices myself (or at least by myself…).  And then all the teachers refused to consider a community contribution coming from them in the form of everyone chipping in 2 or 3 mille, since it was their CEG and they shouldn’t have to pay for a latrine for themselves to use – the actual community should provide that for them.  So my response to all of this has been, “Well then, no latrine for you.”

And finally, my main challenges that have just arrived (after having already typed up the above information earlier this month) are the problems I recently discussed in person with both Diallo and Firmin.  My 5eme class has been quite awful since we returned to school in January, possibly due to the fact that 4 of the students were accused of stealing my sitemate's camera, and thus taken to the gendarmerie.  Because of the class's nonstop disrespectfulness, I talked to the other teachers, and this resulted in 2 male teachers entering the classroom (I had left) and beating numerous students with a tree branch for 20-30 minutes.  I fear this may ruin my rapport and classroom environment, instead of making it better.  But as I left for Ouaga right after this happened, I'm not really sure how my students are reacting or what our next class will be like.

Additionally, minor annoyances and comments such as "The APE can speak for you, since you work for the CEG and you and the APE are the same" (referring to the APE giving permisson for someone to take my bricks from my courtyard without ever having talked to me...) and "We will not celebrate your birthday with you if villageoises are there too" have been really discouraging.  At the moment, with the classroom problems, lack of communication, rude comments, etc. I am not very happy at my site and not really sure how to balance all these issues without offending people, but at the same, feel that I can't just "laisser" everything because these are fairly big issues, and if I just ignore them, they will either reoccur and/or my homologue and fellow teachers won't know how much their actions and words bother me.

Lessons Learned:  Describe lessons learned about your projects, community, or yourself.

*Don’t ever leave things unattended.  Always keep your eye on things.  As happens every now and then, a few of my things have gone missing.  Nothing too serious; just some pens, a bucket, clothespins hanging on my clothesline, my little solar-plaque for recharging my batteries, my outdoor thermometer (inside my latrine).  I’m reminded once again that I can’t trust anyone with anything, ever.  Even if I’m just running over to my neighbor’s house for a few minutes, I can’t leave anything outside – sadly, more than likely, it will disappear.  Even if the gate to my newly built wall is closed.  Even if my dog is “keeping guard.”   Even if whatever it is happens to be small and NAILED TO THE INSIDE OF MY LATRINE and essentially worthless to Burkinabe, someone will find it and take it.  It’s so sad.  But that’s the way it is.  Recently, my sitemate Molly had several problems with theft, including my own students stealing her camera when they stopped by after classes to “saluer” us and admire the murals we’re painting.  Even though it wasn’t my camera, they were my students and I was present during the situation, and thus, it was just as much my problem as it was Molly’s.  We never did get the camera back.  Also, even during our highly successful VSA camps, we had students who tried to steal things – crayons, glue, scissors, books, my soccerball, and our AIDS activity/game cards.  Why they wanted a cartoon picture of a pregnant women or a dirty needle, I will never understand, but there was a student who tried to take them…  When we collected all the cards at the end of the activity and saw that we were missing FIVE, we immediately told the students, but no one admitted to having taken the cards.  We (with the kids) searched everywhere and the students even organized themselves into a sort of body/bag search where everyone got patted down.  But still no cards.  When we threatened to tell their teacher, the kids got really nervous and began searching outside under rocks and in bushes.  Finally three cards were found hidden a black sachet in a bush behind the building we were holding the camp in.  Indeed, some students had plotted to steal our AIDS cards, with one boy having asked us for permission to go to the bathroom, but really having just hidden the cards so he could take them home later.  The moral of all these stories: watch everything, at every moment, always. 

*Be specific.  Make expectations clear.  Always be over-specific (is that even possible?) and clarify things more times than necessary.  There’s a good chance Burkinabe still won’t understand or will miss a major point of something you said.  A good example of this is when I asked my homologue to use his internet key to send an important email message.  It seemed like he understood me and told me after class we could get it at his house.  He then immediately picked up his phone, called someone, said a few words  in local language, then turned back to me and told me that for 30 mille so-and-so would drop of an internet key for me.  I was really confused – there was no way I was going to pay more than a couple hundred CFA to have 5 minutes of internet, certainly not 30 mille – and my confusion made my homologue confused.  Finally I realized he assumed I wanted to BUY a key.  I’m not sure how/why he thought that, considering I’ve said numerous times that I will NOT be buying a key, and also since I specifically asked him to use HIS key.  But had I repeated my demand more than once and over-explained what I was going to do and why, perhaps he would’ve understand and we could have avoided this whole mess and not had to call back whoever it was to cancel the key my homologue told him I was going to buy.  This rule of making expectations clear especially has been learned in school (or perhaps it’s just a strong reminder, as I learned about how important it is to be specific last school year…).  At the beginning of the this year, my students weren’t used to me, but I forgot this, and just started off the year assuming they could follow my instructions, my manner of speaking, etc. based off of how my students responded to me at the end of last school year.  But they couldn’t since they were all new students (I don’t have any of the same students as last year), and thus I had to “re-learn” how to be extremely specific with everything we do in class.

*People are counting on your presence.  Don’t overbook yourself.  There have been many holidays, weddings, funerals, and other gatherings throughout the last 3 months.  I’m invited to almost everything, despite not always knowing who I’m talking to or who’s getting married or what we’re celebrating…  But sometimes things overlap, or whatever I’m currently doing takes longer than anticipated and I am late or can’t make it another thing or a visit to someone’s house for supper when I said I would…  Even though things are generally very lackadaisical here with events starting an hour or two late, people always arriving at least 45 minutes after you agree to meet, and people canceling or forgetting about events altogether, apparently those “cultural rules” don’t apply to me.  I especially learned this on New Year’s Eve.  I was invited to so many neighbors’ homes and other friends’ celebrations that I ran into problems spending time with everyone.  Some people were just fine with me stopping by for 15 minutes, drinking tea with them, and not joining them for their actual feast and dancing around midnight, but many people were very hurt and disappointed when I told them that I had to continue or that I would try to come back later after I greeted everyone else that was on my list that night.  In fact, there were 3 families in particular that expected me to join them around midnight, but obviously I could only be in one place, and had told them that at midnight I would be with my friends at the CSPS.  They all saved food for me and commented to me the next morning about how I didn’t celebrate with them, even though I had stopped by their house for a significant amount of time earlier in the evening.  One even said that he had bought/killed a rabbit for our meal (i.e. for me), and that now I should give him some money for the rabbit and other food (a bottle of coke, a salad, rice) that was made for me but that I didn’t eat since I didn’t come back at midnight.  I had told everyone if I would join them at midnight or not, but of course no one actually listens or believes me, and so they were hurt.  It probably would’ve been better had I chosen one or two parties to go to, and spent the entire night there, and not passed by other friends’ celebrations at all.  Also complicating matters is that when Burkinabe say something will be ready in 5 minutes, they really mean an hour.  I should have known this, and so sometimes when people offered to make me tea or asked if I would “at least eat some salad before I continued to the next courtyard – it will only take 5 minutes), I should have politely refused and continued on my way.  Instead I would agree and feel obligated to make them happy by eating some of their salad or waiting for the tea, but then this resulted in me spending an hour with someone I had just stopped in to say hi to, and then arriving 2 hours late for someone that I had given a specific time to.  I actually felt very stressed on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day due to this “overbooking” and arriving “late” (yes, Burkinabe notice when I’m not exactly on time, even though they are never even close to being on time…), and overall, quite bad about the number of people who were let down when I didn’t pass the entire evening or afternoon with them…even though they knew of my plans.  

Planned Activities:  What activities do you plan to undertake in the next few months?

These next 3 months will probably be some of my busiest ever, although I’m sure the months preceding my COS will prove to be even more chaotic and stressful and busy….  Here’s what my plans are for the next 3 months:

1. Teaching Math to 5e and 6e
2. Camp VSA (day camps with elementary students focusing on different topics, such as environment and health)
3. Planning Camp HEERE (food coordinator; workbook/manual development, community/school liaison)
4. Planning Camp GLOW (Dedougou)
5. Music Club; Girls Volleyball Club at CEG
6. Reading Clubs (tutoring) at primary school with “Bouba et Zaza” books
7. Paint Library with sitemate Molly Morrison; work on developing a community library association
8. Buy books and supplies for my grant project “Literacy Through the Arts” – organize with teachers and school directors
9. Tree pepineres

Peace Corps Goal 2: Sharing about America.  If you have done something in your community to help promote a better understanding of Americans or your own heritage, or ideals you care about, please share your story below.

Almost every day, something about America is passed on from me to students, friends, and neighbors.  More recently, with the holidays that have passed (Thanksgiving and Christmas), this includes a variety of food items: cakes with frosting, mashed potatoes and gravy, Chinese stir-fry, chili, veggie burgers, peanut brittle, and more.  I love baking and cooking, and trying out my favorite recipes from home and seeing if they’ll work here, or what I need to modify/substitute to make something similar or comparable to something I eat with my family back in America to celebrate the holidays.  For my birthday (January 23) I had a “fete” that consisted of American food – or as close to “American” as I could manage in village.  With the help of my neighbors, I made a huge marmite full of chili, 8 loaves of corn bread, 100 pieces of peanut brittle, a bowl of caramel popcorn, salad with dill dressing and croutons, a cold pasta salad, and peanut-honey glazed eggplant.  We drank pink lemonade, enjoyed a great meal with monster cookies for dessert, and then I performed a piece of music on my clarinet.  It was the first time many of them had seen me with my clarinet.

An additional sharing about America experience includes a visit from Anders, a “vrai” American (as opposed to me, who hasn’t been in America in almost 2 years…), who was visiting Molly during October.  He and Molly spent a morning in my classrooms, first observing their math lessons, and then answering questions about himself that my students had pre-written in preparation for his visit.  The students had to write their questions in both French and English, Anders responded in English, and Molly and I translated his responses into French so the students could better understand.  Anders’s classroom visit also included a small lesson on the USA.  I brought maps of the world and America, we showed pictures of our respective states (Minnesota and Colorado), talked about general geography and distance between countries in the world, etc.  At the end of each classroom visit, we learned a song in English and then went outside to play Tug-o-war.

Also, with the help of my sitemate (Molly), I organized a series of “American Holiday” afternoons with my CEG students.  One Saturday, around October 31, we learned about Halloween, carved Jack-o-lanterns out of watermelons, tasted candy corn (sent from America), bobbed for oranges, pinned the hat on the witch, had a witch’s broom relay race, and performed a skit about trick-or-treating and eating too much candy which led into a nutrition sensibilisation. In mid-December, we had a Thanksgiving and Christmas party.  We made hand-turkeys, talked about how Americans start preparing for Christmas as soon as Thanksgiving is over, drew typical holiday images on the chalkboard that the students copied into their notebooks (i.e. snowman, Santa Claus, candy cane, etc.) and explained the meaning of each one.  We also played American Christmas music in the background and then made Christmas cards with a message written inside in English.  Molly and I then sent these cards to our family and friends back home, along with a letter written from us and an explanation of who had made the cards and why. 

 Success Story:  Provide a 2-3 paragraph story about the difference you and your counterparts have made in your community.  Describe the situation, community background, process and implementation of the project, and what results were achieved.

One of favorite recent successes was putting on Camp VSA (vie, santé, et avenir – “life, health, and future”) with my sitemate, Molly Morrison.  We held two consecutive day camps, each camp inviting 22 CM2 students: 11 boys and 11 girls each camp, i.e. 44 students in total during the 2 camps.  Both Camp VSA were three days long (Thursday-Saturday) from 7am to 3pm, and featured the same program/topics and schedule of activities.  The first camp, December 20-22, was for CM2 students from Lanfiera primary school, while the second camp, December 27-29, was for Guiedougou primary school.

A typical day started with everyone arriving by 7am, students helping “set-up” the camp by sweeping, laying out the nattes, and taking out the hand-washing station and soap.  We then ate a simple and quick breakfast (bread with a cup of hot milk-tea), and then did warm-ups, which consisted of singing, dancing, stretching, and some running and jumping-jacks.  By 8:30 am, we started our first lesson, 9:30 was art/craft time, 10:30 was lesson #2, and at 11:30 we had a few minutes of free-time and personal reading time until lunch at noon.  Following lunch there was recreation time, during which we set out some balls and jump ropes; additionally, each day there was one group who had to clean up after lunch (i.e. wash dishes and refill water).  Next we had 30 minutes of group story time, then did some more warm-ups and singing before our third and final lesson of the day.  At 2:30 pm, the small groups got together to prepare a skit on a topic we had talked about that day, and then at 2:45 they presented their skits.  We closed the day at 3:00 pm by singing a song or two, cleaned up the camp site (put things back in the house, swept, locked the door, etc.), and then said good-bye!  

Overall, the camp was a great success in each and every way.  Each one of our lessons (hand washing, dental care, environment, nutrition, gender equality, HIV/AIDS, malaria, future planning) went extremely well, especially since we were prepared and had an activity or hands-on prop/demonstration that the students could use to better participate.  Furthermore -- an additional aspect of this camp that I am very satisfied with -- there was very little cost involved, with the majority of expenses falling for the food that we provided.  Starting the day off by eating and drinking something was a nice touch, as well as eating lunch together, but had we opted not to feed the kids (i.e. the children return home to eat from 1pm until 3pm, and then return for camp again from 3pm to 5pm), I think that would have worked just as well, and then camp would have cost next to nothing!  Our camp model just goes to show that impactful activities in a “camp” setting can occur without the need for lots of money, staying somewhere overnight, paying transportation costs, etc.  In fact, camp was so successful (and “easy” – in certain ways, of course!), that we plan to do another set of camps in the next few months, both in our villages, as well as nearby villages with other volunteers who have asked us to help them put on a day camp.

One of my most memorable moments of Camp VSA was when we did the gender session.  It was a rather simple and basic introduction to sex versus gender, and we started by splitting the boys and girls up and having them brainstorm a list of roles/work/activities for boys and then for girls.  After 15 minutes, we rejoined and each group presented their two lists.  We then had a small discussion on whether each group had written good lists, if the girls wrote something “untrue” about boys, etc. and proceeded to explain the difference between sex and gender, which led into our activity.  We had a variety of professions and hobbies written on index cards (such as doctor, president of Burkina Faso, breastfeed a baby, write a book, cook a meal, play a drum) and the students had to decide whether their specific card was for men or women, placing the card under the appropriate heading.  For the most part, everyone agreed with every card placement as it was happening (i.e. doctor is for men, cooking is for women), but every now and then someone would disagree with a card (professor is for men – “No!  Women are professors, too!”), but our rule was that the person placing the card put it where he/she wanted, and everyone else had to wait until the end to discuss if they wanted to change a card.  By the time we finished placing all the cards, there were definitely some students who were riled up about the “incorrect” placement of cards, and this led perfectly into our actual discussion on gender equality. 
“Are there women teachers?”
“YES! --  NO!”
“Think of your school, are there men who teach?  Yes, there are.  And are there women?  Yes.  So where should we place this card?  Under men or women? …. Oh, so perhaps ‘both’ is the best answer.  We need to create a new heading – things both men and women can do.” 

The majority of cards fell into the “both” category without too much of a problem or too many students disagreeing, although we still had to “prove” each card for them so that they completely understood and also to help those students who didn’t agree: “Actually, girls CAN play a drum.  We saw that this morning when Barkissa led us in our songs.  So it’s not just boys who play drums.”   Interestingly, the girls got very upset when we told them that cooking was for boys also.  The boys didn’t want to cook and insisted it was solely a task for females, and the girls weren’t interested in “letting” boys prepare food, either…but at the end, they did agree that both males and females could make something to eat, if they want/need to. 

The most debatable card was “president of Burkina Faso.” The boys were literally distraught and in shock when we told them that in other countries in the world (in Africa, in fact!) there exist women presidents, and one boy even cried.  The girls felt empowered, but the boys wouldn’t have it and kept shouting, “No, girls can’t.  Never.  Burkina will NEVER have a female president.  It’s not possible.  We won’t vote for her.”  Kids were shouting, almost ready to hit each other if someone disagreed, and they got so involved and emotional during the discussion that things almost got too intense and a little out of hand.  We had to implement a talking stick: only the person holding our special stick got to talk, and everyone else had to remain silent, raise their hands if they wanted to say something, and, if necessary, cover their mouth with their other hand to prevent from blurting/yelling something out.  We also had to have the boys on one side of the room, remaining on their natte at all times, and the girls on their natte located on the other side of the room.  They were just so passionate about the topic, that they started physically expressing their ideas or discontent when they disagreed.  But, in the end, they finally agreed that anyone could become president someday, even of Burkina Faso.

This session was very influential, for both me and the students.  I have no doubt that this lesson provoked some thoughts and ideas and questions that they had never ever thought of or even heard of before!  Their minds were shocked – their worlds were blown.  Overall the girls were very excited, and yet interestingly, at the end, a few of the boys seemed a little sad and discouraged about what their world was coming to, almost to the point of tears (Women who can be president?  Men who do laundry?  Craziness!  We men can’t let that happen!).  I was extremely surprised at all of the emotions this session brought to the surface, and how EVERY student got involved and wanted to have a say or share an opinion on what was happening.  They rarely get the chance to be so involved in their normal classrooms, especially on such a “taboo” topic, so it was nice to see them open up so quickly during this session and share their true views.  The gender session, along with the rest of Camp VSA, was definitely a success; quite possibly even a highlight of my entire Peace Corps service thus far!

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