I've reached a Peace Corps milestone: My first serious questioning of what I'm doing here, and if it's all worth it. I think it is, but it's too soon for me to have an informed judgement; what is clear is that after learning more, I'll have some 'splaining to do to myself.

Culture

One of the big challenges is to manage expectations about cultural differences. It's not a good idea to expect folks here to conform to US cultural norms. Even if the behavior is one that we'd like to change, directly confronting it can often be counter-productive. Put so abstractly and in such an anodyne manner, it sounds obvious enough; make it concrete, and things look a litte different.

In training, they've made it very clear that in Burkina Faso, there's a much greater tolerance for amorous relationships between High School and even Jr. High School teachers and their students. It's not completely clear to me exactly where they draw the line, but it's been made eminently clear that the level of tolerance here is much greater than in the West. They've even given concrete examples where volunteers have known of this, and where it would have been disasterously counter-productive and damaging to confront the situation directly.

To put it bluntly, it may be necessary for us to hold our tongue, even if a work colleague at our school commits rape. Repeatedly. And yes, in the West in 2017, statuatory rape is rape. Full stop.

In fairness, it wasn't so long ago that Western culture had a greater tolerance for various forms of rape. Indeed, in my lifetime, attitudes have changed considerably, for example, around date rape. So, intellectually, I understand that cultures are different. I even have lived experience of attitudes changing in this regard. I understand that. Intellectually.

But, over the last week we education volunteers have more or less have our noses rubbed in the fact that it's not all that unlikely for us that we will find ourselves in a position where this is happening. For example, to one of our students. And the response of the community won't be to immediately remove the teacher. Indeed, far from it.

That's a bitter pill to swallow.

For what it's worth, I brought this up with my host father this evening, and he's never heard of anything of the sort happening. So, maybe the Peace Corps has been exaggerating things. If so, it's not clear if the exaggeration was intentional or not. Also, It's certainly possible that the Peace Corps isn't exaggerating, but when it happens, it's covered up well. So there's that.

A big part of the Peace Corps is operating on conflicting and/or incomplete information. Alas.

School and Goals

Background

A much less disturbing, but I think equally challenging aspect is what the goals are around teaching. I'll be teaching three eighth-grade (4ème) classes in Physics/Chemistry, for a total of 12 teaching hours per week. All of the training for the past week or so has been centered around formal lesson planning, and the requirements of the Burkina Faso educational system.

The system here is based on the French system, which isn't exactly known for encouraging creativity, individual exploration, critical thinking, personal development, holistic eduction or student empowerment. Quite the contrary. At the end of 9th grade (3ème), they take a test called the BEPC; passing that test allows them to continue on to the remaining three years of High School. You don't continue until you pass the BEPC, and how well you do and in what subjects determines what kind of high school you go to.

In addition, the lesson planning tools the Peace Corps uses are based on things like measurable goals, more or less for each day of lesson. Now, that's perfectly understandable and fine, but it does tend to bias one toward things that can be easily measured, like rote memorization. That's pretty much the opposite of what leads to effective learning for a subject like math or physics, where an engaged imagination and visualization skills are essential to a real mastery of the subject. I can tell already that this will be a challenge.

For example, one of the things they've inherited from the French system is that teachers write stuff on the chalk board, and students copy it down word for word. Teachers are encouraged to use multiple colors, for example, to call out important concepts. However, we're cautioned to expect that if we do this, it will take longer, because students will trade pens around so they can match exactly the colors we use. It all seems robotic, and spirit-crushing.

The Conflict

Put in Peace Corps terms, there's a clear conflict of priorities here. One of the goals of the Peace Corps is “to provide trained men and women” in places where there is a need. That's pretty broad. Taken at face value, it could be interpreted as just providing teachers to do exactly the same job as Burkinabè teachers. Thankfully, that narrow an interpretation runs counter to other goals. For example, development that we do is supposed to be sustainable; just providing a free teacher to a school for two years would be the opposite of sustainable.

I do appreciate that it is necessary for some part of the training to focus on the more mundane parts of our “day job.” That provides a baseline against which members of the community will judge us. Additionally, we need to understand what the students' needs are. In two years, they'll still be here, and they'll have a BEPC to pass, after all. So the current focus of the training is understandable, and necessary.

With that said, it's hardly motivational to learn about the constraints and, in some cases, dysfunctions of the system here. Personally, I've always done my best learning in a less structured, more organic fashion. I'm really glad that I didn't have to go through anything like the French system; it feels to me like it would have sucked all the joy out of learning. Thinking back to Jr. High School and High School, I really enjoyed learning, and I still do. The freedom to explore I had from Jr. High School on was a big part of that, for me.

Now, a question: To what extent does my Jr. High School share the goals of the Peace Corps? Are they just interested in getting a free teacher for two years? Or, are they sincerely interested in some of the Peace Corps goals? Some of those goals are:

  • Women's equality (which used to go under the brand “Let Girls Learn”).
  • Moving from teaching English grammar and memorization of vocabulary to a more functional teaching style that places greater emphasis on conversation and understanding.
  • Encouraging critical thinking.

To me, women's equality is one of the signal development priorities here. I'm certainly in favor of it on moral grounds, but there's a practical reason for this, too: Women's education is highly correlated to reducing the fertility rate in developing economies to a sustainable level. If Burkina Faso continues to have a fertility rate north of five, no amount of development in the world will ever make things better here. In the end, Malthus will not be denied.

Anyway, bit of an aside there… The point is, I don't know to what extent my priorities, and the real priorities of the Peace Corps will be shared by my school and community. I'll find out a lot more about that in about a week, when I meet my professional counterpart, and when I visit the school and the site for a couple of days. For now, it's just a concern; it might or might not turn out to be a problem.

Language

Since I'm in full vent mode, I might as well mention the language part. It turns out that speaking French here is difficult in a way that I sort of expected, but that's still somewhat surprsing. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the people here have a very limited command of French. Also unsurprising is that there's a local accent, or, as it turns out, local accents (I think depending on which local language the person first learned, or maybe the one that's most prevalent in the area).

What is surprisingly difficult for me is telling the difference betweeen people with a heavy accent (compared to standard French), and people who genuinely have a limited command of the language. With some cosmolitan people, who have perhaps traveled abroad, it's easy, because they've learned to soften their local accent relative to standard French. My host brothers have accents that are less strong, maybe because they are exposed to standard French from a young age via satellite TV.

It's more difficult when the accent is stronger. There's also a specific, limited vocabulary that seems to form the common set of what people speak. For example, they always say “big brother,” and never “older brother.” I've been told by PC staff that people here who have a bigger French vocabulary know the subset they need to limit themselves to when speaking to someone whose French is limited.

Another example: I asked a traffic cop for directions, and he told me to take the “goudron.” I had no idea what he meant – maybe to take the next intersection? Turns out that “goudron” means “asphalt,” and here it's used as a synonym for paved road. In France, I'd normally just say “route,” and if I needed to say “dirt road,” I'd fumble around a little before mutually arriving at “route de terre” (which I had to look up just now). I don't think “goudron” is all that exotic a word or anything, but it's uncommon enough that I had never heard it before. This totally confuses a Burkinabè who grew up with “goudron” being pretty much the word you use for a (non-dirt) road. How come this weirdo speaks French almost like a Frenchman, but doesn't know such a common word?

I think another thing that happens is that because this “universal” (ish) vocabulary is smaller, pronounciation becomes less important. For that reason, the combination heavy accent + limited vocabulary actually gets to the point where the verbal utterance is ambiguous, and even misleading for someone like me, who is unfamiliar with the local idiom.

It would be unfair to call this a pidgin. This more limited French is, in most cases, correct according to standard French. After all, everybody here takes French classes from an early age, and I bet those classes are heavy on grammar. So it's mostly correct, but the pronunciation can be indistinct to the point of ambiguity, and the accent makes it genuinely hard to understand, especially as concerns vowel sounds. Additionally, the folks with the strong accents often don't know that the accent is what's causing the confusion. After all, most everyone they talk to is familiar with the accent, and the limited “universal” vocabulary.

This can all be surprisingly frustrating. I've taken to listening to the France Inter podcast of their 7 PM news, because it's such a joy to hear standard French with a varied vocabulary. It's also nice to get a French take on Trump's latest idiotic moves, and other international news.

Anyway, enough of this rant!

The Question

So, clearly, the question is: Is it all worth it? I think it would be assinine of me to try to answer that question now. I'm still in this weird, artificial environment, where some things are taken care of for me, and some things are more difficult than they need to be. I also still know next to nothing about the community where I'll be serving. Further, the training has focused on all of the most negative things (like rape), which inevitably leads one to over-estimate how often it happens. At least I hope the emotions I'm feeling are because I'm subconsciously over-estimating the frequency!

The big change for me is that, for the fist time, “will I stay for the full two years” has become a question. I think that at this point of the process, it's normal and healthy for this to have happened, so I'm not particulary worried or anything. I'm also not in a hurry to try to answer the question. Absent some red line being crossed (like a threat to my long-term health), it would be wrong for me to think I know the real answer before at least a couple of months at site, or longer. And I don't move to site until the end of August.

Anyway, sorry for the ranty character of this! Things are actually fine, and I'm glad that I've worked through and come to better understand some of the things that have been nagging at me for the past few days.

Follow-up

I wrote that yesterday, but I wanted to sit on it for a day before posting. I have some more thoughts, and I'll probably not send this out until tomorrow (the 15th).

Consenses: Not so prevalent

After talking to some of my friends here, there's a fair consensus that the frequency of statutory rape in school is, in fact, much lower than the impression that was conveyed to us. They do exaggerate dangers to us quite intentionally, so we'll be prepared, but on reflection I don't think this is an example of that. Rather, I think it's language disconnect. It's hard for a non-native speaker of English to convey a concept like “the thing I'm about to talk about is extremely infrequent and upsetting, but we need to talk about it so you'll be prepared, just in case. But don't worry too much.”

France really is unpopular here!

Funny that I'm writing this on Bastille Day! Anyway, I talked to my host family about stuff, and something interesting came out. The French are viewed badly here, not necessarily because of colonial memories, but more because no French organization is visible working on projects to help the people here. By way of contrast, The US is (notably via the Peace Corps), Germany is, and China is. The French who are here are viewed as being here just to make profit. Now, I don't know if this impression is justified in fact – I know nothing about things like aid flows to Burkina, for example – but my host father was quite clear on the popular opinion vis à vis the French.

This is a nice validation of the “soft power” value of the Peace Corps, at the very least!

I realized that this attitude toward the French ties into my frustration with language. When I adhere to standard French pronunciation, and when I verify if I'm understanding a word correctly by relaying it back with standard pronunciation, I may well be triggering some kind of subconscious negative attitude related to the French. For example, the word “camp” is pronunced with an “a” like the word “ah”, but with at least some of the local accents, it comes out as “ay.” If someone says “caymp” to me, I'm often not sure what they really mean, so I'll naturally say back “camp.” The opposite of hilarity ensues.

It's gotten to the point with one person that they jump at the slightest opportunity to correct me. That person bats about 500 on the corrections, too – I always verify (thank you, French wiktionary on Android!). But anyway, I'm possibly triggering some deep-seated emotions, based on the fact that I sound French, and even act somewhat French. I've noticed that I act more French when I'm speaking the language regulary… Facinating how these things work!

Anyhoo, understanding what's going on is half the battle. I'll probably always sound French to Burkinabè ears, and I'm good with that, but now that I've figured out what's going on, I'm sure I'll find ways to adapt.

No Filter

One last thought… I was talking to some other volunteers about this post, and one was a little concerned that PC leadership might not be happy with the level of frankness or with the subject matter. I'm happy to say that one of my friends here and I were 100% solid on the idea that a reaction along those lines would be totally inappropriate, and unexpected. If that were to happen, it would be a strong reason to consider leaving.

After all, I didn't come here to write about unicorns and rainbows. A big reason why I came here is to learn about the place, learn about development, and tell the truth, to myself and to my friends. This post has some uncomfortable ideas in it, but I'm not divulging anything confidential or inappropriate. Also, there's a big ol' disclaimer on every page that says this is mine, not theirs.

So: No filter!

If anyone who works for the Peace Corps is monitoring this blog, I'm mildly flattered, and I hope you're enjoying it. Feel free to drop me a line.