Tuesday, November 27, 2007

a large blog entry

Wow, it has been an awfully long time. First and foremost, happy birthday to my old man. Love and miss you over here. And Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Everything is good here, had a rough time getting access to the internet for over a month now, but I'm back in action for at least the next few days. So what's been going on here in Burkina? Hmm, why not start with a picture of Kampti, since that's where I've been spending 99 percent of my time.

School has finally started, and I've been following classes and getting to know the teachers and students. I've also met with other volunteer organizations in the area, the local medical center, and the caisse (the village equivalent to a bank). On top of that I've been getting my clubs started. I would like to concentrate on literacy, confidence, creativity, motivation, and broader thinking. To do that I'll have a reading club, but I'm going to incorporate a drawing club into that as well, since the kids here love to draw. Each week during the club, I'll write a short story to go along with our drawings (I'll draw on the board and they'll follow, step by step, onto their notebooks), and I'll also have guest speakers come and give presentations on things like daily health, the importance of school, sports, and anything else that sounds like a good idea. Through the club, I'm branching out into other things that are also important to me (and the kids), including a geography club, a huge world map we're going to paint on the side of the school, and a library project. I'm also interested in working to plant special trees that have nutritious leaves that can be added to their diets, begin gardening programs to raise money for the orphanages here, and building cheap courtyard fireplace things (I don't know the word in English, sorry) that are fuel efficient. This will singlehandedly save the environment and allow girls to study more, as they won't have to go look for brush all evening long. Okay, maybe it won't do that, but it's a decent start.
These constitute about a tenth of all the projects I'm working on, but I'm going to email my Mom a detailed description of everything I'm doing that's work-related. A lot of you have expressed interest to help me out financially (with one project in particular), and I've got to say that I've never been more touched or felt more blessed than I do when I hear from yall about that. I always knew how great all of you were, so I can't say it's a surprise, but to be reminded like this is really something else. So you can email my Mom if you want that (I'll work on it tomorrow and Thursday, and have it done by Friday).
Also, I talked to an uncle of mine the other weekend, and he asked about the practicalities of washing clothes over here. I thought that I'd share with yall in case anyone was sitting at work and wasting time thinking, how does Clay wash his clothes? Well, step one: Get a metal bucket. Step two: Go to the well on your bike with two empty jugs and fill them up. Go back home, balancing the jugs of water on the back of your bike with one hand, and steering with the other. You could pay someone to do this step, and it would be less than 3 dollars a month, but cmon, then you wouldn't be able to say that you pumped your own wellwater. Step three: Add water to the bucket, and add soap to that. Step four: Start scrubbing the hell out of your clothes until your arms hurt and you have to retreat from the advancing sun into the trenches of your windowsdown house (step four takes about three hours). Step five: Get out of your house, you're not done yet. Hang up your clothes on your latrine and cantine (the building you cook in) walls, and on the clothesline going in between your house and the cantine. Voila, you've now done your laundry (This is usually followed by an hour long nap, and then lunch at a restaurant down the road. No one should have to cook for themselves after doing laundry).
I remember one time when I was a kid. We had just moved into our new house, and my Dad was making me build the back fence with him. All day long we dug holes, mixed concrete, and hammered in posts; it was boring, and the outside air wasn't airconditioned. It went on for a long time. At the end of the day when we'd finished, my Dad stopped me from going inside and made me sit down. He told me to look at the work we'd done, and said that after a day of work you should always look at it and know that you've done it. Then he just sat there silently, and looked at it for a full quarter of a minute, thinking some thought that would probably put the pragmatist Tolstoy to shame. I sat there thinking about how the Super Nintendo sat there unused inside, and how the refrigerator door was closed and should be open, with me peeking in. I didn't get it then, and maybe I don't get it now, but either way, here's a picture of laundry day.

And now, about cooking. I cook a lot. It's enjoyable, and it's cheap. I use a gas stove. Things are seasonal here, so it makes it hard to cook lots of big combinations. Well, things are seasonal everywhere, we just have the farming and transportation equipment to get things from all over the world into the Pflugerville HEB all year long. It is a feat of modernity I never appreciated until here. Yes, strawberries are expensive out of season, but you can still eat them all year long. That is a beautiful thing.
For breakfast, I usually make banana pancakes. My neighbors have chickens, so I walk over there and get eggs, and this family down the way sells cold milk for a few months out of the year that I can have. The cows don't get enough water during the other months, so it's back to powdered milk mixed with water. The stuff is surprisingly good though, and after six months here I really enjoy sitting down to a nice tall glass of room temperature powdered milk. I also make oatmeal and mix in some peanut butter I have made from a woman in the village.
For lunch, it's all about the restaurants and street vendors. I eat rice with a peanut sauce and some type of meat, usually goat or sheep or something I can't identify. I usually get a coke too, and then for dessert some yogurt. It is goooood and cold.
Snacks keep the hungries away. I eat snacks like they're going out of style, and manage to eat about six bananas a day and at least four packages of peanuts. The bananas here are good, and I'm not allergic to them the same way I was back home. Also, plantains (sp?) are really good, and I'm thinking about making some banana chips with them. That would be ridiculous with some yogurt.
I like dinner, but HATE cooking by lamplight. This means I usually cook around five and eat before six. The sun is getting lower and lower earlier and earlier, so I have to keep rolling my dinner dates back with it. It's a headache for my social calendar, but I guess it keeps village life interesting. I love making pasta with toms, onions, and garlic. I remember when I went to Yellowstone with my aunt a few years back, and I told her that I didn't like onions on my burgers. She looked at me and said, for me, onions make the burger. I thought at the time that cheese made the burger, and I continued to hate onions for another two years. In 2006 I started liking onions for some reason, and I'm glad I did. They are the most common thing I can find at the market, and I love em. With my pasta I usually buy some meat from a street vendor. He has a good selection, and calls me chief, so I go there every day. I switch it up from time to time, but lately this has been what I've been going by. A few weeks ago I got a package from my mom with velveeta and rotel. I only used a little bit of the rotel to make the cheese sauce, so what I had left I poured into some rice, got some mint and rosemary, and had that with lamb. It was the classiest thing I've ever tasted.
Phew, practical things like food and laundry are getting to me. I think I've already posted a picture of my friend Adlai, so here is one of my other best friend throughout this whole ordeal, Becca.

In that picture she had just given me a haircut. She's from Arkansas, and consequently the best Arkansan hairdresser in the entire semi-continent of West Africa. She's also a teacher up in the Sahel, where it is hot and dusty, and therefore I will never visit her. Just kidding.
As far as getting together goes, I spent over a month in village without leaving. I thought it was important to do, for self sufficiency and getting over the fears of speaking french and local language for such a long period of time, but after going over a month without hearing English (except for my family and Jennifer through the phone), I was glad Thanksgiving decided to poke its head through the door. Here is my turkey story.
The turkeys in the South are about 15 to 20 thousand francs each. In the North they are over 45 thousand. So it was my job, since the big thanksgiving feast was uncomfortably in the Sahel, to bring the turkey. My neighbor had three of them, and told me I could buy one of them from him the day before I left. I said okay, and was happy with the arrangement until I woke up the day before Thanksgiving and realized all three turkeys were dead. They had eaten something funny and died in the middle of the night. Oh man, I thought, and I jumped on my bike and went up and down 45km of hills to Gaoua, where they have a big market. I looked for a turkey but couldn't find one. Someone said they saw some in Batie, another 65km, but I couldn't go that far. I jumped on my bike and headed home, flagging down a truck on the way that gave me and my bike a ride the rest of the way. I jumped off the truck, said a quick merci, and biked home, dejected, until I heard a villager yelling my name. It was Gladys, my counterpart. She was waving from the corn fields, making local village beer, called dolo, and wearing a philadelphia 76ers shirt. I told her what I was looking for, and she took me straight for a woman that speaks only Lobiri. I followed this woman on a small path through some trees until we hit a clearing, where about eight or nine turkeys were hanging out in the middle. 90km, and they were right there behind some trees. I sat down with the owner of the turkeys, drank some dolo, and struck a deal after discussing down the price. 15 thousand, and not a minute too soon.
The next morning, at around 6:15am, I went to her place to pick up my gobbler. I needed a box to put it in for the twelve hour bus ride (changing buses and busstations two separate times), and I found one. I put the guy in the box and he started freaking out. The villagers said, take him out of the box, that's why he's so nervous. I told them that I thought he would just run away, but they insisted so I took him out anyway. He immediately started running away. I caught him, but as I picked him up he decided to use the restroom all over my left arm. The villagers surrounding me then asked why I took him out, and as I was losing my temper the bus honked. 6:30, time to go. I jumped in the bus, hung my head out the window, yelled for a cup of water, and grabbed the cup and washed my arm off, leaning out of the window as the bus pulled away. I threw the plastic cup behind me for a kid to come fetch. What a way to start the day.
But the next day was great. I met twenty two of my best friends that I hadn't seen in three months, and planned our vacation to Ghana. We killed the turkey, a pig, and ten chickens. Here is the pig. Markus also made sushi with seaweed he had sent from America.

His name is Charles In Charge. I named him Charles In Charge because I thought it was funny, as he obviously wasn't at all in charge. He was a smart pig though, and drank all the water we gave him throughout the day before we had to kill him. By the way, never try to kill a pig with an unserrated, dull knife. It is the most horrible thing in the world to see and hear, and I now know where the phrase "squeal like a pig" originates. Thanksgiving was great though. I loved seeing everybody, and seeing people like Mac was especially great. Mac is an Oregonian chemist, and he is one of the wisest guys you'll ever meet. We sat around the table before we ate, and went around a circle telling everybody what we were thankful for. It was a surreal experience, and the night was followed by a bonfire. Jennifer called me the first night I was there, before the feast, as I was getting into my sleeping bag under the stars. She asked me what I was doing, and I looked at the pig sleeping a few feet away, the house next door which belonged to the prince of the entire area, all the other volunteers falling asleep in their sleeping bags and tents in the courtyard, and the constellations unfettered by any artificial light for miles, and didn't really know what to say. I guess I can say that it was a Thanksgiving unlike any other.
As far as Thanksgiving and the annual procession of fall and winter go, it hasn't felt much like November here. It is cooling off, yeah, but it's still in the nineties everyday and is a bit different for other reasons. So as some of you are getting comfortable and cozy in your winter coats, or at least long sleeve shirts in Texas, I've had to look elsewhere for that invaluable lived in feeling. What have I done? Reread the good ones of course. I picked up a book of American Haiku by Kerouac I've always loved, and the short poems have been great. He basically took three short lines, removed all movement, and then injected a little bit of verb back in, hoping to create a larger effect with a smaller catalyst. I do them all the time, and I've gotten a couple other volunteers to text me the ones they come up with each day (we have a lot of free time in village). When I'm really bored, and I can't sleep, I draw something in front of me and then write one about it. Here's a sample.

I'm also trying to write a novel. I had intended it to be strictly about air conditioners, one of the reasons being that I hate it when movie producers, in the predictable hype preceding opening day, say something to the effect of, "football, although a big part, isn't what this thing is about. It's a vein through which people experience real emotions, and grow together." I hate that. They do this only for the girlfriend effect. There's more of a chance that the girlfriend or family of four will be persuaded to go if there's even the slightest hint of a love interest. My book isn't a vein for anything, I wanted to say. It's a dramatic novel concerning air conditioners. Take it or leave it. But, alas, my info man has been too busy making a living for our family to get back to me, so I've had to add characters and a human-driven plot line. We'll see how it turns out.

I've read a lot, and I'll give people book reviews that really want them (you can email me and we can go on and on), but I'll just say one thing about one book that I really liked. I was lucky enough to find Salinger's Franny and Zooey, and it is one of the best examples of good writing I've ever seen. It's a short read, taking only about an hour or so, and I have read it at least three times a week for the last couple of months, enjoying it and at the same time searching for some type of "error." I still haven't found one, and as far as dialogue goes, and spirituality, and the good domestic loving family, and a good look at New York intelligentsia life in the fifties, it cannot be topped. The first story is good but not great, but the second story (they're both related) is the best thing I've ever read in my entire life, tied with Hemingway's short stories. Argh now I've gotten started, so forgive me if I mention one more thing. I was lucky enough to read Faulkner's Light in August a week before reading C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, and they somehow make a great spiritual contrast. The characters in Faulkner's work always feel that God is behind their actions, while Lewis writes of the importance of having God in one's actions. It is the thinking that having God behind one's will is what can be monstrous, and I loved The Great Divorce. I talked with a good friend of mine named Pete, another volunteer, and we were talking about what we've been reading and I mentioned it to him. He immediately said that it was his favorite book in the world, so check it out. 2 people out of 7 billion recommend it. Okay, enough talking about books, sorry.

As a nice segway, here's a picture of my kitchen area.

This is where the magic happens. It's usually about this messy, and the velveeta on the cutting block is thanks to Mom. I had taken a nice picture of it when everything was arranged and neat, but that wouldn't be very honest. On the left are my spices. I use curry powder on just about everything that isn't spaghetti. I love it. When I run out I'll start making curry from scratch. It's the new thing at the LaPoint household in Kampti.
Here's a picture of me. During Thanksgiving I was having such a good time that I forgot to pull my camera out and take any pictures. However, this one was taken at some point before I went to sleep at some point in the last few weeks. I promise I'll take some pictures soon. I think Becca might have taken one of my covered up in sheets and blankets while everyone else was eating breakfast. Another volunteer sat on my head, and I didn't even wake up. It was vacation, why in the world were people getting up like it was a regular day in village. The sun doesn't stop me, nor do the Muslim prayer chants at five am, so there was no way I was going to let a bunch of my colleagues get me up any earlier than 6ish.

Okay, this next little piece is something I wrote on the bus when I was bored and tired of reading after a few hours of losing my page each time the bus jumped up and down over a pothole in the road. This first one is about the wind here at night.
The wind here at night I can hear before I see the lamplight feed and dance, wrinkling across my page if something so liquidlike can wrinkle before smoothing out flat and flush, again leaving the shadows to the purlieus of the desk. But it is heard before it is seen. Indiscriminate in its request it rouses everything of substance into augurs of its arrival; leaves are not leaves but cue cards, screendoors banging nothing more than gossips going on about a collective whoosh that after so many generations leaves us still and listening. And that is both to what we listen and why. Like a strand of lit up christmas lights unexpectedly seen out of season, it brings us back to an age, some call this innocence, when we were all helpless in our demands.
This next one is about the full moon, and how much it keeps me up at night. Here's a picture of it.

The full moon comes and stays and is too much, a cloying ratiocination managing form. The shapes of the trees down to the leaf stay exact, are sharper even as they are no longer limping away from the day's heat, but afixed like those faded plastic stars always present on kids room ceilings, chiaroscuros without the expense of an art history class. A lamp isn't needed to walk into town. At ten pm you don't even have to squint to make out the person behind the good evening. You see him, his face, his walk, the gravel he kicks underfoot as he walks past your porch. The moon is useful then but unwelcome. At two am you can't say that the dog next door has woken you up again; you were never asleep to begin with. By four am crossword puzzles, french newspapers, music, and calculating your quarterly budget have all become partners in a foolproof dragnet. But sleep escapes. Seven am, it is time to go to school. You walk to the fifty yards and stand respectfully at attention for the raising of the flag, think how similar it is to your own pledge of allegiance, and wait for the three hour sieste to start at noon. Only then, with the heat blurring everything together and all energy spent, will you fall off into the contented static of a happy and healthy exhaustion.
Alright, I think that was the longest blog entry of my life, and I'm going to ride my bike home and get some sleep before my meetings start again tomorrow. I hope everyone is doing well. Don't worry about me, everything is good here, and I promise I'll be better with updating. I love doing it, and it's good for me to stay in touch. And Larry English is flooding my Mom's email with requests - her boss is starting to complain. Just kidding about that last one. Here's one more picture, the first picture I ever took with my digital camera, and it's from last Christmas. It's me and my Dad living it up in the ol' cul-de-sac. Happy Birthday again Dad.


Larry E said...

Clay..you are quite a writer..Keep it up......Your Mom and Dad are doing great..we'll see them this Friday for "Thankmas" at the Mire's new house....We'll be thinking of you during the holidays...Terry and Larry

Rachel said...

love the hair...what can we do about the face???!

Rachel said...

Words I had to look up: intelligentsia, purlieus, augurs, ratiocination, and chiroscuros. BTW, what is the reference to "good evening". I totally got the turkey story. T
his blog had a little something for everyone...not just members of the intelligentsia! Love you!

Clay R. said...

My email to your gmail account was rejected so I guess my only option is to "Leave a Comment" on your blog. Shoot me an email when you get a chance.....
I really enjoy and admire your entries. The work you are doing is very inspiring....I think your topics of concentration for your clubs are perfect. I saw your parents at Camille's 50th the other day and really enjoyed talking to them. Glad to hear your doing well. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Everyone's Second Favorite Clay
(Some old Springhill humor)

Tara said...

Love reading your blog, Clay. Clever as always.


Elizabeth said...

Your blog is fantastic. I love keeping up with you guys. Your description of the turkey fiasco is the funniest thing I've read in a long time -- really ever. I can so appreciate what a nightmare it must have been to get a live turkey from your village all the way to the north.
I hope you are all having a wonderful holiday in Ghana! I miss all of you -- and I miss Burkina Faso! Hang in there. You're a rockstar!
Beth V.

katie said...


I just reread your entry. I love it... I think my favorite part, and I don't know why, is "With my pasta I usually buy some meat from a street vendor. He has a good selection, and calls me chief, so I go there every day." haha. Love you chief!!