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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Burkina Survival Guide: Advice for British Volunteers


There are plenty of reasons to be excited as a British volunteer if you’ve been assigned to a placement in Burkina Faso, and the opportunity to travel to a country like this should never be taken for granted. In Burkina you will adjust to a more relaxed pace of life outside of work, become accustomed to accommodating families and enthusiastic greetings, find yourself standing at a more intimate distance with the stars, and if you can find the odd vantage point atop a rock you might just be able to see that African savannah you’ve been keeping at the back of your mind for all these years. But to focus on the peachy, sentimental, travel-guide aspects of the placement would be to neglect the character-hardening perils that will test your resolve while you’re here. These things will make the experience worthwhile as much as they will act to jeopardise it trust us Brits to point them out though!

Hazard 1: The Heat Train

When disembarking from the plane at Ouagadougou you will be hit by a train. The heat train. Medical advisors and programme coordinators will inform you that the heat is something you will become acclimatised to; after a couple of weeks you’ll see the heat train approaching and have the wherewithal to step away from the tracks. But this is simply a fantasy. The heat train will flatten you from day one of your placement and it will continue to pummel you into the floor until your pores are bone dry. If your placement takes place late in the year, Burkinabe nationals might raise your hopes by telling you that December brings about a cold-spell in the country (albeit a cold spell of 25 degrees). This too is a fantasy, however, thanks to climate change.

Survival tip: If you want to survive in this land you’ll need to scrap for access to the office fan. It’ll be the single most important resource you use during your placement.

Hazard 2: Rice

Do you like rice? You do? Yeah?! No you ruddy well don’t, at least not compared to the Burkinabe. One can scarcely look left or right in Burkina Faso without encountering a bowl of rice, and chances are the rice is intended for you. Finish one bowl and another will spawn in its place, accompanied by a demand from your host family to eat until you’re physically unable to move. And that’s when they'll strike with another bowl of rice.

Survival tip: Be prepared to decline food in an apologetic manner.

N.B. When receiving a plate of food, keep on the lookout for dog toes.

Hazard 3: The trade-off game

If you turn on the fan in your host home there’s a chance you’ll trip the lights and be plunged into darkness. The question is, which is more important – tolerable temperatures or the ability to see?

When you go to the outdoors toilet at night you can either use a torch or try to brave the dark. With torchlight you can scatter the toilet-dwelling cockroaches back into their hiding holes at the expense of attracting mosquitoes to your exposed posterior. If you do not take a torch the mosquitoes are more likely to leave you alone, but can you be sure that the cockroaches will extend the same courtesy?
There are innumerable trade-offs like these that will teach you to appreciate home comforts that you’d never even considered before.

Survival tip: Learn from the experiences of your friends and in-country volunteers.

Hazard 4: The sheer tedium of manually washing your clothes

If twisting a nob and pushing a button is too much like hard work when it comes to doing your laundry in the UK, despair awaits you in Burkina. Washing clothes on placement involves a laborious process of filling multiple bowls with soap and water, and then scrubbing and rinsing your clothes with your bare hands one garment at a time. If you aren’t careful this can take up several hours of your Sunday at a time when you probably want to rest. On the plus side, you won’t need to rescue your clothes from the washing line because of rain. There is no rain.

Survival tip: There are two options. The first is to learn to wash everything for yourself from an early stage in the placement. The second option is to call upon the expertise of your counterpart volunteer so that you can split the burden. Perhaps you can thank them afterwards by offering them a Brakina*.

*A popular alcoholic beverage. Soft drinks also available.

Hazard 5: Disintegrating Bikes

ICS is kind enough to offer bikes to many volunteers situated in Burkina. Owing to the realities of the country, however, there can be wild variations in the size, handling, and condition of said bikes, and the likelihood is that you’ll need to visit the repair shop every few weeks when parts start falling off. While bike faults came as no surprise to our cohort once we’d ridden on the bumpy rural terrain out here, unscrewing saddles and ropey handlebars were still the source of recurring nightmares for several volunteers.

Survival tip: Abandon your volunteering principles and requisition the best bike for yourself. Leave the others for dead.

Things to pack:

A dustpan and brush to clean your room. Because dust.
Vacuum-packed bags to protect clothes from dust.
Light, comfortable clothes.
Board games.
Plenty of music.

An appreciation of football.

- Matthew Cole

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