Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Burkina Faso
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Despite Burkina Faso’s relatively good communications systems, you should be prepared for a significant reduction in the frequency and reliability of your communications with friends and family. It is important to begin to prepare yourself, as well as your family and friends, for the realities of lengthy delays between letters, the lack of nearby telephones, and uncertain access to e-mail.
The postal system in Burkina Faso is reliable by African standards. Few Volunteers report problems with receiving letters and packages sent from the United States by airmail. Airmail letters and packages typically take three to four weeks to arrive, but can take longer if there are mail strikes or other disruptions. Surface mail is not currently available from the United States to Burkina Faso (and even when it was, it took six months or longer). Internal mail service is, for the most part, reliable, and mail is delivered within a reasonable amount of time (a few days to two weeks from one part of the country to another). Essential documents are best sent via a courier service such as DHL.
You can choose to receive mail at the Peace Corps office or at your site. Most Volunteers obtain a local post box once they know their assignment. During pre-service training, you will receive mail in care of the Peace Corps office, which will forward mail to the training site once a week.
Your address during training will be:
“Your Name,” PCT
S/c Corps de la Paix
01 B.P. 6031
Ouagadougou 01, Burkina Faso
Telephone service in Burkina Faso, like the postal system, is relatively reliable. A number of Volunteers have access to phone service at their sites through land-line phones at telecenters (essentially expanded versions of the telephone booth, providing phone and perhaps fax services). Cellphone service is expanding rapidly and several Volunteer sites are now covered. Those Volunteers without phone coverage at site usually have access at least two times a month when they go to town for shopping, banking, etc.
Volunteers are not permitted to use the telephones at the Peace Corps office in Burkina Faso to call family or friends unless the call pertains to an emergency and is approved in advance by the country director.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Use and ownership of computers in Burkina Faso are rapidly expanding, but are still limited to better-funded government offices and wealthy individuals and companies. There is a growing number of private and governmental Internet service providers in the larger towns and cities.
Housing and Site Location
The government ministry to which you are assigned or your community will provide you with safe and adequate housing in accordance with the Peace Corps’ site selection criteria. The majority of health Volunteers live in small rural villages, while education Volunteers tend to live in larger villages and towns. Volunteer housing is typically a small house made of mud or cement bricks with a thatch or tin roof. Many Volunteers do not have running water or electricity; they draw their water from a well and obtain light through kerosene lanterns. Nearly all Volunteers are within one hour of a neighboring Volunteer and eight hours of the Peace Corps office in Ouagadougou by public transport.
Living Allowance and Money Management
Peace Corps/Burkina Faso covers the cost of Volunteers’ basic living and professional expenses, including a vacation allowance equivalent to $24 a month (paid in local currency). The Peace Corps opens a checking account for each Volunteer that can be accessed at several post offices around the country.
The current living allowance is approximately $240 per month. The Peace Corps also gives Volunteers a quarterly allowance for work-related travel of approximately $60. All of these allowances are paid in the local currency, the CFA franc.
The amount of the living allowance is based on an annual survey of Volunteers’ financial needs. Most Volunteers report that they have no trouble living comfortably on this allowance, which even provides for occasional “nights on the town.” Because you are expected to live at the level of your host country counterparts, the Peace Corps discourages you from bringing extra money or receiving money from home to spend in-country.
If the Peace Corps asks you to travel, you will be given additional money for transportation and meals. The amount is established by the administrative officer based on the cost of transportation and lodging.
Food and Diet
Your drinking water is likely to be of poor quality and thus will require boiling and filtering (the Peace Corps will provide you with filters). The variety of fruits and vegetables is somewhat limited, with only one fruit or vegetable often available during any given season. Burkina Faso produces some of the best mangoes and papayas in the world, but they are seasonal. Garlic, onions, tomatoes, and a local variety of eggplant are available year-round in many locations. Other fruits and vegetables grown in the country, depending upon the season and location, include oranges, grapefruits, bananas, carrots, cabbages, potatoes, beets, lettuce, cauliflowers, and cucumbers.
Burkinabé meals are simple but tasty and nutritious. A typical dish consists of a staple food like rice, millet, yams, sorghum, or maize (referred to as tô) served with a sauce made from okra, various greens (e.g., spinach), tomatoes, or peanuts. Sauces may contain fish or meat. French bread is available in larger towns and villages.
Paved roads connect the largest towns and cities in Burkina Faso, and fairly well-maintained buses service these routes on a regular schedule. Smaller towns and villages are served by “bush taxis”—typically overcrowded and poorly maintained minibuses that do not run on a fixed schedule. Most Volunteers do not live near paved roads and thus do not have daily access to motorized transportation out of their villages.
All Volunteers are issued basic mountain bikes with bicycle helmets for work purposes. For safety reasons, Peace Corps/ Burkina Faso prohibits Volunteers from driving or riding on any two- or three-wheeled motorized vehicles (such as a motorcycle) except in a life-threatening emergency. Some Volunteers receive special authorization to ride as a passenger on a motorbike when necessary for work purposes. Please note that Volunteers are not allowed to own or drive any type of motorized vehicle in Burkina Faso.
Geography and Climate
Burkina Faso is slightly larger than Colorado. Its topography has little variation, consisting mainly of grassland with sparse forests. Many of the ecosystems found in West Africa are represented in Burkina Faso, from the forest zone in the south of the country to savannah to the Sahara Desert in the north. Burkina Faso is generally greener in the south because of its higher annual precipitation. The combination of population pressures and prolonged dry cycles has contributed to widespread environmental degradation as indicated by declining vegetation cover, soil fertility, and land productivity.
There is a rainy season from June to October, when most staple crops are grown, and a long dry season from November through May. The harmattan winds blowing off the Sahara last from November through March, a period characterized by dry, dusty conditions. Temperatures range from a cool and dry 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10º Celsius) in November to a humid 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40°C) before the rains begin in June.
Social activities will vary according to where you are located. They might include relaxing and talking with friends and neighbors, going to the market, or taking part in local festivals. The cultural diversity of Burkina Faso means that there is always something of interest taking place nearby that you can learn from, be it drumming and dancing or planting peanuts.
Many Volunteers meet periodically in regional market towns to share ideas and experiences. But in keeping with its goal of cross-cultural exchange, the Peace Corps expects Volunteers to establish social networks with Burkinabé friends and colleagues at their sites rather than seek out other Volunteers for social activities. Such networks enhance Volunteers’ ability to be effective in their work.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the biggest challenges faced by Volunteers in Burkina Faso is defining their role as professionals in the Burkinabé context while maintaining a sense of their own work ethic and cultural identity. The tendency of Burkinabé counterparts to blur (from a Western perspective) the distinction between professional and personal time and space adds another layer of complexity to the challenge of establishing oneself as a professional in this context. Cultivating work relationships is not something that happens only during working hours; behavior and activities outside the work setting will have an impact on your professional relationships.
The Burkinabé, like many other Africans, put a great deal of emphasis upon dressing well in public, whether at work, in the market, or at a night spot. It is almost unheard of, for example, for a Burkinabé man or woman to wear shorts in public unless he or she is taking part in some kind of sporting event. Nor would a professional man or woman ever be seen wearing dirty, disheveled, wrinkled, or torn clothing. Volunteers need to be aware of other unwritten rules of the culture, such as the fact that Burkinabé women never go to a bar on their own. Exposed body piercings on men and women, and long hair on men, may elicit stares and, possibly, rude questions or comments, so they are not advisable.
Serving in the Peace Corps often requires sacrificing personal preferences regarding dress and behavior. There will be ample discussion of this subject during cross-cultural sessions in pre-service training.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the “Health Care and Safety” chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of the local language and culture, and being perceived as rich are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Burkina Faso Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Burkina Faso. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction in Burkina Faso is quite high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. Because of financial constraints, inefficient management, and an often contradictory incentive system, collaborating agencies do not always provide the support they promised. In addition, the pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to. For these reasons, the Peace Corps experience of adapting to a new culture and environment is often described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys.
You will be given a high degree of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will have. You will often find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your co-workers with little guidance from supervisors. You might work for months without seeing any visible impact from, or without receiving feedback on, your work. Development anywhere in the world—including disadvantaged areas in the United States—is slow work that requires perseverance. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
To overcome these difficulties, you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and resourcefulness. The Peace Corps staff, your Burkinabé co-workers, and fellow Volunteers will support you during times of challenge as well as in moments of success. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave Burkina Faso feeling that they have gained much more than they sacrificed during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful Volunteer.