Reflections in the Dust



Reflections in the Dust

These pages include a few samples of writing I did from time to time while in Burkina Faso, usually journal-type essays sent home electronically to friends and family, not heavily edited. Maybe some day I'll write a book. Included here are:

Pagne (November 1999)
The Other Side of the Net (September 1999)
Model School (August 1999)
Everyday Life (August 1999)
Today I Went to a Funeral (2000)



Pagne  (November 1999)

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I cannot imagine why western civilization has overlooked the incredible pagne for lo these many centuries. As for myself, I never heard of a pagne before coming to Africa, and now I am quite certain I will always have at least one or two close at hand.

The pagne ("pah-n’ya") is a simple rectangle of fabric approximately one meter by two meters. A pagne is made from lightweight cotton fabric and the patterns of the fabric are endless. It takes a while to develop a taste for locally-produced pagne fabric, since the designs here are usually very busy, consisting of anything from animals to purses to flowers to shoes to telephones to particular saints to patterns of the national phone or electric company insignia to mementos of national cultural events (like the FESPACO film festival) to local disease campaigns (there is actually pagne fabric with vivid depictions of people suffering from guinea worm). You can also find just nice geometric patterns (although these mostly come from other countries).

It turns out that the pagne is also a unit of measure, so that if you buy fabric here, for the most part it is flat-folded and the vendor asks you if you want one, two or three pagnes of fabric. The cost is usually equivalent to between two and three dollars per pagne. When you buy your pagne, it’s a good idea to have a tailor stitch up the two ends so they don’t ravel. At our marché (market) here in Ouahigouya, tailors are everywhere, and there is always a tailor within sight of wherever you buy fabric. This sewing task costs a little less than ten cents. (Labor here continues to be incredibly cheap, for many reasons, but probably at least in part because so many people want to work and because the cost of living is so low.)

The pagne’s main purpose is as a wrap-around garment. In general, it is a long skirt. You wrap it around your waist, always starting by placing one end near the right side (not the left, lest you risk ridicule!) with a little bit sticking out at the waist on the right so the underneath part doesn’t droop below the wrapped part. Then it wraps around your body counterclockwise and you kind of tuck it or wrap it or tie it at the left side of your waist. The idea is that the front is covered by two layers of fabric for modesty. Many women, as well as young girls, are quite adept at tucking it in such a way that it drapes elegantly from a sort of non-tied bow-knot kind of thing. (My pagnes never quite get that lovely drape.) Others swear by having ties sewn at the ends so you can tie it. For some thin women, they can tie the ends without these attached ties. As my weight continues to diminish, I’m coming ever closer to that goal, but I don’t think it’s within reach. But most women just keep unwrapping and adjusting the darn thing all day long. I was relieved when I noticed this, since I thought my own unwrapping and adjusting was just my lack of talent or experience.

A Burkinabé woman wouldn’t usually wear a single pagne as a skirt for teaching, since a female teacher’s attire must be absolutely professional and discreet, and since that unwrapping and retucking stuff really doesn’t fit the bill. However, a teacher might wear the pagne in it’s second clothing-based application, which is to discretely cover the stomach and thigh section of one’s dress (on top of the dress). A typical, nice Burkinabé dress consists of three pieces made from the same fabric: a semi-fitted blouse with short puffy sleeves tucked into a long pagne or pagne-type skirt, wrapped with another pagne folded in half. This provides the utmost coverage of the thigh area, which turns out to be the most important part of the body to cover. Breasts are no big deal here, since so many women breast-feed their children in public, and for various other reasons. But a woman must always ensure that her thighs are well covered to the knees. The double-pagne effect takes care of that, even if you have to unwrap and retuck the top pagne several times a day. I suspect that underneath pagne is either sewn or well-tied.

Another clothing-based use of the pagne is as a full body wrap, especially when coming and going to and from the shower (inside or outside) or when hanging around the house or yard, especially when it’s really hot (not like the lovely, cool 90-degree weather we are now experiencing). The pagne is wrapped the same way as for a skirt, but it covers the chest and down to the knees. It doesn’t seem to matter if one wears a bra with the straps showing or not. I wear a pagne in the house when I’m on my way to or from the shower. And I have several male Peace Corps friends who say they also wear pagnes around their houses, although more like a kilt than a sarong, because a pagne is so cool.

But the pagne’s versatility doesn’t end there. It is also used as a sheet, tucked into a single foam mattress. If you have two or three pagnes (because the "cold" season has started), you can use one or two as light blankets. Also, when traveling, it is much easier to carry a pagne than a towel, and a pagne dries quickly, too. If you happen to be traveling somewhere where you can swim, like the American Embassy Rec Center, you can use the pagne as both a towel and a bathing suit cover-up, then let it dry in the wind and use it on the bed at night.

When traveling, the pagne is handy as a ground cloth for eating or sleeping. It is even useful for roadside "restroom" stops. It is easier for a woman to deal with a pagne than with other types of clothing in that situation, and if there are two people, one can hold up an extra pagne as a little shield to protect the other from view. And in food crises or other emergencies, you can always use a pagne as a clean-up rag.

At home, the pagne’s versatility continues. You can hang one over your screen door to give you a little privacy while still allowing air flow, or you can cut it shorter and hang it over a window in the same way. At my house, I have a pagne for a tablecloth, and I have cut pagnes to different sizes to cover a bulletin board, make cloth napkins, make curtains, and to make dust covers for the telephone, radio and computer. I like matching the theme of the fabric to its purpose, so I have fabric with a telephone motif for the telephone, and silverware fabric for kitchen uses. I even found bicycle pagne fabric to make lightweight cropped pants for riding the bike, and I finally convinced the vendor to lower his price on computer-motif pagne fabric for a computer cover.

But my very favorite use of the pagne is as a baby carrier. Mom wraps the pagne around the baby and puts the baby behind her back, with two knots tied in front, one over the breasts and one at the waist. The baby’s head sticks out in back to look to one side or the other, but the front view is the cutest. When you look at a momma carrying a baby, you may or may not notice the pagne tied in two places. But you will always notice the two little bottoms of tiny feet on either side of momma’s waist, sticking out of the pagne. The image of these little feet sticking out is one of my favorite forever images of life in Burkina Faso.

More from here soon. Warmly (very warmly),


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The Other Side of the Net  (September 1999)

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Day 3

Last night I once more had to deal with the mosquito net on my bed (they call it a mousquitaire). It takes a while to get it tucked in so that there is a relatively good chance that no mosquitoes will be able to attack. There seems to be a particular art to getting it aligned properly so that I don’t rub my head against it or kick a hole in it. But the hardest part is that no matter what I do, whatever I want is always on the other side of the net. If I finally get into bed with the net all neatly tucked in around the mattress, I always need something I forgot to bring inside with me. And when I get up from the bed and tuck in the net so that the little critters don’t get inside while I’m out, somehow or other there is always something left inside that I really need.

P.S. I thought about writing this in my journal in bed last night, but, of course, my journal was on the other side of the net.

Day 5

OK. I remembered to bring the journal inside the net as I got tucked in for the night. I’m writing a few observations for the day as my roommate, Kristi, sleeps quietly on the other side of the room. She seems to be adjusting to the practice of getting the right stuff on the right side of the net. Maybe eventually I will too…Ready for sleep. Finished writing. All tucked in. Everything I need with me. And the light is still on. On the other side of the net. Sigh.

Day 7

All tucked in, ready for bed. Writing in the journal. It has really been hot. Kristi is already asleep, but I don’t know how she does it in the heat. Thank goodness for the fan we bought today. Sure wish I’d turned it on before I tucked in.

Day 8

Let’s see. I have my journal. I have my book. I finally found in my suitcase the little reading light I bought before leaving Texas so that I could read in bed. I’m all tucked in. And there it is. My reading light. On the floor. On the other side of the net.

Day 11

At the last tuck of the net to go to bed, I discovered a huge hole in the net. I had no idea how it got there, but I knew I had to fix it. I had to untuck, get up and rummage through my suitcase to find my needle and thread. Of course, there was no white thread, so I sat in the comfort of my mostly netted bed, wielding a large needle and some bright yellow thread. But once more, I trust we have foiled the mosquitoes.

Day 12

More holes, more midnight mending. More tucking and untucking.

Day 14

After an especially exhausting day of training, Kristi tucked in early. I was shortly after her. I just now finished tucking in. I’m already dripping in sweat. Kristi just asked me if I remembered to lock the door. I have no idea. We did have that security lecture today. I guess I’ll be untucking.

Day 16

Last night I got up to go to the latrine in the middle of the night. I decided to tuck in the net when I got out of bed so no nasty mosquitoes would sneak in while I was out of the room. Unfortunately, as soon as I had tucked in and started feeling around for the flashlight in the dark, I discovered it was 2 inches on the inside of the net.

Day 18

I’m wondering if the mosquito net is really that important after all.

Day 19

Well, in medical class today, we talked about malaria in great detail. I talked with some volunteers who had had it. Guess I’ll be tucking in again tonight.

Day 22

Only one thing ended up on the wrong side of the net last night. A mosquito. I guess it’s a good thing I’ve been taking my anti-malarial medication.

Day 25

Today at lunch we talked about the challenges of the mosquito net. Jonathan said he really wished he had hanging baskets inside to hold all his stuff. Renee said it was getting a little crowded in her bed surrounded by her walkman, book, flashlight, water bottle, and the extra sheet. We all laughed. I kind of kept quiet, because that seemed like hardly anything at all to me. My collection keeps growing. Tonight as I lie here tucked in, I see my journal, the pen, my book, my flashlight, two pagnes, the extra sheet, my alarm clock, a slightly bent letter from home, my water bottle, and there in the corner I think I spot my other night shirt I couldn’t find an hour ago. I have no idea why all this stuff is in here. Maybe tomorrow I’ll remember to put most of it outside the net. Or maybe Jonathan will perfect the hanging basket idea.

Day 28

There are still way too many things inside the net with me. The problem with having all this stuff in bed is that the bed is pretty small to start with, and then there’s the mattress dent. The dent is the thing that happens to your official Peace Corps foam mattress after about 3 days of sweating through the night if you’re pretty heavy like me, or a week or two of sleeping and sweating if you’re one of the smaller trainees. The mattress takes on a permanent indentation right where the bulk of a person’s body weight hits (in French, I think it’s called your "fesse"). Which means that whatever I have inside the net will eventually make its way toward the dent. In the case of round things, like my mag-lite, they kind of roll toward the dent whenever I turn over. In the case of other objects, like a book, or the alarm clock, or the extra sheet for if it gets cold (a relative term), or my glasses, etc., the object just kind of shows up in the dent, under one’s fesse, in the middle of the night, causing one to wake up at odd hours with an annoying lumpy sensation. Funny how my glasses aren’t quite as well aligned as they were when I got here.

Day 31

I’m getting better. I have almost all my stuff inside the net with me. Unfortunately, I can see my alarm clock on the floor outside the net. And I have no idea if I remembered to set it.

Day 35

I can’t believe it. I did everything right. I had all the stuff I needed inside the net and not too much extra. I got ready to sleep and couldn’t get comfortable. Then I noticed I was still wearing my jeans instead of my pjs. Egads. More untucking.

Day 38

I’ve been getting helpful hints from other trainees about how to stay cool to sleep in this heat and humidity. Pat says to get the bed all tucked and ready to go before the shower and then just slip in. I can’t seem to pull it off. Mary says to sleep with a wet bandana. Sounds like an idea with potential. It would have been good to think of it before I tucked, but maybe tomorrow.

Day 39

Last night, I wet the bandana and left it outside the net by mistake. By the time I untucked to get it and retucked afterward, I was so sweaty I really needed it. But it seems to help. One more thing to bring inside the net each night.

Day 43

I thought that was a sheet in the corner of my bed. Now it turns out it’s the laundry I set out to wash. Sure wish I’d noticed before I tucked in the net.

Day 45

There is another huge hole. I can probably tuck it in if I pull the net just a little more to that side. And if not too many things roll in that direction. And if I don’t stick my foot through it.

Successfully using the moustiquaire (not mousquitaire, which it turns out means musketeer, although all I can think of is mouseketeers and Bullwinkle the moose) is yet another new life skill for me. I really hope that all of the bother is worth it. Maybe that one evil mosquito trying to give me malaria will be prevented from doing her business by my careful use of the good old moustiquaire. I just hope she isn’t the one mosquito that gets caught on the other side of the net, with me…and all my stuff.

From the other side,


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Model School in Bobo   (August 1999)

Model School is a great idea for training Peace Corps volunteers in Burkina Faso. For 4 weeks (the last month of our 3-month training), we actually teach Burkinabè students in a kind of summer school. The students choose to come for 3 hours a day at no cost for "Cours des Vacances" to learn a little math, natural science, chemistry/physics, and English, although not every class gets every subject. The youngest students are the 6eme (pronounced ‘seez-ee-em’), and they are about like entry-level middle school students, and the oldest are Terminale, sometimes as old as 19 or 20 or more. This is just like the range of students in a typical Burkinabè lycée, where the levels go 6eme, 5eme, 4eme, 3eme, 2nde, 1ere, and Tle (the numbers go backwards, which is a little confusing at first, see the page on schools for a more complete description).

We have many of the same structures and requirements as if we were teaching during the regular school year, including an administrator, grading requirements, visits from the national inspectors, interruptions, etc. For those of us who had an idea what levels we might be teaching next year, we were able to have the same classes. I taught 6eme and 2nde. My 6eme class had 50-70 students in it, depending on absences, and my 2nde class had 25-35 students. For me, it was a wonderful chance to get over my anxiety about going back into a classroom and to find out if being old here really means students respect and behave better (it does and they do, but not enough).

Well, I discovered that I really do know how to teach! Whew. I also was reminded how hard it is. And that I’m not as young as I used to be. The younger class really wore me out every day. The two weeks that I had them, I taught them for two hours a day (with a 15-minute "recreation" break). They were really energetic, but had a bit of trouble settling down. And there were the usual Burkinabè problems of three kids to a desk (designed for 2), kids out of school with malaria, kids at school with malaria, girls who have to stay home and work, goats making noise outside the windows, holes in the floor to fall into, a blackboard with so much damage it’s hard to read, etc.

I liked my teaching, and generally got good feedback. We were observed every day by our trainers (Burkinabè teachers), our fellow trainees, and some current Peace Corps volunteers who stopped by to help. I taught geometry to the younger class; I made models out of cardboard from food boxes I gathered. One interesting thing occurred when I handed out scrap paper to every student in the 6eme class to make a triangle; it was paper from our Peace Corps training that was only used on one side (I save everything now). I gave a homework assignment to draw any old triangle, as big as they could on the scrap paper. They came in the next day so proud of their triangles. They loved them a lot. Then I told them to tear them up (to model how the sum of the angles is 180 degrees). You’d have thought I asked them to rip up a math book. They just stared at me in disbelief, and they wouldn’t do it. Finally, after I did it a couple of times at the front of the class, a few students followed, but they were not happy. They did not want to tear up paper or destroy their work. To make up for it a couple of days later, I did a construction of an "équerre," a 30-60-90 triangle that they use for geometric constructions. I gave them all a brand new sheet of graph paper and with paper-folding, we made an équerre they could keep, and even glue to cardboard if they wanted to. They were happy with me again.

Model school ended this past Friday with presentations by the classes. My 2nde class did a math and physics rap with my name in it. One of the students said he would mail me the words at my new house in Ouahigouya. My 6ème class made some posters, one of which they gave me (of life in Burkina), and two girls handed me drawings they made in their cahiers (little notebooks) of me wearing a crown with the title: Madame Seeley, queen of mathematics (en français of course). With Model School ending, our training is finally wrapping up, and soon we will transition to the next phase of our lives—two years as volunteers doing real teaching.


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Everyday life (during training in Bobo-Dioulasso, August 1999)

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Every now and then I realize how much I don’t even notice any more about my life in Burkina. On my daily ride to school/training, I routinely pass dogs, goats, sheep, chickens, cows, and horses. Usually, I can avoid running into them with my newly developed bicycle skills. Then there are all the smells of things the street vendors are cooking—corn (not sweet corn, more like cattle corn grilled on an open fire), meat (I try not to think about particular animals I have just passed on the street), fried plantains (sometimes quite tasty), fried dough in various forms (I haven’t really gotten into that yet, much to my surprise), and, of course, grilled caterpillars (thank heaven they have a short season).

I’m getting pretty good on my bike, and I can even ride fairly fast sometimes. I love my rear-view mirror sent from friends in the U.S.. I know most of the huge trenches in the road. My path consists of a very short segment of paved road, a school-yard soccer field, and several dirt roads with lots of ruts (and mud if it’s rained recently). Soon I will put a light on my bike, and I might even try it after dark. We have gotten stuck at meetings a couple of times and had to ride home in rapidly falling darkness, which was a little terrifying, even knowing the roads.

I’ve lost 30 pounds, what with not having a McDonald’s apple pie every night on the way home from work, and what with not eating unconsciously out of boredom, and what with having many new food challenges, and what with riding my bike every day, and what with sweating so much. Food that seemed just fine when I first got here sometimes seems just so boring and repetitive that I sometimes have trouble eating. It seems like "riz-sauce" (rice with sauce) has gotten pretty old, especially since I have it 5 to 7 times a week. I am looking forward to cooking at my house, and am eager to get recipes, etc. They gave us a cookbook developed by volunteers here, and it looks like I can do a lot with what I can get here. We shall see. Meanwhile, my roommate, Kristi, and I made an allegedly American meal for our family a little while back. It was pretty funny, especially trying to deal with the unfamiliar kitchen, utensils, etc. and making do with what we could find at the stores here. The menu was grilled cheese sandwiches (on baguette slices), tomato soup (from an imported soup mix), guacamole (avocados are everywhere here), mashed potatoes (from some pretty old potatoes and some really icky margarine), and fruit salad (the mangoes add a nice touch). We had chocolate chip cookies from the Booby Market for dessert. The Booby is our favorite place to get stuff when we can afford it. It is a market that caters to Europeans (they call white people and foreigners "Too-bah-boo," so maybe the name of the market comes from that). The meal was a huge success, but then our host family is pretty supportive.

The Too-bah-boo thing is definitely something one has to get used to. It’s a word in Jula, the local language here in Bobo. Riding our bikes or walking or whatever, little kids yell out ‘Too-bah-boo’ constantly. They laugh and point, but usually they just want you to say hi to them, and then they’re happy and polite. It’s only when adolescents and adults do it, that it is considered somewhat rude. At first I didn’t even notice it. Now I don’t love it too much, but it’s just a cultural difference to accept. In Mooré, the local language in Ouahigouya, there is a different word to get used to, ‘Nassara.’ The adventure continues.

I have many Burkinabè friends here, especially within the family and among the trainers. I like that a lot. We had a get-together for the families and trainees and trainers last night, with lots of dancing and camaraderie. I think I may have a more active social life here than I did in the U.S.!

Latrine adventures continue. The other night, I dropped a whole brand-new precious roll of toilet paper down the hole by mistake. I generally worry about dropping in my flashlight, my tapettes (flip-flops), or my glasses, but I hadn’t thought to worry about the TP. Now I do. Life goes on.

And then there’s nightfall, which is really dark here because there aren’t a lot of city lights. It will probably be even more so in Ouahigouya, but not nearly as dark as where my roommate is headed. (Kristi will be in the small village of Gassan, without electricity or running water. When it gets dark at 19h00 each night, she will really be in the dark.)

Anyway, last night on my way back from the latrine at midnight, I stopped to look at the sky. There was a lot of moonlight and the stars were really bright. And then I realized that I’m in Africa, on the other side of the world from my friends and family. Sometimes in the daytime, too, I find myself sitting outside, doing something ordinary like reading or writing, and then I remind myself I’m in Africa. It’s both amazing and ordinary. I live my life every day, and it doesn’t seem like any special challenge, and then I remember that my life is very different from what it used to be and what it will be again in a couple of years. I’m living and working in Africa. Wow

From the other side of the world,


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Today I Went to a Funeral

Today I went to a funeral. Like in the US, friends and family spent all night at the home, and this morning and afternoon there were various services at the home, the Catholic church, and the cemetery. I went to the home to pay my respects, then to the cemetery, and then briefly back to the home again. The different aspect for me was that I didn’t know either the woman or her husband. But I discovered something about community during this experience.

The woman who died was the wife of a teacher at another school, but that meant that all the schools in town canceled their classes today, including my school.  The woman was 30 years old and according to friends, she died of low blood pressure, leaving children and her husband. My colleagues say that her husband has lost two children before this. They also say he may have another wife.

It was absolutely necessary that teachers and administrators from all the educational establishments in town, including mine, pay their respects, preferably both at the home and at the cemetery. As the only white person in that group, my absence definitely would have been noticed, if not by the family, then by my own colleagues. In fact, the absence of a principal from another school was noted as totally inappropriate by some of the teachers. So, at the sun’s highest point, with a temperature well over 110, we all stood in the heat and dust and sun while a fairly universal Catholic burial service was performed by the local priest in both French and Mooré, for a woman many of us did not know.

I was astonished that someone in a large city would die of low blood pressure. My friend Léopold reminded me that while the woman had not been very sick, this is Africa and people can die at any time of just about anything. I think back to the baby that died last year just after a student of mine borrowed my camera to take her picture. You never know what will happen next, or when the next person will die, or of what someone will die. But I guess it is a reminder not to take life or the good health of our loved ones for granted. And also a reminder that we have a long way to go in Burkina Faso to improve the standard of living toward that of a more developed nation. I continue to believe that both health and education systems must be targeted aggressively if humanity is to solve critical development problems. And like my Burkinabè colleagues and neighbors and my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, I continue to be challenged by the many problems we face trying to make small inroads in either area. But progress comes in small steps, and there have been many during my time here, so I will try to take some comfort in that.

From Africa,


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