As part of our Blog About Malaria Month celebration, we’re highlighting Peace Corps Volunteers’ work in malaria: past, present, and future. Check out this latest story from RPCV Aaron Buchsbaum, Burkina Faso 2008-2010.
To see a video excerpt from the 2010 performance - a theater skit dealing with using mosquito nets, and avoiding unregulated malaria medications sold by vendors at the market here.
Sunday evening, after church, before sunset, outside the health clinic, 16 o’clock (4pm) to be “exact.”
As a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso, it was perfect – the beginnings of a collaboration with a motivated, well-respected counterpart. I hoped my French would be up to the task of discussing the use of theater as an educational tool. I would settle for making a good first impression.
I worked to integrate myself into Burkinabè life, in particular with the West African concept of ‘time’: don’t expect meetings to happen when they’re supposed to, don’t expect a large turnout, do please enjoy some conversation and tooth-crushing sweet tea while you wait. Unfortunately, like a love-addled fool, I dove in too deep too soon and, in a cultural reversal of epic proportions, I was the one who botched the meeting with Gregoire Ouedraogo. Or more accurately, I rode my bike past the health clinic at 17h30, where the head nurse flagged me down and pointed to a bored looking man on a moped.
Shamed by such a fabulous non-introduction to an important community member, I sprang into action, intent to recover Gregoire’s good graces. Again, maintaining my role as a well-meaning (misguided) recent arrival, I offered to Gregoire the time-honored West African gift of kola nuts. Large, purple, and intensely bitter, these caffeinated “nuts” are widely adored by old men and women, perhaps for their ability make you think you’ve filled your mouth with iron-laden sand. Unfortunately Gregoire was not an old man (or woman), and as the pharmacist soon hinted to me, my peace-offering needed to be replaced by something for a younger crowd: cold beer.
From this initial faux-pas (I did, in fact, buy Gregoire a beer) began one of the most important relationships I had while in service. The winner of a national theater competition in the early 2000’s, Gregoire captained a group of actors from several different villages, often contracted by local and international NGOs to perform educational skits covering topics like voter registration, vaccination awareness, and malaria prevention. We worked together on several community health initiatives, but shared our most interesting success by collaborating on youth camps organized during the summers of 2009 and 2010.
Drawing crowds of 150 - 200 people, Gregoire and a cast of 20 students created some truly amazing crowd-pleasing education. They performed two 15-minute skits on topics of their choosing, with dialogue memorized entirely from Gregoire’s direction, and costumes from his personal stash. Both years, the students chose malaria as one of their main themes, a testament to the daily diagnoses I witnessed when working at the health clinic. Highlights from the 2010 skit included a “mayor” organizing his town to literally beat mosquitoes with sticks; cooler voices advocating for nets prevailed by the end.
Make no mistake - I was very hands off when rehearsals rolled around. My work had already been done, organizing the camps, selecting materials for discussion, and acting as primary educator each week. As we hope for in the Peace Corps, I eventually “worked myself out of a job” and had the pleasure of watching Gregoire turn hesitant (yet giggling) 6th graders into a solid troupe of actors.
Of course, you never know what you’re going to get when your theater “stage” is a patch of dry red soil, and the curtain is a 12-foot bolt of fabric strung between two trees. But, by the time the actors took their bow in 2009 I was blown away. Already I knew the feat could (and should) be repeated the following summer. When September 2010 came, Gregoire and the students again set the stage. Only this time, we hosted some audience members from very far away…
Would the production match the days when their own son performed in “The Three Little Pigs” at West Amwell Elementary School? In truth, no; like much of life in Burkina Faso, it would surpass their wildest expectations.
My father summed up the theatrical experience best, echoing the same thoughts that entered my American mind one year prior: “These kids are amazing, but I can’t stop thinking: How could anyone outside the country ever have any idea they are capable of such things? What would they do if they knew?”
While there is a certain iniquity, knowing incredible efforts in ‘strange’ countries go unrecognized, it is an important reminder that creativity, dedication, and talent are in strong evidence in places where the literacy rate hovers at 25%. I submit this story in the name of Gregoire Ouedraogo, and the immense goodwill he has shown - and will always show - towards the community of Sabce, Center-North Region, Burkina Faso. May his work demonstrate to us all a little more about what is possible in life.