25 April 2015

Mama Youyou's asking for our help. Who's in?

Over the years we've heard from readers asking how they can contribute to help with some of the issues we've talked about. We've directed you to organizations doing related work, including great groups supporting Congolese women. It's kind of amazing how many times we've gotten unsolicited offers to give something. Here's another option...

Remember Mama Youyou? We've written a lot about her.

She climbs trees with her best friend.

She talks honestly about finding love and growing old in the Congo.

She finds skinny people shameful.

She learned how to swim.

She taught me the greatest lesson I've ever learned about the lottery of life.

And she's an all around better mother than I'll ever hope to be. I still take my mama cues from her.

She's one of the main reasons we started this blog in the first place. We wanted to tell stories about her and other African women just like her. She's brave, she's smart, she's funny, she bosses her husband around. All my favorite qualities in a woman.

Lately, school fees have been going up and she lives in the poorest country in the world, so yeah. Times are tough. But unsurprisingly, she has an excellent plan.

She wants to start a chicken and egg farm. 

This, I know she can do. She's raised chickens since before we knew her. She's good at it. She's got the space at her house and she wants to turn it into something sustainable.

So she approached a friend, who set her up with one of those newfangled websites to help raise money. Here it is. Give $5. Give $15. Give more. You don't get charged unless she reaches her goal. Consider it. I cannot think of a more direct and effective way to support a Congolese woman.

If you're still not convinced, this idea of direct cash giving is quickly becoming one of the most studied and chosen solutions to global poverty.  Read more about it here. Or look up one of the hundreds of scholarly articles supporting giving cash directly.

P.S. Hey, Sister-of-mine, remember when she made all your bridesmaid's dresses from J Crew pictures (and battled the Congolese police on your behalf)? You are especially obligated.

Here's that website again: Mama Youyou's Chicken and Egg Farm in DRCongo.

29 March 2015

An Operation Christmas Child Dilemma

You know around November when everyone's in the Christmas spirit and collecting and donating presents for children in Africa? Well they finally got here. It's almost April. And nothing says Palm Sunday like an Operation Christmas Child gift distribution.

Just look at the excitement.

Our church handed out their loot this morning. And boy were the kids excited. I mean, our kids were not so excited because we told them about 5 times the presents weren't for them. Because remember back at Christmas when you got presents? Well it's not Christmas and they're not for you. But isn't it exciting watching all the other kids!? No, it's not exciting? Well lots of Americans worked hard to pack these boxes, so you need to sit and watch and be happy for everybody. Or go outside and play with rocks and dirt. (They chose the latter option.)

Photo Credit: Jessica Weixler-Landis. Check our her blog here.

Then as we got up to leave, a friend at the church stopped us because we were leaving before our girls got their gift. Adam was horrified. We're not letting our kids take one of these presents. 

"But your girls go to this church. Why wouldn't they get one?" 

"Um, well. They... Oh well okay, only if there are some leftover."

"Leftover!? Their names were on the list from the beginning. There are two presents just for them."

Then a Canadian friend leaned over and said, "I tried to refuse every year when my kids were little, just take 'em." 

And so our girls proudly left church with their Operation Christmas Child presents while Adam yelled at them to hurry and jump in the car before the whole neighborhood got the wrong idea. 

On the ride home, we discussed the ethical dilemma at great length. Adam remained horrified. 

But their names were on the list, Adam. There's a whole system. We can't mess up the system.

But just think of those sweet old ladies packing those boxes for poor African children. They didn't do it for our kids. It's cheating. 

Oh relax, I think the sweet old ladies would feel just fine about it.

He still made me take a vow to never tell anyone we were on the receiving end of Operation Christmas Child. 

But it's too good not to tell. And the presents were dearly loved by our "poor" African children.

The boxes had crayons, a jump rope, toothbrush, toothpaste, Ivory soap and Mardi Gras beads, Sharpie markers, a teddy bear and an ethnic Barbie (!). And lots and lots of Post-It notes. Because nothing says third world deprivation like a lack of Post-it notes.  

Of course the girls put every hair clip and bobbie pin directly in their hair and they've been crunching on Smarties all day. They're currently fighting over the 1 pair of purple scissors because the Girl Scout troop of Cumming, Georgia did not think to put in two equal pairs. Most likely because they didn't anticipate their present would end up in the hands of ungrateful American sisters. 

But more excitingly, Charlotte got her first pair of gloves. This is the first time she has ever seen them in real life. She has only seen gloves in winter pictures and in Frozen, so the expectation was pretty high. She tried to put all of her fingers in one hole like Loulou's mittens.

Operation Christmas Jazz Hands: She wore them inside.

She wore them outside.

Also. Incredible hand knit booties. Jill thinks we accidentally got the shipment meant for Eastern Europe.

Now before you pass too much judgment or word gets back to North Lanier Baptist Church, the girls packed right back up most of the goods to give to Anastasie's daughter who's about their age. But they're keeping the gloves and the booties. And of course the ethnic Barbie. Thanks Girl Scouts. Thanks Georgia. We're already counting down the days until next Christmas. Next April. 

Anyone know these folks? Please tell them merci from Burkina Faso.

7 February 2015

On African Women: A clarification

Jill and I set up this blog several years ago with the original intent to share our stories about being mamas in Africa and about African mamas. Their stories. Their greatness. Their complexity.

So last week when a producer at HuffPo asked me if I wanted to talk about these things, I said sure, why not. Actually I really didn't have much information about what I'd be talking about, but it's easy to agree to stuff like this when you don't know much. And have no idea what HuffPostLive is. Does this have something to do with the Huffington Post?

I did the interview late at night, alone in our empty office (where the internet is good) to a blank screen. There was some sort of technical problem so I couldn't see anything. I could hear the woman asking questions, but that's all. (Sidenote: This is why I'm looking all over the place when I'm talking. I had no focal point.)

Even though I was hyper aware to not say anything racist, sexist or otherwise incriminating, I still got backed into a corner to talk about sharing breast milk when it became obvious the host had done a little research on my sordid past.

I don't remember how it came up, but then I talked about women reaching down my shirt to help me nurse.

HuffPo decided to pull this bit out, The Country Where People Literally Reach Out to Help Moms Breastfeed in Public and throw it around. Presumably because they know how hopped-up everyone gets about breastfeeding.

So there you have it. My message to the world about African women that gets the most traction is my portrayal of them as boob grabbers.

Just pick a focal point! 

I made Jill help me dissect the comments on their Facebook page that came afterward. Do these women love me or hate me? Why are they so fired up? We settled on neither/nor. It's not about me. Breastfeeding is just a contentious issue, even when it's not.  

A bit of clarification, the time this "nursing assistance" happened to me was in Congo one afternoon after church. We stopped on the way home for groceries and Charlotte was fussing all through the store. She wasn't hungry. She was bored and hot. I knew this, I'm her mother. But as I walked past women they told me, "Just feed her. She's hungry." But I didn't because I knew she wasn't hungry. Well I don't know. Maybe she was. But I wasn't letting those mamas boss me around. Until one of them, ahem, helped me along.

This wasn't all that surprising. I know other expat moms who say they've been "helped" in the same way. If you ask me, I think it was more: Hey, I wonder what an awkward white lady nursing looks like. Than: We are in unity with you lactating sister-friend, you are invited to nurse in our communal presence. Because African women are complex. And they don't have the same cultural baggage when it comes to breastfeeding. So messing with a white lady is not a statement. It's just something funny to do.

When I think back to my memories of breastfeeding in Africa, I remember the ridiculous faces Mamicho and Mama Youyou would give me when I used a Boppy. C'mon this is not something that needs special equipment. Nor comfort. Give those upper arms a workout for Pete's sake, they said with their eyes. Or maybe they weren't thinking this at all. Maybe that's just my cultural baggage. Come to think of it, they kind of always had those judgmental looks on their faces.

I do know that Mama Youyou bullied Ani into weaning. In the sweetest way possible, of course. Ani nursed into the days when she was old enough to help fetch water, had she been one of Mama Youyou's daughters. And Mama Youyou made that very clear to her. I blame her for all of Ani's upcoming issues.

So again, Africa isn't really the anything goes breastfeeding utopia HuffPo and I led you to believe.

In sum, African women are complex, but they do not have a complex relationship with nursing. They do not grab boobs with any sort of motive. They like to mess with me. Put me in my place. Make me feel terribly underdressed and under-accessorized for all occasions. They keep me from over thinking this motherhood thing. And feel empowered enough to stick their hands down my shirt. They're pretty darn cool.      

11 January 2015

Adam's Piment or the "Best the Village's Ever Had"

It seems everywhere we go there's some local spicy condiment that everyone swears by.

In Congo it's pilli pilli. In Rwanda it's Akabanga. Thailand's got sriracha. Here in Burkina it's piment. A few months ago Adam went on a trip to Bobo-Dioulasso, a little over 5 hours from where we live in Ouagadougou.

When he returned all he could talk about was the piment he had there at a friend's house.

So over the holidays we passed through Bobo-Dioulasso and made a mandatory stop to ask for the recipe. Clare, the keeper of the recipe, explained the details directly to me. Because surely I would be the one preparing the piment for my helpless husband.

Back in Ouaga Adam asked his favorite roadside vegetable vendor lady for an oversize bag of yellow peppers. Now veggie lady is already pretty amused that Adam's the household grocery shopper and chef, so when he explained he was making piment, she lost it. So much so that he promised to bring some back to her to prove it.

Adam was obligated to teach Anastasie because she took a sample of his first batch back to her village, and delivered the message back to him that it was "the best piment they've ever had."

I claim classic buttering up of the foreigner, but Adam's convinced he's the piment king of the village.

Forthwith the proof and the recipe for Adam's Piment Jaune Écrasé (a variation of the original from Clare):


1 bowl of small hot peppers (seeds removed) - these are locally grown Ojemmas, similar to Habaneros
1 green pepper
8 cloves garlic
1 bunch parsley
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 Tbsp coarse salt 
1 tsp vinegar
1 tsp mustard

Add yellow and green peppers, garlic, parsley and coarse salt.


Woman's work, Adam. Step aside.


Resent lack of attention. (Side note: Does anyone else's kid insist on the one shoulder look?)

Keep pounding until it looks like so.

Don't forget to wipe spicy shrapnel from the wall.

Spoon into jars.

Add oil, vinegar and mustard. Shake.

Voila. Adam adds a spoonful to his morning egg in a basket. And really, on top of everything else he eats too.

Deliver sample to veggie lady.

Just changing cultural constructs one jar of piment at a time.

4 December 2014

Burkina Faso's Revolution. Or the day mama jumped in the pool fully clothed.

I'm afraid this might be a long one. Adam has warned me that no one likes long blog posts. Sorry, Adam and other people who do not like long blog posts...

It's taken us a bit of time to process Burkina Faso's recent uprising, or revolution, or coup, or junta, or whatever you want to call it. Granted we're not Burkinabé nor were we anywhere near the front lines, but our expat lives were a bit shaken up. I mean, we're not in Congo anymore so life should be easy peasy for goodness sake.

In short, Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso's longtime president of 27 years, decided he wanted to change the constitution to extend term limits. But folks had another idea. As in, on the day of the vote thousands of people mobilized to stop it.

Downtown Ouagadougou. October 30.

On that morning, we planned to introduce the director of our organization (who was visiting from the States - perfect timing) to participants we work with at the prison. No big deal, Adam would take him in the morning before the vote results were announced. I'd stay back in the office and hold down the fort. Of course no one else was dumb enough to come to work that day. So there I sat alone while they headed off to the prison.

About the time they arrived at the prison, the city exploded. Tens of thousands of people protested and then attacked the parliament building setting it on fire. There was gunfire, then helicopters dropped tear gas. I spent the morning pacing up and down the office hallway. Convincing myself my eyes were burning from really intense dust and not tear gas. I also sent messages to Jill because how can this be happening and I have no one to talk to?!

I won't mention how many paces it took me to remember my children playing outside a few blocks away. But I did eventually call Anastasie and ask her to take the girls inside and close the windows. Clearly she had already done this. Because tear gas.

Meanwhile at the prison, a mob had gathered outside and began banging on the doors, so needless to say, Adam and our director were stuck inside. I'll keep this exciting part about Adam short due to his issue with reading long posts and all: Prison guards quickly change into military uniforms. Everyone running. Adam stuck inside. Me thinking it's slightly funny he's got himself and our director trapped in a prison during a coup. Me waiting a long time, not thinking it's so funny anymore. Crowds getting bigger. Me making lots of phone calls and driving back and forth through protestors to attempt to free them from prison. They eventually escape with zero help from me. 30 minutes later factory across from the prison is looted and burned. Revolt later that day in the prison and 3 people killed. Us breathing sigh of relief.

Parliament. The day after. (Photo Credit: MCC Service Worker Loralee Williams who was smart enough to not consult us before venturing downtown.)

Cars in parliament parking lot. Photo Credit: Loralee.

The stuck in prison situation is the kind of experience I'm happy to have had when it's over. It was equal parts tense and exciting and it makes for a good story. All's well that ends well. We are safe and sound at home. Boy was that crazy! So glad this whole revolution thing is over. I put up a semi-clever post on Facebook with a synopsis of the day. We're proud of ourselves for distracting our children from the gunfire. They didn't even notice! We're so cool. Goodnight.

Compaoré resigned the next morning and left the country in a heavily armored motorcade. A general in the military was then named interim leader. Turns out this guy was not so popular and the city erupted once again. Oh wait, this revolution thing isn't over yet?

A tactic that proved quite effective the day before was the burning and looting of former Compaoré government official's houses along with those of his relatives and friends. A house a few blocks in front of our's was burned as well as another house behind us. We got word that our next door neighbor's house, with whom we share a wall, was next on the loot and burn list. A mob was on its way. Our neighbor on the other side yelled for us to quick get out of our house.

Destruction at the Azalai hotel, next door to parliament where some members were staying the night before the vote. Photo credit: Loralee Williams.

It's safe to say this was not my calmest moment in motherhood. I went into full panic mode and ushered my children next door - to the safe neighbor's house. We've been down this leave-the-house-and-all-of-your-belongings road before in Congo, so I grabbed their growth chart off the wall, the baby quilt and the princess dresses. Because I can hide from our children the fact that our house has been burned to the ground, but they're definitely going to notice if their princess dresses are missing.

We took shelter next door. And again the pacing sets in. At this point we crossed a line we had never crossed before. Our children were scared and crying and asking what was going on. Guards were gathered in the road. And everyone was just waiting for the inevitable to happen. It didn't ease our minds that a document had been looted from the president's brother's house, photocopied in mass and distributed throughout the city listing the addresses of houses that the president had bought for his friends. Our neighbor's house number was #2 on the list.

I kind of just wanted the looters and burners to show up so it could just happen and be over. Someone suggested I call the embassy. After 6 years in Congo, I have their emergency number on speed dial. I don't know how many times in Kinshasa I had to call an annoyed 18-year-old Marine and explain how we got our car booted in the middle of the road again.

Here in Ouagadougou it's a kind woman named Kristin, who bless her heart, must have been a 911 operator or worked at a suicide prevention hotline in a previous life. She was so sweet and encouraging and for the first time since this whole ordeal began, I was talking with someone to whom I didn't need to show a brave face. I started to tear up, so I took myself into my neighbor's garage and had a good cry with dear, sweet Kristin. (Kristin, I hope you never read this. I would like to remain the anonymous, unstable expat caller.)

For whatever reason the mob had yet to come and it's clear that pacing at our neighbor's house all day was not a good plan for anyone. So we scurried across the street to distract our children and let them swim at the pool of our neighborhood French compound.

And folks, I kid you not. Those Frenchies were smoking and drinking and having a grand old time behind their wall, not 20 feet away from our panic attack across the street.

Our girls soon forgot their trauma and swam and joined in the carefree French time. Meanwhile, Adam and I were poolside sending emails and making hurried phone calls to our organization's headquarters in the States, all the while keeping an ear out for approaching angry mobs.

At this point, as if our world had not stopped already, I glanced in the pool and Ani was bobbing and gasping for air in the deep end. So naturally, I jump in the pool, in front of all those relaxed French folk - fully clothed, leather clogs and all - to pull that poor girl out.

I swear to you, at this moment another military plane buzzed overhead and after the near-burning of our house and the near-drowning of my child, I took a moment to tread water and have a mini breakdown right there in the pool. I'll never forget Adam and our director looking down at me, offering hands to help me out. But I just stayed. And treaded water. And cried.

And then my loving husband said, "That was crazy. It was kind of embarrassing that you had to jump in the pool like that to save her, but none of these French people even noticed. No one turned their heads. How are they so cool about everything?!"

I spent the rest of the day sitting by the pool. Sopping wet. You know, because of no spare clothes due to being evacuated from my house and all. Then after the curfew set in (which is announced in the curious way of police going through the streets and shooting in the air) our house was still standing and it was deemed safe to go home.

Our neighbors in question had rallied their burliest male relatives to set up camp outside their house to protect it. We managed to fall asleep that night, but it's practically impossible to distinguish between the noises of a mob of men guarding a house and a mob of men attacking a house.    

We debriefed with the girls and asked them how they felt when we had to leave our house and run next door. Because afterall, they were upset and scared and I don't want that coming back at us in adolescence.

They didn't really seem to remember it, so we didn't press it. They were too distracted and confused about why mama jumped and cried in the pool. "No really, why were you crying in the pool?" they asked, "And why didn't you put on your bathing suit first?" A full month later, they are still talking about this. "Hey! Remember that time mama jumped in the pool with her clothes on?!"

Thank the lord they're not asking, "Remember that time we ran screaming from our house because we thought it was going to burn down?"

"Blaise Get Out." Walking around our neighborhood for the first time.

For a while after that terrible day I didn't want to talk about it or even more remarkably, joke about it. I have no interest in ever seeing my children that scared again.
But after it's all said and done we're proud to live in a country that organized such a relatively peaceful and respectful revolution. Amazing things happened here.

Parliament was torched, but small shops beside it were untouched. I drove through crowds that day and as riled up and angry as everyone was, not a single person bothered me. They actually moved aside to let me through. Good people, these Burkinabé.  

One of the main groups that organized the demonstrations, Le Balai Citoyen (or Citizen's Broom) used a broom as their symbol. After the revolution they issued a statement saying that now that they had used their brooms to "clean up" the government, they needed to use their brooms to clean up the mess they made in the streets. So men, women and children came out to clean the city. Remarkable.

Clean up photo by Loralee.

From Burkina 24.

The transition has had some bumps, but folks are proud of themselves. The uprising wasn't a youth thing, or a Muslim thing, or a Christian thing. It was an everybody thing. For a country that had one president for 27 years, they had 3 in the course of 24 hours and are now on their 4th one.

I honestly cannot imagine another country pulling this off.

I am still thankful for my new best friend at the American embassy, Kristin who called me back later that night and again the next morning to make sure we were okay.

We got to be friends with our neighbor's extended family/protective mob as they stayed for the rest of the week in front of our houses. Lots of tea and laughs were shared over the experience.

I now have a Bonnie Raitt shock of gray hair that did not exist on the morning of October 30. I call it my souvenir de la révolution.

And lastly, my house was not burned down and my daughter did not drown. We're going to be alright.

25 October 2014

Why We're Here - In Photos

Here's a look at some of the things we're doing here with Mennonite Central Committee Burkina Faso...

A few weeks ago we went to visit one of the projects we work with that among other great things, sends kids to school and makes sure they have awesome backpacks to carry their stuff. 


With no warning, Adam was called up to present certificates to all the participants. Of course this included pronouncing all their names on the spot. I almost died laughing (and so did the kids)...

...until it was my turn to call out their names and give them their backpacks. Clearly I messed up with this sweet girl.


They also get sacks of rice, which they have to help their mothers carry home. (Adjaratou and her mom.)

And help their mothers tie them to bicycles. (Proof adolescent boys, the world over, give their mothers attitude.)

Ani put her sunglasses on for a close-up, then this cherub stepped in.

We also work with farmers outside the city...


Me in a field, with head-to-toe sun protection. Pretty sure this was the moment Adam chose to tell me my SPF hat actually looks like a pith helmet. Risk melanoma for cultural sensitivity? Jury's still out.

This farmer, Gnini, is showing the difference between the sorghum planted from seeds MCC helped them get and their local seeds. (MCC seeds win.) He planted the fields with his 6 children over their school break. Since it was a thousand degrees outside, I asked him how his kids felt about helping. He said, "Well of course they grumble the whole time, but they have no choice if they want to go back to school."

Bigger and better beans than ever before.

These ladies really seemed to be having a fun gossip session in the fields. It almost made me wish I was part of it. Then Adam reminded me natural selection would have done me in generations ago. The gossip I can do, but hot, hard work in the sun? Carrying heavy loads on my head? These women are amazing. 

There's nothing quite like a community meeting under a tree.


Next up, moringa! Remember ages ago when Jill posted about the magic of moringa? It's here in Burkina too. I think this might be the next super food to sweep the western world. This stuff is incredible.

Leontine tending the moringa wonder-plant.

These tiny leaves have 7 times the Vitamin C of oranges, 4 times the Vitamin A of carrots, 4 times the calcium of milk, 3 times the potassium of bananas, and 2 times the protein of yogurt. (And even more than that in their dried form, which is how many eat it here.)

Sorghum, almost ready for harvest.

Adam loved this farmer, Rassmane, and thus begins his photo session...


I mean, c'mon. That smile.

'Twas a good year for beans.

Tinga told us how he started off only being able to afford this sorry excuse for a bicycle to take his harvest to the market to sell.

The next year, his crops were a success and he bought a motorcycle to go back and forth.

Now he's upgraded to this moto-cart to help with farm production. He can afford to pay tuition for all of his - wait for it - 16 children to go to school.

That's a lot of hard work.

And lastly, when we start to grumble about the heat, the dust, the patisseries on every corner. Well, we remember we're here working for people like this guy who started a project to help boys sentenced to prison.

When boys are convicted of petty crimes (bicycle theft, purse snatching) and sentenced to prison with more serious adult offenders, Pegue (above right) convinces the judicial system to let the boys serve part of their time with him. He matches them up with apprenticeships so they can learn a trade and make a living.

Pascal and his carpentry apprenticeship. (Contrary to the photo, he's also learned safety skills.)

Shameless plug: Are you or someone you know between the ages of 18 and 20-something? Do you know anything about welding, carpentry, auto-repair, plumbing, masonry, or something else you could teach these boys? Come work with us and Pegue and these kids! 

(More info here: MCC/SALT position.)

There you have it. That's just a few of our partners who keep us busy. It's great work, but somebody's gotta do it.

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