Guest Commentary

Peace Corps service can provide perspective and change the world

I just got back from the capital, and Tous Passe, my puppy, is looking skinny. It worries me.

My neighbor Boumoin feeds her toh, congealed millet porridge. Toh is the starchy base of the Burkinabe diet, and it doesn't seem right for a dog, but Boumoin says that if his own family doesn't eat meat on a daily basis, why should a dog? It's a good point--but why have dogs if you aren't going to take care of them properly, let them waste away and die? I thought about opening a can of tuna for my puppy but then decided that it was silly to feed a dog a 500-franc can of imported tuna when it costs less to treat malaria. But I did cut up a couple of jerky strips and smash them into some rice.

Boumoin got Tous Passe after he and his wife, Pauline, lost their baby girl during a difficult birth. The puppy's name means, "all will pass."

Am I going mad? I am a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, and I'm worried about the protein intake of my dog. How insensitive and thoughtless am I to worry about such matters when Boumoin and Pauline have recently suffered their child's death? It reminds me that American culture, in all its spastic forms, resides in me always.

I know from flipping through American magazines that make their way to Burkina in care packages that the Atkins craze is the rage in the United States. But in Burkina, all we eat are carbohydrates. In the morning, the Burkinabe drink millet porridge with sugar. For dinner, they eat toh. Another volunteer, scared by the carbohydrates surrounding her, eats primarily spoonfuls of peanut butter. Am I crazy to worry about nutrition for my dog?

I live in a small village that is morphing into a large town, as a paved road is being cut through it on its way to the Ghanaian border from the capital, Ouagadougou. Repatriation from the war in the Ivory Coast is driving returning Burkinabe northward, and desertification is driving the Sahelian ethnic groups southward in search of fertile farmland; in between, Sapouy is ballooning in population. Electricity is in sight, or so the government promises. But HIV is seeping in, and resources are pressed. One of the more quiet effects is aggravated malnutrition.

Malnutrition is nothing new to Burkina Faso, but it is not simply a function of food intake. You find uneducated mothers "starving illness out" of their babies, large families without enough food, AIDS orphans and women pregnant again so quickly after the birth of a child that their milk stops. The results are skinny, starving children whose hair is falling out and who are usually ill with disease. Other children develop swollen "moon faces" and feet with skinny arms. This is a different form of malnutrition stemming from sufficient calories but no protein. But it is difficult to tell a mother that she must feed her child expensive milk and meat or buy formula if her breasts are dry. She will clap her hands together and open her palms to the sky, a Burkinabe gesture of helplessness and defeat, meaning: "I am poor. That's just how it is."

In the United States, we have the luxury to go on the Atkins diet, with the end result being weight loss. American culture morbidly wants after emaciated limbs and gaunt faces. But here in Burkina, getting fat is a sign of health and prosperity. My neighbors always tell me I'm getting fat, that I'm "robust." "You will go home large, and your mother will know that Burkina was good to you," they say. Little do they know that my mother has been on a diet since I can remember.

In the end, carbohydrates are not the villains in Burkina. The problem is a cycle fed by a lack of education, poor sanitation, a lack of clean water, AIDS, malnutrition and poverty.