Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Reflections in Ouaga

As I write this entry, I'm curled up in a huge leather chair, in the marble-tiled, gold-gilted, generally extravagant lobby of a hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina. This morning's breakfast was a buffet of made-to-order omelettes, fresh fruit, unlimited kinds of breads, rolls and pastries, and even american cereal in fancy serving platters. I honestly had no idea that such an oasis of luxury existed in this country, especially since frankly all it takes to impress me these days is air conditioning and a semi-comfortable mattress. But thanks to the incredible generosity of my friend Lori and her Mom (who's here from America visiting Lori) I'm learning that even in Burkina, one can find a 5-star hotel.
The timing of our stay here is especially ironic though; the city of Ouaga experienced more rain in 10 hours yesterday than in the months of June and August combined, a record not seen since 1919. The result has been major flooding, and Lori, her Mom, and I were actually barely able to make it into the city before Peace Corps declared a state of emergency and forbid volunteers from traveling to Ouaga at all. Now that we're here, we're mostly confined to the hotel for our safety, so I've got plenty of time to write about it. The extreme irony is the juxtaposition of our current lodgings and the extreme poverty just around the corner, which even during the best of times is dire, and with the devastation of the flooding, is an even more extreme contrast. Several people died in the flooding yesterday, and thousands are left homeless as their mud walls and houses were washed away, and here I am contemplating whether my next move should be to the pool or restaurant.

It's hard sometimes to find the right limit, or draw a line of how much to give, or what privileges to deny myself in order to help the people around me and do what I can to help give them a small fraction of opportunities that I've been blessed enough to have in my own life. When I take a weekend away from my village now and then to meet up with other volunteers, use the internet, call home, etc, I often find myself feeling guilty. I'll sometimes treat myself to a nice dinner, which will cost $8 or so, money that could feed my entire host family for a week. Is that wrong? Should I feel guilty about it? I really don't have an answer, but it's a question that comes up frequently for me.
I'm no more hardworking, intelligent or inherently good than many of the people here, yet by chance of birth I have privileges and resources that 99.9% of them will never experience. The opportunity for a good education, health care, international travel, and material possessions are all mine for no reason other than the fact that I was born in the United States to parents who could afford to provide me with those things.
I guess the lesson somewhere in here for me has been that I have to strike a balance that I'm comfortable with and go with that. I'm not going to give away all my money and material goods to those less fortunate than myself and live at poverty level in order to do so, but it also doesn't feel right to not spread around the benefits of my own privilege a bit to those who are clearly deserving but haven't had the same opportunities. So, I'll help my friend in Tin pay for her University tuition and be proud of her for being the first person in her family to ever go past high school, and then go treat myself to ice cream next time I'm in the city. I'll spend a month in village living in my little house and working in the community, then not beat myself up about springing for a decent hotel when I leave for a weekend. I think the most important thing is for to be grateful for the opportunities that I've had in my life, and to not take it for granted or tell myself that I'm somehow entitled to it any more than those living in Tin, Burkina Faso are. It's easy to see how blessed I've been in my life when surrounded by such poverty here every single day, it'll be important for me to remain aware of it once I'm back in America.
This entire internal debate probably is somewhat naive, as poverty is everywhere in the world and everything is relative, but it's something that has been much more apparent to me in the past two years due to my lifestyle here, and I thought I'd share my thoughts with everyone, since it's been so long since my last entry. On that note, I hope you're all doing well and enjoying the summer, and I'll have news soon on my return date to the United States!

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