Other than trips to Canada and Puerto Rico, Jesse Garrett-Larsen ’15 had never been out of the country before. This past Christmas Break, however, he voyaged to a much more remote and unfamiliar part of the world: Burkina Faso. Burkina Faso is a West African country, bordering Ghana, Togo, Benin, Mali, the Ivory Coast, and Niger. Jesse went on this trip to visit his grandmother, Janet, who is currently living in Burkina Faso, working with the Peace Corps. Previously a professor of psychology at John Carroll University in Ohio, she recently retired and decided she was finally going to join the Peace Corps, something she had been considering ever since her daughter, Jesse’s aunt, had done so many years before.
In fact, ending up in Burkina Faso was something of a surprise to Janet, who had originally been told she would be sent to Mongolia. She began studying up on Mongolian and received lots of warm clothing and gear from her family in anticipation of the cold climate. Then, she discovered that she would instead be sent to West Africa- so much for the winter clothing!
Since arriving in Burkina Faso a year and a half ago, Janet has been working primarily on empowering the female population of her village through education. She’s also been part of practical village projects, such as installing a water pump in the well.
When Jesse and his family arrived in the country to visit his grandmother for the holidays, he was surprised from the moment he got off the plane: “The first thing that I noticed when we got there, after we went down the airplane steps onto the tarmac, was that the air quality was so dusty and smoky- I remember thinking, ‘There must be a lot of forest fires here.’” Soon after, he and his family ran into their first instance of the language barriers: “We had to go through customs, and we didn’t have the address for the village we were heading to, so we just wrote ‘traveling’ on our forms. The customs official didn’t speak English at all, so it was really interesting figuring out how to communicate with him! It wasn’t funny at the time, but now it is.” Once they finally got through Customs and out of the airport, the family went to the village where Jesse’s grandmother was living. After spending time there, they also explored the capital, Ouagadougou, as well as visiting the “Sacred Crocodiles”- “many people there believe that the spirits of their ancestors reside in the crocodiles, having been reincarnated. We got to touch them. Some people hug them, but I was okay with just touching it!”
On Christmas in the village
“They have a totally different approach to Christmas. There are a bunch of Muslims and Christians and animists, and they all live in the same village- there’s no tension, it’s amazing. For Christmas, my grandma wanted to make brownies, so my family and I brought 10 boxes of instant brownie mix and American candy over from the States. On Christmas Eve, I went out and played soccer with some of the kids, and my grandma told them to come back the next day for treats, which they did! We started passing them out. It turned out to be a little chaotic, because the same kids kept coming back for more. We were trying to create some order so that everyone could have a fair share, but it didn’t exactly work out that way.”
On the language barrier
“Since I don’t speak Mòoré, I couldn’t talk to anyone, so it definitely was hard to get to know people, but when I was playing soccer, I got to know some of the kids. We hired a driver, and he spoke a little bit of English, and my grandma translated too, so we got to know him. But even not speaking the language, there were a lot of times you interacted with the people there. Driving along on the roads, whenever you were going through a town, you would see little kids running along next to your car, always smiling and waving at you. It was really awesome.”
On What I Learned
“Seeing how poor people could be, but how happy they are with what they have; that was something I took away. Also, how strong the sense of community was in the village; everyone knows everyone else and they’re very connected.”