Blog posts

Tô, Bucket Baths, and Other Culture Shocks

Tô, Bucket Baths, and Other Culture Shocks

Africa, Burkina Faso, Peace Corps

I wrote a few blog posts while I was still in Burkina Faso but never got around to publishing them because of the lack of Wifi. These posts all make me smile at memories though and capture pieces of my experience with the Peace Corps so I’m publishing them in retrospect now that I’m back in the States. Enjoy!

Is it just me or are we only presented with two versions of Africa in the West?

There’s the safari Africa where lions feast on gazelles and elephants meet at the watering hole. Add a Timone and Pumba into the mix and you’ve got stereotypical out-in-the-jungle Africa.

But then the other Africa is all war and Boko Harem with a little bit of Ebola and Malaria thrown in. And like maybe the Rwanda genocide and walking miles for water.

You feel me?

What Africa is, is a huge old question mark of competing narratives.

So, the first question everyone has for me is: how is Africa???

Is it Nat Geo or is it horrible tropical sickness and poverty and death?

I’ve been here two weeks and I have no idea how to even begin answering that question. For one, Africa is not just one homogeneous country and culture. It’s a shit ton of countries. So, we’ll throw out Africa and rephrase the question into: how is Burkina Faso?

And I still have no idea where to begin.

I’ve only been to a few limited areas of Burkina Faso. I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that I’m here. My experiences have ranged from being awestruck to incredulous. And I don’t even know how to explain what Burkina Faso has been to me for the past few days.

Instead, I thought I’d start with the culture shocks. The weird foods, the bathroom situations, the moments where I’ve just been like, “you said I have to do what?” But then you know once the shock went through my system I was all like “oh yeah. You DON’T take bucket baths? How do you even clean yourself?”

No doubt-making tô

Culture shock numero 1: tô (pronounced toe)

Tô is Burkina Faso’s main cultural dish you could say. Everyone here has eaten it. And a lot of people seem to like it. I was keen to explore this tô topic more so I got in on making it with my host mom. (No easy feat since a few people have had a hard time even eating with their families.)

Basically, tô is boiled water with flour and maize. It’s cooked until it’s a kind of solid Crisco-esque substance. You eat it with your right hand. Important because you wipe with your left. (Yeah. I know.) As you might imagine, tô doesn’t particularly taste like anything.

I’ve gathered that it’s more of a filler because of the lack of food and nutrition here. You dip it in a sauce. It can be sardine sauce. It can be tomato with eggs as mine has been. And that’s dinner. Flour, water, a little bit of maize, and a tasty sauce.

I’m not going to lie; I’ve had some trouble eating it. It’s not the taste. Nor is it the consistency. It’s somewhere in between all that after you’ve eaten your 20th bite and choke it down.

On the other hand, I’m a little fond of tô. Or at least the thought of it. All our trainers (who are all Burkinabe) are impressed when I tell them I made tô with my maman. Like, super impressed. And making the tô was such a wonderful bonding experience. I walked to the pump for water with my mom. I added all the flour at her instruction. And I made everyone laugh as I stirred the pot with both hands. And then I got to eat outside under the stars choking down tô. Albeit tasty tô covered in tomato onion egg sauce.

But I know what you’re thinking right now. Yes, tô is fine. Whatever. You mentioned what about wiping with your left hand? Excuse me? Which is the perfect segway into out next topic.

Culture shock no. 2: Teapots and Pit Latrines

Pit latrines. As in a hole in the ground. I thought I was Ms. Experienced Squat Potty after living in China. And China prepared me but there are some key differences.

Firstly, a lot of squat toilets in China flush. The ones that don’t have relatively big holes for the most part.

Secondly, it wasn’t squatty potty all the time.

Lastly, even when it was, toilets were inside!

My first night here it poured. But I had to pee so I put on my rain coat and shoes and braved the hole in the ground in the middle of the night. And there was a toad in the toilet so I actually ran next door to the shower to pee. Outside. In the rain.

Also, hole size matters. Because aiming is kind of hard for ladies. Your stream moves around and varies. We’re bordering on TMI here and might have already passed it but I have to tell you that hole size matters a lot. One time I was in full squat over my hole, peering down at my aim, and I got off by a centimeter and splashed myself in the face with my own piss.

But that’s not as bad as the teapot.

Most people don’t use toilet paper for their holes in the ground. Instead, they have a teapot on hand which they bring with them to the latrine. After the hole act, the teapot is used to cleanse ones behind with the aid of your left hand. Massaging feces and whatever else away.

I haven’t gotten to that point and I won’t ever.  (Infamous last words). I have toilet paper with me everywhere.

But this morning we had French class at the village chief’s house and I witnessed him pick up a teapot and head for his outdoor toilet and I cringed. That teapot image is burned into my mind.

Culture shock no. 3: Bucket Baths

This one is self-explanatory. I don’t have running water outside. Like the bathroom, my “shower” area is outside. So, every morning and night my maman heats up a bucket of water which I pour over myself with a little cup.

That’s how I wash myself. With a cup of water doled out over time. And I can’t stand up because I’m way too tall for my “shower” and would flash the whole village.

But strangely, I love my bucket baths. I find the experience so surreal. I’m sitting on a little stool, naked, in Africa, where I can see the sky and donkeys and chickens. I get to cool off from the suffocating heat. I feel clean for maybe the only time the whole day. And I’m alone just enjoying the soothing water on my skin.

Maybe it doesn’t sound like the best but really, you need to experience it for yourself alright?

Culture shock no. 4: You Get Used to It

Maybe not the teapots. But no electricity. Pit latrines. Biking to work. Bucket baths. Weird food. At this point they’re all completely normal parts of my routine. Which is a different kind of weirdness.

So, I don’t think these system shocks represent Africa or even Burkina Faso. But they have been key differences that I know I took for granted in the US.

When people ask me: how’s Africa? These are all the things I want to talk about but am not really sure how without turning everyone off of Burkina Faso altogether.

Because while they’re different, they’re also normal here. And I’m going to feel like a complete princess when I go back to the States in two years.

About the author

I got my first taste of long-term travel when I took a gap year before beginning college. I lived and worked in Australia in one of the most transformative years of my life. Like many others, I caught the wanderlust bug and now I'm always busy adding to my bucketlist. Besides traveling, I'm into hiking and photography. I'm currently finishing up my senior year in college and planning my next big adventure!