Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Burkina Faso

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to assure that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent history. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Burkina Faso, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Burkina Faso.

Outside of Burkina Faso’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Burkina Faso are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Burkina Faso, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during preservice training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Burkina Faso

The Peace Corps staff in Burkina Faso recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers

Burkina Faso has a traditional, patriarchal society. Female Volunteers may be surprised by the extent to which community and domestic roles are defined along gender lines. Men generally hold positions of authority in the workplace (though women are becoming more visible there), in the community, and in the home. This can present challenges for female Volunteers, as the work they do may be seen as a typically “male” job. The difficulties are exacerbated because single women do not usually have the status and respect that comes with marriage and having children. Thus, women may find it challenging to have their ideas recognized and respected by both women and men.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color

Although Burkinabé society can be conservative, Volunteers generally find the Burkinabé to be hospitable and accepting of people with a wide variety of backgrounds. Nevertheless, Burkinabé may have preconceived notions of Americans based on the kind of information available in Burkina Faso about Westerners, which comes mainly from television, movies, magazines, and local news reports and often presents a limited view of American diversity. For example, Asian Americans are often called Chinois (Chinese), regardless of their actual background, and African Americans may not be considered Americans.

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers

The high regard for seniors in Burkinabé society lends support to senior Volunteers’ effectiveness at work. They, in turn, are able to find ways to use their extensive experience to assist their communities. However, seniors often comment that they feel a lack of camaraderie with other, mostly much younger, Volunteers. The three months of pre-service training can be particularly frustrating for seniors because of the rigid schedule, classroom setting, and issues of integration with other trainees in the group. Language learning may present an additional challenge. However, most senior Volunteers find living and working at their sites to be very rewarding.

Possible Issues for Married Couple Volunteers

The shared experience of serving as a married couple is incredibly rewarding. Many of the challenges single Volunteers face are different or non-existent for couples. However, there are potential difficulties that married Volunteers can face. Married Volunteers are advised to establish early a sense of individuality and do activities separately at their sites; otherwise, community members may not recognize their unique identities. When there are language proficiency differences between partners, it may be more difficult for the lower-level partner during the first few months of service. Married Volunteers who work to be independent in all work and social aspects of service are most successful and most content with their work. Because Burkina Faso cultural and historical norms, women face unique discrimination that men don't face. Among Volunteers, married couples are sometimes not accepted into Volunteer social circles, because their volunteer experiences are perceived to be different. Despite such problems, the shared memories are a gift that will unite couples for the rest of their lives.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers

Given the society’s conservative values, homosexuality is not likely to be tolerated by the general public in Burkina Faso. There may even be potential safety and security concerns. It is not possible to be open about your sexual orientation and maintain a positive working relationship with members of your community, and you will have to exercise extreme discretion. Other Volunteers and the Peace Corps staff will provide support, but you will find it very difficult to be open outside of that circle. A recommended resource for support and advice prior to and during your service is the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender U.S. Peace Corps Alumni website at www.lgbrpcv.org.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers

Christianity, Islam, and indigenous belief systems all are represented in Burkina Faso. You will be free to practice your own religion as long as you demonstrate respect for the religion of the people in your community and refrain from proselytizing.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities

As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Burkina Faso without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of service. The Peace Corps/ Burkina Faso staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively. As a disabled Volunteer in Burkina Faso, you may find that you face a special set of challenges. In Burkina Faso, as in other parts of the world, some people may hold prejudicial attitudes about individuals with disabilities and may discriminate against them. There is very little of the infrastructure to accommodate individuals with disabilities that has been developed in the United States