Ep #028: Janet Miller, Burkina Faso 1982-1984

Janet served in Burkina Faso, down the road from where I served and 30 years before. It was a pleasure to hear about her service, during two coups d’etats and the beginning of Thomas Sankara’s presidency.

On this Episode:

  • Riding her motorcycle down washboard roads
  • Serving in Burkina Faso during two coups d’etats
  • Returning to Burkina Faso several times after completing her service

Photos from Janet’s Story

Janet Miller’s Peace Corps Story

Where and when did you serve? What did you do?

I served as a forestry volunteer in Orodara and Dinderesso, Burkina Faso. The nearest other volunteer was in Bobo Dioulasso, 50 miles away by motorcycle over an unpaved washboard road and the Peace Corps office in the capital, Ouagadougou, was a very long days journey so I didn’t have much support. The isolation was difficult for me.

I was supposed to start a tree nursery in Orodara with money from World Bank, but there were two coups d’etat while I was there, and each time the World Bank suspended the funding. Also, my counterpart was to retire before my stay was up, and although he and his family were very kind and welcoming to me he had no interest in working with a clueless 23-year-old foreign woman!

I spent a lot of time reading, watching birds and socializing with my neighbor women. I was waiting for work to do, and it took me a long time to figure out that I needed to make it happen on my own.
Eventually, I started a project with traditional beekeepers in several small villages, introducing a more productive kind of hive and encouraging them to market beeswax (which had previously been thrown away) to bronze casters and batik artists in Bobo Dioulasso.

My last 6 months I got myself transferred to Dinderesso National Forest and created work for myself that I loved. The forest boundary came right up to the limit of the second largest city in the country (Bobo Dioulasso) and human pressure on forest resources was tremendous. The national forest policy in 1984 was to blade the naturally biodiverse forest and replace it with eucalyptus plantation. Local people living in and around the forest were forbidden from gathering anything although much of their food and household needs came from native plant species growing within the forest boundaries.

I carried out ethno/economic botany research to build a case to the Forest Service for managing the natural forest with cooperation and participation from local people. In my isolation I was unaware at the time that I was part of a global movement to foster biodiversity, but the national forest policy did change eventually to natural forest management.

What is one of your favorite Peace Corps memories?

Many evenings I walked with my neighbor Mariam and her oldest daughter at dusk when she went to deliver her husband’s dinner to him. He worked as an overnight security guard a little bit out of town, over a small river and through some trees. We would keep him company while he ate, and walk back together in the dark. They were a happy couple and very kind to me. I enjoyed just being with them, and the walk there and back was peaceful and beautiful.

What is one of your least favorite Peace Corps memories?

I went to work a honey harvest at night in a village about 30 minutes away, so I stayed the night in the home of the family of the local man I was doing the project with. In the night he tiptoed into the room where I was sleeping, expecting a place in my bed. I was scared and angry and started yelling at him, waking the household, and he left the room. In the morning in front of his family, he made some really flimsy excuse about how he heard someone trying to steal my motorcycle and came to alert me. He was trying to save face.

I regret that I abandoned the project in that village, but was so freaked out that it was the best I could do at the time.

What do you miss about the Peace Corps?

I always felt safe in Burkina, anytime, anywhere I went. When I came back to the US and moved to an American city, I had to relearn to be street smart again.

What is something you learned in the Peace Corps?

Living in Burkina taught me to live in a village, which taught me to live in a neighborhood. I have lived in the same neighborhood of same city since my return. In Peace Corps I learned that relationships with fellow villagers/neighbors are like arranged marriages: you don’t get to choose your neighbors but making the best of those relationships can be rewarding. Peace Corps trained me to do community forestry work, something I didn’t actually do during my service. But once I settled back home, I started a tree planting project in the neighborhood where I live, and over time we planted over 500 street trees. You can see the boundaries of my neighborhood now in satellite images, defined by its tree cover.

Do you have a favorite quote or local saying?

Djula has so many wonderful blessings for every occasion. “Alla ka here bana”, a blessing for when you see the sliver of new moon; it means “may it end in peace”. “Alla ka aun kelen kelen wuli”, a bedtime blessing that means “may we wake up one by one” (as opposed to an awakening where everyone bolts out of bed in response to some alarm).


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