McFarland’s Bridget Norris has spent the last 18 months in western Africa where poverty is rampant, there is no running water or electricity, the infrastructure is underdeveloped, and there are gender disparities.
Yet, despite all of these hardships, Norris, a 2009 McFarland High School graduate, has found the country of Burkina Faso “has some of the nicest people I’ve ever met” while working there as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Norris, 25, lives in the village of Mahon, population: 4,000. She lives in a house inside a 160-person family compound, which would be like living in an apartment complex with family residing in all of the neighboring units without any figurative walls.
“There is no privacy, everything is very much out in public,” Norris said. Inside the complex people know all about each other’s lives. If anything loud happens, about 80 people look to see what happened, she said.
“I’ve definitely been ‘adopted’ by some of the family members within the compound as one of their children,” she said.
When Norris was sick, her widowed neighbor provided meals. Her neighbor struggles to feed her own family, yet cared enough about Norris to assist her in getting healthy. The village has food insecurity, relying on the six-month rainy season to help them grow their crops. The Mahon residents were concerned when this year’s rain season was later than usual. Eventually, the rain came.
Each week Norris visits the local market, but to have access to more food she bikes six miles to the next village’s market.
The lack of running water and electricity has made doing certain tasks more time consuming. “I see how the non-mechanization of things … you see why the people wake up at 6 a.m. and they don’t go to sleep until 10 (p.m.) and they are working the whole time. Everything has to be pre-planned, from washing your clothes to getting transportation.”
The country is not without technology; everyone has a cell phone and uses it to download entertainment. While the devices have internet access they look more like the old brick-style phones than sleek smart phones.
As a volunteer, Norris is primarily teaching English to middle school students. She also focuses her time on issues impacting women and girls. Norris meets with groups of women to talk about sensitive subjects in a way that can be fun and engaging. For example, she created Bike Tour Burkina Faso program where she and other Peace Corps volunteers biked to several villages to talk about gender equality.
There have been scary moments during her time in Burkina Faso, including an uprising and a coup. During the military coup people in Mahon were concerned about Norris’ safety even though there were no anti-western sentiments.
“Everyone is just so invested in their Peace Corps volunteers and taking care of you that I was shocked at how kind and willing to help the people were in this time of stress and turmoil,” she said.
During the uprising, people were not allowed to leave their village; however, the coup had an increased security level with the Peace Corps volunteers moved to a more secure location.
“The Burkina Faso people wanted to make sure we were safe and not scared, and that is something I will never forget,” Norris said.
She was secure during last week’s attack on a major hotel in the country’s largest city. She lives in a rural area six hours away.
Norris learned about the Peace Corps as a high school sophomore when a former Peace Corps volunteer talked to her class. Norris can’t remember what country the person served in or the person’s name; but, she remembers the presentation and thinking, “I have to do this.”
After graduating from Marquette University in 2013 with a degree in international affairs and economics, Norris was not sure what direction to take. She decided to work as a nanny for her sister but being part of the Peace Corps had always been in the back of her mind. Norris joined the organization in June 2014.
Norris wanted to volunteer in Africa after spending a semester abroad in Cape Town – a developing city with coffee shops and retail stores that also shares many of the problems plaguing the rest of Africa – located on the southwest coast of the continent.
Her time there was part of a service-learning program in 2012 where the students studying abroad would attend college three days a week and have an internship twice a week. Norris took a class in Cape Town about west African authors and learned a lot about the culture. This solidified her decision to join Peace Corps and her desired location.
Her experience in Cape Town was the first time Norris had ever been the only white person in a classroom. It was also the first time she was ever referred to as “white lady.”
“In west African culture it’s not wrong to identify someone by the way that they look and call them by the way that they look,” Norris said. This means an elderly person is called “old person” or a youth is referred to as “young person.” “And if you are white, you’re called ‘white person.’ … It’s very shocking to having someone say ‘hey, white lady, white lady.’”
In the village, Norris has been called “white lady,” making her feel like she’s no different than any other Caucasian person who lives miles away from the location. The closest non-African people are Canadian missionaries who live about 50 miles away.
When she addressed the village about this, the residents decided to give her the name Kaatanga - a traditional male name that means welcome and the good things you have been waiting for.
Before moving to the village of Mahon, Norris spent three months preparing. During this time she lived with a host family and started to learn the language used by the people of Burkina Faso. Norris learned to speak Jula, one of the dominant languages of the country. There are 60 different local languages spoken throughout Burkina Faso. She also learned French, the official language of the country.
Norris’ contract with the Peace Corps ends in August. She has the option to sign on for a third year of service, but is also considering graduate school.
For the first time since joining the Peace Corps, Norris was back home for three weeks recently. During her time in McFarland she talked to an international studies class about her experience. Norris wanted to express how wonderful the people of Burkina Faso are, how appreciative she has been to be a volunteer with the Peace Corps, that Muslims and Christians – the two major religions in the region – get along and make one another feel welcome, and the importance of getting exposure to different perspectives.
“This experience has restored my faith in people,” Norris said. “I am so grateful for it.”