A few months before the magical Mr. Kennedy inaugurated the Peace Corps, Canada had CUSO.

Twenty years old and I was off on the second grand adventure of my life—the first was working in the Canadian pavilion at Expo in Montreal—as a CUSO volunteer.

Where to this time? Africa. In an age when young single girls never went off on their own, I was heading to the “dark continent.”

Edmontonto Montreal to Paris to Ouagadougou. Ceiling fans rotating slowly high above under the corrugated tin roof of the shanty that called itself an airport. One patron at the tiny bar in the corner, rumpled shirt, khaki shorts, Aussie style outback hat—looking exactly as an African adventurer should according to all the books I’d read.

Too dark to see anything outside, we resort to standing in small groups yawning as they waiting for the flight to Bobo-Dioulasso where we’d have a few weeks of orientation before going to our final postings.

“Oh, look!” someone squealed as the rising sun revealed the grand Sahara below. “It’s just like my anthropology books.”

Everyone on the left of the plane crammed onto the right side to see and the old Russian aircraft, with holes in the floorboards and no seat belts, tilted at a crazy angle. Startled, we scrambled back to our seats and breathed a sigh of relief as the plane righted itself.

What do I remember of those first days in Burkino Faso? The heat—a giant hand pressing us into the ground; the smells—earthy and primal; the barrenness—a dry vast horizon; the utter darkness—nights with no streetlights and a sky overflowing with stars; the buildings—spare, basic, unadorned; and the smiles—wide and warm and welcoming.

For the teachers in our group, the orientation consisted of providing a summer school for local children, some of whom walked for miles to have the young Canadians teach them science, math, and English.

summer school

We learned too—how to wear a pagne, rudiments of greetings in local languages, the meanings of hand gestures, and how not to inadvertently offend.

pagnes at market - rectangles of cloth worn as skirts

Six weeks later, tearful good-byes and we’re off to our postings. For me, Bamako, the capital of Mali.


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