Annick Forest’s fondest memory of her time in Burkina Faso was the occasion she visited Yokuna with a theatre troupe. The journey took her across the countryside and along rustic roads. Fields of cotton, millet, and corn paved the way to the tiny village where the actors, members of REVS+, a Burkinabe AIDS group, were scheduled to perform. She described Yokuna in an interview with The Source as a place where time seemingly stood still.
“[They] did a fantastic job of getting the villagers involved in their story and their message,” said Forest.
The troupe set the stage under a large tree in the middle of the village, away from the blistering rays of the relentless afternoon sun. Forest watched as the REVS+ actors put on a show about family planning and HIV/AIDS in the sultry heat that she estimated at nearly 40 degrees.
The outdoor play in a out-of-the-way village was only a small taste of what Forest encountered in Burkina Faso. The month-long volunteer job gave her a chance to immerse herself in the culinary and cultural wealth of the West African republic, experiences that she faithfully recorded in her blog.
She arrived in the country in early October last year. Cuso International, a Canadian civil society organisation that coordinates volunteer positions abroad, pointed her in the posting’s direction. The placement in the republic’s capital of Ouagadougou called for a journalist. Forest, a web reporter for CBC Radio-Canada in Vancouver, lost no time in seizing the opportunity.
“I’ve specifically wanted to volunteer with Cuso International for some time now because I believe in the work that they do,” she said. “I got selected to be part of one of the journalist and photographer teams [in Burkina Faso]. I was delighted to finally have a chance to work with them.”
Cuso International was founded in 1961 as the Canadian University Service Overseas and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011. The organisation was renamed from CUSO to Cuso International this past year. The service sends around 250 volunteers from British Columbia abroad annually. All volunteers are career professionals who come from a variety of fields. Nearly all are called on to work in capacities different from what they are accustomed. Cuso International does not recruit from students.
“Volunteer expectations will be different from what they expect,” said Dara Parker, Cuso International’s Public Engagement Officer in Vancouver. “A lot of people find that they will do jobs outside of their field.”
The organisation’s selection method involves a rigorous, multistage process that starts with a phone interview and a full-day, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., assessment. Qualifying resumes are forwarded to Cuso International’s program partners, who then make the final decision on which volunteers to accept. Parker said that there is usually a disproportionate number of BC volunteers in relation to the province’s population.
Forest spent the four weeks in Burkina Faso visiting other volunteers, many of whom worked in health centres, hospitals, Ouagadougou’s city hall, and in groups like REVS+. She interviewed locals and catalogued their lives and experiences for Cuso International. The organisation hopes to use the stories written by their journalist volunteers for upcoming recruitment, communication, and fund raising campaigns. Although Forest had a semblance of a morning routine in Ouagadougou – hearing the neighbour’s rooster crow and smelling the smoky scent of fires cooking hot breakfasts – the rest of the day could, at times, be anything but predictable .
“We never quite knew where we would up and who we would meet,” Forest said. “But it was always interesting, sometimes emotional, and, at times, very inspirational.”
The Burkinabe people, more than anything else, left a lasting impression on Forest. She met local women volunteers living with HIV/AIDS working with two of Cuso’s partner organisations in Burkina Faso, the Association Dounia Solidarité and the Association Espoir pour Demain.
“These women, who are themselves living with HIV & AIDS, [work] in a community where they are often shunned if people find out their status,” she said. “They go out to inform others about this illness, how to prevent it, how to get tested and treated for it and why.”
Forest said the target demographic for the two partner groups is pregnant women. The purpose of the initiative is to ensure that women who are HIV positive are aware of the risks involved in becoming pregnant while infected.
“I had the chance to meet with some of these women in their very modest homes and it was very inspiring to speak with them,” she said.
Forest still recalls as her favourite memory the makeshift production in Yokuna, its impromptu stage protected from the blazing heat by the foliage of a grand tree. She counts it among her most memorable experiences in Burkina Faso.
“The whole day was a little magical,” she said. “As we waited for the troupe to dismantle [their equipment] I could not help but think about the people of [Yokuna] and their daily lives and how different it was from Vancouver.”