I wish I could go back to those first few days in Burkina when I thought all the tiny kids running after me as I biked by were shouting “Ça va?! Ça va?!” Caught up in my initial excitement about being in Burkina, I enthusiastically answered them back, “Ça va!” And it really did ça va. It ça vaed pretty damn well because these adorable little black kids were politely asking how I was doing. Then I figured out that what they were really saying was “Nassara! Nassara!” Then it didn't ça va so well anymore.
This wasn't the jokey “gringo” I'd heard in Mexico. Or the descriptive “gaijin” I'd heard in Japan. It's true that sometimes “nassara” is jokey as in “Nassara speaks Mooré!” And it was certainly descriptive: Everyone from our faux typey boutique owner to our well-dressed landlord felt the need to remind us that we were, in fact, nassaras. As if we could ever forget. Not with the obnoxious adults yelling “Nassara!” and then laughing with their friends as I bike by, feeling extremely self-conscious and dorky in my bright blue helmet. And not with all the kids shouting “NASSARA! NASSARA!” in their screechy little voices—I got to the point where I actually felt scared when I saw a group of toddlers loitering on the street.
This isn't a unique problem, of course. Many volunteers deal by introducing themselves to all the gangs of roving children so that they screech their name instead of nassara. But as it turns out, “Jill” is about as difficult for a Burkinabé to pronounce as “Ouédraogo Fatao de Abdoulaye” is to a new American teacher. Most volunteers just try to ignore it. Easy enough. That is, until you crack and find yourself cursing and giving the finger to a bunch of four-year-olds. And finally there's the rare breed of volunteer who manages to just get over it. These volunteers, also called “third years” or “crazy,” have attained a level of serenity just below nirvana.
Recently I tried to convince myself that I've become nassara immune. Sure I flicked off a bunch of kids on the way to the internet café, but I didn't really mean it. And yeah, I noticed when the old lady I passed called me nassara, but it didn't bother me. But then Markus said, “What if we get to America and it turns out everyone there has turned into Burkinabés and yell nassara at us all the time?” Yeah, not so serene anymore.