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Gregory Garbinsky: working in Burkina Faso.

Gregory Garbinsky graduated in 1976 from Cornell University, New York, with a B.S. in Animal Science focusing on livestock production and in 1977 joined the US Peace Corps on a mission to Burkina Faso, Africa. He now works at FAO headquarters in Rome, in the Crisis Management Centre

I was interested in working internationally and I knew a couple of volunteers who had joined the US Peace Corps, so after graduation I applied. In 1977 I was posted to Francophone West Africa, to a country then known as Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso. I was there from 1977 to 1979 working on a village livestock development project. I was living and working in the Mossi village of Kongoussi in the North part of the country, in the Sahel region. I knew a bit of French from high school, but upon arrival in the field, Peace Corps provided me with a three month cross cultural training and language training in French and in Mooré, the Mossi language.

My first impressions
Having never travelled outside the United States - except for Canada - when I arrived in Burkina Faso I was overwhelmed by the sights and sensory experiences of what was a new world to me. It was very intriguing and with hindsight, a most fulfilling experience. It happened 30 years ago and it changed my life completely. It has paved the way to my international work career which is what I am still doing to this day.

I lived in a small house in a small compound with my local counterpart, ate the local food and had no running water or electricity, using only kerosene lamps and flashlights. I became very much part of the social life and practiced the local language Mooré. My neighbours and work counterparts were very friendly and open, we had good conversations and shared many experiences and cross-cultural, political and social discussions. I worked with the local veterinarians and livestock services on livestock health programmes for large and small ruminants in the surrounding villages, monitoring trans-migratory routes, tracking health, educating on vaccination programmes for cattle and sheep. I even drew the images and wrote the text both in French and in Mooré for an animal health manual, a copy of which I still have today in my office.

After completing my two and a half year assignment in 1979, I travelled throughout North Africa and Europe for two months. Living off my Peace Corps readjustment allowance I visited and made some friends in Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, Greece, France and Belgium, which was a great experience and further enhanced my desire to get involved in an international career.

No home comforts
When I went to Burkina Faso, contact with the rest of the world was a short wave radio. For a shower I used a gourd and a bucket of water which I took from my well, and a piece of soap. I became an expert at cooking soup and everything had to be boiled on the fire, especially water in order to purify it for drinking. My typical work day would be an early start, travel to nearby villages with a moped and work with different local and national extension agents and vets conducting health and vaccination campaigns. Lunch on the road would be mostly grilled meat - vegetables were a rarity in such a dry area- while for dinner I would cook soup or other canned goods. Evenings ended very early. We would have a bit of conversation but because we were so near the equator it was dark by six so I was often in bed by eight. Reading for long periods of time by kerosene lamp was exhausting so an hour or two was all you could usually manage.

The advantages for your career
In the US, once you have been a Peace Corps Volunteer you are highly considered and if you are qualified for a specific job, agencies can hire you without too many procedures and preambles. So when I went back home in 1979 I was soon employed by the US Department of Agriculture's Office of International Cooperation and Development to work on an array of international agricultural projects. In 1991, I became the Director of the Disaster Assistance Support Program, managing a USDA Forest Service international programme providing technical assistance in disaster and emergency management for international disaster relief and response projects funded by the US Agency for International Development. In 2003 I joined FAO's Emergency Operations Service in Rome.

The highlights
The highlights were meeting, working and making life long friends both among the fellow volunteers and among my peers from Burkina Faso. I found the Mossi people incredibly warm and open; they accepted me into their communities, befriended me and introduced me to their culture and lifestyle. Even after having visited many other countries around the world and working in the United States, they have remained very special to me and are still considered to be among the best work mates I have had in my career. Years later I went back to Burkina Faso while I was working with an NGO and visited the old contacts. With many other Peace Corps I have also stayed in close contact. For example one of my sons is studying in the United States, in North Carolina, and my closest ex Peace Corps friend who lives nearby, often invites him over during the holidays and looks after him almost as a favourite uncle would. Another friend who is an ex Peace Corps and lives in Boston, has a similar relationship with our other son who is going to college there. It's a network of friendship that continues through generations.

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