Wachter celebrating more than just her birthday

Burkina Faso sounds like a girl's name--and maybe somewhere it is--but it's also the Land of the Upright People, a small country in West Africa. Nestled snugly amid such better-known neighbors as Ghana, Cote d'ivoire, Mali, Togo, Niger, and Benin, Burkina Faso is home to the Burkinabe people and, for the last two years, Shannon Wachter. A glance at the World Almanac could tell you much about the country's people, history, and land, but all it offers are statistics. As any traveler can tell you, to truly know a place, you have to live there. A good way to learn about Burkina Faso is to ask Wachter.Wachter, who moved to St. Marys when she was nine years old, now lives and teaches in a small village in the southern part of Burkina Faso, 45 minutes from the nearest city. Her home is constructed of dirt bricks and cement, and she has neither electricity nor running water. But what she misses most-- after the requisite “friends and family” answer-- is the variety that America offers, in everything from clothes to food. “I eat pretty much the same thing every day,” she said, referring to her dish of pasta with sauce. While teaching may be her primary assignment, she puts equal effort into integrating with her local community and collaborating on projects with other volunteers. “You have to be motivated and understanding of cultural differences. Being able to go with the flow is also an important trait to have when volunteering in the Peace Corps. There are lots of ups and downs,” she said. There are few rules and little structure to her current life, but as with her living situation, the simplicity proved to be a difficulty when she started. “There is a lot of time for me to sit or lounge and ponder away at life’s mysteries,” Wachter said. But Wachter has involved herself in a peer support network for other Peace Corps volunteers in Burkina Faso, as well as finding time to travel. “This is my first time outside North America,” she said. “Who can say that their first major trip outside the U.S. was to Africa for two years -- with the Peace Corps, learning French and Dagara, teaching biology, and living without electricity and running water? That is…a pretty awesome experience.” So awesome, in fact, that Wachter will be extending her contract for another year so she can work at a government-run nutrition center.“I’m doing a third year because I really like the international aid-type environment,” Wachter said. More than that though, she loves the “open friendliness” of the people. "I can't even tell you how many times people have just handed me their kids," she said. And the children, alternately curious about and frightened by her pale skin, love to spend hours with her. But it's not just Burkinabe that Wachter has met and with whom she has become friends; there are also numerous tourists, expatriates, and other Peace Corps volunteers. There are so many cultures, so many languages, and so many stories that one could spend years there and never grow bored. Besides, where else would she have the opportunity to sit in a van with 20 other people and a full-grown cow tied to the roof?