In ninth grade, a bird’s nest changed the course of James Souder’s life. While playing around with his family’s simple point-and-shoot camera, Souder snapped a photo of a nest in his backyard to see what was inside. The bright blue eggs and recently hatched chick, mouth wide open, begging for food, surprised and delighted Souder.
“I had captured a perfect moment completely by accident,” Souder said. Ever since then, the 2013 Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) graduate was hooked.
Today, this passion, along with a major in environmental sustainability, landed Souder in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, as a photojournalist through Mennonite Central Committee’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program.
Until a few months before his service began, the possibility of volunteer service “wasn’t really on my radar as an option,” Souder said. “I was in the process of applying for grad school when the country reps from Burkina Faso reached out to me.”
Souder has deferred his acceptance into Yale University, where he will study environmental management, to spend 11 months documenting the successes of various projects supported by Mennonite Central Commitee (MCC) and introducing the people that run those projects to the rest of the world. He works with Burkina Faso country representatives Sarah and Adam Sensamaust ‘03.
Hopes photos will change Western perspectives
Souder is one of 9 recent EMU graduates in the SALT program this year. However, unlike most SALTers, Souder’s position gives him the opportunity to work with many partners, instead of just a singular organization, offering a wider contextual understanding of Burkina Faso.
With his work, he hopes to help change the perspective that many Westerners have of what life is like in African countries.
“Burkina Faso is filled with brilliant, vibrant, resilient, individual people, not just poverty. I want to tell the story of people who are investing in their community and improving life for themselves and their fellow Burkinabe,” Souder said.
MCC Burkina Faso supports different projects across the country relating to sustainable livelihoods, food security, health, education, peace and restorative justice. Along with documenting the work of MCC partners, Souder is also training staff and local Burkinabe with the skills to continue the storytelling when his service concludes.
“The people that we’re supporting often know the best way to improve their own situations, they just might lack the resources to do so. Our role is to support and empower them rather than telling them, ‘This is what we want you to do, this is how things are done,’” Souder said.
Serving and singing
This kind of work is not new for Souder. Before volunteering with MCC, he worked for a variety of nonprofits: Food Recovery Network, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience (PULSE) to name a few.
“EMU played big part in the trajectory of my work. EMU is very focused on service and teaching students how to serve and lead in the global context,” Souder said. “At EMU, I realized I can make a life outside the typical job field. There are many opportunities to work by following your passions.”
As most SALTers do, Souder lives with a host family. He says the program encourages its volunteers “to get involved and invested in our close community.”
For Souder, a singer since his early days in the Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir, that has meant joining the choir at the Mennonite church in Ouagadougou. Unlike most choirs he’s participated in, this one is quite small with four to 10 singers per week, and not everyone can read music.
“The choir director is a lovely woman from France who has lived in Burkina Faso for many years, and she very patiently teaches each voice part to every person,” said Souder, who considers singing a strong part of his identity. “This has been a great way for me to meet new people, practice my French, contribute to the worship service, and wind down after a week at work.”
Witnessing political turmoil
A terrorist attack in January 2016 wasn’t the first time that Souder has been close to violence in Burkina Faso. Before his arrival, Burkina Faso had been weathering political turmoil since October 2014, when former president Blaise Compaoré attempted to continue his rule by amending the constitution to extend his 27-year term without democratic election, and the country erupted into violent protests. After almost a year under an interim government, an elite branch of the military launched a coup d’etat shortly after Souder arrived in the capital of Ouagadougou.
“I have a room connected to the house, so I just stayed in my little compound for an entire week, but I was very well taken care of. My host family and MCC staff kept me up to date on what was happening,” Souder said. “It was scary, but we made it through.”
In late November, Burkina Faso experienced its first ever successful democratic election, an event that left Souder humbled.
“[Burkinabe] banded together, kept everyone accountable [after the coup d’etat], and kept that trajectory until the election period was over,” Souder said. “I’m really inspired by Burkinabe … Burkina Faso means ‘Land of Upright or Honorable People,’ and they have definitely lived up to that standard.”
Back at work now, Souder continues to take photos, which he shares on a widely followed Instagram account, and to explore his new home.
“I highly recommend the SALT program to any young people interested in expanding their global perspective,” Souder said. “It’s a big world out there. Go out and explore!”