Burkina Faso, a small country in Western Africa where only 2.5 percent of its 13.9 million people live past the age of 65, is known well by Mark Twain Elementary School fourth-graders. They have penpals there.
Chelsea Kivi, 9, would one day like to visit the country, which has 90 percent of its labor force in agriculture.
"It'd be interesting because I'd be able to sleep in a mud house," she said.
Students know that life is not easy in Burkina Faso. Their teacher Mary Covington has told them that tuition for school costs an entire bag of fertilizer, that students take a three-hour break during lunch to work their fields and get something to eat and that farmers burn the grass annually to run out poisonous snakes.
Since the beginning of the school year, Covington's students have exchanged letters with students writing from a four-room school in the village of Pourra, which has a single lane running through it.
"I want to see what they have that is different from here," said student Whitney Herbert, 9. "I want to see what their houses look like."
On Wednesday, they received a set of letters that were decorated around the borders with colored pencils.
"I never have gotten a letter like this before," said Mario Lugo.
He explained that when temperatures drop to 60 or 70 degrees in Burkina Faso, the people think it's cold.
"That's a little strange," he said.
Many of the letters contained French words. Burkina Faso was owned by France until 1960, according to the World Fact Book.
"(The letters) were sent out in January," Covington said. "It took two months to get the letters. It's just very very slow mail."
Covington's son, Ian, who graduated from Carson High School in 1998, has been in Burkina Faso serving with the Peace Corps for the past two years. He returns home at the end of the school year after his students, 14 to 20 years of age, pass their final exams.
"When they finish their exams, they are allowed to go on to become educators," Covington said.
Many of the female letter writers from Burkina Faso spoke of their children.
"Really these letters are so interesting to read," Covington said. "I tell you it's so different. It's fascinating when you compare the cultures. In our family, we have become much more aware because of (Ian's) experience. It's very profound."
The fourth-graders will send one set of letters back before the school year ends. Letter-writing meets fourth-grade state standards set by the state.
• Contact reporter Maggie O'Neill at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1219.
Burkina Faso facts
Comparative area: Slightly larger than Colorado
Main crop: Cotton
Life expectancy: 47 years for men; 50 years for women
Residents with HIV/AIDS: 300,000
Literacy: 26 percent of the entire population
Infant mortality: 91 deaths per 1,000 births
Fertility rate: 6.4 children per woman
Formerly known as: Upper Volta
Source: The World Factbook